Adopting a New Research Identity

Most people find it easy to accept that graduate writing challenges are connected to the profound shift in identity that often accompanies graduate study. The novel challenge of graduate-level writing can be so much more than just a technical challenge, more than just a simple matter of not having done something before. In fact, a sense of incomplete identity can manifest itself in the quality of writing and even in the ability to develop a productive writing practice. While I have long believed all this to be true, the idea became much more real to me after I had the experience of needing to adopt a new research identity. When I took my first sabbatical, I was doing so in a field that I hadn’t studied as a doctoral student; as a result of this disciplinary transition, I was embarking on a research project without much relevant experience.

Over the course of this research, I undertook the ethics review process; contacted potential interviewees; learned how to make and manage digital recordings; conducted interviews; arranged for transcripts to be made; completed the data analysis; and drafted an article based on the research. Many of these activities may sound benign or even routine, but they were fundamentally different from anything that I had done before. It is unsurprising that learning these various skills was difficult, but what was striking, at least to me, was how deeply uneasy I felt throughout. Being reflective about this uneasiness was crucial both because I needed to overcome the discomfort in order to complete the project and because I could tell that understanding my own experience would help me to understand the challenges facing doctoral writers. We are all aware of the transitions that this group is making: from generalist to specialist, from student to researcher, from novice to expert. Making comparable transitions myself and experiencing a sense of being unmoored from my usual sources of professional authority emphasized the potential vulnerability of academic writers. As a teacher of writing, I benefited from this tangible reminder that the weakness of doctoral writing often come from the enormity of the identity shift that students are undertaking.

To characterize the transition from student to doctoral researcher as one of identity formation rather than as simple expertise development is a powerful way to go beyond popular—and often facile—explanations of the weaknesses in academic writing. Writing problems are occasionally straightforward matters of convoluted syntax or arcane vocabulary or disorganization, but are more often indicative of deeper struggles. To take two common examples, think of an introduction that fails to emphasize the significance of the problem under discussion or a treatment of the literature that reads like a laundry list of what everyone else thinks. Weak introductions are a consistent issue for the thesis writers that I work with; novice writers often fail to remind the reader of the significance of the current research. This omission can result from the over-familiarity that sometimes causes us to leave the most obvious things unsaid or from inexperience with writing sophisticated academic texts, but it can also result from the absence of a conviction that our contribution is worthy of being highlighted. Similarly, novice writers can struggle to manage literature reviews in a manner that conveys the preeminent importance of what the current writer has to say. Students can be taught to write better literature reviews, but the ability to do so has to be grounded in an underlying sense that they have the authority to synthesize the existing literature in support of their own project. In other words, they have to believe that their own project is a legitimate successor to the literature under discussion.

These sorts of writing problems can, of course, be addressed at the level of technical expertise: it’s entirely possible to give students a range of straightforward strategies to counteract common academic writing problems. However, delivering that advice in a way that also addresses the underlying identity tensions can provide novice writers a way out of their writing difficulties that is grounded in improved self-understanding. Once we accept that the work of identity formation will be inscribed in the texts that we write, we can seek out both technical solutions and a deeper understanding of the source of the difficulties. In my experience, students are more able to assimilate technical solutions into their own writing regimes when they see their problems as connected with a legitimate professional shift rather than simply as symptomatic of their own inadequacy. Since the challenge of inhabiting a novel identity can then be framed as an inevitable part of the scholarly development process, we can increase the chance that graduate writing support will be seen as essential. Such a framing can move our perception of writing problems from a model of deficiency to one of professional development, helping writing support to gain institutional traction. If we see the limitations of a novice academic writer as a natural by-product of the process of shifting from student to scholar, we may be better able to advance a framework for doctoral writing support that goes beyond notions of remediation to become an integrated part of doctoral education.

7 responses to “Adopting a New Research Identity

  1. Brilliant

  2. Thank you SO much for this. There are so many workshops at academic conferences for those beginning their academic career, but few to none for the senior faculty who are making a change mid-career or later. I feel the challenges are similar. Your post has been tremendously affirming for me.

  3. Well-thought, said and written. As a supervisor of masters and doctoral students, I had not thought students’ writing problems in this way. I had indeed the concept of “identity” change in mind as students shift roles in their transition to higher degree research, but to consider it as the core issue in helping students frame their writing is brilliant. I very much like the idea of changing identity from a “student” to a “scholar” and I find it something seriously missing in students’ writings. Students usually don’t believe and invest in this change of identity at least at the earlier stages in the process of their research and writing. They usually find it difficult to critically review previous research and link them to their own study, mostly because they don’t find themselves in the position of a scholar. Thanks for sharing and good food for thought!

  4. Thanks a lot for this excellent post! I do consume a lot of Ph.D. writing advice in the hope of implementing them to better my writing. I read this post nodding to every single statement. I have always struggled with my writing and thus always jumped on any and every advice there is out there. While I have made progress in my writing, I still feel somewhat inadequate. Why? I have not yet developed a research identity central to addressing my writing both in the areas of writing form and habits.

    A key takeaway from this post is asking myself, “Grace, would it make any different to think of yourself as a doctoral researcher (and not just a Ph.D. student)? What will inhabiting that identity mean practically in my writing/research?

    Again, thanks!
    This is the first time I am commenting on a blog post. I felt so compelled to do so because it got me thinking about WHO I think I am as a scholar and not just a writer (always seeking advice!)

  5. Excellent. Now 10 years since I completed my doctorate as a practitioner. It took me through a profound shift in identity – yet hadn’t really recognised that shift for what it was until reading this. Thank you.

  6. This is an area of concern when working with my writers and is beneficial to their development. Might I suggest the work of Roz Ivanic and her excellent book “Writing and Identity”? She proposes a very workable hypothesis on the stages of writer identity.

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