Persevering with your PhD

Persevering with your PhD

Lucy English

IMG_7200_Lucy_Portraits

Image credit: Simon Goldstein

As a Reader in Creative Writing, a novelist and poet, I have always been comfortable with the creative side of writing and teaching. But when it came to developing the critical component of my own PhD, I felt terrified. I had to remind myself why I was undertaking the project: enjoyment of my research into combining spoken word with film. I simply had to put my fears aside and keep going.

I found the best way to do this was to participate in my academic community. PhD students might feel they are locked in their own little world, trapped within the minutiae of their own project. But there is no need to study alone; you can reach out to the community of doctoral students and other researchers in your field. You may worry that you are not qualified to participate in academic debate, but be reassured — you do already have some expertise. As soon as you create a PhD proposal, you become a member of the academic community, with ideas to share and discuss. You can join specialist Facebook groups focusing on your topic or follow Twitter threads on the subject. If there are no Facebook groups available, why not start one up and invite people to discuss your topic?

As a doctoral student, you are also part of a broader community that will be responsive to your ideas; perhaps other researchers — or in my case, poets and film-makers. You may discover there are many more interested people than you originally thought. I recently led workshops for PhD students and early-career academics with my RLF Consultant Fellow colleague Heather Dyer that focused on how to increase the impact of their research. We advised them to create opportunities to talk about the progress of their work, joining relevant forums and social media platforms to give regular updates and looking out for conferences where they can present on their subject. It’s not necessary to have completed the research — it’s fine to present on ongoing work in a practical session, and during the Q&A you can gain helpful feedback from the audience. Taking part in debates with academics and others in the wider community helps students locate their work within the field and prove the relevance of their research. And it makes studying far more enjoyable. So my advice to PhD students is this: don’t shut yourself away — get out there and start talking! You’re more likely to persevere with your PhD in company.

14 February 2018
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Blurbing is a serious business

Blurbing is a serious business

Image credit: Soren Levy Sands

Image credit: Soren Levy Sands

One-day workshops for PhD students can be heavy-going when you are trying to pack them full of writing know-how. So I like to intersperse challenging tasks with exercises that feel like fun, but the lessons they impart are extremely valuable. A favourite exercise of mine is book blurbing.

Composing jacket copy is an extremely useful activity, since it serves the vital function of getting to the core of the purpose of the work, while at the same time selling it to readers. The blurb has to summarise, convince, beguile, describe and entertain, all at once.

If you simply ask students to write a blurb for their own thesis, the danger is that you will paralyse them; the task of summarising their work artfully is no small one. It is far better to approach the task obliquely. I bring in a novel, with the back-cover blurb taped over. I summarise what the novel is about, who it’s aimed at, and what the writer might be trying to achieve. I pass the novel round the room, get the students to talk about their casual impressions as they flip through its pages, and allow those who might know the writer’s work to characterise it for their peers.

Then I ask the students to take their best and most creative shot at approximating the blurb that I’ve hidden. All of their attempts at writing an alluring blurb go into a hat, from which I then invite each student to pick one blurb at random. Going round the group, reading out the newly minted blurbs, usually generates great hilarity. At this point, I inform the students that I’ve sneakily added the genuine blurb to their offerings in the hat, and that I’d like them to vote on which blurb they think is the real one.

The intention behind this exercise is for students to get to the heart of how they might like their PhDs to be read. What is the best ‘sell’ they can imagine composing for their own work? And what will someone gain by reading it? If a student comes away from this exercise feeling that they’ve learnt what is really at stake in their work, the exercise will have succeeded.

31 January 2018
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How is academic writing like writing for children?

How is academic writing like writing for children?

I am an academic writer and a children’s author. On the face of it, these two forms of writing are at opposite ends of the spectrum. But actually, they have a lot in common.

• They’re both about communicating ideas.
• They need to make complex ideas accessible.
• They tell a story.
• They aspire to effect change.
When I teach academic writing skills, I tell workshop participants that their writing will be more effective when it adheres to some of the constraints required in writing for children.

Audience awareness
What’s the point of writing if not to communicate? Communicating requires you to empathise with your audience. How much does your audience already understand? Why are they reading? What’s in it for them? Keeping both the aspirations and the experience of your audience in mind will make your writing accessible and engaging. It will make your readers feel ‘seen’. Your readers will return this favour by paying more attention. This is particularly important if you want to share your ideas beyond the tight circle of your own research community.

Clarity
Explaining something clearly requires you to think harder and dig deeper. The struggle to articulate a complex idea in simple terms forces us to make previously abstract thoughts concrete. It can reveal gaps in our own knowledge, or foggy thinking. Albert Einstein once said: ‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.’ In workshops, I ask participants to explain their research to a child they know, or a family member who knows nothing about their subject.

Brevity
They say children have short attention spans. But don’t we all? Good writing – like any good design – has no redundant parts. Every word should be indispensable to the whole. Getting to the point is another way of empathising with your readers. As an exercise in brevity, I ask workshop participants to describe their projects in 50 words or fewer.

Story
I once heard a child say of a book he couldn’t put down that it had ‘an urging flow.’ What a wonderful description of narrative! Narrative drive is what keeps a reader hooked. If you can recognise a narrative in your research, you’ll be able to describe it in a more engaging way. Interrogate your work in the same way a children’s author does. What was the situation before you started out? What was the ‘inciting incident’ that began your quest? Why is this important? How did you reach where you are now? Were there difficulties and setbacks? Finally, what did you learn and how might it change the world? A story – like research – recounts a process through which new knowledge is attained. We describe a journey, not just a destination.

17 January 2018
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Active and passive voices

Active and passive voices

The eyebrows of students often buckle when I mention active and passive voices. The issue might be confusing, but it’s also worth untangling, especially for those who worry that their written pieces might sound dull.
Journalists, copywriters and many others who make a living from their writing favour the active voice — and for good reason.

Take a look at these two sentences:

  1. Many researchers believe that oversubscribing antibiotics has created the problem.
  2. It is believed by many researchers that the problem has been created by the oversubscription of antibiotics.

The active sentence A is, I hope you’ll agree, clear and concise. In comparison, the passive sentence B seems rather stodgy. This is partly because it uses almost double the number of words to say exactly the same thing. When repeated over dozens of sentences, the passive voice makes for a very laborious read. Writing in the active voice results in sentences that are lively, direct and concise. Unfortunately, many students continually use the passive, often because they feel it seems ‘academic’. But their writing may become long-winded and woolly as a result.

The passive voice has its uses: it allows you to do away with the subject of a sentence. This is essential in scientific writing; for example, the method section of science reports is normally written in the passive voice and in my role as a freelance copywriter, I choose to use the passive when I’m deliberately seeking vagueness. Next time you receive notification from a service provider that your bill is increasing, chances are it will include the line ‘your bill will be increased’ to keep the responsibility vague. If the provider used the active voice – ‘we are increasing your bill’ – you might think, nasty company! Time to switch.

Songwriters, on the other hand, steer well clear of the passive, which can make discussing the issue fun. After all, who signs up to a writing-skills workshop only to sit through a sterile lesson in grammar? I like to challenge students to untangle the real song title from a passive version I’ve constructed. There’s a prize for whoever shouts out the correct title first. Here are some favourites:

No satisfaction can be got by me.
That lovin’ feelin has been lost by you.
A dollar is needed by me.

So, if you feel your written work lacks impact, get proactive with the active.

20 December 2017

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Writing Coaching Groups

Writing Coaching Groups

Image credit: Soren Levy Sands

Image credit: Soren Levy Sands

One of the frustrations that writing consultants and PhD students alike share at the end of a high-energy workshop, when everyone is feeling thrilled with the progress made and insights gained, is how to keep the momentum going. Specifically, how do you embed best practice when the writing consultant disappears back into their own world and the students are alone again, faced with having to write tens of thousands of words? They will have plenty in the way of critique to guide them, but perhaps little writing support.

Over the past two years, alongside Dr Sarabajaya Kumar, who until recently was head of PhD development at the London School of Economics (LSE), I have been pioneering lunchtime workshops designed to create Writing Coaching Groups among the research student population. Ideally, each group should number four to five students, preferably from different disciplines (so as to minimise departmental griping and maximise communication across disciplines), and run for the course of an academic year. We encourage students to meet monthly, creating a peer-supported space in which they can review each other’s work.

I have come to think of launching these writing groups as rather like setting boats off over the calm blue sea from the shore. I give them life-rafts and provisions in the form of writer’s group etiquette; writing guides; tips about how often to meet; how large a writing sample to exchange, and so on.

In terms of etiquette, the key message is that students providing feedback should not approach the task as if they were undertaking a critique of each other’s work. Instead, I recommend a three-step process. First, they need to express empathy. After all, they are all in the same boat, trying to convey a logical argument in an engaging manner: they need to say, ‘I understand what you’re trying to do here’. Then I task them to come up with an appreciation. This involves celebrating how well the writer has achieved what they set out to do. It helps a student enormously to understand where their own strengths lie. Finally, I encourage the feedback group to articulate the struggles they had in understanding the writing sample. The aim is to alert the writer to the need to express themselves more effectively.

One of the groups we launched in this way at the LSE bonded so well and finished their PhDs in so timely a manner that we decided to interview them in detail about how and why it worked for them. We then invited them to promote the Writing Coaching idea to a fresh intake of third-year PhD students.

6 December 2017
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The elevator pitch

The elevator pitch

Jen Green

As an RLF Consultant Fellow, I specialise in giving workshops on dissertation writing to third-year undergraduates and to postgraduates. These sessions pull together and help embed the skills needed to write what is the most ambitious assignment of a student’s career.

For students who are well advanced in the writing process, my favourite exercise is the ‘elevator pitch’. This is designed to help students refine their argument and also write the abstract. I introduce the scenario, asking students to imagine they find themselves alone in a lift with their head of department. It has recently been announced that a highly lucrative grant is available for just one student from their year to continue their studies as a doctorate. As the elevator doors close, they have one minute with the tutor to introduce themselves and their research topic with a view to winning the grant.

I give students four minutes to prepare their ‘sales pitch’, with key questions as a prompt. What is their research topic and why is it important? What does it add to the knowledge/debate within their field? The students work in pairs. I then time them as one student delivers his/her pitch to their partner in exactly one minute. The partner is asked to listen carefully and has time afterwards to question the speaker if anything was unclear, and jot down notes. The listener then has 30 seconds to précis the pitch back to the original speaker. Did the speaker manage to put their key points across? Can they give any tips on making the pitch more persuasive? Then it’s the second student’s turn.

From the hubbub that rises as the minute starts each time, it’s clear the students find this exercise energising. The response is overwhelmingly positive, with some students relishing the chance to shine while others enjoy the challenge of martialling their argument. Feedback suggests that the elevator pitch helps students summarise what’s important about their thesis, while some report using their scribbled notes to write their abstract.

22 November 2017
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Learning by doing

Learning by doing

Anne Wilson

Anne WilsonInterlocking plastic bricks, modelling clay, coloured card and sparkly pipe cleaners — can playing with craft supplies and children’s construction toys really help improve your academic writing? I think it can. I use them in my workshops – even with senior academic staff – with surprising results. In a session to help Occupational Therapy staff develop creative approaches to support student writing, I asked the participants to construct a plastic-brick model to answer the question: ‘How does the social model of disability relate to the practice of occupational therapists?’ This was an undergraduate assignment that I knew their students found difficult and I wanted the staff to explore their expectations of how the essay should be structured. They found it challenging to ‘write’ the essay in a medium other than words, but their models – and the way they explained the models to their peers – was illuminating. The participants said they found the conversations the exercise triggered both stimulating and thought provoking. This simple kinaesthetic task helped them to express their thoughts about how the essay should be structured and to see how their approach differed from their colleagues’. It also helped them to appreciate some of the challenges faced by their students.

I believe that a successful workshop should be engaging, participative and should cater to a range of learning styles. Learning by touching, making and doing does not suit everyone, but by tapping into a different part of the brain, it can help you overcome some of those knotty problems that get in the way of writing. It can be a powerful tool for understanding key concepts, organising ideas and planning the structure of an academic essay, dissertation or article. I find that the sight of colourful construction pieces in a serious academic workshop lightens the mood and makes people feel that the workshop promises to be exciting and fun. And when high-achieving academics throw themselves into a construction task, it often lives up to that promise.

8 November 2017
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Managing the writing process

Managing the writing process

When I was a Writing Fellow at the University of Bath, sometimes a doctoral student would arrive for their 50-minute one-to-one session with a glum expression on their face. They’d say something like, ‘I’m writing up my thesis and each day seems the same. I’m spending the whole day writing and it’s getting me down. Can you help?’ My response, after reassuring them that everything was OK, was to find out what exactly they did in their working day.

I’m aware that most academics and professional writers don’t sit down and write all day. Writing is an intensive and challenging activity. Most professional writers write for a few hours in the morning or evening and do other writing-related activities at other times — finding sources, reading, planning, and checking their writing. And thinking.

In my book about successful academic writing, I summarise the writing process like this:

The arrows show that writing does not flow smoothly forward. It is typical, particularly in academic writing, to backtrack and do further reading and research based on what you discover when you start writing.

The activities that make up the overall writing process can all be managed. When you’re writing your thesis, the working day can be split among different activities. I suggest you don’t do any of them for more than half of the day. Mix and match them according to your preferences.

Nowadays, I run thesis-writing workshops at several universities. When I unravel what a doctoral student does, I often find that they’re not very aware of their writing process. They don’t manage it well, wasting time with distractions and interruptions. I discover they have preferences about when to compose. Most prefer to compose in the morning or evening.

My advice? Find out what your preferences are, and work to them. Find a good place to compose. Set yourself targets, write in bite-sized chunks of an hour or so, and deal with emails and texts during breaks. Don’t waste time on distractions and interruptions. If you stay focused you can achieve a lot in three or four hours of writing a day. Then you can spend the rest of the time on other activities.

Writing a thesis is a marvellous opportunity, not only to improve the quality of your writing but also the way you manage your writing. These are skills that will stand you in good stead for the rest of your life.

23 October 2017
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How was it for you? Accepting feedback

How was it for you? Accepting feedback

Image credit: Debbie Toksvig

Katie Grant

Feedback is an important learning tool, and because we all use it, we imagine we know how it works. Yet if we learn anything from the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), the evolving scheme for rating undergraduate teaching in the UK, it’s that feedback isn’t working. As calculated by WonkHE, even some TEF gold-rated universities fell ‘significantly short’ in their undergraduate feedback. In writing workshops I’ve found that dissatisfaction with feedback also emerges as a key issue for academic staff. They may question the value both of the feedback they give students and the feedback they themselves receive, particularly on papers submitted to academic journals.

Years of wearing multiple writing hats – newspaper columnist, novelist, RLF Fellow and Consultant Fellow – have taught me that successful feedback combines two elements: from the giver, clarity; and for the receiver, emotional resilience, since feedback, however well-intentioned, can often feel like a punch in the guts.

With my own guts still aching from a recent punch, I’ll take the emotional side first. As I try to impress on academics and students in the workshops I run as a Consultant Fellow, key to emotional recovery is understanding that feedback isn’t personal. The editor/tutor is not focussed on you, the writer, but on the reader. Will the reader find logical gaps? A dearth of evidence? A grating tone? Once you’ve removed the personal, it’s easier to accept the feedback. Still, the best thing is to read it once, then close it and go for a brisk walk. When you return, read it again slowly. It’s this slow reading which often reveals that what, in your first anxious hurry, you read as negatively undermining is, in truth, positively improving.

On the practical side, feedback needs to be instantly comprehensible. The receiver should never have to ask ‘what does this feedback mean’? Three basic questions guide good practical feedback. What, exactly, needs looking at? Why, exactly, does it need looking at? How, precisely, might a solution be approached? For gold-standard feedback, detailed answers to these three questions are vital.

Years ago, in response to a first draft of my first novel, I received gold-standard feedback. The memory still kicks me in the guts. But ten novels, an academic writing website and countless newspaper columns later, it’s been incomparably valuable for my own work, and for my ability to help others give and receive the kind of transformative feedback that unlocks a writer’s full potential and presents a piece to its best advantage.

22 October 2017
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