Tag Archives: doctoral studies

Knowing when to stop

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I’m really enjoying my research at the moment. I know this will probably change over the next few months, but for the moment there it is. Enjoyment.

A few things are contributing to my current happiness:
1. Full-time on-campus study is working well for me. I have a routine, a stable workspace where I can have things set up ready to swing into action the moment I arrive, friendly but equally focused colleagues, and access to those secondary but important ‘parastudy’ items (coffee, food, wi-fi, library).
2. I seem to be hitting a good work-life balance – at least for the moment.
3. I’ve stopped recruitment and in a few weeks I will have completed my final interview.

It’s the third of those points that is the focus of this post.

After a rather lacking-in-confidence start, I’m now feeling at ease in my discussions with parents. I have my list of materials – audio-recorder, mapping tools, paperwork – pretty much down pat so I don’t foof around too much getting myself ready to go. I’ve had enough (and varied enough) conversations that although each one is different, I feel capable of responding to most unexpected situations. I have a few core questions that I (mostly) remember to ask in some form, depending on the flow of the discussion. And I know that if I was to stop right now, I have enough information upon which to build my thesis.

So why am I still going? This is something my supervisor has gently challenged me with recently, and I’ve been asking myself the same question. In some methodologies there is a clear guide to help answer this question: you state a particular number of questionnaires to be circulated and your sample is the number returned, for example. Or you code as you go, and stop when you reach saturation and no new ideas are emerging. For me, each interview brings a new slant on the topic. As unique as everyone’s situation is, every parent’s information will in some way be different to every other parent’s.

An added factor for me is that I enjoy the process of listening to the parents who are taking part in the study. It fascinates and energises me. I’m inspired and intrigued by them, and honoured that they trust me with their information.

So, at some point, I will need to draw that imaginary line in the sand and say ‘enough’. At that point, my study lurches into a new phase, and this is perhaps also why I’m putting off the line-drawing moment. It was easy enough to decide to stop recruiting; this did feel like hard work, sending out multiple slightly customised pleas for assistance to reach parents, going back with more information, explaining my ethics approval and why I can’t just change my public documents at will, waiting on all sorts of different agencies’ internal processes over which I had absolutely no control (‘could you just send an email about your study to … and they’ll have a look at it and get back to you’). Deciding to stop recruiting but remaining open to any further requests to participate that might trickle in from past advertising, has been a nice relaxed space to be in.

According to my project proposal and ethics approval, I’m aiming for 30 participants, with individual one-off meetings. There was some hesitation about whether this was too many (as my supervisor pointed out, this could result in a lot of data to manage, and I might stop seeing major new themes emerge well before I got to 30), although one of the academics on my proposal panel queried whether this would be enough to be able to obtain more widely useful findings. At the time I write this post, I’m anticipating a total of 25 parents, but I’ve changed my methodology slightly to accommodate some couples who wanted to meet together in the one discussion, and the option to have more than one meeting if the single one wasn’t enough or time was too constrained. As a result, the number of meetings and the number of parents doesn’t quite match.

I’m transcribing and jotting down my thoughts on emergent themes as I go, and I’m starting to draft my methodology chapter, but once I stop meeting with parents I will need to turn my attention fully to these tasks. And there, possibly, lurking just beneath my consciousness and occasionally popping up its fanged head, is The Thing. I know once I start that phase, the whole candidature moves into its final stages. The abstract ‘when I finish my thesis’ (somewhere, over the rainbow…) becomes a more concrete date. A dog walking over this concrete date would still leave paw prints, but it’s firming up as we speak. And I’m not sure I’m ready! Also, I know this next phase is the bit where people tell me I will start to hate my thesis, and I will start to hate my supervisor (I find that really hard to believe, but this is what I’m told) and it will all turn into a Great Big Tedious Drudge.

Because I feel ambivalent about concluding the interview phase, I’m hoping that my supply of interested parents will simply trickle away of its own accord, so that there will be no identifiable moment when I have to say ‘I’m sorry, I can’t meet with you, I’ve completed that phase of the study.’ On the other hand, at the moment it looks like I will have completed all the parent meetings a month ahead of schedule, which makes me happy. Maybe I’m ready to move ahead after all, knowing that there will always be people out there who have interesting things to tell, but who will need to do it some other way than through the this vehicle. Um, what’s a post-doc?

Building a pineapple

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I was reading a post by Pat Thomson on her wonderful ‘patter’ blog today check it out here, in the course of which she mentioned the phrase ‘chunks and pieces’. My mindfulness colouring-in book must be working, because my brain immediately started ticking over, making creative links…to pineapples. A tin of pineapple pieces is a very handy thing to have in your pantry. It can be thrown into a beef curry (my version, not anything that someone who had an actual curry heritage would have anything to do with) or stirred through a tuna mornay (and if either of my kids is reading this, I will know, because I’ll feel the draft created by their eyes whizzing around in their sockets…this is not a good thing, just to be clear, but I do like a bit of tinned pineapple in my tuna and white sauce) or, more conservatively, served with vanilla ice-cream or yoghurt.

Pat wasn’t talking about any of these things, mind you. Her post was much more useful, unless you’re looking for a quick tuna recipe, in which case I’m your girl. But the phrase got me grappling with a pineapple metaphor about writing a thesis. The thing is, last week I met with my supervisor and she reminded me gently that I really do need to start showing some more concrete evidence that I’m writing. Assuring her that I write often (which I do) is not really cutting it now. The issue is that I’m not writing anything that she gets to see. I’m a bit private. I’m like one of those pre-school kids who won’t try to read or write something until they know they can do it correctly, although they may be secretly trying and trying, by torchlight, under the doona where no-one can see and so if they mess it up no-one will laugh. Erm, am I giving too much of myself away here?

So I’m thinking about the pineapple idea, and thinking how it’s a bit like writing – we have little pieces of text, which get built up into chunks, and the chunks into rings, and eventually we’ll have a whole pineapple to submit. Except, oops, major limitation in this metaphor: once a pineapple has been cut into rings, and the rings into chunks, and the chunks into pieces, it can’t really be reversed. Uh-oh.

And so the point of this blog post is to say, beware of relying too heavily on metaphor. I love metaphor as a way of expressing concepts, personally, but you really do have to be careful not to extend things beyond their natural elasticity. My supervisor is getting to know me well, and knows that it’s time for a little prod. She’s also absolutely right that I need to come up with an outline of my methodology chapter (this week’s goal) and I need to show it to her (next week’s goal).

I have lots of little pineapple-pieces of text lurking away in Scrivener*. I probably have the majority of my Methodology outline sitting in there already. So now, I just need to publish this post and turn my attention to building a pineapple…

*Free plug for this software, btw, if you’re looking for something that you can write in a non-linear way. Somewhat akin to doing a jigsaw but with pieces that you cut out and colour in as you go (oooh, was that another metaphor I just spied?)

** By the way, I do understand the difference between metaphor and analogy. I know I’ve mixed them up a bit in this post. Think of it as having a few cherries thrown in with your pineapple and ice-cream. Let’s not think too deeply about this one.

Reading is not a luxury

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As I type this, I’m sitting beside a pile of printed articles waiting to be read, absorbed, summarised and filed away somewhere that will make sense when the time comes to look at them again. I’m really interested in what a lot of them have to say, but I just don’t ever seem to have time to read them. Each day, I receive alerts via my email and discover more gems, the abstracts of which I duly check and if they look extremely relevant (I’m getting much more discerning as this degree proceeds) I print them out and add them to the pile.

I’ve been feeling quite a bit of subtle stress as a result of this pile of paper. It sits there like a well-trained dog waiting to be fed or walked. You know the look – eyes fixed on you, motionless with quiet canine focus, apart from maybe the occasional quiver and deep-throated mutter (I swear my pile of papers mutters to me from time to time).

I like reading. In fact, I love reading. My relaxation of choice is to curl up with a book and lose myself in someone else’s ideas. So why am I finding it so difficult to get into this pile of stuff that is interesting, and relevant, and useful – in fact, of critical importance if I’m to complete my degree? What’s my problem?

As I looked at the pile again today out of the corner of my eye (trying to focus on writing a presentation for a forum this afternoon) it suddenly occurred to me – reading keeps being put off becauseĀ it feels like a luxury!

As I posted last month, I’m in a writing group, because being in a group that writes together seems to help each of us individually to be more productive. No-one has ever suggested a reading group, but maybe it’s an equivalent kind of focus and motivation that I need to simply sit down and read. I have a tendency to skim, or walk around with an article in one hand while making a cup of tea or stirring the dinner with the other (I have indeed been known to walk into lamp-posts because of my reading-while-walking behaviour. It’s a bit humiliating.)

The trouble with walking and reading is that, although it’s better than no reading at all, there are some kinds of reading that need a particular degree of focus. One author I read early on in my doctoral life, whose name I can’t for the life of me remember (please remind me if you know who I’m thinking of), was clear that your physical posture when reading academic documents should be different form that of recreational reading. No couch-slouching for journal articles – these should be read sitting up at a desk, with a pencil, ruler and highlighter handy. The ruler should be used to scroll down the page, ensuring that your eye doesn’t skip ahead, feeding fragmented information into your brain.

It’s worth trying this, even if (like me) you consider that you’re a very good reader. It really does make a difference. It also means that recreational reading still feels like a different activity, so there’s some in-built containment between compartments of your life.

Now, I’m fully aware that some people find reading difficult and tedious at the best of times. I can’t imagine doing doctoral studies if this is your perspective, because both the quantity and the substance of the type of reading you will have to do (there’s no escape) is beyond anything you’re likely to encounter anywhere else. But if you’re reading this, chances are you are not a reluctant reader, because reluctant readers are unlikely, I think, to go searching blogs for more things to read.

I’m interested to hear from other doctoral students, whether PhD or otherwise – how do you approach your reading? Have you kept reading while collecting and analysing your data, or has it been pushed aside until it’s time to revisit your lit review? And what effect have your doctoral studies had on your recreational reading?

And I’m particularly interested in whether anyone’s tried setting up a peer reading group, and what you learned from that experience.