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

Friday 20 January 2017

Impact in Management Research

How, when and for whom does management research create impact? 

The British Journal of Management has a new special issue out this month on Impact and Management Research.  

If you're interested, the visual abstract available here and the abstract is as follows:

This paper introduces the special issue focusing on Impact.  We present the four papers in the special issue and synthesise their key themes, including dialogue, reflexivity and praxis.  In addition, we expand on understandings of impact by exploring how, when and for whom management research creates impact and we elaborate four ideal types of impact by articulating both the constituencies for whom impact occurs and the forms it might take. We identify temporality as critical to a more nuanced conceptualization of impact and suggest that some forms of impact are performative in nature. We conclude by suggesting that management as a discipline would benefit from widening the range of comparator disciplines to include disciplines such as art, education and nursing where practice, research and scholarship are more overtly interwoven.

Wednesday 18 January 2017

Top 10 Things Every PhD Student Should Do (at least once)

1. Read beyond your course

Visit the library, browse the shelves and pick something obscure but challenging. Stretching your mind is never a bad thing.

One of the main dangers with a PhD is you have so much reading to do, that you stop reading for pleasure.  Try and avoid that happening.  We’re not talking pulp fiction here but you could do worse than begin by trying some philosophy (unless that’s what you’re already studying).  Your degree is after all called a Doctorate in Philosophy. Some exceptionally bright people have been thinking about the nature of our existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language for some time now. They may even be brighter than your supervisor(s). As a genre, philosophical writing is persuasive; you are reading the opinion of an author trying to convince you of the plausibility or implausibility of their position. You need to think, reflect upon and carefully consider the argument. Think of this as a trip to the theory gym following a New Year’s resolution. In business and management we have become accustomed to practical or technical discourses with a logical, linear presentational form. Theoretical forms of thought are often much harder to read.  Don’t skim read but don’t fret if you don’t follow every thought, the authors probably didn’t when they were writing either.  Here a five books to have go at: The Republic (Plato); Tao Te Ching (Lao Tsu); Meditations (Marcus Aurelius); Beyond Good and Evil (Friedrich Nietzsche), and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Robert Pirsig).  If you are already studying philosophy do something completely different. Learn to bake, sky dive or play an instrument.

2. Don’t hide from your anxiety

The support network in most universities is second to none. Make use of it.

Depending on what report you read or set of statistics you believe, between 25% and 50% (or more) students say that anxiety affects their performance at university at some stage.  The same issues affect many academics too. The simple act of acknowledging your anxiety, preferably in the company of a sympathetic listener, will begin to make a difference.  The relentless advance of technology has left us “always on” and less able to tolerate ambiguity. Waiting for anything from an inter-library loan to some feedback on your draft chapter can create anticipatory anxiety.  Perhaps those who appear relaxed are just better at masking their anxieties. Most people find deadlines stressful. Seek help early and preferably before things are seriously interfering with your ability to function. If you’re worried about the reaction you’ll get console yourself by remembering how much people in the counselling service, student union or elsewhere would love the opportunity to make a positive difference. By being brave enough to reach out to them you’ll end up feeling better and you’ll be keeping them in a job.

3. Volunteer

Present at conference, lead a workshop in your department, do a guest lecture or even organise a social activity.

Really, just make a start. Self-starting is an essential life skill for PhD students and academics alike. Start doing the things that you had hoped to avoid for as long as humanly possible.  Let’s face it sticking your head in the sand only means you’ll have a lot of sand to wash off when you finally come up for air.  Whilst there is always a plausible reason to defer until tomorrow something that you would rather avoid, the earlier that you do your first lecture, conference presentation, workshop or interview the less scary the next one will be.  The industry which you have joined is characterised by public speaking, public scrutiny of ideas and a general sense in which you’re expected to take the initiative. If you find these things difficult you have probably chosen the wrong industry. In time, you might grow to love such tasks but you might not. They are however, part of the job so volunteering will at least help you develop a coping strategy.

4. Join the Community

Jobs don’t materialise in a vacuum. Get to know other academic and professional services staff.

Being an academic is sometimes described as being a sole trader. You’re out there on your own trying to sell your ideas to a sometimes reluctant or indifferent community of people selling their own ideas.  One way of coping with the loneliness and isolation is to join a community. If you look hard enough they’ll be all around you. Staff-student liaison committees, class reps, alumni societies, professional bodies, doctoral symposia, conferences and so forth. Volunteering into such fora will help build your network of professional contacts, accumulate evidence of your organizational abilities and offer networking opportunities.  Academia is often a village-like community and knowing the right people in one place can lead to advance notice of opportunities in another. If that all seems a bit nebulous, focus your communitarian tendencies on your publishing activities. Attend research seminars, offer to present working papers, review for relevant conferences and journals. These will all help hone your publishing instincts and publications on your CV will dramatically alter the chances of getting short listed for an academic job.

5. Meet your heroes

There will be titanic figures in the literature. Try to meet them and just accept that they can look smaller in real life.

Most academic disciplines feature a few celebrities. These mythical figures are invited to give keynote addresses and seminars. Find a way to find them but don’t ask them to autograph your tour T Shirt, it will simply embarrass both of you. Getting the chance to hear people speak about the ideas that you’ve digested in written form can often lend new insight and offer clues as to the underpinning thinking and the future direction of travel. Ask them what they’d be focusing their attention on if they were starting out now, then filter out the nostalgic “when I was your age” spin that you might hear. Remember that people and their writing are not necessarily one and the same thing. Some of the most eloquent texts in your field will have been written by people who are more bumbling, confusing and disjointed in spoken form. Equally, the bombast, acerbic humour and comic timing of some academics outweighs their publishing achievements. Not everyone is a polymath so try not to be too harsh if your hero doesn’t seem so heroic in person.

6. Do some teaching

Gain first hand practical experience by applying what you are studying whilst you are still studying it.

Teaching is the lifeblood of every university. It offers you the perfect forum in which to share all this knowledge that you are accumulating.  What could be better that a class of unsuspecting undergrads who will hang on your every word, either through their shared love for the subject or because they fear you may have a hand in marking their work.  Your family and friends (in the real world) have probably stopped listening to you or even pretending to show an interest in your PhD. Focus your energies on a captive audience of students instead. This, of course, is a double edged sword. You might love or hate it, you might be find it easy or more challenging than you’d imagined. Better to find out early in your career.  You might hope to land a full-time academic job when you graduate. Worst case scenario, you’ll gain the knowledge that you don’t really want to dedicate your career to teaching earlier than might otherwise have been the case. Either way, you’ll be accumulating valuable CV collateral which will stand you in good stead once you complete your PhD.

7. Become Multicultural

Speaking a.n.other language helps the cognitive process and is proven to make you smarter/more attractive/richer (delete as appropriate, these may not all be true).

You’d be hard pressed to find a PhD programme that isn’t populated by a diverse mix of nationalities and mother tongues these days. Why not seize the opportunity of some free tutoring whilst you gain your PhD.  Opening your mouth to speak in a ‘foreign tongue’ is of course a source of potential humiliation. Expect some shoulder shrugging and occasional outbreaks of sniggering.  Get over yourself and get vocal. Speaking a foreign language helps you negotiate meaning in general and improves your thinking system.  Your memory will improve, there is some evidence that it can delay the deterioration of your mental faculties. You’ll become more perceptive and your command of your own language tends to improve too as hidden grammatical structures reveal themselves to you. Putting the health benefits to one side, learning the rudiments of another local language will help with ordering drinks, dinner and sorting a taxi home. At least making the effort often counts for a great deal.

8. Stay Healthy

Try and main a work life balance; but don’t kid yourself into thinking you are working when you are not.

A full time PhD is just that, full time.  The phrase 9 to 5 is commonly used to describe the working day, even though many of us work more flexible hours than that these days. Even allowing for lunch breaks and annual leave that is somewhere around 1,500 hours per annum. You know what you have to do in the 4,500 hours that your three years comprises (or however long your funding lasts). If you don’t do the work nobody else is going to do it for you and your PhD shouldn’t be considered as a zero hours contract. It is a long hard slog. There will be times when you will feel elated and others when you will bitterly regret the whole undertaking. Resenting your supervisors, enying your peers their seemingly smooth passage to a painless completion and being totally sure you will fail to submit are normal reactions.  Rest assured that most people do finish and that the key dynamic is essentially about the hours of graft put in at the coal face.  Yes, you will need coping strategies to get through your long dark night of a soul, which might even stretch into your winter of discontent. Resist urges to grow a beard, establish an allotment, learn a martial art, become square dance instructor or whatever whimsy might have fleetingly seemed the best use of your time today. Do you really need to surf social media, check the gossip columns or watch yet more football. Choose one thing as a counterbalance to your PhD studies and become good at it, you have three years after all. Make it something that engages another part of you and doesn’t simply involve sitting, thinking or reading. Anything from archery to yoga and most letters in between will do. Whilst you are at that establish a support network of other PhDs around you. Yes, you are all on an individual quest, but it is nice to have compatriots with whom you can break bread and share stories.

9. Manage your CV

Start cultivating your CV early because editing and re-editing helps. And your online profile counts as part of your CV too.

If you’ve done everything listed in items 1 to 9 above, you will have an incredible amount to put on your CV when you graduate. Sadly, successful CVs aren’t measured in square footage alone.  Curate your CV as the public advert for the person you are, or perhaps wish to become. Linkedin matters and many people use it as a form of electronic CV. Twitter, Facebook, Researchgate and various other social media sites are also public domain unless you manage your settings carefully. Think about the public and private versions of your life. Friends might get the more informal, jocular, sarcastic version of you. But perhaps you shouldn’t allow potential employers to have such unrestricted access to your personality. Find and follow others in your chosen field, both firms and individuals. Create social media bios wisely, people evaluate you based upon what they find. The best Twitter bios combine personal information and professional details and have a confident tone; use a link to your LinkedIn profile. Keep your tweets professional. More than one politician has come to regret something tweeted many moons ago and cast up in a less than forgiving light once they have an important new role.  Academics aren’t quite so high profile but you get the point.  Flippancy should be reserved for a gated community of trusted friends and loved ones.

10. Imagine Life Beyond your Graduation

Allow yourself the luxury of imagining that it has all worked and your PhD has been completed.

At various points your PhD will seem unattainable in the way that the summit of Everest, walking on the moon or becoming a billionaire seem unattainable to most of us. You may be superstitious and not want to jinx the possibility of a successful completion. But, at least once, you should indulge yourself by imagining what life would be like post-PhD. Perhaps the main feature is your graduation day itself with family and friends applauding as you March confidently across the stage to be greeted by the Chancellor or their nominee and handed your scroll. Perhaps it is the idea of a business card, drivers licence or bank card bearing the title Doctor.  Maybe it is the idea of correcting a particularly obnoxious customer service operative with a jaunty "It's Dr [surname] actually".  Whatever it is that floats your boat, think of it, savour the idea and remind yourself that some people far less talented than you are now called Doctor.

Monday 9 January 2017

Top 10 Hints For Understanding Your Ontology, Epistemology and Methodology

1. Don’t worry about the words
The “ology” words are not commonly used even in Greek, the language from which they are derived.

When you begin writing for research you'll need to get to grips with some challenging academic language. In particular, you need to get on top of three very important concepts: Ontology, Epistemology and Methodology. For no apparent reason, research philosophy tends to send research students into a mild panic. The befuddlement caused by a range of new terminology relating to the philosophy of knowledge is unnecessary when all that you are trying to achieve is some clarity over the status of any knowledge claims you make in your study. Within the broader context of the social sciences, there are standard philosophical positions required to specify the particular form of research you plan to undertake. Collectively, these positions will define what is sometimes referred to as a research design. To comprehensively specify your research design there are five interlocking choices that you, the researcher, should make when specifying how you plan to execute your research: 1. Ontology  and 2. Epistemology (which together form your research paradigm) then 3. Methodology 4. Techniques (your data gathering) and 5. Data Analysis Approaches.  There is no single ‘right’ way to undertake research, but there are distinct traditions, each of which tends to operate with its own, internally consistent, set of choices.

2. Choose your Ontology
Ontology is the branch of philosophy that deals with the trivial issue of the nature of reality. 

In choosing an ontological position, you are setting out the nature of the world and your place within it.  Simple yet fundamental stuff.  Ontology is rarely used beyond academic institutions and it can therefore be difficult to know how to use it confidently. The word ‘biology’ means the study of life (since ‘bios’ means life). Using the same logic, ‘onto’ translates as ‘being’ or ‘reality’ hence ontology concerns the nature of reality.  Beyond the realms of science fiction or fantasy novels, we tend to go about our daily lives with a view that there is only one reality. Yet the Matrix, Narnia and many other fictions are inspired by the idea that this is an unnecessarily limited view of the world. Perhaps, the most well-known of these is the brain-in-a-vat scenario, whereby scientists stimulate a disembodied brain with such precision that it emulates a realistic sense of participation in what we call reality. Does the brain experience reality, or is the experience of the scientist somehow more real?

3. Know your Epistemology
Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of knowledge and is therefore central to any research claims to contribute new knowledge.

Epistemology concerns the way(s) in which we set about obtaining valid knowledge. For instance, if you are asked for the time, and guess it correctly without a watch, is this reliable knowledge? Or should this guess be verified somehow? Would hearing the familiar beeping that announces the time having struck the relevant hour represent definitive confirmation of the precise time.  Or, would you be unsettled to know that transmissions in AM, FM and digital forms of radio can generate varying delays when replayed through particular devices? The importance placed on the verified accuracy of the time would depend upon the context in which you need to know.  If you’re trying to catch a connecting flight the acceptable level of variation may extend to a few minutes. If you are trying to choreograph an Olympic opening ceremony it probably doesn’t.  The term epistemology can be also be deconstructed; ‘episteme’ means knowledge and in literal terms, epistemology is the study of knowledge.  By being clear about the way(s) in which we might obtain valid knowledge we are in turn being clear about the nature of any knowledge claim that we might make.  The observation that happier workers tend to be more productive is one such knowledge claim.  As a researcher, you may wish to debate the validity of such a claim, citing other factors that might influence happiness, productivity, or the relationship between the two.  Hence, we are required to draw connections between the assumptions we hold about reality (ontology) and the ways in which we might develop valid knowledge (epistemology), even if we often tend not to do so explicitly in anything other than the formal, and somewhat erroneously labelled, setting of a methodology chapter.

4. Establish your Methodology
Don’t default to contrasting quantitative and qualitative, define your methodology in more sophisticated terms.   

Methodology is the most commonly used of the ology words. It tends to be used as a shorthand for the ways in which your epistemology, ontology and methodology interconnect. Certain methods of data gathering and analysis tend to follow from certain research paradigms, although it is important to notice that these implied pathways are not fixed. What is truly important is your ability to recognise and justify the interlocking choices which represent your own research design. That is essentially what any PhD examiner or journal editor is looking for when reading your methodology chapter/section.  Someone expressing an objective ontology with a positivist epistemological approach would be making two choices that are naturally aligned in what would often be seen as the conventional and scientific tradition.  Trying to understand whether happy workers are more productive from within such a tradition would likely involve statistical techniques, control groups and the generation of generalizable laws setting out reliable relationships between happiness and productivity.  The same research topic could equally be approached from a subjective ontology generating a more interpretivist approach but both the research itself and the nature of the claims made would be fundamentally different. Telling the reader that you chose quantitative over qualitative (or vice versa) simply doesn’t cut it.

5. So what is the difference between ontology, epistemology and methodology?
They each set out aspects of the knowledge claim you are making from your research

Simply put, ontology relates to the assumptions we make about the nature of reality, epistemology sets out beliefs about how one might discover knowledge about that reality and methodology specifies the tools and techniques that we use in the conduct of our research.  Critically, these three words form relationships to each other. You ontological and epistemological positions should have some bearing on your methodology, which in turn sets out the data collection and analysis techniques that you will employ (assuming of course that your ontology and epistemology don’t challenge the very idea of either data or analyses). In the social sciences getting on top of these individual concepts and their relationship(s) to each other is vital if you want to (a) be able to write articulately for publication and (b) want to avoid social gaffes in your viva / thesis / dissertation.

6. Ideally, choose your techniques last
Don’t start gathering data until you have taken a position on the ologies.  Techniques flow from ologies and not the other way around.

Asking how many interviews will be enough depends critically on why you are doing them. You could be doing interviews ‘as counting’: how many times when people say A do they also say B.  Alternatively, the same interviewer and interviewees could be trying to explore meaning such that you begin to understand how people make sense of A happening when B has not.  What would constitute good practice in terms of your research is therefore contingent on the nature of the knowledge claim that you hope to make. You will only be able to articulate a defensible position by setting out your position in relation to the ologies.  This is why a PhD is a doctorate in philosophy and why you have to “defend” your thesis.

7. Mix your techniques not your ologies
Mixed data collection techniques are de rigueur, however mixed ologies represent an academic faux pas

Vegans rarely order steak, democrats rarely vote republican.  Both options, whilst hypothetically possible, represent a lack of consistency that tends to be read as untrustworthy.  Be clear and consistent in your choice of ologies in order to avoid being seen as flaky, out of your depth or downright deceptive. Individual researchers can mix their ologies but not within the same research project.  These three key concepts emanate from philosophy but it isn’t necessary to have studied philosophy in order to make sense of the terminology.  In essence, you need to set out your research philosophy in order to signal to other researchers where your research fits in their world. If you are being examined (for a PhD or perhaps by an editor or reviewer), you need to show that you have engaged in a conscious set of choices that are internally consistent. Historically, certain research philosophies may have been used for certain topics and methods, yet it would be foolhardy to dismiss the potential for innovation to be found in combining ideas and mixing methods.

8. Classify your heroes
The seminal authors on your field will probably don’t state their choice of ologies explicitly in their written work. However, you should be able to classify their works

The seminal authors in your field will have been read by many. This is what confers on them their status as a hero, often earning them the right to be named as the definite article in the coffee breaks of international conferences and airport lounges … “that’s THE [insert name]”.  Despite their extensive readership and weighty H index, they probably don’t use the ology words in their written output. Indeed, it is relatively rare to find a paper that states that the research was conducted from within a subjective ontology and was interpretivist in its epistemology, whilst adopting a qualitative methodology.  There are many reasons for this, not least the one that is springing into your mind just now! However, as a means of checking your understanding of these terms, you could and should attempt to classify the empirical works of the seminal figures in your field. You could use the Methods Map as a quick means of classifying each piece and ask your supervisor to do the same. 

9. Think of simple example.
Regardless of what you are studying it is helpful to check your understanding of these obscure terms using a simple example like temperature 

From an empirically positivist point of view the temperature outside is currently +10.5°C. This could be presented as an unambiguous fact, verifiable independently by individual observers normally using a thermometer. Largely it shouldn’t matter who is holding the thermometer or taking the reading, it should still read +10.5°C.  In contrast, a constructionist view of temperature would be influenced by social norms, upbringing and beliefs. It would vary between contexts and individual such that it would matter very much who was holding the thermometer. Someone whose childhood was spent near the equator would find +10.5°C decidedly chilly whereas someone whose childhood was spent in the Arctic Circle might find it positively balmy.  Further nuances would be revealed by considering whether warm clothing was seen as a sign of opulence or an indication that you were in some way weak-willed. Fond childhood memories of family holidays spend on the tundra / sand dunes (delete as appropriate) would likely add further colour to one’s perception of the temperature. Remember above all that you, the research should choose a thermometer or a diary study as the appropriate methods for your study once you have made your initial choice of ology. 

10. Check in with your supervisor 
Having classified some of your heroes check whether your supervisor agrees with your classification.

First, be sure to classify your supervisors as a heroes.  Even if the thought of them in tights armed with a handy cape become uncomfortably rooted in your subconscious, it will help the supervision process go well (though you may wish to report any actual instances of dressing up, even on graduation day).  Second, some of your actual heroes are likely to be heroes to your supervisors too.  This should mean that some of their empirical works will be well known and should represent shared points of reference for you and your supervisors. Look for different method e.g. interviews, questionnaires, focus groups etc. and ask yourself if your heroes deploy these in the same or different studies and whether, across research projects, your heroes transition from one set of ologies to another.   Finally, reflect on what the same research topic would look like approached from a different set of ologies.