A friend of mine has a PhD in biology from one of the Ivy League schools in the U.S. He works as a freelance medical writer, due to an unfortunate experience where his butterflies died year after year. Eventually he completed the PhD and learned something that no one else knows about the butterflies’ reproductive cycle, but the disappointment, and having to begin the experiment again year after year, turned him off research so much that he never published his results.
My thesis project involves following children from childcare to school, well, not the children really, just their parents and educators. I was so scared, from the beginning, that once they started school the teachers wouldn’t want to participate…I spent all summer stressing, because the class lists are not confirmed until August and sometimes September. And then they all accepted! All of them! Even though four out of seven children changed schools, and school boards, over the summer (they moved or the parents changed their minds about the school they wanted to send them to), and I had to contact the schools and deal with school board ethics very last minute. Some even told me they couldn’t possibly say no because they didn’t think it would be fair to me, as I needed them to finish. I worried about the ethics of them participating to be nice, for about a second. I think people appreciate the chance to talk about their lives – professional or personal. I assume this because none of the parents dropped out either, and two of them even offered to do more – have me talk to her son, or keep a journal for me. I am excited about what they are saying too, and how much the experiences vary.
One of the principals did call back after the teacher had agreed to meet with me, and requested that I wait for school board approval before proceeding, but the good news is, I don’t have to start again! I will be done with my data collection this January. I am so relieved.
Transcribing, on the other hand, is taking way longer than I wish it would – mostly because it is boring work. The data are fascinating, and I wanted to do it myself because I read somewhere that transcribing is the first step of analysis. I don’t regret my decision, but I am almost finished transcribing round 2. I have already conducted round 3. I want to finish the first draft of my thesis around the same time as my funding runs out (next May), but I am not sure that is going to happen, because I work as a research coordinator 3 days a week, which leaves me only 2 days a week to work on the thesis (this is assuming I am not desperate enough to work nights and weekends, you never know what will happen).
I am starting to think about applying for jobs and postdocs, and taking on more volunteer work – I am on the organizing committee for the Canadian Association for Research in Early Childhood’s annual conference, and I also agreed to be an administrator of their Facebook page. I live in denial, so I am pretending that I will be able to handle all of this, and still finish in time. Only time will tell…
- Picking wild berries while hiking in the forest
- Swimming in cold lakes in the hot sun (especially with loons)
- Having a baby fall asleep in my arms
- Checking things off of my to do list
- Seeing my name in print (especially as an author :))
- Meeting people whose work I have cited
- Finding out my work has been cited
- Fresh lemonade
- Wandering around the city on a hot summer night
- Watching fireworks from my balcony (I don’t actually like fireworks, I just love the fact that I can see them from my balcony)
- That feeling of accomplishment after running 10k or more
- Feeling the speed of an airplane just before take-off
- The smell of freshly ground espresso
I’m doing narrative research, which involves understanding knowledge as how humans make sense of the world through narrative, through stories. I am analyzing, well ok, I am still transcribing, but I will be analyzing my data, looking at what and how my participants, or narrators, tell their experiences, and also how metanarratives and counternarratives shape their stories, and how the narrators draw upon these to relate both their experiences and themselves.
In thinking about narratives, I have realized that there are certain stories I tell, over and over again, about the process of doing a PhD. First of all, I tell the story of how I decided to return to school and enrol in the PhD because I wanted to spend my days in cafés, because I was tired of working 9 to 5, because I wanted time to volunteer at my children’s school. In telling this story I construct the PhD experience as liberating, and myself as living very much in the present. I also minimize the very intense intellectual commitment and hard work involved. The story has evolved, and now I say that I want to get a job as a professor eventually, because it will allow me to travel. While the story is “true” to some extent, it also masks my very real desire to teach and do research, to collaborate and learn, and I am pretty sure that behind both those narratives there is an attempt to conceal my own ambition and geekiness.
The other story I tell is that I work so much, and have so many responsibilities, that I have no time to procrastinate and am so very motivated when I finally have a day to work on my thesis. That has been the case most of the time, but there are days, like today, when I have tasks I find boring to do, like listen to recordings and verify that my transcriptions are accurate, and I do all the laundry in the house and clean the refrigerator instead of doing the work I need to do… This doesn’t make the motivated self narrative less true, it just exposes my own incoherence and contradictions. Now back to work! or should I go for a run?
Congratulations, your chapter has been accepted, and we need you to rewrite it in the next two weeks…
I’m the new co-president of the Canadian Committee of Graduate Students in Education. I am excited, even though I was elected only because nobody else wanted the job. I can’t imagine why…
I’m teaching the same course I taught last term, but in English this time – which means I need to translate all the documents and find new videos and resources. I have a chapter and a couple of articles to rewrite (well maybe three…), not to mention those transcriptions to complete, the next round of interviews to schedule and conduct, and all the tasks required of my research coordinator job. The next month or two are going to be insane, I think. I was also accepted to present at two conferences (Greece and Hawaii!!!), but at least I have a few months before I need to start stressing about those. It doesn’t really help that the end of the school year brings all kinds of commitments related to my children – why did I volunteer to go on the grade 5/6 camping trip again?
But it’s summer, and I’ve been doing yoga at the park, trying to believe that everything that needs to happen will happen, enjoying the sunshine and the storms.
I spent this past week at the ACFAS conference, that’s Association francophone pour le savoir. I was there mostly in my role of research coordinator, organizing a couple of colloquia, so I didn’t get to choose which events to attend. Still, it was a good week, and there were some really good presentations. I even won a poster competition (ok, there were only 4 of us, but I was so excited to have a chance to discuss my research in progress).
During a presentation on children’s physical activity, the presenter, Camille Gagné, used the term la zone d’incertitude délicieuse to refer to the zone of proximal development, or optimal development (it’s originally a Vygotskian concept). She was actually talking about providing or allowing kids to engage in activities with the right amount of risk, so that there is a risk of failure, but also a chance at success. It was a great way to describe the concept, but I realized that the zone of delicious uncertainty is also the motto I live my entire life by.
One of my colleagues, who recently completed her PhD was hired, in a tenure track position at the same university she attended for both her MA and her Phd. She was describing, over lunch one day this week, how lucky she is to be a new prof at a university she knows. I am so happy for her, but I want the opposite. I want a job at a place I don’t know at all, because I crave change, and I crave that zone of delicious uncertainty. I think I began the PhD for that very reason, and it explains why whenever I reach any point of stability in my life I find a way to shake things up – move to a new country, have a baby, get a new job, start a new degree, train for a race…
There are so many new experiences, and each one is terrifying, until I do it enough that it becomes no big deal, and then I seek out the next adrenaline rush: oral presentations in front of the class, handing in papers, oral presentations in a second language, writing papers in a second language, presenting at conferences, presenting at conferences in a second language, submitting a scholarship application, submitting a paper to an academic journal and receiving the peers reviews, teaching a class, teaching a class in a second language, applying for a job…ok so the second language is unique to my experience, but also probably explains why I chose to do my PhD in French.
The zone of delicious uncertainty also includes the waiting time – will I get the scholarship? Better not to know than to be rejected. Will my paper be accepted or torn to shreds? Enjoy that time in the zone of delicious uncertainty before you have to revise and resubmit. Oh, and a prof from another university even encouraged me to apply for a tenure track job at her school, which was very flattering. I jumped into the zone of delicious uncertainty, then realized how ridiculous it would be to apply for the job at this stage (I still have another 7 months before my data collection is finished, and that’s if all goes according to plan!), but I savoured the zone for a few hours.
I am 40, and have never held down a job for more than 3 years, because of this intense craving for change, but somehow I think the academic life might work, because the zone of delicious uncertainty is always there, in the grant applications, the articles and books written, the conference submissions, the presentations (imagine giving a keynote!), directing programs, designing programs, and the list goes on…
Which reminds me, I was also recently elected (by acclamation, that means no other idiots wanted the job) as co-president of the Canadian committee of graduate students in education. I am a bit terrified of how much work this will entail, whether I am up for the task, whether I will have time to do it on top of all my other commitments and the dissertation, but hey, I am in the zone of delicious uncertainty, right where I like to be! :)
Last month my research group held a seminar for students on motivation, procrastination, and finding a balance between your studies and everything else in your life (work, family, social life, exercise…). In general I’m pretty motivated. My program is structured well, and even though the recruitment process has been long, and has not gone 100% according to plan, I enjoyed my first round of interviews and am slowly ploughing through the transcriptions. I have a list of things to do next, and have faith that I will eventually get to them. My problem is not really procrastination either, because I don’t have time to procrastinate. Teaching a course, working as a research coordinator, acting as stage director to my children’s lives (get up, get dressed, brush teeth, eat, wash hands, put on coat…do homework, take bath, put on pyjamas, eat…), not to mention personal chef and maid, well there is not that much time to procrastinate. At the seminar one of the other participants, who recently completed her phD, explained how it was important to her to make time for exercise, to maintain her physical and mental health. I think she made an important point, and I enjoy training for running races, so I decided to get back into it. I won’t get into the guilt of taking time out of everything else to focus on my training, but I did realize that I approach the phD the same way I approach the race training. First of all, I make sure to follow a schedule, I get really excited about it, I buy stuff (mostly books, notebooks, pens, highlighters, a new laptop when I began the phD – new running shoes, tights, a little gadget so that I can run with my smartphone), and I follow blogs or specific Twitter feeds for continued motivation. However, all the other times I have run seriously I have been on maternity leave, sick leave, between jobs – I never been able to invest in 2 major goal-oriented tasks at once. So I’m hoping that the running doesn’t detract from the phD, and that the phD doesn’t get in the way of the running. I am convinced that taking a break to run is good for my brain, that I can also think and figure things out about the phD while running, and that there is somethings about tackling a long-term commitment, like a 10k race (I can’t do longer, my physiotherapist said it was bad for my knees) that helps me believe that I can do anything that I set my mind to. I’m just worried I’ll get so excited about the running I’ll lose interest in the phD. I wonder if I can find a group of phD students to run with – we could discuss our research and fitness goals!
What about you readers? Are you able to focus on 2 major life goals at once? Any tips?
I’ve reached the recruitment and data collection stage of the journey, after being passing my proposal defence “with minor modifications.” That means I will need to rewrite the first three chapters later, just when I thought they were done. I have started interviewing but am still looking for a few more participants, and given that my project involves 4 interviews with each of the parents, 2 with the educators and 2 with the teachers, I have to hope that not too many parents drop out, and that the teachers agree to participate in the Fall. It’s been a stressful experience, and I have made peace with the possibility that I have to continue recruiting next year, and delay finishing if that’s how it works out. I once met somebody who told me how he did a phD in biology, about butterflies, and it took him 3 or 4 years to complete his research because his butterflies kept dying or failed to reproduce. He was so traumatized he never published anything and got a job a job in the private sector as soon as he graduated. Let’s hope I still love research once I finish.
I found a pedal for transcribing, it’s not bluetooth, it connects with a usb cable, but, along with the software that allows me to control the playback speed, it makes transcribing somewhat less painful. I also bought my very own digital recorder, because I found it annoying to borrow the one from the university and to never be sure if one would be available at the time of my interviews. So now I am fully equipped to conduct interview research, which feels like a nice investment in my future career.
In November I conducted pilot interviews for my thesis project. They went really well, but it took me 2 months to begin transcribing them. Yesterday I spent an hour transcribing the first 3 minutes by playing the recording in Itunes, and realized there had to be a better (faster) way, so I googled transcribing software. It turns out you can buy voice recognition software, even bilingual (French-English) software, which is what I would need, for 150$, or you can download or purchase for much less, software that plays your recording much more slowly. I am sure there is a blue tooth foot pedal you can get, to make things even easier. I just have to keep looking (if anyone has a lead on that, let me know!). So with my less frustrating free trial version of Transcribe! I was able to get through another 4 minutes in 2 hours. 3 hours = 7 minutes. That’s pretty dismal, but I started to imagine what would happen if I had the expensive software, or had paid someone else to do my transcribing and was only reading it over for accuracy. Kaomea (2003) talks about using narrative and arts-based research to slow down our perceptions and uncover taken for granted assumptions, power dynamics, and oppressive processes within a post-colonialist frame of reference. As this is what I am trying to do with my research, the painful slowness of the transcribing process is not something I want to avoid, or even speed up (though I would like that foot pedal!), because I need to work this slowly to notice that the mom used the word “control” in reference to her daughter’s ability to adjust to kindergarten 4 times (in 7 minutes), or that there’s a contradiction between her view of her daughter of capable and competent and her fear of the school as an “unknown” place full of strangers where the children (other than her daughter) will have a hard time as they are left on their own to navigate the new space. Inspired by Andrews et al. (2008), Chase (2005), Riessmann (2007), and Wells (2011), my rather ambitious plan is to analyze my interviews 4 times, each time focusing on a different aspect:
1. The micro context (what happens between myself and the interviewee/narrator)
2. The content
3. The structure (how the story is told, using aspects of literary analysis)
4. The macro context (how the narrator makes use of metanarratives and counternarratives)
In my thesis proposal, I explain that I will read and analyse each transcription four times, but as I spent 3 hours listening to 7 minutes of conversation, I realized that by the time I finish transcribing, I will have already begun all four of the analyses. Also, I realized that my somewhat ambitious project is actually feasible, and enjoyable, and exciting. So, yet again, I’ll be taking the long, slow route to PhD completion.
Let’s just hope the recruitment process is not painfully slow as well!
Andrews, M., Squire, C. & Tamboukou, M. (Eds.) (2008). Doing narrative research. London: Sage.
Chase, S.E. (2005). Narrative inquiry : Multiple lenses, approaches, voices. Dans N.K. Denzin et Y.S. Lincoln (Eds.) The Sage handbook of qualitative methods, third edition (p.651-679). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Kaomea, J. (2003). Reading erasures and making the familiar strange : defamiliarizing methods for research in formerly colonized and historically oppressed communities. Educational Researcher, 32 (2), 14-25. Retrieved from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3700052
Riessman, C.K. (2007). Narrative methods for the human sciences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Wells, K. (2011). Narrative inquiry. Oxford: Oxford University Press.