Dream account: from beetle to butterfly

Ok Freud, figure this out. I just had another weird dream. I am in my room tidying up. I lift up something, forgetting that there is a beetle which I caught earlier. It starts scurrying all over the place until it comes to my  bedside lamp. It stops on the vertical neck and opens up its shell. what then happens is a conversion into a rainbow coloured butterfly gradually but in a compressed timeframe. I rush to open the window. Then I grab to pieces of card. I gently toss the beetle-butterfly towards open window. But I am a bad shot and it gets caught on window frame and slices in two. Top half goes out, bottom half needs my help to do so.

if u know anything about psychoanalysis, what does this dream mean? Answers in comments please.

My conscious mind is already seeing the life and death instinct, with a final breakdown. Perhaps its the writing, cutting, rewriting of my PhD thesis. But it also reflects how I am shaping the plasticity and it is shaping me. it started of as something small, insignificant yet fascinating. Then one day it starts opening up to reveal something beautiful. I am in a rush now to finish and submit, but the thesis will always need me to develop it.

PhD, blogging and procrastination

It’s been a month since my last blog post, but it feels like an eternity. Furthermore, tweeting has gone way down too.  But I guess that’s what happens when real life takes over. Truth is, as useful and creative as social media can be, it can also be a major source of procrastination. A bit like talking on the phone with friends.

I knew that when I started the ‘Not a PhD Thesis’ blog, I was not going to put myself under the pressure of updating it every day. But I still managed to write something at least once a week, often more. Often, it was a way of taking a break from my PhD. And often it was a way of exploring ideas within my PhD and the application of theory to practice. So I never expected to go so long from the field. It’s been a month, but in internet time, that’s forever.

As I said, real life (well, offline life) took over. Soon after the start of 2012, it hit me that I in my third year and into the end game of my PhD. My plan, when I started, was to submit this July. As I’ve progressed, that date has slowly slipped back, to August, then September. In my fourth year, I enter the official writing up stage. For the first six months of the fourth year, I don’t need pay any fees. Given that I don’t pay my own fees but someone else is paying them, it made sense therefore that I effectively have until April 2013 to submit my thesis. (Otherwise, what they expected to pay goes up.) I am pretty sure that I don’t need to wait until next April and I’m not sure that I want to wait that long, so I am resolved to submit by December/January, which I think is doable. The only thing is that I have not even transferred/upgraded to PhD status yet, which I should have done last September. (Most of my colleagues have not transferred either but that’s besides the point.) Once I transfer, then I am can go for the PhD, otherwise I might have to settle for the MPhil – frankly, after three years, that would feel like such a waste of my time, not to mention a waste of my sponsor’s money. So the last two months, my only goal has been to complete all the documentation for this deadline, including writing and finalising two chapters. I finally got this done last Friday and I should be able to submit the documents within two weeks. Just need supervisers’ signatures.

I am now ready to move onto chapters three and four. The great thing is that I’ve effectively written half my thesis (not including introduction and finetuning). All of sudden, an 80,000 word thesis is no longer on the other side of a canyon. I feel like Thelma and Louise mid-air over the top. Yes, I know that we don’t if they made it across but that’s what faith is for.

According to the Procrastination Equation, I am an impulsive being. Blogging and tweeting did become forms of procrastination. They had more immediately fulfillable rewards plus, while it was important that I succeed, the expectancy that I would be able write 80,000 words was low. Indeed, the only way I’ve been able to force myself to write was by reducing the ‘delay to reward’ and ‘expectancy of success’ to 1,000 words a day. That worked to an extent. But, the last two months, not only was I focusing on 1,000 words a day, I also added an extra deadline of the end of March and just put loads of pressure on myself so that no meeting that deadline would feel like the end of the world. It also helped that at the time when I wanted as much time as possible to work on my PhD, I also got a number of opportunities to engage in teaching and this reduced the time available and added to the pressure. It was a both good and bad timing, because it forced to me to focus. So, having achieved my goal within my deadline, more or less, my expectancy of success has gone way up on two counts: word count and duration.

I can relax a little a bit now but not too much. I am still an impulsive being. So I have to find ways of overcoming it either. Fortunately, my most immediate research tasks is more reading and, since the weather is expected to be good for the next few days, I can decamp to the park. (Yes, I know, it’s hard life doing a PhD sometimes.) But that’s not always going to work, when I am writing up or researching online. In those times, I find that I have to schedule blocks of procrastination to get it out my system before I start work for the day, at lunch time or at the end of the working day, or sometimes I just have to resist.

The Procrastination Equation, as developed by Dr Piers Steel, is a formulaic and psychological way of understanding our dialectic nature as individuals, and the dialectic nature of the world. Catherine Malabou says that we are plastic – we can be formed by others as well as resist deformation. In other words, our plasticity (developed from the philosophy of Hegel) as individuals is our susceptability to change and our capacity to resist- or our propensity to procrastinate. It’s not just PhDs we procrastinate on but on everything we do or have to do – from paying our bills to tackling climate change.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that I will stop blogging, but it might be I don’t blog as often I used to. After all, I can’t stop my propensity to procrastinate, but I can make it work for me instead of against me.

For more on the above and other ideas to tackle procrastination, I strongly recomment ‘The Procrastination Equation’ by Dr Piers Steel.

Recycling: Information, not Incentives

PhD Graduates
Sometimes it feels like you need a PhD to recycle

For my PhD, I am looking at the impact of incentives on increasing recycling rates. So far, I have focused on Windsor and Maidenhead Borough council which launched the first incentivised household recycling scheme in the UK, operated by an American company Recyclebank.

Let’s cut to the chase. According to Windsor and Maidenhead’s own data, offering incentives – reward points to redeem at local businesses – for recycling does increase recycling rates. In a sense, this is not really surprising. Who wouldn’t want to be paid for doing the right thing? Particularly in the current economic situation, anything that helps with running a household can only be good thing.

And yes, the notion of incentives does recognise that we are not purely righteous beings, that we do have a selfish side. The problem with incentives is that it only focuses on our selfish nature, when the real barrier to recycling was that our righteous side is not being massaged enough.

According to the Waste and Resource Action Programme (WRAP), the problem with recycling rates is not that most people aren’t recycling but that most people aren’t recycling enough. Most of us are convinced of the argument for recycling, but we’re not provided with either the information or the environment that will help us to recycle, and so we resort back to what we know – the residual waste bin.

Today’s edition of Dispatches, the cleverly-titled ‘Britain’s Rubbish‘, provided examples of how information overload is leading to paralysis. There is no industry standard for recycling labels – seven were counted – and facilities for unusual types of plastic packaging may not always or easily be available. I know that my own local authority states that it cannot recycle Tetra Packs, even though the packaging themselves say that it can be recycled. And what about bottle tops? They don’t have any recycling labels, even though the bottle does. What do I do? Put it in the green bin anyway or throw it in the brown bin.

Another problem is food waste, where two-thirds of what we throw away is still edible. There are three different dates which appear on packaging – ‘Best Before’, ‘Sell by’ and ‘Use by’. The latter ‘Use by’ was found to be a conservative industry estimate, although this is understandable in light of health and safety – in fact, a lot of food is still OK to eat 10 days after this date. ‘Sell by’ dates, which has been the subject of recent government guidelines to phase it out, is more an indication to the supermarket as to when to reorder and restock.  And, of course, it is possible that consumers buy too much in the first place, under pressure from the array of special offers.

Without information clarity, it is not surprising that – even though we believe in the importance of recycling – we can find it a challenge to figure out quite which bin to put stuff in, especially if there are bins for different type of recyclable packaging. The residual waste bin is the devil we know. It has been argued that mixed recycling, where we throw recyclables into one bin, is convenient and the solution to contamination. The problem is that the sorting is carried out by machine and technology, which look for certain criteria, so things are always missed. Although self-reported recycling industry rates are 3-4%, the Environment Agency say that it is closer to 11%. While mixed recycling collections might help the government achieve the headline target of 50% by 2020, 15-20% of that may still end up back in landfill.

Mixed, or co-mingled, recycling may be convenient, but it means that councils are not able to profit from a proportion of what’s collected. In times of public sector cuts, they could do with all the money they can get. Household sorting or even kerbside sorting would actually be more beneficial for councils and their constituencies. But that can only work if the information provided is clear.

What I found particularly interesting from the Dispatches documentary is that mixed recycling collections could actually be illegal, because the EU’s own rules stipulates that separate collections should be carried out for different types of packaging. This is the subject of a Judicial Review claim at the moment.

Of course, the lack of information clarity can also become an excuse for laziness on the part of the consumer. In the documentary, when one woman with a fair number of kids, agreed to be deprived of her residual waste bin, she was forced to think about how she could reuse or recycle. In the space of three weeks, her residual waste went from 13 kg to just 5 kg. So perhaps the residual waste bin is like a security blanket. This raises a question about the government’s latest policy to provide a fund to help councils provide weekly collections.

Finally, in one scheme run by a charity, the residual waste was collected in a seethru bag, so that people couldn’t hide behind the lack of transparency of the black bag. In other words, concern about what others would think and peer pressure was a big motivator.

In encouraging incentivisation, the government is right to recognise that we are complex individuals who don’t always do what’s right. We are creatures of our environment. However, it fails to take into account that, despite our flaws, we still remain moral beings who want to do what’s right. We just need the right environment.

If a blog is a baby, am I a neglectful parent?

Baby‘Not a PhD Thesis’ is not my first blog, but it is certainly the one that has lasted the longest. Actually, my first blog was born in 1998/9. At that point, I don’t think there was anything like the web tools like WordPress or Blogger (or at least I wasn’t aware of any). No, I had to get down and dirty with basic HTML, a skill which has proved valuable since but of which I am a bit rusty. Anyway, that first blog, my eldest, was simply an online diary focusing on the last few months of my Bachelor’s degree. It was called ‘Pravin Jeya’s Corner of Cyberspace’. But after I graduated and once I got into the lazy summer, I just lost interest in it. So, I killed, I mean, deleted it.

For a while, I didn’t do any serious blogging, but that didn’t matter, because I was working as a journalist or copywriter, i.e. taking care of someone else’s editorial requirements. I think there have been a few aborted attempts using various other tools, but – to be honest – I just couldn’t see myself getting excited about them. And then I discovered WordPress. I think it might have been top of the Google search result. And I was impressed.

My second blog was not born until 2009. It was called Low Salt Foods. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, that’s an even worse name than Corner of Cyberspace. Possibly. Truth is, I probably could have been a pushy parent, because I saw Low Salt Foods as part of my plan to start an information service for people with low salt requirements. But once the blog was born, I realised that there was more to it than that. Anyway, it ended up helping me through a period of unemployment. Then I started my PhD and I got bored with Low Salt Foods. I kinda ignored it for a while but eventually got round to killing it shortly after Not a PhD Thesis was born.

I have to be honest, I think Not a PhD Thesis is probably the first blog for which I have felt any real emotions. And, it’s strange, but it has had a real impact on me as a person. I can see that I have changed in the 10 months since it was born. Perhaps it was the advice I received from an old school friend not to be neurotic about blogging, just allow it to grow at its own pace. The irony is, in doing so, I have felt a real desire and interest in its development.

Indeed, I have become more confident has a blogger as a result and I finally decided to create a second blog, From Tweet to Thesis. They say that the oldest child is usually a guinea pig, the one on whom stuff is tried, so that parents have a much better idea what to do if more children are born. But the amazing thing is that I don’t love one blog more than the other. Indeed, I even use Not A PhD Thesis (the oldest blog) to help look after From Tweet to Thesis (the youngest).

Now, I have to admit, I perhaps haven’t paid as much attention to Not a PhD Thesis since the second one was born. I have found myself worrying about the second one. But, contrary to before, I have not felt any desire to delete the first. That thought would be kinda disturbing.  In fact, the first blog has helped to promote the second blog.

I guess my confidence as a blogger has meant that I have ended up blogging for other people too. (If you want to see From Tweet to Thesis or the blogs I’ve contributed to, see the ‘My Writing’ photo album.)  Still, when I look at other people’s blogs, I realise I still have a lot to learn, but I guess that’s the best bit.

N.B. I am not actually a parent in real life, and is only based on what could be my single person’s prejudices of parenting.

Social Media as a Research Tool

By Dr Sarah-Louise Quinnell

interview in the mud
Social media can make fieldwork easier...and cleaner

I seem to be becoming known as a bit of a social media expert, particularly in relation to its application within academic research and researcher development.

So how did this come to be? Aftr all, my PhD is in Human Geography; my thesis examined the role of capacity-development initiatives in the implementation of multi-lateral environmental agreements in Africa – not a subject which shouts out social media!

During my second year, I had a few problems. I went down with scarlet fever so I couldn’t do fieldwork. Then, when I was allowed to go, my placement fell through. Furthermore, I had a supervisor who didn’t appreciate the concept of overseas fieldwork so I was left trying to work out what to do. But by this time, I had realised that many international organisations, including UN bodies, were using message boards and forums to engage with their target audiences/participants. This set me off on a two year experiment. I worked with a web developer to build a website which became my field site or hub around which my research was centred. It hosted a range of open source and bespoke applications in order for me to engage with a range of globally-dispersed participants.

What I found was that by engaging pro-actively with digital technology, I could significantly increase the reach of my work. I managed to interview people I would not have been able to using traditional methods as it would have been both too time consuming and expensive to conduct the interviews. Using VoIP and Skype is significantly cheaper than traditional face to face or phone methods, and free if Skype-to-Skype. Digital technology also enabled me to significantly increase my response rate for my questionnaires. An initial paper version of my questionnaire generated a less than 20% response rate. When I later re-sent the same questionnaire using a web-based survey tool, the response rate increased by over 50%.

My original site was live for two years. By the time I completed my studies, there had been rapid developments in the types of digital technology/social media applications publicly and freely available, making it even easier to integrate digital technology into the research process. As a result, post-PhD, I have been involved in a number of resources that illustrate how social media can be used in all stages of the research process and in a researcher’s professional development. I am also developing training courses to promote and support the use of technology. In doing so, I am not calling for the abolition of traditional methods. In certain circumstances, digital techniques aren’t practical. However, I do believe researchers should investigate what these mediums can offer.

Dr Sarah-Louise Quinnell gained in her PhD in 2010. As well as continuing her research in geography,  she is involved in developing social media training programmes for research students and researchers at Kings College London. She is also managing editor of PhD2Published, the founder of the Networked Researcher blog and avidly tweets at @sarahthesheepu.

Not a student, not quite staff

Being a PhD student sometimes feels like being in limbo (or, purgatory, if you are Catholic). Technically, we are students, in the sense that we pay tuition fees (unless you are lucky enough to receive a studentship) and we come out with a qualification at the end of it. But there the similarity between PhD students and the rest of the student body ends.

Now, I am going by my own experience at University of Westminster and my conversations with my colleagues, so I apologise if I am assuming too much. Unless you are assisting with teaching, it is unlikely that we will interact with undergraduate or other postgraduate students. Indeed, we will interact mostly with other PhD students or academics or researchers, the latter being paid. We are not required to attend classes or lectures as such, except for perhaps a few methodology seminars in the first year which might help us decide on a theoretical framework.

We don’t get “personal tutors”, we get supervisors – but we are not employees. Of course, it is our responsibility to manage that relationship. We perhaps have one formal deadline a year – registration in the 1st year, transfer in ideally the second year and final submission – but these dates are as fluid as the writing of our thesis. That’s not to say that those deadlines aren’t important, not least because it helps to crystallise the research done so far and to shape your ideas.

The Research Office at Westminster has often emphasised how we are more than just students, we are in fact trainee researchers who may or may not work in academia afterwards. PhDs are regarded as academic qualifications, but perhaps they ought to be seen as professional qualifications because they are effectively the minimum criteria one needs to be an academic researcher or lecturer. In that case, there is an argument that doing a PhD is akin to a training contract that might be done  by someone hoping to qualify as a solicitor or barrister or accountant or a company trainee scheme.

Perhaps universities do subconsciously recognise that a PhD student is not quite a student by the provision of studentships in exchange for limited teaching work. This almost sounds like a contract of employment. Unfortunately, there are not available to everyone. But the payment is for teaching work, not for being a researcher.

An alternative, unstudentlike name for a PhD Student would be Doctoral Researcher and this sounds like a good job title. Or one could go for the more professional-sounding Trainee Researcher. Either way, there is a case for making PhD Students into university employees, with a salary (that is comparable to a trainee solicitors).

But there are disadvantages to PhD Students as employees. Employees are agents of their employer, so the university could hold any intellectual property rights to research, unless a clause was written into the contract. Why would they do that?

Furthermore, being an employee would increase the financial and legal obligations of the university. Studentships are already hard to come by and they are offered within a particular research area. Surely offering Trainee Researchships would simply narrow the sort of PhD research done to what the university is interested in. It would most likely lead to the exclusion of people who currently have a greater degree of freedom over their research.  After all, why should university pay people to do whatever they want?

Plus, as employees, we would probably come under all the usual targets and the bureaucracy that one could reasonably expect. And this would no doubt undermine the current freedom that PhD students do have.

As much as I would love to be paid trainee researcher, on balance, I realise that being a PhD Student is also completely different to being an employee.




My Archimedes moment (via From Tweet to Thesis)

I have been interested in the origin of PhD research and I have started a new blog to collect individual accounts. Here is my first post, about how I came up with my topic. Let’s hope it’s not the last.

My Archimedes moment I came up with PhD research topic in the shower. Over the previous three years, while working as a paralegal, I was given the opportunity to manage my employer's corporate social responsibility policy. I am not sure why the managing partner decided to select me but I think it might have been something to do with that 'diatribe' about cars. Possibly, the biggest challenge was reconciling the tension between my colleagues as particular individuals … Read More

via From Tweet to Thesis

Is losing weight similar to writing a thesis? (via The Thesis Whisperer)

If there’s only one thing that you read during your PhD, make it this one. I found it to be the most helpful and motivating when I came to start writing up and it completely changed my attitude. The weight loss is a different story, unfortunately.

Is losing weight similar to writing a thesis? This post was written by Dr Emma Kimberley, research forum facilitator and Keeper of the Graduate School Media Zoo in the David Wilson Library at the University of Leicester. In this post Emma tells us some of the lessons she learned from losing weight and how they helped her with her PhD. In the writing-up phase of my PhD, at the same time as my word count was going steadily upwards I was trying to decrease another important life-statistic. I jo … Read More

via The Thesis Whisperer

Reflections on writing up (a chapter)

I always thought that my working style on my PhD was to write up as I go along. Since my superviser suggested a few weeks ago that I should put a temporary freeze on new reading and produce my first chapter, a theoretical framework, I have realised that making notes and playing around with ideas is not the same as writing up.

I know that writing a thesis is not about the number of words. But having 80,000 words cited in the university documents was overwhelming. Indeed, even having my supervisor mention 20,000 words or so for a chapter still seemed quite a lot. Then I read a blog post on how writing a thesis is a bit like losing weight – instead of kilograms counting, you are word counting. (I am sure it was The Thesis Whisperer but I can’t find the actual post. It’s possible it was tweeted.)

With losing weight, trying to go from, say, 87kg to 60kg is an unsurmountable task. But celebrating every time you lose 1kg makes losing weight so much more motivating. Instead of thinking “still got some way to go”, you think “I’ve done well”. But the important thing is not to think about losing weight, just live, get on with what you have to do and don’t eat too much.

So, with writing up, I didn’t think about trying to get to 20,000 words. I just wrote what I could. Before long, I got to almost 2,000 words. After that, I noticed that I was going over the 1,000 barrier every day – 2,000, then 3,000, then 4,000 and so on. So I made that my daily goal. That means that I can write 20,0000 in 20 days. That’s less than a month. All of sudden, it seems very doable.

Let’s just hope, by the end of the month, I will have lost enough weight to fit my first chapter under my belt.

Doe, a deer: the beginning according to Julie Andrews

I should add that the other challenge I found was knowing where to start. So I followed Julie Andrew

s’ advice that she gave to the Von Trapp children when teaching them to sing: “Let’s start at the very beginning, the very best place to start.”

I have also found that the act of writing isn’t necessarily linear. I have gone back and forth, fleshing out thoughts here and moving paragraphs around there. And, maybe this isn’t the right way to go about it, but while I have put a freeze on new reading in general, it doesn’t mean that I don’t actually do any new reading. In many ways, writing up gives a direction to my research that perhaps wasn’t there before.

The Evanescence of Philosophy

It’s been a while since I last found literary treasures in philosophy, which is ironic given that I waxed lyrical about the beauty of specific words that philosophers, including Hegel, use in their treatise. Maybe, something does get lost in translation from German to English, which turns out not to be quite a narrow-minded language. After all, you have one word ‘love’ which describes a plethora of emotions, where, for example, in Greek, there would be four words.

Anyway, in finally getting to grips with Hegel’s master/slave dialectic in The Phenomenology of Mind – which was surprisingly easy to understand considering the author – I came across the word ‘evanescence‘. It means “an event of fading and gradually vanishing from sight”. That’s how Hegel describes the satisfaction of ego’s desire. Sounding like ‘effervescence’ and its hissy sound, the very word captures the very wispy nature of that satisfaction. Anyone who has struggled with any addiction will know what I am talking about.

Indeed, one could argue that translating texts from the original language leads to an evanescing of the literary gems. It’s not really a grave robbing, more of a well-intentioned opening up that exposes the precious stones to the elements.

So, Evanescence is a perfect name for a rock band, in an industry known for fast rises and slow, painful deaths. Let’s hope they don’t live up to their name.

Have you come across any interesting words in your theoretical reading? Why not comment…

Imagining my PhD

Well, ok, sometimes I do sit and wonder what it would be like to actually complete my thesis, submit it, get my doctorate and get it published. I do imagine what it would be like to be a bona fide, published academic. But that’s not what I mean by imagining my PhD.

To be honest, it has become plainly obvious to me how much doing research is not just about actually reading books and reports, collecting empirical data and doing experiments. There have been so many times where making the connections and developing a theoretical framework has come out of doing nothing, or at least doing something seemingly unproductive and totally unrelated to my PhD.

I can remember instances where I am going home on the train, after a day of really struggling with something theoretical. I am thinking, staring into thin air – not the pretty girl in front of me with the low cut top and nice legs, stop it – or reading some novel and all of sudden I have an ‘Archimedes’ moment. No, it doesn’t mean that I run naked down the aisle of the train, shouting ‘Eureka'; I just found inspiration for my research in something as unconnected to it as a bath or playing with toys.

On another occasion, I came to grips with Hegel’s master/slave dialectic because I was able to make connections with a random news story about addictions that I read in the London Metro that morning. Sometimes, I have even been sitting in a sermon on Sunday, listening to the pastor teach, and instead of feeling convicted or encouraged about my walk of faith, I’ve thought ‘Of course, that’s what Hegel [or Catherine Malabou or Judith Butler] was talking about’.

In fact, I have become very much aware that my reading of philosophy has just as much been influenced by own subjective experiences and the enotional baggage I acquired before my PhD.

Maybe this should be a question, but I think these moments of non-research are an essential part of the research process. But, then it becomes difficult to say what research methodology I am using. In a sense, one could argue that I am using a dialectical method based on the synthesis of research and non-research. But then surely all research must be dialectical. I guess this is to be expected. After all, our brain doesn’t turn off, when we finish working for the day. Much like a broadband connection, it is always on. So, it can be argued that we researchers are always working. And, often, it feels like we are.

And that’s the danger. It is quite easy, because I am doing something I love, to overdo it. If we are doing too much active research, pretty soon I suffer from information overload. My brain can be like a call centre. At some point, all the incoming calls just keep getting added to the queue and no matter how hard the brain works, it can’t deal with the backlog. A good call centre, I have noticed, will from time to time post a message telling customers that there is a backlog and they can’t take any more calls and to try again later. This is why those periods of non-research are so important…it allows me to actually process the information I have received and to action it. This is the imagination.

1st Subscriber: Dr Sarah-Louise Quinnell

Yes, after nine months or so of writing this blog, I have finally got my first subscriber. And so the lucky winner of the ‘Not a PhD Thesis’ First Subscriber prize is Dr Sarah-Louise Quinnell. (Yeah, I was going to make the usual joke about being my first but, since she’s a bona fide academic – as opposed to a wannabe like me – I figured it might come out the wrong way.)

And so, her prize is the opportunity to massage my ego. When I asked her what it was that drew her to Not A PhD Thesis and why she subscribed, she replied:

I like to read a range of PhD students blogs. I am interested in what people do and do not share. It also provides a record of how peoples thoughts change and how, like yours shows, you start writing about one thing and then move on to another. Its fascinating to see how people’s work evolves and how they present it. I’ve become a lot more productive reading and writing blogs.

I like the mix of philosophy and religious based critique in your blog, even though i am not at all religious. They are very thoughtful and well connected. The one I most liked recently was ‘Doing a PhD: Labour of Love‘ as I can certainly identify with that idea!

The grat thing about PhD student blogs and tweets is they bring together such a diverse group of people who may not have met in real life and allow them to exchange ideas and thoughts which is fantastically enriching.”

Of course, it would be remiss me of tell you something about Dr Quinnell. She has just graduated with a PhD from Kings College London for her thesis, ‘Building Capacity for Bio-safety in Africa: Networks of Science, Aid and Development in the Implementation of Multi-Lateral Environmental Agreements’. She blogged about at The Life and Times of an Aspiring Academic. However, in the course of doing her PhD, she developed an interest in the use of social media for academic research. She is the Managing Editor of PhD2Published, a online resource of PhD graduates looking to publish their thesis, and she had just launched a new blog, Networked Researcher for the purpose of supporting and promoting the use of social media in academic research.

Dr Quinnell can be contacted on Twitter on @sarahthesheepu and @phd2published.

Literary treasures in Philosophy

Reading the work of philosophers that are over 200 years old (and dead) – in my case Hegel – is any amazing opportunity. There are so many things that are published nowadays – in print and online – so there is no shortage of contemporary writings and ideas. It is quite easy to think that anything written before, say, 2000 – with few exceptions – is out of date. When one enters the hallowed walls of academia to do a PhD (at least in the humanities), one finds access and encouragement to actually wallow in the ideas of people such as Hegel, Marx, Rousseau, Plato and talk about with people who are similarly inclined. (In case you are wondering I didn’t experience this as an undergrad or Masters postgraduate, I studied mathematics/computing science and journalism respectively, the practice of which has very little need for philosophers.)

Of course, as many people who have tried reading Hegel will know, he is not the easiest person to get to grips with. But, in addition to the ideas contained within, it is amazing the use of specific words – such as ‘sublation’. This week, I have been trying to figure out Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature, with a view to figuring out my theoretical framework for a PhD in environmental law. And, in the text, Hegel describes one of the characteristics of animals as “interrupted intussusception

I won’t go into the context of the word but I just had to look up the definition: “a medical condition in which a part of the intestine has vaginated-” WTF? Invaginated? Maybe, this just my (dirty) mind, but this sounds interesting. An invagination means “to fold inward or to sheath”.

Have you come across any interesting words in your theoretical reading? Why not comment…



Doing a PhD: Labour of Love

A number of married friends have recently been blessed with the birth of kids. So the discomfort and the pains of childbirth have been somewhat on my mind (although not in the same way). In a sense, I have been going through a pregnancy of sorts in the process of doing a PhD/doctorate.

The moment of conception of my thesis occured two and a half years ago, after five years of trying. Since then this life been growing inside me, and I have been living on a diet (or feast) of theoretical knowledge and empirical data. This food is not always easy to swallow and sometimes it requires a lot of chewing over beforehand.

Pregnancy examination
My supervisor checks the progress of my PhD Baby

As much as I am enjoying feeling it grow inside me and looking forward to cradling the bound document in my arms, sometimes I wish I just could get rid of it and get on with the rest of my life. This research does feel like a pregnant pause. But then, the baby gives a little kick, just to remind me that he (or she) is there and I have a flash of inspiration or Archimedian moment, where it all makes sense. Indeed, the gestation of a PhD is a series of Archimedian moments.

But at some point, hopefully a year from now, I will have to get this baby out of me and write this damn thesis. But, as much I can imagine what it might look like when I am lounging in the park, as soon as I sit down at the computer it refuses to come out. No amount of pushing and grunting. And now I just want an epidural (make of that what you may). I just hope it doesn’t cause any damage.

The freedom of the open (academic) waves

One of the best aspects about doing a PhD is the immense amount of freedom – freedom to plan my own time, to plan my research as I see fit, to decide (more or less) on what I read and what workshops and conferences I attend and so on. I have certainly never experienced such freedom in my own life before – even unemployment can seem like a prison – and, from what I hear from academics, I will never experience such freedom ever again. Also, as someone who is completely self-funded and not reliant on a studentship, I don’t have any obligations to the university. So what I get involved in is totally up to me.

And yet, there is such a thing as too much freedom. With my time stretching out in from of me like a boundless ocean, everything I do to traverse it seems so miniscule. Yes, there are days when the winds of motivation and inspiration have been pretty strong and, by the end of the day, I feel like I have covered a vast distance. When those days come along, I unfurl the sail and let the wind carry me and I get on with all those tasks that I have been putting off, with the occasional nudge of the rudder to stay on course. But, the truth is, I never know when those days are going to come along. More often than not, there is nothing more than a light breeze – or I am in the middle of the Doldrums. So, all my energy is spent rowing forward, and praying for the winds of change.

When there is no wind, then the sight of the endless ocean itself almost feels like it’s blowing me backwards. Now and again, I’ll see a coastline of some island – the impending deadline of a paper or university admin report or an interesting workshop or conference – and I’ll set my sights on that, because then the distance doesn’t seem so vast. I push back any thought that after the island, it will be back to endless waters.

But, you know what, I wouldn’t give up this adventure for anything – not money, not sex, not power, not even the opportunity to meet a real extra-terrestrial. Because, ultimately, I am like Christopher Columbus crossing the Atlantic. Every centimetre I move, every word I write, is a centimetre, a word, closer towards an undiscovered continent (or, more likely, island). I may still be within the geographic area of the map, but at some point I will get to where there be dragons. Then, I’ll place my flag in the ground.

Atlantis, the undiscovered continent? - sometimes it feels as if I'll never get to the end

Education and exams

So we are into exam time again and there will no doubt be complaints of how standards have fallen when results come out in August. I can remember that that was the narrative when I received my A-level results 15 years ago. But Rosamund Urwin makes the point that falling standards – if they can be proven – are neither here nor there when it comes to explaining the year-on-year improvement in results. The reason why people appear to be doing better than they used to is because of the pressure on schools to ensure that they rank well in league tables. Urwin wrote:

“My friends who are teachers say their profession now studies marking schemes obsessively and point to a greater emphasis in lessons on exam techniques and on showing pupils how to revise. Most are sad, thought, that secondary school has become so assessment-orientated, that so much focus is on league tables and targets.

Unsurprisingly, then, many of my peers describe their former schools as “exam factories”, churning out the As with little attempt to foster passions in a subject or to encourage wider reading. Some also felt so spoon-fed up to 18 that they were ill-prepared for independent study at university.”

I can remember my experience of learning A-level French. There were two particular set texts that we studied in French and the exam did involve writing discursive essays. But I think the teacher had already identified the ideas and themes of the books and the discussions we had stayed within this framework. When I put forward my own thoughts, I felt like I was shut down, not just by the teacher but by the rest of the class too. Now, perhaps, my thoughts were complete crap but there was no attempt to discuss them.

Indeed, one could say that the effect of the tendency in schools to train students to regurgitate from memory is longer term than the three years of a degree. I am finding that, while doing a PhD, my brain is automatically regurgitating what I read and I have to consciously make a point of thinking critically about the text. It’s not a skill that comes naturally, so I have to train myself all over again.

What makes a man?

I’ve spent the last couple of days at a conference for postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers working in the area of law, gender and sexuality. I was presenting a paper on the impact of incentives on the relationship between society and state. But the whole conference was fascinating – every speaker had something interesting to say. But I think this is going to be one of those events which could change my life.

One particular speaker spoke on research that she is doing concerning the treatment of children who are born intersex, that is born with genitalia and/or secondary sexual characteristics from two sexes. The parental response, understandably, is to push for ‘corrective’ surgery that makes the child into a ‘normal’ boy or girl. I found this presentation particularly challending because it went to the heart of  the most basic label by which I identify myself. Am I male because that’s how I was born or because I brought up that way? What is it that makes me a man?

In Genesis 1:27, “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them”.

This is often taken by Christians to mean that God created two sexes, male and female, and that, along with other verses, he intended for marriage to be between a man and woman only. Now, with sexual orientation being based on sexual attraction and feelings, I can see how easy it is to argue, rightly or wrongly, that sexual orientation is a choice. But, with intersex, we are talking about an actual physical condition which can be seen and touched. It is difficult to argue that God did not create people as intersex. In other words, there are people who are created male and female. So, I wonder whether Genesis 1 could be reinterpretated to mean than individual human beings comprise attributes that are commonly known as both male and female. If that is the case, then it is difficult to argue that marital relationships can only be heterosexual in nature.

Law Teacher of the Year 2011

This is just a quick post to say that my PhD supervisor, Professor Andreas Philippoulos-Mihalopoulos, has been awarded the Oxford University Press National Award for Law Teacher of the Year 2011.

Andreas’ thank-you speech really captures the dialectic that exists  between self and other, the fact that we are all in this interdependent relationship and that our actions affect others just as we are affected by others.

“When the nomination by my students came through, I was actually in Barcelona and it came through on my iPhone – to be honest I was extremely emotional! We never really know the impact we have on our students – or perhaps we know and we forget about it over time. Then suddenly something like this happens (being nominated) – people start coming to see you and it’s an inspiration. The more you inspire your students, the more you are inspired – it’s an inspirational experience.

It also shows that no matter what we do, we always make a difference, whether we are aware of it or not. So it pays to thank others for their contribution to their lives.

Religious recycling

I have just taken over a week off from PhD stuff. I worked pretty much up to 23rd December and my head was literally hurting. I decided that I just needed to take time off. And it’s been worth it. It felt like detox and actually quite relaxing. I definitely recommend it.

So I started up again today. I have spent most of the evening combing through the videos about Recyclebank’s incentivised recycling schemes on the Green Phd Youtube channel and compiling interview questions for them. Well, not really interview questions, more a questionnaire as that is all they could do. I hope it’s enough.

I was particularly interested in the following clip of a BBC Breakfast news item in which a journalist and so-called recycling sceptic praised the Recyclebank scheme as a “step in the right direction”. He approved of incentives because it moved the argument away from recycling as a religion and towards a better way to recycle

I can see what he means because, like going to church, sometimes recycling can become a ritual without really understanding what it is about. But, inherent in his hope is the idea that incentives somehow undermine social responsibility and morality.


A fortnight of firsts

The last couple of weeks has been quite bizarre – there have been a couple of firsts.

The theoretical framework of my PhD is based on a Hegelian dialectic. I have been really fascinated by Hegel in particular and the concept of the dialectic in general. In my opinion, the dialectic is a description of how the universe works, from social relationships to science to theology. The essence of the dialectic is the interdependence of contradicatory elements and thus of power and submission.

I suggested to my supervisor that a workshop on the dialectic method would be really interesting. Anyway, this month, he suggested that I could organise something. I was like, WTF! Actually bringing together a series of experts to present their research – for the first time –  seemed both daunting and exciting.

So I have been inviting people to speak at the event and I am just waiting for them to get back to me. I have had some confirmations, so things seem to going nicely but the biggest challenge is identifying people in the UK. I have messed up a bit because I invited some people from overseas without giving thought to funding – I have had to go through the embarrassment of dis inviting them. Still, I know for next time.

But that’s not the only first. Last week, I had the opportunity to present my research to a group of Masters students. Now I have presented to PhD students and academics but this was the first time I was actually speaking in the context of a course. And it was quite fulfilling, especially being able provide advice on research and essay writing. I had been reluctant about the teaching aspect of being an academic but now I think that its something I can do. Now I know for sure that I want to be an academic.