Tag Archives: media

Setting a routine


I think it was Graham Greene who used to say that he aimed to write 500 words every day. The novels were soon created. This might not sound like a lot of words, but there are two great advantages to this method. Firstly, 500 words every single day, even when some of the words are later amended or discarded, soon builds up to a substantial narrative. This narrative can then be edited, refined, extended or reduced. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the routine act of writing down 500 words each day cultivates a mind-set which develops with constant practice, so that it becomes easier to express your ideas in writing. For some people, it may never become easy, but it does become easier. It helps if the writer is also a regular reader. To become familiar with the way other writers express themselves in text, even if their language or the style is unfamiliar or even disliked, is a useful skill because it enables the writer to understand their own style, and how to capture in words what they want to say.

Most academic writing has a different appearance in style to other forms of literature, because there is a different purpose behind it. As a scientist, I am the first one to agree that scientific writing can also be creative, but analytical writing for an academic purpose – whether this is for science, arts, or the humanities – demands that the text is anchored in such things as theories, concepts, and evidence. Most non-academic writing (apart from things such as biographies or popular histories) do not require citations (e.g. “(Rennie, 2017)” but these citations are essential for academic work to provide the sources of the evidence on which your subsequent ideas are based.

In order to get into a routine which suits your own working style and personality, you need to experiment a little. Some people, like Graham Greene, prefer to set-aside some time each day to write. Others only write when the mood takes them, when they feel inspired, or when a deadline looms over them. Personally, I find writing very easy to do, and I enjoy it, so I have different behaviour patterns for different situations. I know that I can sit down and produce something very quickly if I need to (like a report of work done), but for deeper and more complex work (such as a journal article or research paper) I like to start off with a working title and some headings to give the article a bit of structure. With the general ‘story-line’ in my head, I will then sit down to write the various sections when I think I know what I want to say in each section. I build the article up, then leave it a couple of days, read it again, and make any minor changes. I rarely re-write anything substantial unless I obtain new information or get feedback from a reviewer to expand upon some point of explanation. So, my routine is to establish what I want to say, build up the article as a story, then tweak the final draft until I am satisfied that I have expressed what I want to convey. Other writers will write, re-write, and re-re-write as their ideas change and the article evolves. A key point in all of this is that the finished piece of text, whether it is a research paper or a dissertation, should be enjoyable for the reader, so try to avoid long, cumbersome sentences and clearly signpost the direction of your discussion. Numbered headings and spell checking is also important, so make sure that you develop your own routine to check and double-check each stage as you progress with your text.

Useful webpages:



Storing and archiving data


When I was doing my own PhD, I had a filing cabinet with three or four drawers, and even then I had hundreds of photocopies of academic papers stacked in small piles according to theme and relevance to the section that I was writing about next. My raw research data, however, was compactly contained in electronic format in the form of tables and graphs; row after row of numbers on spreadsheets which could be tabulated and correlated in any format that I desired. When I left the department, the files were archived for a few years, and then I suspect they were all dumped when the department moved to another building on another campus.

Now, when I generate research data, it is almost entirely in electronic format, and it is automatically stored in several places. I have my personal space in the memory banks of the university computing system, and this space is automatically backed-up overnight. I also usually back-up to my own cloud-space, so that I can access the data wherever and whenever I want. Usually, I also store data for individual projects on a separate memory stick or portable hard-drive. The digital age means that after two or three clicks, I can be assured that copies of my data are safely held in four or five independent locations. Research students can simultaneously share data with a colleague or supervisor in a different part of the world without even leaving their own desk.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, however, because the production of digital data raises almost as many questions as it provides innovative opportunities. There needs to be an early discussion in the supervisory team, for instance, about not simply which data will be stored, but where will it be stored, for how long, and who will have access to it? This is not simply an issue of security, although security, confidentiality, and appropriate use of the data will certainly figure in the discussion. There is a growing awareness that when public money is used to fund research, there needs to be a transparent return on public interest. Initially this has meant that research results, reports, and journal articles, should be made freely available to the public. This is being extended in the next Research Excellence Framework in the UK to insist that if the journal article is not already published as an open resource, it needs to be added as an open source on the digital repository of the relevant institution. But there’s more.

The argument has been extended to include the research data generated by the public funding, so the datasets themselves are trending to become open and shared property. Whether the data is numbers, interviews, audio recordings, photographs, or other recordable results, the likelihood is that the data being gathered by a researcher today, is probably going to be a shared resource tomorrow. It will be possible for other researchers, in subsequent years, to access your raw data, perhaps combine it with other raw data, and re-analyse, re-interpret, and publish their conclusions. It now begins to matter a great deal more seriously exactly who can gain access to your research data, and for what purposes. As the law currently stands, a bona fide researcher can have access to open datasets for up to ten years after they have been deposited. But here is the catch – if a researcher accesses this data after nine years, the open-access clock is automatically re-set for a further ten years. This ensures the certainty that data which is being collected and digitally stored just now, might be still openly available long after the initial researcher has moved on from that research topic, perhaps changed institutions, changed careers, maybe even passed away. The raw data of open access digital resources is now guaranteed a lifetime longer than the career-span of many individual researchers. So think carefully about what you gather, how you organise and store it, and what your legacy of research data will be!

Recording data


Firstly, I’m aware that I have broken the first ‘rule’ of blogging, which is to keep the posts short, and keep them coming regularly, but I had a bit of a hiatus due to other interests and demands over the summer. Hopefully, now to get back on track

Starting to record the new data which is being gathered as part of a research project, whether a long-term study like a PhD, or a quick toe-in-the-water project, is the most crucial, but perhaps the subtlest stage of the research. If you gather too little data, the project may flounder even before it gets started; too much data, and a metaphoric mountain of results can be generated by cross-correlation and individual analysis, which can paralyse a project almost as quickly as having no data at all. Then there is the question of what is the “right” data? How will I know it when I see it? In reality, it is as likely to be different for every individual project as the diversity of methods of data gathering. The correct procedure, of course, is to recognise that recording the correct data is integrally dependant on selecting the correct research methodology, and in carefully selecting how the data will be collected, coded, and stored in the future.

One of the most impressive records of research data that I can remember, is from a scientist who was studying birds of prey, and his handwriting in an old notebook recorded what seemed to me to be almost every conceivable factor which might influence nesting success, including several factors that I, personally, would never have begun to consider relevant. He was of course correct, for it is often the correlations with hidden, and often apparently spurious, information which leads to the really stunning breakthroughs in research projects. There are many different ways of the recording research data that you might collect, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. If you are interviewing people, there is a choice between taking notes, audio recording, or video recording; all these methods have their advantages and disbenefits. Taking notes is less obtrusive, but also can be distracting for the researcher. Audio recording can be done easily with a digital recorder, or a suitable app on a smart-phone, but some people may be more guarded in their responses when they are being recorded, and there is also the problematic issue of what to do with all the data you have gathered. Gathering a huge mass of data can be attractive, but it needs to be proportionate to the scale of the project, because there is little point in generating a mountain of data if 80% is left unanalysed and unused. Great care needs to be taken to strike a balance between collecting a good data-set which provides rich possibilities for future analysis, against de-motivating your participants by presenting them with huge questionnaire or over-long interviews. Similar constraints apply when conducting laboratory experiments, fieldwork, or desk-top studies.

Finally, in addition to having to consider your recording requirements in terms of how you propose to codify and analyse the potential results (there is little point in collecting data so randomly that it cannot be interrogated effectively) there are the issues of long-term storage and access to the data. The research supervisor has a crucial role here, not simply in helping to shape what the research students proposes to gather, or how that might be analysed and interpreted, but in providing the continuity which may extend over several decades and overlap with numerous related research student projects. In an increasingly digital and open educational society, not simply the research results, but also the raw research data is also becoming more open and accessible. It is becoming more possible and more likely that scholars coming after you will read not just your conclusions, but also your original data recording notes, so think carefully about what you collect and how you record it!

Using Skype for research supervision


Over the past few years my colleagues and I have been experimenting with the use of videoconferencing for conducting tutorial discussions with PhD students. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, in a geographically distributed institution like the University of the Highlands and Islands, we are not all conveniently located in the same building, or even the same part of the country. Both staff and students who are participating in the tutorial might be at widely dispersed locations and may rarely meet face-to-face. It used to be the presumption in most universities that the research student would be based in a room just along the corridor, or somewhere convenient within the department, convenient that is for the main supervisor. With the increasing number of part-time research students and the benefits of communications technology, I would argue that this is no longer necessary, and possibly no longer even desirable.

The advantages of using videoconferencing are several, whether it is the high-definition system which the UHI is available at the UHI, or the quick-and-easy Jabber connections for less formal meetings. The use of Skype and Facetime is also common, and can be extended into non-work activities. Firstly, although it is not always imperative to see the person to whom you are talking, the ability to see facial cues does give an extra quality that is not available in simple telephone conversations. In the same way that co-location in the same room allows speakers to see the body-language of their audience, the video presence enables participants to see their colleagues smile, nod their head in agreement, or simply watch their eyes glaze over! I have found this very useful to observe when people actually realise when I am joking and when I am not!

Secondly, probably the most convenient advantage of vc is the ability to connect people from almost anywhere. A regular meeting between the main supervisor and the research student at a distant location can be joined by another supervisor at a third location. This provides the best opportunities for networked support, regardless of where the expertise is based. Meetings can be a highly structured discussion with a formal agenda, or a quick, ten-minute focus on a specific point of deliberation. The participants can join from home, or work, or even from the field, and the media is sufficiently simple and easy-to-use that even short, ad hoc, meetings to discuss the wording of a single paragraph, can be arranged at the drop of a hat.

Thirdly, most video communications services have the ability to record the meeting. This is probably not going to be very useful on every occasion, but for key presentations, or for intense sessions of very complex discussions, the participants have the advantage of being able to replay the meeting, analyse the dialogue, and take notes at their convenience.

In many institutions, whatever the official rhetoric, the contact time between the research students and the main supervisors can be precious little, not to say sporadic. The ability to video-link with the supervision team at prearranged times, wherever they are in the world, is a great tool to give meaningful and networked support to the research student, and to provide quality time when it is most needed.

The Second (or Third) PhD Supervisor


Although the main research supervisor normally has the most contact with a research student, the role of the Second Supervisor also provides a useful balance. Normally the second (and perhaps third) supervisor has a limited contact with the student, perhaps as little as three or four discussions per year, but the input they provide is also valuable. It might be because the two supervisors cover different aspects of the same research problem and so can give different suggestions to cope with problems, or they may favour slightly different research methods and emphasis in the investigation. Even when the advice is similar from both supervisors, it can provide a reassurance that the student is on the right (or the wrong!) track. Research has indicated that the way that we supervise research students is often heavily influenced by the manner in which we were supervised ourselves. Some supervisors prefer a distant role, only making contact through formal meetings to check that the research is progressing well. They expect their research students to independent-minded and self-motivated and see a supervisor’s role as a combination of safety-net (for consultation in times of trouble) and manager (ensuring that all the key stages of development and reporting are taken care of). At the other end of the spectrum there are supervisors who seek to micro-manage the PhD project. Resist this temptation! Although the supervisor has a strong self-interest in ensuring that the student’s research project is successfully completed, the work needs to be done by the student, including making the mistakes, false starts, and the hours of working out the best way forward. The relatively light touch provided by the second supervisor can easily be provided via Skype or other such distance-shrinking audio-visual technology. If it is done on a regular basis, perhaps with some periodic face-to-face meetings, this can also be an option for the main supervisor. A benefit of this is that the supervisory team can be brought together on the basis of the skills and enthusiasm that they provide, not simply because they happen to be co-located in the same building or campus. Gone are the days when a PhD student needs to be based just along the corridor for their main supervisor – and anyway, many research students who were residentially based near their supervisor’s office will tell you that their supervisor was so busy globe-trotting to conferences and fieldwork that they hardly saw them for months at a time. Although the UK universities insist upon an external PhD examiner from a different university to ensure the equivalence of the level of the degree, it’s a pity that there is so much emphasis attached to individual institutions as this would seem to be a great opportunity to bring together cross-institutional expertise at the supervision stage, as well as at the final viva voce.

Online education

I appeared on Fred MacAulay’s programme on BBC Radio Scotland yesterday, talking about online education. The clip is at the end of this piece if you want to listen to it. (It only lasts ten minutes or so). As is often the case with TV and radio media, the content tends to be fairly superficial and fast-changing in order to appeal to the widest range of listeners, but the advantage is that there are a LOT of listeners! In a way, it is interesting how the comments on “degrees by post” or “get a degree without getting out of your pajamas” has given way to a serious radio discussion among a whole range of other items which are simply taken as ‘part of life’.http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b052my7v

Supervision at a distance

Increasingly, services which we used to consider could only be delivered face-to-face, are being offered through online media. Supervision of research students is no exception to this trend, and although there is a belief among some supervisors that the PhD student needs to be “just along the corridor” from the supervisors, really this is more for the comfort of the supervisor than the student! In fact, with some aspects of the work of post graduate research students, there is an argument that the student can get more attention, and perhaps better attention, by combining face-to-face with online opportunities. In my work, a recurrent question is, “How can I do this activity with a student who is at a distance”? In some cases it might simply be making use of video-conferencing software, such as Skype, to have an in-depth discussion; in other instances the student can be referred to a host of useful online resources to enhance their skills and knowledge.

In my experience, almost every instance of thinking through the issue of how a face-to-face educational experience can be moved (at least partially) online, means that the re-thinking process strengthens the pedagogy and the educational rationale. In part, this may be because we are fundamentally re-thinking about what is really essential in the educational activity itself (as opposed to how the ‘lesson’ we deliver has evolved away from what we initially started with). On the other hand, experience tells us that there is more than one way of learning/teaching a subject, so adding various online educational resources might be considered simply extending the tool-kit that we have at our disposal, and that we are prepared to share with the student.

A helpful online resource when getting started on a PhD is http://www.findaphd.com as this combines a number of useful resources and networks. Obviously, it can be used to find a PhD position which the prospective student might apply for, but it goes way beyond this. Details of funding opportunities and different types of PhD offers can be viewed and compared. There are sections on the “nuts and bolts” of what constitutes a PhD, as well as advice on how to cope with the most common difficulties, or suggestions of help from a variety of sources – including other PhD students. An interested surfer can browse through the PhD opportunities that are currently on offer, compare the details, and even contact the proposed supervisors in a variety of countries for more information on their research proposal. Most importantly, the surfer can access this information at their own convenience rather than travelling for an hour to ask a question that requires a three-minute answer. For these reasons, I make a point of investigating new online opportunities for each teaching and research activity that crosses my path.