beginning the #phd – start writing at the start

Writing, and its alter ego, reading, are the backbone of academic work. The practices that make scholarship what it is. 

In the PhD there are multiple places and purposes for writing. 

We often focus on the final text, the thesis, the writing that communicates what we claim to know, that explains the research we have done. We may of course also write other texts that deal with our research – conference papers, journal articles, and perhaps articles for professional publications, blog posts and tweets. We may write about our research in audit reports to the university or a funder, or send regular updates and small textual chunks to supervisors.

This kind of writing is product and action oriented. We assemble information, plan what we will say, attend to the order and structure of the text – we craft the writing so that it has the best chance of succeeding. We write so that the thesis is awarded, the conference abstract is accepted, the conference paper is engaging and encourages others to make connections with us, the journal article makes it through review, funding is continued, the supervisor and institution have confidence in us and our work.

We don’t entirely know ahead of time what this kind of writing-for-another reader will be – it is often the case that as we start to write, we see more and know more as we go along. We consolidate, as well as find new emphases and possibilities, through the writing.

However there’s other writing that scholars do, and that’s writing that is central to learning. This type of writing helps us to figure things out. During the PhD – and in any scholarly work – we write all the time. Not to publish. Not to send the text anywhere. We write to help us make sense of things. We make notes continually. We summarise and synthesise, compare and contrast what other people have said and written. We shape and craft our interpretations of texts into something that speaks with our particular research project. We make tables, codes, images, doodles, graphs, maps and diagrammes. We have piles of files of ideas, tentative explorations of data, emerging analysis, experimentation with theory. These writings help us to sort out what we might mean, can mean, can say and not say.

We start an idea, consider a text, speculate, attempt to put things together. Ideas coalesce and gel in ways we may not have expected. Connections and contradictions are clarified. Putting an idea into words, finding the words to consolidate thinking and talking, creating something more orderly out of scattered fragments – this is writing to learn. We also learn more about the writing itself. We experiment and play with ways to describe, to categorise, to explain. We learn how to craft a sentence, a paragraph, an argument. Our writing goal is simply to find out more.

There is a lot of this kind of learning-writing at the start of the PhD. Early writing is process oriented, we are less concerned with a well turned phrase, we are more interested in a clearer line of thinking. We are the primary reader of these learning texts. We are writing for ourselves. Of course, learning-writing can lead to writing intended for other readers, and indeed some of this learning-writing may be shared with supervisors or writing groups.

Some very famous scholars write in exactly this way – they start with an idea and then write it to fruition. Michel Foucault for instance described his writing just this way.

I don’t write because I have something in mind, I don’t write to show what I have already demonstrated and analysed for myself. Writing consists essentially of doing something that allows me to discover something that I hadn’t seen initially. When I begin to write an essay or a book, or anything, I don’t really know where it’s going to lead or where it’ll end up or what I’m going to show. I only discover what I have to show in the actual movement of writing, as if writing specifically meant diagnosing what I had wanted to say at the moment I begin to write. (Foucault, 2013 p 46.)

Of course, this doesn’t mean that Foucault started off his writing with nothing. I imagine him surrounded with books and notes but not yet a clear idea of how these would come together. Nor do I imagine that his written work didn’t go through many iterations and drafts in order to reach the point where it was fit to go to other readers. He may have even made a plan as his first step. He doesn’t say. But many scholars do begin their writing process with some kind of written plan or abstract, a small piece of writing that begins the process of pulling materials together. Other scholars do something more free form, and work through successive texts, shifting and refining as they go along.

And it is writing to learn that is crucial at the very start of the PhD. It is important to develop the habit of writing summaries of texts, jotting down ideas about your research design, keeping a reading journal, perhaps also a journal of reflections on your own learning, worrying away at the wording of your research question or hypothesis, writing regular updates of where you are for yourself and your supervisor. All of these kinds of writings will, even if they feel scattered and messy at the outset, help you to think through your research problem and your field.

And of course you need to make writing to learn a systematic, regular and frequent practice. Make sure that you find a way to organise all of this early writing so that you can find things again easily. Use bibliographic software as well as a system of naming, dating and grouping texts so that you can find things again. Work out when it is possible and good for you to do different kinds of writing – noting, reflecting, generating ideas – and set up regular times in your diary to do them. That’s because a key to the PhD is to see writing as your close companion. A friend to help you make sense of what and how you are learning. A friend to cultivate now, rather than later.

See also

Write and write regularly

Writing and routine

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style, tone and grammar – native speaker bias in peer reviews

This is a guest post from Dr Randi Stebbins. Randi is Director of the University of Iceland Centre for Writing.

Peer review is a central part of academic publication. The process of back and forth between authors and reviewers is meant, in part, to ensure the quality and novelty of articles. Many journals use what is known as a double-blind process in peer review – neither the authors nor the reviewers know each other’s names. The double-bind process is touted as a safeguard against bias, particularly gender and race biases, and to ensure a broader range of authors gets published. And, there is some research that indicates double-blind reviews do exactly this.

What kind of bias do I mean? To explain, let me start with a hypothetical (I’m a lawyer by training and we love those). A PhD student submits an article to an international journal co-authored by various supervisors. The institutional affiliation of the authors is known to the reviewers, but the names are not. Based on institutional affiliation, at least one reviewer assumes that the authors, or at least the ones who actually wrote the paper, are not native speakers of English. One or more peer reviewers then puts in the almost obligatory comments about language and needing the paper reviewed by a native speaker of English.

Really, this story is not so hypothetical since I have seen it happen repeatedly to students who visit me at the University of Iceland Center for Writing, where I am the director. I have also seen it happen with students and faculty for whom I have acted as a professional proofreader. In fact, it has happened in my own submissions to academic journals. So what, exactly, is going on here?

Well, first is a bias against what reviewers take to be non-native English. I say “take to be” on purpose here because reviewers in double-blind peer reviews have no way knowing if the writer would identify English as their native language, or one of many native languages. Instead, the reviewers make blanket assumptions about the status of the English based on institutional affiliation. Interestingly, the comments on language often come from non-native writers of English themselves, if journal publication sites and mastheads are any indication. 

That leads into another bias that seems to be active in peer reviews, that is the unspoken belief that there is only one form of academic English and that it needs to be as close to the reviewer’s form as possible. Perhaps this is why we see many comments about needing help from native speakers of English coming from non-native reviewers. They are possibly less aware of the breadth of language available to those who write academic English. This may lead them to misdiagnose issues of style and tone as issues of grammar.

And that is, in my experience, largely what reviewers are reacting to in their language-related comments—style and tone. When reading over a student’s paper in the Center for Writing or as a proofreader, my job is to either point out grammar mistakes or correct them if I possibly can. I also work to give my students resources so that they can better identify their own grammar issues to become their own best editors. Despite intensive grammar work, my students and clients still get comments on their language that make it seem like the reviewer has some higher knowledge of English grammar than they do.

And let me be clear at this point: native speaker bias also assumes that all native speakers of English have the same access to and understanding of academic English. As I like to point out to my students, no one is born a native speaker, and especially not a native writer, of academic English, not even me who now makes a living helping others to develop as academic writers in English, among other languages. I urge my students to be careful in picking someone to read over their work solely based on that person’s status as a native speaker of English. Quite often, a knowledgeable non-native speaker would be a better pick.

If only journals would take as much care with picking their peer reviewers or in guiding their reviewers regarding comments on language, but few do. Instead, we have reviewers who quibble over the use of “by” versus “from” and go sentence by sentence over a work that is quite grammatically correct only to suggest changes that are either not grammatical or do not fit into the style and/or tone of the original paper. In short, they are trying to turn the original authors into themselves.

Mistaking differences in style and tone for grammar is the last bias I see over and over again in peer reviewers’ comments. Better said, this is not so much a bias as a misunderstanding of the important role that style and tone play in academic writing, and in all writing. Perhaps this is quite understandable because it is difficult to really sit with a text and try to understand what about it you dislike that is not grammatically incorrect. It takes even more work to then explain that to the authors of the original text. And, it seems, it takes even more work for reviewers to stop themselves from assuming that their preferences for style and tone are anything more than personal preferences, instead treating them like grammatical rules.

This is a pity, particularly for students. All writing is an act of expressing parts of our identities, and many students are still forming their identities as academic writers, making them less able to argue against native speaker bias in reviews. If the student is a non-native writer of English as well, the damage can be multiplied. It is a very different position to be in as a native speaker with long writing experience. What I did with my co-authors, one native speaking and one not, was to write a letter to a reviewer who practically demanded we have the article read by native speakers detailing how we would be the very people who would edit such an article.

It is also a pity for the genre. It pushes more novice writers towards the belief that there is a canonical way of expressing ourselves around academic issues and entrenches the idea of a single, standard English. Instead, we should be promoting a multitude of Englishes that fit the multitude of realities, circumstances, and topics that drive people into research and to publish.

Add Randi’s cautions about language biases to things to think about when peer reviewing – see this post for additional reviewing advice: peer reviewing your first paper

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#startingthePhD? managing expectations

If you are starting out on a PhD you are probably expecting it to be hard work. That’s not wrong. A doctorate isn’t easy – it’s an extended piece of work over a long period of time. It takes energy and effort to stay focused and working on working on.  Stamina.  

But you can’t expect to maintain the same pace and intensity throughout. There’s inevitably be some ups and downs.  And some of these can be anticipated. There are some predictable points in the PhD which are challenging – 

  • getting the research question or the hypothesis sorted out, 
  • reining in the literature and working out how to structure your account of them, 
  • devising a strategy to tackle all of the data you have generated
  • finding the theory that allows you to explain what you have
  • cracking the structural nut that leads to a coherent well-argued thesis text
  • clarifying the contribution that you make, to the point where you can say it in a couple of sentences. 

These are challenging things precisely because they are places where you are doing work that is new to you. You’re pushing at the edges of what you already know. New thinking.

Formulating your “answer” to research “problems” is not necessarily going to come quickly, or to order. You may have to slough around for a quite a while before the pieces gel. So expecting that there are going to be some stuck points is sensible.

It’s also sensible to anticipate times when you’ll feel out of your depth. You’ve no doubt heard about imposter syndrome – more correctly called a phenomenon, as it’s not an illness, but it is something that a lot of people experience. Imposter phenomenon isn’t something to be frighted of. It’s pretty logical if you think about it. Feeling like you don’t know what you are doing or talking about is a perfectly rational response to being halfway through a project, to being in the company of people who have been reading and researching for a long time, and to having to put your emerging ideas out there. You’re really not yet sure of what you’re doing. And that’s the doctorate. It’s what it’s about, it’s built into the three year project. You’re not at all deficient or defective if you feel like a bit of a fraud sometimes.

There are of course ways to deal with the fear that you might be found out at any moment –  good preparation. rehearsing, learning a bit of improv, owning the work in progress. But it’s also about recognising that not knowing and being unsure are integral to research and are as much a part of the process as actually knowing. 

Along the way there may well be other dips and troughs too, related to your project, life, the weather – and these days, various forms of lockdown. These are unpredictable in the sense of when they happen – but you can realistically expect there might be a few life related bumps. After all, not a lot of adults have three to four years (or more) where nothing much happens.

If your plan for your PhD has a bit of slack in it, a bit of flex, then you can likely weather a lot of the PhD trickiness. Taking advantage of all of the support for wellbeing and self care, as well as finding and keeping the information about support services, is simply sensible forward planning. 

You may worry however that the PhD is inevitably going to be an ordeal. You have probably read a lot about the trials and tribulations and not much about the pleasures. There are loads of stories out there about poor supervision relations, dysfunctional labs and departments, institutional discrimination and bungled or neglectful administration. These are all true and it’s as well to know that these are possible. But it’s also the case that these don’t happen to everyone. And when they do a lot of people still find a way to get through them, with help from support groups and sheer bloody-minded determination.

But there are times when the PhD is simply a joy. Anticipate these too.

There are creative pleasures in piecing together disparate pieces of literature, finding a way through a knotty data question, seeing the patterns finally emerge out of your time-consuming analysis, finding a text that really moves your thinking on, locating the big idea that will make the writing work. There are energising conversations and new friendships where ideas bubble over and unexpected collaborations happen. There are local and international networks where your work not only finds a place but is seen as important and exciting and where you encounter new and surprising perspectives. There is affirmation when others read even your most tentative ideas – and find them helpful or interesting or provocative.

These fulfilling occasions are also potentially waiting for you too, confirming your decision to undertake such a long haul intellectual project. 

Finally. One last thing. You do need to know, as you start on the PhD, that the majority of supervisors and grad school staff not only understand what it takes to start and finish the doctorate, they also want you to succeed. We mightn’t always know what is best or right for you, and we might make mistakes, but our goal is the same as yours – that you get to do the walk across the stage wearing the floppy hat and full academic dress. We’re here to help.

Twenty other #startingthePhD posts that you might also find interesting

Selling up and leaving home

Money matters

Tech matters

Setting up your routine

Get organised now

Getting to grips with “the university’

Don’t panic

Anticipate tasks and timings

Keeping a journal

Putting the search into research

Refining your research topic

Write and write regularly

Digging into the reading

Learning new vocabulary

Searching the field

Finding the literatures you need

Keep a reading journal

Comparing and contrasting papers

Being ‘critical’

Choosing your words

Don’t try to write “classy

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#litreview. Defining – It’s your ‘take’

Most of us work in occupied research territories. Other researchers have been around at least some of the things that we are concerned with. Their work offers particular interpretations and perhaps ‘evidence’ that may – or may not – be useful to us as we work out what we are going to do.

Other people’s work is really helpful when we are deciding what our key terms will mean. Most of us use terminology in our research question or hypothesis which needs some explanation. One or more key terms. We have to say how we understand the term, and why. We have to say what we will include and exclude. We have to offer our take, what readers need to know about our particular version of the term. referring to other people’s work to help us make the case. 

I often see people struggling with this kind of definitional work. Their first drafts are often a paragraph which goes – A understands (key concept) as this, B says it’s that and C has a different version again. But I’m using D which goes like this. 

At this point I – and I am sure most other supervisors write – But why D? What is it about D that is important to you? And what are the implications of using D – what gets left out and what seems to be taken as important? Who else uses D and how? Does this matter? My hunch is that many people get a bit stymied about how to answer these kinds of questions.

I/the supervisor is actually asking for a little case to be made with some evidence and some interpretation about the term We are asking for your take. Here is where it is really helpful to read other people’s work to see the way in which they manage this task. How do they establish their take on their key terms?

Reading for the writing

Here is one example of researchers offering their take – making a case for the ways in which they are going to interpret a particular term. This example is a small section of the first chapter of a 2020 book called Culture is bad for you. I am using this example because I think the authors do a great job of explaining their take on a very complex topic in a very clear way. This whole chapter could be a really helpful teaching resource – and I can’t really do justice to the careful definitional and explanatory work that the authors do in a short blog post.

In this small section from pages 20 and 21 the authors outline their take on inequality – a term that has been used by loads of people over a long period of time and in many different ways. They go on to expand on and explain inequality further throughout the book but here, at the start, they are sketching the ground that they are going to cover. 

Here’s the extract. The numbers refer to groups of references that are given in endnotes – that is, the backing for their take. 

Inequality is now an important subject for academic research. Much of this has been driven by economists and sociologists. (25) That work has tended not to look at cultural and creative industries. Cultural and media studies have done extensive research on the subject. We’re aiming to situate our analysis between these fields. 

There is extensive, and highly politicised, debate about the nature and extent of inequality. (26) This includes the extent of inequality within countries, as well as between countries. (27) 

In the UK, along with countries such as the United States and France, the focus of research has been on inequality between the very ‘top’ of society and the rest of the population. The core argument here is that wealth inequalities are becoming greater. This is because profits from financial resources are outstripping growth in other areas of the economy, such as wages. This means that those who already have financial assets are getting richer faster than the rest of society. (28) 

The setting for these economic changes is a decade of reduced levels of overall economic growth and reduced levels of government spending following the financial crisis of 2008. Just as the richest at the top of society are getting richer, social support for the poorest has been reduced. (29) 

Economic inequality is only one part of the story. There are various other forms of division reflecting our unequal society. (30) We can see this in research showing the persistence of gender and racial discrimination, along with prejudice against other types of minorities. (31) Inequality is also, in the UK and elsewhere, seen in geographic divides, for example between London and the rest of England. (32) 

We can think of these examples as social inequalities. These social divisions are linked to other sorts of resources beyond financial assets. These can include social networks and social connections. (33) Crucially, they have a cultural dimension. These sorts of inequalities are about what is valued and what is given worth. (34) This is the first part of our connection between inequality and the study of cultural production and consumption.

You can see at once that there is no A says and B says. Instead, there is a position being outlined. The authors explain how they understand inequality, show what they base their interpretation on. In doing this, they say what their project and the book are going to cover. And not.

Let’s look at the extract in a bit more detail.  What appears below is of course my take on their take – and the authors may explain what they were doing quite differently. But you know, my blog, my take. Your research, your take.

Inequality is now an important subject for academic research. Much of this has been driven by economists and sociologists. (25). That work has tended not to look at cultural and creative industries. Cultural and media studies have done extensive research on the subject. We’re aiming to situate our analysis between these fields.LOCATING THE RESEARCH. We have an interdisciplinary approach.  
There is extensive, and highly politicised, debate about the nature and extent of inequality. (26)SIGNIFICANCE We’re offering one take on a hot topic. 
This includes the extent of inequality within countries, as well as between countries. (27) In the UK, along with countries such as the United States and France,WHAT’S GOING TO BE EXCLUDED. Inequality is generally understood as national and international. We agree but we’re looking at the UK only – but read knowing that there are parallels with other countries. 
the focus of research has been on inequality between the very ‘top’ of society and the rest of the population. The core argument here is that wealth inequalities are becoming greater. This is because profits from financial resources are outstripping growth in other areas of the economy, such as wages. This means that those who already have financial assets are getting richer faster than the rest of society. (28) The setting for these economic changes is a decade of reduced levels of overall economic growth and reduced levels of government spending following the financial crisis of 2008. Just as the richest at the top of society are getting richer, social support for the poorest has been reduced. (29)WHAT’S GOING TO BE INCLUDED.
STEP ONE. (What I’ve highlighted in bold is about as close to a simple “definition”as the authors get.)
Other researchers usually look at the most wealthy versus the rest of us, referring to wider economic and social changes. We are going to do this too.
Economic inequality is only one part of the story. There are various other forms of division reflecting our unequal society. (30) We can see this in research showing the persistence of gender and racial discrimination, along with prejudice against other types of minorities. (31) Inequality is also, in the UK and elsewhere, seen in geographic divides, for example between London and the rest of England. (32) We can think of these examples as social inequalities. STEP TWO. But we also include social inequalities of gender, race and location, these are linked to economic inequalities. 
These social divisions are linked to other sorts of resources beyond financial assets. These can include social networks and social connections. (33)STEP THREE. And we include social networks and connections.
Crucially, they have a cultural dimension. These sorts of inequalities are about what is valued and what is given worth.STEP FOUR. We suggest that economic and social inequalities have a cultural dimension so we are going to discuss cultural value.
This is the first part of our connection between inequality and the study of cultural production and consumption.MOVING ON Having told you how we understand inequality we now need to look at the next key term and concept. 

This take is one example of the kind of rhetorical work that you see in book introductions and in some journal articles. It is also the kind of rhetorical work that supervisors and examiners want to see in a thesis. How does the researcher explain their take on their topic?

So here’s a strategy if you’re doing this kind of laying out the ground and definitional work. Take a bit of time out to see how other researchers in your field do this work.

You will see that offering your take doesn’t follow a set pattern – so the extract above doesn’t offer you a template or formula. But you will see something in common across most versions of the definitional take – the most readable ‘takes’ are those which don’t focus on the names of other researchers, but instead get to grips with the concept itself as it applies to the specific research project. 

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#litreview – getting to argument, part 2.

Writing about literatures doesn’t mean writing a summary of what you have read. You dont want a paragraph by paragraph laundry list of the texts you’ve been reading organised into a rough kind of order. Of course you write summaries as a means of making sense of your readings, but it’s not where you stop.

In writing about what other people have written you are: 

  • evaluating and interpreting, pulling out major points and
  • connecting these interpretations to your topic.

So what you are writing then is not a report, but an argument. You are saying how you work sits in the field and how the field informs your work. This is arguing a case. Your case. Your argument is based in what you think the literatures mean and how you have understood them. You must then not only establish where your research fits in relation to the topic, what you are building on but also what you might want to speak back to, or expand further. 

There are ways to make this writing task easier for yourself.

In the first part of this post I talked about developing three levels of themes from the data, and I showed how the three levels allowed you to structure a single piece of writing, a chapter, or establish where a global theme might fit as a section of a chapter.  Here’s a reminder.

So how to you get from that to the argument? You have the structure but is that enough?

One helpful strategy for making the argument is to go back to the basic themes. You”ll notice that I’ve written the themes as points, not as topics. Each theme expresses the sum of an interpretation of a body of texts. The themes, as Ive written them, are more like the reminder notes you might have if you are speaking in a debate. Each bullet signals the line you are going to take and the thing you want the reader/audience to remember.

Now, I often see people working with outlines when they write chapters. The outline that they use usually has headings and subheadings. The outline looks a lot like a table of contents. The outline lists the topics that are to be written about. It might look like this.

Now the risk of this topic-based approach is that it doesn’t actually tell you what you have to say. What is it that you need to say about wellbeing, or supervisor experience? What bit of agency are you going to write about?

Well, it’s not that you don’t know this. You have this all in your summaries of readings so you can go back and orient yourself. However, the temptation of a topic approach is that you simply to write summaries and/or you find it tricky to pull out the key thread that is most germane to your work. 

Outlines also support a tendency to write in little bites. First this topic, then that one. This kind of choppy writing is a characteristic of a lot of literatures writing and it’s one that makes it unnecessarily hard for readers – the struggle to put the bits together to follow the line of argument being made. 

Working with a topic outline is not the same as working with themes. 

Working with themes rather than topics allows you to do two important things – 

  • you have in front of you as you write, the point you want to make, the point that you are building on, the issue that is most important to your work, that you take up in your research design and/or analysis. So you have that in mind as you start to write. You know that this is the idea that holds these literature together and that you must both show and discuss. As a bonus, having the points of each basic theme clear also helps you to be more concise. 
  • you can see what is missing. If you look at the third element of this chunk on the doctoral experience you can see that these three things don’t appear to follow particularly logically from one another. It might be that there are some bits missing here, or I need to revisit my themes. Either way, focussing on the steps taken by the basic themes will allow me to see and get flow – a logical progression from one basic theme to another. 

Compare the two -points and themes – and see the difference. Imagine using both of them as the guide to your writing. I hope you can see the difference that a point might make.

Working with themes and not topics is a writing strategy. It isnt the final thing. You don’t necessarily want the reader to see all of your scaffolding in the final text. So, when you do write the final table of contents, you usually convert the themes to topics. This is something that you do on a second or third draft once you’ve got the sequence and flow of argument sorted out.

For a first draft, working with themes can really help. Give it a go yourself and see the difference it can make. 

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Starting a part-time doctorate? Three top tips

This is a guest post by Dr @jonrainford. Jon works on the margins between academic and professional services. He is currently a freelance researcher and part-time lecturer, working with academics to develop their use of digital pedagogy

Doing a doctorate later in life is more likely to be a part-time affair. In the UK, the majority of the part-time postgraduate research students are over the age of 30. Despite 27,000 people undertaking this mode of study in the UK alone, it is less commonly addressed in guides to success in doctoral research. In this post I will share three things that ultimately had the greatest impact upon my timely completion.

I completed my part-time PhD, which examined widening participation policy and practices in England, in 2019. Over those five years I moved jobs twice (once as a result of redundancy) and a few months following completion lost my dad at the end of a three-year battle with Lung Cancer. Balancing employment and life challenges over a period that exceeds most full-time students creates the conditions for more of these life events to happen.  Therefore, despite every experience being different, it is likely that for most part-time PhD students, the doctoral journey will be paved with varied life challenges both personal and professional;  my own journey is not an exceptional one. 

Manage your project rather than it managing you

What sustained me though this period and kept me on a relatively steady course to completion was treating the process like a project to manage and doing exactly that. Whilst your journey may be different and some of my strategies might not work for you, planning and creating a structure to work to are likely to be invaluable. Even if you have a supervisor that understands the similarities and differences in challenges for part-time doctoral researchers, ultimately it is your project and taking control of it yourself is key. Your situation is unique to you and whist this will create specific challenges, what matters is working out what works for you and when. Understanding what you can do and when is important. You are likely to have discreet pockets of time to devote to your research and is important to understand how to maximise these. 

For me, early morning writing before work really allowed me to get into a flow. What I never cracked was editing before work, so I never planned to do this. Some days though, the writing did not flow. Rather than wasting this time, I always had a number of other tasks to flip to, such as a paper to read or some admin to catch up on. Thinking about the project in this way with a number of options helps you make progress even when you cannot write, or the pocket of time is too short for a specific task. You might also find that moving physical space can helped shift you into the right frame of mind. Coffee shops, trains, libraries and the garden all provided important spaces for focusing. It’s amazing how having a printed journal article or a chapter to edit and a finite train journey can really help focus you.

Build your own tribe

One of the challenges for me was feeling isolated. It was if no one around me understood the frustrations that come with the doctoral process. Some of you may be lucky enough to have a cohort of peers on the same journey as you. For those undertaking part-time PhDs in departments where there is little in the way of structured institutional support you might need to build your own networks. 

For me, twitter was invaluable in building and sustaining a network of peers. I also felt that adding face to face events to build these networks and sustain some of the connections really helped when the journey was more challenging. To do this, I targeted one or two key conferences per year. Whilst this can be a huge commitment for those without institutional funding, finding others with similar research interests or that have gone through the process ahead can make the difference in getting by or thriving. There are often discounted places or bursaries for students that can make conferences more manageable. Building networks also means that when you cannot make other events, there is a chance someone you know might be going, allowing you to get insights from them. 

Embrace your identity

The second key to success for me was understanding the real value of the part time doctorate. About a year into my project I realised the value the part-time structure offers to think through your ideas. Up to this point I often downplayed that I was “only” a part-time doctoral researcher and struggled to see how this was valuable in and of itself. Having to juggle a number of competing demands can hone project planning skills, time-management and the ability to prioritise tasks in a way that can pay dividends in your long-term success. Working in a related areas as a practitioner also enabled me to develop better understandings of my research, how to impact policy, practice and how to communicate with a wider audience than full-time study might have allowed me to do. Whilst your own situation might not present as close a link between your employment and research, the fact that you are juggling a major project under tight time-constraints in and of itself is something you should be ready to shout about on any job application – those skills are like gold dust in many organisations. 

There are many more tips and tricks you will develop on your journey that work for you. Sharing these within and beyond your networks on places such as twitter or a blog can help others benefit from your experiences.

Jon is keen to hear from other part-timers about their experiences and strategies so do contact him on twitter or via the comments section on this post.

Photo by alexey turenkov on Unsplash

Posted in 'mature' doctoral researcher, later on PhD, part time PhD, PhD | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

#LitReview – Getting to structure, part one

If you are about to start reading for your doctorate, or are already in the reading phase, then you know that you are reading in order to:

  1. refine your research question,
  2. locate your work in the field,
  3. identify your potential contribution, and
  4. find material that helps you to plan your research and analysis.

You may already know how all that reading will end up – you may have a chapter in the final text that presents your literature work, or you’ll weave the reading throughout the proposal and final thesis text.

You’ll notice that I’ve said your work on the literatures/reading. What is that work? Well, in addition to closely reading some key texts which are key to your research, you also need to read more widely in order to identity the key themes that relate to your topic (to do the four tasks outlined above). Yes. Themes.

And what do you do with reading themes? Here’s one way to deal with the themes you derive from your reading.

You will most likely work with three levels of themes. These are:

Basic themes – these come directly from the literatures that you are reading

Organising themes – basic themes are clustered together, and they collectively form a higher order idea. You assign a label – or category – to each higher order theme, a.k.a. organising idea.

Global theme – this is an overarching Big Idea which encapsulates an overall grouping of important and complex ideas and themes.

Let me give you an idea of how these three theme levels look. Imagine you are studying the doctoral experience. You have read a lot of stuff – books, blogs, papers. You have identified a number of basic themes. Each of these themes has a number of texts attached to it.

Once you have your basic themes, you can order them and then decide what higher order ideas they represent – organising themes.

And then finally, you can establish a global theme which brings together the organising themes, each one with their own set of basic themes.

You are likely to create more than one global theme in your literature work and they will either go into different chapters OR they will together form a stand-alone literatures chapter.

Once you have this kind of thematic pattern making work done, you are ready to move on to turning your hierarchy of themes into an argument. That’s Part Two of this mini-series.

Posted in academic writing, literature review, literature review structure, literature reviews, literature themes | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

dealing with rejection

This is a guest post from Dan Cleather. Dan is a strength coach, educator, scientist and anarchist. His latest book, “Subvert! A philosophical guide for the 21st century scientist”, was published in May.

Being an academic requires a thick skin. Very thick. Part of the job is dealing with a constant stream of rejections – on journal articles, grant applications, speaker applications, promotion requests… Rejection is always disappointing. However, over time we grow to understand that rejections often have little to do with the quality of the work. This helps us to protect our self-esteem – at least most of the time.

Experience is an important teacher in developing your thick skin. Once you have shepherded a few papers through a series of rejections and then ultimately into print, you can have confidence that your work is good, and put rejections down to editorial considerations or the vagaries of the peer review process.

But what if you are a student or an early career researcher? In this case you don’t have this experience, and each rejection can badly rock your self-confidence. I believe that rejections are a key factor in the growth of imposter syndrome in academia.

When one of my students first submits their work to an academic journal I always walk a weird tightrope in giving encouragement and managing expectations. On the one hand, I want to tell the student how good their work is. On the other, I need to prepare them for the fact that rejection is a very possible, and often likely, outcome. This post is the blog form of that conversation.

1. Appreciate The Statistics (Listen To The Horror Stories)

It is normal for excellent articles to get rejected. Some of the reasons for this are described later in this post. Everyone will have their own horror stories. Mine is that the first article from my PhD was rejected from 5 journals before I managed to get it accepted. It now has 41 citations.

It is also normal (but not right) for the peer review process to be a long, frustrating and unpredictable affair. One of the best students I ever worked with had to wait for 2 years to get her first article into print – it broke my heart, as the work was fantastic. One of my favourite articles took 16 months to get through peer review (at the same journal), and despite the fact that I think it is some of my best work it never gets cited.

Applying for grants is even worse. The process is highly competitive, and so a lot of good proposals don’t get funded. The image here is a summary of my own grant applications over the last 10 years. Weeks of work went into each of these failed applications. It is a story with a happy ending, but this is only because of a recent success.

The take home message here is that, in academia, everyone gets rejected, all the time. When you are starting out you need to fight hard to believe this. Rejections are always disappointing, but at least if you appreciate the statistics you can reassure yourself that they are normal. 

2. Understand Editorial Considerations

A key part of an editor’s role is to ensure that the content in their journal is of interest to their readers. Often, if you experience a desk rejection – that is your work is rejected without being sent out for review – it is because the editor has decided that your article is not appropriate for their journal, or they have other articles that they think their readers will find more interesting. Again, it needs to be emphasised that this has nothing to do with the quality of the work – you are unlikely to get an article about lung disease into a cardiac journal, no matter how good it is. Of course, you might disagree with the editor – you probably sent the article to the journal because you wanted to reach that specific audience. However, it is up to the editor to steer the direction of a journal – ultimately the articles published in a journal will largely reflect the editor’s tastes. If they don’t favour your work it is important to bear in mind that this is just one person’s opinion.

Another part of an editor’s role is to act as custodian of the journal’s status. Many editors will be interested in the impact factor of their journal – i.e. how many times the articles in the journal are cited by external sources. This is a pretty awful way of judging a journal’s quality, but unfortunately is part of the current academic environment. For this reason, some editors will also reject articles that they don’t think will garner lots of citations. Again, just because an article doesn’t get cited does not mean it is not a good piece of work. Similarly, it is pretty difficult to predict this (even if you wanted to), and editors get it wrong all the time. Of the articles I have been involved with, the most highly cited one with 59 citations, was rejected from at least two journals (as I remember) before it was accepted.

The point here is that the quality of the work is only one of a number of competing factors that are used in decision making – and sometimes not even the most important one. Many excellent articles are rejected (rightly or wrongly) based upon the editor’s prerogative. Often, success is predicated on getting your work in front of the right person, someone who knows enough about it to appreciate its importance.

3. Be Critical Of The Peer Review Process

Peer review is a notoriously fickle process, and it is helpful to a have a healthy scepticism as to its efficacy. However, many academics don’t, viewing peer review as a sacred cow that protects the integrity of the academic literature. This is demonstrably false – there are plenty of high profile examples that show that peer review often doesn’t even detect cases of academic misconduct.

There is evidence that supports the contention that peer review is a fickle process. For instance, one study showed that the rate of agreement between reviewers at the Journal of General Internal Medicine was little better than would be produced by chance. Similar findings have been found in the peer review of grant applications (e.g. in Australia and the US). Every reasonably experienced academic will be able to relate examples of conflicting peer reviews that they have received.

What is the point of peer review if it is such a random process? Well, in many cases, peer review will improve the quality of an article, and it does provide some (imperfect) form of quality control. However, from the point of view of this blog post, you should recognise that a positive or negative recommendation is to some degree a matter of chance, and that you shouldn’t invest too much of your self-esteem in an academic flip of the coin.

4. Recognise Reviewer 2

Reviewer 2 is the person who sticks their hand up at the end of a presentation and asks the presenter why they didn’t do the study in an entirely different way.

Peer review is supposed to be a critical evaluation of your work. Ironically, sometimes peer reviewers are horribly uncritical. In particular, when performing a peer review, you should judge the article on its own merits – not list a plethora of alternative things that could have been done.

Peer reviewers are human too. You are often dealing with competitors, who have their own egos, and may have conflicting ideas as to how research should be done. If it seems to you that a reviewer is being unreasonable, then they probably are – and that sucks. It may even result in a rejection. To protect your self-esteem you need to recognise when your work is being rejected by Reviewer 2, and again, not take it is a reflection of your ability.

5. Back Yourself

Peer review is a process that will tend to reward work that conforms with the status quo, but that will tend to penalise potentially transformative research that breaks the mould. Peer review processes that improve the overall standard of research also result in more exceptional work being rejected, and papers that challenge the status quo undergo more changes during peer review. This is possibly best illustrated by the number of Nobel prize winning studies that were initially rejected for publication.

Of course, if you receive a rejection you should consider the feedback carefully and try to learn from it. However, rejections should not make you feel that your ideas don’t have merit. The history of science is one of new ideas replacing old ones. Yes, we should expose our ideas to outside tests, and we should have the intellectual honesty to properly weigh up counter-arguments and consider that we might be wrong. However, if we believe that our ideas stand up to these tests, we need to have the confidence to back ourselves.

Where does this all leave us?

There is no doubt that rejection sucks. However, it is part and parcel of academic life. It is important that you are critical of the evaluative processes that are a part of academia, and that you don’t buy into them too fully. Celebrate the successes, but don’t pay too much attention to the rejections.

Posted in academic writing, peer review, rejection, research funding | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

revision – writing without protection

Academic writers need to let their readers know that they know what they are talking about. But feeling and talking like an expert is not easy – in fact, it’s often the exact opposite of how you think about yourself. So it’s helpful to be able to pick up the places in your writing where your text gives away your secret self-doubt.

Getting rid of self-abasing writing is a revision task. Put another way, moving from a first to a final draft is not simply about making the writing readable but also making the writing more authoritative.

One of the revision strategies you might consider is looking at your sentence beginnings. When we are writing crappy first drafts, lots of us write sentences that start something like:

What is really important is that…

It is crucial to note that…

Many readers will understand this to be…

We should not fail to see that…

It is vital to state that…

The major point here is that…

It is important to add here that…

Notice that ….

It might be argued that this is…

It is easy to ignore that…

I feel that…

These sentence beginnings often come immediately before a key point the writer wants to make. But the reader has to get through some superfluous verbiage before they get to it. And when they reach the point, its impact is dulled.

Of course, roundabout ways to start sentences are not wrong. But too many slow starts in a single text may leave the reader feeling uneasy. They may wonder – Perhaps the writer does not feel comfortable making their case? Perhaps the writer feels they need to have a bit of a warm-up before getting to the point? Perhaps the point is too point-ed for them?

Peter Elbow called the extra beginning words that come before the point protective scaffolding. The job of protective scaffolding is to support the writer get the text written. Protective scaffolding can be, Elbow suggests, a sign that an idea is not yet fully worked out. Yes, the point is too bald as it is and the reader does need some more information. Yes, the text does need to be more firmly stitched into the argument. Yes, the writer needs to remove the scaffolding and write more.

But protective scaffolding can also be there to protect the writer – a sort of textual disguise which takes the force and strength out of their point, says Elbow. Speaking with your hand over your mouth. Umming and aahing before stating the argument. Laughing before saying something terribly serious. Deflecting attention away from the speaker and their words.

Protective scaffolding is often used during drafting, as writers are still working out what they want to say and how to say it. But it may not be something that the writer wants to leave in their final text.

Elbow sees the use of protective scaffolding as a form of self-emasculation; the scaffolding erodes the authority of the writer, prevents the writing being too forceful, takes the punch out of it, deflects potential criticism before any exists. Removing the scaffolding does not necessarily mean that the argument falls down. Rather, the writer and what they stand for is revealed.

So take Elbow’s advice. When you are revising, first of all check where you have protective scaffolding in your sentence beginnings. Highlight them all, then ask yourself:

  • Does the idea that comes after the protective scaffold need more work?


  • Is my writing more authoritative and expert-like when I take away the scaffold and confidently state my point?

If the answer is (2) and you do feel like you have left yourself a bit exposed when the scaffold is removed, you still have the choice of adding more weight and evidence to the point. If that evidence is already there, then take a deep breath. Assume the position of authority. You go girl, just take up the persona of the assertive and knowledgeable writer. The reader will never know it feels a bit strange to you. They just read you as an academic writer who knows their stuff.

Adapted from Peter Elbow Writing without teachers. p 193-4

Photo by Yves Alarie on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, Peter Elbow, protective scaffolding, revision, revision strategy | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

running a tweetchat

updated tips for chats.jpg

During this difficult pandemic period, Anuja Cabraal and I have been hosting a weekly tweetchat on the #VirtuaNotViral hashtag. Now, a “twitter chat” is not a new thing and we are not the only people doing them. However, we’ve got interested in them as a particular type of social media interaction, and I’m using this post to do a bit of basic documentation and thinking in public about them. We are hoping that this might be the start of a paper about the tweetchat as a ‘thing’ (read this as maybe a genre?), so writing this post is also a bit of public accountability.

Here’s a few key points about tweetchats.

Location in time/space

  • Tweetchats use a consistent hashtag which signals their intention/mission/field. Tweetchats are often, but not always, linked to a bespoke twitter account with a clear focus and audience. Our #VirtualNotViral tweetchat focuses on providing support to doctoral and early career researchers and our audience are PhDers and those who work with them.
  • A tweetchat hashtag may alternatively be associated with either a personal or more general twitter account. This is the case for instance with Helen Kara’s #creativemethods tweetchat which she runs from her personal account. The chat topic comes from her ongoing interest in the use of creative methods in research.
  • Tweetchats are also often linked to a blog, website or publication. The chat may be one link in a chain of sites and activities. VirtualNotViral uses a common image across our website and twitter account so that it is possible to identify our “brand” and linked activity at a glance.
  • Twitter chats are generally scheduled at a regular time, day and frequency. They are a formal “event” and thus different from the normal chats that occur informally on twitter all of the time. Chats can be monthly, fortnightly or weekly. They could be daily of course, but this doesn’t seem to be the norm. Tweetchats start and end on time. The chat as predictable and routine helps to establish a community who participate regularly.
  • The down-side of the regular tweetchat is that it is synchronous and thus always excludes some people somewhere. ( Context doesn’t entirely collapse!)
  • Another downside is that you do need to have some kind of following somewhere to get a tweetchat going – but once the chat is happening regularly, then it tends to add to the community that already exists around the network and/or account(s).


  • Chat topics are generally advertised on twitter well in advance. Anuja and I use a VirtualNotViral postcard with a consistent design to advertise our chats. We schedule tweeting the card at different times during the week leading up to the chat.
  • Sometimes chat topics aren’t set, but open, and they depend on participants to take the conversation where they want. The open chat is more likely to happen when a tweetchat community is established.
  • Chats tend not to have rules, other than reminding people to use the hashtag whenever a post is made and being civil.
  • People who run tweetchats using their personal accounts often tweet before-hand that their account is likely to be busy for the next hour so that those who don’t want to chat can make a decision about what to do.


A tweetchat run by a single person, let’s call them the MC, generally introduces the chat – and topic if there is one – and asks chat participants to introduce themselves.

  • The MC of the open topic may simply wait for people to respond or begin with a few opening tweets to encourage responses. Their job is then to respond to comments and to keep the chat going by inserting a tweet or two if things seem to have gone silent.
  • The MC of the declared topic chat generally has a set of numbered questions which they introduce one by one. They will usually have these ready on a word document to cut and paste into tweets. The MC responds to each person who introduces themselves, as well as to the answers to questions. They keep track of any responses which haven’t used the hashtag and retweet them with the hashtag attached. They might also retweet some responses to encourage other people not yet following the hashtag to join in. Sometimes they provide a summary of the combined tweets to date. The MC may also decide to provide links to resources relevant to the topic.

Anuja and I run the #VirualNotViral tweetchat in much the same way. We usually have a guest. So there are three of us MCing. In negotiation with the guest, we set the style of the chat – this is either

  • where we ask the guest a couple of questions and then invite chat participants to ask questions and make comments, or
  • the guest asks chat participants a series of questions.

Anuja and my job is to introduce the guest and ask them a couple of preliminary questions. We also ask chat participants to introduce themselves. We take responsibility for responding to introductions, retweeting any replies that don’t have the hashtag and for reminding people of the time and hashtag. We also close off the chat with thanks to the guest and participant as well as advertising the next week’s chat.

We monitor the flow of chat and insert comments and questions if there seems to be a lull. We can, if the guest would like us to, number the questions that come in from chat participants so that the guest can work systematically through a list.

Anuja and I have our introduction and questions prepared on a word doc. on our desktops so we can simply cut and paste into tweets. We encourage our guests to prepare introductory comments too, as well as have some standby comments and resources to hand.

Tweetchats can get a bit fast and furious at times. Participants often start chatting with each other – this is great community building and networking and A Good Thing. But it can be hard for people to follow the threads of conversations. It is important for the MCs to try to create some coherence through numbering, threading, summaries, responses – and not to lose questions.

Anuja and I generally use Tweetdeck, so we can both use our personal accounts as well as both be on the VirtualNotViral twitter account. We are also talk backstage throughout the tweetchat – we use Whatsapp – and we work out which of us is doing what. (This is interesting in itself as Anuja is in  Australia and I am in England – so we are synchronously working across time zones and huge distances for an hour or so every week. ) Usually one of us takes responsibility for talking with the guest and the other responds to chat participants. I tend to think of this as analogous to talkback radio without the time delay – Anuja and I are sat in the outer studio, making sure things run smoothly, stay on track and there isn’t dead air time.


There is often a lot of useful information shared during tweetchats, information that is worth keeping. There are various ways to archive chats. Anuja is very good at making twitter moments; we advertise the links in the week following the chat, and put each link on a list on our website – they are here. Other people use sites such as Wakelet to store key tweets from a chat.

So that’s a preliminary account of tweetchatting.

We are keen to get beyond these organisational questions and consider the tweetchat more as a community building exercise. We would also like to understand how the tweetchat is used as part of a more general networked doctoral/supervision support experience.  

If you have any comments to make about your experiences of tweetchats please use the blog or VirtualNotViral twitter account – I moderate comments here so I can weed out spam. In other words, there might be a delay in comments being published, please don’t think there is anything wrong if they don’t appear straight away.


#VirtualNotViral tweet chats run every Monday at 9am BST and 6pm AEST.

Posted in academic writing, social media, tweetchat, twitter | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments