how an examiner reads a thesis

unspecified.jpegAbout this time every year I post something about the reading habits of thesis examiners.

At the risk of repeating myself – again – it is worth knowing what they/we examiners do when they/we receive that big fat tome the results of your hard work.

It’s helpful to know that examiners don’t often sit down and read your thesis in one go. If they do, it’s because they are on a plane or a long train journey. Mostly, your thesis will be read in three or four or even more than one sitting. The examiners will may thus need some help in remembering where they are. Those summaries you made at the end of each chapter not only helped you as a reader to sort out how your argument was sequenced, they help examiners pick up your argument where they left off reading a few days previously are also an important aide-memoire to the examiners.

The examiners are also likely to do some pre-reading before they start on the whole text. Because they can do this in between meetings Examiners will are likely to look first at one, some or all of:

  • the thesis abstract

The examiners expect an abstract to be a succinct summary of the thesis which tells them what it is about and what is coming provides key details – why the research was done, how, where and with whom, the results and the implications. They expect to see the warrant and the contribution made clear and if it isn’t they start to panic.

  • the reference list

The examiners expect to see, from the list of what has the candidate has read, how well they know the field. The examiners read the references looking for relevant current and historical materials and the ‘must cite’ seminal works, if they exist. They see what’s omitted and where the candidate’s gaps in knowledge might be – and this may lead to them worrying viva questions. From this references reading, they get some pointers to where the candidate locates their own work and that of the examiners who are supposedly appointed for their expertise. They can also see whether the references meet standard scholarly conventions. If they are a mess do not follow the required conventions, then the examiner will certainly not only ask for corrections but also form a dim view of the candidate’s lack of attention to detail scholarship.

  • the table of contents

The examiner can see a lot from the contents list. They can see whether all the steps that they expect are there. They can see whether the argument moves appear to be in a logical order. From this, they make a judgment about whether the argument is missing or garbled presented well. They may also refine their view of the candidate’s academic writing, depending on how badly well the headings and subheadings are designed. Vague and ambiguous or someone trying to be too clever by half headings can cause the examiner to put the entire text away until the last moment approach the thesis with an unnecessarily negative view.

  • the conclusion

The examiners may skim the conclusion to see what claims the candidate makes for their research. They are looking for a clear statement of contribution that is believable, given what the research actually does congruent with the research design and data set. If the candidate does not present their contribution clearly, then the examiners will know they are about to play a guessing game until they reach the second to last chapter and are likely to pursue this at the viva and require a correction.

So, knowing this, you can see it’s important not to leave these four thesis bits to the last gasp to pay attention to these sections when you write and revise. Help your examiners to read your thesis in the right frame of mind appreciatively by getting these four things right.


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a doctorate at a distance – take one

I did my PhD by distance education. This wasn’t terribly common at the time I did it – but it wasn’t all that unusual in universities that specialised in catering for remote, working or part-time students. However, the doctorate at a distance is relatively common now.  As more and more people enrol in doctoral degrees, more also want to work with a supervisor and university that aren’t on their door step.  And that makes it important to talk about what it means to do a research degree somewhere other than ‘at home’.

A caveat. I generally don’t write much about my own PhD much. N=1 and all that.  I prefer to use my research and teaching for the ‘stuff’ of this blog. But I’ll make an exception on this topic. But I do also supervise doctoral researchers who don’t live in my city and I read the research on distance education.  And I am concerned that there is still not a lot of discussion and writing about the PhD or professional doctorate by distance despite the increases in enrolment. What little there is comes largely from universities whose history is in distance provision. The doctorate by distance is a topic that merits much more airing IMHO. I’m particularly keen to see more discussion online about distant doctoral researchers as here, in the cloud, is where many distanced doctoral researchers hang out. 

So this is my contribution to talking more. Here are two things that I think are important if you are thinking about doing a doctorate in a university far, far away.

(1) Think long and hard about how you will cope with distance education

I didn’t choose to do a PhD by distance mode.  I wanted firstly to be at a particular university. I knew a lot of the staff and their work, and I knew that they would actively support the kind of research I wanted to do. But this choice meant that I either had to move states – not likely – or do the PhD remotely.

I wasn’t afraid of distance education as I had previously done postgraduate taught courses in this mode. In reality, this kind of study was a good fit. But I wouldn’t have chosen distance if the university hadn’t been right.

Distance education doesn’t sit well with everybody. My partner for example did a postgraduate taught degree by distance and he found it enormously frustrating. He wanted more regular contact, and to be part of a supportive social cohort which had lively discussions. The online interaction he was offered seemed far too impersonal and, although he passed well, he didn’t enjoy the experience. I, on the other hand, am a bit of an auto-didact. I’m not worried about having to organise myself or live with my own thoughts. In fact, I rather relish solitary intellectual work. So, doctoral work by distance and I got on pretty well.

If you are considering a distant doctoral experience, it’s important to think honestly about your own preferences and habits. If you find solitary work alarming or you have difficulty motivating yourself, then doctoral research may be tricky full stop – but distance education won’t work at all, as it intensifies both isolation and the need for strong organisation and self-discipline. Or, if you are like my partner –  the kind of person that does best when you are with other people, and when you are somewhere you can hang out in the library and café, catch your supervisor in the corridor, easily meet up with other doctoral researchers – then wandering lonely as a cloud through the doctoral experience may not be your best choice.

If however you are more like me, and happy to get on with things largely by yourself, then studying away from your university home base can be a great option.


(2) Choose your university carefully

I did my PhD at a specialist distance education university. Deakin University in Australia, like the Open University in the UK, supported its doctoral researchers very well. In particular:

  • The university offered a wonderful and comprehensive library service and were subscribed to almost every available journal in my field. We are of course speaking of a time long, long ago, before books and journals went digital and got more expensive. Then, in this pre Web 2 age, all I had to do was to email the library a list of journal papers that I wanted and they sent them to me – as a bundle of photocopies. Books were ordered up the same way, and were returned in prepaid envelopes. Getting a big, fat parcel of new papers or a book in the post was always an exciting day!

These days, when all universities are online and books and journals come in digital form it is not postal efficiency that you require. You want a university through which you can access everything that you need, and preferably a specialist librarian contact with whom you can talk by Skype or email if you have a particular query or problem.

  • There was an annual summer school where doctoral researchers from all over the country came to share their work, meet their supervisor, and focus on some shared issues. One of the regular summer school events was a talk by a recent doctor who discussed their experiences – see, it’s possible. It was in fact at one of these summer schools, where I was the recent doctor talking about how I had approached writing my thesis, that Barbara and I connected and we began our long academic writing collaboration.

These days, universities can offer online as well as face to face venues and fora for remote postgraduates to connect. Social media also can be used effectively to create discussions and circulate information. And you also might have a Grad School that can put a lot of support and resource material online, and offer online courses and webinars. But organised and financially supported face-to-face options are still very beneficial – it is a different experience to meet peers in the flesh than online, and then you can easily organise open and ‘non-programmed’ time with them at the time and afterwards.

It’s worth investigating how much your proposed university caters for distance doctoral researchers. Is there a summer school? Hot desks to use when you visit? A seamless way to organise accommodation, parking, email etc when you are actually on campus?What online provision is there specifically for you and your distanced colleagues? Can you easily meet other doctoral researchers and talk with them?

  • Academic staff at Deakin were generally prepared to talk with doctoral researchers other than those they were directly supervising. There was an unspoken shared responsibility for doctoral candidates, which I took advantage of. I often had very helpful discussions with generous non-supervisors – sometimes with a bed for the night as well (thanks in particular to Jane who saved me from horrible hotels and student dorms and patiently listened one night as I thrashed out my thesis structure).

These days, it is possible to have some of these kinds of complementary supervision conversations online. Blogs, vlogs and websites offer advice ranging from writing to organisation to discipline-specific book reviews and essays. You get constant leads on new and old research of interest. There are free online methods courses and webinars. 

And synchronous and asynchronous conversation. Lots and lots of it. You can talk to all manner of academic people online. Meet your reading list. Ask them that burning question. Hierarchies of career stage, so important in universities, are much less so in the digital ether. However, social media conversations generally tend to be shortish, particularly if they are twittered. But you can build networks, establish friendships and collaborations online, if you work at it. All of these things can make research by distance much less isolated.

But it is still worth finding out how accessible staff other than your supervisor might be for specific advice or the odd chat.

So this is a start on the things that I think are important about doing the doctorate by distance. But this is not all that is involved. Not by a long shot. There’s much more. And I have take 2 on the topic ready and it will come next week.

But I’m also keen to hear from anyone else who has successfully completed their PhD by distance, or who is currently doing this and is prepared to reveal their experience.  Do you have distance doctoral experiences to share? Do let me know by email, comment or DM.


Posted in doctoral research by distance, PhD, PhD by distance, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

message tactics – #wakeupreader

If you want to keep your reader interested in your argument it helps to think about the tactics and tools you have at your disposal. You actually have a lot. Some of these are syntactical, some more artistic, and some are to do with your message. This post is a reminder that it’s helpful to keep message tactics in mind when you are writing. They can do a lot, not to simply to strengthen and support what you argue, but also to interest and engage your reader.

We often think about some of these message tactics as ‘evidence’ – they are the ‘stuff’ that we offer in support of our argument. But rather than evidence, I’d like to reframe these, just for a minute, as message tactics.

Humour me. What do I mean by message tactics?

Well, the idea of a message stems from an understanding that the reader is in a kind of internal conversation with you as they read. They read along and the conversation is either dull or interesting.  You do – or don’t – get your message across. And tactics of course suggests that you can do things, as a writer, to encourage the reader to stay talking with you – and to talk with you in particular ways. So think of choosing message tactics as selecting approaches which steer the reader into a potential  course of action.


So – if keeping your reader awake is about stimulating, supporting and encouraging the dialogue that the reader has with your text, it’ s pretty helpful to get a grip on some of the most common message tactics you can  use. If you do, you can take a moment to consider which of them will not only do the most persuasive and credible job for you, but also which are the most engaging and most relevant to your reader(s).  You make wise choices about what to do when, where and why, with your writing.

The tactics outlined below are those that you might use either in the body of a paragraph or as a major section of a paper or chapter. They of course overlap (all heuristics are by their nature pretty imperfect).  And you might do more than one of them in the same piece of writing. However, it’s helpful to understand what each of the tactics means in practice and what they do with, and for, your readers.

tactic what you do #wakeupreader
Add information


Add extra supporting details Adding information helps to clarify and/or support what you are saying. If well chosen, an example can connect what you are saying with an ongoing scholarly conversation and/or with something that is of interest or already known to the reader.

Diagrammes and illustrations can also be used to present additional information  and these require the reader to stop with the words – this may or may not be welcome 🙂

Give an example


Provide a concrete illustration In making an abstract idea more concrete, you not only provide ‘evidence’ but also can enliven the argument, and engage the reader. But beware the example that actually narrows the reader’s interpretation.

Examples can be presented in interesting ways  – vignettes, narratives, break out boxes – to break the visual monotony of the page.

Replace one idea with another


Re-present the same idea in a different way Writing something like – “this might also be understood as…” or “given the difficulties already described with x concept, the notion of y allows…”  – or something similar shows the reader you are about to offer them something else.

An idea replacement encourages the reader to consider the relative merits of different approaches to the same phenomena, idea, event or problem.

Compare and contrast


Bring two ideas or situations or events together to see what is common to them, or the nature of the differences between them This is a very common way to draw out particular elements of a phenomena, event, saying, idea or problem. Elaborating shared and distinctive elements helps you to show your key points. This ‘show and tell’ can help the reader to follow what you are arguing.

Carefully selected ideas, situations or events can  help readers connect their prior experience, knowledge and interest with your argument.



Put the material/events/problem/issue in its broad historical and political context The reader is able to consider the context of the phenomenon/idea/event etc.  you are discussing.

They can thus bring their own historical/political knowledge to your prose.

Make particular


Say specifically when – time – and where – space The reader understands that they are to read what you are saying as being about something specific rather than applying to all times and places.

The reader can also now do their own compare and contrast  – how does this situation stack up against instances/places they know well.

Establish necessary conditions or prerequisites As above, provide key contextual information – but explicitly argue, through carefully staged moves, the importance of particular relationships and their significance You provide the reader with an explanation in logical steps, with supporting evidence. They can then  critically engage with you – they can debate with you via your writing.
Attribute causality


As above – but rather than suggesting a relationship or connection, argue something very conclusive As above – the reader is offered an explanation that they can take as given, or interrogate.


Offer a new conceptual heuristic or a theorisation You invite the reader  to rethink the ways in which a problem, phenomenon, idea, event etc. is usually understood, or has initially been presented.

Your goal is to suggest a significant new line of thinking. This might delight as well as surprise!



Posted in #wakeupreader, message tactics, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

surviving (and maybe even thriving) as a career contract researcher


The final and fifth post in this series on being a researcher on other people’s projects comes from Dr Simon Bailey. Simon is Research Fellow, CLAHRC Greater Manchester Alliance,  Manchester Business School. 

I’m what you might call a career contract researcher. This wasn’t what I always envisaged from my academic career, but at the same time, it is the product of active choices on my part, where, at least some of the time, alternative options did and do still exist.

I’ve been a jobbing researcher since I finished my PhD in 2008.  Since then I have held a total of 8 different contracts of employment. They have ranged in duration from 6 months to 2 years. Until quite recently I have rarely, if ever, known for sure if my contract would be extended until it would almost certainly have been too late to find another had it not been. Yet in almost a decade of stitching together contracts I have only had one period of unemployment, which lasted about 3 months. I have only ever worked in two universities, and at present I have been employed in the same school for just over 6 years.

Contract research is an inherently challenging position, practically, intellectually and institutionally – both in being able to demonstrate the things that you need to in order to progress, and also in finding a place and a narrative that fits. The need for an interesting or relevant job is always potentially trumped by the need for any job. Interests have to remain flexible, and projects have to become ‘cases’, little pieces of an evolving narrative the precise look of which you may not really know, but which you hope will one day emerge. My initial approach to this problem was to try and keep some consistency in the methods employed in my various projects. My interest in the method itself meant that I could happily take on a variety of subject matter, with my attention always held by the different application of those methods to different problems. It also gave me a ‘thing’, even if it was quite a broad thing, that lots of other people also had. I pursued various additional activities to reinforce this. I did casual teaching on relevant courses, reviewed papers for relevant journals, and organised informal reading groups with other researchers. I always tried to use any funded conference as an opportunity to present work to ‘my audience’ and to build and maintain those links across institutions.

This extra activity helped maintain the narrative when my contracts did not always fit. It is activity that I maintain to this day, and which has contributed to a sense of collegiality and community with my ‘full academic’ colleagues that at many points in my somewhat turbulent career I was convinced I would never enjoy.

Another fundamental challenge is writing. Academic writing is a craft skill. Writing on research contracts is also usually a collective craft. An ability to write with other people is something that you need to develop as quickly as you possibly can. That these people will not always share your interests or your perspective is one challenge. That these people will expect you to write things that are relevant to their project, and may well not recognise your need to develop your own publications is another challenge. That projects rarely have ‘writing time’ built into them is a huge challenge. That you will be expected to devote many hours to writing reports, which can be a poor preparation for writing papers and can leave you with little or no time to do so anyway, is a major challenge. The challenges are too many and varied to list. There is a substantial amount of very helpful guidance on developing your abilities as an acdemic writer – I’m going to focus here specifically on the ‘collective’ bit.

There have been some lovely posts about collaborative writing on Patter recently. Mostly this has been about developing the one-on-one relationship, the writing partnership. If you are fortunate as a researcher you will find colleagues with whom you do form these kind of relationships. However, you have to forge on with collective writing even in the absence of them.

What it has taken me a considerable time to realise, is that although every academic from researcher up to professor ‘wants’ to write, writing and publishing is an essentially conflicted and contested practice. It has to be fought for by everyone who wishes to engage in it, within inflexible constraints. Until relatively recently I think I held an implicit expectation that I would be ‘managed’ in my writing, in the sense that project leads and line managers would expect me to produce writing and would employ the usual regulative apparatus to make sure this happened. When it comes to writing I have found that this relationship is inverted. You have to manage them. You have to be the one who is pushing the need to write onto the agenda at project meetings – as early on in the project as you possibly can. You have to be the one finding potential arguments and audiences. You have to be the one getting drafts into circulation among the team and keeping them moving. Be bold and fearless. Tell your boss that they need to find time to do their bit on this paper. Give them a target and manage them to it. While this is most essentially the case when you are the lead author on a paper, it is, I think, the best approach with any writing that involves your more senior colleagues.

This might all sound like hard graft, and it is. Although I am going to finish with a ‘but…there’s hope’ message, I’m not going to pretend that at some point the search ends and you find the pot of gold. However, sticking in one place for a considerable time, joining and maintaining groups and communities within and beyond your university, and developing a regular writing habit and a hard line in managing up, are some of the things that have helped me attain a satisfying, secure, flexible and autonomous position – most of the time. There are certainly peaks and troughs to all these characteristics – as is generally the case I think with project-based work. They are also never settled, and always subject to ongoing negotation, but this is no different anywhwere else in the academy.

As I said at the beginning of this post, career contracting was not exactly what I thought I was signing up for when I decided upon a career in academia. Among many other aspirations, what I really wanted to do was write. With time and persistence I have found a position that affords me more opportunities to write than the majority of my colleagues, wherever they stand on the ladder. It is In this sense that I think career contracting can be worth the fight.

Posted in early career researchers, research fellow, Simon Bailey, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Finding a balance when working on somebody else’s projects

The fourth post about researching on someone else’s projects comes from Australians Dr Jess Harris (University of Newcastle & Dr Nerida Spina (QUT).

In the post that prompted our contribution, Pat described some of the ethical and political issues associated with working as a contracted researcher. But there are other challenges that arise when working on ‘soft money’, which only seem to be talked about in shared offices or quiet, snatched conversations involving coffee or wine.

Counting the time before, after and during our PhDs, between the two of us we have been employed as part of what Megan Kimber (2003) described as the ‘tenuous periphery’ for almost two decades and have experienced many challenges and opportunities in working on other people’s projects. Our post focuses on doing contract research post-PhD. Simultaneously balancing PhD research with paid research work deserves a whole blog post of its own!

The first hurdle that contract researchers face is finding suitable work. Word-of-mouth is king in the world of contract research. Aside from the coveted three-year project manager or research fellow positions, short-term research work is rarely advertised. Getting your foot in the door and doing good work is key to the next contract. Academics talk, and good researchers are a highly-prized commodity.

The ‘dark side’ of this esteem is the need to self-regulate. Because of the precarious nature of short-term contracts, researchers often accept work whenever it is available. Gathering stores for the proverbial winter. It is not uncommon to see researchers employed for more than 40 hours a week, on multiple contracts taken back to back in fear that the next contract might not appear. For some researchers, this can continue for years without break. The system is fuelled by our desire to engage in high quality research, to achieve continuing employment, and our need to pay the bills.

The nature and pace of this work is dramatically different from doctoral research. During the PhD, you are encouraged to take time ponder new ideas or immerse yourself in the literature. Every aspect of your work is subject to scrutiny from supervisors and examiners. Moving on from that experience, it can be tricky to limit yourself to the time dictated by a contract if it feels like it is not enough to produce quality work. We have both had the experience of working additional (unpaid) hours to complete work, worried that we might be seen as working too slowly, or that our work is not good enough. We make these decisions fully aware that research budgets often won’t stretch to cover more hours and that the academics who have employed us also face workload pressures.

While many of these concerns are tied up with our identity as researchers, the pressure is intensified when you are competing with others and hoping to increase your chances of another contract, or an ongoing position.

The dreaded ‘imposter syndrome’ never seems to be far from researchers, and those working on short-term contracts are certainly not immune. You are thrown into the deep end, often using methods or working on projects that are outside or – if you are lucky – on the periphery of your field. The learning curve for any new project is steep. As any researcher working on multiple projects knows, it is tricky to keep track all of the associated details.

The ability to engage in ongoing and focused programs of research and deepen your expertise in a particular field is a luxury that is not available when working on other people’s projects. You tend to take on projects that are interesting but not necessarily related to your previous research. After a while, your publication record might end up a bit patchy – or worse – which isn’t helpful when looking for tenured work. Finding time to write from the thesis can take a back seat to the immediate pressures of research work. While you might review the literature, transcribe interviews, code data, and undertake preliminary analyses, contract researchers are far less likely to be paid to write publications or to be named on publications that use their work.

It sounds like we are saying that working on somebody else’s project is a terrible idea. On the contrary, working on others’ projects can open opportunities and benefits that are not accessible in other ways. Working on projects that are led by others builds experience and expertise across a range of areas while you are supported by experienced researchers. The focus of a PhD limits researchers from engaging with a wide range of topics and methods. Working on other projects helps researchers to move beyond the familiar.

Despite the insecurity and uncertainty of contract research work, personally, this type of work has helped to us both to develop networks, find mentoring relationships, build collaborative research relationships and grow in confidence. And importantly for us, “working on other people’s projects” is how we met!

This type of work provides experience and support in navigating some of the tricky aspects of conducting research before you start taking ownership of projects yourself. While you might contribute excellent research to a project, you don’t have the weight of large-scale studies and meeting institutional requirements solely on your shoulders. If the financial uncertainties and performance pressures of contract research could be alleviated, this type of work might allow researchers to find flexible employment and a brilliant training ground.

We think it is important to tease out these discussions and consider the question of how can we, in both the ‘tenured core’ and the ‘tenuous periphery’, overcome the challenges and uncertainties to support better opportunities for contract researchers.


Kimber, M. (2003). The tenured ‘core’ and the tenuous ‘periphery’: the casualisation of academic work in Australian universities. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 25(1), 41-50.


Posted in early career researchers, emerging researchers, Jess Harris, Nerida Spina, research fellow, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Negotiating the associate researcher role 


Sharon McCulloch is (among other things) a teaching fellow at the University of Bath, a postgraduate tutor at University College London, and an associate lecturer at Lancaster University. Her research interests are in literacy practices, as they pertain to both students and professional writers in higher education. She is particularly interested in the relationship between academic reading and writing, and in how they relate to knowledge production.

Working as a researcher on someone else’s project raises a number of issues around job security, autonomy, and academic identity, but there is a relative dearth of advice or discussion on how one might negotiate this rather precarious academic position. Having just finished a two-year contract as a research associate on an ESRC-funded project, this is my tuppenceworth on what I learned from the experience.

I should start by saying that the two years I worked on the project were some of the best in my life. I learned a huge amount, got to travel all over the world, was invited to speak at international events, and meet interesting, knowledgeable people. However, the main factor in making the experience so enjoyable was the team I worked with, and my PI (primary investigator) in particular.

The team consisted of the PI, two semi-retired co-investigators who worked one day a week on the project, and two research associates (me and my colleague). Two of the team were from one discipline and three were from another. In the first year of the project, we held regular reading groups, where we took turns to select a text and lead a discussion on its relevance to the project. This was an excellent way of getting to grips with new disciplinary areas, but it also enabled us to get to know each other better and get on the same page in terms of our understanding of the key concepts.

We also had fortnightly project meetings to allocate work and discuss progress, but aside from this, our PI largely left us to our own devices. Some researchers on other people’s projects feel that they get stuck with ‘dogsbody’ work, or are micro-managed to the point of feeling stripped of autonomy, but this was not my experience. I was made responsible for certain research sites and was given free reign to recruit participants, arrange interviews and manage the data where and when I wanted as long as things got done. Most of the time, I worked independently and kept track of my progress on a shared spreadsheet (which I suspect no-one but me ever looked at).

I was extremely grateful for the trust and freedom afforded me, but I think my PI did things this way as much out of necessity as anything else; she was far too busy to micro-manage us. Although I appreciated this hands-off approach, it could easily go wrong. On funded projects, time is limited and a team member who doesn’t pull their weight can have a serious impact on the project, yet there simply isn’t time to go through the usual steps for managing underperformance. A colleague who manages a project told me that, as a result of previous bad experience, she now asked her researchers for weekly reports on what they’d been doing and a forward plan for each week ahead. I would have hated to work like this, but I understand why it happens.

Some may worry that, as a researcher on someone else’s project, they won’t be able to pursue their own research agenda. This is up for negotiation, however. Our PI included the target to ‘become a REF-able academic’ in our annual professional development plans. My fellow research associate and I interpreted this in different ways. He presented in his own right and worked on his monograph throughout the project. I tended to prioritize project work and submitted just one paper based on my PhD. When it was rejected, I didn’t have time to rework it, so published nothing of my own during the two-year period.

My colleague and I also interpreted our remit as research associates rather differently. Strictly speaking, our job was to do research for the project and didn’t require any teaching or ‘service’. But with the TEF looming, I didn’t want to have a gap without teaching on my CV, so I took on unpaid teaching, supervision of MA students and examining of PhD theses. I also did a course leading to HEA fellowship. I organised research seminars and co-convened a research group in the department. My colleague, in contrast, focused on his own research as well as project work and didn’t take on any extra duties.

Which approach is best? Well, at the end of the project, my colleague had a monograph under his belt and walked straight into a permanent lectureship. I walked into three temporary posts scattered around the country. Do I have any regrets? Not really. I could have been more strategic, but it was important to me to be seen as a team player, as someone hard working and reliable. More importantly, I got a well-rounded apprenticeship into academia. The accreditation and supervisory experience I gained is probably helpful when job hunting, albeit not as helpful as a long list of publications.

Speaking of publications, don’t expect to have these in hand by the time you finish a two-year contract. Our data collection took longer than planned, delaying the analysis and our readiness to reach conclusions. By all accounts, this is the norm rather than the exception. Although the project has now finished and the pay checks have stopped coming in, writing is still being done. If I want the publications, I need to do them in my free time (assuming that I have some free time in between my three jobs). Aside from the issue of working for nothing, this has implications in terms of access to data, equipment, software, IT support, office space and shared drives. If you’re no longer employed by an institution, you generally lose this access, even though it is widely acknowledged that work on research outputs needs to continue.

I loved working on a joint endeavour with more experienced people and having the freedom to organise my own time. I found the work intellectually stimulating and would happily do it all again.








Posted in early career researchers, research fellow, researcher, Sharon McCulloch, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Cultivating individuality as a post-doc research assistant

thumbnail_ESD head.jpg

This is the second post on researching on other people’s projects. Emily St.Denny is a research assistant at the Public Policy Institute for Wales, based at Cardiff University, where she studies the powers and policy levers Welsh Ministers can use to make and deliver their policy goals. She recently completed a PhD in French and Public Policy at Nottingham Trent University. Her thesis looked at how and why prostitution policy in France has changed the way it has since 1946.

There are as many versions of life after the PhD as there are newly-minted doctors. For some, like those who leave academia to pursue opportunities in other fields, work and research may be very different from what they experienced while writing their thesis. For others who seek to build a career in research and higher education, the contrast will likely be more nuanced.

In many cases, a post-doc’s first job will be as a research assistant. On the one hand, this means employing and honing many of the same skills developed throughout the PhD. On the other, it also often means putting these skills to the service of a project you have not been involved in planning or shaping, and which may not be directly related to your thesis topic.

One of the challenges this throws up therefore concerns how post-doc RAs, who have just spent years crafting their own research ‘voice’ and carving out a space for themselves in an often-crowded field, can continue to grow as individual researchers while working to support somebody else’s research agenda.

Having worked as an RA for four years, both during and after my PhD, I’ve been working (struggling?) to retain and craft my ‘voice’ as an early career researcher throughout the whole process.

My PhD was in French and public policy, it explored the evolution of contemporary prostitution/sex work policies in France from 1946 onwards. At the same time as writing my thesis, I also worked as a research assistant on medium to large research projects, studying policy-making and the policy process in the devolved UK. I now look at minimum unit pricing of alcohol policy in Wales.

I have enjoyed working on all these projects, and continue to do so. They’ve allowed me to continue improving my understanding and manipulation of public policy theory – which is where my heart lies. Gone, however, is the focus on gender and the study of French politics, both of which still greatly interest me.

The way I see it, with my disparate interests and expertise, there are three broad options available to me at this point in my career. Option one: I take a bow and draw the curtains on my plans to be a scholar of French gender politics, and focus exclusively on studying and commenting on public policy in the UK for the foreseeable future. Option two: I slowly try to redirect my career towards studying policymaking in France exclusively. Or, option three: I decide to have my cake and eat it too and, at the risk of finding it too rich to stomach, I try to carve out a space for myself in both areas.

Call me a dreamer, but I’m currently pursuing option three. I love studying public policy, gender, France, Scotland, Wales, and devolution, and I’ll be damned if I give any of them up without a fight. So, how am I going to do it? Why, with the help of my ‘3 T’ strategy (patent not pending):

1. Transferability: If there is one thing that PhD students are near-universally equipped to do, it’s finding ways to make the most out of limited resources (ramen for breakfast anyone?). We are excellent at using our skills and knowledge in a range of different ways. Heck, that’s often one of the primary reasons we get hired as RAs. So, while I might be working on a project that’s very different from my thesis, I know that there are plenty of opportunities for transferring what I’m learning. No matter what I’m working on, it’s crucial I keep improving my capacity to engage with scholarship, employ different data collection methods, analyse and report information in different ways, and engage with stakeholders about why this research matters.

2. Time: Jane Austen once said that “It is a truth universally acknowledged that an early career research in possession of an RA position must be in want of four extra hours in the day, if not an extra day in the week”. Well, she didn’t exactly say that, but the point still holds. There will be times when maintaining my relevance across multiple areas of interest, in addition to those associated with your post-doc, require extra efforts. Most of what I do at work is relevant to my professional development as a research, but it is still up to me to cultivate my position as an authority on French prostitution policy while working on alcohol policy-making in Wales. I’ve therefore always found it worth discussing and negotiating opportunities to help me develop my own research (eg. time to write your book proposal, attend conferences, or blog) very early on in a hiring process or post.

3. Training: Ultimately, I’ve always been given the opportunity to work on my own interests at the margins of the research projects I’ve assisted on. This is partly because I’ve had the great fortune of working with very supportive senior colleagues, and partly because RA posts increasingly require primary investigators to help you develop your professional and research skills. This year, for example, I’ve been focusing on becoming a more engaging researcher – this means improving my ability to plan and organise opportunities for different publics to discover what I do and why it matters. My boss grants me time off to attend training workshops and, as a result, I’m planning engagement activities that will benefit project I assist on, while also planning an exhibition on contemporary history of prostitution/sex work in France which I will seek funding for in the future.

Overall, there are many challenges involved in becoming a post-doc RA. Some are linked to a perceived change in status – you go from expert on your thesis topic to assistant on somebody else’s project – others involve a perceived loss of autonomy – you must temporarily shelve your grand research plans while you investigate something very different. That having been said, I’ve found it possible to be an RA with ‘purpose’: one which seeks to make the day-job work for me, as much as for the PI. The key, I find, is to keep learning. Consequently, I’d be very interested to learn about how others have navigated the experience of being a post-doctoral research assistant.

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