Imperfect academic work

One day I suggested to a friend and colleague that we submit a paper to the same academic conference. My friend declined, criticizing the idea of just presenting in order to add a line to his CV, and saying he wanted to wait until he had some useful and original knowledge to contribute before submitting to a conference. This was months ago, but something has been bothering me ever since. I understand his criticism of the academic rat race, but I really enjoy conferences. At the time I told him I submit because I like travelling and also because I want to take part in interesting academic conversations. What I didn’t say, was that on some level I do do it for the line on the CV, that I do play the game. Recently I realized that there is more to it than that though. My friend and I have very different ideas of knowledge ownership. My friend is single, and doesn’t have any kids. He is used to working on his own and making decisions on his own and taking days to consider whether one aspect of his thesis makes sense. I consult my partner for most decisions on a daily basis: is my daughter really sick or is she just trying to skip school? Should we let our son have another half hour on the IPad? My thesis, or any research project I might share at a conference, is a work in progress, not a finished product. I want feedback, I want to make sure it makes sense to others in my field, I want their help in making it better. Not to mention the inspiration and learning that comes from attending other sessions. My chapter was published last week, and I put the title on my ResearchGate profile. That chapter started life as a conference presentation. I got a message this morning from a very prolific author in my field. He’s one of my academic heroes, this guy. I met him at a conference last fall, and he followed me back on ResearchGate. He wanted a copy of my chapter! I’d love to do a postdoc with him, or maybe get him to be the external reviewer of my thesis. My work is not any less original or useful than any other researchers’, even if I prepare it last minute. Also, I’m writing this post instead of working on those never-ending transcriptions. The deadline of a conference presentation is a kick in the butt that Pomodoro just doesn’t provide. OK, the truth is, the novelty of the Pomodoros has worn off! So I will keep going to those conferences, I just need to find new ways of funding them because I have already used up my allowance of travel scholarships! Now back to the transcriptions…

Woo-hoo, I finished my data collection!

I like being able to cross things off my to-do list. Today I conducted the very last interview for my thesis, and I’m ready to celebrate. Never mind that the data collection was fun and the transcription is torture. I like these major steps, and I think they need to be marked. After my doctoral exam (what we have instead of comps, more like a proposal defence, but a necessary step before you can begin data collection), a friend and I went for coffee. We had talked about drinking cocktails, but at least it was something. I’ll have to organize something better this time. I’m realizing though, that these steps are important, and should be noticed by the university, or by the supervisor. I wish I had more time to work on my thesis, instead of teaching and coordinating that takes up almost 4 days each week, but I have admit, if I did have unlimited time I would probably procrastinate a whole lot more.

Trying out the tomato…

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Last week I attended a workshop titled “Survival guide to writing up your master’s thesis or PhD dissertation.” I love these kinds of events. I think of them as self-help groups, and even though I only learn one or two new tricks each time, I am reminded of many more, and for some reason, I find these events super motivating. It helped that the presenter was really excellent, and I found out that my university has a whole department full of psychologists and other professionals whose job it is to help students succeed. Who knew? 
So what did I get out of this workshop? First of all, break down planning into 3 stages. Create a long-term, week by week, plan to get me to the end of my dissertation. The presenter likes to find a calendar where she can see a whole year at a glance. Then, plan the week, so I know when I have blocks of time to work on my thesis. She said 3 hours of writing in the mornings, and time in the afternoon to format, read, and do other less taxing but still dissertation-related work, works for her. I think it’ll work for me too because I am a morning person, and I lose focus towards the end of the afternoon. Finally, micro-plan your work sessions, so you know exactly what you will work on when you begin. She also said that asking for an extension does not equal failure, which was nice to hear.
Finally, she reminded me of two things I already knew. One was the feature in Word where you can easily navigate through a long document using headers. I haven’t used it yet, but may try it. The other was the Pomodoro technique, where you work in 25 minute spurts, separated by 5 minute breaks. After 4 pomodoros, you take a longer break of 15 minutes. She also mentioned that there are Pomodo apps. This was exciting, as downloading apps is an excellent way to procrastinate, but also because having the app plan my day takes the whole external control thing even further than me twisting my egg timer and keeping track of how many pomodoros until the next long break.
I tried it out for the first time today, because I am still transcribing, and I find it difficult to concentrate on such a boring task. Good news! I love the method, for tasks like this. I like that the computer tells me when to work, and when to stop. I realized how much time I waste on checking emails, and Facebook, when I am supposed to be working. Twenty-five minutes seems like a reasonable period of time to remain focused. The only thing is, 5 minute breaks are a bit too short. It takes me longer than that to make a cup of coffee. And the 15 minute big break? What is that? I just put in 100 minutes of sustained transcription time, this is a big accomplishment, I deserve to celebrate! I need at least a half hour :) I have that coffee to make, some emails to respond to, and a blog post to write, but I like this method. The app actually lets me alter the details, so I think I’ll extend the long breaks, and try to keep at the 25-5 short breaks for 4 cycles. I’ll let you know how it goes…

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. 


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