Mundane practicalities of thesis writing

Having now submitted my first full draft, it became apparent how MS Word was stepping up to the mark as a tool to make life easier.  When producing a document approaching 100k words spread over 250 pages (at the moment!), swift and efficient navigation become so important. I’ve always used the navigation pane to jump between sections, even in more modest documents, but there were other aspects which also required attention.  A ‘Table of Contents’ and a ‘Table of Figures’ will also be needed to provide navigation in the printed version, then there’s page numbers, layout, styles, and bevy of other considerations. As a Microsoft Office Specialist Master, albeit one from an earlier era, I’m at least aware of where these features can be found and how they can be applied. PhD colleagues who have preceded me through the system and asked if I knew ‘how to …’ were less fortunate. Having manually numbered chapters and subsections, or tables of contents, friends were surprised to find some of the things Word could do, and somewhat shocked how much effort they could have saved.Read More »

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Watershed?

“Summit of Hardknott Pass” by IaninSheffield https://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/9361797530 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

In the briefing notes I wrote, it should have just been one more supervisory meeting. I intended to cover the recent activity in which I’d been involved and that which was forthcoming, followed by a progress report on my data collection. There were a couple of things which had arisen that I was keen to talk through and seek advice. However, things took a different turn when a thought occurred and I asked what would the implications be if I wanted to submit in time to attend the November 2018 graduation ceremony. Given my October 2016 start, a three year programme would take me to September 2018 finish; rather tight for a November ceremony. So our discussion then shifted to considering the implications, first of which was the timeline in order to fulfill that.Read More »

Confirmation of PhD

I’ve been rather quiet on the blog recently; my energies have been focused towards writing the report and designing a seminar to fulfil the requirements for my Confirmation of Candidature (RF2 in local parlance). As I discussed earlier, this is the final hurdle to overcome before you can call yourself a PhD student. Essentially you are providing a panel of assessors with evidence of the progress you have made during your first year, and that your study is of a standard likely to lead to you being able to fulfil the requirements of a PhD.

 

I submitted the report just over a week ago and delivered my oral presentation yesterday (the slides are above, though may not mean a great deal without the commentary). Rather than the small panel that would usually be involved (your supervisory team plus two ‘rapporteurs’ – academics not associated with your research, but familiar with the field and PhD supervision), I agreed to present a seminar. As it happened, this was the first on this year’s programme of the Institute’s Research Seminar series, so rather than half a dozen people, there were over thirty – academics, PhD students and Masters students. I’m sure some would have found this intimidating, but for me, it seemed to have the opposite effect. Rather than speaking to a small, incredibly intelligent and necessarily critical panel, it felt more like talking to a class and helped me to relax. The audience was not solely those obliged to be there as part of their duties, but was mostly people who were sufficiently motivated  to give up some time to come and listen to me talk, based on the title and abstract I had provided.
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But it’s only 300 words”

flickr photo by Chrispl57 https://flickr.com/photos/chrispl57/5321817498 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

I’ve spent a substantial part of this weekend writing less than three hundred words … and I’m still not happy.

In addition to the report I need to produce as part of the Confirmation of Candidature process (more to come on that!), I also need to give a verbal report. Usually this is in the form of a presentation to a small group composed of your supervisory team and a rapporteur, followed by a Q&A. A mini viva in effect. My supervisor asked if I’d prefer to do a seminar; much the same format, but invitations would be extended more widely within the Institute. That seemed like a good opportunity to speak to a wider audience, perhaps people I’ve not met before, and possibly attract a wider range of feedback. So I went for it.

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Unsettlement

flickr photo by derekbruff https://flickr.com/photos/derekbruff/27336142234 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

Just had a meeting with my supervisory team; one that I called. By the end of September, I will need to have completed what we call locally, the RF2, or ‘Confirmation of PhD.’ It’s a checkpoint through which you can pass if you’ve made sufficient progress and what you’re proposing to undertake is worthy of study in pursuit of a doctorate. There are two parts: the first is a 6000 word report and the second a presentation to a panel. I guess the combined process serves (at least) two functions; whilst providing that obligatory passage point, it also provides an opportunity to experience, on a smaller scale, what the end of the doctoral process is like – the production of a summative report together with an oral examination. It all makes sense and hangs together.

In preparation for the meeting I produced and circulated a set of notes – points I wanted to cover. Some were simply procedural, but the main thrust was to get some feedback on the pilot phase of my study. Although not quite complete, I have enough data and have undertaken sufficient analysis to begin to make some tentative observations. I wanted the meeting to provide some sense of reassurance that my interpretations held water and to help bring some clarity to some the rather fuzzy and less coherent preliminary thoughts I’ve had. It was not to be … as has been the case in most of the meetings I’ve had so far. As I recounted my thoughts, my sensei’s pushed the points I was making that little bit further. ‘If you’re saying xxx, then you’ll need to consider yyy.’ ‘If it’s the case that xxx, then might it be that yyy.’ In many ways, rather than sharpening the focus, issues became more blurred as possibilities expanded. I found the experience most unsettling.

As I began the process of mulling things over, I realised that my expectations of supervisory meetings might have been opposite to what they’re actually intended to do. They’re not there to bring forth order from chaos; that’s my job as a doctoral researcher. Instead, they’re about being unsettled; having your cage rattled. You arrive at a meeting with a set of thoughts, some fully formed and others mere fledglings. What supervisors then do is test the strength, flexibility and elasticity of those ideas – do they stand up to scrutiny and do they fully represent the phenomenon or situation you’ve been studying? Supervisors are there to pose the questions you, as a student, are too inexperienced to have thought of, or too insecure to have articulated. It should be an unsettling process; if it isn’t, your work may not be moving forward or achieving the standard it needs to.

Based on the data and initial interpretations I offered, there were a number of considerations I need to take away and questions I need to address.

  • Professional development, professional learning, CPD – what significance does the terminology have and how big a deal do I want to make it? Do I define what term I’m going to be using throughout my study and therefore set out my stall from the beginning, or is
  • In trying to ‘tame’ the research ‘site,’ I need to take care that I don’t massage out the very essence of Twitter. It’s a messy, intense, unruly, unbounded, chaotic space; some of that might be what helps to generate the benefits and outcomes that people have begun to describe.
  • There some tentative indications that ‘identity’ might be a topic which needs addressing, though I got the impression that that carries with it a whole other set of baggage.

During the course of my summary, I offered up a variety of possible avenues, each of which might make a fruitful area of exploration, but I now need to decide which thread, running through the whole study, that I want to gradually pull and tease out. I also need to begin to set myself some limits, especially if I intend to continue with multiple methods. If I’m unable to reassure those assessing my capability to continue, that I can conduct and complete my study within the time scale, then I may not be allowed to move forward.

So yes, I’ve definitely been unsettled, but that was needed to encourage me to confront and make sense of the raft of possibilities, and to bring some coherence to my unfolding research.

Ups and downs

Following my second supervisory meeting today, I was trying to think of an image which represented the flow of my studies. I settled on:

flickr photo by ARHiker http://flickr.com/photos/aerogel5711/5047206990 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

For those of you not familiar, this is a photo of a ‘standing wave’ on a vibrating string, such as that you might get on a stringed instrument. We can see five ‘nodes’ – places where the string doesn’t appear to be vibrating, and four ‘anti-nodes’ – places where the string seems to vibrating the most. I was minded to think that the timeline of my studies follows a similar pattern from one end to the other. The nodes are the milestones that form punctuations in the study; points where you need to bring things together. To gather up your thoughts and ideas, the information you’ve gathered and the learning you’ve experienced, and bring them to a focus. A supervisory meeting is one of those nodes. Today’s was to discuss the draft of a form I’m submitting as my first progress check. This submission will be assessed by a research committee to establish that the study I’m proposing has sufficient merit and rigour to potentially result in the award of PhD. No biggie then!

Things appear to be largely in order. I suspect that I would never have been accepted onto the programme if my initial proposal didn’t look likely to be able to vault this hurdle. An experienced supervisory team however, (and I’m fortunate to be blessed with such a one) can recognise, even at this early stage, potential banana skins. Which they did. The subsequent discussion then unpicked some of the issues and considered a multiplicity of possible routes forward. I now have to reflect on the outcomes of that discussion and consider which options sit most comfortably for what I want to achieve. My submission needs no more than a few small tweaks to provide those who will be judging it with a little more clarity. For me though, there’s likely to be quite a shift in my next steps – I’ll now be moving towards an anti-node on the string where the vibrations are greater. This will be mirrored in my activity as I seek explore the new avenues which have been suggested; as I try to get to make sense of new possibilities and as I attempt to become more familiar with the new terrain.

This switching between periods of calm and turbulent activity can be very unsettling. Just when you feel you’re getting somewhere, a whole new set of challenges opens up. Just when you think you’re starting to understand some of the concepts or techniques, it’s made clear where your shortcomings are. But I guess that’s the nature of the PhD. That’s what your supervisors are there to do. Not intentionally unsettle you of course, but to reveal the points you missed, or were unable to spot through lack of knowledge and experience. You’re back in the uncomfortable position of a novice learner, perhaps for the first time since you were in school, experiencing the uncomfortable power imbalance between you and a (much more!) knowledgeable other. It’s crucial however to keep at the forefront of your mind that the intention is to help draw out the best from you and help you develop the capability to vault the hurdles as they arrive.

The more I thought about it, the more the photo above is rather idealised. The actuality is perhaps more like this:

Slipping standards

I’d like to apologise for my last post; in fact for a number of posts in this, my new blog. I know that my writing has been slipping recently; it has lacked clarity, flow, conciseness and precision. Consequently I’ve been trying to; a) figure out why and b) how to resolve it.

Last night I was sifting through a few resources I thought might be of general use as my studies unfold, but one seemed particularly relevant:

(You can view or download the video and presentation at JCU by clicking on the image )
(You can view or download the video and presentation at JCU by clicking on the image )

Some of it is more pertinent when writing the whole thesis, but much of it speaks to any form of writing.

Writing with clarity is the key message with which the presentation opens and underpins the approach you should adopt. To do that, you need to constantly keep in mind your audience, or as Dr Tynan suggests, your ‘archetypal reader.’ Imagine yourself reading your writing through their eyes and with their purpose. This was an issue for me from the start of this new blog; a question I only partly answered by choosing to write as a source of reference to which I could later return. Having no other reader in mind made me sloppy; less fastidious. Clarity can slip away when you use long sentences, complex grammar, abstraction or ambiguity. Your reader will struggle because you’re forcing them to interpret your writing, rather than allowing them the pleasure of following your ideas.

Better writing starts then by establishing what the reader needs to know, then drawing up an outline to provide the overarching structure. Paragraphs are the building blocks to construct your essay, with each constituting a ‘unit of thought’ in which you introduce, discuss and elaborate a point. Opening with a ‘theme’ sentence provides a signpost for the reader and introduces your main argument to which subsequent sentences can refer back. In academic writing we often see sentences opening with author’s names, however, it is much better to start with a strong keyword, thereby providing another way to help your reader absorb your message. So we’re seeking coherence in our writing, where paragraphs and the sentences within them are arranged logically to develop arguments in an understandable way for the reader.

So do my previous posts fail to follow the advice that Dr Tynan provides? I’m afraid in many cases that they do, especially the ones where I’m attempting to summarise the contents of a book in a single post. I’m particularly guilty of using abstraction; possibly because that’s what author(s) did and I failed to turn that into meaningful, concrete ideas. I also feel that I’ve not always achieved a coherent structure and flow, perhaps as a result of trying to cram in cherry-picked details, rather than aiming for my interpretations of the big picture. (Was that just another abstraction?).

Readability may not highlight all the issues for a piece of writing, but it does provide a few measures of  the impact your writing might have on readers. I turned then to two online tools1 for assessing writing and pasted in both my last post and this one, to see if I’ve been able to bring about any improvements. The news is good; the average word length, sentence length and particularly readability have all improved. Whether my message has been conveyed with greater clarity is perhaps for you the reader to judge, but you’ve been in my head the whole while.

1Analyse My Writing and the Hemingway Editor

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.

Exposure … in a good way

flickr photo by Mike Rohde http://flickr.com/photos/rohdesign/17001574940 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

My first supervisory meeting served to draw a line under what went before and what is to come. Prior to this session, most of what I’d been involved with wasn’t too different from my previous life; attend a few talks, read things, think about them, write a bit. The last week of enrolment, meeting with new people, becoming familiar with new places and culminating in this formal event focused specifically on my next three years, has helped to reify the transition to a different life.

Mainly concerned with the business of undertaking a PhD, we discussed the significant milestones I need to be aware of and how my time might unfold during the three years. It was interesting to project forward to the endpoint of the viva, then trace back through the different possible thesis outcomes – traditional, PhD by Publication, PhD by artefact (a high-risk strategy in this field, but one employed to amazing effect by Nick Sousanis who presented his thesis in comic book format!). Having the end point in mind helps set the placemarkers I’ll need to ensure completion in the allotted time, but all that’s getting ahead of myself to some extent. For the moment, my first milestone is completion of the ‘RF1’ form, which requests approval for the research programme. Most of this was covered within my research proposal, so its completion shouldn’t prove too onerous.

I‘d produced a brief progress report which we then visited to discuss the reading I’ve already undertaken and the directions this might take. I appear to be largely on the right track, but it was useful to hear of other potential theoretical frameworks like critical realism. My concerns over the growing archive of journal articles I’m amassing, but which remain largely unread since I’m focusing on major texts, shouldn’t be considered too troubling. It’s still very early days and the progress I’m making is perfectly satisfactory. One suggestion was that I might consider using NVIVO (a powerful qualitative data analysis package) to record my reading and, since I’ll need to record, manage and analyse the qualitative data I collect in the future, keep all my reading notes and data interpretations in one place where cross-referencing and linking is possible. That makes a lot of sense, but … NVIVO? I’m sure it would be useful as outlined (and doubtless in other ways too), but my proprietary platform hackles have just risen. At $700 dollars, though free to me through the University, it’s not an application I’ll be able to use beyond my studies. However the principle appeals, so I thought I might revisit a tool I used to support my Master’s dissertation Compendium, the latest version of which I’ve now download and will take for a test-drive.

One area that I suggested might prove tough is perhaps unsurprisingly my decision to use actor-network theory as a methodological lens. Again, it’s still early days, but I was advised that these kinds of concerns and the detailed choices I make regarding theoretical frameworks and methodology are far from set in tablets of stone. As I read more, it’s entirely possible that other more appropriate or interesting possibilities might emerge. With ANT, I was encouraged to look towards the more recent developments and how sociomaterial perspectives might shift the emphasis somewhat. I was advised that helpful ways of grappling through issues that we find difficult are often undertaken in the University by ‘Groups’ – these are convened around interesting threads (like literacies, space and place etc); they meet regularly over a coffee (or beer!) and discuss issues, often taking a particular text as as a focus … a bit like a book club it seemed to me. Several were offered as of potential interest to me and I’ll follow them up, but it was also suggested that there’s nothing stopping me initiating a group of my own and offering it up for membership. Social media appears to be a ‘hot topic’ across several disciplines and from a number of different angles. (So something to consider)

One further mechanism through which my ongoing learning could be enhanced is through attendance at interesting events. Of particular interest would be the International Professional Development Association Annual Conference scheduled for November, so I’ll add that to my calendar and stick on my ‘To do’ list to draft a request for funding. A number of other local events were also offered up and I’ll be checking them out too.

What I took away from my meeting then was that I need to maximise my exposure … to as many different opportunities as possible and through as many different avenues that I can find. Makes sense.