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‘Quick search’ and ‘Subject search’ sets in the Electronic Library – a blunt tool for researchers?

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Search options in Electronic LibraryA doctoral researcher asked me about the QuickSearch and SubjectSearch options in the  Electronic Library:

Why is it that I cannot select either a) all sets; or b) no sets?

Good question.  So I asked Helen in the Library’s Research Liaison section, and she very helpfully gave the following explanation…

Quick search and Subject search…. I must admit I’m not the biggest fan of these as search tools for doctoral students and in any 1-2-1s I tend to suggest that people use the databases individually. My reasons are that not all databases can be searched using Quick/Subject search, that the results often come back in a strange order so the 50th ranked article may be more relevant than the 1st, and that people may really need to tailor their search terms for particular databases (eg needing to be more specific with search terms within a database that searches the fulltext like JSTOR, not needing to use terms like ‘psychology’ in PsychInfo but needing to use them in the big, general databases). If they’re all being searched at once you lose the ability to do this.

Phew, I don’t mean to be negative about it, it’s a great resource for undergrads who just need *some* articles, not a comprehensive search. Dphils may want to use it to get a sense of which databases might have useful results but may struggle when it comes to more systematic searching.

To actually answer your question, the sets in Quick Search cannot be altered and each set searches databases for a particular subject area that have been selected by the staff here. It’s designed so people can just start searching. It is, however, possible to customise the sets in Subject Search so that you basically create your own set of useful databases that can then be searched. There’s a guide to doing this in the yellow box on the front page of the Electronic Library that would probably be more use than my efforts to explain – there’s a webcast option or a standard PDF guide. I think there is a limit to the number of databases that can be searched at once or it would just take far too long to get any results.

Hope this helps, feel free to send anybody my way if they have any more questions!

So there you go 🙂  If you’d like to ask further questions of Helen, you can email her at

Boost your productivity with the Pomodoro Technique

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If you’re anything like me, the prospect of having to sit down and write a chunk of thesis usually causes an outbreak of entirely uncharacteristic housework, or a lengthy (and rather one-sided) conversation with the cat.  However, I am now a reformed character, thanks to the Pomodoro Technique.  Named after those novelty tomato-shaped timers (pomodoro is Italian for tomato),  this time management technique improves focus and productivity by breaking your tasks down into 25 minute sessions.

The technique is beautifully simple, and the creators haven’t tried to make it appear far more complicated in order to sell you a book, and you don’t need to buy any equipment.   I’ve included links at the end to a number of online timers and downloadable widgets.

Here’s what you do:

1)  Make a list of your tasks

2)  Choose a task to be accomplished

3)  Start the timer (set to 25 minutes)

4)  Work on the task until the timer rings (or otherwise attracts your attention).

5)  Give yourself a big tick and then take a 5-minute break

6)  Start again, giving yourself a longer break for every 4 pomodoros (or pomodori, for pedants) completed

Defining your task can take a little bit of practice.  If a task takes more than 5-7 pomodoros, break it down further; if a task is likely to take less than 25 minutes, combine it with another related activity.

Be as specific as possible with your tasks: eg “Write concluding paragraph to chapter one” or “check references for introduction” rather than “write thesis”.  This gets easier after a couple of days and you’ll become much more accomplished at estimating how long certain tasks take, and breaking your work down into bite-sized morsels.

The key part is to keep focused on your task during the 25 minutes: don’t check your email, don’t fiddle about on Facebook, and don’t talk to the cat.  If something urgent suddenly pops into your head, quickly write it down and return to the task.  Use your 5 minutes breaks for having a stretch and pootling about in cyberspace.

Once you get the hang of it, the Pomodoro Technique is an incredibly powerful tool in your Doctoral Toolkit.  I can honestly say that it boosted my productivity by about 300%, and my partner (also studying for  a DPhil) has seen a similar improvement.  We are now terrifying models of efficiency and the studious silence of our house is punctuated by the sound of clockwork tomatoes.   The technique:

1) Improves focus and concentration by minimising interruptions

2) Boosts motivation by recording your activity

3) Give you more free time – 25 minutes of focused activity is often more productive than several hours staring at the screen.

The Pomodoro Technique website includes a wealth of information, along with a free eBook and worksheets for recording your progress.  Personally, I like, which acts as both a timer and an activity log.  Other timers are available:

Like any other tool, the Pomodoro Technique won’t work for everyone, but please let us know how you get on if you do decide to give it a go.

Creativity in Academic Writing: after the workshop…

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I thought it might be useful for researchers to see what other researchers have got out of various DocSchool professional development activities this year.  To that end, I asked the attendees on the workshops “Creativity in academic writing” this academic year, to share their thoughts about the training they received, and how they feel about it some time after the workshops.

These posts are presented whole, unedited and unaltered – all I have done is copy and paste the text from the emails they sent me.  Because this isn’t a promotion exercise –  the usefulness of these comments is that they are frank and straightforward, and therefore more meaningful to researchers contemplating attending one of these courses in the future.  It’s also interesting to see how different researchers found different aspects of the same workshop to be most helpful.

Our first contributor is Philippa St George, part-time DPhil researcher, School of English.

I am a part-time DPhil student in the English Department. I attended the Creativity in Academic Writing workshop in April and thoroughly enjoyed it. More to the point, perhaps, I got a great deal out of it.

We were shown a wide range of different techniques for writing creatively and given plenty of time to practise them. One or two of the techniques were not for me but other I have been using consistently since April and found they have made a huge difference to my written output.

In particular the very simple notion of forgetting your audience and just getting your preliminary thoughts down on paper in any way, shape or form. I have found this to be a very productive technique and so liberating! Writing becomes a productive, creative and enjoyable 2 or 3 stage process rather than a grinding chore! I think it has been one of the most useful courses I have attended. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Next up, we have Liz Thackray,  DPhil researcher, School of Informatics.

I did  the workshop in April.

I went to the workshop hoping to have some fun, to meet DPhils from other disciplines and to learn more about academic writing. All 3 objectives were achieved to a greater or lesser extent.

I particularly enjoyed some of the exercises deigned to get the creative juices flowing and the amount of energy and expertise Celia brought to enabling the group to function. It gave me confidence to get on and write, rather than worrying about whether I am expressing myself properly – time to sort that out when reviewing and editing.

However, for me a big disappointment was being split into two separate groups with little interaction between the two groups. Although it was possible to chat to people from the other group over lunch, this was not as easy as if we had been mingling more during the workshop activities.

When the workshop is advertised again, it should be made clear that it is not about learning to write good, grammatical English, but about developing and exploring the writing skills we already have.

And finally, me: Sarah Robins-Hobden, DPhil researcher, School of Psychology

I’m writing this from the perspective of doctoral researcher, not DocSchool employee.  Feel free to disregard if you doubt my efforts at separating these two facets of my identity 🙂  For context, I submitted my thesis in April and did the workshop in June (thanks to people dropping out at the last minute, and folks on the waiting list not being able make it with such short notice).

The first thing that I tussled with was this: Celia asks you to write with pen, on paper.  I had taken my laptop, and so had a couple of others in our group, as that is my usual writing mode.  I had also taken a couple of fountain pens, as I use these when I have to write by hand.  I’m glad I did – ink flows from nibs, so no pressure is required to mark the paper, and therefore, thankfully, I wasn’t bothered by hand-cramp.  I don’t write much more than note-taking usually, so to sit and write whole paragraphs, and to write by hand for longer than a couple of minutes at a time, was new to me.  By the end of the two days I once again loved the process of writing by hand.  I felt more in touch with my writing, as if I had created the words myself, in the factory of my mind, rather than selected them from a cognitive lexicon.

But I was resistant at first.  At the keyboard, I’m a touch-typist of around 80 words per minute.  Which is just about as fast as I think in sentences.  When typing, I always backspace over words and retype changes as I go along.  This disrupts my flow.  Sometimes I even pause mid-sentence whilst I hunt through my head searching for the “just so” word – I’m stalled and unable to move on without it.  With pen and paper, I find the jumble of words is bottle-necked in my head just enough so as to give me time to line them up correctly, to come out as a complete sentence as I write, and I have no need to backtrack and change words – proper editing can come later.  And it’s a physical thing, in a way that typing isn’t – the feel of the paper, the flow of the nib across it, the formation of the words, my own, personal handwriting shaping each letter.

Many of the exercises made me think differently about my writing, in that I felt I was having to think about how I feel about the subject I was writing about.  I hadn’t considered this before.  At all.  I never thought it mattered.  Initially I felt blank.  Meh.  Whatever.  But in a strange way, it was the very act of writing about my topic that led me to discover how I felt about it, rather than the other way round.  Isn’t that bizarre?  So within two days, I discovered that although I couldn’t give a flying monkey about my topic anymore (you win, DPhil, you win), I did actually care about the work I had done for my thesis, and I was rather looking forward to the discourse that would come as part of my viva.

On the first day, Celia takes us through an exercise where we analyse some texts from different disciplines, looking for evidence of various things, including voice, expertise, position in relation to the topic, etc.  Then we apply the same method to a piece of our own writing.  I found this process just awful.  I hated my piece of writing.  Sadly, the text I analysed was part of a discussion in my already-submitted thesis.  I was horrified that I could find no “voice” in there, no hint of me.  I could highlight maybe only two or three short tracts in the whole 800-word sample where I thought I could glimpse a human being behind the words.  Crestfallen.  I had a hard job putting aside the my silent lament, but once I did, I felt activated.  This writing, I thought, wasn’t good enough.  I hadn’t done the work justice, and  I could do much better.

So I re-worked the piece overnight, ready for the second day.  Because on the second day, you read it out loud in very small groups, for feedback.  And there was no way I was going to read out that bland rubbish.  Lo and behold, I was proud of the reworked piece.  I still consider it to be the very best piece of academic writing I’ve done.  And I don’t mind that this came after I submitted my thesis – I’m expecting corrections, probably major corrections, but – I now feel I will be able to do  much better job of them when the time comes.

I feel the workshop has given me tools I never thought I’d use (draw a picture to represent your topic? Write an imaginary dialogue between yourself and leading thinker in your field?), and therefore bent my mind round my writing in peculiar and unfamiliar ways, but most of all, it’s given me confidence to write again (even “in public”, hence this post), and to return to my thesis when I need to, to finish it properly.

Creativity in Academic Writing

… is a two-day workshop, presented to doctoral researchers by Celia Hunt and Abi Curtis of the Centre for Continuing Education.  For more information, see the Creativity in Academic Writing webpage.

Giving an academic conference paper

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Giving  a conference paper can be one of the most intimidating aspects of doctoral research.  On the bright side, successfully presenting your research to an engaged audience can be incredibly rewarding.  Although becoming a skilled orator takes time, there are a number of relatively simple steps you can follow to make your debut performance less stressful.

Preparation is key – if you’ve addressed all of the areas outlined below, you’ll feel more confident and in control.

NB This post doesn’t  cover use of audio visual material, which is a whole other matter!  Also, the guidance is based on delivering an oral academic conference paper (ie reading from a script), rather than a presentation, where you might be required to speak just from notes.  In some disciplines delivering a paper verbatim is mandatory, in others it is strongly discouraged, so establish what is appropriate for your event.

About me

I’m a first year PhD student at Birkbeck College, University of London, and also work part-time for the Science Postgraduate Support group (SciPS) at Sussex.  My thesis is in the area of nineteenth-century women’s writing and I maintain a blog on the subject.  Having worked in a previous existence as a web developer and an IT manager, I’m interested in using web 2.0 technologies in my research and helping the less geekily-minded to do the same.


  • Find out exactly what is expected of you. Most conference papers are 20 minutes long, but this does sometimes vary.
  • Establish who your audience will be. Are they experts in your subject, do they know virtually nothing, or will there be a mixture?  You will need to pitch your paper accordingly.
  • Check the details of the venue. Is it a small room where you’ll be seated during your paper, or will you be addressing a large hall from a lectern, with or without amplification?  If possible, visit the venue to familiarise yourself with the environment.
  • Think back to conferences you have attended and recall good and bad papers.  Reflect on what worked and what didn’t.

Writing your paper:

  • Start drafting your paper as soon as possible. Successful conference papers have usually involved months of work.  Seasoned performers can write them much more quickly, but that has come with years of experience (and they’re probably also recycling their own material).
  • Bear in mind that a 20 minute conference paper probably means around 3,200 words. Aim for this number and then time yourself.  Nerves might cause you to speak more quickly on the day.
  • Use a clear font so that you’re not peering at the script. Double or 1.5 line spacing can make it easier to read and can slow you down naturally.
  • Read aloud as you are writing. Some words look great on the page, but might be difficult to articulate in a stressful environment (“remunerative” was almost my nemesis).  Make it easy on yourself.
  • Make your sentences short. Endless sub clauses might cause you to run out of puff and turn blue.  Complex sentences are also more difficult for the audience to follow.  Scribble notes to yourself in the margin, if it helps, eg “slow down”, “you’re doing well”, “pause for a moment”.
  • Avoid jargon and acronyms. Your audience might not be familiar with them and it’ll be distracting for you if they start Googling on their iPhones.
  • Keep it simple. If you’ve been to an academic conference, you’ll know how hard it is to follow a paper on a subject with which you’re unfamiliar.  This is not a journal article – the objective is to communicate your idea or argument clearly.
  • Focus on one argument or idea. 20 minutes isn’t much time to explain your work in any great depth, so don’t try to tell the audience absolutely everything you know on that subject.  Also, state your argument at the beginning of the paper, don’t suddenly reveal it at the end.
  • Be careful with humour. If you say something hysterically funny, prolonged laughter could disrupt your momentum; if it falls flat, you might be dispirited by a sea of stony faces.
  • Don’t make enemies. Unless you know they’re dead or otherwise indisposed, don’t attack the work of other academics in your paper – they might just be in the audience.
  • Practice. It’s easier to perform on the day if you are familiar with the sound of your own voice.  Also, reading it through aloud 4-5 times will identify any problematic areas, eg difficult words, awkward  phrasing.  It’s also important to ensure that you’re within the time limits.  Overrunning might cause annoyance, and even hatred, in your audience and fellow panellists (especially if you’re speaking just before lunch).
  • Try to anticipate any questions. Formulate brief responses, and possibly prepare a list of references to which you can direct particularly keen enquirers.

The Big Day

  • Get there early. You’ll be less stressed and will be able to familiarise yourself with the environment (if you haven’t already done so).  Chatting with other delegates can make them seem less intimidating.
  • Wear comfortable clothes. Also make sure you’re smart and haven’t got spinach in your teeth.  If you’re speaking after lunch, be careful of spillages.  Tucking your napkin in your collar might look silly, but then so does having curry all down your front.
  • Breathe. That might sound obvious, but it’s easy to forget.  Slow breaths will help you feel calmer, and you’ll be less likely to faint.
  • Watch your nerves. A certain amount of adrenalin with help with the ‘performance’ element, but don’t let your nerves take over.  Remember: essentially you’re just reading some words from a piece of paper.  How hard can that be?  Your audience want you to do well, and will be more relaxed and receptive if you at least give the impression of being confident.
  • Enjoy yourself! Yes, you read that correctly.  It’s not often you’ll get to communicate your ideas for 20 minutes without being interrupted.  Show your enthusiasm through vocal inflection.
  • Don’t overrun. Even it has gone really well, stop when you reach the end and don’t be tempted to digress.  Don’t conclude your paper with “that’s it, really”.  Unless your concluding sentence is obvious, then simply finish with “thank you” and a smile.
  • Manage questions. It’s perfectly acceptable to say “I don’t know” in response to a stinker of a question.  A diplomatic response is “Oooh, that’s a really good point, I hadn’t thought of it in that way”, then scribble something on your pad as though you’re going to follow it up.
  • Give yourself a pat on the back. It’s a considerable achievement, and giving your next paper will be much easier.

For a more entertaining approach, the Royal Society of Chemistry blog includes a post on bad presentation bingo.

If you have any tips or experiences to contribute, please add a comment below.  And good luck with your paper.

Who inspires you? Who do you inspire?

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Guest blogger: Sarah Pannell, Sussex doctoral researcher and STEM Sussex Outreach Manager

Sarah completed a BSc in Biochemistry at the University of Sussex in 2006.  She then refused to go out and get a life, staying for a DPhil studying the structure function relationships of a family of proteins.  During her DPhil she became a STEM Ambassador and enjoyed it so much that in September 2009 she joined the STEM Sussex staff, managing the STEM Ambassadors programme (amongst other things) in the Sussex area.  She is intending to finish her DPhil.  Soon.

Why does Mr. McCavanagh matter?

Here’s the thing: Mr. McCavanagh is the reason I’m where I am today.  I don’t think he knows that though.  He was my science teacher at the end of secondary school (about ten years ago now) and is one of the first reasons that I chose a career in science rather than in English or French (the other A*’s I got at GCSE and subjects I also enjoyed.  Yes, I’m a geek.  I know.  I’m fine with that.).  He was inspiring, enthusiastic and gave me the encouragement that I needed to pursue a subject that is seen by many pupils as difficult and boring.  Admittedly there have been a few other people that have influenced my life since then, but Mr McCavanagh was the start in the chain.

Most people can identify a few individuals that have made a profound impact on their career choices.  Who inspired you?  Who continues to inspire you?  It might be a family member, friend, a teacher, lecturer or someone completely different.  These people impact our lives at different stages, but it is the people who influence our very early career choices that really transform the people we are to become.

Would you like the chance to inspire the next generation?

If you study a science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) based subject, or have a career utilising STEM you could become a STEM Ambassador.  STEM Ambassadors have the chance to volunteer with school pupils and be the motivation that some of these young people need to become the next generation of scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians.

As part of a national programme to encourage pupils in STEM subjects, the STEM Ambassadors scheme links people who are working or studying STEM with local schools.  The activities that STEM Ambassadors get involved with are incredibly varied – from supporting a STEM club in a primary school to talking about careers with A level students, ranging from a ten-minute assembly to a day or more in a school.  There are opportunities available at different times and days that can hopefully fit in to even the busiest of schedules!

The only requirements for anyone to join the programme are that you are enthusiastic, willing to wax lyrical about your subject to young people when required, and are interested in inspiring and supporting the next generation to become skilled in STEM.  Fortunately you don’t need to be an expert in the education system!

All STEM Ambassadors must have an acceptable Enhanced CRB disclosure and attend a short induction session to ensure that you are confident to make school visits.

If you would like more information about the STEM Ambassadors programme please see or  Alternatively, phone Sarah Pannell at STEM Sussex on 01273 641876.