Monday, 28 February 2011


A word cloud of this blog to date. Courtesy of the excellent Wordle.

Hmmm... Am I getting the emphasis right?

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Making a start

After the initial joy and excitement of the first couple of weeks of a PhD, many researchers discover that much of research is just a slog.

The first bit of slog is the initial "reading" phase, when you seem to spend every waking hour grappling with journal papers which - you realise - are not written with entertainment in mind. You will probably have started on some papers and textbooks recommended by your supervisors before launching out on your own, usually by following up some of the many references and citations you see.

These days, much of this work is done on-line which certainly has its advantages in terms of sheer convenience and easy access. It also has its pitfalls, including the constant temptation of instantly flitting from reference to reference, citation to citation, until you think you might go mad. Not to mention googling, wikipedia, and general knock-about fun.

Your jobs in these early months are these:

  • read, learn from and question the literature
  • develop a research question of your own which will form that "significant contribution to knowledge" at the heart of the PhD
  • plan your early-stage research

That last point indicates all the stuff you could be making a start on when you get jaded with the constant reading.

Here are just some of the things that go into those early-stage plans:

  • what resources - physical and financial - will be required for the first investigations?
  • from whom may you need permission for access to data and/or property?
  • do you need ethical approval for any of your studies? If you think you might, get this underway at once. Getting such ethical approval may take longer than you think.
  • how much time will each of your studies take?
  • how many samples will you need for statistical significance?
  • what might go wrong?
  • what equipment or instrumentation will you need?
  • will you need visas if your studies involve travel?

Combining the hard intellectual work of reading, drafting a literature review, and developing a research question with the less intellectually demanding - but still vital - planning work, is a much more refreshing way to work and allows you time to think about your research away from the library (physical or on-line!)

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Looks like a wet walk to work!

Today we shall be working on managing a PhD. Please note: you cannot strictly speaking Project Manage a PhD, for subtle reasons I shall make the subject of a future post.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Found one!

A double page from a field notebook dated 22nd July 1995. A Yorkshire quarry.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Notebooks are human...

...and don't need batteries! I must try and find my PhD field notebooks sometime.

PhD Field Trips

Yesterday I was somewhat surprised to discover that it was possible to download my thesis in full from the British Library website. So I did. Didn't even cost me anything.

I looked at the extensive Appendix which contains graphic logs and detailed descriptions of all the sections I had visited, from Staffin Bay on the Isle of Skye, all the way down to the south of France.

Then I did something a bit sad, I suppose. I added up the total thickness of sections logged, measured and described, bed-by-bed, contact-by-contact - centimetre-by-centimetre. Sections thus logged in the cold, rain, heat. Sections logged halfway up a hill or quarry face. Sections which play peek-a-boo among tides and seaweed and boulders. Sections which seem barren of the necessary fossils needed to date them.

It came to a whopping 900 metres! Don't let it ever be said that research students are only continuing their education to avoid a Real Job.

Those 900 metres were only the observations and data. Then I had to make sense of it all and draw it all together into an argument supporting a thesis statement.

PhD research involving not only the intellect but the tough, gruelling labour and hardships of field studies are not to be lightly dismissed as a job avoidance tactic. Mind you, it was fun at times...

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

A recommended Kindle read

Very useful, whether for browsing or reference. Clickable Table of Contents. Master one a day and you will cover the lot in 6 weeks!

Monday, 14 February 2011

Lines on the leaves

The train I was on yesterday had one failed engine and one that could have failed anytime. One wonders how one might feel if one heard this announcement while sitting on a plane... Not quite as sanguine, I would think.

Tomato Sauce

This is an interesting technique which you may find works for many tasks:

I don't think you can apply it for everything you do in the PhD, particularly high-level stuff like methodological design or complex interpretation of findings. But it may be something to have "in your toolkit" when you have a mid-level job to do that you can't seem to settle down to and perhaps keep putting off.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

The Power of Negative Thinking

A classic "motivational" approach is based on rewarding yourself for good behaviour. "If I complete this task, I'll:
  • have a chocolate bar
  • buy that new app
  • give myself two hours off to watch a DVD"


It seems fairly obvious, doesn't it? This, after all, will reward and therefore encourage positive behaviour. But you may have noticed that the thought of the reward becomes in itself a distraction. One corrosive strategy for getting your reward is to avoid doing the job long enough to, for example, pass a deadline. Then you reward yourself anyway because you need some comfort for yet another personal failing. Then, of course, you are in effect rewarding lack of effort!

What works much better for many people is instead to imagine the consequences of not doing the task. Then, when it is completed your reward is not some tangible goody, but a feeling of relief, achievement, eliminating a worry. There is no way you can get - or cheat your way to - this reward unless you complete the task.

Try it.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

What a broken metatarsal taught me about the thesis...

I shall not bore you with the history of my broken foot.

What you may find interesting is the conversation I had with the consultant.

Consultant: "And what is your occupation, Mrs Patient-With-A-Fractured-Fifth-Metatarsal?"
Me: "Well, I work with postgraduate students, mostly PhDs..."
Consultant (brightening up at the prospect of Not Talking About The Boring Fracture): "Oh, really? Tell me more!"
Me: "Blah blah blah... " followed by a few comments on the importance of critical thinking.
Consultant: "I'm a PhD examiner."
Me: (Impressed silence)
Consultant (beaming at me): "I keep on saying, Where is the evidence?!"

[There follows a few minutes' lively exchange between us. I begin to really like this guy, who has modelled his manner on James Robertson Justice in the Doctor movies.]

Me (quite a while later): "About the foot... I've brought along a spare shoe. Can we saw this bloody plaster off?"
Consultant (dictating into a machine): "I recommend removal of the plaster as this lady clearly needs to get about the country. To see again in six weeks."

So there we are. Straight from the horse's mouth: Evidence, evidence, evidence.

Cloudy Words

A word cloud made from the post below on cleaning avoidance.

Wonder if this would work with a longer piece like a journal paper...

Try one yourself at

Mind you, if you don't want to add to your long list of displacement activities - DON'T!

Things you should never leave home without...

  1. A notebook
  2. A pen to go with it
  3. A recording device (most phones these days)
  4. A camera (again, most phones these days)
  5. A cheese sandwich
  6. Money to buy a coffee to go with the cheese sandwich
  7. Your house keys

How to avoid cleaning

You know the feeling. There's that report to be written, and it makes sense (doesn't it?) to work at home, away from all the distractions of social interaction (moaning) with other researchers, the worried look on the face of your supervisor, and the mental paralysis that seems to beset you when you sit at your desk in the postgraduate office.

OK. Up, healthy breakfast of porridge and orange juice ("not from concentrate"), so you've made obeisance to the gods of woo rather than commit the "full English" sin.

Time to start. But first check the rolling news, to make sure it's still rolling. Ten quick minutes to top up your "well-informed" quotient. Not for you the trap of daytime TV.

At the desk, and it's just after 10. True, it's a whole hour after the rest of the population starts work, but then you've read somewhere recently that the first hour in most offices is pissed up the wall with the ritual moan about how crap the public transport system was this morning and endless repeats of the phrase, "Leaves on the line..." followed by a cynical laugh.

You begin. Open the file. Read what you wrote last Friday. Don't like it. Change the font to see if Garamond renders your draft magically superior to anything else you have ever written - or even read. It doesn't. Funny... You thought it was pretty good at close of play last week. You start. This section is going to be all about how and why you chose your research methodology. "Because my supervisor bloody well told me to," rumbles the inner voice, but you can't write that down, can you?

It doesn't matter what you may be writing. It could be tough or easy stuff. All that seems to happen is that you stare at the blank screen and hate your life. With an inner shout of joy, you remember that you have to wash up the breakfast dishes. You embrace this thankfully as the "real reason" that you can't concentrate. You wash the dishes and while you are forming an explanation for the reluctance of your most aggressive scourer to do anything more than slip ineffectually over the porridge remnants in the saucepan, you think of just the perfect words for the first paragraph. You think you'll remember them when you are back at the desk. You can't.

Maybe, you reason, if I do some more cleaning, more perfect and elegant sentences will form themselves in my mind. You clean the whole bloody place. End of the day and nothing has been drafted, but your place is surgically clean.

Cure: accept reality. Your first attempt at any draft is bound to be a bit rubbish. Doesn't matter. Doesn't matter at all.

As long as you get your thoughts organised, just write anything! As long as it's to the point. And when you've written it, stop. You'll go back to your draft in a couple of days and make it a lot better, but probably never quite reaching your ridiculous standards of perfection.

A masterpiece of understatement