This week’s guest post is from Heather Davis, PhD student at RMIT University

Fugue. n. (Music): A contrapuntal composition in which a theme is introduced by one part, repeated by other parts, and subjected to complex development.

Is a breakthrough in understanding always uncomfortable?

Some time ago I tweeted that I was: “thinking about research design and fugues–both musical and befuddlement–fugues are saying a lot to me about the PhD process…”

The reason the musical definition of fugue resonated with me was because it described the difficulty I experienced trying to explain the research design and where I was heading with the methodological framework as I put together my confirmation in November 2008.  Both design and methodology were ‘playing’ away in my head and they felt like they consisted of distinct, yet somehow related, parts – just like a fugue.  My challenge was to bring together what may seem to be discordant elements into some sort of cohesive framework.

The writing block I experienced while trying to put together my confirmation document, upon reflection, was quite befuddling. It was just like the other definition of fugue, as in a fugue like state! It seemed that the more I learnt about the process of doing research, the less I was able to put pen to paper!!

Very disconcerting indeed, until I realised that what I had been learning in the six months prior to confirmation was tied up with ‘identity’. That initial work wasn’t really supposed to get much ink in the thesis – it was a way to get to a deeper understanding myself as a researcher and scholar (without the work of Barbara Kamler & Pat Thomson I may never have got past that block!)

This was a really big ‘aha’ moment for me and the insights were well worth the discomfort.  I’m now in another intensive writing period as I draft my thesis chapters and yes, I’m still working and living through the levels of discomfort associated with deep impact learning.

In ”The qualitative dissertation: a guide for students and faculty”, Piantanide and Garmen talk about ‘cycles of deliberation’:

Shaping a qualitative dissertation occurs as students immerse themselves in deliberations, grappling with interconnections among all facets of the inquiry–that is, one’s self as researcher, the intent of the inquiry, the inquiry process, and relevant discourses.  In our experience, it does not seem to matter which facet of the inquiry one begins to consider first.  What does matter is attending continually to all facets of the study.  Sometimes, this feels like skipping around without focus, or like blindly shuffling pieces of the study.  But puzzling over the connections among the various facets of the inquiry is what finally allows one to fit pieces together.  Each time this happens, students enter another, deeper cycle of deliberation (Piantanida & Garman, 1999, p. 7).

These cycles of deliberation may be accompanied by discomfort as we move to deeper understandings, or as the Poet, Philosopher and Artist Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931) put it:

Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.

Perhaps I have a particularly tough shell surrounding my understanding because my writing blocks crack open a deep crevice of emotional, physical and intellectual discomfort when they occur–or the good ones do anyway!  On a positive note, I now realise that this is my pattern for deep impact learning and this is how it is likely to affect me.  I need this ‘wallow’ time to break through to deeper understandings.  Knowing that I will probably go through some discomfort, yet staying with the feeling, confident that my thinking will eventually resolve itself into a comprehensible melody again, has helped me to persevere.

Piantanida & Garman’s (1999) cycles of deliberation are one way to describe the iterative process that enables us to get to the deep intellectual thinking needed for a PhD.  To get there in one step, for me anyway, would be impossible. That’s why writing, rewriting, drafting and redrafting–and the thinking time in between–are so important to this process.

Doing all of this without a net just adds to the complexity of an already volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous experience.  By ‘without a net’ I mean there is always an inherent risk when undertaking a PhD as there are no guarantees and no one right path to contributing new and original knowledge.  There are however ways to mitigate against this risky business, mainly by developing meaningful relationships with supervisors and peers; and by:

  • having someone to talk to about the good and the not so good experiences
  • hearing and reading about other people’s experiences of the PhD journey

According to Stephen Hawking (2000) we are also doing this work in the century of complexity.   A century where volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity are now denoted by the acronym VUCA (Johansen, 2009).  Turning these words into an acronym suggests that we can work with these elements.  Thinking of a PhD as a VUCA environment suggests that we can also work with uncertainty and be confident that, if we hold our nerve, we can achieve deeper understandings, even if the breaking of the shell to these understanding is indeed uncomfortable.

These tensions are what makes PhD inquiry so interesting!!

I wonder if students in other disciplines have similar cycles and fugue like states? Is a breakthrough always preceded by discomfort and how do you learn to live with it well?


Johansen, Robert. Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009.

Kamler, Barbara, and Pat Thomson. Helping Doctoral Students Write: Pedagogies for Supervision. Abingdon, Oxon ; New York: Routledge, 2006.

Piantanida, Maria, and Noreen B. Garman. The Qualitative Dissertation: A Guide for Students and Faculty. London: Sage, 1999.

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