The apprentice

It makes one year that I’ve started my PhD here in Scotland. To complete my previous post about how it has radically changed my life, I would also like to pay tribute to this academic year, as I realise today how much I have learned, not so much in terms of the knowledge I’ve gathered regarding the topic of my research, but more in terms of understanding what it means to do a PhD.

The main reason that lead me to move to Edinburgh was to start a PhD at the Centre for Social Informatics within the IIDI at Edinburgh Napier University. There are not that many universities in Europe where one can undertake a PhD in the field of Knowledge Management. Even less in the new field of Information Sciences. So when I found out that I had an opportunity to do so in Scotland, I didn’t hesitate for long. Of course, I had a rather broad idea of what a PhD consist of (a question I was being asked while applying for my studentship), but honestly, it is only when I started to live the experience of my PhD studies, that I realised what it was all about. I’m certainly not at the end of my discoveries, regarding the fact that it only makes one year that I’ve started.

What have I learned so far?

Journals vs. books

I’ve always considered  books as the ultimate source of knowledge (next to people, of course), and therefore, I thought I would have to read a lot of them. Well, it is not quite so, as the priority is to grasp what is being discussed in the academic literature among researchers. Books are still useful, especially those that compile scholars’ different point of views, or those which allow me to go back to the fundamentals of the theories I’m studying. However, none of them provides the live and updated discussion that I can find in academic journals, where the fundamental theory is being questioned, discussed, criticised, compared or investigated.

Criticism vs. description

To understand the difference between the two, and to realise that I had to adopt the idea of being critical in my writing rather than descriptive, has been one of the major shifts that occurred during my doctoral apprenticeship. Descriptions are sometimes still needed, but the point is to learn to position ourselves among the researchers, as we are meant to become one of them. This is not about being negatively judgemental, it is about analysing, evaluating and sometimes emphasising contradictions, but always with consideration for the scholars of course. I am still learning, and I really do feel like an apprentice to my supervisors who kindly and patiently try to bring me back to the right path of academic writing. It is a long journey. Often arduous, enjoyable at times, especially when everything starts to make sense. Despite the fact that I can’t imagine the final destination yet, I still have the hope that this process will lead me to the achievement of my thesis.

Room desk

Academic networking

I’ve always believed in networking, and have been practising it for many years. Quite naturally at first, because I’m a social type of a person: meaning that not only I don’t mind to meet new people, I even enjoy it.  Secondly, with the years passing by, I became more aware of its strengths, if not power, as I’ve witnessed so many times the numerous benefits it can bring (new partnerships, new jobs opportunities, counselling, support, etc.). To network within the academic context I am part of, has therefore been quite enjoyable. To me, the main objectives are:

  1. to be engaged within a community of scholars (Professors, researchers and other PhD students) who could one day potentially become my colleagues,
  2. to meet academics with whom I can (finally) discuss my research,
  3. to find potential ‘candidates’ who could be part of my empirical research,
  4. to discover the existence of similar studies close to mine.

Networking occurs in conferences, workshops, social events, but also on online networks such as Research Gate, Twitter, LinkedIn, or even Mendeley, to name a few. Today, we are lucky enough to live in a much more connected world than it used to be thirty years ago (before Internet was launched). I am therefore convinced that it is worthy to take advantage of these new technical possibilities which foster our social skills on a worldwide scale.

Academic writing vs. BBC style

The day one of my supervisors told me that my text was written in a BBC style, I was flattered. For a few second only. Indeed, I first thought it was a compliment until I realised that it wasn’t (after all, English is a language I had to learn as I’m a French native speaker). I guess I was trying to make my point by using a slightly dramatic tone which in academic writing doesn’t really has its place. Academic writing requires to adopt a specific style that demands a dexterity I am still struggling to learn. It is not about using complicated expressions just for the sake of it. It is rather about finding the right style that will allow me to discuss a complex and abstract topic, while being able to be clear and understandable.

There is a lot of debate among academics (and occasionally with the media) about how the academic literature can appear heavy sometimes. Not a long time ago, I read an article on the Atlantic that caught my attention as it precisely criticises ‘The needless [according to the author] of academic writing.’ I’ve had the chance recently to discuss the topic of this article with a lecturer (for whom I have a lot of respect) and who’s regularly available to help students with their own writings. He reminded me that ‘academic writing cannot be separated from its content and that the more complex the content often the more dense the writing is’ while a content that is poorly organised or communicated is of course not advisable. A point of view that I entirely share.

One of my supervisors also told me that I could be more passionate in my writing, which confused me and made me wonder even more… So here I am today, left with this question in my mind, as I keep on striving to progress: how can I make my writing both academic and passionate at the same time (and therefore not boring)? I guess time will help, and most of all, the ongoing process of writing until the day I will be able to find my own (academic) voice.


More skills will be gathered. I’m thinking right now about the empirical research I will undertake within a few months, with the semi-structured interviews and online surveys, and all the analysis process that will follow. Nonetheless, I’m glad to realise everything I have learnt so far, and look forward to move on into the discovery of this unknown path, sometimes scary, yet quite fascinating, of doing a PhD with the humbleness and curiosity of an apprentice.