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My thesis in four words

In a flash of inspiration, I have reduced my thesis down to four words. One picture speaks 80,000 words?


PhD, blogging and procrastination

It’s been a month since my last blog post, but it feels like an eternity. Furthermore, tweeting has gone way down too.  But I guess that’s what happens when real life takes over. Truth is, as useful and creative as social media can be, it can also be a major source of procrastination. A bit like talking on the phone with friends.

I knew that when I started the ‘Not a PhD Thesis’ blog, I was not going to put myself under the pressure of updating it every day. But I still managed to write something at least once a week, often more. Often, it was a way of taking a break from my PhD. And often it was a way of exploring ideas within my PhD and the application of theory to practice. So I never expected to go so long from the field. It’s been a month, but in internet time, that’s forever.

As I said, real life (well, offline life) took over. Soon after the start of 2012, it hit me that I in my third year and into the end game of my PhD. My plan, when I started, was to submit this July. As I’ve progressed, that date has slowly slipped back, to August, then September. In my fourth year, I enter the official writing up stage. For the first six months of the fourth year, I don’t need pay any fees. Given that I don’t pay my own fees but someone else is paying them, it made sense therefore that I effectively have until April 2013 to submit my thesis. (Otherwise, what they expected to pay goes up.) I am pretty sure that I don’t need to wait until next April and I’m not sure that I want to wait that long, so I am resolved to submit by December/January, which I think is doable. The only thing is that I have not even transferred/upgraded to PhD status yet, which I should have done last September. (Most of my colleagues have not transferred either but that’s besides the point.) Once I transfer, then I am can go for the PhD, otherwise I might have to settle for the MPhil – frankly, after three years, that would feel like such a waste of my time, not to mention a waste of my sponsor’s money. So the last two months, my only goal has been to complete all the documentation for this deadline, including writing and finalising two chapters. I finally got this done last Friday and I should be able to submit the documents within two weeks. Just need supervisers’ signatures.

I am now ready to move onto chapters three and four. The great thing is that I’ve effectively written half my thesis (not including introduction and finetuning). All of sudden, an 80,000 word thesis is no longer on the other side of a canyon. I feel like Thelma and Louise mid-air over the top. Yes, I know that we don’t if they made it across but that’s what faith is for.

According to the Procrastination Equation, I am an impulsive being. Blogging and tweeting did become forms of procrastination. They had more immediately fulfillable rewards plus, while it was important that I succeed, the expectancy that I would be able write 80,000 words was low. Indeed, the only way I’ve been able to force myself to write was by reducing the ‘delay to reward’ and ‘expectancy of success’ to 1,000 words a day. That worked to an extent. But, the last two months, not only was I focusing on 1,000 words a day, I also added an extra deadline of the end of March and just put loads of pressure on myself so that no meeting that deadline would feel like the end of the world. It also helped that at the time when I wanted as much time as possible to work on my PhD, I also got a number of opportunities to engage in teaching and this reduced the time available and added to the pressure. It was a both good and bad timing, because it forced to me to focus. So, having achieved my goal within my deadline, more or less, my expectancy of success has gone way up on two counts: word count and duration.

I can relax a little a bit now but not too much. I am still an impulsive being. So I have to find ways of overcoming it either. Fortunately, my most immediate research tasks is more reading and, since the weather is expected to be good for the next few days, I can decamp to the park. (Yes, I know, it’s hard life doing a PhD sometimes.) But that’s not always going to work, when I am writing up or researching online. In those times, I find that I have to schedule blocks of procrastination to get it out my system before I start work for the day, at lunch time or at the end of the working day, or sometimes I just have to resist.

The Procrastination Equation, as developed by Dr Piers Steel, is a formulaic and psychological way of understanding our dialectic nature as individuals, and the dialectic nature of the world. Catherine Malabou says that we are plastic – we can be formed by others as well as resist deformation. In other words, our plasticity (developed from the philosophy of Hegel) as individuals is our susceptability to change and our capacity to resist- or our propensity to procrastinate. It’s not just PhDs we procrastinate on but on everything we do or have to do – from paying our bills to tackling climate change.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that I will stop blogging, but it might be I don’t blog as often I used to. After all, I can’t stop my propensity to procrastinate, but I can make it work for me instead of against me.

For more on the above and other ideas to tackle procrastination, I strongly recomment ‘The Procrastination Equation’ by Dr Piers Steel.

Recycling: Information, not Incentives

PhD Graduates

Sometimes it feels like you need a PhD to recycle

For my PhD, I am looking at the impact of incentives on increasing recycling rates. So far, I have focused on Windsor and Maidenhead Borough council which launched the first incentivised household recycling scheme in the UK, operated by an American company Recyclebank.

Let’s cut to the chase. According to Windsor and Maidenhead’s own data, offering incentives – reward points to redeem at local businesses – for recycling does increase recycling rates. In a sense, this is not really surprising. Who wouldn’t want to be paid for doing the right thing? Particularly in the current economic situation, anything that helps with running a household can only be good thing.

And yes, the notion of incentives does recognise that we are not purely righteous beings, that we do have a selfish side. The problem with incentives is that it only focuses on our selfish nature, when the real barrier to recycling was that our righteous side is not being massaged enough.

According to the Waste and Resource Action Programme (WRAP), the problem with recycling rates is not that most people aren’t recycling but that most people aren’t recycling enough. Most of us are convinced of the argument for recycling, but we’re not provided with either the information or the environment that will help us to recycle, and so we resort back to what we know – the residual waste bin.

Today’s edition of Dispatches, the cleverly-titled ‘Britain’s Rubbish‘, provided examples of how information overload is leading to paralysis. There is no industry standard for recycling labels – seven were counted – and facilities for unusual types of plastic packaging may not always or easily be available. I know that my own local authority states that it cannot recycle Tetra Packs, even though the packaging themselves say that it can be recycled. And what about bottle tops? They don’t have any recycling labels, even though the bottle does. What do I do? Put it in the green bin anyway or throw it in the brown bin.

Another problem is food waste, where two-thirds of what we throw away is still edible. There are three different dates which appear on packaging – ‘Best Before’, ‘Sell by’ and ‘Use by’. The latter ‘Use by’ was found to be a conservative industry estimate, although this is understandable in light of health and safety – in fact, a lot of food is still OK to eat 10 days after this date. ‘Sell by’ dates, which has been the subject of recent government guidelines to phase it out, is more an indication to the supermarket as to when to reorder and restock.  And, of course, it is possible that consumers buy too much in the first place, under pressure from the array of special offers.

Without information clarity, it is not surprising that – even though we believe in the importance of recycling – we can find it a challenge to figure out quite which bin to put stuff in, especially if there are bins for different type of recyclable packaging. The residual waste bin is the devil we know. It has been argued that mixed recycling, where we throw recyclables into one bin, is convenient and the solution to contamination. The problem is that the sorting is carried out by machine and technology, which look for certain criteria, so things are always missed. Although self-reported recycling industry rates are 3-4%, the Environment Agency say that it is closer to 11%. While mixed recycling collections might help the government achieve the headline target of 50% by 2020, 15-20% of that may still end up back in landfill.

Mixed, or co-mingled, recycling may be convenient, but it means that councils are not able to profit from a proportion of what’s collected. In times of public sector cuts, they could do with all the money they can get. Household sorting or even kerbside sorting would actually be more beneficial for councils and their constituencies. But that can only work if the information provided is clear.

What I found particularly interesting from the Dispatches documentary is that mixed recycling collections could actually be illegal, because the EU’s own rules stipulates that separate collections should be carried out for different types of packaging. This is the subject of a Judicial Review claim at the moment.

Of course, the lack of information clarity can also become an excuse for laziness on the part of the consumer. In the documentary, when one woman with a fair number of kids, agreed to be deprived of her residual waste bin, she was forced to think about how she could reuse or recycle. In the space of three weeks, her residual waste went from 13 kg to just 5 kg. So perhaps the residual waste bin is like a security blanket. This raises a question about the government’s latest policy to provide a fund to help councils provide weekly collections.

Finally, in one scheme run by a charity, the residual waste was collected in a seethru bag, so that people couldn’t hide behind the lack of transparency of the black bag. In other words, concern about what others would think and peer pressure was a big motivator.

In encouraging incentivisation, the government is right to recognise that we are complex individuals who don’t always do what’s right. We are creatures of our environment. However, it fails to take into account that, despite our flaws, we still remain moral beings who want to do what’s right. We just need the right environment.

If a blog is a baby, am I a neglectful parent?

Baby‘Not a PhD Thesis’ is not my first blog, but it is certainly the one that has lasted the longest. Actually, my first blog was born in 1998/9. At that point, I don’t think there was anything like the web tools like WordPress or Blogger (or at least I wasn’t aware of any). No, I had to get down and dirty with basic HTML, a skill which has proved valuable since but of which I am a bit rusty. Anyway, that first blog, my eldest, was simply an online diary focusing on the last few months of my Bachelor’s degree. It was called ‘Pravin Jeya’s Corner of Cyberspace’. But after I graduated and once I got into the lazy summer, I just lost interest in it. So, I killed, I mean, deleted it.

For a while, I didn’t do any serious blogging, but that didn’t matter, because I was working as a journalist or copywriter, i.e. taking care of someone else’s editorial requirements. I think there have been a few aborted attempts using various other tools, but – to be honest – I just couldn’t see myself getting excited about them. And then I discovered WordPress. I think it might have been top of the Google search result. And I was impressed.

My second blog was not born until 2009. It was called Low Salt Foods. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, that’s an even worse name than Corner of Cyberspace. Possibly. Truth is, I probably could have been a pushy parent, because I saw Low Salt Foods as part of my plan to start an information service for people with low salt requirements. But once the blog was born, I realised that there was more to it than that. Anyway, it ended up helping me through a period of unemployment. Then I started my PhD and I got bored with Low Salt Foods. I kinda ignored it for a while but eventually got round to killing it shortly after Not a PhD Thesis was born.

I have to be honest, I think Not a PhD Thesis is probably the first blog for which I have felt any real emotions. And, it’s strange, but it has had a real impact on me as a person. I can see that I have changed in the 10 months since it was born. Perhaps it was the advice I received from an old school friend not to be neurotic about blogging, just allow it to grow at its own pace. The irony is, in doing so, I have felt a real desire and interest in its development.

Indeed, I have become more confident has a blogger as a result and I finally decided to create a second blog, From Tweet to Thesis. They say that the oldest child is usually a guinea pig, the one on whom stuff is tried, so that parents have a much better idea what to do if more children are born. But the amazing thing is that I don’t love one blog more than the other. Indeed, I even use Not A PhD Thesis (the oldest blog) to help look after From Tweet to Thesis (the youngest).

Now, I have to admit, I perhaps haven’t paid as much attention to Not a PhD Thesis since the second one was born. I have found myself worrying about the second one. But, contrary to before, I have not felt any desire to delete the first. That thought would be kinda disturbing.  In fact, the first blog has helped to promote the second blog.

I guess my confidence as a blogger has meant that I have ended up blogging for other people too. (If you want to see From Tweet to Thesis or the blogs I’ve contributed to, see the ‘My Writing’ photo album.)  Still, when I look at other people’s blogs, I realise I still have a lot to learn, but I guess that’s the best bit.

N.B. I am not actually a parent in real life, and is only based on what could be my single person’s prejudices of parenting.

Social Media as a Research Tool

By Dr Sarah-Louise Quinnell

interview in the mud

Social media can make fieldwork easier...and cleaner

I seem to be becoming known as a bit of a social media expert, particularly in relation to its application within academic research and researcher development.

So how did this come to be? Aftr all, my PhD is in Human Geography; my thesis examined the role of capacity-development initiatives in the implementation of multi-lateral environmental agreements in Africa – not a subject which shouts out social media!

During my second year, I had a few problems. I went down with scarlet fever so I couldn’t do fieldwork. Then, when I was allowed to go, my placement fell through. Furthermore, I had a supervisor who didn’t appreciate the concept of overseas fieldwork so I was left trying to work out what to do. But by this time, I had realised that many international organisations, including UN bodies, were using message boards and forums to engage with their target audiences/participants. This set me off on a two year experiment. I worked with a web developer to build a website which became my field site or hub around which my research was centred. It hosted a range of open source and bespoke applications in order for me to engage with a range of globally-dispersed participants.

What I found was that by engaging pro-actively with digital technology, I could significantly increase the reach of my work. I managed to interview people I would not have been able to using traditional methods as it would have been both too time consuming and expensive to conduct the interviews. Using VoIP and Skype is significantly cheaper than traditional face to face or phone methods, and free if Skype-to-Skype. Digital technology also enabled me to significantly increase my response rate for my questionnaires. An initial paper version of my questionnaire generated a less than 20% response rate. When I later re-sent the same questionnaire using a web-based survey tool, the response rate increased by over 50%.

My original site was live for two years. By the time I completed my studies, there had been rapid developments in the types of digital technology/social media applications publicly and freely available, making it even easier to integrate digital technology into the research process. As a result, post-PhD, I have been involved in a number of resources that illustrate how social media can be used in all stages of the research process and in a researcher’s professional development. I am also developing training courses to promote and support the use of technology. In doing so, I am not calling for the abolition of traditional methods. In certain circumstances, digital techniques aren’t practical. However, I do believe researchers should investigate what these mediums can offer.

Dr Sarah-Louise Quinnell gained in her PhD in 2010. As well as continuing her research in geography,  she is involved in developing social media training programmes for research students and researchers at Kings College London. She is also managing editor of PhD2Published, the founder of the Networked Researcher blog and avidly tweets at @sarahthesheepu.


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