Dealing with the review process – The artist and the PhD

Thijs WillemsBy Thijs Willems / Reading Time: 6 Minutes

Imagine you’re an artist. You’re a painter currently carefully transforming an empty canvas into a magical landscape. No less than eight months you spent inside your musty little attic room to paint. But without complaining for a second, as you believe to be creating what will become your masterpiece. Autumn passed, as you were convinced that the colors of the leaves falling off the tree would be inspiration enough to turn the white canvas into a mosaic of playful colors. Winter was spent inside, to reflect the shadows and contrasts in the sky onto your painting in order to give it that necessary touch of drama. The summer passed and, instead of enjoying warm, long evenings in the park with your friends and a bottle of wine, you spent hour after hour to capture the right hue of color for the sunbeams behind the clouds.

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Eight months passed and, after much deliberation, you decide the time has come to show your masterpiece to the public. You invite an eclectic bunch of experts, big names and hotshots in the world of art, to give their initial thoughts and suggestions. They seem to love it! “Amazing colors, I can see you put your heart in it”, says one. “This is really interesting, it tells the Big Story of Life”, another adds.

The conversation continues for a while, and after all the compliments have been shared, the Cubist starts: “But…” As an artist you’re used to critique, so you recognize this word as the start of some, hopefully constructive, commentary.

“But… you really need to add some straight lines to make it more contemporary.” The others nod. The Minimalist: “I agree, but I also think you’ve painted way too much. Too much is happening on the sides of the painting, way too much.” Finally, the Impressionist adds: “I agree with the aforementioned comments. And yet… You haven’t captured the true essence of the sun. There’s too much detail and I’d rather see short, thick strokes of paint.” The experts leave and, slightly blown away, you start redoing your masterpiece with care. To satisfy the Minimalist, you cut off three inches from the sides of the painting; for the Impressionist to be happy, you transform the subtle colors of the sun into thick, broad patches of yellow and red; to make your painting more contemporary, as the Cubist requested, you fill the sky with random squares. You slowly step back to ponder your masterpiece and in awe you come to realize that this is not your work anymore.

This story could easily be told in a different context, where the PhD is the artist, the painting his/her paper, and the experts the reviewers of a journal. Getting your work published may be a daunting task, especially for new scholars. You spent a great deal of time, energy, and sometimes even love, in writing about your research. You are the proud artist of this text and you feel it is a worthwhile read for others in your field. You know you will have to reach this broader public by getting your paper published in one of the journals in your field. You finish the paper, submit it to a journal, wait, wait some more, wait a bit longer, and then you finally receive the review reports. It may be a desk rejection (the most common response of journals), a major or minor revision, or a straightforward acceptance (that seldom happens).

In my opinion, the major revision is the most challenging kind of review report to deal with. It often implies the editor and reviewers see, somewhere hidden between the lines of your text, the merits or contributions of your paper. The reviewers, then, often ask questions, critique your argument or provide suggestion on how to make the still implicit contribution of your paper more explicit. This may often involve serious and even impossible requests: “You position your paper in the context of Theory A, but we think it is more appropriate for Theory B, C or D. Please write a new paper”; “The theoretical point is really interesting, but the research is not convincing enough. Do the research again”; “We need much more detail in the theoretical and empirical part of the paper. Also elaborate your discussion further and include points 1 to 7. Oh… and please shorten the paper with at least 2,000 words”; “I don’t like your chosen methodology. Can you make a survey study out of your ethnographic data?”

I exaggerate a little bit, but the point I’m trying to make is that the review process is challenging, especially when you realize ‘your’ paper turns into a text that is different than you had intended. Below are some suggestions that may help you deal with this process:

  1. Even in case of a major revision, realize the reviewers and editors see considerable potential in your paper. Congratulations!
  2. In case of truly rigorous revisions you need to deal with a dilemma: re-write your paper to satisfy the reviewers with a chance on publication, re-write the paper and still end up with a rejection and a paper that only remotely looks like yours anymore, thank the journal and find another outlet (although the chances are pretty high the process at the other journal might be quite similar)
  3. When do you submit your paper? It might be easier to re-write a paper that was good enough but not yet perfect than a paper in which every word or punctuation mark has been deliberated at least three times. Maybe write a paper that is good enough to be taken in review? The perfect paper does not exist and reviewers will always have certain demands for a revision
  4. Make a careful choice about the fit between your paper and the journal you plan to submit to. Be aware of the current debates, what interests the readers of this journal, what is their writing style, etc. The reviewers need to understand why they should publish your paper instead of one of the other 50 submissions.
  5. Turn the problem around: journals have a ‘problem’ too (see Hollenbeck, 2008). They often have very limited space to publish interesting work, so the role of editors is to find the right paper to attract readers.
  6. Use footnotes. Sometimes, the reviewers want you to expand on certain concepts while you simply do not have the space to do so. You can still acknowledge their comments (and show the readers of your paper you have considered alternatives), without taking up too many valuable words.
  7. Treat the reviewers as experts, as in most cases they will be (provided you chose a respectable journal). So, their suggestions are not meant just as critique but are actually potential ways to make your paper more interesting.
  8. However, do not follow all suggestions religiously. Show some guts and refuse certain points of critique if you do not agree with them. However, always write an extensive cover letter when you submit the revision. Here you can explain choices made, how you went about revising the paper, and carefully argue why you did not follow some of the reviewers’ suggestions. In the end, this is all of help in constructing a more convincing argument.
  9. Leave the review report for a while. The moment you receive a report that contains more pages than your initial submission, it is quite difficult to digest it all at once. Read it, leave it, and then read it again after a week or so.
  10. Read the reports together with colleagues. They are a little more distanced than you are and will probably be able to distinguish the reviewers’ main points from only minor remarks.
  11. If all still does not go well, ventilate your aggression. I highly recommend the Facebook page ‘Reviewer 2 Must Be Stopped
  12. There may be many more tips… Please share your tips below!

In the end, the goal is to end up with a paper that has become better. A part of becoming a scholar is, perhaps, to learn how to deal with critique and use it to your own advantage. Even Albert Einstein’s applications have been rejected.

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Thijs Willems is a Phd candidate in the Organizational Science department. His research projects focuses on ‘The role of collaborative routines during disruptions in the Dutch railway system’.

References:

Hollenbeck, J. R. 2008. The role of editing in knowledge development: Consensus shifting and consensus creation. In Y. Baruch, A. M. Konrad, H. Aguinus, & W. H. Starbuck (Eds.), Journal editing: Opening the black box: 16 -26. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Comparing conferences – different crowds, different questions

testBy Tamara Bouwman / Reading Time: 5 Minutes / 

After so many years of being a PhD-candidate I’ve seen my share of conferences! In 2015 I attended three completely different conferences: one before summer, and two after (so I had time for a vacation IN summer 😉 ). ‘Different how?’ you may wonder – well, there are three main differences that I will point out in this blog: size of the conferences, topic (or field) and presentation-type.  I will briefly tell you about the three conferences and extract the best aspects of each of them. By doing so, I will be better prepared  for future conferences and make sure I get the most out of each conference visit!

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The first conference was the International Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics – European Region (IAGG-ER) Congress in Dublin, Ireland (23-26 April). The theme of the conference was ‘Unlocking the Demographic Divided’.  This conference was a large gathering of scholars from all over the world. The size of the conference meant that sometimes there were up to 10 sessions parallel to each other. I was in one of these sessions and had about 10 minutes to tell the audience all about my work. A seemingly impossible task, which I somehow managed.

The second conference took place in mid-September (17 and 18 September) in Warsaw, Poland. This was the European Society for Research on Internet Interventions (esrii). The theme of this conference was:  ‘Internet Interventions for People and for Science’. At this conference, I gave a presentation of approximately 15-20 minutes. A funny thing was that I met a group of colleagues there from our own psychology department. Apparently, you have to go to the other side of Europe to meet people who actually work across campus from you.

The third conference was a Dutch conference held in Ede on October 2nd. This was the NVG-KNOWS conference – the conference of the Dutch association for gerontology- during which I presented a poster. The crowd that attended this conference was very mixed: there were fellow scholars, but also a lot of practitioners and other professionals.  It was a one-day conference, so a lot had to be done in one day and sessions were scheduled closely after another. The poster session was scheduled during the morning coffee break.

Conference Size:

I will now tell you about the differences. The first difference that I would like to discuss here is conference size. The IARR-ER conference was a large conference. Compared to this, the other two were small-scale, the internet intervention-conference (esrii) especially. It was hosted at one of Warsaw’s universities instead of the usual large-scale conference venue. Instead of 10 sessions parallel to each other, this conference consisted of only 10 presentation sessions and some additional (poster) sessions. A great advantage of this was that there was more time for the presentations. There was less hurry than at the IARR-ER, and I was allowed 15-20 minutes for my talk.

Presentation-type:

Considering presentation-type, I really enjoyed the set-up of the poster presentations at the Dutch gerontological NVG conference. Instead of leaving the participants just wander among the posters, the organization decided to make it a bit more structured. The posters were grouped into four topics so that interested participants could join one of the four topics for a pitch with each of the posters. I found this was a nice set-up, because in addition to one-on-one sessions, you also got the opportunity to talk to larger group all in once. Of course, later on there was also room for more in depth one-on-one discussions.

Topic:

And, finally, the topic (or field) of the conference. The first and the last conferences were gerontology conferences, whereas the middle one was (mainly) in the field of psychology. I did notice quite some differences between the questions I got asked by the different audiences. While at the Dutch gerontology NVG conference I got some more practical questions on the benefit of the research for people in ‘real-life’, the questions at the other two conferences focused a bit more on theory and especially on methodology.

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In sum, I know more about my own conference preferences now.  As for size of the conference I must admit that the smaller conferences allow for more interaction with people you don’t know. At the big conferences, on the other hand, you can easily feel lost, both due to the huge amount of participants and the huge amount of content that comes flying at you (For survival tips read Marieke van Wieringen’s blog on how not to drown at conferences). All in all, I would advise (starting) PhD’s to try a bit of everything! So you should try to attend both big and small-scale conferences.

If you have the chance, I also strongly suggest you to participate in conferences in different fields, like I did by attending the very psychological focused conference on internet interventions. The different focus and questions you get asked will give you new ideas! Finally, If you haven’t done a poster presentation at a conference yet I can highly recommend it! It allows for a whole other type of interaction with interested people!

I’m very curious about you experiences – have you been to different conferences? And what differences (or maybe similarities) did you notice?

helpful tips

(If you want to know how to make a good poster read these two blogs: How to make a successful research poster? and  The aesthetics of science)

 

 

 

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Tamara Bouwman MSc is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Sociology. Her research project is about developing and testing a multifaceted, web-based, friendship program for adults aged 50 years

Conducting Expert-interviews: some do’s and don’ts

Palm By Trineke Palm / Reading Time: 7 Minutes

In the spring of 2013 I stayed in Brussels for 3 weeks to interview policy-makers, military, diplomats and politicians on the development of the EU’s military operations. Interviewing is great fun, but also requires specific skills. Since there is relatively little guidance for doing interviews with elites & experts, let me share some first-hand experiences with you.

The people I spoke with, all have expert knowledge on EU military operations and the ability/opportunity to influence decision-making in this policy domain. Hence, they can be classified as both elites and experts (Littig 2009). This really sets those interviewees apart from conducting interviews with “normal” people who do not have a particular professional expertise and influential position in society. Expert interviews are all about: interest, power, control and hierarchy (Abels & Behrens 2009). How did I deal with these issues? Here are some practical tips:

Pre-interview: gaining access

Experts and elites are busy people. So, they’ll probably suggest to do it by phone or email. Don’t settle for that! Indicate that you are very flexible (make sure you really are!) and available to meet anywhere in a particular period of time (a few weeks). To make sure that your interviewees make some time for you, they have to see you as a competent scholar who is worthy to spend their valuable time with. This means that in your email you make abundantly clear that speaking to the particular interviewee is of great importance to your research. For this it helps to show that you know their CV. Also, attach two documents to your email:

  1. topic list indicating the topics you want to address in the interview. Although one could argue that you run the risk of too much transparency (e.g. you may steer the interview by explaining too well what you are after), I argue that it helps you gain access in the first place, and that this outweighs the potential disadvantages.
  2. An informed consent form. Although anonymity may be required, this way you can at least “proof” that you actually spoke with people and you were not just inventing your data. Moreover, while elites are well aware of the sensitivity of the information they provide, their influential position makes them vulnerable as well. Hence, to explicitly agree on the way the interview data is dealt with is part of a scientific and ethical approach towards conducting interviews – including expert interviews. Moreover, I had the impression that it contributed significantly to presenting myself as a competent scholar.

interThe interview itself: a balancing act

Since experts are accustomed to talk about their field of expertise and aiming at conveying a particular message (for strategic purposes), during the interviews itself some balancing acts are required.

  1.  Central to all introductions of conducting good interviews is that you have to ask open questions: You have to be open to what the interviewee is about to say and allow the interviewee to lead the conversation (Littig 2009). Take care however, that you do not end up listening for more than an hour to information that is irrelevant for you. You don’t want to leave the room without having raised the issues that are important to you!
  2. Hence, you’ll have to complement this open approach with leading questions. These induce the interviewee to go beyond the strategic message he/she aims to deliver. Of course you should make sure not to end up in a discussion with your interviewee – it’s not about what you think. Yet, by referring to other interviews, statements in newspapers/policy documents, or hypothetical situations you can confront your interviewee with competing viewpoints/explanations.
  3. Dare to drop a silence. Your interviewee may need to think for a while, and a silence subtly encourages them to further elaborate on the topic.
  4. Moreover, summarize what your interviewee has said, not only to make sure that you understand the interviewee correctly, but also as a follow-up to another question.

The avoidable risks

Abels en Behrens (in Littig 2009) distinguish some typical risks in the conversation with elites/experts. You have to know the risks to avoid them:

  1. The interviewee may take a paternalistic attitude, and not take you very seriously. Instead of answering questions about the topic of interest, this type of interviewee may want to give you some “advice” on your research design. Either allow the interviewee to make his main point in this regard, or propose to come back to this issue at the end of the interview. You may partly use this to your advantage – at least the interviewee does not see you as a threat;
  2. The interviewee may act as an iceberg, i.e. is not really willing to share information. This is a difficult, but in my experience also quite rare, situation. You can avert it by starting off with an open question about his/her position: this allows the interviewee to say a little more about him/herself, which make most icebergs melt.
  3. The interviewee may ask your opinion on the topic. This one is the most challenging, as you are indeed usually knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the topic. Yet, make sure that you don’t fall into this trick, as the interview is not about your opinion. Smile, thank the interviewee for asking and state that you are more than happy to provide him/her with the report once the research is finished.

Post-interview: stay in touch and keep control

After the interview, transcribe the interview and send it to the interviewee for a final check. This is a nice opportunity for dissemination of your data and a great way to stay in touch! Although some scholars (Dexter 1970/2006) argue that elites use “their roles as gatekeepers to information to control the conclusions the researcher may draw”. I have, however, luckily never experienced that. The informed consent form may also help in this regard because you’ve clearly discussed how you will deal with the transcription beforehand.

After having conducted a number of interviews, you’ll notice that not all interviewees have been of equal importance. While it is important to detect patterns and find a red thread, when interviewing experts and elites it is not so much about the consensus and the numbers. Rather, exceptions, deviations and unusual interpretations may be of great value to your research, particularly when provided by interviewees whose account is comprehensive, plausible and consistent.

In sum, when you are aware of the particularities of interviewing experts, they are a rich source of information. Moreover, because of their influential positions, they may turn out to be an important channel for the dissemination of your research.

Be well prepared, don’t get too much impressed and gently keep control. Good luck!

http://affiliate-101.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/top-affiliate-marketing-tip-for-beginners.jpg♦ Need to develop or refresh some fundamental interviewing-skills? Check out the summer course “Interviewing individuals and groups” offered by the VU Graduate School of Social Sciences ♦

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Trineke Palm MSc is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Political Science and Public Administration. Her research is funded by a NWO Research Talent Grant and deals with the character of the EU’s foreign policy.

Coping with your PhD

Marloes Spekman By Marloes Spekman / Reading Time: 5 Minutes

Most PhD students will agree with me that doing a PhD project often feels like an emotional rollercoaster. For instance, you step into your office in a good mood and happy to finally start working on your data analysis or any other part of your study that you really enjoy doing. However, at the end of the day you are totally worn out by the fact that your journal/conference submission was rejected and you did not get any real work done after you received that e-mail. To make matters worse, guilt keeps you up at night, as a little voice in your head reminds you that “You should have been working on your project tonight! Your roommate is making much more progress on his/her project than you!”

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source: http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive/phd022107s.gif

As I have experienced quite a few emotional highs and lows since the start of my project, I have been looking everywhere for advice on how to cope with these PhD-related emotions. Over the years, I have talked to many people about it, participated in a variety of workshops and courses (such as the course “PhD Success and Personal Efficacy”, and workshops like “increase your confidence as a researcher[1]” and “happiness booster[2]”), and read quite a lot about it on the Internet and social media[3].

To keep you sane, here are a few points of advice that I got from these talks, courses and workshops which have helped me cope with my project thus far:

  • Ask yourself: Does obtaining a PhD degree make you a (morally) better person? Does a degree define you as a person?
    If you said yes to these questions, you either put too much pressure on yourself, or you don’t really struggle with these emotions as you are very motivated to devote your time to your PhD (which is awesome of course, as long as it makes you happy!).
    If you said no to these questions, you should probably not be working on your PhD 24/7, and you certainly should not feel guilty about mindlessly watching television at night after a day at the office, or devoting time to other activities that are important to you.
  • Stop comparing yourself to other PhD students.
    No PhD project is the same, and every PhD student is different in terms of ambitions, norms, skills, and productivity. If your office roommate often works at night and appears to eat, sleep, and breathe his/her research, that does not mean you have to do the same. Every PhD student has his/her own ways to be most productive. For example, I write best when I’m in the office with a little noise around me, while one of my roommates needs absolute silence and writes best in isolation. You can try out different things (including the things that work for PhD students around you), but try to find the way that works best for you.
  • Set small and feasible goals
    I personally find it difficult to read without getting distracted. My roommate suggested that I set a timer for 20 minutes, and stick with my reading for that 20 minutes (regardless of how much I actually read in that period). After 20 minutes, I give myself a 5-minute break and start a next cycle of 20 minutes. I have found that it’s now easier for me to accept distracting (and often unimportant) thoughts and basically say to them: “That’s okay, but I’ll get back to you in max. 20 minutes”. It has become easier to let it go, and the really important thoughts will pop back up after the 20 minutes. Since I use this method, reading has become much less of a hurdle. This also works for writing: instead of putting “finish dissertation” on your to-do list, try to break it up into little chunks (e.g., “Today, I will write the outline for my first chapter”). Achieving these smaller goals will make you feel good about yourself, and makes writing your dissertation a much more manageable task.
  • Reward yourself and celebrate your successes!
    Positive emotions are important to build resilience for coping with future periods of negative emotion and consequently for emotional well-being (according to the Broaden-and-build theory; Fredrickson, 1998; 2001). Thus, it is important to allow yourself some time to experience these positive emotions instead of rushing through them. Take some time to enjoy your achievements!
    Celebrate the big things, but do not forget to celebrate the little things as well! Did you write an awesome paragraph, or a great blog post? Reward yourself! If you do not know how to celebrate, then think about what makes you happy, and do that whenever you have something to celebrate! (It does not have to be big – 5 minutes of social media time can also be rewarding ;-)) Did you achieve something big? Then celebrate this big times!!
  • YOU ARE NOT ALONE!
    Even though a PhD project may, at times, make you feel very lonely, know that you are not the only one who experiences these emotions. Many PhD students are surprised to learn that the Imposter syndrome – the feeling that you don’t belong here because everyone else is doing better than you – is very common among PhD students. Other PhD students at times also have trouble finding their motivation or to keep themselves from procrastinating. If you talk to people about it, or search for it online, you will find a wealth of information and tools to help you through the project.

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Experiencing these kinds of emotions as a PhD student is not strange. Even the most motivated PhD students (and professors as well!) have to deal with setbacks. It is part of the process. Remember, that you can do this! Just keep calm and write on (but take it one paragraph at a time ;-)).

 

 

 

Want to read more? Check out these pages:

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Source: http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive/phd092809s.gif

References

Fredrickson, B.L. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of general Psychology, 2(3), 300-319.

Fredrickson, B.L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The Broaden-and-Build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56(3), 218-226.

[1] Workshop by Robert Haringsma of the IVPP (Instituut voor Positieve Psychologie; Institute for Positive Psychology), organized by the Graduate Platform of Social Sciences in January 2013.

[2] Workshop by Matthijs Steeneveld during the 2012 PhD Day organized by ProVU.

[3] Twitter follow tips: @PhD2Published, @thesiswhisperer, and @ltrprmvrn (and, if you are out for a laugh, try @YourPaperSucks, @AcademicBatgirl, @ResearchMark, or @angry_prof)

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Marloes Spekman works as a PhD candidate within the SELEMCA project. The SELEMCA project focuses on the use of technology, such as robots and virtual agents, in the health care domain. Within the project, Marloes specifically focuses on how people’s prior emotions affect their perceptions of healthcare robots.

Fieldwork: These tips are no tricks – Part 2

Efe Kerem SozeriBy Efe Kerem Sözeri / Reading Time: 7 Minutes

Fieldwork is sort of a dating site between the data and you. Tricking your dance partner will certainly make you fall, but knowing a few moves in advance can work well.

Previously, I wrote something about how to lose your way in the fieldwork and keep it cool; and on how your research can actually gain from such uncertainty. Despite how counter-intuitive it sounds, It takes experience to be lost, and a novice spirit to keep it cool.

Since the scientific progress is cumulative, I  offer below some fieldwork tips based on my humble experience (nanos gigantum humeris insidentes); and since it is collective, please share yours in the comments section.

  • Plan in advance, but keep your options open.

The previous post, “Field is the answer, what is the question?” is the first tip. As I said, Sometimes you find data, and sometimes data finds you. Fieldwork is sort of a dating site between the two of you. (See, you were planning to read one post, but there happens to be one more. Keep this tab open, and please come back after a brief detour.)

  • Do not work on the field, live in the field.

Before the fieldwork, we often have to choose types of informants who are expected to give the most detailed information –the key informants. We often plan the hours we work with them, schedule interviews. We organize our time and space in the field according to the expectations we had on the desk.

You shall realize, however, that unplanned encounters can be equally valuable. The doorman can know more about the networks of people in a town than the mayor. The waiter in the local restaurant can tell you more about the habits of people than the officers of the cultural planning branch. And an unemployed young man can define neoliberalism better than the books on your desk.

Having your recorder always on and your field notebook always open will not work; it can distance the daily encounters you may have. But if you keep communicating with random people in your off-work time, you may obtain new insights that you could never have planned.

  • Have your permits, but do not rely solely on them.

For a country where the state authorization is the sole source of legitimacy, be sure to have your permits with you at all times in the field. A piece of paper with a local governor’s stamp may mean nothing to you, but in a remote village when a suspicious person asks about it, that paper can win you the village.

Having said that, an official permit to research is not the best way to earn trust; the surest way to access people is to have someone from the community to introduce you.

In the Tugelaweg project, where I studied the low income families’ struggle in the housing market, knocking doors with the renovation company’s contact person turned out to be very wrong: neighbors who saw me with the company employee thought that I worked for the company, and this initially prevented my access to the people who were opposing to the project. Only after I managed to gain trust of an opposing group leader, I had an access to the rest of my sample.

In the Turkish fieldwork, where I took part in an origin-of-migration study, I noticed that the local community leaders are much more trusted than the province governors. Sweet talking with village heads opened more doors than official authorisation stamps would have. And, if I manage to convince the local Imam to announce the study in the village (from the loudspeakers of the mosque where the call for prayer -the azan- is made) then the open doors would certainly be  welcoming.

  • Mark their words: Your informants know about your results even before you think

While the results of complex logistic regression models are what counts in our papers, I actually developed the core ideas of my dissertation during my stay in a central Anatolia town for a month. It may sound surprising that the SPSS and Stata on my desk often came to the same conclusions with locals who told me about their town and its people. My analysis with thousands of respondents involved computer power, while their power in knowledge was accumulated by thousands of daily encounters.

Certainly, there are questions that a local key informant cannot answer, such as independent events that confound complex outcomes; but there are also questions that a quad-core computer cannot answer either, such as the sense-making processes of human beings with altering perceptions.

So, listen with both ears, and mark their words.

  • Enjoy the moment.

This will sound silly when you are rushing through deadlines, learning state-of-the-art statistical methods, pushing top journals and building the best CV, but…

Work to live.

Your CV may have your name on it, together with some of the good things you did, but your CV is not your whole story.

If you are best at being completely focused on collecting data in the field, and doing the best analysis possible back at your desk, you could soon be replaced with an artificial intelligence doing the best data mining possible from a remote server in China. And it will probably do it  better and cheaper than you.

But if you are not afraid to err, then do something irresistibly random, and end up reaching an unexpected conclusion; congratulations, you are human.
Carpe diem
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Efe Kerem Sözeri is a Phd Candidate in the Sociology Department. His research project “Political baggage and Ideological Remittance” explores how the migration experience influences (or fails to influence) the political preferences and attitudes of Turkish labour migrants and their descendants, both in Western Europe and in Turkey. More info on his personal page

Tips for new scholars

Bouwmanby Tamara Bouwman / Reading Time: 4 Minutes /

Last July I attended my first big conference as a PhD-student. I’ve been to large conferences before, but only as a student with little experience. This time I was going to tell the world about the research I’ve been spending more than two years on, so I was really excited. A big plus side was that the conference was of the International Association for Relationship Research (IARR.org). Since my research focuses on an online friendship enrichment program for people aged 50 and older you can image I was looking forward to it, because the topic was very relevant.

The conference was really nice, and I got nice response to my presentation. But what really got me thinking during the conference, and what I want to share with you in this blog, are some very useful PhD-career tips. These are tips and advise me and other new scholars got from experts in the field during a ‘New Scholars Networking and Mentoring Luncheon’. This meeting was specifically for new researchers in the field, so mainly PhD-students. It provided both a nice opportunity to meet some fellow graduate students as well as obtaining some great advice from the old hands in the field.

programmPicThe experts were asked by the chair what was the best advice they had gotten when they were still graduate students, and then to give us some advice. I heard some great things during the lunch meeting and will list my favorite advices here (in my own words):

  • Maintain your standards – don’t lower them!
  • In relation to the previous advice: It’s better to have three good publications than a lot of half quality ones.
  • Dare to say no – you don’t have to do all the things you are asked, it really is okay to say no from time to time
  • Don’t strategize too much, you can’t plan everything
  • Think about your definition of productivity – is it realistic? Or do you expect too much out of one day?

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  • Don’t take reviews personal – just keep going (see them as free feedback from the best experts in your field!)
  • Focusing on your number of publications is counterproductive –focus on the quality
  • Everybody’s career is different, it differs in pace and other things, so don’t compare yourself to other graduate students (or staff-members) all the time.
  • Collaborate with people whose research is similar and who got grants and have good publications
  • Try not to overwhelm yourself with data. You probably can do many more analyses, but you need to start writing! (author’s note: I know this to be my own pitfall)
  • Drawing your own course can be scary but probably it is worth it and it will most likely pay off.
  • A paper has to be a story about the dependent variable – so if you’re stuck, try to think of it as a story and try to see where the elements are missing.
  • What’s the big picture? Keep that in mind – always!
  • Writing academic papers is a craft. You’ll get better at it over the years. (author’s note: here is a great blog about thinking of academic writing as a craft)
  • Find your best 4-5 hours in a day and use those to write or do what is most important at that time.
  • Have a writing day each week, maybe even at home. But keep one day a week for just writing, so no appointments, no e-mail etc.

Some of these advices really hit me like a train and I try to keep them in mind while struggling with my current paper. I sometimes tend to get involved in too many things at once, so since I came back from Australia I tried to decide more consciously which things I should get involved in. I did deliberately say no to some requests when I got back. Furthermore, my own favorite advice was to keep in mind that writing academic papers is a craft, it’s a learning process and by doing it a lot I will get better at it. I hope some of these advices might be of use for you as well!

Finally, my own advice: make sure you join as many of these new scholar events at conferences as you can. Look for descriptions as the one above in the conference program. Or you could even consider to get involved in the organization if it is a conference you are attending more than once!

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Tamara Bouwman MSc is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Sociology. Her research project is about developing and testing a multifaceted, web-based, friendship program for adults aged 50 years.

Why On Earth Should I Visit A Conference?

David Firmansjah  by  Firmansyah David / Reading Time: 5 Minutes /

Why should I go to a conference? This is a question which always comes in my mind when I got many of those “call for conference” invitations in my email inbox. I am interested to go, however, there are always thoughts that come to my mind that there’re might be some problems if I decided to go. First, I would spend a lot of money, for instance for traveling, accommodation, conference fees, etc. Then, I would also spend much time to prepare a presentation or a paper and be there at the conference’s places for couple days. Third, there might be many talks and topics in the conference which are not relevant to my work. So, every now and then, I would rather stay at my office and do work as usual, than planning to travel.

© Jorge Cham via phdcomics.com
© Jorge Cham via phdcomics.com

But after some time, I had an opportunity to be in a conference in Barcelona this April. It was a big conference relating to the topic of the interaction between universities, business and entrepreneurship. Last year, it was held in Amsterdam and involved 338 participants from 48 countries. With this year’s theme “Challenges and Solutions for Fostering Entrepreneurial Universities and Collaborative Innovation”, the conference in Barcelona attracted even more participants. In this conference, I presented my work together with colleagues from University of Valladolid Spain and VU University Amsterdam. Here you can find the paper which we had to present.

I was impressed while attending the conference because it was such a big one because of its multinational scope. It took me by suprise that this conference gave me a new experience that changed my view visiting a conference. Therefore, I will share some tips on how to get the most out of your conference visits:

New Conference New City

It is common that an annual conference is held in a different city or in a different country each year. So, it becomes important to make a plan in advance regarding the transportation, accommodation, and information about the conference venues. With these preparations, at least, you have a brief picture in your mind where to go and what to do once you arrive at the city where the conference is held. However, if you think with just having a map of your destination and you are ready to go, think again. I once failed to visit a conference in a country because there was not enough time to get a visa. It was quite a bummer! So make sure to check this out beforehand. While for some countries visas can be obtained with only one mouse click, other countries require some time and money.

New Conference New Topics

Each conference usually has a unique theme. To present your paper in a conference you should prepare a paper of which matches with the conference’s topic. Moreover, you can attend sessions or speeches which are relevant to your research. I do not suggest you to attend all the sessions, eventhough you think the rest is interesting as well. From my experience at this conference, attending all sessions would sometimes make you think too much. You’d have a lot of information that you may not need at the end of the day. I think less is definitely more in this case.

New Conference New People

This is the most important part that you could get from a conference. Instead of just enjoying yourself from sessions to sessions or presenting a paper, you can get out of your “comfort zone” and mingle with people. During the breaks, you can meet and socialize with other academics and researchers who might have a common interest with you. It will provide you with fresh perpectives (for example ideas and literatures) on your own research and may help you to find out what is new in metholodologies and operationalization of your research goals. And as a follow-up, try to collaborate with these people in the near future by simply sending them an e-mail. Do not forget to bring your business card, you will never know who you will meet there. At the conference in Barcelona, I got to know some PhDs and researchers with similar interests. After some talks, we agreed to keep connected through emails or social media. By this, we often exchange literatures and share new ideas and the possibilities to work on a paper together. Everytime I have updates or news from them, I always have a thought like: What a great thing to work with a multinational network!

Knowing all the benefits of attending a conference, now I’ve changed my mind every time I receive invitations for conferences in my email. I now read them one by one to see if any of these conferences are useful. Once I have a conference which I am interested, I take enough time to prepare it. If you ever receive invitations of conference to your email, do not rush to ignore or directly delete them. It may turn out that the one that you have been looking for is among them.

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Firmansyah David is a PhD candidate at the Department of Organization Sciences. He also works as lecturer  at the Faculty of Industrial Technology Padang Institute of Technology, Padang Indonesia. His primary research area is  university-business cooperation, knowledge valorization, and technology transfer.

 

 

 

Three good reasons to write like a monk

Annemiek van Os  by Annemiek van Os / Reading Time: 5 Minutes /

It’s 5 A.M. and I am wide awake.

Usually I’m awoken roughly by the clanking sounds of a construction site near my house. Today, it’s the cheerful (yet deafening) sound of birds that announce the new day.

Usually I would have read my e-mail and checked my news apps by now, as I would be doing again and again and again later during the day. Today, I look forward to another ‘offline’ day, with my writing flow only interrupted by the soothing rhythm of coffee and food breaks.

This week, I’m doing everything differently. I’m writing Benedict-style.

Benedict (480 – 547 AD) was a saint who established a number of monasteries in his days and who gained (and still maintains to have) many followers who live according to his vision on spiritual and secular life, which he has written down in his ‘Rule for monks’. The structural elements of this rule have inspired the daily structure in the guest house where I am staying this week to write the general introduction of my dissertation. My schedule for each day is as follows:

Bildschirmfoto 2014-06-26 um 23.27.48

The daily structure advocated by Benedict is simple and strict, and this makes it utterly effective. Apparently, this daily routine is in agreement with the natural human biorhythm. The strict structure may make you feel a bit eerie in the beginning. Sometimes you can have the idea that only you can decide what the best moment is to start writing that paragraph you have been procrastinating around for days, and not the clock. The same thing goes for quitting your writing: what if you’re in a flow at that particular time? Why should you stop just because Benedict decided ages ago that it is time for coffee? Here’s three reasons why it’s a good idea to follow the structure anyway:

1. Learning the art of beginning

The structure encourages you to just start working. With a minimum of distractions (writing is the only thing on your agenda) and a doable time slot (you never write for more than two hours at a time), there is no excuse to not just pick up your pen – ha ha, I mean, log on to your computer of course – and start writing. Just do it. In essence, Benedict has eliminated the beast called procrastination that all PhDs fear:

via phdcomics.com © Jorge Cham

 2. Learning the art of stopping

Benedict was as serious about exercise as about relaxation and gets extra awesomeness points for making recreation a mandatory aspect of his daily rhythm. Taking a rest, both physically and mentally, is obviously important, otherwise you’ll eventually lose focus and you will be less productive. In Benedict’s time, the restorative breaks from work were meant as opportunities for prayer. However, you can also just take a walk, read a blog, or drink a good cup of coffee with colleagues and friends. Anything that takes your brain off work, relaxes your mind and puts the difficulties related to your research project in the right perspective will do.

3. Learning the right attitude between beginning and stopping

Between the start and stop sign is the zone where your actual work takes place. Benedict advocated doing everything with so-called relaxed dignity. To put it more New Agey, it is all about ‘now’, not ‘later’. So instead of getting stressed about all the stuff you still need to do later, you gently focus on the only thing that is truly relevant: what you can do right now (this is the relaxed-part). And whatever happens during your work hours, you should take it in stride and not get too upset about it (this is the dignity-part). Paying full attention to what you’re doing at the present moment can limit the pressure you may feel on finishing the job. It may even be surprisingly healing or productive to fully surrender yourself to that dreaded paper you need to finish.

My own experience with living according to Benedict’s rule has been nothing but amazing. It was no surprise to me to see that the super-strict structure was beneficial for my productivity. The magnitude of the difference with writing at home or at the office without that clear structure, however, has astonished me. Of course, it helps that I’m at a beautiful castle surrounded by nature, that all meals are prepared and all dishes are washed for me, and that there is no hallway buzzing with colleagues and students outside the library I’m working in. But Benedict has gotten me convinced that it is mostly the structure and the ideas behind it that are so extremely effective. And I would encourage anyone to try it out for themselves!

A final note for the cynics out there: I’ll have you know that I did not procrastinate during the ‘official schedule’ by writing this blog. I actually wrote (most of) it at 5 in the morning.

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Annemiek van Os is a PhD candidate at the department of Organization Sciences. Her research focuses on how organizational members deal with identity threat caused by errors.

This blog was inspired by the following source: Wil Derkse (2003). The rule of Benedict for beginners: Spirituality for daily life (translation by Martin Kessler). Liturgical Press.

Searching for the secret to storytelling — How to make a good story great

Marloes Spekman  by Marloes Spekman / Reading Time: 4 Minutes /

Once upon a time, in a land far far away, lived a girl with golden hair and baby blue eyes. She spent her days fantasizing about writing the most wonderful stories that everyone in the world would read and talk about. She dreamed of persuading people of the importance of her research via mind-blowing narrative constructions. And she fantasized about sharing with everyone what fascinates her about the world around her. Thus, she went on a quest to find the Secret to Storytelling.

Along the way, she had to overcome many obstacles (such as the newest version of APA). After a long and exhausting journey, she finally found what she was after all along: the Secret to Storytelling. It was found in the last place she would have expected it. This is the story of her journey.

©animatedfilmreviews.filminspector.com
©animatedfilmreviews.filminspector.com

In reality, the girl with golden hair and blue eyes is ‘just another’ PhD student striving to inspire people by sharing her research findings in the best way possible. Yes, me: Marloes Spekman, a PhD student in the field of Communication Science/Media Psychology doing a PhD project within the SELEMCA project.

Strictness of rules

In the last few years, I realized that telling stories is not as simple as it often seems. Sure, there are certain rules for telling your story, in every field or genre. A fairytale, for instance, is expected to start off with “Once upon a time”, just like I did in the introduction here. Most research papers are expected to follow a strict set of rules, such as APA 6th. Conference presentations (at least in my field) usually follow the same order of elements (i.e., introduction, method, results, and conclusion/discussion). Even photography has certain rules, such as the so-called rule of thirds that most photographers keep in mind when taking their photos. However, strictly adhering to the rules often does not deliver the best stories. Rather, doing so usually produces utterly boring end-products. Still, we keep teaching these rules to next generations, so they must be making sense in some way or another, right?

What makes a good story great?

So, I started searching for the answer to the question: What makes a good story great?  To find the answer, I took a number of courses and workshops within the Graduate School and VU University over the years (e.g., Language and Interaction, PhD Success and Personal Efficacy). Surprisingly, I didn’t find the answer there, but it came to me during a talk related to one of my hobbies: photography. Our local Media Markt had invited Eddy van Wessel, a renowned war photographer and winner of the Silver Camera in 2012, to give a talk about his work. During his talk, he showed the amateur photographers in the audience many of his pictures and shared with them under what circumstances he had made the pictures. What struck me about his images was that all of them told impressive stories¹, but very little of them adhered to the ‘photography rules’. For instance, he took pictures in Aleppo, Syria, while the city was being bombed. The images show the devastation the bombs caused, people taking refuge for yet another bomb attack, and the casualties after such attacks. Many of his pictures are either skewed, contain noise, or put the subject somewhere in the middle (while, according to the rule of thirds, the picture would be more interesting if the subject would be placed at one- or two-thirds of the image).

Rules? Stretch and bend them!

And that is when I realized: Telling a good story has nothing to do with your ability to understand and apply the rules, but rather with your ability to be creative with these rules. Sure, you may have to stick to APA rules when writing up a journal article, but that doesn’t mean you cannot be creative in writing. Why not start out with a hypothetical situation to illustrate your problem? Why not use a metaphor to make an abstract idea more tangible? Why not refer to non-academic works that help you in making your point (e.g., movies, comedians)? Why not insert an image or flow-chart to visualize the procedure participants went through? A certain bandwidth exists around the rules, so stretch them, bend them, and use them in any way you like!

After returning home from her quest, the girl with the golden hair and baby blue eyes excitedly ran to her desk, took up her quill, dipped it in the ink pot, and eagerly started writing. As her quill started flying over the paper, she felt less and less restricted in her writing. And she wrote happily ever after!


¹ Many of his photographs can be found on Eddy’s website. Please be aware that some of these images may be rather shocking, so visit at your own risk.

The aesthetics of science — How to visualize your research

Robert Paauwe  by Robert Paauwe / Reading Time: 5 Minutes /

In 2012, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) announced a major discovery related to the Higgs boson (an elementary particle). Unfortunately, most of their presentation looked like this:

CERN
©CERN 2012

Although the findings were a major discovery in particle physics, there was a particular hype in the media regarding the visual appeal of the presentation. The purpose of presenting your work (poster, presentation, blogs, video, etc.) is to communicate. In the case of CERN, the combination of bad typography, poor choice of colors, and the amount of information presented resulted in the aesthetic appeal of your average high school science project. Even if the audience is used to complex graphs and dense information, overloading them with information still harms your story. In this blog I will present some easy, initial steps how to make your research more appealing and communicative without turning into a full-time graphic designer.

LESS IS MORE
Originally, ‘less is more’ was introduced as a minimalist design principle by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. It refers to the principle that by using less means to achieve a certain effect will lead to a more appealing result. This is applicable not only for design and architecture, but also for conveying information. A great example of this is the data-ink ratio, as proposed by Edward Tufte. The data-ink ratio is the proportion of ink in a graphic devoted to the display of information that is essential. Hypothetically, the data-ink ratio can be calculated by dividing the amount of ink used to display data by the amount of total ink in used in the graphic. This may sound very abstract, but the visualization below based on Tufte’s work should make it clear. Both graphs convey the same amount of information, however the right graph uses less ink to display this information.

data2ink

The question you should ask yourself when making a presentation is: is what I am doing contributing to the message I am conveying, or am I trying to be fancy? It is better to stick to plain and clear, than (try) to be fancy and miss the point. Adding more things for the sake of adding more things does not help your message, or worse adding things because it was the easiest way to do it (did you copy your tables directly from SPSS?).

TYPOGRAPHY
Which font you use can make the difference in how your work is is perceived. There is not a universally ‘best’ font. It all depends on where and how you apply it (FontFeed is a great resource for information on typography). Selecting a font should be a conscious decision. Some fonts are great for titles, but terrible for entire texts (e.g., Arial Black, Akzidenz Grotesk). Other fonts are amazing for the entirety of the text, but not very eye-catching as titles (e.g., Times New Roman, Adobe Caslon). Some examples:

fonts

But most importantly, if you use a custom font, remember to export your presentation to PDF! The machine you will presenting on will not have that font, and your presentation will look horribly mutilated. By exporting it to PDF, you will ensure your presentation looks the way you intended.

COLOR
The colors you use have a huge impact on if and how your message is received. We all remember that one presentation that burned our eyes whilst squinting to read the slides. A good rule of thumb for color is to have enough contrast between background and type, and do not use complementary colors (colors that are opposite in the color wheel; red-green, yellow-violet, blue-orange, etc.). Some examples:

colors1

A great tool to help you find good color schemes is Adobe Kuler, a tool that helps you generate color schemes based on certain principles. More interestingly, they also maintain a huge database of amazing color schemes for you to use, created by their community. To illustrate this, below are some examples that work well based on popular color schemes on Kuler.

colors2

HIGH RESOLUTION IMAGES
Since Google, it has become amazingly easy to find high resolution images with zero effort. However, at conferences, in papers, and on blogs, I still encounter grainy and stretched low resolution images. When searching for images, simply use:

Google Images > Search Tools > Size > Large or greater.

There are no excuses for not doing this.

DO NOT USE TEMPLATES
Most likely, your university emphasizes that you should use their predesigned templates. Also, it is very easy for you because you do not have to think about your design. However, it makes your presentation uniform and look like all the other presentations. Do not use these templates. All APA articles look the same. All university presentations look alike. Make your own templates.

Of course, these few thoughts are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to making your research compelling and visually appealing. The best way to check if people understand your data, is by asking non-scientists and people outside of your field of expertise to look at your presentation, poster graphs, or tables. If they get the idea (without you explaining every detail), you are in the right direction. Furthermore, if you are interested in novel ways of visualizing data, take a look at Information is Beautiful. They have a large variation of infographics and several ways of making your data more communicative.

To conclude; do nice aesthetics make bad presentations good? No. Neither do poor graphics completely ruin a presentation (regardless of what designers will tell you). However, by being more considerate of the visuals and style you use, you can empower your story, be more communicative, and ensure your message comes across. Will CERN’s next presentation look appealing? I do not know. Will yours? I hope so.