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The Smart Way to your PhD (Dora Farkas) – my reading notes

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind, and I’ve had to focus even more on my writing. This meant that I had to stop reading books on the dissertation journey to make time to finish papers I need to submit. But yesterday, a PhD student on whose committee I am and with whom I worked very closely defended her dissertation (Dr. Alejandra Nunez).

Ale and my lab.jpg_large

This momentous and joyous occasion motivated me to re-launch my effort to provide reading notes of every book I have purchased and read on how to write a doctoral dissertation, and more importantly, the methods and processes to execute all things associated with pursuing a doctorate. I have PhD students of my own and I want them to succeed, so I will take all the advice that I can. Dr. Dora Farkas’ “The Smart Way to Your PhD: 200 Secrets from 100 Graduates” is one of the best examples of good solid advice for students and advisors alike. You can read the introduction in PDF format here.

I really enjoyed this book, and would recommend it. Dr. Farkas suggests that it should be used as a workbook (though I didn’t see many forms to fill out – but yes, each chapter is self-contained, and you could follow a similar approach to those who suggest to choose ONE habit every week to work on). Highly recommended.

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Self-care while doing fieldwork: A first-person, first-hand account

Fieldwork  June 8 2018I just returned to Aguascalientes (literally, I walked through my house’s door less than 10 minutes ago) from a gruelling, one-day field trip. A good friend of mine from the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana Xochimilco (UAM-X) had invited me to join her, one of her PhD students, and two other professors on a trip to three small municipalities in northern Zacatecas. We are all interested in doing work with communities affected by mining activities, from various perspectives. Having had a fantastic experience undertaking fieldwork with Dr. Jaime Hoogesteger from Wageningen Universitaet last fall in San Miguel Allende, I’ve always felt that going on the field alongside fellow faculty from other universities allows me to see things and have questions answered that I probably wouldn’t have thought about otherwise.

I jumped at the possibility, and thus I travelled to the city of Zacatecas on Thursday night to prepare for the one-day trip. I have to recognize that I was not prepared for what I saw, and the conversations I had, and the things I heard. I study marginalized individuals, vulnerable communities and the challenges that people who have no access to water, sanitation or energy face. Nevertheless, over the years and throughout my career, I had not entered a mine-centred community like the ones I visited yesterday and was not ready to see the complexities of a strange relationship between mining towns and the multinational corporations that allege being good corporate citizens but whose activities are highly polluting.

I took courses in acid mine drainage and “Mining and the Environment” when I did my graduate coursework at The University of British Columbia. I am a chemical engineer who did his undergraduate degree in what used to be a colonial mining town and is now a world heritage city. My Mom did her Masters’ degree studying the politics surrounding the Canadian mining industry. I understand all the chemical processes necessary to extract minerals from ores. I know how to assess the negative environmental and human health impacts that mining can have on individuals and communities. Not my field of specialization, but I know a lot about it.

And yet, despite all my expertise, I felt deeply unprepared for the eventualities associated with doing this fieldwork. I arrived late to my hotel in Zacatecas, after having dinner with one of my PhD students. We HAD to meet up as I wanted to hear how she was doing. Then, after dinner, I worked on a Revise-And-Resubmit and went to bed at 12:30am. As anybody who reads my blog or follows me on Twitter will know, my sleep time is usually 9pm. I woke up normally at 4:30am. I went to do fieldwork on four hours of sleep. Not by choice, by circumstances and happenstance.

As I said on Twitter, I can’t reconcile the fact that we keep pushing faculty to do more, to write more, to publish more, to engage with the public more, to mentor more students, more, more, MORE, with the reality that we are human beings.

As Dr. John Ronquillo (University of Denver) said on Twitter:

Even though I have a lot of training in research methods, ethnography, fieldwork, and I had already read Dr. Kimberly Theidon’s paper on doing fieldwork in conflict-afflicted zones, this particular field trip took me by surprise, and was a punch in the gut.

It was also a humbling experience and a lesson for me. I’m an experienced fieldworker and ethnographer, and witnessing marginalized and impoverished people’s pain deeply affects me. But that’s the kind of research I love doing and I’m committed to continue doing it.

I’m not sure I’m the best person to provide suggestions on the best self-care strategies while doing challenging fieldwork but debriefing, taking time away from research and having a personal life have helped me cope with this work. And writing this blog post really helped me center exactly what I was concerned about: real attention to issues of mental health in academia needs to include an honest conversation around necessary changes to the way in which academia works.

We need a more human and humane academia. I’m done hoping for it. I demand it.

Posted in academia, research.

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Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences: Research in an Age of Info-Glut (my reading notes)

Granville Island dancersIf you’ve followed me on Twitter, or have read my blog for any length of time, you probably know that in my early years, I was a competitive salsa dancer. I was trained as a classical dancer as a child, and then moved on to salsa, tango, merengue and finally specialized in salsa, to the point where I competed in dance tournaments and I taught how to dance this particular style. I can dance decently now, but I am no longer competitive, because of course, the PhD. (By the way, these are two random salsa dancers on Granville Street back in Vancouver who allowed me to take a photo of them)

Anyways, I was VERY keen to read Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences: Research in an Age of Info-Glut by Kristen Luker.

I won’t say that I dislike Luker’s book, because I didn’t. I did hope it would be written as *I* (a former competitive salsa dancer, and now a professor of political science/public policy) would do it. But then again, I think that’s a bit of a Reviewer 2
approach. Anyways, there are many things that are worth highlighting and that I enjoyed. There are also things I did not enjoy, as I said on Twitter. I sort of expected some connection between salsa dancing and sociology. I know Professor Luker IS a sociologist and I love her narrative style throughout the book. But I didn’t find salsa dancing moves here. No swaying, no footwork metaphors, no spins, no deep connection between dancers (a pre-requisite for salsa). Not even emphasis on technique.

My complaints about the lack of actual technical salsa moves’ metaphors in the text, Luker’s is a fantastic book for social scientists, primarily sociologists but useful for other disciplines, to be read on Monday evenings, weekly. My complaint stands, though. Yes, Luker talks about salsa-dancing social scientists and at some points I can see how her rhetoric mirrors flowy salsa movements. But, and I know I’m going to sound like Reviewer 2, this is not how I would have written a salsa dancing social science book.


I do thoroughly recommend it for several reasons.

  1. it provides excellent detailed explanations on actual research methods, eschewing towards qualitative and historical-comparative.
  2. links methods and mechanics of research
  3. describes how to do the research process and social science methods to conduct said research.

Certainly, Luker teaches more qualitative than quantitative methods but her Salsa Dancing book definitely has the inner thinking of a quantative scholar throughout.

It took me almost until the end of the book to REALLY understand what Luker meant by a salsa-dancing social scientist (someone who moves horizontally, nimbly and swiftly – this description is actually mine).

If you are a doctoral student, maybe you could read it during “Reading Break” and then work through chapter by chapter along with Luker’s exercises. I like that Luker combines the conversational tone of Bolker with methodological rigour of Dunleavy and exercises like Sternberg. And my warning stands, particularly those of you who like me may be actual competitive dancers.

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Mental and physical, home and office “spring cleaning” and a conversation about habits

Sorting papers and clean officeDespite the fact that I’m super organised and systematic, things get out of hand sometimes, particularly with all the travel I need to do, and all the students of mine that are graduating this semester, my teaching (I used to teach only in the Fall, but this Spring I had to teach because my students asked for my class, Comparative Public Policy and Administration), leading my water conflicts project, and sending out R&Rs. I’ve spent some time this month doing what many people call “spring cleaning” both at my campus office and at my house in Aguascalientes, and both mentally and physically. I gave away excess stationery, I donated clothes to charities, I prepared a clean, organised, physical copy of my readings packet for Comparative Public Policy and Administration, as I have a project that I will use them for.

I reorganised my books. I cleaned my whiteboards and rearranged items on there to better reflect what I needed to keep track of. I packed away magazine holders with journal articles I no longer was using or that I wouldn’t use for an extended period of time.

Sorting papers and clean office

Physical spring cleaning to me has meant that I have donated a lot of stuff that I did not use. Mentally engaging in spring cleaning means that I have started to change habits that I thought were good but in fact were hindering my growth. As a grand-child of military men, and someone who was raised with strict discipline, habits are a fundamental component of my life. Having neat and clean and organised work spaces is a fundamental component of my life.

I wake up at 4 in the morning and start writing because that’s the habit that has gotten me published. A similar habit got me through my PhD. I spend weekends with my parents because that’s a habit that has enabled me to stay sane and healthy throughout my professional life. I keep an active and healthy social life because that’s a habit that forces me to take time for myself and reminds me of how lucky and blessed I am to have the life I do and to be able to do what I love and get paid for it.

I focus on completing 2 Things A Day before I have to deal with the massive influx of emails and meetings that academic life brings to me. I KonMari my academic life on a regular basis because that’s what keeps me able to work on clean surfaces and feel at peace.

I am definitely not someone who likes pop-psych nor do I believe in “woo-woo” theories, but I’ll credit Gretchen Rubin’s Better than Before, Charles Duggin’s The Power of Habits, and Stephen Guise’s Mini-Habits for reminding me that my entire life has been built around habits, and that it is important to revisit those to ensure I am still doing what I love without losing myself in the entire process.

Because to me, being systematic about what I do has always been about making time for what matters to me (as I shared my views with Tierney Wisniewski on how everything needs preparation time). I also shared my views on orderly desks versus messy desks with Dr. Lisa Bryant. I need order because good organisation, productive habits and discipline are (to me) pathways to a more fun life.

And really, the more disciplined I am, the more fun I have. Dr. Steve Shaw seems to agree with me.

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How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation (my reading notes)

How to Survive and Complete a Dissertation (Sternberg)I have to admit that from the title, I was expecting a really powerful book, and while I liked it, it really didn’t feel like Joan Bolker’s Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day nor Patrick Dunleavy’s Authoring a PhD. The great thing about this book is that it is a guidebook, so your doctoral students (if you’re an advisor) or you (if you are a student) can keep it handy for reference. Be forewarned: this book’s author’s writing reveals a certain old-fashioned element that makes me think that this book wasn’t even written in the 1980s. How can using a computer even be a question? The book edition I read was from 1981, though it’s been reprinted several times. At any rate, “How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation” is the kind of book that I can recognise makes a concerted effort to really understand what the doctoral student is going through.

While Sternberg’s use of the word “depression” seems to me ill-suited, and I’m really uncomfortable with his apparently casual usage of the concept, I strongly believe he is genuinely interested in the well-being of doctoral students. As I read the reviews of this book on Amazon, I realized that the reason I liked Sternberg’s book is that it’s not too long, not too short. Whereas Davis’ systematic approach book, to me, is way too short (as is, in some ways, Bolker), both Sternberg and Dunleavy felt to me the right length for a book aimed at helping doctoral students.

Sternberg is clear on issues we all agree upon (by we, I mean everyone who writes about academic writing and doctoral supervision and dissertation completion): you need a dedicated space to work on your thesis and you need to treat the PhD like a 9-5 job.

I should note that this definition of a PhD advisor is MINE, not Sternberg’s.

This is where you can detect that this book is old, and its author old-fashioned. I’ve written a lot about vulnerable communities and how we can be sensitive when studying them, so I disagree with Sternberg here.

This (the fact that Sternberg addresses when a PhD can go wrong) is one of the selling points for the book.

Overall, the Sternberg volume is a nice overview of the doctoral dissertation writing process, includes *some* but not all of the discussions you need to have with your PhD advisor on methods (qualitative, quantitative, experiments), AND is a much more frank and honest book than for example, others that purport to teach you how to finish your doctoral dissertation in two semesters or less. I would recommend it, but again, I wouldn’t do so without additional volumes that can complement the gaps that this book has. Though this is one of the most complete ones so far from those I’ve read.

Posted in academia, writing.

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Writing the Doctoral Dissertation: A Systematic Approach (my reading notes)

I like inexpensive, easy-to-read, fast-paced, nimble books. Writing the Doctoral Dissertation: A Systematic Approach by Davis, Parker and Straub is exactly that kind of volume. My only complaint with it is that precisely because it’s so thin (150 single-spaced pages, regular font size), it misses a lot of trees in order to provide an overview that looks like a forest.

The fact that Davis et al are almost apologetic about not having all the answers in their volume made me really feel happy about having spent my hard earned money on this. Do note, the author’s last name is not Gordon, but I was exhausted last night as I live-tweeted my reading notes of this book.

I’m still uncomfortable with books on how to write a doctoral dissertation or how to manage the PhD process that focus so much on productivity, pages written, output produced. But at the same time, I understand that a doctorate should be completed within a certain time frame, so I suppose there’s value to the productivity approach this and other books take.

Admittedly, writing the doctoral dissertation IS producing text and data and analyses and results, but I’m not sure we ought to treat the work as three 40 pages’ papers plus an introduction and a conclusion and WHAM BAM we have a PhD dissertation. I think there’s more to life as a doctoral student than producing pages.

This book is very easy to read, because these authors’ writing is super agile and nimble. Perhaps their core competency is a discussion of how to choose the right topic and how to “fill a gap in the literature”, an issue that many doctoral students face and it’s hard to deal with.

Overall, this book is super good for what it attempts to do (make it easier for a PhD student to finish their doctoral dissertation), but still is not enough to be used stand-alone, in my view. At least, I wouldn’t assign it to my advisees without providing additional support, either through my own mentoring, or by reading other complementary books.

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On Writing (Stephen King) (my reading notes)

I’ll say it upfront: I HATE memoirs. I also hate the rhetorical moves that come with writing these memoirs. Even more so, I totally despise how some amazing and well-renowned authors use these memoir-writing strategies to provide writing advice.

My #AcWri #GetYourManuscriptOut desk

Having let that out of the way, let me say that Stephen King IS the king of writing and obviously that’s because he knows his craft. Just about every single person who ever said anything about Stephen King and his writing has praised “On Writing“. And since I was on a books-about-writing shopping spree, and it was cheap, I added it to my purchases’ list.

This was a great idea, and one I will never regret.

Instead of reading listicles that indicate what people have learned from King, like this one and this one, you could simply buy the book and read it yourself. Be forewarned: the first 100 pages are BORING. Or at least, *I* found them boring.

King is right, you can make an excellent writer out of someone who is simply competent at the craft.

And yes, Stephen King suggests that you should read. Don’t @ me.

The book is good, even if it took me the first 140 pages to get it.

As I’ve said – we need to stop feeling guilty about reading.

On the speed, word count and page count debates: Jesus Christ, I wish I had this speed.

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Resources to help non-native English speakers who are writing a PhD dissertation

One of the things that grates me is the assumption that students know a lot of stuff that would be transmitted through their school or life experience that is not translatable to everything nor everyone. Doctoral students who are non-native English speakers face this problem on a regular basis, particularly when it comes to feedback they receive. The oh-so-not-helpful “THINK HARD” piece of advice still makes my blood boil, regardless of whether it’s advice given to non-native speakers or fluent-in-English people.

I took my complaint to Twitter, as I normally do.

In my quest to help, I suggested They Say/I Say, by Graf and Birkenstein. It’s an excellent book. I would also recommend that PhD advisors spend a substantial amount of time teaching their students the difference between Description and Analysis particularly in social sciences and humanities. But I know there are additional resources I am missing. At a later date, I am hoping to revise this blog post with additional sources for non-native English speakers who are writing graduate and undergraduate theses and dissertations in English.

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Authoring a PhD Thesis: How to Plan, Draft, Write and Finish a Doctoral Dissertation (my reading notes)

One of the books I love the most is “Authoring a PhD Thesis: How to Plan, Draft, Write and Finish a Doctoral Dissertation” by Dr. Patrick J. Dunleavy. Dr. Dunleavy is a professor of political science at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) in London, England, and someone whose research I deeply respect and admire. Moreover, I have frequently read and referred my own students to his website, Write For Research, and I’ve used his advice myself. So writing my reading notes of “Authoring a PhD” seemed not only like an imperative but also like something I had to do soon.

While I didn’t take as many photographs from the book, I really enjoyed reading it as Dunleavy offers a really solid, step-by-step guide to how to write and complete a doctoral dissertation. I had read his book a while ago, after I completed my PhD and I recommended it to several of my students, but I hadn’t had the time to type my reading notes, which I did this time.

Overall, I really loved re-reading Dunleavy’s book, and Bolker’s. I do think no single book offers everything PhD students need, so they’ll need a combination of these, for sure.

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Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis (my reading notes)

The first book in a series of volumes I have been interested in reading is Joan Bolker’s “Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis“.

Bolker takes a very similar approach to writing to the one that Joli Jensen preaches: you should have constant contact with a writing project (Bolker suggests at least 15 minutes every single day). For me, writing IS a way to get myself out of a writer’s block. For example, I am writing this blog post precisely to get out of a rut and find the headspace again where I can make final edits to a Revise/and/Resubmit (yes, yet another one!)

Bolker is right and that’s why her book works. You MUST write text for your doctoral dissertation at least 15 minutes every single day. This, obviously, doesn’t guarantee that you will finish the dissertation in 3, 4 or 5 years, but like Joli Jensen suggests in her book “Write No Matter What” (which I’ve also written about here on my blog), gives you constant contact with a writing project, and particularly low-stakes kind of contact. Reading Jensen’s Write No Matter What changed my life and cemented the thought that constant contact with a writing project is fundamental.

On the topic of advisors, I strongly disagreed with Bolker, particularly because I am kind of slightly famous on the internet, and therefore I felt like this was a jab at me. I do remember a professor at UBC telling me “you don’t want to do your PhD at Harvard only to have your advisor be travelling the world and forget about you”. I DO travel the world and my schedule is tremendously busy, but my students are my priority and I make sure to give them time, regardless of whether I am at a conference, workshop or doing fieldwork. As I said on Twitter, Elinor Ostrom was SUPER famous and she was an incredibly dedicated advisor. It’s not about the fame, it’s about making yourself (as a PhD advisor) available to answer questions and help your students.

As I said on Twitter, by now I know just about everyone suggests a daily writing practice, even if it is for just a tiny bit of time. Don’t ask me, ask Dr. Joan Bolker, and Stephen King.

I do not champion the 1,500 words or 5-10 pages a day approach. On the contrary, I suggest that we find a different measure of scholarly writing success: filling up sentences, completing paragraphs one idea at a time, and writing small bits and pieces of text (50-100-200 words a day).

The idea of a Dissertation Writing Group is useful. The main shortcoming with Bolker and just about every book I’ve read on writing is that they devote the least time to the final stages of the PhD dissertation (or of writing a book, like the conclusion, and how to put the book together). Yes, the best dissertation is the DONE dissertation but there isn’t a solid roadmap (or I haven’t seen it yet) for a student in the throes of final submission.

This sentence sums up my feelings about Bolker: A MUST READ BOOK for all doctoral candidates.

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