Coasteering, Part 2.

Publishing, conferencing and secondary APR’ing.

My last post was a bit of a bummer, but it needed to be said that writing is hard, and that making time for space and reflection is even harder. We promise ourselves a daily walk, a few hours to read those slightly oblique papers that will enrich our perspective, and catch up on the even more enriching work that’s happening outside of academia, but we don’t always manage it. Time bends when you do a PhD, and there are always more roads to navigate. I think the picture above, from a card given to me by my eternally patient friend Gemma, sums up my feeling like a little truck, trundling through the big, beautiful waves, always moving.

Let’s start with some good news. In March I was off the scale thrilled to have something published in The Conversation. My very first piece in fact, and an exercise I would really recommend PhD students try. You can find out more about The Conversation and what they do here, and my piece is here. I was fortunate that my university arranged some meet the editor sessions, so I popped along. It works by you pitching an idea for a piece, and if it gets accepted, you are invited to write the whole piece (around 800 words), and then you go back and forth with an editor ironing out any kinks. The whole thing took about three weeks from start to finish, but this varies hugely depending on the topic. My original pitch in December was rejected, but then the topic gained huge media interest so there was an element of right place, right time.

Having this piece published was significant for two reasons: at a time of increasing media hostility towards transgender and/or non-binary people in sport (and other areas), it felt good (and felt important), to offer an alternative perspective, one which centred the experiences of transgender people. As a trans-inclusive feminist, doing this is at the core of my personal and political position. Secondly it was a good confidence booster. My last post has already touched on how I  have been struggling, and seeing a real piece of my work in the wild went a long way to calming my anxiety.

This is not to say it’s magically disappeared. My secondary Annual Progression Review was on the horizon. But what happens in a secondary APR? What is expected of you? Does anyone ever survive? The short version is that yes, you do survive, but make no mistake – the focus is more intense. Your primary APR (see ‘Negative Splits Part 2, August 2018), focuses on your general progression. Hopefully you will have completed your ethics and written a solid literature review. Maybe you’ve collected some data and presented at a conference. In your second APR you need to have written a lot more. At least 25 – 30,000 words, most usually your methodology and methods chapter and perhaps a revision of your literature review. An update of what you have done (for example teaching) and any tweaks to your research plan.

My APR took place on Monday 24th June in what turned out to be the busiest week of my year.  That same week I was due at two conferences on opposite sides of the country, but more about those later. As before, my APR readers were relaxed and informal and did everything to calm my shaky voice and twitching hands. One of my supervisors was there again to take notes and provide silent support.

Some people ‘revise’ for an APR, they memorise chunks of text and have a 5-minute presentation ready to role out in their head. Great ideas, and although I had revisited key bits of my theory and argument, I knew that I would have no answers for the stuff I was still weak on – my ontological and epistemological position – so figured faking it would only blow up in my face. So I was prepared, but not word-perfect. Don’t worry, I will be for the Viva.

As it happens, my literature review was barely discussed, though my readers were complimentary. But they did discuss the nitty gritty of my methodology chapter. Remember I did that painful personal narrative? They spent a lot of time talking about that, and the importance of striking a balance as a researcher, and as commendable as it is to have clear convictions (as a trans-inclusive feminist), I need to remember my other commitment is as a social scientist, one who produces balanced, unbiased research. They also discussed the weaknesses in my writing, exactly what I knew they would do, but thanks to having re-written that chapter 4 times, it didn’t come as a surprise. I was ready for their suggestions. They encouraged me to just read a bit more, think a bit deeper and get to the point faster. I managed to neither throw up or cry and held my own when they asked questions about my choice of theories and the omission of citing Judith Butler. It had taken me a long time to justify and explain clearly my use of feminist standpoint and queer theory together in relation to my research, so I was pleased with where I had got to. As for Butler, she simply hadn’t written anything relevant that others weren’t saying more currently, and at times, with more significance. Sometimes, our choices aren’t very complicated.

The whole thing was over in an hour, and I was given the go ahead to progress. My readers also offered me some advice on what to try and achieve in my third and final year in order to be employable – finishing on time and getting published are for me the gold standard here, so if you take anything useful away from this, that’s it. Think about what you need in that last year, what offers you the most currency, and be realistic. Where do you see yourself after the PhD? Lastly, the thing which one of my supervisors is constantly bemused by, is my total lack of confidence and faith in my academic ability. My supervisor worries, quite rightly, that it will hold me back. I don’t know what to tell you about this, only that I’m working on it, or at least working on keeping my mouth shut when I feel an apology coming on. So when (if) you are feeling like this, remember I do too.

A quick note before I go on conferences. Due to commitments I have to choose very carefully what I go to but I was lucky enough to have a paper accepted for three conferences: the Gender in Education Association which took place at the University of Plymouth, a symposium on The Embodied Researcher in Sport at the University of Canterbury organised by Dr Amy Clark, and POWES at Cumberland Lodge in Windsor. I am lucky to receive a bursary to cover these events, so I really wanted to maximise my time there. It’s a great chance to showcase your research and get feedback from more experienced people, and my presentation at the GEA resulted in being asked by the Sociological Review to write a short piece about an aspect of my methodology (see, it’s not all doom and gloom, and it’s due out this month!). I was also asked by someone at the POWES conference to write a position piece on another aspect of my research (similar to The Conversation piece), so I’m working on that right now.

And because publishing opportunities are clearly like buses, I have also submitted an abstract for a special edition journal to co-author a piece with my supervisors. Those last two are peer reviewed – the holy grail of publishing – so if I pull those off then I’ll be heading into my Viva with a hopefully less shaky voice and twitchy hands. Though I doubt it.

I’ll be back in September with my to-do list, which is going to be all about data analysis, and an update on the publishing process.

Coasteering, Part 1

Coasteering: the sport of climbing and swimming around a rocky part of a coast.

Or: trying to work your way along the coast by any means necessary.

My last post, written two hundred in years ago in March, was a happy, sparkly post, full of fist pumps and not giving up. ‘You can do it’ I chirped. ‘This is a lesson in remembering that this stuff takes work, lots and lots of work’, I optimistically told myself before falling headfirst off a cliff into my own positive attitude.

You see at that point I thought all I needed to do for my secondary APR* in June would be to tidy up my methodology chapter for the third time, strengthen my argument and send it back to my supervisors in a nice big bow, done and dusted. I could then revise my literature review, submit my paperwork and sprint for the finish line.

Only my tired old-lady brain had other ideas. In April I hit a wall of confusion. I couldn’t seem to grasp anything anymore, the chapter turned to dust in my hands. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand what I needed to do; I just couldn’t seem to do it. The more I wrote, the worse it got. It was like that story of the magic porridge pot, too many words everywhere, nowhere for them to go.  I felt oddly out of control and lost. I had let go of the reader’s hand miles ago and they had sensibly gone home.

I submitted what I had done to my supervisors, with the usual accompanying list of apologies, pointing out my errors and intentions to do better. The feedback wasn’t good. I had taken something in a decent-ish shape and trampled all over it. They advised me to restructure it and submit it again in a week: a sensible piece of advice but one which threw me into deep, deep panic. I don’t cope with changing deadlines very well, because I plan my work carefully for one big non-negotiable reason: the school holidays. By this point we were in April, and said school holidays and two significant birthdays were all on the horizon. That was a very hard week and involved a lot of crying and working around the clock. It wasn’t comfortable.

On hindsight, I needed a break from this chapter – I hadn’t had one since January – time to read, reflect and then edit again. But when you have caring responsibilities and non-negotiable commitments, time to reflect is hard to find. There is often no other time to push your work into, you are paddling so fast around those rocky coast lines that before you know it, you’re drowning. For the first time since starting the PhD, my self-confidence crashed, and my resiliance crumbled.

It’s times like these the support system you have kicks in. My PhD BFF is Kristin O’Donnell, and without her, I would have gone under. She talked me down, let me go over every single anxiety in tiny, tiny detail, and reminded me that I could do this. And if things weren’t perfect, so what? And as with all jobs, the next day in the office is never as bad as we imagine it might be, and slowly, bit by bit, I managed to get the porridge back into the pot and close the lid.

When the deadline came around, I had managed to restructure the fourth version of my methodology chapter and revise my literature review. They are still not perfect – they will never, ever be perfect – but as Kristin often tells me, they just need to be good enough. Afterall, a PhD is a training programme for what comes next.

I try to end these posts on a good point. On the bright side maybe I’m a little less naïve now than the last post (sink or swim, right?), but my faith in establishing a support network remains. Doing a PhD is hard on multiple levels, at multiple times, and I still have a long way to go. I couldn’t do it without the support network I have, but at least, for now, my methodology chapter is ok. For now, I’m still here.

The next post – coming very soon – will spill the beans on what a secondary progression review feels like (so was the methodology chapter really ok?), the value of conferences, and the thrill of (almost) being published.

 

* The aim of the Secondary APR is to assess your progress towards completion. It takes place in your second year if you are full-time, and around 30,000 words (around 2 chapters) is required. It is the same as a primary APR in format, but more challenging.

Swim Down

– a swimming term to  describe swimming slowly and steadily at the end of the session to warm down.

This post is dedicated to Kristin O’Donnell, Willem J Stander and Claire Warrington: thank you: your support means everything.

No doubt you have been pacing the floors, wondering how my latest supervisory meeting went, and what the feedback was on my methodology chapter?

Well, I have good news. Overall, the second draft was (ahem), ‘a joy to read, and the writing is, in places, at PhD standard.’ There is still much work to do, because there always is with a PhD, but that’s better, isn’t it? I think so. Turns out all that fucking up might have helped after all.

Now, this is not intended to be a boast – I am a doormat, don’t forget. Rather, it is a lesson in remembering that this stuff takes work. Lots and lots of work. And reading, rewriting and restructuring. No one is a natural at this stuff, no one gets it the first time. Or the second, third or even tenth time. Sometimes it feels like you will never get it. And if you are feeling lost, worried, frustrated, flailing in the dark, I promise you this: me too.

One of the hardest things about a PhD is that you are told over and over the importance of pulling all of your threads together, so that your research all connects. My first supervisor, Prof Katherine Johnson explained it beautifully.  She said:

‘It’s like you take the reader by the hand at the beginning, and you don’t let go. Your job as writer is to keep hold of their hand, and tell them your story’.

This is so hard when you don’t yet know your story from start to finish. It can feel like you are doing things in the wrong order and in isolation. It’s true that a PhD is like a jigsaw puzzle; you do bits of it here and there, not always being able to see the final picture until it’s nearly done.

So my advice is: don’t give up. It’s not deeply profound, or original, and you will want to give up some days. Be kind to yourself on those days, do a small piece of the puzzle, read the back of the box, look at the picture again to remind yourself of what is still to come.

You can do it.

Coming next:

Getting ready for my secondary progresssion review: presenting, publishing and final year plans.

 

 

 

On Water Quality

The condition of water with respect to the amount of impurities in it.

Or: Cleaning up your mess.

Surprise! I am still talking about the methodology and methods chapter. Or rather, this entry offers an update on writing the second draft of this chapter after I’d met with my supervisors to discuss my first draft. Don’t worry, though, I’m not going to drone on about the personal narrative again, as that ship has sailed (see blog entry ‘Epilimnion’)

As usual an apology, for still writing about this chapter. It’s because it’s a pretty big deal and a tough nut to crack, as a wiser colleague said. My focus this year is to have 30,000 words written to a good standard, in time for my secondary progression review which will happen in June, so just getting it to any standard takes work.

At the time of writing I have recently submitted a redraft of this chapter, and what a difference that redrafting made. Prior to feedback, I felt like I had a reasonable handle on what a methodology chapter is, or should be – it’s just the nuts and bolts, right? What I did, why and how? Remember, I had MADE A LIST, and making lists is what I am good at. Looking back at the list, well, it wasn’t too far off the mark. I meant well, but I really did speak too soon about ‘getting’ some of the harder stuff.

Boy was I wrong in this first chapter. Like, off the scale wrong. I joke about being wrong all the time: we doormats wear our wrongness openly, and I’ve had a life time of practice. I can even appreciate why being wrong is important, but I was underprepared for the massive error I was about to have gently explained to me.

So, what did I do? Well, my supervisors’ initial comment about my chaper was that they couldn’t hear me, that my voice was hard to find amongst all the nuts and bolts. That overall it wasn’t a very confident chapter No problem – we’ve tackled that with the personal narrative, right?

But here comes the humdinger of a mistake, and I feel it’s important to confess this because, well, what’s the point of doing a PhD if you can’t learn from your mistakes?

I fucked up the theory. I had been trying to take the best aspects of one particular theory (let’s call it feminist standpoint theory, because, well, it was), and make it work for my chapter. But really, I had no idea what ‘making it work’ means or what such an application would even look like. I had spent some time looking back at one of my masters’ essays on concept notes and felt that feminist standpoint theory, if tweaked and combined with queer theory could offer a new perspective on how we think about sport and bodies. After all, bodies are a pretty big deal across all of these areas.

What I had failed to grasp was how polar opposite these theories are to each other, and I had cherry picked the relevant aspects from both, without really thinking on how their differences (and similarities) were significant. Or even explained why I had done this.  I was so excited about feeling I had ‘got’ theory finally! It was my epistemological position! I knew where it belonged in the chapter! All I needed to do was write about social constructionism – my ontological position – and I had solved the puzzle! No matter that the chapter now looked like it had landed from space. Outer fucking space no less.

It gets worse. Early feminist standpoint theory takes a gender essentialist approach – and this could not be in more direct conflict with my position as a trans-inclusive feminist. Even worse still was that I had argued against gender essentialism in my masters’ dissertation, yet here I was claiming that feminist standpoint theory had a place in this chapter. Let’s not even discuss the issues that bringing social constructionism to the table then added. I think the term ‘outdated’ was mentioned.

My supervisors are kind and patient people. They diplomatically informed me that the reason I was struggling to get this chapter to make sense was not because I hadn’t understood these conflicting theories (oh but I had), but was because, well, they conflicted with each other. But I knew the real problem. It was that I had not fully understood either of them.

My first reaction was to strip it all out and start again, and only focus on the significance of queer theory for my methodology. But then my lead supervisor advised me that this might be a good time to explore this further, and see what develops, and perhaps read some more current literature. Something less oudated. She said three more things which I think are worth remembering, and which have liberated me from feeling it was all a wasted word count.

  1. Being a feminist doesn’t mean that you are ‘doing’ feminist research. So, stop worrying about ‘making’ it feminist.
  2. You don’t have to ‘be’ a queer theorist to write about queer theory.
  3. Just write. Write anything. Write that you think there is a connection between feminist standpoint theory, queer theory, sport and bodies. Tidy it up later.

Really what she was saying was to relax, don’t worry, fucking up is important. And speaking loudly from the heart is quite important, too.

I have two post it notes on my desk, both of which have sat there since I started the PhD. One says ‘don’t give up’ and the other says ‘keep reading’. I know this seems obvious, but I often forget how important reading frequently is. I know I’m guilty of resting on my master’s reading a bit and kid myself that I am too time-poor to set aside dedicated reading days. But really knowing your field is essential, and you have to squeeze the literature available and learn from it (and don’t be afraid to be critical, too, in a constructive way!).

My next supervisory meeting is later this week, to discuss if this latest draft has improved, but I’m hopeful it’s at the very least one step up from the last one. The important thing is to remember that mistakes can be learned from, and there is always something else out there to read, to help you make sense of it all.

Keep speaking up, and keep fucking up.

This post is dedicated to Meg-John Barker and Jules Scheele’s book Queer: A Graphic History: thank you. You helped a confused student find a path through the theoretical darkness.

 

Epilimnion

Epilimnion is the name given to the uppermost layer of water, which can be a startlingly different temperature to the one just below.

– or, why going deep when writing a personal narrative feels unsettling.

Remember I promised that I would write an update, talking about how my last supervisory meeting went, the one with feedback on my methodology chapter? It’s coming, but there’s something I really need to get off my chest first.

Why have I found writing a personal narrative so hard? What is it about the necessity of including ‘me’ in the research, surely this is just navel-gazing? I mean – who cares what I have to say? I really don’t need to bore the reader with my deep and meaningful connection to my research, do I? Well, yes, and no. As always, it takes me a while to understand the purpose of each part of the PhD, and my default usually involves ripping it up and starting again.

So let’s start again. What is a personal narrative, you ask? It sounds quite nice, easy even! Well, it’s not, especially if, like me, you are a self-identified doormat, and talking about yourself, no matter how necessary, makes you feel uncomfortable. Afterall – I’m doing a PhD, but it’s not actually about me, right? Wrong. Because it so happens that the range of influences shaping your research, including your own, have value. I had monumentally failed to appreciate or understand this until writing my own personal narrative.

Let’s start with what it actually is. In relation to a PhD, the personal narrative (or reflective piece to give it it’s posh name) is a short section which you include in your methodology chapter. It’s a requirement (in the social sciences at least), so no avoiding it.

Its purpose is to ‘locate’ the reader within the research. That is, when the examiner reads your PhD, they can see how your personal and professional life may have influenced your work. Your politics, ethics, beliefs, objectives, and also your credentials. Why is a qualitative research design the best one for my research? Why interviews, why sport, why trans and non binary people?

Seems ok? Here’s the bit that I struggle with. ‘The narrative’, writes my guiding light Pat Thomson, enacts the (epistemological) position that no research is neutral and all research is written from somewhere, and where matters’.

No research is neutral.

You see, I have been trying to be invisible in my research, neutral, impassive, wanting the stories I have been hearing to be centre stage. Because I am, no question about it, an outsider researcher. I do not identify as the community I am lucky enough to be talking to. This has historically made me feel very uncomfortable. But why? Reading around on the subject has offered me the alternative notion that being on the inside is no guarantee you are better qualified. Or have the same monolithic shared experience as others who occupy the same position. As a mother I can attest to the fact that I most certainly did not feel the same as other mothers about many, many things, often to my detriment. My ‘mother’ status at times in fact isolated me. So perhaps what is meant by this is that thinking about one’s location helps us to identify blind spots, and to operationalize reflexivity. It highlights the inseparability of epistemology, ontology and research practice. Or in other words, reflexive research is often said to look back on itself (Gilbert, 2008).

Pat Thomson advises that the personal narrative is intended to show how the research question arises from the personal life or professional work experience of the researcher. I have struggled with finding a connection, and been anxious that I wasn’t – and I cringe at these words – oppressed enough. Nor do I have a professional connection. I’m researching transgender people’s participation in sport, but I don’t identify as trans. And asides from an unhealthy obsession with swimming, I couldn’t locate my reason for doing this research, I have nothing to draw on from my own experience, professionally or personally.

So what did I do to get through what still feels like quite a self-indulgent process? Saying it out loud helped. Reading a lot helped even more. Then finally I sat and I wrote about everything I could think of that may have influenced my research. I wrote about swimming, and my Dad dying, about post-natal depression and feeling a failure as a mother. I wrote about school and university and work-place bullying. I wrote about doing a Masters and how it changed my life.

Then I deleted it all and stopped trying to write what I thought other people wanted to hear. I stopped trying to find ‘the big reason’ as to why I was doing this PhD and this particular topic and wrote from the heart. I can’t say I was surprised when I realised what had been bothering me, I already had a feeling what had triggered it, but I think I had been avoiding this particular thing being the reason for my discomfort. But being uncomfortable is important. Because it’s truthful.

As Pat Thomson tells us, understanding the reasons for writing a personal narrative are crucial, because what we decide to include and exclude are crucial. And as Mark Erickson once told me, every choice we make is a dismissal of something else.

So be prepared to swim a bit deeper, feel a little bit uncomfortable, and locate yourself in the research. It is your research, after all.

 

 

Pressing the Buoy

– a swimming term which means that if you apply downward pressure on your chest when in a prone position, your hips and legs will rise as your body acts like a lever.

– (or trying to understand the importance of Methodology and Methods)

It’s no secret that I am a list maker and dig a deadline. So the first thing on my to-do list in early September was to meet with my new supervisory team. As my lead supervisor has taken up a new post in Australia, this was the first time we had met as a group. For anyone else who may have experienced a change of supervisory team (especially when it’s your lead supervisor who changes), please try not to worry. It can feel daunting, and unnerving (whatever stage you are at), but in an unexpected way, it allowed me the chance to come back to the new semester with the feeling of renewed ownership of my PhD.  My summer had been relaxing and I had been fortunate enough to have collected a good amount of data, and I was keen to get analysing.

My plan this year is to have two to three chapters (or around 30,000 words) written to a good standard, and for it to be all better written. That is, to hang together better. It’s hard enough keeping someone’s interest in an email: 80,000 words needs to flow in such a way that you never lose hold of your reader’s hand. So – a decent word count, and a higher quality of writing.

I based this on what I knew was expected in my secondary progression review, as well as what stage I was at with my PhD. My supervisors agreed that this was a good plan and were also very keen to read some of my data. By this point I had interviewed 12 people, so I finished transcribing these and emailed them. I know that everyone hates transcribing – so these are my two tips. Firstly, read Cindy Bird’s brilliantly titled piece ‘How I Stopped Dreading and Learned to Love Transcribing’, a fantastic read which heled me to appreciate the importance of this task as a researcher and as part of my methodological preparation. Secondly, make it as attractive as possible: I bought the software Express Scribe for £30 (you can try it for free first) and downloaded it to my home PC. It slows down the recording to a pace you can you type along to, rather than starting and stopping, which can be the most gruelling of jobs. Once I got used to sounding like the girl from the Exorcist, I was able to transcribe an hour of data in around three. It also allowed me to do it in my pyjamas and eat biscuits. Really, you need incentives.

We met again a few weeks later to discuss the data I had gathered, by which time I had completed another 6 interviews, bringing my total to 18. I was feeling that I had reached saturation point, and as my interviews were often over an hour long, I had a good amount to analyse. I think the meeting with my supervisors to discuss this data was one of the most powerful I have had: I was quite emotional at several points talking about people’s experiences and I found revisiting these conversations quite hard at times. The other thing was how important it is to consider yourself in the interview (and as a researcher), something which brings me nothng but acute great discomfort. A piece of advice from my supervisor Dr Hannah Frith: learn to live with the discomfort, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. More on this later.

So – what came next was writing my draft Methodology and Methods chapter. I was terrified about this, this is the scary chapter, right, the one with the theory and epistemology and ontology? ‘Inexperienced researchers’ writes Berg (2004), ‘often think the methodology section is the most difficult section to write’. And for me going in, it felt like that, so I am going to spare you my agony and instead, here are my top ten tips, based on what my supervisors advised me to do (and what I worked out along the way).

  1. This chapter is a sales pitch. You need to convince the reader that your research methods and way of seeing the world are absolutely the very best ones to get your research questions answered
  2. Start with understanding what goes in a methodology chapter. As always, Pat Thomson is invaluable for breaking this stuff down: https://patthomson.net/2013/02/18/methodology-isnt-methods-or-what-goes-in-a-methods-chapter/
  3. Revisit your Research Plan and your Ethics Proposal – these are your original road maps
  4. You will feel like you are writing a research methods book
  5. Read other people’s methodology chapters and give yourself some headings to start off with (i.e. the strengths and weaknesses of qualitative and quantitative research)
  6. Work backwards – if you have gathered data, write about exactly what you did, then build on it
  7. Be prepared to feel overwhelmed about the theory stuff – how much do you need to put in about social constructionism, relativism, feminism – and why? I felt like I was having to include stuff in order to justify my dismissal of it
  8. Be prepared to feel quite excited when you realise that you finally understand (a little bit), how all of this comes together, and why you needed a plan in the first place
  9. Take brain breaks, as my son calls them – preferably in the fresh air. Walk, think, run, swim, garden. Talk to the cat. Keep away from Netflix.
  10. Remember it is a draft.

Now – disclaimer time. Since posting this, I have had a supervisory meeting with feedback on my chapter. It was somewhat of an emotional roller coaster, so I’m going to write an update: watch this space.

In between all of this planning I was offered the chance to do some teaching – something I had not anticipated to happen, and it was something I had not initially wanted to do. PhD students are often offered the chance to run seminars, which are smaller working groups with students where you get to go into more detail about an aspect of the lecture. I was lucky enough to have two groups: one on research methods and one on contemporary social inequalities.

I was beyond nervous about these sessions, and I did what a lot of people do when nervous, which is over prepare. I put together slides, handouts, read everything the students were supposed to read and then some. Now, on reflection, I’m ok with this, I understand my own coping mechanisms. Much of what I did in research methods became an outline for my methodology chapter, so it wasn’t a complete waste of time. I found teaching to be one of the most enjoyable things I have ever done. From a selfish perspective, it helped me to organise my thoughts and test my knowledge, improved my confidence, revisit topics and themes I hadn’t thought about for a while. It made me realise how it’s ok to use The Good Place to explain moral philosophy and ethics. My tip? If you are offered teaching, take it. Talking to other students has been a thing of great joy and delight for me, because after all, I’m just another student.

What else has happened this semester? Well, the usual submitting of abstracts to hopefully present at some conferences (and get feedback on new chapter). I was lucky enough to hear Molly Smith and Juno Mac talk about their incredible new (and best-selling!) book Revolting Prostitutes – it’s a gem of a book by two very smart women. We also held a couple of Book Parties for Fox and Owl Fisher’s ‘frank, friendly and funny’ book The Trans Teen Survival Guide, in collaboration with Brighton’s Jubilee Library and Falmer Library. Read both of these books if you can, they are both beautiful and informative.

But mostly this semester was about getting that draft methodology chapter down on paper and keeping on track with my PhD as well as making time for swimming and fresh air. Always, always important.

As promised, I’ll be back quite soon with an update on how my feedback meeting went, and the tricky nature of writing a personal narrative.

 

 

 

 

 

Part 2 – Negative Splits

Negative splits – a swimming term which means you swim faster for the second half of the distance than the first.

This post is dedicated to Professor Katherine Johnson, who supervised me in the first year of my PhD. Katherine has been, and continues to be, a huge influence on me, and her support and advice was more than I could have hoped for at the beginning of such a massive life change. Katherine has taken up a new post at RMIT University in Melbourne, where she will continue to build and create pioneering research around LGBT mental health and trans youth.

After the high of my ethics being approved in April came a succession of tasks, each of which was intense and involved me being incredibly busy until July. So busy in fact that it’s taken me until mid-August and to write about it, and ironically, I’m doing it on holiday, in-between twice daily swimming marathons with my son and partner, and consuming vast quantities of food.

Tasks have included data gathering, designing a poster and helping out at the University’s fantastic Festival of Postgraduate Research (the poster competition was won, I am thrilled to say, by my PhD BFF, Kristin O’Donnell). I also gave a dry-mouthed presentation of my literature review at the annual Psychology of Women and Equalities Section conference, sat on two panels, am still a PhD student rep on two university groups, am arranging for speakers to visit Brighton as part of the University’s Centre for Transforming Sexuality and Gender programme, attended three seminars, heard Juno Roche read from their fantastic book Queer Sex, went to one research methods training day, helped out with the 2018 Trans, Non-Binary and Intersex Conference, and the real biggie: my annual progression review, or APR.

Quite a to do list, right?  When anyone asks you why a PhD takes so long, above are some of the peripheral reasons. You will be relieved to know that I am only going to write about data collection and the APR, because quite frankly, you have busy lives. But the one thing I will say is this:  try and get involved with events when you can. Check with your supervisor what you need most; I know that I need lots of research methods training. Not only is it good experience, but networking and leaving the house are quite nice too. As a wannabe social scientist, I sometimes forget that engaging in society in real time, with real people, is quite important. I have written before about the importance of seeking out voices outside the academy – activism is always way ahead of academia, and I am lucky enough to be researching in an area which has a generous, vibrant and informative social media presence.  Once more for the back: don’t dismiss those voices talking about issues on other platforms. I am eternally grateful to those artists and activists who generously share their thoughts, feelings and work, in particular to Fox and Owl and the work they do at My Genderation, making films about trans people, which are made by trans people, for a wider audience.

Data collection – otherwise known as talking to people – has been my ongoing focus since my ethics was approved. Getting my ethics done early has meant that I have been able to contact the organisations and networks who I hoped would gatekeep for me and pass on my request to potential participants.  Responses can be slow, and if, like me, you need to focus your time and brain power on the hard stuff which is just around the corner, the sooner you can gather your data, the better. Also – and it’s understandable – not everyone who gets in touch with you will end up as an interview: I am currently seeing a 50% take up. If you can use social media, then this can be helpful: a few of the organisations I contacted were happy to tweet stuff which I then retweeted, and this got picked up people who have direct links to the people I wanted to reach, so it’s worth having a digital copy of your recruitment poster to hand. Don’t rely on the internet, though, you need to be reaching out to communities too, not relying on them to do the work for you.

My first interview was kindly arranged for me as a pilot by my supervisor Dr Nigel Jarvis and went better than I could have hoped. I was nervous about meeting them; would my recorder work, would I recognise them, would I say something massively inappropriate? But once we had got the formalities out of the way (my lack of experience showing massively as I fumbled over consent forms and niceties), it was a wonderful experience, often emotional and at times laugh out loud funny. My top tip: take tissues and don’t turn off your recorder until the conversation is definitely over. Amateur that I am I kept turning it off and asking my poor interviewee to repeat themselves.

Since that first pilot in May, I have completed 9 more, 7 of which have been by telephone. Don’t dismiss telephone interviews: they are just as rich as in-person interviews, and often allow for different disclosures. They also allow more flexibility as an interviewer (no travelling!) and as a parent, they’ve been invaluable. Gina Novick (2008) writes brilliantly about the benefits of telephone interviews in qualitative research, so her piece is worth reading. My other tip is to log every person: when and how they contacted you, where they saw your advert, and all communication. This helped me to remember to gently nudge those who dropped off the radar without hassling them and get an idea of which places worked well for recruitment. I also made notes about how I felt the interview went and any key themes. Whilst this will all come flooding back when you transcribe, (oh god, the transcribing), a bit of housekeeping now will be beneficial for your methodology and reflection later. Oh, and another thing – be willing to send your consent forms and any other paperwork in the post with a SAE to the person you’ve interviewed. If someone is generous enough with their time, it’s only polite to make the admin as easy as possible for them.

I’m enjoying data gathering – talking to people – immensely. It is nothing like I thought it would be. It’s often funny, sad, difficult to hear, occasionally shocking, but so much of what I am hearing is deeply intertwined with other themes that I’m finding it hard to know where to start unravelling it all. I’m also mindful of how my findings can be disseminated back to the community who have been so generous in sharing it with me in the first place. Alternative methods may be more interesting and easier to digest than more traditional methods. I guess that’s the point of qualitative and social research. You have to know when to shut the fuck up and listen carefully to what the other person is saying.

Which brings me neatly to my annual progression review. The APR has been on my mind since October and it is, essentially, a review of your progression on the PhD, taking place roughly 8 months in. But what does progression mean? Simply put, it’s sitting in a room with two academics – readers – who will ask you about your research. Do you seem to have a handle on your research? How’s your theoretical framework? Where exactly are you locating your research, Abby, sport or gender? As I have mentioned before, I’m a compliant soul, and I work best (or at least I feel best) when I have a clear guideline on what I have to do. I like word counts and feedback, deadlines and a manual. This compliance is also my undoing, and I am aware that my contribution to knowledge needs to be original, and right now, everything I do is pretty text book. I don’t think outside of the box very often and when I do, it’s normally by accident. For me, knowing what the APR guidelines were, helped me to plan what I needed to do. As always, there is a huge amount of reading and writing – 10,000 words as well as evidence of your engagement with your studies. Remember the advice I gave about keeping a Research Diary? Well, here’s the proof that it works, because I was able to check back and see what I had done this year and log it all in a neat little spreadsheet. Every tiny thing from my to do list and more became my evidence. It doesn’t have to be the same for you – this is my PhD after all – but that little diary just about saved my life. It was my proof, it was a record of what I had ‘done’ this year. If you do one thing – keep a research diary. I have Dr Mark Erickson to thank for that top tip.

What was useful with this admin, was that it freed me up to write those 10,000 words for my APR, and this is really what your readers are going to ask you about. But as prepared as I was, the review was hard in places, but weirdly enjoyable and supportive. I also had one of my supervisors, Dr Rodrigo Lucena De Mello with me, which was great for my nerves and my confidence. He couldn’t talk, but the smiles and nods and the massive hug afterwards were worth the silence, as well as offering clear and positive feedback, because I had forgotten EVERYTHING the minute we left. Everybody’s APR is different, but my advice would be not to worry too much. It’s a process designed to help you tease out what you may suspect you are struggling with. And you know what, you might even enjoy it.

My desperation to join my son swimming right now seems a good enough reason to conclude this post, and with it my first year of the PhD. It can easy to feel like you have not ‘done’ anything when you study for a PhD, but looking back, it’s not a bad start.

Coming next: Year 2.