Saturday, October 31, 2020

The PhD: Planning a literature review

by Charlotte Mathieson, PhD Life:

As you embark on your PhD, or indeed any research undertaking, you will need to produce a literature review. Not sure exactly what a literature review is, or why it is necessary? Here Charlotte Mathieson outlines the purpose and scope of the literature review.

What is the literature review?

The literature review surveys the existing work on the topic of your research. Its purpose is to provide the reader with the current state of your research field and to critically evaluate existing literature. The main objectives are to:

  • Summarise what’s already been done in your research area to demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of the field and how your research relates to it
  • Identify gaps, problems or limitations in existing research to situate your research within the wider field and create space for your original contribution
  • Identify sources that will be helpful to your research and, depending on the project, provide background context or frameworks for your analysis

The literature review is a key place in which to demonstrate research skills (finding and evaluating relevant resources) and to show the progression of your critical thinking in your response to this material.

The literature review is not:

  • A compilation of all material related to your research field, regardless of its relevance to your project
  • An annotated list of books and articles
  • A summary of material without critical commentary

Do you need a literature review?

In many disciplines the literature review is written as a separate section or chapter of your research, but not all subjects require this traditional format. Some disciplines have different conventions, or it might depend on the type of research project that you’re carrying out. You should check with your supervisor/department at an early stage of your PhD to find out what the standard format is for theses in your discipline.

However, even disciplines that don’t have a traditional literature review will require you to fulfil the objectives listed above. In these cases the literature review will most likely be integrated into the introduction or an early chapter in which you map out the research contexts and frameworks with which you are working.

You might:

  • Structure this as a historical survey of the development of critical perspectives;
  • Divide the material up by disciplinary/theoretical approach;
  • Start each chapter with a short survey of literature on the topic

Regardless of the requirements and format that your literature review takes, the objectives listed above and the tips on Writing a literature review will be necessary for developing the appropriate skills.

A helpful research tool

Whilst the literature review is a formal requirement of a research project, it serves an important purpose in your development of your research. It shouldn’t be seen as a tedious exercise to deal with as quickly as possible, or something to dash off at the end of the thesis!

Reviewing literature is essential in helping you to:

  • Establish and improve your knowledge of your research area and understand the importance of your research
  • Synthesise and understand a large volume of reading
  • Formulate critical opinions and develop analytical skills
  • Get direction and purpose for your own views: having something to argue against can often be the best way to develop a good idea into a strong and persuasive point
  • Keep up to date with developments in your field and new theories or approaches that might inform or change the direction of your research

For these reasons, the literature review should be seen as an on-going process that will help you to keep developing critical and reading skills throughout your PhD.

The Royal Literary Fund website guide to writing a literature review

University of Toronto writing help pages on literature reviews

Monday, October 26, 2020

How to listen — really listen — to someone you don’t agree with

by Tania Israel, Ideas

    Image: Avalon Nuovo

This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from people in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.

Listening may not be the most exciting part of conversation, but it’s essential if you want to have a meaningful exchange with another person.

Think about a time you felt misunderstood by somebody. Did you defend yourself? Correct them? Or simply disengage? Regardless of your response, you likely didn’t feel comfortable with them.

Now think of how it feels to be understood — you can relax, you want to open up, you feel more trusting. When you listen in a way that makes the other person feel heard, they are more likely to share information with you. And when you are actively listening, you are also more likely to take it in.

In my training as a psychologist, I spent a lot of time learning how to actively listen. I can tell you from years of experience that having a productive dialogue is not possible without active listening.

The 1st active listening skill is nonverbal attending

Nonverbal attending means giving someone your full attention without speaking. Here are some of the basics:

Keep your body open to the other person. Try to be relaxed but attentive. If you’re sitting, lean forward a bit rather than slouching back.

Maintain moderate levels of eye contact. Look at the speaker but not like you’re in a staring contest with them.

Use simple gestures to communicate to the other person that you’re listening and encouraging them to continue. Head nods are one way — just don’t do it continuously. Occasionally say “Mm-hmm” to communicate encouragement.

The final key to nonverbal attending is staying silent. But remember: You can’t listen very well if you’re talking. In fact, if you rearrange the letters of the word “listen,” it spells “silent.” I can’t believe it took me 20 years of teaching to discover this, but it’s a useful reminder!

Offering somebody uninterrupted time to talk, even a few minutes, is a generous gift that we seldom give each other. It doesn’t mean you have to keep your mouth shut for hours and hours, but I encourage you to see how long you can simply listen to somebody without wanting to interrupt.

Some people find the most difficult part of listening is not talking. There’s a deep humility in listening, because your focus is on understanding the other person rather than on saying everything that comes into your mind. Your aim is to understand and help the speaker feel understood, and reserve your speech for what moves you closer to either of these goals.

The 2nd active listening skill is reflecting

Reflecting means repeating or rephrasing key content or meaning from the other person.

A reflection communicates that you heard what the other person said. Rather than saying, “I hear you,” you show you’ve heard them by sharing back what they said. It also confirms that you have an accurate understanding of their thoughts.

If you’re a little off target, it gives them an opportunity to correct you. This can be useful if you didn’t quite understand what they were saying.

For example, let’s say a friend tells you, “I just came from a PTA meeting, and I’m so frustrated with charter schools! They’re draining money from the school system which is already stretched, so we don’t have the funds to support students and teachers. Plus, they’re weakening the teachers’ union. I wish the charter school parents would put all that energy into supporting existing schools instead of creating new ones.”

If you said, “You think charter schools are ruining the educational system,” your friend could clarify, “Well, not exactly ruining it as much as creating challenges for the existing schools.”

Now you may be wondering, “Won’t that be weird to just repeat back what they’re saying?” Or you may think, “They just said it. How can it be helpful for me to say it back?”

Reflecting typically feels more awkward for the person doing it — i.e., you — than for the person hearing it. What I know, and what’s supported by considerable research, is that people like having their thoughts and feelings reflected back to them.

Just don’t repeat them back word for word. Use fewer words and summarize rather than transcribe. I call this “nuggetizing.” Get at the nugget of what they’re saying, and say it briefly so you don’t interrupt the flow. Focus on something that seems meaningful to the other person; pull out an idea that gets to the heart of what they’re saying. You could preface your reflection with one of these: “I hear that you’re saying,” “It sounds as though,” “So….”

The crucial role of reflection is to help people feel heard, and to make sure you understand them. It’s more important for you to simply be present than to be brilliant.

The 3rd active listening skill is asking open-ended questions

As you listen, questions will pop into your head, and you’ll want answers. While asking questions is very appealing, they have the potential to interrupt the other person’s thinking, shift the focus to your agenda, interfere with connection and derail a conversation.

To use questions effectively, keep a few things in mind:

Always attend and reflect before you ask a question. Understanding the other person and helping them feel understood provides a strong foundation. If you haven’t communicated that you heard someone, they may not be inclined to open up to your question.

You might feel like asking questions is how you best communicate your interest. That may be true but if you attend and reflect first, a question says, “I’m interested in what you just said” rather than “I’m interested in your response to what I want to hear about.”

When you do ask a question to promote dialogue, it’s most effective to use questions that are open-ended and cannot be answered simply with a “yes” or “no”. For example, rather than asking “Do you think public charter schools should receive the same level of funding as other public schools?” which can be answered “yes” or “no,” you might ask, “How do you think public charter schools should be funded?” Open-ended questions promote elaboration and exploration.

Just as in reflecting, you want to keep your questions simple. Resist the urge to try to guide or impress the other person with your exceptionally astute question.

One of my favorite and most concise ways to ask questions is simply to repeat back a key word with an upward intonation. For example, if somebody says, “I just feel like the world is so dangerous,” you can say “Dangerous?” By using the upward intonation, the word becomes a question. It says, “Tell me more about how the world is dangerous.”

It’s important to stay neutral in both tone and content. Judgment and opinion can come across loud and clear in your tone. Saying “Is that where you’re going on vacation?” is more contentious than “Tell me how you decided to go there for vacation” (which is a statement that’s really a question).

It’s also important to think about when to ask your question. Don’t interrupt the other person just to ask something.

The final thing to keep in mind about attending, reflecting and open-ended questions is that these tools are intended to help promote understanding by developing greater connection. Connection is the most important thing.

So if the tools aren’t working in a situation or if you’re able to have connection without these tools, don’t force them. That said, don’t underestimate them either. They’re backed by research and experience, and they can help you to navigate the unpredictable, challenging waters of dialogue with others.

Excerpted from the new book Beyond Your Bubble: How to Connect Across the Political Divide, Skills and Strategies for Conversations That Work by Tania Israel, PhD. Reprinted with permission from the American Psychological Association. Copyright © 2020 by American Psychological Association.

Watch Tania Israel‘s TEDxUCLA Talk here: 

Saturday, October 10, 2020

The PhD: Confessions of a perfectionist

by Jenny Mak, PhD Life:

In the academic world, we can feel a lot of pressure trying to do our consistent best as PhD students, so much so that we might find ourselves getting stuck in perfectionism. Jenny Mak offers two tips for the recovering perfectionist …

originally posted on 01/08/2018

I am a perfectionist. I think I always knew, but I only saw the real impact of this trait when I was going full speed ahead writing my chapters towards my submission deadline. I knew I had to produce work for my supervisors to read stat because I was crunched for time. But I found myself tweaking sentences over and over again to get them to sound just right.

When I finally sent in my chapter and then got it back, it was covered in annotations, questions, comments—all which were perfectly valid of course, but which felt in that first moment of reading as overwhelming and even threatening. It is easy to go into a downward spiral from here, because you can start believing that no matter what you produce, it’s never good enough. But switching our perspective on the concept of ‘good enough’ from negative to positive can actually liberate us from perfectionism. How can we start doing this? How can ‘good enough’ really feel good enough for the recovering perfectionist? Here are two tips that I hope can be helpful.

#1: Perfectionism does not equal to having ‘high standards’

Perfectionism is having an ideal standard in your head, which is really just that—a fantasy. There is no perfect version of a PhD thesis, just as there is no right formula for academic success. Just because you spend one hour marking one undergraduate essay while your colleague breezes through them twenty minutes at a time, this does not mean you’re a failure for not being able to balance all your academic responsibilities perfectly. Everyone has their own unique way of doing things, so spend time trying to find your own groove. Maybe compared to that colleague who stays in the library working for eight hours non-stop, you find that you’re more productive when you have extracurricular activities and fit in your research in between. Maybe you feel better when you let ideas percolate a bit more before putting pen to paper, which is fine, so acknowledge to yourself that you work slower and allow time for that. Discover what works for you, embrace it, and do that. That’s good enough.

#2: Fail Fast

Letting go of the need for your work to be perfect is to accept that failure is part of the package. Oftentimes, sending in your imperfect work—I’ll let you in on a secret, it’s all imperfect—quickly speeds up the learning and revising process. This is because you are also roping in your supervisor to help you think through the areas you’re stuck in: two brains do work better than one. Also remember that you’re neither the perfect nor the only judge of the quality of your PhD. Your supervisor is one; your examiners are another. Ultimately, the PhD is a practical endeavour with concrete requirements for submission—a certain word or page count, a certain level of experimentation—and ‘failing fast’ can get you to that practical measure with the help of your academic mentors. Don’t pressure yourself to know everything. You don’t need to.

Hopefully these two tips will begin to release the stress that perfectionism adds onto you. I also found that Petra Kolber’s TED talk ‘The Perfection Detox’ really gets into the nuts and bolts of perfectionism. If you need a visual reminder and even a mantra of sorts, check out The Cult of Done Manifesto.

Are you a perfectionist? How has perfectionism impacted your PhD and research process so far, negatively and positively? What have you found helpful when dealing with perfectionism? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at, or leave a comment below.

Jenny Mak is a PhD researcher in the English and Comparative Literary Studies department at the University of Warwick. Her research looks at embodied experiences of globalisation in contemporary world literature. She has a background in creative writing, journalism, publishing, and sports training. You can reach her on Twitter @jennywhmak, or through her website

Image: pebbles-balanced-pebbles-water-2020100 / jplenio / CC0 1.0

Monday, October 5, 2020

As universities face losing 1 in 10 staff, COVID-driven cuts create 4 key risks

by Ian Marshman, Elizabeth Bare, and Janet Beard, The Conversation:

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a sudden and very big  decline in Australian universities’ revenue as a result of the loss of international student enrolments. Being excluded from the federal government’s JobKeeper program has forced universities to embark on immediate and sustained cost-cutting. Our newly released research identifies several significant risks associated with this approach.

Most universities have tried to reduce the impact on their permanent workforce. They have contained infrastructure programs and other operational costs, cut executives’ pay, reduced casual staff, frozen hiring and drawn on any available reserves.

However, 57% of Australian university expenditure was allocated to employment and related costs of an estimated total higher education workforce of 137,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff in 2019. Workforce savings are an inevitable consequence.

Drawing on media reporting of university responses to mid-September 2020, we estimate the financial impact of the pandemic at A$3.8 billion for 2020. We estimate overall job loss expectations for continuing appointments to be at least 5,600 full-time equivalent staff. A conservative 25% reduction in casual and research-only fixed-term staff could result in further losses equivalent to 7,500 FTE, or an estimated 17,500 people.

In FTE terms, the total loss amounts to 10% of the workforce. In terms of the number of individuals losing jobs, the loss is greater.

Two approaches to cutting staff costs

To date, Australian public universities have taken two different approaches to cutting employment costs.

Firstly, ten universities have gained staff support to vary their enterprise agreements. These universities have individually adopted an approach similar to an earlier national Job Protection Framework proposal. That arrangement failed to gain sector-wide consensus.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison
Being denied access to the Morrison government’s JobKeeper program has forced universities to cut tens of thousands of jobs. Dean Lewins/AAP

Enterprise agreement variations enable these universities to reduce or delay job losses by freezing salary increases and purchasing leave entitlements. While saving some jobs, some of these universities have continued with agreed voluntary redundancy programs this year and are reserving options for next year.

Secondly, 17 universities have taken a management-led approach. These universities have implemented voluntary and involuntary redundancy programs within the framework of existing enterprise agreements.

Of the remaining universities, one has signalled it is not anticipating significant workforce change. Nine are still considering their responses, or are in discussions with staff and unions, or there is limited publicly available information.

What risks do job cuts create?

Clearly, there is an immediate imperative driving most universities to reduce staff numbers. However, a COVID-19 response based on widespread staff reductions creates risks for universities. These include:

1. Inability to teach growing numbers of domestic students

Despite a decline in international students, some universities are reporting increased demand for domestic university places in semester 2 of 2020. A forecast decline in employment opportunities is likely to increase pressure on universities in 2021 to increase enrolments beyond 2020’s planned levels.

Across the board, voluntary redundancy programs are likely to lead to academic staff shortages in some discipline areas and loss of academic leaders. This could result in:

  • reduced capacity to absorb the increased demand for places

  • a decline in the quality of programs

  • diminished skilling of the future workforce.

2. Impact on research productivity

Reducing casual staff will increase pressure on continuing and fixed-term staff to dedicate more time to teaching and less to research. Research capacity will be reduced. Cuts to fixed-term early career researchers are an easy but not a strategic approach.

Combined, such actions will reduce research output. The result will be a decline in the overall capability of Australian university research.

3. Less capacity to reconfigure and rebuild to be effective in a post-COVID world.

Continual redundancy rounds and “death by a thousand cuts” are an undesirable consequence of many “bottom-up” voluntary redundancy processes. These are essentially tactical rather than strategy-led initiatives. They lead to diminished institutional capability and loss of institutional memory.

This is happening at a time that demands rethinking of the whole of higher education. This approach should include:

  • a greater focus on evidence-based and targeted cost reductions

  • investment in and development of new growth opportunities

  • an enhanced digital learning and student experience.

4. A weaker international market position

An inability to maintain current levels of academic commitment to research risks a slide in world rankings if universities elsewhere sustain their research productivity. This would reduce the attractiveness of Australian universities for international students and international research and industry collaborations. And that, in turn, would threaten future funding of higher education.

Universities have a significant role in the national and global COVID-19 recovery. They must contribute to the reskilling of workers and employment growth, provide educational opportunities for school leavers, research medical innovations such as COVID-19 treatments and vaccines, and collaborate in creating new industries and jobs.

This national role is threatened by an apparent unwillingness on the part of government to recognise and respond to the funding crisis in Australian higher education. Universities face a difficult balancing act to avoid cutting staff numbers so deeply that they lose the capacity to support the nation’s recovery, maintain international standing, drive innovation and discovery, and contribute to the well-being and prosperity of all Australians.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

The PhD: A, the, an or some? Articles with abstract nouns in doctoral writing

by Susan Carter: Doctoral Writing SIG:

Whenever I correct articles in doctoral writing, I get tangled trying to explain why, and often, like now, can only conclude that English is a sod of a language with tricky slithery rules that you simply have to learn and apply. Rules with English grammar do not always have an apparent logic. Those little prefixes to nouns, the troupe of articles, are as troublesome for many doctoral writers as getting journal articles published is for others.

It’s quite hard sometimes deciding whether a noun needs an article, and which one it might need. That is because many nouns in research writing are abstract, sometimes influenced by theory. It’s sometimes hard to tell whether abstracts are countable or uncountable, for example. This post grapples with the task of suggesting how to make those ‘to article or not to article’ decisions.

There are rules about article use that mostly work in straight forward ways with concrete nouns, and grammar book examples always use concrete nouns. Concrete nouns are very likeable because they are straightforward, words like ‘chair’, ‘dog’ and ‘lunch.’ It is helpful to know such rules, but I am trying to extend them to those troubling big abstract nouns, like ‘generalisability,’ ‘ideology’ and ‘viscosity’, that dwell in doctoral writing. And I am wondering whether some of the rules about article use contradict each other and that is where it gets challenging.

Rules about articles that derive from the use of concrete nouns

At risk of boring those who know this stuff inside out, because not everyone does I will rehearse that there are just a couple of criteria for choice articles with concrete nouns. One is whether the noun is plural or singular. We quickly learn not to use ‘a’ with a plural noun.

Other criteria consider whether the audience already knows what you are talking about because it is something specific. Nouns have names that give a clue as to when to use articles with them: ‘a’ is used with an indefinite noun and ‘the’ with a definite noun. If a noun is indefinite, your audience doesn’t know which specific one of its kind you mean. The indefinite term is general. If a noun is definite, then listeners definitely do know exactly which one.

‘A’ goes with indefinite, and ‘the’ with definite. On first use of a noun (when the listener or reader doesn’t already know what it is), we use ‘a’ and thereafter, when the audience knows which one we mean, we use ‘the’. I live in house. The house has two bedrooms. We cannot use ‘the’ on first mention—if I am asked ‘What sort of place do you live in’ I cannot reply ‘I live in the house’. We use ‘the’ when the audience knows what we are talking about and we cannot use it when they don’t—that rule is likely to be handy in academic prose.

We can use ‘the’ when we mean ‘all’, that is, when we are making a general rule: The dog is a mammal with four legs.  However, we also do not need to do it that way—another option is to use the plural with no article: Dogs are mammals with four legs. I prefer the latter version as it is slightly less formal and stiff. A friend commented that she learned the plural version as the ‘silent all’ rule, that is, there’s an understood but unstated ‘silent all’ before dogs. The silent all rule may be useful for doctoral writers using abstract nouns.

We use ‘the’ and ‘some’ for both countable and uncountable nouns. Could you bring the water and the apples? or Could you bring some water and some apples? Both work well. The nuance of difference is so slight here as to not matter. There is a slight nuance. If I use ‘the’, I’m implying either that my audience and I have already agreed there should be water and apples or that I have decided this and am assuming that my audience will agree with me, or be obliged to agree with me. Not enough to worry about unless you are in a situation where slight nuances do matter. ‘The’ signals something definite and specific, and ‘some’ any that come to hand. If in your thesis, you have already mentioned nouns, including abstract nouns, it’s slightly stronger to use ‘the’ rather than some when mentioning the same nouns again.

Are there rules about when to use articles and when they are not required? Well, this is takes you into a grey zone where decisions can be tricky; often when I suggest changes to doctoral writing it is around just this point. Some uncountable nouns don’t usually take an article: We chose icecream for dessert is a concrete example. And then, countable nouns don’t take an article when you are not being specific: We added strawberries. If the audience had already been told what was on the menu, then you’d probably use ‘the’ for both icecream and strawberries. Does that menu talk use of ‘the’—‘I’ll have the fish’—apply to items already mentioned in a thesis?

Turning these rules to the complex abstract nouns of doctoral writing

A colleague, Dr Jenny Jones, gave me material to help with this task. Harrison, Jakeman and Paterson (2012, p. 28) clarify very helpfully that you ‘don’t use “the” when you are generalising or talking about abstract concepts’. So if you are talking about research in general, ‘Research shows that…’, you do not use ‘the’, whereas if you are giving a few sentences to a specific research project, you would use ‘the’ to acknowledge the specificity: ‘The research also found that….’

An example of generalising nouns without articles would be ‘Theses by publication call for different writing strategies than theses that are monographs.’ Examples of abstract concepts without articles might be ‘Success following thesis submission is usual; failure is usually due to non-completion.’

Then Harrison, Jakeman and Paterson (2012, p. 28) rephrase the rules by noting that ‘the’ is not used with plural nouns when it is understood which particular ones you mean: ‘Readers find a lack of structure difficult to navigate’ would not take the article if it is understood you mean the readers of the thesis. However, they note (p. 29) that ‘the’ can be used when ‘the noun is followed by a phrase explaining or specifying which one or ones are being described, as in the example ‘The readers who have to examine the thesis are often working late at night.’ Grammatically, the sentence works with or without ‘the’, but putting it in also puts subtle emphasis on the specificity of which readers you mean. That can help clarity.

Jenny also shared a link to a decision tree that the Center for Writing at the University of Minnesota produced: it is hugely and practically helpful. And it acts as a good reminder as to just how hard it is to make decisions with each tricky incident.

I think these points help just a little, and yet overwhelmingly I’m still left with how difficult articles are in the wilds of doctoral writing, and how hard it is to define rules that are always true and that always clarify. I’d love help with this task if you know of other good resources or suggestions. Please email us if you would like to offer another post on articles with abstract nouns.