How not to write a literature review: Part 1

2014.11.07.not-lit-reviewWhen 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!

Defining and organising the Internet

organising-the-internetIt’s been a while since I’ve blogged here, in part because I still haven’t figured out how best to use this space and in part because I have too many muddled thoughts in my brain to know what to share.

To address both of those issues, I’ve decided to use a tactic that works for my personal blogging habits: I’m going to attempt at using this space to work through some of the confusion I’m facing. The hope is that the act of writing my thoughts down will help me to clarify them, but that it will also give me the opportunity to seek feedback from others.

So, here goes!

Two of my goals for the next week are to 1) source some simple definitions of a few technical terms and 2) create an organisational chart of the Internet (highlighting my main areas of research).

Both of these things will be used in my thesis to guide the reader in their understanding of my approach to the topic of personal online reputation management.

First, the terms I want to define. Initially, I want to start with the broad terms found in the middle of the organisational chart. Those are:

But I may also need to add other definitions such as blog, forum, comments section, etc.

Or maybe those belong in a table somewhere?

Or maybe in a glossary?

How do I decide what terms to define within the main body of my work and which to simply relegate to a glossary?

Now, onto the organisational chart. (Full-size PDF here.)

(Don’t worry: the cat won’t be on the final version, despite theories that the Internet is actually made of cats*.)

I am starting with cats “The Internet” then attempting to identify the main areas under that umbrella. For now, those are the World Wide Web; interfaces for email and SMS; and peer-to-peer file-sharing, FTP sites, and VoIP services.

I am only planning to expand on the sections I’m investigating, so will only be expanding on the World Wide Web category from there.

Under the World Wide Web, I have listed social media (Web 2.0); databases and organisational and informational websites; and static websites (Web 1.0).

And from there, I’ve placed social networking sites under social media.

Here are some of my questions:

What am I missing from each level?

How much detail do I need to go into?

Do I list examples on the chart on in the descriptive text?
(Example: Blogs under social media; Facebook under SNSs)

Am I completely off-base in my thinking?

Any thoughts and opinions you have to share would be greatly appreciated. And hopefully, I’ll have my head fully wrapped around this all by next week, at which time I’ll share an update.

Thanks for helping!

(Oh, and I suppose I should make a joke about how organising the Internet feels a bit like herding cats, too.)

* There’s a video about it and all! Please note that there may be questionable language used around the 1-minute mark.

Finding a method to my madness

2014.02.27.research-word-cloud[To jump right in] Last week’s panel review meeting went rather well. I was (as predicted) worrying about (mostly) nothing and the review was a simple(ish) chat about my progress to date. Of course, there had been an expectation that I might have had a bit more work to show as it was a “6-month review” but when it was explained that I started late and was therefore only at my 4-month mark, it all started to make sense.

One of the biggest things I took away from the meeting was that I really need to start giving more thought to my research methodologies. I mean, it’s great that I know I want to research how people manage their reputation online, but how do I actually accomplish that? (Yes, these are things you need to think of as a researcher!)

(In fairness to myself, I have known all along that I would need to pin down my methodologies, I’ve just yet to actually put a stake in the ground.)

Do I use in-depth interviews to really investigate how individuals manage their online reputations?

Do I use a large-scale survey to determine the percentage of people who do x, y, or z in the management of their online reputations?

Do I hold focus groups with the hope of generating a bit of conversation around topic?

Do I use observational tools, looking at publicly available data and information to make conclusions of what people appear to be doing—or not doing—in an effort to manage their reputation?

Or do I use a combination of methods?

And what about the validation process? How will I go about validating my research, especially if I’m opting to use in-depth interviews and case studies?

As you can probably tell, I don’t actually have an answer to these questions. In fact, the more I try to find an answer, the more I start to ask more questions! (Ah, the questions-answers-questions loop. It can be frustrating at times.)

So in an effort to help me determine what methods to use in my research, I’m doing what any good researcher would do: I am researching!

I am currently re-reading research articles to determine the varying methods that have been successfully implemented in the past. From there, I hope to be able to identify a couple of methodologies that seem likely to fit with my project.

At the same time, I will be accessing other PhD theses to see what methods others have used—as well as what methods others have eschewed—and their reasoning behind those decisions.

Over the weekend, I will make a list of further research articles to read, in the hopes of expanding my knowledge of existing studies so that I can better determine what methods might work for me. And—with a bit of hard work and a touch of luck—by next Friday’s supervision meeting I will be ready to talk to my supervisors about 2-3 potential methods.

Importantly, all of this research into research methods will also help me with my next big milestone: The completion of my RD4 form, which is an expanded research proposal that will include my intended methodologies.

As always—I’m open to input from others so please feel free to point me towards some great resource you think I should be considering!

Finding some clarity: It’s about reputation (not privacy)

2014.01.25.finding-clarityI’ve spent the past few weeks reading about privacy, identity, and reputation so that I can try to resolve a few questions I have about where I want to take my PhD research. My area of interest is reputation, but with so many elements impacting reputation it can be hard to interpret the map with all of my thoughts and ideas.

I admit that it’s been extremely frustrating because I’ve found myself heading down so many paths that have been filled with more distraction than relevance and I was starting to wonder if I’d ever be able to find a path that could bring me a bit more focus. (I understand this is a common problem at the start of a PhD, so I haven’t felt like a failure because of it—but it hasn’t built up my confidence, either.)

Thankfully, this is where my supervisors come in! They’ve “been there; done that” so are able to help guide me in the right direction. (Yay!)

I developed a very rough draft of an essay on privacy, identity, and reputation—and the relationship between the three—and sent my supervisors a copy ahead of yesterday’s supervision meeting. I was very unhappy with the draft because it seemed so [enter several negative adjectives here], but in the end it was a very useful tool because one of my supervisors took the time to write a summary of key points on a white board for us to discuss—and that discussion led to a great amount of useful waypoints.

By the end of the meeting, I was filled with a renewed sense of excitement because I could see the path a little more clearly. There is still a bit of fog and I’m sure there will be a few rough patches to traverse, but I feel that this path will lead me to a couple of major roads before too long.

Moving forward, I will start to look a bit more at the idea of online identities and their relationship with reputation—and I’ll try to remember that my PhD is not about privacy*. I’ll be investigating issues of multiple identities (personas/personalities) including pseudonyms and anonymous accounts and how they’re used in an online environment—as well as some of the recent discussions around requirements for the use of “real names” by organisations like Google and Huffington Post.

I hope to have a bit more clarity on my research soon, at which time I will try to be a bit less vague in what I’m sharing. In the mean time, if you have any great resources you wish to share with me on reputation and identity, please feel free to contact me or comment below!

* I’ll talk about my desire to keep privacy on the fringe of my research later—after I’ve clarified it all a bit more in my own mind.

Reading habits

reading-habitsI’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?