Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Last Chance to Register ...

There is a free webinar running on Friday 15th December @ 11.30 (GMT) ... you can register by clicking here

Friday, 1 December 2017

Thinking About a Doctorate?


Many readers of ThePhDBlog are in the early stages of thinking about a doctoral level qualification. Indeed, the blog was originally set up to help answer many of the frequently asked questions that arose in discussions that I had with applicants to an Executive PhD programme that I used to run at a former institution ... and since then many thousands have read posts addressing pre-doctorate topics.

One of the biggest challenges potential doctoral candidates face is knowing where to start.  I'm therefore delighted to say that a pre-doctoral training programme is being run by colleagues in January 2018.  It will run at Heriot-Watt's Dubai campus and is the first in a series of sessions designed to help you move from the initial inclination to pursue a doctorate to the point of having a well-honed and workable research proposal.  Many of the themes covered in this blog such handling the literature, developing a suitable method and identifying the right supervision for you will be covered in depth and in person. It's a tremendous opportunity to start your doctoral journey on a firm footing. If you are interested in finding out more about this pre-doctoral training you can click here.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Free Webinar - Supervising a PhD for the First Time


I'm delighted to be teaming up with Times Higher Education to offer a webinar on the process of becoming a PhD Supervisor for the first time. ThePhDBlog.com is crammed full of advice for PhD students and in December will pass its 350,000th download.  To celebrate and to offer something to those who have been following the since 2009 this webinar offers a chance to hear the do's and don'ts ... useful for supervisors and students alike. Why not sign up here ... it is on the 15th December 2017. I look forward to seeing you there.


Friday, 27 October 2017

Excelling at University Admin


In the modern organisational landscape, universities have stood the test of time yet a quaint perception of tranquillity often colours the expectations of those with limited exposure to the sector.  They imagine ivory towers populated with academics so enthralled by the pursuit of new knowledge that they are impervious to pleas from the wider public to avoid corduroy and sandal/sock combinations. Those inside the sector see a different reality where our universities face a dynamic, challenging and globally competitive landscape of rankings and endless measurement.  Despite this, universities still tend to describe those tasks that relate to the day to day running of our organisations as “admin” with suitable connotations of Civil Service circa 1950.  Vice Chancellors may talk in terms of leadership, Lord Adonis might rail against the growing ranks of “senior management” but early career academics will most likely be invited to take on an admin role.  Here’s how to make the best of the opportunity.

See it as an opportunity
As an academic you’ll most likely be aware that someone is responsible for the allocation of your duties each year.  These duties are typically categorised under the headings of teaching, research and administration.  Whether it is your Head of Department, Subject Leader, Head of Institute or some other title, someone will have to find a “volunteer” to take on a plethora of admin duties such as course leader, year group head, programme director and the like.  Outbreaks of rampant volunteering are rare when trying to find colleagues willing to take on such tasks and therein lies the opportunity. The stark reality is that your university needs someone to fulfil these roles in order to function.  When it comes to annual review conversations and eventually to promotion, your CV will look infinitely more rounded if it demonstrates that you have the capacity to get things done. Yes, your teaching and research need to be good, but unless they are absolutely stellar you’ll be better placed to advance your career if you can point to some admin experience.  That aside, you’ll have marked yourself out from the crowd by the simple act of volunteering.

Clarify what’s expected of you
Admin roles vary in size, shape and complexity.  Don’t just say yes without any discussion. Ask what the role entails. Is there a job description? Can you speak to the current incumbent? What would “good” look like? And, how long would you be expected to hold to the role?  These questions should form the basis of a constructive discussion with whoever is asking you to take on the role.  Done badly this could be heard as a set of ransom demands by your line manager. Done well however, these questions could help shape your own career development. Be open about what you are hoping to achieve from the role and get your colleague(s) to be clear about their expectations.  If possible, ask to shadow someone who is doing the role or find a mentor who is regarded as having been a success in the role.

Chronicle your achievements
If you buy the advice that volunteering for admin roles will help you as you move forward in your career, then it follows logically that you should keep records before, during and after your tenure in such roles.  Capture some metrics as you come into the role, how many of, how long things take, how people rate the service, etc. The specifics will depend on the role but you and others will have a sense of what the key measures are (if only because you’ll have been regaled with tales of woe that reflect when and where things have gone wrong).  Set yourself the task of improving some of these measures and keep notes of what you’ve changed, who you’ve worked with to effect improvements and what evidence there is that you have delivered.  In the pre-internet era, one of my first administrative roles was that of Exams Officer.  I simplified the process that I inherited because it involved colleagues completing over 20 different forms.  My radical innovation was to use a single form that logged who approved what, and when.  Hardly ground breaking, but keeping copies of the old and the new forms allowed me to demonstrate the improvement and critically, my role in it. Simply holding a role title won’t be enough come annual review time, promotion panels or interviews. You’ll be asked what you achieved.  Better yet, if the performance measures drop off after you demit office, note these too such that you can present an heroic narrative that all was well when you were in charge.

Use the chance to learn how your industry works
Your university will likely have a turnover in excess of some Premier League football teams.  In that multi-million pound environment, money doesn’t just appear any more than Gold TEF awards or upper quartile rankings in the Times Higher simply happen. Use your involvement in the day to day running of the organisation to help build your understanding of how your industry works.  Admin roles can offer you a first chance to move beyond your own discipline to see how other parts of your own university operate and even how other universities operate. Speak to the people you meet, ask questions of your external examiners, ask your research colleagues how they execute the tasks for which you’ve been given responsibility in their institutions.  It may be that  you find that you have a talent for organizing. If so, you’ll feel yourself being sucked into that specific sub-set of academic life that leads inexorably toward greater and greater administrative responsibility.  Vice Chancellors have to start somewhere after all.  You might equally have a complete aversion to anything that takes you away from the academic purity of learning and advancing human knowledge.  Even if that is the case, you’ll be better able to interface with those who do run your university if you understand your organisation as an organisation. Even better, take the time to learn the language, syntax and grammar of the administrative conversations that influence your working environment.

Make a difference
Take a moment and realise that whatever the admin role and however low-status it may appear to you or to your colleagues, it is probably central to continued functioning of your university.  If you think something is either inefficient or fundamentally wrong with the processes for which you now find yourself responsible, do something about it.  Of course, you could shrug your shoulders and bemoan your misfortune for having taken on this particular admin role at this particular time. Ultimately though, universities don’t do things, people do.  Don’t expect some faceless “other” whether it is the faculty, the university centre, IT or even senior management to sort everything. Instead, recognise that you might be best placed to make a difference. Yes, your computer systems may still operate on punch cards. Yes, the governance structure may require you to get 7 people to sign off on the most basic decisions. Yes, you wouldn’t tolerate this level of hassle from your bank or insurance provider and you can’t believe there’s still a role for coloured carbon copy paper. But, the more impoverished the starting point, the easier it should be to make things even a little better. Make an active choice to see yourself as an advocate for better processes, systems, decisions, etc. The alternative casts you as bystander and being passive isn’t good for you, your students or ultimately your university.


Sunday, 3 September 2017

How to run a tutorial for the first time

Doctoral students are often the opportunity to dip their toes in the world of university teaching. This might be a condition of your funding e.g. when you are a graduate teaching assistant or it could represent a chance to earn a little extra money during your doctorate.  Either way, stepping over to the other side of the lecturer/student divide can be a challenge.  Here are some pointers for anyone taking their first tutorial. Enjoy.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

300,000 visits and counting

The PhD Blog reached a milestone today having received its 300,000th visitor ... the audience for the blog is drawn from all over the globe and readers go far beyond the boundaries of management research. It started in 2009 as a set of frequently asked questions about PhD study and has offered a resource to PhD students ever since. It is gratifying to see the blog still creating a forum for discussion and feedback on all matters PhD. This week also saw the publication of a the top sources of stress for PhD students in the UK's Times Higher Education which you can find here and summarised in the poster below.

Thanks for your continued interest in the PhD Blog.


Saturday, 25 February 2017

How to Co-author Effectively


Agree everything in advance and capture in a pre-nuptial agreement

Regardless of whether you are working with close friends or people you hardly know, find the time and bravado to broach the difficult issues in advance.

The most socially neutral thing to suggest is that you and your co-authors are listed on the masthead alphabetically. This however, is more attractive if you’re an Atkins than a Zabinsky. Be wary of anyone bearing the double-barrelled surname Aardvark-Zabinsky; they’ve probably had some difficult co-authoring experiences and arrived in your life via the branch of local government that deals with changing your name by deed-poll.  However, it isn’t just about author order. Think about who owns the data, what happens if you want to write a follow up paper without the original team (perhaps because you’ve vowed never to work with them again), who is the “returning officer” for the paper in terms of research assessment exercises, etc. Like any relationship, these things might seem unnecessary and unlikely in the first flush of a new writing partnership. Ask some senior colleagues and you’ll find that most experienced academics could shame the late Zsa Zsa Gabor with their trail of broken authoring relationships.

Have a clear division of labour

Agree up front who will do what in the co-authoring team such that everyone is aware that they have something substantive to do.

The transition from initial idea to published artefact usually involves a significant amount of time and effort pursuing a variety of tasks.  These range from scanning the literature to gathering data and from negotiating with editors to making the diagrams look presentable.  For your co-authoring experience to feel collaborative it helps that these tasks are identified and shared amongst the members of your authoring team.  As a basic premise, authoring traditionally means the writing of words. In academia authoring might not involve actual words but could involve gathering data, coding, analysing, developing conceptual models, reviewing, editing or any number of other things. Make a list. Be clear on who is doing which bits. If you’ve had difficult experiences in earlier co-authoring teams you might feel the need for a Gantt chart or even some pledges.

Know how your co-authors work

Discuss the process that your new co-authors go through as they craft a publishable artefact. That way you’ll know what to expect.

How people actually write is important. We are not referring to questionable use punctuation or appalling grammar but rather to the actual creative process of writing. Some co-authors may want regular contact and the opportunity for informal chats over endless cups of tea, huddled round a computer screen or staring at a whiteboard.  For them, these might be the vital social interactions which underpin the creative process. For others it might simply seem a waste of time. Neither view is right but knowing whether to schedule another chat or wait until someone shares a draft of something worth sharing is important. It is easy to see how an irretrievable breakdown can occur if you have very different creative processes and haven’t taken the time to set expectations. Attitude to deadlines is another area of friction. Are you by nature an observer of deadlines or do you regard them as the opening salvo in a negotiating process where only a fool would fold that easily? Again, it is important to know both your own norms and those of your co-authors especially if you want to write together again.

Develop the hide of a Rhinoceros

Opportunities for academics to take offence are legion.  If you want a co-authoring relationship to work you’re going to have to get over the idea that all criticism is personal.

Some of us craft every line and syllable with the care of a poet. If you are the type of author who cares deeply and profoundly over every carefully crafted turn of phrase there is a very real chance that you will find co-authoring relationships traumatic. Especially where you are working with new people.  Nevertheless, it is important to hear feedback when it is offered. Don’t fret over your much loved alliteration or pithy tone. Remember that there should be some difference from the tone of your solo authored work; that is the intention after all. And remember that your co-authors are probably playing the field.  Monogamy in co-authoring relationships is not unheard of, but rampant polygamy is much more the norm.  Some relationships turn out to be for life. Some will start for a reason then only last a season.  Try to learn how to improve your own writing and carry those lessons forward regardless.

Pull your weight

If you are pulling your own weight in your shared endeavours then you will be better able to chastise your co-authors should the need arise.

There should be no such thing as a free publication. The number of co-authors varies by field meaning that there are no hard and fast rules.  Papers with over 1000 authors occur in the sciences and even one case with 5000 authors. If you find yourself in one of those co-authoring teams you really only need one or two words each, but proof reading by committee might be a challenge. These extremes tend to be the exception rather than the norm.  In the social sciences singled authored papers remain commonplace, with two to five being seen as entirely normal.  Even with solo authoring there can be trust issues and that escalates in a non-linear way the more authors you add.  If you’ve already divided up the tasks involved it helps but doesn’t completely mitigate the propensity to feel like you’re doing more than your fair share. Be willing to have awkward conversations but only if you are completely confident that you’ve done all the things you promised to do.

Remember that editing is a form of writing

Writing the first draft and editing the final one are both forms of writing. Recognise that editing is a critical skill which more than justifies the status of co-author if done well.

Some authors are good at first drafts. Others are better at polishing the final draft. In between are those whose gift is a form of structural engineering that sees whole chunks of text move around as arguments take shape and a workable narrative arc is refined. Be clear where and when you are adding value to the paper. It is questionable whether spotting the occasional typo or stray apostrophe counts as co-authoring. If your name is listed with the authors rather than in the acknowledgements you should be able to point to the specific things that you’ve added (or deleted). Early discussions about any “thou shalt not delete” sections, ideas or quotes obviously helps diffuse tension in the editing process.  That said, a healthy co-authoring team has the emotional bandwidth to handle reducing an entire section to a few punchy sentences even if the blame is laid squarely with the reviewers for appearances sake.  Those few remaining words might be the hook on which the entire paper hangs.  Co-authoring is therefore as much about ideas as words.

Remember  your status

All co-authors are equal, but some are more equal than others. Knowing where you are in the hierarchy can help smooth the social process.

Sometimes it is hard to escape the Orwellian sense in which co-authoring hierarchies subtly reassert themselves.  On the surface, you are part of the same team pulling in the same direction but there is more than likely some implicit hierarchy.  There may be an author in chief who simply shouts some encouragement periodically in person or by Skype. There are probably some worker bees who feel that they are doing most of the heavy lifting. Each may regard the other as ballast; but in principle at least, each could be adding something valuable.  If you are a PhD student or an early career researcher you might feel slightly peeved by those you consider to be acting as frictional drag. In those circumstances, the question you should be asking is would the paper survive without others and the answer is often no.  If you want to learn the craft of publishing, working with a more experienced author makes sense. You may simply have to accept that you learn valuable authoring lessons (and some life lessons) in any asymmetrical writing relationship.  Who knows, if it works you might one day be seen as the ballast by the next generation of researchers.

Exploit your networks

Who to work with? Think about the people you know, colleagues, supervisors, examiners are a very good place to start, who would like to work with?

Senior academics get asked to co-author a lot and not always because of their magnetic personality and fantastic mentoring skills.  At the end of every seminar or conference paper they are surrounded by a small huddle of people offering chances to collaborate on something which draws directly on their big ideas. Consequently such established stars tend to have a well-honed routine for avoiding such career development opportunities.  Think about it from their perspective. They probably have a bulging pipeline of new projects, some established co-authoring relationships of their own, some PhD students to whom they feel a moral obligation. What is it about your proposed collaboration that would deliver something of value to them? There could be access to a new and interesting data set or the chance to learn about a new theoretical domain or context.  What can you bring to the table beyond the evident need to get yourself published? A good starting point is to remember that co-authoring is not just about the writing, ideally find people that you like as human beings and with whom you can get on well. Charm, enthusiasm and the low-maintenance sense in which you look to be both polite and competent helps a great deal.

(re)evaluate the experience

Take the time to assess the pros and cons of each co-authoring arrangement and act on the conclusions.

There are a number of criteria that you can use to evaluate a co-authoring experience. Is it helping you publish to a standard that you could not yet attain alone? If the answer is yes then you are probably still learning things and developing as an author. If publications aren’t appearing at all, at the rate you hoped or in the right standard of outlet then maybe it isn’t working. Are you enjoying it? Of course, it could be hell but rewarding; equally, it could be fun but frustrating. Ideally you’re looking to combine something which is socially rewarding, developmental and delivering better results than you could achieve as a solo author. Why bother if you don’t enjoy at least some aspects of the co-authoring relationship? Are you being honest? If you are having offline discussions about who is claiming what from the paper (e.g. who claims the paper for REF or claims to have taken the lead for the purposes of a promotion case, etc.). If so this is usually an indicator that all is not well. And just because things used to work well is no guarantee that they will continue to do so indefinitely. Evaluating what you’re getting out of it in the here and now is important. Co-authoring, just like other forms of relationship, takes on-going maintenance.

Break up gracefully

Not all co-authoring relationships last so, if you have decided to go your separate ways, try to consciously uncouple in a way which doesn’t do lasting damage.

Some high-profile co-authors are also married to each other. You can imagine that this further exacerbates the potential for an acrimonious break up when things go wrong. Even if you’re not married there remains a need to find a way of exiting gracefully as you never know when your paths will cross again. Well intentioned co-authoring teams can head inexorably toward an irretrievable breakdown for any or all of the same reasons as marriages: psychological immaturity; incompatibility; relationship entered into under false pretences; or even, nonconsummation – i.e. that the paper never did get written.  Whatever the reason, a good prenuptial agreement helps (see point 1 above). In the absence of such an agreement you’ll need to negotiate the distribution of your goods and chattels as you make clear that you want out.  This can be problematic and it might help to rope in a.n.other as an honest broker.  The longer and more successful the co-authoring relationship has been, the harder it will be to uncouple. Where you are agreeing not to go beyond a first publication the process can be easier. Your joint papers will, however, loiter on your CV as a permanent reminder of the rich collaboration you once had/the biggest mistake you ever made (delete as appropriate).


This advice also appeared in the Times Higher Education Supplement