A successful RD6 review

2015.09.11.rd6-review-successI had my RD6 review meeting last week, and am very pleased to say that it went very well. The RD6 review is a six-month review as part of Edinburgh Napier University’s research degree framework. It is part of the larger progress review process, and is something that I tend to get very nervous about.

I will admit that I went into last week’s meeting filled with apprehension. And this is why:

I had a rather unhappy first year of review meetings due to (now resolved) conflicts on my panel. (I won’t go into the details here, but please know that my university and my supervisors were ace in helping me resolve the conflicts*.) That first year left me with such poor self-esteem that I had actually spent the better part of three months wondering if I was best to leave my PhD programme.

That first year also left me so very unsure of myself that I am still finding it difficult to be productive. I am still worried that everything I do will be unfairly criticised. (I’m OK-ish with constructive criticism, it’s the non-constructive stuff I struggle with most.) Frustratingly, that uncertainty and fear means that I sit in front of my computer unable to put my thoughts into a tangible form.

But moving on …

I spent most of July and August working on a small pilot study and the report for that made up the bulk of my review materials. I stressed and stressed about how it would be received. And, to be honest, I was preparing myself to be told there was no way I would be allowed to continue my PhD. (See? Low self-esteem!)

Anyhow, I got into the meeting expecting the worst. And when my panel chair said, “So, tell me about your pilot study” I was waiting for it to be ripped to shreds. Instead, I was met with several great follow-up questions that all led to a wonderful conversation about the next steps of my study.

It was all so very positive that I was on Cloud 9 for the next couple of days. And it’s really helped to boost my confidence—and my excitement about my research. (Though it would have been fair to have got my hand slapped for my slow progress.)

I am still struggling a bit with my self-confidence and uncertainty, but I can really feel that I’m happier now. And that’s really helping to boost my overall productivity.

As for Just a PhD, I am hoping that the return of my confidence will also signal a return of my blogging abilities… because there’s a lot of great stuff that I want to share about my fabulous PhD life!

* If any fellow PhD students are experiencing conflicts, I am happy to share my experiences in private along with the lessons I learned along the way. The biggest lesson is that you need to advocate for yourself early. Which is really hard when you’re floundering in the deep end of the PhD student pond!!

Official status: PhD student

2013.phd-dreamsI 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

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!

What I say about “They Say/I Say”

2014.03.26.they-say-i-sayIt’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.)

Prepping for the panel

2014.02.20.panel-prepTomorrow is my first panel review meeting for my PhD and I’ve spent the past few days prepping for it. (And stressing out about it just a little bit.) These meetings are meant to take place every six months though my first one is happening less than four months into my studies because I started later than the traditional September start. That early review has me slightly stressed because I feel that I won’t have as much accomplished as most people would at their first meeting, but I’m sure it will be OK.

This review is fairly simple. It will take place with me, my supervisors, and my panel chair and is an opportunity for the chair to determine if I’m on track—and if my supervisors are doing their jobs correctly. (I believe they are, but I confess that I don’t actually know how to judge that. Still, I believe they are.)

To prepare for the meeting, I have talked with my supervisors about my progress so far. I have also prepared an updated project plan, a listing of training events that I’ve attended and plan to attend, a reading list, and an updated draft of an essay I’m working on around reputation, identity, and information.

I’ve also tried to re-read as many relevant articles as possible so that I can be prepared for any questions that might arise.

I know that the chair isn’t out to get me, but I am still quite nervous about this process. (Hopefully those nerves will ease as I get used to these review meetings.)

Of course, tomorrow is also my 40th birthday and I know that I will be extremely aware of the time throughout the meeting because my plan is to leave the meeting, change into my birthday dress, and the run to the train station in time to catch a train to Glasgow where I will meet up with some friends for pretentious cocktails.

And that all means that I might forget to let you know how the actual meeting goes. (Apologies in advance for that.)

Over the next couple of weeks I will work to get some of the documents listed above up on the site. That way you can see the sort of things I’m working on.

Now, back to stressing out about tomorrow’s big meeting. (Which is better than stressing out about the big 4-0, which I’m not fussed about at all!)

[Note: That photo is actually from when I was in the final stages of writing my master’s dissertation, but it’s still fairly representative of what my study area looks like at the moment.]