The last four weeks of my life have been rather hectic, so I’m giving you a whistle-stop tour of the last four themes from the “How to Survive your PhD” MOOC (#survivephd15 on Twitter), which ran across ten weeks and which I’ve periodically reported on here. The latest themes were: curiosity, confusion, boredom and love.
I’ll start with a confession: the idea of investing my time in the theme of “boredom” rather annoyed me as I’ve been super busy, but read on to find out how important, and actually interesting it is!
As an aside, I finally figured out what I needed to do to send love hearts during the live chats, but I never actually sent any: you need to have a Periscope app installed on a smart device, and then watch the chat on Periscope itself. I do everything at my desktop so that didn’t work for me: I’ll just have to live with my disappointment at failing to participate in this way!
The course material includes a look at literature reviews, and how we define disciplines: the PhD student is obviously learning a discipline, so how is this achieved, without the need to read everything ever written and without stifling curiosity? The supervisor’s guidance seems really key.
The livechat covered all sorts of issues, from the importance of passion, to knowing when to stop. Some of the links sent out on Twitter, about how to be a great student, sounded really useful and the forum discussion included advice such as “if you have to ask whether to or not to do a PhD, then the answer is no” (because of the dedication required). Some folks have apparently taken a more pragmatic approach because they are interested in the qualification rather than the topic, but they seem to be the exception.
The livechat also asked “How much is enough, when it comes to reading or research?” There was no neat answer, but it seems that there is always more to read, and we have to acknowledge that there are limits, even if we do use skim reading techniques to maximise our reading. As a librarian by background and at heart, I loved the Thesis Whisperer’s comments about how much you can learn from a librarian. PhD students should learn how to track citations and interpret various bibliometrics, as well as how to set up alerts and use searches and alerts from within a reference management tool. Librarians can show you how to do all of this much more quickly than you will learn by yourself, not least because each database is different, and you will need to access them via your University’s sign-in.
There was much, much more, of course, but this is my whistle-stop tour of four themes, so I must move on!
In the course materials, we learnt about just how common and how valuable confusion can be, considering: what is a threshold concept, and how does a liminal state help us? Learning strategies are important: synthesis may help us to begin to see things with a new understanding, or using mimicry until we have learnt mastery.
The recorded livechat was helpful, as always, for those of us catching up at a later date. I loved the notion that, when you’re given revisions, you just have to “bite the bullet” and make the revisions suggested because you are not always right! Finding a way to manage information overload is important, and there were lots of tips on how to stay organised, including good note-taking practice and the importance of learning from each other. Easybib and Quickcite were recommended, amongst other tools, and there were a lot of reference management tools mentioned (Mendeley, EndNote, Zotero, Papers, to name a few) including some frustration and trauma with those tools.
Billed as the most interesting module in the previous week’s livechat, but with such an uninspiring title, I didn’t know what to expect of this module. Once it began and I realised that it incorporated my old frenemy “procrastination”, I became more interested! The course material included a look at different types of boredom, and the factors that exacerbate it (also referred to as “risk factors”). These are really worth knowing about, along with the “signs of boredom” in a research student. The difference between transient and existential boredom seems to be an important theme; they each need to be tackled in a different way. A great TEDx video made the case for the value of boredom. It also highlighted the importance of time out, which can contribute to our wellbeing and our creativity.
The livechat pointed out that the PhD gets boring towards the end of the three years, and described boredom during data collection, with avoidance activities. Some participants tried to be bored during the course! I reflected that doing things slowly is a good way to allow your brain time to do its own thing, while not being completely bored. However, the danger with my do-things-slowly approach is that it’s a slippery slope from slow to procrastination! The advice in the livechat is to limit the time you allow yourself to spend on your procrastination: this is sound advice. Deadlines help you to manage boredom, forcing you to focus on end goals so that you can move on to do something more interesting. I also recommend monitoring how much time you have spent on your activity, so that you can be honest with yourself about whether or not it is procrastination.
Passion for your research is an obvious way to interpret this theme, and the module begins with a look at such passion, but also a look at the love for a discipline and stewardship of it. I like the notion that stewards “ensure that their communities ask the most interesting and important questions”, as well as an emphasis on quality and communication. Also that librarians are amongst those stewarding the research community, for they “negotiate the availability of a journal”. That is true in so many ways: not just the negotiation over price with publishers, but also in the selection and development of technology and the development of the broader information sector. Many librarians contribute to publisher advisory boards, offer graduate traineeships to young professionals, and/or mentor them through their qualifications, and of course many contribute to professional conferences and publications, which set directions for the academic library of the future. (I’ll plug a recent piece by librarian Elizabeth Gadd on the LSE blog as an example!)
As the livechat identified, the discussion forums for this theme were a lot more pleasant and comfortable reading than in previous weeks, where some participants were exploring difficulties. This time, we got a chance to say thanks and to acknowledge all the good stuff in our lives, especially the inanimate objects. I think it is bizarre to treat inanimate objects as living beings, but I confess that I did it a lot as child, and I must admit that it does us good to know what we rely on, and how the objects in our lives are supportive to us (or not, so we can declutter!).
Well, that’s two confessions in one blogpost: quite enough! Did I tell you that I’m a librarian? No doubt you noticed the bias here, and of course this is the Piirus blog, so I’ll remind you that as a member of Piirus you can find connections to boost your curiosity, help you into and out of confusion(!), provide a contrast from boredom and to remind you how great the research community is. Now I’d better finish here so that I can try to get on with my assignment: 12th Nov is the deadline!