Friday, May 29, 2015

Scholarly Editing and Networking

Image result for scholarly editing group
by Cally Guerin, Doctoral Writing:

There’s lots of advice to doctoral students about how important conference attendance is for networking, but not everyone finds this easy.

Personally, I’ve never been very good at bouncing up to strangers to introduce myself, or breaking into the tight huddle of buddies chatting during teatime at conferences, so can understand why many find this daunting.

I also used to think that the concept of “networking” was a touch grubby - as if it described the unpleasant schmoozing of people who were being friendly just to see what they could get out of others. Then I realised it meant making an effort to get to know your community, which changed my attitudes completely.

As well as conference attendance, one of the most effective ways I’ve found to network and build longer-term collegial relationships is through editing - by working with others on collections of essays.

It started when I was a postgrad and volunteered on the journal that was published out of my department at that time. I learnt a lot about what to look for as a subeditor or proofreader. Nick Hopwood’s (2010) article on Doctoral students as journal editors does a great job of articulating the value of non-formal learning afforded by this kind of academic work, and Pat Thomson et al. (2010) also develop related ideas in detail.

Over the years, I have also been involved in a number of book-length projects as a co-editor. Yes, it can be quite a bit of work; and yes, this work is rarely acknowledged by the formal university structures that measure output (such as the ERA in Australia).

Editing anthologies or collections of academic papers is usually unpaid, relying on the “gift economy” that remains a significant part of academic life (see, for example, Antal & Richebé, 2009). Yet I continue to do this kind of academic writing work because it brings me other kinds of benefits that feed into the rest of my work that is recognised by the institution.

What I do gain from being involved in such projects is the opportunity to learn a lot about current research, closely reading papers that I otherwise might not come across. It’s also a great way to hone the skills of editing and of peer review.

Noticing and articulating how papers can be strengthened forces the reader to think carefully about the research and the writing. Learning how to do this in a way that keeps authors on board with the project (and without the “protection” of blind review) is quite different from standard journal reviewing or providing feedback on students’ writing as a supervisor.

Through these projects I’ve also learnt much more about how the publishing industry works - how to put together a book proposal, how to market it, and how to target particular audiences.

But what I value most in all of this has been the opportunity to develop collaborative relationships with co-editors and contributing authors along the way. Working alongside others, doing something productive together, has given me a way of networking that builds ongoing relationships.

The people involved in one project may well suggest ideas for the next; others will pass on information about events related to the topic of the book. Gradually, a community of like-minded academics forms and shares knowledge about the discipline.

Of course, there is much that can go wrong in undertaking tasks of editing or co-editing. There’s the risk of offending authors by editorial decisions; of letting others down by not meeting deadlines; of insurmountable differences of opinion about how things should be done.

So far I’ve been lucky, and have perhaps also learnt along the way (or, more accurately, have been taught by my co-editors and authors) how to communicate clearly in order to avoid these sorts of problems.

Nevertheless, I’d encourage doctoral candidates to take up opportunities for volunteering in helping with editing projects, whether they are special issues of journals or edited books. There’s much to be gained from getting involved - a risk worth taking.


Antal, A.B., & Richebé, N. (2009). A passion for giving, a passion for sharing: understanding knowledge sharing as gift exchange in academia. Journal of Management Inquiry, 18(1), 78-95.

Hopwood, N. (2010). Doctoral students as journal editors: non‐formal learning through academic work. Higher Education Research & Development29(3), 319-331.

Thomson, P., Byrom, T., Robinson, C. & Russell, L. (2010). Learning about journal publication: the pedagogies of editing a “special issue”. In Aitchison, C., Kamler, B. & Lee, A. (Eds) Publishing pedagogies for the doctorate and beyond. Routledge.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Choosing the Singular 'They'

Image result for use of the singular "they"
by Rachael Cayley, Explorations of Style:

In this post, I want to talk about an issue that has been troubling me for as long as I have been writing this blog. Should I be using the singular they? That is, should I be using they as a gender-neutral pronoun for a grammatically singular antecedent?

In general, I have not done so, but trying to fix this sentence from a recent post forced me to revisit that policy:

An established Harvard academic writing a book is doing something very different than a new doctoral student attempting their first article.

My usual way to circumvent this issue has been to use the plural. But that solution - ‘doctoral students attempting their first articles’ - worked dismally here. Making the whole sentence plural sounded daft, and making only the second half plural upset the comparison. So I left it as it was and made a note to make a more systematic decision later (and to make it the topic of a post).

People with much more expertise can give you actual reasons for using the singular they without compunction; I’ll include some helpful links at the end of this post. I’m only going to give my reflections:

1. It’s necessary. We need a gender-neutral pronoun in order to refer to a singular antecedent without specifying gender. The phrase that I often need to use in my blog writing is some variant of ‘When a student shows me their writing …’. Up till now, I have edited such sentences to read ‘When students show me their writing …’. While this is a solution of sorts, I’ve never particularly liked it; I want to be talking about a single generic student, not a bunch of students.

2. It’s correct. Despite what you may have heard, it’s not incorrect to use the singular they. The decision is ultimately a judgment call: Should we use the singular they or might it be disturbing to our readers? Will those readers recognize what we are doing? Might they find it incorrect or excessively informal? My main concern about adopting the singular they in this blog has been one about reception; if enough people believe it to be wrong, I’ve worried that it might be an unnecessary distraction. I’m ready now to let that worry go.

3. It’s beneficial. Using the singular they solves a real problem and gives us important flexibility in the way we reference gender. We should do more than just say that he can’t be a generic pronoun. Even saying he or she - which is obviously stylistically insupportable - makes it seem unduly important that we identify people by gender. Given our understanding of the complex ways that we perform and present gender, it seems entirely desirable to enrich our capacity to leave gender binaries out of places where they are irrelevant. Of course, there are those who argue for an entirely new gender-neutral pronoun, one which could refer to a specific person without identifying gender.

Using the singular they doesn’t obviate this perceived need for a gender-neutral pronoun, but it does help. It may be that we will eventually say ‘Sam came to my office and showed me their writing …’ as a way of making Sam’s relationship to traditional gender categories irrelevant. Or it could be that a newly coined gender-neutral pronoun will emerge and take root. In the meantime, it is still beneficial to be able to use the singular they to refer to singular generic nouns and indefinite pronouns.

4. Finally, I can if I want to. If I see this practice as necessary and correct and beneficial, why not do it? In particular, why not do it in this space where I’m answerable only to myself? In the unlikely event that anyone cares enough to judge this decision, it won’t matter. I can continue to make decisions about this issue in other contexts as I wish. And I will certainly continue to teach this issue in such a way that students are aware of a range of opinions and practices. But if I think this usage is desirable and the main impediment is that it may ‘seem wrong’ to some, I think it behooves me to follow my inclinations.

So I’m making it official - this blog will use the singular they, as needed. I totally get that this is immaterial to all of you, but making the decision is a weight off my mind. If you are still troubled by this issue, I suggest having a look at the resources below. And, if you only have time for one, I recommend the first: Tom Freeman does an excellent job explaining the full range of associated issues on his terrific editing blog, Stroppy Editor.

Everything you ever wanted to know about singular “they”, Stroppy Editor
Singular ‘They’, Again, Lingua Franca (Anne Curzan)
Epicene ‘they’ is gaining greater acceptance, Copyediting (Mark Allen)
There’s (Starting to Be) Some ‘They’ There, Lingua Franca (Ben Yagoda)
Singular they, you, and a ‘senseless way of speaking, Sentence First
Dogma vs Evidence: Singular They, Lingua Franca (Geoffrey Pullum)

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Transcribing With Your Dragon

[This post has been written using voice to text software to show the results that can be achieved. Word corrections are typed in red. Where there is missing punctuation that is because I forgot to verbally insert it. Oops]. 
I'm writing this post using the Dragon dictation software. It takes a little bit of getting used to to remember to put all the grammar and in. Plus if you notice, Dragon keeps mixing up some of my words. However the odd mistake on 'and' 'in' and 'and' a are small things given the time it is saving me on my interview transcribing.
I decided to trial Dragon for transcribing because frankly anything had to be faster than my T-Rex style of typing. Sure I can do a basic form of touch typing it seems, especially when it is late at night and I can't quite see my keyboard because the lights are off, and I want to find the next TV series on Netflix ... but any chance of achieving touch-typing speed seems beyond me. I do after all have the dubious honour of being the second worst typist in my third form (Year 9) class. 
The advantages ... 
Dragon has the advantage of working with multiple programs. Even when it doesn't work directly with a program, you can dictate text into a 'Dictation' window then 'transfer' it (i.e. export the text) which is what I am using with Blogger for this post as the screenshot shows.
Using Dragon to transcribe interviews involves listening to the interview through headphones and parroting back what the participant says. There is a lot of play, stop, parrot, play ... I'm using Dragon with the free version of Express Scribe transcription software. Express Scribe allows me to have hot keys set up for play, stop, forward, and rewind, which is all I am needing to be able to control the recording playback. 
Using Dragon, I dictate into the that notes section of Express Scribe. When I am finished I export the notes into a Word document. Correcting mistakes can be done verbally, or by typing which I found was faster. I figure if Dragon didn't understand me the first time, let's not keep repeating it (admittedly, I came to this conclusion after the first time I spent five minutes trying to verbally correct a word).  
You train your Dragon to recognise your own voice, so sadly it cannot transcribe by playing a recording of the interview back. This means that it's not quite as fast as just listening to the interview.
However, on average a one-hour interview is taking me between 3.5 to 4 hours. I've noticed that, is as Dragon has become better at recognising my voice, the time is getting faster. 
This means that instead of taking several days to transcribe my two-hour interview, the whole process could be the done in one day. Not to mention the fact that it's a heck of a lot easier on my T-Rex typing fingers and wrists.
Training Dragon did not take too long. I didn't time it exactly, but I think I spent less than 2 hours playing and learning enough commands to get started. There are interactive tutorials available, but I found the quickest way to train Dragon to my voice was to read 2 of the available readings. Dragon also updates your profile after each use. 

By in Buying Dragon also wasn't difficult as it is all done online. Downloading the over 3 GB file takes a while, especially when you have several teenagers also streaming online TV. However, you can choose to get the program on a disk. I've never been good at waiting, so I chose the 'quicker' download option. Roll on kick it out on the needed figure town down he did Gigatown Dunedin! (Okay so Dragon didn't manage that last bit too well!).
Another advantage for me was that I didn't need to buy more hardware such as headsets. I am using the built in microphone on my laptop. I will note that I have a age HP Envy which has a single headphone-microphone jack so even though I only bought the cheapest Home edition (at NZ$122) the headphones seem to override the microphone input and I can do the play and dictate on the same machine. For a different computer set up it may be necessary to play the recording back on a different gadget. 
The disadvantages ... 
There are a few things to consider if you decide to try Dragon.
Talking to your Dragon for any length of time is this to thirsty work! Make sure to keep a drink nearby if you are parroting back an entire interview. I also found that dictating when I had a technique of tickly cough was not a pleasant experience, especially with a fan heater going in the room. 
This is not a quiet exercise.You are talking out loud so transcribing this way is not going to make you friends in a shared office. Plus there is the small issue that until you turn the microphone off, Dragon will transcribe everything you say. And I mean everything! That includes your conversation with the cat and that phone call with your sister and odd background noises or sometimes other people's voices. So not only do you need a space where you can talk, it has to be a quiet space.
Dragon is not perfect. You have to keep an eye on it as it writes text. I have also noticed that by the end of the day there are more mistakes creeping in, so maybe my dictation is getting a bit slippery slurred as I get tired. 
The Dragon tool bar can get a bit annoying sitting across the top of your screen all the time, but it is easy enough to close the Dragon window.  
In conclusion ... 
Talking and writing seem to be different thinking processes. I think it would take some practice to get used to using Dragon for an end tire entire thesis. To be honest, I don't know if I could adapt to verbalising the conceptual thinking that occurs as you type. Plus, remembering to add the grammar also takes practice. 
However, for transcribing, Dragon seems to be easy to use. You can get started in a very short time, it is faster than my typing and is much easier on wrists, shoulders and backs than sitting at a desk typing intensely all day would be. 
At approximately the same cost as getting an interview professionally transcribed, I feel it is a worthwhile investment, especially if you have a lot of interviews to transcribe. 

Why Bother Creating Postgraduate Groups?

Photo by James Petts |
J Petts:
by , The Research Whisperer:

The question of how to build a research culture occupies a lot of big-brained types at universities, at all levels.

PhD researchers want to feel they’re a part of, and can contribute to, a good one. Professors like to think that they helped create and grow a thriving one.

University executives want an excellent one yesterday, preferably bristling with national government grants, effective and fat industry partnerships, top-flight publications, and seamless higher degree candidatures and completions. Sometimes, they want this almost instantly.

Research cultures are complex and often fragile systems, and when you look too hard for specific components to engineer one, the whole thing can evaporate.

Can you force staff to be productive without having a good research culture? I think you can - but you won’t have productive or happy researchers for very long, in that case. Nor would you have particularly good research.

For me, one of the best barometers of the health of an institutional research culture is the presence and activity of graduate researcher groups and associations. Why?

Because if graduate researchers feel supported and confident in their institutional spaces, they are more likely to actively build their peer and personal networks, and be productive (this is true of researchers at all levels, no?).

For postgrads, these groups can lead to many opportunities for collaboration, a stronger sense of who their cohort is (disciplinary and purely collegial), and an enhanced information / strategy network.

So, what do postgrad groups actually get up to?

They can often be almost purely social groups that consist of regular gatherings and outings, drinks on a Friday, that kind of thing. And they can sometimes create and manage these types of activities:
  • Organising postgrad conferences or symposiums. These are excellent when they’re inter-institutional, and appropriately supported by the university (yes, I’m talking about money)
  • Reading groups
  • Peer writing circles (including providing friendly critique on papers or chapters). These can often be #shutupandwrite arrangements that merge with other postgrad groups
  • Getting representation on school or departmental committees
On this last point: I’d argue that through forming and participating in these kinds of groups, graduate researchers are also more likely to feel they can mobilise to speak out about issues relevant to their cohort’s experiences (e.g. transparency and access to conference funding, not being included in general school or department communications or events, conditions for sessional staff - many of whom may be postgrads).

Some university units fear empowering their postgraduates precisely because it might come back to bite them when the postgrad organisations start petitioning for fair work conditions around issues such as sessional marking or equity in resource/space allocation.

But if graduate researchers are passionate enough to fight for various issues, it signals engagement and identification with academic identity and professional concerns. I can’t see how this is a bad thing in the bigger picture.

Smaller picture, sure, there are some spectacular barneys that can take place at school meetings with the school and postgrad association on opposing sides … but isn’t that as it should be at times? Insight for each group into the other’s concerns is no bad thing.

For example, when it comes to the brass tacks of negotiating a marking rate, both parties need to know about departmental budgets, subject allocations, number of hours, and staff workloads. It makes issues visible to each side and, hopefully, this sharing of perspectives leads to better understanding overall.

My own experience of postgraduate societies is a very rich one. It wasn’t all sunshine and roses - there was backbiting and proposed coups, research area tribalism, clashing egos, and ennui. Much like academia more broadly, really! So it was all good in terms of prepping for life at a university.

But, seriously, being part of a postgrad society has forged some of the longest lasting adult friendships that I’ve got. There’s the solidarity of being in the same cohort of higher degree students and the recognition of others in your group.

Coming through an Arts degree, finding a sense of one’s cohort was almost impossible. I changed subjects every semester and had very few consistent degree companions. It wasn’t until I started my Honours year that I started recognising peers on the higher degree trail.

Even during my PhD, though, with shared offices and the postgrad rooms arrayed along the same corridor, it wasn’t that easy to feel a part of a bigger structure. I wasn’t necessarily looking for peeps to hang with - introverted, remember? - but I did feel disconnected from the general concerns of the department.

Being part of the newly formed postgrad society, its conferences, and other events, meant working collaboratively with many other postgrads who weren’t directly in my area (literary studies). It also allowed a generational transfer of institutional knowledge and camaraderie that I didn’t realise I wanted until I had it.


It has been over fifteen years since I completed my PhD, and many of my postgrad society buddies are now in my orbit on social media. It’s a totally different way of knowing what one another is up to, and most of them I haven’t seen face-to-face for about those fifteen years.

And it doesn’t matter.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Academy of Hellenic Paideia: Inspired By Children, Driven by Passion

The school’s teachers
by , Greek Reporter:
“Know thyself.” It’s an ancient Greek aphorism attributed to philosophy - but for the Academy of Hellenic Paideia (AHP), a Greek school program opening its doors in September, it’s a way of life.
According to the school’s mission statement, the idea is that “… by guiding each child’s mind towards what interests and amuses them, we may better discover and nourish their unique genius in an effort to help them achieve their fullest human potential; mind, body, and spirit.”
Located on Crescent Street in the heart of Astoria, the school’s approach to education is unique and innovative; and, for many New York parents who are fed up with the Common Core shift and all the state test prepping, it’s a welcome change. 
Students at AHP don’t simply “learn Greek;” rather, they might play instruments, discuss geography, settle in for a game of chess, engage in role play, sing in the choir, learn a Greek dance, contemplate philosophy, and spar in Pangration, an ancient Hellenic form of martial arts, where each command is given in Greek and attached to a myth.
All lessons are conducted in Greek and in English. The Greek language is always the star - as the students get older and are able to speak, read and write it, English in the classrooms is used less and less.
AHP carries an educational model that’s based on an interactive way of teaching and learning. The participation of students in what they learn, and how, is not only appreciated, it’s encouraged. The school is secular, and children of all faiths and backgrounds are welcomed, whether they have a Greek parent or not.

Leading this incredible effort is a woman named Demetra Varsami, an educator with nearly a decade of experience and several degrees to go along with it. She, along with Antoneta Varsami and Theodora Fiotodimitrakis, founded AHP.

Ms. Varsami’s passion for what she does is difficult to match. Her vision and adoration for the children she teaches is evident within a few minutes of conversation. She radiates knowledge and has an immense amount of love and respect for her Hellenic heritage and language, but views her role as merely a messenger. She has a gift for teaching and her job is, simply, to do it.

“Several years ago, I had the great pleasure of teaching a small group of children the Greek language alongside my mother,” says Ms. Varsami. “It was at this point I made two discoveries; first, that my true passion in life is educating children, and second, that the path to a meaningful education is identifying each child as a unique being. Thus, we need to inspire them, through activity and interaction, on a level that is personal to them.”

As Ms. Varsami discovered, the latter idea was not a new one. It was created thousands of years ago in ancient Greece, where it was known as paideia. Paideia referred to the upbringing and education of children. Aspects of this education included rhetoric, grammar, philosophy, arithmetic, medicine, music, poetry, and physical activities such as gymnastics and wrestling. Hellenic paideia is pursuing the ideal of excellence.

“It was at this point in my life that I became inspired to create an educational institution using these ancient ideas that are the basis for the entire Western society,” says Varsami. “I envisioned something more than a language school - an emotional sanctuary, free from the cacophony of the outside world, where children would not only learn Greek but also a philosophy that would prepare them for life by giving them decision making abilities.”

It’s hard to believe that AHP offers all this in an after-school and Saturday half-day program, but it does all that, and so much more.

Standing with Ms. Varsami is a group of engaged and determined teachers, most handpicked by Ms. Varsami herself. Their teaching styles and approaches vary, but the one thing they have in common is their passion for education and commitment to Hellenic paideia. Most of the teachers on staff completed their education in Greece and hold degrees from some of the most prestigious Greek institutions.

Ms. Fiotodimitrakis is AHP’s Early Childhood Curriculum Coordinator and Language Teacher and has created the curriculum for the Kingergarten students. Philology and language are taught by Ms. Vivian Triviza. Ms. Christina Kaglou is a teaching assistant who is currently working on obtaining her bachelor’s degree in education from HunterCollege, CUNY.

Mr. Konstantinos Doikos not only inspires students through his teaching of Pangration; he is also a gifted author and lends his talents to the school’s acting workshops and theatrical performances. A play is already in the works for the spring of 2016. These performances are put together, directed, and arranged by Ms. Ioanna Katsarou, AHP’s Theatre Teacher.

“While singing in Greek, we co-exist in a harmonious vocal ensemble and we create a treasure of rhythmic moments,” says AHP’s music teacher and chorus director, Ms. Alexandra Skendrou. “Singing enhances and reinforces language learning, but most importantly, while singing, we become one with Greek culture; with its poets, lyricists, and composers.”

Joining Ms. Skendrou in musical instruction is Mr. Yorgos Maniatis, a teacher with over 20 years experience teaching in schools and through private lessons.

“Being able to create and run a successful program as a mother and educator is an amazing gift,” adds Ms. Varsami. “Coming from a family of educators, it feels completely natural.” AHP definitely “runs in the family.” One of the teachers is Ms. Varsami’s very own mother, Ms. Antoneta Varsami, an extraordinary instructor in her own right with decades of experience.

Among the extra-curricular courses offered at AHP are a youth acting workshop, art, chess, embroidery, children’s chorus, an adult dance troupe or acting workshop, board and action games, music lessons, and a weekly discussion of the Iliad.

Those are in addition to the regular curriculum offerings: students have a choice of two 2-hour sessions on Wednesdays and Friday evenings, or one 4-hour session on Saturdays, starting at 9am. During those sessions, students engage in lessons surrounding Greek language, mythology, mathematics, music, arts and crafts, and Pangration.

The focus is always education, with none of the one-size-fits-all mentality that parents have seen becoming the norm in other city schools. Students are grouped first by age, then by Greek language knowledge. Classes at AHP are small, and children are looked after and evaluated during the course of instruction by their teachers to ensure that the class level they are in is appropriate for them.

When you’re a student at AHP, there’s always a lesson to be learned and appreciated. A simple conversation turns into a discussion of mythology and how it relates to what’s happening in a particular child’s day. Chit-chatting in English yields a plethora of words that are Greek in origin, and much spirited discussion ensues.

What might otherwise be plain classroom instruction becomes interactive; children learn while playing musical instruments, drawing, playing board games, conducting physics experiments, or constructing technological ancient Greek inventions. The goal at AHP is to make learning joyous and fun.

There are no time outs; instead, children are asked to leave the room in order to do what Ms. Varsami calls “self-reflection,” and they return to their classroom when they are ready. There are no harsh lessons to learn here - after all, AHP’s vision is to “create a better world by the active pursuit of arête (excellence, virtue, goodness) for all.”

AHP is breaking ground in a new location. There will be ample space for several classrooms, a Pangration room, and a room with a small stage and floor pillows, where children will learn, read and act out plays, mythology, and Aesop’s fables. Eventually, Ms. Varsami plans to add a full-time Greek pre-school.

As it is a registered 501c3 (non-profit) corporation, everything the school is and does is motivated by a love for children, for educating, and for learning. “The need and the want for Hellenic paideia is the reason I am an educator,” says Ms. Varsami.

“This is the continuation of something I began five years ago, that with the support of parents and friends has become a beloved part of our children’s lives. It is my honor and duty towards all these parents and their children to continue this work. I am grateful to have so many exceptional mentors and guides by my side so that we may go forth in this effort.”

Ms. Varsami and the teachers are looking forward to a bright future filled with the best they have to offer - an educational experience that is a pleasure for children, not a coercion. In this work, the school needs you.

As Greek parents, we all fight for a common purpose: to convey the Hellenic tradition from generation to generation; in other words, to keep Hellenism alive through our children. AHP is actively fundraising and seeking donations. Your assistance will help fund construction and purchase everything from classroom desks to pencils to cleaning supplies.

“Learning Greek should not have to be unpleasant,” concludes Ms. Varsami. “Children should enjoy learning our language, our culture and traditions.” It is, after all, about the children.

When Ms. Varsami started this effort, she asked her own son and daughter their opinions first. Their primary request? No quizzes. Instead, the children pantomime and act out the meaning of Greek words. In Ms. Antoneta’s class, she presents the quizzes as voluntary and asks the students whether or not they would like to be tested. “Every single child raises their hand to take the quiz,” she says.

Lastly, Ms. Varsami adds, “the goal is to inspire the great spirit that lies within all our children so that they may pursue life within their greatest potential and keep the ancient Hellenic culture alive for generations to come. I look forward to learning with you.” Registration began in mid-April and is on-going through the end of July.

The Academy of Hellenic Paideia is located at 25-50 Crescent St, Astoria, New York11102. To learn more about the Academy of Hellenic Paideia, or register for the 2015-2016 academic year visit

*Demetrios Rhombotis is the publisher of NEOmagazine, where this article firstly appeared.

Crafting Conclusions: Much More Than a Summary of Research

Image result for thesis conclusion
by Cally Guerin, Doctoral Writing:

Working with a student who was in the final throes of completing his thesis, I was recently reminded about the importance of writing conclusions.

This can be a very challenging part of thesis writing, particularly as it comes at the point when the PhD candidate is often exhausted by the whole process of the research degree, feeling under enormous pressure to meet deadlines, and even heartily sick of the topic.

The final concluding chapter of a PhD thesis is often surprisingly short - sometimes no more than 6-10 pages. Perhaps this reflects some of the exhaustion mentioned above, but it is important to remember that the conclusion plays a crucial role for the reader in reflecting back on the entire project.

Of course, in the case of a thesis, the ‘readers’ are the examiners, so this is a high-stakes moment for the doctoral writer. Mullins and Kiley (2002) make it very clear that it is dangerous for an examiner to reach the end of the thesis and feel unsure what it was all about.

The concluding chapter needs to make it impossible to miss the main findings about what this thesis is contributing to knowledge in the discipline, explicitly stating and drawing attention to the central message of the whole project.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, the conclusion needs to match the introduction of the thesis, like a pair of book-ends. It can be very helpful to go back to the original aims/objectives/hypotheses as outlined at the beginning of the thesis to show how each of the research questions set up at the beginning has now been answered.

Repeating those initial questions in the conclusion can structure the discussion in ways that make it easy for the reader/examiner to see that the research has indeed achieved what it set out to do.

Depending on the disciplinary conventions, presenting the aims or questions as numbered statements or dot points - as a kind of checklist - can highlight that each of these points has been addressed and completed.

In situations where the thesis is presented as a collection of articles, the conclusion is even more important in its power to bring together the findings of the project into a coherent, unified whole.

Even though each article/chapter has its own conclusion (sometimes this might be just the last paragraph of the Discussion section, depending on the requirements of the intended journal), the conclusion of the thesis needs to do meta-level work on top of summarising the findings.

This is the moment in every thesis to address the implications of those findings - the ‘so what?’ part of the process. What does it all mean? Why does it matter? Finally, after all that work, it becomes clear where the whole argument is going to end up.

In the process of reflecting on the overarching meaning of the research, it may be necessary to return to the previous chapters and scrutinise what has been presented there. Sometimes it is necessary to adjust the content or interpretation of earlier work in light of what is known at the end. The emphasis may have shifted for the overall project along the way, rendering some passages of writing redundant or others requiring more prominence.

There is a lot of useful advice on conclusions available in academic writing textbooks. I particularly like the idea that the thesis needs to end on a strong note. One exercise I like to do in writing groups is to look at the final sentence in a number of theses - sometimes a very illuminating insight into the state of mind of the candidates at the end of their projects.

The conventional advice for undergraduate writers often recommends that no new material should be introduced at this point. However, I’m not sure that the same applies in the same way to a thesis, as it is usual to include some speculation about possible future research directions.

Paltridge and Starfield (2007) have a very useful chapter on conclusions that I’d recommend for all doctoral writers (not just those writing in a second language, as the title suggests). They include some good pointers about identifying the limitations of the research and therefore being wary of how grand the claims can be now that the evidence has been presented throughout the thesis; the structure of field-oriented or thesis-oriented conclusions; as well as some valuable language tips.

Does your own experience match the ideas set out above? Do you have any other advice that is useful for doctoral writers in particular disciplines that is not covered here?

(PS: Yes, I think you do have to go a little bit mad in the final throes of writing a thesis! That obsessive behaviour of checking and checking and rechecking is all part of the experience … not easy, but I haven’t seen anyone avoid it yet).


Mullins, G., & Kiley, M. (2002) ‘It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize’: how experienced examiners assess research theses. Studies in Higher Education 27(4): 369-386.

Paltridge, B., & Starfield, S. (2007). Thesis and dissertation writing in a second language: A handbook for supervisors. Routledge.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Are You a Workaholic?

Are you a workaholic
(photo Flickr, thanks to Johan Koolwaaij)
Relax! (Photo:
Flickr, thanks to Johan Koolwaaij
Johan Koolwaaij/Flickr)
by Arjenne Louter, The Dutch PhD Coach:

Many PhD students don’t work, they overwork.

Because they have the idea that working more is better, they work so long and hard that they don’t work effectively anymore. And  ‘overworking’ kills creativity and you really need creativity.

Imagine this: everybody is like a fishing pond full of creative ideas. If you ‘overwork’ you will ‘overfish’ your pond. The time will come that you can’t throw your fishing rod anymore; you have depleted all your ideas and energy.

The cunning thing is though: at university you are encouraged to ‘overwork’. It is quite normal to make many hours, to work at home, to be available for your supervisor’s phone calls in the evening, to be criticised if you don’t answer your mail in the weekend.

Many employees at universities lose the balance between work and pleasure. And paradoxically, working hard is viewed as something good, it produces status. You can become addicted to ‘overwork’, even if you won’t get any result. In other words: you can become a workaholic.

We hear often ‘I am working, or ‘I have a deadline’ and we presume that we can use that as a excuse not to visit family or friends, or not to take responsibility for certain commitments. And also, often we don’t ‘overwork’ to get things done, but to avoid certain issues, like your partner’s feelings.

For many workaholics - or shall I say, for many PhD students - time for yourself and time for pleasure can be frightening. Just thinking about it can give a twitchy feeling.

How often do you whisper to yourself that if you would have more time, then of course you would have some fun. However, many PhD students use up their free time with more work. How much time do you give yourself to just have fun?

Once unmotivated and uninspired, PhD students avoid pleasure. Why? Because pleasure leads to creativity. Pleasure creates a sort of anarchy, an enjoyable rebellion; you will feel your own power. And sometimes that is scary. I hear often: ‘Maybe I work a bit too much, but for sure, I am not a workaholic’.

I have a suggestion for you: try the test below (which is derived from the book of Mark Bryan, Julia Cameron and Catherine Allen ‘The artists way at work, riding the dragon’) and find out for yourself. Answer each question with: hardly, often, always or never.

1.     I work outside of office hours.
2.     I cancel appointments with friends and family so I can work.
3.     I postpone appointments till after my deadline.
4.     On the weekend, I work now and then.
5.     On holiday, I will have some work with me.
6.     I take holidays.
7.     People around me always complain that I am working all the time.
8.     I try to multi-task.
9.     I make sure I have some free time between projects.
10.   I make sure I finish a project completely.
11.   I postpone dealing with the final stages of a project.
12.   I have the intention to start working and then start working on three other things as well.
13.   I work in the evening (time meant to be spent with family and friends).
14.   I don’t mind if a telephone call interrupts my work or results in a longer workday.
15.   In  my daily planning, time is reserved for an hour of creative work or pleasure.
16.   Pleasure is more important than work.
17.   I make sure my diary is aligned with those of other people.
18.   I allow myself time to do nothing.
19.   I use the word ‘deadline’ a lot to describe my workload.
20.   I always carry a notepad with me to write, and always have my phone on me so colleagues can reach me.

There is a big difference between working with zeal and a fixed purpose and working like a workaholic. You need to know the difference between working and ‘overworking’.

It might help you to register the amount of time you spend on working and the amount of time you spend on pleasure. Even one hour of pleasure and creativity in a week can really avoid the desperate feelings a workaholic suffers from.

An analogy: by not drinking an alcoholic becomes sober, by not ‘overworking’ a workaholic becomes sober.

Another tip: make a list of all the things you don’t want anymore, like:
·       Don’t work on the weekend
·       No phone calls with colleagues after 20.00
·       No more working on holidays
·       Don’t work in the evenings, except maybe one hour a week.

Put the list somewhere where you can see it all the time. And remind yourself that you are improving the quality of your work by not ‘overworking’. It won’t be easy, as other workaholics surround most workaholics, also in the universities.

New behaviour can be threatening for colleagues, so the first few weeks you are adopting your new work style it can be daunting or feel unfamiliar. To beat this: plan a short holiday (even a day) at the start of your new attitude towards working and do something fun, creative and joyful. This will really help you.

Bernie Sanders Just Introduced Legislation to Fund Free Undergraduate Education with Wall Street Transaction Taxes‏

Bernie Sanders (I-VT)
Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A broad coalition of nurses, students, religious and civil rights groups, environmentalists, labor and housing advocates on Tuesday praised Sen. Bernie Sanders's (I-Vt.) plan to use a so-called Robin Hood tax on stock transactions to fund tuition at four-year public colleges and universities.

Sanders introduced two bills on Tuesday in Washington, D.C. - one to eliminate undergraduate college tuition fees for students attending public colleges and universities while lowering interest rates on student loans, and the other setting a nominal tax on Wall Street stock sales and transfers in order to provide resources for jobs and healthcare for all, affordable housing, eradicating HIV/AIDS, and fighting both poverty and climate change.

Sanders told the Burlington Free Press, in his home state of Vermont: "The program that we're offering will be a grant program by which the federal government puts in $2 and the states put in $1," Sanders said. "Now, $70 billion is a lot of money, but in a nation in which we lose $100 billion every year because corporations stash their money in tax havens around the world, that's one way you can approach it."

"What we are going to be dealing with tomorrow is a transaction fee on large stock transfers," Sanders continued. "So we're going to ask Wall Street, whose greed and recklessness drove us into the recession that we're climbing out of right now, to start helping us fund college education."

Flanked by progressive supporters, Sanders said Tuesday: "The time is long overdue for the American Congress to start listening to the needs of the American people and not just Wall Street. This is not a radical idea. Only in a Congress dominated by Wall Street and big money is this considered a radical idea."

RoseAnn DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United and a leader of the Robin Hood tax campaign, heralded the bills.

"We applaud Sen. Sanders for this bold and far sighted step," said DeMoro ahead of the press conference. "Free college education, as many other countries already provide, opens the door for greater economic opportunity, reducing income inequality, and a better life for all Americans."

Citing "the irreplaceable bond between good health and economic security and social justice," DeMoro said the Robin Hood tax "is the perfect way to fund this program, as well as providing the resources we need for other vital humanitarian needs, including healthcare and good paying jobs for all, affordable housing, eradicating poverty and environmental justice. It is the hallmark of a civilized society and a more just nation."

And National People's Action executive director George Goehl added, "Income inequality is now at the center of our national political discourse, with politicians of every stripe recognizing it as a major problem of our time. What too few are willing to say is that we must demand more revenue from corporations and the 1 percent to level the playing field."

Deirdre Fulton wrote this article for Common Dreams, where it originally appeared.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Sexism, Peer Review and Critical Thinking

Image result for critical thinking
by Cally Guerin, Doctoral Writing:

You may have been following the furore surrounding the peer review of an article submitted by two postdoctoral scientists, Fiona Ingleby and Megan Head.

In case you haven’t read about it, they had undertaken a survey regarding gender differences in transitions from PhD to postdoc.

The review they received from a PLOS ONE journal has since become the subject of much astonished discussion - for example, see Retractionwatch, ScienceInsider and The Conversation, as well as the ongoing talk in Ingleby’s Twitter feed.

In a nutshell, the reviewer suggested that the two female authors should “find one or two male biologists to work with (or at least obtain internal peer review from, but better yet as active co-authors)” in order to avoid their apparently “ideologically biased assumptions” and that higher publication rates by male doctoral students might be linked to the idea that “male doctoral students can probably run a mile a bit faster than female doctoral students”.

Presumably, the reviewer believed that the comments were offered as scholarly critique; most others felt they were the product of ill-informed gender bias.

I’d come across this discussion just as I was preparing to talk to some doctoral students about critical thinking. It’s a topic that some students feel has been done to death, a regular feature in any kind of university preparation program.

Yet at the same time, it’s a concept that many students still struggle to understand, let alone perform in their own work. It seems to me that critical thinking is exactly the skill or competence expected when engaging in peer review, just as much as it is expected to be demonstrated when writing a doctoral thesis.

It’s fine to tell doctoral students that they need to “think critically” and to offer their own opinions on the scholarship in their field, to assess the value of what they read, and to evaluate the arguments put forward by other researchers. But doing so is not always easy.

Despite the issues raised by the story mentioned above, the academic journal articles students read are usually of a very high standard, having been through an appropriately rigorous review process. The point of that process is to assess the evidence and how it was generated, and to weigh up the claims put forward on the basis of that evidence on behalf of other readers. To some extent, then, the critical thinking of judgement and assessment has already been done for the reader.

The most useful approach to critical thinking that I’ve come across is that by Robyn Barnacle (2006). She provides a list of questions of the kind that we expect to see in advice about how to develop critical thinking (drawn from the classic handbook by Keeley & Bruce 1994/2007). But, much more interestingly in my opinion, Barnacle then goes on to broaden the concept to include the idea of critical thinking as generative, in that it creates the conditions for proposing new theories or ideas.

And perhaps most helpful of all, she makes the point that it is very difficult to be a critical thinker when one is a novice in the field. It is much harder to identify what has been omitted from a discussion if you haven’t yet read very much in the field; it is often difficult to imagine alternative points of view if you’ve only recently started to think about an idea.

For doctoral students grappling with how to demonstrate their own critical thinking, this can be encouraging and comforting in equal measure - it is reasonable to assume that they will get better at critical thinking the more they learn about their topic.

Barnacle also reminds us that becoming a critical thinker is a transformative process and changes who we are and the way we approach the world. Critical thinking should create scholarly communities where peer reviewers will not write the kind of review received by Ingleby and Head; in parallel, critical thinking should also provide researchers with the skills to respond productively when they receive reviews where “critical thinking” appears to be based on misinformation.

What have you found useful in developing critical thinking skills in doctoral candidates? What has been key in extending your own understanding of what critical thinking might mean?


R. Barnacle (2006) On being a critical researcher. In C. Denholm & T. Evans (eds), Doctorates Downunder: Keys to Successful Doctoral Study in Australia and New Zealand. Camberwell, Vic: ACER Press.

M.N. Browne & S.M. Keeley (1994/2007) Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking. 8th Edn. Engelwood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.