Doctoral researchers

‘The New Academic’: great blog for PGRs and ECRs

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Nadine Muller has launched an excellent new blog for postgraduate researchers (PGRs) and early career researchers (ECRs). In her own words…

The New AcadmicIn November 2012 I launched The New Academic, a continuing series of blog posts on all things academic, aimed at postgraduate and early-career researchers. Rather than lengthy personal accounts, The New Academic aims to provide short tips and guidance – however subjective – on key academic activities.

I now write to you with two requests (besides hoping you will visit the blog and comment, or even recommend it to others):

  1. If you are a researcher and would like to propose a guest post on a topic of your choice, please get in touch with me. Posts may be personal accounts of your experiences in academia generally, or may address specific issues you’ve encountered.
  2. Considering recent announcements of funding cuts, the next season of The New Academic (starting May 2013) will be dedicated exclusively to the experiences of part-time and/or self-funded postgraduate students, who can, unfortunately, often find themselves overlooked within departments (though of course this isn’t always the case) and within the academic landscape. If you were or are a part-time and/or self-funded postgraduate and would like to contribute a post about your experiences, please do get in touch. I already have a list of 30+ people on my potential author list for this series of posts, and the more voices are heard, the better.

Please feel to get in touch with me via or, and feel free to pass this message on to anyone you think may be interested. Any comments and suggestions are gratefully received, as are suggestions for guest posts.

I hope you’ll find the blog a valuable resource – as you will see, it lays no claim to being a universal database of knowledge, but to simply provide useful “beginners'” information and overviews which I hope will be of help to other postgraduate researchers and early-career academics.

All the best and thanks for reading,


Dr Nadine Muller

Lecturer in English Literature & Cultural History Liverpool John Moores University Dean Walters Building

Twitter: @Nadine_Muller


QR codes

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QR codeIn case you’ve been perplexed by those funny little squares that have been appearing all over campus, they are QR codes – short for Quick Response code. Although the look like tiny Rorschach tests, they are actually a scannable code, capable of holding any type of data. They originated in the automative industry and were used to manage inventory, but are now much more widely deployed to enable those armed with smartphones to find more information on a particular product or service by pointing them to a website.

There are more imaginative uses, too. You might have noticed an outbreak of QR codes in the Library, allowing you to quickly report rowdiness in the quiet areas. With a flick of a wrist, you can summon a Librarian to tell them to shhhhh.

If you already have a smartphone, then you’re just a few short steps away from being able to take advantage of this new technology. There are a number of free apps available. For Android, the most popular scanner is by ZXing and there’s a similar product available for the iPhone.

Sadly, as it with the case of any innovation, there are some annoying people who have devoted a lot of time to adapting QR codes for malicious use. Be careful where you point your smartphone, as some codes will direct you to dodgy sites intent on stealing your details. They are in the minority, however, and most will simply help you access information and services quickly and easily.

Should you want to generate your own QR codes, there are many website that will allow you to do this for free, including And if you want to find out more about the technology behind these strange blobs, there’s a very good article on Wikipedia (the QR code above will also take your there).

Do let us know if you come up with any imaginative uses of your own.

Raising your academic profile with LinkedIn

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Are you making the most of your LinkedIn profile? Personally, I’m uncomfortable with self-promotion, but I do engage in it. Researchers have to ‘put themselves out there’; ‘engage with the wider researcher community’ and other such clichés. I’m sure I’ve said this before, but clichés are not untrue. We know that doing these things will help us to raise our profile. Maybe not immediately, but making ourselves visible in social networking platforms, on websites, in online communities *will* have benefits that come later.

Researchers who do engage on some level with digital self-promotion tend to have wider networks than those that refrain. Your profile is available to others, often tagged with keywords, perhaps accompanied by PDFs of your conference/journal papers and slides from your presentations. People will find you! With the recent opening of Google Scholar Citations (did you see Martin Eve’s guest post on this?) you are now even more discoverable.

What about LinkedIn?

In the light of newer, shinier platforms, LinkedIn may look a little like ‘facebook for grown-ups’, which I think underestimates the reach and potential of using it. I know someone who was invited to take part in a cross-disciplinary group in the states, through making contacts and publishing her CV on LinkedIn. This was a paid job, not an internship. Recently a colleague told me that at least one large employer in the UK has stopped using application forms for recruitment – they ask only for the applicants LinkedIn profile. Scary as this may be, it’s also an opportunity in disguise. Your LinkedIn profile makes your skills and experience available to a huge number of professionals in all areas, including other academics and researchers. But it does mean to you need to keep it up-to-date, and make sure you’re making the most of it.

In this presentation, Sue Beckingham, Education Developer, takes you through why you might want to set up a LinkedIn profile, and how to manage it to make sure you’re accessing the best that LinkedIn can offer. There is a transcript available to accompany the presentation on the SlideShare website. Let us know how you get on.

Surviving the Viva: a first hand doctoral experience

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Viva Nerves

‘Fear’ by Meredith_Farmer (Flickr)

When I first handed in my doctoral thesis, I was very confident about passing the viva voce exam.  As had been suggested by some supportive piece of literature I picked up during my studies, before deciding to hand in I had asked my supervisor outright, ‘Will it pass?’ and he had said yes.  I trusted his judgement.  I felt sure it was a strong piece of work.

Then the weeks went by. Then the months.  Although university guidelines suggest a viva date is set within eight weeks of hand-in, there are no hard and fast rules.  A lot depends on the external examiner’s availability.  By the time six months had gone by, I was a lot less confident. So were the people who enquired after the result, when I answered I hadn’t yet been given a date for my viva.  Like a pregnancy, the longer it goes on, the more nervous people get on your behalf. And the more horror stories they tell you. I started to get properly nervous.

I told myself I still had every reason to be confident.  The novel that made up just over half of my thesis had secured a very good book deal in the interim, and a large part of the critical component had also been published as articles in the journals Rethinking History and Critical Survey, and an academic book about Christopher Marlowe.  On the other hand, I knew a novelist who, even with a book deal from Bloomsbury in her pocket, was asked to make bizarre and unreasonable “corrections” that she couldn’t bring herself to make.  And my subject matter, the Shakespeare authorship question, couldn’t be more contentious or unpopular in academia. As if intent on ramping up my own anxiety, I googled ‘fail PhD viva’.  I really don’t recommend it.

Viva Preparation

‘Not Human’ by fragmented (Flickr)

Finally I got a date, nine and and half months after hand-in; I had four weeks to prepare. I went to a ‘Viva preparation’ session run by the university and asked questions.  I met with my supervisor a week before, and asked more. Here is what I gleaned.

    • Very rarely will the outcome of a doctorate depend on your ‘performance’ at viva.  The examiners have already decided whether it is strong enough to pass or likely to fail.
    • Failure is rare, and pretty much unheard of if you have a good supervisor. A supervisor worth their salt would not encourage you to submit something that was likely to fail, as it would damage their reputation.
    • One of the primary purposes of the viva voce exam is to make sure that you are the author of the submitted material.  The examiners will test that you know your subject thoroughly in order to verify that.
    • You know your subject thoroughly!  You probably know a great deal more about it than your examiners do. You don’t need to ‘revise’ something that has presumably gripped you obsessively for a number of years.
    • Hopefully you discussed suitable examiners with your supervisor before they were appointed, and have chosen as well as you could. You have not chosen drooling Rottweillers. Remind yourself of this.
    • Preparation 1: familiarise yourself with your examiners’ work – it need not be excessive – I spent a day on each. Notice where your approaches/opinions coincide and where they differ.
    • Preparation 2: read your thesis from cover to cover, pencil in hand, and note any errors, typos, things you now feel are unclear, things you would rather say differently. My pregnancy-sized delay actually made this part easier: it helps to get a bit of distance from your work.
    • Preparation 3: imagine what the examiners are most likely to ask you and how you would answer them. I spent the majority of my preparation time on this bit. And of course nothing I imagined came up.
    • Preparation 4: visualise the viva running smoothly, and a successful outcome. Visualise (and hear) yourself being congratulated with the word ‘Doctor’ in front of your name.  Spend as much time on this as you need to feel calm and relaxed about it, and repeat as often as necessary!
    • The viva is an excellent chance to discuss your work in depth with two experienced academics. Enjoy it!

Viva Day

Anxiety by jjjohn (Flickr)

More advice:  be kind to yourself the night before, get enough sleep (play something soothing on headphones if necessary; meditation tracks worked for me).  Get there early enough to sit quietly by yourself with a suitable beverage and concentrate on knowing that within two hours, it will be over, and statistically, it will probably be a pass.

I had an interesting experience when I was having my pre-viva coffee. I had my mp3 player on ‘shuffle’ and just as I sat down for coffee, one of the 3000-or-so tracks that *never* plays – a track I strongly associate with my mother – started up.  Mum died nine years ago and passed up her own doctoral chances to get married to my father; I knew she would have been gunning for me.  A few tears spiked, but I headed towards the allotted room feeling the spirit of my mother right there with me.

An hour later I was out, having passed with minor corrections.  The examiners immediately expressed their admiration for the novel-in-verse… which we wouldn’t be discussing – although at the end I found myself having to defend calling it a novel, which surprised me. Discussion was reserved for their reservations about the critical commentary; both of which I found to be valid and agreed to incorporate in the form of corrections.

In the case of the issue raised by the external examiner, I had already come to the same conclusions myself (on re-reading).  What the internal examiner brought was a very valuable different perspective; I had made generalisations about literary biography which are only really valid to those working with subjects from the sixteenth and seventeenth century – a period in which my supervisor is equally absorbed – so neither of us had noticed that my arguments could not be applied to literary biographers as a whole.  It was a significant oversight; one I’m very glad to have the opportunity to correct before my thesis is filed at Sussex and The British Library.

In short, the viva offered a valuable chance to gain extra perspectives on my work and refine it further, and receive some very enjoyable praise in the process.  If you are reading this as a doctoral candidate, I hope you find your own experience similarly enlightening.

See also: My Viva Experience

Doctoral Journeys: Chris Stokes (DPhil in English)

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This is the fourthin a series of audio recordings and accompanying transcriptions, that provide insight into the doctoral journeys of other researchers at Sussex.  The recordings were taking during Profolio workshops, where the researchers talked to new doctoral researchers from the perspective of being further along in their doctorates, providing advice and tips along the way.

In this recording, Chris Stokes (DPhil in English) talked to Profolio 2007 participants.


I am a PhD (I haven’t had my viva yet) in English, and I’ve just completed my thesis which was “Coleridge and the Sublime: Language, Subjectivity, Aesthetics”, which I won’t talk about too much in specific terms but, for those of you who do do English, it was centred on readings of poetry, and it was informed by literary theory primarily. And to give you a vague idea, hopefully intelligibly, this is the first half of my abstract that goes at the beginning of the thesis:

“Working from sublimity’s contested place in recent thought, critiqued by some as an outmoded desire for transcendence, and yet invoked by others as an experience of finitude, this thesis traces types of sublimity in Coleridge’s poetry. It contends that he was always drawn to strong, transcendent modes of the sublime, modes associated with the romantic ideology. The sublime in its transcendent form offered passage to a higher point or ground that would reconcile and organise all the conflicting difficult energies of a given field. However Coleridge faced with peculiar intensity the failure of the romantic ideology, as his faith in the capacities of poetry and humanity alike began to wane. New forms of sublimity, based more on its negative moment, its experience of limit, finitude and weakness, arose in the space where the desires of the old were relinquished.”

So, that probably makes no sense!

I handed in at the end of February, after three and a half years. Briefly, how I came to be here: I did my undergraduate degree in English literature at Oxford, which was a fairly traditional place, and I became interested in a certain strand of doing the subject, which caused me to move to University College London, where I did my Masters. Unlike most Masters, where you narrow down your focus in preparation for your thesis, mine actually broadened out, which gave me some difficulties when it came to first organising my thesis and proposing what I was going to write about. Which leads on to the progress of my thesis, which you may be interested in: how it functioned as an arc from the first year to the third year.

Initially it was going to be a much broader thesis, it was actually going to be about documents of romanticism, various writers writing about what they conceive literature to be in the romantic period. And after a term working on Keats, I decided I felt this was too broad, and although my supervisor was happy with it, I personally felt that I was willing to make a change and enough time had elapsed that it wouldn’t be a problem: it would be a term’s work here or there, it would be ok. So all that got ditched, and we then chose Coleridge to work on. And like all theses, in my experience, it altered considerably. So if you look at the chapters that represent my earliest work, which is the first year, I would say about a quarter of those chapters ended up in any recognisable shape in the final draft. Obviously that goes up as you go towards later chapters, but a lot of what you write in the first year will disappear –  but that’s a good thing because it disappears because you’re advancing, progressing, your knowledge. So that shouldn’t be a worry at all.

I’d say in the whole course of the three years there were two points that were changes, pivots, around which the project…pivoted (ironically enough). One was a chapter I wrote, and it was primarily on philosophy, it was primarily on Kant, and my supervisor went ‘What’s the title for this?’ and I went ‘Oh, I don’t really have one’. And he was like ‘I think that’s symptomatic of something’. And I realised at that point that that chapter enabled me to work out a certain piece of thinking, which was fine, but I realised at that point that I really wanted to write on poetry, I wanted to write literary stuff, and this philosophy stuff was very much a kind of diversion. And that led to a kind of turn in the road, if you like. That was in the second year, if I remember correctly.

In the third year – this was kind of interesting – I did a totally separate piece of research, totally unrelated to my thesis, but when I was doing the research for that (it was for a conference), this structure jumped out at me and it became the structure out of which every single chapter became organised. I thought “Yes, this is how I can organise my material”. And that’s more or less what I was describing in the abstract.

By the end of the third year, that was the point where I had a more or less final draft. Obviously some chapters had been reworked, some chapters had been junked, some chapters were new, but by the end of the third year, the beginning of the fourth year, I was looking to revise the chapters in preparation for the final draft. So that was done by about Christmas. I’d made some quite heavy changes to my initial, earliest work. And then I took about two to three months to write up, get all the final drafts back from the supervisor. What was surprising was, a) how much it came together, in a sense; I mean you oscillate between thinking “Oh, this is crap” and “Oh actually this all fits together rather nicely”; and just how much I wanted to put in new stuff, which is a desire you’ve got to work with, because you can’t do too much new stuff. But I was kind of surprised how much new writing I did do at that stage. The other thing was reference checking and proof reading took a lot longer than I thought. So if you’re thinking about planning, be really careful with your references and stuff, it’s amazing how many mistakes I picked up at that stage.

So it took me three and a half years, which I think is about normal. My everyday research was reading about 100-150 pages a day, maybe, that’s optimistic, but nominally that’s what it was.

But obviously the research experience – and [this is] one of the reasons it took three and a half years rather than under three years – was…leavened with other activities. So I’m going to talk about these things you can do. Three things: teaching, conferences, and writing articles.

Teaching took a lot of my time. I’ve been teaching non-stop, more or less, since the second year, here and at the University of Brighton. It’s fun, it’s good, it’s really satisfying for a number of reasons. It’s actually nice to be in a position where you feel you’ve got knowledge, whereas in the postgraduate, doctoral position you usually feel that you’re just getting more and more stupid, as you don’t feel you’ve got enough knowledge! But this is one position where you can actually feel alright about yourself. It’s also a relief from the monotony of being at the same topic for three years. It’s nice to have a break, and to look at other topics, or in my field, other texts. And it can lead to insights into your own research, particularly if you are looking at – say in my case I was privileged enough to teach one of the third year undergraduate courses on 1740-1830, which is my period. Of course I got to spend time – paid – researching texts around that period, and of course you begin to build up a nicer, more textured picture of your research area, and sometimes you go “Yes, that’s something that came up” – a student might have said it, a critic might have said it, you might have even made it up on the spur of the moment in one of the seminars – you think “actually that’s quite a nice little point, and that reminds me of something in Coleridge”. And therefore you can get impetuses into your research from teaching.

The only problem is time, it does take a lot of time, particularly when you start you’ll find your research goes out the window, depending on how conscientious you are. Particularly the first course you teach, you’ll find it very hard to get more than 25% or a third of your normal research load done. But obviously if you’re looking to go into an academic career it’s absolutely a necessity anyway.

Conferences are definitely worth doing; I’m sure you’ve talked about them already. It’s great to formulate ideas, to work out bits of your thesis, to meet new people – I’m not a big fan of networking, I can’t say I’ve had any brilliant job offers through conferences – but it’s nice to meet people, get out and about. One thing to be aware of: there are different types of conferences, and they can all be fun, but they will give you different things in terms of yield, if you like. Something like the HUMS – Humanities – postgraduate conference here, great fun, great to see what everyone’s doing, probably not that useful for your thesis, but well worth doing. A general conference that’s got a very general topic, again will be very interesting, you’ll get to meet people in a broad sense, particularly if it’s one of those international conferences, but the chances are the questions you field will be not from positions of expertise. The flip-side to that is the conferences that are very tightly focused around say an author or a particular topic, and therefore you know that everyone will be on the same page as you, and therefore your questions will be that little bit more rigorous, and the papers will be very very closely related. So it’s worth trying to do a range of different conferences, to see what you get out of each one.

The third one was writing articles. I’ve written a few that will be published in peer-reviewed journals. It’s worth trying to do, because…particularly if you’re going into academia, that is an absolute necessity, and the lead times on publications are huge. You submit an article, they’ll get it back to you in three months, you may get rejected, and you’ll have to apply again to a different journal or revise it. The revision process may take some time and they’ll give you revisions [to carry out]. So basically it can take two years, [one of] mine’s going to come out in 2009, and I wrote it in 2007. So it can take an awful long time. There are postgraduate journals, which [are] particularly [useful] at the beginning of your thesis – obviously their standards are slightly lower, it doesn’t mean your writing’s less good, but you just have less knowledge. You can have a crack at one of those, that’s a nice place to get a publication on your cv without necessarily going to the top journal in your field, where even great academics will get regularly rejected, faculty here will get regularly rejected from journals, so it’s just part and parcel of article life.

To conclude: problems, lessons, and so forth, from this exciting journey that I went on! I found motivation was a kind of problem. Never with the subject itself – I never fell out of love with literature, I’m perhaps lucky that English literature is a subject that people generally go into because they’re passionate about (I’m sure that’s true of other subjects as well). But going on again and again at the same thing, it can get difficult motivation-wise, and I had a kind of slump in the second half of the thesis. Certainly my desire to go into academia waned as I met more and more academics (!), and then I was lucky enough (this isn’t going to happen to all of you unfortunately) to get an all-expenses-paid conference to Singapore, with flights and hotel, which kind of reinvigorated my enthusiasm for the whole discipline, and was actually great in terms of people. I’d had an article rejection just before, and I was motivationally at a low ebb, and then I came to this conference, and people said nice things about my paper, and then I came back, and I got a journal acceptance from somewhere else, and it began to look up again. Writing-up stress would be another big problem. I think it’s impossible to avoid. It’s probably a long way off for you guys but nearly everyone I know has broken up with someone during writing-up, including myself. It’s hard to avoid. You’ve just got to plan well, and don’t grind yourself into the ground, don’t lock yourself away. It will be over, and if you finish a month later than planned it’s not the end of the world.

Three pieces of advice. One: supervision. It’s really important to keep up your relationship with your supervisor, not just seeing them regularly, but making sure you’re on the same page, making sure you feel confident in them and vice versa. If you want some praise, if you’re feeling low, then you can go and ask for some. This is alright, because supervisors, depending on their styles, can be quite relentlessly negative. You want to know that what you’re doing is on the right lines. You should feel confidence in your supervisor. Your supervisor should, I hope, ask you to write regularly, particularly if you’re in a humanities subject it’s really important. Because then you’re building the foundation for later revisions, and you’re keeping the whole process going, whereas just endless research would be extremely dull.

Second: keep up your interest. Part of the reason for this slump was that I just got disenchanted, because when I did literature at undergraduate and MA level I was reading a lot of stuff I found really exciting, what we call primary texts, so novels, poetry, and important works of philosophy. It was great, it was all new knowledge, and I was chomping at the bit. I was reading say 80%, 70% that, and 30% critics and commentators and guides and so forth. And I felt by my second year or third year that the ratio had reversed, and suddenly I was reading endless reams of commentary, kind of parasitic commentary and commentary and commentary. I’d almost lost the contact with what had made me do the subject in the first place. So I made a kind of contract with myself to lay aside some time to read primary texts, that weren’t necessarily related to my project, but I said “I’m going to read some theory, I’m going to read some Deleuze, or I’m going to read a novel, because I want to”. It will feed back, and you’ll find, particularly with this theorist thing (which might not make sense unless you’re studying literature, but literary theory tends to be something out there, very self contained) – but I was reading stuff, and it would find its way into the thesis in the strangest ways, and create some of the most interesting (or what I hope is interesting – I’ll have to ask the examiners) bits of the thesis.

And finally, self-doubt. When myself and Karen – who’s another PhD – did a similar thing last year, the one thing we agreed on more than anything is: everyone, even those people you see slogging away at 7am, and just seem to be brilliant, they all don’t think they’re good enough at some point, probably most of the time if you’re normal. So self-doubt is absolutely normal, everyone feels it. If you don’t think you’re good enough to be doing it that’s absolutely normal, and it will not be a problem.

Credit where credit is due: who’s in your thesis acknowledgements?

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It’s a cliché that just after creating a new document called ‘Thesis.doc”, the doctoral researcher finding him- or herself in ‘writing-up mode’ will inevitably start writing the Dedication and Acknowledgements.  Stereotyped and tired this image may be, yet it is not a million miles from the truth.  But, let’s pause and remove the veils of cynicism for a moment, because there are good reasons for why the myth is rooted in reality…

The Dedication: who’s your champion?

At the writing-up stage, we have committed a staggering quantity of energy, time and money towards our doctorate.  We have made great sacrifices, most likely starting with small things like sleep and recreation, moving up the scale possibly to health and relationships.  We have worked hard.  And through it all, we have persevered. What keeps us going, through the years of research, culminating in what will probably be the longest piece of academic writing in our career?

Sometimes it isn’t a ‘what’, but a ‘who’ – someone we have kept in mind throughout the doctoral journey, a champion if you like.  This person or persons may be living or dead, near or far.  They will have been the ‘who’ we think of when we’re dragging ourselves through the tough times, and of course when we are celebrating the good times. We want our champions at our graduation ceremony.  We want to make them proud.  I bet you already know who your champions are.

The Acknowledgements: who’s in your your support team?

We know we couldn’t have achieved so much alone – there’s a  support network behind every researcher, and it’s often bigger than we first think.  The tip of the iceberg starts with friends, family, and supervisor.  Go a little deeper though, and we find many more who deserve credit: housemates, library staff, lab technicians, department administrators, postdocs, IT technicians, mentors, archivists, proof-readers, participants, interviewees, researcher communities, bus drivers, bar staff, academics from other institutions, transcribers, office-mates, programmers, et al.

These folk are essential to the progress we’ve made, like the production team is essential to a movie, so let the credits roll.  Let our support team have the recognition they deserve, for the part they have played.  And once we start this list, it’s hard to stop.  We remember every single friendly face, shoulder to cry on, helpful suggestion, handy piece of advice, constructive critique and useful recommendation that has come our way during the doctorate.  We remember every kind email, every motivating chat, consolatory hug, and every bit of practical and emotional support bestowed on us by these wonderful people.

Who reads the credits?

The movie analogy fails us here.  Most of us, at the end of a movie, care little about the credits.  Yet the Acknowledgements section of our Thesis will probably be the most thumbed page of the whole thing. I know it’s the first page I read when looking at somebody else’s thesis.  We’re a curious species, us researchers, it goes with the territory.  I often joke that my thesis will be read in it’s entirety by a grand total of three people (my supervisor and my internal and external examiners).  My Mum will have a good go, though I wouldn’t want to bet on her not skipping a few chunks.  But I bet the acknowledgements get more airing than the rest of it put together, even in these bright new days of open access repositories.  In fact, especially in these bright new days of open access repositories.

The thing is, most of the wonderful people on the roll-call of our support network won’t get to read our thanks to them.  That’s where Time for Some Acknowledgement comes in.  The Time for Some Acknowledgement blog is where you can post your thesis acknowledgements on the internet for the whole world to see.  The blog is run by George Julian, and she will take submissions of your acknowledgements in pretty much any format: scanned pages, word-processed, handwritten, photographed – it’s up to you.  The blog has thesis acknowledgements from all over the world, and makes interesting reading (remember that curiosity?).  It’s also searchable, so you can have a look at who’s thanking who in your own institution – useful if you worry you might have forgotten someone.  Of course you could also use the search function to find out if you appear in someone else’s acknowledgements…

I leave you with a sample from a recent post to the Time for Some Acknowledgement blog, entitled “The path to becoming a doctor is littered with distractions. I’d like to thank those distractions for making me the person I am“:

I would like to thank many people who have helped me through the completion of this dissertation. The first is my advisor, Steve Harrison, who is captivating, honest, and the true embodiment of a mentor. In combination with the mentorship of my advisor, I am blessed to work with dynamic and intelligent committee members Dr. Dennis Kafura, Dr. D. Scott McCrickard, Dr. Enid Montague, and Dr. Deborah Tatar. I would also like to thank the Computer Sc … Read More

via Time for some acknowledgement

Doctoral Journeys: Alo Ehimiaghe (DPhil in Education)

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This is the third in a series of audio recordings and accompanying transcriptions, that provide insight into the doctoral journeys of other researchers at Sussex.  The recordings were taking during Profolio workshops, where the researchers talked to new doctoral researchers from the perspective of being further along in their doctorates, providing advice and tips along the way.

In this recording, Alo Ehimiaghe (DPhil in Development Studies) talked to Profolio 2008 participants.


So my name is Alo, and I’d like to thank you for giving me this opportunity to share my experiences as a doctoral student, and how academic communities have played a part in my professional development. And, I find it hard when I use the word professional development, I’d never really thought about it until I started attending Profolio, and, true to its name, they’ve actually helped me make sense of my professional development and how my DPhil experience has really helped me become who I am as a professional today. So before I go on to really talking about my research management and the academic community networks, I’ll just tell you briefly about my research. I’m looking at perceptions of poverty and coping strategies of the poor, and I’m doing a comparative analysis of this between rural and urban areas, and like most people I have a lot of objectives for my research, but the central aim is to understand how poor people cope with poverty, and how their livelihoods and their social networks create a platform for their coping strategies.

So, I’ve divided my presentation into three areas: the first is the research management; the second is opportunities and constraints that I’ve had to face and come up with; and the final thing is the skills I’ve developed, and what I have planned for the next phase of my life.

So, on research management, the one critical thing – and I’m sure this is the same for many professions – is managing your time. One thing I found is that when you start your PhD, you think you have three years to do your PhD, you have forever to do your PhD, but it goes a lot faster than you think, and before you know it you find yourself in the final year thinking ‘Where has all that time gone to?’, so you have to really manage your time very well. And one of the things my supervisor (I hope I’m not speaking too fast…? Ok) made me do was to come up with a period plan, of when I wanted to have reached certain landmarks during the course of my research. And I know most departments have as a requirement for your research outline that you have a period plan at the end. But the thing is that most people do this on paper, and they don’t really imbibe their period plan in their head, and they’re not really conscious of it, but it’s important that you’re actually conscious of it. And you can manage your time on several levels: you can do it daily, weekly, monthly or yearly. Personally, weekly and monthly targets have worked best for me, and at the moment I have only a few months left to finish my PhD, so I’m having to really work on a very active target-led basis, because I have a very short time left.

Now the other thing about managing your research is managing the resources you have, apart from time which is probably the most valuable resource. You have your articles you have to read, you have your colleagues you interact with, you have your supervisor. And one thing about the articles, for example: in my first year, my research is covering three broad areas – I’m looking at poverty, livelihood and safety nets. But what I did was, I spent too much time on reading up about poverty and livelihood, and I didn’t really read much about safety nets. So now in my final year, I’ve had to go back and do more literature reviews to solidify my conceptual framework. But thankfully, a new article came out last year that has made modifications to the framework I plan on using, so it’s worked out in my favour, but I wouldn’t advise you to try that. It’s easy to just read so much on one particular area, and you don’t actually read as much as you can, and you’re just focusing on something, so it’s best to read as much as you can, and not just be too biased in your reading.

Another useful resource is the internet. There’s a lot of information out there on the internet, but my advice is not to get distracted with all the information out there. Try and get your ideas and your research topic really refined and focused before you go out looking for so much information, because it can actually confuse you more than even help you sometimes, so my advice is to stay focused and not get distracted.

And on your colleagues, I was saying to Catherine that I actually have this inner circle-thing I have in my head. You have your immediate environment whilst you’re doing your research, and the first and probably the most comfortable interactions you’ll have are with your colleagues; and not just your peers, but those who are higher than you are. One of the mistakes I made, one of the things I didn’t do that I should have done, was to have a mentor who was ahead of me and someone I could pick their brains on things, on challenges I’ve had to face and that they probably faced and have overcome. So it’s good to make friends with your colleagues at all levels from your peers to those who are higher than you, and share your experiences with them share your research tools with them, share conferences you’re planning to attend, or seminars you haven’t attended, or things that are happening within your research. For example, one of my colleagues told me about an online community called the Development Studies (??) community, and ever since I joined the community it’s actually been one of the most useful resources I’ve had within my focus. It’s kept me updated with how thinking patterns in my research are evolving, so it’s actually been a very useful that I wouldn’t have found out if I wasn’t speaking to my colleagues. And it was – we just had a normal office chat, it wasn’t any heavy contextual (?) chat, it was just a normal conversation, and he said ‘Oh, have you heard about this community?’ So it’s actually really useful to interact with your colleagues, both the ones on the same level, and the ones higher than you. The good thing with your colleagues on the same level is that they’re evolving just as much as you’re evolving, so they’re facing similar challenges, everyone is (???) to the whole research process, and no one is quite there yet, everyone is still changing. So it’s a comfortable area for you to interact with them.

And then you have your supervisors. Personally, I’ve been blessed with a very good supervisor, she’s very understanding, and I’m probably one of the very few people that only have one supervisor. Most people I know have two supervisors, it’s actually a requirement that you have two supervisors. Some people cope well with having two supervisors, others don’t cope just as well, but again my advice is to be open to their suggestions because they’ve been in research longer than we have been. They’re more aware of what’s out there and how – what is expected and what (???). And they’re thinking of the examiners as well, and they have their reputations to think about as well. So be open to their suggestions, but at the same time, stay focused on what you want to research on, and don’t let them make you deviate so much, but be open to them changing your pattern changing your pattern or just sharing their own advice to you, don’t just block them completely.

On seminars, my advice is to go for as many seminars as you can, especially in your first year. What the relevant seminars, and the seemingly irrelevant seminars, go for them, and one thing they do is, they help you identify yourself as part of an academic community. You start to see familiar faces every now and then, and you know each other’s, you know, researches within this field. So go for them as much as you can, especially in your first year, because that’s when you have probably the most time you’ll ever have during the course of your PhD. By the time you get to your final year, your research topic has been defined, you’re more precise on what you’re researching, and you have more experience, so you can be more selective about the seminars you go to. But I would encourage you to make it a very welcome part of your schedule, so go for as many seminars as you can. It opens up your – it expands your horizons and it helps stimulate your thinking as well. I just came from a research gateway that SoCul organises and Professor Richard Black was saying to us that a lot of his ideas actually came from attending seminars and thinking about things, and it’s never actually been from his head, like organically, it’s actually been come from interactions with people on the corridors, over lunch, in places you probably would never even think about. So welcome these interactions as much as you can, they really help make a difference in your research development. And another thing that seminars and career talks and things like Profolio do for you is, they help expand your breadth and deepen your depth as an academic person, so you’re more exposed to what is expected of you, how research is evolving, how thinking patterns are evolving in your research and if you’re on the right path that ??. It really helps keep you in check almost, it’s a very, very useful resource to have as a PhD student. And the other thing is, the PhD process is as isolating as can be, but you don’t have to isolate yourself. There are opportunities out there for you to make use of. Sussex is a really wonderful place for resources. They have even – if you want to know how to use Excel, for example, or Powerpoint, whatever it is you need to know, you don’t have to isolate yourself from these opportunities that are out there, they’re out there and you just need to find them and use them and go for seminars and talks like this.

Interrupt if you have any questions or anything you want to say.

Another thing: I’ve talked mainly about the local opportunities. There are also a lot of opportunities nationally as well, and the internet is probably the most useful resource for that. Join communities, even other universities, if there’s a research institute join their mailing list, so you get weekly emails or however often they send emails, just to keep you aware of what ?? are happening, the things that are happening outside your institutions, so you’re not just limiting yourself to Sussex, but other institutions that are doing leading research in your field, so you’re not just staying within the local setting, you’re opening up yourself, and comparing yourself – not necessarily comparing like seeing if you’re better than other people but just knowing what’s happening out there, not just limiting yourself really.

Then, there’s also – there are many books you can read, for example I’m reading a book called How to Author a PhD by Patrick Donleavy, and it’s a really useful resource on how to structure your PhD, how to organise your thoughts, how to disseminate your findings. It really helps you bring out your PhD a lot better than you probably would have if you’re not reading books like that, or using resources that help you organise your PhD. So I advise reading books – self-help books if you like – to help you really do a good PhD.

And if you have opportunities to teach, it’s a really good opportunity to teach, because it helps you go back to the basics of your field, and how you disseminate your thoughts and your experience or your findings, your knowledge about certain issues, to younger minds, if you like. And it’s a good opportunity to practice communication skills or interpersonal skills, especially when you have a wide variety of students. One of my classes, I have a very cynical student, and I always have to bring him back in line. He has a way of making the class deviate from the topic we are talking about. I always have to find a way of bringing him back. It’s a really good opportunity for you to manage people. On the skills I’ve developed, I think the one thing you get from doing a PhD is you become a really good project manager. And the thing with the PhD is you become your own internal authority, so you’re the one setting your targets, you’re the one planning your time, planning how your research will shape you, you’re like the CO of your own research. You have to move from a student to a CO, so you become a manager of your own project. So it really helps develop your project management skills, and it helps you use resources effectively. You also learn how to coordinate things, because you’re having to do different chapters, you’re working on one chapter today, and the next thing you’re working on another chapter. You have to make everything be in sync with one another, so it helps enhance your coordination skills.

For me I’ve had to learn IT skills. One of the packages I’m using is an econometric software called STATA, and it’s a useful resource. For example in the World Bank there’s a unit where they use STATA extensively for the research they do, so I’ve had to learn – I used it on my Masters degree but (??) as advanced as I’ve had to use it now. So having to learn how to use that package was very useful for me. So there are many skills you develop: IT skills, interpersonal skills, and most of the skills you develop actually come from the opportunities you open yourself up to. If you don’t teach, or you don’t go for seminars, or you don’t come for things like this, it’s really hard to make sense of any skills you’re developing, so it’s actually – things like this help you make sense of it, or make it more concrete or develop it better, make you understand the skills you’re developing and how you’re evolving as a researcher.

Finally, there are some questions they sent me that I shall answer as a way of – to inform this presentation. One of the questions was: have I had to overcome any difficulty over the course of my research. The main difficulty I’ve had to overcome is in my motivation and my drive in the PhD process, especially after having dealt with a family tragedy and coming back to the PhD process. I had a break, intermission, so (??). I had a really understanding supervisor – supportive friends and family, so now I’m back on track. That’s the main challenge I’ve had to face, dealing with my motivation and my drive. The other challenge was fine-tuning my data to meet academic standards, because my supervisor’s an economist, they’re very thorough in their standards, so I’ve had to really meet very thorough academic standards, and not just do things off the top of my head. I’ve had to prove that I’m doing some serious academic work and sometimes it’s a bit too much, but I just want to discuss what’s in my head, I don’t have to meet what some researcher has done before. So having to fine-tune my data to really thorough academic standards has been one of the challenges I’ve had to face. But thankfully I’ve done a lot of reading, and the more you read actually the better it is for you, and one way you know you’ve read enough is when you start seeing the same thing over and over again, you know you’ve read enough on that issue so you can move on to the next thing. And you have to think as well, like, always think, share your ideas with people, brings so many people, because it’s one thing to think about it in your head, it’s another thing to actually interact with people and tell them what you’re thinking about and see what they think about it as well. It’s good to have a bit of a mini-community or someone else you can brainstorm your ideas with. So with a lot of thinking and interaction with people, it helps you overcome certain challenges that you might be dealing with.

Another question they ask is, tips I’ve learnt along the way. And one thing I would say is always have the bigger picture in mind. Another thing is, if you can, get a mentor, get someone you can brainstorm with, don’t be so isolated, like I said already it’s a very isolated process. Try to interact with at least one person, or be part of a community. And, finally, welcome challenges and opportunities. The PhD is not like it’s a problem-solving – it’s a process, you’re evolving, you’re getting better, you’re confidence is increasing. It’s not some impossible task, it’s something that can be done. And if you’ve been allowed to start it, if you’ve been counted worthy to start a PhD then I’m sure you can see it to the final end; to be open to the challenges, the opportunities, embrace as much as you can whilst you’re doing the PhD.

Things I knew now that I wish I knew in my first year: I started with a very ambitious research plan, I was over-ambitious, and I had to narrow it down. I spent a long time re-thinking, ok, do I want to look at this or look at that. Because I started so ambitious I had to spend some time narrowing down, but the narrower you can get your research the better for you, because it gives you more time to focus and to really expand on that particular thing you’re focusing on. So, if I had know that it would have been better. And the other thing is, I wish I had taken my PhD as seriously as I’m taking it now – I was so relaxed, it seemed really easy in my first year. The Masters was a lot harder than the first year PhD, so I was really relaxed. I wish I was a lot more serious than that in my first year than I was then. Now I’m more aware of the expectations of a PhD student. On the one hand there are a lot of expectations for you to do a really good job and a thorough academic job because you’re basically joining an academic club at the end of the PhD, so they want to be sure you’ve gone through the initiation rites and you’ve actually become, you know you’re worthy to be called an academic, so there are expectations from you. But on the other hand, they’re not expecting a Nobel prize winner, they just want you to show you’ve gone through the rigours of research and you can carry out independent research on your own. I’m more aware of the expectations of a PhD student now than I was at the beginning, so it’s helped shape how I’ve done my research and how I’ve gone through the process. And you can think of the PhD as one way for you to take off your career from.

It’s a beautiful experience I have to say. At the end of (??) I’m still smiling because it’s a – I don’t know, it’s been a good experience. I enjoy the flexibility of the PhD (?) – it’s really a flexible process. You can work at your own pace. If you’re not a 9-5 person, for example, or you don’t like people telling you what to do, a PhD’s one thing you can do by yourself, and no one interrupts your processes so much, so it gives you that flexibility.

I hope I’ve not spoken too much!

It’s not so beautiful sometimes, but the end justifies the means.

I’m in my final year, I have ‘till September, so about five-six months to go now.

Oh yeah, every day I’m writing.

It’s intense, because I’m having to think every day. I’m always editing and editing throughout. I’m reading as I’m writing as well, so it’s not bad.

I’ve had to do some parts of my literature review at the end, but I advise you do as much as you can in the first year, because it helps you design a better fieldwork process, like your questionnaires, or however you want to collect you data. Because it’ll be worse if you collect your data and you find you didn’t collect data on certain things you really want to answer, so the more literature review you can do at the beginning, the better your fieldwork, the better your data collection, and the better analysis you can produce out of the fieldwork process. For example, now I’ve done my safety-net literature review so many questions I wish I asked in my questionnaire I included but I didn’t include because I didn’t do as much thorough literature review at the start.

I get a lot of emails about job opportunities but I just never respond to them because I can’t combine working and doing my PhD at the same time, but I realise that at the end of my PhD, I don’t want to come out looking like I’ve just done one thing and I haven’t really had a diversified portfolio if you like. So I saw a job opportunity for a researcher, on a project about African migrants, and migration is something I’m interested in as well, so I applied for the job. Basically what I need to do is to recruit a sample of Ghanians and interview them and speak to them about their life histories and how, if their lives as migrants in the UK now has changed; if they had stayed on in Ghana for example, and how, what it’s like living in the UK as a Ghanian, for example, as an African, because it’s supposed to inform African migrants but they’re using Ghanians as an example. And so my fieldwork experience has helped me with this job, conducting interviews and dealing with people being impatient and asking them questions they really don’t want to answer, and things like that.

They say about 18 hours a week, but it’s still really flexible. Right now I’m probably just doing 10-12 hours a week. And the research, the writing up. It hasn’t been exactly easy, but I think I’m trying.

The Sussex Centre for Migration.

It means I’m sleeping a lot less now. I love my sleep, but now I’ve had to cut down. Also Margaret Thatcher only slept for three hours, so I’ve had to cut down my sleep now. I’ve had to give up my sleep, that’s the one thing I’ve had to really cut down on now. I used to sleep a lot before, but now it’s probably six hours. Otherwise I have only, I don’t know, 16 hours a day or even less to work with.

Thank you.