Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Quantitative purgatory

According to the Catholic Church, Purgatory is a place or condition of punishment for those who although possessed of grace are not entirely free from sin. As an atheist I never really thought that purgatory was something I would need to concern myself about until I became a quantitative researcher. As a someone whose PhD was once described as 385 pages of statistical tables and some text, I flatter myself that although not a statistician I can make SPSS do what I want it to do and I can understand the results it gives me. I can look at a mess of data,  know what questions to ask it and comprehend the answer I come up with. I know when to use non-parametric tests and I can identify scenarios when only a parametric test will do. In other words like Michael Faraday, Gregor Mendel and Thomas Edison I am an amateur. However, being a keen amateur does not mean my quantitative activities are less accurate or appropriate than those of Charles Spearrman (a well known statistician although really a psychologist) or Jacob Cohen (another well known statistician who started life a psychologist). I'm not asking you to believe that the Haigh Test for statistical complexity is imminent, what I am asking is - why, when the stats tests I'm using are really, really simple am I constantly told I need to have a statistician on my research team!?!

It's annoying for me as someone who can do simple stats such as cross tabs and ANOVAs (even, dare I say it, some multivariate regression) and it must be bloody annoying for statisticians who have studied for 3 years or more to be constantly asked to advise on what, for them, is the statistical equivalent of learning to use a spoon.

So, here I sit, in statistical purgatory - in a state of grace because I understand what 'p' values are for but full of sin because I don't have a stats degree. The only good thing is...there are loads of us here.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

What your supervisor will expect from you

Whilst, in previous blogs, I have outlined the things a doctoral student can expect from their supervisor it is important to remember that your supervisor has the right to expect certain things in return. For example;

  • If you want your supervisor to review and comment on written work they will probably expect you to send it to them at least three weeks before your supervision session. It is pointless sending your supervisor the first 20,000 of your methods chapter the day before you are due to met and expecting them to have read it...or be happy about it.

  • If you have an appointment with your supervisor - turn up! (pretty obvious I know but you would be surprised how often it happens)

  • They will expect you to be prepared to present to peers, within and external to the university.

  • If you are going to publish something with their name on it, make sure they see it before you submit. Academics are only as good as their last paper so it's important they have the opportunity to provide input.

  • Some supervisors will expect you to be the one to keep in touch, so if you drift or drop off of the radar they won't chase you up. It is a good idea to find out at the beginning of the relationship if they are expecting you to instigate contact.

Of course the easiest thing to find out what your supervisor expects from you is to simply ask them. Your relationship will, ideally be mutually supportive and most supervisors will be pleased and touched if you show them this level of consideration - it will probably be the first time any one has!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Pick a side!

When did it become desirable, fashionable  or acceptable to shoehorn chunks of quantitative data collection into what is obviously designed to be a qualitative study? I'm not talking about genuine mixed-methods studies but doctoral theses, and it usually IS doctoral theses I'm afraid, that undermine perfectly acceptable and robust qualitative studies with a few badly presented descriptive statistics. If a student is focussed upon qualitative work then, generally,the inclusion of poorly analysed and weak quantitative data does not enhance their work - it weakens it. Examiners who know about statistical analysis will be irritated by things like appallingly bad response rates, inappropriate statistical tests (usually treating non-parametric data as parametric) and meaningless extrapolation of non-significant findings to the general population. Examiners who are knowledgeable about qualitative methods will struggle to find meaning in the inclusion of such data and be annoyed because it detracts form the richness of the qualitative elements. I think it may be time for researchers, students and supervisors to pick a side and stop sitting on the methodological fence. Neither approach is better than the other - they are too different. They explore different things, ask different questions and give different answers - not better, just different. So, be whole hearted qualitative or be proudly quantitative. PICK A SIDE!!!! 

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Looking above the heads of the crowd

I was having a research-y conversation with a colleague when he said something very profound. "The problem with me" (he said) "is that I'm interested in too many things". My first thought was 'yeah, me too'. If you ask my mentor 'what is the problem with Carol Haigh?' somewhere in the 15 volumes of documentation he would hand you in return would be the phrase "She has no focus". But my second thought was "why is that a bad thing? 

Without doubt we need people who are happy to spend their entire career concerned about the healing rate of diabetic ulcers in women whose birth sign is Libra or are exercised about the life cycle of the Tibetan water snail but we also need individuals who can't settle on one topic or idea, people who consistently poke their heads above the crowd to see what's coming next. These are the people who can adapt their research interest to changes in policy or technology. They are the people for whom cross-disciplinary collaboration holds no fear because they aren't afraid to knock on the door of other previously unrelated disciplines and say, ' I can help with this'.

My fear for the next generation of researchers is that they won't be encouraged to celebrate their generalist tendencies and will be expected to slot themselves into the narrow confines of a specialist subject. Research has changed dramatically over the past decade - the age of the solitary researcher is coming to an end and multi-site, multi-institutional  collaboration is now the norm, interdisciplinary collaboration is already being seen as advantageous when bidding for large research grants and cross disciplinary research, such as  between health, technology and industry for example, is the next logical step.

For this to work we need to encourage the generalists, we need people who are willing to change focus and direction and use a macro gaze in order to move the whole of their discipline forward into the second decade of the 21st century as much as we need the  micro gaze of the specialists 

Saturday, July 28, 2012

How to manage your supervisor 3 - Great Expectations

So far in this short blog series we have looked at how to select a supervisor and how to manage the first supervisory meeting but there are things that you should expect from your supervisor.  Most universities and research supervisors take student demands very seriously and will try to support them in any reasonable requests. Unfortunately though they rarely tell students what is on offer and so students don't know what is available and what they can ask for. The following are just a few of the things you can expect your supervisor to help you with.

Provide guidance in planning the research project - A PhD is a research training program, no-one expects a new doctoral student to have their research project completely planned from day one. You can expect your supervisor to be able to discuss different approaches to answering your  research question. You should also be able to look to them to provide suggestions and guidance with regards to suitable places to start literature searching as well. In addition, if you have identified and area in which you feel you need further training or education, your supervisor should be able to help you find internal or external resources that will help or be able to provide access to supplementary instruction.

Help with ethics -  In the UK, if you are doing research in health and social care, you are likely to have the lovely experience of attending a Local Research Ethics Committee (LREC). Although ethics committees tend to be forgiving to applicants who are doing Masters degrees, understanding that they are relative novices in research, they will treat doctoral students projects with the same level of rigour that they apply to the studies of experienced researchers. If you are invited,your supervisor should attend the ethics meeting with you. This is partly so that they can provide support for you, partly because they should be able to field any questions that stump you and mainly because ethics committees love it when supervisors attend with their students as it reassures them that a novice researcher has the full support of an experienced one. Even if you are not facing LREC you will probably have to submit your study to the approval of the university ethics panel and you can expect your supervisors help in this too.

Integrating with the wider academic community - Part of the doctoral process is engaging  with the wider intellectual community in your discipline. For most people this usually  means attending a suitable conference. SOME universities (but no means all) have small pots of money that doctoral students can apply for to fund conference attendance. It is worth asking your supervisor if such funds exist and getting them to help you apply or seek other forms of funding if none are available at your university. Another way of engaging with the external community is via publications and you should be able to expect your supervisor to be able to provide guidance on suitable target journals and the writing styles and standards expected.

Be the map reader on your doctoral journey - Your supervisor should be familiar with all the bureaucratic university milestones you are likely to encounter. Obviously it is your responsibility to keep such milestones in mind as well but you should be able to rely on your supervisor to be able to guide you on the preparation of progress or transition reports and, at the end of the process make informed suggestions with regard to the selection of examiners.

I know some doctoral candidates will read this and roll their eyes muttering 'my supervisor didn't do this'. None of the things I have outlined in the blog should be onerous or outside of the remit of the supervisor. But remember, you have to be the proactive one in this scenario, so think carefully about what you want from your supervisor and make your expectations clear to them. You can rest assured they will be making their expectations crystal clear to you!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

How to manage your supervisor 2- Entering the lion's den

Once you have found a supervisor that you feel is right for you, you face the challenge of the first supervision meeting. The important thing to remember here is to
start as you mean to go on.  One of the biggest mistakes that many new doctoral students make to is under estimate how much power they have in the doctoral candiate/supervisor relationship. They assume that the association will continue along the pedagogical lines of their previous studies in which the supervisor is all knowing and the student is the passive recipient of their knowledge. This should not be the case. The relationship between supervisor & PhD student is very different from other supervisory relationships, it should be a partnership of equals so negotiation is key. The expectations of both parties should be made clear at the start. If you have found yourself an excitable supervisor who is easily distracted by attractive avenues of discussion (yes, I know all my students are looking at me) take an agenda with you so that you can keep them on topic.

One of the first things to discuss is how often you plan to meet, for how long (two hours is a good start), whether those meeting will be face-to-face or via Skype or e-mail and where they will be (supervision doesn't necessarily have to be on-campus). The frequency of supervision changes across the course of the PhD so you may wish to see your supervisor every month in the early stages but less regularly during data collection or writing up phases. Regardless of frequency it is always a good idea to make your next supervision appointment before you leave. It is easier to cancel an appointment you suddenly find you don't need than to make one urgently.

It is a good idea if you have a broad idea of the focus you plan to take with your thesis but it's not a good idea if you are not open to debating or amending that plan. Many new doctoral students will start their PhD absolutely confident that they know exactly what they are going to be doing over the next 3-6 years. Equally as many complete a thesis which bears no resemblance to those original plans. So, be ready at your first meeting to have a long discussion about your chosen topic and all of the different ways you could explore it. Remember at this early stage nothing is carved in stone.

Most universities have set milestones that you will need to achieve and so it's a good idea, if you can to find out what they are ( they are usually outlined in the Post Graduate Research Regulations and the majority of universities have these available online) and discuss them with your supervisor. 

Even at your first meeting it doesn't hurt to be thinking about papers you will be publishing from your work and to discuss issues around what support your supervisor will be able to provide to help you, especially if you are a publishing virgin. Most supervisors will expect to have their names on papers you publish from you PhD, particularly if they have contributed in a more substantial way than just editing or proof reading but it is not inappropriate for you to expect to be first author.

So, for the first meeting;
  1. Negotiate how your relationship is going to work. 
  2. Negotiate what you expect from each other. 
  3. Be ready to discuss what you want to do and to explore different ways of doing it.
  4.  Be clear what the University set milestones are and how they fit into your project plan 
  5. Be ready to discuss a publication plan and authorship.

The first supervision session is a bit like a first date - you will probably both be on your best behaviour and trying to impress but you will also get a sense early on as to whether this is a relationship that has potential. Unlike a first date it isn't necessary to buy your supervisor flowers but don't be afraid to take biscuits.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

How to manage your supervisor 1 - Finding the needle

As the new academic year looms ever closer and new doctoral students start to search Amazon for books with titles like 'How to get a PhD', it seemed to be the right time for a series of short blogs on How to manage your supervisor. This first blog explores the qualities you should look for in a good supervisor

At the risk of paraphrasing Mrs. Beeton - first find your supervisor. Many new doctoral students do not realise that they can actually have a say in who supervises them. So it's a good idea to consider the following when you are looking for the perfect supervisor;

Find a supervisor who is knowledgeable and who understands the nature of PhD work - Every supervisory team should have at least one person on it who has supervised doctoral students to completion before. This is important because it shows you that they understand the quality and standard expected from a PhD and suggests (but doesn't guarantee) that you can have some trust in their judgement. It's helpful if you can have a supervisor that has some expertise in your field or your chosen methodology but ensure that they are open enough to respect your ideas and planned approach to your thesis otherwise you will just end up replicating their PhD (which, incidentally, it might be a good idea to skim read if you can get hold of it to get a feel for their standards of writing and ideological position and also allows you to giggle at the things they got wrong).

Make sure that they have enough time for you - Talk to the doctoral students they already supervise, if they tell you that it's difficult to pin them down for appointments or, worse, if they make appointments then cancel them regularly then approach with the utmost caution! You want someone who will read your work, comment on it intelligently and help you through the process, not someone who 'collects' students to supervise because it makes them look important.

Consider some professional supervision (as well as academic) - If the focus of your doctoral study is around your professional environment you might benefit from asking some one from you work place to contribute to the supervision process. If your supervisor is methodologically sound but doesn't have a lot of insight into your clinical or work based reality then a supervisory 'buddy' at work can really help. This person doesn't necessarily need to have a PhD, they just need to be expert in their/your field and someone you respect.

Find someone with whom you can get on - Most importantly you must be able to get on with whoever ends up as your supervisor.  This should not be a surprise, this is the person that you are likely to spend the next 3-6 years with so you need to have someone with whom you can sustain a relationship. Most PhD students will spend longer choosing a sandwich than they will choosing their supervisor, which is why lunch is often more enjoyable that doctoral study.

Finding a good supervisor can feel a bit like finding a needle in a haystack, you have to know what you are looking for, rummage around a lot and... erm, if you are not careful there may be bleeding? (I possibly should have thought this simile through a bit more). Most novice doctoral students are too worried about whether they will be able to do a PhD to think about how important it is that the person who will be taking the journey with is the right one for them but this is a very important first step.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Seven things you need to know when your partner is doing a doctorate

There are many useful books and websites that outline to the embryonic PhD student how the process works and what to expect from there doctoral journey. However there is a dearth of sites aimed at telling the partners/spouses/friends/families just how it will be for them, this helpful blog post aims to remedy that.

1. There will be emotional instability; this may come early on in the doctoral journey when your partner convinces themselves that they are totally unable to do a PhD. They may be angry with you for encouraging them in thinking that they could do one in the first place or for not being encouraging enough. Or both. Often at the same time.  It may come mid-way through when the three thousand questionnaires that were sent out,  at great expense and envelope stuffing inconvenience  to family and friends, show a response rate of 1% or it may come toward the end of the PhD when coming home to tempestuous tears, incoherent sobbing and a three hour temper tantrum that appears indicative, at the very least, of massive family bereavement/trauma or loss of the family pet or the cancellation of ‘The Simpsons’ is eventually discovered to have been caused by the printer cartridge running out. You can’t predict when it will come; the only thing you can be certain of is that it will.

2. Sooner or later they will need their own space; I don’t mean this in a ‘I need my own space so I’m leaving you’ kind of way, I mean it literally. One day you’ll realise that there are so many text books and journal off prints in a specific order that ON NO ACCOUNT must be disturbed scattered across your bed that your only option is to sleep in the cat basket. This may be a time to think about finding space for your partner that belongs exclusively to them, it doesn’t matter if it’s a proper study, the cupboard under the stairs or a corner of the dining table. They need to know they have a work area of their own and you need to know you can turn over in bed without dislodging 3 months worth of important data.

3. Re-think what constitutes ‘romantic’; no matter how  much you have used fine wine, back rubs, chocolates and flowers to express your devotion in the past, nothing says ‘I love you’ like Tabachnik and Fiddell’s classic text ‘Using Multivariate Statistics’ or Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’. Knowing which expensive text book to buy and when will get you massive amounts of supportive partner points and fulsome praise in the acknowledgement section of the finished thesis. In extreme cases, it may even save your life

4. At some point your name and who you are will escape their memory; If this happens in the first six months of your partners PhD then you have a big any time after that, relax it’s quite normal. It just means that your partner is analysing focus group data in their head or trying to remember if a ‘p’ value of .001 is good (hint - it is, be impressed). This will happen more and more as your partner becomes more immersed in their studies so it’s probably a good idea to introduce yourself to them and remind them of your place in their life at the start of each interaction that you initiate (NB – especially important during sex). Take solace with the thought that this memory loss is quickly reversed once the thesis is submitted

5. Some one new (and possibly dead) will join your relationship; As your partner becomes increasingly obsessed with their PhD you will often find then with the sort of dreamy/concussed expression on their face that you recognise from the early stages of your relationship when you were both falling in love with each other. You may fear your partner is falling for someone else and your instincts would be right. It may be Heidegger, it may be Strauss, Spearman or  Cohen , but get used to it – someone else has joined your relationship and there is nothing you can do about it. When your partner talks incessantly about Martin, Anselm, Charles or Jacob don’t be threatened, yes they are important to your partner but take comfort in the thought that this infatuation will not survive completion of the thesis. Plus they are all dead which gives you a massive overall advantage.

6. You will learn new things; not just because your partners sole topic of conversation will be about their thesis – my beloved knows more about post-menopausal osteoporosis than any man in a non-healthcare related profession needs or wants to - but also because sooner or later many of the things they do as their part of an equal relationship will become your responsibility. Doesn’t matter if its topping up the oil in the car, filling and/or emptying the dishwasher, mowing the lawn, cooking, shopping, feeding the cat,  once they are in ‘the zone’ and furiously writing it’s easier just to pick up the slack yourself than risk the inevitable physical and psychological trauma (did I mention emotional instability?)

7. Nothing that happens will be because of you but everything that goes wrong WILL be your fault; sometimes you will feel that you are little more than a supportive spectator as your partner careers down the doctoral route but be warned – on no account allow yourself to believe that your non-participatory observer status means that you are exempt from blame for anything and everything that can go wrong throughout the 3-6 year doctoral journey. This will be hard but do not waste your time and effort in defending yourself or trying to point out that your partners PhD is grounded in field about which you know little and care less. In the long run it’s easier just to apologise.

I realize that this sounds as if the PhD process is a complete nightmare for the partners, family and friends of the doctoral candidate and this is because it is, but hold onto the fact that this is really, really important to them, you will be SO proud of them when you see them in their gown and bonnet at graduation, their career prospects will be enhanced giving you the option of becoming a kept man/woman and most importantly when it is all over they will love you more than they ever did before, even if it’s only to make up for the hell they just have put you through.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Using 'SMS' in PhD Supervision - The supervisors perspective

 I would suggest that there are two things that challenge most  supervision relationships in their embryonic stages. One is developing a relationship between the new doctoral student and their supervisor that is sustainable for a minimum of three years and the other is dealing with the questions that are important to the doctoral candidates but which occur outside of scheduled supervision session and can delay a candidates progress until a satisfactory answer is available. Lee Yarwood-Ross has eloquently explained one way to address these challenges is via SMS supervision
As a supervisor I think this is a great idea - the well documented phenomenon of cyber-space disinhibition means that a strong working relationship can be developed even before the first off line face to face meeting which can only expedite the progress of the doctoral student. Thinking back to my first meeting with my own PhD supervisor, I was so intimidated that it was difficult to get the boundaries of my own research articulated. This set the scene for all our subsequent encounters which did not make for a happy experience!
In addition, the middle of the night questions that come to all doctoral students can be dealt with in a timely fashion (although hopefully NOT in the middle of the night!). Sometimes it can be something really simple such as what literature databases to start a search on or the difference between a research aim and a research objective. A simple SMS can help enormously.
The only problem that I can see with this is that some (possibly most??) supervisors may be reluctant to hand their mobile phone number over to students. However, and I've made this point before, doctoral study should be a collaboration between peers rather than a pedagogic student/teacher relationship and should be open to negotiation. A clear discussion of boundaries and ground rules to support satisfactory SMS supervision that is agreed between supervisor and supervisee  can add another helpful dimension to the relationship and facilitate the PhD journey. 

Using 'SMS' in PhD Supervision

For the social media crazed PhD students out there (including myself), I have personally found so far that supervisory support via SMS/text messaging is greatly beneficial. It is quick, easily accessible and any excuse to use the Samsung Galaxy Note to its maximum capacity is fine by me (beautiful gadget). Some people may read this and think “why not just use email?” and I would argue that there is nothing more frustrating than having no Wi-Fi or internet access when you’re out and about and the need to reply to a super busy supervisor cannot be achieved *pulls hair out*. With the use of SMS you can normally guarantee some form of network signal and the communication between supervisor and supervisee can therefore be timely and harmonious.

I agree that technology in PhD study cannot replace ‘Face to Face’ contact with the supervisory team but I feel it is about what is appropriate for the area that needs to be discussed. Let’s face it, when somebody rings us, more than likely we rush to the phone (like the intro to Baywatch) and miss the call resulting in a voicemail that says “call me back”. When you call them back it then goes to voicemail *blood pressure rising*.  I have found small issues can easily be dealt with via SMS. The bigger issues can be discussed through pre-planned meetings.

I imagine that it would be useful if someone could invent an ‘out of office’ tool for the use of SMS as currently I believe we have one of two things in the world; no reply = I am busy or don’t want to talk to you; or the little box you can tick in your settings that lets you know when the message has been successfully received by the recipient and you sit waiting for a response with baited breathe!

Someone said to me recently that the use of SMS has resulted in a loss of spoken human communication and the rapport with the supervisory team can become fragmented; but in my experience so far this is not the case. I think what is most important is discussing at the beginning of your studies how the ‘supervisee’ wants supervision to occur and in what form. Some prefer the use of social media and some do not but if we add the use of SMS to our communication toolkit, it will only have a positive impact on the doctoral research.

One needs to be cautious though that they check their contractual message allowance as no PhD student wants the horror of paying out a humongous bill at the end of the month especially with the small amount of pennies in the bank account. I would also stress that users be aware of the character allowance in their SMS as I have noticed that if you type too much in one SMS it will convert to MMS resulting in an unexpected charge! However this can be resolved through splitting messages into two and it doesn’t take an academic to work that one out!

Reap the benefits of all forms of communication is my opinion and SMS is only one of them. Please be sure though to rest your fingers and eyes as much as possible, text induced finger ‘ache’ and headache is a killer!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Keep it short!

 People seem to struggle with developing a research question and this struggle seems to get harder rather than easier the more advanced the degree. So, whilst undergraduates may think for a week or two about what they want to investigate, doctoral students tend to take months (or in some cases, years - yes Dr Fiona Duncan I'm looking at you!) before a simple, understandable research question is arrived at. This could be because many academics and students work on the theory that the cleverer something is the more complex and incomprehensible it has to be. I disagree - after all the most crucial questions in life are often the shortest - 'will you go out with me?',  'how can I help?' 'Is everything OK?' ''Do you want fries with that?' Even the BIG topics start with small questions 'Is there a God?' 'When will we understand the universe?' 'Why are doughnuts so yummy?' It seems as if the more important the question the more likely it  is that it can be communicated as a twitter message in 140 characters or less.
Big answers don't necessarily require big questions - just thoughtful ones