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More daylight


Occasionally on this journey towards a doctorate there have been moments when I have suddenly understood something or a penny has dropped. They haven’t necessarily been big things, but nevertheless meaningful. Today I had one of those moments when reading a post on the PhD2Published blog. At the bottom of the post, there were five simple – and in some ways obvious – points about writing at this level, both for the thesis and for any other publication. It was the last one that caught my attention and imagination. Effectively it asked, what was the problem I was claiming to solve.

For months I have been struggling with the whole notion of what is it that I am doing that I can claim to be adding to knowledge. I have heard the metaphors of a grain of sand and seen the images of a tiny pimple on the sphere of knowledge, but I have found it difficult to identify, let alone articulate what I am doing. I have been so conscious of so much of my work just saying what is already known, I have not been able to see what I am doing, even though it is implicit in my methodology and in so much of what I have done over the past three and a half years.

This morning it dawned on me. It doesn’t actually matter that others have explored some of the problems of the special needs system – they have tended to work from specific perspectives. It doesn’t matter that there is a fair bit of work written on inter-agency working and partnership. In fact, it’s great that work is out there, together with studies of the experiences of parents of children with special needs and the various analyses of policy in this area. They are all parts of the jigsaw which helps to explain why the special needs system is dysfunctional.

What I am doing, in taking a systems perspective, is trying to look at the whole picture. Sure, some pieces will still be missing, but rather than looking at the jigsaw pieces in isolation, I am trying to look at how they connect. Rather than trying to solve a problem, I am trying to offer a perspective on the multi-causality of the problem. Essentially, I am taking a problem area, which has been dissected and carefully examined in bits, and looking at it holistically and recognising the multi-dimensional nature of the problem and the interconnectivity of the parts.

So, instead of being concerned about the fact that I don’t seem to be saying anything new, I can now recognise I am saying something different and fresh simply because I am looking at the whole system rather than one little bit of it. Recognising that is making me think both about what I have already written and what I am currently writing. I have a sense of knowing what I am trying to do now!

Remind me how positive I am this morning next time you catch me about to throw my rattle out of my pram in despair that I’ll never get to the endpoint of this journey!



  1. Gemma Tombs says:

    Thank you for linking me towards that post!

    “What I am doing, in taking a systems perspective, is trying to look at the whole picture. Sure, some pieces will still be missing, but rather than looking at the jigsaw pieces in isolation, I am trying to look at how they connect.”

    This is exactly where I am right now, too. The idea of finding my “original contribution to knowledge” has seemed more daunting than any other part of this process, but you’ve articulated the importance of connections as a contribution to knowledge. Practice and reality don’t exist in a vacuum, and it’s important to me (and you, it seems) that research acknowledges that

    Congratulations on finding the daylight!

  2. Liz, I also found great significance in this post. I think you maybe have to have been in the lion’s den wrestling with the words for a while for this guidance to start changing cogs in the way we can approach argument. I worry all the time that I haven’t cited enough credible people (i.e. not me) and that I can’t leave a statement hanging without some kind of validation. I know there is still this expectation in the phd, but this article has helped me to see a way beyond what I am writing now to the types of writing that I am drawing from. And I think reading it specifically today might help me to better frame some of what I am writing from now on too… Thanks for sharing the link and best of luck with your writing.

  3. Jackie says:

    This makes a lot of sense – I think a number of people have had similar ‘lightbulb moments’, but at the end of the day you need to have your own lightbulb moment for it to sink in! It’s interesting the random triggers to those revelations.

    I think the whole ‘original contribution’ thing is something that is trotted out so glibly in presentations, supervision sessions etc, but actually is a huge issue contributing massively to PhD anxiety levels. I don’t think I fully believed in the originality of my contribution until the very end, just as I was getting ready to submit – it was almost like the Holy Grail, the sign that at long last I was ready to defend what I’d spent the last X years agonising over.

  4. Sarah R-H says:

    I absolutely love reading about other researchers’ lightbulb moments, it’s like being sprinkled with fairy dust. There’s nothing like that feeling when it ‘clicks’. You’ll be *so* pleased you took the time to write about the experience later on – it will serve as a reaffirmation and a map for if you ever feel lost in the thesis-jungle again. I promise to remind you of this if you ever need it :o) You’ve created a great wave, it’s all yours, ride it!

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