Posted in academia, academic writing

Nail your colours to the mast!


“Nail your colours to the mast”

Meaning: “To defiantly display one’s opinions and beliefs. Also, to show one’s intention to hold on to those beliefs until the end” (

This blog post is inspired by my recent first year confirmation review. The review was actually a positive, encouraging and also refreshing experience. I received numerous pieces of valuable advice. One point, though, stuck with me most and this was the motto “nail your colours to the mast”. This seemed to be the examiner’s main concern (and I shamelessly quote his saying about the colours here). What’s the actual theoretical approach that the project is based on?

Blog_Terminology_20150613As the author of the report, having spent like half a year on it, I can testify that this has really been the main struggle. In writing my literature review I had spent plenty of time on locating different positions in the literature and identifying potential differences between the different approaches. This was at times a frustrating endeavour, as ever so similar terms were used for frameworks with only very subtle differences. Coping with this diverse, overlapping terminology has been a key issue. Mapping out the different terms and their usage had already cost quite a bit of energy. I understand that I fell short on the next step – evaluating them and picking one for my work or even making up another term (and of course justifying it!).

Whose side am I on? To me as a first year PhD student it is just a scary thought to have to make such a decision. If I take up a specific term (such as, in my case, ‘corpus-assisted discourse analysis’ rather than ‘corpus-based/driven’), do I need to then follow the scholars associated with this terms for the rest of my work? Will I contradict myself if I choose one term and at a later stage take a turn with my work that doesn’t really harmonise with the work of the related people? How do I know the implications? Due to some of these daunting questions, I attempted to stay on ‘friendly terms’ with various approaches. This, however, is problematic in itself.

Is it possible to decide on a different set of colours at a later point? (The definition for the colour metaphor quoted above seems to suggest this, but maybe in academia we can allow for more flexibility? Clearly we’re all evolving and learning?) The saying was new to me, but in the context of the confirmation review I understood what was meant – clearly express what you’re trying to achieve and how you are doing that. I think I did that fairly well in my methods section (although at times it needs simplification as I was told) – in the parts that are very practically oriented. I have noticed that I struggle more with attempting to explain the theoretical implications of my work. And I believe this problem is routed in the fear that I misuse theoretical claims, for instance by combining incompatible approaches.

At the end of the review meeting both my examiner and supervisor emphasised, however, that it is okay (and probably even good!) to keep an open mind throughout the PhD and refine your theoretical standpoint through continuous writing. That made me feel more relieved. Still, I have had to go back to more reading on the terms I wasn’t sure about (this includes the definition of ‘discourse’ – a real can of worms…).

What are your views on this topic? Have you encountered similar difficulties?


I am a research fellow on the CLiC Dickens project at the Centre for Corpus Research, University of Birmingham. My research interests focus on the use of corpus linguistic tools to identify meaning in texts. In the CLiC Dickens project we develop and use methods to study the language of literary texts, particularly in Dickens’s and other 19th century fiction. My PhD research seeks to understand connections in discourse through a corpus linguistic approach. Specifically, I study how the concept of surveillance is represented in different types of texts. This blog reflects my personal opinions and not those of my employers.

7 thoughts on “Nail your colours to the mast!

  1. I got the same feedback for my transfer of status (which appears to be the same thing). It’s solid advice but when I got it I didn’t really have colours. My academic persuasions develop during the process and I’m now finally ready to show my true colours because I now know what they are. But there is little point in swearing allegiance before you know all the options well enough. By the end of the 2nd year, I don’t even have to make an effort to “nail my colours to the mast”, every word I say shows what team I’m on.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you that’s a good point! I also feel that I still have to explore the literature more and I guess when I start proper analysis it will be much more obvious which approach works. Glad to hear that you have overcome this difficulty!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The last para where the examiner and supervisor allows to have open mindedness is very very encouraging to say. Not every supervisor approved of letting even having a second thoughts. But PhD demands to delve into the deepness of the subproblem of the subproblem. To have broad perspective has its own pros and cons. But still depends upon person to person and specific problem. If you are willing to learn and delve upon the research problem then it is perfectly fine to have flexibility and open minded approach.

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    1. Thanks for your comment 🙂 yes I am quite grateful about the flexibility and freedom that my supervisor (and the examiner in this case) allow me. But this also means I have to explore what exact direction to take. I think it’s important that although we have to follow the advice of our supervisors who are of course very experienced and knowledgeable, we are ourselves responsible for our work and where we want to take it.


  3. Mixed feelings. Yes, if a particular project is clear about its theoretical allegiance, it will probably strike a chord with the reader more quickly and leave the writer less subject to the charge of equivocation or carelessness about her own premises. But I hate to see young scholars get tethered too quickly to this or that theoretical approach. The solution may be to try different theoretical approaches for different projects. Or to explicitly justify an approach that combines two or more theoretical models. The trick is you do have to master the vocabulary first. For example, back when I was an academic, talking about “discourses” implicitly aligned you with Foucault and New Historicism, talking about “ideologies” aligned you with Marxists, etc., and many grad students were using the terms without realizing the alliances they were projecting. Don’t get over-anxious, though, that’s all part of the process 🙂

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    1. Sorry I missed this comment! Thanks for this! Yes that’s the kind of anxiety I had and have. ‘Discourse’ in particular is a can of worms.. although now it’s being used in so many contexts that it can really get confusing.
      I find that as I am starting the analysis things are getting more concrete so that’s good. But the struggle is not over (I just seem to be distracted by technicalities at the moment).

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      1. I suspect that a word like “discourse,” which originally projected a specific theoretical allegiance, over time leaks into the broader language of the community, and the “allegiance” weakens and weakens until it becomes a mere historical curiosity. The struggle is never over 🙂

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