Submission

So, it’s finally arrived, the day that seemed at first infinitely far in the future, and in the last year crashingly close every day. Yesterday, I submitted my PhD thesis.  And after completing around half-a-tree’s worth of paperwork and forms, after four long years I finally find myself at somewhat of a loose end.

To say the feeling is weird, would be an understatement.  Certainly for the past year, if not two, I’ve woken pretty much every working day with a slight feeling of incipient panic that I need to be doing SOMETHING.  Yet, there’s also been that feeling that I’m forgetting something, that by doing Task X today, Task Y is being neglected, while hidden away from sight, Task Z lurks…waiting to trip me up when it suddenly becomes Task Right Bloody Now!

I anticipated yesterday was going to be a long day, I perhaps didn’t count on how long. In at 9am to spend three hours nurse-maiding a printer to run off the required submission copies, and running afoul of my university’s not well articulated format settings.  Spotting some minor errors that upon correction necessitated junking a copy of two as they utterly threw off the page settings.  I tried not to give into feelings of panic either, as the minutes ticked by – knowing the print unit closed around 2pm, and that I also required to get a physical signature off my supervisor for the submission form.  While he’s a great guy, my supervisor can prove hard to track down physically at times, and is also very forms-phobic.  I’m with him on that!  In the second decade of the 21st Century, why the fuck I need to collect a physical signature and submit physical thesis copies is maddening.  I have to submit an electronic copy anyway, as well.  Just one of many, many niggles about the university administration I’m coming away from this experience with.

Having bound the thesis, and following a long walk and a tram ride, tracked my supervisor down in the city centre campus (I’m based at the out of town campus).  Signed form, multiple abstract copies and bound thesis in hand I strolled to Stalag Luft Graduate Office.  Or Doctoral School. Or Graduate School…or honestly whatever name they’re calling themselves this week, they’ve rebranded about four times while I’ve been studying.  They’re also hidden away, on the fourth floor of an anonymous building, with a reception point…behind a security locked door.  Really weird that last one, you have to know who you want to see and ring to be allowed in…almost like the staff don’t want to interact with us students.  As up-front-customer service paradigms go, it’s not a winne.  Odd really, as when you do meet and talk to the staff, they’re lovely.  Perhaps they’ve had one shouty student too many over the years.

The hand in moment was…beyond anticlimactic.  Over four years of my life and thousands of hours of labour, dealt with in an exchange lasting less than thirty words.  Most of them me asking about viva arrangements.  And then it was all done, bar the viva of course.

Afterwards my supervisor took me for a pint, a chat about next career plans (I’m flexible, I’m available, I’m not sure I’m staying in this country) and initial viva tips.  My personal favourite “You know all those articles that tell you how to pass a viva?  Don’t read them!”  It was, to say the least, a really useful and enjoyable chat.

And then, all the Nottingham trams stopped due a traffic incident and I was stranded 5 miles from my car.  Okay, I could have caught the bus but I had a) no idea which bus to catch and b) no idea where said bus went from and c) really hate riding busses during flu season.  So, I walked the 5 miles across town, moor, riverside and express way in the gathering gloom and fog to my car, to drive home to the next phase of my life.

What exactly that’s going to be…I just don’t know for sure.  I do hope it involves less sitting in a cold, dark and somewhat damp house for hours on end on my own!

 

Effective Researcher 1: Build Effective Foundations

Yesterday I attended the first of what is a three part training programme run by the Center for Professional Learning and Development.  The other sessions are intended for later in your PhD, while this first one is ideally suited to those of us a few months in but not yet a year into the research process.

The day did not start well – having forgotten to set an alarm, and forgotten that Mrs Llama wasn’t setting one either I woke up at 7.20am, and was out of the house five minutes later – as I had to catch the 7.32am train to Nottingham (for the third time in 6 days).  I made it, and actually remembered just about everything I needed (pen, phone, note pad) although I was horribly unshaven.  Before the session we had to prepare a 50 word plain English summary of our research, aimed at the non-specialist and make sure we were familiar with the national Vitae Researcher Development Framework (RDF).  The latter was easy as we’d had a session in the RPC about it.  I’d also produced the former a few months ago when I was originally booked on this workshop (one of the weeks that I had a hideous cold).  But running late meant that I left it at home (no time to boot the computer and print it), which meant I spent some time in the library before the workshop writing it.  Not a bad thing, given that the more I had to express what I’m doing in different ways, the more I think I’ll be able to explain what and why I’m doing it at the drop of  pin.

Introductions and Establishing Common Ground

The day started with the usual round robin of introductions and explanations of what our research was all about to the select grouping of 8 participants, most of whom I knew from the delights of the RPC.  After an ice breaker of finding common experiences (slagging of Skegness being a major one) the first task was to draw a pictorial representation of the effective researcher.  That’s the last time I let on I’ve had life drawing lessons as I ended up being the artist and presenter for this bit – despite my team’s mockery of my steam fat pig (it was a boiling kettle representing under pressure).  It was a good start to the day and got our brains going.

Problem Solving

Yes the classic problem solving session which involves building something.  I am notoriously great at problem solving and utterly crap at building things that move, so I made sure to take an advisory rather than hands on role in this Apprentice like task (building an air car).  Our team excelled at planning and sorting through effective requirements…and sucked at keeping an eye on the clock and spotting we’d overlooked a critical failure factor (our car as designed was TOO big).  As with all these kinds of tasks I was employing my gamer brain to spot the workarounds in the rules (Cheating? No! Bending the rules – certainly! Employing psychological warfare…maybe!).  From this session (which incidentally our disaster of a car somehow won) I took away the lesson that planning is important – but it must not come in the way of the doing.  Also time management is critical.

Tuning into Your PhD

The next session took the form of a group discussion where we dug into some of the fundamental questions behind our work – the what, how, why, who and when issues.  This was a good refresher, though it did slightly retread ground we’d gone over in one of the RPC sessions.  We also went over some project management tools like mind mapping, drilling down, risk analysis and everyone’s favourite Gantt charts.  The simulated Gantt chart was about robbing a bank…which for some reason (I’m blaming years of RPGing) I seemed to be able to plan exceedingly well.  Nice to know there’s a career for me in ARV if the PhD doesn’t work out!

Working Effectively with Others (1): Research Collaboration

The next group task was a biggie, we had to talk about our research (this is where those 50 words descriptions came in) so that our teams could understand them.  Then we had to identify commonalities and try to come up with a form of overlapping collaborative project, plan it, and then present it to some funders.  I wasn’t too happy with the direction my team took – it seemed a little less coherent than I might have hoped.  Though we were also a bit hamstrung by the requirement that everyone speak in the presentation and ideally we needed or should have spent some time to rehearsing.

Trying to write a marketing presentation pitch with 4 relative strangers in ten minutes is not ideal (but it is challenging!), and we certainly suffered a bit when we came to do it live, in that we weren’t as polished as I think we could have been.  I think, on reflection, I should have been a bit more strident about pushing for clarity of objective and purpose within our hypothetical project.  That might have helped us all out more.

A lesson for me to take away, be a bit more forthright when you don’t agree on something.  Clearly if the car incident earlier hadn’t highlighted it, I think this demonstrated once again I’m never going on the Apprentice.  I’d be fired in week one.  Okay, the fact that I’m not a money-grubbing self-deluded egotist probably counts against me too 😉

I think though our group might have gelled a bit more, if we’d had an extra hour to work on this together, as we were just about getting into a performative state of mind around the time we suddenly had to down tools and go present.

Working Effectively with Others (2): Managing Professional Relationships

If the earlier bank heist task hadn’t revealed my inner role-player, then this one did.  Split into the same two groups we took the role of a PhD Supervisor and candidate (my group being the student).  We had a brief and had to plan for a meeting with each other, where each of us had points to get across.  After hearing the professor outline what he needed us to do, I made a rather sarcastic comment about how nice it was to see that he did care; since the brief we had described him as very distant.  It was a useful exercise in seeing the other person’s point of view, and in terms of things to think of next time I meet my supervisors very useful indeed.

We also did a short exercise around this related to the Myers-Briggs type indicators, though we didn’t actually do anything along the lines of working our our exact types (I’ve known I’m ENTJ from past training).  The idea being here to situate ourselves along a single continuum ranging from exacting, meticulous feedback to big picture, visionary support.  I kinda naturally tend towards the latter, and perhaps fortunate though that my supervisors balance our between the two extremes.  The key lesson here was the kind of feedback we prefer and the kind we get will vary, and thus we need to take steps to manage that relationship so we can access that which we need.

Conclusion

The whole day was supported by an excellent reflection journal and supplementary notes, which highlighted which elements of the RDF each bit fitted into.  The course used to be a two day event, but the trainers commented that it was hard to get people to commit to two consecutive days.  The notes did touch on the elements we missed out on, such as learning cycles and stage and a team task where the rules are changed halfway through; which sounded fun and useful.  All the same by making it a single day with notes there probably wasn’t a lean second throughout the day, which made for a highly effective learning experience.

I can strongly recommend this session for any PhD student in their first year or so, even though some of the elements were familiar to me there wasn’t anything I would have skipped over.  The trainers were both engaged and engaging, and really engendered the kind of open, friendly but intensive atmosphere that makes for a really effective experience.

All in all it was a highly enjoyable, entertaining, thought-provoking and informative day – and probably the highlight of my week, going back to cracking the books today is going to seem a little dull in contrast.  However, it has certainly helped me relocate in my own mind and enthusiasms just why I am doing this doctorate and was time well spent.

6 months In

I was planning to take it a little easier this week, and unfortunately another cold has hit me and pretty much wreaked my chances of doing anything much.  That said when I couldn’t sleep the other night, I was reading philosophy around 3am in the morning, so it’s not been a total loss.  So rather than talk about what I’ve been doing in the short term, I thought it might be an opportune moment to reflect back on the first six months  – which is 1/6th of the way through my funded period and 1/8th of the way through my maximum period of registered time on the PhD.  It feels all kinds of scary to think about where I am, and how much there is still to do; and I’m sure I’m not the only doctoral student thinking this.  In this respect, perhaps a walk down memory lane might help!  To help out, I’ve added a calendar function on the right hand side of the page

September

This was a month of big changes for me, and while my registration date was  October, I also had to sort out things like enrolling online for the degree and then attend an induction day at the end of the month.  Oh and practice driving to campus too!  I don’t need the driving practice (not having to drive as often as with my old job is one of the joys of this PhD), but learning how to get onto or find a campus can be a challenge, even with a satnav.

Looking back the highs, like being made feel welcome, and the lows, not being sure what to do next, at this time it’s interesting to note that there are still a lot of things today (March 2013) that are bit of an unknown factor.  But then I guess that’s what a student experience is all about, unlike a job you don’t do the routine and repeat!  I also note that I was going to look into the “hot desking for graduates” the following week.  Slight confession, I’ve never bothered – and from all reports I’m not missing out much.

Still wish I had some office space in the dept though.

October

The new office space - Gary Cole not includedWelcome to Month One  – a productive period for blogging with 9 posts in it, more than I do now I’ve adopted the epistolary approach of weekly diary round ups.  It was a month about tentative beginnings and administration challenges (shades of last week then), the roller-coaster of enthusiasm (featuring the best diagram, ever), the onset of the winter weather (has it really been 6 months of winter?) and comments on things like Google+ and eBooks.  I think the roller-coaster metaphor still applies, but hopefully with my plans to kick off some actual, honest to Jovis research in the next couple of weeks, hopefully I should be at the top of the crest to start April.  October also saw me set up my home office in the conservatory  though a combination of falling temperatures (there’s no heating in there) and house renovations have meant that I’ve not actually been able to use the space since early December.  Hopefully as spring finally arrives and we move on with the house decoration, I’ll be able to finally return.  It’ll certainly be better than working on the dining table all the time.

Notice that I obtained an ILL in October, to date the only time I’ve needed one.  Generally the uni has the books and access to journals I need, supplemented by buying stuff off Amazon resellers for in some cases a single shiny penny.  All in all though, the general themes of month one are getting started and finding my place in a new environment.

November

It was also the month when I first really encountered MarxMonth Two brought with it 8 blog posts (see this number drop in the coming months!), although one of the posts was actually about one of my puppetry videos so that probably doesn’t count.  It was a month when I read a whole heap of books, probably more than in any month before or since.  It was my key directive at that time, to read as much as possible to inform my thinking and planning.  At the time I remember struggling a bit with motivation, getting a bit depressed and trying to see how this work would actually contribute to the PhD process.  Now though, I’m grateful I put the time in then, as now there keep just being so many other distractions, coursework, administration etc that get in the way of serious reading.  Doubtless, full-blooded academics will tell me how it is for them all the time.  As well, I was also feeling a sense of dislocation from my fellow PhDs given the spacial distance and rare encounters   That’s faded a fair bit now, and there are more than a few of my cohort who’d I happily go out to dinner with; although having said that I’ve not managed to make any kind of social life out of the PhD yet.  As well, at least the relationship with my chickens (the remaining two) is there to support me.  I’m still aware that as a mature student it’s pretty uncomfortable to think about joining a club or society, and certainly living miles away doesn’t help.  Ah well, such is life.
This was also the month when I started work on editing my research proposal into shape – something that would continue through to last week.  It also saw the first efforts towards getting my fellow English, Media and Culture students to meet up regularly.  We’ve managed it twice since then (three times if you count the occasion when only two of  us showed up), and it’s still proving tricky.  It seems that simply meeting up to chat for a couple of hours isn’t enough, they need a reason or discussion topic; and these are proving a bit elusive – certainly those that are of interest to us all anyway.  November was also the month where I took a look at how I was almost learning to read all over again, or at least learning to read critically.  Certainly now that’s something I find a lot less effort, so all this time spent cracking the books has certainly paid off.

December

I DID remember to have Christmas thoughMonth Three saw 6 posts, continuing that downwards trend, and one of these was a long discussion about the Mass Effect game series.  The three substantive posts this month saw me battling to edit the research proposal and doing a fair bit of reading on theory and method.  It also saw me take a week off over the Xmas period, mostly because the Wife didn’t like the idea of me trying to work while she relaxed, and also because she thought I ought to take some time for myself.  I’ve not got any better at taking personal time, as the only points at which I down tools are weekends or when I have a raging cold that prevents me breathing – let alone work!

We also welcomed a plasterer into my working space, which didn’t make for a productive day research-wise; though the dining room looked lovely afterwards.  Just one of the many distractions that happen when your working space is also your living space.  I guess as an undergrad my living quarters were my study, but no one tried to renovate the room while I was using it.  As it was the end of the year, there was also a chance for a couple of cheeky statistics and review posts, the cap stone to my 2012 experiences.  Looking back now it almost seems like this was a month when I really knuckled down to study, and read some books that I really disliked.  On the upside I read some that were bang on what I needed.  I also note that some of the books I got out in this period are still sitting on my shelves unread.  Hopefully I might finally get to them over the next week or two, and then free up my library ticket!

January

MoosasterA quiet month with the regular 4 posts/month emerging.  Themes that started to emerge here were a realisation of coursework deadlines, snow (still with us as I look out the window), research proposal drafting, more snow and working on my first book review coursework.  Even now I still can’t believe how long it took me to write that book review, a combination of uncertainty about assessment criteria, formatting and paper research certainly played their part.  While word-for-final-word-count the research proposal has taken far longer, book review 1 is still the one thing I’ve done on this degree that gave me the most frustration and anxiety.  Doubtless there will be other things to exceed this – like my panel review meeting maybe in the near future?

It was also the month that saw I was finally making some inroads with some of the nice folks in my RPC cohort, as we struggled to get discussions going on the online board.  They’ve been better but not perfect, but at least there’s been some kind of intellectual interaction!

The month also saw me run out of milk for tea, possibly the single biggest disaster that can hit any PhD student.  Not quite sure how I managed to come back from that catastrophe…

February

Every PhD gets it I thinkMonth Five and four posts with themes ranging from research proposal editing (that old chestnut), twin coursework deadlines, back pain, moments of genuine scholastic crisis and reflections on the PhD process as a never-ending vortex of work.  I can still remember this feeling, stemming mostly from a period when I was getting much feedback from my supervisors other than a driving need to revise my research proposal, though March was better in this respect.  It was also a month where I battled with feelings of apathy and motivation again, a reoccurring theme.  Wonder if there’s some way other PhDs use to keep themselves on the  treadmill, other than caffeine and happy pills?  In terms of the coursework as of this writing it’s interesting to note that I’ve still not had the second piece of coursework back – the mock research proposal   Shame really, given that as of last week I’ve submitted the real one.  While the intention to help us develop the proposal with this working paper version was appreciated I think perhaps the folks running the RPC might need to reconsider their timings as any feedback now is going to be largely superfluous.

I also had a hint of a cold, but that didn’t come to anything.  Unlike the two in March – the month of sneezes.

March

It feels like most of March has been me looking/feeling like thisThen we come to March with a shocking four posts (five if you count this one as well).  It saw the delights of philosophy book review 2 being written, a week where a nasty fluey cold knocked me out, re(^6)writing of the research proposal and finally the joy of submitting it.  And the not quite as much joy as jumping through the bizarre paperwork requirements of my 6-monthly review; where if it’s not signed about 11ty times by staff it just doesn’t count.  There was no small amount of other stresses this month.  In part due to deadlines for coursework, but largely down to the idea of getting the research proposal finished.  It seemed an ending was never in sight on some days, and I came to dread my supervisors’ emails with each new amendment   Gradually though the comments got briefer and briefer as they got happier with it, although telling me to “Rewrite the literature review section” four days before I was submitting it sent me into a futile round of headless chicken anxiety.

It was also the month where we lost one of our flock 😦 but were offered some geese*.  It was also a month I was supposed to go on a day course on PhD project management, but was stopped by my illness and Mrs Llama taking away my car keys**.

*Which we would love to have accepted if we knew where we’d be living 6 months from now for definite!
**She was right – I wasn’t fit to drive, probably saved me driving into a ditch 100 yards down the road.

The Next Six Months

These are going to be very different. For one, the RPC course has only 3 more sessions and one wrap up day conference and I’m done with it.  There is another module in October, but it only runs every 3 weeks.  For another I’m going to be starting on the actual meat of my research, which means I need to start talking to more people outside of the uni.  I’m looking forward to this element, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to be an uncertain level of challenge.  And given some of the events of the past six months have been unexpected highs and lows, doubtless there are going to be plenty of surprises along the way.

Meanwhile, anticipated trends of the coming posts are:

  • The challenge of getting subjects for my research
  • Discovering the joys of analysis my research
  • Maintaining the work life balance once Mrs Llama moves away***
  • Experiencing academic conference life
  • Struggling with the isolation, apathy and stresses of working on a PhD from home
  • Wondering how I’m going to fit everything I need to do into just 42 short months…

Come October 1st, I’ll be interested to see just how right/wrong I was!  For now I’m going to wrap up my week by catching up with my backed up reading!

***We’re not splitting up – new job for her down south, so we’re going to be apart in the week.

Enrollment

Thankfully not too much of thisTwo things I learned today. Enrolment is spelt like that – not “enrolement” like I keep trying to type, and that the Graduate School staff at my soon-to-be-university couldn’t be more helpful and efficent.  Something that stirkes me as a big change to dealing with them professionally at a previous employer!  It was certainly quite exciting at the end of last week to receive my student number and enrolment instructions, with the only snag being about proving a signed letter on headed paper from my sponsor.  On two counts this raised an eyebrow.  Firstly all dealings with my sponsor have been at arms length via the University.  Secondly all dealings (save the contract letter) have been electronic; but I guess a spot of paper still plays its role.

I don’t kick off until the 28th September with my induction day, and then the 1st October is my start day so things will really get going from the end of next week.  It is slightly scary to be going back to be a mature student some 15 years after I last left higher education as a post-graduate.  On the other hand given I’ve been working in HE pretty much since then the environment is going to be one I’m fairly familiar with.  I think the biggest question I’ve got currently is “So, just how many places and services will I be able to get a student discount on now?”

Changes

As most folks who know me well will be aware of by now, I’ve been making some pretty major changes in recent months.  I’ve gave up my job to become a full time house husband, cook and home renovator (some of which you can read about on my other blog).  Change is good for the soul, mind and body and I feel so much happier now than I did even a couple of months ago.

Of course I didn’t plan to continue being full-time on the house forever (well unless we won the EuroMillions in which case all bets would be off) and was still scouting for work.  But what came my way wasn’t quite what I expected at all, but I couldn’t be more excited.

Late one Saturday evening in mid July my Wife spotted a PhD studentship.  It looked like I fitted their criteria, the only snag – the deadline was that Friday and I not only had to apply, I also had to create a research proposal as well.  I essentially wrote the whole thing the following day, although I spent the rest of the week tweaking it and then got it submitted just in time (by which hangs a long tale I may tell one day).

Mrs Llama thought it was among the best research proposals she’d ever read (and she’s read quite a few), and that I should have a strong chance at getting an interview.  I was less sure; having submitted many a job application in recent months where the application and candidate match were really strong – only to not even gain an interview.  On this occasion it seemed Mrs Llama was right as I got an interview, coincidentally on the first day after my contract officially ended at Leicester.  

And the morning after that I got the offer of a fully funded studentship.

And thus the point of this post.  As i’m not going to be working or indeed researching in any field related to libraries any more; I need to think about a new name for this blog.  I intend to keep it going to chart my progress through the doubtless choppy, exiting, terrifying and new waters ahead – but “Llibrarian Leanings” it won’t be.

I’m still thinking it over, but I’d certainly welcome any suggestions!