Changing tenses as you write your dissertation

The PhD student I am supervising sent the first draft of her methodology chapter yesterday with a series of questions and notes for me and the co-supervisor. One of them was about tense: she is writing everything in the present and future tense, but wondered if this was a mistake. It got me thinking (again) about tense in the PhD thesis, and the process of moving from future to past as the project progresses.

I have written here a little about the gap between the logic of discovery and the logic of display or dissemination in writing. As you are working, everything is either ‘I am doing this’ and ‘I will be doing that eventually’. This is pretty much the tense in which you write your proposal – proposals are forward  looking. So, as you start you research, you will naturally be thinking now, and on to the next steps, and your writing will most likely reflect this in the tenses you choose. This is the logic of discovery. As you move along, you will make decisions, close some doors, open others, and your argument will unfold and form as you do so.

getty_tense-155096784But not all parts of the PhD are written in this present/future tense, even as you are working out what your argument is. The literature review and conceptual framework sections, or whatever version of these you have, will likely be written in the continuous present, as most journal articles and academic books are. ‘Bernstein argues that xyz’, and ‘Research in the field shows us that these are the gaps in our knowledge about abc at present’, and so on. Then you come to the methodological and analytical framework, and you are perhaps not quite finished analysing your data, and you and certainly not finished with the PhD, so the tense changes: ‘I am analysing this set of data’ goes alongside ‘I generated these data in these ways over this time period’ alongside ‘I am going to be using this framework to organise the data (when I get there)’. It’s confusing, to be sure.

So what to do now, in the midst of your research and writing – can and should you anticipate being finished and therefore writing everything in the methodology in the past tense, or do you worry about that later? It does seem like more work to write in the voice of discovery while you are still discovering things, and then write again later in the voice of dissemination as you reorganise and display your thinking with the benefit of (some) hindsight. However, I would caution against trying to anticipate too much. A significant part of doing a PhD is the process of doing a piece of research, and learning through missteps, successes and issues like the one discussed here how doing and writing about research feels and looks and sounds. That way, you can go on to do further research, either on your own or with others post-PhD, and you can eventually supervise PhD students yourself.

methodology-blog-asiaslagwool-comBeing in the midst of what can feel like confusion and chaos – ‘Do I write this in the past tense, or just write is as I am thinking it and then change it later? Is this right, or not? Do I even still have an argument or a research question?’ – and then finding your way out to greater clarity, or a more sophisticated argument, or a deeper knowledge of your field is what builds you researcher voice and capacity. As the saying goes: the only way through it, is through it. Trying to see the end when you are still in the middle is likely to create more confusion and frustration.

So my advice, if you are stuck in a similar spot to my PhD student is this: be where you are. Think and write your way through this patch, and write in whatever tense and voice feels most authentic to you at this point. The good news is that there will be time for rewriting, polishing and updating before you submit, and it’s quite a pleasant feeling to go back to this methodology chapter after the findings have been presented and analysed, and find that you can edit, sharpen and focus that section to create a tight, accurate and interesting narrative about the nuts and bolts of your PhD. As you do so, every time you do so, your researcher capacity and voice and ability to add to the conversation through the knowledge you are making grows, and that is what being an academic researcher is about.

 

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Managing your ‘research admin’

This post tackles that terribly unsexy but very vital topic of ‘research admin’; that is, the processes that go into creating and storing all your data, writing, artefacts and so on that make up the research you do, and that need to be carefully managed so as to avoid disaster, stress and undue panic attacks. I have had to do some serious thinking about my own admin systems this week after I lost two big and irreplaceable pieces of data I was hoping to use in a paper I am presenting at a conference next week; I am learning a painful and stressful lesson about paying attention to where and how I store my data, writing and other research artefacts.

This is an area of doing research and being a researcher that I have not often spent too much time thinking about and working on, to be honest. But, last week I was forced to pay some serious attention when I finally got around to uploading all my old, PhD and newer, postdoc data into a new version of Nvivo on my new laptop. I did not convert my project on my old Nvivo application before that laptop died, so I need to recreate my PhD project alongside my postdoc project in this newer application of the programme. It’s a pain, but it has to be done and seeing as I now am writing two papers that draw on both the older and newer data, I can’t put off the uploading, organising, transcribing and coding any longer. So last Thursday I set aside most of the day for the task of putting all of my data into Nvivo and organising it. This involved finding all the data on an external harddrive and in Google Drive and in Dropbox, translating file formats from those not accepted into those accepted by the application and then creating folders and waiting for it all to be transformed and uploaded. It took ages, and I regretted putting it off so long. If I had just been chipping away at it bit by bit it would not have seemed like such a mission. But I digress.

On Thursday, to start this uploading etc process, I went looking for all my files and folders. I backed up my Dropbox and my laptop into an external HD at the end of my PhD, and during 2014 when I was generating postdoc data. But, and I can’t work out why I did this, I backed up in bits and pieces rather than in entirety. So, when I opened ‘Backup of Dropbox June 2014’ only some of the folders were there rather than all of them. One of the Postdoc data 2014 folders (in the HD) has all the lecture and interview audios from that year, and the other identical folder (in Google Drive) is missing 6 of them. But these folders should both be complete. When I searched for the workshop audios I recorded last year – both lengthy and valuable pieces of data on how my findings were received in the two departments I worked with – I could not find them at all. Anywhere. I searched every folder in every storage space I own (external HD, Google Drive, Dropbox, iCloud, Mac HD). It became very clear, in the midst of my stomach-dropping freak-out, that I need to make some vital improvements to my methods of storing information related to my research.

Firstly, having cloud storage is a must: I have heard so many terrible stories about PhD students saving all their data and writing files on a USB, or in a HD, only to have these crash, taking all their data and writing with them. The cloud won’t crash, and is accessible everywhere you have a computer or tablet and an internet connection. And memory of your passwords :). But splitting your folders and files between different clouds can be tricky without a clear and consistent system. What do you put where? What logic would you create and use for your filing system? If you have duplicate folders, I think you’re asking for confusion, because you either have to always save all your files in both locations, or you’ll likely end up with folders that have different sets of files in them even though they look like duplicates.

I work between Dropbox, which I love, and Google Drive, which I love less but which almost everyone I work with likes to work with, so I am learning to like it. I have more storage space in Google Drive, so have had duplicate (but not) folders in both, for example ‘Writing’ and ‘Teaching’. Yet, I know that the Dropbox folder for ‘Writing’ is the current, complete one, and the Drive folder for ‘Teaching’ is the current complete one. Why, then, all the unnecessary duplication and confusion, you ask? Laziness, probably. And perhaps also a fear that I can never have enough back-ups or storage spaces, hence my oddly inconsistent attempts to have the same files and folders everywhere. Just in case. This, however, has clearly not worked. Data has gone missing. Panic has ensued.

I am, therefore, taking action and having a ‘spring clean’ of all my storage spaces. I have also actually written down, in my research journal, my logic for an updated storage system, so that I have it somewhere that feels more concrete that the ‘e’-nvironment in which I mostly work. Firstly, I have gotten rid of all my duplicates and have divided my folders into personal and archival data (Dropbox) and work-related and current data (Drive). Everything is now backed up, in clearly marked folders, in a new external HD. My lovely husband, who has way more Dropbox space than I do (having actually forked out money for it whereas I am too cheap to do so) has created a shared folder for me in his Dropbox into which I can put all my current research-related files and folders especially. I have also emailed myself a few very important files I cannot bear to think about losing, like my final thesis and a couple of papers I am presently working on.

I have gone through the personal folders and deleted old and unused files, and things I no longer need, to free up more storage space for the files and documents I do and will need. I’m working on doing the same with the work-related folders as I have time. I think regular clean-outs are a good idea, as cloud storage and computer hard drives can fill up fast, and often we save things that can eventually be deleted. Look at your ‘last opened’ date as an indicator of when you last had a need for that information, and ask yourself if it needs to be archived, for example on an external HD, or could be deleted.

Secondly, I have had a think about how I create my data given that the two pieces of data I have lost are (or were) audio files generated on an audio recorder, that needed to be downloaded, saved and synced with my cloud. It turns out I do have one piece of data I can use in this paper – an audio file of a similar workshop to the two I have lost that I generated with my iPhone. My phone automatically syncs itself with my Mac when they within range of one another over the wifi, so when I open iTunes, all my voice memo files are there. I’m now thinking about ways to generate data, like video and audio, that will more easily ‘sync’ with the storage tools I use. Audio from now on I will certainly be recording with my phone, as it works really well for small workshops, interviews, and focus groups, and I’m looking into video options for my new data generation phase coming up soon.

Spending some time thinking about the technological tools we use to capture or generate our data is worthwhile. There are so many different tools and options out there, but finding those that work effectively for your aims and that make storing, sharing, and managing the data that much easier and safer can save you so much stress and hassle. Do some research, ask around (Twitter is great for this sort of thing, as there is loads of experience and advice out there); don’t just grab the first tool you find, or the only one you know or think you can afford. Your data is so valuable – you cannot duplicate it, or just generate more – and without it those papers, presentations and research artefacts are so difficult to create (if you can do that at all without your data).

Research admin is not a sexy topic, to be sure, but it is one that needs to be tackled when you are taking on a longer-term, complex and multi-layered task like an advanced postgraduate degree or a research project. Having a solid, consistent system and making time in your schedule to apply your system to creating, saving, and sharing your files and folders is well worth the effort.

 

Coming to the end (almost): polishing the Meisterwerk

I have been seeing a lot of tweets throughout this month from scholars who, as they approach December submission dates, are coming to the end (almost) of their PhD journeys. This has led to me thinking back to this time last year and the final weeks before I submitted my thesis for examination.

There seems to a lot of advice for PhD scholars on just about everything you can think of to do with writing and researching a PhD dissertation – writing introductions, abstracts, methodology chapters, generating and analyzing data, surviving bad supervisor relationships and so on, but (and this may be because I did not really have much time to look too hard) I didn’t come across much advice on the nitty gritty of getting the thesis finished and submitted. In particular I was worried about proofreading, printing, binding, and the final bits and pieces of editing and polishing. Should I have a proofreader? What kind of things should I make sure that a proofreader has by way of qualifications? What kinds of things do I need to consider in printing out and binding the thesis for the examiners? How many copies? These sound like silly questions, but they made for a fair bit of panic in my little PhD camp in November last year.

I have recently been helping a friend find a proofreader for her PhD thesis, and she has had similar concerns and panic. There are a lot of people who offer proofreading and copyediting services, but there are about as many stories of students and academics who have had a terrible experience with a proofreader unfamiliar with, for example, academic referencing conventions or the more technical aspects of MSWord, and have sent back a thesis that is far from free of errors. Proofreading is often expensive, and to have your work come back without errors missed, or worse added in, is really frustrating. It also adds to your stress and your workload right at the end, because you have to re-read and check everything doubly carefully. In my professional experience as a journal editor and as a writing centre coordinator, I have gleaned this advice for students who are looking to have their thesis proofread and copyedited ahead of submission:

  1. Make sure that the proofreader has experience working with academic texts, especially theses or dissertations, which are quite different to your average 6000-word journal article or a more popular text, like a novel. Ask them what kinds of work they usually do, and what kinds of training they have, formal (editing courses) or on-the-job/informal (experience).
  2. Ask for references – who else’s work have they proofread? Good proofreaders who have the right kinds of experience and qualifications should be happy and able to provide these.
  3. Give them very clear instructions. Mostly, you want a proofreader to check that all your in-text/footnote/endnote references are consistent in style, and that you have a complete and consistent reference list; double check and correct formatting and spacing inconsistencies; and correct/mark typos and obvious grammatical errors. Give the proofreader clear information about the style you have employed so they can help you check for consistency (e.g., APA 6). You should ask for all changes to be marked up but not made for you, so that you can go through and accept or reject changes yourself; also if there are things they need to bring to your attention as the author, the editor should mark these with comment bubbles. If you are vague in your request for assistance, you may not get the help you are paying for.
  4. Good proofreaders will ask for your work to get a sense of how much work is involved, and should include a sample of a few pages of copyedited text with their quote and delivery date, so that you can see how much they will charge, how long they will take and the quality of the work they do. Charges usually apply per hour, or per page. Try to negotiate per hour rates if you can, as this may work out less expensive depending on what the person is charging you.

The biggest piece of advice here is to remember that this is your text and you have the right, especially as you are paying for it, to get the service that will help you polish the thesis in the least stressful and most accurate way possible. You need to be able to ensure that, if there are problems, you can stand up for yourself and not end up paying for shoddy proofreading. Researching this carefully will go a long way to ensuring a smoother polishing process. Ask other scholars who have finished who they worked with, or your supervisor; if you have a writing centre or similar on your campus they may have referrals, as might your library.

In terms of printing and binding, if this is required of you, your first point of call is obviously your departmental or faculty guidelines. In the absence of hard and fast rules, one-sided printing makes for easier reading, in my limited examiner’s experience (it also gives the examiner a space for scribbling notes for the report), and soft binding is obviously cheaper and lighter if the thesis has to be sent off to an examiner. It’s also easier to read and scribble on and mark a thesis that is soft-bound or ring-bound. The hard binding you can save for the final, revised and super-polished version.

These really do seem like little, silly details as I write this, but having (almost) end of the road advice (even if this is what you were planning to do anyway) can be useful as it is always good to know that you’re on the right track, or making tried-and-tested choices.

There is more than enough stress right at the end – dealing with some of the nitty-gritties and crossing these off your list can only help to move you closer to Submission Day, hopefully with greater confidence and calm. If you’re on the (almost) final stretch, keep breathing, make a list to keep track of everything, and good luck!

Corrections

I finished my corrections, finally, last Friday and submitted the most revised and final version of my PhD dissertation that there will ever be. It was a very anti-climactic moment, actually. No beautiful hardcover leather bound version with gold lettering being ceremoniously handed to a librarian. No pomp or circumstance. Just an email, with a PDF attachment to be downloaded onto a USB stick and handed to the library for their digital repository and a loose-leaf copy for an archive. I will have my own beautiful hardbound version made, of course, but this was not how I imagined this process ending. I imagined… more. More relief, more triumph, more pomp, I guess.

I think, looking back, the biggest triumph was handing in the first full draft. That was when I really believed I would finish my dissertation. It was such a struggle to get it finished, and it represented so much work and thinking and writing and just hours and days of my life. I felt like I had climbed a mountain with no sherpas or surfed a 6ft wave with a barrel! Handing in the version for examination was also a triumph, but a smaller one somehow, and this most final version has been smaller again. I have been busy thinking about and doing my corrections for the last week or so, and I wonder if perhaps that, combined with my present illness and exhaustion which has crashed down on me now that this process is finally at an end and I will be graduating this week, has dampened the triumphant feelings I was expecting to feel at this final hand-in.

Corrections are a bit of a pain. I received three reports –  in most PhD examinations there seem to be at least three examiners, whether they examine you in person in a Viva Voce or on paper as with most South African universities. So three different people, with three different sets of specialisation (although all specialists in your field in some way) read and judge your thesis. You hope they do this on its own merits, but this doesn’t always happen. In  South Africa, examiners are asked to choose from one of four options: to reject the thesis, to recommend extensive revisions and resubmission; to accept with minor corrections completed to supervisor’s satisfaction; and to accept as is.

My examiners were all very warm and complimentary about the work I did. They seemed to understand what I was trying to do, and although they made recommendations and suggestions for corrections and revisions that went beyond the thesis (very useful but also quite daunting) most of their suggestions were aimed at making my present thesis stronger and better. However, they ranged quite a bit in terms of their sense of how much work I still needed to do. One thought it was fine as is (which was nice but I wondered if she didn’t miss things); one thought it should be subjected to minor corrections (my favourite report); and one thought it needed some re-analysis and rethinking of quite a bit of the data (hmph!). The overall decision was ‘accept pending corrections to be done to the supervisor’s satisfaction’. So, this was good. A bit confusing and quite overwhelming, but good.

It was confusing because I needed to read all the reports, and mostly on my own – although my supervisor did offer advice and guidance (it has never been her way to tell me what to do :-)) – I had to decide which corrections to make, which to respond to but not make and which to leave, and then explain to her what I did and why. So, I asked myself: Do I do everything? Can I do everything? Should I do everything that the examiners recommended? This last question became the key one. In commenting on the thesis itself, and also commenting beyond the thesis on things I need to think about and stretch myself to, they offered both a set of corrections for now and a set of recommendations and suggestions for later. I needed to work out which was which. Even if I could have done every correction recommended, it was not clear that I really needed to. Some of the suggestions would have resulted in additions and corrections that may have confused rather than clarified certain parts of my thesis, and may have made some of my arguments or explanations unnecessarily dense and obscure, rather than clear and easier to follow. So, part of the work I had to do was separating the ‘must do – this will make it better’  from the ‘could do – might improve it’ and the ‘not for now – this is beyond what I was trying to do’.

This took a few days of reading and re-reading the reports, muttering to myself, and mulling things over before I was ready to make myself sit down and do the necessary work. This is what I have learned, thus far, about doing corrections:

1. Read, re-read (or listen very carefully) to the feedback: examiners are supposed to (and do) evaluate your thesis on it’s own merits but they also have their own take on methods, theory and data analysis. Read carefully for what they have written about your thesis and what you could do to make it better, and read very carefully for where they are asking you to work on a different thesis, or worse, their thesis. There is an important distinction between suggestions that will improve what you have written, and suggestions that will take you into new territory and possible undo what you have written in some way.

2. Take time to think, mutter and scribble. Talk to your supervisor, especially if they are the ones that need to be satisfied or if your thesis has to go back for re-examination. You need their advice and guidance, but at the end of the day it is your work. Your heart and soul. Take enough time to take in the comments, think about them, think about your own aims and goals in writing the thesis, and then work out what you need to do to take the thesis to its final library-copy version. Don’t rush to do everything. Try not to rush at all.

3. Take a day or two off work to do the corrections. It’s better not to try and do them at work when you have so many other competing demands on your time, and noise and interruptions. I took a day off, had a quiet house with kids at school, and I managed to get them all in done in one day (not counting the thinking time). This quiet and space for tea breaks and a walk with the dog to do some more mulling really helped me to get the corrections done and to feel they were carefully done and not rushed. It was also nice to write in my PJs again – thesis and me back together for the last time in this form.

If you are working on corrections, all the best. You are so very nearly there, and I wish you all the pomp and circumstance your heart desires!

 

 

Getting tense about tense

I am finding the issue of tense in my thesis a tricky one. At least two of the six chapters were written last year and very early this year before I gathered the data and analysed it. So they were written in the present or future tense – ‘This study will use this framework…’ or ‘This study is using this methodology…’. When I sat down to bring these chapters into a more updated form in the full draft, I was a bit stuck, wondering whether and how to change the present and future tense to past tense across the board, or to do so more carefully. It was easy with the two ‘analysis’ chapters where I present my case studies because they are more obviously in the past tense. The research is done. But in the Introduction? What tense must I use there?

I am reporting on a completed research project, but as a reader it’s not all over for you. You are coming in at the start and want to know what am I am going to be writing about and what my argument is, not what it was.The Conclusion is another minefield, because part of it is past tense – ‘This study argued that and found that etc’ but I also point to future research, so has the study pointed to this (more past tense) or is it more that it points to this and that (in the present/future). I am not sure, to be honest. So, I have played around with this, with some trepidation and confusion. The Introduction is in some form of the present tense: ‘This study argues’; The chapters are organised thus…’ and so on. Chapters 2-6 are all in the past tense-ish, but this has not been as easy as changing all the instances of ‘is’ to ‘was’ in the earlier drafts of chapters 2 and 3. There are also different forms of the past tense – ‘this study has used’ versus ‘this study used’ – the latter seems more definite and harder in tone and the former a little softer. What is the right tone to strike using tense? Is there one?

I have spent more time thinking about my reader-examiners in recent weeks, and how they will approach this thesis and work their way through it. Tense is an important part of striking the right tone, and also getting things in the right sequence so as to tell a full, logical and coherent story of the study and what it aimed to do, what it did, how it did it and what it found that contributes to knowledge in the field. I think this issue of tense also related to the question of how one writes a PhD thesis – it is not a linear writing process although it is a linear reading process. Bits and pieces get written in bits and pieces over 3 or more years, and thinking that the draft is an exercise in cutting and pasting various pieces together and doing some aligning of tense will almost certainly lead you down the wrong path.

The issue of tense is not just a grammatical one; it also points to a bigger question of how a writer helps the reader navigate the thesis in terms of the theory, the methods, the data and the argument. You may have written an amazing draft of the theoretical framework early on, but you will have to think carefully about the revisions once you have done the data gathering and analysis and applied that theory. Shifts in your thinking will happen and careful revisions need to be made, not just changes all the ‘is’s to ‘was’s, but also making clearer and more sophisticated connections between the chapters and aligning the different roles they play in making your thesis coherent, logical and a good read for your examiners.