route recalculation – starting the phd

Expectations are a funny thing. Particularly when it comes to the doctorate. On the one hand you want to anticipate the smoothest and most interesting route through the PhD. But focusing only on the dream doctorate can leave you shocked and miserable if things don’t go to plan. On the other hand, too much concentration on what might go wrong can make you risk averse at best, and unable to act at worst – and wondering why you’re bothering with a doctorate at all. 

It’s important to find the balance between head in the sand optimism and cowering in a corner gloom and doom. To that end, it may be helpful to know a predictable obstacle. Here goes. There are often changes to your initial plans. Yep. All of those things you write about what your research will be like. They may not happen. But don’t despair, bumpy journeys are rarely a complete disaster. 

Take your research design for instance. You spend a substantial amount of time at the start of the PhD planning your research. While most of the research methods books suggest that once you have your research plan all you have to do is to carry it out, this is often not the case. Now I’m not talking here about the experiment that fails, or the replication study that cant replicate. These apparent failures are often important in terms of the learning that comes from working out what went “wrong”. I am talking about the unforeseen event that happens which wasn’t in your original thinking. 

Say for example – you can’t recruit enough people to be in your project or you can’t recruit enough of the people you want or you can’t get the right mix of people

Or the people in charge of the places where you planned to research are having a bad day or bad year and just won’t let you in

Or the person you were partnering with decides to withdraw

Or the methods that you were using to try to get information don’t seem to lead to anything particularly interesting

Or there are some serious ethical issues that arise in the middle of your project which make you think you ought to change what you’re doing.

Or something unexpected and interesting turns up and you think it might be really important to follow it up rather than stick to your original plan

Or there are rolling train strikes and you can’t get to where you need to be at the right times.

Or there is a pandemic.

Of there is an institutional problem that is really disruptive.

Or.. or.. or…

There are numerous other problems or events you might face during your research. 

And they might be of sufficient magnitude and/or difficulty and/or significance that you have to rethink. While you can’t anticipate exactly what these problems might be, you can get begin the doctorate with a mindset where you are not surprised, devastated or unable to respond if something unexpected and untoward does happen. 

Now I’m not suggesting here that you need to think of bumpy research problems as exciting challenges that will bring loads of unanticipated benefits to your results. You may be the kind of person who does think like this. But chances are you will be initially appalled/aghast/worried/alarmed/angry/terrified/scared/sad/irritated – all of these, or a combination or several one after the other. And that’s perfectly rational and OK.

Yes, you may eventually come to think about the undesirable happening that stymied your lovely initial research plan as a good thing. You may see the positives in retrospect. Or you may always see the obstacles as unwanted and a nuisance. 

But the key thing about the unexpected hurdle is that you have to deal with whatever you are feeling now – and then figure out a defensible way over, under or around the problem. A way that still allows you to address the initial question you were interested in. A way that allows you to keep to roughly your ideal timetable. A way that produces some research that is worthy of a doctorate. Even if you have to undertake a dramatic redesign, as happened during the pandemic, all is very rarely lost. 

Unfortunately, methods texts and courses often don’t come with a ready-made route-recalculator. Nor do they have a section at the back of the book called trouble shooting your research, although at least some of them really ought to IMHO. 

But you can get some help in the sorting out stages. You probably won’t be the only one to have ever faced this particular difficulty. It’s important to get some reassurance that this is not all about you or your bad luck or worse still your lack of forethought, but is rather the way of research. And help may be at hand – your particular case might seem unique but it may well fall into a common pattern where there are already some principles to guide your decision-making. And even some known options. 

So where to look for assistance. Here’s three starting points.

  • First, your supervisor(s). A core aspect of your supervisor’s job is to help you solve problems. They have done research themselves, are familiar with the literatures and with your research goals and design. Your supervisor won’t tell you what to do, but their job is to support you to work through the options. 
  • Second, your peers. It’s important to find a cohort of PhDers who are likely facing issues of their own but who are also committed to peer support. They can provide emotional nurturing as well as brain storming possibilities and thinking through advantages and disadvantages of particular actions. 
  • Third, dedicated support groups. There are now loads of online forums devoted to support and information sharing. These can be surprisingly helpful. Searching the socials using terms such as PhD, doctorate, academic, research, methods will yield a lot of possibilities. And do ask your friends and more generally on the socials what accounts to follow.

And not to forget. If your research difficulties stem from some kind of institutional problem, then both peers and support groups may be crucial but not enough. Issues such as endemic racism or sexism require collective action – you may or may not choose to take this option. But most grad schools offer some kind of student representation and fora where systemic issues can be aired.

So – don’t drop your bundle when the unexpected happens. Sigh, scream, sob but also know that the best laid research plans often go amiss. And know that it’s important once the difficulty occurs to take charge of the direction of your research.

Research troubles happen to most of us, a lot of the time. It’s OK. It’s part of the process. Researchers are problem solvers, trouble shooters, inventive as well as resourceful when the road gets rocky. We expect the unexpected and aren’t thrown off course when it happens. 

Photo by Adam Rhodes on Unsplash

Posted in doctoral research, emotional research, research agenda, research as process, research design, research methods, research plan | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

the bibliomemoir – a musing

The bibliomemoir is a thing. The bibliomemoir is an autobiographical account of a life told through a discussion of books. Books that mattered to the writer and are connected to key events in their life.

I have three bibliomemoirs on my bookshelf – Francis Spufford’s The child that books built, A life in reading, Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm: A memoir of childhood reading, and Marilyn Robinson’s When I was a child, I read books. Not surprising purchases for an educator who spent a lot of time trying to encourage students to read. Each of these three books not only told me about their writers. They also invited me to recollect the books that I read as a child and why they were important to me. I learnt about books I hadn’t encountered and could perhaps follow up. I thought again about why children read and what they get from reading.

The bibliomemoir promotes and celebrates the importance of reading and the pleasures and provocations of deep engagement with texts.

There are loads of bibliomemoirs now in print. There’s a list of 100 over on good reads, and I am sure that there are truckloads more not in this selection. And other lists. While publishers are clearly chortling with glee at the emergence of yet another niche market, there is of course the question of why people buy and read books about other people’s reading. Why not just read the books for themselves?

Lucy Scholes, in an essay in the Financial Times, suggests that there’s an element of nosiness in being interested in other people’s reading. She says that a bibliomemoir is an open invitation to scour the shelves of another person’s library. She is prone to peering over someone’s shoulder in the Tube to get a glimpse of the screen of their e-reader, or immediately scanning bookshelves when I visit a friend’s house for the first time.

I am pretty sure that at least some of you recognise this nosy behaviour. And do it too. I certainly feel seen. I look at the book shelves in my colleague’s offices whenever I get a chance. I don’t mind being left for a moment or three while someone deals with a phone call or an urgent admin task if it means I get the opportunity to browse their book collection. I am always interested to see what books we have in common, as well as what books they have on their shelves that I have never heard of or never read. A quick flick through a book new to me before they get back is generally enough to decide whether this gap needs to be remedied.

And of course, seeing what people have on their book shelves does tell you something about their intellectual history. What could you tell about me from my shelves I hear you ask? My book shelves groan with books by and about Bourdieu as well as a heap of geographical and cultural studies titles. There’s also lots on research methods and academic writing. Pretty predictable. The collection of picture books about starting school and young adult fiction about schools is also not unexpected. There might be a few things that surprise, but not a lot. My books are a pretty good indication of my academic history and concerns.

However, reading shelves doesn’t do the work of the bibliomemoir. If you just looked at what I have read and what I am reading you won’t know which books matter most , when and why. You can’t see what are my “inner library”, as Pierre Bayard calls it. You need a bibliomemoir to find out what books really count.

I’m struggling to remember a book in my discipline that does the work of the bibliomemoir. There are some research memoirs which talk about books and some books about academic writing which talk about exemplary texts. And I can think of research projects which have examined what texts are used most in particular fields. But I suspect that the academic bibliomemoir is not yet a thing. (Although maybe some blogs do come closer than other text forms? )

Is there a place for the academic bibliomemoir? I’m not sure really, but I suspect that if loads of us like to look at office bookshelves, then there might be some place for the genre. If I asked you to talk about what books have been important to you in becoming a researcher I am sure that you would have answer. And it would be an answer in which life, research and texts were tangled together. So perhaps there is some room for the academic bibliomemoir after all. If it went beyond the idiosyncratic and narcissistic to something that was of more general interest.

Mmm. Something to think more about. And oh yes, I do think that I am possibly working myself into a new project!

Photo by Laura Kapfer on Unsplash

Posted in bibliomemoir, books, library, reading | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

setting goals – starting the PhD

If you’re just starting the PhD, you goal is to finish. Finish. Get it done. Get yourself across the stage to receive your testamur. Wear the floppy hat and gown. Change the signature on your email. Finally a Doctor.

Makes sense doesn’t it? That’s your ultimate goal. Why start something that you don’t intend to complete?  It does still surprise me that many of the PhDers I speak to don’t appear to have finishing as their goal. They don’t let themselves dream about the end point. They don’t imagine themselves as Dr Expert. It’s as if thinking about  being Dr-add-surname-here makes it less possible somehow. It’s like a dream that is destined to never come true. Don’t step on the crack in the pavement just in case. It’s better to leave it to fate. 

But let’s say that you do have finishing as your big goal. You are clear that this is what its all about. so Yes. Yay. You know where your’e going. But also no. Thats not enough.

Focussing on the end point is one thing. Focussing on the things you need to do to get there is another. An important another. A crucial another which is perhaps what the people who can’t let themselves think of the end point are hanging their hopes on. Hoping that concentrating on what happens each day will get them there.

But should your goal be an either or? End point or process? Can’t you have one eye on the end point and another on what you do every day? Well of course, yes . That seems pretty obvious. But how do you do this is more the case. There are lots of opinions out there about how to take the long and a short view of the doctorate at the same time. And to get you started, here’s my take.

While everyone is different, and not all things work for everyone, there’s a point in having several goals on the go at once – goals that work at different time scales.  

Goal Scale One. Having an eye on completion creates the time frame within which you need to work. Finishing might be tied to finances from a scholarship, to unpaid leave from work, to the completion time set by your institution. You need to get the job done before you fall in a hole. Or finishing might just be tied to what seems to you to be feasible. it looks as if this time frame is possible, and other people do it in this time so I will too.

But knowing the timing of the finishing line does other work. A defined completion point creates a horizon, a line of possibility, a destination. At this time in the future you will have developed a new aspect of your self. However, this future-you needs current-you to take charge of what happens in order to become a reality. 

Goals Scale Two. Once you have the end point sorted, it’s possible and desirable to understand how the doctorate proceeds and the big milestones you need to reach along the way. These are different in different countries and doctoral traditions. In North America, the doctorate is typically much longer than elsewhere. In the UK for instance, the three year full time doctorate is usually understood as a a first year of getting the research organised and approved, a second year of library, laboratory or field work and a final year devoted to analysis and writing. There are generally institutional hoops to be jumped along the way too. And of course there is an additional fourth full time year available if you go over time.

Now, having a sense of how the PhD unfolds allows you to set goals related to the process that you are in. But the goals you set may not exactly match the taken-for-granted annual calendar. They’ll be particular to you and your project. You may be able to start on the library or laboratory or field work in the first year for instance. And I encourage the PhDers I work with to finish their empirical work well before the end of the second year to leave themselves more time to do the analysis and text work – this almost always takes longer than you think. 

But you still need to break things down much further. Set even smaller goals.

Goals Scale Three. If you are doing field work or laboratory work you are likely to have a detailed timeline for this part of your doctorate. But what about the rest? What about the first and final years?

I imagine some of you are wondering whether you really need to go into the micro-level of what you do every day and every week. Especially if you haven’t had to work like this in the past. The answer is of course it depends – but it’s still  a “yes, most likely yes” from me. Having short-term goals can be very helpful at the outset of the doctorate to get yourself into routines – you build a habit of writing and reading regularly. Short term goals are even more important in the thesis-writing stage when you have to produce multipole iterations of large numbers of words in order to reach your overall submission goal. 

It’s not at all uncommon for PhDers to set themselves daily writing and/or reading goals, or weekly targets. Of course, some people find a daily goal pretty oppressive. It works for others. Find out what works for you.

There are multiple types of goals – text related, time related, task related. You need to work out what is needed when. You may need to vary your goals as you go along, depending how you are feeling and the part of the doctorate you are doing. It’s good to set goals and also to revisit and refresh them.

Once you have nested goals in your mind – end, medium and short term – it’s pretty useful to put them into some kind of diarised form. There’s a load of ways to do this – use a Gannt chart for the big picture, a yearly calendar for the middle level milestones. You can use a bullet journal of some kind to combine middle level and weekly/daily goals. Whiteboards. Post-its. Online reminders.

If’s often helpful to se the doctorate as a project – so take a look at the project management literatures to see how what is done there. But you’ll also find a load of advice just about goal setting and planning. And various hacks that can help.

And your institution might well offer some workshops. Your supervisor will have some ideas. And you can get a lot of information by asking people further ahead in the PhD about what they do – and don’t – do. And there will be coaching and regular reading writing and support groups that you can join – these can go a long way to assisting you to set out and meet your goals. 

But goals. You need some. And they need to be practical and achievable. They also need to be adjustable and flexible because, well, because life happens. And they need to work for you. As always, what works for someone else may not work for you. But it also might, so it’s always worth finding out about available options. So do take the time when you start your doctorate to investigate how people manage their time and get to the floppy hat stage.

You’ll continue to work on goals throughout your doctorate. But it’s well worth getting your head around the timescales and shape of the years to come right now. 

Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

Posted in planning, time-limited doctorates, writing goals | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

writing a lot – starting the PhD, and finishing it

When you write, you must write a lot, but that does not mean you will publish a lot, which means that when you are writing, or when you have finished writing, it might be that no one knows that you are, or have been, writing. It might be that no one particularly cares that you are, or have been, writing. Or not.

That’s Hayley Singer writing about creative writing. But she could be writing about any kind of writing. Academic writing even. Academics write a lot, but it’s not all written for anyone else to read.

During the doctorate you will write a huge amount. Much, much more than the total number or words in your thesis. Right from the start.

You start writing as soon as you start thinking about approaching a supervisor – you make notes and private jottings about your ideas for a worthy project. Through writing and rewriting and rewriting, these private texts become ready for the particular reader you have in mind. The words are made to work. Your initial approach must explain your ideas as well as persuade and interest your potential reader/supervisor. 

This process – private writing converted via multiple rewritings to something tailored for particular readers, written for a particular purpose and with a particular result in mind – carries on throughout the doctorate and beyond. 

Private writings are always about making sense of what you are reading, hearing, seeing, thinking. You make notes of the various texts that are pertinent to your topic. You keep a formal research journal or a reading journal or .docs where you store possible ideas. Or a file where you just keep track of how you’re feeling and responding to the doctoral process.

Writing to make sense means you devote a specific time to it. While writing is always incidental, it is good if you can carve out a regular writing slice in your day, or night.

You may be working towards or already have a regular writing time where you sit down and write each day, or nearly each day. You may also find it helpful to have some add-ons to this regular writing habit too. You can talk with a trusted companion before you write, not all the time, but a regular writing oriented chat. You might be one of those people who generates a lot of text via participating in writing groups or through SUAW sessions or your own timed writing sprints.

Whatever your choice of regular writing processes, you will end up with a load of words.  

Making sense of what you are thinking and doing doesn’t stop when you start to send words out into the world to readers other than yourself. Every time you write you clarify a little more what you want to say – that’s your intention. You aren’t just recording. You are actively thinking through the writing. Through selecting. Through choosing categories and terms. Through interpreting texts. Through translating the thoughts of others into your own words.

And because doctoral work – any scholarly work – requires sustained deep thinking, you have to write all the time – and do a lot of rewriting.

Most dissertations get rewritten several times. As do journal articles and books. (Blog posts maybe less so!). When I look at my file for the most recent co-authored book, I see six formal drafts before the submitted manuscript. But each chapter had previously been several chunks and tiny texts (abstracts) before being compiled into a first draft. There are probably more like ten or eleven writing stages for each submitted chapter. Indeed, I can see that we had at least three versions of a book structure map before we even started on the abstract and chunk stages. So loads of words before we even got to something we could see as chapters.

This number of drafts is pretty common. Much the same happens with doctoral thesis writing/rewriting. Expect loads of versions and iterations. If you are starting the doctorate and you want to finish it, then it is as well to get your head around the reality of writing a lot.

And writing a lot, as Hayley Singer suggests, without it necessarily going anywhere to anyone else, let alone being published. Writing just for you. Writing to make sense.

This is not depressing. Academic writing is an integral part of scholarly work. Trying to separate out the writing from the rest of our work is likely trying to remove a spider from its web. While webs exist in many forms, spiders need their webs in order to live. OK, so most spiders don’t actually make webs and don’t need them to live… so yes, it’s not a great metaphor. But go with it. Just imagine the minority of spiders that spin webs, and then you get the point. Scholars can’t get by without writing. 

Writing is a habit. Writing is routine. Writing is not extraordinary. It is simply the way we do our scholarly work. 

Photo by Jason Gardner on Unsplash

If you get a moment, do follow the link to read Hayley Singer’s essay. It’s beautifully written and there’s an extraordinary account of how she wrote her PhD while bedridden.

Posted in rewriting, routine, writing and thinking, writing as work, writing routine | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

unlearning who you are and what you know? starting the doctorate

No-one arrives at a doctorate as a blank slate. Everyone brings with them particular histories – we have life experiences and personal pathways which are classed, raced, gendered; work experiences and sometimes long professional careers; as well as educational histories. Formal educational histories of new PhDers are generally strongly disciplinary and focused on academic success in lower degrees.

These histories do not always seamlessly morph into the doctorate. It is as well to understand the potential for uneasiness between what you have experienced and understood before the PhD, and how it sits with the doctoral process. I am about to generalise mightily here, but bear with me.

There is now plenty of research evidence to suggest that universities have not moved as far away from their elite origins as they might. Despite their official recognition of ‘equity and diversity’, universities still tend to be (variously) hostile environments for those who have gained entry, despite the odds against them. And people who are “non traditional” often feel different, out of place.

The feeling of being an outsider does not go away simply because you have got as far as starting a doctorate – although most people in doctoral programmes feel somewhat off balance and as if they are becoming someone else during the long and intensive process. However, the outsider-ness borne of class, race, gender, sexuality, neurotypicality and able-ness is different from, and added into, the challenges inherent to the doctorate.

The research on experiences of being and feeling an outsider in the university points to subtle expectations that you will become someone else. These expectations often have nothing to do with your academic competence. They are more about the ways in which you speak and act, your tastes and non-academic pursuits and your familiarity with particular people and places.

Do you have to unlearn these things? No of course not. Are there pressures for you to do so? Well often, yes.

If you’re reading this, some of you will wonder if I am talking about outersiderness from reading the research. The answer is yes, but not entirely. When I first went to university, women were in a minority (a third in my case) and there was a small group who came from state schools (about 10% at my university at the time) and even fewer from families that were categorised as working class. That was me – woman, state school, working class. Mine was the first generation in our extended family to go to university. I do know first hand what it means to have to fit in to a very different environment from the one you are used to. It was all very disorienting and I would certainly have dropped out if I hadn’t found other people like me pretty quickly.

It is worth thinking about how much these questions of outsider ness might matter to you, and where you might find others who are in similar situations. They may be in your institution, or beyond.

Feeling out of place mattered to me a lot as an undergraduate. However, in the doctorate what mattered more were the ways in which my professional knowledge counted.

People who come into the university as mature students – lots of life experience- and later career – already highly competent professionals – not only have experiences but also knowledges based in practice. As opposed to life experiences, where the challenge is about refusing to be stigmatised and about retaining those things that are core to identity, the challenge for professionals is how to bring professional knowings together with codified scholarly knowledges.

Within universities, there is a strong tendency to act as if academic knowledges are more legitimate than those developed in the field. But most professionals who do doctorates don’t want to abandon their professional understandings. They want to add to what they already know and can do. It is of course important to look critically at professional understandings, just like any other body of knowledge, but it is equally important not to deny them.

Those who teach on professional doctorates are often very aware of the knowledges that people bring with them, and want to find ways to avoid ignoring them. They want to find ways to widen what counts as scholarly knowledges and see the inclusion of professional insights and understandings as important. They do this with varying success, often against university cultures and structures.

And yes, I’ve been this mature postgraduate too. But I didn’t have to unlearn what I knew from my long career in order to do research. There were many ways in which my professional experience helped in my doctorate. I didn’t need to read about the development of national policy and the histories of educational change – I’d sat on numerous relevant committees and already had the books and documents on my book shelves. I didn’t need to sweat about making contacts with people and places – I already had great networks and street cred. I asked questions about issues that I knew from my own experiences mattered, even though they weren’t a highlight in the literatures (budgets, fundraising, timetables). My supervisor understood this, saw these as strengths, and let me go my own way.

Other professionals tell similar stories to mine. If supervisors and university teachers understand the value of professional understandings, then they can help to minimise the potential conflict and feelings of infantilisation that come from being treated, by the institution, as a novice/empty vessel to be filled up. But recognition of the value of professional knowing needs to go further.

Destinations and intentions matter. Many mature PhDers don’t need career advice. They aren’t doing the doctorate to get a job. They already have one. They are studying for other reasons. As it happened, I did do the doctorate so I could switch career from schools into higher education. Other people don’t do this and want to stay in their professional practice. There is still a dominant and unfortunate tendency to see this as a lesser choice – an unhappy reframing of the hierarchy of theory and practice.

If you are starting the PhD and are concerned either about losing identity and feeling like an outsider, or about how to work with professional knowledges, there are things to read and places where you can discuss these kinds of questions as you start. It is worth doing a search on facebook and twitter to look for networks. Ask on the socials for recommendations – linking people and giving information is a key attribute of platforms like twitter.

And rather than list only the support groups and networks that I know, perhaps if you have particular groups you find helpful during the doctorate and beyond, you might put them in the comments. 

Photo by REGINE THOLEN on Unsplash

Posted in 'mature' doctoral researcher, academic writing, identity, mature age PhD, outsider, professional doctorate, scholarly identity, starting the PhD | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

starting the doctorate – finding good advice

It’s that time of year. Across the world potential new Doctors have rejoiced. They’ve been accepted by the university of their choice. They are now getting their heads and lives geared up for a new intellectual adventure.

I usually write a few posts for new doctoral researchers right about now – you can find them if you search starting the PhD. Or just click the link here.

I’m not the only one who writes about beginning a doctorate of course. There is a lot of stuff out here in blog-land that is very helpful for those just embarking on the doctoral “journey”. And I’m afraid there is also some advice that might not be so helpful. So I thought that I might start this year’s posts on doing a doctorate by reflecting on the proliferation of advice – advice dedicated to all the enthusiastic, excited and ever so slightly nervous new PhDers. 

Let’s face it. You will probably read and hear a lot about how hard the PhD is. And the various troubles that PhDers experience. This is unfortunately all true. But it’s not automatic that the PhD is awful. I’ve been asked on various occasions why there is so much about doctoral difficulties and told that it’s off putting. That’s something that concerns me, as I’m in the advice game too.

I understand that hearing about possible hard times may not be what you want to hear at the outset of your PhD or prof doc. You may find it extremely tiresome to be starting out on several years worth of a higher degree where the odds seem stacked against you having a clear run. I am sure that many of you ask, Is it always so tricky? 

Well no, it’s not. Some people do breeze through. So do you really want to know that some people sail through their PhDs? That many people find the doctoral experience really stimulating? Challenging yes, but also at the same time rewarding and enjoyable? That some people finish under not over time? That some people get on well with their supervisors/ committees? Yes that is actually true.

But perhaps you are someone who does want to know about the possible problems you might face during the PhD. Perhaps forewarned is the best way for you to approach the PhD. Perhaps knowing what could happen helps you to take steps to avoid or minimise risk? 

I am sure most people do want to understand what you can do to stay mentally and physically well – and I’ll deal with that in the next post. But this is not the same as getting immersed in the stories of the terrible experiences that some people have had. Do you really want these stories now? I suspect that different people want different kinds of advice right at the start.

So this means being somewhat discriminating about the things that you choose to read and follow on social media. it’s good to think about the kinds of advice that you normally find helpful. 

  • Do you have an actuarial sensibility – you like to know the risks so that you can think about what you can do to avoid them and what will be of assistance if they happen?
  • Are you a risk taker who believes that thinking positively, having a strong sense of self-belief and agency are crucial to success -and that part of this is dealing with difficulties when and if they happen? So there’s no point in dwelling on possible difficulties now. Better to approach the PhD in an optimistic frame of mind.
  • Or are you someone who is in-between these two ends of the spectrum – you’d like to take some precautions and be pro-active now. Do you want to be prepared at least in part for some of the more common/likely postgraduate scenarios?

Understanding yourself is a key to sorting out what advice to seek out and what to take seriously. Understanding yourself is a big part of research all the time. not just at the start – that’s another post coming up – and it is certainly useful to have a think about what you, as opposed to anyone else, want to know and do about the PhD as you begin. 

Because there’s a plethora of advice it’s good to get into the habit of checking out available sources and resources. There are now a load of people whose job it is to offer support and advice to postgraduate researchers. You do need to consider how trustworthy these courses and resources are. 

Some sources of advice and support will be employed by your university or other institutions. Now. Here’s the thing. Just  because something comes from a university doesn’t mean it is automatically going to be helpful. Apologies colleagues, but it’s true. And just because something is in a book doesn’t automatically mean it’s going to be great either. There’s a lot of bad and conservative writing advice out there, and a lot of misleading advice about research conduct. 

Other advice comes from people who are literally in the advice and support business. Just because someone is a business doesn’t mean that they are shonky and only in it for the money. There are some great coaches and highly professional support services available to doctoral researchers now.

So do look for CVs, where you can see what people have done and learnt. Check for credible recommendations and not just hyperbolic endorsements. Many institutions and self-employed people offer free taster materials which allow you to see how their resources work for you and your particular needs. And do watch out for the snake oil salesperson with their I-did-it-my-way-and-it’s-the-only-way pitch. 

It’s helpful too to remember that what you need at the start of the PhD may not be what you need as you go along. Advice, support and resources are not only different for different people in different disciplines, they also change as the research and the researcher develop. so take note of things that dont seem relevant now, but might be good to turn to later on. Just in case, perhaps.

Crap detectors at the ready then, as Howard Rheingold would say. Once you are aware of what kind of advice you prefer and would find useful, and what is available, you can take full advantage of all of the material online, face to face and in hard copy in libraries and graduate schools. You don’t have to do this doctorate entirely alone.

You might begin by looking at the blogs featured on the Whisper Collective website, and those regularly republished by the LSE Impact Blog and the blog posts on Insider Higher Ed.

Photo by Thea on Unsplash

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forced rest

You know all that advice which says Take a break. Turn off your email. Go somewhere you can’t connect. Well this.

Except it wasn’t planned that way. Suddenly and with no warning, patter finds herself out of contact with the world.

It’s a rude awakening to find yourself suddenly without web connections. No Twitter feed. No streaming services. No email. No way to make contact with anyone other than by slightly dodgy text and phone. And hot spot.

And as for all the planned work to be done this week? Well. If you have everything in the cloud. And your auto backup seems to have gone on holiday. What to do?

It seems a rest is in order. An ever so slightly ahead of time summer break. And given the impending hot days, it’s probably just as well.

Well I know there’s a way. Of course there’s a way if I want it. But funnily there’s little will. It seems as if there’s a temporary suspension of free will and patter will just go with it. So this is a long way of saying there’s no blog post this week. No handy writing advice.

Just me taking advantage of a bit of wifi hassle to down tools and sign off till next week. The universe has spoken. I’m reading detective novels. And going for early morning walks. Yes, everything that academics are told to do and rarely actually do. I’ve kicked in the out of office message and am now absent till next week. See you then.

Posted in academic writing | 3 Comments

how to talk about writing…

Everyone who talks about writing has to use language that people can relate to and understand. Of course. Duh. Sometimes this means using terms that are already in circulation – like pomodoro and shut up and write. while these terms were once new, they are now just part of writing conversations. But at other times talking about writing means inventing new words. The resulting language differences means that very often you can hear talking about writing and read writing about writing and see exactly or much the same thing described in different words. 

It’s inevitable that at least some of the time the different writing terms exist because people are playing their own kind of academic game – making up a term which they can lay claim to when it’s used by others. But at least as often, it’s because the word-inventor thinks that the term or terms they are replacing are problematic.

Take the notion of writing as binging and snacking, for instance. The terms were originally used to suggest that it was better to write small everyday than wait for a long interrupted period. Many people have objected to the term binging because of its associations with eating disorders and because in reality many writers do both short and long writing sessions. Wendy Belcher has used the terms writing sprints to get away from any negative associations with eating. Katherine Firth has also recently tackled these terms offering Spreader – for the writer who spreads their work out into smaller time slots – and Stacker – for the person who does longer, more sustained writing. 

It’s worth paying attention to the terms that people use when they talk about writing as they are often emphasising a particular point. One of my favorite writing wordsmiths – and I have to say favourite with at least a million other people – is Larry McEnerney, the former director of the U Chicago Writing Centre. One of McEnerney’s favourite terms is VALUE

McEnerney uses the term value to get at the difference between writing for university teachers and writing for another reader. University teachers, including supervisors are paid to read your work. But other readers aren’t. Other readers have to want to read your writing, McEnerney says. Why do they want to? Well, here’s when his term value comes in. A reader will read your work if they find it has value to them. 

McEnerney argues that understanding value to readers means that you have to shift your focus away from what you find interesting. Or shift from explaining and describing as the primary function of your text. Instead you need to concentrate on what the reader will perceive as being of value.

There are a whole lot of implications that stem from thinking about your reader and what they value:

  • Writers need to know their readers. What they find important. What will interest them. What will solve a problem they may not even know that they have.
  • Writers need to know something about the situation in which their reader is going to read – for example, an academic reader approaches a newspaper or social media differently from an academic journal. And a reader of a professional journal is looking for something that is meaningful to their practice. 
  • Writers need to introduce their text by showing the reader how it is going to have value. Most of the time the writer spells out a problem or puzzle, which McEnerney says is a coded way of saying that the reader is either wrong or doesn’t know something they need to know. The writer unsettles the reader and creates a desire to know more. So the notion of writing about the background or context to a problem is wrong, McEnerney asserts, because its all about the writer enriching the reader’s understanding of the problem and making them want to read on.
  • In making the case for writers to switch their attention from themselves to readers who want something of value, McEnerney attacks a number of common writing beliefs. He holds that there are no rules about for example sentence or paragraph length, passive voice, use of specific terminology – because it’s all about understanding what the reader wants. If the text has value the reader often wont notice these things, they only notice if the writing gets in the way of them getting to the value in the text.   

That’s not all he says of course. But I find McEnerney’s notion of value, and the term value, helpful. But not everyone does of course. However it is a language that helps at least some of us to think and talk about the importance of focusing on the reader and what this means for the authoring process.

Finding generative words to assist talking about writing is useful, I maintain. particularly in supervision and writing groups. So I reckon it’s worth keeping a conscious ear out for writing terms and their various meanings and emphases. What terms do you use to steer you towards helpful writing conversations and practices?

If you are one of the people who hasn’t yet comes across McEnerney, there are two videos of him teaching about writing. These are well worth watching even if you do end up never using the term value in your own thinking, talking and writing about writing. 

And a note – I’ve been asked to talk more about writing resources I recommend. This is one response, more coming.

Image credit Library RHUL on Flickr

Posted in academic writing, Larry McEnerney, reader, talking writing, value | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

a book about style and form

I read at least one book about writing every month. Because nobody sends me these for free, this means I buy at least one book about writing each month. I know you are imagining my bookshelves, but rest easy, most of these are now ebooks. Slightly cheaper and much easier to transport. 

The books are not always great reads and there are some I wouldn’t recommend for that reason. Others I don’t recommend simply because they are a little more niche than I imagine most people who read this blog would want. In other words, they are not advice. They are either based in formal research or the result of professional experience. So yes I buy books by language scholars, which I’m not, and by writers, which I might be sometimes – in between teaching and researching and administrative duties. 

Last month I particularly enjoyed reading Amitava Kumar’s (2020) Every Day I Write the Book. Notes on Style. I was pleased to find Kumar again, as one of his early books Passport Photos (2000) (a mix of images, poetry, criticism, cultural analysis and personal account) really helped me to understand that academic texts didn’t have to follow a conventional format. The current book om style has even more of the kind of episodic montage that I am particularly drawn to, and which I occasionally get to play with myself. 

Kumar is Professor of English Literature at Vassar. There are a number of English Lit people who write about academic writing – and even more people who have English Lit tucked away in their undergraduate pasts (like me). Kumar also teaches writing so he works with ‘exemplary texts’ from fiction and from a range of academic disciplines. He also researches writing, using this reading to help him think critically about his own writing process. As you’d expect, his writing has clarity and elegance as well as substance. 

Notes on style is divided into nine parts, eight of which consist of nine pieces. Or chunks. Or in some cases, fragments, as the pieces range from about half a page to several.  There are occasional images of media clippings and handwritten notes. So the book looks a bit like an anthology of Post-Its and extended Post-Its. It’s not really so surprising then that well into the book I found … In my composition classes, I pass around a stack of Post-It notes and ask students to first write just enough to fill the small yellow square of paper in front of them. The Post-It note, like the small-size notebook I always carry in my pocket, gives comfort when I recall the Latin dictum, Nulla dies sine linea ( No day without a line.)

Yes, Kumar promotes a regular writing practice, to the point of performing writing even when you aren’t doing it. I recommend that if you aren’t writing, you should nevertheless perform the ritual of sitting down to write about what you are not writing. (You can write other things down. Write down what you see outside your window, or what you remember of your dreams. Or what your plans are for the day of the week.)

Occasional practical writing advice like this is scattered through the book. But the book is mostly, as Kumar says in his introduction, about the thinking about writing. Kumar wants to build bridges, bringing criticism together with creative writing, and academic writing together with non-academic writing. Refusal to present this quest as a seamless tightly edited argument shows, through its choppy form, that there is not really any fully-formed way to achieve these reconciliations and that the author is still thinking about various dimensions and permutations of the task. Puma still has doubts and concerns as well as insights.

Kumar talked to a number of writers and writing researchers while writing this book. It’s not clear to me how many. I don’t remember finding a list of people per se, although various names are presented throughout the book.  I noticed the omission of a list of – interviewees, correspondents, participants – whatever they might be called. Their status is not clear either. But this omission is part of Kumar’s point, I am assuming. 

Blurring the boundaries between fiction, non-fiction and academic writing might mean giving up some deeply embedded conventions. Asking does the point being made really suffer from the lack of n=? If the goal of the book is to stimulate my thinking, then omitting some of my disciplinary mannerisms might be good for me.

Kumar is equally and more explicitly critical of the ways in which much academic writing lays out what it will do at the outset, even down to the use of the ubiquitous topic sentence. Academic writing suffers from a lack of surprises, he suggests. Kumar is an advocate of preserving strangeness and what is whimsical in academic writingIt starts, he says, with an understanding that language is your closest ally and that if you align it with your desire for freedom, you will be able to live forever. I am still not at all sure what he means by this, although I am very drawn to the notion of whimsy in academic writing.  

I have really enjoyed reading this book. While its apparently bitty nature might suggest that it is something that can be dipped in and out of, over time, I took a contrary view and read it all in three sittings. The book then became much more like sitting in a train watching frames of the world go past, more like a filmic montage. I simply ate up the different snippets, variously and together erudite, amusing, bookish, personal, challenging, memory-invoking, thought provoking. The sum total more than the parts, although the parts are also generally interesting. 

The book won’t be everyone’s idea of a good read about writing.  But it was mine. Reading it has encouraged me to think again about style and form. Not simply as something I might teach or know about, but as something I might experiment more with myself. Having just about finished a monograph written as classic argument, that is a very appealing idea. 

If you are English LItt-ish, and invested and interested in questions of writing, you might also enjoy this lecture by Kumar on voice.

Posted in academic writing, Amitava Kumar, form, style | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

last-minute proofing – 12 things to look for

The last stages of handing in a thesis or book can be very trying.  It’s taken you an age to get to the point where this big hefty manuscript is as ready as it’s going to be. Well just about. You really want to press that send button and get rid of it. But… always with the but. 

Proofing. There are often last minute proofing – formatting and consistency – checks to do. Proofing may even be necessary after you’ve checked for missing references, repeated words and phrases and unnecessarily klutzy sentences. But at the end of a long haul, proofing is generally the absolute last thing that you feel like doing. But it has to be done.

Examiners and publishers get pretty irritated by carelessly checked texts. Sometimes publishers even send them back. And irritated thesis examiners – aargh, no, no – will certainly ask for corrections. But they might also approach all of your text with a dim view of your scholarship, and you want to avoid this. 

So here’s a little list of proofing issues that need a very last minute look. This is just a beginning I’m afraid, but the listicle will help you to search for some common causes of inconsistency in your wodge of pages.

  1. References 

Trust me when I say that examiners look at references and copy editors certainly check them all – and they will ask you about anything missing or incorrect.  If you don’t have to follow a particular referencing style, the big question is which style you will choose and whether what you do is consistent. 

Hop over to your reference list and check that your use of capital letters is consistent. How are the capitals in titles of chapters and journal articles? 

While you’re doing this, you might also look for missing page numbers and publisher locations. And before you leave the references, do have a look at the way in which you report works by the same author – do you repeat the author’s name or use a dash?

And just before you go, just check what you do after a colon – do you use capitals or not? As in I am here: Not there versus I am here: not there.  

2. Linking

In big manuscripts you often refer in one chapter to other chapters. Linking helps jogs readers’ minds so they can go back to the relevant bit if they want to. And you don’t have to repeat yourself at length. 

But it takes a long time to write a big book and you may have changed the order and numbers since you started. So you need to check that all of those I address this in more detail in Ch. X (or p.) are still right. And of course, do you say See Chapter One, See Ch. 1 or some other combination? And do you put this instruction/reminder in brackets or not? 

3. Spelling

A big one. If you’re writing in English, are you using British or American spelling? The most common word processing programmes usually default to the American. You can check these fairly easily using a search function. Look for ise/izeour/or for starters. 

4. Numbering figures and sections

The key thing here is to ask yourself whether your system is systematic? Is your numbering consistent from chapter to chapter? 

And what do you call the stuff in boxes – are they all figures or are some images or tables or something else – and is this consistent? 

Have your figures all got a useful heading ( the most common convention)? That’s one thing – but have you anchored all the whatever-you-call-them back into a relevant place in the text? Should you? (Lots of people get annoyed about floating images and diagrammes.) 

5. Quotation marks

When do you use double and single quotation marks? Look at what you’ve done with direct quotes from literature, quotes from people and scare quotes. Have you done the same thing all the way through? 

Where do you put quotation marks in relation to full stops – inside or outside? – “It was hot.” or “It was hot”. Getting quotation marks sorted can be a time-consuming job.

6. Spaces

Spacing is one of those things that people notice if it shifts around without apparent rhyme or reason. Do you use consistent spacing between sections and lists? Do you use a double space or single space between sentences? Do you put a space around dashes or not?

7. Commas 

Some people really use a lot of commas. Others don’t. Some people insist on there being correct ways to use commas, but in the UK publishers and examiners are generally a bit more relaxed about what you can do. As long as you are consistent. So think… are you a fan of the Oxford comma – this, that, and the rest – or not – this, that and the rest.

8. Lists

Some of us like a good list, as in this. But do you put stops at the end of each item in a list or not? Do you start each item in a list with a capital letter or not?

9. Stops

We’re not done yet. Is your use of stops in acronyms consistent? (U.K. or UK) How about with names in your reference list – M K Fish, M.K. Fish, MK Fish… ? And do you always use three stops as in … or something else?

10. Abbreviations

And the pesky abbrevations. Do you follow common conventions with abbreviated Latin terms – e.g., etc. ? Some referencing  styles are very particular about abbreviations, not that I’m looking at you APA.  So you may need to check the rules you’re meant to follow. 

And it might be a good idea to check its and it’s while you’re at it. and perhaps there, they’re, their and there. 

11. Numbers

The list goes on. Yes, I know it seems to be unending. Do you use words or numerals to report numbers? The usual English convention is words from one to ten and then numerals from 11 onwards. But do you use a different convention- if so, what? 

How do you report percentages- as percent, per cent or %? And would you ever say ten%? How do you report number spans – maximum 135-136 or minimum 135-6

12. Dates

Wait there’s still more. But we are nearly done. How are you reporting dates – 24/06/2022, 22 June 2022, 06/22/22 or something else?  Don’t forget to check how you’ve written dates for conference papers and media clips in your reference list. 

And – Fonts

Yes one more. I just didn’t want to have 13 in the list, so its a baker’s dozen. But really, you do need to check the heading fonts and font sizes and whether you have the hierarchies of type and sizes right. Also if you are using coloured headings and fonts, check that the pattern is obvious. You might be using a pre-set template, but it’s always worth checking.

Now… I do think that’s enough for now.

it’s actually a pretty good idea to take a list like this one and work out what you actually want your text to be, before you start proofing. Then you can read your manuscript against your own checklist to see what and where you need to apply a quick fix. 

And a confession. Dealing with proofing is my least favourite writing activity. But it does have to be done. Yes, I know you can pay someone to do it, but there is something satisfying about making your own work ready to send off.

My co-author Chris and I are just about at proofing point with our book manuscript. If you are also here, we feel your pain. And we share your impatience. Speaking of which it’s back to checking those quotation marks. 

You might also like to check out this post on HOW to proof read.

Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

Posted in academic book, Big Book, proof-reading, proofreading, thesis | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments