What I say about “They Say/I Say”

2014.03.26.they-say-i-sayIt’s not often that I review books, but as it’s a bit of an academic “thing to do” I’ve decided that I will start participating in the practice. (Well, at least for some of the academic-y books I read; I’m sure the world doesn’t need yet another glowing review of the amazing works of Ian Rankin.)

I attended a training session on writing literature reviews the other week (presented by Dr Anne Schwan) and took on board the recommendation to read They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing (Graff and Birkenstein, 2014). In fact, as luck would have it there was a new edition being released the following week so I took the opportunity to pre-order it on Amazon.co.uk so that I’d have the latest-and-greatest version.

In a nutshell, They Say/I Say is an introduction to the art of writing an argument and creating an academic conversation. It is easy to read and offers examples and templates throughout the book—with useful exercises at the end of each chapter so that the reader can immediately put the concepts to test. Further, the authors use encouraging language that may help less-experienced students or academics overcome potential fears about not having the academic know-how or “credentials” to create arguments.

I feel that the book gave good (though sometimes basic) advice on how best to present an argument in a way that allows the conversation to continue. It helps to explain the process of—and the need for—summarising someone’s argument, as well as some “best practice” techniques for how and when to use quotes. (With an emphasis on making sure that quotes are relevant and to the point.)

My favourite thing about the book—and what I believe is the most useful reason for owning a copy—is the templates provided throughout the text. I feel that they work similar to a thesaurus by providing suggested ways to phrase an argument, in the same manner that we’d use a thesaurus to find alternative words so that we don’t continue to describe a flower as beautiful over and over again. After all, reading “He said…”, “He said…”, and “He said…” all in a row can get boring. But if you throw in a “The author notes that it could be argued …” from time-to-time is like describing that flower as prepossessing.

The third edition also includes new sections for writing about literature, using templates to revise, and even writing online. Further, the authors have launched a blog, continuing the lessons and conversation online. (I have added the blog to my RSS feed so that I don’t miss any updates.)

Practical pickiness:
On the practical side, the book is an extremely good value at around £12 for the paperback edition. It’s small size and light-weight materials make it easy to toss into your book bag for easy access when writing at the library.

However—and this is where my slightly obsessive-compulsive nature comes in—I was less than pleased with the book’s overall print quality.

First, the cover is a printed and coated card stock which feels weird to the touch. This printing method also means that the cover insists on curling upwards, meaning it will always look open when sitting on a desk. Next, the paper is (not too) thin and has a slight shine to it which is a little annoying as it gives off a slight glare from overhead lighting and doesn’t have the nice feel that other, less glossy papers have.

Again, this is my own personal brand of crazy and has nothing to do with the book’s substance and academic usefulness. (I am just very fussy about some things; don’t get me started on wonky staples!)

Recommendation:
Short and sweet: Yes! I recommend you get this book—or at least check it out from the library! (I’ve not been asked or paid to give this review, I just really like the book and believe it will be a useful tool.)

Finding a method to my madness

2014.02.27.research-word-cloud[To jump right in] Last week’s panel review meeting went rather well. I was (as predicted) worrying about (mostly) nothing and the review was a simple(ish) chat about my progress to date. Of course, there had been an expectation that I might have had a bit more work to show as it was a “6-month review” but when it was explained that I started late and was therefore only at my 4-month mark, it all started to make sense.

One of the biggest thing I took away from the meeting was that I really need to start giving more thought to my research methodologies. I mean, it’s great that I know I want to research how people manage their reputation online, but how do I actually accomplish that? (Yes, these are things you need to think of as a researcher!)

(In fairness to myself, I have known all along that I would need to pin down my methodologies, I’ve just yet to actually put a stake in the ground.)

Do I use in-depth interviews to really investigate how individuals manage their online reputations?

Do I use a large-scale survey to determine the percentage of people who do x, y, or z in the management of their online reputations?

Do I hold focus groups with the hope of generating a bit of conversation around topic?

Do I use observational tools, looking at publicly available data and information to make conclusions of what people appear to be doing—or not doing—in an effort to manage their reputation?

Or do I use a combination of methods?

And what about the validation process? How will I go about validating my research, especially if I’m opting to use in-depth interviews and case studies?

As you can probably tell, I don’t actually have an answer to these questions. In fact, the more I try to find an answer, the more I start to ask more questions! (Ah, the questions-answers-questions loop. It can be frustrating at times.)

So in an effort to help me determine what methods to use in my research, I’m doing what any good researcher would do: I am researching!

I am currently re-reading research articles to determine the varying methods that have been successfully implemented in the past. From there, I hope to be able to identify a couple of methodologies that seem likely to fit with my project.

At the same time, I will be accessing other PhD theses to see what methods others have used—as well as what methods others have eschewed—and their reasoning behind those decisions.

Over the weekend, I will make a list of further research articles to read, in the hopes of expanding my knowledge of existing studies so that I can better determine what methods might work for me. And—with a bit of hard work and a touch of luck—by next Friday’s supervision meeting I will be ready to talk to my supervisors about 2-3 potential methods.

Importantly, all of this research into research methods will also help me with my next big milestone: The completion of my RD4 form, which is an expanded research proposal that will include my intended methodologies.

As always—I’m open to input from others so please feel free to point me towards some great resource you think I should be considering!

Prepping for the panel

2014.02.20.panel-prepTomorrow is my first panel review meeting for my PhD and I’ve spent the past few days prepping for it. (And stressing out about it just a little bit.) These meetings are meant to take place every six months though my first one is happening less than four months into my studies because I started later than the traditional September start. That early review has me slightly stressed because I feel that I won’t have as much accomplished as most people would at their first meeting, but I’m sure it will be OK.

This review is fairly simple. It will take place with me, my supervisors, and my panel chair and is an opportunity for the chair to determine if I’m on track—and if my supervisors are doing their jobs correctly. (I believe they are, but I confess that I don’t actually know how to judge that. Still, I believe they are.)

To prepare for the meeting, I have talked with my supervisors about my progress so far. I have also prepared an updated project plan, a listing of training events that I’ve attended and plan to attend, a reading list, and an updated draft of an essay I’m working on around reputation, identity, and information.

I’ve also tried to re-read as many relevant articles as possible so that I can be prepared for any questions that might arise.

I know that the chair isn’t out to get me, but I am still quite nervous about this process. (Hopefully those nerves will ease as I get used to these review meetings.)

Of course, tomorrow is also my 40th birthday and I know that I will be extremely aware of the time throughout the meeting because my plan is to leave the meeting, change into my birthday dress, and the run to the train station in time to catch a train to Glasgow where I will meet up with some friends for pretentious cocktails.

And that all means that I might forget to let you know how the actual meeting goes. (Apologies in advance for that.)

Over the next couple of weeks I will work to get some of the documents listed above up on the site. That way you can see the sort of things I’m working on.

Now, back to stressing out about tomorrow’s big meeting. (Which is better than stressing out about the big 4-0, which I’m not fussed about at all!)

[Note: That photo is actually from when I was in the final stages of writing my master’s dissertation, but it’s still fairly representative of what my study area looks like at the moment.]

Finding money

2014.02.18.finding-moneyI think that one of the hardest things about doing a PhD might be finding money. For my own studies, I know that I would have been unable to proceed without a studentship or other large funding source—which makes me very grateful to have been offered more than one studentship when I was seeking a place to study. (Sadly, I’ve heard many stories from people who’ve been unable to do a PhD because they weren’t so lucky.)

Whilst some people awarded studentships no longer need to find additional forms of finance for their studies, as they’re offered a tuition waiver as well as a small living stipend, that’s not the case for every student in recipient of a studentship.

For example, I am on a studentship but as an international student, I have to pay the difference between domestic and international tuition out of pocket. (Which is a lot of money for someone like me!) And that means I will spend my years as a PhD student applying for scholarships to help cover the gaps.*

Yesterday, I applied for my first scholarship of my PhD career** and I am now trying to find others that I may qualify for. I’ve decided that I will apply for as many scholarships and grants as I can get with the idea that finding “too much” money one year can help off-set a lack of money for another—but I have to remember that I am only one of many applying for the same pots of funding.

I have a list of scholarships that I will be applying for when they open up for the 2014/15 academic year and I am constantly on the look-out for more. But I’m also realising that I need to start looking at travel grants and conference scholarships so that I can further my training and knowledge by attending academic events throughout the UK, Europe, and even the world.

I am not stressed out about money (right now) but I realise that many PhD students (and students in general) spend a lot of time worrying about their finances and I imagine it makes a big impact on the amount of time they spend worrying about their studies.

So, what is this post about? I guess it’s a bit of an introduction to one of the general topics I’ll likely be covering throughout my studies: Finances!

Yes, part of Just a PhD will be devoted to talking about how I am working to add to my PhD budget—as well as how I plan to stretch the limited funds I have now. Those things will include scholarship applications, paid opportunities through the university (if there are any), and my own frugality which I’ve been perfecting since my teen-aged years.

And if you know of any great scholarships I should be applying for, please do give a shout! Every little penny counts and as soon as I have a bit more financial security, I can spend less time worrying about money and more time doing important things like PhDing!

* I have been blessed with a place to stay in a friend’s home until I can find funding, which means that I am not at risk of starvation or homelessness. Having a bit of stability helps! (As does having generous friends!)

** I applied for a few before I began my studies but have yet to be successful. I won’t give up though!

Working out where to work

2014.02.03.where-to-readLast month, I shared with you my struggles for finding just the right place to work. I was finding it difficult to figure out how to manage my reading without being distracted—and without finding myself squirreled away at home all the time.

To find a solution, I decided to spend three weeks testing out various locations and work patterns. Though, sadly, I’ve not yet found an answer to my problem.

I did learn, however, that trying to work in more than two locations in any given day doesn’t work because I spend too much time settling into the new location—and too much time wondering when it’s time to move onto the next. However, two locations seems to work just fine—as long as I am clear about what my tasks will be at each location.

So, what’s the solution?

To be honest, I don’t really know!

But I do know that I read better away from the office and that I find resources for reading better when I’m in the office. I also know that I am able to write wherever I am—though it seems that my best focused-in writing sessions come right after lunch or dinner. (Yes, a full tummy helps!)

In the last week of my location testing, I found that I was giving myself clear tasks to complete at each location. A day’s tasks might be split up like this:

I would “assign” myself the task of reading two journal articles at home whilst eating breakfast and enjoying my morning coffee, after which I would make hand-written notes summarising each article before going to the office. On arriving at my office, I would have the task of typing up my notes then searching through databases for any new articles to add to my reading list. Then, on returning home in the evening, I would read another (short) article or search for interesting pop-culture stories related to my areas of interest (blog posts, opinion pieces, forum discussions—that sort of thing).

So I know that I work best in different locations. And I know that I work best with clear tasks in mind. But what I don’t know is how to stay focused on tasks—or how to prioritise them!

I guess that means it’s time to investigate some time management techniques!

(Thankfully, I am still feeling a renewed sense of excitement about the path I’m on, which is helping to keep me focused!)

[Photo note: This is a view of my comfy weekend reading spot: Home on my couch with my life-long companion, Tiger, listening to my home town country station (KXLE Radio) streaming on the tablet, and taking occasional breaks to draw abstract swirls. What a wonderful way to spend a weekend!]