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The Clockwork Muse: A Practical Guide to Writing Theses, Dissertations, and Books (my reading notes)

The Clockwork MuseAs many people who follow me on Twitter know, I’ve been reading numerous books on how to write, and particularly in the past few months, how my doctoral students can write their doctoral dissertations. My goal with all this reading is not only to improve my own writing, but also to learn better techniques to help my students get through the finish line. Doing a PhD isn’t easy and I want to make sure that as a PhD advisor I am doing the best I can. Someone on Twitter recommended The Clockwork Muse: A Practical Guide to Writing Theses, Dissertations, and Books, and I absolutely LOVE IT. The Clockwork Muse is THE PhDJourney book that everyone should read. It’s an incredibly fast and agile read and will help those who write PhD theses-as-books or 3-paper-dissertations. I’m impressed Eviatar Zerubavel is so concise and precise.

I wish I had read Zerubavel as a doctoral student, and I keep it handy in my campus office now that I am a professor.

One of the most important elements from Zerubavel’s book is his emphasis on what Scandinavian authors call the Red Thread (Pat Thomson discusses this concept in her post, the Red Thread being a coherent line of thought that goes throughout the entire manuscript and makes the argument entirely coherent). William Germano calls it the Throughline. But very few authors of writing volumes seem to place much attention on this idea, that there is one line of argument, one Red Thread or Throughline that should be discernible as you read a book, or dissertation.

Strongly recommended, both for doctoral students AND for authors (prospective and published) of books.

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Writing for Peer Reviewed Journals: Strategies for Getting Published (Kamler/Thomson) – my reading notes

While I’ve followed and interacted with Dr. Pat Thomson (University of Nottingham) for a very, very long time (and I really like her), I haven’t read all the books she’s published. She’s someone who not only studies scholarly writing, but also does A LOT of it. But I am looking forward to reading more of her work. Nevertheless, I have read a few works of her that are really important for academia as a whole. Her volume with Barbara Kamler, “Writing for Peer Reviewed Journals: Strategies for Getting Published” is one of those.

There is A LOT to like about the Kamler and Thomson book, but I am particularly fond of the Tiny Texts’ approach.

There are four moves in Tiny Texts’ construction, as shown below.

  • LOCATE: Situating the paper/book/contribution within the larger context.
  • FOCUS: Narrowing the discussion to an examination of specific questions we want to address.
  • REPORT: Describing how the research was conducted so as to provide answers to the questions addressed.
  • ARGUE: Theorising and analysing and outlining the contributions. As Kamler and Thomson indicate, it links back to the LOCATE component by discussing “so what” and “now what” questions.

I linked to Pat and Barbara’s approach in my How to Write an Abstract of a Paper blog post. But I wanted to make sure to publish a post on their actual book because I believe it offers way more than just an approach to write abstract. As Pat and Barbara indicate in their book, there are 3 and 5 moves’ Tiny Texts.

In the 5 moves’ Tiny Text, the additional category (ANCHOR) goes right after focus, as it provides more grounding (methodologies’ description and contextualization).

In the 3 moves’ Tiny text, right after LOCATE, and instead of FOCUS and REPORT, the author is expected to PROBLEMATISE and create a more theoretical discussion. Then ARGUE provides the overall argument for the paper and the expected contribution and future research.

Overall, I strongly recommend Writing for Peer Reviewed Journals. It’s a really good book, and not only for the Tiny Texts’ concept, and the Four Moves, but for delving more deeply into what we do as scholars.

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How to write an abstract for a paper

I’ve been teaching small workshops for my lab on how to do scientific writing. Doing these short, quick courses helps me provide them with insights on how I write my own papers, and how they can write their own papers (plus dissertations and theses). With these classes, I also create a shared knowledge base and approach to investigating a topic and presenting research. Yesterday, I realized that while I have written a ton of blog posts on research, I had not published any blog posts on abstracts nor conclusions. This and my next blog post try to make amends for these omissions.

Several suggestions I got off my Twitter request:

I hope these resources are helpful!

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Why do political science and policy sciences shun homelesness as a research focus?

homeless tentDespite the fact that I study comparative public policy using environmental issues as the core focus of my work, I’ve always been interested in tackling policy issues facing vulnerable populations, regardless of whether they’re associated with environmental issues.

After all, I study commmunities facing water insecurity, toilet insecurity, informal waste pickers. All of these groups are highly vulnerable. I even have an in-press coauthored journal article with Dr. Kate Parizeau (University of Guelph) on the ethics of ethnography within marginalized communities.

This is a topic near and dear to my heart. It doesn’t need to be an environmental issue. Individuals facing homelessness, elderly folks are both communities at the margins.

The policy solution space for issues these populations face is quite important and also very understudied. So even if neither of these policy areas are environmentally-focused, I’m very strongly interested in older persons policy and homelessness policy, and I look forward to doing some research on both of these topics (either with coauthors or students of mine).

homeless tent

Part of a tent city in downtown Vancouver (British Columbia, Canada)

Because of my work on the right to sanitation and publicness, I’ve had to examine policy issues that affect homeless populations (or, as they call them in the British literature, “rough sleepers”). One of the first things I had to learn is that homelessness is a temporary and temporal property. This means, individuals may enter and exit homelessness. It’s not a permanent state, but individuals may experience homelessness, rather than “be homeless”.

As a political scientist who also publishes in policy sciences journals, I’m flabbergasted that neither discipline (political science nor policy sciences) have really had homelessness as a major research focus. This, to me, is one of the greatest failures of the discipline. I know the topic isn’t as sexy as elections, or international development, or political behaviour, but…

I argued that we had an excess of electoral studies’ political scientists (which didn’t earn me accolades, I must say), not because I don’t think elections aren’t important (they are), but because so much journal space has been taken up by electoral studies, whereas there is NOT A SINGLE JOURNAL ARTICLE in the three major journals for political science (American Journal of Political Science, American Political Science Review and Journal of Politics) focused on homelessness. This, to me, is atrocious. A few fellow political scientists helped me find some political science-related work, but it’s really minimal compared to the magnitude and importance of this policy area.

My plea is not for electoral studies’ scholars to stop doing that kind of work, but for political scientists and policy sciences’ researchers to focus on an under-studied area. One that sociology, anthropology, social work and geography have done extensive work on, but that remains under-researched within our discipline.

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How to write a book chapter

I was asked by Dr. Joanna Brown for guidance on how to write a book chapter. I wouldn’t say I’m the ideal person for this task, but since I have published many of these for several edited collections, I think I can offer some advice.

I’ve got a few single-authored chapters on the go for three books at the moment (one on bottled water in the context of a human right to water, one on ethnography as a research method in comparative policy analysis, and one in press on national policy styles), and thus I wanted to share my experience writing these.

My relationship with writing chapters for someone else’s edited volume is simultaneously love-and-hate, as people who read my blog regularly may remember.

The value that different institutions place on book chapters varies widely. My own institution prefers journal articles, but as I’ve said before, I have participated in edited collections because I believe in the project, and also because these are usually collective projects I’m interested in undertaking. I’ve published book chapters in both Spanish and English, and I’ve also edited books as well, so I’m fond of the model. You should, nonetheless, consider the pros and cons of writing a book chapter.

AcWri highlighting and scribbling while on airplanes

First of all, book chapters are different from journal articles as many of these aren’t peer reviewed and therefore aren’t subject to as many changes and corrections as you could expect from articles. I will fully admit having published peer-reviewed book chapters that these are as much of a nightmare as journal article manuscripts. I have one particularly awful experience (which isn’t over yet!) in mind.

But the most important element that an author needs to keep thinking about when writing a book chapter, in my view, is how your chapter contributes to the overall Throughline of the book (I’ve mentioned The Throughline previously – or as Scandinavian authors call it, The Red Thread). I’ve also emphasized the importance of demonstrating cohesiveness and coherence throughout an edited collection, as the editors of Untapped did in their edited volume on the sociology of beer.

This sample chapter on how to write books actually provides a great example of how to write a book chapter. Normally, I would create an outline of the paper (this blog post of mine will tell you two methods to create outlines), then follow a sequential process to create the full paper (my post on 8 sequential steps may be helpful here).

More than anything, I do try really hard to use headings to guide the global argument of the chapter. The outline/sequence looks something like this:

  • Introduction. – outline of questions or topics to tackle throughout the chapter, and description of how the chapter will deal with them.
  • Topic 1 – answer to question 1.
  • Topic 2 – answer to question 2.
  • Topic N – answer to question N.
  • Discussion/synthesis. – how it all integrates and relates to the overall book.
  • Conclusions, limitations and future work.
  • References.

As I write my chapter, I make sure to link its content with other chapters in the edited volume. This may be a bit tricky because of how editors have timed contributions. Sometimes they don’t have all the chapters readily available to be shared across authors. But I’ve found that normally they do, and so they’re willing to share across all authors.

This guideline to writing chapters may also be helpful. It’s also quite important that you follow both the press and the editors’ guide (style, punctuation, citation formatting, etc.). But more than anything, I strongly believe that the best approach to writing a book chapter is to think of it as a way to present a series of thoughts in a cohesive manner that doesn’t necessarily equal a journal article. Yes, there may be empirical claims presented, and yes, there should probably some theoretical advancement in there, but again, it’s NOT a journal article.

Hope this post helps those of you writing a book chapter. If you want to read some of mine, you can download some of them here or here (Academia.Edu) or here (ResearchGate).

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Developing the core elements of a research proposal: Finding a gap in the literature, mapping contributions to scholarship

I recently participated in a doctoral candidacy exam recently (a student who asked me to sit on her committee, but whom I’m not directly supervising), abd my participation prompted me to reconsider what and how I teach my doctoral students. I reflect on this issue frequently because I am really trying to improve how I supervise undergraduate and graduate students. That’s also why I generate resources for graduate students, including my recent post on how to develop good research questions.

I am reading so many books on how to conduct research and write a doctoral dissertation for the same reason. Because I have students at all stages of the dissertation, I have started paying more attention to how students (mine and other professors’) communicate their research to different audiences and how they demonstrate their command of the literature and the elements of their research.

Filing, archiving and decluttering

I came up with the following main 5 questions that a graduate student, particularly a doctoral candidate (or a student wanting to advance to candidacy) should be able to answer about their own research.

The five elements that I believe every student should be able to clearly identify at all stages of their research, but particularly at the proposal defense include:

  1. Boundaries of the system under study: What system are you studying and where does it start, and where does it stop? In determining the boundaries, we also need to consider geographical boundaries, but also analytical boundaries - what are you analyzing and what are you NOT analyzing and why.
  2. The problem, issue, puzzle. What problem are you seeking to examine/explain/explore, and why? Why is it a problem? Is it an issue that needs to be addressed through societal interventions? Is it an issue that requires strategic action? Why is the problem worth studying?
  3. Analytical and scalar architecture: What scale are you working at? Are you studying phenomena at the neighbourhood, community scales, local governments, individuals, federal systems? Are you analyzing cross-scalar dynamics (e.g. the relationship between federal and local systems)?
  4. Unit of analysis: What exactly are you studying? Is it a city, a country, a region? A community? Individuals within the community? Is it a case or a series of cases? Which actors/phenomena are you focusing on?
  5. Data collection and data analysis methods and methodologies. There is a very clear difference between data COLLECTION (and types of data) and data ANALYSIS (and methods of analysis), and you SHOULD know it.

Inside an oral doctoral candidacy exam and/or proposal defense

Now, depending on how universities do their candidacy exams, many will include comprehensive exams AND proposal defense within the same event/meeting. The one I attended was exactly like this, so I now want to turn to a discussion of what a doctoral student should be able to do at the proposal defense/candidacy exam. Whether these are combined events or separate, the same reasoning applies.

Committee members should be able to ask the candidate to move laterally (and have mastered works from literatures related to their problem) & vertically (be able to discuss in depth works focusing on a specific topic). In the case of vertical movement, the topic of discussion must be part of the body of works that are included in candidate comprehensive exams. My concern for my own students’ mastery of the field(s) they work led me to writing a blog post on how I approached preparing for my doctoral comprehensive exams and another one on how I map out a new field of scholarship until I find a gap.

Concept saturation

The gap in the literature: How do we identify what we are contributing to scholarship?

One of the main issues I’ve seen with doctoral dissertation and with graduate students in PhD programmes is that they have a really hard time identifying their contributions, whether minor or major. To identify these gaps, it’s important to conduct a thorough literature review, although as I’ve written before, how many sources a student or scholar need to read in order to find a gap in the literature varies enormously. What I recommend is reading and doing citation tracing until reaching conceptual saturation. This includes doing forward AND backward citation tracing (who cites who, basically – mapping out the network of scholars and works who cite each other until they start repeating themselves and citing themselves back-and-forth).

Here are a few questions PhD advisors can ask students to help them identify the gap in the literature:

  • How does your work contribute to/build upon/challenge/disprove/correct scholarship on what we know about Phenomenon X?
  • What do YOU add to what we know about Phenomenon Y?
  • What do we need to know to improve our understanding of Literature Z?”

Establishing a thesis’ contribution to the literature/scholarship at large.

Once students have conducted a thorough literature review and identified gaps, they’re better positioned to establish contributions they make to broader scholarship. A few ways include:

  • Developing an innovative framework to analyze a phenomenon.
  • Integrating literatures that didn’t dialogue before.
  • Generating new data or collecting data that was not available in the present form.

Choosing the exact dissertation topic should happen AFTER conducting a thorough literature review, identifying gaps in the literature, and choosing ways in which the doctoral dissertation contributes to scholarship at large. Earlier this month, while reviewing a book, I mentioned the 2×2 matrix that Dr. Michael Horowitz posted on Twitter.

Dr. Michael Horowitz outlined the 2×2 matrix that is often done to evaluate doctoral dissertations and plan them:

Hopefully this blog post will help both my own doctoral students and others find strategies to develop the core elements of their research proposal, identify a gap in the literature and build a doctoral dissertation that contributes to their chosen field, all the while maintaining their dissertation research manageable and narrow enough that they will be able to complete it on time and within the constraints of their possibilities.

At the end of the day, it is my hope with this series of blog posts on the doctoral journey that PhD candidates will be able to easily identify the components of their research, before their doctoral dissertation defense.

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Developing research questions

As I mentioned in one of my recent blog posts, I have PhD students at all stages (about to defend their PhD proposal, about to go on to the field, about to finish) and therefore I have been reading a lot of books on the PhD journey. I’ve also been participating in several events associated with PhD students’ performance: dissertation proposal defense, comprehensive exams, etc., both my own students and those on whose doctoral committees I sit on.

Rafa Hime Carlos me

Rafa, one of my former PhD students, and Hime and Carlos, two of my current PhD students

What I have been finding is that there’s a lot of variation in how doctoral students are mentored and what they learn and how they approach their research. So I tweeted about this, and complained that we do a poor job of training students at all three levels (undergraduate, masters and doctoral) on how to craft and develop good research questions.

Regardless of whether you’re writing a book-length, cohesive manuscript or 3 papers, you should have a driving/leading research question. I also think we do a poor job of reminding students and even early career scholars: our job is to EXPLAIN phenomena. We are looking for answers to puzzles. And to explain phenomena and look for answers we need to ask good questions: WHAT matters is different to WHETHER it matters to HOW it does.

One of the main problems we face is teaching our students how to find puzzles. What drives your work, what motivates your research, what makes what you’re studying important? What’s the puzzle you are seeking to solve? This is a big problem – a lot of students and researchers don’t seem to know strategies to find a puzzle worth examining.

The truth is that we need to help our students follow a systematic process for undertaking research. This is my own strategy:

To me, finding a puzzle to solve is about pondering. Why, instead of getting X response to Y variable, we are getting Z?. It’s about finding something head scratching. It’s about going “huh?”. I have been using the framework I posit below to help my students frame their own research based on a puzzle that drives the research, and also based on positing specific research questions for each paper.


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Demystifying Dissertation Writing: A Streamlined Process from Choice of Topic to Final Text (my reading notes)

Over the past six weeks, I’ve been reading a lot of books on the PhD journey. Mine wasn’t easy, but I wouldn’t say it was a nightmare. I made a commitment to read more stuff about how to better guide my own doctoral students, and I’m sharing what I’m learning with the world too. The more books I read on the topic, the more I come to a realization: we need to learn how to mentor doctoral students. Our own experience isn’t enough.

When I received my copy of Demystifying Dissertation Writing: A Streamlined Process from Choice of Topic to Final Textby Peggy Boyle Single, I had exactly the same thoughts about the book as my good friend, Dr. Luis Alvarez Leon, and by Professor Jon Henner did: somebody approved that book cover.

BUT, this is a perfect example of that old saying “you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover”. Single’s book is magnificent, and despite the fact that she’s a former student of Robert Boice, she seems much less strict than Boice. Most of us who write about scholarly prose have both praised and sometimes criticized Boice for his blanket approach to solving writers’ block, as outlined in his “Professors as Writers” book and other work he’s done. Single calls her nicer, kinder set of strategies, “The Single Method”. Many strategies Single suggests I’ve already applied in my own work and passed on to my own students.

Single’s Method is very similar to mine, though she has her own quirks and I don’t think I would ask my students to follow all her routines.

If my doctoral students write in the book format, I ask them to clearly identify 3-4 contributions. I do the same if they consider the 3 papers format (3 manuscripts for publication in journals). At any rate, all three should (combined) posit a Throughline (as per Germano): a coherent thread that

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How to write the introduction of a book manuscript

I am a member of the Public Outreach Committee of the International Studies Association’s Environmental Studies Section (ESS of ISA). At ISA 2018, recently held in San Francisco, I participated in a Publishing Roundtable organized by Dr. Beth DeSombre as part of our Speed Mentoring Series, which is organized by the Public Outreach Committee.

Water scholarly books

I was asked to participate because I do a lot of writing on academic prose, and because of my experience publishing journal articles, book chapters, and editing journals, so I was thrilled to contribute to these mentoring sessions, as they’re intended to help graduate students and early career scholars, but also established and seasoned academics. Over the course of the session, we all shared our own tips with doctoral students, postdoctoral researchers and assistant and associate professors who were writing book manuscripts and/or wanted to publish journal articles.

All participants shared lots of pearls of wisdom, but perhaps the one that stuck the most with me was that coming from the commissioning editor of Oxford University Press for politics, Angela Chnapko.

She suggested that we should read published books, particularly their introductions, to see how we could craft our book proposals and in turn, our own manuscripts. This piece of advice has stuck with me, and now that I’ve read about 45 books in the past 3 months, I’ve come to realize why she said what she said.

Reading the introduction to a published book gives you amazing insight into why an author undertook the project, how they went about the research, fieldwork, data analysis, etc., and what the book’s implications are for the specific body of scholarship we try to contribute to, for the field, and the discipline, as well as society at large.

Intuitively, I understood this. William Germano indicated it in his two books, From Dissertation to Book and Getting It Published, but it wasn’t until Angela said it that it all clicked in my head.

Read the book’s introduction.

While I am writing my own book manuscripts, I would not feel comfortable showcasing my own work as an example for how you should write so what I did was take examples from a few books I had at my Mom’s house or that I was travelling with. These five examples are just a few, but the basic lesson stands: READ OTHER BOOKS’ INTRODUCTIONS IN ORDER TO LEARN HOW TO WRITE YOUR OWN.

In my thread, I provided an overview of three books’ introductions (the three I had purchased during AAG 2018). The first one was “Resigned Activism” by Anna Lora-Wainwright.

I also read an edited volume (”Untapped”) to show how the editors made it clear to the reader what’s the common thread throughout the book.

The third book whose introduction I read and suggested be used as a model was Elizabeth Hoover’s The River Is In Us, an excellent multidisciplinary examination of pollution in a community with Indigenous heritage.

In my Twitter thread I also wrote about Diane Coffey and Dean Spear’s “Where India Goes” and Josh Lepawsky’s “Reassembling Rubbish”. You can go back to the thread by clicking on any of the tweets shown above. I hope this post helps those who are writing their first books or transforming their dissertation into a book manuscript, or even editing their first volumes.

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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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