Planning the annual retreat

The annual School of Computing PhD Retreat took place earlier this week, and I am exhausted from all of the fun (and the planning!).

Traditionally, the retreat is planned and organised by a member of staff, but due to other commitments, the task was passed off to me and my co-student representative, Andreas Steyven. However, the short notice meant that we didn’t really have time to be planning a three-day retreat, so we decided to get a little creative (with the blessing of the Director of Research and another “responsible member of staff”).

With limited time both in our busy schedules before the retreat was to take place, Andreas and I decided to make the trip a bit relaxed and fun. We also knew that the rest of the students were pushed for time, so we decided to make it easy for them, too, by not giving participants anything to prepare in advance. Instead, we asked students to just show up ready to share their research in an informal environment.

We did, however, ask a couple of members of staff to run a couple of casual sessions. But as we had a “no technology” theme going, no one needed to prepare PowerPoint presentations. Instead, they were asked to share their knowledge, wisdom, and experience in a casual manner. We had staff-led discussions about preparing for the viva and the thesis process, administrative processes within the university, and a discussion about how best to utilise the PhD study spaces and collaborative research room.

We also ran two sessions that were designed to get students talking about their research in a casual manner. The idea was to help people build communication skills so that they could explain their research without preparation—and to a general audience.

On the first evening, Andreas ran a session called “Parrot Party”. For this session, we paired off with someone from outside of our research group. The first person then had three minutes to explain their research to a “listener”. After the three minutes were up, the listener had to explain the first person’s research to a member of staff. The idea is that listening is an important part of communication! (It was harder than it sounds!)

I ran the session on the second evening which was the main presentation opportunity for the retreat. It began shortly before dinner when I produced a box of random items: batteries, yarn, old phones, a tin of beans, a stuffed bear called Randolph, and an odd selection of other things I had laying around my home. The idea was that after dinner, everyone would have five minutes to present their research using at least one item from the box as a prop. Everyone had 15 minutes to look through the box before I closed the lid again. Then, after dinner, the presentations began.

Randolph was the star of the show and was used by nearly all of the presenters as a way of sharing their research. But people used several other props and mostly seemed to enjoy the challenge. Importantly, I think everyone learned new ways of thinking about how best to communicate their research. (A hard task, when you’re not given much time to prepare!)

Overall, I think it was a great retreat. I know it took some students outside of their comfort zone (presenting without PowerPoint!!) but I think it was a good experience for all of us!

Next week is another busy week as I prepare for the School of Computing PhD Research Conference, for which I am a co-chair. I suppose that means I should start thinking about my presentation. After all, I plan to win first place and I can’t do that without a bit of preparation!

CSI Napier: Investigate, interrogate, imbibe

2015.12.21.csi-timeLast week, we held our year-end Centre for Social Informatics (CSI) meeting at Edinburgh Napier University’s School of Computing. The bi-annual meeting was an opportunity for members of the CSI team to come together to discuss our research (investigation) activities over the previous six months, with an opportunity for questions (interrogations) afterwards. And, of course, since it was so near to the start of the Christmas holidays, at the end of the meeting we toasted the end of a successful year with a bit of Prosecco (that’s the imbibe bit*).

The format of these meeting is fairly simple: Each team member is given 5 minutes to share an update on their research and engagement activities. After 5 minutes are up, there is time for other CSI members to ask questions or to share other pieces of relevant and helpful information.

Time-keeping being what it is, however, these 5-minute sessions are known to take a bit longer than 5 minutes at times. That is, of course, until our centre director (and my supervisor, Hazel Hall) showed up at last week’s meeting with a 5-minute sand-based timer. Whilst we laughed at the excitement over such a thing, I think we can all recognise that it was a great way to keep everyone from going over their allotted time. (And it worked. Mostly.)

Ideally, I would be able to share a short summary of what each member presented at the meeting. However, I wasn’t really expecting to blog about the day so I didn’t take notes. (I will do that next time though!) You can find bio pages for CSI members here though, along with information about their research.

I can share with you the information that I presented though. So here goes:

I will share larger, more detailed posts about each of these things in the coming weeks—along with a couple of other exciting stories and announcements about my PhD dreams.

If you’re reading this thinking how fantastic it must be to be part of such an interesting research group—you’re right!

And if you’re thinking you might want to join the group as a PhD researcher, you’re in luck—because there are studentships available!

Stay tuned in the New Year (and maybe before then!) for some great posts about my PhD progress!

* I didn’t imbibe. How very, very unlike me! 🙂

Another year closer

Note: This post was originally shared on my personal blog. So please forgive me if it’s a bit more touchy-feeling than you would expect. But, as I am researching online information and personal reputation, I suppose it’s a good example of how information is shared differently for different audiences for the building and protection of personal reputation!

Another note: I am still recruiting participants, so do get in touch if you’re interested in talking about how you manage your own personal reputation with online information!

2013.phd-dreamsAnd now for the story:
Yesterday marked two years since I began my PhD studies. And that means I am another year closer to being Doctor Ryan. It’s a title I’ve longed for since I first began my bachelor’s degree all those years ago, and being this close to actually having it is pretty exciting!

The journey hasn’t been without its rough patches. But it has continued despite the bumps in the road and I expect I’ll reach the end eventually.

Of course, in a perfect world, my two-year mark would mean I am just one year away from submitting my PhD. However, the world isn’t perfect and I’ve managed to do what most PhD students do: I’ve fallen a bit behind. Part of that is due to my own low self-esteem and inability to manage my time. Part of that is because I struggled to get my head wrapped around a new discipline, as information science is not where my academic background was. And part of that was a human-related struggle with someone who helped to make my first year or so a little more (emotionally) challenging than it should have been.

However, I am confident that I will catch up at least some of that time, and I expect that my submission date will be closer to the three-year mark than to the “latest date you can submit” mark. (I hope that’s the case, at least!) It’ll just be a matter of really pushing myself to stay on task. Something that I feel is a little easier now that I’m in the fun “data collection” stage of my research.

So yeah, things are really looking up now. I am feeling more confident about my abilities. I am feeling excited about my research. And I am starting to actually believe that—one day—I will be the proud owner of a PhD. Not too bad for a stupid girl with dyslexia, huh?

As this place is meant to be a representation of all aspects of my life, I will aim to talk a little more about my PhD progress moving forward. I do admit that I have been avoiding it for a while because I didn’t want to sound whingey when I was struggling last year. (Apologies to those who suffered the whinging in person.)

Anyhow … thanks again for all of your support over the years!

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!!

Connecting the crossings

20150211_135232Last week I visited the construction project site at the new Forth Replacement Crossing with a group of female engineering and built environment students from Edinburgh Napier University. The visit was arranged by the Connect Network for female students studying computing, engineering and the built environment, for which I am a student ambassador.

Whilst the trip was primarily designed for engineering students, my ambassador status got me a seat on the tour—something I was keen to go on because I enjoy learning new things, and I really enjoy having special access to pretty much anything. (It’s one of my many, many quirks.)

But when I got there, I could actually see how computing students would be interested in such a massive civil engineering project, too.

Oh, yes, computers! In addition to the amazing engineering feat of designing and building a bridge that will be 2,633 meters long and 210 meters high (the tallest on-shore structure in Scotland!), it will boast 1,200 sensors to monitor the bridge.

And then there’s the Intelligent Transport System that is being built to help manage traffic as it approaches the bridge. It will be the first time such a system has been used in Scotland and will include things such as variable speed controls and signage as well as metered ramps.

I suppose that I knew there was a lot of computers used in modern engineering projects, but I never really thought about it before.

But then, I’m doing a PhD in the School of Computing and I still struggle to think of myself as anything other than a student of the humanities!

I’m pleased that I went along on the day’s adventure because I think it gave me yet another way of looking at the connections between different disciplines. It would seem that the whole world is one, big, interdisciplinary adventure after another!

And when it comes to the role of women, we’re there making our mark on all of them! (You know, to bring it back to the Connect Network.)

(The extra photos are probably unnecessary, but my Mum will be reading this and she’ll want photos!)