Monthly Archives: October 2015

I accidentally a PhD – one year in

So one of the stories I tell about how I ended up quitting a corporate job to go research porn is that it happened by accident. It’s the truth, though not necessarily the whole truth. I went from “Yeah, I kinda still wanna do this, when I retire” to “Fuck this, I’m doing it right now, I’m applying for funding and finding myself a supervisor” in the space of two months. And seeing as I got asked a couple of weeks ago to tell our new PhD students what I’d learned about the process over the last year, I thought it might be a good time to look back on that year in this blog too.

Self-Inflicted Problems

The good news is, I still don’t regret leaving my old job. There are some small things I miss – being on conference calls with people from literally around the world, the business class travel was nice, and I do have to live on less money now. But overall it was the right decision. I think one of the biggest changes has been moving from a job where the majority of problems were externally created (systems, organisational cultures, budgetary restrictions) to doing a project that is entirely mine and all the problems are completely self-inflicted. My data isn’t behaving? Well, it was my choice to look at this data set to start with, so it’s not the data’s fault. It’s very difficult to rant about something when it’s completely self-inflicted. The good news is that my data started behaving again this morning. Or rather, that I took enough of a step back to stop looking for something and start looking at what was there and how to make sense of it. The other good news is that if most of your problems are of your own making, they’re also broadly speaking within your control to fix.

Wrangling Supervisors

I spoke to a lot of people who’d finished their PhDs, and I’d seen at least some of the gory details of two people very close to me going through the process, before I embarked on this journey. And one of the common themes was the importance of the supervisor. So loud and clear was this message that I basically went and interviewed a bunch of potential supervisors before I applied for funding – much to their startlement. In the end, the funding materialised at an institution where I’d barely spoken with anyone, I was assigned a supervisor I’d never met or heard of… and promptly misplaced him on the first day of my PhD as he left for a job at another university. These things happen, and I’m lucky it happened on Day 1 rather than two years in. I’m also lucky – and very happy – with my current supervision team, even though I’m pretty sure I give all of them headaches at times.

So yes, the PhD student-supervisor relationship is a unique one: they’re not your boss, and they’re not your peer, and they’re not your mentor. They’re a bit of all of the above and none at the same time. Learning to manage your supervisor(s) early on in the process is key. Have a conversation about how they see their role and yours – and how you see it. Work out their strengths and their failure modes – leverage the strengths, learn to work around the failure modes.

I have three supervisors, which has upsides and downsides. On the plus side, there’s always someone there. Even if two of them have disappeared off to conferences, there’s always someone I can get hold of if I need something urgent. On the minus side, getting all three of them in the same room has proved impossible. Which is actually ok. I learned early on not to wait for everyone to be available and to meet with people as and when I could or needed to. The other big lesson has been not to go for more than four weeks without speaking to at least one supervisor. I tend to go into phases of thinking I don’t need to speak to anyone and I’m doing ok, and that’s generally a sign that I’m stuck with something, or not making as much progress as I’d like to, or haven’t done something I said I’d do. Having that looming supervisor meeting in the diary is a good motivator to go get things done – or ‘fess up and ask for help.

The other thing about having three supervisors is that I get a lot of very different input and insights that I might otherwise not have access to. The downside is that occasionally they end up all pulling in three different directions. That’s where the bit about your supervisor not being your boss comes in. It’s my research, and I get to decide what input to take on board and how. Occasionally I just have to decide that that thing my supervisor’s really excited about is a squirrel and let it go. It is tempting sometimes to only take on board the good feedback, the praise, the comments I agree with, and ignore the rest. That’s a bad idea. A habit I have got into for anything that my supervisors say that I wildly disagree with is to at the very least work out why I wildly disagree with it. That way, when my external examiner in my final viva inevitably asks why I didn’t do Thing X that Supervisor Y told me to do two years ago, I’ll have a (hopefully) good answer.

The Deep Hole of Knowledge

A big challenge for most PhD researchers is isolation. Regardless of whether – like me – you’re working by yourself on a project you designed from start to finish or you’re part of a team in a lab, that tiny little piece of new knowledge you’re creating is unique. No one else is doing anything quite like it. You are – to borrow a phrase from my supervisor – digging yourself into a deep hole of knowledge.

The trouble with digging yourself into a deep hole of knowledge is that the deeper you go, the easier it is to forget how to talk to people – both about your research, but also about things like what you want for dinner and who’s supposed to clean the cat litter. This is a bad thing. You may be a misanthrope like me and be fine with the latter, but the former is vital to your PhD. See, what they don’t tell you in the doctoral descriptors is that producing that shiny bit of new knowledge isn’t quite enough: you have to convince your examiners that it is indeed shiny and new. Which you need to do by… talking about research. So in order to not forget how to do that while digging ourselves into that hole, community is hugely important, and I would argue community comes in at least two flavours. (There are actually more but this post is already huge.)

Meeting people who are broadly going (or have gone) through the same experience as you – regardless of whether they’re in engineering, linguistics or practice-based performance art – can help with a lot of things. They’re the people you can go to and say things like “My supervisor’s doing my head in.” They’re the people who can provide comfort and understanding when your data’s not behaving, when you hit second-year slump, or when the output of an entire day’s worth of work is a single paragraph which is somehow supposed to encompass a month of research. Postgraduate societies, training sessions, and departmental events (with free lunch!) is where to find these people. Once you’ve found them, don’t let them go! Exchange email addresses. Meet up for coffee. Join a faculty PhD student meet-up. If there isn’t one, start one – that’s what I did.

The second flavour of community are your peers in your specific field. They’re the people in the deep hole of knowledge next to yours. They’re the people you can take your misbehaving data to and go “WTactualF?” and they might be able to help you make sense of it; or throw some useful reading at you; or ask you that one question that somehow you hadn’t considered. They’re the people who will end up on the Acknowledgements page of your thesis followed by words like “fruitful discussions”, “useful comments”, “invaluable insight”.

Where, then, does one find one’s peers (except masquerading as Reviewer 2 once you start submitting papers to journals)? A few of them might be in your department; most will not. So you may have to venture out. Go to conferences. Join mailing lists. Check out academic networks and associations in your field. Or, if you’re feeling particularly brave, you can even lure your peers to you. I’m currently organising a conference pretty much with the sole purpose of meeting other postgraduate researchers in my field and seeing what they’re working on.

And Next?

Some people start a PhD with a very clear goal in mind for what they want to do afterwards. (I want to stay in academia.) Others are just glad that they’ve got money and something to keep them busy and out of trouble for another three years. Regardless of which group you’re in, I’d say it makes sense to at least think about your options fairly early on. That way, you can make sure that as you go through your PhD you acquire the skills and experience you’ll need for the next stage.

Now here’s a neat trick for those who do want to stay in academia. You will hear things like “publish or perish” quite a lot. And frankly, they’re true. If you’re in the UK, having four published papers when you start knocking on doors and asking for a postdoc place will make it a lot easier for institutions to employ you because of the Dark Art that is the REF. (If you don’t know how the REF works, find out. It’s a system you can game to an extent, and it’s well worth learning how to do that.)

So how do you produce a thesis and four papers and go to conferences and do outreach and and and? From personal experience, here’s a thing not to do: spam five conferences with abstracts in your second month, in the hope that one of them will say yes. The reason not to do it? All five of them will say yes, and you will be very busy and (depending on your institution’s budget) very broke for a few months. Also, you might give your supervisor a headache. (I thoroughly enjoyed all five of those conferences though.)

What I have found really helpful is to use conferences and journal publications as a way of breaking down the massive amorphous thing that is a PhD into smaller manageable chunks with clear scope and deadlines. This means only doing papers that will somehow contribute to your thesis. They may not end up being chapters (and depending on your university regs, you might not be allowed to straight up use your publications in your thesis anyway), but they might help you get your head around a particular chunk of your data, a particular methodology, or some especially tricky part of the theory in your field. One of the papers I’m currently writing will actually end up as a significant chunk of a thesis chapter further down the line. Another will give me the chance to practise auto-ethnography (of which I’m terrified), plus it’s a paper obviously missing in its field and I happen to be in a position to write it.

So this is all of my “end of Year 1” wisdom. Here’s to Second-Year Slump, Reviewer 2, misbehaving data, and the Deep Hole of Knowledge. May we emerge from it blinking victoriously into the sunlight.

What I learned from running a conference about writing abstracts

Bethan and I have just sent our acceptances and rejections of abstracts for #PopSex15, and I’ve been thinking about what the process of organising a conference has taught me about pitching to one. So here are a few tips on writing abstracts for academic conferences.

Be very clear what your paper’s contribution is. The argument you’re making and the evidence you’re using should be obvious from your abstract. There are different ways to do this. I tend to structure my abstracts in three paragraphs. The first goes a bit like this: “In this paper I will [show/argue X] using [data set Y] and [methodology Z].” The second gives some context appropriate to the audience I’m pitching to. So if I’m pitching to a gender & sexuality conference and talking about fanfiction, I might explain what fanfiction is. If I’m pitching to a fan studies conference, I might explain why I’m using fanfiction to study sexual consent. The third paragraph then expands on the first while building on the context I’ve provided in the second to give more detail of exactly what my paper will do and how, and maybe why this is interesting. You can provide the context first but the conference organiser may turn out to be familiar with it, in which case you might bore them. You can provide some bullet points titled “Key Points”. Whatever you do, don’t get too bogged down in detail: be clear (and brave) with your argument.

Pitch to the Call for Papers. The CfP will tell you a lot about what the organisers are interested in. Specific keywords and topics, participants at a particular stage of their career (e.g. postgraduates, early-career researchers), types of content and modes of presentation. Do try to work the keywords into your abstract (if your work really is relevant!). Do make sure you’re eligible to present at that particular conference. Do include a sentence along the lines of “My paper fits with conference themes A, B and C”. The more you can help the organiser figure out how your work fits in with their priorities, the better. There is honestly nothing more heartbreaking than having to reject what looks like an awesome paper that I really want to see because it doesn’t quite fit with the conference themes.

Things that are not 20-minute presentations: The standard conference format – for better or for worse – is a 20-minute paper. Having said that, there are conference organisers who would love to loosen things up a bit. If the CfP explicitly encourages proposals for discussion groups, pecha kucha, workshops, posters, practice showcase, or other formats, take the opportunity to experiment! You’ll make the organiser’s day. There are a few things to consider if you do this though:

  • As a rule of thumb, be careful about proposing things that would take more time than the standard 20-minute paper. If I’m going to give you a larger share of time, I expect to get more value from it, and you may need to convince me that that’s the case. If you offer me a workshop or discussion, I’m much more likely to give you the extra time than if you just want another ten minutes for what’s basically a standard paper. And do consider the context when asking for more time: you’re less likely to get it in a one-day symposium than in a four-day conference.
  • If you can offer me options (“I can do this as a paper or a discussion group”), that’s amazing and gives me flexibility to fit you around other content.
  • Be prepared for the organiser to come back and ask you for a different format. I  pitched a poster to a conference once (which had explicitly asked for posters among other things) but it turned out I was the only one. The organisers were kind enough to give me the opportunity to present a paper instead.
  • If you are pitching anything other than a 20-minute paper, make that clear right from the start. Even before you get into “In this paper I argue…” say “This is a proposal for [a poster/a discussion session/an interpretive dance performance].” This makes it much more likely that the organiser will notice you’re proposing something different, and much less likely that you’ll turn up expecting to lead a discussion when the organiser expects a paper.

Stick in the organiser’s mind. As an organiser I have to process a large number of 300-word abstracts, many of which have titles that wouldn’t fit in a tweet. What I found myself doing very quickly was giving papers nicknames: The Tumblr Paper; The Bucky Barnes Paper; The Asexuality Paper. (These are made up, but you get the gist.) The way I pick these nicknames is by latching on to something that is either familiar or interesting/unexpected. Your paper is now forever tied to those one or two concepts in my mind. And yes, there are other bits of processing I’ll do (what media are you talking about, what are the key themes, how might it fit with other papers), but that nickname is still very powerful. It may have an impact on whether your paper gets accepted. It almost certainly will have an impact on what other papers you end up grouped with in a panel, which in turn will have an impact on the quality of questions and engagement you get after you’ve presented.

Now, you don’t know me and therefore it’s very difficult for you to predict what my brain will latch on to in giving your paper its nickname. What you can do is deliberately give me ideas for nicknames. Think about what other papers you would want to be grouped with, and what the key themes and keywords might be that organisers will pick up on for that kind of grouping. Try to think of a catchy nickname that fits with those themes. Now write an abstract that can be easily summed up with that nickname. So if your (totally made up) paper is about how Tumblr as a platform shapes the kind of community that lives on it, and you want to be on a panel with other people talking about different platforms and communities, then The Tumblr Paper is actually quite a good nickname to aim for. If your (still made up, but I kinda wanna write both of these) paper is based on a data set from Tumblr but actually talks about porn gifs and how they differ from the porn videos they’re taken from, then I’d suggest aiming for The Porn Gif Paper instead. That’s much more likely to get you on a porn panel, if that’s where you want to go.

Granted, this feels a bit like stabbing in the dark, and there are many other considerations that go into what panel you end up on, but it’s something I intend to try in order to fix some of my own “I wish they’d put me on that other panel instead” woes.

Oh, and the basics.

  • Stick to the word count. Particularly in the abstract, don’t go over (annoys the organisers), and try not to go significantly under (makes me think there isn’t quite enough substance to your paper). Going under is less of an issue in the bio, but again, try not to go over.
  • Check exactly what the CfP asks for. Abstract and bio? Abstract and CV? Full paper and six academic references? Submit what you’re asked for.
  • Don’t forget to give your paper a title. (I say this as someone who habitually does this, so, you know, do what I say, not what I do.) The absence of title is unlikely to be a deciding factor in acceptance/rejection of a paper, but it will get you a follow-up email from the organisers.