Updates in Doctoral Ed

04/01/15 PHD comic: 'Srsly, this happens.'

PhD Comics - April 5, 2015 - 7:01am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Srsly, this happens." - originally published 4/1/2015

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

Who should pay?

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - April 1, 2015 - 5:00am

All PhD students know that the student-supervisor relationship is fraught with potential pitfalls.

A recent letter I received highlights how important it is to establish clear rules between yourself and your supervisor regarding joint authorship of papers, especially when submitting a Thesis by Publication. The student was asking for advice for a friend and I really had no easy answers.

Instead I asked for permission to publish this letter so we can all think about, and learn, from what happened in this instance. I’ll be interested in what you think about this situation in the comments.

Dear Thesis Whisperer,

A fellow-student at my university has just submitted his Thesis by Publication, containing three papers all co-authored with his supervisory team.  Or were they?

This particular student is an international student who was studying on a scholarship.  His scholarship was awarded for three years, and he was able to get a six month extension.  At the end of 3.5 years the funding ran out, so he took on as much teaching as possible and worked hard to finalise these very good papers and submit them, and to include the updated versions in his PhD which he subsequently submitted within the required four years.

He worked for four additional months and then was presented with an university invoice for thousands of dollars of “supervisory fees”.  As an international student he was not entitled to continue studying for free after his 3.5 year scholarship ran out, and four months of supervisory fees added up to a lot of money.

His question is “who should pay?”  

Technically he is responsible for those supervisory fees.  The reality is that he was working for that extra four months producing papers from which his supervisors will benefit.  They were most definitely NOT working on those papers. In addition, some months earlier, they had benefited from his work by attending a conference in a glamorous European destination at no cost to themselves.

The student is trying to pluck up the courage to confront his supervisors and negotiate that they pay his “supervisory fees” out of their research budgets.  He is concerned that this may damage his relationship with the supervisors who are needed as referees for job applications.  He has also received one of his PhD papers back from a journal with a “conditional acceptance”, but requiring quite a lot of work.

He asks “how will I pay my rent if I keep updating these papers for free?”

He is teaching part-time at the university as an adjunct but has no research budget.  The university does not require the papers to be published in order for him to pass his PhD.  Updating and resubmitting the paper will enhance his reputation yes, but it will also enhance the reputation of the supervisors who are listed as co-authors.  Should he stand his ground and say that he will only continue working with them if he receives some sort of remuneration?

Should students continue working on papers after they submit if the university won’t give them a job?

What do you think?

Related posts

How I broke up with my supervisor

How to tell your supervisor you want a divorce


03/25/15 PHD comic: 'Class communication'

PhD Comics - March 29, 2015 - 1:29am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Class communication" - originally published 3/25/2015

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University colleges to increase staff PhDs tenfold

University World News - March 28, 2015 - 12:42am
Danish university colleges are developing a plan to raise the proportion of staff having a PhD tenfold, from 5% to 50%, by 2022.

The colleges - which are comparable to universities of applied s ...

This is not just a post about Instagram

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - March 25, 2015 - 5:00am

Early this year the Australian Prime Minister, who was under a bit of pressure about a questionable decision at the time, dismissed social media as ‘electronic graffiti’. People in my networks were outraged and, of course, took to social media to express their outrage. For a few days feelings were high, which resulted in a creative deluge of hashtags and memes. All good fun.

The general feeling was that the Prime Minister was an out of touch loser who would find out just how far behind public opinion he was, come election day. I wondered if some enterprising soul might make bumper stickers proclaiming “I use social media and I vote”.

Just to be clear, I would totally buy one of these bumper stickers, should they become available, but the Prime minister’s comment left me more confused than angry. I couldn’t work out if the statement was a throw away line, or an inadvertently astute commentary on the role of social media in society today. I say ‘inadvertently’ because I don’t really credit many politicians with indulging in deep thinking.

Some people think of graffiti as wanton property discussion. If you have ever had to clean it off your front fence – repeatedly – then you might think this view is warranted. However, there’s a persuasive argument to be made that graffiti is a potent form of political protest, particularly for those who have no other voice. There’s certainly a growing understanding of graffiti as Art.

In other words: it’s complicated.

At risk of agreeing with our Prime Minister (there’s always a first time for everything I suppose) I think he might be on to something with the analogy between graffiti and social media. Both of them, by their very nature, resist clear cut definitions.

If you tune into the discourse, the hum of academic social life, you hear certain messages about social media. It’s talked about as a distraction, a way to kill your career dead and, at the same time, an absolutely necessary part of contemporary practice . As the person often tasked with teaching people to be ‘digital academics’ (whatever that really means) I know from first hand experience that there is a lot of confusion, angst and ambivalence in the academic community about social media.

I think the problem is that social media, like graffiti, is a form of self expression. There are a growing number of platforms out there through which you can use to express yourself. In fact, the sheer number is getting a bit daunting. So which ones do you choose to use and what should you do with them? This is a complicated question because, as I said, it depends on how you want to express yourself – and everyone is different.

There’s some evidence to suggest that people who find social interaction easy in real life will also find it easy online. I say this with love, but some academics are not exactly ‘easy’ with people… so, to make it easier, I often use White and Le Cournu’s concept of digital residents and digital visitors (thanks to Joyce Seitzinger for alerting me to this work). I ask people to think of the online space as an opportunity to build a house. What kind of house do you want? A shack by the beach or a luxury waterfront property?

The shack is what I call the ‘light touch enagement model’. The simple online shack would give you somewhere to put your CV, somewhere to put your publications and somewhere to help people find your CV and publications. What’s best to use will necessarily change as social media sites come and go, but here and now, in early 2015, I recommend you create a profile on the following sites:

  • Linkedin (don’t phone it in friends – the academic recruiters are looking there I promise you)
  • Academia.edu and/or researchgate. The jury is out, but I think academia.edu has more traction right now.
  • A page on your institutional site, if it’s available, so you can validate your affiliation. But don’t get comfortable! I notice that some universities delete the carefully built home pages of their academics who die or leave their institution, leaving us with no central repository of their work
  • Put all your publications in your library repository. This is a no-brainer – there’s a direct relation between doing this and citation rates.
  • Some kind of simple aggregator service, like Flavours Me, that puts up a ‘home page’ with links through to your other profiles.

If you’re more like me and you ENJOY mucking around on social media – or you want to experiment – add some more rooms! Some of these rooms will be like kitchens – fit for a purpose and relatively tidy. Others will be for play – like a cabana by the pool. My luxury waterfront mansion includes all of the services I mentioned above, plus:

  • Twitter
  • An outwardly facing Facebook fan page (a page that is connected to your account, but not part of your normal account)
  • Same thing on G+
  • Tumblr
  • Instagram
  • Pinterest
  • Mendeley / Zotero
  • The complete Google space (this could be a post on its own, so I wont go into detail other to say EVERYTHING THERE IS USEFUL)
  • Storify

How to present yourself to best advantage on each social media space is the next problem. What should you share? Who should you follow? Some people think it doesn’t matter much, but I disagree. How you decorate each ‘room’ in your house is important because it helps you decide what to do there, at the same time as telling others who you are.

This is identity work people! My favourite kind.

Let’s take Facebook as an example. Facebook is my loungeroom. I invite people in to see and comment on what is happening in my life, but I don’t show them the mess in my bathroom. A lot of complaining happens in the loungeroom, as well as showing of the holiday pictures.

Thus my criteria for friending someone is whether or not I would sit in my loungeroom with them and share my holiday snaps, thus I friend:

a) Family
b) People who I know and like in person
b) People I know I would like, should I ever meet them in person.

This last category is small because it takes more time. I’ll sometimes accept friendship requests, or extend them, because I’ve seen that person talking to other friends and laughed at what they have said, or I’ve talked to them on Twitter.

I do use Facebook as a way to access news too, so my Facebook fan page gives me a way to be a ‘news service’ in other people’s facebook feed, without putting pressure on them to come into my loungeroom. I’m not really interested in Google + or Linkedin, but I duplicate my news content there using Buffer, so I have a presence without having to actually be there (if that makes sense)

The building analogy sometimes needs a little creative thinking to be useful. I’m more relaxed about who I follow in Twitter because it’s more like the pub. I have conversations with people and follow them on the basis of that – but I am very careful about what I actually say. No one likes a messy drunk! Pinterest is clearly a kind of scrapbook, but I imagine it as a wall in the foyer of my house. I hang art there that tells people what kind of person I am, but not family photos. So making cool collections for other people to enjoy is my main activity.

Other social media platforms are more difficult to connect to a place, which brings me (finally) to Instagram. In some services you just must ‘dwell’ until the expressive potentials become clear. With Instagram this literally took years.

At first I downloaded the app and played with it. Instagram basically lets you muck around with images and post them to other sites. I could see the aesthetic appeal, but I couldn’t think of a use for it. For a couple of years it sat on my phone. I didn’t really use it, but couldn’t bring myself to delete it because, well – it was cool.

Friends who rarely make an appearance in Facebook and/or Twitter started telling me they were hanging out there, so I started just looking at everyday, to connect with them. I got very interested in the way they were presenting pieces of their lives, in particular the places they live and their hobbies. They were mindfully noting what was going on around them, but in playful and odd ways. I started to find that Instagram was relaxing and energising at the same time. I found myself there at odd times – on the couch on Sunday afternoons, or when I was alone on a bus or in an airport. Basically whenever I wasn’t particularly lonely, but open to company.

Finally it dawned on me. Instagram is Art*.

If it’s Art, then it’s like the verandah or my online house. It doesn’t have a purpose other than what it is: a nice place to be. It’s somewhere I can sit and just look out on the world, alone or in company. I can point out things from my balcony, but I don’t have to particularly engage with them or analyse anything. Now I know the purpose is not to have a particular purpose I am happy. I’ve relaxed about it and just strive to make my academic and home life into Art in Instagram.

It’s strangely enjoyable.

I’d be interested in what you think about this approach to social media strategy – is it helpful? Do you think of different rooms, or have another way to explain why you like some sites and not others? I’d be interested in hearing about it.

Oh and if you want to follow me on Instagram, you can find me here, but don’t expect me to be useful :-)

Related posts

An open letter to social media

Social media and your PhD

Why you should use Twitter

53 interesting ways to communicate your research

 Related links

White and Le Cournu’s concept of digital residents and digital visitors

People who find social interaction easy in real life will also find it easy online.

Tony Abbott’s questionable decision (!)

*I found out, by talking to people on Twitter as I wrote this, that my clever friend Dr Kylie Budge was on to the idea way before me – she’s got an open access paper about Instagram and art practice if you’re interested.


03/20/15 PHD comic: 'Carry on'

PhD Comics - March 21, 2015 - 12:21am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Carry on" - originally published 3/20/2015

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Four More Reasons People Quit the Ph.D.

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - March 18, 2015 - 5:00am

This post is by Hillary Rettig, author The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer’s Block. Hillary lives with her partner, a physics professor at a midwest liberal arts college, and her two fabulous rescue dogs. She is a vegan, a free software/free culture advocate, a living kidney donor, and a former foster mom to four Sudanese refugee teenagers (“Lost Boys”), now all adult and living independently. Hilary coaches academics: check out her online classes, and telecoaching services. You can view more of her work on How to Finish My Thesis and Life Long Activist

After reading (and commenting on) Dr. Mewburn’s recent fantastic article on Why People Quit the Ph.D., I wanted to add four more reasons to her list. As a writing productivity teacher and coach, I frequently see these among graduate students who are stuck.

1) Prior Harsh Rejection

While rejection is endemic to work and life, not all rejections are the same. Some are harsh enough that they undermine you in ways that make it difficult to get future work done. If left unhealed, such harsh rejections can easily derail a thesis and career.

Some harsh rejections are obvious, but others may not be. A good rule of thumb is that if you can remember a rejection, and especially if the memory elicits feelings of guilt, shame, or anger, then it was probably harsh. Also, keep in mind that rejection:

(a) Comes in many more forms than most people realize, and includes things like callousness, capriciousness, disparagement, diminishment, bias, marginalization, hypercriticality, hypocriticality (neglect), and ad hominem attack. And,

(b) Can come from many more sources than most people realize, including not just your supervisor and other professional colleagues, but friends and family, or even a news story that disparages your work. And,

Blindsiding is a common amplifier of rejection harshness, because when you’re blindsided—for instance, denied a job, publication, or other opportunity that you were absolutely sure you were going to get—your defenses are down. (Moderate your expectations, people!)

And perfectionism, as usual, only makes things worse, since perfectionists not only set unreasonably high standards for success, they tend to overidentify with their work, and so can take rejection extra hard.

Harsh rejection impairs your productivity by making you terrified to show your work—and so you procrastinate as a way of avoiding that. (If you don’t finish, you can’t show!).

The solution is two-fold:

(a) Start showing your work, even if only a paragraph or sentence at a time. (E.g., “What do you think of this paragraph? I know it needs editing, but I’m pretty proud of the main point.” Or, “Do you have any suggestions for this paragraph? I can’t quite get it right.”) Be very selective in whom you choose to share with, especially initially: neither your supervisor nor family members may be the right choice. Most graduate students benefit from having a “writing buddy” or two to provide moral support, and gentle feedback and encouragement: such a person would be a great choice, and you can also tell her exactly what feedback would be helpful. (“I just want your overall thoughts on the piece—please don’t worry about the grammar.”)

(b) Defuse the underlying traumatic rejection through discussions with sympathetic friends and colleagues, journaling, or therapy. In some cases, you can address the person who rejected you directly, especially if you feel that they are not fundamentally mean or vindictive. (That’s the best reason to only seek to work with good, kind, generous people, and avoid the others regardless of how illustrious they are.) They may not have meant to hurt you, and may not even be aware they did. By having a non-blamey heartfelt conversation, you may get your healing plus affirm the relationship.

2) Challenging / Traumatic Field Work and Other Research

Sometimes graduate students whose field work or other research was emotionally challenging are reluctant to “revisit” it via writing. I’ve seen this in students in fields like anthropology or sociology, and also in historians researching topics like genocide. If the student has a personal connection to the topic—e.g., his grandparents were Holocaust survivors—or has bonded with his research subjects, this can make the situation even more fraught.

Sometimes just acknowledging the emotional challenge is enough to defuse it, especially if you’ve got a good support network. Journaling can also help you sort out your feelings. But sometimes you need professional help to deal with what might be actual trauma or which, along with being a mental health issue, can seriously degrade your productivity.

If you are wondering whether you should seek out a professional for this kind of issue, you should probably just go ahead and do so.

Ideally, academic departments would recognize that some types of research have the potential to create emotional difficulties for students, and do some work to prepare students and minimize the harm. But I’ve never seen one that did.

3) An Activist Component

Many thesis projects either intentionally or unintentionally challenge the status quo, and therefore can be considered activist as well as academic projects. When you add activism to scholarship, you add layers of intellectual, emotional, and strategic complexity. Intellectually and emotionally, your work could challenge not just you, but your committee members or others. Strategically, it could limit your career options.

It’s wonderful if you want to combine academics and activism, but do so knowingly, and with abundant support from other scholar/activists. In particular, you will have to figure out how to balance your activism with your career goals, especially if you’re hoping for a job at a conservative institution – which is not necessarily a sell-out, by the way, since we need radical viewpoints inside the system as well as outside it. It’s also not a sell-out to: (a) incorporate your radical views gradually into your work, so that your thesis might not actually be that radical; (b) collaborate with nonradicals; or (c) present a conventional / nonthreatening appearance that makes its easier for your more traditional colleagues to accept your more radical message. In fact, these moves are often brilliantly strategic.

For more on what an activist mission entails, see my book on sustainable activism, The Lifelong Activist; entire text available for free at http://www.lifelongactivist.com ).

4) Research Qualms

“Not enough.”
“Not the right kind.”
“Too narrow.”
“Too theoretical.”
“Not as interesting as I thought.”
“If only I could go back and…”

Many graduate students are dissatisfied with the results of their research, and that dissatisfaction, especially when coupled with regret, remorse, guilt, etc., can cause them to stall on their writing. Second-guessing your research is a pure waste of time, however; if your supervisor and committee think your research is adequate, you should accept their judgment and focus on your writing.

More generally, a major challenge in many fields, including academia, is learning to live with, and keep working past, your mistakes (Here’s a terrific video on that) It only makes sense that you’ll make some mistakes and misjudgments in what is probably your first big research project; and you definitely want to comprehend your weaknesses (and strengths, of course) as a scholar. When, however, your self-analysis crosses the line into harsh perfectionism—which typically leads to unproductive procrastination and dithering—you’re not doing yourself any favors.

So, keep your critical eye, and definitely create the list of things you would have done better “had you only known.” Then take those steps—on your next project.

Related links

Why do people quit the PhD?

Should you quit your PhD?


03/16/15 PHD comic: 'Who owns your data?'

PhD Comics - March 18, 2015 - 1:45am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Who owns your data?" - originally published 3/16/2015

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03/13/15 PHD comic: 'Sick Day'

PhD Comics - March 13, 2015 - 10:29pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Sick Day" - originally published 3/13/2015

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03/11/15 PHD comic: 'Feeling sick'

PhD Comics - March 11, 2015 - 9:57pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Feeling sick" - originally published 3/11/2015

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Book review: Writing for peer reviewed journals

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - March 11, 2015 - 5:00am

Here at the Whisperer we know you read a lot, so we try to do some of the reading for you. There’s a lot of books out there on doing a PhD and being an academic – which ones should you buy?

If you are a regular reader you will know that Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler wrote one of my favourite books ‘Helping doctoral students write’. Last year they produced a book on writing for publication called ‘Writing for peer review journals: strategies for getting published’. Pat Thomson authors the fabulous ‘Patter’ blog and we collaborate on some mutual research interests, so it is fantastic that ANU PhD student Briony Lipton sent in this review and you can get an unbiased view!

Briony Lipton is a PhD candidate in Gender Studies in the School of Sociology. Her research explores the relationship between academic women, feminism and university leadership in Australian Higher Education. you can find Briony on Twitter as @briony_lipton

I am on the precipice of submitting a journal article for consideration, and so it is timely that I should read Writing for Peer Review Journals: Strategies for Getting Published (2013) by Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler, a fantastic text for the PhD student or early career researcher wanting to improve the success rate of journal manuscripts being accepted for publication and build confidence as a scholarly writer.

I am a bit nervous thinking about the prospect of sending off my manuscript. Actually, I am more than just a little worried. My entire body is filled with academic anxiety that I somehow have to alleviate every day in order to sit at the computer and write. What’s worse is that I actually enjoy academic research and the writing process. Developing an argument that makes you feel like you can change the world; that you are contributing to new knowledge. It is my passion, and when I write (what I hope is) a wonderfully juicy and critically engaging sentence or paragraph, I just want to high-five myself (is that weird?).

Academic writing can be such a fun and creative experience. It is at this point, just when I am about to say to myself: ‘Briony, you are a genius, this is your destiny – you go girl!’ that the self-doubt begins to creep in: ‘is my analysis strong enough? Is my argument valid? Do I know enough about this topic that I am researching; that everyone keeps telling me that I am ‘becoming the expert in’?’ All my endorphins riding the waves of my academic enthusiasm dissipate and I am left with that gut-wrenching feeling that prevents me from pressing ‘send’ on my journal article submission, and forces me to close that folder in which a first, second, third…tenth draft sits, never to be proof-read again.

What Thomson and Kamler succinctly articulate in Writing for Peer Review Journals is that this is the catch-22 of publishing. Researchers feel that they need confidence in order to feel ready to publish, but in order to develop confidence they need to experience having their work published, and herein lies the conceptual trap: scholarly writers need that confidence, which they internalise and claim they do not have, in order to get their work published in the first place. As Thomson and Kamler state: ‘the key to the journal article is not only having an argument, but also the stance to assert its significance’.

As most readers may already be aware, academics are working in what has been aptly phrased as a ‘publish or perish’ higher education environment. Publications are now the measure of quality of research in academia both in Australia and overseas. Combine the underfunded expansion of Australian universities with a reduction in permanent or continuing academic positions, and the precariousness of the academic enterprise becomes all too real. Researchers’ anxieties over publishing are not unwarranted. Thomson describes her recent experience ranking of applications for a three year post doctorate award at her institution. The highest scoring candidate was:

… five years out of the PhD and already had five books and numerous journal articles. The sheer quantity of this output was almost impossible for any other applicant to come near.

I was shocked! Indeed, how could I possibly compete with a curriculum vitae like that? However, Thomson and Kamler qualify:

… this emergent cut-throat academic world is not one we wish to support and we are not writing this book simply to service these kinds of audit and competitive regimes’.

Thomson resides at the University of Nottingham, England, and Kamler at Deakin University in Australia. The British and Australian higher education contexts are not dissimilar and as such observations and experiences of the neoliberal corporatised university in operation and the motivations behind academic publishing described in Writing for Peer Review Journals can be applied in Australia, as well as across the United Kingdom and much of Europe. This is not just a ‘how-to’ book. Instead, Thomson and Kamler are fantastic at weaving together the theories and practices of academic writing with the complexities and contradictions that come packaged with scholarly writing in performative times.

Writing for Peer Review Journals offers a step-by-step approach. Pitched at all levels of academia (because don’t we all know a professor whose academic writing and structure could do with some improvement). The language and style of writing in the text is inclusive and articulate and does not undermine the experience and abilities of its reader. Thomson and Kamler cite that the text’s point of difference is in its focus on ‘the production, nature and sustainability of scholarship’. They approach academic writing strategies with a new conceptual framework; one that connects the writer, and text, with disciplinary, and national and international contexts.

For Thomson and Kamler: ‘learning is a process of becoming’ and this makes Writing for Peer Review Journals profoundly pedagogical. The text is filled with experiential and practical advice as well as qualitative interviews with academic writers, journal editors, and peer reviewers. Writing is not a straight forward linear process and the chapters are structured in a way that reflects this. However, it is easy text to navigate, and depending on where you are in your writing journey, you may wish to jump straight to particular areas of the text that you find relevant to your needs.

Although this text is such an enjoyable read, you may find yourself flicking back and forth to read all sections because every chapter has something to offer regardless of what stage you are at in the writing process. I found chapter one, “The Writer” to be particularly affecting. Thomson and Kamler’s words encouraged and emboldened me as they revealed the depth of their knowledge, experience and understanding of the issues that surround academic writing. Writing a journal article for publication is as much about the text as it is about the formation of one’s academic identity: ‘it creates the scholar who, at the end of writing, will be different to the writer who began’. The focus is on targeting the reader that you want your writing to engage with, rather than on the writing itself.

Writing for Peer Review Journals certainly dishes out the truth-bombs of publishing and I found this to be refreshing. The quantification of academic research via measurements of research quality and output has somewhat shifted the intentions of academic publishing and as a consequence scholars are either intentionally forgetting or perhaps unaware of the etiquettes that should be applied in the process of submitting a journal article for consideration. Now, I’m not talking about some old-fashioned propriety. It is about getting your journal editors and peer reviewers on-side. It is about creating a culture of collegiality, collaboration, and respect, which in the hyper-competitive neoliberal academy seems to be very much lacking.

So, respect your peer-reviewers, okay! Put in your best effort. Don’t expect your reviewers to offer feedback on work that is not ready. Although, please don’t feel anxious about this. Maybe these are also the first steps towards creating a culture of feedback where we rarely ever read snooty or contemptuous reviewer comments. Similarly, it is okay to not submit your articles to the top-ranked journals in your field. It is, as Thomson and Kamler point out, about making a contribution; one that clearly articulates why your research is important and why your intended readership should care about your research not just about point scoring.

While most high achieving PhD students and early career researchers should already be familiar with the discourses of the journals they wish to publish in and how to target their papers toward the specific audiences of those desired journals, this book nevertheless deserves a read because its content goes beyond what you can learn on the ‘instructions for authors’ page on the Taylor and Francis or Sage websites and tells you more than the vague 150 word ‘aims and scope’ description on the journal’s homepage. Even experienced writers may find something useful in Writing for Peer Review Journals (editor’s note: this is true!)

This book offers practical tips such as organising and structuring your writing sessions, and developing a timetable for research and publication to maximise your time and achieve your goals. Then there is the ever important chapter on “Engaging with Reviewers and Editors”, which demystifies what happens to your journal article in the peer review process and how to respond. I found this to be a particularly useful chapter as it was the part of the whole publishing process that I knew least about. Thomson and Kamler even provide a chapter on “Writing with Others” which I strongly encourage all to read, but this may be of most interest to humanities and early career researchers. Collaborative writing is integral to building your writing portfolio and it demonstrates to interview panels and promotion committees your ability to work in a team.

If you want to take your journal article submissions to the next level, I thoroughly recommend you read this book. Writing for Peer Review Journals will reinvigorate your writing purpose and make you want to open up that old Word document you have been avoiding and take another look at it. It is time for me to reassess my approach to writing for publication and submit that journal article. Wish me luck!

Good luck Briony! How about you? Have you read ‘Writing for Peer reviewed journals’? What did you think? Interested in your views in the comments. If you want to buy the book through our Amazon Store your purchase will donate money to the blog.

Related Posts

The two best books on doing a PhD

5 books to help you with your PhD

53 interesting ways to communicate your research

The Thesis Whisperer Amazon Store


03/04/15 PHD comic: 'A friendly reminder'

PhD Comics - March 6, 2015 - 9:48am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "A friendly reminder" - originally published 3/4/2015

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My thesis is a cupcake, not a dragon

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - March 4, 2015 - 5:00am

My twin sister, Anitra Nottingham, finished her masters by research in the Faculty of education at the University of Melbourne last year. She sent me this post when she was towards the end of her project in a moment of clarity…

My friend Kevin has a Ph.D. His dissertation is about folklore, which means knows a lot about the power of analogy and metaphor. Just recently he gave me the most apt description of how it feels to write a thesis.

“Oh, it’s like a raven on your shoulder” he said over drinks “squawking at you every time you try to have a life.”

Then he told me a story of when he was where I am now (almost finished but not quite). He was wrestling with his conclusion and he went to see a sympathetic faculty member. “It’s a dragon breathing fire on me” he told her “but  you know, I am fighting, I have my sword…”

At which point she interrupted.

“Oh honey” she said “why don’t you ever talk about your dissertation like you talk about the things you like to do?” Then she asked him, “What do you actually like to do?”

To which he replied that he likes cooking, and when prompted further, that actually he loves to cook soup in particular. That he loves everything about making soup. The chopping, the frying and the mixing, the smell, the way the ingredients all came together to make something more than themselves, something delicious. He especially liked, he told her, to share soup he made with friends. Most of all, he enjoyed seeing them eat his soup.

“Isn’t that a nicer way of talking about a thesis?” Kevin asked me. Then he told me how this conversation changed everything for him. He stopped thinking of his thesis as a dragon that he had to slay, and more like a beautiful bowl of soup that he was meticulously preparing and serving to his readers.

Me? I like to make elaborate birthday cakes for my children. There’s the space shuttle with 36 candles on one side (so it was “taking off”) the failed, but ambitious, greek temple, the giraffe, the penguin, the pyramid, the… well… you get the picture.

I like the challenge of a novelty birthday cake, it requires creativity, patience, a steady hand, and usually involves some kind of equipment. Sure, you can get burned, sometimes cakes look amazing, sometimes less so but however they turn out I like watching my kids blow the candles out. I like that they will (hopefully) remember one day that I made that cake just for them. I know I put my best effort, my best self really, into making those cakes.

So from now on my thesis isn’t a raven, it’s not a dragon, and it’s not a pain in my a** (actually, it was, but that’s a story for another day).

No, from now on, it’s a cupcake.

A lovely, beautifully decorated (maybe slightly imperfect, like all homemade things are) cupcake. A cupcake that someone is going to (hopefully) admire while they read it, and (hopefully) remember, and enjoy. One day, when I am ready, I shall do my Ph.D—and it shall be a cake. A great big, probably fruit-filled, substantial, cake.

So how about you? Is your thesis a dragon, or a cupcake? What do you like to do? Does this help you think your thesis as something you like to do.

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Thesis Prison

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - February 25, 2015 - 5:00am

Family Thesiswhisperer has spent the last month in our hometown of Melbourne. We caught up with many friends and relatives while we were there, some of whom are doing or have just completed doctorates. One friend got pregnant twice during her doctorate and had a longer journey than most. While we raised a glass to her recent gradaution I asked her how it felt to be done. “Liberating!” she said “But the last three months was hell. No one avoids that bit right?”.

I nodded emphatically. No matter how well you plan it, there is bound to be a certain period of time where your thesis will dominate your life once you decide it’s time to get it Out the Door.

Part of the problem is that a thesis is such a long project. Many of us have to go back to a full time job before it’s entirely finished. Still more of us study part time from the very beginning and have to juggle multiple commitments the whole time. When your thesis time demands increase they can temporarily squeeze out all the other things that normally keep you sane.

Exercise, socialising, The Good Wife TV marathons are the kinds of things that get cut in order to make way for the thesis. It’s a bit like shrink wrapping your life so that only the boring working bits are left. After about a month or so you can feel like you are in Thesis Prison playing scrabble with the Warden. It’s a rare person who doesn’t get a bit stir crazy.

Thesis Prison is similar to the Valley of Shit, but without the self doubt because there’s no time left. March is peak time for thesis submission in Australia, so I’m sure some of you are in Thesis Prison right now. I can sympathise. Recently I started counting calories and running in an effort to lose my ‘baby weight’ (I should add – my baby is now 13 and taller than me). Over a couple of months I have lost a dress size, but I often felt like I was back in Thesis Prison.

So here are 4 tips for getting fit and/or surviving Thesis Prison. I’d love to hear how you are dealing with Thesis Prison in the comments.

Put on your damn shoes

Even though we all know that having a routine is valuable, sticking to it is much easier said than done. Although I’ve come to enjoy running, I almost always don’t really want to do it. But if I put on my running shoes I know I will eventually I will force myself to go because I’ve started the process.

Routines consist of smaller actions done in a certain order.

So, just sit down at your desk and start doing something. Anything. Try some small, but necessary tasks. Good examples are filing and tagging references in your database, cleaning and formatting data, copy editing etc. If you find you are developing a new kind of deferment activity, set a timer to limit it by using the pomodoro technique.

Conversely, just open your document anywhere and pick a place to start writing. Tell yourself that you can always throw it out if it’s crap. Or start reviewing your writing with Claire Aitchinson’s ‘storyline’ technique (described here by Cassily Charles) or Rachael Cayley’s ‘reverse outlines’. Both of these techniques are great for zooming out from a close engagement with your text to see the bigger picture. They can also help you spot opportunities for new writing.

It’s all about time served

Nobody even noticed my lifestyle changes until I’d lost nearly 10 kgs, which took around 3 months. Most of the time I just felt like I was missing out on all the cake and getting nowhere. Similarly Thesis Prison can be disheartening because Progress is often invisible. It’s possible to spend a whole day at your desk and feel like you have achieved nothing.

One solution is to visualise the progress somehow.

If I weigh myself once a week or measure my waist I can see the progress. I use the running apps on my phone to measure distance travelled and calories consumed. Likewise when I was doing my thesis I stuck a piece of graph paper on the wall next to me and charted my progress by colouring in a block for every 1000 words. We follow a similar principle in our Thesis Bootcamps where we hand out squeezy lego blocks for every 5000 words written. It sounds silly, but it works. Of course, there’s an app for that! Try the Writing Journal or use the progress bar tool in Scrivener.

Don’t compare yourself to the other runners

You see the same people running in your neighbourhood. There was one woman I started to think of as the Queen of Running. She always looked immaculate and barely seemed to raise a sweat as she lapped me easily. I stared at her enviously as I huffed around the park feeling like death warmed up.

Compared to the Queen of Running I felt like a faker, or at least totally inadequate. Then one day a friend stopped me on campus to say she’d seen me out on my run and nearly didn’t recognise me because I ‘looked like a pro’. She said I had inspired her to start running (presumably because if I could do it anyone could) and asked me if I could give her some tips. I was astonished. I just assumed I looked the way I felt on the inside while I was running.

The lesson? Thesis Prison distorts your perception of yourself. Everyone is running their own race. Just concentrate on winning yours.

Change it up

Running can be boring, so it’s necessary to change the route often and spend money on whole new playlists and outfits (that’s my excuse anyway).

Writing can be really boring, so try a diagram, or a matrix to progress your wrtiting in different formats. I have a hand out here which shows how you can use a spider diagram to ask questions. There is a good page here, designed for primary school teachers, full of other writing diagrams you can play with.

Alternatively, you could try setting up a matrix to play with your thoughts and see if you can make connections between ideas. There’s a good description of the basic concept on the My Studious LIfe Blog (where I stole the idea from) and I have worked this up into a handout you can print out and work from. A matrix is a helpful way to write because, while it forces some  hierarchy on your thoughts, it frees you up from having to make transitions or think about what order ideas should be presented in an argument. I’ve written more about both these approaches in my post about how to write faster.

A drastic solution is to take yourself to a new location where you have no choice but to finish. You could go on a research retreat; read Kylie Budge’s story about going to New York to finish her thesis for inspiration.

I still have another 12 kgs of baby weight to lose. I hope these techniques keep working for me. How about you? How are you coping with Thesis Prison? Any tips for your fellow prisoners?

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The Post PhD Blues

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - February 18, 2015 - 5:00am

This post is written by Brian Flemming, a mathematician working as a Systems Engineer in Edinburgh.  He has recently completed an Engineering Doctorate (EngD) as a mature student at Heriot Watt University, which he found an intensive and enjoyable experience, and which he credits with greatly increasing the effectiveness and authority of his work.  He is now appreciating the freedom to continue studying and spend time away on the hills, without the associated “PhD-guilt” of neglecting the books …

When Brian sent me this post I could instantly relate. In fact, this blog is the outcome of my own PhD blues where I needed something meaningful, creative and interesting back in my life. I know many people who have finished and express similar sentiments. Here are Brian’s thoughts.

One of the posts that caught my eye recently commented on the career prospects for the newly-qualified PhD, especially outside academia.  Getting a job in the first place — especially in today’s economic climate — is naturally of concern.  But the post-study period can be an unsettling time for a number of other reasons involving a range of emotions, which I’ll refer to collectively as the “post PhD blues”.

I’m in a different situation than most, in that the job I’m doing now is the same as before I started my thesis.  In December 2008, I started working on an Engineering Doctorate (EngD) alongside my “day-job”. 1,731 days later I submitted my thesis for examination, and was immensely proud to graduate as Doctor of Engineering last June.

I had always harboured an ambition to do a PhD, but it seemed unlikely that a suitable opportunity would ever arise.  Entrance to post-graduate education is increasingly competitive and expensive, and is practically inaccessible to those without some form of 3rd-party backing.  One would have to be highly motivated and determined (or wealthy enough) to make the attempt otherwise.  To someone like me, having already established a career, the chances of becoming a mature student seemed a pipedream.  Naturally, I jumped at the chance when our universities liaison manager asked if I wanted to do an EngD.  An EngD is a PhD-equivalent qualification combining technical research and study with an MBA component.  Without any further prompting I came up with a project that interested me, and which was subsequently accepted by management and the university.  I was in.

The four-and-a-half years or so I spent grafting away at my studies were an extraordinarily intense experience; tremendously hard work, of course, stimulating, frustrating, depressing and exhilarating in equal measure, but ultimately personally very rewarding.  Passing the viva so convincingly was truly a high point.  I felt on top of the world.  A PhD represents a pinnacle of learning, a measure of achievement to which considerable amounts of time and effort, as well as emotional commitment, have been devoted.  Who hasn’t suffered pangs of uncertainty over whether a line of research will be successful, or merely end up as a waste of time?  More worryingly, will your efforts be good enough to convince the examiners that you are worthy of a doctorate?  To put it bluntly, a PhD is b****y hard work and exacts a great toll on one’s character to see it through to the end.  A doctorate provides status in a society that values success.  No wonder the sense of triumph at the end can be so potent, and the glow of personal pride so strong.

I have to admit being disappointed in the glow of my viva success not to have received greater recognition from my employers.  But, no matter how elated I was feeling personally, reality had to kick in at some point.  There are plenty of PhD-level engineers working in the company, so one more wasn’t going to make much of a difference to its prospects.  There’s also plenty of R&D going on elsewhere in other departments.  My research interests had simply to compete for attention amongst all other claims for development funding.  The first of my “post-PhD blues” is that not everyone will share your excitement at getting a PhD, or will necessarily see the same value in your research as you do.  Those close to you will of course be pleased and share in your delight, but the wider world isn’t necessarily going to be bowled over by your accomplishment.  In short, your hard-won sense of achievement is likely to be deflated sooner or later.

Post-PhD Blue #2 concerns the process of getting back to ordinary life after completing the PhD.  Suddenly, there’s the “what-on-earth-do-I-do-now-in-the-evenings-and-at-weekends” syndrome to cope with.  For three or more years you were effectively your own boss managing your thesis from inception to completion, while having to satisfy the “must-have-it-now” demands of supervisors, university departments and sponsors alike.  Whatever else you’ve had to cope with, you’ve spent long hours chasing references, and agonised over the wording of every paragraph.  You’ve burned copious amounts of midnight oil, and had critical ideas at the most unlikely hours.  After living the “PhD-lifestyle” for so long you’ve forgotten what it is like to live an ordinary 9-to-5 existence.  Instead of those heady days obsessed with papers, presentations and conferences there’s now the tedium of the weekly timesheet and management priorities to cope with.  You might have hated it at the time, but you’ll gradually realise that that period in your life when you stretched your brain on the rack was a veritable paradise compared with the daily humdrum of the profit motive.

My final “post-PhD blue” is that a PhD isn’t an automatic ticket to a better life.  You might expect that the doors to promotion and a higher salary would open automatically, or that there would be a sure-fire guarantee of a place on the interview shortlist.  Unfortunately, life isn’t quite that easy.  For one thing, you’ll likely as not be over-qualified for a large number of jobs on offer.  Moreover, experience and industry-specific knowledge will often rank as high for the prospective employer as do theoretical skills and academic attainment: lack of the necessary experience can militate against the short list, no matter good you are academically.  As ever, it is also still as much “who-you-know” as “what-you-know” that gets you in line for the job you want.  Networking skills are still important for the post-doc, even for preferment within a company.

You might not experience any of the above and adjust to post-PhD life without any difficulty.  Others might not be so fortunate.  We should, of course, aim to get the best out of our hard-worn qualification whatever our circumstances.  However, my experience is that a PhD/EngD is ultimately about personal fulfilment and satisfaction.  Anything else is a bonus.

What do you think? Have you suffered the PhD blues? Or do you have plans on how to avoid it? Love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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So, you’re starting a PhD?

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - February 11, 2015 - 5:00am

This month, all around Australia, there will be a whole crop of PhD students starting their degree. It’s an exciting time, but a nerve-wracking one as well. Here’s another post to help you start your journey!

This post is by Erika Harris, PhD Candidate. Erika has a Master’s degree in Education, General Education and has worked in instructional design and development in both corporate and higher education settings in the U.S & Australia. Currently Erika is an educational developer, elearning, for RMIT designing online and hybrid courses working with academics in the higher education and vocational education sectors. In this post Erika reflects on the advice given about why NOT to do a PhD and why you would still give it a go anyway.

I am a new PhD student, and have been reading and conversing with current and past PhD students and have come to the sad conclusion that there are more cons to doing a PhD than there are pros.

The cons include the fact that a PhD can:

  1. take over your life
  2. stop you from having time with your family
  3. stop you from exercising
  4. get you into a mental funk
  5. mentally exhaust you
  6. create obstacles in relationships (both professional and personal)
  7. suck up all of your waking moments
  8. make you feel guilty when you are not working on you PhD
  9. make you feel guilty when taking a break
  10. seep into your every waking and sleeping moments of thought
  11. question your intelligence
  12. question your confidence
  13. realizing that I have to learn to play the PhD game

The pros of completing a PhD include the fact that a PhD can:

  • help me gain confidence
  • open up career doors
  • provide a sense of accomplishment
  • show my children that life-long learning is a part of their life too
  • first person in my entire family to reach this level of education

And that’s all I have for the pros. I understand that many readers of this post will say ‘wait, there are so many more pros to completing a PhD’, that may be so for the reader, but maybe not for me. I would like to know about more the pros for completing a PhD, so if you have more please let me know.

With that said, although I have only five pros, and 13 cons, why on earth would I complete one? That’s a very good question. One that I needed to think about before I wrote this post. For me, there are two very personal reasons why:

  1. I want my children to understand that learning is life-long. That mom is doing her ‘homework’ while they are doing theirs. As they are in primary school, we are all sitting together in the evening and getting our ‘homework’ done. Even if they don’t attend university when they are older, I am hoping to instil in them a quest for learning that doesn’t have to end, ever.
  2. Being first in my family to reach this level of education is important to me. Simple as that.

It seems that in the beginning it’s like when I was pregnant. I had so many other women come up to me and tell me their horror stories about being pregnant. Stories that I didn’t want to hear about. It’s the same with the PhD. I have had many conversations with people who have only told me about their horror stories of completing a PhD. It’s like, I will do it anyway, whether it’s going to be good – bad – or otherwise, but most of the journey will be up to me, and I will be in the driver’s seat navigating this journey. Of course, there will be obstacles placed in my way that I will have no control over, but ultimately I am the person who has chosen to go down the PhD route, so I will do my best to maintain control.

It’s possible that this control comes from naiveté of not knowing the PhD journey. It’s possible that my optimism comes from excitement on being on this journey. Maybe it’s just the newness of it all. I certainly do know that I don’t want my PhD to take over my life; I do know that I want to complete it. I do know that I don’t want it to take years (and I mean years) to complete it. I do know that I want my children to come along this journey with me.

I also know that I want to hear about the great stories and great journeys and all the pros of doing a PhD. So if any one has any good stories, please share them. I think that many new PhD candidates need to hear about those great stories, and not just the difficult/tough/hard/sad stories that are out there.

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What I Wish We Taught First Years

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - February 4, 2015 - 5:00am

This month, all around Australia, there will be a whole crop of PhD students starting their degree. It’s an exciting time, but a nerve-wracking one as well. Last time we heard from Jonathan Downie he was parenting a toddler. This time Jonathan has some good words of advice for those of you just starting on your PhD journey. You can read more about Jonathan and his work on his blog Rock Your Talk.

By the time this goes live, most of us will be well into the academic year and getting used to cycles of supervision meetings, reading, classes, seminars and conferences. For those of you who have just started your PhD, this is about the time when you realise that if you weren’t a nerd before, you will be one soon.

By the time I got about six months into my PhD, I was heading for THAT meeting. My early optimism (or should I call it cockiness?) was about to give way to humility and anxiety and I was wondering how I would manage to balance full-time freelancing and part-time research. Despite that, I still tell each new set of first years that the first two years of the PhD are the best two years.

I also try to pass on some of the things I wish I had done more (or less) during that time.

First on the list, oddly, is that I wish I had found a better work/relaxation/thinking rhythm. If I am honest, most of the issues I hit in first year came about because I got into the practice working long hours and sending early drafts to my supervisors without doing a sanity check over their contents. I had this insane thought that my first ideas would be my best ideas. Only the experience of having an early paper sent back for heavy revisions, and a colleague who recently read a paper draft and advised me to drop an argument I have been sitting on for over three years made me realise that ideas take time to mature.

As I mentioned in a post about how to write good talks, it is a mistake to assume that you can write a talk or a paper or a thesis going straight from idea to execution or from data analysis to finished chapter. It simply doesn’t happen like that. Your brain works best when you are calm, unstressed and when you let it work on things at its own pace. This absolutely includes taking days off, holidays and time with your family and friends. Not only will those around you thank you for taking time off, so will your thesis.

Your thesis and your mental health desperately need balance. This leads to the second thing I have learned: I need to recognise the difference between healthy diversion and damaging distraction.

Walk into a PhD student office and you are as likely to see social media or the news on their computer screens as you are to see journal articles or drafts of chapters. I am not about to sit here condemning. I do it too. However, what I have found is that I need to recognise when and how non-research web use is becoming damaging.

Here I don’t mean internet addiction but simply using the web, or email or anything else as a form of escapism to hide from issues. It could be a reaction to deadline pressure or a difficult meeting or just weariness but it is all too easy to bury yourself in some behaviour and find it becoming your routine for coping with difficulties in your PhD.

There are two problems with this. The first is that once you start this behaviour, it can be hard to stop. You can easily end up repeating that behaviour whenever you have a challenging task, losing time and making the situation worse, leading to more of the same behaviour. The second problem is that, rather than helping you calm, it can make your emotions worse, especially if you get caught in the trap of getting into heated discussions online or getting angry at those who challenge you.

If you notice yourself getting into these cycles, you need to honestly recognise which way out will work for you. My own method is to use leechblock to stop the cycles developing in the first place. I simply input my usual time wasting sites and get it to restrict my access. For other people, outside help in the form of counselling might be needed. You really do need to be honest with yourself and this includes trying to figure out better behaviours that will help you deal with issues rather than avoiding them. My personal favourite is going home early. You would be amazed at the boost you get from one hour less on campus.

The last thing I wish I learned is that the “h” in PhD doesn’t stand for hero. We all want to change the world, write the most quoted paper, engage with world leaders and end the war on something or other. One day, we might do it. But those things are not prerequisites for graduation. A PhD thesis has to be an original piece of work that addresses a specific research question in a rigorous way. That’s it.

While you should never lose your fire for big things, we have to be realistic about what we can achieve within 3 or 4 years. In fact, it is only realism that can help you stay excited for all those bigger dreams. Once you realise that your PhD doesn’t need to change the world but can be a springboard, it releases you from the pressure to be perfect and to write like Inger Mewburn or Pat Thomson from day one. As the famous quote says “there are two types of thesis: perfect ones and submitted ones.” May yours be one of the latter!

Thanks Jonathan! If you could go back in a time machine and tell your first year self one piece of advice what would it be?

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Book Review: Ethics and Values in Social Research, Paul Ransome

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - January 28, 2015 - 5:00am

Here at the Whisperer we try to make your life easier by reading books and doing reviews. We try to review books which would appeal to most researchers, but some of the books we get sent have more specific audiences in mind. “Ethics and Values in Social research” by Paul Ransome is clearly designed for those in the humanities and social sciences doing field based research. I decided it had just wide enough appeal for us to review, but if you are in the sciences you might want to stop reading now (I wont be offended).

I was lucky enough to find two students engaged exactly this kind of research to review the book for us. Sandra Lauer is a volunteer member of the NSW Rural Fire Service, and is studying rural fire brigades and the concept of “shared responsibility” for her PhD at ANU. Jennifer Upchurch is a member of the youth service organisation, Rotaract, and is doing an ethnographic study of Australian Rotaract Clubs for her PhD at ANU.

Missing from many introductory social research textbooks is the connection to this bigger picture; an acknowledgment of the ways in which social researchers are part of what we are researching and how this may affect the participants and activities within our research.

As social researchers located in a specific discipline, the history and traditions of the discipline offer us theoretical frameworks from which we design, develop and conduct our research. Occasionally, there is a tendency to get lost in the academic jargon and literature of these traditions and we risk becoming distanced from the social world we are trying to investigate. Conversely, for those engaging as “Complete Member Researchers” (Adler 1987:35), it is also easy to become so involved in the social world of the researched that disciplinary traditions become distanced from our experiences in the field.

This tension increases the need to be reflexive about the research process; what is our ontology (how we see the world) and epistemology (how we understand knowledge) and what are the relationships between them? The bigger picture here also involves understanding ethics and values in considering our relationship and ethical responsibilities to our participants.

In Paul Ransome’s book, Ethics and Values in Social Research, we were pleasantly surprised to find an honest and open examination of the links between ethics, ontology and epistemology and how these drive the ethical and moral practice of the researcher.  This book gets researchers to think about the bigger picture by posing a series of ethical and methodological exercises to help strengthen reflexivity in their research practice.

Both of us are “Complete Member-Researchers” (Adler 1987) in that we are members of the populations they are studying. Because of this, we often talk together about how this impacts on our ethical responsibilities to our participants. Upon seeing this book advertised to review, we wondered, how might a book like this be used in helping research students to craft their ethics applications, methodology and methods chapters, and encourage reflexivity throughout the process?

The book starts with a rather traditional discussion of the definitions of ethics and values, and how these underpin the codes of professional and ethical practice, including a historical overview and practical examples. This section gives a good grounding in the practicalities of human ethics applications and ethical research design.  Ransome then puts researchers under the microscope in examining how the process of becoming an “ethical researcher” is socially constructed, for example by ethics statements and the institutional-legal side of the human ethics application process. Ransome reminds us that these procedures are a safeguard to ensure that the moral conscience of the researcher is engaged in the design of research itself.

The following chapters deal with the underlying philosophical principles of knowledge (epistemology) and reality/being (ontology) and link this back to how different research traditions will differ with their methodologies. The book provides in-depth discussions about reflection and reflexivity, the challenges of critical research and the complexities of ideological/political/value standpoints for social researchers. It is here that the book excels, taking the reader on a journey that highlights how different methodological paradigms impact on research design and the choice of methods, and how these then integrate with ethical considerations and value judgments.

The later chapters discuss different types of participatory social research, e.g. action research, and how these denote different research motivations and thus different ethical responsibilities to participants. In examining the “best practice” of reflexive practice, and drawing on the methodological discussion in previous chapters, Ransome encourages the reader to imagine themselves within the context of the research community around them, not just in the field with their participants. In a conversational tone, the book’s focus moves repeatedly from the researched to the researcher and back again. At times this is a little dizzying and a lot to process, but it is a conversation into which the reader cannot help but be drawn, as they question their relationships with their participants.

The final chapter looks at policy making from the standpoint of the researcher. It considers the researcher’s position in the current environment where policy outcomes are only measurable in the context of other policies and their outcomes. Ransome does some intellectual “heavy-lifting”, discussing how this might impact on the intentions of the social researcher in how they seek to affect change through policy, and consequently how this re-defines the ethics of research design itself.

We highly recommend this book as a “methodological gymnasium” for social researchers at any stage of the research process. For beginners in higher research planning their project proposals and reviews, the book allows you to chart the links between all of those ‘ologies in your research design and pave the way for much more reflexive project. For people who are halfway through a thesis, this book has prompts for helping you think about how your research outputs are motivated by your values. And for people writing up, this book might help you decode how your findings reflect your relationships with your participants.

To sum up, Ethics and Values in Social Research reminds researchers that reflexivity acts as a means for us to ethically respect ourselves and others in the research process:

“embracing the idea of reflexivity, we must accept that from the very moment the research process begins in the imagination of the researcher, social research is, in a truly experiential sense, a learning process for the social researcher.” (Ransome 2013:168)

This book will help you along in that learning process, at whichever stage you may find yourself.

References:

Adler, P. A. (1987). Membership roles in field research (Vol. 6). Sage.

Other book reviews on the Whisperer

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BITE: recipes for remarkable research

Study skills for international postgraduates

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How to fail your Viva

Mapping your thesis

Demystifying dissertation writing


How to write 10,000 words a day

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - January 16, 2015 - 3:09pm

One of the most popular posts on the Thesis Whisperer is How to write 1000 words a day and not go bat shit crazy. Last year a Twitter follower brought to my attention a post called How I went from writing 2000 words to 10,000 words a day by the fiction writer Rachel Aaron.

I did a double take.

Can you really write 10,000 words a day? Well, Rachel says she can, with three conditions:

1) Know what you are going to write before you write it
2) Set aside a protected time to write, and
3) Feel enthusiastic about what you are writing

I read the post with interest. Much of what Rachel did conformed with what I suggest in my earlier post, but I couldn’t bring myself to really believe Rachel’s productivity claims. To regularly write 10,000 words: It’s the dream, right? Imagine if you could reliably write 10,000 words a day, how long would it take to finish your thesis… A week? How about a journal paper – a day?

Impossible!

Or so I thought.

I’m now a 10,000 words a day believer because I have been watching students write even more than this in a single day at the Thesis Bootcamps we run at ANU.

The Thesis Bootcamp formula was developed by Liam Connell and Peta Freestone of the University of Melbourne. Thesis Bootcamp (and the veteran’s days which follow) is a total program designed to help late stage PhD students finish their thesis document (In some countries this document is called the ‘dissertation’, but I will use the Australian term ‘thesis’ here). The Thesis Bootcamp concept is simple – put a whole lot of PhD students in a room for a whole weekend and set them the goal of writing 20,000 words each.

Yes – you heard me right.

At every Thesis Bootcamp we have run, at least one student will achieve this goal, and many write many more words than they thought they would. In a previous post Peta Freestone and Liam Connell wrote about the ideas behind Thesis Bootcamp. In this post I want to reflect on Rachel Aaron’s threefold advice and put in the context of thesis writing.

1) Know what you are going to write before you write it

Composing a Thesis requires you to do different types of writing. Some of this writing is ‘generative’ in that it helps you form and articulate ideas by… just writing as much as you can, not as well as you can. It works best when you don’t second-guess yourself too much. The philosophy is ‘make a mess and then clean it up’. Perfectionist writers have a problem doing this, which is why we see so many perfectionists at our Bootcamps.

At Bootcamp we teach our students to focus the generative writing energy to productive effect. An important step in this process is for the student to spend at least a week making a ‘Thesis map’  before they come to Bootcamp. The map is essentially a series of sub-headings which the students use as prompts for composing new text, or re-using existing text.

Students, particularly those in the humanities and arts, tend to agonise over the Thesis document ‘structure’. I think the anxiety stems from the idea that ‘Thesis structure’ is some kind of perfect platonic form they need to discover.

It’s important to realise that structure is made, not found. Thesis structure is strongly influenced by disciplinary precedent and the content of the Thesis itself. A history PhD it might follow a timeline from the past to the present; a science PhD might echo the order of the experiments that have been performed. But multi-disciplinary PhDs, or PhDs in ‘polyglot’ disciplines like education, do not have comfortable traditions. This means you’ll have to make the structure up. Try the following technique:

  • Try to capture an overview of the Thesis by completing the following sentences from the work of Rowena Murray):
    • This Thesis contributes to knowledge by…
    • This Thesis is important because…
    • The key research question is….
    • The sub-questions are….
  • Decide how long your Thesis will be. Most universities have a maximum word count. Aim for your Thesis to be at least 2/3 of this total (it’s likely you will write more than this, but this gives you some wriggle room).
  • Make a document with chapter headings and word counts next to them. Include an introduction of 2000 – 3000 words followed by up to seven chapters of equal length and a conclusion of around 4000 – 5000 words.
  • Under the conclusion heading write a rough list of points you think will go in there (hint – these should be answers to the research questions you have posed). Study these closely – have you got data, theories, evidence and arguments to support these conclusions? These concluding points, singularly or in combination, will form the ‘key learnings’ of the Thesis – the knowledge and ideas you want your readers to absorb.
  • Each chapter should have at least one key learning in it, maybe more. Under each chapter heading note the key learnings in the form of a brief synopsis of up to 300 words. This synopsis is like a mini abstract that explains what the rest of the chapter will be about.
  • Then make a list of the material you will include in the chapter as dot points. Don’t worry about the gaps and stuff you haven’t written yet – just make a note of them. These should be short sentences that will act as subheadings
  • Now ask yourself: If, at the end of the chapter, I want the reader to be convinced of the validity of this key learning, what needs to appear first? What comes next? And so on. Rearrange or write new subheadings as you go until you have arranged all the subheadings of the chapter in a way that tells the research story.

Following these steps will help you to create the Thesis map – but it’s important to remember that this is merely an aid to writing, not a plan set in stone. You can change, add and move stuff around as you write.

In our Thesis Bootcamps we ask students to just pick a spot on this map and start writing as fast as they can, not as well as they can. Does this generate perfect thesis ready text? Not necessarily, but many students say that the writing they produce at Bootcamp is clearer than the writing they did before it, when they are worrying over every word. I think the thesis map is a big part of this clarity because it keeps the focus tight.

This organising technique works best for very late stage thesis students, but it can be a way of creating order at any time in your journey and working out what you need to find out or write more about. I’ve made a downloadable cheat sheet which shows you my own Thesis map, generated by the above method so you can make one of your own.

2) Set aside a protected time to write

I’ve written so much about this, so I wont rehash it all here. If you are interested in some techniques and ideas for creating protective writing time, have a look at the following posts:

3) Feel enthusiastic about what you are writing

I think this is the ‘secret sauce’ in the 10,000 words a day recipe. Rachel Aaron did some deep analysis of her productive writing days and compared these to the occasional not-so-productive days. The days Rachel was able to write 10,000+ words were the days she was writing scenes she had been ‘dying to write’ – she called these the ‘candy bar scenes’. Days where she found it hard to muster 5000 words a day she was bored with what she was writing:

This was a duh moment for me, but it also brought up a troubling new problem. If I had scenes that were boring enough that I didn’t want to write them, then there was no way in hell anyone would want to read them. This was my novel, after all. If I didn’t love it, no one would.

In the fiction world the answer to Rachel’s dilemma was simple – make the boring scenes more interesting! Unfortunately in Thesis World this is not always possible. There will always be parts that are functional and unexciting; I call these the ‘dry toast’ sections – you need to do a lot of unproductive chewing before you can swallow.

There’s a term that describes this process in gamer culture – ‘grinding’. Grinding is being forced to perform the same action over and over again before you can ‘level up’ in the game and get more powers / weapons / armour or whatever. The level up is the pay-off.

One of the most genius ideas Liam and Peta incorporated into Bootcamp was the squeezy lego blocks. We give these out for each 5000 words written in a particular colour order: green, blue, red and gold. The blocks clip together to make a little lego ‘wall’ that the students can display at their writing station. When first presented with the idea of the blocks the students laugh, but all too soon, they are typing furiously with single minded purpose – to get the next block. We have a little ceremony every time someone gets a block, clapping them as they walk up to write their name on the board. It’s cheesy, but it works to turn writing from a source of pain to a celebration. So think about how to reward yourself for every 5000 words written.

Up for the challenge? Have a look at the testimonials on our ANU You Tube channel. I’d love to hear about other ways of doing writing marathons and what you think about this kind of ‘binge writing’.

If you are an ANU student, click this link to find out how to get involved in Thesis Bootcamp on campus.

If you are in the UK, Dr Peta Freestone is available to run Thesis Bootcamp in your university.

Related Posts

Rachel Aaron’s post ‘How I went from writing 2000 words to 10,000 words a day

“How to write 1000 words a day and not go bat shit crazy”

Video testimonials on the ANU Youtube channel


Feeding the crazy

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - January 14, 2015 - 12:26pm

Let me tell you a story about a friend, let’s call him Todd.

Todd used to work in an academic ‘think tank’ run by a famous professor, let’s call him Kenny. Kenny always tasked Todd with a series of high stakes, last minute projects. Todd always delivered on these projects, even though it caused him great stress.

While Kenny was leaning on Todd heavily, he never fully invited Todd into his intellectual circle. By ‘intellectual circle’ I mean the people who collaborated with the think tank or came to its seminars.

Kenny’s colleagues knew Todd was involved in the think tank work, but they didn’t understand exactly what Todd’s role was. Todd learned pretty quickly that if he presumed to talk to these colleagues when Kenny wasn’t around, or send emails to them, he would get the silent treatment. Even urgent requests about pay would get no answer.

I can only guess this silent treatment was Kenny’s way of exerting control. By holding Todd at a distance, and refusing to publicly acknowledge Todd’s contributions, Kenny could preserve the fiction of being a solo genius and avoid the danger of Todd being poached by another colleague.

Todd, being a modest kind of person, assumed he was left out for reasons that had nothing to do with Kenny’s ego. Todd merely assumed he wasn’t good enough. This made Todd paranoid. Eventually every action Kenny took, especially the silences, would drive Todd into a frenzy of self doubt.

This dynamic is best demonstrated in the story Todd tells about the photocopier.

While waiting for a print job to come through Todd flicked idly through another document which Kenny had left on the photocopier’s tray. It was useful to the work Todd was doing. Todd respected the office rules about not interfering with other’s printouts, so he left it there, but questions and theories about Kenny’s reason for printing it raced through Todd’s mind. Was this a test of some kind? Todd invented increasingly elaborate ideas about what this ‘test’ was about and how he could pass it.

Come Monday Todd was a nervous wreck. On being summoned to Kenny’s office, Todd felt an intense sense of dread. He nearly fainted with relief when the professor merely handed him the document, saying: “sorry – I forgot to give that to you last week”. Todd realised he’d spent three days feeding his own crazy for absolutely no reason. Suffice to say, in the interest of his own mental health Todd didn’t stay in that job much longer.

Silence is the most potent form of communication. Silence is particularly potent when there is an imbalance of power – stated or not.

Think about the last time you waited for your new love interest to call. Mercifully this is about 17 years ago for me, but I still remember the feeling of watching the phone and willing it to ring. After a couple of days I would come to the conclusion that I was totally unlovable and would be alone forever. Then they would call and act like nothing had happened because, indeed, nothing had happened! The worries were all in my own head. I fed my own crazy because I had temporarily accorded the man in question power over my emotional state.

Silence in the workplace can have a similar dynamic – affecting one person far more than another. This is because silence between two people can become a void that is quickly filled with all kinds of hopes, desires and theories. Silence on its own doesn’t necessarily let in the crazy, but silence from a powerful person can open the door to crazy like almost nothing else.

Why am I talking at such length about silence? Well, the most common complaint I have from students is lack of feedback from their supervisors. Most supervisors, myself included, need at least a month to give considered feedback on a 10,000 word chapter – sometimes longer. But I often talk to students who are working themselves into a froth of anxiety after only a week.

Most of the time, as the relationship develops, students grow more comfortable with silences, but supervisors need to be aware that they are always in a power hierarchy. Actions, even innocent ones, can be misinterpreted in ways the supervisor may be completely unaware of.

What do you think? Has there been a time when silence from another person has led you into a frenzy of self doubt? What happened and how did you deal with it?

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