Year Three, Day One

Goodness, time flies. How did this rock around so soon? In some ways I still feel like I am incredibly new at this, and yet being in my third year makes me more of a senior in this game. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this morning the dominant feeling was ‘slightly stunned.’

To be fair, I have come a long way. I have designed and undertaken a fieldwork project of substantial and respectable complexity from beginning to nearly finished. I have written and submitted a paper for publication and resubmitted it revised in response to peer review. Peer review … That makes me a scholarly peer! I have reached that point where I know more than my supervisors about my topic. And to cap it all off, I am on track to finish in three years and I feel like I can do it.

This morning I was feeling ambivalent about celebrating the anniversary because it seemed a bit like an exercise in mere stubbornness. Now, I’m good at stubbornness but it’s not always a thing to celebrate. Simply being somewhere for a length of time isn’t always an achievement either. The thing is, if I don’t celebrate this and then also get coy about celebrating other milestones-along-the-way, then what on earth is worth celebrating? Three years is a long time and there have to be points along the way worth acknowledging. Some of my reticence comes from a sense that because I haven’t finished it, any celebration seems premature. The value of the work seems contingent on finishing, in the autohypercriticalamus* at least.

I have a lot more I want to write. There are a clutch of proto-blog posts connected with fieldwork experiences that I still want to write. At the time I was too exhausted, either physically or mentally, to shape them up into something coherent enough to post. They may start appearing soon as “fieldwork retrospectives” here because I still want to write them even though it is past the chronological point that inspired them.

So I shall celebrate getting this far. It doesn’t matter that I still feel like I am just beginning. I have already learned a lot. The coming year is another big one with new challenges. To invoke my dragon metaphor, this year is about saddling up and riding.

+ ‘I’m Still Standing’ Second Anniversary Achievement Badge

+ Level UP!



* Yes, I made up a word for the place in your mind that keeps dreaming up excessive expectations for yourself that you’d never put on anyone else.

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Reacquiring control

[cue soundtrack: “Timewarp” – Rocky Horror Picture Show]

Through most of my life, I have usually focused on being in control rather than controlling. I can be in control of myself and a few other things that are within my direct influence. I know there is a lot I can’t control. I know that trying to control everything around me is futile, and that worrying about not being able to control things that I can’t is similarly wasted effort. Sometimes when things get busy it is difficult to keep control over those things that I can and I end up feeling like I should be able to control the things that I can’t. This usually means that I don’t stay in control of the things that I can and all those good habits start to slip.

I feel like I am starting to regain that stance, posture, something of being in control. Maybe it’s because the sun is coming back and I’m finding it easier to get up in the morning. I even got to the gym and did a weights workout before coming to work this morning. That would be unheard of a couple of weeks ago. The novelty of a new workout helps, but the morning light does as well. I still wouldn’t class myself as a morning person, and getting out to do those things before I’m really awake helps at one level. Something I have come to appreciate about pole* is that it’s so much about being in control of my body and using slow strength where running is about speed and endurance. That’s a nice balance. Both are about control in different ways.

I think it is also getting to close to the end of my fieldwork activities. I am one segment of data generation away from finishing it, and I will get that done within the next fortnight. Re-establishing my workday routine is also about control and getting myself back into the good study habits that I had before fieldwork madness started.

Fieldwork can mess with your routines. I think I already knew that, but this last year has been a valuable reminder. Even in experimental or lab work (which seem like nice controlled, contained research environments) there are a host of factors that could happen that affect anticipated timetables. Multiply that exponentially for ‘in the wild’ real-world fieldwork like my not-so-little project. There are a host of large and small things that are beyond your control because you are relying on other people. In the case of my fieldwork, this included a whole lot of other people with their own concerns and routines. When you are asking someone to do something for you, you have to work in with them regardless of how interested they are. Some people – and in ‘people’ here I am including the groups of people that were my fieldwork sites – are able to be more flexible but it is not something you can expect. If it works best to be there at 8am, then you get yourself up way earlier than your usual routine and you get there at 8am. Of course this knocks out a lot of other structures in your own day but at some points in research, doing what you need to for fieldwork is the priority and everything else becomes secondary to that. Or you choose a different research focus.

Fieldwork is not tidy and controlled. With the conclusion of this bit of my project I will regain more control over my day-to-day routines with fewer competing demands that I have to accommodate. I’m sure with more practice I will get better at keeping more of my routines while doing fieldwork and have slightly less intense White Rabbit Moments, and I would not have traded the amazing experiences and data I have created with the amazing people who have collaborated with me on this. I am slightly awestruck with what I have achieved, and yes I will take some time to celebrate that.

PhD Game Progress:

  • A whole lotta XP, and I think close to levelling up again.
  • “Getting Back On The Horse” Achievement Badge for Reinstating Routines


*Yes, that’s pole as in dancing. Boy-type persons do it too.

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Pulling up a chair

Last Friday, I submitted the revisions to my paper. I have made it through the initial submission and blind peer review process. Three reviewers, no less. I count myself fortunate that the reviewers were detailed and encouraging in their feedback. The encouraging was good and a pleasant introduction to the whole thing, but it’s actually the detailed interaction with my work that has made more of an enduring impact. What it showed was they took my writing, my thoughts and ideas, seriously. It wasn’t dismissed as simplistic or ‘undergraduate.’ It wasn’t written off as unready for publication. The recommendation was for major revisions, but the comments offered a lot by way of analysis, references and pointers towards making those revisions.

It would have been easy to be intimidated by the sheer volume of the task. However as I delved into it, it became easier and clearer. The sheer volume of the comments might have been overwhelming if it weren’t for the practiced eyes of my supervisors helping me see how to break it down. While each had distinct emphases and there were some contradictions between them, there were some consistent points that meant in the end it was relatively easy to see a path through. It was nice that I was able to respond effectively to the feedback and it was still my paper after completing the revisions.

It feels like I’m pulling up a chair to join the scholarly conversation.

The merits and disadvantages to PhD researchers of publishing during candidature is a discussion for elsewhere. At just-over-half-way,* this is relatively early for getting a paper out. I have more planned and this is not because I feel a pressure to publish for the sake of my hoped-for academic career. It’ll look good for that, but I’m doing it because I think it’s important join the conversation, to get ideas and findings ‘out there’ and whether we like it or not, publishing papers in peer-reviewed journals remains one of primary accepted means of achieving that.

This morning I started wondering if this is changing me from ‘apprentice’ to ‘journeyman’. Even though I am not counting any publication chicks before they are hatched in accepted for publication form, I feel like I have some grounds for taking a seat at the table.



* Technically, it’s nearly Year Three (eek!), but I’m not thinking about that right now. It was about half way when I submitted the initial version of this paper.

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I think I have written on this more than once, and I know it’s a theme not only related to the PhD Game. It is easy to start working or experimenting with something, but to keep the good habits and routines going when other things crop up is a substantial challenge. It’s been like that for me with 750 words and the same with my annotated bibliography. For a while there, it was trucking along really well. It helped me focus on why I was reading what I was reading, get some notes down and it was very useful for keeping my supervisors in touch with what I was reading and thinking. It was great and useful. There were some times when I still managed to confuse myself about what I had found where, but between my notes and the search function in Mendeley I’ve been able to track down everything that I have in electronic copy.

When fieldwork started and other things turned up to interrupt the neat routines I’d worked out, this nearly went the way of the dinosaurs. I was more sporadic with my entries and there were months when I didn’t have anything new in the annotations to send to the supervisors. The changes in my activities meant that my attention was being drawn elsewhere. Dramatic differences between sites for when my fieldwork would fit with the class routine meant that it wasn’t possible to keep a consistent pattern throughout. One school was first thing in the morning, another was some mornings and afternoons, and yet another was middle of the day. Being able to work with others’ schedules is an important skill, but it does mean that sometimes those bits of advice to schedule things like reading, thinking or writing at times when you know you work best go out the window. If the time that your participants can work with you is the time when you’d previously planned writing, or reading, then fieldwork trumps that.

Interruptions happen. The same happens with other routines and habits. My recent bout of bronchitis meant that I haven’t been doing the physical activities that I’d usually do. It’s hard to get back into it, especially if you’re still at the tail end of the interruption and it will take a fair amount of conscious effort to get back into it. I’m still coughing and not quite back to feeling completely well again, so this morning the sluggishness won over the knowledge that I do better when I get up and go to the gym and the desire to get back into condition. I still have some fieldwork activities remaining and I feel a bit loathe to attempt a complete restructure on my work/study routines before I’ve finished it all. The thing is I won’t be starting from scratch because I already know some routines that do work for me. The tipping point is not using that, or other things I can’t control, as excuses for getting back into the habit.

Those small good habits have made major contributions to the progress I have made so far and have set me up to achieve what I want to from here on. That’s the point.

Realistically, I know that big changes all at once are not sustainable. It’s emotionally taxing and there’s enough evidence that a person has a limited amount of resilience for implementing changes in usual habits. It is something of a finite resource over a day (which is why routines are so valuable in the first place, it takes a chunk of decision-making out of the day). I have a lot I want to read and a lot I want to write. I have a set of priorities over the next month that have taken some choices away from me, including a deadline on resubmitting the revisions on the paper I hope to get published, a presentation I agreed to do (not strictly work related), a book review (also not work related but good practice), and another deadline for submitting an abstract for a conference paper.

Resolving to revive the good habits is a step in the right direction. Seeing isn’t solving but you have to see, feel, experience something as a problem before it makes sense to do something about it. Choosing what to do is the next challenge. It is hard to sift through all the advice out there because some of it is contradictory, and I know from experience that one size doesn’t fit all. Getting back into practice of writing annotations most of the time as I’m evaluating things as I read is another step, and I’ve done that. Writing blog posts, or even just 750 words that are for an audience of me are another useful practice. I do have a lot of backdated stuff I want to write up so I can put that next up the list. For this week I have enough to do with coordinating three other people to get these revisions submitted so that will probably take everything I’ve got.

Plus getting back to the gym. I think that’s enough. I’ll decide what next week’s project will be later.

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Hooked on a Feeling

If I could bottle and sell how I felt on Friday I’d probably make my fortune. The end of my White Rabbit week culminated in a day where everything just seemed to come together perfectly and it felt amazing. All the things I’d been planning for months came together and worked out as I’d wanted, better than I’d dared hope.

Earlier in the week I’d had an email from the journal where I’d submitted a paper for publication, with an invitation to revise and resubmit. This is exciting in itself, and the reviewer comments show that my writing was taken seriously. I inspired extended and thoughtful responses at an academic level, and that’s worth celebrating in itself. The journal uses a blind review process, so the reviewers have no information about the author/s to know the level of experience of the writer.

Most of the rest of the week was Teh Busy with fieldwork. I’ve designed what is probably a novel combination of methods for this – not solely ethnographic, not solely interviewing, and including a range of activities for participants. Thursday and Friday last week did involve some researcher-participant interviews from within the participants at one of my fieldwork sites, using theoretical sampling. On the suggestion of one of my supervisors, I included a focus on the research process and their experience of the different components. I … we, as in my supervisors and I … had thought and hoped that multiple data points would add to the robustness of the data. I had also hoped that it would enhance participants’ opportunities to say things they might want to on the topic, recognising that different people are more comfortable in different interactional settings (yes, I’m being vague – I have more writing to do on this yet!).

What I have now that I didn’t have before is data in these interviews to support and, yes, vindicate these design decisions. I arrived back at the office after doing the interviews Friday morning fair bouncing out of my skin and fired off a very excited email to my supervisors nattering about ideas for a next paper for publication around methods stuff. It’s additionally brilliant that the interviews came where they did in the process, as I have some good grounds for discussing why this is potentially more effective than other interview approaches for the population with whom I am researching. All the planning and the extra time I took in tweaking my research design is coming to fruition in the most gratifying of ways.

Writing this now I’m getting some of that feeling back. If this is a point in training my PhD dragon, I’m sitting astride it, soaring into the clouds! I did slide off the high point after Friday but at least it has been a gentle slide and not a crash.

Definitely a mass of XP and level up. I think I’ve also earned the White Rabbit Award for Surviving Fieldwork Frenzy and at least bronze, possibly silver, ‘Patience Is A Virtue’ and  ‘Planning Pays Off’ badges.

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White Rabbit Moments

So much doing over the last couple of months has resulted in not a lot of blogging. Not for a lack of things to blog, oh no. No, there has been a surfeit of things to blog. What I have lacked are time to organise my thoughts enough to write about and the energy left over at the end of Teh Busy to do the writing. Part of me is tempted to do a ‘catch up’ post of all the things that have happened, a lot of which have been Very Exciting, but at the same time I want to spend time with them and give each the writing attention it deserves.

What that this has taught me is that research can go from Valley of Shit to EEEEE-It’s-All Working-And-So-Shiny-And-Exciting within the space of a week, and then stay that way. In some ways I have felt a bit like The White Rabbit, coordinating activities across two fieldwork sites that have gone from a crawl to Ludicrous Speed

I am currently very grateful to Past Me for writing some things in draft while things were kind of stuck because it formed the basis of Important Things that were planned back then and happened this week. ‘Write early, write often’ isn’t necessarily about thesis writing. I’ve seen plenty of discussion of ‘start writing early’ as an idea for PhD researchers, both supporting and critiquing. What I am learning is that there are plenty of other things that need writing through the process of research that may or may not belong in the thesis but they still need to be written. Using the time and the thoughts when they happen is important and does make the frantic moments a lot easier when you already have some stuff to revise or shape into the form you need it. I am definitely someone who thinks through writing a lot, so for me that’s another reason such investment is never wasted. Besides, it’s not like I have a finite number of words I can produce and Must Devote All to the thesis and not write other things. Point well made.

The other thing that I think has saved my sanity is the plan I’d made for these few months. Okay, it was tentative at the time and remained flexible. It still meant that I knew what I was aiming for and could schedule things within that. It’s meant that I’ve reached my next time marker (i.e. next visit to Oz) achieving all the things I wanted/needed even though it has resulted in a few weeks of feeling like the White Rabbit. Not quite running late because a lot has fallen into place exactly as I’d hoped, but a lot of busy. Good busy, but busy!

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I’ve just finished the first phase of data generation at my second field site. The rollercoaster ride of fieldwork continues and I am currently very glad that it has evolved in the way it has. Iteration 2 is quite different from Iteration 1 at many levels, which is a strength on multiple levels. Yes, it enhances both symbolic representation and diversity in my sample and all that. It also means that I have a much broader view of ‘what is data’ and what I may engage in my analysis compared with my notions before I started. While I had some concept of adding strength through multiple data points, I don’t think I quite appreciated the intricacy of what I designed at the time I came up with it.

Take a moment – go me! Serendipity ftw!

So, this is especially relevant considering that one of my data points is quasi-naturalistic. It involves recordings of a contrived situation but the participants have complete autonomy within the situation. This is damn scary because I never know what I’m going to get in the recordings. I have even less control than I would in a minimally structured interview. However, the justification for this fear is entirely contingent on your view of this one data point and where it fits within the greater collection. There are previous and further data points within this iteration, and I have one more to go as well as a previous one.

The data I have just finished generating with the input of ‘my’ participants includes many uncensored moments of interaction alongside points related to the content focus of my project. There are some qualitative differences with the recordings from the previous iteration and where I go from here within this iteration will be different as a result. What I find increasingly interesting is how to respect and balance the integrity of the contributions within each iteration while also starting to think about and plan analysis across, between, and through the iterations. Hence the ‘trans’-iterative as a layered play on words – blending transitive as a descriptor of active verbs and ‘trans’ as a preposition.

A significant point for my next steps will be to be attentive to ideas, codes or categories that may transition between the iterations. I’m using a constructivist grounded theory approach at this point to develop an initial analysis. It may prove tempting to transpose across the iterations, especially where *I* may think there is a gap. The thing is, that’s not my gap to fill. This is a strength in GT approaches because they are deliberately ‘bottom up’ and encourage a systematic approach to analysis of the empirical data. The next data point is taking my analysis back to ‘my’ participants. This checking back and incorporating their analysis into the overall study is a key methodological step. It means I’m not guessing or assuming something that may not apply to participants in this iteration. It does put a lot of responsibility on me as the analyst to be aware and alert, but that’s part of the deal with being a researcher. It’s part of the reason why I want to include ‘my’ participants in the analysis as well as generating data related to the topic.

While I was a bit iffy upon reviewing the first recordings from this iteration, I think I have transitioned to a more sophisticated point of view about where I am now and where I’m heading next. More explicitly trans-iterative analysis will come later when I have finished the fieldwork and start delving into the whole set.

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