Ho Ho Ho-oh no, not theory again!

111 days and counting until the PhD has to be written, formatted, bound and submitted and its fair to say that I am starting to panic more than a little bit.

With my deadline looming I have started re-reading my front-end theory chapters and turns out they are a bit of a shock! They were written about 20months ago and the latest draft of each about 15/18 months ago. Unsurprisingly, my writing style has developed and matured in the time since the creation of these chapters.

If I read them objectively (or try to), pretending they belong to a student of mine, I am less than impressed. They aren’t terrible but neither are they up to standard. I can cover them in copious amounts of red pen and feel good about myself for pointing out the flaws and the areas that need fixing. But…

…sat at my laptop with a blank screen ready to act on the red pen notes and rewrite the chapters, I am stuck. It’s easy just to change the way I have articulated points (and this does need doing in places) but by doing this I avoid actually rewriting the chapter. I think it stems from a worry of whether this next draft, especially this close to my deadline, will be good enough.

What if it isn’t good enough??

I could rewrite it again and again ,but what if it is never good enough? By this stage in my PhD career my work should be edited to a good standard and some of my more recently created chapters are – almost.

It is almost as if once I have written something one way, I then have a mental block on how to improve or re-write it. Quite a large part of the success or failure of my PhD will depend on my ability to hurdle this particular block.

The solution I am going to attempt to apply is to tackle each chapter separately, and each section within them in turn. To read through with red pen in hand and then write myself a new chapter plan with details for each section. I find that planning each point I want to cover, almost on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis has helped me to keep sections and chapters on track. Perhaps it will keep me from simply rewording these theory chapters.

I am faced with doubts about whether or not I actually know what I want to say about the theory, about what my theoretical stance actually is and how theory applies to and has influenced my thesis.

I know, on the whole, what I want my research to say and what it contributes to knowledge (or at least will do if I can do it justice). But I have been so involved with the minute of my results that switching to editing the broader theory chapters is proving more challenging than I thought it would be. Just as challenging is making sure the theoretical points I discuss are made relevant to the results of my research and my thesis as a whole otherwise the reader (and the examiners!) will find themselves thinking “Great, but SO WHAT!?”.

Research data is seen through a cloud of theory or so Johnson (2010, 106) tells us. Data and theory cannot be separated. So I must persevere and continue to theorise my way to a pair of successfully edited, and relevant, chapters.

There’s no escaping the fact that theory is academia and academia is theory.


Reference: Johnson, M. 2010 Archaeological Theory: An Introduction (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester)



  1. Don’t forget: your advisor and committee exist to say how much revision is needed. Also remember, you will have the chance later to revise and recast all your hypotheses, etc, for wider publication purposes. (I am assuming most doctoral theses in the social sciences follow a similar process to my own.) So don’t “let the perfect drive out the good” here. With sympathy, Carol

  2. I always imagine theory as personality (that’s really what it is: your academic personality). Everyone has one, and aside from the truly awful traits some people have, we by and large accept them for what they are. We get work-oriented people, creative types, old-fashioned sorts, politically-minded people, even people-people. So too in archaeology you get functionalists, postprocessualists, culture historians, Marxists and feminists, community archaeologists and public specialists. These aren’t solid boundaries, either, just as our own personalities and interests aren’t in any way fixed.

    What I mean by all of this is that it’s not so important to find and adopt an appropriate theoretical position – you’ll have your own values and approaches already that are specific to you, and theory is really all about describing what this is and how it works for you. Don’t worry about having to realign chapters around something new, they’re aligned around something already.

    1. Thanks for the input! Perhaps what didn’t come through in my blog post was that I am rewriting chapters that were written about 2 years ago and my theoretical stance has been clarified and changed since then. I am more aware of how theory applies to my values and approaches! I’ve always struggled with theory and all its ‘isms’ and I think seeing it as a personality is a great suggestion – thanks!

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