Tying myself in knots

It’s been a rough couple of PhD weeks.  I’ve felt very stuck and inadequate.  While I have been plugging away at my word count (now about 60,000) I’ve been increasingly concerned that I haven’t yet hit on the conceptual ideas that hold my thesis together.  My ever calm supervisor suggests this will come, usually about 5 weeks from submission. But with 5 months before planned submission I’ve getting increasingly terrified.  I really hit a road block with my third data chapter, which really should hold it all together – be outlining my key theoretical contributions.  And they are just not there.  The feedback from AIMAC 2015 is echoing in my head “You are just writing a consulting report.”

I have these interconnecting themes – leadership theory, identity development, communities of practice and social learning, but I can’t seem to put them all together.

Despite being a bit behind schedule I’ve decided to do two things this week:

a) Take a step back and re-read/take notes on the intersection of leadership/development/identity theory.  This may lead to a few things including, a slight rework of my literature review, some changes to my methodology chapter and a centring of identity in my data chapters.

b) Have four days off. I’m finishing my job on Wednesday, and while I’m having an introductory meeting with my new job on Thursday I have decided to consider these days as holiday.  My husband and I are going away for two nights and I’m going to recalibrate.

Today, however, I’ve sat down and read.  A few lines within Carroll, B., & Levy, L. (2010)* stand out. They mention using identity as a theoretical and methodological frame to understand leadership development.  Which is pretty much what I’m doing.  Where they examine “future leaders” participating in leadership development programs, I’m examining “emerging leaders and their communities” within the cultural sector.  Where they consider the influence leadership development programs have on identity construction, I’m considering how participation in communities of practice informs identity development.

So my whole thesis becomes:

  • How do creative practitioners in Australia socially construct their leadership identity?

This research uses social constructionist concepts of identity as a theoretical and methodological lens to frame and understand leadership development within Australian Cultural Sector. The research demonstrates how communities of practices play a vital role in facilitating identity work for emerging cultural leaders. 

I’m not sure where this is going, but I’ll follow it and see.


Carroll, B., & Levy, L. (2010). Leadership development as identity construction. Management Communication Quarterly, 24(2), 211-231.

2 thoughts on “Tying myself in knots

  1. Hi there, I ended up here via a comment you made on a thesis whisperer post. I am not as far into my Phd as you are, so I will be upfront and say I do not know what it feels like to be at your stage. But I did want to share I had a similar experience of being behind schedule on the leadup to my confirmation. It terrified me so much that I stopped being able to think. Taking a leave of absence would have helped because it would have bought me time, but that wasn’t a possibility. So I needed to take a different route.

    Firstly, I spoke to my ever-wise supervisor about being frightened about timeframes. She said that yes we do need to stick to timeframes, but we also need to remember the timeframes are arbitrary (i had been judging my ability – or inability – to complete a thesis based on meeting these man-made timeframes… which weren’t necessarily reflective of my process). She also talked about the importance of focusing on the process of the phd, not just the product. She added that it is normal to be terrified at times during your phd, that it is scary, it is vulnerable, and it is identity work.
    The only way I could get around my panic was to learn to trust. I threw away my schedule. It was based on how long I “planned” for things to take, not how long it would necessarily take. This took a leap of faith that scared the hell out of me, but it was necessary because my list of things to do and the timeframes were terrifying me so much that I couldn’t think about things properly – I was too much in panic.
    My approach instead was to work on each section as long as it needed, and work on it like a banshee! Then I would move onto the next section. So I put an enormous amount of work into reading, writing and thinking, over the time I had and came out with a very well-developed document. For it to be at the level I would have liked I think I would have needed another five weeks. But for the stage I was at it was well developed and complete. I can tell you I never saw that as possible prior. What I found was that some parts took longer than I expected, and I was able to squeeze other parts into less time than expected. The approach of one section at a time helped enormously.
    Not sure if that helps you, but that was my journey of timeframes, and the bottom line was understanding that they aren’t exactly real, they are a construct in our head. We can do our best to stick with them but ultimately if something takes longer we need to give that part of the process the time it needs.
    As Brene brown says “you can choose comfort or courage but you cannot choose both”. The timeframe is our comfort and it takes courage to step outside of it. It takes courage and trust to give yourself the time you need. Sometimes this might be a leave of absence to buy time (I know someone who has just done that). For some it might be like what I needed to do and trusting (along with some crazy hours but just finishing one thing at a time)
    The other thing I would say to you is your supervisor talking about things coming together at the end. I’ve had to accept that sometimes I’m writing about things I don’t understand yet. That is helped by a lecturer saying to me that he didn’t really understand his theory until a couple of weeks before he handed his thesis in. I’ve talked to people who have said those understandings continued after, and they can now see the holes in their thesis… so I suppose the lesson of that is your thesis is just the beginning, not the end. I read a cool quote recently that said, “There are two types of theses: perfect and submitted.” So remember it’s just a point in time and you can continue to write and develop your thoughts after, just not in a thesis document. That is just the apprenticeship.
    Hope you’re happy for me to add my two cents worth! Building my good karma now for the point I reach my last six months – maybe I should save this for myself for later 😉

    • Hi Mish, I’ve been neglecting my blog so I just read this. You know I can imaging myself writing exactly this comment to someone else? Right down to Brene Brown. I’ve just been discussing with my supervisory that I have two relationships to this thesis – the intellectual one (just keep plugging away, day by day, bit by bit) and the emotion one (this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, I’m not smart enough or good enough and everything is rubbish.) It’s hard to balance the two. I really appreciate the comment, just knowing someone gets it really helps.

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