Tag Archives: advice

Some answers

I have given this precisely no thought at all, so my answers this evening may be totally different to my answers tomorrow morning. But I have finished my chapter and can’t face marking the OU essays yet, so what better than a bit of procrastination, and as it’s relating to my thesis I can kid myself that I am using my time constructively. So, here are some answers to Tractor Girl’s questions about the experience of being a postgrad researcher.

What have been some of the most stressful parts of the process, and how have you dealt with them?

It depends on the stage of the PhD. At the beginning, it was feeling like everyone else doing a PhD was Brain of Britain and I was a fraud, and that one day they would find me out. When I was on fieldwork, it was picking up the phone and asking a complete stranger in a foreign language if they would give me some of their time so I could interview them (I’m a bit phone-phobic). Since being back and writing up, managing my time has been probably the most stressful thing. I think I dealt with them by a. realising that everybody else felt like that; b. feeling the fear and doing it anyway (cliche but true), and c. er, I’m not sure I have dealt with time-management very well to be honest!

Other stressful things included moving to the other end of the country away from friends, job, security, etc; having a long-distance relationship (that was lovely too, but did add to the time-management issues); and financial concerns. And the fact that I had to do so much work for the teaching side of things (it was part of the deal as I didn’t get Research Council funding – in return for doing all the tutorials and marking essays for the 1st year undergrads, I got my fees paid and a stipend). It was, by and large, a good deal, as it gave me some really good experience, but the time pressure was enormous and I don’t think I managed it very well.

How do you strike a balance between work and the rest of your life?

Not very well! I think there is something to be said for treating it like any other job, and working 9-5 Monday to Friday. But the thing is it’s not any other job – sometimes the distractions and procrastinations are actually really productive times and you need what looks like time out or wasted time in order to fully “chew over” what you’re going to write (sometimes of course they are just wasted time!). But I often bring work home in the evening – as often as not it will sit there in the bag making me feel guilty and I end up taking it back to the office having done nothing in the evening, not even taking it out of the bag never mind looking at it properly, but if I don’t take it home I feel guilty that I could be doing more work instead of the frivolous stuff I do do in the evening. It’s a bit of a vicious cycle, and one that after 4 years I am no nearer getting out of. But again, as in the question above, realising that everyone else does it as well and therefore I am not actually a failure is quite helpful! Having people around (in real life and online) to encourage me to do normal things is also helpful!

What has made you most excited in your studies?

Having the chance to go abroad and meet really interesting people – mainly on fieldwork, but also at conferences here and abroad too. Realising that I’m onto something and not just making it up. Being taken seriously by people I respect. Seeing connections and disconnections between what my respondents have said and what is “out there” in the public domain and trying to make sense of it all. The fact that after 4 years I still think my research subject is interesting!

How do you see theological work relating to the wider world?

The original question came from a panel of theology students – obviously I am not part of a theology department and in that respect am doing secular research. But because of the nature of my subject, religious voices have had (and continue to have) strong opinions which they’re not afraid to shout out. From the perspective of my research, I see theologians (some official, some armchair) doing great damage both to the people and practices they condemn and to their own cause. It’s very sad. I hope that my research can build some bridges, but the reality is if it is not ignored (honestly, the most likely scenario) then it will piss some people off. I still need to work through how I disseminate my research outside of the academy. Which leads me on to …

How do you see your own work as part of your calling?

This is a difficult question in a way. A couple of years ago, before and after my fieldwork, I spent a bit of time with someone much wiser than me discussing the idea of vocation. This included consideration of the possibility of ordained ministry, but we both quite quickly came to the conclusion that that was not where I was at and not where I was being called, at least for now and for the forseeable future (and, with any luck, beyond that as well 😉 ). We spent quite some time, particularly after I got back from fieldwork, discussing this very question, which was a useful exercise though possibly not the best time to be doing it, as returning from overseas fieldwork it takes a long time to adjust and process your experiences, and I was also just getting ready to get married (hooray!). In terms of my actual research, I still feel that I can use my experiences and insights in some sort of bridge-building way, but I’m still vague as to how, where, etc. It’s not helped by the fact that, by and large, the religious voices I am dealing with in my research are so strident, shrill, and frankly offensive (not to mention very often bonkers). However, they would feel exactly the same about me, and a major part of my challenge and calling is to find a way of imparting grace when what I really want to do is hit them with a bloody great big Clue Stick.

In general, I tend to see calling and vocation as, in the broadest sense, being who God made me to be. So in that sense my research work is part of my calling in that it is more than a 9-5 job, it is a reflection of me and how I work as well as (more importantly) a reflection of the people and situations about whom I am writing. This is something I’m going to have to explicitly acknowledge and explore a bit in my thesis – for all the talk about researcher neutrality, we all come to our research with our own baggage and expectations and values and – at least in the type of research I’m doing – it would be dishonest to claim neutrality.

How has your own faith been part of your work?

In a very low-key and understated way, I think. It’s a secular study, not a piece of applied theology, so it’s not ever going to be an overt thing. I think though that my faith is part of it in the same way that it was part of my work in nursing and all the other things I’ve done – through treating people with respect, and trying to give them a fair hearing, and taking care of the things (insights, opinions, resources, time, relationships) they have trusted to me. I don’t think that having a faith gives me a monopoly on these actions and ways of working – I’d say all of them are hallmarks of good feminist research methods for example – but for me that’s where they spring from.

What advice would you give beginning students? What might you do differently if you could start again?

For practical stuff, I wrote about this a year ago so would direct you to this post. Also, remember that not only is it not about you, it is totally about you, so reflect reflect reflect and take care of yourself. What would I do differently if I could start again? I hope I wouldn’t spend so much of the 1st year faffing about, I’d really like to be more organised, and I think I’d be more systematic about things like research journalling and that sort of thing. I’d have also got into NVivo from the beginning rather than leaving it till the last minute. Other than that though, I think I’m basically glad with how it’s turning out.

Advice for new PhD students

Have been meaning to do this post for a while. When I met up with Tractor Girl at Greenbelt, she asked me my advice for new postgrads. I wittered away a few things, but then thought of lots of other things. So I thought I would just do a post where I note down some of the advice that was helpful to me, and the advice I wish I’d been given, and the advice I was given and wished I’d followed, and all that sort of thing! So, in no particular order:

Starting off
* Plug yourself into the postgrad networks in your department/faculty. Get along to research methods seminars, but just as importantly just join in with conversations in the common room. Chances are at least some of the discussions won’t be about Big Brother but will be about research issues they have faced and how they have dealt with it. This has been one of the single most useful things for me, learning from people who have gone through it already.
* MAKE NOTES as you go along. I can’t tell you how important this is. You will read tons of things, but you won’t remember it all.
* Related to that, sort out a filing system for notes and journal articles and references and whathaveyou. The filing system will change as your research goes along, but at least having it in some sort of systematic form where you vaguely know where things are means that it will be much easier to find things later when you actually need them.
* Ask questions of everybody. Chalky told me that I could probably get away with asking questions for about a year and a half before I’d be expected to know what I’m doing, and I’d say that’s about right.
* Don’t worry in your first year/year and a half about that feeling that everybody else knows what they’re doing and you’re the only one who hasn’t a clue. EVERYBODY feels like that, it is an absolutely universal PhD experience. It WILL get better and that feeling WILL go away (or at least subside), particularly once you’ve collected your own data/done your fieldwork.
* Keep in regular contact with your supervisors. If you have more than one, I’ve personally found it better to meet both of them together at the same time. That way everybody knows what has been said, and if they want to give you conflicting advice they can thrash it out there and then rather than leaving you with mixed messages from separate meetings.
* When you’re doing your reading, you will come across millions of really interesting tangents, some of which may even end up in your research. Just remember you can’t write a PhD on all of them.
* jstor.org and Google Scholar are your friends. (key word searches). Another easy way of figuring out who you need to be reading is to raid other peoples’ bibliographies. Once you’ve read a few things, check out the bibliographies and there will probably be a few sources that come up again and again. Those are the ones you definitely need to get hold of. Get other stuff by those same authors. Even now, I still look at bibliographies to see if there are any references I’ve missed.
* If you have to pay for the printing of journal articles, save them on your memory stick as pdf files instead, read them off your computer, and save the rainforest (and your bank balance).

Data collection (mainly based on qualitative research, and specifically doing interviews, as that’s what I do)
* When arranging your first interviews, try not to have your dream interviewee interviewed too early. The chances are your first two or three interviews will be rubbish until you get into your stride. Once you know what you’re doing, that’s the time to interview the really important people (by really important I don’t necessarily mean in terms of their position, but rather in terms of their importance to your research).
* However rubbish you feel an interview has been, the chances are there will still be nuggets of gold in it, though you might need a bit of distance before you see it.
* It’s better to interview too many people than not enough. You’ll probably only be able to use a small percentage of the material in your interviews, but having too much stuff is a much better position to be in than not having enough. Just talk to anyone who’s willing! Be open to talking to unexpected people (I never imagined in my health-related research that I would end up talking with people from the media, for example, but I got some cracking stuff from them)
* If you are doing a focus group, or even just interviewing a couple of people at the same time, ask them that only one person speaks at a time. Trying to transcribe an interview where people are speaking over the top of each other is a nightmare.
* At the end of the interview, ask the interviewee if you can contact them again (either by email or with a further follow-up interview) if you have any further questions. This is especially important in the early interviews – as you go along you’ll notice themes emerging and things that you hadn’t thought about before that you might want to ask the people you’ve already interviewed.
* Keep a fieldwork/data collection diary. Make notes on the whole process – how you felt about the interview, what sort of mood you were in, what barriers there were to arranging the interview, what was good about it, all that sort of thing. This is the sort of stuff that methodology chapters are made of.
* Do your own transcription. If you can’t do your own and pay someone else to do it, you’ll still need to listen to the interviews again with the transcription to check for errors (can you tell this is the voice of bitter experience?!). Remember that transcription will take loads loads loads longer than you think it will and you will be utterly miserable while you do it, but it really is a great way to get back into your data, as you won’t remember everything from every interview.

Other random stuff
* Once you’ve collected your data, you’ll probably need to totally redo the lit review that you did before you started data collection, rereading the lit in the light of what you now know from your own data, and accessing other literature that hadn’t occurred to you to look at before. You’ll see things in the literature you’d never noticed before, and will be able to critique it in the light of your own findings. This is also good to help you figure out where your research fits into the wider research, and also which gaps your research is helping to fill.
* Don’t worry about getting all the academic jargon straight off. The more you read and talk with other researchers, the more it will start to sink in.
* Remember that very early on in the process, you will pretty much be an expert on your topic.
* Enjoy it! 😀

What’s the betting as soon as I press ‘save’ I’ll remember a ton more stuff? I’ll add more in the comments if I think of any more later!

Blonde advice

Blonde has just started back on the rocky road of postgraduate-dom, and was after some advice. I think the best advice I can give is the following:

“Do as I say, not as I do”

Primarily, the thing to do is to allow far more time than you think you’re going to need to complete assignments, remember you’re not as young as you used to be and last-minute all-nighters won’t produce the same standard of work they once did, and above all else don’t leave things till later than the last minute.

That’s my advice. Which of course I follow all the time. Sigh.