Dr. Amikam Marbach interviewed by Gil Dekel (discussing how to structure a PhD thesis).


Gil Dekel: You have developed a method that employs words to help people become aware of their prior knowledge, or inner insights. With your method people can articulate these insights in a way that can help to express them, to make a good use of them, rather than keeping them locked inside. [1]

Dr. Marbach: Yes, I believe that being aware of yourself can help you know where you are coming from and where you are going to. Since people are different, it is beneficial to provide them with tools by which they can better know themselves, rather than put them through a system that forces them to accept similar knowledge and identities. [2]

My method was developed in the framework of the academy, and it provides students with tools to develop their ideas into a coherent PhD thesis. So, I will talk here about writing theses, but you will see how you can apply this method to anything you do in your daily life, including developing your ideas for art projects if you are an artist. [3]

The starting point of research in academia is usually to ask the student to go to the literature sources – the library, the internet – and to read thoroughly. Then the student should find a gap in the literature, something that is missing, and from that he is supposed to develop his topic of interest for his thesis. [4]

That process can be problematic because students usually go to the library without having the tools to deal with the vast amount of information that is available today. They do not know how to approach books in terms of their content. And yet they are supposed to accept the literature as a truth and build upon it… [5]

The other difficulty is that students are constantly fed ideas from the literature, which means that their intuitive ideas are limited to previous knowledge. Students are confined to the limits of the knowledge which is accessible to the academy, ignoring other sources. And indeed you can see that most students tend to follow a path which is set by the past. Of course, the problem is not the knowledge in the literature (which is vital to any research), but rather the starting point, which does not take into account the inner abilities and prior (intuitive) knowledge of the students. [6]

If you do not start with your own intuitive knowledge, but start with taking ideas from the literature first hand, you are then like a servant of other people’s ideas. You do not progress with your own creativity. But, if you start to draw from within and manage yourself then you develop ideas from your own creative thinking as well as finding it easier to manage the literature outside you. [7]

So, how should a student start? How can students come from where they are, and not from where the literature is, and yet at the same time back-up their ideas on the literature? [8]

I propose a method where you start by making a decision about what you want to do, without referring to the literature; simply decide upon a topic that interests you. At this point you should be concerned with one thing only, which is what you want to achieve. What is the end result you wish to see from your PhD? Or, what do you seek to express in your art work? What do you want to see happen in your life? The thing that you want becomes your sole concern and the topic for your work. [9]

Once you decided on a topic you then describe the need to examine it. You have to say what is the need, what is the problem that you feel we need to tackle. Then you want to say how you propose to deal with the problem, in what way will you tackle it. To do so, you define a few criteria by which you will examine the topic. Criteria will make up what I call a ‘world of content’, which is a vocabulary of terms relevant to your work. [10]

Then you write a conclusion, which is a hypothesis really, because it is based on your assumptions and own ideas. It is not yet based on reading the literature. [11]

The reason you have not referred to the literature up to this point is to allow you to work freely with yourself; from your own intuition and prior knowledge. If you learn to listen to yourself, to your own ideas, you will then be able to listen to others. You will be able to learn from other researchers’ views and opinions, updating your own ideas, and developing them to new realms of knowledge. Most of all, it will teach you one of the most important things in academia – being modest and humble. You will arrive at a point where you will be humble to accept other researchers that you will find in the literature. And such acceptance will come from you; it will not come from having to write a thesis and draw from authors that your course leader have instructed you to read. [12]

My aim is to teach tools by which you can make sense of your own ideas and thoughts and write them in a coherent way that can be understood by other readers. [13]

So, how does one begin? [14]

On the first day of the course I start by giving the students two minutes to think of the topic that they would like to explore. Two minutes, no more. If at a later point a student faces a problem with his chosen topic, he cannot change it, but rather he will have to deal with the problem and solve it. If he cannot solve issues that he himself raises, then changing the topic will not help. Being stuck with himself, he might get stuck again. [15]

Let’s say I choose the topic ‘creativity in art’. [16]

OK. Now you define the topic based on your prior intuitive knowledge of it. You do not follow any definition or framework that the literature had decided upon, making sure that what you define is relevant to you, to where you are. Many times someone can pick up a topic, but unless he defines it, he might not understand what he is saying. By defining it you create tools to observe what you think. [17]

So, for the topic of creativity in art, I would like to choose the following definition: a process in which artists are inspired to create works. [18]

Good. That definition comes out from your interests, your background and intuition. It does not come from reading the literature (you will read the literature later, but not yet). [19]

Next, you have to define each word you have used; in our example the words are: process, artists, inspiration, works. And then you sum up all these definitions into one collective definition. [20]

At this point you have to develop a background, and this is very interesting. I have been teaching thousands of students for many years now and have found that the backgrounds that students come up with, which are based on their feelings about the topic, are very close to the backgrounds and frameworks that the literature presents. I observed that students usually describe an accurate framework, and this indicates that something is happening in the realm of intuition, which is beyond academia, and is no less good in describing and framing topics. [21]

By now, you have chosen a topic, defined it and decided on a framework. So, your topic may be creativity in art; your definition of it is a process in which artists are inspired to create works; and your framework?… [22]

…Artists in the last 150 years. [23]

Next you want to start examining your topic, by building up the categories that make it. Any topic should be examined by categories; however, you do not borrow categories from the literature but rather you make those categories. [24]

I have found that if you choose two categories you then create a two-dimensional work where two things play like a ping-pong game, one against the other. There is no depth to that, so I ask that you choose three categories. [25]

I would like to choose the following three categories: stimulation, internalisation, and application. [26]

Good. These are the three categories that interest you and that make up your topic. They will also make the chapter titles of your thesis. Next, you develop each category into three subcategories. For each subcategory I ask you to produce a conclusion which is your assumption, the hypothesis, since you have not yet read the literature. Now you can sum it up in a diagram. [27]

Amikam Marbach - Academic Research Table

Diagram 1: Graphic presentation draft for thesis, based on experiencing prior knowledge.

Here you have completed a draft skeleton of your PhD thesis. You can use this method for anything, even for the simplest things in life, such as deciding why you need to go and buy something in the shop. [29]

You have created this draft from knowledge that was within you, from what you want, rather than from an outside source, such as books and what the books ‘want’… [30]

How do you listen to your intuitive prior knowledge, which comes from within you? [31]

Simply by doing what you love. What you love, you probably know a bit about. And if you know how to work with your own prior knowledge then you will also know how to work with other people, because when you learn to listen to yourself you cannot manipulate or change what you say. You learn to listen to other people as well, without manipulating what they say. I think we all tend to manipulate what we hear in one way or another. Starting from a place of prior knowledge means that you start by exploring and overcoming your own restrictions. [32]

At this point we need to connect the inner prior creative ideas in your draft to the literature. We now want to back up the assumptions that we built up from the inner intuition; we now want to back it up on the literature. So, now you go to the library and read the relevant literature to support your work. The literature does not interfere with your choice of topic or the way you go about researching it. The literature backs it up and updates it. [33]

Your book describes how to handle the vast literature available, and how to find the relevant information and books for the student’s work. But I want to ask you now about your approach in general. Your method, after all, is well structured and well defined in itself. Aren’t we supposed to do the exact opposite, i.e. to be unstructured, in order to nourish creativity?… [34]

In any creative process there must be what we call ‘an end of discussion’, a point where you stop (and where you can start a new project if you wish). You must stop at one point, otherwise, you could be stuck in the same project, studying it forever, wanting to reach for something that does not really exist, but that you want simply because you do not have it… [35]

This is a problem that we may face in the Socratic way of teaching, where a solution is not accepted but rather reconstructed anew, so that you need to continue searching. The comedians Laurel and Hardy made a good illustration of this. In one of their adventures they find diamonds laid down in a long row on a road. They pick up the diamonds, one after the other, following them on the road, until they find themselves in a village of cannibal tribe… So, you can be very rich but that may not help you… In the same way, you can think but where does this thinking take you? We want to allow for creativity, to structure the thinking process and to direct it to a useful and communicative result. [36]

Socrates teaches us how to look at a phenomenon and a dialogue, and how to inspire students to continue ask questions. It is a remarkable thing, but one thing is missing here – the result, the finding of a concrete thing. So, I developed this method, which helps you to open up to intuition and also requires that you define an end result. You do not think without limits, but rather you think in order to build up a product that can contribute something useful for you. In academia there is a framework, a method and a product. [37]

Can I ask you further – Why do you think that words are a useful tool by which we can know ourselves? [38]

We think through words, and we communicate through words. [39]

Is thinking the best way of knowing oneself? [40]

I agree that words are limited; for poets words are problematic because they reduce the experience. For politicians words are useful, because they can create experiences… With one word you can stir up a whole nation… [41]

Now, some things are involuntary such as the will and desires. These things have no limit since they are not confined to logic. Yet, some people say that even will is just a form of thinking, in the same way that logic is a form of thinking. [42]

Naturally words are made of shapes that are confined on the paper. Thought and will, on the other hand, are much more open, they are not confined by their shape or space or time, and so they are infinite. And this is why I am using words. Words are a tool that can confine and thus make concrete the incredible infinity of thoughts, wills and prior knowledge. Without words it would be impossible to grasp or use our thoughts and wills. Words are a gate between the concrete and the infinite, allowing us to arrive at a result, and at an end of discussion. [43]

Watch a video explanation of the process, by Gil Dekel:

28 Nov 2008. Updated 4 March 2012.

© Gil Dekel and Amikam Marbach. Interview held in Haifa, Israel, 18 May 2008, and via email/telephone correspondence, Sep and Nov 2008.

The Process of the Academic Thinking is a research method, developed by British researchers and Dr. Marbach, that helps students identify topic, define it, find the relevant information, and construct it into a coherent PhD thesis.