The common jokes about academia tend to think of graduate experience as a choice away from life, or something that locks us in libraries and labs, but besides that it is a very rich, complex and intense life. In this week’s PhD Life post, read Aya Nassar’s insights on ‘letting go’…
During our first meeting, my PhD supervisor told me: ‘remember, that ultimately you’re simply telling a story’. Now, for anyone who likes stories, we know that stories can be never-ending, they can be retold in many different ways with different endings, and that the storytellers sometimes skip details. In my part of the world, the most famous storyteller is Scheherazade, who made stories within stories so that she never stops narrating, and therefore continues to save her life. However, a PhD most definitely must come to an end. When the time comes when we are putting all the different draft chapters together we might face the very difficult question of what kind of story is our research telling.
A shared problem – I have come to find, especially among researchers who have done field work or archival work, or who depend on lots of interviews and focus groups – is that the research almost always leads many more details, that is, many story lines that are either interesting in themselves, or that texture the research and narrative with many layers. Because we work under time, space, and word-count limit, we know that in a PhD thesis we will never do all this fascinating off-shoots of research their justice.
I think my most emotionally difficult to draft chapter was my last substantive one. The closer I was to its final sections, the more aware I was made of all the small archival details that will never make it in the draft, or the other story lines and lines and inquiry that emerged from fieldwork. These are details that I – for sure – cannot include because it would have weighed analysis down, and affected its coherence rather than enrich it. Nevertheless, I spent a considerable time dwelling over every piece of archival data, or field note, and remembering that so many people helped me access these pieces, that it took a lot of effort to get to them, make notes of them, and that I spent lots and lots of hours scanning and leafing. All of this made the thought of letting go of them so much harder.
I think the truth might be, that our research life is really and truly – a life. It is a very rich, complex and intense life. The common jokes about academia tend to think of graduate experience as a choice away from life, or something that locks us in libraries and labs (which might have some elements of justification). But besides that, it is also a complex, and not-straightforward journey. When glimpses of that journey make it into the PhD text, it is usually in its next to the shortest section – the acknowledgements. However, what if, I wonder, what if… I wanted to tell you – the person who reads – how I found by chance this book that doesn’t appear except in a casual footnote in chapter five? How I didn’t know it existed, but that I found it in a second-hand book shop, and thought initially that it isn’t relevant to me, but then I kept thinking about it, and went again the following day to purchase it? What if you know that that small figure that I just inserted, took me four month to find in that archive? And what if I told you that that thinker I use, I got to know because a friend got me his/her book as a gift many many years ago? And that that piece of news a friend sent me just because he/she knew I might be interested in it, and now it is in my thesis? All of this is life, that is woven across countries, among friends and strangers, and spans from before till after the PhD. It seeps through and through our structured, logical, analytical and proof-read thesis. It is life that will necessarily overflow the text that we write, and sometimes, just sometimes, we will have to let go the attempt to write it all in.
Aya Nassar is a PhD student in the department of Politics and International Studies (PAIS), Warwick University. Her research looks into cities, space, and the politics of the Middle East. She tweets at @A_M_Nassar