Category Archives: PhD reflections

On another matter…

After my initial tentative approach to blogging, over the last few years I have come to appreciate that personal, individual blogs are a really helpful medium for both the writer and (hopefully) the reader. But there is also immense value in a following (and contributing) to a blog that has regular, multiple and varied contributors who share a range of perspectives on a similar topic. One such blog that I can highly recommend is run by the University of Stirling’s ProPEL group – ProPEL Matters:

ProPEL Matters is the blog for ProPEL (Professional Practice, Education and Learning), a cross-disciplinary network of people interested in researching matters of interest across a wide range of occupational groups that call themselves ‘professions’.

I was recently asked to write a post for this blog on Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and my experiences of getting to grips with it. I decided to write about how one of the most enjoyable yet mind-bending challenges during my thesis work has been getting to grips with the powerful terms and vocabulary used in ANT. I’d be honoured if you would check it out at Metaphorically speaking: Word play in Actor Network Theory. Its a wee bit similar to my post If the shoe fits… but has a good go at integrating the use of metaphors in ANT. While you are on the site, please check out the rest of the fantastic posts! Happy browsing.

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Return of the Mac(book)

August 2017. That’s THE deadline. I’m putting it out there as further motivation to get.this.thesis.submitted. I’ve been quiet on the blogging, and working, front for the last 18 months or so due to welcoming my little buddy into the world. But I’m now back writing. The poor chap has already been dragged to supervision meetings. He’s not a fan of theory yet, but is quite happy to help me highlight journals:

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Reading buddy

Having a substantial period of time away from the thesis has been good for perspective, both for seeing my work more clearly, and for appreciating a work/life balance. Also, with my buddy in nursery now for 3 days a week, it puts a different value on my time for writing. It’s tough balancing the sleepless nights, teething and weaning with trying to write a polished final draft, but it only goes to reinforce the realities of doing a PhD: you can’t put your life on hold. And seeing this face at the end of a day writing only makes me want the PhD even more to secure a good job and future for him.  Onwards…

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Two steps forward, one step back…

This is the continuous dance of the PhD and the writing process. There is nothing wrong with this gauche sequence. Some steps are slow and faltering; others resemble a fast quickstep. One step takes you sideways, another forces you back. Throw in a full twirl after the one step back, and there’s the feeling that everything is momentarily thrown off-balance. And then the music rightens you and you take another step. Although the band is there to support you and encourage your steps to follow one after another, this a solo number. One step after the other, what ever direction that may be.

Yesterday I witnessed the best dance sequence of the whole PhD process. Each step taken was calm, proud, determined. Each step was in one coherent direction: forward. Across a stage, in front of a friends, family and teachers. In front of a silenced band. Yesterday I was incredibly proud to watch the graduation dance of my colleague and officedog muse, Dr Maureen Michael, from the School of Education, University of Srirling. We started the PhD process at the same time and know each others weaknesses and strengths better than we do our own. It has been an absolute privilege to see such a close colleague successfully audition for the most important performance of her life. It has provided me with such beautiful proof that this awkward dancing is not in vain. I look forward greatly to following in her steps next year. One step after the other, forward.

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Congratulations Dr Mo! xx

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If the shoe fits…

We have a rule in our house. No recounting your sleep dreams to each other…

So last night I had this crazy dream, I was in Tokyo and I was carrying three talking chipmunks in my backpack, when…

Zippit, my loved one. Not on my time. This dream-event never happened and, in this current dimension, most likely never will. Therefore, this is a selfish monologue of which I want no part. Take it to Russell Grant.

However, for this blog I have decided to break with this rule just once (and for which I duly apologise, but I’ll make the ‘dream’ bit as short as possible).

A few nights ago, I dreamt I took into a shoe repair shop five pairs of patented, high-heeled shoes that needed re-heeling. The cobbler lined them up on the counter and asked,

“Ah, I see these are Latour shoes. Can’t you wear something that is more comfortable? These look very awkward to walk in”.

“No, no”, I replied, “I need to attend all these events this year and I must wear these Latour shoes to look the part. As you can see, they’ve taken a bit of a bashing as I’ve tried to break them in, but they’re getting more comfy.”

“Ok”, she replied, “that will be £55”

“£55!!”, I remember exclaiming – and this is when I realised I have been a student too long – “Do you do student discount?” and brandished my student card.

I got them dream-repaired for £46 – result!

So, this dream sequence stayed with me over the next few day and got me thinking about how we choose the terminologies we work with, or even as we try to shoe horn them in, when analysing and theorising our data. I won’t be the first to admit that learning about ANT has been like learning a whole new language where the wrong subject-object-verb configuration can reveal you as an ANT interloper. Each word has to be carefully picked up, held against the light, and inspected for its suitability and sense-making for an ANT-styled sentence. After all, the description in ANT is the analysis.

However, appropriating terminology adopted, or created, by fellow ANT authors is only affording me to make sense of my data to a point. I am struggling to find the right combination of words to fully express my analytical concepts. At my last supervision, it was suggested that I could start shaping my OWN terminology to help me conceptualise my data!! This is probably the biggest, scariest outcome of my PhD process so far. I now have a RESPONSIBILITY to add to a new language – a new way of describing – that needs to make sense of a very complex ontology. So, I am excited, but nervous, as I start playing around with new configurations of words, verb conjugations and meanings. ‘Playing’, I think, is the key notion here. I am allowing myself some time to play with the words and this can only help my thinking process as I cut, paste, delete, paste, cut, and delete some more. I am hoping in the next few months I can start replacing those dream high-heels with a few pairs of lovely comfy flip flops that won’t make my feet hurt so much….

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Reflections on using a mixed methods approach in education research

I do wonder if I should doff my researcher cap more to statistics. Don’t get me wrong; I have an inherent prejudice of words over numbers when it comes to research. Yet a recent experience working on an education project at Edinburgh Napier University allowed me to realise the value that a statistical analysis can bring when using it alongside qualitative research – known as a mixed methods approach. Mixed methods is defined nicely by John Cresswell (2007) as:

a research design with philosophical assumptions as well as methods of inquiry. As a methodology, it involves philosophical assumptions that guide the direction of the collection and analysis of data and the mixture of qualitative and quantitative approaches in many phases in the research process. As a method, it focuses on collecting, analyzing, and mixing both quantitative and qualitative data in a single study or series of studies. Its central premise is that the use of quantitative and qualitative approaches in combination provides a better understanding of research problems than either approach alone. (p. 5)

Our small team was interested in investigating novel feedback initiatives for Higher Education students, and our research questions were very much led by our desire to understand what worked (I do wonder if I am a pragmatist at heart…). Our large sample size (710 students) meant it seemed almost rude not to invite statistical analysis into the research design. This, we felt, would help us see a pattern in our results – a trend – while interviews would allow us to probe into the ‘why’s’ behind these patterns.Whilst I and another qualitative researcher geared up the tape recorder for interviews and focus groups galore, the PI for the project flexed his statistical software in anticipation for some serious number crunching. Each of us were relieved the other was doing the ‘hard part’ of the research.

An in-depth explanation of this project and our rationale for choosing to work with a mixed methods approach can be found in our chapter in SAGE Research Methods Case “Mixed-Methods Research in Education: Exploring Students’ Response to a Focused Feedback Initiative“, but in this post I thought it would be useful to summarise some suggestions of what we, as individual researchers, learnt from working together in a mixed methods collaboration.

Working in a mixed methods research group can stimulate intellectual curiosity

It is unusual for a researcher to be ‘methodologically bilingual’: able to work equally comfortably with both quantitative and qualitative methods. Therefore, working on a research project with others who have strengths in different data collection techniques or analysis is a fantastic learning opportunity. For example, I managed to apply my statistical understanding that I had learnt in my MRes stats class to a real-world problem thanks to the PI’s love of explaining ANOVA tests.

Giving time to discuss your different viewpoints before you begin the research

As quantitative and qualitative methods can be argued to stem from different ontological and epistemological standpoints, it is important to discuss upfront how these will affect the study’s design. We made sure we were comfortable sharing our views because it led to a deeper and more equal understanding of each method’s strengths and weaknesses.

Considering publishing and funding opportunities before you start a mixed methods project

Some funders may be particularly keen to fund only quantitative or qualitative work, not a mix of the two. It is useful to be aware of any biases from particular research communities before applying for funding. Furthermore, writing up mixed methods projects for publications can be challenging as you have basically collected two different sets of data for one project and these need to be succinctly yet thoroughly represented within a strict word count. Therefore, it’s worth not only checking the word count required by different journals, but also making sure that the journal is ‘open’ to reviewing mixed methods research.

I would definitely work with mixed methods research again, but I still feel I’d need a statistical ‘expert’ to accompany me on the project. That in itself is a bonus as it’s much more fun working in a group than going solo (especially when the team exemplifies the Thesis Whisperer’s Circle of Niceness!).

References:

Cresswell, J. (2007). Understanding mixed methods research. In J. W. Creswell, & V. L. Plano Clark (Eds.), Designing and conducting mixed methods research (pp. pp. 1–19).Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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‘Methods in Action’: a practical resource for teaching research methods

This autumn I had a chance to shake up my academic writing style. I loved it. The piece I wrote wasn’t for a book chapter, a magazine article or a blog post. It was for a new initiative commissioned by SAGE: Cases in Methodology.

Editors at SAGE have been collecting over 500 case studies from researchers around the world, who are working from a range of disciplines and with all number of different research methods, to compile a resource for the teaching of research methods.

This resource aims to provide its readers with succinct descriptions and examples of particular research projects conducted in recent real-world settings, providing a bridge between abstract methodological concepts and the realities of practice. These cases either describe the course of the whole ‘research project’ (with a specific focus on the methodology, any problems encountered and how these were addressed) OR a ‘methods in action case’, which explores how a particular method, say conversation analysis, can be applied to a research project (with an emphasis on the resulting strengths and weaknesses of the method).

Presented to students, these ‘cases’ aim to disrupt the neat, idealistic research methods presented in charts and textbooks, and offer insights into the messier, more fluid and emergent reality of conducting research in the ‘real world’.

What I particularly enjoyed about writing for this publication was that the driving objective of openness encouraged a different style of writing.  This meant letting go of the often distanced, formal style of journal writing and engaging in a more personal, reflective and honest narrative.  Working with two colleagues, I compiled a ‘methods in action case’, that focused on the strengths and weaknesses of using a mixed methods approach in a Higher Education research project that explored feedback initiatives. So ingrained were all of our writing styles to fit with ‘typical’ journal publications that we had to rewrite the piece a number of times to break out of our habits. Drafts were all peer-reviewed and critically appraised for quality, interest and accessibility, yet the ‘typical’ journal formatting and style was turned on its head. For example, we were encouraged to include:

  • lots of bullet points and subheadings
  • first person pronouns
  • limited citations, jargon and references
  • practical conclusions, learning outcomes and discussion questions
  • a ‘further reading’ list

Furthermore, the reflective and open writing style of this case collection demonstrates that – be it for a student or a professor – every research project provides an opportunity for the researcher to learn more about research methods. How can we not keep learning, when each real-word research situation is open to so much variation and uncertainty?

For me, the mixed methods project we presented in our case was a huge learning experience, not least because I had a limited understanding of statistical analysis. To share my thoughts, mistakes and insights about using a mixed methods approach with other students through this ‘methods in action case’ I think will equal, and even surpass, the value and usefulness we would gain from publishing the project findings.

In a future blog, I will share some of my learning outcomes, strengths and weaknesses from using a mixed methods approach. For now, SAGE Cases in Methodology will be available in libraries shortly so look out for it!

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Playing the ‘A’ game: Opening up the black-box of academic publishing

If, like me, you are new to the academic publishing game, have you ever wondered what happens to your work once your tightly crossed fingers have pushed the ‘submit’ button on the impersonal manuscript submission site? Where does it go? What decisions are being made about your paper submission ‘on the other side’? I was offered the chance last week to attend a Paper Development Masterclass at the Centre for Professional Service Firms, Cass Business School (City University London). This masterclass was designed to offer early career researchers a peek inside this publishing black-box.

The day began with a panel discussion led by editors from the ‘A’ ranked journals Human Relations (HR), Administrative Science Quarterly (ASQ), Journal of Management Studies (JMS) and Journal of Professions and Organization (JPO). The discussion centred on the decision-making process of how editors, and then reviewers, decide whether or not to publish your blood, sweat and tears. Although there were some differences between how each journal made their decisions, there were many similarities that, taken together, can be read as sound advice for PhD students looking to publish their thesis work in top journals that address organisation, professions, work and management research.

Firstly though, let’s set the scene. The editor-in-chief at HR describes a week in the life of a journal editor:

Every Monday morning, at around lunchtime, I receive this week’s abstracts. I skim the abstracts, thinking: Do they fit the journal in terms of style and scope? HR is interested in studying social relations in and around work – does the abstract address issues concerning this area? If I think it does, I will offer the paper to one of my team of editors[1]. Therefore, for me, the abstract is the most important part of the submitted paper.

My associate editors will then read the paper in more detail before deciding if it should be given a ‘desk rejection’ (i.e. a straight-out rejection, with no offer of a review and resubmit). My editors are asking themselves, can this manuscript be made into a publishable paper with reasonable effort? There is a 50% chance the paper will get rejected within 7 days of submission.

If the paper is successful, it will get sent to 3 referees [or ‘reviewers’]. The key words listed on the paper help me locate preferable referees. Once these referees have reviewed the paper, a mutual decision will be made in 10 weeks. Although there is a high rate of rejection at this stage, those who have submitted a paper should at least receive detailed, constructive feedback about how to improve their paper, or what the areas of concern are for the referee.

ScientificReview

Therefore, before submitting your manuscript, it’s worth thinking about what questions the reviewers will be asking themselves as they read your paper. The editors provided the following advice [paraphrased]:

  • Does this paper fit with the journal’s tradition and debates? Tip: Think about which journal would be good for your paper. Firstly, look at who sits on the editorial board – are you familiar with their work? Do any of the papers you read publish in this journal? Do you read, and like reading, the journal? What do the special issues address?  If you are really not sure if your paper is appropriate for the journal, you can email and ask the editor, but be prepared for a lukewarm response – the editors are careful not to lead the person on after just reading an emailed abstract.
  • Has this paper got a meaningful point? What is this paper all about? Tip: State your meaning and purpose of the paper directly and clearly in the abstract. What is the gap/problem you are trying to address?
  • Is the language clear? [N.B. The editors are not as concerned with grammatical accuracy but more about what the author is trying to say] Tip: Get your paper read by others to check for clarity, i.e. at conferences, or by your supervisor and PhD peers.
  • Does this paper have a genuine motivation? Who is this going to be of interest to? Tip: Again, state this clearly in your introduction: ‘This is interesting to/for…’
  • Are there some basic problems with methods? If it’s a qualitative study, is there enough data? If it’s quantitative, have you used the correct statistical analysis? Tip: Pay adequate attention to your methods section and make sure you have provided a detailed description and rationale of how you have analysed the data.
  • What is this paper’s contribution to theory? What are the findings? Tip: Again, state clearly what your actually findings are and what it means for the audience. Don’t forget, your findings can inspire other researchers outside of your specific area.

The editors also provided advice on what happens once a paper is either accepted or rejected [again, paraphrased]:

What happens if your paper is accepted but the reviewers suggest amendments? Most journal reviewers will give you their comments in a written email. You should look to read, think about and address every single line of their comments. You can accept those comments you think are insightful or useful, and make the necessary amendments, or reject them if you do not agree. Write a cover letter to explain your rationale for why you did or did not make the amendments – use this cover letter to engage in a conversation to make sure the reviewer feels like they have been listened to. Get someone to read through your amended paper. It should not be sent out unchanged because most journals will use the same reviewers again!

What happens if your paper is rejected? There may be the usual feelings of anger and denial, but once you have got a handle on this, read through the feedback – you will find lots of positives. You could readjust it for another journal. If you do, make sure you take on board the suggestions for improvements.

Finally, the editors made the point that it is important to be realistic when aiming to publish in these ‘A’ journals[2]. The success rate of getting your work actually published is quite low. For example, the editor of HR noted that they receive around 500 submissions a year, and 85% of these get rejected. JMS receive between 900 and 1000 papers annually and only 3-4% are published.

Although I found this panel discussion illuminating, for myself and other PhD students, I can see how these stats can seem incredibly disheartening. However, the editors stressed that they were keen to consider submissions from PhD students because their work is often some of the most interesting, ground breaking and contemporary work to read. Also, the editors acknowledged that publishing in ‘A’ journals isn’t the be all and end all for guaranteeing employment post-PhD: making sure the person applying is well suited to the research project and has the desired capacities to work with the project team is more important for employers than 10 publications in ‘A’ journals. I’ll withhold my judgement on that until my time comes to apply for jobs… but in the mean time, there’s no harm in aiming high!


[1] JMS differs slightly from HR in that you are allowed to specify who you want your editors to be, or not be. It’s worth having a look at who sits on the board and, if you request them, make sure you cite their work!

[2] This discussion is specific to these particular journals that are ranked as ‘top’ journals. So, although the figures may seem dispiriting to the reader, many other journals are less competitive with higher acceptance rates.

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