Thursday, April 10, 2014

All you can tweet

I have just spent a week at a highly regarded international research conference. A conference which like many these days actively encourages delegates to use twitter  by providing a conference specific hashtag (#)to share their thoughts and opinions with other conference delegates and the wider  community. An overseas colleague of mine opened the conference with an excellent keynote presentation on nursing resilience which was research based, international in perspective and initiated a lot of discussion...or it would have had her time not been cut short to allow someone else to have the floor to present on a topic which the speaker themselves acknowledged would only be relevant to UK delegates (although I would debate that had the speaker made more of an effort to internationalise their remarks)

So, in the Twitter spirit of open debate I tweeted a mild criticism along the lines of

 'Excellent keynote from @***. Shame it was curtailed to accommodate another speaker'

Fairly innocuous I think you will agree, so imagine my surprise when this tweet was removed from the twitter wall that was providing an overview of the all tweets that were using the conference hashtag - I had been censored!

I have to say that this is not the first time this has happened to me at this conference a similar thing occurred last year, when I pointed out that it was quite rude to refer to three out of four nominees for a prestigious PhD award as 'Dr' and the fourth merely by her first name. I remain puzzled by the fact  that a conference which exists to promote discussion and debate is so insecure that it feels the need to remove the mildest dissent from the twitter stream available to delegates. I am against twitter trolling as much as the next girl but is hard to see the offence in this gentle criticism and I would have welcomed any debate it may have inspired.

I guess the message is dissent and risk being censored or be undefatigably sweet and positive, toe the conference party line and be retweeted to your hearts content.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Adventures in academia: My first few months as a research student

I have been searching for the right words to describe my first few months of being a research student, dear Research Zebra reader. It certainly has been an ADVENTURE IN ACADEMIA, full of puzzles, twists and turns, and unexpected insightful joyous ‘eureka’ moments, usually following extended periods being buried in literature.

Recently I went to ‘Go Ape’, which is an outdoor pursuit where you get to monkey around (even the grown-ups!) doing a rope-orientated obstacle course. It is set high off the ground from the forest floor. Needless to say fear or heights or not, it is at first a little scary.

Doing this grown up obstacle course, or dallying around in any such adrenaline activity for that matter, is a great analogy for what’s it is like in those first few months of a research degree. At the beginning there is the pure joy and excitement of, firstly, being accepted onto the research degree (hurray!) and, secondly, those first few weeks of being a research student. Discovering your way around the literature continues to be an exciting aspect of doing research for me, though it is qualitatively different to the experience of those first few intense weeks where you sit in somewhat unknown territory contemplating life, death and linguistic jargon!

It is not only the unknown nature of the rope course that draws comparison to those early days, it is also the leap of faith that surrounded the task of doing a PhD. I feel being a researcher hinges a little on fearlessness, in that you have to the confidence that you CAN find ways to overcome the various challenges that present themselves to you. The bit of the ‘Go Ape’ experience that was more than a little similar to this was the zip-wire moments, which required I step off the high-up treetop platforms and depend upon the harness taking me safely to the distant wood-chipped landing area below.

I would argue the safety harness represents my supervisors, who support and guide me through the research degree, ensuring I do not go off track. (Naturally, a research student is far more autonomous than merely depending on their supervisors, though their role is most certainly invaluable through the process).

I can certainly say, dear Research Zebra reader, that my research degree has so far been an academic adventure filled with the thrills of embracing the unknown, both metaphorically and literally (for example, when discovering inspiring literature or wandering lost through mountains of past research!) I wish you the very best in your own adventures, and will ensure to send a postcard in the future when I get to my next landing point!  

Devina is exploring the everyday experiences of illness and intimate relationships in heterosexual women with irritable bowel syndrome. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

Never too soon...

Most PhD students would argues that filling in university forms, obtaining ethical approval, negotiating access to their research area and collecting data leaves then little time to be thinking about their viva - an event that may be up to 5 years in the future.

However I would argue that the best time to start thinking about your viva is the first time you lay finger to keyboard to write something (anything) about your thesis, and my reasoning goes like this -

You can be challenged on anything that you put into your thesis - A lot of students, especially in the early drafts of their methodology chapter spend an awful lot of time exploring various philosophical approaches to their work, discarding them one by one until they begin the defence and justification of the approach they finally used. This is fine, it's part of the learning process and a discussion about Heidegger versus Husserl may help you clarify your thinking about which philosophical mast you want to nail your colours to. The problems occur if you leave that in the thesis because then your interpretations are cast in stone and ripe for challenge. The one thing you do not want to do is to send your examiners off down a blind alley, focussing on how they disagree with your interpretation of Gadamer rather than concentrating on what you actually DID.

The thesis is a report about what you did, not what you didn't do. If something happens that means your research has gone horribly wrong, think very carefully about whether you want to include your angst into your final work. Will it add anything to the thesis? Will it clarify why you did something? Or will it mean that you spend a long time at your viva talking about something that did not actually contribute in any way to your final findings? For example, it may be frustrating if it takes 6 months to get governance approval from your participating trust but will a six page rant about that enhance the quality of your final work or merely make the person reading the thesis lose interest?

Issues like these are better kept in a 'jottings' folder or even a reflective diary. They are important parts of the PhD process, especially the first one BUT if it is in your final thesis the examiners have a right to ask you about it in great depth if they wish - so it is never too soon to start to take control of your viva by being intelligent about what you write.