digital research

Digital networking – a doctoral researcher’s perspective

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Guest blogger Liz Thackray, doctoral researcher at Sussex whose research spans the disciplines of Sociology and Informatics, discusses how digital networking can reduce the doctoral-lonliness in different ways.  Check out Liz’s own blog and researcher profile.

Doing a doctorate is a lonely journey – but does it have to be, in a networked world?

Open any handbook on getting a PhD or becoming a research student, and it doesn’t take long to learn that one of the characteristics of the experience is loneliness. Instead of being in a large undergraduate group or smaller taught postgraduate group of like-minded students, it is all too easy to be in a situation where you have nobody around who you can easily talk to about either life or study. As a new research student in an unfamiliar university, it can be difficult to even get basic information, like where are the toilets and is there anywhere to boil a kettle. Even when familiar with the environment, it can still be difficult to find somebody to go to lunch with, or somebody interested to hear that the cat has just had kittens – everybody around can seem so busy and so focused on their own research that it can feel that they can only be interrupted if the rapture really has arrived – and even that may not merit disturbance.

However, talk to most research students and what they want is to be in a community of like-minded individuals with opportunities to share the joys and despairs of the doctoral journey – as well as an occasional pint or a chat about the aforementioned kittens. Supervisors also will speak of how important it is for research students to have colleagues to share their learning with.

This blog isn’t about finding a solution to the conundrum of why it is so difficult to attain the collegiality everybody seems to acknowledge is so desirable. Rather, I want to point up some of the ways that the loneliness of the research student can be remedied through judicious use of the Internet.

Social networking

It is probable that most people reading this blog will have heard of websites like Facebook and LinkedIn, but may not have considered these as antidotes to doctoral isolation. True Facebook is a good place for keeping in touch with friends and family, and LinkedIn for developing a professional profile, but both offer the opportunity for sharing the pain of the journey, keeping in touch with other research students and joining groups of people with similar interests. OK, a bit of discipline might be required to avoid Farmville, but the advantages probably outweigh the disadvantages.

Sharing resources

As doctoral researchers, we acquire vast bibliographies – things we have read, things we mean to read and things we don’t know if they are worth reading. Resources like Mendeley, a free, online, referencing site, and Diigo, social bookmarking, are useful, not only as online repositories – and therefore accessible anywhere there is an internet connection – but because they offer the opportunity to set up and join groups and share resources. Both sites provide facilities for writing personal notes on resources that can be shared with others. If I am looking for a resource in such a group, I can read colleague’s reviews and use them to help me decide whether or not to read the article or webpage or whether to move on to something more helpful to me.

Site designed to provide resources to researchers including PhD students

There are a plethora of sites aimed at doc and postdoc researchers. Some are university based like this, but others have been developed as personal blogs by knowledgeable individuals like The Thesis Whisperer. Some have a specific purpose, like how to get published (e.g. PhD2Published), while others are more general in content (e.g. Vitae) but often have specific content aimed at postgraduates. You may have noticed that most of these sites are blogs and be wondering how to know when additional content is added. One of the simplest ways is using a RSS feed aggregator, such as Google Reader – check out the post Really Simple Syndication (or why RSS feeds are useful).

Support community in 140 characters

While the above sites all offer resources, they do not really solve the problem of finding somebody to share a coffee with or how to get a quick answer to a perplexing problem. This is where micro-blogging may assist. Most people have heard of Twitter, if only because of recent press reports of broken injunctions. Fewer people are likely to know of Plurk. Both sites offer the opportunity to register and create a network of followers and people to follow. Initially, it can be confusing, but the use of hashtags (a word preceded by #) can make it much easier to find like minded people. Over the last few months a large number of doctoral students have started using the hashtag #phdchat and organising a thematic tweet-up on Wednesday evenings. Personally, this is my current favourite for meeting knowledgeable colleagues and talking about all things doctorate-related. What is more, a question posted using the hashtag any time of day or night seems to elicit a response.

That is just a small taste of some of the online resources that can help to break down the loneliness and build networks and communities. Like anything worthwhile, becoming a part of a network or using a social web resources demands some effort, but the rewards are well worth it. Incidentally, if you want to find me online, look for lizith on Twitter and lizit in most other places, or follow my blog at http://lizit.me.uk.

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Organising a Conference: first hand experience from a doctoral researcher

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Guest post: Aristea Fotopoulou (doctoral researcher in the school of Media, Film and Music) reflects on her experiences of setting up and running the Digital Methods and Feminist Approaches one-day graduate conference.

In this post I am going to say a few words about the process of setting up the Digital Methods and Feminist Approaches one-day graduate conference, from inception to organisation, to implementation, from my perspective as doctoral researcher on the conference committee.

This was a good experience overall. I personally initiated the conference and sent the Call For Papers (CFP) to my supervisors for feedback. They were the ones who suggested Robert Funds so I went on to apply for funding before circulating the CFP. From then on, Nick Till, the MFM Director of Doctoral Studies assisted with the application process. I found the application process demanding but helpful as it made me clarify what the aims of the conference exactly were. It also helped with developing a basic idea about budget planning. The scopes of the day were to give voice to interdisciplinarity, to talk about methods, and bring together researchers who are positioned as feminists in their work. With these in mind, the CFP was re-drafted in order to accommodate the Funds requirements in a way. At the same time, we were offered funding from the Research Centre for Material and Digital Culture (RCMDC) of the Media, Film and Music (MFM) School.

Once funding was secured, the CFP was circulated to internal and external email lists, but also to relevant schools and departments in other universities [namely the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR), Brighton and Sussex Sexuality Network (BSSN), Womens Studies, the Media, Cultural Studies and Communication Association (MeCCSA) ]. We located these by visiting various University websites and looking for their media, gender and digital humanities departments or research centres. We also called papers and registration via non-academic community lists like the Feminist Activist Forum, Feminist Fightback and the Queer Mutiny Brighton list, as we tried to engage with a broad definition of ‘feminist’ – both academic and non-academic. Eventually, different positions within feminism were not explicitly heard during the day, which highlights how asking what ‘feminist’ or ‘queer’ is in approaches and methodologies is important, especially when these words operate as umbrella terms for sets of assumptions. As Adi Kuntsman, one of the invited keynote speakers, noted, the event mainly concerned white, middle-class, educated and gender-normative feminism. This kind of criticism we take on board when thinking about future events.

Apart from this, feedback was overall quite positive. We encouraged participant feedback through questionnaire which also had open space for comments. Some of the participants felt that the programme of the day was intense and that time for breaks and discussion was not enough. Everybody seemed pleased with the catering provisions. As delegates in other conferences, we had noticed how difficult having a satisfying conference lunch may be when one is vegan, and/or gluten-, nut-intolerant. For this, we  wanted a menu which was vegan, gluten and nut free, and appropriate provisions were made by Sarah Maddox, the Research & Enterprise Coordinator of the MFM School. Sarah also kindly took care of the travel cost reimbursement for speakers and generally all other aspects of management of our budget.

Connections with other researchers were drawn, both during and after the conference, which was one of our objectives. For example, Anne Welsh, one of the speakers, wrote a review about the day in the UCL Digital Humanities blog. She also eagerly tweeted during the day, along with Karen Burrows, one of our Sussex-based MFM researchers, and Catherine Redfern (the f-word), one of the invited keynote speakers during the day (the archive of the tweets here). We have also now linked interested delegates with the RCMDC email list, where information about upcoming events is posted.

Finally, we would like to thank all who helped with the conference, and especially the MFM School Office people, the Doctoral School and the RCMDC for all their support.

Qualitative data analysis with NVivo

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NVivo is qualitative data analysis software, designed to assist you in your research.  Unfortunately, it won’t find the answers for you, but it does a cracking job of organising your data and helping you to interrogate it.  You can link your data internally and externally, use demographic variables, and explore relationships between participants and ideas.

In NVivo, an analytical project is broken down into two main parts: sources (the data) and nodes (containers for the coding of ideas or categories).  Sources can be created in NVivo or imported to the project as documents of various types, such as interviews, field notes, project journals, images, or audio files.  Nodes are created for any topic or category relevant to the project, and can be connected in ways to allow you to visualise and discover new connections.  Sources or nodes can be  explored either by browsing or by running queries.  The ‘Externals’ folder of NVivo is used to link to documents held elsewhere that can be associated with your project.  You can open the file in its native program and then record information on it in NVivo.  The ‘Memo’ function allows you to add your thoughts and ideas on the project.

It’s quite difficult to grasp the potential of NVivo without having a particular project in mind.  As a researcher in English Literature, it’s not an obvious tool I would expect to use.  However, I was soon able to see how it would help me in my own work.  For example, I’m currently working on an edited collection of interviews with late-Victorian women writers.  In NVivo I can import the documents and then code the content to identify patterns.  If I’m looking to compare their working environments, I could go through each interview to find where they mention this subject and then code it as a “working environment” node.  In future, I could quickly generate a document collating all those references, either as just a list of citations, or as contextual paragraphs.  The real power of NVivo is being able to quickly grab data that refers to a single theme or concept.

‘Cases’ are used for grouping together all data concerning a particular participant, and attributes can be assigned to them, eg gender, nationality, age, marital status.  Once the data was in place for my project, I could use the search tool to find all instances of unmarried Scottish women writers talking about their working environment.   The data can be generated as mind maps, showing the relationships and structure, and the results can be pasted into Word as an image.

I’ve only really scratched the surface of NVivo’s potential and there’s all sorts of other good stuff, such as the ability to analyse and annotate sound and video files.  The main disadvantage is that it’s not a particularly intuitive package and requires a certain amount of commitment to overcome the initial brain pain.  My preferred learning style is a chunky manual and a large cup of tea, but NVivo really needs a workshop.  Fortunately, Technical Skills for Researchers (formerly SciPS) will be running sessions throughout the coming academic year.  We’re also organising a surgery for existing NVivo users so they can get help with their own data.

NVivo has much to offer those whose research involves interviews or case studies. Although not vital in my particular field, it is nevertheless a useful tool and one that I shall continue using.

Really Simple Syndication (or why RSS feeds are useful)

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With our aggregated blog feed “Researcher Blogs” growing fast, we now have 7 contributers.  But what if you want to subscribe to the Researcher Blogs feed and read the posts from somewhere other than the Doctoral School blog?  Today’s guest blogger, Liz Thackray (lizit) explains…

RSS iconIf asked what Internet facility I would most miss, RSS feeds would come pretty high on my list. It is a facility I use daily for keeping up with news and information. At it’s simplest (and it does call itself ‘really simple’), I am able to click on the orange and white icon on any page where it is available and choose to add the page to my Google Reader account. Each time I open Google Reader, I am shown instantly how many updates there have been and I can choose to view them – and because it just shows me the headlines, I can decide which to read in full and which to ignore.

If you haven’t discovered the Commoncraft videos, they are brilliant for describing various technologies, and there is an excellent one explaining just how RSS feeds work. It also describes how to set up Google Reader for accessing RSS feeds.

Locating Google Reader
Locating Google Reader

Although there are other RSS readers, I find Google Reader is most convenient: my browser home page is set to Google, so it is quick and easy to click on “more” and on “Reader” and check what unread changes there are. As I have to actually go to the Reader page, I don’t get annoying pop-ups every time there is an update, but I choose when to check the feed and whether to read the updates. It can still act as a displacement activity, but it is my choice if I choose to be distracted!

I find RSS particularly useful for keeping up to date with blogs. I subscribe to around 60 at the moment plus the new Researcher Blog feed available from the Doctoral School blog. It keeps me in touch with what other people are doing, and I can get involved in discussions with other researchers on aspects of their work – or my work – which are of interest. I’ve found quite a number of senior academics and others working in my field are prolific bloggers, and it is handy to know what they are thinking about and working on – or to see their holiday photos and remember they are human too!

I also subscribe to some of the BBC feeds to keep me in touch with what is going on in the rest of the world.

If you haven’t set it up yet, I do recommend setting up an RSS feed and subscribing to both the Doctoral School blog:

https://doctoralschool.wordpress.com/feed/

and the Researcher Blogs feed:

http://www.google.com/reader/public/atom/user%2F10800301496241934271%2Fbundle%2FResearcher%20Blogs

– it’s another way of building up the community and of breaking down that sense of isolation too commonly experienced by DPhil students!

… and if you have a blog – do remember to fill in the form and get it added to the Researcher blog list…

‘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 library.researchliaison@sussex.ac.uk