All 15 entries tagged Peter

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September 27, 2011

Leaving Aunt Rex Never Easy – by Pete

I'm still reeling from the news that R.E.M. have broken up. It came just as their favourite song of mine was spending a great deal of time in my CD player:

It's easier to leave than to be left behind
Leaving was never my proud
Leaving New York never easy
I saw the light fading out.

There is relevance. After ten years of study and work at Warwick, and seeing whole generations of friends move on, I've finally managed to escape myself, starting a one-year full-time post at Nottingham. This is therefore (sniff) my last post on the PhD blog, unless I sneak a guest one in when I return for my viva. In any case, Aunt Rex did ask me if I'd like to send a final missive back (and when Aunt Rex requests something, you say YES).

One of the things which I've heard people say a lot over the years is that, while the PhD has a very definite start point, it's much more difficult to identify the end. There's submission, but then there's also the viva, corrections, first job. It's hard to get a sense of closure. Moving to a completely different part of the country is, I have to say, quite helpful in this regard. Even though the PhD's not officially over yet, it's good to have a new set of challenges to move on to, new courses to learn and new students to meet.

I suppose the other thing I can usefully testify to is that there are still jobs out there, even in the humanities, for people who've not got their doctorates yet. It's well worth applying for stuff - because even if you feel you're unlikely to get the job, it never hurts to have potential employers reading your applications, giving you feedback and thinking of you if other things come up. I'm as guilty as anyone of being quite negative about the job situation over the last year, but as long as you're prepared to think broadly about what jobs you might be suited to, take a lot of rejections and keep going nonetheless, things do seem to eventually come up.

All the same, moving away does bring home how good a community Warwick has for its researchers, and it's important not to undervalue it! It's great to be taking on some new challenges, but it has involved leaving behind a lot of very good friends and a whole peer network. The things which are happening in and around the RE at the moment - the establishment of the Early Career Network, the new online portals for research students, the introduction of ever more exciting brands of free biscuits - are fantastic, and I'm sorry I won't get to be a part of them.

So, best of luck to everyone for the 2011/12 year, and I'll look forward to keeping up with events via Aunt Rex and the rest of the blogging team!

August 24, 2011

Reading and Writing Acknowledgements; Or, Wait! Don't Play the Music Yet! – by Pete

I have two final burning questions about my thesis. Who should I thank in my acknowledgements, and how much should I thank them?

I love acknowledgements pages. They tend to be the most "human" part of a book, the part where the personality of the writer really shines through. They nod to important connections - personal and professional - that remind me that it's okay to have a life beyond the research. Most significantly, though, they can be extremely useful in locating the context of the research. The people they are thanking, their mentors and colleagues, can be an important indicator of the intellectual frameworks that are underpinning their project, even if those frameworks aren't mentioned elsewhere in the work. It's a great way to learn about the wider networks relevant to your field.

The question of "who" is the more straightforward one. There aren't any formal guidelines, and it's hard to find advice, but there are precedents and expectations that you can extrapolate from looking at examples in your field. These are the groups who I want to thank, because they've genuinely been indispensable to the work, but also the ones I suspect it would look weird not to thank:

1) Formal support. My supervisor, my mentor, my research team, my department. I'll probably draw out a couple of names of people who've been particularly supportive. Less necessary, but still important to me, is my department's admin team, who've been efficient and helpful throughout.

2) Formal debts. I've had quite a few scholars send me advance copies of their work, and it's usual to thank people for this kind of generosity. Plus, it's a useful way to demonstrate to examiners that you are engaged with the active scholarly community.

3) Funding bodies (both for PhD and for research/travel grants). I'm trying to decide if it's also worth acknowledging some of the more significant conferences I've presented bits of the thesis at, as this is a fairly standard practice.

4) Libraries. I don't know how usual this is, but in my field of archival and textual research, it's very unusual not to thank the libraries where you've called on the advice and expertise of the staff. I've got a couple of thanks to make here, too, to people who've given technical advice on the thesis itself, e.g. proofreader.

5) Finally, the complex one: friends and family. Who do you mention in here? Friends who've been personally supportive and helped get you through the last few years? Friends who've been particularly intellectually stimulating? Family members who've given you practical support? Long-suffering partners? This is where I find the most variety in professional acknowledgements pages, and it's a difficult one to judge. You don't want to thank TOO many people, so that you're undercutting your own achievement; and you don't want it to be unprofessionally informal; but equally, this is the one public opportunity to express your gratitude to important people.

This falls into the more difficult question of how much to say. I've seen acknowledgements pages for theses ranging from three paragraphs to three pages. Some are fairly terse and concise, others eloquent and often witty. At a memorial service for a friend earlier this year, her acknowledgements pages were read out. They were personal, moving, specific and very long, but also perfectly captured her personality.

I'm not quite sure what the answers are to these questions. Fundamentally, I suppose the most important thing is that your acknowledgements pay any genuine intellectual debts and reflect you fairly. Any thoughts from out there? Do the same issues apply across all fields? Or is it even worth putting this kind of thought into the acknowledgements?

August 18, 2011

Getting ready for the next stage – by Pete

While my thesis is off being proofread, I've got a few days to take stock and - gasp - plan ahead. Apparently there is light after submission, and there's time to think about a few important questions, such as:

1) How am I going to keep getting into the library after I submit? (Answer - I went and got a new library card from University House, which took ten minutes)

2) What am I going to do about all the bottles of seminar wine in my Research Exchange locker when I have to give the key back on August 31st? (Answer - that's also my submission date, so they'll come in useful...)

3) What's it going to be like once I'm, technically, no longer a student?

For the third one, handily, there are other people with the same question. As I've just been reminded, I'm now entitled to join the Research Exchange's Early Career Research network, which is for everyone in that limbo stage between submission and a full academic job. I've been at Warwick for a long time now, and I've always been aware of how difficult that stage can be, when you're not-quite "real" staff, particularly in terms of such minor aspects as "a salary", but equally you're no longer a student by any definition. It seems to be an unambiguously positive thing to have a network designed for supporting people at that stage.

ECR network members keep getting the facilities of the Research Exchange as well as dedicated events dealing with ECR issues such as jobs, teaching and how to cram in research time. I suppose the most important thing, though, is that it's a way to meet other people who are at the same stage of job-hunting, attempting to deal with bereavement after submission and looking forward to what comes next. The first event is a nibbles and wine evening, and it's a chance to socialise with researchers from other disciplines and get back out there after hunkering down over a hot laptop all summer.

You can find out more about the network by e-mailling .

August 17, 2011

Would you pay for proofreading? – by Pete

Now, I think I can write reasonably well. I'm lucky that I get to research and write in my native tongue, and as an English Literature specialist, my field is the written word. Obviously, typos and grammatical errors crop up in my work from time to time (especially on blogging platforms with no spellchecker...), but fundamentally I trust that my writing will communicate my message.

Two weeks from submission, though, I've had a panic. Going through my MLA guide, I've realised just how much there is I didn't know. "Practice" and "practise" have both surfaced in the wrong form in different chapters. My paragraphs had not been double-indented. "Apocrypha" is always singular; and should it be capitalised, or is that only when I'm referring to the Biblical Apocrypha? Page numbers should be in the top-right-hand corner, not bottom centre. And does post-structuralism have a hyphen or not?

It's at this point where I look longingly towards the professional proof-reader. There are various levels of proof-reading one can ask for, of course. I myself proof-read someone's thesis last year, offering a second eye but no guarantee of exhaustiveness (and I definitely earned my salary of a free meal). I'm thinking, though, of going to an accredited proof-reader and just getting them to blitz the whole thing, make sure it's all standardised and meets official MLA standards. What's frustrating is that, for all I know, my copy is actually pretty clean: I might be just wasting my money.

Money is the big question. Proof-reading comes at various costs, but a Society proof-reader will take about twelve hours to read a thesis at 21 pounds an hour. It adds up. However, I'm only going to submit my PhD once. Is it worth the money to know I've handed in something that gleams? Or is it worth sucking up the minor corrections for the sake of saving a couple of hundred quid?

I'm genuinely interested to hear from both people who've already submitted and people who are planning to. Do you think it's worth getting a proof-reader? And how thorough do you want them to be?

July 13, 2011

Do we get out enough? – by Pete

A double-whammy of good news (or at least, for reasons I'll detail below, things I consider to be good news) in the last week: first the News of the World was cancelled - although there is some small tragedy about what Murdoch and co. did to a 168 year old institution - and now News Corporation have dropped their takeover bid for BSkyB.

News of the World - Goodbye

Predictably, my Facebook feeds and general conversations with friends have a shared viewpoint on this - these are Good Things, for lots of reasons which aren't worth going into here. However, the researcher in me is starting to wonder - is it a good thing that the vast majority of people I interact with share very similar views on these big issues?

I overwhelmingly interact on a day-to-day basis with academics and PhD students, though certainly not exclusively so - prior to university, I came from a very non-academic background, and I still have a great many friends who never went to university and/or now have "proper" jobs. Regardless, most of the people I talk to about politics, theology, philosophy etc. are at the very least at MA level, and mostly at Warwick which, historically, has its own political biases. These friends and colleagues come from all walks of life, and certain issues remain hugely contentious, but by and large I know that I can say "Hurrah! The News of the World is dead!" and few of the people I interact with will disagree with the sentiment. However, I know that when I next go home, various friends and family will be looking for a new Sunday paper.

I love having shared issues and views, and there's some comfort in being able to get fired up with the people around you. However, Warwick can be a bubble, and the part of me which puts a lot of stock in objectivity, representative polling, empathy, and cross-cultural and cross-social dialogue worries about how easy it is to squirrel oneself away into a pleasant little liberal bubble.

Take the referendum, for instance. I campaigned on behalf of the "Yes to AV" movement, and got extremely excited in the run-up to the election. Sure, I was aware that the polls weren't looking so ambiguous, but buoyed up on enthusiasm and the fact that I knew literally nobody who held the opposite view gave me a sense of empowerment that ended up being quite crushed. It made me take stock. If I as an academic want my research to ultimately mean something, and yet I'm that out of touch with the temperature of the nation, how do I avoid disappearing into this nice, safe ivory tower?

This is a question of principle rather than a practical one, but I'm interested: has anyone else ever felt out of step in this way? Is it a good thing to consolidate and feel comfortable in our views? Or do we need to be making more effort to seek out different voices and ideas? Does the best research come out of an environment of reassuring familiarity, or do we risk being too insulated?

June 22, 2011

A Room of One's Own – by Pete

I know this is a thorny question for many of us, but it's undeniable that there is quite a disparity in the kinds of space allocated to PhD students across the University. I met a psychology researcher yesterday who was shocked I didn't get an office and that I worked in the library most days, for example.

Nonetheless, what I'm more interested in for this post is the different kinds of working space we have. I vary hugely - today, I'm enjoying sprawling on my couch, holding my laptop and half-watching Wimbledon while I compile bibliographies. Yesterday I was at my usual computer in the Wolfson being far more civilised. Sometimes I retreat to a silent working library in Stratford for pure peace and research time; other days it's shared desks and coffees. In many ways, for me, not having an office is a blessing because I think about what kind of space will suit me best given my mood and workload.

Do people have routines they stick to, whatever the weather, in terms of where they work? Or do you also like to mix it up a bit? Is there anyone out there with their own office who misses the freedom? Or is it just as good as we all imagine it to be?


June 10, 2011

Extensions to PhD registration – by Pete

Follow-up to The PhD limbo period – by Dilip from PhD Life: a blog about the PhD student experience

A timely bit of news, following on from Dilip's post earlier. As of 1st August 2011, all new full-time PhD students will be registered automatically for a period of four years rather than three, and part-timers will be registered for up to seven years.

This does not mean that PhD students are expected (or, indeed, allowed) to take longer to complete. Rather, it's recognising that the vast majority of PhDs run on into a fourth year; even if, as in the cases that Dilip was talking about, this is in order to pass the viva and complete corrections.

What this will do is solve the administrative problems that Dilip raised - no longer will we be shut out of the library after our initial three years passes, or lose access to buildings and have to re-negotiate with University House. Instead, in theory, we should now be able to submit in three years and spend our fourth year doing all the extra bits up to graduation, all without having to go through the administrative hassles of extending access and student registration.

I only wish this had come in in time for me - not having student status after 31st August, when I submit, is going to be a real pain.

June 03, 2011

Punch–Drunk Living – by Pete

Look familiar?


I've been struggling a bit with fatigue the last few days, thanks to this academic life. A couple of back to back conferences; some writing deadlines; a long and complicated batch of admin tasks and then chores on top.

For me, at least, keeping a happy, healthy and awake PhD life is dependent on routine. Regular sleep, regular meals, a tidy home and proper breaks. But as we've noted before, academic life can be horrifically cruel to these sensible, sober principles, and before long you can find yourself embarking on punch-drunk living.

The "Punch-Drunk PhD" reacts rather than plans. They're dependent on artificial stimulants (ie caffeine!) to get through the day, and they frequently find that, when they're reading, they've not taken in a single word. It's not all bad - attempting to have deep theoretical/philosophical conversations in this frame of mind can be hugely entertaining, especially when you start reducing complex modes of thinking to absolute basics ("poststructuralism... it's just so.... smug, innit?"). But largely, one knows that one isn't being productive.

All this is known, it's part of the day-to-day. What interests me, though, is what do you do? Particularly when you're a busy researcher with meetings, commitments and no time to crash out in bed for a few hours to catch up. Do you force yourself through to the weekend and then catch up in one big glorious snooze? Or do you cut down on your non-essential commitments, slow down a bit and try to gradually adjust? It's a bit like dealing with jetlag, I think, and I know everyone has very different ways of dealing with it. What's the best way to get back into that crisp, intelligent frame of mind?

April 27, 2011

How many readers – by Pete

Here's something of a technical PhD point which I'd be genuinely interested in polling some thoughts on. How many people are likely to read your thesis before you submit it?

I've only got one supervisor, and for most of my three years he's been the only person who's read my work thoroughly and provided feedback. I had an upgrade process and a review at the end of the second year, during which two more relevant academics had a look at extracts of my work, but I've only had one pair of sustained eyes on it other than mine.

Just recently, I've finally had another academic and a friend read over my first two chapters. This came about partly because both had been asking for a while if they could see it, and partly because I was at a point where I needed someone else just to confirm that those big piles of paper did, in fact, constitute a doctoral thesis. It's been a scary but wonderful experience, as I've had both positive encouragement and some entirely unexpected feedback. The great thing about having more than one person look at the thesis is that everyone looks for different things, and I've found it extremely useful to respond to a different set of thought processes.

I'm aware, however, that some people have plenty of readers. A friend of mine who submitted over a year ago had five or six different people read through drafts and offer copious feedback. Others have two or more official supervisors; or more rigorous reading processes in their department. On the other hand, some people may prefer to focus on working with a single reader, keeping a consistency of thoughts that doesn't try to "please" multiple and possibly conflicting tastes.

What do you think? The more the merrier? How many people are going to read your thesis?

April 16, 2011

Getting Away From Work – by Pete

A few months ago, I got an iPhone. I'm normally a bit of a technophobe, but it seemed to be time.


My first thought was: Great! I've now got my e-mails and notes with me at all times. I never need to be too far from my work, and I've got a device onto which I can offload any sudden inspirations.

Now, my feeling is: Damnit. I've now got my e-mails and notes with me at all times. I'm never too far away from my work, and I've got a device which taunts me with my lack of sudden inspirations.

Getting away from your work is surely, surely, the single most important thing that we all need to do from time to time. Inevitably, too, the need to do so coincides with the periods when you are least able to get away from your stuff. I just got back from a major conference in the US which, while being a huge motivator, also left me jetlagged and drained for a few days. Yet with deadlines beckoning, I found myself struggling to both rest AND work - it's surprisingly hard to do both simultaneously.

That's where having your research on-the-go becomes an issue. The temptation to quickly check e-mail when you're having a quick break in the shops, or re-read an article on the train, or scribble quick notes between pints, can become overwhelming when the ability to do so is right there with you. It's not an iPhone-specific problem (though I'm sure Steve Jobs would love to trademark it if he could); we're in a work situation where it's very difficult to ever truly leave your work behind you.

We've talked on here before about hobbies and other ways of breaking away from your research; but sometimes there's something to be said for just physically wrenching yourself away from any ability to keep up with your work. When we've got the option of doing work in our off-time, are we all that good at ignoring it? People in "real jobs" used to be able to leave the office and be physically unable to carry on with their work; yet it's an increasing problem in many sectors, that with access to e-mails, work is spilling into rest time and we're unable to truly get away from our work. It's increasingly important that we take the hard love option and escape.

So today I went up a mountain. Fresh air, good exercise, pleasant conversation. And you know the best thing?

No Signal.

Moel Famau

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