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August 06, 2013

3 Things you need to know about the Field

I have been on the field, Nigeria, for the past couple of months. As is Warwick tradition (and in other universities I wouldtee_fieldwork.jpg expect), your supervisor would prep you for life on the field. I was kitted with all relevant information and training, from code of conduct as a “Warwick Researcher”, to ethics, security, health etc. I have an awesome supervisor! However, in addition to the key tips he gave me, I have learnt a few extra lessons of my own that I thought would be nice to share on the blog.

It pays to be nice

Nobody should tell you this really – however, just in case you are not a naturally nice person, FAKE IT!

By being nice, I mean being genuinely interested in others, greeting them with a smile (I promise that doesn’t hurt), and being conscious about not taking others for granted just because they really want to help. Being nice has given me access to information and people I would have spent a decade and a half trying to reach. I have missed my way many-a-time to locations for interviews and gotten help just because I asked nicely, really nicely. The average man next door does not give a hoot if you find your way or not (just like London), especially where Naira (Nigerian currency) is NOT changing hands. I have to be grateful for the 5 seconds the guy took out of his busy dayto give an almost confusing description. When you ask for directions to a place, for instance, Washington Street, the response goes something like this:

“Go straight, keep going straight. When you get to the junction, turn right; then turn left. Go straight small, you will see a turning on your left. Don't turn. Keep going. At the SECOND turning, enter, you will see the Washington street.”

Woe betides he who asks for a repeat of the instruction.

In other instances I have negotiated really cheap taxi fares, just because I was nice to the taxi driver. Perhaps a puppy-eyed-pout or two helped the situation as well (shrugs). Hey, a girl’s gotta do what she gotta do. If you have a nice smile and a pout that shames Rihanna, use it girl!

Amp your personal planning & project/data management skills

I have met many people who throw this line around often, “I work best under pressure” – not on the field, it doesn't work there. The need to improve on one's project management skills is a point that is best experienced not explained. When you lose an audio file or two (recorded interviews), forget to send an email or misplace some crucial phone number, you will realise that water no dey pass garri.

*Water no dey pass garriis a Nigerian-pidgin proverb that figuratively means “a mess resulting from poor planning or lack of it.”

Keep a notebook on hand (even in the toilet)

A few days ago, a taxi driver told me he wants the military government back in power, because being under civilian rule in Nigeria was doing nothing for him. This was unsolicited information, other than the fact that a soldier walked up to us in the middle of the road; that was was sparked up the conversation. This insight from the taxi driver was relevant and interesting to my research for different reasons, so I immediately snapped my iPhone on and noted it on my notes app.

You never know where ideas would strike you – one’s eureka moment may be over a shared yahuza suya(grilled beef by Yahuza - yummylicious) and a can of Malta Guinness with a mate. You have to note that shizzledown! By shizzle,I mean any new information, insight or whatever. My friends are used to me now, when mid-conversation my eyes brighten up and I am slamming away at my keyboard or punching my touch-screen mercilessly. They shake their heads knowingly and carry on the conversation.

That little demon which whispers to your very smart brain that you would remember it all is LYING – don’t neglect the notepad.

Generally...

Being on field, gathering data (via interviews in my case), and meeting new people, is an exciting experience. Although I can’t wait to get back to the comforts of the University of Warwick Library...don’t look at me like that, I am very happy to be immersed in the society I am going to write my thesis on.

I am experiencing first hand some of the society-challengesI am going to discuss in my thesis. The tone and quality of my work will be better for it; I can feel that coming on already. If I were embarking on the same task from the “ivory tower” without connecting with the society where the policies I am going to critique and recommend will be affected, my work would have lost an important touch.

Do you have any lessons you are learning or learnt while on field that you didn’t glean from your supervisor? Please share.


June 22, 2013

Lessons from the "Field"

I have missed the PhD Life Blog and my Warwick PG Life. It mostly comprised sitting long hours in the library's Research Exchange, visiting the sports centre for a few bouts of volleyball, coffee with my home-girl at Costa (till they chase us out at close of work) and loads more activities that add value to my life.

As I write this post, I am in far away Nigeria, to conduct research interviews as part of the data gathering process for my thesis. It's been roughly two weeks and I am happy to mention I have made substantial progress on my work. However, this is not without gleaning a few lessons along the way from experience and from interacting with people.

Here are the lessons I have learnt.too_many_words.jpg

Identify people who "know the ground":

Nigeria is my home country, but I have had to admit that I am a novice when it comes to being "street smart". From immediate family, to friends on my Whatsapp and so on, I have sapped knowledge on how best to navigate the terrain at the most minimal cost.

I will give you an example. When I arrived with my unlocked iPhone and needed to get Internet data bundle (long story) on my phone, and the codes formally advertised didn't work. I called an old classmate, who had a friend working in the telecoms company I was subscribed to. This friend finally gave me the correct code, and instantly my top-up (a substantial amount) was zapped from my phone and replaced with 1.5gb internet data for the month. All I had to do was introduce myself to the person as xxx's friend, and magic. Simple street-smartness.

Other examples would be advice I have received on the best time to set out and return to base in order to beat mad traffic. On majority of my interviews I have arrived hours earlier than scheduled in order to maintain my mantra "Tomi is always punctual".

Be as concise as much as possible in explaining your research - Master your "pitch":

This is useful in the situation where you need to access to someone for an interview but need to go through this 3rd party. In order to convince them to help you meet the person you are after, you gotta have a good "pitch". Rule of thumb, keep the details of your theoretical framework out and just go for the meat of what your research is after.

Evernote is the next best thing since sliced-bread:

A friend saw me milking my Evernote at an event and marvelled at how organised I was. to be honest, Evernote does the organising for me. I sincerely don't know how I would cope with the data I have now (which is not yet up to half of what I am after), if all I had to lean on was Microsoft Word. The complexity of the web of information amassed would drive one to the brink of madness. Shout-out to the Evernote team: thanks for the Reminder function on the notes.

Reminder App is the next-next best thing:

I have never appreciated my iPhone Reminder app as much as I do now. It's never been easier to be forgetful as it is while one is on the field. You are having this interview, and the person tells you,"hey I have a document to back that up that I can share with you. Just pop me an email to remind me". What do you do? Make a note, and electronically input into your Reminder app - otherwise, you would forget.

I also use the Reminder App to remember to say THANK YOU for taking time out to speak with me. I may be filled with all the thanksgiving in my heart that could power Heaven to rain down Manna on earth one last time, but if I don't communicate it to the intended party, it's useless.

The Reminder app has also been useful in helping me recall when to contact someone who wants to reschedule an interview and much more.

As I approach Week 3 of many more weeks ahead, I reckon I would have more lessons to share on the blog. Being on field (especially outside the country) is exciting, but I do miss Warwick PG Life.

Have you gone past the "field" stage? Please share the lessons learned in comments. I don't need to reinvent the wheel :)

I'll be back here soon with more tales.


June 10, 2013

COLLABORATIVE SANDPIT – THE "RIGHT" CAREER PATH

The journey to establishing a career on any path (academia and otherwise) is usually laced with numerous opportunities. Although there may be seeming setbacks along the way, the ability to identify and tap on the right door, then go the extra mile to walk through it, makes a great difference between progression and regression or stagnancy. Many big breaks in life have come through someone literally being at the right place at the right time, doing the right thing - this could be enrolling on the rightworkshop, networking with the rightpeople, or participating in the rightventure.

When I first heard of the Collaborative Sandpit at the University of Warwick Research Exchange, the first thought that came to my head was, "THIS IS RIGHT!"

Let me tell you all about it. group_seated_crop.jpg

The Collaborative Sandpit is a 2-day intensive and interactive workshop, where "interdisciplinary research teams" work together to achieve two goals:
1. Define research problems on a given theme (*community),
2. Outline a grant proposal

Successful project teams would receive funding to work with an academic mentor in bringing their research plan to fruition.
Doctoral researchers and early career researchers at University of Warwick are eligible to participate in this initiative.

I reckon you are tuning into WII FM at the moment. Don't get confused, WII FM is simply the acronym for WHAT'S IN IT FOR ME?
I'll tell you what:

Build team-working skills:You get to collaborate the wider academic community at University of Warwick. On any job interview, it's a given that your ability to work in a team is going to be put to the test. Being a part of CS offers you a credible pool to draw a demonstration of that skill from.

Research to Reality: You are also afforded a chance to apply your research to contemporary real-life challenges. Speaking as a fellow researcher, I have a good feeling that I would find this aspect of research more gratifying than anything else.

Boost your research profile:Every hour, every minute, every second you spend on your individual research projects is an investment - an investment everyone else around you is making. The best way to stand out of the pack is to do something OUTSTANDING. I am convinced that the Collaborative Sandpit offers just the right shade of differentto add some colour to my research profile.

Skills Support Pre & Post Sandpit: I never hesitate to point out to my friends in Warwick that if we had to pay £££ per workshop we attended at Warwick University, we wouldn't be able to afford 3-sqaure meals in a matter of weeks. There is so much support available to which the only cost to you is your time - fair bargain if you ask me. CS offers many skills support workshop to ensure you are as successful as you can be on the program. More so, these skills are transferable, hence if you wish to work within or outside academia, you would still be getting your time's worth.

Transforming Ideas into Funded Projects:Funding is a key part of work life. In the commercial sector, you have attract enough funds to cover your salary and beyond to keep your job; and in academia, the scramble for funding is…I need not say much. My argument is that while on CS you will gain the experience of converting ideas to viable projects - how does one think through such ideas, what factors are to be considered? etc. CS is just the rightfallow ground to train and hone that skill.

Expression of interest forms are available online
Visit the website here.

For more information or queries, please email researchexchange@warwick.ac.uk

May 14, 2013

Thinking of Academic blogging?

I just found this write-up on Inside HigherEd, So You Want to Blog (Academic Edition) by Liana Silva. I will summarise the points the author made in bullet-points, and include my personal reflections on the topic:

Academic blogging develops your writing because it helps you connect more with your audience/readers
In Patrick Dunleavy's book Authoring a PhD, a recurrent phrase is "meeting reader expectation". I agree with Liana that blogging really does help you develop a voice of your own that connects with people. The interactive feature of blogs helps you understand what you need to improve on and what you need to do more of in your writing, especially if you take the reflective approach to feedback from your readers.

Academic blogging does not require an airtight argument, simply exploring questions is not a taboo.
I still grapple with this bit in my venture into proper academic blogging. I can't help but always feel like I have to make a stand, so thanks Liana for this reassurance.

Language can be casual even if it's an academic topic
Hallelujah!
I have a Wordpress blog (Diary of a Media Junkie)that I have been reluctant to let go of simply because I started a Research Blog. My wordpress blog bioreads "my mission statement upon founding this blog was to break down (academic) media issues (print, broadcast, online) in such a manner non-media professionals would still find interesting and educative enough to engage…".

I still had this conversation with one of the career advisers at uni (who is fast becoming a good friend of mine) where I shared my worries about my Media Junkie blog being playful and not necessarily branding me as the serious academic I know I am. Then again, I realised that I was losing sight of my mantra - which is to WRITE ACCESSIBLY. Hence, if humour and wit (which I have in abundance) help me convey my ideas across, and people enjoy reading (because I get hits), then that's my style and I am sticking to it.

To me, my blog is a getaway spot from Academic Writing, which I love, but would like to take a break from, from time to time.

It's scary to be different from others, but it's bold; and the rule of thumb is that it pays to stand out.

POWER to casual language in academic blogging.
Think about length (word count)
In blogging, I apply this rule: if my reader has to scroll 3 times to complete reading my post, they would most likely not read it all. I try to keep the "needed scrolls" to one and at most two. Liana suggests 750-1500 words. Personally, I wouldn't go anywhere near a thousand.

I have found that with blogging, pictures work like magic - and luckily, they tell a thousand words according to a Chinese proverb. How about we swap all that grey matter for a powerful picture that conveys your message precisely!

Other tips from Liana are:
  • Share your research interests img_0034.jpg
  • Ask for feedback (this takes a lot of boldness, but it endears you to your reader)
  • Keep in mind the style of the genre (let your headers be shareable - hence keep it short and punchy)

I really recommend reading the entire article whether you are blogging or not, or simply thinking about it. If you need me to give you a bit of a shove on why you REALLY should be BLOGGING as an academic, just say the word in commentsand AMMA BE ON YA CASE lol.

Have a brilliant week ahead.

February 18, 2013

Cupid & the PhD

Disclaimer:This post has been written by a hopeless romantic. How she combines being in this state with being a serious PhD student is beyond the author herself. Just flow with her.

I really had this post on lock-down for Valentines Day... this was supposedly when I wanted it published; but as you would agree, on this research journey, man proposes and the PhD disposes (of your plans). For the first time for me, Valentine's Day was as bland as oats without a grain of sugar. I did get gifted with a lovely brooch and a bag of Kenkey & soup (Ghanian Delicacy) by two wonderful friends of mine, heavily PLATONIC gifts I must add. However, I really shouldn't complain about a bland valentine after all... it's the thought that counts right?

 be_mine_vals.png
Moving on to the issue at hand. My learned colleague and favourite contributor on this blog, Thomas Bray wrote a post on My First, My Last, My Everything (swooning already). In this post, he discussed the peculiarities of finding romance as a PhD student. I thought since Thomas had generously dissected finding romance amongst fellow colleagues, I could explore the angle of finding romance OUTSIDE the PhD zone.

To define my term, romance, I mean thereal romance. Okay, that's not much of a definition. By romance, I am talking serious-potential-long-term-relationship that won't make me have to sing Beyonce's if you love it then you gotta put a ring on itbefore the dude gets the hint (some years down the line). Let me catch my breath. Yes, that's what I mean.

The Market:
The market for a potential partner outside the PhD zone is really large and vibrant. You meet all sorts of people whenever you dare to venture out of the citadel of learning, albeit almost always briefly. I always cherish those moments - the look in their eyes as they struggle to grasp and (or) look interested in your research when you embark on an animated tirade about it. It doesn't matter that they asked for it in the first place when they said, "tell me about your research".
I've had friends shorten my research title into all sorts of names. I gave up on correcting them long ago.

The danger with looking outside the PhD Zone for the partner is as follows:
  • They can't feel your pain, no matter how hard they try to empathise
  • You are always busy, ALWAYS - they don't get it
  • Their expectations of your level of smartnesswill have you scurrying to safety - I'm a PhD student not a walking-talking encyclopedia

The beauty of it on the other hand:
  • You can actually have a life outside the PhD
  • You would have a shot at starting a family (if you want that) after the PhD ceteris paribus (people who get married during the process, I doff my hat)
  • You would have someone to test how publicly engaging your research could be, on - Yes, I mean he/she could be your lab-rat for those Impact Measurements
  • Lastly, what can I say, variety is the spice of life

An associate professor in my Centre, whom I follow on Twitter and admire so much, tweeted on the Times HigherEd "Dear Me" hashtag. It was a conversation established academics were having on what they wished they had known when they were just starting out on the academic ladder, like we are. She said:

Dear Me, also don't wait too long to start a family. Life doesn't get any easier, slower, more secure, less stressful when you're established.

Yup. I'm definitely taking that wisdom nugget to heart - so CUPID you've got a big assignment, leave the thesis to me i'll handle it. Do your job!
End.



February 04, 2013

Scaling the White–Screen…Writing

I am a voracious reader of Harvard Business Review (the free edition online), and I recently came across this short brilliant piece on Dividing Your Writing Project in Manageable Tasks. Although the author seemed to be referring to the business environment where you write loads of emails, proposals and work on pitches, I could see exactly how this simple 4-step-process fit the PhD Life too.


The steps are, MAC-J. To lift directly from the piece:Writing- baby

MADMAN: Start by voraciously gathering research and other materials for the project, diligently keeping track of quotations and sources.
ARCHITECT: Then organise the madman's raw material into a sensible outlie. Distill your ideas into three main propositions.
CARPENTER: Following the architect's plan, write as quickly as possible - without worrying about perfecting your prose
JUDGE: Lastly edit, polish and improve the piece. Do this in several distinct passes, each time focusing on only one element of your writing

As I mentioned earlier, this model looks perfect for the business world, but it is adaptable to a researcher's world (with a few tweaks here and there). I will suggest the bits I think are missing in the model for us, using myself and my current work on a chapter of my thesis as an example.

Before I can go MADMAN on writing my chapter, I do have to go BESERK brainstorming the content and objectives of that chapter. What exactly do I want to achieve at the end of the day? This usually has to be in line with what my Research-Questions from the outset are. Once I can figure this phase out, cue-in MADMAN.

On MADMAN phase, you can easily spend donkey's years gathering materials that won't be useful at the end of the day. Hence, while I do voraciously gather research materials, before cueing-in the ARCHITECT, I rate the materials gathered on a scale of 1 to 5 -1 being "absolutely not useful for this research but interesting title all the same". The scale helps me rank how much reading-time to allocate to a material - am I going to skim or read line-by-line with my wire-rimmed glasses and pointed pencil tip?

The ARCHITECT phase is quite easy for me, because in the process of ranking, i've been organising the thoughts and ideas into some form of coherent wholes.

The CARPENTER phase is my favourite. At this stage, you've been buried so deep into literature, getting your head out of the grey matter (texts) to write in your own voice is often a tall order - but it's fun. The above model's advice to 'write without worrying about perfecting the prose' is a sound one.

On being the JUDGE, this is where the hard-work is for me- editing, polishing and improving the piece. For perfectionists, I can just imagine how tough it would be to decide enough-is-enough-SUBMIT!

How do you go about your writing? Please share, so that we can learn from you too.


Photo Credit: @Dudu_Duttie (Twitter)


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