Keeping it simple: Say it as a story

Chandni singh Chandni is a third year PhD researcher in Rural Livelihoods at the University of Reading, UK. Her research explores farmer vulnerability to water scarcity and climate change in southern Rajasthan (India). Within this, she is  trying to understand why some farmers are more vulnerable than others and is assessing whether the current policy landscape is helping build local capacity. She enjoys travelling, writing poetry, and taking long walks to nowhere in particular. She is also disturbingly fond of dogs and new notebooks. Chandni blogs about her research at Village Vignettes and you can follow her on twitter @chandnisingh233

Write your thesis as if you were telling a story 

Brash beginnings

When I started my PhD, I had clear ideas. I was going to explore what made farmers vulnerable to water scarcity and climate change. I was going to unravel why continued policy emphasis on water management in India had yielded scattered, unsatisfactory results. I had a masters degree in Environmental Sciences, I had professional experience in watershed development; surely things couldn’t get too cumbersome. I blustered into my research, reading and absorbing, floundering and finding.

As I made my way from the perplexing to the practical, I decided my research to be all ears.  After a few agonising months of planning and re-planning, I set forth on a 10-month long journey listening to farmer stories of how water shapes their lives and how they cope with its ever-changing availability. Traversing the semi-arid landscape of northwest India, I spoke to farmers and government officials, local development workers and researchers, trying to uncover the complex constructions of water scarcity and climate change.

That sinking feeling

When I returned from ten months of gruelling fieldwork, I was bursting with stories both alarming and inspiring. I was charged with enthusiasm, things looked promising. But over the months that followed, I sat at my desk, far removed from the country my research was placed in, wallowing in a heap of data. In spite of organising it as I went along collecting it, I was overwhelmed. How would I ever weave together a narrative that captured the enormous breath and rich depth of the stories I had uncovered? I found myself sinking. I heard fellow PhD students groan; either about the humungous word counts one had to cover or their data being just too much to fit into a single thesis. I felt daunted by the data and frustrated at my inability to capture in words, what I had so clearly observed in the field. I fumbled along a personal trajectory of frustration until I realised: my research would be best communicated as I had approached it – a journey like no other, narrated as a stimulating story!

Mapping my road

After the fireworks of this brainwave, I admit, nothing happened for a while. And then I charted out the plot, and the main ideas (characters) I wanted to build. I started with what I, the clueless traveller, had set out to look for. During my first year, I had sifted through tomes of literature, winnowing my way through roadblocks and blind alleys till I understood where I really wanted to go. That needed brushing up, and served well as an entry into the story I wanted to tell. In the methodology chapter, I walked the reader through my quest for finding the tools I needed on my journey – as a visitor to a new land, I had to equip myself well. I toiled till I had the appropriate tools to embark on this bizarre journey and then discussed the pitfalls of the way I had travelled. As I moved on to the results chapters, I discussed what I found on my travels, weaving narratives to draw a bigger picture.

This may come across as a romanticised version of thesis writing, potentially conveying that my journey has been a honeymoon of sorts. Contrarily, it has, and continues to, wring me dry, but isn’t that what makes a story poignant and inspiring? My PhD journey has been challenging and invigorating, a story of personal growth and learning. As an avid listener over the past year, the one thing I am sure of is that, no one can resist a well-told tale. My thesis aspires to be that.

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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!

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