Can’t decide on a research topic for your post-doc? Yeah, me neither.

Ben Belek

 

Ben Belek is a PhD candidate in social anthropology at Cambridge University. His research focuses on the role of emotions in the lives of autistic adults in the UK. He is also the author of the blog The Autism Anthropologist  You can contact Ben via Twitter @benbelek

 

I’ve been spending too much of my time and energy recently trying to decide what my next research project would be about. For the past three and something years, as a master’s student and then as a PhD student, I’ve been looking into the social and cultural aspects of autism. This field is fascinating, exciting, and altogether extremely rewarding, and I have absolutely no reason to look sideways.

And yet there I am, making makeshift lists on the train, on my living room sofa and at my desk, trying to come up with a research interest. The plan is not to quit autism research altogether. No, there is still so much to read and write, discuss and analyse, and I’m far from getting bored or tired. But at the same time, I guess I just want to branch out and explore other areas. I kind of miss that feeling of reading about a topic for the first time, coming to know the different angles and issues, the relevant histories and approaches. Asking questions in my head for the very first time (only to then learn, with both joy and slight disappointment, that these have already been asked and indeed answered). Exploring new territories. You know, being a kid again.

So I’ve been making lists, as I’ve mentioned, and downloading relevant literature (reading only as much of it as I can afford without feeling unbearably guilty by the fact that I ought to be using this time to write my PhD), and emailing other researchers in the field, with the off-chance that one of them will write back saying “Yes!! We desperately need a medical anthropologist on board, what are you doing this September?” No, that hasn’t happened quite yet, surprisingly. But I’m hanging in there.

So far, my list of has included the following: Kawasaki Disease. Army combat medic training. Jerusalem syndrome. Non-medically trained rabbis in Israel offering medical advice and referring ‘patients’ to medical specialists. And most recently, medical marijuana.

The way I decide (or don’t decide, because spoiler: all of these have in the meantime been ruled out) is this: I’ve come up with a list of criteria for what my desirable research project should have. After all, whatever I choose to study, I want to be in it for that long run.

First, the topic has to be accessible. In other words, I need to have relative confidence in my ability to get access to the field, whatever that field may be, in order to do fieldwork. So that’s how the ‘medical rabbis’ thing got ruled out. I just don’t really see how any of these guys would want me there, creeping around, asking difficult questions and compromising whatever they’ve got going on (there’s a lot at stake for them, I’m sure, and I’m fairly convinced it’s not 100% kosher…). It wouldn’t be entirely impossible for me to find my way in, perhaps, but it is unlikely. And seeing as before I even give it a shot, I will first need to do a lot of reading, design a research proposal, and write grant applications, it’s not really worth the risk, as far as I’m concerned.

Second, it needs to be relevant. It’s true that the great thing about anthropology is that you can study one thing, one group or practice or phenomenon, and what you’ve learned can almost magically prove to be applicable or relevant to something else entirely. It’s all about making sense of human behaviour, and in that sense, studying people practicing sheep shearing in Sudan might actually tell us something quite profound about Wall-Street brokers. And vice-versa. But I just don’t feel I can count on these connections just somehow emerging. I want to know. I want to know that my work will matter, that people everywhere could potentially find it interesting and relevant, and hopefully even benefit from it. So this rules out my idea to study combat medic courses. These have been around for decades – centuries, probably – and while they’re definitely very interesting, in that they combine such different kinds of knowledge (medical and military), and different premises (making people well within an organisation that engages in violence); none of this feels immediately relevant. It doesn’t strike me as important enough. So I withdrew this plan.

Third, I want my project to be feasible. I want to situate myself in a position where I already have a handle on the issues and stakes, the relevant theories and literature. This sounds a bit like a contradiction, seeing as my whole purpose in doing something new is to, well, do something new (new for me, that is). But some steps are just too big. I need to keep in mind that there are always other researchers doing similar projects, and I don’t want to find myself struggling too much to keep up. In other words, if I have to spend months and months of reading just to acquaint myself with the most basic scholarship in the broad area, its vocabulary and discourse, it might very well put me in a position that is just too disadvantaged. And so while I love STS, for example, and I definitely want to gradually position myself within this discipline one day, I feel I need to make that shift gradually. So however fascinating and important (and problematic!) I find the construction of scientific knowledge about Kawasaki Disease, I feel I’m not quite ready to make that rather big leap. So that’s been ruled out.

Fourth, I want my project to be taken seriously. It’s common for social anthropologists, I think, to find themselves in a position where they have to explain what merit their projects actually have when speaking to people from outside the discipline (and often, when speaking to people from within the discipline as well). The recent increase in the prescribing and use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, coupled with recent changes in legislation that make the plant far more tolerable from a legal perspective (and in some places, straight-up legal), make it a phenomenon that’s both important and relevant. Also, I think my set of skills and theoretical knowledge would allow me to enter this field without too many obstacles. So my only concern in choosing this as my next research project is that I worry people might not take it seriously, and think I was just in it for the high… (Participant observation, after all).  It might be silly of me, I know, but I don’t feel like I can just shake off this concern and take the plunge.

Finally, I want my research project to be novel, at least to an extent. Again, social anthropology is different, perhaps, than other disciplines in that the novelty of one’s research does not necessarily depend on the question of how much is already known about a specific phenomenon, group of people or what have you. You could walk into a village that’s been studied through and through and still come up with novel insights, which would stem from employing a slightly different method, having a different theoretical inclination, or looking at aspects that were hitherto mostly ignored. There are, after all, infinite stories to be told about any group of people, depending on what you focus on. Religion? Gender? Economy? Emotions? Language? Health? And yet there’s a risk there. Taking that route would mean, I think, that it would be harder to get people automatically interested in my project. It needs that initial appeal. Of course, if it’s only an initial appeal, that’s not going to take me anywhere. But alongside a good, rigorous, creative research project, I also want it to be about something that would appeal to as many people as possible. Something that would stand out. Something that, hopefully, would find its way to outside the walls of academia and interest a wider public. Jerusalem Syndrome, while a fascinating phenomenon insofar as it combines faith, travel, place, pilgrimage, and mental health, has had a book published about it just last year. Although authored by a psychiatrist, it touches on many of the issues that I, as an anthropologist, would also want to engage with. And so I just sort of feel, rightfully or otherwise, that this territory has been claimed.

So there you go. A world full of fascinating, complex, intriguing people, practices and phenomena, and an anthropologist who just can’t seem to decide. But it will come, I hope. And in the meantime, I have my eyes wide open, preparing for that moment when that light bulb lights up, and I get to say Aha! This is what I will study from now on. Until then, I’m checking my inbox every hour or so, just in case there’s an email there with the subject line “Re: by any chance do you need a medical anthropologist aboard?”

“…we cannot study everyone everywhere doing everything” (Punch, 2005:187)

Beth SinglerBeth Singler is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge specializing in the social anthropological study of New Religious Movements online. Combining traditional fieldwork with digital ethnography, Beth explores the new definitions of self that multiply on the Internet.  Her PhD is on the Indigo Children, an idea in the New Age Movement, but she has also written about Wiccans, Jedi, Scientologists, pop-culture religions and various online subcultures.  She has her own blog at http://bvlsingler.wordpress.com/ and you can follow her on Twitter via @BVLSingler.

“…we cannot study everyone everywhere doing everything” (Punch, 2005:187)

I think I remember breathing out an actual sigh of relief when I first read these words in Punch’s Introduction to Social Research (2nd Ed.). Finally, there in black and white on the page, the permission not to do EVERYTHING, be EVERYWHERE, or to capture it ALL! With my PhD this has been a lesson I have had to learn, and learn quickly.

My thesis looks at an idea from what is still broadly known as the New Age Movement by academics (but not so much anymore by insiders, but there you go).  The Indigo Children are thought to be a generation of special, spiritually evolved individuals here to change the world according to New Age narratives. Even though I study New Religious Movements, the Indigo Children do not form a church, they don’t have recognisable and repeated rituals.  They don’t wear particular clerical outfits.  They aren’t formed into associations with established hierarchies or logos.  What they do do is call themselves Indigo Children (or Crystal, or Rainbow, or Blue Ray – there are many versions but I’ll stick to Indigo for now for clarity) and talk about being Indigo online… a lot.

A Google search done just five minutes ago reveals 809,000 results for the words “Indigo Children”.  The first year of my PhD was about just getting to grips with the multitude of sources of information on this subject.  There are web pages by groups and individuals, there are forum boards, there are blogs, there are Facebook groups and pages, there are Twitter hashtags, there are Instagram pictures, Youtube videos, online archives from magazines and newspapers, online tests to see if YOU are Indigo, Meetup groups, tumblrs, memes, petitions, questions, answers, seekers and experts…

My first year was also spent writing a very, very speculative document called a ‘registration exercise’: a sample chapter, an outline, a bibliography, but most importantly, a methodology.  This is to show to internal examiners that I know what I am doing and that I have a plan for the next two years of my research and a methodology that really stands up to scrutiny.  Almost a year of fieldwork later and I think I could throw most of that methodology out of the window.

For a start, I would now say that I was back then trying to work from within a positivistic, scientific framework that I adopted out of an unconscious desire for legitimacy.  ‘Let’s gets some numbers, some facts, some real HARD data’ says the internal wannabe scientist while the social-anthropologist mumbles about acculturation and socialization through participant observation.  So I ended up with a methodology where I said I would look at X forum everyday and take Y number of screengrabs and repeat until I had REAL data.  Well, the multiplication of X by Y gave far too much data…. and that was just one source.

All in all there was just too much.  So I rethought my approach.  Would I capture everything? Probably not… no, definitely not.  It was just not possible.  But I could approach the subject much like the individual seeker does.  In my interviews with Indigos I asked them about how they had come upon the idea of the Indigo Children and where they had looked for more information.  They described stumbling upon it, or being told about it by someone who thought they might be one.  And then they wandered through the wilds of the internet reading some sources, missing others, meeting some Indigos and chatting to them, missing others.  They had a seeker’s methodology that didn’t necessarily tell them everything but told them enough.  So I picked up this approach and followed what was interesting rather than what was comprehensive.  My supervisor talks about fieldwork as a form of apprenticeship and had I listened more closely I might have got to the same conclusion earlier…  Through my fieldwork I feel like I have been through an apprenticeship in being Indigo (am I one? I remain neutral but open-minded).  But more than that, I have been through an apprenticeship in doing academic research, which is really the aim of the PhD after all.  And I really feel that in doing this apprenticeship I am closer to stopping apologising for not being a ‘real’ scientist.

Celebrity blogshop models – performing cyber-femininity

img_1632Crystal  is undertaking a Ph.D. in Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Western Australia, Perth. She is passionate about gender equality, feminism, percussive music, and penguins. Read more of her blogs  and follow her via @wishcrys

Celebrity blogshop models

Within the commercial blog industry in Singapore, blogshops are undoubtedly raking in the highest profits. The network has launched the careers of dozens of industry models who started out as blogshop models. Many formerly amateurish blogshop owners have honed their art and emerged as local designers over the years. Some blogshops, like mds for example, have even grown into full-fletched retail stores with chains island-wide.

Amidst the hundreds of blogshops in operation today — and thousands more that are now defunct — one would often find models and owners of high profile blogshops growing into online celebrities in their own right. Many of these women go on to become ambassadors and spokespersons of beauty and fashion lines in the mainstream commercial industry. I attempt to trace one of the routes in which such micro-celebrities are produced — modeling.

Via their personal blogs — many of which are commercial blogs — some blogshop owners are recognisable as the ‘face’ of the shop despite having engaged models for their wares. For this reason, I refer to these high profile owners and their hired models as blogshop models collectively.

In order to stimulate desire and motivate customers to purchase from their new collections, blogshop models engage in a cycle of modeling, role-modeling and role-playing. These modes of modeling are sequential steps, though not isolated nor discreet steps, in stimulating desire.

Modeling, role modeling, role playing

Modeling is the first step, both in presentation of the model herself and in any given instance of product presentation. Modeling establishes the presence of both the model and products within the space of the blogshop website. Modeling is the most straightforward step in stimulating desire. Blogshop models pose for and post photographs of themselves modeling apparel for sale.

After modeling is achieved, it continues simultaneously with role-modeling, through which blogshop models aim to set standards and impart to their readers skills of “gender competence” (Connell, 2002:81). Finally, in tandem with and building upon modeling and role-modeling, blogshop models engage in role-playing, in which they enact their femininities (Butler, 2005), further kindling desire among readers and customers. It is particularly through role-playing that blogshop models produce commercial intimacies in relationship to their customers, a point we return to below, after first elaborating the modes of modeling, role-modeling and role-playing through which blogshop models perform their cyber-femininities.

1. Modeling 

In modeling, blogshop models pose for photographs of themselves, modeling the apparel for sale, and post these photographs to the blogshop website. The photographs are accompanied by simple descriptions of the apparel including the fabric used, color, measurements and a price tag. We can observe several “bodily practices” (Turner, 1984) in modeling, all of which become “spectacles” (Richards, 1990) through the hyper-visual nature of blogshops seeking to entice and hook readers. Blogshop models carve out niche appearances to differentiate themselves from competitors. These distinctive elements vary from hairstyles and make-up varieties to highlighting distinctive bodily characteristics to poses and facial expressions.

‘Gemma’, for example, is known for the styling her hair up in a ‘bump’ and for her defined collarbones;
‘Heather’ is known for her polished smile and ‘crisscross’ leg poses;
‘Elaine’ is known for her fair complexion and pouty lips.

Repeated emphasis of these body parts helps models to distinguish their appearance in the market. In addition to their niche appearance, models deck themselves in luxury brand shoes, bags or accessories to complement the blogshop apparel, which is the only item actually up for sale. Blending of high-end branded goods with cheap(er) mass-produced clothing flatters and lends some prestige to the latter, persuading buyers to look beyond its often cheap(er) substandard quality.

Mass media celebrity

Blogshops also trade on mass media celebrity to stimulate desire in readers. Here, it is Hollywood or other mass media celebrities who are role-models, while blogshop models act as a conduit of cultural taste between international celebrities and customers. Blogshops pick out trends and styles from well-known celebrities and produce similar mock-ups for sale, creating a middle ground between seemingly unobtainable celebrity “high-life” and mass culture. This practice results in a wide array of “inspired products” — the blogosphere’s euphemism for imitation goods. Blogshops afford customers the opportunity to own a garment “as seen on” a particular celebrity.

Whereas practices of modeling in the mainstream catalog and runway industry are largely passive, with the body of the model acting as the site of display or conduit of desire, models in the blogshop community take on more active practices in role-modeling and role-playing. In practices of role-modeling, blogshop models aim to set bodily, beauty and behavioral standards for their readers. Across all blogshops performing different cyber-femininities, models are predom- inantly tall (above 1.65 m), slender (under 50 kg and UK size 6 to 8), fair-skinned (either of Chinese, Eurasian or European descent) and have long hair (beyond shoulder length).

2. Role-modeling

Blogshop models subtly shift from modeling to role-modeling by setting the core benchmarks of body image across cyber-femininities. Alternative body sizes such as shorter, plumper, dark-skinned, shorthaired models are seldom seen, and even when evident, are not as popular among readers judging by their visibility and lifespan in the scene. It is a norm for blogshops to include their “model stats” (short for model body statistics) in their blogposts, with these figures closely conforming to a largely unspoken industry standard. Most blogshop apparel, though tagged “free size”, is actually tailored to fit body proportions of blogshop models.

“[name], 1.67 m tall, uk size 6–8”
“[name] stands 165 cm, uk 6–8”
“Model [name] is a UK6–8, 166 cm”

The “halo effect”

Blogshop models are objectified when their attributes come to be detached and perceived as “objects of exchange” (Radin, 1996:156). Certain models utilize this strategy most often by overtly showing off their curves in the skin-tight apparel, implying that customers who purchase and don these outfits can likewise channel the same sexy vibe. Blogshop models also play role-models by offering beauty tips and fashion advice to readers. Through the “halo effect” (Dittmar, 2008; Nisbett & Wilson, 1977), readers perceive the model’s choices and guidance as coming from women “in the know,” having successfully achieved the unusual mergence of “beauty and brains” as evidenced by their economic success in blogshops and feminine attractiveness (cf. Fletcher & Greenhill, 2009; Perrin, 1921; Prather, 1971).

Performing heterosexuality

In addition to setting body-standards and fashion trends, blogshop models role-model the performance of their (hetero)sexuality by giving readers relationship advice. Advice meted out is usually framed in terms of the models’ own personal experience and supposedly private relationships. They give detailed descriptions of dates with their boyfriends before branching out into discussions on how girlfriends and boyfriends ought to be treated.

3. Role-playing

Role-modeling is accompanied by role-playing, in which blogshop models perform their femininities in a variety of ways to kindle desire among readers. One aspect of role-play and performance are instances in which blogshop models engage in playing dress-up to draw out social scripts of femininity (Laws & Schwartz, 1977; Wiederman, 2005). They suggest appropriate occasions for different types of attire and adjectives connoting particular features of the models’ projected cyber-femininities are found in text accompanying photographs of feminine performance.

For example, “power blazers” are intended for the workplace and channel the look of “strong” and “independent” women; tight-fitting “bodycon” dresses are meant for clubbing and portray “sexy chic”; and maxi dresses are great for relaxing days at the beach and intended to conceal tummy bulges on “fat days.” When blogshop apparel is personified and marketed as the dominant modes of adornment socially accepted by other women, the message is that readers’ bodies too should conform to performances of emphasized femininities.

Online and offline personas

Role-play by blogshop models blurs the distinction between their online persona and real life identities. At times, models’ activities offline are directed to manufacturing blogposts for readers online. In other words, models appear to be “on stage” all the time (Goffman, 1969) in order to produce something to blog about. As role-models, the lifestyles of blogshop models are objectified for readers’ consumption when the models market apparel in theme with their private lives. Life offline, at least as it is reflected on the blogshop websites, becomes a stage for performing (role-playing) the model’s persona such that online/offline distinction blurs or seemingly disappears.

Online reality is not a simulation of offline reality (cf. Baudrillard, 1994). Rather a model’s role-play offline, motivated by online representations of her persona, produce a reality in which the online–offline persona of the model appears fused, one-in-the same, and therefore authentic. For instance, planned face-to-face meet-ups and random en- counters between blogshop models and readers are often fed back into the social medium through photographs and blog posts.

Accessible celebrities

Apart from their captivating looks and quality posts, much of the success of blogshop models hinges on their interpersonal relationships with readers. Interactions between models and readers are framed as egalitarian friendships as opposed to hierarchal and distant celebrity–fan relationships in the ways they attempt to address each other. Blogshop models’ portrayal of their online persona is crafted through the narrative accounts of their everyday life, in contrast to celebrity models’ staged performances on the runway or at media appearances. Authenticity, in turn, is an important element that dilutes and masks the commerciality of each transaction, sustaining the success of celebrity blogshop models.

Cyber-femininities

img_1632

Crystal  is undertaking a Ph.D. in Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Western Australia, Perth. She is passionate about gender equality, feminism, percussive music, and penguins. Read more of her blogs  and follow her via @wishcrys

Cyber-femininities

cyber femininitiesImagine a world where we traded on intellect, circulated ideas, and communicated textually to convey our ‘inner selves’, where others evaluated us based on our ideal self-perceived identities… In this world, visible bodily markers that used to distinguish race, gender, and age would no longer penetrate our exchanges as fervently… Would this ideal world be a place free of racism, sexism, and ageism? Perhaps, an age of non-embodiment?

Apart from being a biological interface that maneuvers technology behind the screen, the physical body is not a necessary entity on the inter-webs. After all, one may craft avatars, pseudonymous personas, and entire standalone life course profiles to interact with other users without any reference to their actual physical appearance.

As appealing as this seeded thought is, users are more often than not bringing their physical bodies into the forefront of cyber-worlds, often intensifying particular bodily features and aspects of personality that they imagine to be their truest selves. We’re talking about self-trained artists in digital manipulation who erase fat, enlarge eyes, insert pecs, alter skin tones. We’re talking about the use of language, emoticons, and social media interfaces to convey an entire digital profile of a finely crafted individual. A re-embodiment on a digital interface. Perhaps even a hyper-embodimentin a bodiless world.

In my study of commercial bloggers in South East Asia, bloghop models tended to follow a handful of gendered scripts to convey their ideal mode of femininity. As gendered performances that are practised on and intensified via the Internet, I term these scripts cyber-femininities.

These modes of cyber-femininities were sieved out through textual themes, repetitions or recurring regularities in blogshop launches and the blogposts of owners and models.

As with other, recent work on femininity and masculinity, this analysis of blogshops moves away from a simple dichotomy between hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity on the one hand and subordinate masculinity and femininity on the other (Connell, 1987, 2002; Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005) toward a more nuanced view of diverse and complexly hierarchical femininities (Schippers, 2007).

At least six different sorts of femininity became evident in analyzing the online content of blogshops.

The ‘family girl’ portrays herself as a loving daughter and stresses the importance of her tight-knit family.

The ‘material girl’ emphasizes branded goods and other possessions in her online presentation of self.

The ‘globetrotter’ blogs about her travels and adventures.

The ‘fashionista’ updates readers on the latest and upcoming trends in apparel and accessories as well as beauty tips.

The ‘party girl’ showcases her sensational nightlife and provocative (hetero)sexuality.

The ‘rebel’ claims to reject social norms, including female body image, and expresses herself through verbal rants and expletives.

These femininities – or modes of feminine expression – are not mutually exclusive, though certain blogshop models are known for highlighting one or more through their online persona.

One blogger, for example, exudes the qualities of a ‘family girl’ with frequent references to her mother’s sacrificial love and supreme culinary skills, her tight-knit and doting family, and a consistent reverence towards God as the provider of all.

Another blogger paints herself as a ‘globetrotter’ with a plethora of past and future holiday destinations pictorially catalogued and communicated in pixels. Although she has a life partner, a close-knit family, and a day job in a corporate firm, the blogger focuses on her independence as a young sojourner in search of exotic adventures and exciting escapades.

Yet another blogger openly flaunts her ‘rebel’ image boasting a punk lifestyle taking on conventionally masculine sports like skateboarding and surfing, and a grunge fashion slant with multiple tattoos and piercings. She is also liberal in conveying her frustration and anger through harsh words and tones, though often being passive-aggressive in addressing everyone yet no one in particular.

While these and other blogshop models perform diverse cyber-femininities, in contrast, for instance, to a singular hegemonic femininity or masculinity (cf. Connell, 1987; Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005), their position within the commercial sphere produces powerful and disciplining effects for both blogshop consumers and the models themselves.

More on this another time!

Call For Guest Blogs

The ethos underpinning this Social Research Hub is to support a narrative between all of you who are interested in social research. It is hoped that SOCPHD can facilitate communication between researchers, those who apply its findings to develop and implement policies and practices, with those whose lives are affected by it  – Everyone of us.

As such this invitation for guest blogs is purposefully broad; I do not want to dictate the narrative. Clearly, no abusive or defamatory blogs will be posted, otherwise I want to help share your knowledge and experiences. Your blogs do not have to be exclusive to SOCPHD.

By SOCPHD hosting guest blogs I hope to engender a sense of community, but it is equally important to support your collaborative ventures. I am constantly inspired by your generosity and innovation and want to  let others know about it. So do tell us what you are doing.

I have established a forum at www.socphd.co.uk where you can post about your research interest, leave a link to your blog and help others to find you.

This feed and our sister site @phdforum   www.phdforum.co.uk are developing according to your needs. I am grateful to those of you who have expressed an interest in becoming more involved and look forward to developing these conversations  in the coming months.

Please forward any blogs you want to feature on SOCPHD or inquiries to    admin @ socphd.co.uk

Currently these enterprises are facilitated by one full time phd student and your patience with my response times are very much appreciated.

I look forward to hearing from you,

 

Donna (@donna_peach)

Don’t mock the mock: The importance of a having a practice viva

jennacrop-213x300Jenna Condie is a Postgraduate Researcher who lectures in Psychology and Media Psychology at the University of Salford. She is an enterprising academic or ‘Enterprademic’  taking an entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial approach in teaching, learning, research, enterprise and consultancy work. Jenna’s doctoral research contributes to Environmental Psychology, as her qualitative study explores how people make sense of living in ‘disruptive’ places, specifically living alongside railways.

You can read more about Jenna here: http://hub.salford.ac.uk/entreprademic/home/ and connect with her via:

Twitter @jennacondie   LinkedIn: http://uk.linkedin.com/in/jennacondie

Don’t mock the mock: The importance of a having a practice viva

I submitted my PhD thesis just over a month ago.  Since handing in, I’ve been a tad unenthusiastic about looking at it again.  When I do read it, the writing seems unfamiliar, almost as if someone else wrote it.  If the viva was the day after submitting my thesis, whilst I might be delirious, at least I would still be immersed in my research.    As more time passes, I feel increasingly distanced from my work.

However, I recently had a mock viva and this has changed everything.  In preparation for the real thing, my supervisors organised a practice run with two academics that I didn’t know.  The mock ran as similar to the real thing as possible.  I waited outside whilst the examiners convened.  I was called in and we shook hands.  They started with some easy questions to get the conversation flowing, which then proceeded into a more intense ‘grilling’ of the how’s and why’s of my research. All the while, my supervisor sat quietly taking notes on my performance.  It lasted for around two hours and I left the room red faced with a pounding head.  They had a chat and I re-entered the room for feedback.  Here’s a summary of what they said:

  • Rehearse your answers – so that I convey the main points of my thesis more clearly and concisely.  Although I made some good points, I did waffle on at times and strayed from answering the question.
  • Your language impacts upon perceived confidence – avoid vagueness and saying words such as ‘stuff’ and ending sentences in ‘I think’.  I need to find ways around this and further rehearsal of arguments is crucial to giving a confident impression.
  • Champion qualitative research – I know that I have a tendency to sound unconvinced of qualitative research and often position it in relation to quantitative research…but I still did it anyway!  I need to drill it into my head that qualitative research is valuable in its own right.  So, to prepare for the viva, I plan to fully immerse myself in the social constructionist and discursive literature again.  I am thinking of preparing a journal article to scaffold this reading and give it purpose.
  • Read up around qualitative research evaluation criteria e.g. generalizability – I got a bit stuck on this and how I ensured rigour in my methodological approach. I’ll be doing some reading around this as well too.
  • It’s ok if you can’t answer a question – I tried to answer everything.  Prepare phrases that give you a get out e.g. “that was beyond the scope of the study”.  It’s also ok to ask for clarification e.g. “could you expand on what you mean”.
  • Summarise each paragraph of your thesis into a sentence – even though I had my thesis with me, there wasn’t time to read over sections in the flow of conversation. One suggestion was to summarise each paragraph into a sentence so that when examiners refer you to a section, you have a condensed version.
  • You must own it – it is my research, I have done a good job, I need to believe my research and defend what I have produced.  It makes an original contribution to knowledge, and what I did met the research aims.

On reflection, I can see that the distance between the research and I impacted upon my performance in the mock viva.  I now have a clearer idea of how to go forward in preparing more thoroughly so I enter the real thing with greater confidence.  Having a mock viva also gave me the opportunity to talk about my research with others which has reignited some of the enthusiasm that I used to have for my work oh so long ago now.

I don’t understand how someone can go into a PhD viva cold. As it’s such an unusual scenario, it requires a rehearsal.   I think the mock viva worked so well for me as it ran as close to an actual viva as possible. I wouldn’t have taken it as seriously if my supervisors or colleagues had played the role of examiners.  The experience has made me feel more positive about my work and given me a number of ways forward. Fingers crossed I get a date for my viva sooner rather than later so I can keep this momentum going.

Thank you to Karen Smith and Jackie Taylor for taking the time to read my thesis, giving me the opportunity to talk about my work, and provide invaluable feedback (and notes!).  Thank you to my supervisors Phil Brown and Anya Ahmed, especially to Anya for arranging and hosting my practice run.  It is massively appreciated!

Deserving of respect: Some thoughts on researcher well-being

Dr Mark Murphy is Reader in Education, School of Education, University of Glasgow. He previously taught at King’s College London, University of Chester and the University of Stirling. Mark has published numerous articles in journals such as the Journal of Education Policy, Journal of European Public Policy, European Journal of Education, International Journal of Lifelong Education and the British Journal of Sociology of Education. His most recent book is Social theory and education research: understanding Foucault, Habermas, Bourdieu and Derrida (Routledge, 2013). He is also the creator of www.socialtheoryapplied.com, a website designed to provide a platform for discussion on the relationship between theory and education research. Mark tweets via @socialtheoryapp

Deserving of respect:

Some thoughts on researcher well-being

Taking its lead from the Concordat, one of the questions the #socchat on 30th May 2013 will ask is:   How do we develop a culture which equally nurtures researcher well-being as well as performance?

This is a significant question, quite possibly the most significant when it comes to researcher development. In the recent study on Why women leave academia and why universities should be worried, for example, several reasons cited are clearly emotional in nature: lack of adequate self-esteem, a sense of isolation, a feeling of not belonging in the academic world.

Anyone who works in academia will tell you that we expend a great deal of energy focusing on issues of status, prestige and reputation. The sector is awash with concerns over respect and recognition for one’s talents and contribution to the academic community. Although some would like to think so, these concerns are not peripheral to the academic culture – they are central to it. For me, this is not unusual (such a culture is prevalent in most, if not all, work cultures); neither is it surprising –  people have a strong desire to be recognised and praised for their work  and contribution, essential elements in building a sense of belonging and consequently self-esteem.

It’s not hard to come up with reasons why the affective content of academic life is glossed over or ignored; for a start, a rigid head/heart distinction is practically an occupational hazard. What is more of a concern is the impact of this unacknowledged affective component on the development of PGRs and ECRs. The desire for status and respect can lead academics to focus exclusively on their own career development, sometimes at the expense of their more junior colleagues. It is also the case that some academics see the emotional disaster area that is doctoral study as a kind of rite of passage, a way to earn some stripes in a profession that requires a high level of emotional robustness (if that is the right expression). Why should it be any different for a new generation of researchers?

This emotional context of academic life, however, while evidently part of the problem, is also part of the solution when it comes to developing a culture that nurtures researcher well-being. Whatever hope we have left for senior staff, there is always the opportunity to place concerns over respect, status and reputation explicitly at the core of early career development. In order to do this it is imperative that the PGRs and ECRs in faculties are placed at the centre of activity, rather than on the periphery (a sure-fire way to put people off any career).

This shift will undoubtedly place a bit more pressure on PGRs and ECRs, but the payoff is the development of a culture in which praise, encouragement, constructive criticism, recognition and reward should be actively encouraged. How better to facilitate a sense of belonging and acceptance among PGRs and ECRs? I would also emphasise that a competitive culture can exist alongside a more collaborative ethos, so long as the balance is right.

In this way then the dichotomy hinted at in the original question between well-being and performance becomes less of a rigid distinction and more like two sides of the same coin. People should be rewarded, in an emotional sense, for their academic performance – a normative state that effectively requires this performance to be visible.

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