State of the Onion – October 2015

xkcd comic shared under a Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.5) license

The first month is over; where did that go? I guess it’s always the same when you’re starting in a new place; getting oriented with the geography of where you work, acquainting yourself with the systems, meeting new people, establishing a routine around your new working practices. Then of course there are another couple of strands: returning to ‘formal’ learning (at least in the sense of participating within a formal educational system) and of course the research itself. So taking each of those in turn …

Unfortunately it’s a while since I was last at university full time, so it’s a little difficult to recall how it was then, but clearly as a postgraduate things will be different. I do have some scheduled sessions, but they’re for the most part, opportunities I’ve elected to participate in from the menu on offer. Perhaps that might be better expressed as menus. As a doctoral student you receive information from (at least) three streams; there’s the central university-wide provision for doctoral students, consisting of a range of workshops to help you with some of the skills you’ll need as a researcher and also to familiarise you with the process of undertaking a PhD. Running alongside that is a programme for anyone undertaking research within the uni., including staff and not aimed specifically at postgrads. Then there’s faculty provision, which is along similar lines, but more specific to the needs of research within your discipline. However it’s also possible to dip into offerings from other faculties if they’re appropriate to your needs. The University also offers MRes degree programmes and it’s possible to enrol on the entire course, or choose modules within it. Finally there’s an eclectic mix of ad hoc seminars and sessions from all sorts of different streams which might be of interest. The uni has developed the ‘Sheffield Institute of Education‘ which offers seminar programmes and an annual conference. There are a host of other mini-conferences and seminars taking place across the uni.; you just need to be tapped into the right information streams to become aware of what’s on, when and where. I shouldn’t forget the online learning resources/courses available through BlackBoard; some of this is optional, but in some, participation is a requirement to allow passage through the opening stages. To make sense of all that and to use it effectively, the uni provides all doctoral students with access to the Researcher Development Framework resources, which I discussed in an earlier post. One thing that would have been helpful is if all that rich provision came through a single channel, rather the disparate bunch of individual and group emails, notices in BlackBoard and various links.

The more mundane stuff now all seems to have slotted into place – having a computer account, getting access to buildings which are key-coded, having a library account, being able to print. There’s also establishing where you will work and although some PhD students have their own desks and storage, as a newbie you work within the hot-desking system in the Graduate School. That’s fine; I haven’t had the luxury of my own desk for the last year and a half, however a small space to store stuff would be really helpful (am working on that!). Although I’m now familiar with the people who are crucial to my survival and ultimate success, there are still a bunch of people I’ve yet to meet; such is the nature of working within a large organisation I guess. I am slowly becoming acquainted with my fellow students during sessions, though the irregularity of them and the fact that they’re to some extent optional means that the attendees seem to constantly change. It’s also quite interesting that within the Graduate School work area, where there are about twenty(?) work stations (although rarely more than 50% are occupied), there’s very little chatter. People are polite and friendly, but it’s a serious place where you have stuff to do. Very different to an office at work where you regularly break for a quip or natter. Wonder if it’s the fact that you’re engaged on your own individual research rather than being a member of a team? In the Centre for Education and Inclusion where I sometimes work and which has a mix of researchers, academics and doctoral students, it’s a little livelier, but any talk is usually around academic issues. Having never graduated from the school of small talk, that suits me.

I mentioned ‘working routine’ in the opening paragraph and perhaps that overstated things somewhat. I’ve found the freedom of working when it suits me completely liberating. I go into the Uni around four days a week; not because I have to, but because it puts me nearer resources should I need them. However, rather than being obliged to be there at a specific time, as with work, I arrive and leave at times which suit me. So for me that means getting up before 6.00 am as I’ve always done and aiming for a relatively early start, depending on the punctuality of public transport or the state of fatigue in my cycling legs. If I have no commitments later in the afternoon, then I’ll leave between 2 and 3 (lunch and breaks are taken at the workdesk), get some exercise, then return to work in the evening for a couple of hours. If the weather conspires against me, I work from home, but the routine’s pretty much the same. Some days I’ll do less than others, but am happy to put a few hours in at the weekend. To keep track, I’ve been recording my activity in a Google calendar and using a Google sheets add-on to track what I’m doing. In addition to making sure I’m putting the hours in, it also means I can check how I’m apportioning my time and shift emphasis if it becomes necessary. Currently I’m averaging around 47 hours a week, but because it’s spread in a way that suits me, it doesn’t feel like that much.

So what have I achieved for just over 200 hours? Well firstly I’ve a better appreciation of what’s likely to be required of me over the three years, though there are some elements about which I’m still hazy and will probably remain so until they come around. I’ve attended a real variety of different sessions which I’ve referred to in earlier posts. Just this week I completed the first of two online modules on Ethics and am just over half way through the online ‘Research Skills’ module. Whilst on the topic of online modules, though not organised by the uni., I’ve also just completed the first week in two MOOCs – Qualitative Research Methods from Coursera and Learn to Code for Data Analysis from FutureLearn. I’ve written around 10k words on the blog and I guess around the same in various exercises on different modules. My reading is coming along, though has slipped recently as I’ve spent a larger proportion of time in uni and on learning and skills development. The list of books I want to read is currently increasing at a greater rate than the list of those I’ve read, but I guess that’s a feature of my knowledge of the field expanding. I’ve also still to deal with the increasing list of papers I’m collecting; currently at 500+ documents, of which I’ve read or skimmed less than 20%.

And what next?

Continue with my learning; the seminars I’m currently signed up for, together with the compulsory awayday for all the doctoral students in the uni. The online learning modules plus the MOOCs, together with the podcasts and videos I’ve recently started to access. YouTube continues to astound. I also need to register for the MRes modules I want to pick up which start in January.
It may be early, but I perhaps need to alter my reading strategy and devote a swathe of time to getting on top of the papers I’ve collected. I have tried out a couple of techniques for interacting with them in a more systematic way, so I’m a) more critical and b) have a way of recording how they might inform my research and how, if needed, I can incorporate them into my study. I think what I might need to do, with both books and papers, is to skim them for relevancy, perhaps assigning categories – ‘must keep’ and read in detail with the likelihood of being used; keep and re-read fully to establish whether it has something to say; discard. Or something along those lines.

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