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Monthly Archives: October 2014

In the past, my job role was research assistant.  My role was to do the administrative stuff such as recruiting research participants, writing ethics statements, editing papers, reading funding bid guidance documents and summarising them, helping with costings, undertaking transcriptions, helping to organise and run events and that sort of thing.

As a research assistant, you are always there to be on hand for others. So this is my comfort zone. I am happy to help take the burden off the academic by doing a lot of the more time-consuming and fiddly work. I really liked this role though. I like helping others and being part of a team.

However, staying in this comfort zone can easily turn from being happy and confident in this teamwork role into having a subservient mentality.  For example, I went to the Roman Baths with my sister. I said to her “wow, imagine living and working in this place at the time. We would be the servants and have to clean out these steam rooms.” Without a second thought, I naturally took on the fantasy of being the servant rather than the high priests. I like to think that this is because I would rather be the underdog rather than the oppressor… but perhaps in reality it speaks of something else. Another example is I was playing Professor Layton on the Nintendo DS on my commute to work and I spoke to a colleague about it and said, “wow, I would love to be an assistant to an amazing archeologist like him!” and my colleague said ‘erm, Annika, have you ever thought that perhaps you could be the Professor, not the assistant.” And finally, my supervisors and I were once discussing careers and me becoming a Vice-Chancellor came up. I do not have any concrete dreams of becoming a VC, but had never ever considered being some sort of senior manager. All these instances revealed that my ‘horizons for action’ (see Phil Hodkinson) were quite limited.

Professor-Layton-and-Pandoras-Box-Characters1

I could be Professor Layton…. what?!

I see myself as having potential to be a very good researcher and produce an excellent thesis but at exactly the same time my mind says that it won’t be as good as other people’s and I will not get a job in research because there is too much competition so therefore there is no point in trying. So I have been actually thinking seriously about my job post PhD. I have been looking into barista courses so I could work in a coffee shop as well as thinking about which shop in town I would most like to work in and thinking about retraining as a plumber. I do not see these jobs as inferior rather they are going in a different direction. I love research and have wanted to do this since I was 17. There is no reason why I shouldn’t try to find work related to my interests and qualifications.

On my father’s deathbed he was saddened to hear that I had these thoughts, although I have to say he was exactly the same. He was invited to join The Incredible String Band because they loved the poem/song he sent to them. He turned them down to shyness and feelings of inadequacy and it was something he brought up very often as a regret.

Undertaking the PhD is a step in the right direction and although I may be wasting a lot of time visualising failure rather than getting on with it, I really want to achieve this and think I can, but have to say it is a bit of a battle to think of myself as project manager of my own PhD rather than assistant to it.

I’ve signed up to a careers event that the Social Research Association are running. Hopefully this will broaden my horizons where I can start to visualise all sorts of opportunities post-PhD that fit in more with my interests and talents.

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When I handed in my upgrade document I took three days off. I thought this would be enough with the two days of the weekend making it up to five days of no PhD. I filled those days with lots of fun activities and catching up with family and friends. But when I tried to get back to work on the Monday after the weekend I felt a terrible anxiety and tightness in my chest. I couldn’t bear to look at my document and when I did I felt upset about my poor research questions and even started to feel a little bit paranoid that my upgrade panel must have read them by now and started visualising everything that can go bad at the meeting and how the panel must be trying to think of ways to diplomatically tell me my project design is rubbish. Of course this is possible, but I need to be mentally strong to take criticism well rather than take it too personally.

I think this anxiety spike was due to the fact that I actually needed a longer break to recover. During the week that I was supposed to be back into PhD mode, I decided that it is better to take an extra week off, but try to ease myself into working again by going to the library, paying of my HUGE fine (£16), browsing all the new books I got out and attending a couple of seminars at the university. I also decided that I may as well catch up on some other things like registering to give blood (haven’t quite plucked up the courage to donate yet!), going to the salon for a much needed restyle, getting the plumber in to do some big jobs, finishing off some admin tasks like researching accommodation for a conference, planning and booking my training and such like.

If most workers have two weeks off in the summer, then of course a PhD student can too, especially if like me you worked over the summer and in fact have not had any days off, not even a weekend for a couple of months. It is silly not to take a break. In fact we are allowed to have 8 weeks according to the official documentation.

So just as a new haircut is a fresh new start, holidays are meant to give you that feeling of a fresh or at least refreshed start. I now feel better prepared to start anew on Monday.

The upgrade is the stage where you transform from a MPhil/PhD candidate to a pure MPhil or PhD candidate. The process of this seems to vary between institutions. At the Institute of Education, we have to submit a 10,000 word document plus a project plan/timetable, a record of our training and future training suggestions. The 10,000 word section consists of, generally speaking, some of the literature review, some of the methodology and the research design. We meet with a panel of two people and discuss the project. My upgrade meeting is probably in Mid-November which is around 6 weeks from the submission date.

So it all sounds simple enough, except I found it exceedingly challenging. Which is good because as my name suggests, I like a challenge although this has been my greatest PhD challenge yet and I have to say I needed a good few days recovery time, mentally and physically, after submitting it.

The thing that makes it so difficult is that you are writing for your upgrade panel who are two academics in the institution who do not know your work and may know you only a little bit. You are trying to convince them that your project is at a PhD level, that you as an individual are capable of a PhD and that your research plan is realistic and manageable.

Putting this document together, especially the literature review involved multiple attempts. I started and threw out the document and wept regularly. This because what I was writing was interesting and nice, but actually, for a stranger, it would not make any sense as to how it fitted with the project – actually, this is a habit of mine as my writing in my first year tended to not make complete sense to my supervisors either. They said it was interesting, but could not read my mind, so did not know how it fits into my project. To be frank, I was literally aimless for quite some time and did not have any research questions until trying to do this upgrade document.

This is how I structured my upgrade document:

  • Title
  • Abstract – here I summarised the concepts I will be drawing upon, the exact sample I am using, so the reader can get a feel for the population under investigation, that it is mixed methods, that I am using the National Child Development Study and I summarised the three phases of data analysis. I am not collecting any data, only using existing data, so made this clear. I also tried to explain very briefly my aims and how my project both fits in with existing work as well as how it is unique.
  • Introduction – Here I focused more on the actual topic, why my study of higher education and lifelong learning fits into what exists already, so it was a very brief background summary of the topic.
  • A list of the gaps, the research questions, the aims – I put these at the beginning, within the introduction so that the reader can see them straight away
  • Literature review – but structured using ‘the gaps’ as headings – now this is the bit that was causing me the greatest of difficulty, but I eventually laid it out by the gaps my project was seeking to address. So I have identified four gaps. Two substantive and two methodological. So I decided to only include information and write about these gaps. I used each ‘gap’ as the section heading. As written in a previous post, I hate the phrase ‘literature review’, but I did use it for this document as it is a standard expectation to have in a proposal I suppose. One of my identified gaps also allowed me to write a bit about the concepts I’m using and the theoretical framework. So I did not have a special section for this. And a couple of my gaps meant I could write about methodological stuff too, so therefore my methodology section was to some extend integrated throughout.
  • Research design and pilot analysis – Because my data is all pre-existing, I have no data collection stage. So leaping to this is what I had to do. My actual pilot/training/experiment in analysis was done long before I decided upon my research questions, so I stated this in the document as I didn’t want to give the impression that I was oblivious to the incoherence of the document. Even though the methodology bit is my favourite bit of any project, this is my least developed and I ran out of steam and time to do it. So I wrote a couple of sentences to say this, well I didn’t say I had ran out of steam, but rather I said that I aimed to work on this and to finish a draft by December. I laid out my timetable here in a table. In this section too, I wrote about the dataset I will be using. But rather than regurgitate known stuff about it, I really tried to make it specific to my project and my project plans.
  • I didn’t make a proper conclusion or round up which perhaps I should have done, but I felt that the abstract and introduction did this.
  • Training taken and planned – I just laid out each of my three years training in a table.
  • References

I was going to put some of the items in an Appendix, but actually, because the document is quite short, I just integrated it all throughout. My analysis section is probably a bit too long and i have gone over the word count because of this, but a lot of it is in tabular form so the reader can skip over it. But I was keen for them to get a sense of what my data looks like so they can see what I am working with.

My supervisor had suggested I include an outline of my whole thesis but I ran out of steam, so instead will take the time between now and the upgrade meeting to do this.

I submitted the document with the general feeling that there are problems with my document, but throughout I wrote sections as if speaking to the reader to tell them that “I know this bit needs development…I am aware of key authors but I have not yet tackled it…We can then discuss it in the actual upgrade meeting…”. I submitted knowing it could be better. I submitted knowing that some bits are not clear and that my academic writing it not all nice and perfect. But I submitted in the spirit of knowing that it is meant to be a constructive meeting.

If I ‘fail’, we get 3 months to resubmit. So although that would be annoying, I do not necessarily feel it will be psychologically damaging as the idea is to make sure the project is right for a PhD.

So it is one hurdle to get over, but an important and useful one. The process of doing it was very useful as it really sped me up as I had been feeling that I had not really achieved much in the first year, but now I see that although the literature review is incomplete, as is the methodology, I can see what needs doing now and I feel that preparing for the upgrade meeting will really help me to understand more clearly what my project is all about and what I hope to do. So I am quite looking forward to the meeting, although have a funny feeling of embarrassment that so many intelligent professors will be reading my slightly crappy work. But that is just pride and wanting to be perfect. I will just have to get over it!

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