How to Write a PhD Candidacy Exam in 30 Days (or less)

This is the second part of at 2-part blog. You can find the first part, where I wrote about candidacy preparation, here.

I think it might be important to point out that I have written these two blogs unaware if I’ve actually passed this exam, so everything I say should be viewed with that light. At the end of the last blog, I left you with a paraphrase of my 3 questions. I told you earlier in the previous blog that I made my decision about which questions I would write on, almost instantly. But I did not tell you which questions I chose to write.

I wrote papers responding to questions 1 and 2 – and so you don’t have to go back to the previous blog to figure out which ones those were – they were the questions about exploring theoretical perspectives for writing self-efficacy and the question about the relevance of writing to nursing and what were students saying about their writing experiences, and how that informs pedagogy. I chose these two question because I love writing about theory (Q1) and I saw an interesting opportunity to go through the pile of qualitative studies I had been gathering over the years (Q2). I decided against question 3, which asked me to discuss various aspects of tool development, because it lacked an interpretive element.  Also, much of what I was being asked to do in question 3 would end up in my proposal. There was a little smidge of my 3rd suggested study area about the measurement of writing performance in this question because it did ask me to discuss if predictive validity would be important.  There was also a smidge of talking about qualitative approaches to instrument validation. Yes, I could have killed two birds with one stone and subsumed a lot of my answer to this third question into my proposal, but I wanted to interpret the literature, not regurgitate it, in my month of writing. For that reason, question 3 was the least appealing to me.

I had a brief period of mourning that I wasn’t going to be able to write the synthesis of genre, activity theory, and communities of practice (the situated perspectives) I envisioned. But what question 1 asked me, once I reflected, was even better. I had to settle on three theories and I flip-flopped, because, at first, I thought, I would only be able to pick one of the situated perspectives. I knew rhetorical genre theory would be my first choice. I knew I couldn’t leave out self-efficacy theory. I figured I’d pick communities of practice as my third choice, and I wondered how I would be able to ignore activity theory in the process. I also thought I should probably talk about the cognitive process models of writing but I went back and forth on that because including them guaranteed I could only write about one situated perspective. But I kept going back to the question, over and over. It didn’t ask me to discuss three theoretical frameworks or models. It asked me to discuss three theoretical perspectives. Why couldn’t this mean that I could talk about “situated perspectives” in general as one theoretical perspective?  Maybe I broke the rules of the question a little bit but I also think I had a good argument for doing it. You almost never see these three situated theories spoke of in isolation. How would I be able to talk about one without drawing in the others? So I found a way to talk about all three of them.  I spent the second half of the first day of my exam and the entire next 2 days pre-writing notes on the three situated perspectives. Also during this note taking period, I went hunting for the papers that I knew alluded, in snippets, to the epistemological standpoint of Bandura. In the education literature people have been bumping up on the question of his epistemology for years and not completely answering it.

In paper 1, I wrote about self-efficacy theory, the situated perspectives, cognitive process models of writing, and their respective epistemologies, and I came up with a synthesized perspective that puts all three of them together. I found (I hope) the epistemological intersection between self-efficacy theory and constructionist perspectives. Here’s the funny thing about that:  I was supposed to just tell them what perspective was best for informing writing and writing self-efficacy in nursing education contexts. When I started exploring the epistemological fit of self-efficacy theory to constructionist perspectives, I thought I was straying from the question. Maybe I was. I also thought that this problem had just occurred to me while taking notes on the literature but it turns out that this is exactly what I suggested to my committee I write on in the first place.  They threw their own spin on what I had written (via the nursing process thing I mentioned last blog) but in going back to my notes to write this blog, they basically asked me the question I told them to ask me. Here is the excerpt from my notes I wrote to my committee back in April.

Screen Shot 2018-10-08 at 10.36.21 AM

For paper 2, very little of what I read during my pre-exam preparation period informed my response.  I pulled out two old folders I had been throwing papers into for 2 years  – one that said “writing and nursing” and one that said “qualitative studies” – and I pulled out the relevant papers. When I read the question, I wrote a note beside it that said, “Haven’t I written about this already?” And I have written about the relevance of writing to nursing education before but I did it from the standpoint of interdisciplinary literature. I decided for this paper, I was only going to use papers written by nurses.  In paper 1, I was using mostly non-nursing literature and having difficulty attaching it to that nursing process. For paper 2 I found the opposite to be true. It would only be about nursing. Paper #2 was asking me to analyze the context of writing in nursing education. Again… they didn’t ask me specifically to analyze context. That’s just how I interpreted the question. There are no more than a handful of non-nursing papers cited in paper 2. And lets just euphemistically say that the qualitative studies in nursing exploring the writing experience leave a lot to be desired.

Question 2 didn’t specifically ask me to use qualitative research to explore the nursing context but, but my committee in their reading list they gave me, had included about five qualitative studies on student writing. I felt that was a big hint to how I should approach this paper. So instead of pre-writing notes from every paper written in a nursing journal about writing, I just wrote notes about the findings and themes of the qualitative studies that interviewed nursing students. What I came up with was an informal metasynthesis of 17 studies. I had to do a mini literature search to see if I missed anything major that would come up with a basic search. This meant I had 3 new papers to read. Intensively examining qualitative research gave me some interesting insights about how students see writing. It also showed me a big gap in the nursing literature about writing. No one in nursing is interviewing instructional staff about what they see as the relevance of writing. There was one grading study that interviewed faculty — that was all I found.

The other thing I did in the second paper was explore three recent trends in nursing research about writing. Those three trends were 1) connecting it to the thinking required for clinical practice; 2) writing self-efficacy studies; 3) conducting qualitative studies about writing development.  I identified a big nursing discourse feature: everything we talk about has to be rationalized in terms of care for patients. Papers about writing are no different.

To look at the writing self-efficacy trend led me to an interesting exercise of self-reflection (which ultimately informed some revisions I went back and made to the first paper as well). I had to read my own collection of publications on writing in nursing (now at 6 publications) and step out of my knowledge of that work and where it came from, and really look at my contributions to writing research in nursing. What was I collectively saying about writing in nursing, just with my own already published work? I tried to read my own papers as if I was an external reader who didn’t also write them and highlight things in them that supported the theses I was creating in these two new papers. It was very interesting to see how my own past thinking was already heading in the direction I was about to take in these two exam papers.

Each paper had slightly different pre-writing process which is why I can’t just generically summarize a paper in some spreadsheet or Word file document somewhere and assume that summary will be applicable to every instance in which I choose to cite that paper. I have papers I’ve done pre-writing notes on three times, because for each paper I write, I need to look at that work with a different lens. I also have some papers I know so well I no longer need to take notes on them.

By the way, my pre-write notes are always handwritten in a notebook or on loose-leaf like the image on the blog header. That’s what works for me.

Each paper required three days of pre-writing, three days of first drafting, and then one day of surface level editing — so 7 days each to get a first draft in a readable form. I think I had longer writing days for paper 1. It was a more intellectually challenging write. I had at least one big moment when I felt stuck. It was a harder revise too. After I finished the first draft of the first paper I started in the next day on to the second paper note taking. I did a little bit more editing on the second paper than I did on the first paper immediately after I finished writing it. I only went through the first paper one time. The second paper I think I read two or three times, editing as I went.

After I had two solid drafts, I took 3 days off. I went to the cottage and played for a few days, had a Harry Potter movie watching marathon, and tinkered with putting together my reference lists for the two papers when there was down time. But the priority was relaxing, movie watching, bike riding and dog walking/hiking, and that always came first. The dog had a close encounter with a skunk while we were out there so that caused a few unwanted distractions as well.

When I got home from the cottage, the next day I did major revisions to paper 1. I knew that writing paper 2 would begin to help my vision of the first paper, in particular given I was supposed to write it from a nursing perspective and I didn’t feel I did a very thorough job of that on the first draft. The second day back I revised paper 2. I think I read through both of them and just fine tuned both papers on day 3. I emailed my advisor at the end of day 3 and told her I was finished. I was going to let them sit for a few days and then do copy edits, but I would be submitting early guaranteed.

Over the those three days I started writing my proposal. I read a paper about the epistemology of measurement during that time which also brought a few insights into how I would approach final copy edits to paper 1. After ignoring the two exam papers for 3 to 4 days, I read through them both on an errand run to a town just south of where I live and I allowed my fresh eyes to find copy edits in both papers. I got home and made the edits. Gave them both one more read and emailed them on the evening of Thursday September 27th. I handed my exam in a week early and the week that followed, until my official deadline came and went, I never once felt the urge to call them back.  They were done.

The deadline for the pass/fail result on the written portion of the exam is October 25th. My oral defence, if I pass, is November 8th.


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