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Traps – reflections on unintended consequences


The last few weeks have been interesting! At the beginning of this month, I took a few days away at the wonderful Gladstone’s Library with the aim of reflecting on my research and thesis and kick starting my findings chapters. I returned, enthused to get on with my writing, with lots of ideas on the way forward. However, at that point life got in the way and instead of focusing on my work, I found myself in a hole where it was impossible to think or do anything except focus on the immediate issues. My immediate reaction was to drift into panic mode, but, thanks to the support of supervisors who have seen it all before, I was thrown the lifeline of taking some time out, and I grabbed it.

The immediate effect of being given space was being able to focus on the day-to-day problems that were confronting me, but they didn’t actually require 24/7 attention, so I found that I was able to think about my research and thesis, without the pressure (both self-imposed and externally imposed) of a fixed deadline, which I had been counting down almost in days, if not in hours!

Stepping back from the thesis has enabled me to see a number of things, which will influence my work once I get back into writing mode:

Firstly, I realised that I had become so focused on justifying my methodology, I wasn’t seeing the wood for the trees. This was partly a reaction to having struggled for the right to adopt my chosen approach, but it had become disabling rather than enabling and meant I had taken my eyes off my research question,  over-focusing instead on my approach to that question.

Secondly, hyper-focusing on methodology had meant I was ignoring much of my data. This was partly because my analysis was being shaped to the method, but also because my own focus on method meant I was effectively ignoring large swathes of material, highly relevant to my research question.

Thirdly, no matter how much I worked at trying to get the structure of my findings chapters right, somehow I was not telling the story that was there in my research findings. I was trying to do too many things at the same time and failing to do any of them effectively, and sometimes just failing to do them full stop.

Stepping back and not thinking about writing has given me space to begin to review various notes made over the past three or so years. I have also taken the time to re-read the interview transcripts and summaries. Out of this, I am beginning to see my findings in a different way – and one that relates much more directly to my research question. I am not attempting to write anything other than jottings. I am making the occasional spray diagram connecting ideas. I am doing a lot of thinking. What I write, when I return to writing will, I think and hope, be more measured and more analytical than what was emerging from the trap I built for myself.

What have I learned?

Taking time out is not a luxury, but a necessity. Life as a graduate researcher is busy. The luxury of being a full-time student with nothing to think about but oneself might have been possible in those long gone hedonistic undergraduate days, but I, like most other graduate researchers, have home, family, work, community and friendship commitments, meaning there is a restricted amount of time available for study. That busyness can lead to a lack of time for reflection and a sense of guilt if not visibly working, that is reading, writing, notetaking or discussing research. A real trap! I haven’t chosen to step back, but stepping back is what I needed to do, and need to continue to do, if I am to move forward.

I do think the tussle around methodology and organisation of my thesis was both necessary and worthwhile. However, I missed seeing what that argument was really about, that is the necessity of placing my work in its wider context. I got too caught up in the detail. With this time of reflection, I am able to see how easy it is to get caught up in something important but tangential and lose sight of the main objective.

I didn’t intend to find myself in a trap. I didn’t intend my focus to get skewed. But these things happened without my noticing. Hopefully, I can now move forward, however slowly, and will give myself that time I need for reflection and distance.



  1. Emma Burnett says:

    Thank you for taking the time to write this Liz. I think many of us will be able to resonate with it. All too often, we are so focused on deadlines and feel that if we are not physically analysing, writing etc then we are in some way failing or not progressing. By being so immersed in writing, moving forward and meeting deadlines, you have highlighted the issues we can inadvertantly find ourselves in. By taking time out to reflect and rethink, I agree is vital and indeed will certainly pay off during final write up and Viva time. In addition to all this, our life outside our PhD is important and things as you have said, can happen which require out attention and so PhD work may need to take a bit of a back seat. I am so please you are now in the position to move forward and I hope things settle down for you soon.

    I also want to say that despite all the problems you were dealing with, you still continued to be upbeat, supportive and helpful to us on on #phdchat. Thank you 🙂

  2. lizit says:

    Thanks Emma – it means a lot knowing that the thoughts resonate 🙂

    #phdchat is such a great community – I get so much out of being part of it!

  3. Liz, kudos for your realizing this sooner rather than later; much better a month ago than a month from now, as time well spent so quickly passes. As life getting in the way recently happened to me as well, glad that you are now able to see your research in a new and more consistent way. This is always a hard lesson to learn, and it seems your writing about it has helped you to process and come to terms with it.
    Now, onward and upward!

  4. Ailsa says:

    Great post. I know i have come close to the trappings of justifying the approach to the extent that the warp and weft of what i am wanting to produce becomes seriously skewed.
    I could easily have done a rant on how to study sensitive research and the ethics therein and out…dont let me start 🙂
    Best wishes,

  5. Catherine says:

    So true. Now going through a forced time out, I am wondering why the “time out”s aren’t built in. There is no way to process, absorb, and reflect as quickly as is expected. Our program runs straight through Summer until Spring graduation 2 years later. That is a total of 11 weeks off in 2 years. That’s not enough time to rest and recharge, let alone THINK. I also believe that 12 weeks of battering in a semester is too much at this level. Just my opinion. Great post. Thanks for sharing.

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