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The Dissertation Analytical Table (DAT) – an overview device to formulate a 3-papers thesis/doctoral dissertation

I wrote a traditional, book-style PhD dissertation, mostly because I actually knew nothing about the three-papers model, and when my advisor saw how far ahead I already was, he decided to just keep my thesis as a book. In hindsight, I wish I could have reformatted it as a three-papers thesis and publish it in advance. But at the time, The University of British Columbia (UBC, where I did my PhD) wasn’t keen on this format for all doctoral students (this has changed in the past few years, as has the format for comprehensive examinations!).

Workflow at my CIDE campus office

At any rate, I now try to advise all my doctoral students to do a 3-papers dissertation, because it gives them publications by the time they’re done, it helps them think as researchers more than as students, and it allows them to test the submission-rejection-revision-resubmission process as they move forward.

As I have already written about, a PhD is an original contribution to the knowledge. It demonstrates you know stuff broadly and deeply. Writing a doctoral dissertation shows that you can undertake independent research. One way to demonstrate this is to write 3 separate papers that have a common thread, and where each of them makes an original contribution and it is an independently conducted piece of research.

To help my doctoral students, I created this Overview Device: the Dissertation Analytical Table (DAT).

Dissertation Analytical Table

The Dissertation Analytical Table (DAT) complements the Dissertation Two Pager (DTP), another Overview Device I use with my students to help them see their overall research from a vantage point. Every student of mine (undergraduate, Masters or PhD-level) wants to Do All The Things, so I frequently sit down with them and discuss what exactly doing an honors undergraduate thesis, a Masters’ thesis and a PhD dissertation entails, and then tell them to stick to what the requirements are.

The table is comprised of the following columns:
• Case study/field site
• Research question
• Theoretical framework
• Empirical strategy
• Research methods
• Expected results/explanations of phenomena
• Contribution (theoretical/empirical/both)

An example of one of these papers would be, if my students’ doctoral dissertation were something like “Essays on the Politics of Garbage Governance”.

The table is comprised of the following columns:
Case study/field site – Aguascalientes, Mexico compared with Leon, Mexico
Research question – What explains the variation in approaches towards privatization of waste collection in Mexican cities?
Theoretical framework – Literature from privatization/remunicipalization (Bel/Warner, etc.) – perhaps historical institutionalism?
Empirical strategy – fieldwork based, comparative- historical.
Research methods – elite interviews, participant observation, archival research.
Expected results/explanations of phenomena – I expect to identify sources of variation in decision-making, perhaps party politics, perhaps regulatory capture?
Contribution (theoretical/empirical/both) – This paper is the first one of its kind studying privatization/remunicipalization of garbage in Mexican cities, specifically the ones I chose as case studies. Therefore, more of an empirical contribution.

In theory, my student could choose garbage governance in Mexico as the main general topic, or simply waste management across countries and choose two countries. The advantage of such a simple approach to the Dissertation Analytical Table is that you can do any and every kind of combination to create a theoretical, or an empirical contribution, or both.

Where I think the DAT is particularly powerful is in helping students develop solid research questions. This is a very important exercise, and one that is often poorly done, or only executed at the proposal writing/defense stage.


I found a few resources for those of you considering (a) supervising a 3 papers-thesis or (b) undertaking a 3 papers-thesis.

Hopefully my Dissertation Analytical Table (DAT) method will be able to help students and supervisors alike! You can, of course, adapt it any way you want to.

Posted in academia, research.

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The Elements of Academic Style (Eric Hayot) – my reading notes

I have read A TON of books on writing over the past few years, and I had vaguely remembered that someone recommended Eric Hayot’s “The Elements of Academic Style” to me, but I could not for the life of me remember who it was (Bertha Angulo, at ITAM, now I remember). Anyhow, this thread summarizes my reading notes of Hayot’s book.

Workflow at my CIDE campus office

As I explained in a separate Twitter thread, Hayot, like other authors, writes WORKBOOKS. This means, these aren’t books to just read once and “get down to it”. These are books to read, come back to them, use their built-in exercises, etc. In that thread I recommended a few authors and their books too.

Conclusion:10/10 recommend.

Posted in academia, writing.

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“Doubly Engaged Ethnography: Opportunities and Challenges When Working With Vulnerable Communities” – my IJQM article with @KateParizeau

A few months back, I wrote an explainer Twitter thread on “Doubly Engaged Ethnography: Opportunities and Challenges When Working With Vulnerable Communities”, the article Dr. Kate Parizeau (University of Guelph) and I published in the International Journal of Qualitative Methods (IJQM). I had explained that this article emerged as a result of a conversation Kate and I had back in 2013 on the ethics of doing ethnographic fieldwork in vulnerable communities. We both studied informal waste pickers in Argentina and Mexico, and this article is the first of several collaborations we have in the works.

It’s free to download and read from the IJQM website and definitely one of my favourite pieces.

Posted in academia, ethnography, research, research methods, waste.

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Setting semester-long, monthly and daily goals (as a student, or researcher)

A few months back, Dr. Jane Lawrence Sumner(University of Minnessota) asked me if I had ever written on setting goals. Her request made me ponder whether I had one specific blog post on goal-setting as an important, strategic, research planning activity. I had a dormant Twitter thread that I wanted to save for posterity, so I looked for it this morning.

Monthly calendar

I have written a lot about planning, and more specifically, Granular Planning and the Rule of Three, but this thread (and blog post) lays out, step-by-step what I do to set goals, and how I help my own students (undergraduate and graduate) set their own, based on my strategy.

Hopefully this post will be useful to those seeking a structured approach to goal-setting.

Posted in academia, planning.

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“Fracktivism: Corporate Bodies and Chemical Bonds” (Sara Ann Wylie) – my reading notes

I have read a ton of scholarly books, but I don’t think I’ve posted enough of my Twitter threads on which volumes I’ve found extremely interesting and helpful for my own research. This is the case with Sara Ann Wylie’s “Fracktivism: Corporate Bodies and Chemical Bonds”. An amazing book, to which I hope my Twitter thread and blog post do justice.

This is my summary of Dr. Sara Ann Wylie’s book:

Posted in academia, environmental policy, research.

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A few key (popular) blog posts for doctoral students

Someone on Twitter asked me for a “Popular Blog Posts” page or listing, but truth be told, I never know which post will be popular, so I figured I could store a thread I did a few months ago.

Reading and AcWri

These blog posts should be of interest to doctoral students but my resources can be used by undergraduates and graduates too.

And here is a partial list of Twitter IDs of scholars who provide great free public goods.

Posted in academia, PhD training.

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Suggestions on qualitative research methods’ articles and books for graduate students

Anybody who has ever read my work knows that I’ve done a lot of research using qualitative methods (even though I consider myself a multi-method scholar). Anyhow, Dr. Yasemin Besen-Cassino requested suggestions of “cool journal articles/book chapters” that her qualitative research methods students’ might be interested in reading.

Reviewing the literature and mapping scholarship

Since we have a new Masters in Methods for Public Policy Analysis (CIDE METPOL) and I will be teaching a couple of courses there, I decided to turn my thread into a permanent blog post for people to refer to this one.

I know that I am as guilty of not providing full links to citations in some cases, but I was sleep-deprived. Though I personally prefer to offer suggestions with full citations and links to all PDFs.

This particular article by Dr. Carole McGranahan is amazing, on ethnographic sensibility and teaching it without fieldwork.

I also chose to embed a few suggestions that scholars provided on Dr. Besen-Cassino’s thread that had direct URLs and that I found interesting to read as well. See below.

I particularly love Dr. Zeynep Arsel’s work.

I love the work Dr. Daisy Verduzco Reyes does, and in particular this piece of hers involves doing qualitative work with communities of color (Hispanic/Latino)

I actually teach with Dr. Wolfinger’s article on field notes, see below.

On flexible coding:

In the future, I plan to write more about qualitative and experimental methods as well, both for my own students and for others.

Posted in academia, research, research methods.

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A discussion on time management, self-management, organization and routines, #BackToSchool edition

It’s September 1st,2019. For many students and faculty it’s Back-To-School Week and a flurry of pieces of advice on #AcademicTwitter are flowing through the interwebz. I’ve seen people recommend that they treat school like a 9-5 job, particularly PhD programmes. I actually agree with this view, provided that 9-5 represents the kind of routine that fits YOU.

Coordinating schedules

Since I wake up at 4 am in the morning, I can’t do that, personally, but others may. (Don’t you worry, I DO sleep properly, a decent 7.5 hours per cycle).

I was confronted with two challenges: I was on the verge of finishing my dissertation, so I needed to work 16 hour days because of all the rewrites, edits, etc. (I was working against a February 14, Valentine’s Day submission deadline). But I also loved my partner and wanted to sustain our relationship. My partner adapted to my schedule. We worked together to figure out a schedule that allowed me to finish writing and still maintain my sanity and avoid deteriorating our relationship. We saw each other more often (several times a week) for quick meals, walks along the beach, coffee/cinnamon buns (the best ones are still UBC’s SUB!), but for shorter periods of time.

Once I submitted my dissertation and started preparing for my defense, started looking for jobs, etc. I switched my routine to the now famous RPV “4am Ungodly O’Clock”. This allowed me to do work BEFORE my partner woke up, spend time once we both were awake, and continue working through the day. We both go to bed super early.

Even as a graduate student, I have always been very interested in people’s routines and in learning from them (I am, after all, a scholar of policy transfer, comparatie public policy and policy learning). I always observed whether/when people wrote at their desks or offices. I mention this because a lot of people can’t write on campus even if they have an assigned space (contingent faculty often don’t, and don’t even get me started on those structural conditions for failure). But I’ve seen professors at various universities who DO write on campus.

In the end, you and only you can carve the right time and space for your work, but I strongly believe that this should be part of a larger organizational system that includes self-care/sustaining activities (exercise, time with loved ones, rest, etc.) and work-related ones.

You may wonder “why would he give up some of his prime writing time up for planning?” Well, the answer is easy: because I need to prioritize what I need to get done and by when. The time I spend planning and prioritizing allows me to make less mistakes and re-orient my work. I’m an institutional theorist. I study how routines evolve into rules, norms, institution-building and institutional erosion. I just apply my theoretical background to my daily life.

Which is why I make my bed every single morning.

The reason why I start my day reviewing my daily goals.

Why I start my month reviewing my achievements and monthly goals.

This is what most of my students and RAs struggle with, and something that I actually enjoy: building routines that work for me. My daily routine includes doing work in the morning, then heading to campus. I get most of my writing done by the time I’m on campus. That’s because I lead a research group and a large, funded project and I know that most of my time on campus is going to be meetings (with students, faculty, staff, etc.)

I DO do research, reading and writing on campus.

But the vast majority of my thinking is done well before I’m on campus. Also, because of the 4 am wake up, I am basically done by the time I hit lunch. So I eat lunch (and then nap!).

Bottom line: I think students need to develop daily, weekly and monthly routines 4 themselves. Routines give structure. Something many students may need. Obviously you need to build “buffers” and contingency plans. Learning how to do that is another skill to master graduate school.

Life happens.

Posted in academia, planning.

A modest proposal for desk organization

One of the most under-appreciated instruments of academic life is working space. I specifically think that desk spaces are fundamental to our scholarly work. Whenever I travel, what I appreciate the most is a hotel whose rooms have roomy, ample desks for me to write. The room size is somewhat irrelevant as long as I get enough working surface for everything I carry when I travel, and for me to comfortably write.

City Express Aeropuerto

Decently sized desk for a small hotel room.

As I said on Twitter, sometimes I write about things that some people find “too basic”. But truth be told, what some people consider “low level” may not be for someone else. I regularly get asked about how I organize my work (schedule, desk, workflow) on an everyday basis. That’s why I write about these topics on my blog (Planning, Workflow, Organization).

My basic rules for desk organization are as follows:

  • arrive to and leave a clean desk (on campus).
  • make piles of work in priority order (to my left).
  • review project/task prioritization on a regular basis.
  • when working from home, leave what I’m going to process in the morning already prepared the night before.
  • coffee, lots of coffee. And water.

Fletcher Hotel-Restaurant De Wageningsche Berg (Wageningen, The Netherlands)

Not my idea of a good working desk.

Holiday Inn Express Guadalajara ITESO (El Mante, Guadalajara)

Perhaps the best desk I’ve ever had in a hotel room.

This is my campus office:

My students, colleagues and campus visitors always tell me: “professor, you have the nicest office of all of CIDE!”. Which is a nice compliment to hear. But truth be told, I have made my working space welcoming because I spend so much of my life there!

This is my home office at my Mom’s:

This is my home office at my own house:

Again, my suggestions on desk arrangement:

  • Keep only the stuff that you need as you write on a particular task/work packet
  • At the end of the day, leave an organized/cleared/uncluttered desk for you to arrive the next day.
  • Clear stuff in one direction (I usually clear stuff to the right and I maintain materials that support the work I’m doing to my left. I’m right handed)
  • Make your desk space, your office space and your routines, your own.

Hopefully this blog post will be of use to some people who like discussing organization!

Posted in academia, organization, productivity.

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Digital Paper: A Manual for Research and Writing with Library and Internet Materials (my reading notes)

When I first purchased Andrew Abbott’s “Digital Paper: A Manual for Research and Writing with Library and Internet Materials” I did not realize he was a sociologist of knowledge, which is why my comment on his ethnographic approach (below, on my Twitter thread) is ill-informed. I recently read an interview with him about Digital Paper (“Andrew Abbott on brute-force research, the future of libraries, and what makes good research good”) which made me reconsider and actually search for my Twitter thread and publish it in long-form blog post so that people can refer to it.

I should disclose that I work with a lot of the material that Abbott uses: I am a library lover and I use a lot of textual material from archival, interview and other primary and secondary sources. So, for me and my own students, Digital Paper is a good book to have, read up on and refer to.

Bottom line: this book is really good, and worth using to teach research design, research paradigms or methods, overall. This is a great review of Digital Paper by Professor Alex Golub. I don’t know if I would call Digital Paper The Best Research Book EVAR but I think it IS fantastic. Particularly for those of us who work with textual data.

Posted in academia.