Signs of the times

I was having fun, but now I’m not… and I haven’t much felt like writing about it. Then recently I read The Syllabub’s post on being afflicted with The Stupid and felt so much better. A problem shared is a problem halved, and all that! So I may actually start blogging again in the hope that I can similarly improve the environment for others. No promises though.

IMG_6306Why it’s not fun… well, according to my original plan (aka wishful thinking), if not actually already finished by now, I was supposed to be in the last stretch before submission. Poor planning (aka no planning) and a serious lack of structure means that idea has gone completely out the window. So, back in February when I decided I was ready to focus to finish, I sat down and revisited the writing I had done, the revision and restructuring and reanalysis and rewriting I had still to work through; my new plan says even optimistically I will not be done until February next year -and that I still have some serious and substantial work to do on establishing the underpinnings of my research. Which is why I have been once again ploughing through tomes of theory, and suffering a serious dose of the stupid. If only I had started with getting my head around the theory, way back when…

At the same time, my workplace has undergone/is undergoing some rather brutal 20695_road_signs_Page_046restructuring. My current job is secure, but the role I was aiming for, that was one of the central reasons for doing a PhD, has been “restructured” into an administrative position, and no longer encompasses the academic leadership activities I desired. Which scuppered my motivation completely – until I figured that I don’t have to stay at the same institution just because I have been there for 16 years, and  PhD might just be the ticket to get me to somewhere else.  But actually, a different topic would have been a better bet for that…

So, really I would like to start again and do it all properly, now that I have a much better idea of both the how and the why… but instead, I should just get back to work!

PhD comics by Jorge Cham



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Using the F word…

2015 was a busy year for me. A year full of new places, new people, new experiences, and new opportunities. I travelled, a lot.


2015 – flying instead of focusing

I crossed a few architectural treasures and dream destinations off my bucket list (Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and Guggenheim Museum; Le Corbusier’s Chapel at Ronchamp; Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque; Marrakech, Budapest, Iceland…); I visited family and friends I don’t often have the chance to see; I had good times with my parents and my in-laws and my husband and my kids.


And (I tell myself), I did it while still staying busy with my PhD and other commitments. An inventory of what I achieved on the work front actually looks quite impressive …

  • Completed my PhD data collection, interviewing a further 38 people in 4 countries
  • Transcribed (some of) my interviews
  • Got to grips (maybe) with my analysis method, after reading far too many irrelevant papers/books on methodology
  • Wrote and presented a (PhD related) conference paper
  • Wrote and submitted a (PhD related) journal paper that has been accepted for publication (pending revisions)
  • Drafted (in various states of completeness) 7 more journal papers based on my PhD
  • Outlined another 3 PhD related conference or (possibly) journal papers
  • Gave seminar presentations on my PhD work at 4 different institutions
  • Was invited to submit a chapter for a book, related to my PhD work
  • Co-authored a (non-PhD related) conference paper (presented by a colleague)
  • Wrote a (non-PhD related) abstract that has been accepted for a conference mid-2016
  • Co-authored a (non-PhD related) paper that has been accepted for a journal special issue
  • Attended two other (interesting but not particularly useful) conferences
  • Started a blog (…?)

However, although it looks good, and I can pretend that I have been really busy, I know that this list is not a true reflection of the (lack of) effort I have put in. Specifically, the problem with 2015 was a lack of focus. I have scattered my attention across lots of different possibilities, but it still does not add up to a PhD. As Tim Ferris (The Four Hour Workweek) said, we should “focus on being productive, instead of busy.” I had a very busy year, but not a very productive one. In real terms I have not made a lot of progress from where I was at the start of the year. It’s time to stop kidding myself that I am nearly finished on my PhD (which I have been saying for the last 6 months) and accept that there is still a lot to do, that I can’t do it properly with the superficial level of concentration I have given it over the past year, and that I have to move out of my comfort zone. My motto for 2015 was “First things first”, and my “first things” were supposed to be all about getting my data collected and analysed and my papers written. In retrospect I think my 2015 motto morphed into “Fun things first” quite early in the piece, and I seized every opportunity with both hands.


Doing a PhD is more fun with a  mango daiquiri*

For 2016 I am relying on a couple of “F words” to help me along my way, and the motto I have decided on for this year is a bit more specific: “Focus to Finish”

Will I finish my PhD in 2016? Can I make the changes in my attitude and lifestyle that are required to do it? I know I can and I will. But it’s going to be a real challenge, because I have become too used to pleasing myself rather than stretching myself.

The first challenge will be to relearn some good habits and build up an environment where I can achieve the outcomes I want. I need to accept that I will not be getting the support I want from my supervisors, so I will take responsibility for my own project, and stop blaming them for my lack of progress. I will say no a bit more often to my family and friends instead of accepting every invitation and joining every trip.  It’s time for me to quash my magpie tendencies and stop chasing squirrels, to put aside the camera and the novels and all my other distraction techniques, and have other priorities for a while. It will be uncomfortable sometimes, it will be unpleasant, it will mean that I miss out on many of the things I would rather be doing (there may be some muttered use of another F word along the way!), but I know that it will be worth it for the satisfaction of achieving what I set out to do. It is not for very much longer, and I have my wealth of experiences from 2015 to sustain me.

I plan to use this blog to record my progress as I rebuild my focus muscles and get to grips with completing my thesis this year. Any encouragement will be gratefully received 🙂

Having reached this point and given myself this pep talk, you might think I would be heading off right now to get some serious work done – but no, my hedonist inclinations are still in action (and we have some longstanding plans to complete) so first I have a few other F words to work on – I’m taking more time off, with a fortnight in Florida with my family. 2016 for me starts on February 1st, when I am back in New Zealand and started in the new academic year. See you then…

*Every year I decide on both a motto and a New Year’s resolution – this year’s resolution is to perfect a new cocktail every month 🙂


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Magpie tendencies

Instead of what I should have been thinking about – my PhD and how professional identity affects the development of the BIM specialist role – I have been thinking some more about the idea of the PhD and personal identity, provoked by a series of tweets by Jennifer Polk last week (@FromPhDtoLife). Unfortunately what I have come up with is a better description of what I am not…

I don’t think of myself as a “researcher”; I like to acquire knowledge, but research is just one way of doing that. I do not feel like a specialist in my subject, despite the time I have spent working on it, so “scholar” is not the thing either. I work in a tertiary institution, so in one sense I am an “academic”, but I don’t really feel that I am part of the academy as such. I also like to share the knowledge I acquire, so “perpetual student” doesn’t quite cover it (despite what friends and family believe!).

Dilettante is a good term, though I have to admit it applies not just in the traditional sense (“lover of the arts”), but is also quite apt in the modern one (“a person who cultivates an area of interest, without real commitment or knowledge.”) I delight in dabbling, learning snippets and samples, in acquiring bits of knowledge and making connections. I am a knowledge magpie (ooh, shiny!) and mastery is not my goal.

Which currently has me questioning why exactly I am doing a PhD, since mastery of a subject might be seen as a central aim of a PhD. It is not the subject that fascinates me though, it is the process of learning about my subject.

My PhD is a reflection of that dabbler’s mind, as I have a variety of disparate pieces: partially articulated thoughts; several different data collection approaches resulting in different sets of data; ongoing experimentation using half a dozen data analysis approaches, none of which I have taken to their conclusions; 10 (ten!) articles in various states of completeness, from just title and abstract, to outline, to blocks and pieces, through to waiting on revisions for journal acceptance. I have got far enough on each line of thought to talk with great amounts of hand-waving on any of them, though not far enough to have the confidence to commit to them in my thesis. I have presented papers at conferences and seminars, had many fascinating and even exciting conversations and discussions, and now have all of the pieces whirling in a disconnected way in my head, which on the inside sounds a lot like the birds in Denis Glover’s classic NZ poem !

Now I am approaching my 3 year PhD anniversary, which I had previously been determined was my hard deadline – but I have just enrolled for another six months… What I want to do is pull the threads together into something passingly coherent and hand it in; to commit to either putting my papers out for scrutiny and submitting my PhD by publications (the original idea), or come up with a cogent argument that will allow me to turn my hesitant drafts into a ‘proper’ thesis (Plan B). Either way, the magpies will have to stop scrapping for new and prettier objects to chase, and my fledgling ideas will have to grow up and leave the nest (to mix my metaphors slightly!)



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Watch your step with slogans and catchphrases

One facet of my PhD is looking at how the narratives of my participants reflect their professional identity. Alongside the narratives of lived experience, I am finding that  there are a lot of what Georgakopoulou (2006) refers to as ‘small stories’.  In effect, these are catchphrases or slogans that have come to represent a much larger narrative. In many cases they represent someone else’s experience or agenda that a participant has ‘bought into’, rather than developing their own personal understanding of a particular situation. I have found it interesting that these adopted narratives, although they may be argued passionately, often clash with or even contradict totally the narratives of lived experience. It can be easy to let catchphrases, cliches and slogans become part of our descriptions of what we do and how we do it, but figuring out how they apply personally, and what we really mean by them, can be a slippery business…

I am still working through that can of worms as I progress through my analysis, but it got me to thinking about a few of the slogans and catchphrases that I’ve heard recently about the PhD process and academia in general.

It’s only a PhD, not a Nobel prize: This is a catchphrase that I have been hearing a lot recently. The wider narrative involves a student who is worried about the quality or value of their work,  trying to cover everything that could be covered within the topic, or putting


The Nobel medal. Image from

a huge amount of time and energy into their studies. The supervisor or concerned other thinks the effort involved is disproportionate to the value of the doctorate, and is encouraging them to set their sights lower or reassuring them that a smaller amount of work will suffice. While it can be useful to keep in mind a pragmatic view of what you need to do to complete, the catchphrase also implies that the research is not significant or valuable. But not even Nobel prizewinners were ‘doing a Nobel prize’ when they were  doing the work that led to the eventual award. Who’s to say that the work done by that PhD student is not the start of a line of research that will culminate in that famous medal for outstanding work, just like some of these famous PhDs? And even the high likelihood that your work won’t be considered worthy of a Nobel prize (given that only 900 people or organisations have been awarded Nobel prizes, ever) shouldn’t diminish the significance or substance of the research you are doing.

A PhD is training for research: This is a common assumption, rooted in tradition and frequently encountered in universities’ descriptions of their PhD programmes.  Granted, a PhD is the entry qualification for appointment in an academic or research institute. But that’s not all it is good for. This is a limiting narrative that ignores the many reasons why someone might want to do a PhD, and the many possibilities that stem from the experience (and/or the qualification). The Economist, in a 2010 article, went so far as to say that because academic positions are limited, doing a PhD is a waste of time. That presupposes that every PhD student is driven by the desire to become an academic or independent researcher, and overlooks the wide range of transferable skills that a PhD develops. In the variety of people I have met doing their PhDs, there is a vast array of different reasons for undertaking the study. Yes, there are some who are young researchers aspiring to an academic career. However, in the course of my research I have interviewed several early career PhDs working in industry, who used the PhD as an opportunity to develop a specific area of interest or expertise more deeply. They found themselves in more challenging and rewarding jobs as a result. Others, like me, are well into their careers rather than embarking on it (PhD OWLs), and are taking the opportunity to explore an area that will help them to develop their practice. Others are pursuing a fascination with a particular subject purely for the joy of learning. Learning the research process is just one reason of many for why to PhD.

Academics don’t live in ‘the real world’: I find this narrative very interesting as it is frequently academics and students themselves who are the narrators, and I’m guessing it dates back to the ‘town and gown’ divide of medieval universities. However, the notion that earning a living by studying, teaching, researching and other academic activities is somehow different from doing it by selling insurance or building railways, or whatever else might constitute a real world occupation is very odd to me. As we explored in the How to Survive Your PhD MOOC, modern academia still maintains some of the trappings of the historical universities, but the day to day reality is vastly different. Family life, part-time or full time work alongside study, community and other responsibilities, not to mention the basics of shopping, commuting, etc. all mean that we are in the ‘real world’ whether we want to be or not.


My ivory tower (somewhere near Hershey, Pennsylvania)

To be fair, my life as a full-time PhD student, as I have been living it this year, has been very much a fantasyland for me with lots of travel, complete flexibility, and very relaxed deadlines… I know that my progress has suffered because I have not been as disciplined as I should have been about treating it as a serious occupation, and I am also aware that my experience is not that of the majority of PhD students. This year of living the easy life will be coming back to bite me in a couple of months when I return to the real world. Hmmm. Maybe this is one narrative fragment that does match my lived experience! Except that for me the ‘real world’ is still academia, but as a teacher rather than student…

There are many other catchphrases and slogans that we often take as read, without critical consideration of how they relate to our own experience. I have found that unfolding the narratives that lies within these ‘small stories’ can help to identify conflicts and clarify expectations in how I view the world.


Georgakopoulou, A. (2006). Thinking big with small stories in narrative and identity analysis. Narrative inquiry16(1), 122-130.

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PhD passion and pragmatism


Is passion really an essential ingredient in the PhD?

During the “How to Survive your PhD” MOOC, in the discussion on Curiosity, a topic came up that raised my hackles a bit. The question was raised of how to generate passion in students who just wanted to “do what’s required and get over with it.” This led into the old argument that the best (only?!) approach to a successful PhD is to choose a topic you are passionate about.

This is an idea that surfaces repeatedly in advice for prospective PhD students in books, articles and blogs:

Invariably you will find that people who are studying or have achieved a PhD are passionate about their topic. If they are not when they start out, they often become emphatic defenders of their territory by the end, after living, sleeping and breathing the stuff for three years (or more!).

Churchill, H., & Sanders, T. (2007). Getting your PhD: a practical insider’s guide. London: Sage. p19

Leaving aside the fact that a requirement for most of us is to become an “emphatic defender” of our work in order to complete the PhD process, I think that for me, and probably for many PhD candidates, this idea is dead wrong.

For my Masters thesis, I did a very extensive piece of research in a topic that I was passionate about (well, fascinated by at least) but after two years of “living, sleeping and breathing the stuff,” I couldn’t wait to see the end of it, and very deliberately changed my career direction. That was just over 20 years ago, and I have never done any work in that field since. I have flicked through my thesis once or twice to admire the photos I used to illustrate my work, but I have no interest whatsoever in revisiting the topic. The pressure and pain of the immersive focus on the topic effectively killed off the passion to the point where I turned down a job that would have used the specific topic knowledge I had worked so hard to gain.

My PhD topic, by contrast, is one that I chose with a very pragmatic view of what was going to deliver the most value for me for the remainder of my career, in terms of what is useful for my employer and my students. I am interested, I am curious, but I am not passionate about it. I do not immerse myself in it, and I treat my PhD like a job (with a very easy-going boss!)

Like any PhD student, I go through lows and highs, and perhaps the highs are not as high as those of someone who is making breakthroughs in a field they are passionate about, but similarly I don’t think my lows are as challenging as they would be if I were “falling out of love” with my topic. I do it for the sake of my learning and personal development, for the qualification and the career advancement that can bring me, and I hope to improve the knowledge and skills I can offer to my students.

My PhD world is not purely mundane without excitement or thrill. The research process still fascinates me. The joy of learning, the challenge and curiosity of new ways of approaching a problem, the satisfaction of writing something that captures exactly what I want to say – I love research and the new ways of thinking, the expansion of my knowledge boundaries that it offers. For me it is about the doing, not the knowing, and the PhD offers me the chance to immerse myself in that.

One commenter on the MOOC observed that a PhD is like a marriage – if you have to ask if it is right for you, then the answer is no. But just like a marriage, passion is not the only or even the best reason to say yes.


CAVEAT: I already have an academic career, I have no interest in post-docs or world leading research labs, and I can afford to do or not do my PhD to suit myself. I want the opportunities that having a PhD will offer me, but effectively those opportunities are contingent on the qualification and not the content I produce.

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How not to be an instant expert

An education isn’t how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It’s being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don’t.

Although the Internet has changed our information landscape, the definition of education provided by French writer Anatole France* is still valid. Less emphasis now is given to committing information to memory, but the distinction between knowing and not knowing is perhaps even more important.

In one of my earlier career incarnations, I was working in a research group for IT in the construction industry, where I was a generalist in a bunch of very clever specialists. If we were asked for someone to write an article for the organisation’s magazine or if the press wanted an “expert” to quote, I was often called on to be that person. My real expertise at the time was that I had mastered the art of the internet search – which before the advent of Google was a rare skill! I could gather enough information quickly enough to be able to speak with some degree of authority on a topic that I had only just encountered. Of course, it was superficial, but it was sufficient to put the work of our group into the context of industry developments, connect the dots with other initiatives that we were working on, and to identify new areas that we needed to be investigating further. My ability to become the “instant expert” stood me in good stead for quite a few years, and helped me a lot in my work in that role and beyond**.

Now, however, search engines are taken for granted and everyone is an instant expert. The answers to almost everything are at our fingertips. Google has become so much a part of everyday life that we have started to think that somehow we already know what Google knows, that just being able to Google it makes us smarter.  I recently saw a painful example of this effect in action. A visiting engineering PhD student was presenting her work to the group I am currently working in. She was struggling with finding a focus for her research and was very open about the problems she was having. A big stumbling block she had faced was finding that the sensor equipment she needed was either wildly expensive, or would measure only a portion of the data she needed. As a result she was having to redefine her project based on the data she was able to acquire, and she was not happy with the prospect.

Anyone can use Google. Have some respect for those earning the knowledge the hard way!

Show some respect for those earning new knowledge the hard way!

After her talk, when the floor was open for questions, the first response was not a question, but a comment from another student, from a different university and a different engineering discipline, who proceeded to explain to her that he had “just done some quick research on Google” and found that there was actually a type of sensor that did exactly what she needed and it was cheap and easily available, so why didn’t she use that…? I thought the presenter handled it very well, as she thanked him for the information, and moved on to another question, but I was quietly seething at the arrogance and lack of respect that was implied. Did he really think that she had spent two years on this project and was going through the heartache and challenge of changing her research from the bottom up, without searching the internet to see what was available? How could he think that from a twenty minute presentation and a quick bit of Googling he had enough information to answer a research problem that had the student and her advisers stumped? I also wondered at the quality of his own PhD, that a Google search could  produce the overconfidence that allowed him to make such definitive pronouncements about what another student should be doing.

As students, we are often reminded to be critical of what we read, whether in hard copy or online, not to blithely assume that it is relevant or valid. In the same way, I think we need reminding to be critical of what we do with what we read.  It is OK to admit that you don’t know something (and to pretend otherwise can make you look a bigger fool). It is not necessary to have an opinion on every subject. Google answers (almost) every question, but delivers only information, not knowledge.

To be an instant expert is to be a consumer, not a producer. We need to respect the efforts of those who have earned the knowledge, and work to become an expert, for real. Now for the Internet age, we could add that education is also being able to differentiate between knowing and knowing how to find out.

*Or maybe American educator William Feather; my Google skills have not found a definitive answer!

**Although it left me with a sad case of Impostor Syndrome… maybe that will be the subject for a future post.

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The Lifecycle of a PhD Butterfly

There are PhD metaphors everywhere, on blogs and even academic papers, but none have really resonated with me. Sporting events like marathons are outside my experience (and my comfort zone); I have never been one for artistic endeavours like sculpture or weaving, I don’t think of it as a journey or a quest. Even architecture or construction images, which ‘should’ work, in terms of my topic and background, didn’t really click. Somehow a passing remark about a chrysalis rang the bell for me, and nagged in my mind until I finally got it written down.

However, given my tendencies towards “academic procrastination”, I have now discovered a great deal more about the lifecycle of a butterfly than I knew before! Did you know that caterpillars go through several phases (called instars) where they shed their skins – which they then eat? Or that butterfly wings a
re mostly colourless, but look so vibrant and beautiful because light is refracted on microscopic structures on their wing scales? So fascinating!

Perhaps more usefully, I have also learned a lot about the role of metaphor in teaching and learning. Plenty has been written about metaphors and their usefulness (or otherwise) in the PhD process. Frances Kelly suggests that the metaphors that are chosen influence both the process and the product. I am not sure yet how this metaphor affects/will affect my conceptualisation of myself as a student or the outcome for my thesis, but surely the fact that I felt so strongly about it “means something”? Probably it shows that I am more concerned with my own development as a researcher, than in the findings and outcomes of the research that I am doing.

IMG_5442Rob Pitcher categorises metaphors into five types – space, travel, action, body and ordeal. My metaphor fits his “body” category, with elements of “ordeal” – it can be seen as the coming together of disparate parts, with a bit of a struggle involved – but I think the idea of transformation that is the essence of my story, doesn’t fit any of his categories. Again, I think that may be because I am more interested in the process rather than the product. I am sure these ideas will keep ticking over in the back of my mind, but in the meantime, I have become obsessed by butterflies!

And so, my metaphor…

For quite a while, the thought of doing a PhD sat dormant at the back of my mind. I had too much else going on, there was no ‘real reason’ to do it, it cost too much, it took too long, my ideas had no substance; conditions were not right and I was not ready to commit to making a start. But gradually my resistance eroded, or my enthusiasm built, and I decided to stop dithering and get on with it. And so the caterpillar hatched from the egg…

IMG_2054A newly hatched caterpillar is tiny, and very vulnerable. I started out hesitantly, feeling uncertain and hopeful, and grew more certain and less hesitant as I learned more about the environment I found myself in. Having emerged from the protection of my familiar roles and experience, my sense of vulnerability continued; I was exposed and fragile in this new world. But the caterpillar is a consumer, and so was I, devouring everything I came across that would help my PhD self to grow. Library courses, learning skills workshops, software training, talking to people in my industry and in academia, in my field and in related areas, attending seminars and conferences; all were food for thought and fuel for growth. I was reading research reports, industry reports, journal papers, blogs and books, research methodology and philosophy (though some of that I found very indigestible!) Then like a caterpillar I went through a change, maybe not shedding my skin exactly but moving into a different phase of my caterpillarhood. I began to collect data, pursuing participants and conducting interviews with the same voracity that I had worked through the literature. My project grew and grew, increasing in scope and scale, and I amassed a vast quantity of data.

And now I have formed my chrysalis. The insatiable seeking has stopped, and I am processing and readjusting as I work through the next stage. From the outside I may look composed and tranquil, but inside there is a muddled mess of chaos and complexity. All the potential of my reading and my data collection is there, but it is floating around in a state of flux. It takes a lot of time and energy to work through it, to structure the analysis, to develop the ideas, to see what goes where and figure out how the accumulated parts come together to become a new whole. I have in my mind the image of what I want to become, but currently it is difficult to see how I get from here to there. I feel a different kind of vulnerability now, fear that I don’t have what it takes to get through this stage, that what I have done may not be enough. Gradually though, transformation is starting to occur, and perhaps soon some vague forms may be distinguishable to the careful observer.  (And I have learned that for some butterflies, pupation may last many months or even years… I am not sure whether that is reassuring or frightening, at this stage!)

Even once the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis, there is still a stage imageof development that follows.
Although fully formed, the crumpled wings have to go through a slow process of expanding and hardening, and they need time to dry before flight can take place. I am keeping in mind that when I think I finally have my analysis formulated, and my ideas organised, and my thesis draft completed, I will still have to refine and extend, revise and expand, before my ideas are ready for the world.

And finally, although at the moment it is sometimes hard to imagine, I try to remember that it is all part of the lifecycle, and that the time will eventually come when I can spread my wings fully. Maybe I won’t be as big or as beautiful as some of the other butterflies out there, but I will have gone through the same process, and I will fly out for my day in the sun.

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