PhD: 14 months in

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Academic in Progress was gone for a quite while, immersed in the new experiences of the second PhD year.

This year I have finally started teaching. 4 tutorials every week that have been a true learning experience for me, despite having taught in a non-university setting for a couple of years during my undergraduate years. I remember how, the night before my first taught set of tutorials, I could hardly sleep, thinking how will my students be, will they understand me or will I be a good teacher.

Come the last tutorial, and my students asked whether I will be their tutor next semester. Aww. I will not, but I sincerely wish them all the best in their studies and lives. And I now know what it feels like to say goodbye to your first cohort of students. Teaching came with its challenges, but as a result I have grown a lot and gained more confidence in myself and in my academic judgement. The time that I could dedicate to my research shrank noticeably, but it was worth it. I got useful experience and intrinsic rewards out of it, even if it is hard now to get back into the research routine.

The new thing of the last couple of months is that I have also started doing my fieldwork. And holy bananas, I did not expect it to be so stressful. Well done, Academic in Progress, for being a control freak. My study relies as much as possible on snowball sampling, and it just takes longer than I would think. I had a good laugh at myself this week, thinking about how unrealistic my initial empirical research time frame was. I clearly forgot how long it took to recruit participants for my Master’s, or how long I needed to wait to receive an email back in my undergraduate institution. Also, it makes me feel bad to ask people whether they would know someone who I could also contact, or to chase people up. But when I’m doing that, I try to imagine the reverse situation: what would I do if I was being interviewed, and the researcher asked me the same questions, or chased me up for an email that I forgot to answer? Honestly, I wouldn’t mind at all. So with this approach in mind, I’m moving on. I have to make a leap of faith hoping that everything is going to be alright in the end. It’s starting to grow a thick skin, isn’t it? At least I made sure I had two things in place: my university and LinkedIn profiles updated. If potential interviewees google me, I want to be certain that they see me as a credible individual.

Among that and interview transcriptions, I also have quite a lot of writing to do. I am excited about the idea of being able to have a substantial amount of time mainly for writing and figuring things out, writing does make me happy. Research-wise it feels like I’m wandering in a thick forest, but my Supervisor told me recently ‘But you are still smiling!’ It was meant as a compliment, which is now the ray of sunshine in my explorations of the Dark Unknown. Just need to keep paddling.

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Chicken or egg?

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Academic in Progress has been facing an existential research dilemma recently. This dilemma can be simplified as: which comes first – chicken or egg?
3 Academics and 1 PhD Buddy (read: the most trusted PhD friend and sometimes a shoulder to cry on) have been consulted in the attempt to solve this dilemma, which the Academic in Progress lacks certainty to confidently address. Below are the outcomes of this consultation:

Academic 1: chicken comes first, full stop.
Academic 2: egg comes first (learned the hard way from personal experience)
Academic 3: chicken comes first (learned the hard way from personal experience)
PhD Buddy: egg comes first, full stop.

While it may appear that the above debate has been unhelpful in that it does not provide the necessary answers, several points that can inform the Academic in Progress’s decision making have been raised and will be applied in practice in the attempt to find a solution. The lack of a clear answer and of an agreement among the consulted subjects also indicates one of the challenges that individuals face in developing their academic personae, i.e. finding what works for you and dealing with uncertainty where there is no one clear answer.

May the good decision making forces be with me.

Authorial voice, come out come out wherever you are

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My quest for the summer has been to find and develop a strong authorial voice in my PhD writing.
Sounds easy, right? Well, no.
I’ve been reading around the internet to understand what exactly is that ‘authorial voice’. Is it how the speech flows? The style?
I think this metaphor nicely captures the essence of it:

It’s like if you give me and Jia some fabric and tell us to make a dress, I’m going to pick a simple, straight pattern that’s going to emphasize the bust and de-emphasize the waist and avoid pleats. Maybe a zipper or an accent button. Jia might like glitter, silk and flounces. And spaghetti straps. 😉 That’s voice – it’s all those things that combine to make your story have a personality.

And yet, it’s much easier for me to imagine such voice in the non-scientific literature, where there is more freedom of expression, space for metaphors or creative display of content. But academic writing? Sure, I’ve seen scholars making reference to and drawing parallels between literature and some whatever phenomenon they are analysing. Then there are papers that you can just feel them being thought in another language and then translated because of the use of peculiar phrasing or terms like “the gift of ubiquity” (‘il dono dell’ubiquità’, rather common in everyday Italian). Does that make an authorial voice though? Is it coming up with new metaphors and ways of calling things, that, even if translated, makes something your own? Or is it alluding to the literature, which certainly makes a piece of writing stand out? Maybe it is an authorial voice, because it reveals some of the author’s personality, evokes a certain reaction/emotion in the reader and reveals a specific edge. I just know that this voice is not mine: every once in a while when I come across these, I think to myself that I would not like to write like that.
Others say authorial voice is what you select to put in, and what you decide to leave out. But surely, if I’m writing a literature review, I’m already selecting the bits that I see as relevant to build an argument in my research?..
As I’m writing, I think that to me the ‘authorial voice’ comes as trying to be crystal clear and engaging. If I’m not, I don’t understand the matter well enough. It is writing as if I was talking, though using slightly more sophisticated vocabulary. Trying to make sure that, even if a text is dense content-wise, it is very readable, and that even a person that has never heard about my topic could understand it. It’s coming across as a reachable and friendly author, not one that has been stuck in the ivory tower for so long that they forgot how ‘the real world’ talks. It’s trying to make others understand a stream of literature after reading a single chapter or paper, without having to go through six or seven other books or papers to understand what on earth is the discourse all about. It’s something that eventually comes out after drafts and drafts and drafts of the same work.
What I need is a stronger evaluative twist to it. In my case, though, this largely depends on the particular literature stream that I’m examining. I have much stronger views about some than about others, and thus can make a better argument. I’ve been told that sometimes a strong voice only emerges towards the very end of your PhD.

The Thesis Whisperer has quite recently visited our university for a workshop on academic writing. She had asked us to bring a paper by an academic whose writing we admire, and analyse how they do it.  Dissecting my favourite article that way was really helpful. I realised that I don’t quite have the guts (yet) to write like my favourite academic writer does. I don’t think I’ve already earned the right to, and I don’t want to make unsubstantiated assertions as I write just to sound more like him. And that’s probably the thing for me – how do you develop the confidence to express your own argument and be more evaluative towards others’ work? Is it something that comes with time?
Ah, first year PhD problems.
For the moment, I’m taking inspiration from this Atwood’s quote:

The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.

As I’m writing, I’m imagining that no one will ever read it. That I’m writing this just for myself, and the words I’m typing will never be seen by my supervisor or anyone else. I know it is not true, but this mind trick is working so far, and the idea that I still have quite some time to work on my chapters is actually helping to create this impression. Future academic me, there is still so much progress you need to make…

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On edit: Pat Thomson has recently posted a great blog post on authorial voice. She raises an interesting point: in academia, you join a conversation and constantly hear many different voices. How do you develop and maintain your own?

The PhD Viva Rap

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Deadline’s the motivation, topic’s the inspiration
Taking no vacation, you just keep working. That’s
Training for vocation, you do it to become.
It’s what you want to do, it’s almost who you are.
Yeah, it’s the life you chose.
Coffee shots in the dark when eyes’re half closed…
Now your thesis’s looking like a heavy tome and
People catch you fearing that you’ll be exposed.
Perfecting your passion, gaps unmasking…
Can’t slow down, you want your thesis smashing.
You feel frantic, there’s no match.
You look at the work ahead, and time that’s passed…

You never feared death or dying
You now fear professors’ plying.
Are you that clever? You are
Afraid that they will fail you now.

Best shot. Everything rides on Viva
After you’ve had three years
And you have grown for it.
That moment, you’ll own it.
That is what you have trained for,
Reward’s just round the corner.
See? These people – you’ll join them.
That moment? You’ll own it.

Music: ‘We Own It’ (Fast & Furious)
Lyrics: My evening inspiration. To be continued in the future (maybe). When I will reach the Viva point.

And with this song, chapter procrastination has reached new heights.

Dedication to my Chapter

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Dear Beginning of the Chapter,

In autumn, you were not happening but I wasn’t sure what I needed you to say.
Now I know what I want you to say, but you’re still not happening.

I just wanted you to know that you will happen soon. Very soon. Even if I need to stare at the screen for countless hours, even if my fingers hurt from the endless typing, even if you make me frustrated as if there was no tomorrow. Yes, consider this a threat.

Best wishes,
Academic in Progress

I will write you, Beginning of the Chapter!

I will write you, Beginning of the Chapter!

 

Go write!

Cooking for Procrastination: 1st edition

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Since around Christmas time I kept joking about “cooking for procrastination” (which I also read as: skills training for alternative post-PhD careers; but see “About – optimistic realist perspective”). I have not really been experimenting a lot on cooking new things during the year. But this first week of almost summer and post-upgrade has seen me learning how to make two new dishes.

The first one has been chocolate chip cookies:ImageShape looking not yet quite as the recipe ones, but getting there! People in my department have much appreciated them, along with the daily dose of sugar they provide, so I’d say the first experiment went really well!

Today was my second attempt at cooking for procrastination – thanks Pinterest for a delicious recipe. This time it was a salad:ImageHad to adapt the recipe more compared to the cookie one – for instance, used normal mustard and added honey to the dressing, didn’t put corn, used turkey and not chicken, and so on. But the result is delicious, and will be my lunch at the office tomorrow. Yum!

Anyone else cooking for procrastination, or willing to join the club?

On lows

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Regardless of how cheerful and optimistic my usual posts happen to be, I do have my “low” moments. And for as much as I would like this blog to contain happy experiences, a PhD is not just that. Of course, you do it because you love it. But there are times when, for some time, I just doubt my entire existence.

One of those happened very very recently and has sent me into some soul-searching after almost a year. It all just happened within one week – at the beginning of it I felt my confidence growing when I had the chance to reflect on how much I’ve learned, at the end of the same week I just didn’t know who I am anymore. I had to sit down and tell myself: “You know, you are allowed to have an occasional meltdown.” Once I accepted that, I took my phone and texted my dear PhD friend, asking whether she had an hour of her time to spare. Thankfully she did, and I’m guessing she also felt the reason of me asking to meet out of nowhere. I badly needed a hug, and an “all is going well, it’s not just you, I’m in the same boat too” talk. I can’t emphasise enough how good it felt to talk to somebody who completely understands.

Today I opened my agenda looking for an address of another friend. I could not remember where in the agenda it was, so I started from the cover page. I ended up not finding that address in it anyway, but there was something else that I needed to find there, that maybe the destiny was bringing me to. On the cover page there was some inspirational internet wisdom that struck me probably when I was feeling similarly low sometime earlier. It struck me enough to write it there for future inspiration and now, when I have forgotten about it, it struck me again.

“A PhD is an exhausting emotional struggle. You are forced to confront all of your fears, insecurities and doubts you have about yourself and somehow overcome them. It’s terrifying. A lot of bravery is required, which often goes unrecognised and unrewarded.

Facing your own personalised set of fears is where the feeling of isolation comes from – the fact that they are YOUR fears.

Be brave. You know what you have to do – you know the right thing to do. Good luck.”

These words could not be more accurate and, actually, they are among the reasons why I wanted to do a PhD. It is when you are confronted with all of it that it becomes incredibly hard to get over yourself. I needed to be reminded of this today.

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Five things to do in your First Year

“The Thesis Whisperer” has a wonderful piece of advice on things to do during the first year of our PhDs – I couldn’t agree more!

The Thesis Whisperer

The author of this week’s post, Dr Jess Drake, is no stranger to the ups and downs of the PhD. Jess first wrote this post for me a couple of years ago… but it got lost in the not very well managed publication queue. When I discovered it lurking in my list I asked her to revisit it and I’m happy to say she agreed. 

A lot has changed for Jess since she wrote this post. She completed her PhD a year ago, and since then has been doing a lot of reflection on her own and others PhD and research experiences. Mostly she tells me she wished that there were more resources and honest guidance before or during the PhD. Lukcy for us, now she’d like to share some of her thoughts and reflections in the hope that it might help people get through the downs of the…

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Reflections after 6 months of PhD

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It’s Friday evening, I’m sitting in my room having finished my dinner, and cannot force myself to pick the article that I have been reading earlier today. Then I remember that it’s been a while since I’ve last wrote a blog post, and voila. It’s Friday evening, I’m sitting in my room having finished my dinner, and writing a blog post on my PhD life updates.

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks, really. Spring break, a little bit of travelling, a research workshop with academics from our department, and reading reading reading… Overall, things seem to be going better – I’m understanding my own perspective more, but still continue to attend as many lectures/developmental activities as possible (as long as they are at least vaguely related to my topic) in order to make up for the knowledge that I feel I’m lacking due to changing disciplines. I am also continuing to challenge myself in a variety of ways to gain more confidence by participating in various activities where, for instance, I could not avoid talking and expressing my opinion in larger groups. They drain me every time, but I have got so much better at it since October that it inspires me to challenge myself further.

There’s a thoughtless side in my PhD life too. Today, my coursemate and I had a good laugh talking about various theories, papers and stuff. We were having lunch and just talking about the number of new theories we keep finding in academic papers. I read one yesterday, and it had maybe six – four of which I’ve never heard of. It’s almost as if you pick a random word, then add a word “theory”, and it becomes an actual theory. So a desk theory is a theory on how your posture changes during the course of the day. A water bottle theory analyses your health situation using a water consumption parameter, and the frequency of water bottle change is an additional variable that determines your wellbeing. My coursemate commented that theories are like fluffy pets that you either tame or not – basically like Pokemon. “Yeah. Gotta catch them all!…” – I answered. Nerd talk, I know.

Then, for some more procrastin……..selective participation, we started to develop an academic bingo. Ever heard of the seminar bingo? We’re working on an academic paper version of that. Basically, we started making a list of academic buzzwords of different complexity, ranging from easy to hard. Words like “theory”, “original” or “critical” are easy. “Paradigm”, “shift”, “ontology” or “epistemology” are of medium difficulty. If you spot words like “a priori”, “a posteriori”, “typology”, “dichotomy” or “postmodern”, you’re really going hardcore with your readings. We only came up with a limited number of words thus far. But by next week we’ll put them on a 3×3 table and play it with other coursemates – get 3 in a line and shout BINGO! Playing this bingo has a high potential to keep us all focused on reading – after all, you have to provide a reference for your claim of having found a word! Bingo or a draft chapter, academic integrity/rigour is important.

This week we also had a visiting PhD student from Australia – was really great to meet new people, hear new perspectives, share experiences. Having him around has definitely added some livelihood to our quite empty PhD office – must be the post-spring break effect. I just catch myself often thinking that I have no clue where did the time go. You just do what you always do – read, write, participate in seminars, go to workshops or classes, try to see friends, read some more… and then bang – out of nowhere, it’s April already. And it almost feels as if you haven’t really done anything – just that increasing pile of read papers and books remind you the content of your days. Well, that and the feeling you get when you re-open something that you’ve read a while ago and it makes so much more sense. I’m realising now that based on my expectations of myself I should probably have finished my thesis by now – not that I ever thought it was possible, I’m just realising the level of the pressure I was, and still am, putting on myself.

Our annual review is due shortly, and I feel the stress building up – within me and around me. I would probably be more worried if I wasn’t stressed though – it is an important thing after all, so it’s all normal, I keep telling myself. As always, I’m hoping for a Disney end, while trying to prepare for a Shakespeare one – with the number of butterflies in my stomach multiplying with every single day of spring. I’m clearly only at the beginning of mastering a vital skill every PhD student must learn in becoming an academic – how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, all day every day.