Even if you’re not taking part in this course, you can get a flavour of what it offers by watching the livechats on YouTube, and you can follow discussion on Twitter with the #survivephd15 hashtag or on Storifies like the one on Frustration. Here are my reflections on another two weeks of taking part in this truly massive MOOC!
Frustration with writingThe course material on frustration concentrated a lot on academic writing: the need to find an academic voice and how supervisors can help PhD students with that through their feedback. Yet it’s really difficult to give good feedback, and there are good reasons why supervisors are likely to forget how difficult it is for PhD students to write. Meanwhile, learning how to use feedback in a positive way, even when it feels like a criticism is a key skill for PhD students to acquire.
Our homework was to write feedback on someone else’s writing, even if you never send it to them: a really useful exercise, for seeing things from the other side. I think that the ideal way to give feedback is to refer to a set of basic rules of what I’m looking for, based on what the piece of writing is supposed to do, but of course those rules aren’t always clear when you’re trying to describe something that no-one else has researched before. The clearer a supervisor can make these expectations, the better, I guess.
Bad academic writing
The course presented Stephen Pinker’s video on Youtube, which has some great examples of what some folks call “academese”, and their translations, as well as explaining how we end up writing so poorly. He explains how we learn specialist vocabulary for abstract concepts and forget that others may not have the same familiarity with that vocabulary, so we’re not reaching them. He describes “the curse of knowledge”, where it’s impossible to imagine not knowing something that you do know. And finally, he outlines all the reasons why academic writing is such an unnatural thing to do, with lots more examples of common errors. My top tip from this video was: “count on the reader to fill in the missing hedges, apologies, qualifications, self-conscious remarks, and so on.” These things are my frustration when I’m writing book back covers, as the authors’ source material I get for my freelance copywriting work is usually full of them.
7 Tips on academic writing
I gleaned seven great ideas from the course and its livechat:
- An academic voice is important: it’s like learning how to wear the right clothes!
- A paper without references is like a child walking through big city at night: vulnerable!
- Learn how to generalise from specific feedback comments from your supervisor, and apply this generalised approach throughout your thesis.
- A willingness to ask your supervisor is important, even if you fear looking stupid: you are at Uni to learn, so have a go first and then ask for help.
- Try out SUWTues on Twitter or similar events in person: the Pomodoro technique,
- The “null hypothesis technique”: write all the reasons why your results mean nothing, and then writing the argument against that!
- Blogging can help you with your literature review: it’s a low risk form of blogging
Week 5 marks the halfway point of the course (phew!) and it’s all about loneliness. This is where social media and sites like Piirus can really help the researcher, to reach out and make connections with others. As someone who works from home, I’m prone to similar issues and yet PhD students must have it worse. My isolation is not intellectual: I can talk to people about my work on the phone, or when the day is done. I am not so deep into a research project that I am the only person who knows what it is about!
Another thing that can intensify loneliness for PhD students is a lack of structure. As I’m self-employed, I must also create this for myself. The management training and experience that I had as an employee gave me useful tools for doing this more effectively, and not all PhD students have such experience behind them. (Although many might: I was fascinated to note that “the average age on commencement to a research degree in Australia is 34.”)
Approaches to supervision: Lonely or independent? Loneliness or autonomy?
The perennial question for supervisors cropped up again: how much help should they give a PhD student? The notion that suffering is just a part of a PhD is explored in the course materials, and that teaching might be auto-biographical, if no professional training or self-reflection takes place.
Also, the nature of the relationship between supervisor and student is one that varies enormously: some interesting perspectives, case studies and practices from supervisors emerged in the course materials and discussion. I’m quite keen on a THE article by Tara Brabazon, which helps students to appreciate what they should expect from a supervisor, but also sets the bar fairly high for anyone supervising!
The course refers to Ann Lee’s five main approaches to research supervision, which a supervisor might use at different times. Here is my truly boiled down summary:
- A “functional” approach which is perhaps akin to project management or line management
- “Enculturation”: inducting the student into a discipline & community and acting as a gatekeeper to contacts
- Critical thinking: getting the student to question and analyse their own work
- Emancipation: what sounds like very light touch supervision
- Relationships: keeping the student inspired & enthused! A professional friendship, although power dynamics can complicate it. It might involve hiding feelings of dismay!
Read more in the book itself! Successful research supervision: advising students doing research
This course is really great at highlighting the issues arising from PhD study: for students and supervisors but also others who support researchers like librarians and professional development training providers. I know that I don’t have a PhD myself, and some folks might say that that means I’m not qualified to support researchers. Perhaps I truly am an imposter, but I could never have a PhD in every discipline! I’m qualified as a librarian and I’ve worked in Universities for 17 years one way or another, and I’m always learning from the people I meet and the development opportunities around me. And I think that’s the main requirement for my role.
We’d love to hear more from you about your research, or how you support researchers: we’re featuring interviews like this one with Vanessa Lao on this blog, so do get in touch if you’d like to appear!