Monday, 1 December 2014

H is for HERRING (RED)

The eighth in an alphabetical series of blog posts: A-Z: An alphabetical journey through the doctoral experience. 

If analysis is the opportunity to sink into a sea of warm data, then drafting involves a treacherous journey in the depths.  Indeed, this blog comes to you from the treacly depths of thesis chapter drafting. It's inspired by a recent trip to what was once the second most important herring fishing ports in England (look it up if this has piqued your interest!  Or are you procrastinating...?!). It's a a tiny place, a dent in the cliffs, once cross-hatched with cobles, the distinctive north eastern fishing craft.

Herrings score highly in the omega-3 fatty acids stakes, they're a sociable species and commercially valuable.  But what of the proverbial red herring? Mercurial, darting down into the intellectual depths it tempts you with jewelled scarlet scales and its omega-3 overload.  How can you not follow it? And you do, rejoicing, until familiar boundaries drop away and suddenly you're disorientated, directionless on the sea bed.  Just as suddenly, the red herring is no more than a flash of scarlet ahead of you, disspating in the murky waters.  Then it's gone altogether, leaving you thinking - how the heck did I get here?!  Why have I spent the last fortnight thinking this was a productive use of my precious time?!  What has this got to do with my theoretical framework?!

Nothing for it but to somersault and turn back, seek something familiar, start (almost) over again...  

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

G is for GENDER (and other binaries)

The seventh in an alphabetical series of blog posts: A-Z: An alphabetical journey through the doctoral experience. 

The title of this post is intentionally provocative. I don't believe gender is a binary. This post is inspired by a recent trip to see British actress Maxine Peake playing Hamlet at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester.  About which, more in a moment... 

If you were asked to imagine a part-time, mature higher education student what image would come to mind?  I'm guessing there's a pretty good chance it would be a woman?  Statistically, that's well supported. Over 65% of part-time learners are female and as 90% of part-time learners are mature - well, you can do the maths!  But what are the potential consequences of stereotypical assumptions about these students?  Gendered assumptions about their identities, capabilities and needs? Invisibility of male part-time students and a lack of attention to their interests?  Reduction of a diverse group to a set of common attributes?

This is nothing new and not just in higher education.  But the reason it's important is that, firstly, UK higher education seems all too reliant on binary short cuts: traditional/non-traditional; mature/young; full-time/part-time; working-class/middle-class...  and of course, female/male.  These categories fail to depict the rich and complex diversity of each individual let alone whole student cohorts and have consequences in terms of policy and practice. Secondly, my doctoral research (on part-time, mature undergraduates and retention) attempts to challenge typical models of 'an HE student'.  Yet I find myself having to challenge my own tendency to essentialise, to label, to categorise - all for the convenience of reporting data.  Using excuses such as 'broadly' and 'overall' doesn't compensate for ignoring the potential for nuance and contradiction.  

Gender is nuanced, diverse and complex.  Gender is constructed.  Maxine Peake played Hamlet as a principal boy, flouncing and heroic.  She looked like a baby dyke (look it up).  Occasionally her Hamlet was a sulky teenager, gurning and sneering.  I'm happy Maxine got a juicy part to get her teeth into - too rare for so many actresses as excellent as she is.  I'm happy for the Royal Exchange Theatre that they've had to extend the run to meet the demand for tickets.  But somehow, I was disappointed by the production.  It all seemed too obvious. One of the most important tasks in my research is to depict the wide diversity of part-time students for what it is, not a flattened, convenient category but a population defying classification. 

Sunday, 14 September 2014


The sixth in an alphabetical series of blog posts: A-Z: An alphabetical journal through the doctoral experience. 

I've recently put together something I've called 'a fulfilment strategy'.  It's an action plan for networking, publication and gaining relevant experience during the final year of my doctoral research, in order to make myself as employable as possible.  Although I call it a 'fulfilment strategy' with my tongue firmly in my cheek, on reflection, it's not such a bad name.  

Ever since I started my doctoral research people have asked me 'What are you going to do with your PhD?'  Implying anything from 'How do you plan to make your way in academia?' to 'What the heck use is that?!'.  Because I'd had a torrid few years on the employment front prior to starting my PhD, I'd decided to give myself a whole two year sabbatical from thinking about paid employment.  Up until last month, I just shrugged my shoulders and said, truthfully: 'I really don't know at this point'.  What a gift, at my (middle) age, not to have to think too far into the future.

Having very recently embarked on my final year however, not only am I getting the 'So, what are you going to do with your PhD?' question with increasing regularity, but now it's something I'm asking myself too!  How am I going to capitalise on my increased capacity for critical thinking and writing, my enthusiasm for research in my field, the niche I'm in the process of carving out for myself?  How am I going to justify the significant personal, professional and financial investment I and others have made in these three years?  With the HE sector increasinly febrile and conflicted, with secure posts increasingly scarce and every decent job fiercely fought over, there is no certainty whatsoever that a woman who's just hit 50 is going to acquire any post that fits her skills, talents, expertise and potential, let alone her interests and ambitions!  

But as a friend observed recently: 'these are your halcyon days!'  She was right. She could see that I am already fulfilled - strategy or no strategy.  I suspect the question 'what are you going to do with your PhD?' is not the right question.  I'm doing doctoral research.  I love what I do and I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to do it, whatever it leads to.  Perhaps, the question should be 'what is your PhD going to do with you?' 

Friday, 1 August 2014


The fifth in an alphabetical series of blog posts: A-Z: An alphabetical journal through the doctoral experience. 

Twice a week, for my sins, I attend a spin class where I sit on a stationary bike and pedal hard for 45 minutes.  Someone very fit shouts instructions over loud music: stand up, sit down, resistance up, resistance down!  I travel nowhere but boy do I feel like I've covered some ground!  But of those 45 minutes at least 10 are spent 'in recovery' and that's before we stop pedalling at the end of the class. Recovery doesn't mean stopping.  We keep pedalling but the resistance is lowered and the muscles recover before the next, more challenging spurt.  This is, of course, a useful principle to apply to other areas of my life.

Such as my PhD!  I am working to a tight, three-year schedule.  I'm two years in and my third and final year is looming large on the horizon!  I didn't quite manage to complete my empirical research in the time I'd allotted; there's a few transcriptions outstanding; I know there's a mountain to climb in terms of data analysis and writing up.  Time to grit your teeth, buckle down and start climbing that hill you might say. 

But instead, I'm about to immerse myself in Lake District scenery and fresh air. There won't be an academic book, article or work email in sight for a few weeks. Don't be fooled though - I'm slowing not stopping and it's temporary.  My relationship with my research is maturing, more interesting than ever and as one of the Guardian's Anonymous Academics (also a mature doctoral student) has recently written the doctoral work is always running as a background programme throughout the day.  But over the next few weeks, just as in my spin class, I'm going to be significantly reducing the obvious effort in order to allow my PhD muscles to 'recover'.  Slower pedalling equals - I hope! - reinvigorating, creative thinking time.  And useful practice for next year too.  I have a strong feeling that knowing when, how and for how long to ease off is going to be an essential survival skill!

Friday, 18 July 2014

D is for DOTS

The fourth in an alphabetical series of blog posts: A-Z: An alphabetical journal through the doctoral experience. 

Living, as I now do, in Sheffield, dots have figured large in the last month or so (and I would argue that until the Tour de France concludes, it's legitimate to play on Tour de France references!). As the destination of stage 2 of the Tour de France's Grand Depart, Sheffield's houses, hoardings, bunting and cup cakes have featured the red dots of the tour's King of the Mountains maillot a pois rouge. In fact, so used have I become to the red dot, that I committed a faux pas at a conference last week and chattily assumed that the red dotty dress of the keynote speaker was an ironic reference to the King of the Mountains.  It was not. Cue: strange look from keynote speaker....!

Never mind.  The point of this is that, having nearly completed my data collection, I am now sitting on a large pile of data and am about to embark on new phase of joining the dots!  But what will this actually entail?  Pick up an (over-priced) children's puzzle book in a UK service station and joining the dots will mean creating a recognisable shape from a minimal outline.  So far, so simple. But in the world of academia (also overpriced?) joining the dots means finding a common thread binding multiple perspectives and data.  The first implies anticipating the shape of what my data adds up to and shaping the data to represent it.  The second implies heading into data analysis with a more open spirit, allowing opportunities for discovery, surprise, creativity and challenge.  I know which one appeals most.  I just hope I can hold my nerve in the face of limited time, resources, academic discourse... etc.!  

OK, here I go, I've got my dotty shirt on, ready to scale the heights! 

Monday, 30 June 2014


The third in an alphabetical series of blog posts: A-Z: An alphabetical journal through the doctoral experience. 

Very early on in my PhD 'career' I attended my first interdisciplinary doctoral seminar.  The rather glamorous academic facilitating it invited all participants to introduce themselves and their research topic before the discussion got started. I remember my jaw metaphorically dropping as as my fellow students rattled off their topics - not only because the terrifying way in which they rattled off complex theoretical perspectives without blinking, but also because at least half of the topics seemed deeply obscure.  Who in their right mind would self-fund a part-time doctorate in 5th century Chinese ceramics?  In comparison, my own research - on the retention of part-time students in English universities - seemed utterly prosaic. Did I imagine it, or did the facilitator raise one immaculately plucked eyebrow as I stammered out my research title? 

Currency.  Something bang up to date?  My research seems pretty damn current to me.  In fact, at times, this doctoral project feels like standing on a railway platform being buffeted by the windy blast of a non-stopping train! Events unfold so fast, my research already feels historical. Criteria used to select research participants is out of date by the time I arrive to interview them. On the one hand, it's rewarding to be so intimately involved with a topic that's in the news, in social media ... on the other hand it's frustrating to have to metaphorically turn away from that railway platform and freeze a moment in time in order to get the thing written. On the other hand (that's three hands...!) two years in, I now understand how your topic, whatever it is, part-time student retention or 5th century Chinese ceramics - winds itself tightly around you and octopus-like, reaches tentacles into just about every aspect of your life.  

Currency.  Something to barter with?  For all I know, there might be a significant shortage of scholars in ancient pottery.  If part-time students continue to decline at current rates, a doctorate in the intricacies of 5th century Chinese ceramics may prove a damn sight more marketable than one in part-time student retention.  My PhD could turn into ancient history before the train's left the station!  

Sunday, 1 June 2014

B is for BREVITY

The second in a new series of blog posts entitled: A-Z: An alphabetical journal through the doctoral experience. 

I'll keep this short.  Suffice to say that transcribing fieldwork interviews offers an excellent professional development opportunity in addition to reflecting on content.  Listening to myself asking painfully long-winded, multiple clause questions complete with sub-questions and asides has considerably improved my interview technique!  Notes to self: 

  • everyone benefits if the question word (how, what, why, when) is introduced early on;
  • don't be greedy - ask a maximum of one question at a time.  The point of follow-on questions is that they follow on;
  • cut the clauses! Otherwise you both forget how the question started out.
That's all folks!

Wednesday, 14 May 2014


Welcome to the first post in a new series of blog posts entitled: A-Z: An alphabetical journal through the doctoral experience. 

WARNING: this post is entirely subjective and not in the slightest bit generalisable.

A is for AUDIENCE.  As we all know, a 'good' academic conference is dependent on the coming together of multiple factors: location, venue, regularity of coffee supply, quality of the food/mattresses, how friendly the crowd is ... And the brilliance - or otherwise - of its keynotes.  

Truth is, we all spend a significant proportion of our time at these events, in the audience. How do you behave? Are you a tweeter (tweeting 'key messages' uncritically, every 2 minutes to your 40 followers to prove you're at the conference and haven't gone shopping)?  Or a noter (eagerly recording summaries of keynote presentations in files you'll never find again)?  A zoner (having established the irrelevance of the presentation to you, zoning out and unashamedly checking emails, sending texts, reading papers for forthcoming sessions)?  Or a zealot (spending most of the presentation barely containing yourself until questions are invited and you can shoot up your hand to make - at length- the point you have longed to make for the last 30 minutes concerning a minor issue relating to your own research)?   How often do we simply sit, listen, absorb and reflect, taking advantage of this valuable thinking time?

Of course, the likelihood of us doing that is significantly dependent on the quality of those keynotes.  To that end, calling all Presenters - the key point to remember at all times is that you HAVE an audience and that, other than your reputation, the point of inviting you to present at the conference is for you to a) communicate something b) meaningful and c) relevant.  This means that even if you are personage of significant standing and eminent reputation in your field, with a trolley-load of qualifications, accolades, titles and major research grants, please do not assume this entitles you to: 

a) refuse to use the available and working microphone when asked;
b) ignore the copious good practice advice for presentations and put 20 lines of closely spaced text on each slide;
c) read out those slides word for word;
d) begin your keynote by saying how delighted you are to be invited to speak at such a worthwhile conference but that you want to use the opportunity today to talk about something completely different;
e) pay no attention to time, assuming that your audience (or at least those that can hear you) will be so interested in what you have to say that they will joyfully forgo 20 minutes of coffee/networking/lunch/paper sessions. 

Let me conclude by recommending a couple of Nick Hopwood's handy blog posts on the subject:
making academic conference presentations more effective  
is your conference audience really listening?