This article was originally published on Speech-Language & Audiology Canada’s blog, Communiqué, on March 8th, 2016. It has been republished here with permission.
Part 1 of the blog series Finding the PhD in Me
By Bonita Squires, M.Sc., S-LP(C)
I have a curious and constantly-questioning mind. I suppose that’s why I ended up pursuing further training in research instead of continuing along the path towards a purely clinical career as a speech-language pathologist. Although I have not met my readers, I sense that I am not the only practitioner who is interested in conducting research within practice. This blog post — the first in a new series — is my earnest attempt to reach out to those of you who would like a glimpse into my experiences throughout this unique path to becoming a research-minded clinician.
I thrive on exploring concepts of language acquisition, representation and diversity, and on pondering their investigation. I also love to engage in long discussions about these fascinating topics. In the world of research, however, thinking and talking about your research is not enough. You must also write. What good is a researcher who does not publish the results of his or her ponderings? Upon beginning this PhD journey last fall, I found myself jumping knee-deep into the demands of producing publishable manuscripts in order to secure funding. Below, I share some of the writing realizations I’ve come to as since I began navigating the expectations of academia.
Write about the actual study, not the intended study
A post-doctoral fellow recently shared with me the following epiphany: I have to write about theactual study, not the intended study. In other words, once the study is completed and before I begin to write, I need to step back and look at the final outcome. That advice is quite helpful in trying to pare down all the things I want to talk about in my introduction. If I’m not careful, I can lead the reader down a series of garden paths away from the intended message of a text. Every self-contained manuscript must have its own story. I need to ensure that I understand the story before I start writing, a lesson I have learned a little too late as I attempt to pare down my 120-page master’s thesis into a 30-page manuscript. Simply grabbing a metaphorical machete and chopping away blindly is (apparently) not an efficient method.
Guidance is golden
I’ve been learning that my manuscript must contain an explicit guided pathway throughout the text. When someone reads my writing and tells me they got confused and had to look back to the beginning of the sentence, the paragraph, or worse yet, to an earlier section of the manuscript, a little red flag starts waving in my mind. I realize that I did not guide the reader through my thought process clearly enough.
But I thought that was obvious…
People who are not familiar with my field are a valuable source of feedback — like the new volunteer student in the lab, an aunt, or that guy I met at that meet-and-greet the other day. If I can explain my study to them so that they get an image in their head not only of what I’m doing, but of why it’s important, I feel I’m doing something right. For instance, I recently received feedback from an undergraduate honours student who said she wasn’t sure what I meant when I used the phrase “hearing levels”. She felt that a “moderate hearing level” might mean pretty good hearing. I never would have thought to clarify the term “moderate” with relation to hearing. For me, that term is saturated in 15 years of exposure to, and research within, the community of individuals who are d/Deaf or hard-of-hearing. As a writer, I must be aware of how the uninformed reader will interpret the words I use.
Back on track with feedback
One key part of the writing process, especially for a new researcher like myself, is seeking (and gracefully receiving) feedback on my manuscript. Throughout the long life of a project, from the budding concept through to the study implementation and on to the analyses, my perspective can become clouded. The key point of the intended article can get obscured by all the things I really wanted to share. There is nothing like receiving feedback such as, “Cut this entire section, it’s not needed,” to make me cry a little bit inside for the sacrifice of a well-loved concept. However, it may make the difference between a manuscript that has a clear message and one that does not.
Reading other people’s ponderings
I find that reading the manuscripts of others is helping me to recognize what needs to be clear in my own writing. When I read someone else’s work, I notice when the wording is ambiguous or when the manuscript lacks structure. I notice when a statement is not supported by research, leading me to question the author’s argument. I’ve also been noticing the reverse, where a string of evidence-backed statements lacks a clear argument from the author. These observations are helping me to approach my writing more objectively, so that I can imagine how a reader may follow the words I have written.
I will continue to work on my writing for the purpose of publication and also in anticipation of the hugely daunting task of writing the inevitable dissertation. In the meantime, stay tuned for my next post on how I hope I can integrate the concept of “knowledge translation” into my research design from the very beginning.