Posted in academia, academic writing

Flying (and floating) like a kite

phd_floating_kite.png

Just a some quick sharing today. First of all I’d like to thank everyone who read and commented on yesterday’s post on my feelings related to writing the first analysis chapter. It really feels great to hear back from people who have been through this already or are going through the same sort of thing.

So far I still feel a bit lost – and today some other annoying bits like problems with technology and bureaucracy were added to my plate. It doesn’t help, either, that I’ve some other deadline coming up … in theory it’s all very exciting only right now it doesn’t seem to be working quite ideally just yet. But I’ll try to hang in there and follow everyone’s advice to just try and get something ‘down’.

For now I just wanted to share this silly little drawing. I mentioned this simile to a friend recently (who is also a PhD student) and we got some fun out of it. We sometimes really feel like we’re flying (or floating) in the wind, sometimes way too far into one direction (or so it seems). Then at some point our supervisors may try to pull us back. At the moment I can feel lots of forces pulling on my line. But I do hope that something will pull me back to more familiar heights or grounds so that I’ll feel more comfortable soon. If you can relate, I hope you’ll feel that soon as well. Or perhaps you’ve already gotten into this kite thing – in that case happy flying :)!!!

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Posted in academic writing

Trying to write my 1st analysis chapter

There’s been silence from me since November. What has happened in the meantime? Somehow time has been disappearing ever since the academic year started in September, because I started teaching. Not only did I start teaching for the first time, it is also a subject outside my area of expertise. As a result I have been on a steep learning curve both in terms of pedagogy and the subject matter.

Now of course I’m also supposed to be doing my PhD at the same time. I have finished the data collection for my corpus in October. My supervisor has been very keen for me to start writing the actual chapter about the analysis of this corpus. At times I have felt a bit under pressure because I’m afraid that if I’m doing this too quickly I will make mistakes. And I have experienced several times that with corpus linguistics it is very easy to make such ‘mistakes’: not necessarily in terms of really doing something outright wrong but simply ticking (or forgetting to tick) a certain setting option that then makes the results either somewhat wrong, illogical, or at least not ideal. The problem is that often the initial list output from a corpus tool is followed by a considerable amount of manual work (categorisation, interpretation) so that it’s really rather disheartening when you have to redo the list and all subsequent steps.

Apart from all the technical considerations, one of the scariest issues has been this thought: “I have no idea how to write a chapter”. I started my PhD right after the MA, which I had done right after my BA. So I have the experience of 4 years of intense term paper writing. Yet, term papers seem so different. I loved them, actually. Yes, when I had 4 MA term paper deadlines on the same day, the psychological pressure was simply awful (and it happened to me twice – once in each semester). Yet, this shortage of time and the lecturers’ advice to “keep it manageable” was enough to help me refine my thoughts, my structure, my bullet points for each section and the term papers somehow wrote themselves. The PhD is so different. Obviously I wrote a proposal before I even started it (i.e. during the MA!) and I basically spent the first year reading and drafting a tentative literature review and methodology. Now that I am 1.5 years in it seems like I can toss much of that right into the bin… why is that?? But yes of course everyone tells you that. The whole project will shape itself as you proceed and your thoughts will get refined and all that.

Writing BA and MA term papers seems to have been a straightforward process. Either there was a set task and I knew what to do/ look for and therefore what literature to review (at least the literature mentioned in class plus 5-10 articles related to the topic found on Google Scholar or in the library catalogue; often there wasn’t space for a literature review of more than a page anyway). Of course there were moments of desperation. Being somewhat of a perfectionist I did many overnight term paper writing or proofreading sessions, often in the company of classmates in a departmental computer room or a 24-hr library section with lots of chocolate and soft drinks. Nevertheless, there was always this wonderful idea of further examination being “beyond the scope of this paper”. And this scope had been neatly defined in discussion with my lecturer.

For the PhD, then… I am often confused about the scope. Everything shifts and floats and new ideas come up or get rejected. The thought of “writing up” makes me feel really dizzy. Of course I have the lit review and methodology drafts from year one and lots of drafts of what I have been doing in year 2, but I know very well that EVERYTHING WILL HAVE TO BE REWRITTEN. OMG OMG OMG!

Phew… I tried overcoming the little panic attacks that I had when thinking of the transition of term paper to PhD chapter by asking my supervisor very practical questions along the following lines:

  • Do I need to put lit review bits into the chapter as I’m drafting it now? How do I know which bits need to be moved to the ‘lit review chapter’ (which will have another name) and which stay in the chapter?
  • [Same for the methodology]: Do I add methodological details into the chapter?

I’m also struggling with the structure of the actual results etc… but anyway, regarding the literature and methodology bits, she basically told me to add the critical bits to the chapter for now and once I rewrite or put together the whole thesis I will find the balance. She actually suggested that it would be neat to have one general methodology chapter that is followed up by a more detailed short methodology section in each analysis chapter relevant to the local discussion there.

I have been writing so many drafts of my current analysis… they all seem to end up like a report rather then a chapter. So she told me to stop trying to find out other things or change the method again but rather add some interpretation and theoretical implications in relation to my research field. This is what I have to do now.

Bolker_King_writing_books

In the meantime I have also referred to one of my favourite procrastination strategies: reading about writing. I have come across two great books for that recently (which you may know already), Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day (Joan Bolker) and On Writing (Stephen King). The first one has a title that first sounds a bit ‘cheap’ but I was really positively surprised by the book and it’s so far my favourite PhD guide. In fact, I finished it in four nights. King’s book is of course pitched at writers of fiction. (This was also interesting as I’m involved in teaching a stylistics module). Both books are very easy to read and suggest many interesting writing strategies.

Do you know of any other good books? And what are your strategies for writing a chapter? Sorry for writing such a long post – I needed to let these words out.

 

Posted in academia, academic writing

Nail your colours to the mast!

Blog_Nail-your-colours_20140614 

“Nail your colours to the mast”

Meaning: “To defiantly display one’s opinions and beliefs. Also, to show one’s intention to hold on to those beliefs until the end” (phrases.org.co.uk).

This blog post is inspired by my recent first year confirmation review. The review was actually a positive, encouraging and also refreshing experience. I received numerous pieces of valuable advice. One point, though, stuck with me most and this was the motto “nail your colours to the mast”. This seemed to be the examiner’s main concern (and I shamelessly quote his saying about the colours here). What’s the actual theoretical approach that the project is based on?

Blog_Terminology_20150613As the author of the report, having spent like half a year on it, I can testify that this has really been the main struggle. In writing my literature review I had spent plenty of time on locating different positions in the literature and identifying potential differences between the different approaches. This was at times a frustrating endeavour, as ever so similar terms were used for frameworks with only very subtle differences. Coping with this diverse, overlapping terminology has been a key issue. Mapping out the different terms and their usage had already cost quite a bit of energy. I understand that I fell short on the next step – evaluating them and picking one for my work or even making up another term (and of course justifying it!).

Whose side am I on? To me as a first year PhD student it is just a scary thought to have to make such a decision. If I take up a specific term (such as, in my case, ‘corpus-assisted discourse analysis’ rather than ‘corpus-based/driven’), do I need to then follow the scholars associated with this terms for the rest of my work? Will I contradict myself if I choose one term and at a later stage take a turn with my work that doesn’t really harmonise with the work of the related people? How do I know the implications? Due to some of these daunting questions, I attempted to stay on ‘friendly terms’ with various approaches. This, however, is problematic in itself.

Is it possible to decide on a different set of colours at a later point? (The definition for the colour metaphor quoted above seems to suggest this, but maybe in academia we can allow for more flexibility? Clearly we’re all evolving and learning?) The saying was new to me, but in the context of the confirmation review I understood what was meant – clearly express what you’re trying to achieve and how you are doing that. I think I did that fairly well in my methods section (although at times it needs simplification as I was told) – in the parts that are very practically oriented. I have noticed that I struggle more with attempting to explain the theoretical implications of my work. And I believe this problem is routed in the fear that I misuse theoretical claims, for instance by combining incompatible approaches.

At the end of the review meeting both my examiner and supervisor emphasised, however, that it is okay (and probably even good!) to keep an open mind throughout the PhD and refine your theoretical standpoint through continuous writing. That made me feel more relieved. Still, I have had to go back to more reading on the terms I wasn’t sure about (this includes the definition of ‘discourse’ – a real can of worms…).

What are your views on this topic? Have you encountered similar difficulties?

Posted in Misc

A little introduction to myself and this blog

Hello there.

As you may have gathered from somewhere on this page my name is Viola. I am still a first year PhD student (although the end of year is approaching…) and a slightly longer paragraph about myself can be found on my profile. Here is a recent photo of me at ICAME 36 two weeks ago, where I had the chance to thank the organisers for the wonderful conference. (Many thanks to Sebastian Hoffmann for this shot – more of his photos from the conference are shown in this gallery).

ICAME 36 Conference,  Trier, Germany, May 2015
ICAME 36 Conference,
Trier, Germany, May 2015

Ever since I started my PhD in October 2014 the idea of starting a blog has been popping up at various trainings and it’s something I’ve observed others do very well. I like the notion of documenting the ‘PhD journey’. During my PhD life I have already started becoming a lot more active on Twitter – follow me at @violawiegand. I am excited that many people in ‘my’ academic field (here I mainly mean corpus linguistics – see the corpus linguistics Twitter list I compiled) are sort of permanently on Twitter, often giving me new ideas and just showing me what developments are out there. At the same time I also enjoy viewing encouraging posts on writing advice and other aspects of grad/PhD/academic life as documented in my ‘writing’ Twitter list. I hope to somehow join these two crowds with this blog.

So what’s the blog going to be about?

I’m still considering that but it will probably document what I’m concerned with as my PhD continues. My topics of interest include:

  • corpus linguistics
  • increasingly also more computational topics – now learning to work with R 🙂
  • discourse analysis
  • surveillance studies
  • academic writing

I also welcome feedback from more experienced bloggers regarding what’s best to focus on in a PhD blog and what’s perhaps rather boring for all of you to read. Anyhow, I’m excited about this step and hope that the blog will interest some of you and provide myself with a fresh view on my work.