Getting Creative with your Thesis or Dissertation #3

embroideryI have some more examples of creative doctoral work for you, and this time they’re all from the UK. (If you haven’t seen my previous posts on this topic, which include examples from other parts of the globe, they’re here and here.) They are also all from Twitter without which my work and life would be very much harder.

Chris Bailey, from Sheffield Hallam University, investigated the lived experience of an after-school Minecraft club. (For the uninitiated, Minecraft is a computer game which is itself creative and educational.) Chris wrote his thesis abstract as a comic strip. Parts of the thesis are conventional text and other parts are in comic strip form. He also uses the comic format to present data excerpts. Further, Chris uses images and a soundscape as integral parts of his thesis, and even represents the soundscape visually in a variety of ways.

Kate Fox, herself a poet and stand-up comedy and poetry performer, included comedy and poetry in her thesis from the University of Leeds. She was studying resistance in solo stand-up performance by Northern English women. There are poems in every chapter, and Kate uses an ‘interrupting voice’ throughout her thesis, in italic text, to illustrate the dialogic nature of stand-up in some very funny ways. For Kate, stand-up ‘can function as an academic methodology and critical pedagogy’ – I think many of us would like to see more of that!

Jenny Hall, from the University of the West of England (though now at Bournemouth University), used creative inquiry to study ‘the essence of the art of a midwife’ for her EdD. Jenny collected written personal histories, conducted ‘educational sessions’ that involved making, and used photo-elicitation with her participants. She also kept a reflexive research diary and used this to create a textile quilt with squares made as a response to individual diary entries, in a form of creative autoethnography. Jenny’s ‘Midwifery Quilt’ now has its own website.

Clare Danek is currently investigating ways in which people learn amateur craft making skills in community making spaces for a PhD from the University of Leeds. So this is something of a departure as she doesn’t yet have a finished thesis or dissertation, though I’m sure that day will come. Clare is keeping a diary of her PhD which is relevant here as it’s a ‘stitch journal’, as she calls it, using textile art. Also, she is documenting the process online. I am increasingly interested in the ways in which researchers are using creative methods for process as well as output. However, this is not generally well documented so it’s great to see Clare making her journal available as she creates. I’m sure this will help and inspire others.

It seems to me that doctoral students are increasingly finding their creative voices, and that more supervisors and examiners are willing to support this process. I am sure that part of this is due to the existence of precedents such as those listed here and in previous posts. These precedents – and, I’m told, also my book on creative research methods and its bibliography – enable doctoral students to build convincing academic arguments for the use of creative approaches that help to persuade reluctant supervisors. I am delighted to be able to witness and support this quiet revolution in academia.

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $12 per month. If you think 4-5 of my blog posts is worth more than $12 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also support for a single month if that works better for you. Support from Patrons also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

When An Hour Is Not An Hour

time and moneySometimes academics ask me to come and speak to their students. The conversation often goes like this.

Academic: Hello, please will you come and speak to my students about creative research methods?

Me: I’d be happy to. My minimum charge for work outside my office is a half-day rate.

A: But it’s not half a day, it’s just an hour.

Me: It’s never just an hour, which is why my minimum charge is a half-day. If that’s not acceptable then it’s not going to happen.

A: But we only want you to speak for an hour. In fact maybe only 45 minutes and then some questions.

Me: *deep sigh*

Here’s why an hour is never an hour. For a start, the initial conversation takes time, whether it’s done by email or by phone. Then there are arrangements to make. I have to figure out where the university is and how to get there. If I’m driving, I have to find out where I can park, whether I’ll need to pay for that and if so how much. If I’m going on the train, I have to find out how to get from the station to the university. And then I have to figure out how to find the room. All this requires much trawling through maps and timetables online.

Then there is a bunch of bureaucracy to go through to reach the point where I can get a purchase order so I can invoice. This is different in each university, but generally there is at the very least a form for the academic to fill in. If it’s a university I haven’t worked for before then we’ll both have to fill in forms and there may be much more to do. The academic I’m dealing with may or may not know how the system works, so sometimes I need to coach them through the process. The finance department may try to treat me like a salaried academic by deducting tax at source and demanding original receipts, which requires time spent in argument. Once or twice I’ve met an immovable department and ended up refusing the work because it’s just not worth the end-of-year accounting hassle. With one regular client who I’ve been working with for some years now I have to send an email every time to explain why I can’t send in original receipts (because I am self-employed so I need them for my business accounts, and HMRC trumps a university finance department).

Once I’m sure I’ll get paid, I prepare my talk. This requires finding out what kind of people will be there and what the room is like. That last part is because I always want to include some kind of interactive element and there are different options for that depending on how people are seated. Students may be in ranked cinema-style seating in a big lecture hall, theatre-style in a classroom, in a boardroom arrangement around one big table, or cabaret-style in groups around smaller tables. I also need to find out how the academic wants my talk to fit into the students’ learning programme. Once I’m clear about all that, I can plan a talk and prepare some slides.

By this point I’ve already put in a couple of hours of work. There will be more correspondence as time goes by: how many students are expected, where and when I’ll meet the academic, and so on.

Then the day itself arrives. Before I leave, I make sure I have everything I need: maps, change for the car park, a drink and a snack, business cards. Travelling takes up a fair amount of time: at least an hour’s round trip to my nearest university, sometimes much longer. If I’m travelling by train I can use some of the time to work on my laptop (if I can get a seat) or read, but there’s still a chunk of time I can’t use.

I do the talk, take the questions, and inevitably spend more time afterwards talking with students who want to ask me questions individually. I don’t rush this if I can help it, because it’s important to them and one of the best parts for me.

When I get back to base the work is still not finished. I will have promised to email things to various people so I send those off. Then I prepare an invoice and email it to the academic, hoping that I will be paid within a month, though sometimes it takes much longer. (NB: this is not the academic’s fault – universities have the most ridiculously Byzantine, monolithic, labyrinthine, ponderous finance systems.)

In fact this kind of speaking engagement usually takes more time than the half-day I charge for. I’m OK with that but it is never, ever, “just an hour”.

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $12 per month. If you think 4-5 of my blog posts is worth more than $12 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also support for a single month if that works better for you. Support from Patrons also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

How Independent Researchers Can Help Academics

An earlier version of this article first appeared in Funding Insight in summer 2016; this updated version is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.

independent workDo you know the independent researchers in your discipline or field? Have you got a clear strategy for when, how, and why you would involve independent researchers in your work? No? Then you’re missing a trick.

I have been an independent researcher for almost 20 years. In that time, among many other things, I have worked with a number of universities in the UK and abroad, and I have helped clients to commission work from independent researchers. I know that, in some cases, independent researchers can really add value to university-based research and teaching projects, whether by conducting work themselves on behalf of the university or by being part of a team involving university staff. I am also sometimes paid to write or co-write journal articles and, more recently, a book. Yet, too often, university staff don’t even know, let alone think about, what independent researchers can offer.

For a start, indie researchers have more time to think than university staff, because they don’t have to tangle with bureaucracy and time-consuming internal meetings. Their fresh perspective can be useful to help disentangle problems that seem entrenched, or simply to provide a different view of a situation. Also, they are not limited in what they work on by managerial directives or departmental policy. Therefore an indie researcher is unlikely to have the depth of knowledge in any single subject of a professor who has spent decades studying one area. However, they are likely to have a broad working knowledge of several related areas, and the ability to bring themselves up-to-date fast in any area they haven’t worked on for a while. This flexibility can be very useful for an academic department in a number of different ways. Three main ones are: as part of a team on a funded research project, to augment your teaching programme, or to fill gaps in your capacity.

Allocating time and costs for an independent researcher within a funding bid sends a positive message to funders. It shows that you are thinking beyond the walls of the academy and taking a creative approach to your bid. Also, any credible independent researcher should be willing to put in some unpaid time up front, perhaps to write a section of the bid or to give feedback on a draft.

Generally, though, you shouldn’t ask indie researchers to do unpaid work beyond an initial getting-to-know-you meeting and proportionate input on funding proposals. If you do want or need them to do further unpaid work, think about what you can offer them in exchange, such as use of your library, an honorary position with access to paywalled journals, or free use of meeting rooms. Most indie researchers are open to barter as long as you can offer something that is of value to them. What won’t be of value to most indies is ‘exposure’ because in these days of social media we can all expose ourselves.

Indie researchers’ day rates look high, but at times they go for weeks or months with no paid work, and they have none of the benefits of employment such as holiday pay or sick pay or conference budgets. For example, I charge universities £800/day for teaching, £400-$600/day for research work I can do from my office. Last year I was able to pay myself £17,000 – around one-third of what I would be taking home if I’d spent the last 20 years in academia. There are other compensations to the indie lifestyle so this is not intended as a sob story. But it’s surprising how many intelligent people still think ‘high day rate’ equals ‘rich person’.

You need to recognise that indie researchers are not in the position of salaried academics who can go to as many conferences, or collaborate on as many journal articles, as they like, without that affecting their income. If you want an indie researcher to run a seminar for you, you should pay them for their work. If you want them to speak at a conference, at the very least offer them a free place and expenses; they will still be giving their time for free, and they will be unable to earn any other income in that time.

Funders understand all this and are used to indie day rates – which are, after all, similar to the rates at which academics charge themselves out to funders. Even so, given the high cost of indie researchers, you’ll probably only want to build in a small number of days for them. But they should be able to get a lot done in those days, because many indie researchers – and certainly the good ones – are highly skilled, focused, and very productive.

It is true that a minority are not so good, and you do need to perform due diligence. Ask for a CV, with references; follow up the references, and spot-check a couple of items from the CV. If the independent researcher hasn’t been independent for long, it would be worth quizzing them about their intentions. Due to the economic climate and the casualisation of academic work, some people are setting up as independent researchers in the hope of earning a few quid while they’re searching for salaried employment. It won’t help your research plan if, by the time you secure funding for your three-year project, the indie researcher you chose for your team is now a full-time lecturer at the other end of the country.

Talking of lecturing, independent researchers can also be useful for all sorts of teaching, whether a single seminar, a module, or PhD supervision. HE students at all levels are usually fascinated by the perspective of indie researchers, who often bring practitioner experience as well as real-world research expertise. Sadly, university finance departments are not always helpful, as they can expect independent researchers to join the payroll for as little as, say, one day of work a month over six months. This is not economically viable for indies – I’ve turned down work offered on this kind of basis – so you will need to make sure you can navigate your internal finance systems effectively.

Independent researchers can also come in handy when you experience personnel problems. You know the kind of thing: you’re most of the way through a project and a key person goes off on maternity leave, or gets a job elsewhere, or decides to move abroad. There is still data to analyse or writing to be done and the department is maxed out. But you’re clearly heading for an underspend on that person’s costs, so if you know some good independent researchers, pick up the phone. One or more may well have the skills and capacity to help you meet your deadline.

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $12 per month. If you think 4-5 of my blog posts is worth more than $12 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also support for a single month if that works better for you. Support from Patrons also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Ten Top Tips For Managing Your Own Research

crossroads-1580168__340When someone mentions research methods, what do you think of? Questionnaires? Interviews? Focus groups? Ways of doing research online? Do you only think of data gathering, or do you think of methods of planning research, analysing data, presenting and disseminating findings?

Research methods is a huge and growing field with many books and innumerable journal articles offering useful information. But nobody talks about methods for managing your own research. Perhaps you’re doing postgraduate research in academia or workplace research such as an evaluation. Even if you’re a fully funded full-time doctoral student, research is not all you do. Research has to fit in with the rest of your life and all its domestic work, family needs, other paid or voluntary work, hobbies, exercise, and so on.

Nobody talks about the methods for doing this kind of personal research management. Or, at least, not many people. I said quite a lot about it in my book Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners. Petra Boynton also addresses it in her book The Research Companion. But I haven’t seen it mentioned anywhere else (if you have, please let us know in the comments). So here are ten top tips:

  1. Plan everything. Lots of books will tell you how to plan your research project. What they don’t say is that you also need to plan for the changes to your life and work which will result from you taking on the research. How will your research affect your other commitments? What do you need to do to minimise the impact of your research on your other commitments and vice versa? Build in contingency time for unforeseen events.
  2. Manage your time carefully. Use your plan to help you. Break down the main tasks into monthly, weekly and daily to-do lists. Review these regularly.
  3. Learn to work productively in short bursts. It may seem counter-intuitive, but most people get more done this way than by setting aside whole days to work on a project.
  4. Use time when your mind is under-occupied, e.g. when you’re waiting in a queue or doing repetitive household tasks, to think about and solve problems related to your research.
  5. Seek support from your family. Make sure they know about your research and understand its importance to you.
  6. Seek support from colleagues, managers, tutors etc, whether your work is paid or unpaid. Make sure they know about your research and understand its importance in your life.
  7. Don’t cut corners in ways that could damage your health. Eat sensibly, take exercise, get enough sleep and rest.
  8. Take breaks. At least three short breaks in each day, one day off in each week, and four weeks off in each year.
  9. Don’t beat yourself up if things go wrong. Be kind to yourself and learn what you can from the experience. Then re-group, re-plan, and set off again.
  10. Reward yourself appropriately for milestones reached and successes achieved.

In my view, these are as much research methods as questionnaires and interviews. Learning to use them involves acquiring tacit knowledge. I’ve been on a mission to convert tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge ever since I started writing for professionals. This blog post is part of that process. If you have other tips, please add them in the comments.

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $12 per month. If you think 4-5 of my blog posts is worth more than $12 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also support for a single month if that works better for you. Support from Patrons also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

New Books and Give-Away!

Do Your Interviews coverOn 20 December last I received hard copies of my first two books in the Little Quick Fix series from SAGE. Then the winter holiday made me forget to blog about them – but I’ve just remembered! Attentive readers may remember that I’ve already written about the process of writing these little books. It was so great to see how the designers brought my ideas to life.

Here’s a flow chart I made in Word. The content is good but the design is a mess, it looks as though it was made by an inept seven-year-old. (I’m a writer, not a designer, OK?!)

slide for lqf blog post

So I put a note in begging the designers to make it look decent. And they did; look!

lqf page

Yep, you’re right; I’m not a photographer, either. It’s hard to do justice to these little books with a phone camera, but luckily SAGE have put the first one in the series, Research Question by Zina O’Leary, online here for you to flick through (scroll down). They’re doing this instead of offering inspection copies, though if you want to see one of the others, it’s a small outlay: £6.99 UK and $9.00 US, with similar prices in other jurisdictions.

Write A Questionnaire coverAnd I have four copies to give away! Two of Write A Questionnaire and two of Do Your Interviews, which I will gladly post anywhere in the world. This competition is only open to followers of this blog (if you want to enter and you don’t already follow the blog, you can find the ‘follow’ button at the top right). Leave a comment with your name, telling me which book you’d like and why. You can only enter once, for one title, not both. This time next week I will put the names into two hats, one for each title, and announce the winners in the comments on this post. Can’t say fairer than that!

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $12 per month. If you think 4-5 of my blog posts is worth more than $12 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also support for a single month if that works better for you. Support from Patrons also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

New Year’s Resolution: Review A Book A Week

booksHappy New Year, lovely blog readers! I hope 2019 is full of happiness for each and every one of you.

My New Year’s resolution this year is to spread a little happiness by reviewing an academic book each week. Academic books, even those that are widely read and cited, rarely receive public reviews. Yet public reviews online are the most useful tools to help potential readers decide whether or not to read a book. People are using reviews more and more: to find ways to meet their needs for everything from holiday accommodation to plumbers. I’m ashamed to admit I wrote more reviews on TripAdvisor last year than I did on Amazon.

That’s a sticking point, of course. Some people are ideologically opposed to using Amazon because of the company’s exploitative employment policies and avoidance of tax. Another option is Goodreads – though (little-known fact coming up) Goodreads are owned by Amazon, which I only found out as I looked them up online for information to share here. Yet Amazon and Goodreads are the most useful sites from a potential reader’s viewpoint because they are where most book reviews are posted.

For an ethical alternative, Wordery are independent and ship worldwide for free. There aren’t many book reviews on Wordery as yet; the website is more interested in promoting reviews for its business than in encouraging book reviews. This may be because it is a newish business, founded in 2012. But there is space to write reviews on Wordery.

Of course I could also review on social media, and sharing information about books that way is helpful. However it’s not as permanent, and doesn’t enable comparison of different viewpoints in the same way, as reviewing on a website. Reviewing on blogs is good, especially the more widely read blogs, but writing a whole blog post is much more demanding for the reviewer. A review on Amazon/Goodreads/Wordery need only be a few sentences long.

If you’re not sure how to review a book, here are two top tips. First, give an honest opinion of what you liked or disliked, or found useful/not useful, with reasons. Reviews that say ‘This book is pointless’ or ‘This book is marvellous’, without explaining why, are not helpful. An example from my own approach: I always deduct a star for an academic book with an inadequate index or no index at all, because for me this reduces the usefulness of the book. When I’m working I need to be able to navigate swiftly around a book’s contents and a good professional index is an essential aid. But this is a personal requirement, so explaining why I’ve taken away a star is helpful for potential readers who may have different requirements. For example, some people only ever read a book once and make careful notes as they read which they use for reference later. For those people, an index is much less important.

Second, say what kind of people you think will find the book useful. That could be people at a particular stage of education, or with specific interests or needs, or studying/working in a certain discipline or field. You can do more if you wish, but if you do those two things, you will have written a review which could help others decide whether to spend time and/or money on the book in question.

I’ve written my first review for this year on amazon.co.uk and copied it to Wordery. (I also tried to copy it to amazon.com, as I have done in the past, but found I’m ineligible because I haven’t spent $50 there in the last year.) The book I chose to review was Indigenous Research Methodologies by Bagele Chilisa which I have mentioned before on this blog. This illustrates another important point: reviewing a book a week doesn’t mean reading a book a week. I will review books I read during the year, and I will also review a selection of the books from my shelves that I haven’t yet reviewed. I plan to prioritise books by women, queer people, scholars with disabilities, Indigenous writers, and others who have to contend with oppression.

As an author myself, it would be disingenuous of me not to declare that reviews help authors too. Bagele Chilisa’s book has (at the time of writing) 1109 citations on Google Scholar, yet only one review on Amazon UK and three on Goodreads. While citations are great if you’re in academia, public reviews increase visibility for authors far more than citations. I have never understood why academic readers don’t take a few minutes to write public reviews like readers of other types of books. Though I’m guilty too… but that is going to change! The minute I publish this blog post I’m going to write my second review for this year.

You can join in if you too would like to spread a little happiness. All you need to do is take five minutes to write a short public review of an academic book. Perhaps a book you think should be more widely known, or that you would not recommend (don’t forget to say why), or that would help readers in a particular category. Even if you only review a book a month – or even a book a year – that will help potential readers, and authors too. I’ll be using the hashtags #reviewabook and #reviewabookaweek to talk about this on social media. Hope to see you there!

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $12 per month. If you think 4-5 of my blog posts is worth more than $12 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also support for a single month if that works better for you. Support from Patrons also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

What Offends People Makes Great Data

im-right-1458410__340Have you noticed how people seem to be getting offended about the strangest things? For example, there has been controversy this month over two songs that are regularly played in English-speaking countries at this time of year. The first is Baby It’s Cold Outside, a duet between two people (usually a man and a woman, though the lyrics are not gender-specific). It was written by Frank Loesser in 1944 to sing with his wife as a party trick. One character is persuading a slightly reluctant other to stay in the warm rather than go out into the winter weather. It’s flirtatious and funny, especially in my favourite version by Cerys Matthews and Tom Jones with an entertaining video which is worth watching right to the end. But some people say the lyrics promote date rape, and the song was banned by some radio stations earlier this month.

This is interesting as evidence of how our perceptions change. In 1944 no doubt date rape existed but it was not a widespread topic of conversation or media interest. In 2018, after #metoo, the world is a different place. So rather than looking like an innocent piece of comedy, to some people Baby It’s Cold Outside looks like a sinister instruction manual for would-be date rapists.

The other song that has been getting people hot under the collar is Fairytale Of New York, a more recent classic by The Pogues featuring Kirsty McColl. This is one of my two favourite seasonal songs. I love that it portrays people having an argument – so very common at this time of year – rather than the more usual saccharine sweetness. During the argument, two people hurl insults at each other, one uses the word ‘faggot’ and this is what has caused upset. (The other uses the word ‘slut’ but that doesn’t seem to be a problem… ho hum.) Shane McGowan, who co-wrote the song, made a dignified statement explaining that the song features two fictional characters who are not nice people so some of the things they say are not nice. He explains that storytelling requires unpleasant characters – which it does, or there is no drama.

One interesting thing about all this offence being taken is that more people hear about and listen to the songs. So people’s outrage, amplified by the media, has the opposite effect from that which they intend.

Perhaps words are easy to be offended by. It’s harder to be offended by the really offensive things going on around our planet such as famine and capitalism. We long for simplicity, for a world with problems we can solve. Yet banning a song containing the word ‘faggot’ is not going to fix global homophobia.

Research can be offensive, too. Of course unethical research is deeply offensive, but even careful, rigorous, ethical research can cause offence. John Bohannon, in his TED talk, said, “The great pleasure of science is the defeat of intuition.” I think that’s a wonderful sentence. Yet so many people hold fast to their intuition in the face of research evidence, outraged by the facts that challenge their beloved and long-held beliefs.

This, too, is interesting. I suspect this very human trait contributes to the barriers in translating research into policy and into practice. It certainly fuels many debates and slanging matches on social media. That gets exhausting sometimes… so I’ll be taking a break for the holiday season. See you in January!

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $12 per month. If you think 4-5 of my blog posts is worth more than $12 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also support for a single month if that works better for you. Support from Patrons also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Dance Your PhD

street-dancer-1756944_960_720The 11th annual Dance Your PhD contest is now open – closing date 14 January 2019. So if you’re studying for (or already have) a PhD in social science, chemistry, physics or biology, and you’re short of ideas for things to do over the holidays, why not dance your thesis?

I mention this contest in my creative research methods workshops and I’m always surprised by how many people haven’t heard about it. I rather enjoy watching their faces as I say “We’ll be doing interpretive dance this afternoon.” I’m joking, of course, but dance evidently does have a place in communicating science. Like many creative research methods, dance can engage your emotions and so aid retention of the messages conveyed. This also means dance is good for communicating across disciplinary and other boundaries. On the other hand, dance can only convey fairly simple messages, and usually needs to be contextualised through other modes of communication such as speech. Also, it is difficult to render in writing, though there have been valiant attempts such as by the autoethnographer and dancer Karen Barbour who used photographs alongside text to try to convey her experience. But then again, dance is dramatic, visual, entertaining, and memorable. These qualities make it an excellent vehicle for communication in some contexts, as the longevity of the Dance Your PhD contest suggests.

The contest was founded in 2008 by science journalist John Bohannon. In the first year there were 12 contestants; last year there were over 60. The first winner was Brian Stewart, a doctoral student of archaeology at Oxford University in the UK. You can see his winning dance here, and his prize was a one-year subscription to Science magazine. Today the contest is sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Science magazine, and the next winner will receive $1,000 in cash (maybe more if the organisers can find extra sponsorship in time).

John Bohannon has given a TED talk about dance and science in which he says that dance really can make science easier to understand. And this is not a 21st century phenomenon. In 1971, the Department of Chemistry at Stanford University in the US used dance to convey the concept of protein synthesis. This can still be viewed on YouTube (the dance part starts at 3:10 if you want to go straight there) and it’s an interesting glimpse into a bygone era as well as being a quite impressive production.

Dances from the Dance Your PhD contest can also be viewed online: pre-2015 dances on Vimeo and more recent dances on YouTube. If you fancy having a go, you don’t need any dance experience or qualifications; there are tips available to help you. And if you do, please let me know so I can watch your dance!

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $11 per month. If you think 4-5 of my blog posts is worth more than $11 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also support for a single month if that works better for you. Support from Patrons also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

How To Give Feedback On Academic Writing – Twelve Top Tips

feedback peopleA recent discussion on Facebook reminded me that I’ve written about how to deal with feedback from reviewers, but I haven’t written about how to give feedback to peers and colleagues. There is an art to this which I have learned, paradoxically, from receiving feedback, which taught me what helps and what does not help.

Feedback is a fairly neutral word but what we’re actually dealing with is criticism. Some people call it ‘critique’ to make it sound better but it’s still criticism. Criticism is not neutral and so it has lots of emotion attached.

In the last decade I joined a closed online short story writing group of around a dozen fiction writers. We all knew each other online through blogging and wanted to improve our writing. The idea was that we would each write and share a story once a fortnight. The stories were posted anonymously by one of the group – we took turns – and the others would give feedback. To begin with we only gave positive feedback until one of us pointed out that we weren’t going to get very far that way. We were a bit scared about being more critical, but gradually our feedback became more robust, with honesty about the elements of each story that didn’t work for us and why, as well as praise for the parts that did and suggestions for how to overcome weaknesses. We built up a lot of trust in that group and it helped us to give better feedback and so become better writers.

This experience taught me that trust is important to effective feedback. In the group we built trust over time. If you’re writing an anonymous peer review, you need to create trust all at once.

Another thing that is important is blending praise where possible, or at least advice, with your criticism. I had a review for the typescript of my last book which was entirely critical. Essentially, it said the book was rubbish and should never be published. The reviewer is entitled to their opinion, and I have been a writer for far too long to be upset by critical feedback, but the problem was that the review gave me no help at all. There was nothing in it which I could use to improve my writing. (Luckily I had two other reviewers at that stage who took a more balanced approach and did give me constructive criticism, advice, and some praise.)

So, from all my years of experience of receiving and giving feedback on writing in several genres, here are my twelve top tips for giving good quality feedback that others will trust.

  1. Be honest in all the feedback you give.
  2. Read the piece you’re giving feedback on carefully, thoroughly, at least twice.
  3. While you read, make notes of thoughts that occur to you. As a minimum, these should include: aspects of the work you think are good; where you think there is room for improvement; anything you don’t understand; references the author might find helpful.
  4. Be sure to praise the good points in the author’s work. This helps to build trust and also lets the author know what they can relax about.
  5. Be open about anything you don’t understand. Doing this worries some people because they think they may look stupid, particularly if they’re giving feedback to a peer or colleague rather than writing an anonymous review. But it’s really helpful feedback for writers because it may be that they haven’t written clearly enough.
  6. Give a straightforward assessment of areas where you think there is room for improvement.
  7. Tell the author how you think they can improve their work. This is crucial. If you’re only saying where improvement is needed, you’re only doing half the job.
  8. Where relevant, suggest references the author has missed.
  9. If you think extra references would be helpful but nothing specific springs to mind, have a quick look on a website such as Google Scholar or the Directory of Open Access Journals and see if you can find something to point the author towards.
  10. Don’t worry if you can only offer a certain amount of help because of the limits to your own knowledge. It’s fine to say, for example, that a quick online search suggests there is more relevant literature in the area of X; you’re not certain because X lies outside your own areas of interest but you think it would be worth the author taking a look.
  11. Acknowledge the author’s emotions. For example, after giving quite critical feedback, you might say something like, “I realise that implementing my suggestions will involve a fair amount of extra work and this may seem discouraging. I hope you won’t be put off because I do think you have a solid basis here and you are evidently capable of producing an excellent piece of writing.” (Though remember #1 above and don’t say this if it’s not true.)
  12. Be polite throughout, even if your review is anonymous. Anonymity is not an excuse for rudeness.

If there’s anything I’ve missed, please add it in the comments.

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $12 per month. If you think four of my blog posts are worth more than $12 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also support for a single month if that works better for you. Support from Patrons also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to give financial support at this time, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Independent Research, Writing, and Financial Reality

money twenty pound notesEvery so often I post about how much money I make. As I’m just finishing my 2017-18 accounts, it seems a good time to update this.

I have written before about the difficulties the recession caused to my business and the bumpy road back to reasonable prosperity. In 2017-18 I invoiced for £34,338.54 of business, a bit down on the 2016-17 figure of £39,939 though that was partly because I took on a sizeable contract in the spring of 2018 but didn’t receive my first payment instalment until after my year end on 31.7.18.

The amount I invoice for is representative of the amount of work I do, not the amount of money I have in my pockets. In 2016-17 my post-tax profit was £14,057 – and I was able to pay myself a bit more than that because I’d had an even better year in 2015-16, as reported in my earlier post. In fact, 2015-16 was by far the best year of the last 8 years.

So it’s still bumpy, but the bumps are evening out, and I’m beginning to feel that I’m back on my financial feet (except when I think about my pension plans, eek, must do something about that). It helps that my mortgage is paid off, I’m happily child-free, and I don’t have expensive tastes. Also, I have plenty of work scheduled in for early 2018. For the first time in eight years, I don’t feel as if I should spend every spare moment trying to generate work.

Also, my research business doesn’t represent the whole of my income. There is also the income I derive from writing, which in 2017-18 was royalties of £1,663.70 from my trade published books and £306.25 from my self-published books, plus £268.64 from the wonderful ALCS. That’s a total of £2,238.59 for the year – though again there were outgoings to set against that: memberships of the Society of Authors and the Textbook and Academic Authors’ Association, royalties to Nathan Ryder who co-authored Self-Publishing for Academics, and all the books I bought. Altogether that comes to £593.48 and brings down my writing-related income to £1,645.11. Which is enough to pay for a month of writing time. I have to look at it that way, and not think in terms of an hourly rate, or I’d never write another word… if I wasn’t a writing addict.

Writing income is bumpy too. As my trade royalties arrive annually in October, I already know that they are lower in 2018-19 (£947.46) and I don’t really understand why. But I have a new book out this month, and I’ll have two short books out next month in the new series I’m working on for SAGE, plus two more next July, and I’m also co-editing and writing for a new series for Routledge, and have three other book proposals in the pipeline. The SAGE and Routledge books come with small advances totalling £1,250 so far, so in this financial year I’ve already made more from those than from the royalties on my published books. I’m hopeful that perhaps by 2021 I’ll make enough to buy myself out for two months of writing time. At that rate it should only take another 30 years of work to be able to write full-time, so it doesn’t look as though I’ll achieve that dream, as I’ll be 87 in 2051!

Sometimes people think that because my day rates are comparatively high, I must be rich. In fact, my day rates don’t only cover a day’s work, they also cover holidays, sickness and bereavement leave, time spent on unpaid but essential work such as admin and accounts, travelling time, business expenses such as heat and light and IT equipment and accountants’ fees and so on, and of course tax to be paid.

There are independent researchers who make more money than me – I know of one who is registered for VAT, which suggests they turn over more than £85,000 per year, but they work very hard for that, travelling all around the world for most of the year. That may sound delightful and glamorous but I can assure you that travelling for work, while it does have lovely moments, is mostly about trains, planes, taxis, hotel rooms and classrooms or meeting rooms. I like to work overseas, and could probably make more money if I did more of it, but once or twice a year is about right for me.

I think it is important to be open about how much money I make overall, not least because so many people ask me what it’s like to be an independent researcher. For me, it’s a terrific lifestyle, but it wouldn’t suit everyone. I’d say it’s probably as difficult as being an academic or practice-based researcher but the difficulties are in different places. If it’s an option you’re considering, you need to be as realistic as possible about the financial side.

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $11 per month. If you think four or five of my blog posts are worth more than $11 in total – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also support for a single month if that works better for you. Support from Patrons also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!