Plodding along…

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…

A few of my favourite things…

  • 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

The stories we tell ourselves

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.

The zone of delicious uncertainty

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! :)

PhD Race Training


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?

Moving along…

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. 

Another post on taking the slow route…


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:

Riessman, C.K. (2007). Narrative methods for the human sciences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Wells, K. (2011). Narrative inquiry. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

How to avoid dropping out of PhD programs

According to Vincent Larivière’s recent study, doctoral students are more likely to graduate if they are funded, and if they publish before they graduate. The research was conducted in Quebec, and explored the impact of federal and provincial scholarships on students. Some interesting findings: 
  • Only 17% of students in the province are funded by the 6 funding agencies (3 at each level for health, science, and social science/humanities); 
  • In my field, education, only 10% of students are funded (check out the article, he has stats for each discipline);
  • Funded students are twice as likely to publish at least one paper during their studies;
  • Less than 20% of students in Education publish during their PhDs;
  • Funded students are more likely to graduate (but only 50% of them do, compared to 34% of unfunded students);
  • Unfunded students who publish are just as likely to graduate as funded students who do or do not publish.
The author concludes by stating that the government should fund more students with smaller scholarships and eliminate the larger “super scholarships” that are given to fewer students. In the newspaper articles I have read about this article, (in French – Le Devoir, and on the Université de Montréal website) Dr. Larivière adds participation in a research team or lab as another condition that is likely to lead to success, because, he states, “graduate students never publish alone.” 
I like this study, probably because I have one of the small federal scholarships, and I have published a couple of articles (both alone and with my colleagues), so I think the odds are good that I will finish one day. Some days, like when I am asked to rewrite my conceptual framework chapter for the 4th time, this information is very reassuring. However, students who are studying part-time (because they are working full-time) don’t have access to any of the provincial or federal scholarships, and probably have little time to publish, although maybe they do manage to publish because typically their degrees can take between 6 and 10 years, here in Canada. I have no idea how people manage a full-time job and a phD at the same time at all (though I am not sure that all my part-time jobs add up to less than full-time work), but there is an interesting post by someone who did here

On teaching and practicing what we preach…

First of all, I need to admit that though I have both academic and professional experience as an early years and elementary school teacher, I have never taken a course on how to teach in higher ed. I think this is a shortcoming of most Masters and Phd programs, because even though there are courses on the subject offered in my department, they have always been optional, and I haven’t taken one yet. So I apologize if you have, or if higher ed is your area of study, and everything I say seems obvious to you. I am in the process of teaching my fourth course, and have also supervised students doing field placements in childcare centres.
Before beginning to teach in cegep (the 2 years between high school and university in Quebec, or 3 year technical courses leading to professional degrees), and at university, I provided professional development/learning workshops to early childhood educators, through a not-for-profit social economy organization. I also need to explain that I have taught two general groups of students: adults who have been early childhood educators (ECEs) for many years without any professional certification, and adults who are making a career switch later in life. I have never taught what I typically imagine as university students (although I have a sense that the demographics have changed, or have always been diverse) – young adults in their late teens/early twenties who are preparing for their first career.
Anyways, I have had good and less good experiences as an instructor. In general, about 10% of my students have loved me, and the rest hated me, or were too confused and insecure to appreciate what I was trying to do. This problem seems common among instructors who are just starting out, as one of my friends told me “I think I was too socio-constructivist for them, so I readjusted”. At least in my circle of friends,  as students we found it hypocritical to be taught to interact with children in a way that respects the children’s knowledge, respects their uniqueness and diversity, and to support their learning in an individualized way, and then to be lectured at by professors who would tell us the one (and only one) right way to do things, both in the classroom and in our assignments, and who would discourage us from thinking any other way (not all my professors have been like this, thankfully).
The thing is, I didn’t want to “readjust” like my friend because I believe that you learn through experience, not through being told. When we give workshops (, we do something that we like to call Aikido – I am sure it has a more theoretical name somewhere, but like I said, I never took those classes. Basically, the idea is that you need to outline very clearly at the beginning of the workshop what the participants can expect to get out of the day. For example, “Based on your responses to the preliminary questionnaires, I know that you are worried about supporting children with special needs, children learning an additional language, and children with chronic health problems. Today we will be focusing on children with special needs. When I come back in a few weeks, we’ll talk about language learning. I won’t be discussing health problems because I’m not a medical specialist.” (This is just an example, in reality there would subtopics, and it would take much longer than a day to cover each of them). In workshops that approach is key (you can read my article about this here), but when you give a workshop you hope the participants are there to learn, and more specifically, to learn something that will help them in practice. They are also happy to be there because someone is paying them to take a break from their very demanding jobs (hopefully, sometimes they are at night, or on Saturdays, but that’s another story). When teaching, the problem is that the students are not always there to learn. Sad, but true. The system is so misaligned that often they are there because they need a piece of paper (the diploma), or because they want good marks so they can get a scholarship to continue studying. Often there is a sense that they are sacrificing their time and money for the course, so they want to make sure they get the education they feel they have a right to, which is of course different for each student.
Back to my aikido metaphor (it’s about preventing resistance, if you don’t know anything about martial arts, and I don’t!). What I decided to do this time round was explain to the students straight off the bat that this course was going to be different from most of the other courses they have taken, and that they should expect to feel insecure a lot because I don’t believe there are right or wrong answers, my goal is to get them to think critically and come up with their own answers. Then I went through the principles of the early childhood curriculum framework (which is the subject of the course), but switched all references from children to students – things like, each student is unique, the student is the primary agent of their own learning, etc. I explained that just like how ECE’s are constrained by an imperfect system (crappy hours, crappy pay, ratios too high, etc.), I have to teach within constraints that I don’t believe in – like a closed-book exam at the end and having to give them number grades, or the fact that I needed to have the course syllabus prepared before I meet them, and have little control over the content. (Have I mentioned I have a BA from Hampshire College where we got a one page narrative evaluation at the end of every class and no grades at all?, it was fantastic, there were also sheep wandering around campus, but that’s another story too!).
 I also can divide my students into 2 groups, those (10 of them) who already have their basic qualifications and are in the process of completing a series of 3 undergraduate certificates which are equivalent to a BA (often because they want to become cegep teachers, or want to go on and do an MA, or get a job as a director or pedagogical advisor), and those who are doing their initial training (30 of them). There are huge differences between the 2 groups and I thought it would be a challenge to not bore the ones who already knew the subject matter. At the end of the 2nd class, I met with the 10 who were already qualified and let them now they had the option of doing an optional assignment that would be more work, but more challenging than the one on the course outline. Also, that I respected their knowledge and experience and that they were welcome to contribute by bringing in examples or (if they spoke to me in advance) by getting more involved by planning activities for their classmates. They unanimously agreed that they didn’t have time to put in any extra work, but that they appreciated the recognition.
Finally, copying my supervisor’s example, I ended the first class by asking them to fill out a questionnaire so I could get to know them and their learning needs. The question that was the most important to me turned out not to be about their previous professional experience or their strengths and needs as a student, but about their personal goals for the class – were they interested in theory? inter-provincial and international comparisons? did they just want to pass or did they really care about their mark? did they want to reflect on their practice? improve their practice? This helped me gear parts of the course to preparing them for the exam, and other parts for solving practical problems, and still others for challenging and re-imagining the content of the curriculum framework that they are learning about. I haven’t received the course evaluations yet, but the classes go really well and I am amazed by the passionate discussions and how much better it seems to be going than my previous classes.
I actually hope that reading this, you say, yeah? so what? that’s not even half as socio-constructivist as the courses I teach! Because I really am working in an imperfect system and my little edge towards critical thinking is a tiny tip-toe. So let me know what you do in class, I would love to know!

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.