Your Thesis…It’s Alive!

[Cross-posted at Birmingham “On War”]

This is a post that I have been meaning to write for a while, well since April if I am honest. However, for reasons that may become apparent in a minute it should be obvious as to why it has taken until now for me to write it. I have finally decided to write it because of conversations I have had with a friend who has recently begun her PhD, which has thrown up a few issues I remember grappling with when I started.

Your PhD is alive…

Yes, you heard me. Your PhD is very much a live beast. It will change and transmogrify. Simply put, when I started my PhD I was convinced that I had the plan for completing my thesis without it changing. It was quite simple. I was looking at leadership effectiveness and applying a conceptual framework to analyse the life and career of Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory. I spent a lot of time reading leadership theory and researching the RAF’s views on it during the period I was looking at. Having done this, and being deep in archival research, I moved along and continued to write prodigiously. The early chapters dealt with Leigh-Mallory’s development and his progression through the inter-war RAF. It became quite clear that he was the type of officer the RAF wanted. Public school educated, competent, experienced, and above all, he was representative of the RAF’s organisational culture and that this was very important to its succession planning.

However, a problem emerged. I had written over half my thesis and had still not started writing about Leigh-Mallory’s service in the Second World War. In my mind, this was a problem. I believed I was procrastinating and mentioned this to my supervisor, Air Commodore (ret’d) Dr Peter Gray, who in possibly one of the best moments of my PhD simply said, “Is that such a problem?” rather than the expected, “We should sort this out”. It was possibly the best piece of advice he has given me to date. We then discussed it seriously, and the conclusion was, that if you boil down the controversy over Leigh-Mallory’s career the key question is not strictly over his performance during the Second World War, though that is of course controversial, but much rather it is the constant suggestion by some commentators’ as to why does he reach a senior command position. This was a much more important issue as it suggest various issue with the RAF’s promotion process including the debate over elitism versus professionalism and whether it was ‘fit for purpose’. After having this conversation, I went home and looked at how I could expand what were originally just two chapters into a whole thesis. I drew up another thesis outline and a few days later had a very serious conversation with my supervisor. The conclusion of which there was serious mileage in the idea, and that overall it would probably make for a much more focussed and interesting thesis. Since that fateful day in April, I have been feverishly researching and writing about aspects of the inter-war RAF’s leadership development process and succession planning. A lot of this surrounds education, training, and experience inter-mixed with an understanding of the RAF promotion process. It has also broadened my intellectual context with an examination of culture and its links into leadership and organisational theory. As I am sure you can grasp this has been quite a significant change.

However, the point is, do not fear. Change will happen, and it is normally for the better. My thesis is better for the change and I am convinced it will make an important contribution to our understanding of the RAF inter-war development. I can hear people saying but what about all of that research. Well none of it goes to waste. Parts of it will find its way into other publications and I have the basis of a two-volume biography of Leigh-Mallory! The most important thing is that if you can feel a change coming on then do not fear it. Discuss it with your supervisor. If it is a good enough idea then they will support you, guide you in the right direction, and support its development. I admit that throughout my academic career I have been lucky in my supervisors; Professor John Buckley, Professor Gary Sheffield (who I wrote about here), and Peter. They have always guided me with the just the right mix advice. The key to the relationship is that they have always treated me as an equal, just one who us at the start of the journey. The Germans have a name for this, Doktorvater, roughly translated it means mentor. This is important, as it is a step change in the student/supervisor relationship. If your supervisor acts more as a mentor and guide rather than your appointed expert then it lessens the formality and allows for the discussion of ideas to flow more freely and without fear. Most important embrace change. Be flexible and like all good historians follow the evidence. You will be amazed what it throws up! You will be a better historian for it.

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2 responses to “Your Thesis…It’s Alive!

  1. Ross, a very familiar tale. Très bien! I went through the same painful process a year ago. For me it marked the transformation of my thesis from an extension of an MA dissertation – of interest to me and minor importance – to an evidence-based discourse with much wider implications and real historical significance. My first fear was for the value of the research already undertaken. Happily most of my depression at potentially losing such cherished data was lifted. But…the extra work involved in extending lines of research to make proper conclusions within the modified framework has been burdensome. That being effected, I feel I can move forward and complete the project with confidence as a recognizable contribution. Thanks for taking the time to make this post and bon chance!

  2. Simon,

    That sums up my experience too. I was very worried about the research but thankfully that fateful day happened to be one of the MA day school and a friend, Dr Jonathan Fennell, was the one who said simply not to worry and the best case scenario was that I had two books and at worst and couple of articles in the research that I have already done. My only regret is that I did not do it early. It would be much less stressful!

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