From the Field to the Laptop: The Art of Writing a PhD Thesis
The fact that one should go for a PhD only when s/he is 100 percent sure is well-publicised. What, however, is often not known is that even after being sure about one’s research topic, writing the dissertation can still be a difficult task! The struggles that a researcher has to go through to write a dissertation is underrated. It can be both academically and personally challenging.
The two most significant aspects of doing a PhD include the collection of data and then writing the thesis. My PhD research explores the relationship between the mobile theatre of Assam and the ideas of the public. I argue that Assamese mobile theatre has created an intersection between two kinds of public – the counter-public and the public culture. While mobile theatre is seen as an assertion of Assamese identity in the face of increasing globalization, at the same time, it has adapted itself to the demands of the time by using the latest technologies and content. Thus, the example of mobile theatre shows that a public can exhibit characteristics of being both a counter-public and public culture at the same time. There is an intersection between the two categories of public.
Keeping in mind the nature of my topic, the methods that I used were mostly qualitative and include oral history, both participant and non-participant observation, interview, case study and ethnography. These methods complement each other in the sense that oral history, observation, interview and case study help a social scientist in writing a good ethnographic piece.
However, doing a PhD is not just about collecting the data. A lot of it is also about writing, writing and more writing. This is especially true for students of the social sciences. It can be very overwhelming to come back from the field and sit down with the field notes. It often happens that the fieldwork goes great, and the researcher collects very rich and insightful data. But the challenge lies in putting the field notes into writing. After all, a researcher is someone who ‘observes, records, analyses, interprets and writes’ (Geertz 1977: 5). The writing part is equally important as the fieldwork part.
So what can be done to ease the process of writing? As someone who has just finished writing her thesis, I have some vital insights to share with others who may be struggling.
First of all, it is a good idea to discuss one’s ideas thoroughly with his/her supervisor. It is also not a bad idea to note down every minute of those discussions. Many times, brilliant and interesting ideas can emerge from those meetings. It is also important to share field notes and rough drafts regularly with the supervisor. I would eagerly look forward to my weekly meetings with my supervisor as I would feel so much better about my writing after those. It is easier for the supervisor to comment and suggest when there is regular communication with the researcher.
Secondly, it is very, very (and I cannot stress this enough) important to remember that one cannot draw a clear-cut distinction between ‘fieldwork’ and ‘writing’ timelines. It is useful to come back from the field and jot down the notes that very day. I had kept three field-logs and dedicatedly wrote the detailed field notes every day on my laptop from the three diaries.
Initially, what is also useful is to not think of one’s thesis in terms of chapters but as themes. These themes can be rough drafts and ideas where one can keep putting the views that they got from their field. Doing this would give me a sense of calm as I could see that my thesis was progressing, and it was not blank pages that I was staring at on my laptop.
Perhaps it is also important to remember that there will be days when one will not feel like writing. And here comes the most crucial part of doing a PhD – acknowledging that it is completely fine to take time off and not work on some days. I felt that along with fieldwork and writing, realizing one’s mental condition and prioritising is also an equally significant component. It helps to have other interests and hobbies that can divert the writer’s mind and rejuvenate him/her.
And lastly, one should note that referencing is the queen of writing any academic piece! One of my much-loved professors, Sanjay Srivastava had told us during my Master of Philosophy (MPhil) coursework class on Observational Methods and Qualitative Data to write the reference as soon as one uses it. This was one of the mantras that I have followed while writing both my MPhil and PhD theses. This also makes the tiresome ordeal of writing references bearable.
I feel that this process of writing the thesis is also an important component of research methodology. This has also been increasingly recognized by many universities across the globe and has introduced courses on academic writing to aid students. What, however, is the most helpful in writing a PhD thesis is keeping up the continuous process of writing.
Geertz, Clifford (1977), Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books.
The photograph is from the rehearsal space of Bhagyalakshmi theatre group and was taken by me as part of my PhD fieldwork in Chatiya, Jamuguri, Assam.
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