Advice on doing a PhD

I keep saying I want to encourage everyone I know to do a PhD which is not entirely true, but there are some of my friends who have been thinking about a doctorate and so I hope writing this might help them. I realise that not everyone enjoys research but for me it was a life changing experience. I wasn’t always planning on doing a PhD but in some ways it was an inevitable step after I finished my undergraduate degree. I desperately wanted to prove I was clever, I didn’t feel ready to leave university and get a job and I started on the path of doing research as an undergraduate and found it an amazing experience.  Partly it was because I had some freedom to follow my interests, partly I realised how exciting it could be to find stuff out. To find a little niche in the world where no one else had been. However there were a whole set of factors that helped me really thrive as a researcher. A set of specific circumstances that I think are worth discussing and sharing as they seem useful for anyone who might be thinking of doing a PhD. I also realise that I was fortunate, being in the right place at the right time, but I also realise that anyone doing research now has so many more opportunities to connect with like minded researchers. Anyway, here goes with some advice…

Me climbing Constitution Hill in Aberystwyth in 1995

1) Find the right supervisors. I say that because I had 2 supervisors which at the time was relatively uncommon. But it meant I had two perspectives on my work and two experts in their own field which I think helped me work in an interdisciplinary way, but meant I could take advantage of their respective strengths. Supervisors are so important as they guide and support you and having two of them really worked well for me. It also really helped that they were in different departments and really did have quite different specialisms. They both helped me in different ways as I learnt to write about my ideas and refine my thinking.

2)Become part of an inter-disciplinary community. The year I started my research my university (Aberystwyth) had decided to invest in PhD studentships across all departments. Not only did it mean I got some money to live on and to pay my fees but it meant there was around 100 people in my year all starting our research together. We were effectively a cohort who together became a community of researchers. I was a founder member of the Postgraduate Association and we had an excellent Dean of Graduate Studies who was keen to support research students. We organised social events (cheese and wine related usually) and held regular meetings to discuss any issues people were having. We were lucky to get support from the Guild of Students and our Dean gave us a small budget. What is meant for me though was I didn’t ever feel alone. Yes I was the only one studying my strange little topic on historians and newspapers, but I had the support of my friends who were doing PhDs in astrophysics, maths, geography, history, international politics and all sorts of other weird and wonderful subjects. We shared our experiences of the progress we were making, of the issues were were having with our supervisors or with our families (who clearly thought we were all slightly bonkers) and it motivated me and made the experience rewarding on a personal basis.

3) Get some research training. While I may not have appreciated all aspects of the research training course I did in my first year I was effectively taught for the whole year and the course covered all the main social science research methods. Not only did it give me an excellent grounding in theoretical frameworks and research methods it meant I met researchers from all different departments across the university. We learnt qualitative and quantitative methods and analysis, philosophy of social sciences and much more. The course was compulsory for anyone in the Faculty of Social Sciences and it had been devised in response to guidelines from the ESRC, but it was really ahead of it’s time. And even today I still an amazed at how few universities have such an extensive programme. My experiences working in research support in the years since then showed that treating doctoral students as people who might understand all their needs is fundamentally flawed. If you had given me the option of not taking that course, I suspect the confident, know it all I was back then would have decided to opt out. But I’m glad that wasn’t possible and passing that course was an essential part of progressing to my second year, but also made me the researcher I am today.

4) Become part of an academic department. In addition to being part of a wider community of researchers across the university one of my departments had an excellent ethos in the way it treated doctoral students. We were given shared office space on the same corridor as the academic staff, we were allowed to use the staff room and we had many of the privileges of staff. It really felt like an apprentice scheme in being an academic and it was amazing how such little things, such as being able to go into the staff room, made a real difference to how you felt about your identity. We had regular research seminars where we were encouraged to present our ideas and get feedback from our peers and colleagues from across the department showed an interest in my research. It gave me the confidence to submit a paper for an academic conference in my third year, and attending that event at the University of Westminster proved to be a pivotal moment for me.

5) Take the opportunity to teach. Teaching wasn’t really something I had considered before becoming a doctoral student, but it was also something I didn’t have much choice in doing, because I needed the money. I was in fact awarded half a studentship from the university which meant without teaching to earn some extra money, I would have been pretty poor. I can remember being terrified about what I would be expected to do, how I would answer students questions, having to teach subjects I had barely understood as an undergraduate (Dialog and Datastar searching!) But as the time went on I realised teaching was actually fun. I could often get by when a student was struggling by asking them lots of questions and actually reading the handouts the lecturers had prepared (I realised how few students seemed to be able to read and follow a help sheet when doing any form of computer practical!) And I got to chat to the students and learnt so much myself during my time as what we called a ‘computer demonstrator’. I sometimes wonder now if I really was a teacher, but what I know is that I had found something I enjoyed, that gave me a source of income and students seemed to like me.

6) Write from the start. Since doing a research supervision course last year I learnt that factors for success with doctoral students are many, but one thing sets many students apart and makes them far more likely to complete. That is the student who writes from the start. I was encouraged to do this by both my supervisors, but I also remember early on in a meeting them being surprised at the volume I had written. It’s quality Jane not quantity they said, but I often feel I have to get the words out my head and onto paper to start to make sense of what I might be thinking. This was effectively what I spent the 3 and half years of my doctoral work doing, writing and writing and re-writing and re-drafting until finally some of it started to make sense. There are loads of other factors that contribute towards success, but this for me was critical and is something that has stayed with me always. I write so I can think and in writing it helps my thinking, which in turn improves my writing. It’s not perfect, but I’ve never let that stop me. I don’t always write things grammatical correct, but it all comes out in the wash in the end and that’s what proof readers and critical friends are for after all!

Graduating in 2000

7) Avoid perfectionism. Few people who know me would say I was a perfectionist. I work hard, but I also have a sense often of the effort needed to make something perfect, which can be far greater than the time that is available. So I have never been afraid to hand in a first draft, knowing it’s not great. Or to ask someone for help with redrafting a paper that I just can’t get right. Perfectionists don’t finish PhDs. What you do has to be good, you have to work hard and put in the hours, when you are collecting and analysing your data, when you are searching the literature and when you are drawing it together into some sort of conclusion. But no one expects perfection. Do your best, in the time you have available, but be willing to put your work and ideas out there to get feedback on them. It’s the only way to learn.

8) Have a hobby. You can’t spend your whole life working on your PhD for 3-4 years. It will feel like that is what you are doing but you need to take time out. I effectively treated it like a job. I worked 9-5 (or in my case more like 10-6). But then I went to the sports centre and did aerobics classes, and went out walking in the hills at the weekend, and socialised. I also did a lot of cooking and learnt to make jam. I didn’t work endlessly into the night (except perhaps right at the end) and I even went on a couple of holidays. Yes you feel guilty the whole time you are not working on the thesis, but you have to do other stuff and for me cycling and aerobics and making the most of the beautiful West Wales countryside at the weekend were the way I survived my PhD.

I do realise I was very focused during this period of my life. From 1995-1999 there are very few TV series I watched. I did go to the cinema still but I didn’t listen to a lot of music – I have huge gaps in my cultural references because I was immersed in my own world of academia (I never watched a single episode of Friends). I threw myself into my research, to such an extent that it’s painful sometimes to go back to it. Since my thesis has been digitised and made available online I have cringed a lot at my writing style. I’ve wondered why I was so enthralled with the topic. But I have never, ever regretted it for a moment. It set me on the path I am on now and has instilled in me a love of research, a curiosity that I hope never leaves me. A desire to ask questions, to present at conferences, to write papers and hopefully one day soon to start supervising some PhD students of my own!

Thanks to Emma Wilson, for inspiring me to write this piece. I hope she finds it useful after our recent discussions. I’d love to hear from others about what doing a doctorate meant to them and how it might have contributed to who they are. A doctorate gives you many things, but it also sets you apart from people, such as making your family think you are strange or terribly clever. That can be both a blessing and a curse! But I say to anyone thinking about doing a PhD, find the right topic, the right supervisors and plenty of support and then do it. You won’t look back and remember life’s a journey so don’t forget to enjoy the ride!

A new survey on academics and data literacy

I recall last year at the CILIP Conference discussing what data literacy was and being quite doubtful about it as a concept that was distinct from information literacy. However, knowledge, data and information are different things so I’ve come round to valuing the benefit in recognising the value of defining these new literacies. We recently added a definition of data literacy to the information literacy website.

At the European Conference in Information Literacy (ECIL) conference this year in St Malo France, I attended a number of papers on data literacy research. Colleagues are conducting a multi-national survey not unlike the copyright literacy survey I worked on in 2014 with Chris Morrison. Geoff Walton, my colleague on the Information Literacy Group is working on a project with Gobinda Choudhury, Serap Kurbanoglu and Joumana Boustani to gather information about levels of data literacy among the academic community. Geoff needs as many responses as possible to create a really meaningful dataset so he has asked me to pass this on to academic colleagues to complete. I thought it was worth writing a short blog post about the research as well as encouraging my academic colleagues at City, University of London to complete it.

The survey aims to collect data about the data literacy of academics and research students in higher education institutions. Responses will enable the researchers to  fully understand the current levels of awareness and gaps in knowledge which will help us develop appropriate data literacy training for the higher education community. The survey is anonymous and it will take approximately 10-15 minutes to complete. By completing this survey you are consenting to the use of your data for research and dissemination purposes.

The survey is being carried out simultaneously in 14 partner countries: Australia, Bulgaria, China, Croatia, France (Lead Partner), Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Netherlands, Pakistan, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Turkey (Lead Partner) as well as the UK (Lead Partner).

Please visit this link to complete the survey:​

If you have any questions or comments as you are going through the survey, please contact Dr Geoff Walton

Finding your place

I was asked to make a video about tips for new researchers and I was taken back to thinking about a workshop Emma and I ran twice on doing research as a librarian. We talked about finding your niche and finding a place to think. When I talk about finding your place I mean both of those things. But I also think librarians struggle with their identity as a researcher (as I suspect many people do, undergraduate students for example). But librarians often spend a lot of time helping other people do research and providing ‘support’ when in reality they should be acknowledged as researchers. I am not sure why they are not, but I think changing your own attitude towards your identity might help. If we didn’t have libraries and librarians a huge amount of research would be impossible. We provide access to the literature, we hold archives of huge significance which we help people to navigate and interrogate. We are not just providing a support to the research process, we are underpinning it, we are providing the research with the foundations on which it stands. As we know, all research and ideas are built on things that have gone before. So finding your place is all about recognising, even if you think you don’t do research, as a librarian you probably do. Or as someone who provides specialist advice and support to others on information related issues, then you are in a pretty important place! A house won’t stay up without solid foundations. And good research has to be built on solid information and knowledge.

I think research can sometimes be an exclusive place that makes people feel they are not worthy. Even the language and methodologies, in fact any of the -ologies are horribly scary. That’s not to say anyone can just do research. There are things you need to do properly, like devising a decent research question – and one that can be answered! And finding an appropriate way to collect the data you need. It’s also important not to just go looking for evidence that backs up what you think is true. Having a critical friend with a different perspective to you can be really helpful here. However, for me finding your place is all about finding the topics that you are passionate about, so the research really matters to you. The best research projects I have worked on are ones where I feel like I am making a difference, or helping to develop something that will make a difference, even if just in a small way. And there are lots of different types of research, much of what I do has a really practical application. But that still doesn’t mean I don’t try to read some literature, see what others have done in the field, and develop a robust methodology. One example is the research I’ve been doing with Chris on librarians and copyright – what do they want to learn more about and what aspects of copyright cause them concern? And then let’s try and see what their experience of copyright as a phenomenon might tell us about how to improve things. This research helped us write the recent guidance for librarians on the website. But it should also help us to develop and improve resources like Copyright the Card Game. So, I urge you to start thinking of yourself as a researcher and get out there and try to find your place where you can make a difference!

Supporting research students: Czech good practice

Charles Bridge, PragueI’ve just attended an Information Literacy seminar held at Charles University in Prague, (founded in 1348) although the meeting was at the more modern Faculty of Social Sciences. I was invited to give the keynote which opened the seminar and to speak about the support for research students we offer at LSE. The IVIG seminar, which is an information literacy seminar, was organized by the Association of Libraries of Czech Universities, Institute of Information Studies and Librarianship of the Charles University in Prague, and SPRIG Civic Association. I have made my presentation available on Slideshare.

The programme was really interesting and it isn’t that often you get to meet so many Czech academic librarians. The group arranged for an interpreter to help me out, as the entire day was (unsurprisingly) in Czech. I had been invited following meeting Hana Landová, Lenka Bělohoubková and Ludmila Ticha last year at the ECIL conference in Istanbul. Their information literacy group has made great progress furthering good practice in information literacy in the Czech Republic and the seminars they organize are very popular with librarians.

The focus of the seminar was supporting PhD students and early career researchers and there were presentations from a wide range of universities. Overall I found the issues they were discussing were very similar to those we experience in the UK, such as how to promote courses to PhD students and also how to evaluate their effectiveness. The workshops being offered by Czech librarians were quite similar to those we run in LTI and LSE Library: literature searching, managing references, citation analysis, copyright issues. A couple of differences I noticed were several people talked about offering courses to PhD students on the publication process and on writing an academic (or scientific) paper. It struck me as a really useful addition to the programme we offer at LSE, and worth discussing with LSE’s Teaching and Learning Centre. This course covered how to identify high impact journals in your field and also discussed open access issues. Petra Dědičová from Brno, University of Technology was one speaker who had a particularly impressive programme of support for PhD students, with a complimentary Moodle course.

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Research and writing workshop

Today I’ve been chairing a workshop at CILIP on undertaking research, writing proposals and getting published. It was a joint event being run by the Information Literacy group and Library and Information Research Group. I got involved in my capacity as Editor of the Journal of Information Literacy. I was looking forward to the day and have always believed that undertaking research is a really important part of a practitioner. In fact I am in the process of writing a research strategy for our team which should be available on our website fairly soon.

The strategy is an attempt to provide a rationale and a strategic direction for the research that we have done for many years and it sets out the key areas of research interest. Up until this point our research has been driven by funding opportunities from organisations such as JISC and the HEA and from personal interests. However it’s helpful to have this work recognised more formally and to have an explicit strategy. Writing the document also helped me see how the various areas where we have undertaken research fit together. I’ve undertaken research on open education, on digital and information literacies and on the impact of new technologies on learning and teaching at our own institution and more widely. However the strategy should provide more focus for the activities.

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Sharing information literacy resources to support researchers

Last week Nancy Graham and I presented at the ALISS Summer Conference about the CoPILOT community of practice, and how by sharing information literacy resources as OERs librarians are really advocating open education and acting as exemplars to other teachers. We talked about the background to the CoPILOT Committee being established – it is a sub group of the CILIP Information Literacy Group. We also talked about the DELILA project, the survey of librarians we completed last year and the CoPILOT project which was a 2 month project funded by JISC and the HEA to explore whether some of the OERs we created during the DELILA project could be used in an international context. Other than a fire alarm going off shortly into our talk, it was a good opportunity to talk about this work and to encourage those supporting researchers to share their materials as OERs. I was therefore really pleased to see the Jorum Research Data Management collection launched today.

Exploring social media as research data

Yesterday I was facilitating a new workshop at LSE, which we ran in conjunction with the Department of Media and Communications and LSE Library. Entitled, ‘Exploring Social Media as Research Data‘ we had a fully booked session, attracting mainly academic staff and PhD students from across the School. I was there to learn as much as the rest of the delegates and we have spent some time putting together a variety of sessions, which we designed to stimulate discussion.

The icebreaker was both playful and serious (reflecting much social media?) and a chance for people to get to know the rest of their table. We had them working in groups of around 6 or 7. Then we launched into an activity using extra large post-it notes where we asked them to come up with advantages and disadvantages of social media as a data sources. It was a chance to ‘crowd source’ ideas and we had a great number of positive and negative comments, from the free, easy to access nature of social media data, to issues of bias, privacy and ethics.

We had two case studies presented during the afternoon, the first from Pollyanna Ruiz from the Media and Comms department, who is a Research Fellow exploring protest groups and their use of social media. The second from Veronica Cheng in the Statistics department who has been using Weibo, the Chinese Twitter, to correlate sentiments about specific companies with their share prices. It was a chance to hear about how they harvest, analyse and store their data, and some of their findings.

John Southall, LSE Data Librarian and Ella McPherson from Media and Comms then explored the ethical and legal issues of social media data. We had quite an intense discussion about what was ‘informed consent’ and Ella drew our attention to the Ethics guide from the Association of Internet Researchers.

We have made some of the harvesting, analysis and visualisation tools available on a wiki. We also had a useful final session exploring in more detail 5 articles that use social media data sources and the methodologies they used. I really enjoyed what I hope will be the first in a new series of workshops and it was great to bring together so many researchers at LSE and hopefully to stimulate and support their work.