As the year comes to a close, I find myself thinking about everything I’ve learned over the course of 2014. Crafting my research proposal, going through the curiously-named “upgrade” process at LSE, attending two academic conferences, conducting preliminary ethnographic research and organizing a workshop in my department were rich experiences – by turns stressful, exciting, overwhelming and instructive.
I find myself at a stage in my academic career where I value concrete, practical advice for going about different tasks. Of course, everyone does things differently, but I am struck by how much academia reproduces certain values and hierarchies based on implicit rules that students have to learn through trial and error. I appreciate when things are spelled out a little more clearly, so I am listing here some lessons I learned this past year in the hopes that they may be of value and use to others.
1. Keywords are everything. The two or three words and phrases you use to describe your research when someone asks are of huge significance. They are more than labels, because as you internalize these words they start to dictate what literature you consult, how people categorize you and respond to your ideas, etc. I found that because I fixated on certain words (i.e. “technology”) early on in my proposal writing process, I was swept up in literature that was certainly interesting but maybe not getting to the heart of what I really wanted to study (in my case, not the technology itself, but the social relations it produces and ideas of modernity and progress). It is worthwhile to check in with yourself constantly and re-evaluate what words you are using, and if they are still meaningful to your research project.
2. Unpack, unpack, unpack: I attended a workshop at the AAA in Washington DC on ethnographic writing, and I asked one of the speakers a question about how to make content from social media posts evoke the same excitement that comes with describing “real life” events can. His answer was simple: “try to explain what’s going on.” That sounds so basic and obvious it’s funny to me that I never considered it. But he was right. Instead of constantly assuming that things are obvious to your readers, remember that much of what you have to say might actually need further explanation, and this is a good thing because it gives you the chance to show what you know about a particular topic, place or theme. When I read something, even if it’s a topic I’m very familiar with, I always enjoy seeing how another scholar explains what he or she finds to be the critical points.
3. Say it first, cite later: The hardest part of writing my proposal was figuring out a way not to bore my readers with lengthy summaries of what other authors said about various topics. Perhaps a testament to the negative approach to knowledge production that graduate school instills, I find I have become a better critic of my own writing but not necessarily a better writer – in other words, I started to realize I was boring myself in my own literature review, but didn’t know how to change it. I took the topic to multiple people and online threads, and everyone reminded me that a literature review or theoretical portion of a paper is about your take on an issue, backed up with what other people have said. It’s very simple: instead of the formulation, “As X says in his 2012 book YYY….” you can just state that “A has been shown to be related to B (X, 2012). The in-text citation is your best friend – it allows you to declare things upfront and show where you got the idea from later, thereby making your writing crisper and more exciting to read.
4. You really do have to work a little each day: This is perhaps a matter of personal preference and not a real rule, but it was one of the lessons of 2014 for me. When I began my PhD program at LSE, our program director told us the PhD is something you do every single day, even if it’s just for 30 minutes. I didn’t take it seriously at the time, imagining that this would only be the case when I was writing up, but I see the value of this approach more clearly now. The reality is that you do have to practice consistency in your intellectual life; even just reading and taking notes on something academic is a way to keep your mind working if you haven’t got writing to do. The reality of the PhD in the UK system is that there are long periods of unstructured time, when you could be doing just about anything. It’s good to take breaks and vacations, but at other times, a little intellectual engagement each day keeps you in good mental shape.
2014 was a great year for me on many levels, but far from easy with regards to my academic pursuits – it’s a constant challenge to stay motivated, fresh and, dare I say, positive about your work. I hope some of these observations help with that. And I wish everyone a wonderful new year!