ECR reflections on #AARE2016

welcome drinks at the Melbourne Cricket Ground

welcome drinks at the Melbourne Cricket Ground

As a neophyte researcher less than five years post doctoral completion, I get to claim the label of ‘early career researcher’ or ‘ECR’. I’ve just this week returned from the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) national conference, which provides excellent opportunities for an Australian early career researcher in the field of education: presenting, attending, connecting and thinking.

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Presenting

I was a last minute delegate at AARE this year, so didn’t present myself, but presenting last year was a highlight. ECRs can present alone (but papers are usually grouped with other thematically-like papers), with other ECRs, or with more experienced academics and professors. These presentations are important in helping to refine ideas and develop thinking, of both audience and presenter. While there are some ineffective discussants and unhelpful non-questions from audience members, discussion time after a presentation can be a great opportunity for the presenter to clarify and extend their thinking, thanks to questions, comments and provocations from the audience.

Presenting is also important for refining the precision and effectiveness of your science communication. How have you titled your presentation? How have you designed your slides? How have you distilled the essence of your paper down to a 20 minute presentation? The decision making required in order to present helps to refine ideas, clarify theory and fine-tune language.

Attending

The sessions at AARE are arranged around a number of Special Interest Groups including: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research; Arts Education and Practice; Assessment and Measurement; Educational Leadership; Gender, Sexualities and Cultural Studies; a number of school-subject specific SIGs; Politics and Policy; various theories and philosophies; Professional and Higher Education; Social Justice; methodologies; and Teacher Education and Research Innovation.

This year I was able to spread my time between sessions relevant to my own research and practice, and those that interested me outside of my normal bubble, such as a session on the intersections and interactions between academia and the media, and a particularly indulgent session on theory and writing, which buoyed and provoked me. That theory session, while not seeming directly relevant to much of my work and research, will influence my writing and the ways I consider research and practice.

One thing that struck me this year was what I learned as an ECR watching more experienced academics. Some of the sessions I attended involved very experienced academics presenting as-yet-unformed ideas. They were sharing and modelling the ways in which they explore a theorist they are reading for the first time, or work through a newborn idea. The vulnerability of these academics–willing not to present the workings-out of their practice and not just the result of layered years of thinking–was a great example to ECRs of embracing what we don’t know. Not only do we evolve as researchers over time, but we can embrace knowing what we don’t know and celebrate working through discomfort to interrogate those gaps.

Connecting

As I attended AARE last year in Fremantle, and I also presented at the AERA (the American Educational Research Association) conference this year, I began to see patterns of those who attend these conferences and those who are active in the research community and in particular SIGs. As I am active on Twitter, there were many additional familiar faces in the room. That’s one thing I love about Twitter – that it allows me to walk into a room in which I’ve barely met anyone, yet feel like I know a number of people.

The AARE conference is a great opportunity to connect with academics across a wide range of Australian and international universities, who approach education research in a variety of ways, through multiple different lenses. Many experienced or well-known academics are very open to meeting ECRs, and most are incredibly generous with their time and their advice. And the great thing about kicking on to dinner with a bunch of researchers is that it’s a wonderful opportunity to go full-nerd and explore all kinds of real and theoretical possibilities in a conversational environment. A Melbourne cocktail or two only adds to the conversation. I can see the potential for many a collaboration or co-authorship to be sparked at an AARE conference.

Additionally, editors from academic publishing firms like Routledge and Sage are at the conference venue, so it is a great opportunity to discuss your book idea.

Thinking

A conference like AARE provides a wonderful opportunity to break from the daily routine and think. While the program is busy, it allows delegates to listen to, cogitate on and talk about those arenas of research and education in which they wish to immerse themselves. The time and space for this kind of immersion and thinking is an excellent opportunity in itself.

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Having been conferred my PhD earlier this year, I am an ECR, but I am also a teacher and school leader. I’m a boundary spanner, a ‘pracademic’, traversing and often transgressing the boundaries between practice and theory, doing and research. The AARE conference allows me to indulge intellectually in the education sphere, and to engage in current thinking in educational research.

I live and breathe teaching and leading for most of the year, but here for a few days I get to engage with multiple lenses for considering and improving that work. What does current educational research have to say about areas of practice? How might I—as teachers, school leader and researcher—positively influence my own contexts, as well as broader narratives of education?

AARE provides the time, space and stimulation to help me do this. No doubt I’ll be back for the next round: Canberra 2017.

Writing productivity this Academic Writing Month #AcWriMo 2016

acwri at Melbourne airport

acwri at Melbourne airport

November isn’t just Movember and Dinovember. It’s also Academic Writing Month (#AcWriMo), the time for academics to publicly shout their writing goals from social media soapboxes everywhere. Ironically, at the moment work is taking over all my working and spare hours and my academic writing pipeline is suffering from inertia as a result. I haven’t been able to make the time to acwri, despite making constant lists that include acwri targets (respond to revisions! write draft paper! scope out argument! complete literature review!).

For me, academic writing is both unpaid work and a labour of love. While I don’t need academic publications for the work I do in my school, I write journal and conference papers because a) I think my research and writing have something to offer, something to say, and b) I enjoy the writing, the writing-thinking, the off-shoots of ideas from my PhD thesis that I now get to play with, and opportunities for co-authorship.

This blog both gets in the way of my academic writing and helps with it. It takes time and discipline to blog (I try to blog at least once a week, usually on a Friday), but I find that blogging keeps my writing wheels oiled and turning, which flows over into my scholarly writing. By blogging weekly, I never feel out of writing practice, even during these times when my academic writing slows to a barely perceptible drip.

Despite my inertia of the last few weeks, I share below some of my own approaches to academic writing productivity. I could call this ‘5 tips for productive writing’, but I agree with Naomi Barnes that tips aren’t always helpful.

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Count more than you can count

I wrote last AcWriMo that successful writing is more than word counts. Sure, sometimes it’s motivating to hit a word count milestone. Every time I hit a 10,000 word number during my PhD felt like I was getting closer to somewhere, something, the end product.

If, like me, you write a lot and often too much, it can be satisfying to cull words, to watch the count go backwards. I cut 15,000 words from my PhD in the final editing stages. There’s joy in word cutting, too. Refining, pruning excess, making the writing better, stronger, clearer.

Sometimes it’s useful to use a Pomodoro timer or a bomb timer to give a sense of writing focus and urgency. I rarely use timers, but I often write to the time I have. One hour while the kids nap. Forty minutes between weekend commitments. Stolen moments before the family wakes. Having such little writing time means that I am highly absorbed when it comes. There’s no time to be distracted, dithery or unfocused. I prepare writing goals and materials for the times I map out, and when they arrive I write like a tropical cyclone.

Write where it works for you

I need quiet or a steady hum to write. Total silence works, but I can’t often get silence, or even solitude, at home, unless my husband takes our sons out.

A busy café with indiscernible noise also works for me. I love writing in cafes because a) I don’t feel alone as I‘m surrounded by people, b) I’m not distracted by domestic chores, c) there’s good coffee and d) it can make writing seem more pleasurable, like a holiday or an indulgence. I love the low hum of indistinguishable conversation as the soundtrack to writing.

I even considered acknowledging some of my favourite writing cafes in m PhD acknowledgments. The owners and baristas recognised me. I was the polite woman who would sit alone, drinking two coffees over two hours, tapping away at my keyboard or shuffling through annotated drafts. Quarantining myself in a public space for a specific block of time allowed and motivated me to just write.

Write when it works for you

Know your most productive times. I am at my best between 7am and 11am. This is when I zing with energy, ideas and the kind of focus that means that words and solutions come easily.

I am at my productivity worst from about 3pm to 6pm, during which I usually have the least physical and mental energy. Then I have a strange energetic renaissance between 8pm and 10pm, which are often the hours that I blog. Yet, sometimes in the evening I am too tired for anything but the most menial tasks: calendar entries, checking references, basic admin. I’ve learned that it’s better to close the laptop rather than stare uselessly in a kind of slo-mo catatonia.

To write my PhD, I had to leverage my best writing times and avoid my worst ones. There’s nothing more frustrating than spending time writing and not getting anywhere.

Use the in-between times

The shower, sleep, a walk, standing at the checkout, taking children to the park. These are all opportunities for cogitation and idea percolation. I often find, especially if I know I’ll be racing between commitments, I will deliberately plant a writing problem in my mind by thinking deeply on it for a time, and then let go of it, knowing that my brain will somehow continue to chip away at it while I do other things. Sometimes I revisit the problem mindfully, and sometimes a solution or idea will bubble up, unsolicited. Our writing solutions and growth often happen while we aren’t watching.

Work with others

I am new to co-authorship, but am finding that the writing relationships I am now nurturing push me beyond the kind of thinking I do on my own. I’m exploring new theorists and fresh methods. Collaborative writing can grow us beyond our writing selves.

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Despite my inactivity thus far this #AcWriMo, I appreciate the social media reminders of the importance of academic writing, and of making time and space for it. This is true even for someone like me who is on the academia outer, an adjunct and a practitioner in another field.

I can give myself permission to ride the ebbs and flows of work, writing, parenting and being a friend/spouse/daughter/sister/colleague. For now I will keep scribbling my acwri lists, keep revisiting my acwri goals, keep putting my eye to my acwri pipeline. I’ll get it moving again soon.

PhD: The gift that keeps on giving

my bespoke graduation shoes

my bespoke graduation shoes

I submitted the PhD last October. I finished my corrections in March. My doctorate was conferred in April. I wrote blog posts about completion: how it felt, struggling with my doctorness, what happens in Australian PhD examination.

So it should feel long ago done-and-dusted by now, right? I should have nothing left to say about the PhD.

Yet I still have PhD reflections and I feel as thought I am still having PhD experiences. I’ve remained in a doctoral Voxer group because the after-the-PhD bit still feels like part of the PhD journey. I continue to blog about the PhD as I am still reflecting on its processes, products and outcomes, some of which emerge overtime.

Here are some of the ways that the PhD keeps on giving …

Academic writing

The wonderful thing about completing the thesis and having it passed is that it frees you up to write more tightly-woven pieces from your PhD literature, method, data and findings. Pat Thomson has recently written a very useful post on how to find journal articles in and from the doctoral thesis. You can look for interesting pieces relevant to particular journals, new ways of looking at your data, specific fields in which your work has something to add. This bit—in which you realise that your work has something to offer scholarly conversations and that you can create new offshoots of writing so that it to be heard in appropriate fields—is empowering and even fun. I’m even becoming better at seeing peer review as a growth process in which I am privileged to participate, rather than an ordeal to be endured.

The three solo-authored peer-reviewed journal articles I’ve had published (or accepted for publication) so far include one on coaching as a professional learning intervention, one around the use of literary metaphor as method in academic writing and one on my findings around professional learning (in press). I have a co-authored paper on method that is under review. I have an ethics paper I’m working on with my supervisors. I have a book chapter in preparation which re-considers my school leader data through a new lens, in a previously unfamiliar field. I have more ideas about what bits and pieces of my thesis might have to offer before I retire it. The more I read and write, the more possibilities I see for reporting on or re-seeing my PhD work.

Acknowledgements

I’ve been told that my PhD adds credibility to my voice when I present and to the work that I do. My thesis has been downloaded from the university website over 250 times since it was uploaded in March. I’m not sure where this number sits in terms of metrics for dissertations, but it does suggest that my thesis is being read (or at least filed away with the intention of reading it).

I’ve been acknowledged via the 2016 ACEL New Voice in educational Research scholarship, which I’ll be receiving in Melbourne in September. My thesis has also been nominated for the Outstanding Research Award in Cognitive Coaching.

Formal recognition of the completed work of the PhD remind me of its worth. Informal feedback, too, in which scholars or PhD candidates get in touch with me to let me know how my work has been influential for them, is also thrilling.

Graduation and the floppy hat

While I’ve been conferred my doctorate and therefore can call myself ‘doctor’, my actual graduation ceremony isn’t until next month.

This is when I get to go up on stage to receive my printed degree. I didn’t attend graduation for my undergraduate degree, but for the PhD I feel like I need this rite of passage, this moment of celebration. To embrace the pomp and find closure in the ceremony. It’s somehow not enough to get the piece of paper delivered to my letterbox.

Unlike Finnish Doctors of Philosphy, who get to wear a top hat and sword as part of their regalia, I get to don a gown, a red-satin-lined hood and the black velvet Tudor bonnet (aka the floppy hat). While I joke that I’ll be wearing my doctoral headgear to the Spring Racing Carnival (Melbourne Cup Day, here I come!), it’s likely that I’ll get more wear out of my graduation shoes, which I designed for the occasion (via Shoes of Prey). After tweeting the above photograph of my shoes, Hilary Davidson pointed me towards her great article on shoes as magical objects, the perfect symbol of PhD power, transformation and completion.

Continuing my research

While my choice has been to continue to work in my school (rather than, for instance, pursuing an alternate career in academia), I’ve also been recently appointed into an honorary research associate role at my university, which allows me to continue to read, research and write in academia after graduation. So I continue to bestride the worlds of practitioner and scholar. Each world, each role and each project informs the others and shapes me.

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So the PhD is done-but-ongoing.

I’m still pursuing doing good work with good people. I’m still thinking, writing and researching around my PhD, although in many ways I can feel myself moving on from it and away from it. The bound thesis is like a frozen snapshot, capturing a moment in time. So, too, each academic paper. As I grow as a scholar, an educator and a writer, I feel freed to frame my PhD data in new ways and to apply alternate theoretical lenses.

Like a pair of shiny red shoes, the finishing of a PhD is both end and beginning. Designed, created and seductively new. Ready to be enjoyed until worn-out, grown-out-of or kicked to the back of the wardrobe. While in many ways I feel that I’m moving away from the PhD, it also continues beyond its end, a shoe that continues to fit and bring joy. For now.

Ecosystems of work, study and relationships

Eduardo Kobra's Chelsea mural, photographed from the High Line in NYC in 2014

Eduardo Kobra’s Chelsea mural, photographed from the High Line in NYC in 2014. Because: relationships. And New York.

How do you do all the things?

I’ve made the conscious decision to be there for my kids while they’re little.

My husband is actually great. He makes the kids’ lunches on Fridays.

I can’t go for that promotion. I’m planning to get pregnant / I’d have to put my kids in after school and vacation care / My husband works full time.

I wish I had the support you do.

How does your husband cope when you’re away? Poor guy!

It’s not the role I wanted but I’m so lucky my work has allowed me to come back part-time after having children.

Wow, you’re amazing!

These are some of the comments that I’ve heard said to myself, to other women or by other women. Meanwhile, my husband has had comments directed his way such as:

How do you cope when your wife is away?

How did you manage while your wife did her PhD?

I bet you haven’t eaten a good meal in months.

Do you get your wife back now?

So it’s Daddy Daycare today?

Wow, you’re amazing!

There seem to be assumptions at work about both the nature of the PhD and the gendered nature of work, study and home. In this recent vlog, Professors Tara Brabazon and Steve Redhead talk about the relational aspects of the PhD experience. Tara talks about the online blogerature that links doing a PhD to divorce or relationship problems. I wonder why that is.

Maybe it’s because the PhD can feel like a lonely experience. It is a hard but wonderful slog that happens inside the head and on the keyboard of the candidate. It must be difficult for a partner or family member to understand what is actually happening for the person conducting research. Conversely, the PhD takes the candidate away from their partner or family or friends while they thrash about with their research and their thesis beast. I imagine that relationships can suffer and people in the candidate’s life can feel abandoned, left to their own brand of loneliness while the candidate furrows their brow in seemingly indulgent internal struggle, disappearing into inner worlds, or like I did, off to cafes to think and write.

The PhD also happens over a long time. Years. Sometimes three years and often longer. Four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten years in some cases. And one thing that is guaranteed across such a project is that life will happen. And get in the way. Inevitably, challenges will arise outside of the PhD, whether that be around health or finances or children or career or loss. In my three year candidature, I had some very tough personal times that had an impact on work and study, and on me personally. Life events can put a strain on our delicate ecosystems in which all our commitments interact.

I like Tara and Steve’s approach of supervising the PhD candidate’s whole life, including their web of relationships like partners and children. It takes a holistic view of the PhD, framing it as a collaborative work, rather than a lone journey.

Gender also seems to play a part in common comments about study, work, and their impacts on relationships. Why the frequent assumption that when a husband goes away, wheeling his case out the door with reckless abandon, all is as it should be, while when a wife goes away, she must fill the fridge and freezer with nutritious groceries and organic meals, pre-organise all child care arrangements and tape her itinerary and a list of important phone numbers to her husband’s forehead? Why the oft-joked-about assumption that a husband would struggle to run his own household or look after his own children? My husband and kids have a great time whenever I travel. Granted, they eat more chips and play more iPad than when I’m at home, but I am waved off and welcomed back by smiling faces, just the same as my husband when he goes away.

There are some who have fun with gender assumptions. On Twitter, the @manwhohasitall account makes fun of gendered comments often directed at women, by re-framing them for a male audience. This article on how to avoid a ‘manel’ (all male panel) gives some of the excuses used to exclude women from presenting and paneling.

Jacqueline Lunn here talks about the culture of women feeling grateful for part time work. I can certainly relate to the notion of being appreciative of being allowed flexibility in my workplace, rather than advocating for my bigger dreams, especially when I first returned to work from each of my maternity leaves. 

But I also acknowledge that working part time was a choice. I deliberately sought the time and flexibility that would allow me to do good work while being a good parent. I couldn’t, or rather wouldn’t, have accepted an amazing full time position while my children were pre-school age as I wanted to avoid using before, after school and vacation care if possible. I’m also well aware that my choices are highly personal and privileged. They have only been possible because of the support available to me, in the form of my mum, my husband, friends and bosses. That my husband runs his own business has meant that he has the kind of flexibility not often offered to men in the workplace. Why so few cries for men to ‘Lean out!’ of the workplace for a more balanced life and enriched relationships with partners, family and children?

The choices my husband and I have made are far from perfect; that is, they’ve involved compromise and prioritising. But they are what has worked for us at various times. They have been fluid and shifting choices, as situations evolved. 

Our individual and collective ecosystems of relationships, work and study are delicate and mercurial. My hope is that individuals, partners and families are increasingly able to make the choices that work for them at any given time, without being bombarded with judgement or assumptions from others or media.

Revising writing: Lessons from the PhD thesis

The more you leave out, the more you highlight what you leave in. ~ Henry Green

Musée d’Orsay clock - the neverending tick tick of the PhD

Musée d’Orsay clock – the neverending tick tick of the PhD

The PhD is a long journey which seemingly goes on infinitely. Just as the doctoral researcher reaches one summit or one horizon, another appears. It’s easy to feel like there is little time to stop at each point, take a breath, enjoy the view, and look at how far we’ve come. Usually the researcher straightens her shoulders beneath her rucksack and begins trudging up the next slope. (Or is it skipping up the slope? Storming the incline? I don’t want my language to be too negative. I love my PhD but its hard work is part of its transformativity.)

This weekend I hit a point in my PhD which I decided warranted celebration. 2 years and 9 months after enrolling, I sent my revised full thesis draft to my principal supervisor.

There are still revisions to go and work to do (of course) but making my way through the full text to the point where I felt it hung together as a whole, felt like a summit worth stopping at. Sitting on a rock, taking a peanut butter sandwich out of my pack and reflecting on the path I’ve traversed so far. (Ok, peanut butter sandwiches are not my culinary celebratory choice; I went out with friends for lychee martinis.)

Gullfoss waterfall ~ take time to pause, reflect & see how far you've come

Gullfoss waterfall after a blizzard ~ take time to pause, reflect & see how far you’ve come

So, how did the revisions go?

To give some context, my qualitative PhD has 10 chapters which roughly cover: 1) Introduction; 2) Literature Review; 3) Research Question; 4) Methodology; 5) Method; 6) Data/Story/Findings #1; 7) Data/Story/Findings #2; 8) Data/Story/Findings #3; 9) Discussion; and 10) Conclusion. The review of literature covers my three studied phenomena, plus a contextual issue. The narrative data chapters are split into three chapters, one story for each group of participants.

When I finished the first full unrevised draft, I sent my supervisors Chapters 9 and 10. After the consequent supervision meeting, I revised these. That way, I had the end in mind when I went back to the Introduction. I could see the beginning and end as matching book ends to be viewed together.

Revision from the start of the text began on my PhD writing (well, revision) retreat, which got me into a revision routine and mindset.

My revision system was: take a hard copy chapter and make annotated revisions -> go back to the Word document and make revisions, highlighting any sections of text that still felt rough, or that I hadn’t yet ‘solved’ -> go to next chapter. I worked through from chapters 1 to 10 like this. Then I revisited my highlighted sections. Then I went over the Introduction again, which needed the most work. I always tell my students that the introduction is your reader’s first impression, and your conclusion is what you leave your reader with. Spend time on them.

Other revision bits and pieces included checking references, checking for APA comma use, and the most desperate of phdcrastination techniques: changing the font! (I chose Garamond for its classic serif 16th century gorgeousness).

I found that the first half of the thesis needed more work than the second half. Luckily, as I got towards the end and felt like I was lumbering through wet cement, the text was better, the meaning was clearer, the writing was more assured.

One thing that helped me at the end of this full draft revision was the support of the Twitter community. Curled up on the couch with my Surface on my lap, I tweeted out an academic SOS and had a number of people reply. Not only that, but they followed up in the next days to see how I was travelling. I was so grateful to these doctoral candidates and scholars who took the time to make me feel as though I wasn’t isolated in my struggle deep in the shadows of the PhD cave. Solidarity. Inspiration. Advice. Thank you #phdchat community and others who responded to my despondence when I was fighting to my deadline!

So, what might be my advice for the full draft revision stage of the PhD?

1. Don’t underestimate the time it takes to revise your text. The first three chapters, about 40 pages, took me my entire writing retreat weekend. There are many layers of revision. Revision for continuity of argument, consistency of language use, for paragraph sequence and structure, for accuracy of language, consistency of referencing and compliance to style. The earlier your writing, the more work it is likely to need.

2. Be open to really changing your text. This revision stage isn’t as much for moving punctuation around as it is for thinking about the essence and elegance of argument. What is necessary? What is superlative? What belongs or doesn’t belong? How is the argument hanging together? Is it consistent from beginning to end? Am I dropping the flags for the reader to follow?

3. Don’t be afraid to chop chop chop. I cut 8000 words from my bloated thesis in this first round of revision. It was great to be at a stage where I didn’t feel sentimentally attached to my words, where I was able to consider their purpose and let them go if they weren’t strengthening the narrative. As the quote at the beginning of this post says, what we leave out serves to highlight what we leave in. I knew my argument would benefit from being strengthened through streamlining (and my readers would rejoice – less words!).

As I edited, I was thinking of this post by Pat Thomson in which she writes “Pat is in the lounge room reading a thesis. She is finding it hard going and wants to go back to bed.” This put me in the frame of mind to think about my reader. I don’t want reading my thesis to be hard going or painful or ‘when will she just get to the point?’ I want the reader to be propelled through the text, with enough detail and a sense of excitement of what is to come.

I’m excited to hear my supervisor’s feedback in a few weeks. My supervisors have seen the chapters bit by bit over time, but not the whole text together. And I’ve left a couple of flourishes as a surprise.

The draft is at a stage that has me feeling pleased and proud that my study has resulted in a thesis document which makes an exciting contribution to my area in a way that is systematic, creative, full of powerful authentic stories, and maybe slightly subversive in the realm of traditional academic writing.

While there is more work to go, it felt right to pause and celebrate a PhD moment.

Easy as pie? How a PhD, & other complex work, is like a cake

Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space. ~ Orson Scott Card

Number 3 racetrack cake by @debsnet

Number 3 racetrack cake, with handmade bunting & teeny cars

As an English and Literature teacher, I love a metaphor, especially an extended one. I have spoken about one of my PhD metaphors before: thesis as a stone sculpture. Metaphors even bubbled up unexpectedly in my PhD data as participants searched for meaningful language to explore their identities.

In some ways this post is a response to, or extension of, Anitra Nottingham’s Thesis Whisperer post ‘My thesis is a cupcake, not a dragon.’ In it, she talks about making novelty birthday cakes for her children. She goes on to use the metaphor of cupcake for her Masters thesis and cake for a PhD thesis.

I was reminded of Anitra’s post over the weekend as I prepared for my eldest child’s 5th birthday. A novelty birthday cake is a lot like a thesis, I thought, as I pierced the galaxy outer-space solar-system cake with the planets I had hand-painted (cake decorating makes for great phdcrastinating).

the weekend's outer space solar system cake

the weekend’s outer space solar system cake; I am a child of the 80s so Pluto, beautiful dwarf planet, is there

I love to make my children’s birthday cakes from scratch, not that I find it easy or that I have an aptitude for it! I rarely bake; it’s not something I’m great at, and often my baking is asymmetrical and (goofily? lovingly?) imperfect. But I feel like a cake is more than the sum of its ingredients. I am convinced that my children and their guests can taste the love and trying-to-make-it-wonderful effort that goes into a homemade birthday cake.

Tootle cake, the Golden Book train who likes to play in meadows rather than stay on the rails

Tootle cake, the Golden Book train who likes to play in meadows rather than stay on the rails

A thesis, too, is more than the sum of its parts, more than the words on its pages. As I revise the full draft of my thesis, I am reading with the reader in mind (and trying to avoid boring or annoying them – see Pat Thomson’s post from an examiner perspective). I am hoping that examiners and other readers will ‘taste’ the passion, the challenges overcome, the obsessive dedication, and the satisfaction and enjoyment that comes with taking a PhD project to completion.

Both cake and thesis start with a problem. How am I going to embody the essence of this? Both cake and thesis require a balance of systematisation and creativity, recipe-following and individuality. What tools and ingredients will I need? What methodological processes will I follow to ensure a sturdy finished product which stands up? How might I make this original and my own interpretation?

Like a thesis, sometimes a cake doesn’t work at first and the creator needs to start again, or find creative solutions (usually involving using icing as glue or camouflage).

Octonauts cake

Octonauts cake, complete with sunken figurine (note to self: add heavy bits at the last minute)

It might seem trivial to compare the PhD thesis to making a cake (and of course there are many many differences between a thesis and a cake!), but I find that metaphors, in distilling meaning down to its simplest and yet most poetic form, help me to make sense of complex work. Their simplicity helps to keep me going.

The quote at the beginning of this post resonates: a metaphor can hold the most truth in the least space.

What are your metaphors for your complex work?

Writing retreat: Dedicated time away to write and revise

Writing is an escape from a world that crowds me. I like being alone in a room. It’s almost a form of meditation. ~ Neil Simon

Where I imagined my retreat would be (photos from previous trips)

Where I imagined my retreat would be (photos from previous trips).

The idea for a PhD writing retreat came to me in a dream. While I live in Australia, I dreamt that I wrote up my PhD thesis in Paris. I imagined myself pensively working at Café de Flore or Les Deux Magots in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Or editing on a soft patch of grass at the foot of a sculpture in the gardens of Musée Rodin (Le Penseur?). Or typing away beneath the huge train station clock at the Musée d’Orsay. I would take breaks to stroll Parisian streets or to savour Ladurée macarons, foie gras from Fauchon, or ice-cream from Berthillon on the Île Saint-Louis.

This dream was no doubt influenced by the at-that-time steady stream of tweets coming from the ANU Thesis Boot Camp during which doctoral writers were given celebratory LEGO-style bricks as they hit various word-count milestones. The academic focus and collaboration zoomed through social media to my device. Oooh, I thought, how wonderful it would be to have some dedicated time to work on my thesis. But with work and two children under five, a long luxuriant Parisian getaway wasn’t on my list. And my university doesn’t offer a boot camp.

by @debsnet

Where my writing retreat actually was.

Writing retreats have been called a ‘scholastic nirvana’ away from the walls-closing-in pressures of academia. Dr Helen Kara, blogging about her recent solo writing retreat, talks about the simultaneous self-indulgence and productivity that finding dedicated time and space for writing can bring. In Dr Kylie Budge’s post about her PhD writing retreat to NYC, she cites research which claims that physical and psychological distance from the norm can increase creativity and productivity.

Casey, Barron and Gordon (2013) note that writing retreats provide protected space for the practice of writing, allowing continuity as opposed to fragmentation. They emphasise the importance of carving out time away from normal activity, and finding space separate from usual settings. This certainly resonated with me, as much of my writing happens in fragmented, stolen, in-between moments.

cycles of revision: read, annotate, make changes, repeat

cycles of revision: read, annotate, make changes, repeat

While many boot camps, ‘shut up and write’ sessions and writing retreats are about producing words, this was to be more a revision retreat. Having recently finished the first draft of my conclusion, I had a first full draft of my thesis and wanted to use retreat time to look at my thesis as a whole document. In fact, my thesis is over its word limit, so this retreat was about streamlining and strengthening the content, not producing more. I’d reached a point where I needed to burrow down into my PhD cave’s subterranean depths and sit there for a while. Present. Focused. Submerged.

Like Helen and Kylie, this retreat would be solo: just me and my thesis having some quality time together. Romantic, right? When I floated the idea with my husband, he said, ‘Go for it.’

A bit of an expert at making my PhD feel like a holiday, I often choose writing spaces that feel more like luxe and less like work. So, for my retreat, I considered exotic, non-home places with varying degrees of faraway-ness. I was aware of the aforementioned research about productivity and creativity being heightened by the feeling of being away from home and somewhere new. But I didn’t need exoticism, or a vibrant distracting location. I was going for a weekend, so it needed to be close and affordable, just not home. In the end, I rented a studio apartment via airbnb only a few suburbs from home. I was hoping that being not-home would give me enough separation from my everyday world to provide the laser-like focus and conceptual creativity I was after.

Writing retreat Day 1

Writing retreat Day 1

While not as poetic as retreating to somewhere far from home, there were some great things about doing a retreat this way. In giving myself only two nights away, I had to be productive. I had a short time; I needed to use it. I didn’t waste time travelling to and from the retreat (it was a 20 minute drive); this was an escape in my own city. It turned out to feel just new enough to set my nerve filaments tingling with an awareness of difference of environment.

Going into the writing retreat I planned on using my most productive times of the day for writing, working in 2-3 hour blocks of time followed by breaks (walking, showering, eating, changing location, taking some photos). I wanted to be clear about my intention before I began. My main purpose was revising for coherence and story. Here was time to look at the document as a whole. I kept in mind Pat Thomson’s advice to attend to the underlying argument. I was looking for consistency of language and idea development across the thesis. Having just finished the Conclusion, it was important to go back to the Introduction and make these bookends work together.

Writing retreat Day 2

Writing retreat Day 2

During my retreat the first 30-40 pages took me the longest, because there was so much of what Pat in her post calls ‘where the writing is poor because we are struggling to express an idea, to put into words something that we can barely get our head around.’ The beginning of the document contained my earliest writing and earliest thinking. I needed to delete or rewrite much of it in a way I can only do now that I have reached the end.

What surprised me about the retreat was how challenging it was to maintain a consistent focus on one task. It made me realise how much my usual fragmented way of PhDing works for me, doing a little all the time in prized, highly-focused chunks. Fitting in PhD time in and around other commitments has meant that normally I am itching to get to my PhD work, not having to psych myself into doing it.

Writing retreat Day 3

Writing retreat Day 3

Yet, the time and space to dedicate a couple of days to my thesis, and giving it careful, continuous attention, allowed me to make substantial progress and identify those areas in need of further attention. While in this time I only got through the Introduction and Literature Review, these were the sections in need of the most serious revision (and they will need more). I also managed to cut 3000 words out of those two chapters, which, considering I was also adding words where required, is a good start to streamlining my argument.

The retreat embodied my 3 words for 2015: presence (in the moment), sharing (through writing and now blogging), and strength (of argument and academic voice). It helped to set up my approach to my thesis revision, kickstarting this push-to-the-end-process and propelling me forward into the rest of the document. It felt a bit like kicking off the swimming pool wall, getting some initial speed and feeling the water before settling into the lap ahead.

Local retreats: not so bad.

Local retreats: not so bad!

A PhD metaphor: Thesis as sculpture

I saw the angel in the marble and I carved until I set him free. ~ Michelangelo

Metaphors are something that I engage with when I am trying to make sense of something, and this has certainly been true as I have worked through the stages of my PhD.

I have previously explored the notion of a thesis as a sculpture, a collision of imagination and hard, systematic work. As I move towards the end of the first full draft of my PhD thesis, I have been reshaping this personal metaphor into a more specific vision inspired by the work and words of Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo, who saw the sculptor as the free-er of sculptures from their stone slumber.

Seeing the Statue of David in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence was for me an almost spiritual experience. But perhaps even more magical to see and experience were the ‘Slaves’, unfinished figures twisting and writhing inside giant stone blocks. Lining the wide hall of the Galleria dell’Accademia, leading to David, they seem to be the tangible epitome of Michelangelo’s aim: to free existing figures from stone.

The metaphor of the researcher/Michelangelo and thesis/stone-sculpture works for me for a few reasons.

Firstly, like Anitra Nottingham’s metaphor of thesis-as-baking-a-cupcake, producing a thesis takes knowledge, skill, materials and creativity. The artist or researcher must know their materials and their methods. The researcher-sculptor learns, applies and refines their craft and their art. They must learn the basics, practise repeatedly and make many mistakes before their work begins to resemble the skill and originality to which they aspire.

Secondly, like Victoria Graham and Michelle Redman-MacLaren’s metaphor of research as swimming, it is hard and arduous work, requiring patience, persistence, sweat and a focus on doing your own best. Often working alone in his studio, the sculptor carves away at hard, unforgiving stone, systematically testing his tools and techniques against its surface. Some days his body aches. The mental and physical effort of the work keeps him awake at night. He makes excruciatingly slow progress, but sees his vision slowly come into view. Soon, it is no longer a rough cut slab of shapeless stone. The form starts to be revealed, loose but almost recognisable. And in the final stages, the sculptor uses small tools to polish and finely sculpt the finishing details, working obsessively on the most minute aspects.

Stone carving also reflects for me the process of the thesis. The researcher-sculptor begins with a purpose, a question, a vision, a method; but from those beginnings emerges something else. A figure twisting out from stone as a result of the influence of sculptor’s hand, mind, materials and tools. As the researcher-sculptor chips away, the thesis takes shape, influenced by the researcher-sculptor themselves, the pressure and techniques they apply, and the materials, data and methods with which they work.

Perhaps, also, art imitates artist. Seeing the ‘Awakening Slave’ writhing free from his block of marble seems a little like the PhD candidate emerging, through struggle, as a formed researcher from the PhD stone, or perhaps the PhD chrysalis.

There are differences, of course. Michelangelo became a master of his art, whereas the PhD researcher is an apprentice. And a PhD researcher makes mistakes, back tracks, double pikes, and tries again. It is not as though Michelangelo could gouge out a piece of marble, change his mind, and glue it back on, while retaining the integrity of the artwork. The metaphor isn’t perfect, but it allows me to inhabit the internal space of worker, tinkerer and creator, driven by my purpose while sensitive to my materials.

Is your thesis like a sculpture? What is your metaphor for your researcher self?

In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it. ~ Michelangelo

A Google search for 'my thesis is' won't give you inspiration.

A Google search for ‘my thesis is’ won’t give you inspiration.

Front load your work. Be an expert. Own your contribution.

You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And you are the guy who’ll decide where to go. ~ Dr Seuss

by @debsnet

sometimes the words slowly bleed onto the page

As a mid-career professional I often feel comfortable in my work in teaching and school leadership. I might come up against challenges, but I do so with a sense that I know what I’m doing and have a sense of how to make my way through them. ‘This is what I know how to do,’ I think to myself. And forward I go without a second thought.

There are times, however, when I cannot forge forward confidently. Becoming a parent, for instance, threw me into a new situation and a new role in which I had to start from scratch. I was a newbie who had to find my way into my parent-identity and a way of parenting which worked for me. The PhD is another something which throws people into a new deep end. I have written about my realisation that my discomfort zone is my place of growth, but that doesn’t make the experience of discomfort any more … comfortable!

I type this post from the throes of my current nemesis: the PhD Discussion chapter. I wrote last month about my feelings of paralysis before beginning this chapter, and how I eventually got started. And yet here I still am, four or so iterations later and still wrangling, dancing with, building and un-building my discussion.

Part of my struggle is around scholarly confidence, reflected in the notes from my last PhD supervision meeting which read a bit like this: ‘too much other people’, ‘less others, more you’, ‘put your ideas up front.’

It seems I am clinging to the literature. I still want to prove to my reader that I have read everything I can get my hands on and I know my stuff. That I’m not a masquerader or pretender. And it seems I do this by citing and paraphrasing and putting up front the work of Others.

You know Others. In the mind of the novice researcher they deserve capital letters of knowledge because they are experienced, frequently-published, well-renowned academics, not researchers-in-training or Doctors-in-waiting.

And yet in the Discussion and Conclusion of the PhD I know I must identify myself as an expert. A person worthy of a capital letter (like a ‘Ph’ or a ‘D’). I keep reminding myself that I am an expert in my own research and that I can stand on the front foot when I discuss my findings and what they mean in the world.

So my current notes-to-self for the Discussion chapter are:

– Stop trying to prove my worth through literature.

– More me. Less others.

– Front load my work.

More than just a process of writing, this is a process of becoming. Becoming a researcher. Becoming a researcher who knows she is a researcher, feels like a researcher and makes knowledge claims like a researcher. It’s taking me many molasses-slow drafts to find my expert voice and a way of writing which foregrounds my own research and my own academic voice, while still situating my research within the existing literature. But step by step I am getting closer.

And I’ve been reading Dr Seuss’s Oh the places you’ll go! to my children recently so I am armed with the mantra that with brains in my head and feet in my shoes, I can move mountains. One painstaking word at a time.

You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So… get on your way! ~ Dr Seuss

You're off to great places, by @debsnet

the édu flâneuse atop an Icelandic glacier

 

Writing the PhD discussion chapter: from fear to flight

Don’t believe what your eyes are telling you. All they show is limitation. Look with your understanding. Find out what you already know and you will see the way to fly. ~ Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

flight, by @debsnet

Since beginning my PhD two and a half years ago, I have plugged away at my thesis, chipping at it bit by agonisingly small bit, sometimes having to retrace my steps or throw out whole sections of work. But it has progressed through dogged persistence, slow laborious work and a measure of creative problem solving. I have even found it to be wonderful celebrated ‘me time’ as I explained on the PhD Talk blog.

Yet as my big book pushed towards 100,000 drafted words, I arrived at the discussion chapter and … duhm duhm daaahhhhhhm … suddenly I screeched to a stop, paralysed by fear. After fairly consistent, if often brain-bending, progress, I had come to a standstill. Up until this point, my metaphors of PhD candidature had served to propel me forward through even the biggest challenges and hard-to-hear feedback. My PhD had been an elephant I had to eat one deliberate bite at a time, or a sculpture I needed to craft carefully, or a journey in which I put one footstep in front of the other (another nice metaphor is this one of the PhD as swimming). Yet, despite my supervisors’ assurances that the discussion chapter was just one more eatable bite, one more takeable step, I was immobilised.

Matt Might’s illustrated definition of the PhD, which I had initially found grounding, now seemed terrifying. While it demonstrated that a PhD need only push the boundary of knowledge a teeny tiny bit, it also reminded me that a doctorate is all about having an original contribution to the body of knowledge. An. Original. Contribution. Which. Pushes. Bends. And. Remakes. The. Boundary. Of. Knowledge. And the discussion chapter is where I need to – as Inger Mewburn (the Thesis Whisperer) says – not just state my findings but explain what my findings mean.

So after two and a half years of reading (and reading and reading), interviewing, analysing and writing (and writing and writing and writing), I found myself at a point at which I needed to explain what it all means. And to have the (as Inger puts it) scholarly confidence to assert my research as having an original and worthwhile contribution.

In my paralysis of PhDcrastinating I found Emma Burnett’s blog posts which helpfully explained how she planned to approach her discussion chapter and also what she actually did. These kinds of explications by PhD candidates are useful material for others as they approach different stages of thesis wrangling.

Pat Thomson, my go-to blogger on all things academic writing, describes the discussion chapter through the metaphor of taking flight. She explains that the discussion chapter is the place to “be your own expert, to fly where no other researcher has flown before.” No pressure. Her metaphor of discussion-chapter-as-taking-flight reminded me of Richard Bach’s allegorical novella Jonathan Livingstone Seagull in which the non-conformist seagull Jonathan works tirelessly, often on his own and sometimes as an outcast, towards a kind of flight never before achieved by any seagull. His passion-driven, sometimes lonely and relentlessly-perfectionist journey to ultimate flight could certainly be a metaphor for the PhD narrative (although as Pat Thomson reminds us, the PhD is not a lone journey, but collaborative work).

@debsnet & @patter Twitter discussion

In a useful Twitter conversation, Pat explained to me that the discussion chapter is a synthesis and interpretation of findings which takes them to a new theoretical level. Discussion is not a repeat or recap, but a presentation of a new reading of the research which links findings to literatures. As Pat’s blog post explains, this is the place for interpretation and theorisation. Taking it to the next level. As she suggests, it’s the time to earn the ‘Philosophy’ part of the PhD.

*      *      *

Eventually I found a mental space in which I could put some words to the page (just one word in front of the other, I told myself; get it down), and I got started on the … duhm duhm daaahhhhhhm … discussion chapter.

Firstly, I went back to my research questions, which had emerged from the literature review, and used these as a frame for my discussion. Then I went back into my literature chapter and pulled out the threads which related to those research questions, especially those areas in which I had identified gaps or areas for further embellishment or new perspectives. Then I went back to my data (in my case, three chapters of storied interview data from three different groups). While the end of each of my data chapters included some synthesis and interpretation of that data set, the discussion chapter was the time to bring all the threads – all literature and all data – together. My intention was to identify clearly what I had found and how this was related to existing literatures. After writing an initial draft which was more summary than analysis or insight, I left it. It was a start.

Now, after giving myself permission to take a break and finding some mental space and clarity through travel, I have returned to the chapter. As I write I am asking myself: What does my data mean (within the parameters of the research questions)? What established trends are affirmed or challenged by my study? What findings are surprising? What from my research is new in terms of, or absent from, the literatures in my area?

The chapter is still in draft form, but instead of standing still, mute and frozen, I am flapping my wings with a sense of how and where I’m going. Soon enough I’m sure I will take flight.

(For an update on how my approach to the discussion chapter evolved, the follow up is here.)

He was not bone and feather but a perfect idea of freedom and flight, limited by nothing at all. ~ Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

paper planes by @debsnet