On Craftsmanship as a Metaphor for Research

Write not matter what

How do you frame your scholarship? Do you have a metaphor for how you approach your thesis or dissertation?

In her book Write No Matter What: Advice for Academics, Joli Jensen extols the benefits of craftsmanship as a metaphor or approach to scholarship. Craftsmanship, by dictionary definition, refers to the skill that someone uses when they make beautiful things. Craftsmanship is associated to artistry, expertise, skill, and technique.

I was struck at how apt the word craftsmanship can be used as a metaphor for scholarship. Take for example an apprenticeship, a typical requirement for a craftsman. To those of us who are interested in research careers, our time in graduate school is akin to an apprenticeship. In the early stages, we are novices when it comes to our trade – research. We then spend years honing our research skills and techniques. We will prove our mastery of the trade by completing a thesis/dissertation. At the end of this arduous process, we will (hopefully) earn our license – a PhD.

pottery craftsmanship

Craftsmanship requires mastery of relevant skills and techniques

Based on Jensen’s ideas, I outline the potential benefits of the craftsmanship approach:

(1) Craftsmen take years to develop their skills for the trade. As stated earlier, they may spend these years as apprentices – starting from novice beginners and learning to become experts. During apprenticeships, craftsmen gradually build their skill base. A craftsmanship attitude emphasizes continuous learning, driving us to focus on becoming better and better.

(2) During apprenticeships, craftsmen commit to developing good work habits such as organization, taking initiative, and working in teams. C. Wright Mills, a sociologist, encourages scholars to develop their own “habits of good workmanship.” Mills’ own habits include carefully recording and organizing ideas, plans, references, research problems, and materials. While doing research as graduate students, we can start developing good work habits in research activities such as reviewing, writing, and collaborating.

(3) Craftsmen also make an effort to master their tools. As future scholars, we must decide on the tools that we need to adopt. These tools may be those that we need to conduct our research (e.g. lab equipment, statistical software), increase our research productivity, or improve our research process.

Note: A previous Gradifying post by my fellow blogger Isabel Luce offers a few tech tools that you may find useful.

(4) With the craftsmanship attitude, the focus is on improving our work. There is less anxiety because we are not trying to impress. Our thesis/dissertation is NOT a magnum opus.

My personal experience is that by having the craftsmanship mindset, I’m more accepting of making a mistake. Rather than becoming embarrassed and avoiding the issue, I’m more focused on learning from the experience. As a result, I’m more cognizant of the improvements that I need to make to avoid a similar mistake in the future.

A woman trapped

Be aware of potential pitfalls to the craftsmanship approach during our graduate studies

Despite the benefits listed above, I can think of three potential pitfalls to the craftsmanship metaphor. First, the metaphor may emphasize the student-supervisor power imbalance. As graduate students, we may see our supervisors as infallible experts such that we are less able to voice our thoughts. Second, it may be more difficult to build our self confidence as scholars. When do we see ourselves as having the expertise to provide value? Third, after developing our habits in graduate school, we may become too attached to these habits such that we are desensitized to better ones. We need to be aware of these potential pitfalls.

Note: A previous Gradifying post by another fellow blogger Umair Majid may shed some light on how to navigate the student-supervisor relationship. In addition, the School of Graduate Studies offers two relevant workshops – effective communication and building a productive working relationship with your supervisor. Last but not least, the SGPS Student Advisors are available to assist you with supervisory issues.

Do you have your own metaphor or approach? Share with us in the comments below.

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One comment on “On Craftsmanship as a Metaphor for Research
  1. Colette says:

    HI Eruani
    I like this approach, something I can look at in my own working life. Would love to hear what others use.

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