Phd update: 13 months on since restarting

And just like that, it’s December. I’m writing this with my last hour of my third writing retreat of the academic year 2014/2015. I wanted to use this time to give a quick update & reflection on my PhD progress, as I started 2014 with the good intention of doing monthly updates, which subsequently ended up being kept offline instead. Regardless, I’ve managed to keep to the writing schedule that I set myself when I was appealing to restart, despite working full time in a fairly intense role as a project co-ordinator. So far, I’m on track to complete my entire first draft of my thesis by the schedule that my supervisors and I had set out as part of the re-start agreement.
I’ve now bypassed my one year anniversary of attending retreats – and the difference between where I was this time last year and where I am now is night and day. I’ve been to 6 in a 13 month period, the very first one being the first time I opened my PhD document since suspending back in October 2012, and subsequently feeling sick, upset, angsty and angry about what happened, yet the retreats forces me to keep looking at it and in turn writing myself out of the emotion that I attached to the document. If I’m being honest to myself, I had been quite a tough, mental excavation process, working out when to admit fault but also letting go of the rest.
Nevertheless, something clicked at the retreat last month, when I realised I was beginning to move on from feeling like a failed PhD student who had dropped out and was on the ropes, but instead a person that was capable to finishing it. I don’t know what was the reason for the shift in mindset, but I think the combination of the supportive peer-led environment, and the consistency of the space and place in which we work and socialise, it is easier to keep a tab on how you are feeling about your work and how much progress/confidence you are gaining as a writer. Finally, I was able to talk about my work without having to explain the messy context behind it, why I felt I wasn’t good enough to do a PhD and why I had had a break. It’s just something that I am doing now. And it is moving forward at a pace that I’m happy with (and, importantly meeting targets). I remember in the early discussions of returning, when my new supervisor offered to support me, I said that all I wanted was to get to this stage, the stage where I wasn’t having to contextualise my work with a massive diatribe of mis-justice and general distain for the academic system.
Thankfully, I can now say that this has passed. I can describe what my PhD is about without any of that.
I’m about to submit two redrafted parts of my thesis “Part 1: Purpose/Context/Literature Review” and “Part 2:Research Design/Methodology” based on all the documents, readings, writings and notes that I had available between 2009-2012 -the timespan of my full-time PhD prior to suspending. I will take joy in using a pun here, but essentially these redrafts represent a certain chapter in my life and now I can move onto the next sections, Part 3: Data Collection/ Discussion/Analysis – all of which is fresh new words and getting to grips with analysing ethnography data. They’ll probably need another million redrafts before they are ready to submit, I don’t doubt this for a second, but it feels so rewarding to have turned around what was essentially 3 years of jumbled lostness and arranged them into sections and chapters, without much additional reading or data collection at this stage.
I also have a ‘PhD shopping list’ for the work that I need to do between now and the end of January, things I need to do in the library, things that I need to do with my data, things I need to spend writing and things I need to discuss with my supervisor. I know that I will be able to pick up these tasks and systematically work my way through them, when in contrast I felt l was stabbing around in the dark, spending many a day in the library, feeling like I wasn’t writing when I was reading, wasn’t reading when writing, and not even sure I was I was there and if I was doing the right thing in the first place.
So yeah, December is always a pretty reflective time of the year anyway, and to be able to look back through what I’ve managed to achieve has meant that I’m now starting to see myself at a stage where I will begin thinking about my external supervisor, the viva and all the other things that start to come up on the horizon when coming to the end of a PhD. I don’t want to say that I never say myself at this stage, but, there has been times in the last few years where I felt like it would have been easier to just throw it in the bin and start again.
The best way of describing it now would to say that I now own my own PhD, its not this abstract scary document that I don’t want to show people because I’m not entirely sure what it is, but at the same, I’m about ready to let it go. I’ve been a PhD student for so long (Jan 2009, Leicester Uni moving in October 2009 to UWS) and so many things have changed in my life during this period of registration. I’ve lived in 15 different houses, I’ve lost count of how many jobs I’ve had to supplement my stipend, I’ve lived in opposite sides of the country and the people have came in and out my life, some staying & getting closer, some never seeing again. It’s just bizarre to think that actually, I might come to the end of being attached to this thing that has been consistent in my life when other things have been changing so rapidly and I’ve (only recently) have had any real stability.
Anyway, the purpose of this post really is so I can stick a flag in the sand – I hope by this time next year, I am writing about the end or being very near to it. Certainly, this will be the last time I will be writing about what came before, I’ve got to the end of all the materials that I had collected previously, those difficult conversations and reflecting on moments and memories that the writing brought up can now be concluded, there is no more I can work through at this stage. It’s only new words and new ideas from here on in. And this must be what doing a PhD should really feel like. Finally.

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Research Seminar

Presentation (w @kierandhamilton): Morally High, Is Twitter being used as an online space to challenge dominant socio-political discourse around drug-use?

In my last post about writing goals, I said my February goal was to work on a paper with Kieran (who has just started a PhD in Alcohol and Drug Studies at UWS). Last Thursday, we were invited to present the work-in-progress at the UWS School of Education/Creative and Cultural Industries Research Showcase at the CCA in Glasgow. We are working towards a completed paper that has been accepted at the Leisure Studies conference that is hosted at UWS Paisley in July. I’m also on the organising committee for that.

This was a piece of research we had been discussing in the gap between me decided the future plans of my PhD and restarting, so it was nice to actually produce an outcome from that time away from my own research – and get to focus on some of the larger questions regarding social media ethics and public data using a subject such as perceptions of drug users and how people use social media as a socio-political device. We should have the full paper completed by July to be included in the proceeds. Slides and Abstracts are below.

Hamilton, K. & Jones, J. (2014) Morally high: Is Twitter being used as an online space to challenge dominant socio-political discourse around drug-use? 

Background: Current socio-political discourse around drug use delineates illegal drugs as “malevolent forces”, which “pathological” individuals succumb to as a result of moral or mental weakness (Tupper 2012). Drug users are designated as “outsiders” (Cohen 1956) with the result being that drug users are stigmatised as “disgusting” and “dirty” individuals (Tupper 2012) who pose a threat to the dominant normative values of society (Taylor2008). Although there is current debate around the “normalisation” of drug use within society, where it is argued that drug use has become an accepted leisure activity for “ordinary” people (Blackman 2004), the utilisation of simplistic and sensationalist portrayals of drug users by the news media elite has acted to reinforce negative stereotypes of drug users (Critcher 2003), contributing to issues of stigmatisation and consequently social exclusion and health-related problems (Taylor 2008, Butt, Paterson & McGuinness 2008). Emerging participatory transformations in digital communications, such as the ability to self publish through social media, blogs and virtual communities developed through online discussion forums, provide potential for the public to challenge existing socio-political discourse (Hands 2011), particularly around drug use and drug policy (Wax 2002).

Purpose: The purpose of this study is to assess the extent to which Twitter users utilised Twitter as an online space to either challenge or reproduce dominant socio-political discourse in response to the channel 4 documentary “Legally High”, which featured several individuals who use novel “legal” substances, as well as illegal substances.

Method: An algorithm was used to capture tweets which were published in response to the documentary “Legally High”, identified through the use of the hashtag “#LegallyHigh”. Discourse analysis will then performed on these tweets to assess the extent to which dominant discourse around drug use and users is either reproduced or challenged.

References:

Blackman, S. (2004) Chilling Out: The Cultural Politics of Substance Consumption, Youth and Drug Policy. Berkshire: Open University Press.
Butt, G. Paterson, B, L. Mcguinness, L, K. (2008) Living with the Stigma of Hepatitis C. Western Journal of Nursing Research, Vol: 30 (2), pp. 204-221.
Cohen, A. (1956) Delinquent Boys: The Subculture of the Gang. London: Collier-Macmillan.
Critcher, C. (2003) Moral Panics and the Media. Buckingham: Open University Press.
Haas, T. (2005) From ‘‘Public Journalism’’ to the ‘‘Public’s Journalism’’? Rhetoric and Reality in the Discourse on Weblogs.  Journalism Studies, Vol: 6 (3), pp. 387-396.
Hands, J. (2011) @ is for Activism: Dissent, Resistance and Rebellion in a Digital Culture. London: Pluto Press.
Taylor, S. (2008) Outside the Outsiders: Media Representations of Drug Use. Probation Journal, Vol: 55 (4), pp. 369-388.
Tupper, K, W. (2012) Psychoactive Substances and the English Language: “Drugs”, Discourse and Public Policy. Contemporary Drug Problems, Vol: 39, pp. 461-492.
Wax, P, M. (2002) Just a Click Away: Recreational Drug Websites on the Internet. Paediatrics, Vol: 109 (6), pp. 1-4.

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Outcomes of Writing Retreat Number 2: Returning to the Ethics Form

I’m writing this blog post during the final 30 minutes of my second writers’ retreat. It has been great to be able to return to the retreat so soon after the last one in November. This time Kieran was able to join me (who is 2 weeks into his PhD, after spending the first 3 months of his enrolment completing him MSc research), which was good as it meant we didn’t ‘miss out’ on the weekend but also managed to get a lot done individually – more so if we had a working weekend at home.

My first retreat resulted in me writing over 13500 words as part of my PhD that I hadn’t touched since I began my year out. It was a pretty emotional experience for me as I was never sure if I would be able to return to it, let along to contribute to it. Over the course of 2 and a half days, I managed to turn my little piles of half written notes and false-start chapters into a format and structure in Scrivener that looked like something that could resemble a PhD, sketch out a plan for restarting and begin to make notes on my methodology. It really did feel (like one other retreater called it… an enema of the brain) and after I felt I could at least make a start at finding a route to restart, followed by completion.

This time I had a number of smaller things that I do. A couple of abstracts, one related to a work project about Digital Commonwealth, another the opportunity to submit an abstract to the Leisure Studies conference where I am on the organising committee for. For that, I wanted to begin to use my PhD research again, rather that presenting on something new. I needed to update my work so it was suitable for that audience in 2014, not recycling presentations from the last time I properly worked on my PhD.

So, I thought it might be a good opportunity to begin that dreaded ethics form that I had been avoiding since long after I returned from Vancouver. Rowena gives us 5 mins at the start of the retreat to set short (by the end of the night), medium (by the end of Saturday) and long term (by the end of the retreat) writing goals using free writing, paying attention to how many words we can write in 5 minutes (325 words if you are wondering), then we discuss these goals with our neighbour. I mentioned that it would be good to start preparing an ethics form by the end of the retreat.

The reality is that I completed a full, complete draft of an ethics form. All 8072 words of it – before lunch time today. That includes a letter of invitation, participant information sheet, consent form and a set of interview questions. I have eligibility criteria for my interviewees, I have a procedure for how I will go about doing it, I even have the theoretical underpinning and managed to contextualise and find a way of supporting my ethnographic data that I collected during the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games nearly 4 years ago. It is all there. At least in draft form. But the only way I can describe it is that I now possess the practical steps that I need in order to collect the right data and use a grounded theory (I only found out that I could do that in the pub on Thursday!) to develop an understanding of what actually happening during Vancouver 2010 with regards to blogging, citizen journalism and independent media.

I also have a new title for my PhD, the last time I posted after the retreat, I wasn’t too sure about the focus – did I want to use London 2012 data, did I want to focus more on digital storytelling? – so now I have decided to look at the following, ahem:

Hacking a Digital Legacy: Uncovering the Digital Storytellers of Vancouver’s “Social Media” Olympics

I’ve managed to elaborate on this more during the process of preparing an ethics form and the necessary materials that are required to approach an ethics committee in order to carry out the research. I’m still not registered back on the PhD officially, so I am unsure what the best way to take it forward can be at this stage. All I can hope at the moment is to use my ethics forms as a opportunity to focus the next steps of thesis, collect the relevant data and work towards getting it written it up.

So, retreat number 2 down, with 3 minutes to go – including this blog post & 3 documents I needed to finish for work on Friday, that’s my total number of words for the weekend now sitting at 10401 during 11 hours of dedicated writing that is possible during the retreat. This has definitely pushed me on in terms of hitting my writing goals for the end of the month &  when I’m pretty busy at work as 2014 kicks in properly.

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The drive to the retreat

Writing Retreats; or how a trip to the mountains helped me restart my PhD.

Inspired by this call to action from Jessica on collecting the stories of mental health and PhD students, and the fact I am looking forward to working on ‘it’ through the enforced Christmas annual leave that working in a University insists I take (:-D),  I thought I would give an update on my progress of trying to get back on track with my own PhD.

For long time readers, I have been a PhD student (part time, self funded) since January 2009, starting at the University of Leicester and moving back to the University of the West of Scotland in October 2009 (full time, part-funded) – where I was an undergraduate at the previously named Paisley University between 2002-2005.

I am currently coming to the end of 12 months suspension – year out – as I had to deal with a combination of burn out, running out of funding and moving back to Glasgow to be closer to friends and family – and importantly the University where I am enrolled to complete my PhD.

Defining the problem:

My PhD journey, or my PhD story – in one word – has been a struggle. If it hasn’t been a struggle for finding cash to fund it, it is the struggle of receiving enough funding to pay your only your rent and topping it up with many other short term roles across the academic and related research industries. It’s the struggle of not feeling good enough, not being able to conform to some of the bizarre processes that some academics partake in, or the struggle to get my head round what the hell the Westminster government was doing to the Higher Education system. Struggle of course come with opportunity –  I have met so many people, learnt so much, done so much, dare say achieved so much in a short period of time that is 3 years of a PhD, but also blurred lines and distractions that are unavoidable when you are looking for the next series of work to pay the bills and make up the short fall on your stipend. It is getting wrapped up in projects that are relevant to your PhD  – mine is about the Olympics, so try and avoid the attention that gives you – wanted or otherwise – in a country which is hosting a Games during your final year of funding. Obligations, opportunities, blurred lines. It was hard – I sometimes wish I did it on something more desky.

Finding the space to write, the time to give your PhD more than a quick once over between project deadlines, marking, tutorials, travelling for work, is difficult. I would (and did – but cut them out) go into the details, but I don’t need to add to the body of blogging that states how much of an isolating, exhausting heavy-going experience writing up a PhD is. I know it can be done – and I know so many inspiring people who have managed to drag themselves from the brink of drop-out to completing and moving on with their life, doing even more amazing things in the process.

My year out of my PhD as allowed me to gain enough distance from the challenges I was facing when the funding dried up – and enough space to be able to write without guilt about how I felt about having to down tools on something I was defining my entire life on.

When I suspended my PhD, I lost a large chunk of my identity that I could always lean on with it. It was my certain, it was my base point. And I was definitely  not prepared for the polarised advise that came with the suspension, but I got/am getting through it – and probably about half way through June this year, I stopped feeling angry about the reactions, circumstances – or upset like I was a failure and let people down – and that should probably give it a by and move on with my life – but actually felt that it was indeed possible to carry on and get this document finished, submitted and move the hell on.

I know it can happen because I never thought I could be at this stage where I would be able to write a blog post about restarting the PhD. This time last year, if you mentioned the work ‘PhD’ or ‘Olympics’ – I would curl into a ball and rock back and forth, my closest friends would warn people to dare not utter those words unless you wanted to change the mood of the party to black. But despite those feelings, I know now that can see a way of finishing this – and much of it was overcoming that fear of opening the document after 18 months on the virtual shelf.

Restarting the writing process:

I have been working by stealth on finding ways to write and to carry on writing, even if I am technically in limbo officially- writing doesn’t need me to be enrolled for it to happen at this stage.

A few weekends ago, I went to a Writer’s Retreat in Aberfoyle, hosted by Prof. Rowena Murray who has recently joined UWS. I found out about the retreat through some other PhD students (mainly those, who are like me are members of staff too) – and it was one of many that happen all year round.

The format usually takes place over 2 days, where I took part in over 11 hours of group writing, chunked up between 1hr-2hr blocks of working in silence as a group, with 1/2 hour/meal breaks between them. At the start of the retreat we were asked to write a short, medium and long term goal for the weekend, and to discuss it with a partner about how you were going to achieve it – the shortest goal was for the Friday evening session itself (1hr 30 mins), which after a 2 hour drive after work from Glasgow to the remote village of Gartmore near Aberfoyle, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to open my laptop, let along write something relating to my PhD. I had let that document become a demon, something that I could avoid easily – if only for my own sanity, so asking myself to tackle after a day of project work was a scary prospect.

For my short term goal, I said that I would try and rewrite my PhD abstract and to produce a revised chapter outline based on some of the notes I had been leaving myself in Evernote since I started thinking about my PhD again. The thing that surprised me the most is that I managed to do this quite quickly, and it wasn’t as painful as I thought. I thought I might want to completely change my PhD focus and move it towards the work that I have been doing recently, but after a bit of work on it, I was relatively happy with the current approach and indeed, time away from it and distance away from a media-saturated world gripped with Olympic hysteria has definitely helped me with clarity.

I don’t/didn’t have an ethics form prepared for my research, which I should have done back in 2009, so I thought if I was to complete one for the purpose of restarting, it would be easier to start from scratch than retroactively fit to the data I have – but instead, I found myself sketching out the method chapter that I have always wanted to work on – and focusing my ethics on gaining interviews from key participants that I encountered through my ethnographic data from Vancouver games time and London pre-games activity. Therefore my medium goal (what I wished to achieve by end of Saturday evening) was to take all the pieces of writing that I had and to rewrite them in order to ensure I had reviewed my previous progress and to turn the muddled mess that was my head in July 2012 into a document that I can authentically call the bloody thesis.

The final goal (by the end of the retreat) was have a document I could show at my meeting with the head of department the following Monday, a timeline for completion and compiled next steps for the next stages of writing. By the time we stopped writing on Sunday afternoon, I had written over 13200 words in 2.5 days, and had time to go for a swim, have dinner and drinks with friends and eat a lot of different types of cake. Importantly, I had found a way to unstuck the stuck, the possibility to actually open the document and start writing again.

PhD writing

Not only did I have a document I could call a thesis, a plan and the confidence to start writing again, I had unwillingly began the methods chapter – began work towards correcting the massive problem of not having a ethics form (3 years in) and could see how it would be possible to turn what I had into a PhD. The writers’ retreat was exactly what I needed in order to begin seeing myself as a writer – and gave me a safe space with other people who are pursuing writing projects to work together and support each other through some of the isolating factors of dealing with a project of this nature.

I have booked another retreat for the 17th-19th of January, and although I accept that this can’t be the only way that I will be able to work on my PhD, the technical of chunking up your day to focus on writing does help, being able to work closely with other PhD students does help and finding a way to get over the feeling of failure that comes with suspension does help. With the Christmas holidays kicking in from the 20th December this year – and this being the first year where I haven’t had to find a project to work on over the break to ensure the pressure of spending and the lack of holiday pay/steady income doesn’t result in no money come February, I am going to use the next 2 weeks to try and push up the word count on that bloody thesis document and prepare for my next burst of retreat.

My next retreat aim is to get the ethics form, rewrite the methods chapter and pursue interview request for triangulating my data that I already have from both Olympiads. Finding those days where you can dedicate your mind totally is hard, at the moment work pressures are so much that I am finding it hard to find time to sleep and eat properly, but I know that these will pass soon as we move onto a new stage of the project – in the mean time, I am going to carry on when I can, pushing the PhD document forward. It’s not perfect – and I have a long way to go, but I’m in the strongest position that I’ve been with my PhD so far and if it means that I have to wait a little longer to re-enroll, at least I’m moving in a better direction now.

Recommended reading (from Rowena’s Retreat briefing):

Murray, R (2012) It’s not a hobby: Reconceptualizing the place of writing in academic work, Higher Education. DOI: 10.1007/s10734-012-9591-7.

MacLeod I, Steckley L & Murray R (2011) Time is not enough: Promoting strategic engagement with writing for publication, Studies in Higher Education, 37(5): 641-54.

Moore S, Murphy M & Murray R (2010) Increasing academic output and supporting equality of career opportunity in universities: Can writers’ retreats play a role?, Journal of Faculty Development, 24(3): 21-30.

Murray R (2011) Developing a community of research practice, British Educational Research Journal, 38(5): 783-800.

Murray R & Newton M (2009) Writing retreat as structured intervention: Margin or mainstream?, Higher Education Research and Development, 28(5): 527-39.

Murray R (2013) Writing for Academic Journals, 3rd edition. Maidenhead: Open University Press-McGraw-Hill.

Murray R & Moore S (2006) The Handbook of Academic Writing: A Fresh Approach.  Maidenhead: Open University Press-McGraw-Hill.

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Project: Introducing the Digital Common-wealth

So, big changes. Since January 2013,  I have been employed part time (2 days a week) at the University of the West of Scotland as a Research Assistant. Through this, I was lucky to lead on the development of the Big Lottery Fund’s Celebrate website, the Interface funded #digitalburns project (working with the Robert Burns Federation) and supported a number of shorter term projects (such as social media training for local authorities and research assistance) within the Department of Creative and Cultural Industries.

My contract ended at the end of August – and during this contract time, a full-time role came up within the department for a project coordinator on the Big Lottery Funded “Digital Common-wealth” intitative around the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games. I spent most of July preparing, researching and applying for it – and a few weeks ago I found out that I got it(!) meaning as of last Monday, I am now working full-time at the University of West of Scotland. An achievement I am immensely proud of and a project that I am incredibly excited to be part of. I am looking forward to being able to pick up from some of the legacy of #citizenrelay but also to see a project of this scale from start to finish, something you do not often get the chance to on short-term contracts.

It is early days at the moment, but I am now hoping that with a greater degree of stability and routine that I can now look into returning to my PhD part-time in the new year – especially as my new role will be situated within the mega-event,  community development and citizen media arena – and gives me the opportunity to update some of the work I already have. I am ready to return and just get it written now.

Anyway, loads to be getting on with – currently developing the brand, website and infrastructure of the project ahead of a launch in October. Stay tuned for more ‘formal’ information – but for those interested in the informal, development discussions, we are using the hashtag #DigCW2014 to wax lyrical about future plans, how big a task the project is and sharing ideas on twitter.

For more information on the ethos of the project, please do check out David McGillivray’s blog post on announcement of the project funding.

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