Sunday, 3 April 2011

What would you rescue first in a fire?

Put yourself in this position: you come back after a weekend away. Your housemate meets you at the door with some bad news – the house has been burgled. Your computer’s gone. What’s the firs thing that comes to mind?

Yup – your thesis. My desktop had gone, and the extremely ancient laptop, and the only thing I could think of was, where’s my portable hard drive? Gone too, as it turned out. Three copies of your thesis? Not enough, if they’re all in the same house. I was standing looking at my desk, not allowed to touch the mess, hoping desperately the hard drive was under an unlikely bit of paper. It wasn’t.

A year ago, I heard of a friend of a friend who had obsessively backed up her work on four different computers in her department building, spread across different offices in case of theft or computer virus. The building burnt down and she lost everything.

Every research student I knew reacted in the same way to my news – sympathy, and then as one friend put it ‘pseudo testicular-retraction’ as they all backed up their theses onto multiple disks and pen drives, then went to bed with their USB pens under their pillows. Five separate people asked me if I’d heard of Dropbox, a free internet based storage system ( Two pointed out there was a university back up service provided (yes, there is, and I recommend looking into yours, because most universities have them, but I hadn’t been able to install the virtual network onto my PCs, so I couldn’t use it). My supervisor turned pale, and asked what I’d lost.

In some ways I’d been very lucky in the break-in. Only electrical goods had been taken. Nothing irreplaceable, nothing of sentimental value. Only my thesis.

Of course, I’d paid careful attention when I’d heard that story of the girl who lost her thesis in the fire. It’s when I first became obsessive about emailing all my documents to myself. In my uni email account are any number of folders marked ‘data recordings’ ‘transcriptions’ and, most thankfully, ‘chapters’. As it worked out I hadn’t even lost the odds and ends of half written beginnings of things, because I tend to forget my USB drive, and therefore email things between the department and home. It took me a while to sort through the entire sent folder (my habit of never deleting anything has also been vindicated, it turns out), but I got there. So when you find yourself in my shoes, or the shoes of the girl whose department burnt down, what will you be feeling? Despair? Or suitably smug?

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Confirmation and other deeply emotional tales

So, as has become usual, I'm posting in an effort to avoid doing what I should be doing. But this is a worthy post, I promise, particularly if you are at a certain august institution that insists on calling its doctorates DPhils rather than PhDs, and therefore have to look forward to the pre-submission funfest that is called confirmation.

A few weeks ago we organised a 'Confirmation Panel' at the department, to try to gather some crumbs of wisdom from students who had already been through the process. For some of them it had been smooth, for some of them less so, and everyone had some very useful tips to offer. I'm not going to create a list of them here - for one thing they have already been circulated around the Education students, to whom they are most relevant, and for another it wouldn't make very interesting reading.

But I do want to pick up on one or two of the things they said. One of the themes which emerged again and again is that a doctorate challenges not just your academic ability but also your emotional stability and your tenacity. It's an exercise, sometimes, in just clinging on by your fingertips. But you can do it. It's not a sprint, this degree, it's a marathon. Sometimes you get a stone in your shoe, or your trainer comes off, but you have to keep limping on anyway. Or you can get a friend to give you a hand up, keep cheering you on. In the end, the people with "Dr" at the beginning of their names are the completely determined ones, who just keep slogging away. (I have to say that since beginning my DPhil my admiration for my mother, who not only completed her PhD while looking after a small child on her own, but managed to finish on time in 3 years, has increased exponentially.)

The other thing that came out most strongly from the panel was more specific to confirmation, but has general applications for conferences, papers, etc. In confirmation you are showing two or three completed chapters of your thesis to two academics. It is not the whole thesis, or even most of the thesis, and the chances are that it won't make sense without context. Give context! Make your research comprehensible with all the surrounding information that people need to understand it. If they can see the context, they are more likely to be persuaded by your analysis and conclusions. We're back to finding research we can trust - and at the end of the day that means finding people we trust, and if all you've got is 6,000 - or 30,000 words to convince people that you are trustworthy, you'd better make the most of them.

So, trustworthiness and tenacity. The two qualities that the letters DPhil or PhD guarantee you've got. In spades.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Well, I got busy... occupational hazards

So, it's quite a long time since I posted that last entry, and in fact a lot has happened since then. I wrote the methodology section that was troubling me below, and indeed the whole 10,000 word essay (and then some), negotiated access, designed a pilot project, collected data for it and analysed it, completed the ethics review process (twice), passed transfer of status, and yesterday began collecting data. It's been a busy six months.

It's one of the hazards of the 'job', I think. For the first six months I was keeping myself busy, and then, around September, it all just took off. This term is going to be just as busy: the majority of my data collection is happening in the next six weeks, and then I have to be far enough through my analysis to be able to design a questionnaire for the summer examination series.

One of the major problems about doing a doctorate in the Social Sciences is the need to rely on other people. In Science you go to your lab and you look at your microscope, or you book your time on the computer. In Humanities you go to the library and you look at your books. [Braces self for hate mail... I am oversimplifying, I know.]

In Social Sciences you need people to agree to participate. You need people to organise for you to go to meetings. You need people to do what they said they would. It's incredibly difficult. If you think about what you do when someone asks you to do something (someone you've never met, usually), and think about what priorities you have, it's very easy to understand. If you're busy and stressed at work, then the thing that goes is filling in that survey, so that you have time to do the stuff you're paid for. If you're a teacher with three classes of books to mark this evening, you don't want to mark an extra three essays and record yourself doing it for someone's research project. If you've got a massive amount of admin work to do to co-ordinate the examining of two A level examination modules, the thing which slips to the bottom of your list is registering a researcher on a computer system.

And you know what: I completely understand. I am ridiculously grateful to all the incredibly helpful people who have done stuff for me and my research over the last six months. There are the wonderful PGCE students who came up and did think aloud with me. The amazing Sharon and Gemma, whose good nature and friendship I trespass upon shamelessly when I need urgent test subjects. The fantastically helpful people at my host organisation, which and whom I can't name for ethical reasons, have been incredible - in person and over my increasingly panicked emails to which they have responded promptly and calmly! The people who have agreed to participate in my research, despite the fact that they are busy examiners, have my undying gratitude.

So this post is for them: for the people who do things for Social Science research. Here's to you, thank you all. Without you there would be thousands and thousands of research students with no DPhils to do!

Thursday, 4 June 2009

How to write a methodology section

As I sit in front of my computer desperately trying to put together a methodology section for my 'transfer of status' paper, which is a 10,000 word document designed to prove that I really do have something which looks like a doctoral project, I'm led to wonder why there isn't a convenient guide on how to write your methodology section.

The easy answer is that there's no one right way to write a methodology. But there should be some common elements or easy patterns to follow, surely?

It's not like I don't know what my methodology is: in fact there is an irony in the fact that the theory section, which was not at all clear in my head, was relatively easy to write, whereas the design which I have been nurturing up there for months refuses to get out on the page.

Which turned out to be the problem. I thought I knew what my design was, but it wasn't until I'd sat down with another piece of paper and started to hammer out the specific details that I realised I hadn't had it all as clear as I thought. Scrappy bullet points might not be what my supervisor wants, but without that kind of 'thinking aloud on paper' I just couldn't get my head organised.

It was made more complicated by the fact that I am using 'mixed methods', as the well-worn phrase goes. This means that I essentially have three methodologies to write. But some of what I am saying applies to all three strands, so I need to combine them to make a sensible and yet understandable whole.

I think I'm on pretty safe ground starting with my research questions. Then I go on briefly to set the specific context for data collection. After that I've chosen to deal with sampling as a whole, and then divide the rest into the three strands, covering data collection and data analysis for each strand. After that comes the thumping great Ethics section, which is twice as long as the rest of the methodology section put together.

But I can't help feeling that there is something missing. And that's where a check-list would really come in handy. Or a convenient book in the library. Ah well, perhaps that's the next project: "a study of the process of writing methodologies in social science doctorates". Or perhaps not.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Publish or be damned Mark II

So having decided to take my own advice, I set about trying to find somewhere that I could flex my reviewing muscles, half-way between the publications aimed at the teaching professions, which I already review for (and which 'don't count' as academic publications, as we learned from Geoffrey Walford below), and the scary world of real academic publishing.

What I found was ESCalate, the Higher Education Academy's subject centre for Education, if that isn't tautologous. That is to say, it's the bit of the HEA concerned with Education Studies at universities, with the purpose of improving teaching and learning in that subject. The exciting thing is that once your registration with ESCalate has been approved (which I assume is someone somewhere going "Yup, definitely someone to do with education. She's okay.") you can volunteer to review any of the books they have available. After which they send you the book and give you a month to submit the review. And there you have it, a almost academic publication. Certainly enough to give me a boost.

So if you're interested in the city academies programme, you might be interested in my review of The Great City Academy Fraud by Francis Beckett. Then perhaps, you might be interested in getting hold of your own book to review...there's some interesting looking new titles!

Friday, 20 March 2009

Publish or be damned

One of the foci of STORIES this year was publication. We invited three speakers, each of whom is on an editorial board of a journal, has edited a journal, or in one case (and it was naturally our own department’s Professor Geoffrey Walford) edits, sits on boards, reviews, and has published every kind of work imaginable.

University departments are judged on the quality and quantity of their research output. That’s why a publication record is important for any student hoping to secure an academic appointment. The RAE that has just passed is the last one of its kind, however, and the next assessment will be a Research Excellence Framework, which will be metrics-based. What this means is that citation will be taken into account. It’s not just publishing that’s need, it’s publishing in journals that appear in the citation indexes.

There’s a definite hierarchy of publications, apparently. According to Professor Walford, articles in journals are better than chapters in edited books: they tend to be cited more. The exception is if someone famous is editing the book! He also stated fairly categorically that articles in professional journals or practitioner journals, good for the ego though they are, do not count towards getting jobs in academia.

The key, they all agree, is to target your writing to the audience you’re submitting for. Check out the journal you’re planning on sending your work to. What’s their editorial policy? Some journals have a smallish editorial board who all read everything submitted then decide among themselves. Others have a much larger board, and an editor who sends articles out for review to someone on the board and someone outside it. Think about finding out about the interests of the editorial committee: if there’s only one person in your field on the board, it’s a good bet that they’re going to be the person to read it. Perhaps it’s not a good idea to take a completely opposite position to whatever they’ve written previously. Though that is not as important as reading the submission criteria, and sticking to the length. However magnificent you believe your manuscript to be, the editor is not going to allow you to bust the word limit.

Once you’ve submitted, and your article has been reviewed, there can be one of three outcomes: accepted outright (which virtually never happens), completely rejected or they can suggest some changes. If an editor sends you back your manuscript with some suggestions, then indulge in some primal screaming if you need to, and get back to work. Act on the suggestions, and send back your amended manuscript with a covering letter explaining how you’ve acted on them, step by step. Even, if you’ve thought carefully about it, justifying why you’re not acting on one or two of them.

There can be quite a long lead time to publication – even once you’ve had an article accepted. That means that doctoral students need to be submitting articles based on their research by the beginning of their third year at the very latest in order to have some citations ready for job applications. Book reviews can be a good way to get started: write to editors and offer your services. Get your supervisor’s advice on your writing – indeed, get anyone and everyone to read and give you advice before you submit a manuscript.

The real key to getting published though, the experts tell us, is this: do good quality research and write it up well.

Thursday, 19 March 2009


Well in the last ten days, it's all come together. I've made progress, written about five thousand words on my project, for a variety of reasons, made two different presentations on it, and helped to run a very successful student conference, leaving me completely exhausted and a lot happier with the whole study thing.

Conferences are amazing things. I've been to quite a few, and this is not even the first time I've helped run one, but this time, something just clicked. Usually if the word 'networking' comes up, a tiny muscle in my left eyelid starts twitching uncontrollably. But thinking about the gains from the last two days, the best way to describe them might be just that. Working on the committee has brought me a lot closer to several people I knew vaguely, and some people I'd never even met before. At the conference itself I spent time talking to lots of other doctoral students. The fact that my presentation was scheduled immediately before a plenary featuring lots of important lecturers meant that most of those lecturers were actually at my talk, and they gave some really useful feedback - one of them, a woman whom I hold in great awe, even going so far as to come to talk to me afterwards. Although there were substantive gains, both in terms of ideas and in terms of feedback on presentation style, the best thing was simply feeling part of a community.

It's all too easy as a doctoral student to feel like it's just you and the books (or, in this day and age, just you and the e-journals), stuck in the library fighting a lone battle. This was an opportunity to show that that just isn't so. We're all in this together, and the advantage of being in a relatively small department (although nowhere near as my first academic department, which had less than a hundred people in it total, undergrads, grads and staff combined), is that you can get to know a lot of different friendly faces very well. Going to listen to other people present their studies means an opportunity to offer your help to them, and a chance to make a connection, to feel part of an academic community.

The keynote address was given by Dr Nick Hopwood, a Research Fellow at the Department, who (whisper it) used to be just like us. He currently works on a project investigating what doctoral students are like, and how they work. One of the key findings they've come up with is that the most important people for doctoral students, the key to their survival and academic progress, are their peers. Student conferences are the kind of forum that enables us to make those connections.

One of the advantages of a student conference like ours, which had representatives from every year group presenting, is that you get to see other people at your stage. It brings home the fact that you're not alone in not having everything completely sorted, and that progress can be slow. It's also reassuring to find third years who haven't got the wording of their research questions quite right yet - when you've been agonising that only six months in, they're not sorted!

So on we go - bolstered up and ready to make progress, as part of a community of doctoral students, with friends and advisors, we'll all get through this.