Tag Archives: PhD

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Tips for PhD New Starters

I don’t even want to think about how it became mid-October. The last time I looked up it was the beginning of July. But, it’s just been the beginning of a new academic year and there are lots of new PhD students popping up around the place. I’ve been working from home near Leeds over the summer and I’ve not seen the inside of my department for a while, so I’ve mostly been hearing about the trials and tribulations of the new starters on social media. I’m part of a network (which I’ve mentioned before) on Facebook, the PostgRAD Study Gang, which I have to say has been incredibly helpful in terms of support and gee-ing for me as a student working remotely, and also in terms of being a way to organise meetups and shut up and write sessions in the physical world!

I wanted to offer some suggestions for new students, based on what I’ve found helpful. I’m six and a half months (the half matters) away from scheduled submission on a thesis based in Library and Information Science with a hint of pedagogy, youth studies, politics, personal construct psychology, phenomenography and critical theory, so I hope my experiences so far can be helpful to those at the beginning of their studies in and around the field (and maybe further through and in other areas, who knows).

1) Decide on what software you’re going to use for writing your thesis in now. I’ve used Microsoft Word throughout and it gets to a point, even on a laptop that was new at the start of your studies, where somehow, Word gets creaky and it can’t handle the amount of text and formatting you’re using. You will be told by the more technologically advanced that LaTeX is the way to go and these people will scoff at you and say they told you so when Word stops responding, hangs in mid-air, or even, as mine started doing, starts deleting lines and lines and lines of your work infront of your very eyes when your hands are nowhere near the keyboard and will.not.stop. I decided to divide my thesis into separate chunks in different documents (which I’m sure will be a whole new nightmare when I need to merge it) and keep my cursor as far away from the heading toolbar as possible (which evidently seems to be the root of the problem) rather than changing over to using a whole new piece of software. I weighed up the pros and cons of sticking with Word or changing to LaTeX and I decided that at the point I was at, I’d find it more stressful and upsetting to change over than to handle Word when it played up. You might want to make a decision now to save yourself some strife.

2) As I just mentioned, my copy of Word doesn’t like my use of headings, but I do. If you don’t already have experience of using them, I really recommend you start. It means that if your department requires you to use a numbering system for your thesis sections they (theoretically) update automatically, it makes the layout of your document clearer, and helps you to visualise the structure of your writing both figuratively and literally through the navigation pane. You can jump around your document with ease, and if you use the subheadings you can drag and drop, or delete, entire chunks of writing. Start using this tool straight away and it’ll save you from having to implement it on an existing large document later. I also use it as a way of working out structure when I get to the stage where what I have and what I want to have are very different things.

3) Use your library. I can’t recommend it highly enough, of course, as a librarian…but some features will be a godsend. Different universities use different systems, but if you can’t get hold of a journal article, the library will probably be able to get it for you. Likewise with books, but I also recommend finding out if your department has a budget for staff- and student-driven stock requests. If there’s something they don’t have that they really should, because it’s useful to you (and other students), then ask for it! If the library doesn’t (or no longer) subscribes to a journal that’s core to your field, try finding out why. Which leads me to…

4) Find out what journals are core to your field, and which journals in fields related to your topic are key for you to be aware of. This is useful not just for getting hold of stuff to read (though I do recommend searching through different databases rather than individual journals) but also for planning what journals you’d like to try to publish through. Have a look through the Directory of Open Access Journals as well as subject databases on the library website to find out what’s out there relevant to you.

5) Start thinking about getting published early. The process often takes a long time, so it’s good to think ahead, but it also helps to have in the back of your mind an idea about how your thesis could be turned into publications. So far I’ve had publications from my literature review, methodology and initial findings, and I’ve had a book chapter about how my methods and findings can be used in practice accepted. Not all of these are peer reviewed, and not all of them need to be, but it helps. There’s value in finding out about the different kinds of publication that there are, working out how you feel about open access, how you want to communicate your work to other students, academics, people working in whatever field you’re in, the wider world etc.

6) Get to know people, particularly other students (in your department, online, elsewhere) because they have a kind of empathy you won’t find elsewhere. Also the people working in the office in your department, they will save your life one day sooner than you expect.

7) Get to know your supervisor. Don’t be afraid of them, they are human too. Probably a very stressed human, but one with responsibilities for you nonetheless. Find out what they expect of you and have a chat about what you can expect from them. This will change throughout the process – in my first year I had a weekly meeting with my supervisor, then it became less when I needed less guidance about the direction of my reading and instead had my head down analysing data. Books like this can be really useful – this one in particular has a section on supervision.

8) Don’t worry about your topic changing, either immediately or a few months in. At some point it’s inappropriate to change your topic wildly of course, but there are lots of good practical and theoretical reasons for it being necessary in the early days. Mine was going to be about how public libraries support democracy, but it became apparent early on that public libraries in the UK are bad places to do fieldwork in right now, democracy is a complex concept, the methodology I was going to use wasn’t informed by enough theory, the theories that had been used in related work were too flawed for me to accept, and that the topic was too broad to handle. It’s now using a different research site, a specific notion of democracy, looking at a specific area of LIS (information literacy) and using (too many) strong theories. Talk all this through with your supervisor and always make sure they know what direction you’re heading in.

9) Don’t worry about wasting time reading things that later become irrelevant. Also don’t read too much. This sounds like an awful truism and is an abstract thing to think about balancing before you’ve really started, but keep it in mind. It’s one of the most valuable things my supervisor told me.

10) Keep an up to date document of things you’ve done, like training, publications, presentations, conferences attended etc., including dates and brief details. This will be invaluable for putting together upgrade or progress reports and your CV.

Image: CC by Joachim Schlosser

One Year In

A very overdue update on what I’ve been up to!

I’ve reached the one year mark in the PhD process and although there’s a very long way to go with a lot of hard work ahead, apparently I’m on track! My research topic’s altered slightly and become more specific, from the role of public libraries in supporting and encouraging democratic engagement, to the ways critical information literacy instruction can enable people to have political agency, which isn’t all that different in the ultimate goal of contributing to a stronger democracy, but is significantly different that I’ve got to connect the dots and make it clear that it does connect to the original proposal somehow.

So, I submitted a written report on my progress so far and where I’m going next, and yesterday I gave a presentation to my supervisors and another member of the department, who made really helpful recommendations and suggestions. It really wasn’t as terrifying or stressful as I was expecting! It was a positive experience and has re-enthused me after a bit of a difficult winter. I have a lot of work to do still, but this is where I am so far:

In terms of presenting on my work and library-related things, I’ve had some great opportunities in the last year, most of which I’ve already written about. Here’s the presentation I gave at the SHARP Conference in Dublin, and updated and gave to some Masters students in the department a couple of weeks ago:

What’s next? My fieldwork starts in April, so I’ve got to get my methodology up to scratch before then, I’d like to make more progress on my literature review and I’ve got a couple of papers to write for the LILAC and Umbrella conferences, both of which I’m really looking forward to. The LILAC paper will focus mainly on my methods/methodology and what I’m aiming towards, and the Umbrella paper is a discussion of professional issues regarding the responsibilities of library and information workers to engage with substantive, political issues in information literacy education. I’ve applied to present at another couple of conferences and I’m going to try for an ESRC internship for the summer/autumn.

iLab

I’ve not posted in a while so I thought I’d share the presentation I gave yesterday to some members of my department here at Strathclyde now that I’m a couple of weeks away from the three month mark. It’s an introduction to my PhD topic (which has taken a bit of a different direction to the one my proposal was supposed to be going down, but that seems to be fairly standard procedure) and gives a brief outline to the problems, research questions and theories I’m considering. I’m by no means an expert in political or critical theory, so it’s all new, but I managed to justify how it’s relevant to information science in a fairly convincing way I think!

2011 in Perspective

I hadn’t intended to write a post summing up what had happened this year or making resolutions for the future (and still don’t!) but then I saw this story in the Independent and thought it was too good a springboard to not use for a little bit of end of year reflection.

A comment that’s sometimes thrown my way when I talk about fighting library cuts and closures is that perhaps I need to get a sense of perspective. It’s only a few books, what am I getting so het up about? Shouldn’t I take my incandescence and direct it at something  worthier, bigger, more ‘important’? In our crazy, messed up world, what’s the point of someone like me spending so much time and energy on library advocacy and activism?

Unsurprisingly, I don’t struggle to construct a fairly comprehensive response about the utter wrongheadedness of that kind of suggestion, which I won’t bore the already converted with here! But now I have this to add to my arsenal. The Independent have named library closures as one of the 12 biggest news stories of 2011:

Library closures: Colin Dexter, 71, author

Libraries became the unexpected social flashpoint of 2011 when the Government cut funding to local authorities and councils responded by proposing library closures.

Local communities, allied with a host of literary stars including Colin Dexter, the creator of Inspector Morse, rapidly mobilised to defend them. Judicial reviews challenging the closures were launched across England and Wales. In Scotland, MSPs were petitioned. Private US library service providers moved in for the kill, and many battles are still being fought up and down the land.

“As an older person who has seen libraries through the years, the events of this year are deeply depressing. What has worried me most about the calls for a ‘big society’ solution to the library problem in the past 12 months is the idea that you can cut library services and employ amateurs instead. Librarians have taken years to train up and can tell you what you should and shouldn’t read. Some of the processes are very complicated indeed.

“I think the Government has been surprised by the scale of the response; their actions were taken on the assumption that people would just sit back and let the consultations pave the way for closure. Instead, you saw the people gather and revolt and take their case to the courts instead.

“I would rather turn off every light on the motorway than close our libraries. What we have seen this year will invariably lead to further cultural deprivation.”

I rarely get the sense that what I do is a waste of time. In the darker moments when I get the feeling that everything sucks and The Man is just too big and how can little me and the people I work alongside possibly win this, I always come to the conclusion that I’ve got to do it anyway and try my best and that’s all there is to be done. But knowing that the work that’s been done to get the media aware of the situation and the social and cultural implications of public library cuts has actually had an impact and is listed alongside stories like the fall of Gaddafi, the death of Bin Laden, the NHS reforms and the riots, proves to me that this is the big deal I think it is and that over the last year and a bit, we’ve really managed to get out of the echo chamber and show the world that too. I’m very happy to be part of it and am incredibly proud of the people I work with for everything they’ve achieved.

Edit: It was also announced today that Voices for the Library has been named an Independent voice of 2011. You can see the full Peer Index rankings here. Another achievement for the team to be proud of!

CC tomroper on Flickr

I’m also happy about the fact that issues about power (and abuses thereof), democracy, access to knowledge and freedom of information are being put together and are starting to have a more prominent position in public discussion. More of this please (not least because it’ll really help with my PhD research…)!

via interoccupy.org

When I think about the things that have happened this year I get a bit dizzy. It’s certainly been a big year and it’s had its fair share of bad as well as good. As for 2012…I can’t even begin to think about that without getting a little bit overwhelmed. I can’t wait to get started on my PhD. I’m looking forward to becoming CILIP VP and doing a lot of work to support the organisation and its members as well as help to make it a stronger and louder advocate for the profession. I’m anxious about what’s going to happen with the local and national public library situation and will be doing everything I can to try and get it to go it in the right direction. It’s National Libraries Day on 4th February, so that’s the first big milestone to work towards next year.

I owe a huge thank you to the people who’ve helped me get through this year without being (too much of) a wreck. Thanks guys, you’re awesome, I’m incredibly fortunate to know you and without the support I’ve had this year I’m pretty sure I’d not be coming back for round two in 2012. As it stands though…

via catmacros.wordpress.com