Tracking research


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Dr Abigail Winter is a transdisciplinary independent scholar, whose day job is working at the Information Coordinator in QUT’s Reporting and Analysis section. Her research interests vary broadly around the higher education sector, including organisational change management, journalism, student employability, research methods, and teaching and learning. She is an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (UK) and can be contacted at Susan Gasson is the Manager of the Research Students’ Centre at QUT. She writes on research methods and HDR issues, including student mobility and internationalisation, and is currently planning her own doctoral research project. In this post they write about their use of Excel to track research writing and reading.

By Abigail Winter and Susan Gasson

I began 2016, as so many previous years, with the intention of becoming more productive. As a bibliophile since the age of about 4 years old, my first place to go was therefore the university library – a haven of wonderful ideas in print form. And, quite literally, a gold mine of brilliance in this case. I found Paul Silvia’s How to write a lot, and devoured it in less than 24 hours, then bought a copy for myself. And it prompted the scheduler that Susan Gasson kindly presented at this year’s Doctoral Writing SIG meeting.

In an almost throw-away fashion, Silvia mentions that he uses a simple database to track his writing each day, as one of his strategies for writing a lot. I took the idea and started by tracking my reading (because that was all I had done for the first fortnight of the year – no writing at that point). Continue reading

Leading By Exemplar: The benefits of asking good questions about other people’s writing


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Robert B. (Rob) Desjardins, PhD, is the graduate writing advisor at the Student Success Centre, University of Alberta (Canada). Here he explains his insights into how best to help doctoral writers learn about research writing.

By Robert B. Desjardins

Lately I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a new manual for students struggling to craft theses and dissertations. The working title – still in the “playful conceit” stage – is The Incomplete Guide to Thesis-Writing.

Why “incomplete”? It’s a riff on the dangers of authorial hubris, and on the need for writing advice that helps students to start their critical work, rather than promising an easy path to the end. It’s also a tribute to the pedagogical value of the question – a speech act that sets writers on an unpredictable path, making them responsible to define and then contend with the rhetorical problems that a major writing project presents. Continue reading

‘Insider persona’ in voice: practical suggestions for doctoral writers



By Susan Carter

We know that one outcome of the successful thesis is a fully-fledged researcher who has been accepted as an insider into their research community. How can doctoral students demonstrate through their writing that they are insiders? Berkenkotter and Huckin (1995) found that reviewers of 441 submitted conference abstracts had four criteria for acceptance or rejection. One was the sense that the author projected ‘an insider persona’.

Reviewers liked abstracts whose authors accurately portrayed relevant literature, used the right terminology but also sounded as though they would deliver a publishable paper. Thesis writers want that same sense in what they submit: a thesis should seem publishable, and is stronger when the writing has a confidence to it.

Here are some quite simple practical tips for gaining a sense of authority by writing more clearly. Continue reading

Doctoral writing and feedback: Moving on from negative emotion


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By Susan Carter

I’ve just had the amazing experience of getting to know Professor Rowena Murray from the University of the West of Scotland. We spent a pleasant few hours weeding a graveled area around a church hall with the community gardeners in the village of Lochwinnoch.

img_2212Talking about our research topics while weeding was a great way for one thought to lead to another, almost like the bramble rhizomes we were pulling out. I’ve walked a supervision meeting, but suspect that there might be other physical activities that both student and supervisor enjoy doing that would allow for the same organic thinking together process.

Weeding allowed time to talk about academic writing and doctoral students.

This post covers one topic that we sifted through and agreed upon: the potential for emotional disturbance in relationship to writing and feedback (see to Sara Cotterall’s earlier post and my own on emotion.) Then we also thought about how students might learn to manage their emotions, and resolve differences between themselves and their supervisors—and then be aware of their own personal development from handling something well recognized as challenging. Continue reading

Who says in academic writing: ‘I’, ‘the researcher’, ‘this study’, ‘this thesis’…?


By Susan Carter

Choosing terms for the agent in academic writing can be tricky for novices, and in my experience, not all supervisors give wise advice on the terms to use for the speaking author. This post considers choice from the perspective of textual clarity. ‘I argue that…’ could also be ‘this thesis argues that…’ or ‘the researcher argues that…’ Doctoral students must decide what nomenclature is best for their research projects.

Some writing shies away from admitting there is an author. Historically, empirical science disciplines sought objectivity; to do so, they chose to hide human agency with passive constructions, e.g., ‘It was found that’. With humans eliminated, arguments were muted, not acknowledged in text: ‘results may suggest that….’ Textual masking of agency signaled a positivist epistemology.

By disappearing the people from the text, the matter of the research itself is emphasised, since, in theory, anyone could duplicate the study, and a measure of objectivity is established. Thus, the use of ‘I’ would be almost misleading for empirical study, in line with the grammatical idea that the passive construction makes the receiver of action, not the doer, important.

In common speech, we use the passive less often than we use the active; its most common use is when we don’t know or care who did something or wish to avoid naming them for social reasons: ‘someone has taken my lunch’ means that I am not accusing anyone in particular.

We also use it when the topic of our focus is the object of an active sentence: ‘these people have been invaded in their homeland, raped, tortured and mass murdered ’ or ‘she was given a bunch of flowers.’ Then we need not name the doer because they are not important for the point we want to make: the focus is on the object of the main verb not the doer of it.

And yet, this is a convention undergoing change. I propose it is softening, as my data showed in Carter 2008, when no doctoral examiner [n23] from any discipline was averse to the use of ‘I’ in a thesis. And I believe that it should soften purely in the interest of readability. When it is not done very well, the results are unreadable. For me, the text of the thesis, its clarity and accessibility, matters too.

Active verbs, the ones we commonly use in speech, are easier to unpack. ‘I’m going for lunch’ makes instant sense, whereas ‘Lunch is to be gone for by me’ is awkward. Then when sentences are conveying something more complex than that ‘I’m off for lunch’, they can be a hard to read. (This is not to be dismissive of simple passives focusing on the objects of verbal action, as in ‘Every year, thousands of people are killed on the roads.’) For research to be replicable, you need to be able to easily read and accurately understand what the researchers did.

Another option for agency is for the writer to refer to herself in the third person as the ‘author’ or the ‘researcher’. I’m not sure of the epistemology behind this convention but it seems to me like a fusion of social science constructivism and hard science positivism. There are people, but they are part of the matter of the study, and the author thus distances herself as thesis writer from herself as researcher.

When I am examining or reviewing, I dislike the convention of an author writing about herself in the third person because it causes textual ambiguity. Commonly in the discussion, the research of the thesis project is compared with findings from other literature. More than once, as a reader I have had to read three times to figure out whether ‘the researcher found’ refers to the researchers of the last-mentioned piece of literature or the authorial candidate.

An option that allows for active verb construction and readability while keeping people out of the way is to allow the thesis, the chapter, or the findings to speak. ‘This chapter’ can review, analyse, or theoretically position the project. ‘This thesis’ may even argue. It is oddly anthropomorphic but does accord with different criteria–including mine, one shared by many examiners, that a thesis ought to be clear and easy to read. My preferences are not necessarily constructivist, but emerge quite simply from respect for readable academic writing.

That’s my approach. I’m sure others will have quite different approaches, or more to add here, and I’m curious as to what your experience has been with the issue of ‘who says’ the thesis.

Carter, S. (2008). Examining the doctoral thesis: A discussion. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 45(4), 365-374.


Voicing writing: exploring the link between body and text



By Susan Carter

During my own doctorate, I was troubled by voice and identity. As an undergraduate, I aspired to sounding like an academic; at doctoral level, it felt important to sound like myself. This post picks over some of the purposes of having doctoral students read their work aloud.

Most of us who support doctoral students with writing will repeat this handy bit of revision advice: ‘read the sentence out loud and you’ll hear when it is too long, or when the syntax is a bit skewy.’ It is the case that the process of voicing written prose will bring to light what’s going wrong in a way that helps revision. Continue reading