Tag Archives: postgraduate research

A surprise move for Bryan

One of three fictional vignettes contained in my doctoral thesis,

‘The academy and community: seeking authentic voices inside higher education’,

The full thesis can be accessed via this link –

https://ueaeprints.uea.ac.uk/id/eprint/58557

Bryan needed the paper that he’d left in his office at Greystone. He took one more look through his briefcase, despite knowing full well that the paper was still on his desk. He could visualize exactly where he had left it, next to the bright yellow desk tidy his colleague, Wendy, had given him for Christmas. Downloading the paper online was pointless – what Bryan really needed were the crucial, yet elusive, notes he had scribbled on a hard copy the day before his departure. He had been away for almost a month now, and was preparing for his third consecutive international keynote. It was no good.  Barbara, his wife and veteran Greystone researcher, would just have to go in and retrieve it.

Following his call, Barbara made her way to the Social Science building. Standing in the corridor, she felt light headed and wheezy.   She couldn’t decide what was making her feel sick. Perhaps it was the fumes from the emulsion. The breezeblock walls, it seemed, had been liberated from their bleak façade; a façade keenly unobserved by Barbara day in and day out for almost four decades, until now. How white they looked. How bright and clean. Equally, it could be the glue from the newly fitted plush blue carpet showered in tiny gold crest motifs. Soft underfoot and very unlike the brown rush matting that always so neatly soaked up the drips from spent umbrellas on rainy days.

Barbara planned to be quickly in and out but there seemed to be problem with the lock. As she stood there trying not to think about being sick, she tried the key again and then fumbled around in her bag, feeling flustered. She couldn’t believe it wasn’t the right key yet felt compelled to look for another. ‘Damn’, she said to herself, out loud. ‘He really has given me the wrong one’. She put her bag down and phoned Bryan. She’d no idea what time of day it might be at his end.

‘You do have the right key, don’t you?’ asked Bryan.

‘Yes,’ snapped Barbara

‘The one with the blue tab from my spare set’

‘Yes. It doesn’t work,’ said Barbara

‘Have you tried wriggling it?’

‘Yes, of course I’ve tried wriggling it.’

‘You need to push harder. It sticks sometimes.’

‘Bryan, I know how to open a door. The key doesn’t fit.’

‘Well, that’s ridiculous. How are we going to get the bloody paper? I can hardly come back from Brazil.  Wait! Wendy will have a key.  She’s always got spares.’

Hanging up, Barbara shuffled down the corridor, heading for Wendy’s office.  She turned the corner and stopped.  Her progress was halted by a clear glass wall painted with three towering white letters which she read out loud, ‘HUB.’

Inside there was a sign hanging from the ceiling, which read: ‘Learning & Teaching Hub: the key to your success.’

Walking through a roped off section which reminded her of the post office but without the queue – there was no-one else around – she reached a pristine counter, behind which sat a smart young girl who welcomed Barbara with a big smile,

‘Hi, how can I help you?’

‘I need to access Bryans’ office and he’s given me the wrong key. There’s a master key. Could I borrow it?’

The girl looked puzzled.  ‘No office here.  You can see we’re open plan… whose office?’

Barbara glanced back out into the corridor. ‘Out there… second door on the right?’

The girl shook her head.

‘Where’s Wendy?  She’ll know what I’m talking about,’ said Barbara

‘Sorry, there’s no one called Wendy working here.’

‘But I really need to get into Bryan’s office.’

Perplexed, the girl called a colleague over and asked her if she knew the whereabouts of a Wendy and also, an office belonging to someone called Bryan.

‘Ah yes,’ said the second woman. ‘Do you mean that rather quaint elderly gentleman who used to pop in and chat with Wendy before she left?   He did have an office here but that was cleared out a couple of weeks ago.  It’s now the Hub storeroom.  There were some old papers but I think they were put in one of the PGR cupboards.’

Barbara, feeling even more flustered and not quite knowing how to react, just wanted to get the paper and leave.

‘Is the PGR room still there?’  She was beginning to wonder.

‘Yes, of course.’

Barbara made her way out of the Hub, beyond what had been Bryan’s office, and stood outside the PGR room.  To her frustration, she didn’t have the combination for the keypad.

Back at the Hub she was told that as she wasn’t a postgraduate researcher, she couldn’t have the number.  Being the partner of an internationally renowned professor who supervises postgraduate researchers didn’t cut any ice.

No status.  No access.  No office.  No paper.

Learning & Teaching Hub 

Were you ever subjected to a surprise move?

We are not just ranked in the top; we are in the top 20 ranking

‘We are not just ranked in the top; we are in the top 20 ranking’

In writing my PhD thesis on the topic of the idea and experience of academic community, I followed Andrew Sparkes’ less traditional approach and produced three fictional vignettes, aimed a revealing elements of academic life within a fictional setting. All three pieces illustrate the institutional culture of contemporary higher education, or as observed, it’s brutality and crassness.  They also illustrate the day-to-day lives of the research participants. Bryan (an emeritus professor) is subject to a surprise move as, in his absence, his office (and his status) is eradicated; Jonathon (an academic leader) introduces a new member of staff to a different way of meeting the team, and the Vice-Chancellor gives an address that is steeped in the language of excellence that pervades the institutional discourse, a language from which there is no escape.

The Vice-Chancellor’s address, given below, is made up from phrases selected from the official corporate narrative of the University of Greystone, the site of the research. The confidence of the institutional discourse is emblematic of the grand narrative that tends to be a strong feature of universities today.

Greystone itself is included as a player in the research, with an articulated position in relation to idea of community. The institution is given a voice by the selection and presentation of corporate documents, including a number of corporate plans. Thirty-one letters from the Vice-Chancellor to all university staff were also analysed. Written in the first person, the letters reveal something about the character of the Vice-Chancellor as a person, through the way in which he chooses to convey his message, his observations and the language he uses. Through them he appears to be speaking directly to the staff and is creating an impression of sharing an almost intimate perspective on what is happening. The (not so) fictional address below, however, is less intimate and evokes what Readings described as the ‘University of Excellence’.

The Vice-Chancellor of Greystone gives an address.

‘Let me state at the outset that it is our leadership that is at the forefront of an outstanding reputation. The major contributions we shall make will undoubtedly be our greatest impact. Our particular strength is that we are well equipped for the pursuit of excellence. We are agenda setting internationally, avowedly ambitious and world-leading due to exceptional strengths that make us world-class. Being among the best with our high-quality, high-achieving and highest standards, which are undeniably of the highest quality and thereby market-leading at a high-level. This high-class and high-impact status must be the highest possible. Our highest ambitions, driven by the highest calibre leadership, enable the highest achievements and therefore the highest possible global influence. Inevitably this highest possible performance from our high performing team ensures a high academic engagement. From such a high base we can gain an edge. Our standards will be ratcheted up, supported by a long and proud history with its international distinction making us excellent in our excellence. This excellent achievement, regarded by all as an exemplar of good practice, is not just exemplary but is regarded as internationally excellent. Being internationally recognised, and being internationally aware, our international significance ensures us the strongest international position. Such international recognition of our extraordinary potential keeps us firmly in the top, in the top flight and on the top tier. And we are not just ranked in the top; we are in the top 20 ranking. Recognised as globally strong, the University excels and we can contribute equally with the best universities in the world. And this enviable reputation delivers an exceptional education, and with excellent research our excellent achievement is second to none. Building on the successes, which put us well within the world top 100, our intellectual power and influence obliges us to play a leading role. Our consistent top-20 ranking is an outstanding contribution, which is ranked in the top quartile. Being successful, inevitably there is public good flowing from what we do. This public good ensures a strong culture and our pioneering work in this area is a powerful combination, and a powerful platform. We are, simply, inspiring and innovative.’

What phrases would you suggest to make this excellent address more excellent?

 

Confident, not corporate: the way to a ‘no corrections’ PhD

Confident, not corporate: the way to a ‘no corrections’ PhD

We’ve all had that recurring fantasy, the one where the examiners pronounce that we have passed the viva with ‘no corrections’. In my case, I was convinced that it would remain just that, pure fantasy. Then, on 27th November 2015, it became a reality. I had passed with ‘no corrections’.

I couldn’t believe it and my examiners said, ‘what did you expect?’  A few days later I received their formal report which stated,

‘The thesis was very impressive and was well-defended. Both theory and methodology were well-developed and clearly explained and justified’

It wasn’t a dream.  I thought my responses during the viva could have been more specific. Also, I was rather taken aback with the first question which was, ‘what motivated you to do the PhD?’ I had rehearsed the presentation of a summary of my thesis but not an account of why I did it. On reflection it seems an obvious question to ask, as I hadn’t gone the normal route. I started the PhD in my forties whilst working full-time and it was not funded. I had, however, lived with it for so long that I’m still, even now, adjusting to the idea of living without it.

In a previous blog post on, ’15 lessons from doing doctoral research’, I reflected on some aspects of the doctoral experience. The final stage of my doctoral journey involved preparing for the viva, and this is what I did.

I read, and re-read the thesis.

I marked up the typos (n14). (I had decided not to ask Trevor, my husband, to proof read before the submission because he was under a great deal of pressure at the time with two major commissions. I did make an enquiry with a professional proof reading service and received a response stating that ‘proof reading is not a ‘cheap’ exercise when undertaken properly, and it is important to ascertain that your budget is in line with likely costs.’ Whilst appreciating the point, I decided to go it alone).

I wrote forty pages of notes on the following:

  • The conclusions of my research and how my findings fit in with or contradict the rest of the literature in the field
  • A sketch of the thesis, a summary of the eight chapters and eight appendices.
  • What my work tells us that we did not know before, and implications for the future development of the field
  • How the topic was framed, my reasons for using reflexive sociology and my specific take on my chosen theoretical framework
  • The practical and ethical difficulties encountered in conducting the research
  • Concerns about representativeness and how the data may or may not appropriately relate to the theoretical concepts and measure what is actually going on
  • The additional techniques and data I would like to have used and why I didn’t use them

Making such extensive notes was like revising for a major examination. The fact that I was revising my own work, words I had so diligently crafted, didn’t stop the fear of having my mind go blank. How on earth am I going to remember it all in the final interrogation?   If I took all my notes and my annotated thesis into the viva, perhaps they would act as a reminder. (Yes, I did take them in. I laid them out neatly on the table in front of me. I pointed to the notes a few times and opened the thesis once).

I had two mock vivas, the first with a brave and kind colleague from Cambridge, and the second with both supervisors. I hadn’t prepared sufficiently for the first and it (inevitably) ended in tears; I was annoyed with myself more than anything. The second was fine and gave me some useful pointers that I hadn’t previously considered such as reconciling the difference between a constructivist and structural reading, the longitudinal dimension of the research encounter, and why it is not a case study but still makes sense in an institutional context.

I wrote and practiced a short presentation under the heading of, ‘Please provide a summary of your thesis, describe its rationale and what you consider to be its main aims, key findings and contributions to knowledge’. I tested this out on colleagues at a research meeting where I handed out copies of my research poster and an explanation of the ‘Infinity Model of Academic Community’. They responded with constructive questions and I felt encouraged.

I wrote a blog post on ‘defining original contribution to knowledge’, which helped me think through the ‘value added’ aspects of my own work.

I researched papers written by my examiners and looked for similarities in their arguments to mine.   Gewirtz had declared that collectively, as sociologists, we need to be more ethically reflexive (Gewirtz & Cribb 2006) and Stronach, on professionalism, had emphasised the need for a theory of tension; tension between ‘economies of performance’ and ‘ecologies of practice’ (Stronach et al 2002 – online 2010). Stronach et al had called for a ‘more fissiparous employment that will keep tensions in movement’; their metaphor for professionalism (‘pulse’ rather than ‘push’) chimed with something one of my supervisors had said about envisaging my Infinity Model of Academic Community as pulsating.

I looked up recent publications on my topic. (I used to eagerly trawl the SRHE Research Into Higher Education Abstracts as a way of catching up on the latest literature. However, as I prepared for my final submission, I found that I couldn’t open the June edition for fear of finding something that would somehow crush the whole argument of my thesis. When I did finally look, I found a particularly interesting paper on ‘sense of community’ in academic communities of practice. It seemed fortuitous more than anything).

I booked a short holiday in Suffolk with Trevor, who accompanied me to UEA on the day of the viva and spent a happy hour or so at the Sainsbury Centre’s Alphonse Mucha exhibition as I underwent the examination.

At the School, when I came out to await the final verdict, a kind colleague handed me a slice of cake, declaring it was just what I needed. Within two minutes I had been called back in and I had to leave the cake outside. After congratulations and hugs from the panel members, I rushed over to find Trevor, as I wanted him to be the first to hear the news. I then phoned my children and my parents. Afterwards Trevor and I drove to Suffolk and spent an enjoyable but tiring three days visiting more galleries and museums, (not so) gently floating back down to earth.

Finally, in wanting to appear (and feel) more confident than corporate, I chose to wear my red patent leather DMs with a gorgeous mini-skirt my daughter, Phoebe, found for me in Top Shop.

Blue hair, green jacket, multi-coloured skirt and red boots.

What did you, or what will you… wear to YOUR VIVA?

Confident, not corporate
Confident, not corporate

References:

Gewirtz, S, & Cribb, A 2006, ‘What to do about values in social research: The case for ethical reflexivity in the sociology of education’, British Journal Of Sociology Of Education, 27, 2, pp. 141-155

Ian Stronach , Brian Corbin , Olwen McNamara , Sheila Stark & Tony Warne (2002) Towards an uncertain politics of professionalism: teacher and nurse identities in flux, Journal of Education Policy, 17:1, 109-138

 

15 lessons from doing doctoral research

15 lessons from doing doctoral research

Work on my final chapter is progressing well and I should have the draft finished soon.  Meanwhile, my supervisor asked if I would jot down some lessons I had learned about research through doing the doctorate.  Whilst the list below is not exhaustive, it is hopefully useful to postgraduate research colleagues and possibly others.

  1. Reviewing the literature is a continuous process.  Keeping abreast of relevant abstracts, preferably via a learned society in your field is essential.  Maintaining an accurate electronic library of sources from the beginning makes checking and cross-referencing so much easier.
  1. Printing source material may be costly and is not environmentally friendly but doing so and having it constantly on-hand, significantly aids your review.  Spending time sifting through the literature and reflecting helps you to fully comprehend the conversation that you are joining.
  1. Searching electronic databases is essential but do not ignore the benefits of simply walking around the university library.  Useful publications can unexpectedly leap off the shelves.  Know the value of a book as opposed to a journal paper.  A book enables you to see how a sustained argument can be (well or badly) constructed.
  1. Getting into the habit of writing, right from the start, makes the task of drafting chapters easier and more enjoyable.  A regular writing routine pays huge dividends in productivity and can be very gratifying.
  1. Keeping a monthly blog during the research provides an arena for thinking out loud about emerging ideas and conclusions.  It is also helps to introduce discipline into your routine.
  1. Doing doctoral research part-time whilst occupying a professional role that entails different forms of writing makes it more important to distinguish between your academic and managerial forms of writing.  Do not be afraid to share what you have written and nurture your academic voice as well as your academic identity.
  1. Doing doctoral research is a form of continuous meditation. The cognitive process is never entirely switched-off.  Always be prepared to record emerging thoughts and ideas, whatever time of day or night.  Those light-bulb moments really do happen.
  1. Pilot data gathering is an effective way of refining the overarching research question.  Do not underestimate the value of testing out your initial ideas and be open to variations.  Your question is likely to change.
  1. Understanding the heuristic value of combining your existing practical knowledge of the field and the newly formed scholarly knowledge gained in doing the research helps you to manage boundaries and determine what is data.  Do not see every scenario as a data gathering opportunity.
  1. Transcribing is time-consuming and using a professional transcription service helps to save time.  Do your own transcribing wherever possible and if you do use a professional service, check their transcripts against the audio-recorded data before commencing any analysis.
  1. Taking the opportunity to assess the data analysis tools at your disposal means that your ultimate selection is well informed and can be justified, even if you decide not to use any.
  1. Listening to the opinions of others (especially your supervisors) about content and structure aids reflection.  Do not worry if those opinions are variable or if your supervisor’s opinion changes from draft to draft.  Take time to consider them all but remember that the ultimate argument you are making, and therefore justifying, is yours.
  1. Researching researchers who share your discipline can make it easier to communicate concepts through a common vocabulary. Do not be surprised, however, if your participants turn your questions back on you.  Utilise such exchanges to enhance your reflexivity.
  1. Explaining your research to others, both inside and outside the academy, helps to crystallise your argument.  Unlike you, others are not immersed in the topic and do not feel passionate about it in the way that you do.  Treat every encounter as an opportunity to question your own assumptions.
  1. Backing up your work may be a no-brainer but do not take it for granted.  Always take your memory stick away with you. If the house burns down you will at least not have lost the countless number of hours you have spent on this project.  A colleague once said to me, ‘it is only a PhD’ but losing the work would be catastrophic.

What you cannot account for is the stuff that happens along the way. Since starting the doctorate in October 2008, I have been divorced and remarried, I have changed jobs and I have moved house four times.

So what, you might well say…