It’s been a while, but you can be sure I’ve been working away behind the scenes.  In no particular order.

  • Career: Applying for part-time employment & subsequently attending an interview (which as I’ve heard nothing, I’m assuming I didn’t get).  I can confirm I still hate writing job applications, but at least I can write them fairly quickly.
  • 2015-09-30 10.08.58Field Work: Finishing off my last research interviews and getting them all transcribed (can’t believe I’m done with data capture for the PhD now!).  3 months work to produce this pile of transcripts shown.  Yep, there’s summer 2015 in a nutshell for me.
  • Publishing: Reading around and revising my journal article following the second round of peer review (took longer than I thought).  Next up, debate with the editor over the licence terms for the journal!
  • Examining: Attending my assessment board in my role as an External Examiner and writing my annual report for the university (took slightly less time than I thought)
  • Poster: Creating a poster for my Santander funded trip in June to Austria (a requirement of my funding. Took a LOT longer than I’d banked on to create and get printed).  I have to make an appearance next week at a related event with the funders
  • Lecturing: Sorting out my end of contract details with NTU (slow) and dealing with the sudden disappearance of my staff account (no warning, gee thanks, glad there wasn’t anything too important in there!).  Really, really missing being part of the teaching team at NTU already, and still pissed off about this whole issue.  *sulks*
  • AHRC: Dealing with the end of my studentship, and realising how even more broke I am now until I find a job.
  • Rail card: 60 miles and three visits to campus before I could get everything I needed sorted for the rail card to the satisfaction of the East Midlands Trains staff.  Felt far, far from impressed with their attitude, customer service and communication abilities.  But it’s my last ‘young’ person’s railcard I’ll ever have, and it’s all mine finally!  Graduate School staff meanwhile – impressively good!
  • Analysis: Started (as of today) working on the coding framework for my field work.  This hopefully won’t take quite as long as before, although I may have to reteach myself bits of NVivo that have gone rusty in my head after 18 months.
  • Stress: Pretty much 24/7 now – stressing over money, writing up, finding a job and just dealing with the day to day delights of the isolated life of a humanities researcher.

And of course today, today marks 365 days before the end of my PhD.  I can (and hope to) finish sooner than this – but 30th Sept 2016 is my final submission day.  That means very much so from this point forward the clock is ticking more than ever.  Fingers crossed I can juggle making ends meet and writing up everything before then!  Wish me luck!

Job Hunting: Ready, Willing & Able

I may need to wear a wig
I may need to wear a wig it seems

So.  As discussed in earlier posts I find myself this September sans employment thanks to my university’s rather half-baked policy that doesn’t let it employ final year students, despite the fact that it acknowledges that I need to find work to support myself.  And with my AHRC funding at an end it’s more crucial than ever that I find some thing part-time that lets me complete my studies, but still brings in a few pounds.

Thus I’m now looking for some part-time work that won’t interfere with my studies too much, might give me some additional useful real-world experience and which at the same time won’t be too soul destroying.  Frankly, the latter two options are negotiable though.  I have applied for two posts in recent months that I never heard back from (which was a bit soul destroying, as for one of them I met/exceeded all the criteria), but now I’m really going to be looking long and hard and getting a few/low more applications off.

Thankfully my CV is up to date, and I’m able to rejig it for various jobs.  Slightly worried with my years of experience that I might end up on the over-qualified pile for some applications.  But that’s not going to stop me.  I’ve set up a load of alerts on Indeed for job-key words that might be right up my street, and now I just need to get back into the saddle of writing applications.  I hate writing them (I doubt anyone actually enjoys it), but I can generally crank one out in an evening (although two evenings sees a more polished production).  Of course I am left with the quandary that should I blitz applications and send out dozens to every job I’m even slightly willing to consider, or should I be much more selective?

Sir! Sir! I think I saw a .2FTE research role over there in the long grass
Sir! Sir! I think I saw a .2FTE research role over there in the long grass

Then there’s the sectors – do I only look at jobs in HE/FE or do I cast my net wider?  Should I go back and work in retail once more (fun fact: one of the single most enjoyable jobs I ever did was as an assistant floor manager at a popular DIY store).  Of course Mrs Llama thought it’d be amusing to suggest I go work for Apple – which given my love of OS and issues over the walled-garden of Apple led to following hypothetical interview discussion appearing in my head:

Interviewer “So tell me what you think about Apple and our wonderful products?”
Mr Llama “Well for a start they’re over priced, you seem to have adopted the classic capitalist strategy of achieving maximum valorisation of product along the lines described by Edward de Bernese in his classic work embracing Freud’s methods of psychoanalytical manipulation.  Secondly, you have a corporate ethos that is resplendent in protectionism and increasing enclosure of materials that should ideally be progressing towards the public domain.  Thirdly your O/S looks slick and clean, but in the same way appears to be designed for children who are happy for you to lock down the maximum level of functionality away from the users themselves.  Fourthly…why am I in the street outside the shop now?”
Apple-sucks-right-nowSo…maybe not Apple then.  May have to swallow my green-socialist values if I’m to keep the Wife in shoes and food I suspect at some point, but there’s only so far my ethics will bend, and there are going to be some orgaisations I just won’t be able to even consider working for.  Although I say that now at the start of the hunt, how long my ethics will stand up to being very, very broke…well there’s the rub.
In the meantime I’ll keep looking, and hopefully something will turn up.  Suggestions of where to look and what to apply for are always welcomed in the comments

A Wee Field Work Update

Following on from the last blog I’ve been pretty much full time on the publication/dissemination praxis interviews and transcriptions .  Insights on those to follow at some point, once I dive in – it is a very rich data set and it’s given me a lot to think about.  In the meanwhile, here’s the current completed interviews scores on the doors:

Min/Max completed %age

  • Academics: 100%/75% [2 still pending possibles]
  • Activists: 200%/133% [Success beyond success]
  • Funders: 333%/167% [Wow. Very surprised with the positive engagement]
  • Governmental: 50/20% [If all the ones I’ve got pending respond, I’ll be well over 100%]
  • Learned societies:  140%/70% [2 still pending possibles]
  • Publishers: 140%/70% [2 still pending possibles]

Rather a poor response to my second wave of invites to academics, which is a bit frustrating but can’t say I’m surprised with it being August.  I may have made the lower threshold of my target but I would like a few more just top off the process.  Might have to send out a 3rd wave of invites perhaps, and maybe a few folks will reply when they get back from hols?  If they do, I’ll be only too happy to talk to them!

However, that said my activist case study interviews and funders have more than made up for it.  As for the rest, as I’ve passed the minimum of my targets I might be able to call it a day.  I’ll see if any of the possible ones do happen after all, as that’d be a nice bit of icing on the cake.

Think I should be done with the active collection stage come 1st week of Sept (on target) and the transcriptions at the same time.  Which means Sept becomes analysis and writing month.  Oh, and reading the backlog of papers I’ve got…

Oh for the record I’ve managed to take a slightly longer annual holiday this year in the last few weeks – 4 whole nights away rather than 3 (to Leiden in the Netherlands, it was great, I want to move there!).  Although two of the days were over the weekend so that perhaps cuts it down.  One day when I have a job again I dream of having a whole week’s holiday…

Are we there yet? Looking back during phase II field work

Interviewing.  Transcribing.  Planning for interviews. Negotiating interview appointments.  That’s about it.  But how am I doing?

Phase II research interviews to date:

  • Activists: 33% [+100% pending]
  • Learned societies: 40% [+50% pending]
  • Publishers: 70% [+30% pending]
  • Funders: 67% [+83% pending]
  • Academics 55% [+25% pending]

That’s since 2nd July when I sent out my original requests to interview.  Pretty good response from the academic and publishing community, and with some gentle prompting the rest have been pretty good too.  Pretty sure I’ve had my longest and shortest interview for this phase already…but I remain to be surprised.

Time to start picking my wave II academics I think.  Also…still trying to work out which is any governmental doors to knock on, as I really don’t expect to have much success in getting people on the phone there!  Also, think I might need to approach another half dozen learned societies from my list just to round out my figures.

Research Interviewing: Tips and Insights

For the past couple of weeks my professional life has been pretty much filled with three things: arranging, conducting and transcribing interviews.  It’s been two years since my last round of semi-structured research interviews, and it’s been interesting in how my approach this time has benefited from my prior experiences.  So I thought I’d share some of these experiences on conducting effective and pain-free research interviewing.


Proper preparation & planning prevents piss poor performance

  • What do I want? Before starting to recruit for my interviews going back over my research plan, and refreshing in my mind just what I wanted to find out.  Only then did I start to craft my interview questions.
  • Script-writing: Yes I work from a script.  No, I don’t use exactly the same words each time.  Yes, it is no more than one page of A4 (so it can sit on my document reader stand during the interview).  I use a lot of emboldening to pick out the key headings, so my eye can jump to them easily in the heat of the interview itself.
  • It’s not 20 questions: One thing my previous batch of interviews taught me is you can get a lot of information with just a few, well crafted questions.  In fact, with too many questions you may find that the interviews run on and on and on…  Last time I think I asked too many. This time, I’m focused down to just 4.
  • Lead them in: My interview scripts have leading statements that frame/contextualise what I’m about to ask.  This helps make it clear what I’m talking about and interested in, rather than just leaping in with question, question, question.  I want my interviewees to open up to me – not feel like they’re on the other end of an interrogation.
  • Follow ups matter: For every question I ask, I have at least one follow up question to dig a bit deeper, or to help to prompt an interviewee who is less than chatty.


I choose you Pikachu!

  • Justify your sample: I know at some point down the line I’ll need to justify WHY I chose a particular set of potential-respondents to approach.  Some (major UK research funders) may be a small enough group that approaching them all is ok.  Others (any UK academic) is such a broad a varied group, that taking great pains to write notes to myself explaining my rationale for selection will make writing this up later easier.
  • First contact: I agonise over the recruitment emails I send out.  I keep them short and to the point (since I have to assume my potential candidates will be busy and not bother to read that much.  text).  Tell ’em who I am. Tell ’em what I want.  Tell ’em how much time it’ll take up (not much is a good idea).  And keep the tone professional, positive, and engaging.  I expect at best a 50% response rate from each sample group.  Less than 25% and I’ll need to revise my approach.  More than 50% and I’ll be delighted.  For my phase 1 interviews in 2013 I scored a 67% response rate…which was stunning!
  • Responding: I also find it’s good to have a longer email pre-written going into more detail about what I’m doing and what I’m looking for from my candidates is essential.  It saves time as I can just copy and paste it into responses, and then modify.  Easier than having to write everything out by hand.  It’s also the point where I explain about important ethical considerations like recording and anonymisation options.
  • Record keeping: I’ve a spreadsheet with everyone I’ve contacted with key information including: when they were contacted, any response, email and phone details.  And then I colour code it I can tell in a glance how my various groups of potential recruits are going.  Also, were there are follow ups to do (I get some who say “I’m busy now, but please contact me in three weeks”) I make them stand out with red-text action points.
  • Overbooking: For interviews that might last an 15-20 minutes, I clear a full hour in my schedule.  From past experience some interviewees will run long – and rather than cutting short a valuable exchange, I want to make sure that I’m not going to be checking my watch every few minutes.
  • Review and reminders: Keep checking your records every (working) day to see how your recruitment is going.  I have a two-three week schedule to send out reminder emails to those from whom I’ve heard nothing, or who promised to reply but haven’t.  If I hear nothing from them, then on to my second wave…
  • Sample waves: For the groups where I’ve got a lot of potential candidates, I’ve ascribed waves of contact.  So I’ll approach and then later remind them.  But if I’m still short of candidates for a sample group, then it’s onto the 2nd wave, and perhaps even a 3rd wave.
  • Targets: One mistake I made in my first round of interviews is I never really had a cut off point, I was ready to talk to any one who responded to my recruitment emails.  This meant I didn’t have a clear exit strategy.  This time I’ve agreed with my supervisors the min/max numbers of my sample – so I know when I hit them…I can be ready to close down that part of the research.  Although, if one or two extras pop up, I’d probably include them in the sample…but no more, my time is finite.

Conducting and Capturing

Tell me of your homeworld, Usul

  • Practice, practice, practice: I rehearse asking my questions in the few minutes before each interview. Just to make sure I’m going to make sense. It helps with my diction, it also helps make sure I don’tjustspeaksofastthatIgabble, which can be a bit of a problem for me.
  • Active listening: 5 minutes before each interview I give myself a moment of quiet.  I run through the questions as above.  I double check the interviewee’s contact details and web page, just to get a mental image in my head.  And I prepare to listen, as for an interview to feel like a conversation I need to be ready to react, amplify or reflect on what the speaker is saying during the talk.  Which means I need to make sure I’m not distracted by anything else…not even the postman! You can read more about my thoughts on active listening here.
  • Recording: Recording interviews for me is key as I need the accurate words spoken for my analysis.  For me a combination of Skype and MP3Skype Recorder work for me 80% of the time.  For face to face interviews, I’ve a very good quality MP3 recorder.  I could use my phone, but I find the stereo recording facilities of my recorder help when listening for transcriptions – I can mute my own channel a bit to make sure I can hear my interviewee better.  For the odd call I have to do on the mobile I’ve tried using my portable MP3 player with the phone in hands free mode (okayish sound quality) or ACR Call Recorder (better quality).  While the sound quality can be more variable than my Skype recording, if it’s the only way to speak to an interviewee, it’s a handy back up.
  • Best Speaking Voice: Since I speak with a rather affected received English accent (for reasons that I still don’t understand), thus I don’t generally have a problem with making myself understood.  I do however, try and keep an ear on clearly enunciating…but without sounding like I’m cold and distant.
  • Tonal Warmth: My interviews should feel, for the interviewees, as close to conversations as possible.  It puts them at their ease, and means they are more likely to reveal perceptions, observations or attitudes that they might otherwise shroud from me.  I need to put them at their ease, and keep them engaged throughout.  And yes, I spend the entire interview smiling, because it really projects positive emoitional reinforcement into my voice too.
  • Dress for Success: I have never conducted an interview in my pajamas, okay.  Why?  Well because you never know when an interview over Skype might flick on your webcam (it’s happened to me).  So I dress, just like I would if I was meeting the interviewee in person.  Helps also shift me into a professional mode of thinking I find too.
  • Make a Note of It: I have a dedicated note book for my interviews in which I write (at the start of the day) the time and names of all the interviews that day.  Just in case email goes down and I can’t check my schedule (happened once this week already!).  While I’m listening, I write down key words, underlining those points I perhaps want to ask the speaker to develop more.  It’s also part of my back up regime, just in case my audio recording doesn’t work – or if a speaker says something vital and the audio clarity chooses that moment to drop out.
  • Jesus Saves: I back up both the audio and the transcripts off site.  Why?  Cos I don’t want to lose them!  They’re precious data artifacts that I’m not going to get back.  Currently using Google Drive, although there’s a future post about me trying to find out where I can store them on my institution’s file space.


It’s only words and words are all I have…

  • Software: I did try transcribing just using audio playback on Windows Media player and VLC, using my keyboard controls for media.  Doesn’t work that well as you don’t really have the level of fine control to zip forward, and far more often…go back three seconds to hear something again.  I’ve been using Express Scribe since my phase 1 interviews and it is pretty good, and thankfully not too expensive to buy.  Plus it works with a foot-pedal…
  • Pedal to the Metal: I might feel at times like an audio-stenographer, but I found that using a food-pedal to play/rewind my audio files at least tripled the speed at which I can transcribe.  I use the Infinity USB foot pedal, and it’s a great little device.  Easy to set up and configure, and works happily with Express Scribe.
  • Headphones: Even with good speakers, it’s better to cut out the surrounding noise (and avoid driving any one else in your house/office up the wall) and listen to the playback on a good set of noise-cancelling headphones.  While I have in-ear ones, I much prefer for long periods of time the comfort and audio clarity of my Hyper X Cloud headset.  They’re also brilliant as a headset for conducting the interviews in the first place.
  • KISS Notation: As in Keep It Simple Stupid!  I’m not doing conversation analysis so I keep my text pretty clear of any notation – beyond the odd emphasis (underlined) from the speaker, or paralanguage interjections ([laughs], [pause], or [deep sigh]).  Makes it faster to type, and easy to read for analysis too.

There you have it, my thoughts on conducting effective research interviews.  I’d love to hear from any other PhD researchers out there who conduct interviews and the tips you might have!  Please comment away…

Pressing the Big Red Button

big_red_smallField Work

That’s right, after a few weeks in preparation I’ve finally pushed the big red button marked “Contact people and ask for interviews“.  Not the academics yet, as I live in hope that a few more of my OA former comrades might reply to my emails.  Surprisingly few of them have, although those that have done have been some warmly generous and encouraging that I’ve found myself once again deeply regretting stepping away from that world to go into research.

But I’ve been approaching publishers, learned societies and funders with a measure of some success.  I’ve been quite surprised that over a dozen have come back to me within 24hrs of me sending out the emails.  Hopefully a few more will respond next week, but I have to say I’ve been delighted by those who’ve contacted me so far.  Fingers cross that my interviews do them justice.

Spent at least two days this week thought writing, and rewriting my interview questions and approach emails.  A surprisingly tough bit of work for what looks like very little output.


Conducted my first phase II interview today, with one of my “activist icons” (as my notes call them).  Wow, just wow.  A wonderfully rich interview with some very generous people (in terms of time and what they shared).  Almost felt like I wanted to stop there and run off and just analyse this interview as it was THAT good.  But I do need some context, so I guess I’ll press on.  A very positive start there.

Amused once again by generating a 46Mb recording of the session…and then remembering that the university only gives us 20Mb of storage space.  20Mb.  In 2015.  When I carry an 8Gb and a 16Gb memory sticks with me at all times.  I just want somewhere to back data up that doesn’t dump it in the hands of some sort of capitalist organisation…but since I don’t really have any option, I guess I’ll have to back it up on GDrive.  *sigh*

FIL Conference2015-06-29 11.16.55

A roastingly hot Manchester Monday started the week, in a thankfully cool hotel.  I was attending the Interlend 2015 conference as I’d promised the previous year to come along and run a communication workshop, and was double booked for another conference.  Thus this year I made sure to offer it again.  While it ended up being less a workshop and more a talk (no parallel sessions) I think it went down okay.  There were a few laughs, a few nods and more than one person came up afterwards to say how useful they’d found it.  There’s a half written post about the feedback and reflections from the delegates of that session that I’ll finish off shortly.  You can read my paper below (although without my hand-waving and dramatics, you’re missing out a bit)

I assume those who hated it kept any negative body language very subtle after I revealed how much time I spend observing people and reading their NVC cues.  *grins*  One of my old staff from a previous job was present, but somehow managed to ever avoid catching my eye…despite my best efforts to say hello.  Never mind, she was probably lost in deep conversation with the other interlenders there.

Surprisingly, given ILL isn’t my field any more, it was a really enjoyable day out – and a tip of my hat to the organisers.  I did come away at the end of the day re-writing the final workshop in my head a bit…but that’s just me.  Even enjoyed the tour around the refurbished Manchester Public Library.  Like Birmingham only more intimate and less of a white elephant methinks.  Also has lovely a/c in its vault where I could have spent the day hiding from the heat outside.

Bit of a monumental conference for me as it marks the last one I’m supposed to attend before submitting my PhD, at least according to my internal assessor.  Makes me sad, but I guess I really do have to focus.  Of course were I to be approached to go speaking somewhere…well that’s a different matter altogether…

Arthur C Clarkes Mysterious World of Spreadsheets

Actor Interviews

Those expecting to find a wonderous discussion about the famous writer’s insights into MS Excel will be tragically disappointed.  However, this week my research has been pretty tied to using them to collate lists of interviewees.  I didn’t quite think it’d take this long* but at least I’m at a point where next week I can kick off with sending out my first wave of interview requests.

I have been not quite inundated with responses from my original mailshot, but I have begun to build a reasonably long list from which to start writing to academics.  If you’re one of the people I’ve written to and haven’t responded to me yet, please do – I could really do with a few more suggestions!  But to all those who sent me loads of suggestions, a tip of my hat a mighty llama salute to you all.

Perhaps more importantly I’ve had very positive responses to my out reaches to 3 out of my 5 prospective lengthy activist interviews.  So positive that I think I’m meeting with the first lot next week (so I’ll be writing all my questions on Tuesday!).  Half expected not hear anything for weeks on these so it’ll be interesting to see what I get out of them.

Interlend 2015

The rest of the week was spent writing, re-writing, practicing, shortening, and then re-working my talk for next week’s Forum for Interlending conference in sunny Manchester.  It’s about communications, and technically it’s the last conference my internal assessor really wants me to go to.  Although I guess if I get an invite somewhere, it’d be churlish to turn it down – since I looove speaking to audiences.  The session had to be rejigged a bit from my original idea as I had planned it as a workshop, and the conference has put it on as a plenary talk.  Gah.  Less interactive and more speaky by a long chalk than I’d have liked, but I reckon there’s scope for about a 3hr workshop to be run on the back of the framework I’ve written.  Available for hire for all your staff training needs ;)

Oh go on then, here’s a bit of old Arthur…

*This being the motto I suspect of any PhD student’s experinces