Confessions of a PhD student (15): “I feel a bit empty inside as my PhD is ending”

I have recently submitted my PhD thesis. After almost 4 years, it is ready. I finished. The literature review, the methodology, the data collection and analysis, the discussion, the conclusions, everything, it is done. Long hours of hard work have culminated in a 266-page long document.

It felt strange handing it in. It is not the final step of this journey, as I still have to wait for my viva voce presentation. But it is so close to the end that I cannot help but feeling a bit empty inside. An important period of my life is ending. My stay in the United Kingdom is almost over.

BCPR Thesis

This is my most liked picture on Facebook. I was impressed by the amount of support and good wishes I received.

It is time to look back and reflect on what I have learned. Throughout my studies, I have met many interesting people, who have shared with me their experience and knowledge. I have learned about technologies, pedagogical practices, research methodologies and more.

Unquestionably, the person that has contributed the most to my academic development has been my supervisor. We have worked together in a weekly basis. He is one of the most intelligent people I have ever met. I am grateful to have him as my mentor, my academic father. From him I have learned many lessons, including:

  1. Write properly. I knew this one before starting my PhD. But now I am better at it. A great idea/finding is nothing if expressed blandly.
  2. Use diagrams. Figures give readers a break from the text. They help those who just want to skim through your writing learn your main points.
  3. Choose your fights. I hate it when someone wants to use their “authority” to make me do something I do not want to do (e.g., unnecessary changes in my work). When I am in a situation like that, my first impulse is to argue and stand my ground. My supervisor taught me to keep calm and find the easiest way to solve the problem. Is it worthwhile to spend time discussing trifles? Usually, it is not. I have learned that now.

Is this really over? I want to think that this is not the end, but a new beginning. I will continue doing research, writing, learning… I will keep in contact with the people I have met and maybe even collaborate with them. New projects await. A new path lies ahead.  A new journey will start.

Confessions of a PhD student (14): I am a MOOC dropout.

A couple of months ago I participated in a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) for the first time. I was intrigued about the MOOC movement. I only had a general idea: free courses, prestigious universities, thousands of students, access to anyone with an Internet connection… I wanted to know more about the learning design, the interactions between participants, the assessment processes, the challenges …

I signed up in Coursera and enrolled in a course on information and communication technologies in education. I had 18,000 fellow course mates. The course consisted of activities based on independent study and self-evaluation surveys. There were some synchronous sessions, which in practice were mere videos of the teachers. Interactions were fostered through a Twitter hashtag and a number of discussion forums.

My first impression was: Chaos. Instructions were not clear for everyone. Different resources had inconsistent information. There were lots of questions. Some people seemed to have no experience with communicating online. A thread about a technical problem could have a random post of someone introducing themselves (?!). This is not an issue with a small group of participants… but when you have a group of 18k… It is overwhelming…

I dropped out after a couple of days. I am not proud of it. I am part of the statistics, of those who failed to complete the course. However, I also think it was the best decision for me at the time. I had four main reasons to stop:

  1. I felt lost in a sea of chaos. The large number of students with different skill levels derived in an overwhelming amount of messages being sent without following a coherent structure. I could not keep up with that.
  2. Course content was not completely self-explanatory. Some instructions were confusing. Different resources had inconsistent information. The teachers could not answer all the questions. Again, I felt lost.
  3. It was a free course. Dropping out had no significant consequence.
  4. The time and effort needed to make sense of the MOOC seemed to exceed the expected benefits. For me, it was not worth it.

Are all MOOCs the same? Is it only a matter of enduring the beginning?  Maybe after a while it improves? I do not know, but I will soon start another MOOC. Hopefully I will obtain some answers.

***

Why do people drop out of MOOCs?

  • Overwhelming chaos
  • Unclear guidance
  • No losses or significant consequences
  • Efforts to succeed exceed expected benefits

Confessions of a PhD Student (13): “Positivist? Interpretivist? Neither. I am a pragmatist”

In science there are different paradigms which attempt to explain the world. Is there a single reality, one that is out there, available for anyone who looks for it? Or is it something more variable, something internal, something we create and modify? Positivism views reality as objective, fixed. Interpretivism considers it subjective, depending on relevant actors.

Positivists tend to use quantitative methods to study phenomena; interpretivists prefer a more qualitative approach. Both have limitations. Positivists identify statistical trends, but their findings lack depth. Researchers may fail to fully appreciate the context and the voices of participants. Interpretivists seek an in-depth understanding of the matter of study, but their results lack breadth. Researchers’ personal interpretations are subject to bias, and generalising is complicated due to a small number of participants.

Imagine a company wanting to know if employees are satisfied with a course. A positivist applies a survey to all participants, and finds that 80% report liking the training and would recommend it. An interpretivist conducts interviews to a sample of students, and finds a tendency to provide positive comments about the training and praise the collaborative activities embedded in the course. While both approaches have the described limitations, both yield valuable information, and their conclusions are rather similar.

Me, I like statistics. I also like tangible, observable things. I like operationalising variables. I like making sure we are talking about the same thing. More than once I have been called a positivist. However, I do not consider myself a positivist. I do not like labels, as they tend to imply characteristics that may or may not apply. If I call myself a positivist, then people might expect me to only look for the objective reality, only look at numbers and statistical trends and miss the beauty of the detail. And I also believe that truth is socially constructed. People’s subjective perceptions are a valuable source of information, not only to themselves but to the world. Personal accounts of phenomena help to obtain explanations. Yet, I do not consider myself an interpretivist either.

I am a pragmatist. I focus on what works. I do research using mixed methods (both quantitative and qualitative). I can see the value of objective and subjective knowledge. I understand truth as a tentative, evolving entity. I believe that different situations could (and should!) be studied in different ways. I reject the idea that there are two options, positivism or interpretivism, white or black. I see a world full of colors. Understanding this world requires openness to different ideas, approaches and explanations. How could I discard a paradigm that works? Both positivism and interpretivism can work. Pragmatism for the win.

—-

For further readings, please see:

Creswell, J. W. & Plano Clark, V. L. (2007). Designing and conducting mixed methods research. California, USA: Sage Publications.

Teddlie, C. & Tashakkori, A. (2009). Foundations of Mixed Methods Research: Integrating quantitative and qualitative approaches in the social and behavioural sciences. USA: SAGE Publications.

Confessions of a PhD Student (12): I need a wow factor

So… I have finished my data collection and analysis. Or so I want to believe. I have interesting information that enables me to answer my research questions. I have identified key conclusions. I also have lots of extra data that I can use for other studies. It seems that I am all set to write my thesis, have my Viva, and get my PhD… But why do I feel that something is still missing?

I cannot shake away that feeling… A PhD is supposed to provide a meaningful contribution to the academic community. Are my findings meaningful enough? How can I know? Meaningful for whom? Who is the academic community? Me? My participants? You?

I would not be worried if I had a wow factor. A wow factor is very useful in academic writings. It is something that makes the audience think: Wow. I hadn’t thought of that before. If you have a wow factor, it is highly likely that your contribution is meaningful, or at least, that it will be regarded as such.

Unfortunately, I do not have a wow factor. I need one. Does it have to do with the actual data or with the way of presenting the data? That is a tricky question. I am not sure. I want to say: Both. You need to have something new and present it in an engaging way. We could even represent the wow factor using the following equation:

exciting data + exciting presentation = wow factor

But honestly, I think that you could have quite a boring finding (my intervention was unsuccessful), present it in an original way (today I will show you how to ruin an intervention) and achieve a wow factor (wow; what an interesting, insightful presentation). So our equation is simply:

|data| + exciting presentation = wow factor

Is achieving the wow factor manipulation or effective communication? That is another tricky question. And again, I am not sure what the answer is. I want to say: It is effective communication. And since that sounds nicer, that is my answer. But let me know if you disagree. I would love to know your reasons.

Meanwhile I will look for my wow factor. I think my findings are interesting enough (but I am passionate about my work, so what else could I say?). I just need an effective way of communicating them and thus, making a meaningful contribution for the academic community.

Confessions of a PhD Student (11): “Things didn’t go as planned”

Mexican Flags

I recently came back to Leicester after five months in Mexico, where I was doing fieldwork. Before my trip, I had a plan and a timetable. … Sometimes things don’t go as planned. This was one of those times. I wanted to do lots of things, but I needed the help of potential participants. I soon realized that some people agree to collaborate but then don’t. Some wouldn’t even answer my emails right after looking for me to participate! I couldn’t understand… I also had a hard time finding an organization to do my research with. It took two months longer than planned. Fortunately, I eventually got a great company on board.

While I had a number of drawbacks, my time in Mexico was productive. I learned about risk analysis. I gave two conferences and two workshops. I finished writing an article, which I sent for review to a journal. I organized an international Symposium of Education and Technology.  I collected data for my thesis. I networked. Maybe I didn’t follow my original plan, but it went well. Activities and times changed, but the goal remained the same. I’m still on track and will return to Mexico in April to complete my fieldwork.

– Brenda Padilla

Confessions of a PhD Student (10): “I question authorities”

Have you ever noticed how some gurus in your field are never questioned? Have you ever noticed how some blindly accept as truth whatever authorities in your field say?

Dr. X is the director of the Super Great Institute and a professor at a very important university. He has a PhD in Y and has done research for a zillion years. His studies, experience and reputation back him up.

You probably know someone that fits this description. Have you ever got a chance to talk to this person? I have. And I know I am supposed to feel honored that I am being the recipient of such wisdom…

I do enjoy talking with academics in my area. I love it. I love sharing ideas. But I do question authorities if I do not agree with their ideas. They could be wrong, couldn’t they?

When my parents finished their PhDs, they told me something they had learned: A PhD does not make you any less stupid.

I have found this to be very true. Having academic credentials and lots of research experience can help people to stay closer to the truth. But it is no guarantee of anything. People are bound to make mistakes. I can make mistakes. Dr. X can make mistakes.

I have found that some gurus feel uncomfortable when I do not immediately accept their ideas and instead, I ask for the evidence that supports them. Some even get upset if I am not convinced by their arguments…

However, others do not mind being questioned, challenged. They even enjoy it! It can result in great academic conversations.

Even if it might be annoying for some, I think that questioning authorities is ok, whether you are a colleague of Dr. X or a simple PhD student.

– Brenda Padilla

Confessions of a PhD Student (9): “I created a monster”

Doing my PhD has been an adventure. I began with a very general idea of what I wanted to do. My work was fuzzy, vague. I was lost in a labyrinth of information. After doing a literature review and having several discussions with my supervisor, I was able to narrow down my topic to something specific and manageable… or so I thought.

 

Based on my research questions, I worked on ways of getting some answers. I chose a mixed approach. I included different instruments and methods to triangulate the information: interviews, surveys, document analysis, business metrics and more. I decided to consider the perspectives of all relevant stakeholders to obtain a more thorough understanding: students, teachers, course designers and managers. To organize myself, I divided the data collection in several stages, each of which could be considered an independent study…

 

…And my project grew out of proportions. One day I looked at my methodology chapter and thought: “I created a monster.”

 

My supervisor once told me that I want to fix the world. I do, one research project at a time… But maybe I exaggerated with my thesis… I had heard it before: “You want to do too much”. They told me a couple of times. Ok, ok. They told me LOTS of times.

 

I didn’t really understand it until I saw my plan written down and got scared by its monstrous dimensions. I can now accept that it encompasses too much. I do want to fix the world. But I cannot study everything right now. I have human, resource and time constraints.

 

So I will take control and narrow down my methodology.

 

I will fight and conquer my research.

No more monsters for me.

– Brenda Padilla

Confessions of a PhD Student (8): “Sometimes I ignore my supervisor”

Ok. I know how this title must sound. I know what some readers must be thinking: “It is not a good idea to write that! Even if it is true!”. 🙂

Let me explain. First, my supervisor is great. He has been able to deal with my unconventional ways (if you read my previous confessions, you will know what I am talking about!) and teach me so many things at the same time!

But still, sometimes I ignore him. It took me a while to realize I had to. He tends to show me a wide range of resources, frameworks, paths I can walk on. It is my job to decide which one suits me best. Even when it is clear that he has a preference, I have to be responsible for my own study and take my own decisions, which might be in line with his ideas or not. As long as I can justify my actions, it is ok. There is more than one right way of doing research.

Once my supervisor told me, “You have never asked me what to do. That would go against your nature”. He is probably right. I am very independent in my learning. However, that does not mean that I do not ask for help if I need it. It only means that I am able to set my own goals and follow them through, even if that implies ignoring my supervisor every once in a while.

– Brenda Padilla

Confessions of a PhD Student (7): “To be or not to be… serious”

I love my research topics. I am really passionate about them. When I present them, I try to transmit that passion to the audience.

I recently showed my flatmate some presentations I gave at a conference. I thought they were so pretty and engaging. They had colors and images. They were made in such a way that they could complement my words. There were some slides designed to make people smile… But he did not smile. He did not like them. He said my presentation was not formal and not appropriate for an academic audience.

 

Slide with image

This is one of the slides I used. I think it looks pretty and interesting. Plus, I took the picture, that is my friend, and it is a couch in Freud’s house in Vienna.

 

My flatmate argued that instead of using images of people with thinking/speaking bubbles, I should use graphs and diagrams… … It is not that I have anything in particular against graphs and diagrams. I do use them, sometimes… But I like thinking/speaking people!! I like using humor in my academic presentations!!

 

Slide with image2

This is another slide I used (in a different conference). It was designed to reflect what people were probably thinking at that point of my presentation and to make them smile. That is also my friend.

 

Are images engaging or distracting? I think it depends on how you use them. If they do not relate to your content (e.g., a gif of a dancing banana), well… I agree that they might be distracting. However, if they help you give your message in a more entertaining way, I really do not see the problem.

What do you think?

– Brenda Padilla

Confessions of a PhD Student (6): ˝I hate summarizing months of hard work to a 15-minute presentation˝

Recently, I had to prepare a presentation about my pilot study. It took me one year to do this project, one year to obtain an adequate overview of the literature in my field, take a theoretical stance, plan my research[1], fulfill the ethical requirements, find a participating organization, apply the instruments, analyze the data, determine the conclusions and write it all up.

During this time, I had to deal with academic and personal issues. It was a tough (but satisfying) job.

Summarizing all of it to make it fit a 15-minute presentation was a tough (and not so satisfying) job.

There is so much I would like to say! I read so much! I had to overcome so many challenges! I found so much interesting data! I have so many questions for future research!

I know, I know. Synthetizing is a skill that all researchers should have. Not everyone in the audience is interested in all the little details. Some (most?) just want to learn the key points. I understand. I am the same when it comes to topics that do not relate to my main interests.

I did manage to condense my work. I just did not like doing it.

– Brenda Padilla


[1] If you read my fourth confession, you will know more about my pilot study and how I did it… without really knowing what I was doing. But it was great. I’m not complaining.

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