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Writing your literature review based on the “Cross-Reference” column of the Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump (CSED)

Earlier this year, I was invited to Memorial University of Newfoundland (in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada) as the George M. Story Distinguished Lecturer (thanks to Drs. Amanda Bittner and Arn Keeling who successfully submitted an application for and won a grant to bring me to MUN).

Literature review

I gave a public lecture, a research talks and a couple of workshops for graduate students. As I was preparing the one on academic writing, I got an insight that I hadn’t realized when presenting earlier versions of this talk: you can, if you want, write your literature review based on the “Cross-Reference” column of my Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump (CSED).

Note how the paragraph above the purple highlight and the next one actually discuss how different scholars have argued about the variability in degree of precarity across waste pickers’ case studies. THAT is the kind of stuff I would write in my “Cross-Reference” column.

Basically, once you’ve surveyed the field, your “Cross-Reference” column gives you the foundations to start writing the literature review, because it allows you to see how the work you’re reading is connected with your own and with others’ scholarship.

Hopefully this blog post will help those who use my CSED method to write their literature reviews.

Posted in academia, writing.

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On skimming reading material and the importance of The Second Round of in-depth reading

One of my main concerns when I see students seek advice online, as I’ve made explicit in earlier blog posts of mine, is that many folks recommend that they should ALWAYS SKIM EVERYTHING and later (at some undetermined point in time) they should choose which readings they must come back to and read in more depth. As I’ve said repeatedly, students and scholars alike should develop a broad repertoire of reading strategies. There is no magic bullet, and there are risks to the ALWAYS SKIM strategy which I outlined in a Twitter thread earlier this week.

Reading writing working

I have read a ton of my fellow professors encourage students to “just skim and when you find the right article/book, THEN you can read in more depth”. I would be down with this strategy if students were used to reading in depth throughout their studies. I am not certain they are. There is a lot of heterogeneity in reading speeds/material density but also on the purpose of said reading materials. For example, in my class, I always tell my students: “this lecture will ABSOLUTELY REQUIRE that you read very much in depth article A, B and C. Skim D if need be”.

Example: if it’s a class on foundations of institutional theory, I can easily tell my students: “read Ostrom 1990 Ch 3 in depth, North 1990 Ch1 in depth, and Hall and Taylor 1996 – from H&T you should totally do a synthetic note that includes a table on 3 neoinstitutionalisms”. People who teach institutional theory may frown at the fact I didn’t include Williamson. Personally, I believe one can learn institutions with Ostrom, North, Hall and Taylor. THEN go in more depth with Williamson. Anyhow, this is just an example of guidance I offer my students.

I really do hope that folks in higher education will take to heart the message that if you teach your students to strategically choose and skim, you should also teach them to do The Second Round of in-depth reading.

Posted in academia.

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Getting unstuck with your #AcWri: responding to, or critiquing a statement/argument

I get stuck, all the time. Even though I write a lot, and I write about writing as well, I often feel stumped. There’s a particular paper that I am having a really hard time finishing, and I’ve been trying a few different techniques to get myself to complete it (I’ve written about all of them below, as my Twitter thread below indicates).

The one strategy that is almost always fail-safe and pretty much gets me out of a writing rut just about all the time is responding to a statement/argument. Nothing gets me writing faster than wanting to demonstrate how someone is wrong.

author is wrong

I found a really insightful paper on a topic I’m writing about, and then I found a couple of places where I disagreed with the author, so I used those points of disagreement to write a memorandum in response.

This strategy (to respond, critique or counter-argue a statement as a prompt to write) has served me well when feeling stuck. Hopefully it will be useful to others!

Posted in academia.

A few pieces of advice for doctoral students in their first year

I clearly remember my first semester. I was absolutely dedicated to studying. Like, beyond whatever I ever had done before. I arrived on campus at 7:30 in the morning and left at 9:30 at night. I don’t want anybody to think that this was healthy. It was just that I was… really convinced that this was my calling and I spent just about every waking hour thinking about research.

MY research.

Reading, scribbling and highlighting

I worked excessively long hours because I wanted to, and thought I would be prepared to write my doctoral comprehensive exams right at the end of the first year.

Famous last words.

One proviso before I continue: If there’s something that I have always wanted my students to learn is that circumstances, populations (and therefore, policy options) are extraordinarily heterogeneous. So, giving blanket advice for undergraduates, or graduate students, does not work. We all have our circumstances. So, whatever suggestions I provide here are to be taken with a grain of salt and adapted to each person’s individual circumstances. Here are some pieces of advice that I provided when a number of people suggested my website as a source of wisdom for the PhD journey.

One thing that I strongly believe people doing PhDs need to do frequently is to remember that this is a training process. You’re not supposed to know everything. That’s what the doctorate is for: to prepare you to do independent research that can investigate phenomena to a deep extent so you can provide an original contribution to the literature.

Posted in academia.

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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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