Where does inspiration come from? – From an academic, innovator and a retired man…

How often do you feel fortunate? Fortunate not because you won a lottery or bought a house but because you do what is meaningful and what makes a difference to the lives of others? I have not felt that for some time…But I do feel lucky when I meet people who remind me of this…about the importance of vision and values that drive you on your way to the stars. I believe in signs and that certain people become those important signs that can changes our lives. If we choose to…

I’ve met Professor Barnett at one of the research events at our university. He talked about his life, career, inspiration, writing and where his good ideas come from…I remember so vividly the passion with which he talked about writing and that writing, a word, will change this world. It has changed his life, and he feels very grateful for all the happiness that writing has brought to him. What stroke me is his genuine wiliness to help us, early career researchers, and transfer that passion for discovering, researching, writing and sharing…What is your passion?

Alfredo Zolezzi  is a lifelong innovator. But not only that, for me and I am sure for his team at the Advanced Innovation Centre in Chile, he is an inspirational leader, the person who is driven by the vision and the values to make this world better. Technology and poverty must talk!!! This is the vision of this  innovator that drives many researchers in Chile to create and be the change they want to see in the world. This vision drove the process of creating a plasma water sanitation system. This low cost and efficient method can help millions of people in the areas that have clean water problems. Alfredo reminded me what research and innovation should be all about. It’s not enough just to be excellent at what you do, you need to see and remember why you do it. What is the bigger picture and impact of what you are doing?  Thank you, Alfredo, for being an inspiration and reminding me of what research and…life really… should be all about. Be visionary!

My friend Tony is 72 and is now settled in the Lake District. Tony is a former graduate of Cambridge university and a retired academic with many years of research experience. What amazes me in Tony is his passion for life, his untiring desire to explore, learn and develop….his permanent curiosity for everything that is happening around. I wish I could be like that when I am 72🙂 For me he is a constant reminder that we need to hurry up to live, love and create…Life is too short not to do…Stay curious!:)

This is where my inspiration for research and life comes from –  from an academic, innovator and a retired man. Where does yours?

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To teach or not to teach – is there a choice?

Being involved in research on employability of doctoral candidates I am interested in how they view the skills, knowledge and dispositions that they need to develop to have a successful career. Teaching has been an object of discussion with many doctoral candidates that I have interviewed. The majority of them view teaching as an essential skill required to develop a successful academic career.

However, not everyone has an opportunity to undertake teaching duties during the PhD. Unfortunately I did not have opportunities to teach during my PhD. I would love that!!! I like interacting with students and learning something new from them every day. Also teaching is such a great way of transferring  knowledge and engaging the audience in the results of your research study. But apart from the fact that the teaching duties should be available to PhD researchers, there is a whole load of other questions and issues that need to be considered here.

Recent statement  by Eurodoc highlights a number of these problems such as time availability, for example. My friends doing PhD in Russian universities, for example, have to do up to 20-25 hours of teaching per week. Where on earth will you find time to do your PhD then? It is the case with some European higher education institutions  as well where teaching workload is not officially regulated. There is also little information on remuneration of doctoral candidates for teaching duties. In some institutions scholarship holders are expected to contribute 6-7 hours of teaching per week which includes preparation for classes, marking etc. Anything above that should be officially paid for. However, many PhD researchers report that their workload is much higher and is not financially acknowledged.

Another problem of course is the lack of skills and knowledge in how to teach. Those who teach know that it is not enough just to be an expert in your subject, you have to understand how people learn, what teaching methods are available etc. How many of us have actually been given proper teaching training before we started teaching? Having taught at the university myself, I know that a lot of it is about being thrown into the abyss and trying to survive🙂 Providing proper teaching training for PhDs is not just about them being successful at this, it’s firstly about the quality of learning of poor undergrads who have to suffer because of lack of appropriate training for us.

What are your experiences of teaching? Have you tought during your PhD? What were the main challenges? Advantages? What advice can you give to doctoral candidates who just start teaching?

Comment here or on LinkedIN

Interesting reading: Graduate student teachers should demand professional status

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Why? – Existential crisis, PhD or time to be happy!

How many times have I asked myself: Why? Why  am I doing a PhD? Why have I embarked on this journey of constant challenges? Why have I allowed MS Word and printed papers to become such a big part of my life? Why?

I am sure I am not the only doctoral researcher who asked this question at some stage during the PhD. And this is normal…in fact this is great! We should ask this question more often to try to gain better understanding of what we do and the world we live in…

I was thinking a lot about the answer to this questions. And my answer to this question is simpler than I thought. I do it….to be happy!!! Do you remember that feeling of happiness when you learnt that you were accepted for a PhD programme? How happy did you feel when you shared your experiences with other PhD students? Or when your first conference paper was accepted?.. I felt happy yesterday when I was presenting some of the results of my research at an ESCalate seminar. Yes, I felt happy and grateful that I could just share my experience, my vision, the results of my work with others. I felt grateful that there were PhD supervisors in the audience who listened to my perceptions as a PhD student. And you never know, it might have influenced their vision of a supervision process…at least a bit. And it means it might potentially change the life of other PhD students who are working with these supervisors. Yes…bigger picture…there is always a bigger picture behind your small limited piece of research…you just need to learn to see it. So why are we avoiding happiness? It’s time to take all opportunities and make decisions, to do our best and give the best to the world, time to be happy…

I’ve recently been through a PhD/existential crisis myself, time when you question everything and feel lost…And this was the time when one wise person told me: You are where you are for a reason! You are given an opportunity! Benefit from it!

If you feel depressed, trapped and there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel. Remember, we are where we are for a reason! We are here to challenge ourselves, to change ourselves and the world, to learn, to share and care through our research…

Let’s be grateful for this, for this life changing opportunity!

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A 3 day challenge OR how NOT to write a conference paper…

I’ve been meaning to write about writing for a long time. And now when I’ve recently submitted my first ever conference paper it is probably about time to reflect on it.

When I reflect on the writing process the first phrase that comes to my mind is “Don’t get it right, get it written!” I’ve discovered it in the blog of one PhD student (sorrrrrry, can’t remember whose blog it was :(), and loved it. I think it reflects more than anything my approach to writing.

My first bit of advice is…don’t do it! Don’t leave as little time as 3 days to write your paper. But if you have problems with being organised as much as I do, this crash course might be of some help. My personal problem is that I always underestimate the amount of time I will need to complete something. This time it took me ages to transcribe the data, and code it in NViVo. So by the time I got that done, I had nothing apart from 3 poor days. Oh, well…and 3 nights!

  1. So let’s get the writing started! The first thing that you absolutely need to do is…to calm down! I know… it’s only 3 days left…but… I distinguish between two types of stress…productive and counterproductive. We absolutely need to get into the mood for the first one…otherwise all is lost. But positive pressure is good…at least for me…it makes me do stuff!!! So in order to transform the negative pressure into a positive I…listen to music. Karunesh is always helpful to me in this sense. But you need to find what works for you.
  2. Make a plan! Planning is essential in a paper writing…or in any type of writing. And I looooove writing plans! Since when the plan is written, you no longer have a blank page to stare at! So yes…plan is a must! Otherwise you’ve lost the battle before even starting it!
  3. And then… simply start filling in the gaps between the plan parts!🙂 I always leave intro and conclusions till the end. Start with what seems to be the easiest part for you. It will help to overcome the fear and boost your confidence. Nothing is impossible! I prefer to start with presenting data collection results (but it will all of course depend on the type of paper you are writing). And the results comprise a decent chunk of a paper anyway, so after a few hours a good 1,500-2000 words will be on paper. And then I do the rest…lit review, discussion, conclusion and introduction. I won’t describe various approaches that exist to writing intro, conclusions, developing an arguments etc. You can read it all in clever books. And if you don’t have enough of them…feel free to search through some of my bookmarks on academic writing. My only (non) useful advice on the writing process would be…don’t  criticise it! Just get it written first…and leave the criticism and correction for later…for your poor supervisors and peers.
  4. Please…read your final paper! Due to a shortage of time and lack of sleep, I made lots of minor stupid mistakes which dear reviewers were kind enough to draw my attention to. So yes…to avoid embarrassment and disappointment…do read what you’ve written!
  5. It is an ideal situation if your supervisor can read the paper too...But given that there are only 3 days…we don’t live in an ideal world…and supervisors have other commitments apart from taking care of us (beloved)… this may result in the paper submitted without them having read it. But don’t fall into despair! Remember: you are never alone! That’s what our PhD peers are for – to give us a critical insight and helping hand when we need it. So do ask for help! Since if you don’t ask, you won’t get!
  6. Submit it on time! I submitted mine 5 minutes before the deadline. So proud of myself:)
  7. Now…this rule is COMPULSORY! After the submission…go and enjoy life🙂 Salsa…is my choice and best remedy :)Don’t sit and moan that the paper was not of a high quality, appropriate standard etc. What is done is done! And from this point onwards your life is in the hands of kind (or not so kind)…reviewers.
  8. And what is most important of all this is…reflect on your experience like a real mature self-regulated learner  and PhD student, and move on with a whole baggage of knowledge on  academic writing and strong determination that you are NEVER…EVER going to leave things till the last minute again…🙂

Well, this comes an end to my very (un)helpful tips on academic writing and how NOT to do it. But we are here to share…knowledge, experience, understanding… Since  sharing is caring!

What have YOU got to share?

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My first year PhD regrets!

I have just submitted my PhD transfer report to my supervisors. What a relief! I was dreaming about this day for weeks, and am so glad it has finally arrived.  Although I really hated the process of writing this wretched report to begin with, by the end of it I actually acquired taste for it, and saw the benefits. This important milestone in my PhD life made me reflect on my year of doctoral studies , and the things that I should have done, or have done better! So I thought I would write down some of my thoughts that might be useful for all those who have just started their PhD, and want to avoid disappointment.

  • Start with…passion. When you start working on your project, the topic that you choose may be too broad, and needs narrowing down.  Well, make sure that you narrow it down to something that YOU want to do for 3-4 years, not something that your supervisors or advisors want but something that YOU are really passionate about. My topic was too vague to begin with, and it took me ages to find the right focus but now I am quite happy that I am working on a research project that will contribute to the existing knowledge but at the same time can make a difference to policy and practice! The only disappointment is that it took me too long to focus the topic.
  • Read more around the topic. The first year of your PhD is possibly the only time when you can really plunge yourself into the world of reading. If you are lucky, you can make sense of it all soon… before submission of your first report. I regret that I was not systematic with my reading… bits and pieces here and there. Well, this probably reflects what a disorganised person I am! But I am learning…slowly. So do be systematic! The books that I found really useful are Doing a literature search and Doing a literature review by Chris Hart. They provide a pretty good picture of how you should go about your reading and writing in the initial stages of your PhD. Record everything you read and save references.  There are a number of great web-based tools available out there. I personally use Zotero for organising research papers, and Delicious for bookmarking useful websites, blogs etc. Choose whatever suits you! But take my advice, start using them from the very beginning, and it will save you loads of time later on.
  • Make a better use of your supervisors. One of my supervisors always says: We are not supervisors, we are collaborators on your project! Only now I probably understand the full meaning of these words. Don’t simply sit and wait for  your supervisors to tell you what to do (that’s what I did at the beginning). When working on collaborative projects, people challenge each other, share ideas, and create solutions to the existing problems TOGETHER. Supervisors are members of your team! I agree, your situation might be different, and some supervisors have a very traditional Master-Apprentice approach. But still, the sooner you take the ownership of you project, the better! Remember, in 5-6 months you will become an expert in your field!
  • Establish ‘love’ relationship with theory early on! What is the theory underpinning your study? I’ve been struggling with this bit for a year! It’s not relevant to all social science studies since some of them adopt a grounded theory approach. But even to arrive at the conclusion that the existing theories don’t meet the needs of your study, you need to know them first. I thought I hated theories until I started understanding them. It’s actually really cool when you realise that there is enough brain in your head to see the shortcoming of some theory, criticise it and try to find an alternative approach.
  • Learn to manage yourself! Still struggling with this bit… PhD is the time when you learn so much about yourself, the ways you prefer to work, and what motivates you to work. I am interviewing PhD students just now, and a number of them mentioned that a key to success in your PhD is DISCIPLINE! Can’t but agree with that. There is always a temptation to do some other things rather than concentrate on writing your thesis chapter. Learn to set the priorities! Priority matrix by Steven Covey might be helpful to you in this.

Well, enough regrets for one PhD year, I guess… But I think we should remember that PhD is a learning process, and we are allowed to make mistakes. The main thing is to reflect on your experience and try to improve it.

What are your PhD regrets?

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Helping each other – helping ourselves!

Last Friday I attended  the Welcome Celebration event organised by the GCU Graduate School. It’s an annual event organised to welcome all new research students and staff. It was so good to see many new faces, people who are so enthusiastic about their research projects, and who, I believe, will be able to achieve a lot in their field. I wish them all the success on their journey! And I also believe that we can help each other to make this journey the most incredible experience in our lives. How can we do this?

1. Peer-to-peer support. I got lucky to get the best PhD colleague in the world who is in the same office with me. I think my PhD experience wouldn’t have been so positive without him. We share our thoughts and feelings about all sorts of aspects of the PhD process from student events to meetings with our supervisors. It’s so important to know that here is a person who is going through the same struggles as you, who understands your concerns and who is always ready to help. Find your buddy!

2. Being a part of your research students community. A lot of people say that PhD journey can be quite a lonely process. My answer is yes… but only if you choose it to be so. There is always somebody out there ready to listen and to help. But it’s important to take  initiative and get engaged. For example, at GCU we have a Research Students Society that is trying to provide an interactive environment for all research students through social events. I find it really interesting to meet research students from other schools, learn about their PhD experience,  and shape our PhD life together.

3. Become a PhD mentor for first year PhD students to make a real difference in their PhD experience and at the same time develop your own skills! Mentoring is specified in the Joint Skills Statement, and  can contribute to your employability.

4. Support each other online. I’ve recently discovered the use of social networks for research purposes, and enjoy it more and more every day. It’s incredible how you can exchange research news on Twitter with a PhD student from Colombia  whom you would have never met overwise. Create your Personal Learning Network!

5. Organise researcher-led seminars/conferences. It is important for us, research students, to take responsibility for our own developement. Not all universities can afford to provide numerous skills development workshops and seminars. But we can do it ourselves. I think it will be even more beneficial since these events will reflect our needs rather than views of universities on what seminars/workshops should be provided. 

Have you got any other ideas on how research students can support each other? Share your views.

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#vitae10: PGR’s reflections

I finally managed to find some time to reflect on my experience at the annual Vitae conference. It is an annual conference for all those who are involved in the researcher development agenda. My interest in this conference was explained by the area of my PhD project. Doing research on the employability of researchers requires an understanding of not only theory but practice in the area of motivations, skills development  and  career paths of doctoral researchers. So I was really excited when I learnt that I would be attending the conference.

So what did I take out of it? And what are my perceptions as a PGR (Postgraduate Researcher)?

1. The importance of linking theory and practice! I’ve recently come across the blog (apologies can’t remember whose blog it was) where the researcher was asking: We do research. Publish papers. So what? What are we doing with it later on? How can we make an impact on practice? Dear researchers, how often do we ask ourselves what this piece of research brings to me apart from a nice article in a nice academic journal? What does it give to other people, community, country, the rest of the world? How am I making a difference? I think we should ask this question every time we are involved in research. For me the Vitae conference was a great opportunity to link my research to the existing practice, and reflect on the  impact of my PhD project. That is why I found it so useful to come to the practice-focused conference.  

2.        The importance of researcher engagement! I think Roberts’ agenda was a great initiative with lots of benefits for the researcher community. However, I believe a lot of questions are left unanswered. How can we sustain the agenda? How can be better engage researchers themselves in taking responsibility for shaping  and improving the researcher development agenda? My suggestion for the next conference is to invite not only research staff but Postgraduate Research Students Reps. These are the key people – ambassadors for larger researcher communities in their institutions. They are a valuable asset which is underused at the moment. They need to be aware of these issues to be able to promote and shape this agenda at their HEIs. So I hope to see lots of them at the next conference!

3.       Collaboration is a key! In the times of funding cuts, I believe collaboration among different institutions as well as among various departments within the same HEIs will become a key to sustaining the researcher development agenda. This collaborative process should certainly include local research staff associations as well as postgraduate committees in different universities.

4.       Thank you for the people! It was a great inspiration to see hundreds of people who do so many useful things for us, researchers, who  find time to go beyond their job description, and create new development opportunities for us.  It was great to see researchers giving their perspective and working together with researcher developers looking for ways of better engaging their fellows. It was an inspiration for me just to be there among all these people! So thank you to all the people who made this conference possible!

And now from talking to doing…

What will I, as a PGR, do for my HEI in order to sustain the researcher development agenda?

  • Emphasise the importance of the researcher development agenda at the meetings of various university committees. For me it will be the Graduate School Board, and the Research and Knowledge Transfer Committee in the School of Law and Social Sciences
  • Volunteer for the Graduate School in terms of providing peer-to-peer learning opportunities for other students, generating new ideas and being engaged in design and delivery of training programmes
  • Exploring ways of engagement of GCU Student Association in the researcher development agenda
  • Raise researchers’ awareness of the training and development opportunities, career events, projects etc. through seminars, emails, social networks…
  • Collaborate with the Postgraduate Committee of the National Union of Students
  • Be a researcher development ambassador on my campus involving researchers in this agenda. For example, at the moment I am conducting interviews with research students exploring  their perceptions on employability. At the end of each interview we have a discussion about  the ways of enhancing employability of this particular student, and what the university provides to support this. I believe that my interviews can help students to be more aware of the employability issues and encourage them to develop employability skills.
  • Organise seminars for research students on various PhD issues. I even got the name for it:) – A series of seminars “For researchers – by researchers!”
  • And of course it is important to be passionate about the researcher development agenda! I think that is the key for everything you do in life.

What will you do to sustain the researcher development agenda in your HEI?

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