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Project management for academics II: Tracking and managing your time

In a previous life, I studied AND did project management for a living. I decided to apply my experience and expertise in this area to develop a series of blog posts on how to do project management within academia. My previous blog post on Managing A Research Pipeline can be found here. Synchronizing To-Do lists

A few weeks ago, I requested help from my #AcademicTwitter community on time-tracking apps

I have always loved computer software to track time, even though I used to do this the analog way. I had a shorthand notebook and I used to write what I spent my time on. I have had to do this for a number of employers (also known as “keeping track of your time in a time-sheet”. Keeping track of time (yes, even during the COVID-19 emergency!) may help us discern where our time is going. Personally, I like tracking time because it allows me to make a case AGAINST the culture of ““hours spent at your desk”. You can see the responses to my tweet for suggestions of apps. After testing a few applications, I zeroed in on two: Clockify and Toggl. I had used RescueTime before, ATracker, but I ended up just focusing on Clockify and Toggle. Both have Chrome extensions and desktop apps. These two are, in my view, the simplest ones.


  • Amazingly intuitive
  • Chrome extension
  • Easy to start, easy to stop

  • I procrastinated and forgot to turn Clockify on, so OBVIOUSLY my added hours do not add up to 8 hours.
  • This would be the same problem with RescueTime, BTW.



  • amazingly intuitive, perhaps even more intuitive than Clockify
  • super easy to create a task and a project
  • easy to start, easy to stop

  • so far, have not had any cons.
  • I also fixed my manual updates for Clockify.

Both desktop apps and Chrome extensions are intuitive, though I still think Toggl is a tiny tiny bit more intuitive.

toggl and clockify desktops

Conclusion: Evaluating Toggl vs. Clockify I love both of them and I will continue to use them, possibly interchangeably. What I should say, though, is that Clockify has an AMAZING blog with tips on time management. Moreover, they are not shy about promoting OTHER time-tracking apps, which to me shows an interest and care on the customer.

Both Clockify and Toggl have excellent customer support on Twitter.

My experience tracking my time

For me, tracking how I spend my time is something I am quite experienced about. I used to do it in grade school, high school and throughout my graduate degree. I sort of left it behind when I became a professor.

What time-tracking has given me again is the sense of where my time goes. Obviously during the COVID-19 shelter-in-place period, I am sure much of my time is going to be personal. But even now I can distinguish between when I am working on my own personal stuff, when I am doing scholarly work, and when I am doing housework and care work. To me, time-tracking apps are useful. Maybe they will be useful to you too.

But again, let me just remind you: regardless of what you spend your time on, WE ARE JUST TRYING TO SURVIVE THIS PANDEMIC. I wouldn’t stress over what you’re spending your time on, right about now. But if it helps you, maybe my review of Clockify and Toggl may be helpful.

Posted in academia.

Mathematical epidemiology, the COVID-19 pandemic and the limits and uncertainties of models

I have been in isolation for the past week or so, because my immune system has always been compromised. I am doing this against the current wisdom provided by the Mexican secretariat of health, but following global approaches to facing the COVID-19 pandemic, because apparently, “these kinds of measures are not necessary at the moment” (ask me later why I am so pissed off at Mexico’s epidemiological strategy against COVID-19). Anyhow…

In this blog post, I want to address some of the limitations of models and modeling, and the risk that we are currently facing of everyone wanting to become “arm-chair epidemiologists” in light of COVID 19. I write this as someone with a double PhD in political science and human geography who has spent years of his life reading, learning and understanding mathematical epidemiology models, and those three degree theses (undergrad in chemical engineering, Masters in economics and PhD) are models of various kinds (2 mathematical, 1 game-theoretic).

I am not an epidemiologist, nor do I have a PhD in epidemiology, and when I mention things like rate of transmission, mortality, etc. I do so establishing clear boundaries on what I think I CAN know. I’ve mentioned before how when I came in contact with mathematical epidemiology.

I started reading up on mathematical epidemiology around the early 2000s (20 years, now), and right after we got hit with several epidemics, including SARS, H1N1, MERS and Ebola. I sought experts on Twitter on this kind of modeling, such as Dr. Maia Majumder and Dr. Sherri Rose.

I understand well enough (thanks to having done mathematical modeling myself) that models, and particularly epidemiological models, rely on assumptions. What makes mathematical epidemiology important, in my view, is the combination of knowing math AND epidemiology. This area is inherently cross- and inter-disciplinary. Mathematical epidemiologists are modelers who understand the epidemiological assumptions and consequences of their models. Many of them, alongside virologists, statisticians, physicians, social workers, medical anthropologists, are losing sleep trying to figure out SARS-CoV2 (COVID-19). Modelers are trying to get the model assumptions right because they know that there’s enormous uncertainty in creating models. We calibrate models with empirical data for this reason, trying to adjust them to reality.

BUT, and here’s the but: reality right now is extraordinarily uncertain, and that’s what is making mathematical epidemiologists (and epidemiologists overall) so concerned. The natural sciences’ component of this epidemics are still developing. We can’t say “this is another flu”. Because there’s so much uncertainty (not only in the models we are using but also on the virology/epidemiology of this pandemics), we need to take precautions that, to some people, may look extreme. People are preaching social distancing and pre-isolation in abundance of caution. This is NOT just another flu and virologists/epidemiologists are trying to figure out why. We need interdisciplinary work where we acknowledge our knowledge limitations, the assumptions we are making, the potential risk pathways that we may need to walk, trade offs we make.

here’s a reason why public understanding of science scholars, communications specialists, risk analysis and disaster management academics are all face-palming right now (myself included). Not everyone is, nor should be an epidemiologist. We need specialists of all areas. We need to develop wiser ways to communicate the risks of COVID and the implications of models we make, and as consumers of this information, we need to accept that models bring along uncertainties, and our activities carry a certain degree of risk. This is all about managing it.

When people say “we are all in this together”, it’s because we are. COVID-19 is revealing why interdisciplinary work matters and our planet is becoming a global laboratory for its implementation. We all, civilians and scientists, have a role and responsibility in surviving this. This is the time to absorb different perspectives on the epidemiology and virology of COVID-19, and the human dimensions of this disease and the potentially negative implications it will have not only on financial markets but also on hospitals and local health systems. It’s vital that we understand what happens within such a complex system.

Models have assumptions and limited predictive power under contexts of high uncertainty. If you need reassurance as this issue develop, follow knowledgeable people and ask about the limitations, assumptions, and implications of a model. Trust me when I say that nobody is more oncerned about getting this right than the natural and social scientists (as well as the people in the humanities and math, communications specialists, science communicators, journalists). But it has to be an inter-, and cross-disciplinary.

Not just models.

Posted in academia, research, research methods.

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Fieldwork in the Times of COVID-19: Doing Ethnography During a Pandemic

While I have spent close to two decades doing fieldwork in very marginalized communities all over the world, this is the very first time in my entire life that I have been subjected to the challenge of doing fieldwork, particularly the ethnographic kind that I do, within the context of a global pandemia. I joked on Twitter that this would be the title of my next book:

The truth of the matter is: I don’t really have much experience doing fieldwork during a global pandemic. When AH1N1 (the swine flu) hit Mexico (it was actually the epicenter of the global pandemic), I was living in Vancouver, and I didn’t do much fieldwork in Mexico between 2009 and 2010. So, I was relatively spared from the AH1N1. I do remember getting vaccinated, and being worried about my family back in Mexico, but other than that, AH1N1 did not alter my fieldwork in any significant way, from what I can recall. I did bunker down and isolate, but I had already done most of my interviews for projects I had at the time.

The following are some impressions of mine, having done decades of fieldwork within vulnerable communities, and particularly ethnographic work within areas with extreme water and sanitation poverty and insecurity. I do interview-based, ethnographic and field-experimental work. But for the purposes of this thread, I’m going to focus on ethnographic or fieldwork-based research. I am very much interested in pandemics and infectious diseases, but I actually work in environmental politics.

Mazapil - Concepcion del Oro - Salaverna - Fieldwork  June 8 2018My interest in pandemics and the modeling of infectious diseases’ transmission comes from my background as a chemical engineer, the fact that all three of my theses (undergraduate in chemical engineering, Masters in economics of technical change and PhD in political science/human geography) are all mathematical (or other type of) models. I gained an interest in mathematical epidemiology since about 20 years ago, so I can certainly tell you that COVID-19 is in my mind for many reasons, not only the health one.

The photo above shows me and colleagues from UAM doing fieldwork in Zacatecas, an area where there’s extraordinary marginalization and poverty. There are mines there and the general population openly manifested during our interviews that they were very hopeful that someone from their families would end up working at the mine. For the work I do, fieldwork is fundamental. This is the main reason why I have been concerned about deploying fieldwork right now, in the midst of a pandemic.

The kind of work I do, especifically the questions I ask, are associated with perceptions of insecurity, and with the social, political and health-related impacts of water and sanitation interventions (or lack thereof). In a pandemic, people facing hardships such as rough sleeping (homelessness) are much, MUCH more vulnerable to highly infectious diseases. People who do not have the dignity of access to a toilet (a human right I have written about and fought for) also face similar hygiene-related challenges that could potentially not only endanger them but also their contexts and environments.

As a highly immunocompromised researcher, I have taken an approach and philosophy towards my fieldwork that is centered in a somewhat balanced way on my subjects and on my own health. I do feel like I owe it to my subjects to study what I do. But at the same time, I also feel as though I owe it to them to be healthy (-ish) enough to conduct fieldwork and have conversations with them and amplify their voices. Navigating field and site-related issues right now for me is tricky. This is the semester I don’t teach, thus, his is also the semester where I do most of my fieldwork. And since I use comparative ethnography, I end up travelling all over the world to different sites.

I obviously cannot do that right now, and I am not going to for the foreseeable future. This is something that has me very concerned. Along a different line of thinking, I want to to discuss how to do ethnography of vulnerable communities. When I do research of vulnerable populations I guide much of what I do by what Professor Liamputtong says in her book, Researching the Vulnerable.

So, what do we do regarding fieldwork in an era of COVID-19?

Rio Manzanares y Parque (Puerta de Toledo, Madrid, España)

A photo of the Manzanares river from when I last did fieldwork in Madrid in early 2016

Doing fieldwork right now would not only compromise MY health, but also risk compromising MY SUBJECTS’ health. And this would make them in turn even MORE vulnerable.

I have read ethnographies associated with pandemics and infectious diseases, but not exactly OF pandemics. Some work (including Adia Benton’s HIV exceptionalism) and Emily Wanderer’s “The Life of a Pest: An Ethnography of Biological Invasion in Mexico” is interesting to me but not exactly ethnographies conducted WITHIN an epidemic outbreak or infectious disease pandemic context.

Doing fieldwork (and ethnography) in contexts where highly contagious diseases are prevalent brings up questions of ethics: to whom do researchers owe themselves? I have read countless stories of heroes who first discovered infectious diseases or treated them and were killed. Killed by the same diseases they swore to fight. Thus we end up in territory of moral quandaries. Should I die (or risk dying) to expose the challenges facing decimated societies who are afflicted by infectious diseases? What is the value of my risking exposure? Do I do more/less? These are questions that keep making the rounds in my mind and I don’t have answers for them.

To those who are finding being on the field right now and feeling emotionally and mentally challenged and overwhelmed, I think I can say this:

I get it.

I get you.

I hear you and I see you.

I think it’s important to protect oneself AND the populations we study. We are in this together. Take as many precautions as you need, and “abort the mission” if you need to.

No degree or research project is worth, in my view, risking your life.

Posted in academia, qualitative methods, research, research methods.

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A sequential framework for teaching how to write good research questions

The more theses I supervise, the more essays I read and the more papers I have to peer-review for publication, the more I realize how important it is to teach how to craft good research questions. Many students of mine come with a general idea of what they want to study for their thesis, but then get stuck with how to develop the research project. And for me, the core issue when doing research is asking good, researchable questions. Key to this issue of “researchable” is the practicality and feasibility of undertaking a project that will provide answers to the question.

My campus office when I am working

To develop good research questions you need to READ, absorb and synthesize a lot of literature in order to find a gap to fill.

I use my own work to teach my students how to write good research questions. I show them how I am interested in particular topics, and how my work is driven by having an inquisitive mind and wanting to get answers to complex challenges by asking the right questions (you can read more about my research trajectory here).

I had been pondering for a long while how to teach my students how to write good research questions, and as I was reading Patrick White’s “Developing Research Questions”, I came up with a sequential approach to teaching the craft of writing good, researchable questions. This approach (which is a bit different from White’s funnel (see page 26), but at the same time, uses the same general-to-specific strategy) walks the student (or researcher!) through the different stages of developing a solid research question by going from the more general to the more specific.

In this blog post, I walk the reader through my sequential framework.

  • Research Topic: This refers to the broader topic one is interested in. For example, I am quite interested in theories of the commons as posited by Elinor Ostrom. That’s one of my broad research areas: the governance of resources that can be accessed by many but are also exhaustible. One can have an interest in many research topics, but it is always important to go broad in deciding what kinds of issues one wants to research (for example, health policy in Mexico, homelessness policy in the United States). Then one can go narrower when focusing on a specific area of interest (geographical, scale, sub-sector/population).
  • Research Interests: These refer to more narrowly defined sections or parts of a broader research topic. In my case, my specific research interests lie in the governance of unorthodox commons, such as wastewater, bottled water, and solid waste. Some people may find the notions of “interest” and “topic” interchangeable. I view the Topic as a broader area of work, whereas Interest is specific to the researcher. For example, I work in water governance, but I am interested more specifically in how urban water is managed.
  • Gap in the Literature: The gap in the literature refers to that specific niche where your contribution may lie. The unanswered questions. The broader realm (narrower than the research interest, but broader than a research question) where you have a wide range of questions to ask. I have already written about how we can find the gap: for a dissertation or thesis proposal and for a research paper and/or literature review. As an example, in my case, I contribute to narrow our gap in understanding how commons theories work in the case of unorthodox, “unwanted” resources. These resources are what I, in my research, have called “negative commons”. My work fills the gap on how negative commons are managed and re-valued.
  • Originality: This property of research work refers to the novelty, to how and why is a new analysis worthy of study. Generally, what I ask my students to think about is when trying to understand whether their work is original is: “how is it that nobody or few people had thought about this particular topic and interest and issue before in the way you are approaching it?” When I ask my students this question, their eyes light up. They understand that you can be original by looking at an older dataset with new theories, developing a new theory, or assembling a new dataset (see my discussion and conversation with Dr. Michael Horowitz). In the example I provide, my work is original because wastewater governance researchers hadn’t discussed effluents as “negative commons” (though Dr. Alida Cantor has contributed to this conversation in her own work analyzing wastewater as a commons, we use slightly different conceptual frameworks).
  • Research Question: A good research question can be answered, is researchable, feasible, and contributes to narrow/close athe gap in the literature through an original or novel contribution. Again, it is important to remember that the contribution does not need to be “life-changing” or “earth-shattering”. Most scientific research is incremental and therefore one contributes by adding bits and pieces to a broader, larger global puzzle. See, for example, my earlier post on developing solid research questions. In my case, I have studied and researched some of the key obstacles to robust wastewater management in one specific geographical area of Mexico, the Lerma-Chapala river basin. I have done so by developing and applying my “negative commons governance” framework.

I have crafted a handy Google Sheets spreadsheet that you can use to both teach how to write good research questions with my framework, and for your own research projects. It can be downloaded by clicking on this hyperlink. Hopefully this blog post, framework and spreadsheet will be of use to you all, and if you are an instructor, to your students!

Posted in academia, research, research methods.

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On the responsibility of crafting a syllabus

The choices we make on whom to include and whom to exclude as we choose the readings for a syllabus are important and can be a political act as well. One of empowerment or one of exclusion. I strongly believe that we have a responsibility when designing syllabi.

Dr. Elinor Ostrom was the global authority on commons governance and institutional theory. Eliminating Dr. Ostrom from a syllabus on institutional analysis, on commons theories, on governance theories, etc., is purposefully denying her place in the global landscape of scholarship.

This IS an omission.

(I have seen it done, and seeing it has made my blood boil, BTW).

As scholarship evolves, who is the canonical citation/authority does as well. And you can purposefully choose to highlight scholars who have not had as much “action” in the literature, or choose to obscure them. I also feel like crafting a syllabus is a responsibility. I have the duty to my students to provide them with the best available knowledge (to my understanding, and within my own limits, of course). And I have a duty to scholars to make their work shine, particularly those who haven’t had as much “play” in the global citation game.

Citation has its own politics, and as a result you get to decide who you highlight in syllabi and citations. I very strongly believe we have a responsibility to have diverse citation lists and syllabi.

Posted in academia.

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Writing in Social Spaces: A social processes approach to academic writing (my reading notes)

I remember when I was starting my doctorate, a number of faculty told me that they did not foresee me finishing my dissertation because I was very social. I can only assume that my being social was seen as “not serious enough to work alone and concentrate in his research and writing”.


Well, not only did I finish my PhD, I have now advised and taken several students to completion of their own doctorates. I think being social in graduate studies is not a hindrance but an asset. I very strongly think (and have believed for a very long time) that research and scholarly writing should be social activities. I am so glad that Dr. Rowena Murray’s “Writing in Social Spaces: A Social Processes Approach to Academic Writing” validates my belief in the sociality of academic writing and research.

Dr. Joy Langston from the Political Studies Division at CIDE is a full tenured professor of political science and expert in elections, the PRI, & Mexican politics (and a very close friend of mine). She’s also National Researcher Level 3 (the highest). In short, she’sa very well published academic rock star. Dr. Langston led writing meetings for CIDE faculty a few times over the past few years. Joy led Weekly writing meetings for CIDE faculty a couple of times over the past decade, following
Wendy Laura Belcher

Personally, I found this exercise very helpful and now I do something similar with my thesis students. I am grateful to Joy for having led those workshops. Anyway, back to Murray’s book. It’s excellent, and you should all read it.

I want to use Murray’s Writing in Social Spaces to add a couple of my own thoughts. One reason why we may not find writing meetings useful is because sometimes they are itinerant, and that’s why we resort to writing retreats. What I like about Murray’s model is her concept of disengagement.

I am writing at home today (at the time of writing this blog post). Doing this on a regular basis becomes complicated because I work for a government institution which often requires me to be physically on campus, sometimes every day. This is also the main reason why I write in the mornings (and why I start working at 4 in the morning). Because of my (tacit but very explicit at times) requirement of being on campus as much as possible, I find it really hard to spend full days writing at home. I travel a lot and I have this belief that when I am in Aguascalientes, I MUST be on campus for meetings, and so students can reach out to me and meet with me if they need to discuss stuff.

I feel like a challenge we face is OUR INABILITY TO DISENGAGE. We have so much stuff to do that it is difficult to disengage from the office, from our fears, from our self-doubt, from the overwhelming list of tasks we have to fulfill. But that’s also why I find Murray’s conceptual model of social writing so helpful.

Yesterday, two of my PhD students came from Zacatecas (where they live) to Aguascalientes (where I live) and we wrote TOGETHER. They worked on their theses and I worked on 3 papers I have long overdue. Writing as a group DID help them and did help me too.

Writing IS social.


And here’s the BUT.

We need SPACE and TIME to think and write. To disengage, we need to have the right conditions. If our institution does not allow us to disengage from the campus office, THEN they need to provide the on campus physical space to ENGAGE with writing.

Overall, this book is geared to every academic writer, though by nature it is more geared towards several types of people:
1) people who lead academic writing workshops or offer support for academics
2) scholars who have taken it upon themselves to be leaders in social writing

I also think professors and consultants who organize writing retreats will benefit from Murray’s book, as well as faculty in their own institution who (like Joy Langston and now me) lead writing meetings. But overall, I think Writing in Social Spaces will help galvanize folks into making writing a social activity. Maybe my own undergrad and grad students will be motivated to develop a weekly writing meeting after reading Murray’s book or my thread/blog post on it.

I very strongly recommend Murray’s book, not only to writing retreat/meeting organizers but also to every faculty member. And potentially, undergraduate and graduate students too.

Posted in academia, reading notes, writing.

How Writing Faculty Write: Strategies for Process, Product, and Productivity (my reading notes)

Around 2018, I started reading several books on “how to do a PhD, academic writing, and writing more generally. I did so to help my own doctoral students (by the way, you can read my “Reading Notes of Books on How To PhD” by clicking on the hyperlinked text)). Through time, I have developed a taste for buying and reading books on how to write, in hopes obviously of improving my own writing and that of my students.

Writing while at a hotel desk

Contrary to what most people think, I came to enjoy writing AFTER I had finished my undergraduate degree. I never thought I would enjoy writing, let alone publishing articles, books, chapters, etc. Eventually, most books on writing will converge to about the same idea(s), though every single one I have read will have something specific to contribute. That’s the case with Dr. Christine E. Tulley’s How Writing Faculty Write: Strategies for Process, Product, and Productivity.

AcWri while travelling

A very well written volume where Tulley explores the writing practices of 15 scholars in the rhetoric and composition field, the main ideas of this book will sound familiar to those who have read Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing, Hayot’s Elements of Academic Writing, Wendy Laura Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks, Warner’s The Writer’s Practice, Boice’s Professors as Writers, Single Boyle’s Demystifying Dissertation Writing, and Stephen King and Henry Miller on writing.

I do like Tulley’s book and I do think it’s worth the read because she does her analysis in a way that is innovative and refreshing. She includes the full interview after discerning patterns and writing lessons. In a way, Tulley’s exercise is much richer than Sword’s in Stylish Academic Writing precisely because she includes full interviews.

Whenever I write my reading notes of books on writing I feel as though I am in a strange position, particularly because by now I have read A TON of books on this topic. Also a ton of books on “how to PhD”. This exercise has been useful even for me as a scholar of comparative politics and public policy.

Writing while in Berlin

Do I glean new lessons from Tulley’s book? Most certainly I do. The book itself is good even if you want to teach qualitative methods because she reports like a qualitative methods text. However, by being very explicit about her methodology (following the Paris Review style of interviewing), I find that in a sense, Tulley’s book is richer than Sword. Particularly because of the direct attribution of quotes to specific authors/writers.

A few gems that I distilled from Tulley’s book include:

  • Writing faculty accept the challenges that writing poses, and push through.
  • Writing faculty enjoy process and product, and develop “workable” academic writing – that is, find ways to make writing enjoyable.
  • Writing faculty use outlining, scaffolding, thinking rhetorically and use invention strategy.
  • Writing faculty use “Quick Focus” strategies to push through writing projects during small blocks of time that they carve in their busy schedules/lives.

You can download the introduction and table of contents from the UUUP website (click here, will start download immediately)

Posted in academia, writing.

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Writing the dissertation (thesis) I: Structure, timing and content

I find it slightly ironic that I am writing these blog posts to guide my doctoral students when a few of them have already graduated and I have two so close to completing their dissertations.

Coloured pens, scribbling highlighting and writing

I recently came to realize that a lot of students want to write their dissertations or theses AFTER some randomly decided milestone: after they are done their fieldwork. After they’ve collected all the necessary datasets. After they’ve finished archival work. After they’ve completed the literature review. From my own experience as a doctoral student and as someone who now supervises PhD candidates (as well as other thesis’ students), I can tell you that there is no perfect day to start writing your thesis.

My advice to my own students and anybody who will listen to me is always: “start writing the minute you start your degree”.

As I mentioned on Twitter, I know that different thesis and dissertation advisors will have varied opinions on when students should start writing. So what I am describing here is what I did and what my approach with my own students is.

On the thesis/dissertation structure

Contrary to other colleagues in my cohort, I did not rewrite my comprehensive exams’ papers to become chapters of my dissertation. I wrote a book-manuscript-style dissertation, though my advisor was very much intent on the three-paper model. My dissertation research could have gone either way, but we did not want to redraw my work altogether to build individual papers before submitting the dissertation to the external examiner.

We compromised in the following way:

  1. I wrote a book-style dissertation with 3 empirical chapters that, standing on their own, would give me each a theoretical or an empirical contribution.
  2. I was free to do a full literature review chapter if I wanted to, and a full-fledged historical overview chapter.
  3. My advisor and I agreed that the introductory and concluding chapters should read like any book manuscript (you should read William Germano’s “From Dissertation to Book” for what’s perhaps the best guidance on turning a book-manuscript-style dissertation into a book, but also search for guidance on how to write introductions and conclusions there).

#AcWri on the plane

Most of MY PhD students’ dissertations read as follows (I ask them to develop their three-papers’ model with their Dissertation Analytical Table (DAT):

  1. Introduction/set up/review of the literature/where my students’ thesis contributes and how/structure of the dissertation/summary of chapters
  2. Paper 1
  3. Paper 2
  4. Paper 3
  5. Conclusions/future research/limitations

Mine looks a bit like this one, with a historical chapter as chapter 2. But as I was writing it, when I developed my framework, I realized each one of the 3 elements of my framework could be framed as a stand-alone paper, so I wrote it as Element 1, Element 2, Element 3.

Many doctoral students I know will write a very long dissertation proposal/prospectus from where they can extract material for their dissertations. That’s what I did with mine. My prospectus was a mini-dissertation. I just had to expand with the 3 empirical examples.


So, when do I start writing my dissertation/thesis?

For ALL my doctoral students, the moment when they need to start writing the doctoral dissertation is when their Dissertation Two Pager (DTP), their Dissertation Analytical Table (DAT) and their Global Dissertation Narrative (GDN} present a coherent, cohesive body of work. That means, that their Red Thread/Throughline/Conductive Thread can be easily detected.

As I said on my Twitter thread, it is useful to write bits and pieces of the dissertation as the research progresses.

AcWri when travellin

On content and structure, simultaneously: Make time for the final assembly, and revisit the Red Thread/Throughline/Conductive Thread.

When you finally have completed experiments, fieldwork, data collection, archival work, you probably want to sit down and write everything up. But once you’ve written all of your analysis up, you still need time to ASSEMBLE the final product and create the Red Thread/Throughline.

(This process looks exactly the same when you’re writing a full book manuscript even if it’s not your doctoral dissertation – it also works similarly for an undergrad or Masters thesis). The assemblage process is important because that’s where you give coherence to your work.


There is absolutely no substitute for a conversation with your supervisor. No matter how many books on “how to PhD” you read, you need to be in constant conversation and communication.

A note to PhD advisors: I have heard from MANY graduate students all over the world, wherever I go and give talks, that they don’t get much/enough feedback/lack a lot of bi-directional communication – this is very important – students need your feedback and your sign-off on their theses.

In conclusion:

In this blog post I described how I wrote my doctoral dissertation and how my own doctoral students write theirs. Every supervisor/lab/student have their own processes and idiosyncracies. What I think is always important is to maintain open and constant communication between student and advisor.

Posted in academia, research, writing.

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On themes, codes and the importance of doing analytical writing in qualitative research methods

I am really glad to be able to write more technical threads on Twitter in 2020. Technical in the sense that they pertain to stuff I have scientific and technical expertise on. I love writing about academic writing, organization and time management, research planning and execution, but writing about research methods, and in particular, qualitative research methods, is very much my jam.

I recently came across Dr. Sally Thorne (The University of British Columbia)’s editorial in the journal Nursing Inquiry Beyond theming: Making qualitative studies matter. As many of you may know, my Grandma on my Mom’s side was a nurse and I really admired her, and I also have great friends who are scholars in the nursing field. I regularly read nursing journals particularly for qualitative research insight. Thus I was fascinated with Dr. Thorne’s editorial as it touched on topics I wanted to discuss myself.

Dr. Thorne’s editorial started a great conversation with two authors who I respect a lot and who I believe are now canonical in thematic analysis: Dr. Virginia (Ginny) Braun, and Dr. Victoria Clarke. You should read the entire thread to read their responses to concerns about Dr. Thorne’s conclusion. Dr. Clarke and Dr. Braun expressed a very legitimate worry that badly-done and/or badly-understood thematic analysis may lead to its delegitimation. I do enjoy, use and respect the version of thematic analysis that Clarke and Braun do, and I understand this worry. Thorne, in her Twitter response to their concerns, expressed respect towards the thematic analysis that Braun and Clarke espouse, and I agree with her, though I also share the same concern as Braun and Clarke to some extent.

Thematic analysis, well done, is a legitimate qualitative research strategy.

My discussion of Thorne’s editorial is below.

Herein lies the rub: a number of qualitative scholars and educators fail to teach the analytical part of doing qualitative research. In her editorial, Thorne aptly points to the fact that we teach how to obtain qualitative data on the field, textually, but then we need to teach HOW TO DO ANALYSIS. Dropping categories and themes, as Thorne (2020) rightfully says, and bits and pieces of textual evidence to support our writing DOES NOT MEAN YOU’RE DOING ANALYSIS.

We need to go further, Thorne says, and I agree.


Thorne says, and I quote:

“for a qualitative product to be worthy of publication, I believe that it must demonstrate that it extends beyond naming categories and themes and reporting on patterns.”


We can and must show patterns, trajectories, developments, insights.

Quoting Thorne again:

“Telling your reader that you found three themes and fourteen categories and then going on to briefly describe them and provide a text excerpt example of each is hopelessly insufficient.”

Yes, this is certainly not enough to add to our understanding and the literature. You need ANALYSIS.

A really fantastic discussion on stuff that I have been droning about for ages. If you’re interested in qualitative methods, you should read this thread and the responses I got.

Posted in academia.

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On the importance of good record-keeping, considering notes as records, and the searchability function in note-taking

Writing about academic writing, planning and scheduling, organizing and time management has led me to ponder the best ways in which information can be organized and retrieved. I am, after all, someone who wanted to be a librarian since he was a child, someone who organized his parents’ personal library using the Dewey system and someone who can calculate his own Cutter numbers. Thus, information acquisition, storage and retrieval is always on my mind, even if I am not an information systems scholar.

Reading and AcWri in Everything Notebook

So, I have been pondering for a very long while about “Searchability” as a key component of studying, annotating, learning and reading. Most responses to this request point to Evernote and One Note-type digital notebooks. The key thing everyone tells me is:


Personally, I think about searchability on a regular basis, but I almost always feel that I have that component nailed down in all my data-collection and note-taking, systematizing artifacts. Let me go through each one on this blog post. I am building off my Twitter thread below.

1) The Everything Notebook

#AcWri on the plane

I use 1/2″ adhesive, rigid plastic tabs to mark weeks in my To Do List section of the Everything Notebook. Thus, I can search for a specific week by looking at the Everything Notebook’s upper edge. This is how I achieve searchability.

By all means, doing this digitally will make your life easier because you can use your software’s Search function. The problem I have come across is that most operating systems & software’s Search functions are terrible. My laptop runs a shell that imitates Windows XP’s OS because it’s search function was AMAZING.

My other laptop and my desktop run Windows 10, which (if you have ever used it) has a Search function that sucks so bad it’s not even funny. So, I have to resort to using a shell that duplicates Windows XP’s search functions.

Anyhow… yes, being able to locate a piece of data. This is fundamental, and something that my friends and colleagues who are librarians, archivists and historians will always have in mind and possibly do as second-nature: thinking of notes as RECORDS. There are entire courses and degrees on record management and archival techniques.

Locating records requires very powerful searchability functions. Not all software has this, so I have trained myself to think of the tabs as my Search function. I know where an idea is because it’s located under “Bottled Water”, “Transnational Activism”, “Comparative Methods”

Doing searches in analog media requires an organization system that allows you to retrieve a record relatively easily. My Everything Notebook’s tabs help me do this. When I complete an Everything Notebook or a year ends, I create a Table of Contents that also helps me w/search.

2) The Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump (CSED)

CSED and reviewing the literature

Excel Dumps, CSEDs, have two searchability functions: one is the search function, but the other one is how you have classified each column & row. I use rows for each record/piece of information/article/book chapter/book. So, I can see which articles I have read by scrolling down. I don’t use a Keywords column, but if I did, I could use that to search for a particular keyword.

3) Reference management systems (Mendeley).

Grunt work: references into Mendeley. Then memorandum. #AcWri

I use Mendeley after having tried Zotero, Endnote, Refworks. Yes Elsevier is evil and no, I’m not going to switch off Mendeley. This is settled.

Continuing off my Twitter thread:

4. Storage Systems and Cloud-Based Drives.

As I mention in my Twitter thread, I use Google Drive, One Drive and Dropbox.

5. Evernote.

I also use Evernote, as I mention above, primarily as a newspapers or URL storage system. You could totally build an entire Everything Notebook in digital form using Evernote or One Note.


In order to develop the best system for storage and retrieval of information, you need to decide what suits YOU best. While I do enjoy providing an overview of my systems to see if some of what I use can help others, I want to make something 100% clear:


I don’t advice on almost anything simply because each person’s needs for searchability and record-management are entirely different to mine. Personally, I need both analog and digital. I do hope that this reflection may help YOU develop the system YOU prefer.

Posted in academia, productivity.

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