Participant Observation – what effect did I have?

RRebecca Turvillebecca Turvill is undertaking a PhD at the University of Brunel in the Department of Education. Her research “How are children developing number sense, post national numeracy strategy?” is supervised by Dr Gwen Ineson and Dr Heather Mendick. You can follow Rebecca via twitter @RebeccaTurvill

 

 

 

The “participant observer disturbs the situation he investigates” (Hargreaves, 1967, p193).

This quote both haunts and drives me as I reflect on my year of research in primary school. Having undertaken an ethnography of primary mathematics learning, I have spent many, many hours disturbing primary classrooms. I have of course spent many more analysing and reflecting on the situations I have been investigating. Now, as I step back and analyse my data I am particularly focussed on this idea – this disruption.

Disruption generally has negative connotations, travel disruption strikes fear into the heart of most commuters. But what about data disruption? How do I manage the disruption in my observations due to my participation? As I have drawn on the work of Pierre Bourdieu (e.g. Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992), a reflexive approach to data collection has been central throughout my ethnographic research. Indeed my field notes are littered with comments like “I felt anxious about..” and even the occasional “I stopped myself falling asleep by…”

These comments are helpful as I analyse my data as they continue to highlight my physical presence within the data and identify personal bias in my notes. They cause me to consider my position within the data, particularly with regard to comments the children make. But one particular aspect of disruption I cannot account is the way in which I was prepared for.

As a primary school teacher myself, I know the additional pressure having another adult in the classroom can bring. I took great lengths to avoid placing the teachers under any pressure. I focussed my research on the children, not the teaching; I supported groups if it helped or stepped out of lessons if needed; I even photocopied missing sheets.  Despite these actions, having another adult present means you are in whatever way being watched. The disruption to the situation is present before I even arrive.

In order to “help” me get the right data, I am aware that sometimes teachers have scheduled a particular lesson on a day I would be in their school. I am also aware that since this has happened on at least one occasions, there are likely to be occasions when it happened without my knowledge. I also know that largely the lessons themselves are not the point, the children are and the way they engage in them.

So how do I disrupt this learning? How does my presence interrupt this situation? When I help with a group, when I challenge a child or support them in a task, I am not just disrupting but heavily involved in the data. Yet, when I step back and watch, when I sit and listen to what they do, I cannot assume I am not disrupting. So, how do I take hold of this disruption? My field notes continue to serve me as I strive to answer these questions and my reflexivity continues to be central as I analyse my data.

The disruption is in the data, I just hope Bourdieu can help me see it.

References:

Bourdieu, P. and Wacquant, L.J.D. (1992) An invitation to reflexive sociology. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Hargreaves, D.H. (1967) Social relations in a secondary school. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

I wish to acknowledge the support of Dr Gwen Ineson and Dr Heather Mendick for their supervision and guidance. I am grateful for a studentship from Brunel University to allow me to undertake this research.

 

Making time count when doing your PhD

Lisa MurphyI am a first year PhD candidate in Applied Psychology at University College Cork. I did my undergraduate degree in Applied Psychology here and I honestly love the School! Its home to a lot of memories, but more importantly it has what I need in terms of progressing as an academic and as a professional. So, I’ve decided to embark upon a 4 year structured PhD programme – exciting (and terrifying) times ahead! In these early days, I sometimes need to remind myself that I’m actuallydoing a PhD – not so long ago, this was something that only grown up’s did!  You can tweet Lisa or visit her website, where this blog was originally published

 

Time is perhaps the most important thing in our physical and psychological world. We can neither save it nor store it, exchange it nor rewind it. We are constantly spending, and often wasting, our most precious resource. Since beginning my PhD, I have come to understand the importance of time (both my own as well as the time of others) more earnestly than ever before. Our time must be planned, utilised effectively, enjoyed, never squandered and always considered.

Yet I sometimes wonder – even if I succeeded in planning each and every minute of the next four years to a degree of astounding precision, and completed each minute exactly as scheduled, would this time be enough to accomplish all of the things that I want to accomplish, mainly, four perfectly designed and impeccably executed pieces of research? Probably/definitely not! Somewhere, somehow, a trade-off must occur between completing your doctoral research in a reasonable amount of time and conducting ‘perfect research’ of faultless quality. Although the latter, in my opinion, can never be accomplished, it is certainly achievable to waste mental energy and more importantly, precious time, trying to conduct perfect PhD research.  For example, at the moment I spend a considerable amount of time every day sitting at my computer, books and journal articles covering the surface of my desk, a new Microsoft Word document open on the screen, faced with a blinking curser, and no words. Here is why (a.k.a what not to let happen):

I have become so preoccupied with writing ‘the perfect literature review’, that I have convinced myself the only way to do so is to study every word ever written on my topic, before I put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard, so to speak). My topic is time perspective. Writings on the psychology of time perception go back as far as the year 1781 (to the best of my knowledge). By this outrageous logic, I must therefore study, review and recall every detail of roughly 250 years of literature before I can even begin to write my introduction section. At that rate, my supervisor should receive the first draft of this introduction section by the year 2018 (I am a relatively slow reader). She is a patient woman, however given that it is in my research plan to submit for publication in December 2015, I imagine her patience would be tested to a large extent in this instance.

As I take my seat each day, vowing to be productive and do some writing, I am consumed with writing the perfect literature review. And what happens next? I am not sure how many of you will relate, but fear is what happens next. I am afraid to write in case I haven’t discovered the most important paper ever written in my field, identified the most influential thinker, or studiedthat thing that everybody else in the area knows, but I have yet to uncover. In essence, I am terrified that I will leave something important out…so nothing goes in! Even more ironic, I sit staring into space, contemplating what little time I have to read all of this literature, when I could actually be reading the literature! What a gigantic waste of my time!

Today, following a brief meltdown, I had an important conversation with a friend. She told me that it really doesn’t take an exceptional amount of intelligence to complete a PhD, but still many do not finish. Contrary to popular belief, this is not a reflection of intelligence, but rather of character, or more importantly, a reflection of one’s responsiveness and reaction to an intense and difficult character building process. And it hit me – more than I wish to write the perfect literature review, I hope to build my character and resilience to setbacks and meltdowns, enjoy the highs but learn from the mistakes, push through procrastination and panic, and acquire the skills and expertise necessary for a successful career in academia, all the while conducting research on a topic which gets me so excited that I could cartwheel, research which will never be perfect, but will be my best. This, I have been told, is good enough, and that, in my opinion, will be time well spent!

A geographical inspiration

Jonathan KershawMy name is Jonathan Kershaw and I’m a PhD research student based at Coventry University, looking at the way we ‘consume’ the car – as status symbol, icon, socio-cultural artefact and experience – and how our relationship with the car might impact upon the uptake of low carbon vehicles as part of a holistic low carbon automobility. You can read more of my blogs at autohabitus.wordpress.com and connect with me on twitter via @jeckythump

 

 

A PhD is very much a marathon and, no matter how interesting or ground-breaking your research may be, maintaining momentum over three, or even four, years can be difficult.

Geographical inspiration - a Santorini sunset (Picture source: author's photograph).

I began my university ‘career’ as a mature student, only embarking upon a BSc geography degree in my early/mid thirties, going straight onto an MSc in Environmental Management and Sustainable Development and, after a slight hiatus, embarking upon my PhD.

I recall one lecturer imploring us callow 1st–year Bachelors during one of those group lectures attended by the entire year’s intake – BSc physical geographers, BA human geographers, BSc geographers, BSc environmental scientists, BSc GIS-ers – that, during the course of our degrees, ‘you’ve got to do what you’re interested in, otherwise you’re wasting everybody’s time, especially yours’. Or something along those lines, anyway.

So I did. I managed to pursue several interests during the course of my geography degree, covering everything from cultural geography to post-socialism to vulcanology to quaternary environmental change. My dissertation was about the semiotics of the car.

It was during my MSc that I became further interested in, and pursued subjects on, the environment, climate change and low carbon mobility, with my thesis concerning the environmental impacts of football supporter transport.

I am currently in the final throes of writing up my PhD on socio-cultural regard for the car and the potential impacts of this upon an uptake of low carbon vehicles. Writing about cars and the environment, washed down with a large slug of philosophy – marvellous. At least, in theory.

Actually, it is marvellous – I wouldn’t swap it at all. I’ve spent the last three-and-a-bit years thinking, reading, writing on and around subjects I’m passionate about and, looking back, it’s been brilliant; throw in all the conferences and the contacts with other academics and postgraduates – in person and via the twittersphere – and it’s been a cracking experience. It hasn’t all been plain sailing though.

All postgraduate researchers struggle at some point, hitting practical, philosophical and analytical walls. These walls can take some climbing, and no matter how capable we are, or how immersed or interested in our research we may be, doubts can rise, morale can flag and confidence can wane.

I’ve suffered bouts of that recently, feeling a bit thick at times. I’m sure I’m not the only one. When you live 120 miles away from uni, it can all feel a bit solitary too.

Anyway, a week or so back, a picture appeared in my twitter timeline. It was a retweet byBangor University’s geography department (@BUGeography) of a tweet posted by the geography department at St. Edmund’s School in Salisbury (@Stedsgeography).

And repeat... (Picture source: @BUGeography @Stedsgeography)

I retweeted it too. I don’t know where St. Edmund’s got the picture from, whether it was sourced or created, but thanks anyway guys. For some reason, @BUGeography’s retweeting of it woke me up a bit. Just in time for a run of colloquia and conferences, I’m adopting it as a mantra during my writing up – ‘this is my new jam’, as some would say.

So begone, doubt! I am a geographer. I am encouraging others to think a bit differently. I do know my stuff.

And, despite what you may feel sometimes, so do you.

I’m getting on with it – first full draft here we come!

How many of me are there?

Rebecca Photo PortraitRebecca Turvill is undertaking a PhD at the University of Brunel in the School of Sports Science and Education. Her research “How are children developing number sense, post national numeracy strategy?” is supervised by Dr Gwen Ineson and Dr Heather Mendick. You can follow Rebecca via twitter @RebeccaTurvill

 

 

How many of me are there?

                I am in a wonderful position to be researching something I am passionate about and believe needs detailed further research. Working as a primary mathematics consultant in a London borough, with a stark achievement gap between the highest and lowest achieving pupils in mathematics, I was interested in the fundamental way children learn mathematics. At the same time my supervisors were looking for someone to undertake a PhD in how children develop number sense. It was a marriage made in heaven.

                To begin with (and I mean perhaps the first week) the mathematics consultant in me was happily undertaking a literature review around number sense, looking at policy and pedagogy documents with great interest and some critique. The neuro-psychological literature is heavily influential here, so I moved further into this area. Fortunately, having a psychology degree seemed advantageous.

                However, a major feature of my early work has been to examine the concept of number sense from a range of theoretical perspectives. So, whilst my previous studies have been useful, I have also had good guidance to broaden this focus with a sociological perspective. This has had the fantastic outcome of acquainting me with Bourdieu. This is an acquaintance I am still nurturing, but which has already had a major effect on me. The idea of working reflexively to study a field I am very familiar with is a central issue for my ongoing work. But starting this reflection has had a far deeper impact than just a practical, methodological one. By the end of my second month of study, I was feeling a bit split – not about whether to continue, but about who should be continuing? Unbeknownst to me, I have been building quite a repertoire of versions of myself.

                So far, I have introduced you to the mathematics consultant who saw the need for the study and the psychologist who supported a neuropsychological explanation for the phenomena being explored. But it also turns out that the teacher in me (who predates the consultant) has an opinion. In brief this equates to a child-centred pedagogy when there is time to carry it out, and whatever fits when tests / Ofsted are looming – and much soul searching was needed to finally admit it. Beyond that, I am also a parent. I have been surprised at how strong this voice has been. I have used parenting examples to illustrate some of my key theoretical critiques; yet my concern is with the school system’s influence on number sense. I am not planning to include parents in my research design; yet many of my thoughts seem personally salient in the home context.

                There are then, of course, the more fundamental sides to me, which I have never previously questioned, but feel naive not to have done so. I am a female primary teacher – a common sight – but one who is running the gauntlet of post-graduate study. My decisions to study maths at A-Level and take a “mathematical” route through my B.Sc. seemed quite easy when I took them, but as I look back and reflect more my gender seems somehow more relevant. But I have been lucky, I was a third daughter of supportive parents who through occupation (Army) sent me to private boarding school. How many sides to me proliferate in that one sentence alone!

                So, I return to my earlier question, who is taking this research forward? The motivation and the interpretation appear different from each angle. In truth, I may be some way from answering that and I suspect I haven’t even met all my forms yet. I feel like I’m walking through a hall of mirrors – I wonder if we will all make it to the end!

 

I wish to acknowledge the support of Dr Gwen Ineson and Dr Heather Mendick for their supervision and guidance and the whole EISI group at Brunel University for allowing the many sides of me to emerge. I am grateful for a studentship from Brunel University to allow me to undertake this research.

Academic Bloggers as Public Intellectuals

Nic SubtireluNic is a Ph.D student in the Department of Applied Linguistics and ESL and a doctoral fellow in New and Emerging Media at Georgia State University (Atlanta, GA). He is interested in popular discourses and ideologies about language and how these impact the educational opportunities and political rights of speakers, whose languages and language varieties are marginalized. You can follow him on Twitter @linguisticpulse or on his blog, linguistic pulse

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has recently leveled a number of weighty criticisms at academia, specifically the professorate. In general, Kristof asserts that there are fewer public intellectuals today than there were a generation ago.

Regardless of whether Kristof is correct about this decrease, the call for academia to be more engaged with the public is one that seems to resonate with many. I personally feel strongly that a major aspect of my work as a social scientist and intellectual is to educate others about issues that are important to me. It was with this conviction in mind that, a year ago, I made a New Year’s resolution to try to engage a non-academic audience with my writing both in internet venues and in a blog I started. I’d observed that the public seemed interested in issues that were engaging to me as a sociolinguist. Specifically, there are no shortage of stories about language and how it varies. In fact, the most popular article on the New York Times website this year was a quiz about which English dialect you speak.

Kristof’s article and the uproar it has caused have provided an occasion for me to reflect on this endeavor. While I don’t reject the overall thrust of Kristof’s call to arms, I believe he offers little in the way of insight as to how scholars might actually engage the public. It is these insights that I hope to be able to provide particularly from the point of view a Ph.D student using the internet as a way to engage the public.

Before I launch into this issue more thoroughly, I do think that it’s worth noting that while Kristof focuses primarily on the traditional activities of the academy: speaking and writing about research, I believe that there are other means by which one might effectively be a public intellectual. Lending your expertise as a volunteer, for example, to relevant non-profit organizations is an important and effective way of being a public intellectual. I don’t, therefore, think that we should reserve the label of public intellectual only for those who write opinion pieces for major newspapers. Rather, our colleagues dedicating their time to serving their communities in schools, clinics, after school centers, and other venues are, in my book at least, public intellectuals.

However, one very obvious way by which one can earn the moniker of public intellectual would be to engage the public through the dissemination of expertise in an accessible manner. This might take the form of writing editorials for newspapers or speaking at popular events like TED. However, in the age of the internet, an efficient and free method by which this type of dissemination can take place is the use of blogs. All of these methods, however, I believe are subject to an important dilemma that we have to contend with as academics attempting to engage a popular audience.

In particular, this dilemma is characterized by the competing demands of the message we wish to disseminate as intellectuals and the forms that are most likely to engage a popular audience. As a social scientist, I have a perspective on social issues that are often contradictory to the beliefs that those outside of my field hold. Specifically, as a sociolinguist I am strongly committed to the idea that people’s language is legitimate in its own right regardless of whether it conforms to elitists’ arbitrary prescriptions about what it should be. Historically, sociolinguists have taken incredibly unpopular stances, such as affirming the idea that African-American English (or Ebonics if you prefer) is the legitimate primary language of many in the United States and that recognition of this fact is critical to their social advancement and educational achievement. Hence, one of the basic purposes of my intellectual life, public or academic, is to advance this agenda.

However, this agenda and the ideas that inform it are the exact opposite of public opinion on the matter. In fact, while the public is interested in reading about language, they are more likely to be engaged by stories that build on their pre-existing beliefs about language, for example, a story about Samuel L. Jackson criticizing President Obama’s use of ‘nonstandard’ language. Stories such as these do not require the introduction of novel perspective on language. Most readers come to the article ready to participate in the shaming of ‘nonstandard’ language. Imparting the perspective of linguists takes time, as anyone who has taught an introductory linguistics course can attest.

Before I go on, I should counter any suggestion that I am attempting to portray the public as some form of unthinking herd. I do not believe that what I am describing is an issue of lack of intellectual ability. Indeed, if you take a look at the type of complex analytical processes that are displayed when people discuss one of the most popular pastimes, sports, I believe it’s quite clear that no lack of cognitive reasoning skills prevents people from engaging with social scientists’ perspectives.

Rather, the issue is a matter of incentives. To draw on the example I mentioned above, coming to understand Samuel L. Jackson’s shaming of President Obama as an act of racism and classism, as many sociolinguists would conclude, requires a great deal of background knowledge in the perspective of sociolinguistics, a relatively obscure and politically left-leaning field. Thus, the intellectual and political will to engage with sociolinguists and other social scientists and their perspective is what is lacking.

Of course, I don’t write this in an effort to let academics off the hook. Rather, I think it’s important that we understand what we’re up against. If engaging the public is what we intend to do (and I think it’s precisely what we should be doing), then we need to acknowledge the political struggle that we are engaged in whether we would like to think of our work as being overtly political or objectively scientific. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that situating your writing within broader struggles and narratives is what makes social scientific work interesting to a popular audience. Writing that attempts to shy away from this is likely to be ignored. With this in mind, I wanted to offer some advice gleaned from my own brief experience attempting to play the role of public intellectual as a Ph.D student.

First, I believe it’s important to think of your field as its own unique culture with its own rules for, above all else, determining what constitutes legitimate knowledge. Engaging the public, however, means attempting to make an argument in a world governed by an entirely different set of rules. These rules may compel people to pay attention not to the validity of your methodology but instead to the apparent level of your personal conviction, your credentials, your ability to keep calm in the face of criticism, or some other academically irrelevant aspect of the situation. Whether these criteria are legitimate or not is really not the issue, as you will quickly find, you don’t get to make the rules. You could, of course, make it your mission as a public intellectual to change the public’s reliance on such criteria. However, expecting your work to be judged by a general audience according to the same criteria other members of your field apply is naïve. I’ve found that my training as a scholar has not necessarily prepared me for some of these situations. However, my advice to any Ph.D student thinking of trying to engage with the public: expect to lose sometimes and not according to the rules you think the game should be played.

Second, I encourage any intellectual who is trying to engage the public to start by thinking locally. I mean both in terms of geography as well as in terms of your pre-existing network of social contacts. I believe that you’re more likely to advance the agenda of your field in local settings. There are two advantages to this. First, I mentioned above that people lack the will to listen to social scientific research, but they probably don’t lack the will to listen to the thoughts of someone they care about. Some of the most engaging blog posts I have done have begun with a personal narrative that situated me as a living, breathing human being that many of my readers know and care about within the broader context that I was talking about. For example, in this one, I used medical bills I had personally received and my own recovery from an illness to frame a larger issue that I wanted to discuss: literacy and its impact on personal rights. While things like this don’t necessarily appeal to those who don’t know me, they are quite appealing to those who do know me. I believe that sometimes engaging the public as an intellectual means engaging the people in your immediate vicinity.

Finally, and I believe most importantly, you need to find a balance between seeking out readers and delivering the message you want to deliver. In doing so, you should be selective about the advice you accept from professional bloggers and journalists. Much of this advice derives from a context dominated by what I’ll call “click count ideology”. Click count ideology is a way of looking at the act of writing as motivated by a need to attract attention that can be quantified through the number of clicks a particular text receives. Obviously, click count ideology has close ties to internet advertising. Obviously, generating clicks is an important goal of any one producing content to be shared on the internet. If people don’t click on your blog, they can’t read your thoughts and your mission of engaging the public has failed.

However, it’s important to realize that generating web traffic is not an end in itself. Rather, as I mentioned above, academic arguments require reader investment, and what we are hoping for is invested readers. I have been told many times by my will-meaning, social-media savvy friends that my blog posts are too long according to their standards (usually 500 words) or that they don’t address timely enough issues. I believe in both cases this advice is counter-productive for anyone hoping to be an academic blogger. While I have found that the timeliness of a post can lead to it being highly trafficked, it is no guarantee of this. Also, by far my most successful post (by all criteria) breaks all of these rules. It addresses a non-timely issue and is nearly 4000 words long. Nonetheless, looking over my analytics, it’s clear that visitors to my blog are routinely engaged with it often for fifteen minutes or more. Conventional wisdom about blogging suggests the need for timely, short pieces that appeal to broad audiences that can be circulated by social media. However, this post’s success stems from its ability to garner traffic in ways that are neglected by conventional wisdom such as search engines and even by colleagues’ assigning the posts as reading in their courses.

None of this is to say that you shouldn’t carefully consider the suggestions of people who are experienced in popular forms of blogging. However, it’s important to keep in mind the click count ideology from which these suggestions often stem and not to fall into the trap of viewing traffic as an end in itself.

Nicholas Kristof’s call may have been lacking in any practical applications, but I believe as members of the next generation of scholars (whether as professors or in other lines of work), we can and should engage the public with our work in many ways, perhaps one of the most obvious ways is through the use of a research-oriented blog or similar internet-based writing. However, to be effective we’ll need to view our work less as the presenting of research findings and more as a form of advocacy in favor of a particular world view with all of the ups and downs that this comes with.

Almost the Same: Five Ways Remote PhD Students Can Mimic the Residential PhD Experience

Maha BaliMaha Bali is a part-time, self-funded (well, by my parents, thank you), remote location PhD student at the University of Sheffield, studying Education. Her PhD thesis (recently submitted and awaiting viva in October) is entitled “Critical Thinking at University: A Study of Critical Thinking Development at an American Liberal Arts University in the Middle East”. She started her PhD in 2006 while working full-time as a faculty developer at the American University in Cairo, and finally submitted it while on a two-year maternity leave from work in 2013. Maha has written several articles on www.al-fanar.org and www.moocnewsandreviews.com. You can follow her on Twitter via @Bali_Maha

If doing a PhD is a lonely pursuit, wait utill you have tried doing it remotely! Remote location, part-time PhD study can be beneficial and even empowering! But there are a few aspects of the residential PhD experience that I missed out on, and this posting shares my experience dealing with them to try to approximate the residential PhD experience. I have no idea how common my struggles are, or how useful these tips will be, but I imagine and hope that, at least for international, remote location, part-time PhD students, these tips will be beneficial.

#1: Network with other researchers. I start with this one, because I find it the most important. I assume that residential PhD students have some kind of interaction with academics and peers in their department at their institution. Remote location students only have official access to their supervisor(s), and have only fleeting interaction with peers and academics at their institution. During my remote location study, I visited my supervisor about once a year. During that visit, I tried to attend at least one seminar or workshop each time I visited, and tried to stay in contact with some of the people I met (professors were much friendlier than students, I found!). However, these are still people I met only about once a year, so I focused my attention on building networks in my local context, which in my case, varied throughout my PhD (my husband and I moved several times). When I had no university affiliation, I attended public lectures and free workshops at nearby universities. When I did have university affiliation, I volunteered in research projects and attended conferences as often as possible – sometimes these weren’t directly related to my field, but networking with researchers in similar fields was useful just the same. All of these forms of networking provided an avenue for intellectual conversations to keep me stimulated; helped me develop my “academic language”, and provided insight into “how research is done” by people other than myself! Where possible, access to other research students can provide moral support and advice, and sometimes even direct help reading drafts, for example. Networking with more senior colleagues can help with advice related to publication, and other advice regarding the PhD and viva. Some older colleagues will also be willing to read drafts of your chapters, and provide invaluable feedback on them.

#2: Access to important references. As a remote student, I only had access to online library resources. While these were substantial, there still remained many important journal articles (e.g. old ones not digitized) and books that I could not access. If you are lucky like me, you’ll have access to a local academic library and even free document delivery service for articles and book chapters (I think remote students should get free document delivery from the institution granting them the PhD, but that’s another conversation!). For entire books, however, I drew upon further resources. First, peers and senior colleagues were often willing to lend me their books (see point 1!). Second, you will be surprised how well-stocked some public libraries can be with academic books (in the UK and US at least). Local universities you are not affiliated with might also be willing to grant you temporary on-site access as a researcher (the American University in Cairo does this, for example). One further resource I discovered is Kindle books. There are some academic books that you can borrow for a modest fee. Most books also offer free samples, which often cover the first chapter (sometimes, that is all you need; other times, it helps you decide whether the book is worth buying). One other strategy I did when I could not access a book I needed (and this happened to me a few times during Egypt’s political upheaval when the American University in Cairo’s library was closed) was to look for articles by the author of the book/chapter I needed. Often, someone who has written a book/chapter on a certain subject has also written an article or two about the same subject, covering the key concepts. Sometimes, that is all you need! If all else fails, try asking your supervisor if s/he has the book and is willing to lend it to you temporarily!

#3: Disseminate. As a remote student, I did not have access to the opportunities for PhD students to present their research in a relatively safe environment. So I just tried as often as possible to do so at conferences. To reduce costs, I often chose a conference that was at the same time I was visiting my supervisor in Sheffield, and one that was located in Sheffield or a nearby city. It took me a while to work up the confidence to disseminate my work, but once I started doing it, my confidence built further until I felt confident enough to submit my thesis.

#4: Teach. Whenever the opportunity becomes available, and if you can manage your time, teach in or around your subject. I was not directly teaching what I was studying, but the teaching experience helped me reflect much more deeply about my research, and I found synergies there I would not have anticipated. It is possible that someone who is studying social work, for example, would benefit more from actually doing social work rather than teaching it (but I assume most of them do so already?). But I still expect teaching to be beneficial across fields, because it helps one think of one’s subject on a meta-level and reflect on it from a different angle than the one usually used for research.

#5: Use technology well. For a remote location student, all kinds of technology will make your life easier. I believe remote location students should always be assigned a tech-savvy supervisor! Using Skype with your supervisor might mean you can get to talk to him/her more often than if you called internationally. Using shared wikis or blogs with your supervisor (if they are willing) or track changes/comments on MS Word can help you have an asynchronous conversation with your supervisor. Returning to point #1, you can find online support communities to help you through your research. There is so much on Twitter to support PhD students (SocPhD and PhdForum being two!!!). There are useful podcasts (e.g. VivaSurvivors). These online communities gave me support that helped me sprint through the final stages of writing.

If you have different experiences or tips worth sharing, please post them in the comments.

Architects Could Be The Best Social Science Researchers

Emmanuel Mogaji for socphd blog postEmmanuel is a member of Centre for Advances in Marketing, Business and Management Research Institute at the University of Bedfordshire Business School, Luton. England. His research investigates the framework of print advertisements for consumer banking services in the UK in terms of visual communications (images) and appeals and understanding customer’s perceptions of visual communications. His research interest lies in visual consumption and communication of corporate designs.  You can follow Emmanuel via his twitter account @e_mogaji and at https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Emmanuel_Mogaji/

About twelve years when I started my first degree in the University, I never had it in mind that I will one day be in a graduate school studying for a research degree. It was an awesome experience leaving home and going to University to learn new things and had value to my life.

Started out in Architectural School with free hand drawing, with pencil and no computer, drawing straight lines without rulers on A4 paper, we wonder what this was all about. We wanted to start drawing floor plans and elevations just after first week of registration.

Looking back now on my time going through that structured schedule made me relax and know that I can survive Tue drill of a PhD. Staying awake all night in studio trying to develop a conceptual framework for that shopping mall, going through ArchiData for the width of a car park and your supervisor will condemn the whole work next morning.

I have been able to develop some skills during my time in architectural school which I will be sharing and they are transferable into my research process.

Creativity: There is more to architecture to just floor plans and elevations, you need to have reason for making that wall straight, the methodology I proposed while I submitted my research proposal has changed as expected. I never thought I will be using content analysis. There are loads of creative research methods out there as I later got to know. It’s more than distributing survey questionnaires and conducting interviews.

I attended a creative research conference in London for academic researchers interested in creative research methods and had to learn how to knit, it was a Research methodology for  Amy Twigger Holroyd, at another conference in Sussex, dancing was the unique methodology, bringing everyone together to get their stories. pic 1 emmanuel 2nd blog

Social science isn’t like lab research that you can keep adding things or subtracting and hoping to arrive at a solution, research up here is creative. Anything can work for you, just be able to justify the reason why you use it.

Independence: Even though we all share the same studio, each student has got their individual project which they have to spend around three months developing, this made us very independent as you don’t always have you supervisors at your back.

I have been able to build on these skills during my Research degree, I know I have a target and I have to do everything possible to do it. I an independent and can work on my own. I don’t always require my supervisor to check on me but if need be I contact her.

Team Work: Architects are trained to work well within Team, in most cases, the lead the team and most be able to make every team member understand and concept and the idea of the project. Even while In Architectural School; you share your design with senior classmates for their creative input and suggestions.

As a research student, I can work independently on my own but I can as well relate with every other person to share my research. It could even be at conferences and on social media. Interacting with different kind of people to share ideas and make sure I am on the right path.

Resilient: Even though my supervisor has condemned my work because I decided to do something out of this world, I able to spring back into shape and come up with something more appealing to his eyes. I was able to withstand the pressure of meeting deadlines with something worthwhile to show for it.

I sometimes feel bad when I get some feedback and email which I don’t find favourable. I feel this woman is not appreciating my effort enough, submitting draft after drafts, pointing errors in my referencing and writing styles, I know it’s for my good and every time, I tell myself, I must make it. I am able to take criticism well and turn it around for my good.

Responsible: The greatest mistake I made which turned out to be an awesome time in the school was the name I gave to my third year project. We were to design a block of terrace building and I named it ‘ile mogaji’ meaning Mogaji’s House, just like The Shard and The Gherkin building. The judges complained that I used my local language and not English.

pic 2 emmanuel 2nd blogThis name was well received among my mates and it became my new name, some even still call me that after twelve years. It was my decision to brand my design that way and I was responsible for it. I was ready for any consequences because I am proud of my work.

As a researcher, I believe no one will understand my topic like I do. I am responsible for my development and it’s up to me to make use of every resource around me to make it a success. It is my responsibility to consult with my supervisor, attend conferences and network with other researchers and those in my field.

With these experiences in Architectural School, I know I have an added advantage, an extra edge to succeed as a researcher, those it may be difficult, I will always spring back into shape and come out a success.

Thanks for taking time to read my experience. Wish you all the best.

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