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.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009


When I was an undergraduate, we always talked about 'fifth week blues': the point in term where you were just about halfway through, and there was so much work to be done you couldn't even imagine ever finishing it all, and you were probably about to come down with something horrible.

Well, I'm thinking that in graduate terms, it happens a couple of weeks later. Both this term and last, at about this time, end of sixth week and beginning of seventh, I've started to feel as though the whole world is coming crashing down on me. I'm wondering why I started this, I'm raking through the job adverts to see what else I could do with my life, and I'm feeling like there's no way that I can complete a doctorate, or even at this rate get started on one properly. I suspect that the reason for this is that there are only a couple of weeks to go to the end of term, and when you sit down and assess where you are, and where you can reasonably expect to be by the end of term, it feels like you've accomplished sod all.

I was trying to guard against this at the beginning of term by completing a weekly DPhil log, showing all the things I'd done related to education each week, and highlighting the ones which were specifically relevant to my doctorate. Unfortunately falling ill for a week in the middle of the term meant taking a week off and failing to fill in the log document. I haven't done one for either of the last two weeks. It's all too easy as a graduate student, especially as a first year DPhil, to feel that you're not really making any progress. You go from day to day reading and writing about your topic, but not really achieving much in the way of solid work. I'm feeling this particularly because I'm still waiting for a meeting to try to negotiate access for my research. In four months time I need to be doing pilot work, or there won't be a project to do. This is making me very nervous.

So I'm here in the computer lab trying to write an early literature review to present to my fellow first years, and wondering at what point I should start to panic, which is preventing me doing much constructive reading and reviewing. On top of academic concerns are my worries about where I can afford to live next year, and what on earth to do about that. The only thing I can do to prevent myself from wanting to quit and run away home at the moment is relive over and over in my head the worst parents' evening encounters I ever had, to remind myself of why I'm doing this and not sitting in a cosy classroom reading a nice Shakespeare play right now.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Reviewing the situation

So, having handed in my own abstract mere hours before the deadline, I'm now in the situation of reviewing other people's abstracts. And given the difficulty I had writing one, it's surprisingly easy to spot the strengths and weaknesses of those of others. In fact, it's a deeply educative experience. It's also surprisingly similar to, for example, looking at job applications or coursework essays. What makes or breaks any of these things is how well they hit the criteria: criteria which should be attainable by anyone.

1) Word count. If it says 200 it means 200. Not fifty. Not four hundred. Submitting anything by email makes it very easy for the recipient to check the length these days. With job applications it's more likely to suggest one or two pages for a letter. Change the margins, change the font, change the spacing. All fine. Don't go onto that next sheet.
2) Spelling. Spell check is easy. A quick read is easy. Do you really want your abstract out there in the world with a mistake directly under your name for everyone to see and hanging round your neck for ever more?
3) It's seems to be amazingly easy not to actually say what you're going to say. Abstracts have to tell prospective audience members exactly what to expect. When giving tips for theses abstracts, which are slightly different but not much, a lecturer pointed out that academic papers are not murder mysteries: you don't have to carefully conceal whodunnit. In fact, in abstracts, you need to give away all your major suprises up front. It might not be romantic, but it is good practice.
4) Explain what you're talking about. Don't assume people will work out your theoretical perspective, your definitions or your acronyms off their own bat.

In fact, I've come to the conclusion that you could do worse than use Goldilocks and the Three Bears as a model for writing abstracts. Not too big and not too small, it has to be just right. Not too hard and not too soft, it has to be just right. And then, if you're lucky, the three bears of conference organisers won't gobble you up (okay, so slight pushing of Goldilocks, but it's late, and I've just reviewed a bunch of abstracts).

Monday, 23 February 2009

Abstract thoughts

I'll start with a small embarrassed cough. *ahem*.It's only been three months since my last post, I don't know what you're talking about. Although since everyone who speaks at our first year DPhil seminars keeps telling us that we ought to be writing 500 words a day about our research, it is a little embarrassing.

Speaking of embarrassing, so is being on a conference committee and being very lax in getting your abstract submitted. The deadline is about six hours from now, and I just managed to get it in, some weeks after the original call for papers. One of the problems of writing an abstract for a paper you intend to give is that although you may have some idea about what you're going to say, it's not all fully formed yet. An abstract can give you some ideas, but it can also tie you down once you've been accepted and have to sit down and actually write the whole damn paper.

Being a first year, I don't have any results (or indeed any anything) yet, so what's the point of giving a paper at a conference? Well, firstly, this is a student conference, designed to help us develop our presentation skills, get feedback on both them and our projects, and also to practice submitting abstracts for consideration. The abstract is blind peer reviewed, which is also a nice piece of professional development. For this conference, STORIES (STudents' Ongoing Research In Education Studies), the abstract length was only 150 words, but even that much was leaving me with serious writers' block. I'd taken the advice of a second year, and decided to present on potential methodologies for my study. But that was as far as it went.

Luckily that second year had some more tips: a secret formula lightly mentioned in passing by her supervisor. The recipe is as follows:
  • First paragraph = introduce the topic
  • Second paragraph = introduce the problem
  • Third paragraph = say what you're actually going to talk about
And just like that, it flowed from the keyboard. Now all I have to do is worry about what my blind peer reviewer is going to say about it.