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!

Academic posters: Take one

I completed my first academic poster today, ahead of the 2014 SICSA PhD Conference in St Andrews next week. The poster is based on a 1-page abstract that I sent into the poster panel in April.

I struggled with how to design the poster because I thought I had to include all of the information from the abstract on the poster. That would have meant the poster was very text-heavy, which is something I’m not keen on. (I know many academic posters are mostly words, but I am more of a visual person.)

However, on meeting with two of my supervisors yesterday, I was told that wasn’t the case. In fact, they both agreed that less text is better! The decision was then made that I’d use this as a test poster to see how far I can push the boundaries between text and design.

I am not overly keen on my first attempt, but I am excited about the lessons I’ve learned so far. And I already have a list of things to change (improve!) for my next poster presentation in July.

My hope for this poster is that I will gain some useful feedback from the judging panel about what works and what doesn’t work.

And, of course, I also hope that I can win one of the poster prizes. But I have to be realistic and realise that a poster designed in less than 24 hours probably won’t win! (Still … fingers crossed!)

You can see a larger version of the poster here.

I hope that the poster is fairly self-explanatory (though I know it’s brief). If you’d like more information though, please do get in touch.

Stay tuned for an update on my first PhD conference next week. (And who knows, maybe I’ll be able to tell you I won a prize!)

[Photo Copyright Samuel Chinenyeze, one of my awesome office mates.]

Retreat, retreat!

I’ve been meaning to update this blog for a while now, but have been in retreat mode. And when you’re in retreat mode, sometimes blogs get ignored. (I am suppressing the urge to say “sorry about that”, for reasons explained below.)

Retreat No 1: I’ve been busy and stressed trying to meet a few deadlines, meaning I’ve retreated into my own little world—a bad habit, I know. This retreat mode was also because I was (am, in some cases) unsure about things. Like, what do I share here? What’s relevant? What do people want to read? Who’s my audience (Mum!)?

I am still unsure about a lot of these things, but I’m going to take a page from my personal blogging experiences of “blog to blog” when I’m shying away from writing. (It’s like the writers’ trick to “just write any old rubbish” as a way of getting the useful juices slowing.)

But that’s the “poor me” retreat mode so let’s move on to the fun stuff!

Retreat No 2: This was a real retreat with some of my fellow School of Computing PhD students to a loch-side retreat centre near the Highlands. It was simple and short but gave me the opportunity to share a short presentation of my research with some of my fellow students and teaching staff, who then provided a bit of feedback.

One of the most valuable bits of feedback was from one of my supervisors who suggested that I stop apologising—for my research; for being on the “soft” side of computing science; for not having all the information. (I then apologised for apologising too much. A problem I really do need to fix as I do it in all aspects of my life and it impacts my confidence. See first paragraph.)

And as this was my first official presentation as a PhD student, I thought I’d mark it by opening a SlideShare account so that I can share it with you!

(Yes, there was fun activity stuff at the retreat, too, as evident by the “selfie” of me after a cycle ride to a ruined castle.)

But it’s time to move on from retreats and talk about what’s next and what blog posts you can expect from me in the near future.

The biggest thing is that I’ll be giving a 20/20 presentation next Tuesday that will expand on my retreat presentation—and will hopefully see me not apologising.

After that, I will have a few conferences to talk about (assuming my abstracts are accepted!) and will be able to share a bit more information about my literature searching and current reading lists. There might even be an opinion/commentary piece or two if I can get the courage to share my thoughts with you.

Prepping for the panel

Tomorrow 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.]