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!