Epilimnion is the name given to the uppermost layer of water, which can be a startlingly different temperature to the one just below.

– or, why going deep when writing a personal narrative feels unsettling.

Remember I promised that I would write an update, talking about how my last supervisory meeting went, the one with feedback on my methodology chapter? It’s coming, but there’s something I really need to get off my chest first.

Why have I found writing a personal narrative so hard? What is it about the necessity of including ‘me’ in the research, surely this is just navel-gazing? I mean – who cares what I have to say? I really don’t need to bore the reader with my deep and meaningful connection to my research, do I? Well, yes, and no. As always, it takes me a while to understand the purpose of each part of the PhD, and my default usually involves ripping it up and starting again.

So let’s start again. What is a personal narrative, you ask? It sounds quite nice, easy even! Well, it’s not, especially if, like me, you are a self-identified doormat, and talking about yourself, no matter how necessary, makes you feel uncomfortable. Afterall – I’m doing a PhD, but it’s not actually about me, right? Wrong. Because it so happens that the range of influences shaping your research, including your own, have value. I had monumentally failed to appreciate or understand this until writing my own personal narrative.

Let’s start with what it actually is. In relation to a PhD, the personal narrative (or reflective piece to give it it’s posh name) is a short section which you include in your methodology chapter. It’s a requirement (in the social sciences at least), so no avoiding it.

Its purpose is to ‘locate’ the reader within the research. That is, when the examiner reads your PhD, they can see how your personal and professional life may have influenced your work. Your politics, ethics, beliefs, objectives, and also your credentials. Why is a qualitative research design the best one for my research? Why interviews, why sport, why trans and non binary people?

Seems ok? Here’s the bit that I struggle with. ‘The narrative’, writes my guiding light Pat Thomson, enacts the (epistemological) position that no research is neutral and all research is written from somewhere, and where matters’.

No research is neutral.

You see, I have been trying to be invisible in my research, neutral, impassive, wanting the stories I have been hearing to be centre stage. Because I am, no question about it, an outsider researcher. I do not identify as the community I am lucky enough to be talking to. This has historically made me feel very uncomfortable. But why? Reading around on the subject has offered me the alternative notion that being on the inside is no guarantee you are better qualified. Or have the same monolithic shared experience as others who occupy the same position. As a mother I can attest to the fact that I most certainly did not feel the same as other mothers about many, many things, often to my detriment. My ‘mother’ status at times in fact isolated me. So perhaps what is meant by this is that thinking about one’s location helps us to identify blind spots, and to operationalize reflexivity. It highlights the inseparability of epistemology, ontology and research practice. Or in other words, reflexive research is often said to look back on itself (Gilbert, 2008).

Pat Thomson advises that the personal narrative is intended to show how the research question arises from the personal life or professional work experience of the researcher. I have struggled with finding a connection, and been anxious that I wasn’t – and I cringe at these words – oppressed enough. Nor do I have a professional connection. I’m researching transgender people’s participation in sport, but I don’t identify as trans. And asides from an unhealthy obsession with swimming, I couldn’t locate my reason for doing this research, I have nothing to draw on from my own experience, professionally or personally.

So what did I do to get through what still feels like quite a self-indulgent process? Saying it out loud helped. Reading a lot helped even more. Then finally I sat and I wrote about everything I could think of that may have influenced my research. I wrote about swimming, and my Dad dying, about post-natal depression and feeling a failure as a mother. I wrote about school and university and work-place bullying. I wrote about doing a Masters and how it changed my life.

Then I deleted it all and stopped trying to write what I thought other people wanted to hear. I stopped trying to find ‘the big reason’ as to why I was doing this PhD and this particular topic and wrote from the heart. I can’t say I was surprised when I realised what had been bothering me, I already had a feeling what had triggered it, but I think I had been avoiding this particular thing being the reason for my discomfort. But being uncomfortable is important. Because it’s truthful.

As Pat Thomson tells us, understanding the reasons for writing a personal narrative are crucial, because what we decide to include and exclude are crucial. And as Mark Erickson once told me, every choice we make is a dismissal of something else.

So be prepared to swim a bit deeper, feel a little bit uncomfortable, and locate yourself in the research. It is your research, after all.



5 thoughts on “Epilimnion”

  1. Wow, I wish I’d read this when I was tackling my personal statement. It made the process so much clearer than what was in my head. I’m eager to read what you actually wrote in the end.


    1. Thank you, Suzy, that’s a really kind thing to say. The outsider/insider researcher thing is fascinating, and although I’m slightly more at peace with what I wrote…it’s still makes me uncomfortable! 😬


  2. Abby – I so enjoyed reading this. Are we also allowed to see the personal narrative too? I love the comparison with that warmer , sun raked layer of water, on show to the open air and the colder, darker, unseen layer beneath. Not much sun warmed water about this weather anyway so you might as well just dive in below! Well written, Abby – looking forward to more.


    1. Tory, you are so kind, thank you. There’s always a theme of swimming or water in these blogs, and this particular metaphor fits the anxious feeling quite well! I’m glad you enjoyed it. Yes, in time, once I’m finished I’ll publish it, but it’s not really fully formed yet…give me 18 months and I’ll let you know! x


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