Category Archives: Law

PhD as self-discovery

I decided to do a PhD because I had a question about law I wanted to answer. So the goal of the PhD has been to make that “original contribution to knowledge”. But as I progressed, I have found that my research has been plastic, in the Hegelian sense. On the one hand, I have shaped my research not only in deciding what to do but also in how my background has shaped my paradigm. In realising the latter, I started to learn things about myself. Doing the PhD became a process of self-discovery. In a sense, at some point, the boundary between my research topic and myself became porous.

As PhD student Kirsty Warren said in the video below, I didn’t start to discover myself by attempting to discover myself; I did it by getting on with life and focusing on something beyond myself. In a sense, as Hegel said, only by recognising that there was something outside me worth recognising did I recognise myself. I became a posthuman researcher.

Emily Warren, discovering herself

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In the beginning was the word…

This might sound egotistical but I have realised recently that the title of this blog, ‘From Tweet to Thesis’, points to the PhD as an image of divine creation (in the same way than humans are made in the image,of God). As I have probably said so many times before, a PhD thesis starts with a tweet in the imagination – a phrase that could be written in a limited number, say 140, of characters. In my case, that tweet would have been ‘How does law change behaviour, if nagging doesn’t work?’ The answer is physically embodied in my thesis, which is also a collection of words. One is words in my mind, the other is words on a page. But the whole point of this blog is that the tweet of the imagination is not the real beginning of the thesis, because it itself is the result of a process. The tweet can be broken down into smaller collections of words, and words themselves, and each word is themselves the result. As Hegel argues in his preface to The Phenomenology of Mind, my tweet of the imagination is merely a proposition. Trafford argues from his research into the nature of doctorateness that my submitted thesis will be a proposition too.

There had to therefore be a first word, from which all words came. And if there was a first word, there had to be a first speaker and thinker. According to the Gospel according to John, in the beginning was the Word. He used the Greek word, logos, which translates as ‘word’ in English but was used by Ancient Greeks to describe an underlying rationality. But John continued: the Word was with God and the Word was God. The first word was God and it was also with, that is, in the mind of, God. In other words, God is the first word and the underlying rationality of that word. In autopoietic fashion, God beget God. As alpha, he is at the beginning of the first word and, as omega, he is at the end of the word; that is, God will last for as long as God exists.  And when God spoke, as per Genesis, the word became embodied. For Christians, the word is Jesus Christ and the thesis or embodiment of him is The Bible. Therefore, there is a dialectic or conversation between God and everything he speaks into being; he speaks, it exists, and he then sits back and sees that it is good, before speaking again. Given the experiential beginnings of PhD theses, it could be argued that they – like everything else – are part of the continuing creative work of God. However, he does create things to have a mind of its own and they can choose how to act, so even though as he is writing his thesis, as any PhD student knows, the thesis often resists being shaped. In many ways, though, writing a PhD is like creating one’s own world, where one’s thesis is the prevailing value. (Just to be clear though, the PhD student is most definitely not God.)

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Understanding the Dialectic

When I was at school, my favourite subject was Latin. I liked learning languages in general, but Latin stood out. Maybe it was the teacher, Mr Shaw, who was unforgettably unique. Maybe it was because I had a thing for the Romans. Or maybe it was the relationship between Latin and English. Or all of those things. Anyway, after GCSEs, I knew I wanted stick with the classical subjects for A-level. However, I was advised to do more useful subjects so that could get a job.

I ended up studying mathematics and computing. Don’t get me wrong, I liked these subjects too and was just as good at them as languages. They were technical skills. But I didn’t see them as technical skills but as forms of expression, creation and communication. They were languages. Ever since I was 6 years old, I loved messing around with programming languages and writing programs; what fascinates me most about maths is its role as a universal language. Any problem could be expressed mathematically. There was a creativity in both that depended on the terms or constructs used. So I then went and did a degree in mathematics and computing science. But that is as far as it went. Indeed, all I remember now is the basics and I do so with regret.

Why did I stop? After all, when I look at my transcripts, I can see that I was good at it and was on course to get 2:1 after two years. I think I was attracted by the glamour of journalism. I thought that I had got bored with my degree subject, but on hindsight I don’t think I had. Again, I was good at it and I even had my fair share of exclusives, which was always an ego boost. But what I did really like about journalism was the combination of creativity and communication. Then, I went into law, for various reasons, but what I liked most was the interpretation and analysis of law and understanding what was meant.

All of which brings me to my PhD. Ostensibly, it is about how law is used by the government to encourage recycling and the relationship between the state and the individual. But what I have discovered is that I have been drawn to a Hegelian theoretical framework because I am interested in law as the dialectic between the State and the individual. Law – and I take quite a broad view – is how the state and individual communicate or converse, with their own respective dialects.

This blog started because I believed that a PhD student’s research topic was influenced by a person’s life. Whilst the PhD is a distinct task, it grew out of what went before. But now it seems that at least my PhD is just the latest manifestation of a lifelong project to understand how people and entities communicate and, in particular, how people communicate with their environment. And so, this blog is an attempt to understand how PhD students communicate with their environment. Indeed, studying Hegel has helped me to evaluate my own political views and understand many of the paradoxes within my faith.

The post was inspired a the TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson below but not in the way I expected. Robinson says that, as a result of industrialisation, a hierarchy of subjects has been established, with subjects more closely related to jobs being valued more highly. As a result, children are pushed towards a particular direction – not out of malice but out of a desire to prepare them for survival –  without thinking that the child may not be suited to that subject and hence stifling their creativity. At first, my post was going to be how this has happened to me and why this was relevant to doing a PhD. But as I started to write and really think about why I liked Latin and languages and what it was I did like about mathematics and computing that I realised that there might be another possibility. Whatever the reason I have done what I have done, they all seem to have been ways of answering a deeper question. Perhaps this is the problem with our education system at the moment, not that it kills creativity but that its fragmentation silences those deeper questions that we have. Maybe.

But maybe I am completely wrong on this. But, until today, I have always held onto a bit of resentment towards those who advised me regarding my A-levels for not understanding my needs at the time. At least, after writing this post, I am able to forgive them.

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PhD on Procrastination

By Pravin Jeya

Teenage girl texting

Mobile phones are a constant source of procrastination

I struggle with procrastination. No doubt lots of PhD students and researchers will be able to relate to this. In fact, this post itself is being written because I’ve hit a wall, indicating that I needed to take a break. But recently procrastination went from being a barrier to my research to the very heart of my research. (That doesn’t give me an excuse to procrastinate, off course.)

It started with a particularly bad bout of procrastination. I just kept coming into uni every day with the intention of making a bit more progress. I had a number of things that I needed to do. And yet, I’d come in, check my email, check Twitter and then get sucked into the black hole of everything but my PhD. I needed help to climb out.

Well, shopping was the answer. No, I did not find inspiration in a wild shopping spree down Oxford Street (the university is close by). On the way home, I always pass by WH Smiths (a newsagent cum stationers) and every now and again I pop in to see if there are any interesting books for sale. I don’t usually buy because of limited financial means, I just like to be around books and make a mental checklist of stuff I want to buy when I get through the books I  have at home. Of course, I always forget the checklist.

So, one evening, I saw ‘The Procrastination Equation‘ by Dr Piers Steel. I thought to myself, that’s what I need but I didn’t pick it up because I didn’t think I could afford it. But I came into WH Smith’s about three or four times in a week and every time, I saw this book. Depressed about my current struggle with Procrastination, I picked the book up eventually. I looked at the front cover and the back cover. I noticed that the author was a ‘Dr’ and that he had reviewed all the research into procrastination because he struggled with procrastination. Finally, being a maths graduate, the idea of an equation appealed to me. I felt that this was the book I needed to help me get to grips with my procrastination, because it was debilitating. I am still reading this book at the moment and it is very enlightening.

One thing that caught my eye in the book was when Dr Steel described what procrastination was like. He described it as knowing what we need to do  but waiting until we are sufficiently close to our deadline to have the energy to take action. And as I read the words, a light came on. What he was describing was my theoretical framework, the dialectic between resistance and change that explains the slow progress of environmental behaviour despite ‘end of the world’ style predictions. And I knew that that’s what I was trying to do…look at law as a way for dealing with individual and social procrastination. From that moment, Dr Steel’s book became both my personal reading for dealing with a personal problem and a part of my research reading.

This is not my first post on how my environment influences my PhD.



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My Archimedes moment

I came up with PhD research topic in the shower.

Over the previous three years, while working as a paralegal, I was given the opportunity to manage my employer’s corporate social responsibility policy. I am not sure why the managing partner decided to select me but I think it might have been something to do with that ‘diatribe’ about cars. Possibly, the biggest challenge was reconciling the tension between my colleagues as particular individuals and the universal goal of environmental responsibility. such as switching off monitors and not wasting paper. I thought there must be a better way to initiate environmentally friendly behaviour than through compulsion or nagging.

Archimedes in the bath

Archimedes thinking about the King's problem

But, although I had thought about doing a PhD for a number of years, long before I worked for the above law firm, it wasn’t until I was made redundant that I decided to take the plunge. If I hadn’t been, I could still be working as a paralegal and trying to train as a solicitor even though I actually hated it.

And so it was, during a period of enforced unemployment as a result of the credit crunch, in the shower and wondering what to do, that I had my ‘Eureka’ moment.

You’ll be happy to know that I showed more restraint than Archimedes. I did not run naked through the streets.

My research topic developed out of my own work experience in corporate social responsibility, but I had prior experience in environmental law and, ever since I was a teenager, I have been passionate about protecting the environment. I believe it is possibly the single most important thing we can do as human beings, because, let’s be honest, we’ll be kinda screwed without this planet.

But, I seem to have been quite interested in psychoanalytic readings of Hegel and particularly relating the parent/child relationship to the relationship between the environment, society and law. This isn’t anonymous blog so I am not sure if I want to go into too much detail, it’s pretty obvious to me that my view of the society/law relationship in influenced by my own relationship with my parents, particularly my dad. It is not surprising therefore that I am particularly interested in the feminist critique of the Oedipus Complex – Freud took it to mean the domination of men over women, but the original Greek myth is about the relationship between a son and his father.

I used to struggle with the idea that my reading of Hegel was not particularly objective, but in the course of writing my first chapter I have recently realised that actually no-one can ever look at something objectively. Everyone is subjective. What’s important is that one recognises the limits of one’s subjectivity.

As a result, I have become fascinated by how people comes to pick their research topics. Amongst my own PhD colleagues, there are some whose topic is related to their career: an insolvency lawyer looking into the effect of harmonisation on insolvency law; an architect-turned-construction lawyer researching the arbitration mechanisms for firms involved in building the Olympic stadia; an engineer with experience in development interested in how irrigation technology affects the legal rights of indigenous people at different points on a river. On the other hand, there are others where the origin of the research topic seems kinda random, but it is my ‘hypothesis’ that it is not so random.

One thing that I have noticed from conversations with colleagues and on Twitter is that supervisers seem to exert quite a bit of influence over the direction of phd research, more than just providing research guidance. I have heard a number of people say how their superviser makes it quite clear that they are not interested in research that does not more closely align their own interests. This surprised me because my own superviser seemed to stick to providing guidance and challenging my thinking but not dictating what I should do – even if sometimes I really wished he had. I am glad he didn’t. But, lately, the theoretical direction of my research has started coming close to the specific interests of my superviser.

How did you come up with your PhD topic? How has your life influenced the direction of your research? Please feel free to contribute a post


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