Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2002


Les Back (2002) 'Dancing and Wrestling with Scholarship: Things to do and things to avoid in a PhD Career'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 7, no. 4, <>

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Received: 23/10/2002      Accepted: 25/11/2002      Published: 30/11/2002


Recently I was invited to talk to a group of PhD students who had set up a support group. The chair of the session asked everyone to introduce themselves and say, in one sentence, what their PhD was about. I watched the contorted expressions on their faces as each graduate student struggled with this deceptively innocent form of torture. I racked my brains. What should I say? My heart started to palpitate in the way that it does at moments like this. Then it was my turn. "My name is Les Back and I am a recovering PhD Student."

One of the reasons why I finished my own PhD was because it became something of an addiction: it was going to finish me, or I was going to finish it! It took me much longer than it should have to complete my thesis. So, it's a bit rich really that I am sitting here reflecting on the things to do and the things to avoid in doctoral research. My conscience tells me I am not quite the right person to offer advice. I have, however, supervised many students to the successful completion of their theses. What I have to offer you are the insights of a bystander who has watched other people do their PhD's with more grace and efficiency than I did mine.

Your PhD is a Career

I want to begin by reading you this passage from John Berger's And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos

What separates us from the characters about whom we write is not knowledge, either objective or subjective, but their experience of time in the story we are telling. This separation allows us, the storytellers, the power of knowing the whole. Yet, equally, this separation renders us powerless: we cannot control our characters, after the narration has begun. We are obliged to follow them, and this following is through and across the time, which they are living and which we oversee. The time, and therefore the story, belongs to them. Yet the meaning of the story, what makes it worthy of being told, is what we can see and what inspires us because we are beyond its time. Those who read or listen to our stories see everything as through a lens. This lens is the secret of narration, and it is ground anew in every story, ground between the temporal and the timeless. If we storytellers are Death's Secretaries, we are so because, in our brief mortal lives, we are grinders of these lenses (Berger 1984: 30- 31)

Berger is a brilliant and under appreciated thinker and writer. He is an art critic, a novelist and story-teller, a poet and writer of stunning proto-ethnographic documentary books. There are a number of things that I want to draw out with regard to the subject of this talk from this beautiful piece of prose.

Writing a PhD has a relationship to time in the way that Berger describes it. A thesis is also an exercise in storytelling. The people we listen to - what we call 'informants' in the trade - are like Berger's characters: we are the narrators who are outside of their time. This is a useful way of thinking about authorial responsibility, we are the writers and the lens grinders. In part the challenge of a PhD is: a) to set up the framework for what we know, the structure of knowledge, usually referred to as epistemology; and b) establish a claim to what we see and hear through this epistemological lens. So the first thing I want to encourage you to do is examine the relationship between thinking, listening, writing and time.

Doing a PhD is about beginning a career, but not in the usual sense of the word. I don't mean the shallow vocationalism that government bodies like to encourage. The notion of career that I want to focus on is not as a noun (to have a career, as a possession) but in the sense of a verb - to move, a kind of passage, a pathway. Each year of study is a particular type of journey: it has a departure and a destination. In a crude sense the time-table for a full-time student looks something like this:

Year 1.
Qualifying courses, reading and writing short papers and planning and refining your research strategy
Year 2.
Conducting research, drafting literature review chapters and other materials for the MPhil/ PhD upgrade, conducting the upgrading viva. Year 3.
'Writing up,' finalising the thesis draft, nominating external examiners, entering your exam entry form, sitting the viva.

So there are stages and particular sets of issues that relate to each part of your PhD career. Sometimes it can seem an overwhelming and daunting task. If you feel overwhelmed, I think the best way to stay on the path is to concentrate only on the next step.

What I want to suggest now is that there are things you can do to keep your project moving forward. I've tried to formulate these ideas as a series of aphorisms. They are just things that I've found myself saying and thinking over and over again, they are things that seem to make sense to me but not every supervisor or academic would agree with them.

Ten aphorisms

These are not commandments, I am not Moses and neither is anyone else. In fact, I want to say beware of fleshy mouthed prophets who make lots of money out of writing books about how to get a PhD. There is no formula, there is no equivalent to an 'intellectual colouring' book where you just fill in the blank pages of the thesis according to some pre-given palette of elements. There are lessons, there are common pitfalls, there are some things to be wary of, but, like scholarship itself, creative thinking does not involve any simple technocratic formula. Otherwise, you'd be able to buy a PhD over the counter at your local sweet shop.

1. Trust your own interest

The first thing I want to say is trust the thing that makes you want to keep working on your project. The often mysterious desire which keeps your attention focused, that keeps you looking up the next reference or wanting to do another interview. This interest is often opaque. Don't be thrown by the obscure, or diffuse nature of what keeps you passionate about what you are doing.

The first piece of research I did took me seven years to complete. There were long periods when I was pretty sure that I didn't know what I was doing. It wasn't until I got to the end that I realised I knew all along what I was doing, it was just that I wasn't always aware of it.

2. Keep a ledger of your thinking

The thing about ideas is that you can't will them to come. I am reminded of the great Dustin Hoffman movie The Little Big Man. In it Dustin plays a frontiersman who becomes a native American. His adopted father is very old and tired of life. The father asks his son to accompany him to the ancestral burial grounds. He summons death and calls the spirits to take him. At the climax of an elaborate funereal soliloquy he lies down, closes his eyes and waits for death. After about fives minutes he opens one eye, looks around startled and disappointed. He dusts himself off, gets up says to a confused and relieved adopted son: "Sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn't." Academic work is like this.

Sometimes the 'magic works' the ideas flow and then a few days later you can be pulling your hair out. Then in the middle of a creative drought you will be doing something else - shopping, being out on the town, or in the middle of a completely unrelated conversation when you should be paying attention to the person in front of you and an idea will come into focus. My advice is be ready for this unexpected visitor. Carry a notebook all the time, keep a record of these ideas. You need to devise a system to record how your thinking evolves over time.

The other thing that I do which I think is a good idea - although its not something I have advertised until now - is keep a notebook of new words or phrases. Don't just pass over words whose exact meaning you don't understand. Make a note, look them up later and expand your lexicon. The temptation is just to pass over words you half know but greater precision will improve both your understanding and expression.

3. Read Promiscuously with an Open Mind

I've never understood academics who claim to have stopped reading, or who say they 'don't have time to read'. I always think secretly when I hear this: "if that's true, you're in the wrong business." Reading is essential and I think it is important to be reading all the time. Read everything, read promiscuously, you never know where you'll find good ideas. Read inside your discipline and outside it. Read popular articles, novels, poetry - you can find a good turn of phase in unexpected places.

At this level I think we are always reading in at least two ways. The first is reading for ideas, leads - this is reading for the content of what is being communicated. The second is reading for style of argumentation and rhetoric. Here I am thinking of rhetoric as the art of persuasion, not hollow sloganeering. The point is to read for tone and the aesthetic quality of the writing. One thing that I think is a really important and difficult problem is how to combine empirical and analytical elements in written argument. Learn from the ways other people resolve this dilemma.

Part of the challenge of a PhD is learning a new genre of writing. A PhD thesis has a different quality to an essay, a conference paper or journal article. It is not just a matter of expressing the content of your ideas or the things you have encountered. You have to learn to carry a coherent argument over 75- 100,000 words. This involves learning the form as well as establishing the content.

4. Don't become addicted to The Library

Some pieces of theoretical or archival work can be entirely library based. More often than not, your PhD will involve the generation of new primary research material. While I want to recommend you read widely, be suspicious of the false comforts of The Library. I want to called this the perils of bibliophilia. There is a wonderful short story by Jorge Luis Borges called 'The Library of Babel' in which he tells of a hellish search to find the one book that will unlock the secrets of an immense library. The curse in the story is that the search is eternal and doomed. The lesson is that - like Borges' fable - you won't find a book that will solve the problem that your thesis is concerned with because such a book remains to be written... by you.

Bibliophilia also carries the danger of being dazzled by aura of the latest explosively brilliant text you've read, this can sometimes result in inertia. "I can never write anything as good as that, so I won't bother writing anything at all." As much as I love the library and books, I have to tell you that you won't find the answers to the questions you want pose there. What you will find on those musty shelves, and on pages that are yellowed by time, are other people's answers. This is an important distinction to make.

Often a social science thesis involves some level of empirical research in the form of interviewing people, surveys or participant observation. I often find myself saying to students at the end of their research: "You won't find your thesis in the next book you just read, you'll find it in your interview transcripts and your fieldnote books."

5. Don't be afraid to get close to the thing you're trying to understand

Open yourself to the issues at the heart of your work and also to the people you work with. The sociologist C. Wright Mills once wrote that the key to good work is to make "personal troubles public issues" (Mills 1959: 8). It involves getting close, sometimes closer than is comfortable. Again I want to cite something from John Berger. Here he talks about the nature of his practice as a researcher and writer:

It seems to me that the whole question of where one is when writing has to do with this - it's that phrase used by Robert Capa who said something like 'agh you know, when the picture's not good enough - go closer.' And it seems to me what I've tried to do in maybe all the books I've written is to get in very close and then to try and bring something back from a starting point outside. How much I succeed, and what I am bringing back, I often don't know [...] maybe the actual way I work implies this displacement, this displacement of going in as close as you dare, and then finding, sometimes with difficulty, a way back. (John Berger, from an interview with Jeremy Isaacs - Face to Face BBC 1995)

Sometimes students feel a real sense of trepidation when it comes to beginning their research - particularly if this involves having to contact 'live people' who talk back. Just making a phone call can feel like moving a giant inert rock. If you suffer from this - and I certainly still do - I think it is important just to push yourself. Contact people without worrying too much, no commitment is necessarily binding and every choice can be changed. But you have to make a start in order to find out what is interesting and which leads are blind-alleys.

To get as close as you dare, to take John Berger's maxim seriously, also involves risks. Getting close to something also carries dangers and be mindful of the specific risks involved in your project. Recently I was involved in a project on football and racism and received a concerted campaign of harassment. If those pieces of hate mail had come in my mid twenties I wouldn't have been worried about them. Just brushed it off as the twisted activities of a right-wing maniac. But I had a six year old daughter at the time and my biggest fear was that she would pick up the phone one day and hear a tirade of racist bile. Get close but also think about the risks.

6. Don't become a fieldwork junkie

The paradox of field research is that once you've made the sometimes terrifying leap into the messy quotidian realities of people's lives it is can seem almost impossible to give them up. Once you've become involved in participatory research it feels like it is impossible to let go. There is always something else to do, another lead to follow up. This is the 'one more interview' syndrome. Remember it is not the quantity but the quality of what you write about that matters. One of the frightening things about doing a PhD is that at the end of the day it's only possible to include a fraction of the empirical material that you have recorded. So, don't stay in the research phase longer than is necessary. Trust your supervisor's advice when s/he says "You've done enough."

7. Embrace the challenge of becoming a writer

Sometimes people talk about the 'writing up' of a thesis as if it is a matter of course. There is nothing self evident about the art of written argument. It is a trade that needs to be honed, it is a matter of embracing the challenge of becoming a writer. It involves an aesthetic, a style and it is the difference between 'word processing' and writing. Study the style of the writers you admire the most, adapt and assimilate some of the 'tricks of their trade.'

The best book I've come across that addresses these issues is Howard Becker's wonderful Writing for Social Scientists (University of Chicago, 1986). There are hundreds of excellent tips alongside humorous reflections contained within its pages. Don't be afraid to write clearly and remember that 'being clear' isn't the same as 'simplistic thinking.' The most complex ideas can be elaborated through a series of clear, plain sentences. Equally, I think it is important to defend the necessity of difficult and abstract language.

The two figures that loom in my mind around this issue are Theodor W. Adorno and George Orwell. In Minima Moralia, my favourite book by Adorno, he makes a strong case for the necessity of difficult abstract language. "The logic of the day, which makes so much of its clarity, has naively adopted this perverted notion of everyday speech [...] Those who would escape it must recognize the advocates of communicability as traitors to what they communicate" (Adorno 1978: 101). The insistence on communicability results in the betrayal of critical thinking.

Then there is George Orwell's extraordinary essay 'Politics and the English Language' (Orwell 1968). I try and read it at least once a year. Orwell takes to pieces the language of totalitarian propagandists alongside a critical assessment of the writing of academics of his day like Professor Harold Laski who worked at the London School of Economics. "If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should know better" wrote Orwell in 1947. My feeling is that we have to insist on having both Adorno and Orwell at our elbow as we write. Complex writing is necessary but so to is clarity and the virtues contained in each can be debased. Pristine clarity or abstract complexity is no protection from writing truly awful things.

8. Don't carry the burden of originality.

Much is made about PhD's being an original piece of research. This expectation can be a real burden and in truth there are very few - if any - theses that are completely original. Like musical figures ideas are borrowed and recombined. The novelty is in the combination, the particular insights, the counter-intuitive nature of the things that people say when we listen to them. So, don't carry the burden of originality, follow your curiosity and your intuition because it will lead you to uncharted forms of thinking.

9. Don't try to judge your own work.

The sense of trying to establish the worth of what you've done can lead to intellectual paralysis. Like Berger says, you can't be sure what you come back with. Let others decide. That's what your PhD supervisor is for and ultimately this is the function of your examiners. Just try and do your work to the best of your ability and let the reader be the judge. Do as much as you can and move on, don't get mired in self doubt because we can never really judge the quality of our own work because we are simply too close to it.

10. Have faith in the value of what you are doing

Be comforted by the fact that there is real but elusive value in what you are doing. It is easy to lose sight of this. But, believe me there is real value, a value that is beyond financial or professional calculation. It's in the process of finding your own voice, enriching the stories that we tell about ourselves and the world we live in. To me there is something miraculous in this. But too often our own projects and literary endeavors feel useless or worthless. I think this should be resisted because it is our readers - in the form of our examiners and countless anonymous others - who will find value in our writing.

Dancing and Wrestling

When your PhD is going well it is a good dancing partner. When its going badly it feels like you are being thrown around in some terrible intellectual equivalent of a wrestling match. You can't see your opponent but you feel the force of their presence. The thing is, you can never quite know when you are going to be dancing, or when your are going to be wrestling with your work. So, I think, its best to be prepared for both, all the time.

Also, be prepared for a crisis of nerve, the sense that what you are doing is worthless or adds nothing to the existing literature. The thing is books lie, and so do theses. It is always a good idea at the beginning of your project to go and get half a dozen theses out of the library, a random sample. Truth is they are a really mixed bunch, there are stunning ones, competent ones and also quite a lot mediocre ones. Between the words and pages are hidden torments and moments when the writer's spirits were low. Be comforted by the knowledge that they - these hidden ruins of confidence - are there regardless of whether the author is willing acknowledge them.

Your PhD is the end of your formal induction into scholarship. I think it is really important to remember that it is your first piece of work and not your last. It doesn't have to be perfect, it isn't going to be your life work and at the end of today you'll be one day closer to completing it.


This speech was given to the new intake of MPhil/ PhD students at Goldsmiths College, 27th September, 2002


ADORNO, Theodor W. (1978) Minima Moralia London: Verso.

BECKER, Howard (1986) Writing for Social Scientists Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

BERGER, John (1984) And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos New York: Vintage International.

WRIGHT MILLS C. (1959) The Sociological Imagination Oxford: Oxford University Press.

ORWELL, George [1947] (1968) 'Politics and the English Language' The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters: Volume 4 Harmondsworth: Penguin pp. 156-169.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2002