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 My sources were outdated, and I had failed to fully grasp how much the landscape had changed within (and outside of) my research area since the 1990’s. I had done what all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.