Let the work begin: The start of a new research project

Last week was the start of a new academic role for me—that of a research assistant on a Carnegie Trust Research Incentive Grant project. I will be working on this project on a part-time basis for the next six months and I am very much looking forward to doing research other than my PhD for a while.

I will be working with Dr Gemma Webster (PI) on the qualitative research project titled “Social media by proxy: strategies for managing the online profiles of adults with dementia”. The project was developed based on Gemma’s previous work with people with dementia, careers, and dementia support organisations and my own PhD work on social media use.

The broad goal of this research is to identify and share good practice in the “management by proxy” of the social media profiles of adults with dementia. Over the course of the first month, I will be conducting a literature search and an annotated bibliography. After that, Gemma and I will begin to work on the next steps of the study, including preparing for the data collection phase.

Six months isn’t a vast amount of time in the world of academic research. However, it is anticipated that this work will act as a springboard for further research. Plans are already underway to investigate the most appropriate opportunities for the next round of grant funding. With a bit of luck (and a lot of hard work!) I will be sharing research outputs with you before the year is out!

For more information about this research project, please contact me (f.ryan@napier.ac.uk) or Gemma Webster (g.webster@napier.ac.uk).

My thesis: The literature review

As of today, I have 19 days remaining to complete a full draft of my PhD thesis for my supervisors’ final review and comments (and 41 days to submit for examination). And that means that it is time I start populating my PhD “master document” with content.

And so, today was spent copying my literature review document across to the first draft of my full thesis document. This is the first chunk of main-body content to be added to the main document and I am quite excited about this tiny milestone. (Starting with Chapter 2 seems a bit odd, but I will be writing the introduction, which is Chapter 1, at the end.)

The process of copying the literature review was fairly straightforward, especially as each chapter draft has been created using the same document styles as the master document. This means that I was able to copy things over without worrying about formatting. (But I still went through the process of checking the formatting. Just in case.)

The literature review is divided into four sections. The first three sections review literature related to (1) citation analysis and academic reputation; (2) online information and reputation from across a range of academic and non-academic sources; and (3) alternative means of building academic reputations (such as social media). The final section is a theoretical framework that has been developed for my doctoral study, based on the similarities and differences between citation practices and similar practices deployed in social media.

At 10,925 words, it is on the shorter side of PhD thesis literature reviews. I feel that this is in part due to the interdisciplinary nature of the review. The way everything came together meant that the literature review would have needed to be really, really long (too long) or rather brief. Because of the stress this chapter has caused me over the years, I decided that I would stick with brief and hope for the best.

My sincere hope is that I have done a decent job on my literature review and that there are only minor corrections to be made to it. Of course, when I think forward to post-viva corrections, this is the chapter that keeps coming to mind. Some of that is historical (and slightly hysterical) self-doubt that lingers from a negative experience with another academic. But some of that is due to a more rational fear that I’ve just missed something – either because I was unaware of a whole body of literature or because I missed a few newly published items that should be included.

Looking back over the process, I think I have learned more about how not to do a literature review, rather than how to actually complete one! But knowing what not to do will certainly make things easier for my next (much smaller!) literature review.

To be fair, I have learned several “best practices” to carry forward into my post-PhD research career. I have learned better ways to search for literature, but also better ways of keeping track of what I’ve read, along with improved note-taking techniques. (This theory will be tested in the New Year when I begin working on a small research project about social media proxies for adults with dementia.) I hope that as my experience and confidence increases, I will be able to help others in their quest to conduct a thorough literature review. But I really do need to learn more myself before I try to teach the art of it all to others!

It feels quite good to have a solid chunk of content in my main thesis draft, and I can’t wait to add more content. But for now, I must concentrate on creating a first full draft of my discussion chapter. And that, I am fearful to say, is looking to be almost as frustrating as the literature review chapter. (Although there haven’t been any tears yet, which is a happy thing!)

Stay tuned for the next exciting installment of my thesis progress!

Thesis season: September update

As thesis season continues, I am starting to feel more and more confident that I will manage to complete my thesis without (too terribly much) stress. And as September begins, I am excited (and nervous) about the next 61 days. (Yikes! Only 61 days to finish writing. How scary!)

My progress in August was steady, though slow. I worked on my three findings chapters and my methods and literature review chapters. Sadly, none of those chapters are completely completed, but they are fully drafted and are just seeking edits at this time.

The highlights for August were getting all of the main content for my findings chapters completed and knocking out a near-final version of my literature review. I also enjoyed a successful (final!) research progress review at the end of the month.

However, August wasn’t as amazing as I wanted it to be. I didn’t manage to complete the visualisation of the data and I didn’t manage to complete my literature review and methods chapters. Although I am pleased to say that they are all in fairly decent shape and only need a bit of editing. Thankfully, I know what I need to do for each of those chapters and will add that work to my “easy work” list. That list is a variety of tasks that I can do in the evenings when my brain needs a rest, but my motivation levels are still pushing me to get something done.

My plans for September are fairly ambitious, but I am confident that I will manage them without too much agony. I am including a few late nights in my work plans, which will include taxis home as my local bus stops running at 6.30pm. However, I will be doing some teaching again this term which will give me the extra money to pay for the taxis. (Yay!)

Here’s my plan for September:

  • Create a full “primary draft” of my discussion chapter. This means that I will have that chapter written to completion (based on content), but the draft will (likely) need further edits for language and grammar.
  • Complete all visualisations for my three findings chapters. This work will happen in dribs and drabs as my brain needs a break from the “extreme” thinking that is needed for the discussion chapter.
  • Complete all edits for my literature review and methods chapters. As above, this work will largely take place as a break from the discussion chapter.
  • Finish all appendices needed for my literature review and methods chapters. These are largely complete at this time, but I need to do some formatting. As with the other edits, this will be done as and when my brain needs a break.
  • Draw up a final completion plan for October. Yikes! That document might be a bit scary, especially if September doesn’t go as planned. But if all goes well, the plan will be largely focused on writing up my introduction and conclusion chapters and making edits to my discussion chapter. I will also give myself plenty of time to do all the fiddly little things like formatting the full document.

 

Yes, September is going to be crazy! But I am feeling quite confident about it and I am sure that it will be a productive month.

Thesis season: August update

With August now upon us, I am aware that there are only three months remaining for “thesis season”. And that is a scary realisation when I stop to think about how much work I have yet to do. And so, the next three months will be spent writing, writing, writing… and writing a bit more.

I am pleased to say that my July thesis goals were (largely) met. And that means that I have now (mostly) completed drafts of five chapters. These are the methods chapter, three separate findings chapters, and my literature review (submitted to my supervisors for their comments last night).

Today and the first half of Friday will be dedicated to making updates to my findings chapters, ahead of Friday afternoon’s meeting with my supervisors to go over my literature review. Then the rest of August will be spent making edits to the chapters I already have drafted whilst making notes to develop the structural outline for my discussion chapter. I expect that to be a very challenging chapter to write and will dedicate much of September to completing it.

So, what do my thesis plans look like for August?

In a nutshell, it looks like a lot of time in front of computer screens and very little time enjoying the great outdoors! More specifically, August will be spent making edits and notes for September’s work.

In August, I will:

  • Make updates to my literature review. This will include incorporating edits, comments, and suggestions from my supervisors as well as adding new literature sources where relevant.
  • Review my findings chapters. This will be done with consideration to my literature review so that I can ensure that I have not missed out on literature that should have been included.
  • Make notes for my discussion chapter. This will be done in conjunction with the review of my findings chapters. These notes will help to form the narrative structure for my discussion chapter, which I will write in September.
  • Prepare for my next (and final!) progress review meeting. This should be fairly straightforward and will include sharing an update on the progress of each of my thesis chapters and a plan for completion. (There will be about two months left to submit by this time.)
  • Work on updates to my methods chapter and appendices. This work is fairly simple (as compared to the literature review, at least). Because of that, it will be done in between other work as a “treat” when my brain needs a bit of a break.

 

And, as always, I will be attempting to take care of my physical, mental, and emotional health. This will include my (sometimes faltering) healthy eating habits, regular 5K runs, a minimum daily step goal, and a bit of “me” time each week. (All easier said than done!)

There is much work to do, but I am feeling quite confident about it. (For now.) Stay tuned for a September thesis season update!

Thesis summer

This summer is Thesis Summer for me. It’s the summer when I must, without excuses, get my head down and write, write, write! Luckily, July and August are two months devoid of conferences, training events, seminars, and other activities that take me away from my focus. So I’ve decided that I will devote them to my thesis; I will devote them to my PhD dreams.

I began preparing for Thesis Summer in the middle of June. I knew that I needed to be caught up on all of my administrative tasks beforehand, lest I use chores like cleaning up my inbox as a method of procrastination. I also knew that I needed a clear (well, clear-ish) plan for how I would spend my time, and what my end-of-summer outcomes would be.

And now that I’ve properly prepared, I am ready to dive straight into my Thesis Summer plans. Today. One the first day of July. And it’s going to be great!

Great, but not easy. After all, Thesis Summer is all about putting in the hours; putting in the hard work. And by the end of Thesis Summer, I intend to have completed drafts of all of my findings chapters as well as my literature review. Now, I realise that doesn’t sound like a lot of work, but there is a lot of work to do before I’m ready to start writing those chapters.

A big chunk of time will be devoted to completing the coding and analysis of my data. And then there will be the act of thinking about my data, and trying to make sense of it all in relation to the literature. Oh yeah, and I’ll need to re-visit my literature, too. And that’s more than just a weekend task!

I will be breaking everything down into manageable pieces that I can build upon. The overall idea is a pyramid with data-based tasks at the bottom (preparing files, coding data, running queries and reports, and analysing data). Once I’ve built up my strong base, I will start adding to the pyramid by creating smaller reports from my data subsets, which should help me to determine the overall structure of my thesis. From there, I should be in a better position to write up my final findings chapters, which will also help me with my final literature review.

Yeah, it’s gonna be a lot of hard work!

I am also going to try to keep up with my blogging by attempting (at least) one Just a PhD post every week. And I’m going to do it all without tears! (OK, that might be an exaggeration.)

Of course, Thesis Summer won’t be a success if I just lock myself away in my office. After all, I am merely human. And therefore, I need to address my human needs, too.

So for my personal Thesis Summer goals, I will aim to spend at least one day a week not doing my PhD. That might mean a day away to the beach or maybe a weekend away to see friends around Scotland or to visit my in-laws in England. I will also aim to run at least three days a week—even if I only have time for a wee 5K. My other personal aims for the summer are general self-care measures: Eating healthily, sleeping enough (and not too much), and keeping up with my relaxation hobbies such as drawing and writing. (Yes, writing. Which means I will also be aiming to write at least one Just Frances blog post every week.)

Yeah, it’s gonna be a lot of hard work!

And I’ll need to stay motivated; I’ll need to be productive; I’ll need to be determined and inspired and devoted. But I can do it. I’m awesome like that!

Please feel free to help keep me motivated along the way. And if you’re on Twitter, you can follow my progress with my Thesis Summer hashtag, #ThesisSummer!

Presenting a paper: Assessing the available and accessible evidence

I spent the past week in Aberdeen* for a couple of academic conferences. It was a great experience that allowed me to meet with other information science academics and to present some of my research. And, importantly, it was an opportunity for me to learn a bit about my academic self!

This was my first time delivering a paper at an academic conference and I’m pleased to say that it went quite well—despite my self-esteem-based fears.

My presentation was based on the literature review for my PhD thesis, which concerns how online information contributes to the determination of personal reputations. I worried that my childhood speech problems would trip me up during the presentation or—worse!—that people would think my research was [enter negative descriptors here].

However, other than getting a bit flustered when I was given my “five minutes” warning, I think it went rather well. I didn’t trip over my tongue (though I did have to use my special “speech therapy reminders” for a few words) and people actually seemed interested in my research.

Overall, the week’s activities have left me feeling a bit more confident. I can better see how and where my research fits within the wider domain of information science. I can also better see how I can proceed with my research.

I made some great contacts over the week** and engaged in some wonderful conversations with some well-established academics who seemed to have a bit of enthusiasm about my research. I now have several pages of notes to transcribe—much of which will help me to finalise plans for my pilot study.

Up next is to submit an abstract for another conference and to get my pilot study approved. Then I can go off and finally collect some data. Maybe then I’ll start to feel like a real researcher!

Here is a link to my presentation slides. Please do get in touch if you have any questions about the presentation or my research in general.

* Scotland, not Washington or South Dakota
** I even met with a couple of those contacts in Edinburgh the day after the conference. It was weird playing “local guide” in Edinburgh—as an American! But I do love showing off my adopted home. My “Heartland” as a friend calls it.

How not to write a literature review: Part 2

As many PhD students will tell you, doing a literature review can be a daunting task. And for students in social sciences, that task begins when your studies begin… and it would seem that it never ends! Well, at least that’s my personal experience with the things. After all, I’m half-way through my PhD* and the thing still isn’t done. It just keeps growing, and growing, and growing.

Of course, hindsight being what it is, I know where I went wrong. And if I had it all to do over again, I would be in a place of happiness right now. Or at least I wouldn’t be quite this frustrated with the process. (Well, that’s my working theory at least.)

Part of the problem I’ve run into is that I am studying outside of my comfort zone. I am doing a PhD in information science, but my background is communications and media and culture. And I thought (incorrectly!) that my background in social media would have set me up for this experience. But I was wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Only I didn’t realise how wrong I was until after I’d compiled a fairly lengthy (and decent, if I can say so) literature review. It was a comprehensive review of literature about social media and reputation. And it really covered a wide breadth of disciplines—all helping to substantiate my research.

And then someone mentioned a few researchers from within the field of information science that I’d not really looked at before. After all, the papers weren’t about social media and had (I thought!) a very tenuous link to my work.

But I was encouraged to keep reading. So I read. And I read. And I read. And all of the sudden, I found myself understanding the connections—and understanding so much more about the domain of information science.

Now, I find myself reading even more—and growing my review even further. But I’m also realising that I’ve made a massive mountain out of a mid-sized molehill.

So, knowing what I know now, what would I have done differently? (Other than the “write early; write often” lesson I wrote about before.)

The truth is, I don’t know. I think that maybe I needed to ask different questions at the start of my literature searching. Or, importantly, I should have recognised earlier on that I was in a discipline that was unfamiliar to me so that I could have started to read some of the “introductory” texts earlier than I did.

Yes—that! I should have stopped to realise that I didn’t fully understand the field of information science so that I could have built a stronger foundation from the start. Instead, I’ve had to backfill large sections of my knowledge.

The good thing is that my literature review is starting to make a lot more sense now. And—hopefully!—this extra work now will save me some effort and frustration when it comes time to write up my thesis.

The other good thing is that I have learned some important lessons about literature reviews, my new field of study, and—importantly!—myself.

There is still much work to do—for my literature view, my PhD, and my own self-esteem—but I’m getting there. Slowly.

And maybe now that I am feeling a bit more confident, I’ll be able to write here on Just a PhD a bit more. (I’ve been ignoring this place because I haven’t felt worthy of writing about a PhD when I haven’t even felt worthy of doing one!)

So, that’s a bit more on how not to do a literature review. Hopefully, by the end of it, I will be able to give some great insight to how I will do my next one!

* Well, I’m half-way through my PhD studentship anyhow. At this rate, it’s going to take me a bit longer than the three years of funded studies. So that’s a stress I’ll have to worry about eventually.

Provisional wins: Abstracts, bursaries, and conferences

I received an email today that gave me a bit of a confidence boost, so I thought it was time I (finally!) share a couple of happy PhD accomplishments. I should have shared some of this earlier, but I was feeling very unsure of myself and I was worried about sharing good news too soon. But I’m ready now. (Even though I’m still bracing for the bad news.)

So, here goes!

John Campbell Trust Bursary
The first bit of news is that I applied for a grant to the John Campbell Trust in November 2014 to allow me to travel to the 2015 Annual Meeting of the Association for Information Science and Technology (ASIST) in St Louis, MO, in November 2015. I received notification of my acceptance just before Christmas, but I wasn’t confident enough to share the news. After all, attendance at the conference also hinges on the acceptance of my abstract.

Over the next few weeks, I will be giving thought to my abstract for the conference. It will be based on a poster that will discuss early findings from my empirical work (possibly my pilot study). That means that I need to start making some solid headway into the design of my study!

If my abstract is accepted, I will plan to attend the conference in the autumn. After the conference, I hope to travel to Washington State to meet with a couple researchers from the University of Washington’s iSchool.

Assuming all of this happens, my parents are thinking that they will “meet me in St Louis” and we’ll all drive back to the great Pacific Northwest together. (And once the academic stuff is out of the way, I’ll stick around for Thanksgiving with my family.)

Information: Interactions and impact (i3) Conference
The second bit of news is that I submitted my first-ever paper abstract in January for the Information: Interactions and impact (i3) conference at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen*. The abstract was based on a literature review looking at the role of online information in the determination and management of personal reputations. I admit that it was a bit of a challenge to write because I needed to find a balance between summarising the literature review and selling the idea, but I managed. Mostly.

And that brings me to the third bit of news, which is that my abstract has been provisionally accepted for presentation at the conference!

When the email came in this morning, I was afraid to open it because I was sure it would be a straight knock-back. But instead, I was asked to make some revisions to the abstract. After that, my acceptance will be re-evaluated.

I know that doesn’t mean I’m a shoo-in, but I really was pleased to learn that I wasn’t rejected flat-out. Plus, even if I don’t end up getting accepted, I am being given an additional chance to improve my academic communications skills.

Hopefully, it won’t be long before I’m telling you that my re-submitted i3 abstract is accepted. So stay tuned for that. (And feel free to send positive thoughts and such my way, too!)

It’s a little frustrating because these wins are all still provisional, but they’re positive things so it’s worth shouting about them a bit. After all, I’ve not been told I’m rubbish, so that might mean that I’m actually not too bad. (Yeah, I must work on this low self-esteem a bit more.)

* That’s Aberdeen, Scotland, not the Aberdeen in my home state of Washington. Just in case anyone thought I’d be home for a visit this summer. Sorry; I won’t be. (But I hope to be there for Thanksgiving!)

Official status: PhD student

I am pleased to (finally!) be able to say that I am officially a PhD student. That might sound a little strange to those who know I began my studies more than a year ago, but the way things work at my university, you are only registered as a generic research student until after your first-year review. (This annual review is known as the dreaded RD5 here at Edinburgh Napier University*.)

Unfortunately, my own RD5 timeline got a little skewed because there were glitches in scheduling the meeting, followed by (minor) changes to my academic support team, which meant that the official form-signing bits were delayed by nearly three months.

More unfortunately, because of my own low self-esteem, I was convinced that it was all a sign that I wasn’t good enough; that I wasn’t PhD material.

It’s that second one that has really played havoc on my emotional and mental states over the past several months, meaning that I have been unable (or rather, unwilling) to blog about my studies. (It would have come across as poor-me, which no one wants to read!)

It has also meant that I haven’t been excited about my work. I allowed my fears to stop me from seeing a bright future, because I was too busy letting those same fears convince me I’d have to go back to being a waitress in my rural hometown. (Yeah, those Whatifs are kind of melodramatic in their depictions of reality.)

But now, I am feeling confident for the first time in months. I am once again looking forward to the hard work that a PhD will entail and I’m ready to re-motivate myself.

Yes, now that I am officially a PhD student, those PhD dreams have ceased feeling like nightmares.

So, what’s next?

Over the next few weeks, I will be thinking about my research methods in preparation for my empirical work. This will mean a lot of literature searching and reading (and writing, of course) but it also means that I’m starting to look into my own investigation, rather than the investigations of others.

I am also hoping that this new-found confidence and excitement will see me working in a more focused manner.

If all goes the way I hope it will, I will have a lot of great stuff to share here.

And for those who’ve been subjected to listening to my hysterical woes and fears of failure, thank you for putting up with me. Hopefully there will be less of that now.

* It’s dreaded, but it really isn’t anything to fear. In fact, I can see the benefits to the process, even though my own delay caused me much grief. But then, I do love a good administrative process. When they work.

How not to write a literature review: Part 1

When I began my PhD studies nearly a year ago, I did so knowing that the first year would be, essentially, writing a literature review. I was told over and over again that it was all about reading, reading, reading, and writing.

Everyone I spoke to assured me that I would feel lost and confused. I was told to expect to feel like a failure; to expect to doubt myself. I was told that I would be reading more than ever before—and that some of the reading would be a waste of time.

Keep reading. Keep reading. Keep reading.

Those words echoed in my mind over the first eight or nine months.

But then—all of the sudden—I realised I wasn’t doing enough writing! In fact, I was doing very little writing.

Why? Because I didn’t know how.

I had done so much reading that all of the ideas were running wild in my head. I couldn’t corral them; I couldn’t control them.

When I attempted to express my ideas on paper, I felt that I wasn’t “good enough” to critique the works of others. I felt that I wasn’t clever enough to put my words and my opinions into the mix.

Eventually, I found a bit of confidence to start writing but it was a challenge. There were so many thoughts in my head—so many references to reflect on—that it was overwhelming. It was so overwhelming that I didn’t know how to organise my thoughts.

Soon, the overwhelming feelings morphed into fear which morphed into serious self-doubt—which only made the writing more challenging.

But I needed to write. So I did. I just wrote and wrote and soon I had 6,000 words. But the structure was confusing and there were lots of repeated ideas. Still, I kept writing. And eventually, there were more than 10,000 words. But the structure was still too confusing and there were still too many repeated thoughts.

The solution? Stop writing!

Yes, by that point the document was so confusing that I needed to start from scratch. I needed to build a new structure and start from there.

With the help of one of my supervisors, a new structure was determined. And then I started my word count over at zero. Oh, what a sad day that was!

With the new structure decided, I opened up a fresh document and began moving text across from the old one. I moved it bit-by-bit, starting from the top of the new document, working my way down. By the end of the first day, I was back up to 3,700 words. And by the end of the first week, I was up to 6,000.

But the words were better quality; the words flowed better and actually made sense.

Eventually, I found myself with a literature review of nearly 12,000 words, which has formed part of a larger annual review report of nearly 17,000 words (that’s 68 pages if you wondered).

I’ve sent the annual review report off to my advisory panel and now I have a week and a half to wait and wring my fingers whilst I stress and panic that it won’t be good enough.

And I will stress. Every single day. Because I am now so convinced that my literature review is absolutely horrible and there’s no way I’ll pass my annual review.

But just in case I’m wrong, I will continue to reflect on the document so that I can improve upon it for my main PhD thesis.

Of course, if I could start all over, I know what I’d do differently. And I’m going to try to remember those lessons when it comes time to start on my methods chapter (up next!).

So what’s my advice to someone starting out today? That’s easy: Start today!

Start putting your thoughts on paper immediately. They might be wrong; they might be conveyed in a casual or even half-baked manner; they might get deleted later. It doesn’t matter. Write! And write right now!

Why? Because you’ll get your ideas out of your head and onto a piece of paper (or a computer screen). Because you’ll have something to show your supervisors, who can help guide you in the right direction. Because you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment. Because you’ll have something to look back on later, showing how far you’ve come from Day One!

In between now and my annual review meeting later this month, I will be taking some time to read more about research methods for my investigation. But I’ll be reading with my pen and pad handy so that I can write as I read.

As you can tell, I’m running a little massively short on self-esteem just now. Hopefully I’ll be able to share some positive outcomes soon though!

The conference circuit

I’ve had a busy few weeks of conferences and seminars and am finally catching my breath again. I had originally planned to share each of these events separately, but I was fighting off the deadly common cold for much of my time on the “conference circuit” so never got around to it. Still, this is a good exercise in getting back to my PhD blog!

The first conference was the SICSA PhD Conference, held in St Andrews. The two-day event was open to Scotland-based computer science and informatics PhD students and provided opportunities for workshops and presentations.

I jumped at the opportunity to present my first academic poster at the event and was pleased to have been shortlisted for a prize. (Sadly, I didn’t make the final cut, but it felt good to be shortlisted for my first poster out of the gate!)

The following week I attended the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science (SGSSS) Summer School in Edinburgh. It was a bit difficult to decide which seminars to attend, and I admit that one or two of them were the wrong choice, but I gained a lot of useful information from all of them. (Yes, even the wrong choice ones.)

The best takeaways from the week were a better understanding of my own philosophical leanings (as they pertain to research) and some great insights into the design of mixed methods studies. And, of course, I made some excellent connections with other PhD students and some of the academic presenters.

Last week saw me travelling to Glasgow for the SGSSS Research Methods in Information Science workshops at the University of Strathclyde. I was very excited about the literature review workshop as that’s my biggest task for the summer. I’ve attended a couple of shorter literature review sessions, but this one gave such a great explanation of a narrative literature review that I feel everything else makes more sense now.

Of course, last week was also the 2014 iDocQ (also in Glasgow) which was by far the best of all of the conferences! OK, I have to say that because I was on the planning committee and chaired most of the day’s programme. (It truly was a team effort though, with Calum Liddle of The University of Strathclyde, Wachi Klungthanaboon of The University of Glasgow, and Chikezie Emele of Robert Gordon University all pitching in to do their fair share of the work.)

One of the delegates, Christine Irving, gave such a wonderful recap of the event that I’ll point you there for the full account!

I now have a bit of downtime (read: time to work on my literature review!) before my next conference (iFutures in Sheffield). I plan to present a poster and submit a paper for the conference proceedings there and am looking forward to yet another conference experience. And, hopefully, I won’t be sick this time!

[Photo Copyright Lynn Killick, one of my awesome office mates.]

What I say about “They Say/I Say”

It’s not often that I review books, but as it’s a bit of an academic “thing to do” I’ve decided that I will start participating in the practice. (Well, at least for some of the academic-y books I read; I’m sure the world doesn’t need yet another glowing review of the amazing works of Ian Rankin.)

I attended a training session on writing literature reviews the other week (presented by Dr Anne Schwan) and took on board the recommendation to read They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing (Graff and Birkenstein, 2014). In fact, as luck would have it there was a new edition being released the following week so I took the opportunity to pre-order it on Amazon.co.uk so that I’d have the latest-and-greatest version.

In a nutshell, They Say/I Say is an introduction to the art of writing an argument and creating an academic conversation. It is easy to read and offers examples and templates throughout the book—with useful exercises at the end of each chapter so that the reader can immediately put the concepts to test. Further, the authors use encouraging language that may help less-experienced students or academics overcome potential fears about not having the academic know-how or “credentials” to create arguments.

I feel that the book gave good (though sometimes basic) advice on how best to present an argument in a way that allows the conversation to continue. It helps to explain the process of—and the need for—summarising someone’s argument, as well as some “best practice” techniques for how and when to use quotes. (With an emphasis on making sure that quotes are relevant and to the point.)

My favourite thing about the book—and what I believe is the most useful reason for owning a copy—is the templates provided throughout the text. I feel that they work similar to a thesaurus by providing suggested ways to phrase an argument, in the same manner that we’d use a thesaurus to find alternative words so that we don’t continue to describe a flower as beautiful over and over again. After all, reading “He said…”, “He said…”, and “He said…” all in a row can get boring. But if you throw in a “The author notes that it could be argued …” from time-to-time is like describing that flower as prepossessing.

The third edition also includes new sections for writing about literature, using templates to revise, and even writing online. Further, the authors have launched a blog, continuing the lessons and conversation online. (I have added the blog to my RSS feed so that I don’t miss any updates.)

Practical pickiness:
On the practical side, the book is an extremely good value at around £12 for the paperback edition. It’s small size and light-weight materials make it easy to toss into your book bag for easy access when writing at the library.

However—and this is where my slightly obsessive-compulsive nature comes in—I was less than pleased with the book’s overall print quality.

First, the cover is a printed and coated card stock which feels weird to the touch. This printing method also means that the cover insists on curling upwards, meaning it will always look open when sitting on a desk. Next, the paper is (not too) thin and has a slight shine to it which is a little annoying as it gives off a slight glare from overhead lighting and doesn’t have the nice feel that other, less glossy papers have.

Again, this is my own personal brand of crazy and has nothing to do with the book’s substance and academic usefulness. (I am just very fussy about some things; don’t get me started on wonky staples!)

Recommendation:
Short and sweet: Yes! I recommend you get this book—or at least check it out from the library! (I’ve not been asked or paid to give this review, I just really like the book and believe it will be a useful tool.)

Reading habits

I’m struggling a bit with my reading habits just now and have decided to spend the rest of January getting a handle on them.

As you may know, the first year of a PhD is filled with reading. Lots and lots of reading. You’re reading through a massive collection of materials on your topic and writing notes about what you’re reading—all as part of your literature review.

The reading and taking notes part is actually pretty easy to figure out, but I’m struggling with how to find the best place for reading and taking notes.

What I know is this:

  • I can’t spend 8 hours in my office reading and taking notes because it’s too “stuffy” for me to read there and I’m constantly on edge waiting for someone to walk through the door.
  • I can’t spend 8 hours in a comfy coffee shop reading and taking notes because I’m a starving student and can’t afford to buy all those cups of coffee. (Actually, I’m more of a mint tea drinker.)
  • I can’t spend 8 hours at the library reading and taking notes because it’s much too quiet and I fear sneezing or coughing which means I’m very self-conscious.
  • And I can’t spend 8 hours at home reading and taking notes because that would provide too many distractions (Oh look! There’s a shelf that needs dusting …) and it would also mean I’d be home all day, every day.

I also know that I feel oddly guilty if I’m not in my office 8 hours a day. I feel like I’m “skipping school” or something. (Is this common for PhD students or am I alone in this weirdness?)

So, what do I do?

The simple answer is this: I need to find a way to combine my reading-and-note-taking locations throughout the day so that I’m putting in a “full shift” but so that I’m not losing out on productivity by constantly being on edge for some disturbance to happen.

The complicated solution to that answer, however, is what I’m struggling with.

But, as I am meant to be a researcher, I’m going to research! And I’m going to research by testing potential solutions and analysing the results.

With three full weeks (plus a full day) left in the month, I am going to start trying out different combinations of study locations to see what works best for me. There will be combinations of reading at home, in coffee shops, at my office, and in libraries at various times throughout the day. The number of locations I visit in a day will be switched up, too.

And, hopefully, by the end of the month I will have found a good pattern that works well for me. (I need a pattern; I work better with patterns!)

Of course, there’s always the risk that in my excited attempt to find a productive combination, I will work harder to be productive. In which case, even if I don’t find an ideal solution to my problem, I’ve hopefully been more productive than if I just stuck with the status quo.

I would love to hear from others on how they’ve managed to combine working locations to increase productivity. So, thoughts and suggestions for this eager reader?