PhD Bites 1: Vicki Whittaker

About PhD Bites

the-creative-process

When I first saw that Jai had written a blog post entitled Completing your PhD in three years, I couldn’t bear to read it. Not because it wouldn’t be full of good sense and sound recommendations, but because I was 28 days from my absolute deadline for submitting my PhD thesis – four years after I started it. I’d not observed Jai’s advice – because, well, Life – and had started September with half-written drafts of six chapters and no conclusion to speak of. (Not, I hasten to add, through any failing of supervision. This was on me.)

So, September was beyond brutal. But even in the depths of despair and darkness – quite literal darkness; I didn’t get a lot of sleep those four weeks – there was a certain measure of grim satisfaction. These are my tips for anyone who is in the home stretch, but still has a lot of ground to cover.

1. Plan.

Draw up a timetable of exactly when you will finish each chapter. Make sure you include time for formatting and proofing at the end. You don’t really have much slippage room; a day at most.

2. Hone your argument.

The advantage of working this intensively is that you see the whole thing unfold before you. You have to trace a compelling narrative path through your material. And you have to take your reader with you, so don’t forget to signpost. Do not deviate from this path. That detour via Saussure might look attractive, but if it adds nothing to your central argument, jettison it.

3. Work with what you’ve got.

Wonder if discourse analysis might throw light on that knotty problem in chapter 4? Too late. Do not start a new literature search at this point – you do not have the time or intellectual leeway to incorporate it and contemplating paths untrodden will just make you feel hopeless. The only time you should be on Google Scholar is to check a reference or a citation.

4. Go with it.

Stress can be productive, but it does have to be managed. If you’re finding it hard to sleep because your brain is whirring, try to harness this by noting down thoughts as they occur. (I often woke to several e-mails that I’d sent myself in the wee small hours) If you’re on a roll and up until 4am, go with it.

5. Pace yourself.

Don’t then try and get up at 7am to carry on working. You can’t keep that pace up for a whole month. If you need a change of pace, try formatting your references, choosing pseudonyms for your research participants, or writing your acknowledgements.

6. Know when to stop.

Accept when you’re banging your head against a brick wall and stop. Walk away from the computer. In fact, just walk. Walking kept me sane. Between 5 and 6pm every day I went for a walk with my son, who’s 10 and obsessed with Pokémon Go. (I’m now something of an expert. Ask me about Rattatas and what they evolve into.) We covered 60km in four weeks.

The thing is, now I’ve read Jai’s post, what we’re saying isn’t so very different: plan, focus, and know your limits. And good luck!

Vicki Whittaker is a PhD student at Aston University. Her PhD took a practice theory approach to studying allotments and social change, and was submitted 5 hours before the final deadline. She is also a translator (from French) and editor. She can be contacted at @MrsKettle on Twitter.

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I’m not yummy, or slummy, or smug: Why we need to stop labelling mothers

Yesterday, I read an article in The Guardian, titled From smug to slummy: the myths of modern parenthood. It was drawn to my attention by one of the bloggers who was mentioned in this piece, a ‘brummy mummy of two’, just like me. She wasn’t too pleased about it. She wasn’t happy about being labelled a ‘slummy mummy’ for a start, a term she has never used about herself in her own blog. She also wasn’t happy about the way mothers were being pitted against each other, creating a fictitious war of the ‘smugs’ vs the ‘slummies’, as it were. And I don’t blame her. Because I am sick of it too.
mum-word-cloud
           Let me try to put this in context; to explain why this article has angered me so much. Because it’s not just the one example we’re talking about here. Back when I was doing an A-Level in English Language, I learned about the semantic derogation of words associated with women. My eyes were opened to the many examples of adjacent pairs where the ‘feminine’ equivalent had become an insult – take, for example, the following pairs, and consider the different connotations of each: stallion/mare; master/mistress; wizard/ witch; husband/ hussy (yes, hussy comes from ‘housewife’).
           The term ‘mother’ has largely escaped such a fate, though this word and its derivatives are not without negative connotations. I wouldn’t take it as a compliment to be called ‘mumsy’, for example. And it seems that in popular news media, journalists are finding it increasingly difficult to describe someone as a ‘mum’ without prefixing it with a cutting and sometimes quite vicious adjective. This is something that struck me when I was looking for newspaper articles about Mumsnet, as part of my PhD research on constructions of motherhood within this site. I started out looking for facts and figures about Mumsnet, like who founded it and how many users it had. But what I found was that a disproportionate amount of media coverage about the site was given over to labelling and insulting the women who use it. I found that Mumsnet users were variously described, for example, as ‘yummy mummies’; a ‘coven of poisonous women’; as ‘cliquey’, ‘grumpy’ and ‘scratchy’ (scratchy?!)
           What message is this sending to mothers? We are damned if we are proud, damned if we are flippant. Damned if we step out in high heels and make-up, damned if we wear trainers and PJs. Women who dare to speak out about their lives in a public forum, it seems, just can’t get it right. Fortunately, that isn’t stopping the countless women who continue to do just that, and they are often using their public voices to challenge persistent stereotypes and negative representations of women. But there is plenty of work still to be done.
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Completing your PhD in three years

This week, I submitted my PhD thesis, exactly two years and eleven months from the date

Hourglass

I started. During the final weeks and months of writing up, I’ve been reflecting on the whole process and the strategies that have helped me to submit within that elusive three-year time frame. I think it boils down to four key pieces of advice.

1. Begin with the end in mind.

Three years can seem long a long way off when you first start your PhD. It’s really not. Set a date from the very beginning for completing each chapter, submitting your first draft and final submission. Aim to submit before the final deadline and allow far more time than you think will be necessary at each stage. Work your way back from here, charting the steps you need to take in order to meet these long-term goals.

2. Set regular and realistic targets and deadlines.

Have two timetables on the go at all times: a long-term plan, with major goals for each year of study, and short-term targets and deadlines, which fit in to your ‘big picture’. Don’t get too attached, though, as adjustments will need to be made as you go along. At first you may have unrealistic perceptions of how long things take or how much you can do. If you want to stay on track you’ll have to learn to adjust and rework accordingly. Pay attention to how long it takes to complete tasks such as writing an abstract, article or chapter, reading a paper or creating a diagram. This will help you to set more realistic targets for yourself as you progress in your studies.

3. Write often.

You don’t want to spend your final year learning how to write in an appropriate style. Start writing early, however sketchy or uncertain your work may seem. Share it with your supervisor(s). This will help you to find your academic ‘voice’ and to iron out any problems with your style or referencing, for example. Your early notes are also likely to prove very useful later on, and will help you to chart the development of your research. So make sure you keep and date everything you do.

4. Don’t take on too many other responsibilities.

By this I do not mean that you should spend all day, every day on your PhD. Do not do this, your health will suffer. But if you’re working a significant number of hours a week to support yourself, and/or have other responsibilities that take a lot of time out of your working week, it may not be realistic for you to submit in three years. And that’s ok. Set yourself a more realistic deadline; study part-time if you need to. Your health and well-being are the most important things you have, don’t risk them by asking too much of yourself. I’ve also written about the importance of being kind to yourself here.

It’s really as simple as that. Bear in mind, though, that research can be a messy endeavour and you may come across many hurdles along the way. Personal circumstances can change and you may have significant, unavoidable delays with things like data collection, ethical approval and analysis. Relationships with supervisors or significant others involved in your study are not always smooth and this could hamper your progress too. I speak from the fortunate position of having a fantastic working relationship with my supervisor and no major hiccups along the way, but not everyone has this experience. If you hit problems, be ready to adjust and shift your expectations. Above all, be kind to yourself and flexible when necessary. You will get there in the end!

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The Discursive Construction of Motherhood in Mumsnet Talk: In Simple Words

I’ve been meaning to write an ‘up goer five’ explanation of my thesis for ages and finally got round to it today. If you haven’t heard of it yet, up goer five is a method created by geneticist Theo Sanderson for explaining complex ideas in a way everyone can understand: by using only the top 10,000 words in the English Language. If you want to know more, the scientific american blog has a great summary. This is what I came up with:

I’m looking at how mums say who they are when they talk to other mums on the computer. I’m looking at what they can say and what they can’t say, who they can be and who they can’t be, because of the words they can use, the words all around them and the words that have been said before.

I want to know whether having a child is about being a man or a woman, and if it is, how we make it that way. I want to know what it is possible for women who have children to say, what it is easy for them to say and what makes sense to them. I also want to know how they try to use words to say or to be something different even when it’s hard to do and it doesn’t seem to make sense. I want to know whether the computer helps them to do this, makes it harder, or maybe both.

The up goer five version of my thesis is kind of a perfect example of how language constitutes reality. It was very difficult, if not impossible, to express certain concepts within this kind of restraint. Just like it’s very difficult to envisage new ways of being a female parent within the discursive constraints at work in everyday interactions. If you want to have a go, there are a few editors around to help you keep within the strict constraints! I used Sanderson’s own.

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A child’s take on academia

Last night, I had a conversation with my seven-year-old about peer review. It went like this:

Child: What did you do today, mum?

Me: Well, I got some feedback on a paper I wrote. They liked it!

Child: A paper? How many questions did you have?

Me: Uhhh… None.

Father: It’s like a big write. Have you done those at school?

Child: Oh! Yes. So what’s feedback?

Me: Well, comments on what I wrote.

Child: Ticks and crosses?

Me: Well, sort of like that, yes.

Child: Oh. So how many ticks did you get?

Me: Um, well, none really. But they did say they liked it.

Child: Did you get any crosses?

Me: Um, well, I got some comments on things I need to do better.

Child: Are they like crosses?

Me: Well, yes, I suppose they are.

Child: *wide eyed* How many crosses did you get?

Me: Well, uh, at least 20, I suppose.

Child: *looks horrified* Oh. Well… Never mind, mum.

Hmph.

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Blogger’s Block

I’ve been struggling to find the motivation to write a blog entry over the past few months. Since August, I’ve been writing, writing, writing – chapters, journal articles, abstracts and presentations. Adding another writing job to that list has not been a very appealing thought. It’s been so long since I last posted that WordPress have only gone and changed the bloody posting format again and I am back to being a completely clueless novice.

But today I finally found myself at a hiatus, with about an hour to kill, and I thought ‘Aha! I will write that blog post. With all these things I’ve been working on over the past few months, I must have loads to write about. Here goes…’

Document 1.

Blinking cursor.

Nothing.

No inspiration.

No thought-provoking, interesting, anecdotal nuggets to share with the world. None at all… How can this be?

But wait, my chronically forward-thinking past self has been making a list of potential blog topics for just this very moment.

But nothing on this list appealed. Top tips for the self-reflexive researcher? Boooooring! Using NVivo? Done to death. My thoughts on researching Mumsnet? Ugh. I couldn’t summon the enthusiasm to write about any of these things.

So, in despair, as in all times of desperation, I turned to Google. Ah, Google, my faithful friend. You seem to have an answer for almost every problem I can conceive. Can’t find my car keys? Google! Lost the page reference for an important quote? Google! Child refusing to eat, drink or sleep? Google knows what to do! And sure enough, Google did not let me down. I searched using the terms that seemed to most accurately sum up my predicament: ‘bloggers block’. And sure enough, this is a thing! I felt immediately vindicated. What I have is an actual real problem! Lots of good people get bloggers block! I am totally normal and should not immediately delete my blog in a frustrated rage.

I clicked on the first link (http://www.problogger.net/battling-bloggers-block/, if you’re interested), but I didn’t need to read it. Of course, I will just write about my experience of having bloggers block!

So there you have it.

Today I had bloggers block.

And that’s all she wrote.

 

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Five tips for better, stress-free writing

freddie boy / Foter / CC BY-SA

Last week, I attended a course on the topic of ‘writing for publication’ with Trevor Day. I gained some really useful insights into the writing process and tips for becoming a more effective writer, which I’ve already started to apply to my first attempt at an academic paper. Ever the sharing type, I thought it would be rude to keep these revelations to myself. So here’s the short version – five things I learned about (academic) writing from this course:

1. Make sure your work is original and/or better than the competition. At the start of Trevor’s session, he asked us to write down five ways in which our work would be original and/ or better than the competition. When I did this, some aspects of my paper that I had seen as ‘side’ issues, to which I thought I would perhaps devote a few hundred words, turned out to actually be the most original elements of my work. Doing this activity early on set me on a better path from the start by forcing me to identify what would be attractive about my paper, to editors and to readers.

2. Write in stages. Now I’m sure I knew this, or at least I should have. But somewhere along the way it got forgotten. Good writing usually happens in three stages: planning, composing and editing. Simples, huh? So why is so much of my writing a mash-up of all three? For this paper I actually sat down and wrote a proper plan. This is an iterative process – I’ve returned several times to re-work and develop plans for particular sections – but that’s a strength, not a problem. I’m now on the second stage, ‘composing’, or writing a ‘first draft’. This brings me to the next tip…

3. ‘Compose’ when you’re at your most alert. This is probably the single most valuable piece of advice I took from the session. I know I struggle to focus mid-afternoon (as do most people, apparently), so why do I torture myself, trying to press on with writing challenging sections straight after lunch? This usually results in feelings of frustration and despair and a pitifully blank page. This time I’ve planned my time carefully, writing in the morning, until I’ve done what I set out to achieve or until my eyes begin to glaze over, whatever comes first. In the afternoon I read, review others’ work, edit a first draft, send emails, write less intellectually challenging blog posts…! It’s working well and I’ve churned out around 1,500 words a day, meaning that my first draft is almost finished!

4. Let your ‘creative’ mind flow when composing. I can’t tell you how relieved I felt to be told that a first draft doesn’t actually have to be much good. In the past, I have spent hopelessly long hours trying to make one point, perfectly, first time. I drift away from what I’m writing to find the perfect term to express what I want to say, find the reference that explains a concept better than I can, email my supervisor to clarify something. Often this leads to a chain of related tasks that take up the whole morning. By the time I come back to what I was originally writing, I’ve forgotten what I was trying to say and the mid-afternoon slump has crept in. But when you relax, and put your ‘critical’ mind on hold, your ‘creative’ mind can flow. This technique has allowed me to express myself, to get down the main point of what I want to say. Precise terminology, references and eloquent expression can come later. The important point here is that it doesn’t have to be great writing – it’s just a first draft!

5. If it doesn’t advance your argument, don’t use it. Last but not least, a crucial one for academic writing that’s most relevant at the planning and editing stage, the aim being to make sure all your paragraphs are doing one job: moving your argument forward. This is the first thing to check after the ‘composing’ stage and one of the reasons there’s no point trying to be a perfectionist at that point. If you realise the paragraph you wrote is all very interesting but does nothing to support the crux of your paper, it’s probably got to go.

If you’d like the long version, consider booking yourself on one of Trevor’s courses or reading his book.

Happy writing!

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