The eye of a needle

My topic, it’s enormous.  I am still searching for exactness.  Like most PhD students, I have an enormous olympic pool of ideas, research, concepts, theories, but I’m cramming them into a wading pool that is my 3 year thesis.  It’s old hat to say that it’s a thesis, not a Nobel prize, but the reality of narrowing, effectively throwing out (for the next 3 years) ideas and theory and other work is a hard slog.

I’m finding the focusing stage a difficult time.  My topic is the transition to adulthood for people with severe cognitive impairment.  I do socio-legal work that looks at how law works in practice (on the ground, the interface between law and people), and what that might tell us about our society and ourselves.   So in my thesis, I’m interested in intersections between broad ideas (like what is an adult) as they intersect and are represented within regulatory systems.  An example: a person can vote when they turn 18. This is regulated by laws, and these laws are administered by the electoral commission.  All of this, the laws, the regulation, the institution, helps illustrate what we think being an adult IS exactly.  What is voting?  Why is it important?  What do we do when someone can’t vote?  Even more specific: We got a letter for Daelle about her reaching voting age and being registered.  There is a form you can fill out if someone isn’t capable of understanding voting to get an exemption, which means she won’t get fined.  This needs to be signed by a doctor.  So we (and Daelle) intersect with this system of law and regulation and bureaucracy about voting in a particular way.  All of this stuff is our society’s way of defining these bigger shared ideas and concepts.

My project is about where parents andneedle carers of people with severe cognitive impairments (who are transitioning to adulthood) bump up against regulatory systems and law, like social welfare systems, finance and banking, transport, education, healthcare, the NDIS, and guardianship.  I’m looking at severe cognitive impairment because it informs us all not only about the lived experience of their carers (as close as I can get to the person themselves) – which is not very much researched and super important – but also because looking at the “extreme” edges more clearly shows us the core of our ideas about what being an adult means, what being a citizen means, what being “disabled” means, and at some fundamental level, what being a person in our society means.

So yeah, like most people, I have some big ideas to wrestle into 100,000 words in a specific format that shows I deserve a doctorate.  Like everyone, it’s all about wresting the ideas into smaller shapes, that are still meaningful, and that still represent the big ideas, but that can fit into a PhD shaped box.  It’s a mental juggling act.  And my arms are tired!!


Early on in my candidature, I made a big change in the writing program I’m using.  I am giving Scrivener a go.  It has Mac and Windows versions that so far seem to play nicely with each other.  I’m foreseeing issues with citation, but it’s designed to export into Word, so at the moment I’m planning to use it to get chunks of writing and ideas out, move them about, and build up chapters organically.  At the moment, I’m writing ideas and chunks of text related to papers or key issues, but I think I’ll export those into Word so I can tie in Endnote.  Law requires footnoting as well, so I don’t want a giant headache at the end of my thesis if something doesn’t translate, and the way citations look in Scrivener are really distracting for me, so I prefer to write draft text in Word.

There are some great posts on adapting academic work, specifically a thesis, to Scrivener, I liked these ones:  start at The Thesis Whisperer, she has several posts on it you can find from there; there’s a detailed technical overview at Qualitative Research; and lots of fancy tips and tricks (colour coding!) at A Law Unto Herself.


Some folders from my “Doing a Thesis” Scrivener binder

I run two main files (binders) for my thesis.  One is a kind of “how to” mash of things that I call “Doing a Thesis.”  And the other one is the Thesis itself, which sticks to folders on the research questions, my chapter headings, and a folder for my confirmation document and presentation.  I like it so much I actually started a binder for my personal stuff, reading I’m doing, notes about parenting stuff…  there’s a reason I’m a researcher, people!

I’m finding Scrivener great for jotting ideas and keeping information, and having confidence you’re not going to forget anything.  I could use something like Things or Evernote, but I like that in Scrivener I can drag chunks of written work around, and see ideas, people, papers, and links in the same program.  I’ve used it for everything from snippets of writing, cards for people I want to contact, organisations I’ve joined, as well as the basic stuff of outlining chapters and my confirmation document.  It’s great for holding ideas, not just text.  If you haven’t already had a look at it, I’d give it a go.