The last word in doctoral writing: mechanics of last sentence rhetoric

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By Susan Carter

In a recent writing class, we gathered the last sentences of journal articles that participants thought were really strong, and analysed why they seemed to work so well. This is one group exercise that focuses on the mechanics of language for rhetorical force, something that takes doctoral students into a healthy space as they develop their writing’s style and voice.

Group analysis let us define the rhetorical mechanics of what we liked, and why, so that those in the group could improve final sentences of their own articles. The group included people from STEM and non-STEM disciplines—we were well aware by this stage that there were disciplinary differences in preferences for academic writing style.

I’d reiterated the view that the last sentence of any article, thesis, chapter or bit of formal writing has an important role: farewelling readers in a way that is likable and memorable. Readers should leave an article or chapter convinced of the take home message, and, preferably, impressed enough to want to cite it. It’s the same idea as at any dinner party: both guests and readers need to be made to feel that they are leaving an event that delivered everything they hoped for and that the author-host has maintained trustworthy control right through to the end.

So what did we like as an inter-disciplinary group? Are there general strategies for meeting reader approval?

Short sentences with short words in them were recommended for their power. Rhetorically, they really did have a sense of finality. One last sentence, ‘Nothing else seems to be on offer’ (Young & Muller, 2014), had a gloomy touch of realism, but also shrewdly suggested that the topic needed more research without rolling out that formulaic suggestion: future research needs to be done. We liked the use of a common truism for the final sentence.

In contrast, another last sentence, to an article that looked back at history to precaution what could go wrong if poor decisions affected the future, met with approval for its large Latinate words in juxtaposition to the nostalgia of ‘lost years’: ‘When the definition of those years becomes lost, the public domain becomes obscured, and the constitutional premise of the law degenerates into obfuscation.’ There’s a poetic, almost rapper, rhythm that had appeal.

We were strongly attracted to sentences using well-chosen verbs with connotative power. We liked ‘New ideas about the mind and brain will redraw our knowledge about autism and will ultimately lead to a better understanding of ourselves for its suggestion that knowledge can be drawn, perhaps mapped, especially in relation to something as complex as how the mind works. And we noted the inclusive linking of autism to ‘understanding of ourselves.’ ‘Poised’ and ‘pursued’ drew approval for this last sentence: Patient-centred outcomes research is poised to substantially change how clinical questions are asked, how answers are pursued, and how those answers are used. The contributor of that sentence liked, in her words, ‘the persuasive and goal-directed tone that would have helped some fairly die-hard ‘positivists’ see value in stepping out of their comfort zones!’ We liked the counter-balance between the instability of being ‘poised’ and the massiveness of ‘to substantially change’: a dramatic pivotal moment of consequence makes a good cliff-hanger closure.

The same counterbalance is (perhaps less delicately) expressed in the ‘opportunities’ and ‘challenges’ of the last sentence: ‘These are, in short, the opportunities and challenges of the new’ (Royce, 2015).

Unusual nouns met with approval too: in the following we liked ‘myriads’, and ‘nooks and crannies’: ‘Feminising the economy via the deconstructive move extends this powerful representational politics in a different direction, opening up a myriad of ethical debates in all nooks and crannies of the diverse economy about the kinds of worlds we feminists would like to build’ (Gibson-Graham, 2008, p. 153-155). The hourglass shape of the article, which began with a broad overview of its topic and then narrowed down to the specific research niche, opened out again in this final sentence to return to the broader general context set out in the opening paragraph. There was general approval for ‘murmurs’ and ‘glimpses’ of what another theoretical positioning might allow. We had noted that conclusions were strong when they linked back to the research question or problem, or to the broad issues raised in the opening paragraph.

Our list of last sentence rhetorical strategies to date, then, coming from a fairly small group, includes:

  • Punchy, short, pithy
  • Evocative vocabulary
  • Rhythmic and rap-like
  • Cliff hanger tension
  • Pointing to the future.

Within that group, people from all disciplines were quite pleased to have a clear sense of approaches that they could use in building a firm ending to their articles or chapters. If others tried this group work, we’d welcome comments that add to this list of what makes a strong final sentence!

References

Tom Joyce, Relying on customary practice when the law says ‘no’: justified, safe or simply ‘no go’ The Australian Library Journal, Volume 64, Issue 2, 2015

Cameron, J. & Gibson-Graham, J. K. (2003) Feminising the Economy: Metaphors, strategies, politics, Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography, 10:2,145-157.

Young, M., & Muller, J. (2014). On the powers of powerful knowledge. In E. Rata and B. Barrett (eds.) Knowledge and the future of the curriculum: International studies in social realism (pp. 41-64). Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave MacMillan.

Royce, T. (2015). Relying on customary practice when the law says ‘no’: Justified, safe or simply ‘no go’? The Australian Library Journal, 64(2), 76-86.

 

When doctoral students can’t develop their writing skills: What helps?

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By Susan Carter

The question in the title is not rhetorical: this post is keen to receive suggestions from both doctoral students and academics on how to help doctoral students learn to control their academic writing.

Here’s an example: explaining the mechanics of writing proved hard in a recent peer review group with one woman who just didn’t get it. Each meeting, she found others’ writing ‘really good’, while agreeing that the formative feedback on her own writing really improved it. Why couldn’t she learn how to give good feedback from receiving helpful feedback on her own work? Why didn’t this help her learn to self review?

This woman was highly intelligent; as such, she trusted her own evaluation that she simply was never going to become good at academic writing. She had tried other writing support before attending our classes. Her writing hadn’t improved, mostly because the instruction didn’t make sense to her. She was sure that she could never write well enough to be published.

After the class, as facilitators we did a post mortem. Could we have managed this better as teachers? We considered whether it was an advantage or disadvantage that the group was small. It had worked well for the others; one student celebrated that understanding the ‘formula’ for a paragraph had enabled her to write more fluidly and produce clearer writing—she rocketed ahead. Others made break-throughs too. That others seemed to be moving ahead happily probably made it worse for this sharp-witted student who seemed unable to revise her own writing.

I have also heard from supervisors who bemoan the fact that, although they try to explain the notion of logical forward progression, the need for a narrative, and for connections, some students continue to lack a sense of how writing structure affects meaning. As a learning advisor, I spend hundreds of hours with students on the other side of the conversation who find supervisor feedback puzzling. (Difficulty may be often due to communication between two people who interpret things differently.) My own approaches include the following:

  • always give feedback first on content and then on mechanics;
  • praise what works well, dissecting why;
  • compare what is not working to what is (‘you do this well over here’);
  • scaffold support with English language, not too much at once;
  • work with one section and request that the same principle be applied throughout;
  • direct students to other resources, e.g., learning centres, guides, digital resources;
  • keep exemplars that can be used as models;
  • ask students to look for well-written articles and explain why they enjoyed the style;
  • explain with metaphors to make writing revision less emotional, more practical;
  • set up peer review groups.

Usually, this combination, adapted to suit the situation, keeps my research students progressing in their control of writing—and as I work through these approaches with them, I’m often alerted myself to ways I could write more strongly.

Yet, I am aware from the student in my writing class that some very clued up people simply don’t connect to the workings of language in formal academic prose. Are there alternative ways to explain the points about academic writing that would help someone who really has trouble with language mechanics?

If you are a student, or have a student, with a story that goes “Did not get it until…” I would love to hear from you. Stories could be pastiched together for a sequel post: suggestions based on student experience.

Peer review of writing: the mechanics of how

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By Susan Carter

Doctoral peer review of writing seems like wise practice to me. It widens the source of feedback: if students have any dissatisfaction with the way their supervisors review their writing, quite simply, they can supplement that elsewhere. The groups I run are generic, with people bringing writing from any discipline. Groups can be really productive within departments or faculties, or can be, like mine, centrally situated.

Setting up a group recently where there was some initial uncertainty about how to give helpful feedback to colleagues, I set out some criteria. Since no one could think of more to add, we set out with this as guidance:

Watch out for emotions. You will get the most from the session if you are open to critical feedback, but try to gauge how much advice works best for you as an individual. Then as a reviewer take care according to the sensitivity climate. Humans have a tendency to be critical rather than praising: we are trained as researchers to do this. Remember that in this case reviewers must talk about what works well as well as giving constructive feedback for improvement: begin with what works well and why before moving into what could be improved. Ending on a reaffirmation is often recommended too.

Being concrete and specific about what has worked well is important: group talk about exactly what we like gives pointers to improving writing. It has benefits beyond the emotional boost for the writer.

Writers can ask for specific areas to be given thought:

  • Is the structure ok?
  • Are you convinced by the X section?
  • Is the Y section clear?
  • Do I need to explain more about Z?
  • Is this just too simplistic?
  • Is this too obscure and hard to read?
  • Do I sound authoritative in my use of theory?
  • Could you watch for grammar or punctuation problems?
  • Please suggest better words for any of my phrases.

As a reader follow the writer’s direction. You could also look for other stylistic qualities.

  • Are there any times when the tone slips, for example, when language becomes too informal, or too stilted, or too obscure, or too naive?
  • Are there any disjunctive colloquialisms? Any dead clichés? Or any words that you suspect may be problematic (e.g., ‘naturally’ if you are in a constructivist framework where nothing is assumed to be natural)?
  • Is the tension right? Could the prose be tightened: is it too loose with many sentences yielding little of real value? Or is it too tight and dense to be understandable?
  • Is the level of definition and explanation right? Are there any points when you need more explanation? Or are there places where there is too much spelt out so that this detracts from the flow of ideas?
  • Are there repeats at word level or in sentence structure that would be better avoided?
  • Are there any sentences that are too long and complex? If so, suggest a way of splitting giant mutant sentences into more than one.
  • Are there times when emphasis seems inaccurate?
  • Could you add any suggestions at times when ideas seem promising but not fully developed?

In peer review practice, I suggest that while staying aware of the emotional dimension reviewers should offer any suggestions that they believe would be helpful. Whenever a sentence is hard to follow, they should indicate this, and offer a way of clarifying it. It is so helpful when reviewers suggest how to restructure more logically, or find a more precise word, or ask questions that drive the author to see what is missing. The author has the option of rejecting suggestions, but will get something of value: a truthful view of their own work through another reader’s eyes.

That was where my criteria ended. As the group met for review over several sessions, we learned more about the mechanics of peer review.

This semester, several participants commented that it is really helpful getting feedback from someone who is not in their discipline.

A light came on for me when a reviewer said ‘I don’t know how to review this; the topic is so far out of my understanding,’ the biophysicist author helpfully suggested, ‘if you replace this big term with A and this one with B and this one with C, would it make sense to you?’ She’d articulated what I have found for years: if you ignore the content, and follow reading for logical progression, structure and grammar, you can give a great deal of useful feedback to writers without actually understanding the content fully.

In many ways this sort of feedback from someone who doesn’t understand is as important as feedback from insiders who do: the outsider reader is then reading the mechanics of language without being distracted by engagement with the content. Clarity is likely to result from a diligent unknowing reader. Another participant noticed that she really liked what she called experiential comment: times when someone said ‘at this point, I wondered why…’ or ‘here I am feeling that…’ and gave a real sense of the reader and their needs as they move through the writing.

The impetus generated by reviewing writing together is huge. One of the huge benefits of peer review is that it literalises the reader, someone who can slip out of focus if you are writing alone from a writerly perspective. In a writing group, the reader gives formative rather than summative feedback. It’s friendly. There’s sometimes laughter. Yet a lot is achieved too.

Several people in the group had significant breakthroughs with how to structure their work by talking through the difficulty they were having with sympathetic listeners hoping to help. In that group now, some of our time allows for problem talk and feedback. I suspect that in each case it wasn’t so much the feedback that caused the threshold crossing moment, but the act of explaining what was hard led the writer to solve their own problem.

 

 

 

 

Doctoral writing and career building

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By Susan Carter

I attended a talk where two professors gave advice to academics on how to develop their careers. Both began with stories of serendipity when outer influences changed their direction, and both spoke of their own naivety in some early choice making. Much of their helpful advice relates to viewing writing as a significant factor in developing an academic identity that is likely to affect career progression—or non-progression. Here I am summarising the points that were made and reflecting on them in relation to doctoral students and their strategy with writing and publication.

Doctoral students and those supporting them don’t always see writing as a big issue—in a recent questionnaire survey of doctoral supervisors [n226] I conducted, several from STEM disciplines kept insisting that my questions about writing were off track. They felt supervision was about teaching doctoral students how to do the research. The writing was not the issue. Their doctoral students ‘wrote up’ after the research as a sort of mopping up process.

But doctoral writing forms the basis for any academic career, and for any other career as a researcher than entails writing reports. In amongst the emotion of developing as a research writer, it is worthwhile using writing as the driving force to steer the career trajectory.

Both the professors at the talk said that good advice about career decisions was really important to novices. It should be sought from the right people. Some academics are genuinely keen to help and others less so—find those who want to mentor. Some know how things work and others don’t pay much attention to that—ask people who know. Some welcome new comers into their networks and knowledge and others don’t. Students should actively look for people whose advice will be really useful.

Novices are often reluctant to reveal ignorance of what they need to know. They need to ask. The process of building research careers inevitably requires continuously increasing understanding of how everything works. Snippets of advice included:

  • never feel too humble to put yourself forward;
  • you will need to develop strongly in teaching and service, but put your research and its writing first; and
  • focus on writing and publication, and be strategic.

Supervisors should encourage research students to publish. It is sensible for them to collaborate to do so—this gives students the chance to leverage off their supervisors’ higher profile. Probably, despite other pressures, it is worthwhile to take the time to write up conference papers and publish them.

One of these prolific and influential professors had a mandate with research writing: ‘keep it personal; keep it passionate.’ Admittedly the context was within the Education Faculty, yet for many, especially in Social Sciences and Arts/Humanities, that advice works well. A sense of personal ownership of writing and a passion for the research can feed energy into the labour of writing.

Maximising publication value from a research project

These professors recommended developing a sense of continuity, so that research feeds into publication, and publication feeds further publication. If a research project can produce two or three articles instead of just one, then several well-focused articles will be stronger than one overly full and possibly less clear article. When a tangled article draft needs revision, one untangling solution is to split it into two articles.

For example, an erstwhile colleague of mine whose doctoral thesis looked at the globalisation of sumo wrestling drew three conference papers from his chapter on women and sumo: at sports, women’s studies and cultural studies conferences. That one chapter had the potential for three peer reviewed articles. I make the case that the principle of seeking different audiences and angling your findings towards quite different discussions and arguments is helpful. Although self-plagiarism is an anathema, many well-respected academics publish more than one article from the same research project, and, unsurprisingly, the description of methods and framing within literature are pretty much the same. Self-plagiarism isn’t always clear cut. In the overly audited environment of the 21st century, it makes sense to make as much use of your work as you can.

As well as making use of diverse discourses to enable shrewd publication outputs, ensure that over a few years you build a solid “research platform,” an area of expertise in which you can aim for high impact as a recognised expert.

Funding can make it challenging to delineate your research platform—you need to ensure that within funded projects there is a place for you to work in your niche area so that your research portfolio retains cohesion. Look across projects for common themes, so that you can write a more impressive academic biography. While funding is a two-edged sword, aim for prestigious funding and plan ahead to secure it.

My hunch is that academics who think writing is not important maybe haven’t recognised the skills that they have as writers, and need to do so in order to mentor doctoral students into being strong. And I was alerted again to the fact that writing and publication shape most research careers—it’s worth strategising.

 

 

 

 

 

Do you wear LaTeX or write with it? A call for writing-related technology contributions

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Do you wear LaTeX or write with it? This, and other curly questions are the focus of this post as we send out a call for technology-related contributions.

By Claire Aitchison

I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to keep up with all the new digital technologies. In fact, I feel I’m constantly behind the eight ball – I hear students talk about this or that new writing app, new ways for finding, managing and sharing documents or for disseminating research. For a while, I was a fringe-dweller hearing others talk about these new gadgets; I felt sceptical about their applicability in the doctoral space. Furthermore, I reasoned, I’d be well on my way to a peaceful retirement before I had to get serious about these newfangled things!

But I’ve changed my mind. I now believe ignoring new digital technologies is mum head in the sand illustrationhead-in-sand behaviour. Although I continue to feel like I’m racing to keep up with things, I’ve come to realise there’s a lot to recommend many of these new affordances, and further, I’ve found it can be exhilarating!

And yes, I do think there are many benefits for doctoral supervision and writing, but in order to embrace and exploit such technologies, we need firstly to know about them and their uses.

We’re planning to finish the year focussing on IT and ICT technologies for researchers and we’d like to hear from doctoral writers and supervisors about their experiences with online technologies: the things that help them get their writing-related activities done – and done better.

Please note: This is not a call for marketers or product-spruikers. We believe the best advice comes from users, so let us have your stories about real experiences of online software programs, apps, communication platforms and so on. We are interested in anything from a quick paragraph up to 1,000 words explaining what works for you and what doesn’t.

Possible areas where technology can positively impact doctoral candidature may include, for example:

The exchange, storage and management of documents

In one of my workplaces a group of us were using a Wiki as a central location for parking our research project. We found it easy to use and easy to access – key characteristics for novices. We had a library for relevant papers, other folders for ethics documents, interview protocols, data and so on. Also, Wiki keeps a history of versions, and sends team members an email alert when documents are added or changed. However, I discovered one drawback: because this was an in-house Wiki, when I left the organisation I no longer had access.

Perhaps you and your supervisor create, share and review doctoral writing on Google Docs or Dropbox – why not tell us how, and what features make these formats better than emailing documents to and fro? How valuable have you found Evernote to help manage information and synchronise across different platforms?

Communicating

Email is fine and it’s hard to imagine it being replaced as an everyday activity, but for quick communication there are more and more options. One university I know has declared Jabber the preferred means of internal communication. It couldn’t be easier to use; but I haven’t noticed a big uptake.

When it comes to technology-mediated meetings and exchange of feedback, do you prefer Skype or Collaborate? As more doctoral supervision and research is undertaken by distance, competence across a variety of communication tools has become essential. Many supervisors have grown used to Skyping meetings, but we’d also like to hear about alternatives.

Maybe you want to tell us why and how you maintain research networks: do you participate in a disciplinary Twitter space, or via a dedicated email list? Maybe you have found Mendeley indispensable for finding, storing and communicating your research? Maybe you blog your research, and if so, what are your experiences? Do you have any advice, tips or tricks you can share?

Productivity

Some students I work with swear by their time management apps: the Flat Tomato and MLO (MyLifeOrganised) appear to be popular. Perhaps you’ve tried the PhD2Published PhDometer and are willing to share your experiences? More extended versions such as RescueTime and Toggl can track the way you spend your time, but I have no idea really how useful they may be…. If you can tell us, please do so.

Writing Platforms and tools

Having recently begun working with Engineering students I have been introduced to a whole new world of writing platforms and document preparation. If you are a user of LaTeX, Overleaf or Scrivener you might like to tell us why these are better than Word for the work you do.

Perhaps you have found a writing tool such as Writefullapp or Grammarly that help with grammar or expression and you’d like to tell us how it works for you, and alert us to any limitations.

We’d love to hear from you. Our due date for contributions is: August 30th

So send us up to 1,000 words via our email (doctoralwriting@gmail.com) or use the comments function on this post for a brief comment.

Graphic: Victoria Rolfe ©

Choosing the examiner: It’s in everyone’s interests to get students involved.

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By Claire Aitchison

This post follows on from other recent blogs on the doctoral examination.

In Australia, as in many other countries, doctoral examination is a ‘single blind’ peer review process. This means the examiner will be given the name of the candidate whose work they are examining, while the PhD student will be blind to who their examiners are, until afterwards – if at all. (Examiners are given the option to retain their anonymity even after the outcome and examiner reports have been submitted.) While students may never know the identity of their examiners, and each examiner operates without knowledge of the other(s), the supervisor is intimately involved in examiner selection.

Rules and practices around examination vary, but in most cases it is the supervisor who approaches potential examiners to inquire if they are interested and available to examine a student’s work. Generally in that initial inquiry, the supervisor sends the thesis Abstract and an estimation of when the work may be ready for examination. Once potential examiners are locked in, the Grad School then handles the process. There are strict provisions that neither students nor examiners are to make contact with each other, and breaches may derail the whole process.

But just because a student doesn’t have direct knowledge of their examiners doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be involved in discussions about potential examiners.

Selecting the best examiner is in everyone’s best interests, and that is why many supervisors actively seek input from their students about examiner preferences.

Getting the right examiner

There’s plenty of good information that relates to choosing an examiner. One of the more useful papers in my opinion is by Margaret Kiley who points to the importance of considering the reputation of the examiner, their knowledge of the topic and ‘fit’ with the methodology, their capacity to benefit the candidate’s career, their examination experience, and knowledge of the type of degree (ie professional doctoral, creative practice-led degrees and so on).

Here’s a quick round up of key considerations:

  • Think about the how a potential examiner may be helpful for the student’s future career. For example, if the student has a strong interest in working in a particular country, research centre or institution, an examiner from such a location could be advantageous.
  • There is some research (read that Kiley article for starters) that indicates variation in examiner approaches that may be worth closer attention. For example, consider the benefits and cautions regarding in-country versus international examiners, novice versus experienced examiners, interdisciplinary experts versus disciplinary experts.
  • Identify the strengths of the research and thesis – and play to these.
  • Consider the mix of examiners that will produce the best coverage of key aspects, such as the field, methodology, industry knowledge and thesis type.
  • Apart from these professional components, consider also examiner availability and personality; after all ‘You don’t want a smart Alec’ (Kiley, 2009) for an examiner!

But what can be done with this information?

A four step process for considering examiners

With these insights, it is time to strategise. Here’s one process for how a student might take an active role in the process of choosing an examiner.

  1. Some 3-4 months out from submission, arrange a special supervision meeting to discuss possible examiners.
  1. Prior to the meeting, students should make a list of six to eight possible examiners from most favoured to least – plus any they would not want. Don’t neglect the importance of RULING OUT unsuitable people (maybe someone’s work is admirable, but they have a reputation for being ruthless, or maybe there’s the potential for a conflict of interest). Supervisors should also think about suitable examiners.
  1. At the meeting these ‘lists’ can be the basis for a discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of individuals for the particular thesis and research to be examined. Such discussions can illustrate the issues at stake and demonstrate how the process works, giving students valuable insights into the academic world.
  1. Then it’s time to do some homework in preparation for a follow up meeting.
  • Both student and supervisor(s) should (carefully and appropriately) collect ‘insider’ information on the shortlisted favourites. The academic world is small and well networked. For example, it can be helpful to know if a potential examiner is reliable, if they have a reputation for being pedantic, or if they are married to a major competitor of your research institute!
  • Ask the student to work through their whole thesis recording (rather than guessing) every reference to the potential examiner and their work. This activity creates an empirical account of how often, where, and in what ways, citations have occurred in the document. It’s not that every examiner needs to see themselves cited, however it would be curious to choose an examiner that wasn’t part of the community of scholars referenced in the thesis. Secondly, the student needs to check that they have correctly interpreted/ critiqued/ referenced each of these potential examiners and their work. Ask the student to think about how those who have been referenced will feel when they read what’s been said about them and others (possibly their friends and colleagues).
  1. At the second meeting everyone should have the chance to share their homework and air their views, and hopefully, through discussion, arrive at general agreement on a short list of favourites. In the end, however, it’s important to remember that the choice of examiners is the responsibility of the supervisor(s) – and even then, despite their best efforts, a favourite may be unavailable or unsuitable for one reason or another.

Even where institutional guidelines are strict about the examiner’s identity remaining confidential, these sorts of supervisory practices provide clear benefits. Students are given the chance to critically re-examine their own work from an examiner’s perspective and they learn more about the often occluded practices of the academy. And this kind of approach delivers concrete information to assist supervisors who have the difficult task of finding the best match of examiners to suit their student’s work.

In spite of the fact that the student will leave these discussions still not knowing who their examiners are, they will have learned a lot through engaging in the process – and no doubt will have contributed to the final decision.

You may have approached this process differently – we’d be pleased to hear from you.

Reference

Kiley, M. (2009). ‘You don’t want a smart Alec’: Selecting examiners to assess doctoral dissertations. Studies in Higher Education 34 (8) 889 – 903.

Finishing the PhD – or What happens to otherwise normal people in the last few months of the PhD?

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By Claire Aitchison

There should be a warning to family and friends about what happens in the final stages of the PhD and it should read something like this:

WARNING: Do not try to communicate or interfere with this person. Advance at your peril. If possible, for your safety, STAY AWAY.

In preparation for a workshop on the final stages of doing a PhD, I asked my family for Exploading mind pic for clairetheir thoughts. As quick as a flash, the following words were thrown around the dinner table: obsessive, self-absorbed, single-minded, vague, emotional. They seemed to be talking about me. When I tell this story it always gets a good reception because anyone who has done a PhD will immediately recognise these behaviours.

And that’s because at the end stages of the doctorate – people change. Take comfort: it is reversible! Bringing 3-5 years of work to completion requires significant mental effort, at times bordering on overload. There isn’t a lot of space left for getting the shopping right, listening to homework squabbles, thinking about dinner.

First, there is so much to do. In order to juggle the multiple demands of tweaking the text, re-checking calculations and results, revisiting arguments, citation choices and theories, sorting Endnote blips and so on, and so on, one has to block out peripheral, less important things. The primary final stages task is to bring all the components together into a coherent and unified entity. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. It is a big job.

Second, this can be a time of major emotional labouring. The stakes are high and time is tight. Nerves can fray and relationships become strained – both at home and between student and supervisor. In many ways those irritating but levelling parts of normal life (cooking, doing the dishes, family time and even working) can become valuable safety valves for releasing tension, forgetting the pressure, and keeping a sense of humour.

Another way to keep yourself sane is to begin (at least 4 – 8 months prior to the target submission date) to deal with the many important final stages tasks.

Final stages tasks:

  • Do a complete raincheck on what you have done – and what you have yet to do (vis a vis research and writing)
  • Get the latest versions of the rules and procedures for completion, submission and examination (they are likely to have changed since you enrolled)
  • Find and follow your institution’s ‘Countdown check list’
  • Ensure the Grad School has the right information about you and your project (you don’t want them reading out your former married name at Graduation)
  • Suss out a good proofreading/ editing service
  • Budget for the final stages (costs may include editing and printing services, conferences, you may have to give up work for a period of time)
  • Plan what you will do after submission (eg take a holiday or polish off a couple of journal articles?)

Monitor your time very carefully making a time line that includes:

  • Final, final, revisions, edits and reviews – of each chapter – and the whole manuscript (including referencing, tables and figures). AVOID NEW WRITING / last minute brain waves – BUT do take action if it is really necessary.
  • Supervisor availability and turnaround for final reviewing of chapters
  • 1 – 3 weeks for external editing, proofreading and layout
  • Time to discuss and plan for possible examiners (see last week’s post, and watch out for our next one)
  • Time for nomination, communication and approval of examiners (this process is usually conducted by the Grad School and it doesn’t happen overnight)
  • One week for printing and/making a digital version as required.

Final stages writing

Here’s a quick check list for some of the final (is that word ever going to come to fruition!?) writing tasks.

  • Lock in the title.
  • (Re)write the Abstract.
  • Use your Table of Contents as a mechanism for reviewing logical consistency and structural cohesion. It must make sense on its own and also when read embedded within the manuscript.
  • Everything you do now must be considered in terms of the project as a whole; whatever changes you make must be cognisant of the overall integrity of the argument or message. The Table of Contents will be your constant guide.
  • Attend very carefully to reviewing your Introduction to check that your research problem, research questions, methodology and results – do, in fact, match what you ended up doing.
  • Review your Introduction and Conclusion chapters against each other. They should ‘speak to each other’ working as book ends to hold the content together.

Final stages editing

Even if you plan to send your thesis to an external proof-reader it is wise (and economical) to make the document as perfect as possible beforehand. Don’t underestimate the time this can take.

One approach to editing is to review the thesis on 3 levels:

  1. Manuscript overview –review the whole document for cohesion and consistency of genre, voice, presentation, intellectual integrity, formatting and referencing style. Take the time to go through the whole document checking references for accuracy, style consistency, missing page numbers, and always double check their location (and presentation) in the Reference List.
  2. Macro – check for consistency of structure, sequence and hierarchy of segments, paragraphing, and balanced chapters.
  3. Micro – check for spelling, punctuation and sentence level grammar.

So close and yet so far

Often doctoral students think that once the hard work of data collection and analysis is done that they are on the homeward track and completion is just weeks away. Sadly, this is rarely the case as these final stages can often stretch out for months and months. It can get disheartening, and you don’t want to run out of steam, so – in addition to all the other tasks – see if you can schedule a break somewhere in the last months to rejuvenate your mind and your body (and supervisors may also benefit from setting it aside for a week or two). Both you and the thesis will be better for it!

From finish to start: Writing your thesis with the end in view

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This guest post is by Sue Starfield who is an associate professor in the School of Education and the Director of the Learning Centre at UNSW Australia, as well as co-author with Brian Paltridge of Thesis and dissertation writing in a second language: A handbook for supervisors. Sue teaches courses in thesis writing for doctoral students and runs workshops for supervisors on ways they can help their students with their writing. If you like Sue’s blog, you may also enjoy Susan Carter’s recent post on the examiner perspective.

By Sue Starfield

Students and supervisors are often surprised when I talk to them about the research into what examiners look for in a PhD thesis. Almost apologetically, I’ll explain that it’s an area of growing interest. John Swales, the well-known applied linguist, coined the phrase ‘occluded genres’ to describe genres that are not publically and easily available. The PhD examination process and the examiners’ reports that make our hearts sink or soar are typical examples of hidden or occluded genres. Fortunately, we now have some research that shines a light into what pleases or displeases examiners. This information is particularly important for students and their supervisors in countries like Australia where there is typically no oral defence or viva and examination is based solely on the written thesis. Hence the title of this blog post – the more we know about the examination (the end), the better equipped we are at the start.

One of the examiners interviewed in Mullins and Kiley’s (2002: 386) now well-known study of PhD examiners explained: ‘A PhD is a stepping stone into a research career. All you need to do is to demonstrate your capacity for independent, critical thinking. That’s all you need to do. A PhD is three years of solid work, not a Nobel Prize’. A quick Google search of Nobel Prize winners suggests there is some truth in this – many are quite elderly by the time the earn the coveted award and it seems unlikely that they would have received it for their doctoral scholarship – although it may well have started them on the path to future glory[1]. So the key message here is ‘get it done’ – do it well but see the PhD as a time-limited stage in your career development.

What else do we learn from this study that interviewed experienced thesis examiners? Students and examiners tend to have radically different understandings of the purpose and functions of doctoral assessment. I regularly speak to students who are convinced they are going to fail. Experienced examiners on the other hand see their role as helping to make the thesis better! The research shows that the number of students who actually fail is extremely small. Many will be required to do revisions. From the examiner’s perspective however, in the words of one of the examiners interviewed by Mullins and Kiley, doctoral assessment provides ‘an opportunity for the students to be able to incorporate comments so that it [the thesis] sits on the library shelf and glows more brightly’ (p. 383).

One of the key messages that can be distilled from the research is that first impressions count. Experienced examiners decide very early on whether the assessment of a thesis is likely to be ‘hard work’ or ‘an enjoyable read’ and their initial impression of the quality of the thesis is usually formed by the end of the second or third chapter – often by the end of the literature review. ‘It is unusual that if someone does a poor job of the literature review that they will suddenly improve’ said one experienced examiner. Bear in mind that chapters like the literature review that are often drafted early in the thesis process need to be kept updated and revised, often substantially, prior to submission.

We would all like our thesis to be in the enjoyable read category I’m sure. What can we do to get it there? Here are some of the things that a study of examiners’ reports (Johnston 1997: 340-341) tells us:

  • Examiners approach reading a thesis with an air of expectation and even enthusiasm, but this disappears if the thesis is not reader-friendly.
  • General impression and overall presentation of the thesis seem particularly important to the examiners.
  • The reader needs to be assisted through the use of summaries, logical sequencing, signposts and removal of excessive repetition.
  • All readers require assistance to understand the work.
  • They feel distracted and irritated by poorly presented work.
  • They appreciate well-written, interesting and logically presented arguments

Mullins and Kiley note that ‘sloppiness’ is one of the most commonly used words to indicate a negative response to a thesis. Sloppy presentation seems to indicate to the examiner that the research might well be sloppy and they start reading the thesis with a more critical eye. Putting together a reader-friendly thesis takes time and effort. It may require several drafts. It involves getting feedback from readers including, but not limited to, the supervisors. I like to recommend a proof-reader or at least a reasonably literate friend. It has to be someone other than the author who, towards the end, will not see typos, grammatical errors, repetitions and illogicalities. Some may need an editor for more help with grammar and language. Whichever the route chosen, redrafting takes time. Count back from the submission date and build in the time needed for the final polishing – it always takes longer than anticipated. But as the research shows, the effort put in to craft a reader-friendly text will be worth it.

Chapter 11, ‘Before you submit’, in How to write a better thesis (Evans, Gruba & Zobel, 2011) has a great checklist of all the many things that need to be done to polish the final draft of the thesis. Print it out and use it.

References

Evans, D., Gruba, P. & Zobel, J. (2011). 3rd Ed. How to write a better thesis. Melbourne: University of Melbourne Press.

Johnston, S. (1997). Examining the examiners: An analysis of examiners’ reports on doctoral theses. Studies in Higher Education, 22, 3: 333-347.

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

[1] John Nash, who died tragically in late May, was awarded a Nobel Prize with two other economists in 1994, based on work in his 1950, 28-page PhD dissertation.

‘Sending – ready or not’: Feedback practices and predilections

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by Claire Aitchison

When is a piece of work ready to submit for supervisor feedback? How much and how often can we expect students to submit writing for feedback? What are reasonable expectations for turnaround of writing and feedback?

I wrote this post a while ago when overseas; it explores some of these questions.

I know my doctoral student is waiting for me to send her my feedback on a chapter, and I feel guilty because this won’t happen for at least another week. Thankfully she has two supervisors so she has already been able to get feedback from one of us. However this situation led me to think more generally about student-supervisor feedback practices.

Surprisingly the topic came up at a recent ‘Shut up and Write’ when students began talking about handing in work to their supervisors.

The exchange went something like this:

One student, who was very near the end of his candidature, said he was sending his writing to his supervisor each day. Everyone was surprised.

‘What, every day?’ we exclaimed!

‘Yes – he doesn’t have to read it’, Phil said defensively. ‘But I like to get it off my plate. Sending it to him means it is done and I can move on. I’ve only got 3 weeks before they want the whole chapter finished!’

Another asked ‘How long will you have to wait until you get the chapter back?

The answer: ‘That depends on how much I bug them’

I asked the group what, when, and how often, they send work to their supervisors.

One student said his supervisor only accepted complete chapters. Another said she only sent small bits of writing – between 4-12 pages at a time – because her supervisor ‘doesn’t have time to read more than that.’ One student said her supervisor insisted on high quality ‘publication-ready’ work, which she disliked doing, because, she said, she spent so much time perfecting the chapters that feedback cycles were too infrequent. Another student said that she sends smaller bits of writing regularly because she needs to know that she’s on the right track and avoid ‘wasting time’. Another student was agog – she said she regularly waited 3-4 months before getting feedback on her work.

Everyone sent work electronically and most received back ‘Track Changed’ versions, although the few social science and humanities people said they got their work returned as hard copy with handwritten feedback.

Another student said she was deliberately not handing in work even though her supervisor expected fortnightly submissions. She explained that originally this regime had worked for her, but then she found sometimes she simply hadn’t progressed things sufficiently and she was writing ‘anything really’ in order to comply with the fortnightly imperative. This compliance in turn created other problems – she was having to respond to feedback on work she wasn’t even wedded to, thus distracting her from moving forward. The same piece of writing was going backwards and forwards, round and round. Her solution? – She had ‘gone to ground’ simply getting on with her own work and not sending it to him.

I believe in the regular submission of text – but this anecdote painted another side to the story; producing text simply because it is expected may not always be productive…. It also showed how students sometimes subvert even the best-intentioned practices in order to get what works for them.

It reminded me too, of how, as a doctoral student, I – wisely or otherwise – had taken control of feedback arrangements. In the final months of my candidature, I had had to change supervisors, and by then I had very strong views about what the thesis should look like, and (I thought I knew) what I was doing. I used the ‘deliver only completed chapter’ method as a deliberate strategy to undermine the chances of my supervisors telling me they preferred something different. I only handed it over when I was ready. (Apologies to you, you know who you are …)

Back at the café, the conversation continued as near-completers discussed supervisor turnaround times for reading the whole thesis. There seemed to be a common expectation that supervisors might need up to three months, depending on how many recent revisions there had been – and according to the time of the year. The Christmas break, the beginning of a new academic year and grant writing periods, were recognised as particularly slow times for doctoral writers awaiting feedback.

Often what goes on in the supervisory relationship is a closed and private affair, but this sharing of experiences opened that space and helped the students – and me – have a better understanding of others’ practices and of what is reasonable. The conversation that day was animated and everyone seemed to enjoy sharing real-life examples of complex interpersonal negotiations and manoeuvrings over writing and feedback. Their stories showed how even supposedly ‘good practices’ can come undone as individual workloads and personal commitments impinge on availability and productivity.

One thing that struck me was how the more mature students seemed to have an intimate knowledge of their supervisors’ likes and dislikes, and a very real appreciation of how they could work in with the competing demands on their supervisors’ availability. There was a sense of mutual respect and consideration which stands in contrast to much of the literature that reports on student and supervisor frustrations vis-a-vis feedback on doctoral writing (Cadman & Cargill 2007; Caffarella & Barnett 2000; Can & Walker 2011; Carless et al. 2011; Paré et al. 2009).

What can we take from these discussions? Well, as usual, it points again to the importance of early conversations about the key aspects of feedback cycles: frequency; turnaround times the nature, quality and quantity of text to be submitted; the kind of feedback required, the mode of delivery and the necessity for timely reassessment of practices. The conversations also highlighted the interpersonal and procedural aspects of this very human activity and the agency of students to make – or manipulate – systems to maximise the benefits from supervisory feedback.

There’s a growing literature on feedback on doctoral writing, please feel free to alert us to any of resources you’ve found useful – and, of course, we’d be happy to hear of your own experiences and practices.

References:

Cadman, K. and Cargill, M. (2007) ‘Providing quality advice on candidates’ writing’, in C. Denholm and T. Evans (eds), Supervising Doctorates Downunder: Keys to Effective Supervision in Australia and New Zealand, Camberwell, Victoria, Australia: ACER Press.

Caffarella, R. S. and Barnett, B. G. (2000) ‘Teaching doctoral students to become scholarly writers: The importance of giving and receiving critiques’, Studies in Higher Education, 25, 39–54.

Can, G. and Walker, A. (2011) ‘A model for doctoral students’ perceptions and attitudes toward written feedback for academic writing’, Research in Higher Education, 52(5): 508–536.

Carless, D., Salter, D., Yang, M. and Lam, J. (2011) ‘Developing sustainable feedback practices’, Studies in Higher Education, 36(4): 395–407.

Paré, A., Starke-Meyerring, D. and McAlpine, L. (2009) ‘The dissertation as multi-genre: many readers, many readings’, in C. Bazerman, A. Bonini and D. Figueiredo (eds), Genre in a Changing World, Fort Collins, CO: The WAC Clearinghouse and Parlour Press.

 

Scholarly editing and networking

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by Cally Guerin

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 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.

References

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.

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