you’re so vague…


It is important when writing about research to be specific. And by writing about research I mean writing about methods in a journal article, writing methods in a thesis or journal article, writing about research  design in a research bid. See what I did there? Specific, not vague.

Now I’m guessing you do know that examiners and peer reviewers always look to find the details in design and methods. They search for N = number of people, things and places, the times you are in your research location and the number of transcripts you are working on. If you don’t have these N details about the research, your chapter, paper or bid will fall down.

However, these are not the only places where it’s easy to be imprecise. You can also be vague and woolly in two other places – writing about what you want to do, and writing about your results. And, like not having N info, lack of attention to details here can cost you too.

  1. What you want to do

If you are doing an intervention study, design or action research, or a trial, you might find yourself using these words – improve, enhance, reduce, lessen, change. Problem. These are imprecise terms. The point of intervention studies is that you can see if you have achieved what you set out to do. So the words improve, enhance, reduce, lessen, change really don’t cut it.  You need to do more work on what these these terms mean.

Let’s take an example. 

If you wanted to improve something – say the ways in which doctoral researchers approach literature reviews – then you need to make improve much more explicit. Does improve mean that DRs

  • read more or less – and if so how much,
  • read more often – and if so how often,
  • read regularly – and is that everyday, every week, or what,
  • read differently – and if so how,
  • write about the literatures differently  – and if so how,
  • take better notes  – and what does better look like,
  • read out of their field  – and does that mean specific field or any fields and what do they do when they do this… 

and you can keep adding possibilities I’m sure. You get the point. You have to say what you mean in order to see if your intervention has ‘worked’.

  1. Your results

There are lots of places in reporting results where you can get very imprecise. Like saying lots of places. Words like lots, many, few, the minority, the majority, most, frequently, rarely, often, sometimes, are all classic instances where imprecision takes over. Problem. How is the reader to know what you mean? 

An example or two will help.

  • What do we mean by often if we say  “Doctoral researchers reported often feeling out of their depth.” What is often – once a day? more? every five minutes? Or is it only once a week? There is a significant difference between these versions of often, and yet the term applies equally to all of the options.
  • What do we mean when we say the minority – “A minority of doctoral researchers reported that they enjoyed the PhD process.” What is the minority – one less than 50%? A third, a quarter, only one or two? There is a significant difference between these versions of minority and yet the term applies equally to all of the options.

Examiners and reviewers almost always pick up vagueness (two or three might not care but the rest of us do). While examiners and reviewers might let you get away with one or two instances of opaque, unclear and unfocused writing in results, we/they’ll not accept much more. And we/they’ll just outright reject any muddiness and obscurity in research design.

And even though I’m a person who doesn’t like rules, there is a maxim here. When writing about design, objectives and goals, results and claims, don’t ‘make vague’.  Through a text darkly ain’t on. Clear the fog away and say exactly what you mean.


Image credit: Sandra Fauconnier

Posted in claims, research design, results, vagueness | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

making the familiar strange – two book recommendations

Today, as this post publishes, I’m giving a talk to postgraduate researchers. One of the things I will talk about is why it’s important for all researchers to practice seeing things differently.

We already have ways of describing this imperative in research literatures. We talk about reflexivity. We talk about criticality. We talk about challenging our taken for granted assumptions. We talk about making the familiar strange. 

We stress the need for seeing differently because it is integral to the creation of knowledge. If we are to make step changes in our understandings, then we can’t just reproduce and replicate our existing lines of thought.

I can’t imagine a research methods courses which doesn’t talk about ‘de-familiarisation’ as a necessary practice. However, we generally don’t spend a lot of time on discussing what this means, beyond keeping a researcher journal, or interrogating some of the language and definitions that we use. I understand this lack of indepth discussion – we university research methods teachers do have to get through a lot of stuff – philosophy, all those methods, the various permutations of research design.

But making the world a strange place is much more than keeping a journal and querying our language. It is about training ourselves – re- training  in fact – undoing some of the habitual ways that we think, see, listen, observe. This kind of re/unlearning takes time and – she whispers – probably a quite different set of resources from those that we most often see set as methods course texts.

I’m going to suggest to the postgrads I’m meeting today that they might engage with two books that offer ways to reorient their habituated practices of seeing and thinking. Both texts are by artists and both contain exercises that they/you can do by yourself, or in the company of like-minded companions.

The first book is one of Lynda Barry’s. It’s called What it is. Do you wish you could write?

Lynda Barry is an artist and teacher. She is best known for her underground comic Ernie Pook’s Comeek which ran for years in ‘alt’ newspapers. But she is also a teacher and now works as the Chazen Family Distinguished Chair in Art at U Wisconsin Madison. She’s published lots of books, but the one I’m suggesting today is a compilation of exercises that Barry uses to foster interdisciplinary creativity.

In this book, Barry asks us to consider deceptively simple words – image, memory, experience… She invites the reader to rethink these through a series of exercises. She also provides her own interpretation of the exercise in graphic novel form. You don’t of course have to do the exercise using cartoons, although you might find it fun to try.

The point of Barry’s exercises is to come back to things that we know, to revisit concepts, interpretations and explanations to see what else we can do with them. In re-viewing what we usually think and do, can we come up with new associations, different insights?


Lynda Barry also has a blog The Near Sighted Monkey. She often blogs her courses and you can audit what she and her students are doing by following the various posts. And you can of course do these exercises and see much more of her work. See also this archived material about her courses.

The second text is by Keri Smith. It’s called How to be an explorer of the world. Coincidentally I saw this book recommended at a conference just last week. I’m not alone in finding Smith’s approach very helpful for research.

Smith is an illustrator, author and blogger. She usually writes about creativity. Like Barry, she’s written several books but the one I’m suggesting is one in which she offers exercises which invite us to look, make patterns, make connections, observe movement, create conversations, use all of our senses …


The book begins by asking us to collect things – objects, experiences, observations. Smith instructs us to makes lists, make maps. She outlines activities designed to enhance the functions of our eyes and ears. She invites us to experiment with randomness.

Her exercises may seem a little strange art first but, as she notes at the beginning of the book, Everything is interesting. Look closer. Her activities are directed to a way of being in the world, a way of explicitly connecting with the world around us.


Now, it’s not really surprising that my recommendations are two books by artists. I hang around with artists a lot, I research the arts. But I do that for precisely the same reason that I’m suggesting that the postgrads I’m talking to today might engage with these texts too.

As Smith points out, at the start of her book, artists and scientists analyse the world in surprisingly similar ways. Without wanting to be too pretentious about it, artists and scientists (including social scientists) are all about looking, noticing, seeing things. Those of us who are trained to read, synthesise information, to interpret and to present an argument as our way of noticing can benefit from engagement with people who are not trained in the same way.  Putting our approaches together can be very helpful. They can help us to see things a new,  to see them differently.  Yes, to make the familiar strange.

Artists and (social) scientists can learn a lot by engaging in each other’s practices. As well, a bonus – we can have a bit of fun at the same time. And as we are learning how to see things differently we can bring this way of being, doing, seeing, feeling, thinking to our research.

And yes, if I was still running a research methods course, these books would certainly be two of my set texts.

Oh – and wait there’s more – a bonus live Lynda Barry exercise. It only takes four minutes. What do you notice?

Posted in creativity, defamiliarisation, reflexivity, research methods, the familiar | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

three things examiners look for in methods chapters

Once upon a time, when I worked in schools, early childhood teachers routinely issued young children with a ‘pen license’. A pen license was much sought after as it meant that a child could ‘advance’ to using a pen instead of a pencil. Using indelible ink meant that the child was able to write legibly in longhand. But legibility wasn’t enough, the child also had to be able to copy and compose text without making lots of mistakes that needed to be erased. Writing in pen meant the pupil had been deemed competent at basic writing tasks.

Of course, while schools issued rubrics about what counted as the standard for the pen license, different teachers did interpret the rules slightly differently. And different children learnt differently, so they didn’t all achieve the license at the same time. However, by and large, it seemed that most children got their pen license well before going on to ‘big school’ in Year 3.

Why am I telling you this? Well, the modern PhD works a bit like a pen license – the PhD is a license to practice research. Once you have the PhD you can apply for grants in your own right, and you can also teach other people about research.  And you can supervise doctoral researchers. … although contemporary universities and funding bodies often require newly minted PhDs to keep working with a more experienced researcher in all of these tasks. But in theory you know – you have your research license…

Now it’s not unhelpful to think about the thesis examiner as responsible for granting a license to research. Understanding this helps you to focus on the things that the examiner looks for as ‘evidence’ that they can licence you … 

A key place where examiners focus their licensing attention is on the chapter which outlines the design and conduct of the research. The methods chapter, as it is often called and as it appears in the thesis, is not a mindless ritual, something to be done just because it is the done thing. It is actually the place where you demonstrate that you know how to design and conduct research – not just this one project, but others in future. You have to show you understand and can use the principles of good research.

Yes… what counts as good research design and research conduct does vary from discipline to discipline and also by research tradition. So it’s good to start your thinking about licensing by noting that your examiners will have been selected because they are expert in the discipline and tradition you are using, and have been institutionally deemed capable of deciding whether you will be deemed capable and competent.

However, despite all disciplinary variations, there are three things that most examiners look for in a methods chapter. They look at 1. research design 2. data generation and 3. analysis.


So I’m going to look at each of these questions in turn, but a health warning. Do bear in mind that what I’m going to say is pan-disciplinary and across research traditions and isn’t comprehensive. You still need to think about what these questions mean for you and your particular research.

  1. Is the research well designed?

Examiners look at the nature of the research question – is it answerable? Have key terms been explained in terms of this study? Are there any ambiguities in question wording that the researcher hasn’t taken account of?

The examiner will consider whether the methods chosen are fit for purpose – this whether they will produce data* that will allow the question to be answered in some way. Your choice of what or who is involved in the research (sometimes called the sample) are vital. Examiners will make a judgement about whether the data to be generated by this design will be sufficient  – will it be ‘good enough’. In other words, they will anticipate the nature, quality and quantity of data that your methods will produce. And examiners will pretty well always look at the proposed analytic approach to see what kinds of understandings it might produce – and how this relates to the ambitions expressed in the question. Examiners  also look at the potential for difficulties to arise in the research – these might be ethical or analytic. Examiners look not only for fit but to see that you understand what this design can and can’t do.

2. Are there any problems in what the researcher actually did to generate data*?

 Examiners are looking for processes where there aren’t blank spots – some things are where  the researcher ought to have seen as a problem but hasn’t. Inevitably the research will do some things and not others, and examiners want to know know that you know this. So they make sure for instance that survey questions have been well constructed, experiments are carefully designed, that interview questions aren‘t inappropriately restrictive and closed, that observations have been focused in line with the research question … Examiners look for consistency of approach, regardless of whether the research is an emergent process, highly structured or something in between. They are also looking for how the researcher puts their ethical undertakings into practice.

3. Has the data* been analysed thoroughly?

Now I’m going to devote another post to this last question, so I’ll only say here that examiners look to see that you have used a rigorous process which has been consistently applied. This might be a statistical approach which involves complex modelling – examiners look for example for definitional assumptions, choice of technique, accuracy in application and calculations, appropriate tests for significance and so on.  Or it might be a contemporary ethnographic approach which involves writing processes, from field notes through to descriptions and then theorisations – the examiner looks here for the explicit chain of conceptual development. Or it might be the more usual qualitative approach of building themes and coding – the examiner looks for the processes used in transcription, the ways in which inductive and deductive connections have been produced, the development of categorisations and ‘coverage’ of the raw data and so on. Or it might be a process of interpretation which connects together various kinds of primary sources – the examiner looks for what sources, how they have been used, omissions and un/tenable assumptions…

The examiner wants to know whether all of the data that was generated has been used, whether disconfirming data was taken account of and how. They also want to know how any conceptual framework and/or theorisation was developed as part of the analysis.

Then… The sum of these three questions leads the examiner to decide whether the researcher gets their license. In some research traditions, the examiner is understood to be looking for research which is both valid and reliable, perhaps also replicable – in other traditions the examiner looks for the trustworthiness of the research process and the credibility of interpretation.

So what does knowing the importance of the three questions mean for the doctoral researcher?

Well, it means that the thesis, and particularly the chapter outlining the research process, has to provide the examiner with sufficient detail to make judgments. Examiners want to see:

  • An explanation about why the research was designed in the way it was. Why this research question is worded in just this way and then the what, why, who, when, how many, how often…
  • A discussion about the ways in which you generated data, including any problems you encountered. Some of the more detailed points as well as samples of the actual data ‘types’ may be included as supplementary material.
  • An audit trail. A lot of this material can be confined to appendices. ( Note that not all examiners like appendices. Check out their preferences if you can. Me, myself and I love a good appendix.) The examiner usually requires  a list of all of the data, both raw and treated and relevant details such as place, time, source etc. They mostly want to see samples of the analysis –in some research traditions the entire data base and all of the workings are provided for checking, while in others selected anonymised data are presented. Documentation of the decisions made during the research – about data generation and its processing – provide a map for the examiner which shows how the project was brought to the point where it was written as a thesis.

So this all means paying careful attention to the places in the thesis where you present your examiner with the information about your research.

What do examiners not want to see? Yes, this is a serious question. With an answer. 

Don’t give the examiner a text without sufficient methods information. Nor the reverse. You don’t have to bore the pants off the examiner with mind-numbing detail, so do discuss with your supervisor what examiners need access to immediately, and what they need to access in appendices or supplementary materials in order to see the complexity of your work.

And remember…thinking about these three questions means that you’re well on the way to becoming licensed. 

A caveat

*Data is a tricky term. I’ve starred it just so I can say that it is usually applied to numbers, images and words, and all combinations of them. Data can be generated from texts through work in libraries, through numbers generated in labs or in selected sites such as offices, schools, factories and hospitals.  But there is also debate about whether there can be any such thing as data, and post qualitative researchers now seek other ways to conceptualise research practice altogether. This is a blog post so I can’t do much more than just show that I know that this term – like just about every other one I’ve used above – are contentious!

Image credit: Rich Remoneron

Posted in data, data analysis, examiner, methods, methods chapter, research methods, thesis, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

blogging in the growlery

Like Shakespeare, Charles Dickens liked to invent new words. Along with flummox, abuzz, and whiz-bang, he is also often credited with ‘the growlery’, which he mentioned in passing in Bleak House. There is some debate about whether this word is his creation, and most dictionaries suggest it is an archaic term he adopted but that it’s no longer in use.

Now, like more than a few others, I’m a bit put out by the idea that the term growlery isn’t useful any more. I happen to think it’s a very helpful word. 

So what does it mean, this growlery, I hear you ask. (She writes this as if you can’t guess…)  Just as an observatory is a place you go to observe, a growlery is a place you go to, well yes, to growl. It’s officially dictionary-defined as a place you retreat to, alone and ill-humoured.

It’s an evocative word and I usually associate it with a Dickens-type figure clad in Victorian best harrumphing while pacing up and down in a dimly lit, book lined, leather furniture filled study. I’m sure you can summon up your own image of the growlery and its grumpy inhabitant.


I realised recently however, that my blog is my growlery. It’s where I go when I feel exasperated, when I have the irrits. I’ve learnt to turn at least some of that annoyance into writing.

I write some blog posts when I am ticked off, when I want to ‘get something off my chest’ to summon up a cliche. A growlery post pretty well always results from something which has set me off in a tiny academic pique. It’s usually something I’ve just heard or read. The recent post I wrote on bibliographies and reference lists  was written in the growlery. As was the one on methodology and methods. And the one on Profzilla. Actually, when I think about it, there’s quite a lot of posts that begin in the sanctum of the scholarly growlery.

Of course, there are some things that are growlery material that I don’t blog about. One of those is when the target of my curmudgeonly prose would be too obvious and recognisable. I do try to avoid naming and shaming and ritual public humiliation. Blog ethics are much the same as any other kind of writing ethics – no slander, no unnecessary and obvious finger-pointing.

But the blog as growlery can be a pretty productive place. The growlery doesn’t have to be somewhere that you just go to stew or feel annoyed. You might start off feeling prickly and waspish, tetchy and touchy, disagreeable and surly. But then there is the possibility of turning that peeve into something more constructive, humorous, an answering back or the posing of a tricky question… Having a growlery blog makes this possible. Writing a post provides a route through the grouchiness. A retreat to privately rant just morphs into a writing retreat.

Publishing the growlery post is the equivalent of closing the door on that dimly lit, book lined, leather furniture filled room. You’ve had your disgruntled moment. And, at least on some occasions you’ve managed, via blogging, to turn the ill temper to good use.

So… Not yet a regular blogger and more than a bit churlish about an event, a policy,  a taken for granted assumption, the latest trend in scholarship? In that case, get thee to the growlery and let the steam emanating from your ears slowly consolidate into a blog post.

Image credit: smerikal

Posted in blogging, blogging about blogging, blogging in the growlery | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

when peer review is scent marking

Continuing random posts on peer reviewer behaviour…

So we all know what scent marking is. It’s when animals set out the boundaries of their territory by leaving their scent in strategic places. Scentmarked territories are often used for sleeping and/or mating and rearing young. The marked area may also contain a food supply.  Scent marking animals will fight others of their kind and other species who try to encroach their territory, or try to take it over.

The scent is a warning to any potential intruders. Watch out this is my space! Come in at your peril!


Now, there is an equivalent behaviour in the academy too. Some subfields within disciplines are particularly prone to highly territorialist activities – they engage in scholarly scent marking.

Some academic communities are often highly focused. This is of course a Good Thing as it allows for effective knowledge building. Tight knowledge building communities share a common base of literatures and long-standing conversations about particular topics.  They expect newcomers to the field to know and understand its history and be suitably deferential to key figures. But sometimes they aren’t all that welcoming of difference. They are territorial.

How can you tell if an academic territory is of this kind? Well, they do have some qualities you can see. Academic territoriality is often apparent in the journals that serve seriously boundaried communities. Their journals have a clear and explicit statement of what they are trying to achieve. They will probably state particular themes that they are interested in exploring. They are clear about their ongoing conversations and they invite in only those people who are interested in participating in their existing subfield.

But disciplinary boundaries are often not explicit. The edges of what’s acceptable appear by omission –  you have to look for what isn’t said in their journal mission statements as much as what is.  Boundaried academic community journals may just not say anything about welcoming debate, or encouraging innovation, or inviting diverse approaches. genres and methods – nor will they mention other, perhaps rivalrous, groups in the same discipline. The unwanted are only present by their absence.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong in either loose or tight disciplinary boundaries. And it’s not a conservative versus progressive behaviour question either. A hard disciplinary border can serve multiple ends. But the existence of the invisible wall has implications that potential new members have to think about.

Journal communities often police their boundaries very strongly. And one of the ways they do this is through peer review. Researcher-writers who stray into a tightly defined territory without knowing the core texts, knowledge building interests, methods, important scholars and seminal papers may well get desk rejected for these omissions – you have picked the wrong journal (subtext you are writing about something we are not interested in). If sent to review, peer reviewers may well say much the same. They may be helpful and outline the texts and themes the new writer needs to address if they want their paper in the journal. Or they  may suggest the genre that they expect writers to conform to. This is a helpful response as it helps the new contributor work out whether they want to proceed or not.

So here is a trap lying in waiting for early career writers. How do you know if the journal you have targeted is one which is highly territorial in its behaviour? The answer to this is to (1) ask around, particularly a mentor or supervisor, about the boundaries of the journal, and (2) check to see if there is any work broadly like yours in the journal. If there isn’t then it’s probably a good idea to look for another journal which is more inclusive. And (3), if you are still in doubt, email the editor to ask whether they would be interested in your paper. But beware, sometimes journal editors are more open than their reviewers!

And there is another trap here too. Some early career researchers want to critique closed fields. They want to question the boundaries that have been established. They want to bring new ideas. The want to insert different literatures and novel perspectives into the subfield. The critique + new angle is often part of the contribution of a PhD for instance. But when it comes to turning this critique into a publication, reviewer territoriality can be profoundly in unreceptive. Peer review becomes a matter of teeth and claws.

Some territorial subfields are highly resistant to critical alternative views, approaches or even writing genres. When they receive a paper which problematises their territory, they don’t simply become defensive – we already do this – they also go on the attack – this is a foolish and unwarranted critique, this is unsubstantiated if you knew our stuff you’d never say this, this is unscholarly.

 Unknowingly sending in a paper to a journal and getting this kind of response can be off-putting to experienced researchers particularly if you aren’t expecting it. But when you are an early career researcher an aggro scent marking response can be really demoralising. It’s as well to understand that what is being said may not be about the scholarship at all but be about the incursion into unwelcoming territory.

And this negative response works both ways.  Paradoxically many journals that attempt to push interdisciplinary boundaries, or experiment with different genres, won’t be terribly interested in conventional papers. They too actually operate in ways not dissimilar to a narrowly focused sub-disciplinary journal suspicious of something from way beyond its borders. Its the general journals where there may be more open-to-all-comers approach. The tightness or otherwise of the journal area and its subsequent scent marking behaviour depends on its knowledge building intentions.

So what do you do about this if you are an early career researcher-writer?

My usual advice in writing workshops for early career and doctoral researchers is to publish first of all in the journals which will welcome your work and will see it as a contribution to their conversation. Then have a go at putting something into the bordered territory.

Save the article that is highly critical of the subfield until you have a bit of publishing under your belt and can withstand the possible scent marking response. But do try to construct a white flag in your paper. Full-on attacks  of a subfield are pretty well guaranteed to bring out an aggressive counter move – you’ve invaded my territory –  so framing a new view as a respectful, constructively critical and positive contribution is often a helpful claw-retracting move.


Photo credit: Gary Owens



Posted in disciplines, journal article, peer review, subfield, territoriality, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

finding your people online – PhD and ECR parents

This guest post is written by Chantel Carr and Leah Williams Veazey. Chantel is a PhD candidate in the School of Geography and Sustainable Communities at the University of Wollongong. Her research explores industrial work, postcapitalist economies and sustainability. Leah is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney. Her research explores migration, motherhood and online communities. 


The solitary aspects of a PhD can certainly be amongst the most challenging to manage. Whether you work on campus amongst an active community of fellow researchers or as a distance student, the process of researching and writing a PhD inevitably involves lots of time alone in your head. It’s no surprise that many of us turn to social media as a way of connecting with the world ‘out there’.

But the relationship between social media and writing a thesis is a fraught one. On the one hand, it’s the perfect storm of diversion – you don’t have to get up, you don’t even have to look out the window. Just one click and you can be instantly transported to a world without word counts or deadlines, where everyone is either having fun or being outraged. On the other hand, Facebook and Twitter are so ubiquitous that many research centres use these platforms to point to new work, and so it becomes counter-productive to avoid them completely.

Many would recognize the old adage ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. So too a thesis. A ‘village’ of supportive supervisors, colleagues, mentors, friends both inside and outside academia, partners and family makes for a happier, more balanced candidate. But our PhD journeys have been immeasurably improved by another kind of village. The PhD and ECR Parents Facebook group is an online space for people who are going through or recently finished a PhD while – rather obviously – parenting children.

If the work of doing a PhD (and by this we mean both the emotional work as well as the actual work) is testing, doing it while parenting brings an additional set of challenges. Whether it is a ‘solid’ work day squeezed into school hours, an important paragraph stopped in its tracks by the needs of a small person, or carefully laid fieldwork or lab plans scuppered by an unexpected dash to the doctor with a sick child, interruptions to schedules are the norm, not the exception. The flexibility of PhD time can be both a blessing as well a curse. Most parents would do anything to avoid having to drag a small child along to a medical appointment or grocery shopping. For a PhD parent fitting these things into your day becomes a breeze. A breeze that is, until you realize that school pick-up is only 45 minutes away and you haven’t written a sentence since 10am.

Many PhD parents have turned to academia after professional careers, so are already experienced at juggling competing (and often clashing) demands on their time. But when it all becomes too much, being able to share the overwhelm and absurdity of everyday life with others who are juggling similar issues is comforting. With just over 900 members located all over the world, and often working at strange hours of the day and night, there is always an empathetic ear available, whether you’re keeping vigil over a sick child’s bed, hopelessly crafting a last-minute Easter bonnet for tomorrow’s parade, or wrangling with your epistemology (or indeed, attempting all three simultaneously).

Alongside these quotidian challenges, are the crises that seem to arrive more frequently as lives become more complex. Finances and relationships are often tested by the double whammy of a PhD and children. The group is a safe space where bereavements, mental and physical illness are all shared openly. Entering academia a bit later in life means many members of the group hold down full or part-time professional jobs while doing a PhD. Some are already working as established lecturers, both with and without PhDs, depending on the discipline. The diversity of experience is important and somewhat unique. It brings together a range of different perspectives on problems that arise with both PhD and parenting. ECRs offer advice on negotiating supervisory issues as they begin to supervise students of their own. Experienced educators help with unusual issues in teaching and assessments. Psychologists and early childhood experts allay fears around child development. Health professionals offer alternative perspectives that prompt more fruitful conversations with practitioners at the next appointment. It’s like having a pocketful of very clever friends on call, day and night.

As the group has grown rapidly over the last year, it has led to the establishment of a number of other niche ‘villages’ including a very active virtual SUAW group, a ‘keeping healthy’ group, a motivational “Mission Possible” group for those hoping to finish this year and the ‘Full Draft Club’ for those pushing towards the first full draft. Local groups in Sydney, London, North-East England, North-West England and elsewhere enable people to meet for a casual coffee, advocate for better support for parents at their local university and, on occasion, provide a real life shoulder to cry on. There’s a group for people parenting children with additional needs during their PhD and one for those who have left, or are thinking of leaving, academia.

From a PhD perspective, exposure to other disciplines, epistemologies and methods is another benefit of an online discussion group organized around interests outside of your own subject area. Those with quantitative skills help with questions on statistics or modeling that the rest of us mere mortals sometimes struggle with. Rather than wondering what an anthropologist or a linguist would make of our findings – we ask them. This is exactly the kind of interdisciplinary networking that many universities are becoming very interested in. Sometimes different ontological perspectives can lead to vigorous debate, but those finely honed parenting skills – patience, tolerance, calmness – come in handy here, and debates are largely conducted with respect and an open mind for what other disciplines and perspectives bring to the table.

And this is a key part of what makes this particular group so successful, and so well loved by its members. An environment of respect and tolerance has been carefully crafted by the committed moderators, who work hard to ensure that new members fit the criteria as both PhD students and parents. This work is largely invisible, and done for free. It is important to recognize the work that moderating such a large group involves, and acknowledge that the group moderators do this work on top of their already hefty workloads as employees, PhD candidates and parents. The result is a safe and supportive space for members to share concerns, vent frustrations, ask for advice and celebrate key milestones. And those celebrations are particularly sweet! Every event – a publication, a presentation, a thesis submission – is a cause for celebration, not least because we all know that it has been achieved amidst the unfolding of a complex life.

Many people, not just parents, are managing complex lives alongside their PhD. Yet university policies, faculty schedules, expected milestones and departmental cultures often seem to be modelled on a young, unencumbered person with no responsibility to anyone but themselves and their research. Before they find the PhD/ECR Parents group, many members have never spoken to anyone who shares the same concerns, who is trying to keep all the plates spinning and excel at them all. Finding out you’re not alone, that people before you have managed it, can provide the inspiration to keep going.  Alternatively, a group of empathetic ‘strangers’ who understand the struggles, can be the people who persuade you to seek the extra support you need, or to take a break.

There are a whole bunch of reasons why we stop talking to people in our everyday lives, particularly in the crucial phases of writing up. But if you can find your community online, and manage the way you engage with social media, it can become an invaluable part of the PhD journey.

Note: The PhD and ECR Parents Group warmly welcome anyone interested in joining the group to get in touch, but please ensure you are able to give some details of your academic and family situation before lodging a request to join.

Image: Leah Tautkute, Flickr Commons.

Posted in Facebook, PhD, PhD parent, social media, support | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

have a good research ride

Patter is now back from two weeks annual leave. Going on leave doesn’t mean leaving your research and teaching interests behind. As often happens, I had a thought or two during my ‘downtime’.

In fact, we had hardly begun our drive through the Highlands when we came across a large group of motor cyclists outside a café. And when I say large group, I do mean large – about forty bikes, many of which carried two people. Of course, it’s not uncommon to see such large biker groups gathered together on routes where it’s possible to ride very long distances without getting bogged down in traffic or villages. The Highlands are certainly one such place.

It was pretty clear to anyone ‘outside’ the group that this was a community. My experience of such communities is drawn from the camaraderie of dog walkers and the ease with which we can strike up a conversation about breeds, names and various canine doings. And I imagine something similar goes on with motor cyclists. Bikers have a mode of transport in common – and I’m guessing here – share the pleasure of the sensations of a physically exposed way of getting from A to B as well as the unwelcome experiences of suspicious glances and dangerous moments.

So it’s not surprising that groups of motorcyclists, whether they actually know one another or not, readily strike up conversations about the road and weather conditions, good places to stop, various kinds of bikes and accoutrements. That’s what we saw as we drew into the cafe car park.

On this particular occasion, I overheard the same phrase several times in as many minutes. As people got on their bikes to leave the café car park the ritual good bye seemed to be “Have a good ride.” Nothing about getting where you wanted to go. Nothing about arriving in one piece. Nothing about staying safe on the road. And nothing about seeing you at the next stop. It was simply “Have a good ride”.

Having a good ride seemed to be as much, or perhaps even more, the point of the ride than reaching your destination. Having a good ride was about the process, the getting there. You could get from A to B through either a good or bad ride, and not surprisingly, it was most desirable for it to be good.


So why did this strike me so forcibly?

Well, it’s probably obvious. But it goes to something that I often worry about.

When we teach people about research we generally focus on the end point. The point of doing research is to find something out. The point of reading literatures is to design the research that will help you answer the research question. The point of generating data is that it’s the stuff that gives you an answer the research question. The point of analysing data is so that you get to something that noone’s thought about in quite in this way. It’s all about the outcome.

But, and yes I know you can see my argument here, but let me say it anyway…  you can get the answer to your research question in different ways.  Research can be a process that you rush through – you read the literatures as quickly as possible, you generate the data as efficiently as you can and chaff at the bit all through the analysis. Writing the text at the end is just another time-consuming task that comes before you actually get to say proudly “Here is my research, here is my answer to this question, here is the contribution”.

This is the scholarly equivalent of riding a motorcycle without taking time to enjoy the experience of getting there. It’s as if the process of research itself is unimportant, is strictly utilitarian, has no particularly notable value of and in itself.

OK. Before you say it, yes, the bikers sometimes have bad weather, crappy roads and unfortunate encounters with other vehicles. But this is not what other bikers wish for each other. Their ritual goodbye was/is in fact that none of these things happen – that the ride  to come was/is an optimum experience, one the rider enjoys, where they just simply focus on the experience of near-naked travel at speed with the wind in their face …

So, I thought, while paused at the road side café in the Highlands, maybe there’s an equivalent wish for researchers, something that we could say to each other as we embark on our inquiries. Like.. Have a good research ride. Is that so impossible a community saying? It’s naff, but it does make the point. The process of research can be great fun and enormous pleasure.

Take time to enjoy. It’s not all about producing the answer to your question.

Relax into the project rhythm – it takes as long as it takes.

Find the moments to listen to the words of others in your ears.

Relish unexpected responses.

Delight in bringing order to an unruly mass of numbers and words.

Experience intense satisfaction in small steps completed.

Feel the joy in fleeting moments of clarity.

Thrill in the risk of following a hunch.

Play without inhibition on a theoretical road less well-travelled.

Understand the blessing of time available to play with the right words to express what the analysis might mean.

Indulge in the luxury of a space to think and write.

Yes, why not?  Have a good research ride. I’ll soon be trying this as a good wish to colleagues and students.


Image: Sandeepatchetan, taken in Ladakh. Flickr Commons.

Posted in pleasure, research as process | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments