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Archive for the ‘studying’ Category

Wow the Open University is 50 years old today!

This snuck up on me! Fifty years ago, today, the Open University received its Royal Charter. I’m a huge fan, and thought I’d reflect a little on the extra chances the OU gave me. The OU is a much venerated UK university, that set out from the start to support part-time distance learning at home, giving people a chance who might otherwise be unable to study at university level.

The OU gave me a second chance after I dropped out of my science PhD, after falling seriously ill with a MS-like illness at just 22. Once I was finally diagnosed properly and started life saving chemotherapy treatment it made me nauseous and vomit for up to 8 hours every day, every single day, for years. I had to try something to take my mind off it, so started studying part-time with the Open University. The OU support staff thought I was too disabled to study with them by this time, but I tried. When I went to St Andrews University in 1990 I had wanted to study two subjects: Scottish history and computer science. But I could only do one, and was qualified for the latter, so stuck with that. But history – and especially Scottish history – was unfinished business for me. Now was my chance!

My first course in 1998 saw me jump straight in to second year history, and a course on Culture and Belief in Europe 1450-1600. Renaissance history basically. I loved it! It was phenomenally hard. I’d skipped the foundation year that teaches you to write academic essays, and analyse historical sources, and do art history and literature. So I didn’t make things easy for myself. Didn’t get the best course result, because of these circumstances. But oh it was brilliant. It also made me fall in love with Venice, and I went there later that year for the first time.

The next year I studied a course on family and community history. Yes that was good for me, a lifelong genealogist! I was able to use my family history stories in the essays for it. So, for example, I wrote an essay looking at my 3xg-granddad John Usher Somner running a rather posh boarding house in West End Edinburgh in 1871. At the other extreme I analysed the poor relief records for a 4xg-granddad John Hall, in 1860s Hawick, From my husband’s family I did a mini project looking at the extent of interbreeding (yes there was a lot!) in two Suffolk parishes where his ancestors lived. And for my final big end of year project I analysed Coldingham baptismal witnesses.

By this point I was well on my way to a history degree, and with credit transfer from my Computer Science BSc(Hons) I had extra points to shorten the amount I needed to study. But I took a big swerve in my final year, veering towards classical studies, with two courses. The first looked at the Roman Empire, particularly regarding power and identity. That was fascinating. Archaeology, mixed with written sources, visual images of gravestones and stuff, from all over the Roman Empire. I loved that. At the same time I studied a course on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which combined the literary works with the archaeology of Troy. Which I had a family connection with. That 3xg-granddad John Usher Somner was a nephew by marriage of Charles Maclaren, first editor of The Scotsman newspaper, who first pinpointed Hisarlik as the likely location of Troy.

Throughout my OU studies I studied from home, using course materials – published books, course books written by the course team, handouts, etc. – sent to me in regular chunky postal packages. This was supplemented by face to face tutorials, but for much of the 3 years I was too ill to attend those, even the ones nearby in Dundee (I lived in Cupar at this time). I was also too deaf at this time from my neurological disease, so couldn’t chat to a tutor by phone. So I was extremely isolated. But the course materials were almost all superb. The course books, written by the course teams, particularly wowed me. These were written collaboratively, to a very high standard. And were much better quality, in overall terms, than many science lectures I’d attended as an undergraduate student at St Andrews. In addition I had contact with other students through the FirstClass online computer networking system, which made me feel less isolated, and helped build up a community. 20-odd years on, long after the demise of FirstClass, I’m still in touch with OU friends I made then. The OU supported disabled students brilliantly, long before the Disabled Students Allowance started, and long before many other universities made any kind of provision.

I studied with the OU between 1998 and 2000, and by the end of my classical studies courses I had enough credits to earn a BA(Hons), joint history and classical studies. This then provided the foundation on which I studied further at Dundee, doing a taught MPhil and a PhD, both part-time, both in history (mainly Scottish). My OU degree was very well regarded by the lecturers at Dundee, and they particularly valued how it showed independent learning.

In more recent years funding changes by the UK government have slashed revenue to the Open University, and reduced the financial support for part-timers to extremely low levels. This is especially the case in England, where it is very unaffordable now to study with the OU, especially if, like I was, you already have a first degree. But I was retraining, in a totally different subject area, so needed a second chance. And many people are keen to study lifelong. The OU is at great risk now, but I will always be grateful to it for the support it gave me. And it’s an institution that should be very proud.

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I recently read this book, published by the University of Chicago Press, in their Writing, Editing and Publishing series. It’s a compact paperback, 166 pages long.

The book is divided into 28 main chapters, split across the following core sections:

  • Writing in Academe
  • Using Tools that Work
  • Challenging Writing Myths
  • Maintaining Momentum
  • Building Writing Support

Of these I found the sections on tools, challenging writing myths and maintaining momentum most effective. The book’s author is nicely to the point, doesn’t mess about, but gives straightforward, honest advice. There’s much that many academics could benefit from, including making time for writing in a busy academic life, dealing with imposter syndrome, and coping with perfectionism. I also found the book had great advice for handling multiple projects at once, and the generally less often discussed challenge of keeping writing fun, in a context in which it might often seem to become a chore.

On the downside I did personally have big issues with the depiction of humanities scholars, presented as people with only one writing task to focus on, and a relatively easier task as a result than scientists. As an academic scientist turned historian this didn’t fit with my experience. Humanities scholars often juggle multiple writing projects at once too. And, perhaps even more crucially, are often single authors, so must handle all the tasks of academic writing, not shared among a group i.e. all of research, planning, writing, revising, editing, submitting, dealing with peer review, and hopefully proofreading and final publication processes. The challenge can be immense. I don’t think the author of the book grasped that at all. Perhaps she was looking back to more halcyon days.

I also found that it was a shame the book avoided commonly used writing terms like procrastination, which can often be such a problem for many doctoral students. The book does have some good writing tips for postgraduates, but is aimed squarely at later stage academics, who have more challenges fitting writing in alongside their other academic workload. Though the book could be of more benefit to part-time postgraduates than full-timers, who must fit vital writing time in around other commitments, including in some cases full-time jobs. I just think that with a few relatively small tweaks and refocusing the book could have been adjusted to help more postgraduate students as well.

So yes I do have critiques. But generally I came away from it feeling very positive. I don’t think that any academic would use every tip and idea in there. But there are lots of good ones presented. And many ideas challenge oft-held unproductive mindsets. It’s also an easy read, well written, that you can dip in and out of. So yes, thumbs up.

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Next Tuesday, 31st March 2015, it will be five years exactly since I passed my PhD viva. It’s quite a big anniversary, worth celebrating, and I thought I’d look back on how things have gone since then.

It was my second go at a PhD, this time studying history, part-time. In the 1990s I was a full-time science PhD student, but had to leave that after a progressive neurological illness started at age 22, and my funding council wouldn’t support a switch to part-time study. I’ve blogged before about how much of a challenge it was to try for a PhD again after walking away from the first one. There were advantages though: the first go gave me skills and experiences which helped make me a more efficient PhD student the second time around. But I still never really thought I’d complete it, if I thought about it at all. But I crossed fingers and did my best!

My viva was arranged for the end of March, just five weeks or so after my thesis had been submitted. Unfortunately I developed shingles in the run-up to the viva: an agonising recurrence of the chickenpox virus, a consequence of the high-dose chemotherapy and steroid drugs suppressing my immune system so much. It certainly made preparing for the viva a challenge. But maybe it helped me not get too anxious about things.

On the Wednesday of my viva Scotland was blanketed with heavy snow. Luckily both my examiners got to Dundee: the external coming from Edinburgh, the internal digging out his car in south Fife! I didn’t sleep at all the night before, but I got about four hours sleep that morning, before my husband took me in to the university, and helped me get to the venue – I had to use my manual wheelchair that day, and a suitably accessible venue had been arranged. The examiners had also agreed to restrict my viva to an hour because of my disease which means that I get very brain tired very quickly if things go much over that.

I was told that I’d passed with minor corrections as soon as the viva started, which removed the tension a lot. I remember the next hour as a relaxed friendly chat about my research. Both examiners had lots of questions, and even the third academic present, a Dundee lecturer who was acting as chair or convener of the viva, had questions too, which was nice. It was really enjoyable to be able to chat to people who had engaged with my research so closely. I also took the chance to ask their advice about good publishing strategies. After an hour the chair wheeled me out of the room, to rejoin my waiting husband, and we went off to celebrate.

I’m unable to work in academia because of my severely disabling progressing neurological disease, so have ploughed a different path as an academic. It may be worth reflecting here briefly on what it means if going for a PhD, whether or not pursuing a conventional academic path. Firstly and most straightforwardly passing a PhD is validation of your PhD research and thesis, and the many years spent working on it. It is also a mark of your acceptance into the academic community as a fully fledged academic, capable of formulating and completing large research projects. Extremely important, I think, is the huge confidence boost passing a PhD can give you. There’s very much a feeling of “I can do that!” And for me personally it also saw the achievement of a long-term goal, and helping to put to bed the hurt of having to leave a science PhD after my illness struck at just 22.

I asked for an honorary research fellowship from my department shortly after finishing the PhD, after realising that because of university libraries increasingly switching to staff/student-only electronic subscriptions to academic journals rather than print, which aren’t available to other library members including graduate members like me, I would struggle to access the journals I needed to keep up with current research and thinking. This would be a problem as I aimed to publish my own research in academic journals. Fortunately the fellowship was granted, and has been renewed each year since. This helps me enormously, but Dundee University’s history division also gets some credit whenever I have another academic publication with my affiliation noted. I also take an active part in Dundee’s history research seminars, when I’m strong enough to come in.

Publishing academic journal papers has been an important activity for me since my viva. Soon after the viva I met with my PhD supervisor Charles McKean. He was keen for me to aim at very ambitious journals, which was scary, and hasn’t been completely successful, though I think it was worth trying for. But I’ve had a fair number of journal papers accepted post viva, some of which have gone into print since, others are shortly to go into print. I’m also developing four more papers at the moment, and am increasingly moving into new research, some following on from my PhD topic directly, others more marginally connected. As a historian it’s normal to be sole author of your academic papers. This is very different from science, where papers typically have multiple authors, often a very long list of names. So I have all the responsibility of doing my own research, and the writing, submitting to editors, dealing with peer review (ouch!) and any rejection or revise and resubmit offer, and proofreading prior to final publication. One of my post viva publications, in Scottish Historical Review, had to be proofread in Ninewells hospital during a high dose chemotherapy infusion. The editor had hoped to get the proofs to me days sooner, but as it turned out it was a case of my dealing with them on the day in hospital, single handed, literally, with the other hand hooked up to the toxic chemotherapy infusion, or not be able to do the proofs in time, given how sick and tired I would be post chemo. Not a great memory! But I did it, and I’m particularly proud of that paper, that comes from my PhD research. I really enjoy the academic publishing process, and it seems to be something that I’m good at.

I’ve also been giving conference papers since passing my PhD. On the downside I usually have to pay the costs of attending and travelling myself. And since I usually need to use my wheelchair there, and need help, my husband has to come too. But we usually pick events that give us a chance to visit somewhere we want to go to for a little break. I have to rest a lot after travelling, and can usually only attend part of any multi day conferences, but my husband has a good time exploring the relevant cities while I sleep, with camera in hand. Attending conferences isn’t easy for me, but it keeps me part of the academic community, and I enjoy the challenge of giving papers. I’ve attended four conferences in the last five years, and spoke at three of those. I was invited to give a talk at a conference for archivists, fortunately held here in Dundee. I was speaking as a disabled user of archives, sharing my experiences with them re access, getting support from archivists etc. Then I presented a paper about my taught MPhil dissertation research into Melrose regality court. This was presented at the Economic & Social History Society of Scotland annual conference in Inverness. Inverness is lovely and Leakey’s Bookshop is a must see! I attended, but didn’t speak at, the SHARP (Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing) 2012 conference in Dublin. It was fantastic to see the city because my great granny was born there. And then in 2014 I went to the annual SHARP conference again, this time in Antwerp – which I have long wanted to go to (oh but the cobbles!) – and gave a paper on TV series Doctor Who and its fanzines. Talk about moving out of my comfort zone as an 18th / early 19th century book/reading historian! But it was fun, and just the sort of thing my PhD gave me the confidence to tackle, and the talk attracted a huge audience – nearly 70 (most panels there were getting 20 or so people), with some having to stand or sit on the floor – who seemed to enjoy it. I will also be giving another talk in a couple of months at a book history conference in St Andrews.

I don’t know how long I can keep doing these journal papers and conference talks. My disease is progressive, even though it’s playing a bit more nicely at the moment, after the summer 2012 high dose chemotherapy infusions in hospital. I have significant dementia-like problems with memory and concentration. I also have to sleep for vast amounts of time, up to 18 hours every day in worst patches. Ironically given that my PhD researched historic reading habits I have enormous difficulty reading now due to the brain damage – thank goodness for my Kindle! And I have to do academic work in scattered short bursts, often a few minutes and no more than an hour at a time. But I do plan to keep going for as long as I can. I may not be employed in a paid academic post, but as I’ve said I’m ploughing my own path, and enjoying it.

Meanwhile next Tuesday is a time for celebrating again. I think I’ll get me a half bottle of Moët et Chandon champagne – my favourite – and some cake. Yum!

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Another day, another post looking back on my PhD days. I’ve been getting a little exasperated in the last few days, reading comments by full-time PhD students who are bemoaning their funding running out at the end of the third year, for both financial reasons and lack of time to complete. But this is the situation that many part-timers are in all the way through their degrees, especially humanities students, where funding is much scarcer than for science students.

Unlike full-time students part-time PhD students don’t have the luxury of being able to work full-time at a PhD, and instead have to squeeze it in at weekends and evenings as they can, around any job and for example family commitments. It’s difficult, it requires a lot of guts and determination. Some fall by the wayside, but many do complete. And I don’t think full-timers really appreciate just what part-timers go through.

I’ve been both a full-time and part-time PhD student. Part-time was much much harder. It required guts, sticking power, and sheer determination to complete. But the sense of self-reward at the end was huge.

I just wish some full-timers would stop moaning about their funding running out, and think about other options. Get a job if you can, and switch to part-time study for the rest – it can be done!

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I’ve been a PhD student twice. Initially I was a full-time computer science PhD student. I had to leave that, after falling ill with what would turn out to be an aggressive progressive neurological disease. Years later, after retraining as a historian (picking up both bachelors and masters degrees), I had a second go, part-time this time. I’ve just been reflecting on lessons I learned from the first time, in a post on a postgraduate forum where I’m a member. And I thought it might be worth reposting them here.

The second time around I didn’t do the standard spend a whole year (or equivalent if studying part-time) doing your literature survey, which I think is a complete waste of time, though I appreciate it can be a way of easing new students into the process gradually. When I fell ill during my first PhD, during that first full-time year, having followed the traditional timetable meant that I made very little progress before it was too late. I wasn’t going to make that mistake again. Second time around I did my literature survey and chapter in 3 months, even though part-time, and then got on with the research phase of my PhD.

A big advantage of being a PhD student the second time was that I knew the PhD degree processes much better. Even though I’d had to leave my science PhD before I got too far into things myself I still knew the general processes involved, I’d watched fellow students in my department go through them and had learned from their experiences. This meant that in go #2 I was a much more efficient PhD student than the first time, and very much took control of my PhD. That proved to be particularly important when my original history PhD supervisor moved 500 miles away to Oxford, and initially supervised me long-distance, but then I switched to a new supervisor, and had to negotiate how best to deal with him.

On the downside, writing did not go smoothly time #2. In my case I’d switched to a radically different subject area, albeit picking up those other two degrees first. But I struggled to find my writing voice in my history PhD, and at one point had to restart the writing completely. With hindsight it’s just as well I saved time earlier in the process, because I needed it later! But I did complete within the six years allowed me as a part-time student, even though for much of that time I was managing on no more than 5 hours total a week as my illness worsened. I didn’t need to ask for extensions, and passed my viva easily.

I don’t think I would have completed the second PhD so smoothly if it hadn’t been for the hard lessons I learned the first time.

To read more about my experiences as a disabled PhD student see here.

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