This is not a test: discipline, the shitty first draft, and the real world.

I have been thinking for a few years, on and off, about that bit in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish where he talks about drilling soldiers. His image of the soldier being trained is slightly less famous than the panopticon of the next chapter, but only slightly so; and thus I find myself reading about it from time to time, and it jiggles this bit of thinking a little bit further forward. I’ve been trying to write something about this for two years, but it just wouldn’t coalesce. Anyone who has been to a Thesis Boot Camp will recognise these thoughts, and yes, the connection between the militaristic language of Boot Camp, my thoughts about discipline, and Foucault have been fruitfully bouncing off each other since the very first TBC in 2012. Sometimes this stuff just takes time to gel.

Anyway, on with what I want to say.


I often talk about the distinction between the ‘student’ and the ‘scholar’, between the Research Assistant and the Primary Investigator. One of the major disctinctions between the job of the student and the job of the scholar is the extent to which they are doing ‘real world’ work.

A student-scientist or student-historian is given tasks, and their job is to demonstrate to the teacher that they are able to understand and demonstrate familiarity with what is already known. You replicate the experiment and show you understand what other scholars think happened. You read published primary and secondary sources, and you discuss them. You learn to a curriculum (usually repeated from year to year) and you are assessed via a standardised test of some kind (whether it be a dissertation with a grading scheme and a rubric, or a multiple choice exam). Students therefore write careful first drafts, anxiously attempting to clone the language and postures of the ‘insider‘ experts. 

Scholars, on the other hand, write a slapdash first draft, that is then polished multiple times by multiple professional hands. The recent ‘shall we cite the crappy Gabor paper here?‘ gaffe is an example  of how writing is really done. It was a terrible embarrassment to the authors, not because we don’t all write like that, but because it wasn’t caught by the co-authors, editors or publisher. Your shitty draft is private—you edit and polish it before you show the world.

I often tell people about the shitty first draft, that is supposed to be intentionally abject: ‘vomit it out’, let it be ‘verbal diarrhoea’, we say.

At the same time, I always tell late stage doctoral candidates:

Your shitty first draft is not going to be that bad. You have been educated and trained in this discipline for six or more years. You have been disciplined in educational language and thinking and reasoning for something like two decades at this stage. Your ‘free’ writing is always going to be pretty constrained by academic ways of thinking and reading and writing. Even when you let yourself go, and ‘just write’ you are writing as a highly trained and knowledgeable person writing about a topic in which you are an expert.

Like Foucault’s soldiers, drilled in perfect formation, we expect that some of the studied discipline and muscle-memory will help you to react well when out in the trenches. When there is live ammunition, real stakes, a messy, bloody, muddy melée, you will not be able to keep your perfectly shined shoes in a neat line. Things will move quickly, things will go wrong, and you will need to react.

This is why this model of ‘generative’ writing works. And why you can start writing too early. If you don’t yet have the knowledge and disciplinary training, your early drafts can literally be a waste of words. However, after about 3-6 months, you are already becoming expert, and at any stage after that, it is worth sitting down and ‘just writing’.

A doctorate propels you towards the real world of scholarship. You will be a teacher, a researcher, an author. This is not a test. No-one else knows the answer to this stuff, that’s why you are making ‘an original contribution to knowledge’. What’s more, as a scholar, you are an officer in these intellectual battles. You should be making strategy, directing others, managing situations, not just following orders.


In the old days, they said ‘publish or perish’, though these days you can publish and perish–but  not publishing is a definite path to academic failure. And that includes failing to submit your thesis. Of candidates who submit their thesis, 95% pass. You may have revisions, but do the revisions, and you will pass. The real problem is that 30% or more of doctoral candidates do not submit. Get your manuscript in.

That’s why you need to start learning to write fast, to be collaborative, to improve things interactively and iteratively, to get your manuscript out. There are no As, no second places in this war. Articles are published, or not. Grants are won, or not. Theses are submitted, or not. This is not a test. This is not a drill.


And yes, this is super-problematic. There’s a reason I stepped sideways from academia. I won’t think less of you for deciding that the Tenure Games are horrific, and walking away.

But if you want to be part of the game, it’s my duty to be honest about the rules, and how to win. That’s why I set up this blog.


Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


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