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Writing a thesis is like…

I read this beautifully crafted metaphor for the PhD process as a weaving project. It really captures the dedication and labour of love, and I liked it so much, that it has inspired me to list a few of the metaphors I use. I’ve found about PhD research is that it’s far too big and varied to be confined to one metaphor. I feel different ones apply at different times. So let me introduce you to the ones that work for me, the PhD researcher as a miner, soldier, lion-tamer, joiner and master embroiderer.

The miner

Sometimes, you will find a really rich seam of sources for research. And you can keep working this thin seam. One source will lead readily to another, and ideas flow in a close-knit formation (although not always in the right order!) like chipping the crystals out of the surrounding rock. You can work a seam like this for quite some time and get real depth, but like mining a small seam deep underground, there isn’t much room for manoeuvre. It can get claustrophobic and after a while I find it can stifle creativity.


The soldier

Sometimes, PhD research feels more like being a soldier, hacking and slashing your way across the field of battle (swinging a huge sword, with a dagger in your shield hand, naturally). If feels like you have to fight every step of the way. Advancing your argument is messy and difficult, but somewhere you know – through tenancy or stubbornness or both – that there is something in your idea worth fighting for. It’s just working out what it is, and what can be jettisoned, that takes the effort.


The lion-tamer

It doesn’t happen very often, but sometimes you will be left feeling like a trainee lion-tamer, cowering behind an upturned chair with the whip dangling useless in your hands as your chapter rampages unchallenged across your word processesor. All you can do is hang on and hope. It won’t last too long, but when it’s over you have to stop and assess the damage. Sometimes great things will have happened: either an inspired argument or brilliant turn of phrase will emerge. Sometimes you will have to junk two day’s worth work that makes no sense. And of course, you can’t tell until which it is until it’s over. Most often it’s a mix of both, with of course more of the latter, but I find it helps to get it out of the system.

The Joiner

Like an able joiner, there’s nothing more satisfying than seamlessly joining two concepts with a neat dovetail joint in a very no-nonsense, straightforward and functional sort of way. It has a simplistic beauty to it. It’s even better if the two concepts aren’t normally used together. This one has to be one of my personal favourites, although difficult to achieve.

The master embroiderer

A bit like the weaver, the master embroiderer sifts through a tangled mass of threads seeking ones of the right tone and shade. Teasing them out, we clear a space in the chaos and work with each thread individually. We bring them together to form a lattice to support and showcase a new pattern. I try to think of each of my arguments as single strands running through the chapters of my work. This I think is closest to the craft of research. Except perhaps it needs to be a little more sculptural and three dimensional, like the crochet Cornell Maths Professor Daina Taimina used to solve advanced geometry problems

I’d love to hear your metaphors too. Please share them below, but don’t forget to check out Rod’s original inspirational post

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