The A-Z of research: E is for expert

Sometimes, over the course of your research, it is easy to feel a million miles away from being an ‘expert’ in your field. The word itself carries a glaring weight of expectation. It seems to belong to ‘other people’, the ones who must surely know everything there is to know.

With so much new information and so many new ideas, the concept of absorbing it all seems utterly impossible. Well, do not fear. Take a breath. Relax.

Try to remember you are a human being and take it one step at a time. Before you know it, you’ll be explaining your research to anybody who will listen. Nobody can possibly know absolutely everything there is to about their subject. New ideas emerge all the time and all you can do is try your best. As in most areas of life, there is no need to burden yourself with yet another label. My advice is to read as much as you can, try to keep on top of the latest journal articles, but most of all, remember to enjoy what you are doing. You are doing it because you love it and that is always the most important thing.

The A-Z of research: D is for determination

Though this tip might sound quite abstract to say the least, determination really will help you through those tricky times during your research. Even the best of us experience periods when we doubt our own ability, and even wonder if we’re doing the right thing.

Try to remember that this whole thing takes time, and over the course of your research, you’ll come up against great times (when the ideas flow and fall into place), and not-so-great times (when you stare at a blank computer screen for an hour, or re-write the same paragraph for the sixth time). Throughout it all, remember why you’re doing this and be determined! Before you know it, you’ll be looking back on that tricky patch and all will be well.

When the going gets tougher than you’d like, remember to be determined, remind yourself you can do it and keep going!

The A-Z of research: C is for conferences

Whatever stage you are at with your research it’s likely that attending, or even planning a conference will be on the agenda.

Today’s stop on the A-Z journey comes courtesy of two past posts in which I offer help and advice if you are planning to attend or organise a conference.

The A-Z of research: B is for books

I’m pretty sure what I’m about to say is extremely obvious, but research tends to come with a lot of books. The key is knowing which are likely to be the most useful for your personal project, and it’s this part of the proceedings that can be a bit of a skill.

Of course, it’s important to read often and widely when it comes to narrowing down your ideas, but once you know where you’re going, it’s definitely worth rooting out the really valuable nuggets. Remember to look out for new publications in your field. Search for researchers who are working on similar things. Once you find a really useful tome, mine its bibliography for related titles that could help you as you progress.

While it’s tempting to try read every single thing you can get your hands on that might relate to your project, making a list can be a really useful way of planning your reading time, tracking what you’ve read and knowing what you would still like to read. And don’t be too hard on yourself if you miss something out; there’s always space and time for one more book!

Above all, it’s important to remember to enjoy your research. Don’t get bogged down, don’t panic and I promise you’ll get there!

The A-Z of research: A is for activity

In this blog we start a new series, ‘The A-Z of research’. As you can probably guess from the title, each week we we will work our way through a letter of the alphabet (or as many of them as possible), tackling a different aspect of research. Let’s start at the very beginning (as the song goes) with ‘A’ for activity.

It might sound obvious, but the key to getting started, and successfully continuing with research, is to be as active as possible. This means planning, reading, organising and making notes as often as you can. Now, this doesn’t mean you have to be researching around the clock, but it really does pay to keep the wheels in motion once you get started.

Making a plan can be useful, so why not start by making a list of any important books, articles and chapters you know you would like to read? Perhaps decide on a useful chapter and set aside a couple of hours to read and make notes, or start working your way through that weighty tome you just know you can’t leave out of the proceedings.

However you decide to do it, a little goes a long way when it comes to research. Think, ‘A for activity,’ and set aside a little time each day, however small, to do something towards your big picture. Before you know it you’ll be well on your way.

The PhD Files: Tackling the viva

I realise that the title of this blog makes the viva sound like an insurmountable challenge. Something that needs to taken down and ‘tackled’. I promise you this is not the case. I know because I have first-hand experience. I’ve sat in the hot-seat and I’ve defended my thesis until I could defend no more, and honestly speaking it really wasn’t a terrifying ordeal. In fact, dare I say it, once I got stuck in, I actually quite enjoyed it (and I promise I’m not being smug). So, let me share with you some tips on how to turn the viva from scary, to not so far from fun…

  1. Don’t listen to the horror stories – This one is important. There will always be a host of frightening tales out there to send you running for the hills at the mere mention of the viva. While I’m sure that some people have genuinely not very nice experiences to recount, the majority of viva examinations do not fall into this category. If you have put in the work, listened to your supervisor, and know your research (which after all those years, you will – I promise) then you have every chance of a good experience.

2. Research potential examiners – There’s no harm in seeing who’s out there when it comes to potential external examiners. Look out for who is researching and publishing in your field, and consider if you might like them to be the one to put you through your paces on the day. It helps if they are approachable and encouraging people, who will make you feel positive about the experience. There’s a good chance your supervisor can help you with this as they’re likely to be in the know about potential choices. While there’s no guarantees (they could be busy, or unavailable), it doesn’t hurt to do your research.

3. Know your thesis! – While this one might sound obvious, it’s really important. Once you have your viva date in the diary, make sure you spend time ‘revising’ your research. You’ll know it pretty well at this point. You’ll have read some of it so often you won’t want to see it for some time – but this is good. It is important to know your argument in as much detail as possible, so that you can clearly and confidently answer any question sent your way. Mark out some areas that you think might come in for questioning so you can be as prepared as possible. That leads me to my next point…

4. Be prepared for questions – The whole point of the viva is to give you the chance to demonstrate that your thesis holds up as an original piece of research. The examiners will already have read it in detail, and will have a list of questions they want to put to you. This is your chance to show that you can defend your argument. Remember, you can take as much time as you need to think before you respond. It’s also fine to acknowledge that there are some areas you know will require some further research – as long as this isn’t an integral part of your argument, nobody will expect you to have answered every question in the entire world! It’s also a positive thing to show that your work is open to further avenues of exploration.

5. Be ready for the outcome – It’s likely that your supervisor will have an idea about the probable outcome of your viva. There are a few options here: a straight pass (very unusual but not unheard of), minor modifications (the most common – this was my outcome), major modifications (a bit more work needed), or a fail (again, not unheard of, but not too common). Minor modifications mean there will be some small areas to work out before the PhD can be fully signed off. These won’t be big – in other words, they will be small points to clarify and typos to resolve. Major modifications are a bit of a bigger issue. This is the outcome if the examiners believe your argument needs some more work. Perhaps you’ve overlooked some important research, or your argument is not wholly clear. Whichever of these you end up with on the day, you will be given some time to make the changes (usually longer if you fall into the major modifications category). Either way, once you can make the requested changes the long-awaited, much sought after degree is yours!

If your viva is in the not-too-distant future, or if you’re currently studying and know it’s going to roll around in a year or two, I wish you the very best of luck. Though you’re bound to feel nervous in the build-up and on the day (it’s normal, nerves show that you care), take a deep breath, try to speak as clearly and as positively as you can, and you’ll do just fine. The examiners have been in your position so they know how you feel. You’ll be ‘Doctor’ before you know it! Good luck!

Being self-employed – a couple of thoughts

Today’s post is something slightly different. While, usually, I offer some tips for those of you in the midst of a PhD, or we delve into a fabulous book in the Nineteenth-Century Book Club, today I have something I need to get off my chest. I promise not to get too negative or whiny, but here goes.

As a self-employed person, trust figures pretty heavily in my day-to-day working life. Those who ask me to work for them have to be able to trust me to complete the work on time, and to the best of my ability. Equally, I have to trust those I am working for to stick to the terms of our agreement, and pay me on time for a completed job. It’s a two-way street. Lately, I’ve experienced a couple of issues with one side of this street.

I am not na├»ve, I understand that in every walk of life, things don’t always go to plan. There will always be some disappointments, no matter what we do for a living. As a new small-business owner, I know I will come up against these stumbling blocks along the way, and I accept this. Let me add here, too, that the majority of people I have worked with so far (granted, I’m new, so there hasn’t yet been that many), have been wonderful. We have communicated throughout the process, they have been happy with the finished product, they have paid for their work, and they’ve even come back for more. To those people, I say a heartfelt, ‘thank you’. Your business was, and is, very much appreciated. Unfortunately, in the past couple of weeks, I have also experienced the not so nice side of things.

Most recently, a prospective client contacted me, requesting the editing of a substantial piece of work. As any new (and I’m sure, established) business owner will tell you, it’s pretty exciting when someone requests work. It means your business is real, and official. I was very happy to take on this work, so I sent a quotation and was thrilled when it was accepted. As this was a substantial piece of work, likely to take time, I scheduled it into my diary, and was careful not to take on anything that might impede its progress. I sent an email to the client, asking them to confirm both their deadline and, once again, their acceptance of my quotation. I was thrilled when all was accepted, and I completed a short sample, to ensure we were on the same page. Days went by, and I started to feel something wasn’t quite right. Though the deadline was a while in the future, I still wanted to get started. I decided to send a gentle reminder, asking the client to let me know when they were ready to begin. Much to my disappointment, I received a reply from the client the next day, telling me that they had decided to take a cheaper quotation and no longer needed my to complete the job.

While I completely understand that no client is ever obligated to me, and it is completely their choice whether or not they choose me to complete their job, I really do feel that, once my quotation and terms are completely accepted, it is unfair to then back out because they find something cheaper. By all means, shop around, but once you agree to a quotation, and you accept it, please try to remember that I schedule in your work. I make time for it, and I give it my complete attention when I work on it. I may even turn down other work as a result. The money I earn is my income, and I rely on it to pay the bills. Please do keep in my mind that, if you book me, I will schedule in your work, so it is frustrating to say the least when I am let down at the last minute.

Equally, it is important to remember that completed work requires payment, in the same way you would pay any other tradesperson. I have quite a comprehensive set of terms and conditions regarding payment, but on one recent occasion, I was forced to contact a client to ask when I might receive payment. Their completed work, and subsequent invoice, had been left unacknowledged and unpaid. I completely understand that sometimes finances can be very difficult, and I am always very happy to discuss payment terms. Ignoring me, however, is not helpful. The work I send represents hours of my time and effort, and must be paid for as you would pay for any service.

As I have said, on the whole, my clients have been wonderful. In the current state of things, I know I am very lucky to have any work at all, and I genuinely appreciate it. As a self-employed person, I would just like to highlight the importance of trust, and, if you request a service, please remember that there is a person at the other end of the email, waiting to do the work, and relying on your confirmation as the go-ahead to commence.

So, that’s it. If you have read to this point, thank you very much. I promise next time will be a return to lighter, brighter business! Until then, happy writing (and reading) and I’ll see you soon.

The PhD Files: Writing Tips

Today, I’m going to provide some tips for when it comes to putting pen to paper (or hands to keyboard), and writing up your research! Getting started can seem daunting, but it needn’t be. Read on for some handy hints to help you begin…

  1. Start small – Though your entire thesis is likely to be pretty sizeable, you don’t need to write the whole thing at once! It really does pay to start small, so decide on a section, and start writing. Don’t feel you have to stick to a chronology, especially if your thesis focusses on distinct areas, (for example, several authors and/or themes). It’ll all come together, I promise!

2. Little and often – In order to avoid becoming overwhelmed, it can really be useful to consider breaking up your writing into manageable chunks. Something in the region of 500-1000 words at each sitting can be a good way of putting the words in! Before you know it, they really do add up. You’ll be amazed at your progress, and you will be saved from a huge, stressed, frenzied write-up as your deadline creeps closer.

3. Get feedback as you go – If you have regular meetings set up with your supervisor, then consider asking if they would be happy to provide feedback on your writing each time you meet. That way, you can submit a few of thousand words ahead of each meeting, and receive feedback as you go. This is a great way of ‘signing off’ on your writing, bit by bit. The feedback helps you to keep track of your progress, and makes sure your ideas are on track in an organised way. It also holds you accountable, making sure you keep the ideas flowing.

4. Give yourself a break (Part One) – Yes, this one is in two parts. As important as it is to get the words onto the page, it’s equally as important to know when to give yourself time off. Even the most productive writer needs a breather, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking an afternoon, a day, or even a weekend, off. Trust me, you’ll come back refreshed and ready to go.

5. Give yourself a break (Part Two) – It is also vitally important that you do not beat yourself up during the writing process. You are not a robot, you are a human being. There will be days when the ideas do not flow and you will be certain you will never write a word again. You will, I promise. So, when the writer’s block strikes, take a nap, watch your favourite show, eat some cake, do whatever you want. Just don’t sit staring at the screen and questioning your life choices, that does not help anyone!

6. Don’t fear the re-write – I speak from experience when I say that you should not worry if you have to re-write some sections of those hard-won words. There are times when parts just don’t work, and all that is left is to go back to square one and start again. I remember all too well one particular section of one particular chapter that, try as I might, would not take shape. In the end, I had to re-write it six times. That’s right. But, after some of that life-choice questioning, and a fair few expletives, I eventually got the thing together. You will, too.

7. Find a good writing space – If you can, try to write in a place where you feel comfortable and able to concentrate. I know, sometimes it’s easier said than done, but it does help if you can write in a place where you can zone out and get going. It also helps to have copious amounts of tea, coffee, hot chocolate, [insert your hot beverage of choice].

I hope this list has helped if you are just starting to write your research, or if you are in its midst as we speak. However you write, just do your best to get the words on the page whenever you can, and you will do a great job. Good luck!

The PhD Files: Teaching

If you are currently in the midst of your PhD research, there’s a good chance you will be offered the opportunity to do some teaching. While the thought of turning from student to tutor may send shivers down your spine, fear not! Read on for some handy tips to help calm your nerves, and even enjoy it!

  1. You CAN do it! – Most of us suffer from imposter syndrome from time to time. It is perfectly normal to feel like you have no business acting as a tutor, and that it’s only a matter of time before someone realises you shouldn’t be doing it! I am here to promise you this is not the case. I know, because I felt that way when I taught my first ever undergraduate class (well, to be fair, my nerves hung around for a good few classes after that). It takes a while to gain experience, but with every class you head up, you’ll become a little more confident. So, take a deep breath and remember, everyone has to start somewhere, even those who look like they’ve never been nervous in their lives! (Spoiler: they most definitely have).

2. Ask for advice – If you feel like you’re floundering in the deep-end, remember, you can always ask your colleagues for help and advice. There’s no accounting for experience, and it’s pretty likely they will be happy to offer some words of wisdom. It might even be useful to sit in on a couple of their classes to see their approach. If you are going to do this, remember to ask first! Teaching isn’t one-size-fits-all, and you’ll soon find your own way.

3. Prepare – It may seem like an obvious one, but remember to give yourself plenty of time to plan your seminars and/or lectures. Again, don’t be afraid to ask for advice. Sometimes, your colleagues are willing to share content, which might come in handy, especially in your early classes. Remember, the aim of any seminar is to get your students thinking and talking, so you don’t have to plan every last second. Just make sure you have to hand a back-up point or two, in case conversation dries up! Some students are more vocal and willing to talk than others. Bear in mind, some will be nervous, too, especially in their first year.

4. In the seminar… – Depending on the size of your group, you have a number of options. If you have enough students, scheduling in some group work might be a good idea. This gives the students time to discuss ideas amongst themselves, and it also gives you some breathing time! If your class is too small for this, don’t despair, whole-group conversation is just as useful. Just remember, variety is the spice of life, so try to mix it up. I always found it useful to offer some brief background information on authors/poets/playwrights at the start of the seminar, especially if they were new to the students. I found on-screen presentations especially handy, as they introduce some visuals to the proceedings, and give the class something to focus on.

5. Marking – Your first attempt at marking assessments can be a daunting experience. Remember, you know your stuff, so just dig in! Try not drive yourself to distraction over a mark here and there. Remember, if you’re really worried, another member of staff will second-mark. After a couple of papers, you’ll get into your stride. Try to be fair with your feedback – put yourself in the student’s place. I always found it worked well to first give my positive feedback, before going on to offer constructive criticism later on.

6. Be yourself – Above all, try to enjoy the process! Be as supportive and encouraging as you can, and remember, you’re here because you should be. You know what you’re doing! After a while, you’ll start to feel more confident and you’ll find you own groove. No imposter syndrome necessary!

While you become tutor extraordinaire, I’ll be here for all your editing, proofreading, and transcription needs! Good luck, and see you next time.

The PhD Files: Conference Planning

In a previous post, we explored the different options available to you if you are thinking about attending a conference. Today, we’re sticking with the conference theme, but this time let’s take a look at what happens when you decide to plan your very own…

  1. It may sound obvious, but the first thing you should decide on is your conference theme. If possible, it’s a good idea to team up with another researcher in your field, preferably someone working in a similar area. Not only is working together very useful when it comes to sharing the load, it could also help you to narrow down the era or the topic on which you would like to base your conference. It’s also a good idea to think of potential titles at this point. You will need this for your marketing documents and any correspondence. If you are going to charge a fee for your conference, then now’s the time to think about that. You may want to offer a discount for students, and include lunch and refreshments!

2. Once you have your theme in place, you need to decide on the length of your conference. Day symposiums are useful because they don’t necessary entail additional planning such as guest accommodation and concurrent panel organisation. On the other hand, a conference held over several days (bear in mind, these are usually bigger, and are planned by organisations, or several departments) allows for more papers, and could entice more speakers. Whatever you decide, make this decision a priority so you can get your planning underway!

3. Now that you have your theme, it’s time to contact potential keynote speakers. It’s important to do this way ahead of the conference date, so that your speaker can schedule the event. Depending on your conference layout, you may want more than one keynote. Remember to give them as much information as you can in your invitation, and be very polite!

4. Once the keynote is locked in, you can think about marketing your event. A good place to begin is the all important ‘call for papers’. This is usually a relatively short flyer that outlines your conference title, the keynote speaker, the date, the venue (this can simply be the institution, and perhaps a building, don’t panic yet about a specific room), and a list of themes the papers may discuss. While this list certainly doesn’t need to be exhaustive, it gives potential speakers (or delegates) an idea of what they might expect. Remember, your conference doesn’t have to be focussed on one discipline, it can be beautifully multi-disciplinary! Include a deadline for proposals, so you have a date to aim for. Don’t forget to include an email address (perhaps create one especially for the conference so correspondence is all in one place) so that you can be contacted, and can receive those lovely proposals!

5. While you wait for the proposals to roll in, it might be useful to advertise your event on your institution’s social media. If you are a part of any academic bodies or organisations, then consider asking them to pop an ad in their next newsletter. They are usually more than happy to help out a colleague – they might even attend!

6. Once all the proposals are in, it’s time to get planning the schedule! Decide which papers are likely to be a good fit with your theme, and think about how you will separate the day. If you have a large conference, you could think about organising concurrent panels across the days, based on similarly themed papers. A smaller symposium could be split into smaller categories throughout the day. Don’t forget to leave time in your schedule for introductions, refreshments, and all-important lunch!

7. Once the lovely (but probably preliminary at this point) schedule is complete, you can begin to contact the speakers whose proposals you have accepted. It’s important to give them plenty of time to put together their paper. Keep in mind, it’s likely they’ll be pretty busy with research, teaching, and everything else in life, so you don’t want to rush them.

8. When everyone has confirmed their papers, and your schedule is pretty firm, you can think about printing your final schedule flyer and some advertising posters. Normally, your institution or organisation can help with printing. When they’re all ready, put them up, hand them out, and spread the word! Exciting!

9. While it may seem that most of the hard work is done, there are still quite a few things to remember! If you’re offering lunch and refreshments, don’t forget to book these. Check with your guests for specific dietary requirements. If you want to include name badges, start compiling a list of attendees’ names. Consider putting together a booklet outlining paper abstracts and a short biography of speakers. Not only is it useful, it also makes a nice souvenir!

10. If any of your speakers have accompanying presentations, it’s a good idea to have them e-mail these to you in advance so you can download them, ready for streamlined talks.

Organising a conference takes a lot of work, but it’s also well worth it. Don’t beat yourself up if you suddenly realise there’s something you’ve forgotten – unforeseen things happen! When the day comes, though you’ll be busy, try to relax and enjoy it! It’s a great sense of achievement to see it all come together. Good luck!