Journalism and study

On the 16h50 from Maynooth to Drumcondra yesterday, I met with a man who works in the department where I am hoping to enrol for my PhD next year. He put down his copy of The Third Policeman and we got chatting. We talked generally about the writing process in a PhD and although he works in the field of physical geography (you know: rivers and erosion and stuff, real geography) he made a crucial distinction in the writing process.

As I have already written a little bit about the way most of work as a researcher is done here, I won’t bore you with huge detail. The reports I write are mostly descriptive, rely heavily on data derived from questionnaires and follow a standard structure, i.e. introduction, data outlined, analysis, conclusion / recommendations. Nothing hugely exciting but that is what most want to see in a report based on a review of data collected through research.

In putting together a report on data gathered, I know not to stray into elaborations using literature gleaned from extensive reading. I write some context for what follows, I make some reference to related literature and on to the next section. However, and although not completely unknown to me, a PhD writing process requires more than that, said my fellow traveller. He characterised my current writing as a journalistic style and not pejoratively either. A PhD, we discussed, requires a style of writing based on related literature and knowing that it is OK to put down that tenth book on the subject and get on with it. You may have to defend your wilful neglect of a particular analysis formally in the thesis defence but a good candidate will be able to do this. The role of a good supervisor then is to know when to say to put down that tenth book and start writing.

Possibly the best 25 minute conversation I have had on a train. Thanks Steve.