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.

Phew, made it!

Not so well known outside of UK universities is the ‘APG Transfer’ process. For the first year full-time, or two years part-time, new doctoral students are formally registered as ‘Advanced Postgraduate’ in at least some UK institutions. Through the APG Transfer, we are confirmed as PhD students, redirected to a masters credential, told that it is not working out, or given time to come up to an expected standard. This is certain to create a level of stress.

I registered on January 17, 2011, and I had good intentions of completing the transfer in December 2012, or sooner. Well, at Christmas I was still completing the required 6,000 to 8,000 word progress report that served as a research proposal to be defended. It had been reviewed and received extensive comments, so I continued and submitted it on January 8, 2013.

The second part of the process was the choice of an oral examination or a departmental presentation that would be followed by a meeting with the panel responsible for the transfer recommendation. The panel is to be our supervisor and at least one other member of the academic staff. I chose the oral exam, and my panel consisted of Prof Hilary Burgess (chair of the panel), Director of Studies in the School of Education, Prof David Hawkridge, a visiting scholar from the UK Open University who works with our Institute of Learning Innovation, and Dr Palitha (Pal) Edirisingha, my main supervisor.

The panel asked me to give a presentation of no longer than 15 minutes. Fortunately, I was prepared with one that I anticipated would take 10 minutes. This was followed by about 50 minutes of questions, primarily from Prof Burgess whom had not met me prior to this date. At the end of the hour, I was advised that I was successful and would be confirmed as a PhD student.

Not to waste an opportunity for sharing with others, my supervisor suggested I make a presentation of the APG process I experienced, and the presentation I gave, to others at the BDRA. This would be particularly beneficial to those new to our department and facing the APG in the future. The presentation was conducted online, using Adobe Connect, for 1.5 hours on February 13, 2013. The link will be added here when available.

The plan now is to complete the main study and submit the thesis by December 2014.

A.E. (Tony) Ratcliffe, PhD Student

International research by international research students

The Institute for Learning Innovation (formerly Beyond Distance Research Alliance) recently welcomed several new PhD students and visiting scholars. Our students hail from Saudi Arabia, China, South Africa, Turkey, Canada, Mexico, Denmark, Greece, Rwanda — plus a few from the UK.

PhD students attending training day in the Studio

PhD students attending training day in the Studio

On 18 and 19 February 2013 we held PhD Training Days, in which we gathered in the Studio (formerly the Zoo) to share research progress and participate in workshops led by Professor Grainne Conole, Dr Tracy Simmons, Dr Paul Reilly, Dr Chris Comber, and Dr David Hawkridge. Not all of our students could join us in person, however. We held the sessions live online using Adobe Connect. Our Canadian colleague Tony Ratcliffe, for example, joined us online from Canada, and unfortunately for him had to wake up at 3.30am in order to do so. In spite of this, he presented his work beautifully.

One benefit of using a method such as Adobe Connect is that afterwards we have a recording of the session, and we share these with you below:

Day 1 – 18 Feb 2013:

Recording 1 – student presentations

Recording 2:  Tracy Simmons – APG process:

Recording 3: Writing with David Hawkridge, Chris Comber on Framing your study:

Day 2 – 19 Feb 2013;

Recording 1 — student presentations & Grainne research methods:

Recording 2: — Lit Review: Paul Reilly:

Recording 3: – Grainne social media and final discussion:


Terese Bird, Learning Technologist and SCORE Research Fellow

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 (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 (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.

Confessions of a PhD Student (3): “Life has got in my way”

I used to watch Desperate Housewives and think: How can it be possible that so many misfortunes happen to these women? In every episode there is always some drama going on… But it makes sense. It is TV, not real life.

In April 2010 I came to Leicester, UK, to study my PhD. In the one year I have been here, everything seems to have happened. It began with the regular changes. I moved to England and had to adapt to its culture. I had to share my space with a non-family person, learn how to cook, pay electricity bills and generally take care of a house. I also had to get used to a different educational system, without classes. Make my own rules. Manage my own progress. Meet the expectations.

These changes can be stressful, but they are what international students can expect to go through. They are what I expected to go through.

I also dealt with the lack of a strong social support network. Knowing people does not imply having close friends. Finding someone I can really trust and have deep conversations with is not easy. At the end of my first semester, I was lucky enough to have found a couple of people I could really relate to. I had a group, small but great. They were not simple acquaintances; they were my friends. Most of them are now gone. They went back to their respective home countries. I am getting used to feeling lonely.

Then, war exploded in my country. While fortunately my friends and family have been safe so far, I cannot avoid feeling a bit anxious every time I hear about robberies, murders, shootings, kidnappings, extortions and other terrible things that are happening in my city.

During the summer 2010, I went back home for the holidays. I thought it would be a chance to relax and charge my batteries… and it was, kind of. I arrived just after a hurricane had hit my city. The destruction was impressive. We did not have water at my house for nine days. I had to help gathering rain water to cover basic needs. I loved seeing my friends and family, but I did not feel so rested when I returned to Leicester.

A couple of months later, my grandpa died. It is hard being away. Sometime afterwards my best friend’s mom died… so young. I still have a hard time believing it happened… That same day my grandma, who I love with all my heart, had an embolism… She is kind of ok now…

So, in just one year, I have had to deal with a new culture, loneliness, war, a natural disaster, two deaths and sickness. And I have not talked about my personal life yet! I have had emotionally exhausting flat issues and more than one love-related drama.

Now imagine going through all of this while trying to do a PhD.

I confess: Life has got in my way.

Sometimes it is hard to focus on my studies when so many other things are happening and calling for my attention. Read, write, analyze, interview, transcribe, code… Focus!

At some point, I could not take it anymore. I got sick. I think that was my body saying: Please, stop the stress.

I felt I was a damaged dam. Water was starting to leak. I had two options. I could stop everything, analyze the damage and fix it. Or, I could go on, keep putting pressure, and risk dealing with a potential disaster. So I stopped everything, took some time off and found a way to relax. Now life drama is out of my way, and my PhD is back on track.

My life was not so dramatic before. Or maybe it was, but being in a familiar context surrounded by loved ones, it did not seem that way. Considering all that has happened, maybe TV shows are not so unrealistic after all. I could have my own program, Desperate PhD Student…

– Brenda Padilla

Confessions of a PhD Student (1): “I am guilty of procrastinating”

Ok. I confess. About a year ago, when I started my PhD, I began playing Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook. I’ve just reached level 55. That implies over 3,500 one-minute long games. That is about 59 hours. It is true. I am not exaggerating. I just checked my statistics and did the math. And that’s only one of the games I play. I am guilty of procrastinating.

Bejeweled Blitz

I know I do it. But it is so hard to not do it!! I don’t have any courses. I control my own progress. I set up my own deadlines. It is so easy to argue with myself…

– Hey, what if I play for a bit and then I work?

– But we have to finish this today.

– You know it doesn’t really matter. We can finish it tomorrow, and it’s all the same.

– Yeah, you’re right. Ok… Just one more game…

I’ve tried dealing with this in two main ways. Firstly, every once in a while I get in a deep state of concentration. I read, analyze, write, argue, create… I become fast, efficient. I try to make the most out of these periods. All work, no procrastination. Secondly, I’ve asked my supervisor to establish official deadlines for me. Having the commitment to hand in a product on a specific day helps me focus on the task. It destroys the “it doesn’t really matter” argument.

On the other hand, playing silly games can also be a way of getting ready to work. It helps my mind organize its ideas. I feel more relaxed afterwards. Maybe procrastinating is not so bad after all… Or maybe that’s just my guilty side talking, trying to claim a reduced sentence…

– Brenda Padilla

Reflections from our research day

On Thursday 24 February we held our second research day at BDRA. It involved Natalia, Ali, Brenda and Tony, plus several BDRA staff including David Hawkridge, Palitha Edirisingha, Simon Kear, Ming Nie and I. The day was organised as part of our doctoral programme and had the following intended learning outcomes for participants:

1.  Gain further experience in presenting work in progress and having it critiqued by peers and tutors

2.  Benefit from opportunities to critique the research of others and relate that critique to own work

3.  A shared understanding of key issues and concerns in relation to:

            a) the literature review

            b) chosen research design

            c) writing, including habits, sustained motivation and quality outputs

4.  Be in a stronger position to tackle research-related tasks, and

5.  Build stronger links with peers, tutors and the wider BDRA community.

It was rewarding to see how our students have progressed in the last few months – and in Tony’s case, his motivation to get started on his research. Tony joined us less that 4 weeks ago and joined the full-day session from Edmonton, Canada, via Skype! We had excellent presentations and ran a series of activities with input from students and tutors alike.

Perhaps one of the key messages that once again became clear to all is the need for sufficient amounts of protected quality time to conduct our research. We all appreciate how difficult this can be, especially for part-time students studying at a distance. Life does get in the way sometimes. Honest procrastination confessions were made too (though it was also argued that part-time students don’t even get time for that!) However, without a sustained commitment, motivation and enough periods of ring-fenced time for research, a PhD is not achievable.

We very much look forward to the next PhD research day, scheduled for 8 June.

Dr A Armellini
Beyond Distance Research Alliance

How I became a PhD student at the BDRA

Finding a PhD program in e-learning is not an easy task. In 2009, when I decided to continue my graduate studies, I discovered that while lots of online programs were available, few focused on elearning. At that time, there were about 90 PhD programs in e-learning… in the world. Considering that only in my hometown (Monterrey, Mexico) there are over 80 institutions of higher education, 90 programs didn’t seem much.

I looked at the options, and the PhD offered by the BDRA caught my eye. I liked that the departmental team includes people from all around the world: South Africa, Uruguay, United States, China, and more. I liked that they are involved in lots of e-learning projects (17 back then, 24 now), and I have to admit, I also liked that they are in Leicester, which is a small city but with a great location for travelling around.

And so I emailed the program coordinator. After writing a research proposal, participating in a couple of interviews and fulfilling all the requirements, I finally got in. Being here has been an enriching experience.  I used to consider myself highly technological. I now know that I still have so much to learn! In my eight months here I have joined Twitter and Second Life, I discovered e-readers and OERs, I participated in workshops with government institutions, I learned about methodologies whose existence I wasn’t aware of, and I got a bunch of techno tips! Even more, now I am blogging!! I am looking forward to discovering the next steps in my journey towards the PhD.

— Brenda Padilla

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