My PhD journey: Reflections on thesis writing

The beginning of this year heralded the end of a monumental effort to finally complete my thesis. Over five years in the making, I have little doubt that no-one was more surprised than me to actually cross the finish line. Each year that I worked on my thesis I felt sure that someone (mainly my supervisor) would say “No, no, looking at your writing to date – I don’t think you can do this, perhaps you should stop now”. It was only in my last year, that I semi-realised that maybe I was going to get my work done. At the end, after my oral and the subsequent minor corrections (surprised they weren’t major), I got my PhD award letter. Interestingly, my self-doubt still sometimes rises and I wait for the shoulder-tap or official letter to notify me of some error and the revoking my award.

All throughout my work, my supervisor(s) can confirm that at least half of our meeting times were utilised for ‘pep’ talks – I very rarely engaged in long arguments regarding conceptual, methodological, or analytical issues. No, our time was spent assuring me that my writing struggles were real, shared and common hurdles that could be surmounted. If I had a dollar for every time my supervisor told me my issues were normal among PhD students, I would have made a nice bit of cash. Truly, I often considered my PhD work a ‘beast’ that I found hard to deal with. My beast was always pestering and confounding me, it was wayward and likely to head off in several directions. While it consumed a large amount of my mind space (awake or asleep), most frustratingly it would not actually ‘speak’ to me for days. Many a time I sat in front of my computer reading my previous work in the vain hope that the beast was sufficiently preened (reviewed) and placated (discussed) to calmly lead me to the next bit of writing. This very rarely happened and I was kidding myself that it would.

Writing is hard work, maybe somewhat easier for some, but I found it consistently hard. Despite this, I have a fondness for this beast that I have worked with over these years, though I acknowledge that it is not ‘tamed’ – only perhaps better understood. I still have further work to do. So at this stage, it probably would be useful to review and share some of the main research outcomes that arose from this beast. Indeed, there are important learnings regarding indigenous autonomy based on the efforts and considerations of Māori gardeners and their māra kai located on eight Tāmaki Makaurau marae. Yet, I won’t, not here and not now. I’m still pondering the many facets of my thesis journey and there will be other times or forums for research outcomes. At this time, it’s more cathartic (for me) to share some of my top reflections involved in writing a PhD. While these brief insights are likely common knowledge amongst my peer groups, I hope that sharing will increase a sense of writing-struggles kinship among emerging scholars. Here’s just a few:

Power writing: Heard about students that ‘power write’ in their final three months to completion? They hide themselves away, focus and then write, write and write. Yes, they bring forth their best writing, and everything falls into place and BANG finished. Yeah, this didn’t happen in any way shape or form for me. My last three months stretched to six months, because it didn’t happen. Of this time, the last two months were the hardest as everything I did had a ripple effect elsewhere. Hence, not everyone can power write or have a last surge of inspiration that speeds up the finish. I think the last few months gets hard for many writers, because there is some false notion that things will magically work out. No, they don’t – you have to make it work, and it is hard, and you are tired, and you don’t want to do it anymore.

Polished writing: Not one chapter in my finished work was a first, second or third draft effort. When I say draft, I only refer to the version that is checked by my supervisor, not my prior reworked versions. Indeed, in every chapter I had my own rewrites and versions before submitting to my supervisor. My longest and most drawn out writing was my conceptual chapter – I worked on that section of the beast consistently for almost four years. The final product was probably draft eleven, my supervisor read and critiqued this chapter at least four to five times. So, I like to think when reading the work of others that their smooth and well-argued writing, perhaps took many attempts.

Academic writing: Over time, my writing and phrasing of concepts has improved. I utilise academic terms with more ease and confidence than I ever attempted during my Masters work. I would not rate myself highly, I’ve read the work of others that continue to astound me. Yet, I recognise that I can now write with more academic value. Ironically, I now fret that my writing development has made my work unreadable to my primary audience. I still struggle with academic writing ‘levelling-up’ or ‘levelling-down’, sometimes it is burden at either end of the scale.

Thesaurus-assisted writing: I have a love-hate relationship with words, I mostly love them and when I create ‘succulent’ sentences it is the best feeling ever. Some days, I can thesaurus my work to death and have fun doing it. So many options, passive words or aggressive words, or perhaps passive-aggressive words. Getting sentence tone and intention can be laborious, painful and wonderfully rewarding. Thesaurus is an awesome tool on (my often) brain fade days. The flip side, is that thesaurus is also a trap for over-analysing words and time wasting. Certainly, you can spend a whole day reviewing select words, only to revert to your first and spontaneous version. Try and get the balance right – I still haven’t.

That’s it for now. Hopefully I have struck some accord amongst my peers. For anyone that is struggling, be comforted that you are not alone, if I got there in the end – anyone can. I really don’t think it was based on my skill, but tenacity (my time management still needs work).

I hope your PhD is not too much of a beast, well perhaps it’s a more manageable beast than mine. Hey, happy productive writing everyone!

Dr Kimiora Raerino (PhD)
Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Rangiwewehi, Te Kupenga Hauora Māori, The University of Auckland. Completed PhD in Māori and Pacific Health, 2018. Thesis title – Marae food gardens: health and wellbeing through urban marae in Tāmaki Makaurau. Research interests – sociocultural environments and associated features linked to indigenous wellbeing and autonomy. Current work – cultural landscapes, indigenous health mobility and urban street design at Mackie Research, Auckland.

5 comments

  1. I think you have written this for me … although not quite at the finish line. You have reassured me that I will make it as I am over indentation, commas, and signposting these last few months seem to be the hardest. My PhD living in a cultural corridor as a Māori/ Pākehā and you have given me the inspiration for the final push.

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