Part-time studying but full-time thinking

PhD

The more I think about it, the more I am happy that undertaking a part-time PhD was the right thing for me. It seems counter intuitive as I often get frustrated at having to juggle a full-time job, work on my thesis and life in general. That being said, when I think about the progress I’ve made over my first year, I don’t feel like I am far behind where I would be full-time. I think the main reason for this is that although I have limited time to devote to reading, researching and academic admin tasks, something carries on beyond this time and that is the difficult part – the thinking. I think that this is nicely explained with a quote from Weber’s Science as a vocation:

Ideas occur to us when they please, not when it pleases us. The best ideas do indeed occur to one’s mind in the way in which Ihering describes it: when smoking a cigar on the sofa; or as Helmholtz states of himself with scientific exactitude: when taking a walk on a slowly ascending street; or in a similar way. In any case, ideas come when we do not expect them, and not when we are brooding and searching at our desks. Yet ideas would certainly not come to mind had we not brooded at our desks and searched for answers with passionate devotion.

This seems to be perfectly applicable to the shift from ‘studying time’ to ‘work time’. Often it is in the midst of my day job, or during my drive to work that the things I have been struggling with suddenly make sense. This is also something that needs to be capitalised upon as often these thoughts go and fast as they come. For this, Evernote has been a life saver, acting as a multimedia notepad that is with me 24/7. Sometimes, I write a note by hand and capture it with my phone’s camera, sometimes I do the same with a document and other times I type direct into it. This mental scrapbook, however, is what I believe has been the key to moving forward in my thinking even when I’m not technically working on my PhD project.

Advertisements

Book Review: What About Mozart? What About Murder? – Howard S. Becker

Uncategorized

What About Mozart? What About Murder? differs from Becker’s previous work. It is not a monograph on a particular subject the ways that Art Worlds and Outsiders were. Nor is it wholly concerned with the craft in the way Writing for Social Scientists and Telling About Society were. Instead it offers a unique insight into the events and concerns that have sparked his sociological imagination over his career to date. It opens up some of the inner conversations and thoughts that link his work across areas as diverse as deviance and Art.

This volume is focused upon cases studies and their use within Sociology. It takes the reader through different the different forms these take and the ways in which cases can be used to illuminate issues and sociological concerns. Drawing on his wide experience both empirical and anecdotal this is not a text on methodology but an insight into how Becker’s work has been shaped by a commitment to the value of case studies. He addresses issues of how seemingly unrelated cases can spark thinking in completely different fields, how detailed studies of cases can make visible things that other methods hide in black boxes and how imaginary cases can help to make issues more visible.

Through his accessible writing style, Becker generously fills in the blanks by making visible the influences and inspiration behind the various areas of research he has addressed during his career. In making these visible, this book offers a unique insight into how seemingly unrelated areas of study can become influential and how the everyday and the imagined can also prove valuable in sociological research.

This book speaks of his generosity to the reader. He addresses some of those questions that I am sure every academic has asked at some point; how do I decide what to study, where do I go next and How do I know when enough is enough? He does this in an accessible insightful way that makes the reader consider how similar issues might be able to offer useful insights into their own work. As such this text in my mind is essential reading for all PhD and Early career researchers who may be wrestling with these issues and wondering how Becker seamlessly moved from looking at Musicians to Schools and from deviance to Art.

References

Becker (2014) What About Mozart? What About Murder? Reasoning from cases, Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Why i’m committing to #AcWriMo and why blogging will be part of it

Education, higher education, PhD

I’d always fancied taking part in NaNoWriMo for the pure challenge of it but there were two things that put me off. Firstly, that I actually didn’t have a burning idea for a novel and secondly that I’m not entirely sure a number of words should be the motivator. You see, like calorie based diets, they lead people to obsess over the wrong thing. When you are aiming for a numerical goal, it is the numbers that count but when you are focused on a target, for example changing the make up of what you eat, you focus on the content and what you actually want to achieve.

So this year it has happened that #AcWriMo , an academic focused version of this has synced with my first official month of the PhD. Now as you can imagine at this stage a lot of what I’m doing is exploratory reading and much form filling! What I do also have on the back burner is developing a paper for a conference from an abstract I submitted. This therefore seemed a perfect focus.

The actual volume of words needed to complete these tasks is limited but they are all reliant on that writing being quality. The other motivator for participating is the hope that it will help me get into a writing routine. This is why blogging will also be part of my goals. I find blogging an ideal writing task when i’m getting a block about how to phrase something or when the process is getting me down as it adds variety. It is the same with reading, occasionally you have to move from the academic to the more everyday to spur you on, especially when dealing with complex theoretical texts.

So to outline my goals, I plan to finish my conference paper, finish first drafts of my learning contract and an initial draft of my RDC1 and blog at least twice (in addition to this one) before the 30 days are out. I am not focusing on words but time. I am making space for a hour a day on 5 days a week, plus the option to carry on at the weekends. I’ll be interested to see how it works. Yesterday I started with an hour and managed about 5, although that is not sustainable, it allowed me to make an excellent start of two of the pieces which has given me the enthusiasm I needed to see the benefits of committing to the challenge. If you fancy joining me, all the details are on the PhD2published site.

Reading Lists: Recommendations, Rabbit holes and Reputation

Education, higher education, PhD

I was recently asked to try and write a blog to explain my reading strategy. The questions posed were how I decide what to read, when and why. I was also asked about how I read and take notes. I am going to take this into two posts, the first focusing on how my current reading pile has come about.

Why has this stack of books come about?

I hadn’t really thought about this before so I took what I currently had and realised there were three main reasons books and references to follow up were there, namely some form of recommendation, a follow up from a reference i’d come across in other reading or the fact that I felt something was a seminal text in the areas i’m researching.

Recommendation

Recommendations that have populated my list have come from several sources. Some have been as a result of twitter, some from seeing mailshots and stands at conferences and some through personal recommendation.

For example, Education, disadvantage and place came onto my radar through a flyer from Policy Press. Other recent books to drop into this category are the Education Policy Research book I reviewed last week, which came as a result of attending a symposium at the BERA conference and Zizek’s First as tragedy, then as farce recommended by @andewilkins on tiwtter following a conversation about cynicism as ideology that has fascinated me since the BSA conference earlier in the year.

Rabbit holes

When you begin immersing yourself in one topic, you find references to many things you feel you should read, things that look interesting and things that might be central to your research. The process of following one reference to another without really knowing where you will end up brought to my mind the idea of Alice following the white rabbit in her adventures in wonderland and as a result I decided to term these texts my rabbit holes.

There are a number of journal articles relating to this  category in my list, probably too numerous to mention and often this has been a useful way to carve out my reading into relevant studies. It has also lead me to explore specific texts from authors that may have also fallen into the final category; that of reputation. Two examples here are Bourdieu’s Pascalian Meditations which Steven Jones talks about in his chapter in Education Policy Research and in which I wish to explore the notion of ‘playing the game’ further. Bauman’s Wasted Lives has also ended up on my must read list as although I have read several of his books this was cited in another chapter and I feel may have some relevance to issues surrounding my thesis.

Reputation

The books that I would currently put into this category are actually ones on my reading list to revisit. I have read with interest Mills’ Sociological Imagination, Bourdieu’s Distinction and Becker’s Telling about society and all have extensive notes in them. The reason they are still sitting in my reading pile, however, is that re-reading certain parts in light of other thoughts i’m having, now specifically related to my thesis may help me develop my own thesis by drawing on the issues and concepts that these works highlight.

What do I do with this reading?

I wouldn’t suggest by any means this list is exhaustive, nor that my way is the best way but this is how my current reading list has been shaped. It would be interesting to here if this resonates with anyone else or if people have very different strategies for deciding what to read. I will be following up this post by exploring the idea of how I read and think through reading in another post in due course.

Why I’ve chosen a PhD over the EdD

Uncategorized

The decision to do a PhD over and EdD may seem strange given the recent post I made focusing on the benefits of an EdD and showing a slight sway towards this from my original PhD plans. I thought it would be useful to write a short blog to explain why.

I do not plan to rehearse the same arguments as I made in the previous post but to summarise, the two main benefits I saw in the EdD are the presence of a cohort for informal support, the structure to help retain focus during a part time doctorate.

It just so happened that I was put in a enviable position of being able to choose between and EdD and a PhD at the same institution on the same topic, so really this left little to choose from other than the model of delivery. This possibly made it harder than having external factors to shape my choices.

What became clear as I worked through my choices and came up with pros and cons is that both models are good and neither seemed to race ahead from the other in my thinking. What did however shape my final choice was me and my own background and circumstances.

The main differences in essence are that the EdD would have a shorter thesis but with several assessed formal assignments on research methods, policy and theory in the first 3 years. The PhD has a longer thesis but no formal assignments. In terms of an EdD there would be a cohort of at least 10 students all starting the journey together whereas by reading a PhD I would be likely to be one of a much smaller number in the department. Because of my circumstances both would be part-time and both have similar financial implications for me.

After talking to several academics who know me well and a couple I have met on one off occasions, much of what I have been doing over the last few years seems to be developing some of those skills needed for doctoral study. Reading around my interest areas, engaging with theory, attending conferences and building support networks. Given that I have already begun this journey, some of the structure offered by the EdD might have felt slightly restrictive and limited the start I could make from day one. This would also have a knock on effect on giving me more time and space for the data collection phase of my research which, when studying part time, may end up being very important.

In not choosing an EdD, however, I am acutely aware of those parts of the training model that may be lacking and the gaps I need to fill myself, such as the support network that a cohort would provide. I do wonder though if there is a way to re-create this through technology and am working through some ideas of how to do this for maximum benefit.

Mind the gap? or enjoy it? The benefits of a break before the doctorate

EdD, Education, PhD

When I had to abandon my original plans to start a doctorate last September, I must admit I was a bit despondent and irritated I couldn’t continue to the next level straight away. On reflection, this has probably been the best thing that could of happened and I thought it would be useful to blog about why I feel this way.

One of my major worries was that I would lose the impetus of study and the time and space for it within my busy work and home life. This hasn’t happened, in fact I’m probably spending as much time reading and writing as I ever did during my masters! The difference is, i’m finally spending the time exploring texts and ideas that I want to. What has really helped is attending a few conferences and workshops over the period since I ended my study and following up interesting ideas.

Having come into Sociology and Education through a quite eclectic route of study, this time and space has also allowed me to read some of those classic text I missed out on. Recently these have included Willis’ Learning to Labour, Lukes’ Power: a radical view as well as a number of more specific texts to the area I now plan to do my doctorate around.

This time and space to broaden my reading I feel is something that I would have missed out on if I embarked immediately onto a doctoral programme and now has me much more excited and focused on the next stage feeling more prepared than I ever could have done if I had started back in September. As I reflected on previously, it has also allowed me to explore exactly what I wanted from a doctorate and which one is right for me.

Hopefully the next few months will give me the space to continue this reading and to develop my writing through this blog, contributing to some other blogs and a few other projects to help hone some of these skills before I return to the formal journey towards a doctorate.

Live tweeting: Why and how: A reflection on #Britsoc14

digital sociology, Education, higher education, public sociology

This years British Sociology Association conference must be my tenth foray into live tweeting from a conference or event and over time I have developed how and what I tweet. I think some of this has come from reflecting on of why I am live tweeting in the first place and this blog will explore some of the benefits of live tweeting as a central part of attending a conference as I see them through my emerging practice.

Distilling ideas

In the same way that twitter has helped me hone my ideas through concise writing, so has tweeting key ideas from a session helped hone my thinking on these ideas. In order to process a 20 minute paper which is often densely packed with material into key ideas, concerns or questions of interest, you develop a skill in trying to not only identify what is important about the paper but which ideas might resonate with a wider audience or prove useful to engage with further.

Engaging in the debate

As a beginning researcher, I think twitter provides an excellent ay to engage with, debate and question ideas in a relatively safe environment. Many people forget how nerve wracking it can be to ask a question or challenge a concept in a paper during a question session. Doing so via twitter can often provide a space to do this more confidently. It also provides a space to develop ideas from a paper in discussion with others both within the session and far beyond it.

 Sharing ideas beyond the audience

Over the past few years, especially working within education, I have become mindful of how difficult it is for those practitioners and doctoral researchers who hold juggle other employment and academia to attend conferences, especially in their field of education when they often clash with scheduled teaching. From my own experience, having live tweets from events has been invaluable in order to get a feel for what is going on during a session I myself would have liked to attend.

Allowing other conference attendees to get key messages from other streams

This inability to attend every paper that is of interest also extends to other conference attendees. Certainly this was my experience of this years BSA conference and there were times where I chose to go to a different session knowing that there would be enough live tweeting going on in another that I would not be completely missing out. This is not unproblematic as it sometimes leads to regret for not choosing a different stream but it does to some extent compensate for some of the difficult choices that need to be made between parallel sessions.

Forming networks of practice

The reciprocity and sharing of ideas from one session to another and from one conference to another leads to building of networks of practice. By reading what others are sharing on a conference hashtag it is possible to find and connect with other academics that are interested in similar topics as you and thus allow the development of networks. It is by doing this I managed to gain so much more from this, my third BSA conference than I ever was able to from my first conference three years ago.

 

I am sure there are more elements to it and there is probably some merit in exploring these in more depth which I hope to do in future but I felt it was important to document where my thinking is at now on the purpose of live tweeting and the digital back channels behind conferences in building networks and sharing knowledge and ideas.

Which Doctor: To PhD or to EdD that is the question?

EdD, Education, higher education, PhD

The issue that has been consuming most of my time recently is what to do next. Originally I was going to start my PhD in January looking at how parents construct and manage issues of risk. There were several reasons for not starting; lack of funding, starting a new job, but most importantly that I realised my interests are me closely aligned to issues related to education opposed to parenting.

The network I have built up on twitter had been invaluable in working through my choices of what to do next. Everything seems to have emerged naturally. Following an impromptu meeting with Katy Vigurs (@drkatyvigurs) that just happened because I was in Stoke-on-Trent visiting a ceramics exhibition, I left our conversation more confused than when I started. Previously I had been focusing predominantly on the PhD route and dismissed the EdD option. Having done a bit more research, one incarnation of the latter is looking appealing, especially when my interests lie very firmly within the Sociology of Education.

Let me start with a caveat, I’m not sure all EdD programmes are made equal and some seem to be better suited to my interests than others. Whilst my interests are in the field of education, they do not originate in the classroom but at a higher level, more concerned with policy and social justice. This position doesn’t always correlate with the offerings of many EdD programs which either seem to focus on leadership and management or pedagogical topics. There are, however a couple which would cater for my interests.

From talking to a range of colleagues in several different institutions, there seems to be both advantages and disadvantages to straying from the more familar PhD route.

Firstly the structure the EdD programmes offer can be both a support and a bind. Having been used to the structure of distance learning Masters, this is not particularly problematic to me but I can see how it may be less flexible than the PhD.

Secondly, the inherent isolation of doctoral study, especially that is often experienced by a part-time student is buffered by the taught element of an EdD programme where there is a cohort element which can offer a much-needed community of practice. In fact it is the way that one EdD at Staffordshire in particular has used twitter to support this idea of communities of practice that has particularly peaked my interest (you can follow their exploits on twitter using #EdDSU6 )

Thirdly, however, there still seems to be a stigma in some camps over the PhD being ‘superior’ to the EdD in terms of academic currency. This I find interesting as I haven’t experienced many negative comments toward the EdD other than in terms of positioning a PhD as a preferable option, especially if you already have a strong idea of a research proposal.

Finally, it was interesting to hear how some experienced examiners felt that there was the potential for the initial stages of the EdD to restrict some candidates whose theses they had read and thus left them feeling that the PhD might have offered a better vehicle for the research, allowing more time and space to jump into the literature earlier

What is interesting though is the feedback from those on an EdD programme and the positive reviews they give it. Most of the people I have spoken to are in the early stages though, I’d be interested to see if this is the same for those nearing completion or those who are on the next step of their journey.

What does seem to emerge from discussions though is the importance of the people in choosing where to study at Doctoral level. It seems that regardless of the flavour of doctoral degree, a good fit with a potential supervisory team is invaluable in terms of experience and eventual success.

For me, I am veering towards the direction of the EdD. Whilst I have a good idea of what I want to do and the general direction of travel for my research, I think the structure of the EdD is likely to support a stronger eventual thesis. There really is no option for me to undertake a full-time PhD at this point in my career so considering either option would be part-time by necessity, I think the structure of the EdD may also support my motivation and focus and help me to develop the initial stages in a structured way. I also feel that having missed out on a lot of the face to face teaching at masters level having done those through distance learning, it would be nice to be part of a cohort of like-minded people and to develop those communities of practice.

One thing I realised when I started exploring this question, however, was how little writing there is about the process of choosing between the two so I’d be keen to continue the debate here and for people to add their own experiences through the comments. Hopefully this may also help future students puzzled by which route to pursue.

Re-writing the map: Questioning where I was actually going

PhD

Having recently been made a job offer for January, I have made the decision that starting a PhD at the same time would not be the most sensible decision. In working through various options, however, I have also come to a realisation that the proposal i had ended up with in some ways had moved from the real issues that were important to me. It took a good chat over a coffee earlier in the week to realise that this had happened and has resulted in lots of exploring, thinking and mind mapping to try to get to the heart of the problem.

Firstly, I would still dearly love to conduct the research I had proposed but maybe the timing and circumstances aren’t right at the moment. I was planning to look at how parents negotiate the ideas of risk in their parenting decisions with a specific interest in how they construct notions of risk. This came out of my own personal experience during a number of jobs working with young people where I was subject to CRB checks no less than 6 times in 24 months, reflecting on this showed me that all this actually flagged up was past arrests and was not an indicator of future risk and yet was used as a guarantee of safety in effect. The issue with this research will always be rooted in what it seeks to explore; issues that do not commonly get talked about. This makes opening those dialogues a lengthy process which would involve high levels of trust and acceptance from the parents involved before any data could begin to be collected. As a full time project it would have been doable but as a part time one, I fear it could never be realised in quite the same way. If there was the possibly of full-time funding it might be viable but this has put me in a position to consider exactly why i wanted to do a doctorate and what i’m trying to get out of it as the likelihood of being able to undertake one full-time is becoming less likely and less compatible with my current circumstances.

It is interesting how in just talking through your past and plans for the future, you often begin to reveal some motivations that were previously hidden to you. It was through my conversation with Katy Vigurs that the lightbulb moment happened. I hadn’t necessarily noticed it before but all my ideas and interests lead back in some way to education and most specifically the impact of policy changes on various aspects. Another key theme was the fact that my ideas involved participatory work and were interested in engagement with some forms of public not only as participants but as, for want of a better words beneficiaries of the findings. Once I’d worked out why I wanted to embark on a doctorate, I felt I needed to get all my interests down on paper.

IMG_2237

The actual topics and interests were disparate in some ways, but linked in others however these common themes linked them, I also keep coming back to the recurring idea that whatever research I do must have a visual element. Maybe this is my background as an artist, but the power of the image within the sociological is extremely important and something I would not want to exclude from my own work.

Whilst this thinking and these exercises did not necessarily give me an answer, they have refocused my mind on what is important to me which might help me re-consider where i go from here.

Could blogging help to treat imposter syndrome?

digital sociology, higher education, PhD, public sociology

A short blog for today but reflecting on some of the things I have been contemplating in the last few days.

Recently I blogged in response to a paper by David Beer on The wire. Through the wonders of twitter and the public nature of the blog, he responded with his thoughts here. What surprised me to some extent was the fact that he agreed with some of my comments and pushed me to reconsider others. If I had simply noted these comments in the margins of the paper, or in my own notebook then I’d still be wondering if I was on the right track.

The fact that so far this blog has been read by 900 people in the last month and that a number have told me how much they are enjoying my writing or finding some of the discussions I have begun useful is a huge boost. I think everyone suffers from imposter syndrome to a certain extent, worrying if they really do know what they are talking about and no, blogging doesn’t make this go away but it has certainly helped reassure me that I’m on the right track and spurred me to keep going.

I don’t think this is something that is only useful for students and early career researchers, however. Given the peer review process, rejection and putting yourself in a position where there is a high potential for a focus on negative feedback, a blog is a way to get ideas out there and to allow you to test them out and help you gain confidence in them. If you have more confidence in your ideas, it is easier to use negative feedback in a constructive way that helps you revise your work. Surely this is something that all academics, regardless of experience need from time to time?