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 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.








Sculling (part 1)

Sculling:  a term used in swimming.  Sculling is a safety skill taught to beginners, where you move your hands in a repetitive figure of eight, allowing you to stay afloat in a horizontal position. Useful in preventing drowning, but you’re still stationary.

The Christmas break started with me submitting a 5,000-word writing task, set by my supervisors on two very specific questions. A colleague told me recently that you live with the PhD for the whole time you are doing it; even when you are not ‘doing’ it, you are thinking about it. She was right, of course, so in-between wrapping presents and letting my son eat advent calendar chocolate for breakfast, I kept things ticking over. More reading about gender and sport, and broader social research methods texts, notably Bryman, Bell and Flick.  I also used the time to update my research diary and go back over lecture notes and slides, in case I had missed anything useful. New discoveries in my holiday reading included Bourdieu and Gramsci, both a revelation, and not just because I was beginning to worry that I would never escape from Foucault.

I wasn’t due to meet with my supervisors again until a couple of weeks into the new year, at which point we would discuss my writing task and submitting my ethics application. You can’t start collecting your data until you have confirmation from the university that your research has been approved by an ethics panel, so it’s a pretty important element to have completed in your first year. So, with my son back at school, and the Christmas decorations stored away, I busied myself with some preliminary reading, including the university’s policies and procedures. I had naively imagined the process of writing an ethics application to be the ‘easy’ part of my first year. Some hoop jumping, yes, but a straightforward job. You will see very shortly how that thought turned out.

The January meeting with my supervisors to discuss my writing was disappointing. Whilst they are always kind, generous and diplomatic, it was clear that the standard of my academic writing was under par. My sources were outdated, and I had failed to fully grasp how much the landscape had changed within (and outside of) my research area since the 1990’s. I had done what all inexperienced researchers do and tried to cram in everything about my topic. The result was that most of what I wrote was stale and irrelevant (my words, not theirs). There was little writing to salvage from this exercise, and I left feeling like I had wasted everyone’s time. I know that a PhD takes (at least) three years, and part of that process is the getting better aspect, but criticism is hard, no matter how constructive and necessary it is (and it is only ever these things from my supervisors). Advised to go away and start the ethics application, my confidence was low. I went for a swim and cried under the water.

I spent the next day typing up my notes and listening to the recording of the meeting. Take home point: if your supervisors are ok with you doing this: do it. Listening back,  taking notes, I was better able to isolate the positive comments, digest them, and use them to plan my next steps. I understood what the point of the exercise had been: to get me to realise the importance of reading more current texts, to be able to better frame and then box off the broader aspects of my research, and get right down, quickly, to what I wanted to say. Writing 5,000 words of something that I would never use served the essential purpose of allowing me to let go of my master’s dissertation and move on. When I write about preparing for the APR process in part 2, this will make more sense. But there’s more, and walking along the beach later, mulling it all over, it was obvious. I’m not working hard enough. I’m still not swimming. I’m sculling.

I started the ethics application. Putting together an ethics proposal application is like reworking your research plan. There are helpful headings on the form, and like your research plan, these components are generic: context, aims, purpose, recruitment, data collection, data analysis, possible ethical issues, data storage and confidentiality, all within a reasonable word count. But it’s like writing about the future, and difficult to grasp exactly what you include, and what you don’t. I read examples of applications and the university guidelines but I was still finding it hard to understand exactly what I should include under each heading. I wrote it all up, with a sense of work incomplete.

It was woefully incomplete.  We had another meeting which left me feeling as if I was still not up to scratch. How could I have missed so much? Interview styles, and what qualitative research actually means, and why I’m using it. Note taking and the message it (might) give. Surely the panel know what I mean anyway? As one of my supervisors said, submitting a bad ethics application is, well, unethical. I went home, typed up my notes and listened to the recording; cried again, and went for a walk. I was still sculling.

I spent the next two weeks turning myself inside out. I read a lot of books on interview techniques, qualitative research and methods, recruitment and thematic analysis. I pulled everything apart, rewrote it all and picked over every single sentence. What exactly do I mean when I use this word and not that,  and why? I spent hours working out what the difference between ‘grassroots sport’ and ‘everyday sport’, whether my ‘gatekeepers’ were infact ‘facilitators’ (they became ‘informal gatekeepers’ in the end, should you care). Why am I suggesting face to face interviews and not telephone interviews?  Why might some participants rather not be anonymous, and how do I facilitate that? I changed the title of my research question because I realised that it didn’t do justice to my research plan – and understood why. I weighed it all up, thought about every single eventuality and made provision for it happening. I designed recruitment posters (with the help of a much more talented friend), and after care letters, spreadsheets with organisations and networks who I wanted to approach. In short, if I was including it, or thinking about including it in my research, I explained why. And even when I had done that, I looked at it all again, and added more minute detail. I wrote and rewrote and polished it and squeezed the supporting literature.

You may be wondering why I wasn’t doing this already, right? On a bad day, I do too. On a good day I tell myself that you don’t really know how much more you must do until you submit something and see what your supervisors think. And asides from all this invaluable insider information from your supervisors, you have nothing to measure your own quality against, other than work by fully-formed academics. In short – work harder.

Luckily this experience ended well. The quality of my next submission was good enough, and bar a few tweaks, my supervisors were happy for me to submit it to the ethics panel.  My supervisors questioned some of my changes but supported my reasons. For the first time since starting the PhD, I honestly felt as if I might have a small chance of understanding what I’m doing. And the ethics panel thought so too, because it was approved with one small change.

One happy accident worth mentioning: when I submitted the paperwork to the panel, the research administrator suggested I approach those organisations I wanted to work with now and ask if they would be interested in helping once ethics had been approved. I duly did this and sent her copies of the emails from willing organisations.  This went down very well with the panel, who felt it demonstrated thorough forward planning. It also saved me time, and I owe that administrator a drink, because it was her idea, and not mine.

What I have learnt from going through the ethics application process is this: writing a good one takes much, much longer than I had imagined (for me!). But I have come through the other side feeling like I really understand the mechanics of my research, and why. I feel strongly connected to my PhD for the first time, and a little bit more confident. The thrill of my ethics proposal being good enough is monumental.

It’s a relief to finally feel the difference between sculling and swimming, for a while at least.

Part 2 ‘Negative Splits’, about APR panic, conferences, student HUBS and rep’ing, coming soon.

The ocean is not a swimming pool.

Living by the sea, I don’t have to look very hard for metaphors when writing about my PhD journey. The title of my blog gives it away. I wrote in my first post that this blog would be about my PhD journey, and what happens when you start (and hopefully finish) a PhD. What do you actually do?

So one term in, and this is what I have done.

The first three months have consisted of plugging myself into the PhD matrix, kindly constructed and maintained by the University’s Doctoral College. And it is a kind construction, the mother of all frameworks to cling on to, to stop you being cast, Odysseus like, too far from the shore. The university wants to look after you, keep you close – but here’s the thing: a new kind of effort is required.  Making an effort sounds simple enough, but at this early stage it can be hard to understand what your tasks are exactly.

Being a compliant soul, I don’t mind the effort, so I appreciate this framework. I eagerly attended all of the development and training sessions which run all year round, on topics such as literature reviews, the importance of impact and understanding ethics. I took notes and went home and looked stuff up. I went to masterclasses and got my mind blown on topics such as phenomenology, gun crime and the philosophy of the PhD. I listened to talks given by real-life rock stars:  Prof Gillian Bendelow, Prof Peter Squires and Prof Etienne Wenger.  I was even lucky enough to hear Distinguished Prof Kathryn Stockton Bond talk about queer theory and attend a workshop with her and others.

I completed a training needs assessment, to identify my knowledge gaps, and was warmly welcomed to a module on research methods in sociology, an invaluable asset, if, like me, you need to plug some worryingly large gaps. I found it helpful to read blogs by people such as Pat Thomson and PhD Forum, and find other networks to seek support from, not just other feminists, but other disciplines.

But this term has been about two main things: my research plan and my first writing task. Your research plan is a living document, it’s never really finished, but is an ongoing process of refinement and revision. I am currently on version four, though really this is about version twenty, as my original one was written for an (unsuccessful) funding application. It goes back and forth between me and my supervisors, each time we add something or take something away. It’s a roadmap, and an anchor, but it’s also a learning tool. It has helped me to identify my weaknesses (I feel like I will never understand methodology) and worry less about other things (finding an appropriate writing style, for example).

My second main thing has been a writing task, 5,000 words on two very specific questions. This was, I quickly realised, a very smart move by my supervisors. I went away and read an ocean of classic texts and papers by authors and activists I had never even heard of, as well as work by my own supervisors. It was like writing a masters’ size essay in a month, but because I am a full-time student, the experience was more immersive, more constant, sometimes out of control. It took a lot of effort.

So, what has been key this first term? One of the pieces of advice which is repeated again and again, is to keep a research diary. It has both a practical function and is a crucial reflective tool. This can take any form: mine is a notebook, which I then transcribe to a spreadsheet, and tracks what sessions I have attended, who I met, what I learnt, books to seek out, and how I feel. I have (of course) bigger, more detailed notebooks for longer sessions, but this diary is a constant snapshot. Some days it just has one entry and a smiley face. There are quite a lot of confused faces. Others are more detailed – books to follow up on, concepts and terms to grasp, action points. I am using it for this blog – it is already worth the effort.

Walking along the beach over Christmas, thinking about how my first term has gone, I saw the sign above. The ocean is not a swimming pool. More coastal metaphors. But it reminded me of something my former tutor and feminist powerhouse Prof Alison Phipps once told me. She said that doing a PhD taught her how to think. At the time I just nodded, having no idea what she meant. But I think I am starting to: nobody comes to academia fully formed. You must learn this stuff, you have to make an effort. If you want to progress from the pool to the ocean, you need to put some work in if you want to get the most from this experience.

Here are the ten things I think have helped me to keep making an effort.

  1. You will never ever get this opportunity again. Three years on one research project, managing your own time and a universe of resources and knowledge in your lap. Do not squander it. Does this sound cheesy and pompous? Probably. But it’s what drives me.
  1. Everybody else’s project will sound better than yours. Everyone else will sound like they know what they are doing, and have lots more experience than you. In my case, everyone is at least 20 years younger.
  1. You hold the centre of your research. This does not mean that you know it all. It means that it’s up to you make the most of your PhD, your colleagues and resources.
  1. Talk to other students. You will learn more from them than from anyone else.
  1. Don’t isolate yourself: I work two days a week in my school student area. This means not only can I use the resources (photocopier, printing), I get to chat to others, including more experienced PhD students. It sounds corny, but being visible makes a difference. I am hoping for a job after this; it makes sense to be a familiar face.
  1. Go to any module that might help you, at whatever level. You might not grasp it all, but file it away, and come back to it.
  1. Start off organised. Create an online library (I use Mendeley, which is free). If you read an article, store it there. Talk to your university library about free software and training. Do it now, whilst you have the time.
  1. Don’t undervalue thinking time. Yes, it sounds ridiculous at this stage, but we are told again and again that when it comes to the VIVA, understanding concept formation and demonstrating that you can think matters.
  1. Respect your supervisors, and go to meetings prepared. Be engaged. Their time is stretched, you will learn so much from them if you are making an effort.
  1. Don’t give up.

The spring term begins next week, and with it some bigger writing tasks, ethics approval and the literature review. I will write again soon about these processes from a student perspective, as well as what it feels like to be a PhD student representative and starting a student hub with others.


High Tides/Low Tides

A good friend once called me an endotherm, which is pretty much the coolest thing I have ever been called. We were discussing things we enjoy, swimming in cold water for me, cycling up mountains for him. Endotherms adapt to change by maintaining their body temperature, independent of their environment: not changing is key to their survival. They thrive in cold weather. Swimming now in October, in water that is changing its temperature daily, I started thinking about my own changes, and how I need to adapt if I am to thrive.

This has been a week of change on my PhD journey. It’s taken 18 months between wanting to do a PhD, and actually starting one. Last week I finally left my job, after a five month resignation period, a job I have been in for nearly ten years. A long time to be doing anything, really, certainly the longest in any job I have been lucky enough to have. In that time people I love came and went: the birth of my son, the death of my father. I did a lot of growing up in that job and learned how to (sometimes) balance the changes that came along. High tides and low tides.

But right now, this week, I feel like I am swimming between the tides. I’m neither one thing nor the other, and although this change is short-lived, it’s brand new. It’s a strange change, too, no longer owning the job title I once had. When people ask me what I do, I have to think carefully before I answer. My work identity has changed, too.

So what exactly does change when you step out of one life and into another? How do you exist between the tides as you become backwash? Life as an almost PhD student has comprised mainly of me walking a lot and reading other people’s PhD’s. I have read Sara Ahmed’s and c n lester’s incredible new books, and drawn up study schedules to ring fence the forty hours a week the PhD needs. I promised I would still see my family at the weekend, and made my friends promise to count me in for Christmas drinks. I once again have an NUS card, something not in my possession since the early 90’s, and my once former purple staff card has changed to a new, blue student one. The house is decluttered to ward off future procrastination, and my pens are lined up.

This may not be the longest blog, but it’s an important one, one which will help to remind me how I felt about the changes ahead. Perhaps it will serve as a measure of how I adapted to my new environment, and thrived on the changes I made.

Swimming between the tides, I will remember to be grateful for them. 

Summer is over, and I’m starting a PhD

I am a door mat, and a people pleaser. There are worse things in the world to be, of course, but we doormats tend to be low in confidence and ready to apologise for everything and anything. We’re not terribly good at self-promotion. We are concerned mostly with being nice (to) people. We say ‘we’ a lot.

So let me be honest from the start (and sorry about this). This blog is going to be a place for me to improve on some of the above. Some self-promotion without ditching the nice, some getting used to hearing my own voice on the page. A chance to see if I can make a success of this PhD opportunity.

Because this is an opportunity, a massive, in your face, what have I done to deserve this, who do you think you are opportunity.  A little self-validation might be handy right now.

So this is me, and this is how I got here.

I am a 44 year old woman, with a partner and a 7 year old son and we live by the sea, near Brighton. A straightforward life with the usual highs and lows, a second class degree in Classics from an average university. I’m straight, I’m white, I’m cis-gender and I’m middle-class. I am the poster girl for what should be avoided if feminism is to be truly intersectional.

I started working at Brighton University in 2008, as a senior administrator. I had my son in 2010, took a year off on maternity leave, then went back part-time. No longer wanting to seek a more senior position within the university I decided to do an MA, with the vague idea that it might do me some good and help me to stop disliking motherhood so much. When my son started school in September 2014, I started a part-time MA in Gender Studies at Sussex University, kindly funded by a staff fee waiver from Brighton University.

My whole universe shifted during the very first module, Feminism, the Law and Society, and I don’t say that lightly. Everything I thought I understood about feminism was shattered. I am sure many have felt the same way, the slow realisation that things are not equal, sister, and that the patriarchy is not only alive and well, but thriving, thank you very much. I went home, furious, tearful. I made a list of all the hard words. I felt like a terrible person for not appreciating how hard things are for so many people, for communities and marginalized groups. After all,  I have gay friends, I support LGBT rights, I’m raising my son in a progressive environment. I’m politicised, right?

No. I was miles from home.

I cried a lot. I promised to work my fucking arse off. I met Alison Phipps who was the best thing that ever happened to me and made me want to work even harder. I read everything I could get my hands on  and I met even more phenomenal people, students, academics, and activists, both on-line and and in-real-life (I’ll be writing about this in a future blog, ‘A Feminist Cast of 1000’s’).

And I began to realise that the MA was not going to be enough.

As I edged towards my dissertation, the PhD dream intensified. I had a research topic which seemed original, and working at Brighton University gave me the massive advantage of being able to knock on the doors of people I already knew. People like Jayne RaisbouroughKatherine Johnson, and Nigel Jarvis,  whose work I already admired. I spoke to Brighton Doctoral College and to PhD students, to get the real skinny on how hard it really is, how they balance it with working and kids, with day to day life. They all reassured me it would be fine. Katherine and Nigel agreed to supervise me.

I submitted my dissertation at the end of the summer 2016, and in the autumn graduated with a distinction: just. But it was the incentive I needed to push the PhD application, and after a huge amount of proposal writing, edits, re-writes, long phone calls, revisions, a gruelling interview and an unsuccessful application to the ESRC, I was given a full-time, fully-funded place with Brighton University. I handed in my notice at work in May 2017 and went for a lie down.

None of this would have been possible without the tireless and intensive support of Katherine and Nigel, nor Alison’s reference and encouragement. And I am forever indebted to all of the students on the MA course who carefully and kindly shared their experiences with me, most of whom were half my age and twice as smart.

These blogs will be embarrassing, honest, often imperfect and misguided, open to criticism and guidance, no doubt anxious and angst-ridden. But each one is a big deal for a doormat; as Kristin Hersh  sang, being a doormat is ‘good, honest work.’ They will change and evolve, and may even become about something entirely different: swimming, walking, the weather.

Summer may be over, but I’m far from sorry.