Ethics are important to consider in any field. Without them there is potential for people to do great harm to others. It is well-known that ethics in research has a messy history. From medicine to psychology to anthropology to information science, harm has been done by researchers when ethical guidelines have been less structured. Ethical guidelines help researchers to determine the risk of whether something will cause harm, and make decisions to mitigate that risk. The most difficult part of this, however, is that all research has at least a little bit of risk. Even the most benign research can involve risks to the participants or researchers. And so the processes used to ensure ethical research (e.g., ethical review boards, data management plans, data protection committees, etc.) are all important to making sure that researchers fully consider the risks of their research and have plans in place to mitigate them.
As I have been working through my own ethical application for my PhD, I have noticed that the question of what is most ethical can be complex. For example, much research is conducted digitally, especially during the past year, and so there is an emphasis on making sure that research data about human participants is protected. Data breaches happen, and if a participant's personal data is somehow set free, or deliberately used in a malicious manner, harm could come to the participant. As many of us are probably aware, organisations that provide access to digital products aren't always the most secure, and so data protection committees who review how a researcher plans to collect and store participant data are very concerned with the protection of that data (hence the name of the committee). The ethical question that comes into play, however, is whether it is more ethical to use a more secure system that potential participants do not know (and may not be comfortable with) or use a less secure system that potential participants do know (and are comfortable with). Does the abstract idea of protecting participant data outweigh participant comfort? If a participant is aware of the risks and still wishes to use a less secure system should researchers push them into using a system they aren't comfortable with? Hopefully your answer to that last question is 'no', but in that case what about the voices that have just been excluded from our work because we required them to use a system they were uncomfortable using?
Past research, and much of current published research, is from a very specific perspective. Voices have been excluded for a long time and they continue to be excluded. Research is now opening up to new perspectives, but it is still dominated by the traditions of the past. If we deliberately exclude the voices of particular participants because of data protection are we strengthening the current status quo by ignoring voices that don't match themselves to our process of research?
These are important points to consider when thinking about ethical research, and I invite you to join myself and colleagues at an interactive session at the iConference 2021 (conference registration required, indicate attendance by e-mailing email@example.com) as we mull over this and other questions regarding ethics and research on migration and (re)settlement. I and my colleagues will be presenting lightning talks (7 minutes or so) and then the floor will open for discussion amongst all attendees. I hope to see you there! (Or if you are unable to attend, discuss such concepts elsewhere).
There are many blog posts out there about how people have been coping with the social changes brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. And of those blog posts a good portion of them are likely from PhD students talking about how to continue making progress on a PhD during these times. In fact, I've participated in a few focus groups and interviews researching how people are adjusting their work habits and staying productive during these times. In some ways, my participation in these events has worried me, because I have not been coping with this pandemic in a healthy way. I have maintained my unhealthy relationship with work and productivity in part because of my background as someone from the so-called United States of America. So while I have been able to maintain most of my productivity (with some small sacrifices still being made), it is not exactly healthy that I have done so.
This puts me as a researcher in a difficult situation. At what point do I let my productivity ebb, and will I even be able to recognize when I have reached that point? I've worked for the 7 years before my PhD in a state of "it doesn't matter how I feel, I still have to get the stuff done". In no way is that healthy. In no way do I want to continue that viewpoint until I collapse. However, it is a very hard thing to break the conditioning of 24 years of life, and the additional 2 years of PhD level expectations. And so we come to the purpose of this blog post: what's most important.
As my supervisor said, "Our goal is to not die, not let our families die, and keep up with our work. In that order". The important stuff right now, and all the time, is making sure that we are safe. Our work may be important, but no form of production is worth more than our lives and health. We may not be taught this, but it is true. So I am attempting to find that balance for myself. I took time off this winter. It ended up being not as much as I originally planned, but it was a step in the right direction. I'm making plans to take a break this summer as well. This does not mean I'm a "bad PhD student", and in fact, it may make me a better one.
Life is about balance, and that may be one of the most important lessons my PhD has taught me. We all have choices about how much we take on, and we all have to decide what our priorities are, but without a balance of rest, the work won't actually get done. My goal for this next stage of my PhD is to get a little better at the balance and to carry that through to my life after the PhD as well.
The PhD continues on though it has been in a slightly different form since March and the Covid-19 global pandemic resulted in social distancing measures. Over the past few months we have been off-campus, with the library closed and many public places where we used to study unavailable. Conferences have been postponed, canceled, or moved to a virtual setting. Deadlines have been shifted, working hours have changed, and sleep schedules are all over the place. Yet we persevere. As my supervisor, Dr. Hazel Hall, has told me many times, "What is important is keeping yourself safe, keeping your family safe, and not having a mental breakdown. Work comes after all of those things." I have been working over the summer. Perhaps not as efficiently as I wanted, but at my own pace and within the abilities of the day. As summer comes to a close and we begin to adjust to an academic year in a "new normal", however, I have more opportunities to participate in career and research training sessions (virtual though they may be).
This past week I undertook a training for developing an elevator pitch for my doctoral research 'The Effect of Culture on Public Library Use in New-Comer Populations'. This training came at an opportune time for me, as I have three separate conferences I'll be attending (two virtual, one currently in person) this fall. The elevator pitch is not unique to academics. The elevator pitch - also known as an elevator speech - is found in business, publishing, and pretty much any field where a person tries to convince someone else that their idea is important/relevant/worth buying. The elevator pitch is meant to be short, which means distilling a lot of information into a limited time-frame. Depending on the training, and the elevator ride you take, an elevator pitch can be anything between 5 seconds - one floor journey - to 3 minutes - I'm not sure how many floors this is, but this seems to be the limit of what is called an elevator pitch.
In the training I attended our elevator pitches were meant to be 3 minutes or less. Depending on who you speak to, or what article you read, 3 minutes is too long for an elevator pitch. Even so, 3 minutes is not a large amount of time to explain a thesis that is meant to be about 80,000 words at completion. I've needed to develop my own elevator speech for a while but I also wasn't sure where to start, so the training this week was a bit of serendipity for me.
One of my favourite strategies that was shared for how to develop your elevator pitch was to use an analogy. This analogy can be from the media (e.g. TV shows, the radio, movies), well-known stories, games, books, and potentially even memes. The major qualifier for the analogy you choose is that it needs to be something people inside and outside of your field will know about. It also needs to be popular enough that people from a different geographic area will know about it as well. By using an analogy, you are able to take the complex concepts and the jargon of your thesis and translate it into something many people will understand. Case in point, my analogy is based on the Disney film The Little Mermaid. An important part of using such an analogy is making sure the analogy is present throughout the elevator pitch. I don't start of talking about Ariel, the little mermaid, and then drop her as soon as I finish the first sentence. I continue to use the story that people know as a guiding path for the entire elevator pitch.
My elevator pitch at the moment is a little less than 90 seconds. Depending on my audience, I can add more detail in some parts. Depending on my time, I may cut detail. But I now have something to work off of, even if there are additional tweaks to make. Though I struggled at first with finding an appropriate analogy, I'm happy with the one I ended up using. I am, after all, a big Disney fan. If your interested in my elevator pitch, or have thoughts on developing an elevator pitch, leave them down in the comments below. And odds are that if you see me at a conference, you'll get to hear the pitch yourself.
wasAs a PhD student, and unfortunately just in general, I am often mired by impostor syndrome (see my post on love-hate relationships with progress reviews). This is one reason why dry runs of presentations and peer review in general is incredibly beneficial for me. As someone who recently received her first set of feedback from reviewers on a possible publication, I can attest to how harsh professional reviews can be. In many ways, those types of reviews make impostor syndrome worse because reviewers don't actually have to be constructive in their criticisms. They just have to indicate whether they think the piece is worthy of being published. Now some reviewers do take the time to make their comments constructive, but there are others who don't. Sometimes, reviewers take the anonymity and use it as a tool to just tear down a work without worrying about the chance for an argument. After all, it is the author that has to defend their work, not the reviewer their comments. But I digress. The pipeline of official publication can be fraught with situations that can make a researcher doubt themselves, but before that pipeline is reached there is a great deal of opportunity for peer review and dry runs which can help combat impostor syndrome inspired by the official pipeline.
An example of this that I benefited from recently is a dry run of the lightning talk presentation I was set to deliver at the Forced Migration and Ethical Research workshop at iConference 2020.* Despite my propensity to volunteer to speak, I do not enjoy public speaking. While I am not paralyzed by stage fright, I am very nervous when speaking in front of people in a professional manner. For this reason, the more practice I can get the better off I am when presenting, and my colleagues at the Centre for Social Informatics at Edinburgh Napier University were very helpful in giving me both practice and constructive criticism.
In our weekly research group meeting there are routinely papers to be read before being submitted for publication, or presentations to be practiced. For the papers, members of the research group will volunteer to be peer reviewers, reading the papers and giving constructive feedback to the authors. For the presentations, the research group will reserve an appropriate room on campus and the first half of the weekly meeting will be dedicated to the presentation. Each "audience member" will receive a little sheet where they anonymously mark what they think the presenter does well, what they think the presenter can work on when they present in general, and three suggestions for the final presentation. These three suggestions can cover content, format, or presentation demeanor. The point of these anonymous cards is so that the presenter can get constructive feedback on their presentation without necessarily giving more weight to the advice of someone whose opinion they care about most. This form of practice was incredibly helpful for me, as I could see those things that I did well when presenting (apparently I didn't seem nervous) and those things I could work on (not sounding rehearsed) as well as what I want to address for the final presentation (e.g., adjusting font size to fill the white space slightly more).
The constructiveness of the feedback is what's important in this instance. The purpose is not to say "That was great" or "That was terrible." The purpose is to acknowledge what is done well and what could be done better. This is an aspect that is often lost one the day of presentation when the purpose is to get a question answered that wasn't clear in the presentation. In the same way, reviewers of submissions may focus on the things that could be better/should be changed/"are wrong" because their purpose is to determine whether they think a submission is worthy of being published, not how to make that submission worthy of being published. This is why dry runs and peer reviews before a submission/presentation are so important. These dry runs and peer reviews help researchers hear the good things about their work as well as give them something to improve, thereby fighting both impostor syndrome and arrogance.
I am very grateful for the feedback I've received on both paper submissions and my dry run presentation, as they will help me continue to improve my research/writing skills.
*Please note that this workshop has been canceled due to Covid-19 issues. The iConference 2020 is running virtually but I will no longer be presenting.
Performance reviews are something that most organizations require staff to complete. The timing of these reviews can vary. Some organizations have the reviews once a year, some twice a year, and some have them every three months. In my previous degrees the closest I came to performance reviews were the annual meetings with an academic adviser to discuss my course schedule. And I only ever went to two of those meetings. In my working life I had performance reviews once a year at each of the organisations I worked for, though the most recent organisation was moving towards a quarterly review process when I left. Both organisations required me to fill out a self-evaluation before the performance review and I hated it. Now that I'm in my PhD, the performance review is once again rearing its head and I'm dreading the meeting.
I appreciate the importance of a performance review, and the self-assessment that usually accompanies one. I think both are important to making sure that the employee isn't struggling and that the appropriate work is being completed. I'm usually quite happy with the results of performance review meetings as they allow me to express my needs as an employee without feeling like I'm doing so inappropriately. After all, one aspect of the performance review is to ensure employee needs are being met (or at least this has been an aspect of all the performance reviews I have attended in the past). It is the documentation leading up to the performance review that I dread. Despite being a self-professed writer, I don't enjoy writing self-reflective pieces that are going to be evaluated by other people. If I want to be self-reflective I do so in my personal journal or hide it under the guise of fictional characters, so writing a document detailing everything that I've done over a set period of time and how I feel about it is difficult for me.
This is not to say that I don't think the self-reflective aspect of the performance review is bad. It often is a good way to combat my guilt of not doing enough because it shows me exactly how much I have completed over a set period of time. There are times when it doesn't assuage the guilt because for one reason or another I haven't made much progress, but in general it helps me see that even if my tasks have been different than those I maybe should have been focusing on, I have done a lot. It isn't the results of self-assessments that I don't like. It isn't the purpose of writing them. It is the actual writing of them.
l have been taught my whole life not to "toot your own horn", which can be detrimental when trying to write a self-assessment. I tend to be unsure of the balance between being vain/arrogant and stating my accomplishments. For my past self-assessments as an employee, I was never sure how much of my daily tasks to include. After all, if a task is listed in my job description isn't it assumed that it is being done as long as there are no complaints against me? Do I need to include it? If I don't include it is it assumed that it wasn't done? If I do include it will it seem like I'm "padding" the l to make myself seem more productive than I am?
Some of you may look at the above questions and say that merely by having that response it indicates that I'm probably on the right track and my supervisors will take that into account when they write up the documents for HR. But that doesn't actually address the issues I have with the writing of self-assessments. I tend to freeze and second guess myself. And in terms of the most recent self-assessment I wrote for my upcoming PhD performance review, I was second-guessing myself all over the place (how I was writing it, whether I had included unnecessary information, how I could not include that information and still make it to the appropriate length, etc.). The point is not whether or not I'm capable of doing a job/PhD and able to show my capability in a performance review. It is that I feel incredibly anxious every time I have to write a self-assessment or have a performance review meeting. And I don't think I'm alone in that feeling.
Which brings us back to the title of this post: a love-hate relationship. I fully acknowledge the importance of performance reviews and self-assessment. I think they do a lot of good. But I have a very hard time going through these reviews myself and so have complicated feelings on the topic. That being said, one thing that has helped me a bit is to re-frame how I think of these reviews. I try to remind myself that the self-assessment is a socially acceptable medium for "tooting your own horn". Your supervisor (whether in a PhD or in the workplace) probably already has an idea of whether you do good work. The self-assessment is there so you can remind your supervisor and yourself what you do above and beyond the good work already inherent in your job description. And it never hurts to remind them of the daily tasks that are actually in your job description. This isn't a perfect solution for me. I still get anxiety about these documents and meetings. But it does help a bit, and I have hopes that continually reminding myself of this fact will gradually decrease my overall anxiety surrounding performance reviews.
The second term of my PhD begins tomorrow, and with it comes a continuation of last term with some exciting developments since I last wrote. For those of you interested in iDocQ, we are still looking for committee members, so give us a shout if you're interested in helping plan the event. I have received feedback on my first draft of a section of my literature review and while the feedback showcased how far I have to work on my writing and getting back in the habit of writing academically, it is helpful to have a baseline to work from. Perhaps the most exciting news is that I have had an abstract accepted for a lightning talk at the iConference 2020 in Borås, Sweden.
I will be presenting the lightning talk in one of the workshops on the first day of the conference: #Forced Migration and @ethical_research: Moving the Agenda Forward. This workshop is meant to provide a space for discussion regarding forced migration and the ethical questions surrounding research that focuses on forced migration. As my PhD topic is about the influence of culture on library use in populations that have experienced forced migration, this workshop is highly relevant. While at this workshop I hope to absorb the knowledge of current experts in the field and contribute to the ongoing discussion surrounding this topic.
My lightning talk focuses on lessons learnt through my literature review on LIS research focusing on forced migrant populations. I was excited to note that many of the authors I had been reading during the course of my literature review are organizers of the workshop. It is also slightly nerve-wracking that my lightning talk will cover their work and I will be discussing how it needs to tie in to future research. My lightning talk is not a "poke holes in previous work" presentation but it does focus on current patterns in the field and the need to fill certain gaps. As such, I am both happy and nervous that I have this opportunity. The happiness is the greater emotion, and I am sure the nervousness can be used to motivate extensive practice and appropriate revision of my presentation.
iConference 2020 here I come!
iDocQ 2020 is underway! We've dusted off the social media accounts and are starting to tweet out the good news! So save the date May 14, 2020 to join us in Edinburgh for this doctoral colloquium for PhD students.
iDocQ is an annual doctoral colloquium meant for PhD students of information science, related fields, and more broadly the social sciences. It is important to note that attendance at this event and participation in the committee is for students at all stages of their PhD, whether they're close to submitting or in their first month. The event this year will be hosted by Edinburgh Napier University at their Sighthill campus and is funded by SGSSS, and guess what, I'm on the planning committee! We're still in early stages of forming the committee, which will preferably be made up of students from multiple Scottish universities, and will start the detailed planning come January.
The broad theme of this year's iDocQ will be methods, an important topic no matter the stage of your PhD, and there have already been some broad agenda ideas tossed about. There is a plan for a keynote speaker, a One Minute Madness session coupled with a poster session for student attendees, workshops on qualitative and quantitative methods, and a panel discussion/Q&A session with professors who have been in our PhD shoes. Nothing is set in stone yet, so if you have some great ideas for this type of event you can still take a role in planning one!
Are you a doctoral student in the SGSSS STIC-ICS pathway or similar subject? Do you want to bolster your CV with conference planning experience? Or just get out of the drudgery tasks of the PhD for an hour once in a while? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or get in touch some other way (to quote my fellow iDocQ committee member, Twitter, LinkedIn, carrier pigeon, drone, mysterious voicemail all accepted).
In terms of time-commitment of committee members, it isn't strenuous.
We aren't able to pay student organizers for their time but we can pay for travel expenses to the meetings and travel expenses for *all* student attendees for travel to the event itself.
Join us in bringing iDocQ back in 2020 and making it a truly student-focused colloquium (and don't forget to follow us on Twitter, @iDocQ, for updates about the event).
Did you know that depending on where you are in the world, the final written product of a PhD is called something different? For example, in the UK a thesis is the final written product of a PhD but in the U.S. a dissertation is the final product. Now, this isn't really a big issue until you take into account that undergraduate and masters degrees can also involve some sort of finished product. Depending on the field, they might be called capstone projects or theses/dissertations. In the U.S., a thesis is the final product of a masters degree and sometimes an undergraduate degree. In the UK, it's a dissertation. So if you ever study internationally, make note of what that final project is actually called because otherwise confusion ensues. Now, on to the bit that pertains to the title of this blog post.
When a person thinks about a PhD the final product, be it called a thesis or a dissertation, seems to be what the degree is all about. After all, it's a published book that you have to defend in front of colleagues who are knowledgeable in the field. You've devoted at least three years to the research involved and you've had to do all of this while under pressure of tuition and living costs (yes, even if you're degree is fully funded those issues exist). The final product is no small thing. But it isn't the only thing.
What is sometimes forgotten when a person embarks on a PhD is what they are going to do after they finish. Are they going into academia? Industry? Both? Do they want to be an independent researcher? Be tied to a specific organization? Travel the world in a burnt-out haze wondering why they completed the degree in the first place? That last one may not be a want, though it's definitely a possibility. Regardless of your plans, they will probably involve having more experience than just completing empirical research and writing about it.
Which brings me back to my title. Your PhD is going to involve a lot more than just reading the literature, completing the research project, and writing the thesis/dissertation. You'll probably be drafted as a student helper for events your university department hosts (this is quite enjoyable but can take time out of your PhD process), attending conferences, teaching courses, going to meetings, going to trainings, etc. Your PhD is a massive undertaking of which the research, write-up, and defense is a relatively small part. Now, that doesn't mean that the physical product of the PhD isn't important. You still need it in order to say you've earned a PhD. But it is also important to realize that you won't be able to spend all your time in the office reading/experimenting/writing. And in fact you don't want to. When you're trying to make progress on the project it can sometimes be frustrating to be "derailed" by other things that don't seem to be your PhD, but those other things are going to allow you to make connections within your chosen field and have a better chance of employment after you receive your degree.
A PhD is not just a thesis/dissertation, it's a lot more. And that's a good thing. So embrace the things that take you away from the final product even while thinking about how they will help inform it. After all, we all need a break from reading literature and writing academically sometimes.
Yes, I know it's a bit late, but I actually have a pretty good reason. And that reason is three letters and the whole rationale for a second blog page on my website: PhD. Also, yes, I do expect you to hum the tune of the song as you read the title.
Now, the bulk of the work of my PhD has started, which means reading is my predominant job these days. The literature review could be considered the most important part of a research degree, because without a good literature review, the research can be torn apart before it even begins. Literature reviews aren't just to show readers that the research did his/her research (I feel like that's some sort of important literary device but I can't decide which one it is). Rather, literature reviews help provide the foundation for any set of empirical research. The literature review tells a researcher if something has been done before, if there are any gaps in the field that need to be filled, and if there are any research techniques that can be re-used in the current study. In short, without a literature review a researcher is operating with hands and feet tied, and is blindfolded to boot.
So right now I'm in literature review mode. Sort of. I mean, I'm taking time out to write this post but overall I'd say my life is in literature review mode. I'm reading articles, books, and conference agendas to determine what research has already happened in my area and whether my current proposal can hold water. Not only am I reading, I'm critiquing. In research, if there's a critique it means there's a chance to rework the methods and try again. Now in the more physical sciences (e.g., physics, chemistry, biology, etc.) this might be as simple as changing a basic variable and seeing what happens. In the more social sciences, that can be difficult because there is no ethical way to say "alright, we're changing this variable of socio-economic status, so that one person who was getting by needs to lose all their money and sink into poverty." Not only is that unethical, it's also not something a researcher can control. As such, reworking methods, or even just repeating the exact same methods as before, can be very complicated (this is not to say that it cannot be incredibly complicated in the physical sciences as well, just that the ability to change a single variable is almost never possible). Hence, the literature review.
So while I am deep in the throes of reviewing literature to make sure my proposal is both doable and hasn't been done before, blog posts might come more or less frequently. It all depends on how the reading is going and whether I need a break or not. Hopefully, things will just stay right on schedule in all aspects of my life. But that's sort of a dream and we'll see where reality takes me.
A Second Blog Page?
This is the part of the blog specifically about my PhD. It will include updates, musings, and advice.