Write now!

2016.01.21.write-nowYesterday was the official Write Now! launch at Edinburgh Napier University, organised by me and my colleague, Iris Buunk. Write Now! was inspired by the successful Shut Up and Write! meet-ups organised by creative writing groups in San Francisco, something which Iris and I tried to replicate for ourselves by working in area coffee shops.

[In a hurry? Go straight to the “Why is it important?” part.]

However, we believed that—with the right support—we could create and maintain a successful writing group on the Merchiston Campus. But human support wouldn’t be enough—we wanted a small bit of financial support, too, so that we could offer tea and biscuits to our fellow writers. So we applied for a small research development grant from Edinburgh Napier University to help get us started—and thankfully, the university thought we had a good idea, too!

Importantly, other academics seem to think Write Now! is a good idea, too.

Yesterday’s launch saw 15 participants eagerly working on their academic tasks. There was work done on PhD theses and journal articles. Some people used the time to edit papers they were hoping to submit for publications. And some people used the time to fine-tune abstracts or create tables and figures for their documents.

Did they show up for the free biscuits? Maybe. But they stayed to work and the feedback indicates that they will return!

We now have enough money to fund writing sessions through to the end of the semester and are hoping that we might find further support for next year—if we can show that the investment in writing is a good investment for the university.

If you missed yesterday’s session: Don’t worry! We’ll be back next week and you’re welcome to join us!

But why is it important?
Easy: Because committing yourself to a dedicated writing time can help to prioritise the importance of writing whilst facilitating the process.

We figure that, at the most basic level, Write now! will benefit research students and academic staff who participate in the sessions. However, we also believe that this dedicated writing time will encourage participants to work on journal or conference submissions, research grants, and other academic work to help increase the university’s reach and impact within the greater academic research community.

Write now! addresses three of the four domains of the Vitae’s Research Development Framework, as dedication to the writing processes is key to the act of academic research. The primary domain to be addressed is ‘Engagement, influence, and impactin the subdomain ‘communication and dissemination’. As a key component of research is the dissemination of clearly communicated texts, it is vital to show within the university that engaging with the writing process is of great importance. To that, Write now! offers individuals the ability to spend time actively working on effective, written communications—whether in the form of writing abstracts for conference submissions, writing up the findings of an on-going research project, or disseminating findings through articles written for the press or academic blogs and other social media tools.

Additional areas being addressed are knowledge and intellectual abilities as related to creating a stronger knowledge base and developing a higher level of academic literacy and personal effectiveness as it relates to issues of personal time management and the prioritisation of workloads and related tasks.

Join us next Wednesday—and every Wednesday through June:
Triangle Restaurant
2-4 pm
Free drinks and snacks
And don’t forget your laptop (or pen and paper if you’re Old Skool like that!)

How not to write a literature review: Part 2

2015.06.20.not-lit-reviewAs 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.

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.

2015 PhD resolutions

2015It’s a new year, so it must be time to make new resolutions! Generally speaking, my resolutions are tied to my long-term goals. They are designed to help me focus on the larger picture and, I’m pleased to say, I am pretty good at keeping them.

To that, my 2015 PhD resolutions are as follows:

Create a better, more productive work routine
The idea here is to divide my time better so that I have clearly defined blocks of time for reading, writing, and research. As it is, I feel a little guilty for spending time on certain tasks and that takes away from my overall focus and productivity. I hope to develop a routine that allows me a set amount of time each day or week to read the “fun” stuff (blogs and forum posts around my subject areas, for example) as well as the “real” stuff (academic articles and books, for example). The thought is that I will be able to fully focus on each task if I’m not feeling guilty about not doing something else.

Part of this will be looking at dedicated writing times and places. Over the next few weeks, I will work to determine the best way to divide my time and hopefully it will mean that I am enjoying more productive hours each week.

Set time aside each week for administrative tasks
Oh yes, the admin must get done! Yet inevitably emails go un-archived and papers go un-filed. That means my virtual and actual desktops have stacks of important things that are difficult to find. And that means I spend a lot of time shuffling through emails and papers I don’t need, just to access the ones I do. If I would just devote a bit of time to these things in the first instance, I would save myself a lot of time (and stress!) later.

Part of this will include a small administrative job I have with the school as part of my stipend. It will also include time set aside for maintaining this blog, which I hope to utilise a lot more as I start working towards my empirical research.

Build in guaranteed personal time
Much like the guilt I feel reading the “less serious” stuff for my PhD, I feel very guilty any time I’m doing non-PhD stuff at home. That guilt means that I’ve yet to finish reading an Ian Rankin novel that I started a few days before my PhD began more than a year ago! It also means I’ve yet to start on a new crocheting project or to make note cards for my Mum. And sometimes it’s even meant that I neglect my running—which means I’m neglecting my personal goals and resolutions.

Part of this will be working on my personal goals of being nicer to myself! It will also mean that I will allow myself to enjoy non-academic reading and to work on other projects without feeling guilty. Importantly, it will mean running more…which will help me to stay focused and energised. And that can only help my larger PhD and life goals, right?

So there you have it: My three 2015 PhD resolutions.

To add a wee disclaimer: I am not silly enough to think that these things are going to happen tomorrow. They are intended to be works-in-progress and I hope that over the next few weeks or months I will have formed new habits to help ensure I can make these things happen. Slowly, slowly, catchy monkey!

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!