I’m currently in my final year of a PhD exploring transition to adulthood for young people with learning disabilities. It is a PhD which has taken far longer than anticipated thanks to a pause for maternity leave and a subsequent switch from full to part time study. However, as I edge closer to the finish line I find myself spending an increasing amount of time reflecting back over the past few years wondering not only where the time has gone, but questioning what I have learnt or achieved, whether I feel more competent now than at the start of the PhD and, if the thesis has evolved as I thought it would. Invariably I find myself being critical. The time has gone far too quickly, and I still don’t feel I know enough to warrant a PhD; I certainly don’t have the neat, polished thesis that I naively envisaged before I began. However, drawing on principles of new materialism and Deleuze and Guattari’s (1988) notion of assemblages within my thesis discussion chapter has, surprisingly, helped me to understand the research process as a whole. This, in turn, has helped me to accept my messy thesis and given clarity on my position as neither academic nor non-academic but becoming academic.  

I embarked on the PhD after more than a decade of working with people with learning disabilities and I found the leap between working in services and academia challenging. I had to learn how to write ‘academically’ and get to grips with my epistemological and ontological stance – something I had never before questioned. Imposter syndrome was (and is) ever present as I questioned whether I belonged, whether I knew enough and, not least, whether I would be able to make an original contribution to knowledge. However, alongside this I also found myself no longer feeling fully comfortable with my position supporting people with learning disabilities and, at times, I felt a fraud. On the one hand I was writing about the power of language, the way in which the labels we assign and the terms we use perpetuate the marginalisation of people with learning disabilities (the blogs written by Mark Neary and Bryony Shannon are both excellent resources for this). However, on the other hand, I was then going to work and using those very terms making me complicit in the continued othering of people with learning disabilities.  I felt caught between two worlds, belonging to neither.  

This sense of homelessness and lack of academic confidence is present within my research and contributes towards the mess within the thesis. For example, early in the thesis I pledge an allegiance to social constructionism, yet the discussion chapters move ever closer to a new materialist philosophy. The leap between these two stances is jarring; can you change tack in such a manner? St. Pierre (2015) warns of ontological incoherence occurring when post humanist concepts are brought into an otherwise humanist qualitative project (Monforte 2018) and I fear I am guilty of this incoherence. Should the earlier chapters be revised to ensure new materialism is threaded throughout, the analysis repeated using an assemblage approach rather than thematic analysis?  If not, how does one reconcile the jump which exposes my academic immaturity?  

It is here, drawing upon the notion of assemblage is useful.  Following  a  Deleuzoguattarian approach (Deleuze and Guattari 1988), assemblages are comprised of heterogenous elements working together to produce something. The elements are linked together relationally by affects with affects representing change. This change may be physical, psychological, emotional or social and as elements are affected their capacities to affect and be affected also alter. Furthermore, each element is part of multiple other assemblages. Thus: 

“an assemblage is an emergent, temporarily stable yet continually mutating conglomeration of bodies, properties, things, affects and materialities. Assemblages are not background structures, static situations or stable entities; they are active, always emergent and changing confederations of bodies, objects, spaces, affects, forces and desires” (Taylor and Harris-Evans 2018: 1258). 

With this in mind, rather than viewing the PhD as a journey, as it is commonly described, I suggest approaching the PhD as a research assemblage. Doing so encourages a move away from the imagery of the linear pathway which pressures us to continuously move forward, a path with a clear start and end point where the destination, the Dr title which lies in wait, signifies your arrival as a knowledgeable person. Instead, the research assemblage brings forth the complexity and the interconnectedness of research, the entangling of ourselves, our personal lives, research participants, supervisors, buildings, ideas, books, technologies, fears, desires and so on. Each element within this assemblage having the capacity to affect and be affected, to alter the course of events. Mess is to be expected as the thesis, one element of the research assemblage, is a becoming. We cannot predict where it will end up or what we will end up with due to the shifting nature of the assemblage and the elements within it (COVID-19 perhaps being a prime example of an element unexpectedly drawn into the assemblage and affecting others within, the course of the research or shape of the thesis). Thus, whilst the initial design of my thesis reflects the research assemblage at that particular moment in time, the discussion is a reflection of the present and the flows of affect acting within the research assemblage over the previous four years. Within the literature review, I draw on the tweets and blogs of both academics and non-academics in an attempt to entwine the two worlds I found myself caught between, recognising that both worlds belong within my research assemblage (Ribenfors 2020). Furthermore, just as the thesis is a becoming, we too, as researchers, are becoming. The Dr title does not signify a change of state from non-academic to academic, unknowing to knowing, rather we are always becoming academic, becoming researcher, constantly unfolding within the assemblage with “neither beginning nor end, departure nor arrival, origin nor destination” (Taylor and Harris-Evans 2018: 1263).  


Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1988) A Thousand Plateaus. London: Athlone.  

Monforte, J. (2018) What is new in new materialism for a newcomer? Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health. 10 (3), 378-390 

Ribenfors, F. (2020) Jo Campling Essay Prize, Postgraduate Winner, 2019, Whose Knowledge Counts? Rewriting the Literature Review to Include Marginalised Voices. Ethics and Social Welfare, 14 (2), 230-237 

St. Pierre, E. A. (2015) Practices for the ‘new’ in the New Empiricisms, the New Materialisms, and Post-qualitative Research in Qualitative Inquiry and the Politics of Research, edited by N.K. Denzin and M.D. Giardina, 75-96. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press. 

Taylor, C. and Harris-Evans, J. (2018) Reconceptualising transition to Higher Education with Deleuze and Guattari. Studies in Higher Education, 43 (7), 1254-1267. 


Francesca is a recipient of a Manchester Metropolitan Graduate School Research Support Award. The next deadline for Research Support Award applications is Friday 15 January 2021 at 5pm. Find out more by visiting the PGR Development Moodle area.

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1 comment on “The research assemblage: re-imagining the PhD ‘mess’

  • 13th January 2021 at 9:47 am
    Aydan Suphi

    Thanks for this really useful way of understanding and embracing the mess in the PhD process.


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