2015 PhD resolutions

2015It’s a new year, so it must be time to make new resolutions! Generally speaking, my resolutions are tied to my long-term goals. They are designed to help me focus on the larger picture and, I’m pleased to say, I am pretty good at keeping them.

To that, my 2015 PhD resolutions are as follows:

Create a better, more productive work routine
The idea here is to divide my time better so that I have clearly defined blocks of time for reading, writing, and research. As it is, I feel a little guilty for spending time on certain tasks and that takes away from my overall focus and productivity. I hope to develop a routine that allows me a set amount of time each day or week to read the “fun” stuff (blogs and forum posts around my subject areas, for example) as well as the “real” stuff (academic articles and books, for example). The thought is that I will be able to fully focus on each task if I’m not feeling guilty about not doing something else.

Part of this will be looking at dedicated writing times and places. Over the next few weeks, I will work to determine the best way to divide my time and hopefully it will mean that I am enjoying more productive hours each week.

Set time aside each week for administrative tasks
Oh yes, the admin must get done! Yet inevitably emails go un-archived and papers go un-filed. That means my virtual and actual desktops have stacks of important things that are difficult to find. And that means I spend a lot of time shuffling through emails and papers I don’t need, just to access the ones I do. If I would just devote a bit of time to these things in the first instance, I would save myself a lot of time (and stress!) later.

Part of this will include a small administrative job I have with the school as part of my stipend. It will also include time set aside for maintaining this blog, which I hope to utilise a lot more as I start working towards my empirical research.

Build in guaranteed personal time
Much like the guilt I feel reading the “less serious” stuff for my PhD, I feel very guilty any time I’m doing non-PhD stuff at home. That guilt means that I’ve yet to finish reading an Ian Rankin novel that I started a few days before my PhD began more than a year ago! It also means I’ve yet to start on a new crocheting project or to make note cards for my Mum. And sometimes it’s even meant that I neglect my running—which means I’m neglecting my personal goals and resolutions.

Part of this will be working on my personal goals of being nicer to myself! It will also mean that I will allow myself to enjoy non-academic reading and to work on other projects without feeling guilty. Importantly, it will mean running more…which will help me to stay focused and energised. And that can only help my larger PhD and life goals, right?

So there you have it: My three 2015 PhD resolutions.

To add a wee disclaimer: I am not silly enough to think that these things are going to happen tomorrow. They are intended to be works-in-progress and I hope that over the next few weeks or months I will have formed new habits to help ensure I can make these things happen. Slowly, slowly, catchy monkey!

A year in the life of a PhD student

2013.phd-dreamsToday marks one calendar year since I matriculated as a research student at Edinburgh Napier University’s School of Computing. At the time, I was filled with excitement and a bit of trepidation.

I went into the process with the notion that most of my first year would be spent reading, reading, and writing. I also went into it knowing that there would be training and learning opportunities. And, as I often do, I went into it knowing that there would be moments when I wondered if I was good enough.

There have been some definite highs in the last year. But unfortunately, there have been a few self-inflicted lows because of the aforementioned self-esteem issues.

The lows can be summed up as this: Literature review!

The highs, however, need a bit more space. So how about a list? (I do love a good list!)

In the last year:

» I started a fabulous new PhD blog;
» I gave a presentation to the entire faculty;
» I presented two posters (and made an awesome poster tube!);
» I attended some great conferences;
» I gave my first public presentation;
» I attended some fabulous events;
» And, of course, I submitted my one-year review materials.

Now that I’m heading into my second year, I can honestly say that I am filled with excitement and a bit of trepidation once again. I am hoping that I’ll have more opportunities to present my research, and I’m hoping to get at least one (hopefully two!) publications in the next year.

I don’t know exactly what Year Two will look like yet, but I will try to post a bit more about the process. My hope is that over the next year this blog will develop into three general categories: My academic journey; my views and opinions on my research area; and my take on student life, from living on a budget to balancing studies and socialisation.

So pleased stick around!

How not to write a literature review: Part 1

2014.11.07.not-lit-reviewWhen I began my PhD studies nearly a year ago, I did so knowing that the first year would be, essentially, writing a literature review. I was told over and over again that it was all about reading, reading, reading, and writing.

Everyone I spoke to assured me that I would feel lost and confused. I was told to expect to feel like a failure; to expect to doubt myself. I was told that I would be reading more than ever before—and that some of the reading would be a waste of time.

Keep reading. Keep reading. Keep reading.

Those words echoed in my mind over the first eight or nine months.

But then—all of the sudden—I realised I wasn’t doing enough writing! In fact, I was doing very little writing.

Why? Because I didn’t know how.

I had done so much reading that all of the ideas were running wild in my head. I couldn’t corral them; I couldn’t control them.

When I attempted to express my ideas on paper, I felt that I wasn’t “good enough” to critique the works of others. I felt that I wasn’t clever enough to put my words and my opinions into the mix.

Eventually, I found a bit of confidence to start writing but it was a challenge. There were so many thoughts in my head—so many references to reflect on—that it was overwhelming. It was so overwhelming that I didn’t know how to organise my thoughts.

Soon, the overwhelming feelings morphed into fear which morphed into serious self-doubt—which only made the writing more challenging.

But I needed to write. So I did. I just wrote and wrote and soon I had 6,000 words. But the structure was confusing and there were lots of repeated ideas. Still, I kept writing. And eventually, there were more than 10,000 words. But the structure was still too confusing and there were still too many repeated thoughts.

The solution? Stop writing!

Yes, by that point the document was so confusing that I needed to start from scratch. I needed to build a new structure and start from there.

With the help of one of my supervisors, a new structure was determined. And then I started my word count over at zero. Oh, what a sad day that was!

With the new structure decided, I opened up a fresh document and began moving text across from the old one. I moved it bit-by-bit, starting from the top of the new document, working my way down. By the end of the first day, I was back up to 3,700 words. And by the end of the first week I was up to 6,000.

But the words were better quality; the words flowed better and actually made sense.

Eventually, I found myself with a literature review of nearly 12,000 words, which has formed part of a larger annual review report of nearly 17,000 words (that’s 68 pages, if you wondered).

I’ve sent the annual review report off to my advisory panel and now I have a week and a half to wait and wring my fingers whilst I stress and panic that it won’t be good enough.

And I will stress. Every single day. Because I am now so convinced that my literature review is absolutely horrible and there’s no way I’ll pass my annual review.

But just in case I’m wrong, I will continue to reflect on the document so that I can improve upon it for my main PhD thesis.

Of course, if I could start all over, I know what I’d do differently. And I’m going to try to remember those lessons when it comes time to start on my methods chapter (up next!).

So what’s my advice to someone starting out today? That’s easy: Start today!

Start putting your thoughts on paper immediately. They might be wrong; they might be conveyed in a casual or even half-baked manner; they might get deleted later. It doesn’t matter. Write! And write right now!

Why? Because you’ll get your ideas out of your head and onto a piece of paper (or a computer screen). Because you’ll have something to show your supervisors, who can help guide you in the right direction. Because you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment. Because you’ll have something to look back on later, showing how far you’ve come from Day One!

In between now and my annual review meeting later this month, I will be taking some time to read more about research methods for my investigation. But I’ll be reading with my pen and pad handy so that I can write as I read.

As you can tell, I’m running a little massively short on self-esteem just now. Hopefully I’ll be able to share some positive outcomes soon though!

Tangling with the digerati

2014.10.20.tangleI spent an evening hobnobbing with some of Edinburgh’s “digerati” last week as part of a product launch for a new mobile dating app. It was a great experience and seems like a fun little app, so I thought I’d share a bit about it all here.

My invitation to the launch came not because of my non-partnered status*, but rather because of my status as an “Edinburgh Digerati” which made me laugh. Firstly, because I think the word is silly (sorry, it is!) and secondly because I don’t feel that I deserve a place among the “elite”. But someone did (or does) so I happily accepted the invitation. (Plus that, I can’t turn down free food!)

Of course, my research interests mean that I am very interested in what the actual digerati are doing. And it seems that many of them are equally interested in my research. Which means I had several really great conversations about online reputation management and—due in part to last night’s purpose and venue—how online dating can impact individuals’ online and offline reputations. (I’ll share more about that another day.)

So, the app!

The app is a new product called Tangle and is available for download through Google Play and Apple’s App Store**. The idea is that you can connect with people you walk past during the day, meaning you can turn that passing glance into a lasting relationship. (Or not.) It also allows you to go back in time to see who you may have passed when you were out-and-about but not looking at the app.

I downloaded the app at the launch and decided to keep it on my phone for a bit to see what it was really like. Which I feel a little weird about because I’m not in the market for a new beau, but curiosity got the better of me!

After having a wee play around with it, I found it easy to use and rather intuitive. However, I wasn’t happy that I had to link with my Facebook account (there isn’t another option at this time). And I’m a little weirded-out by the idea that people can see when I’m nearby. (Though you can turn off the ping and/or block people if you want.) But I’ve been assured that the privacy tools and processes Tangle uses means you’re safe.

I initially set my parameters for people in my own age group which meant that I only got two pings. Realising I’d need more pings to see how the app worked, I extended my range to all available age groups. This expanded reach didn’t deliver as many pings as I’d have hoped for, but it did make a difference.

In my travels around Edinburgh, Midlothian, and Stirling, I received pings/notifications for about 10 Edinburgh-based men (all under 30 years of age), one from a 30-something man in Midlothian, and nothing from Stirling.

But that makes sense as 1) the app is being marketed towards folks in their 20s right now and 2) the marketing is taking place in Edinburgh at the moment.

Honestly, I think the app is a fun idea and I can see how someone would enjoy using it once there are enough users to fill up your screen with potential matches. If I were a single woman in my 20s, trying to meet new people, I can see how this would be an extremely fun way to do it.

But I’m 40 and quite frankly, I feel a bit too old for the tool.

However, I am quite flattered that a handful of people have liked me on the app. But as I’ve not liked them back, I don’t know who they are. (If you’re one of them and are reading this: It’s nothing personal.)

As for me, I’m excited to follow up with some of the people I met at the launch to talk about my research and to find out how their various techy businesses are progressing.

[Please note this review has not been solicited, bought, or paid for in any way. (I did get free pizza and beer at the launch, but not as payment for this post.) This is not meant as an endorsement and is merely my thoughts and review on a new mobile app.]

* I hate saying single because I don’t feel single. But I hate saying widowed because, well, yeah. So forgive the weirdness of that sentence.
** The lack of a hyperlink isn’t because of my preference for non-Apple things (yes, I’m one of those people); it’s because I can’t find a good link. Go to Tangle’s website to access the download.

A Woman of STEM!

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace

Tuesday was Ada Lovelace Day, an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), and as part of the celebration, I attended a dinner hosted by Equate Scotland and Edinburgh Napier University.

[Note: Click here to skip the personal epiphany stuff and go straight to the event recap.]

My personal celebration of women in STEM began earlier than that, however. In fact, it began when I woke up and saw the reminder on my phone. That was when it finally dawned on me that I am a “Woman in STEM”.

As I thought about my place within the STEM community, I realised that I am a poor advocate for the group. Not because I don’t believe that women are (more than) capable of excelling in STEM subjects, but because I have never truly considered myself a part of the community. My lack of connection with the community stems (pun slightly intended) from my background in the humanities, media, and culture, but also from my fringe status within the field of technology.

You see, I am nearly a year into my PhD within Edinburgh Napier’s School of Computing, but I have struggled to think of myself as a “computer person” because I am investigating online reputation management—not computers. I suppose I can’t help but feel that my studies are about media, communications, and society, rather than computer-based.

Slowly but surely, however, I’ve been breaking through the (self-imposed) barriers and have been feeling more and more comfortable with the thought of being lumped with the computer scientists and technology folks—even though I still feel better connected to the fields of media and communications studies.

But I can find comfort in more than one place, right? After all, as a long-term expat I feel just as comfortable identifying with my home nation of America as I do with my adopted home of Scotland. And if I can (eventually) have dual nationalities, why can’t I have dual academic disciplines?

So, yes. I am a Woman in STEM. (Actually, I am a Multi-Disciplinary Woman. Which is empowering in its own right.)

By the time I arrived at the dinner, I was feeling more comfortable than ever with my place within STEM. And as I began to chat with the other guests, I realised more and more that we’re all from diverse backgrounds—some that are directly related to STEM subjects; some that are not.

And then when the speakers began to take the stage, I knew—without a doubt—that I was in the right place.

I digress…

The evening’s programme began with an address from Edinburgh Napier University’s principal and vice-chancellor, Professor Andrea Nolan (OBE), who spoke about the changing climate for women in STEM within the university—including the high number of female staff in the School of Computing.

Professor Hazel Hall

Professor Hazel Hall

Professor Hazel Hall then spoke about the university’s Athena SWAN bronze submission and the overall environment within Edinburgh Napier’s STEM subjects. She was rightfully pleased to point out that 21% of the university’s STEM professoriate is female—which bucks the trend of the UK’s benchmark of 16.5%. On the other hand, she noted that women are still under represented on some important committees.

However in keeping with the positive theme of the evening, we were reminded that there are mechanisms in place to help improve opportunities for not only women staff, but for current and future women students in STEM.

Linda Somerville, director of Equate Scotland, spoke next about the overall outlook for women in STEM. She shared some rather disappointing statistics, such as a recent survey by Prospect of over 2,000 women in science, engineering, and technical roles that showed 30% of women felt their careers had been hindered by their gender—a percentage that increased with age, as nearly 40% of women over 50 felt that way.

Happily though, Linda pointed out that Equate Scotland has been giving direct support to women over the years—the impact of which has shown 83% of women assisted feel more confident about their careers and 24% have obtained new jobs.

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

The evening ended with a keynote address by Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell who shared her personal journey from her time as a child in Northern Ireland, through her university studies at the University of Glasgow and the University of Cambridge, and her fascinating and varied professional life that included the discovery of pulsars.

Dame Jocelyn’s frank discussions of the harassment she endured during her studies and her feelings of imposter syndrome seemed to resonate with the audience—as did her experience as a “trailing spouse” whose career came second to that of her husband’s and to the demands of motherhood.

Keeping with the evening’s positive theme, however, Dame Jocelyn points out that her “succession of jobs, rather than a career” provided her with great opportunities in a number of fields—and helped her to develop an impressive career in the end.

There were three things Dame Jocelyn said that I felt really made the day a success:

  • It takes a long time to change society and society’s perceptions.
  • It’s OK to celebrate the differences between women and men.
  • We need to re-write women into history!

I hope that others in attendance found the evening as uplifting and positive as I did. It truly was a great celebration of Women in STEM and I’m looking forward to seeing the momentum continue.

Back to my own personal epiphany, I’ll share with you the thoughts I had on my walk home after the celebration.

Like many things, changing perceptions, norms, and attitudes takes time. But we are changing them. Step by step, little by little. Ada Lovelace made a difference. Dame Jocelyn made (and continues to make) a difference. Women and men like you are making a difference. I am making a difference.

The things we do today—the societal norms and expectations we challenge today—will impact the women and men who follow after us. I am excited about my role in creating a better tomorrow!

Happy (belated) Ada Lovelace Day!

[Watercolour portrait of Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (Ada Lovelace), by Alfred Edward Chalon (1780-1860). Image in public domain, accessed from Wikimedia Commons. Photographs of Professor Hazel Hall and Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell copyright Frances Ryan, 2014]