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?