Friday, 15 January 2010

If I knew then what I know now…

If you are considering doing a PhD here is the advice I would give myself a year or so ago: start early. It is tougher than you might think to organise funding and a supervisor at the same institution. If you are doing a masters degree now, you need to be sorting out the PhD proposal and funding before you start your masters research proposal.

The first thing you should do is chew the ears off the relevant research staff at your university. They will tell you where the best places and people are for your area of interest. You need to be very open minded about what they tell you and when they suggest Prof X at some university in the outer reaches of northern England, don’t immediately dismiss it. Follow up every opportunity, to see where it goes.

Academics are a funny bunch with a weird network structure. Some have direct connections with each other, but others only know of each other through reading published papers. If you follow up the suggestion of Prof X you may find that he isn’t interested in your research but knows someone closer to home that is. This really is one resource I found in abundance. Academics know it is tough to find supervisors and more often than not are happy to point you in the right direction.

If you don’t have access to academics to help you face to face, you need to get started by trawling through university websites. This can be quite painful as academic websites are disorganised. What I found was the best way to search was to use the “ site: “ operator in Google search with the website domain of the university. For example, when searching for social science supervisors at LSE I used “social science” supervisor professor

Don’t be blinded by funding. There is no point applying where there is money available if you do not fit in with the research area specified. No amount of bending the truth will make your research into recycling in the Paris suburbs sound like it is related to health outcomes amongst the rural poor. You will either be found out in interview of you will waste your time applying. Otherwise you might find that you end up doing research that isn't your own and doesn’t really interest you.

Have a research proposal of no more than 200 words ready and a paragraph that succinctly summarises it. Send the paragraph, not the proposal to the contacts you uncover. If they want more they will let you know and it gives you the opportunity to monitor for feedback and incorporate it into your proposal. Don’t bother with anything longer at this stage as you will need to rewrite and expand your proposal for every application anyway later.

Focus on the research council funding. It is your best chance at getting your fees paid. Funding is released around December and then throughout the following year. There is usually a really short period from when it is announced to the deadline. You can use to get alerts as funding in your area becomes available. The research council websites are really complex and it is worth asking your potential supervisor or the course administrator for help.

Finally, don’t just accept a supervisor because they are prepared to work with you. Evaluate their interest in your research. Think about what they are like as a person and how likely you are to still be getting on well in three, four or five years’ time. It is easy to focus on funding, but a well funded PhD with a disinterested supervisor won’t be that much fun at all.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Organised research: the geeky solution

Aside from the sheer amount of reading to be done, one of the most troubling aspects of extended research is how to organise your notes. An annotated bibliography is the standard written way to list all your sources with a concise critical analysis of no more than a paragraph per source. I’m still at the identifying sources stage, making links between authors and concepts, so although I can make a start on this, I need something more flexible to organise my ideas. I think I’ve worked out it is essential to use technology in some way.

So, I’m trying something extremely geeky. I’ve downloaded and installed MediaWiki and have been using that. Installation took me around 30 minutes. It was much faster than I expected with fewer problems than anticipated. It requires SQL which I had already installed for some other project and PHP which was easy enough to get hold of. If these things sound alien, don’t worry you don’t actually have to do anything much beyond following a few instructions to install them.

So what is a wiki? Essentially it is a group of webpages that are very easy to edit. The key factor is hyperlinking is incredibly easy. If I want to link to the page on William Robson I just enclose his name with [[ ]], like this: [[William Robson]]. If that page does not exist yet I follow the link that is created and start typing; zero setup required. On the Robson page I can then link to each of his works, create notes and summaries; and crucially, keep track of where the source is available should I need it again.

One of my main resources will be the LSE Library at which I thankfully have alumni borrowing rights. Unfortunately at other libraries, such as the British Library, I will have to make all my notes onsite. They also have draconian rules about what you can take into the building itself – no pens for example – so I will be able to log in to my server at home via a laptop and update the relevant pages from there. The benefits of being able to access all my notes anywhere are also obvious. No excuse for not making use of all available time!

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

> Enter the title here <

Although at an early stage, I'm steadily moving towards the detailed proposal that is required six months into my programme. In the meantime, I need to put a document together for the next meeting with my supervisor to summarise where I am at. I have identified some large chunks of research I want to do and have an over-arching idea of what I want to achieve. As I start to put my document together, I realise that it really needs a title.

A title would help me out when I’m describing to others what my research is about. I don’t need to pick the final set-in-stone title of my thesis now, but a working title would help me focus my mind, convey to my supervisor and others where this is going, and fill a blank space on the page.

Interestingly, I am finding it quite difficult to come up with something concise and catchy that summarises my research. I had no trouble identifying resources I will use or planning research I will undertake, but distilling it all into a title is proving troublesome. I think it is because my goals are still fairly vague and I feel like don’t want to commit myself to one path.

The vague “Community leadership in London” is my first instinct or perhaps the more stuffy “Parish councils in Greater London”. Ideally I would like to make it a question, but I am possibly getting ahead of myself. Although I have a good idea I have not decided exactly what my research questions will be. That said, it is a working title and doesn’t commit me to anything so I think I am going to opt for both, using one as a subtitle, maybe after a little word-tinkering.