Tag Archives: phd topic

Do our foetal experiences help to do a PhD?

I stumbled across this talk by science writer Annie Murphy Paul on the intriguing field of foetal origins research. According to the scientific research, one’s learning begins while in the womb;  information about the environment of a pregnant mother is transmitted to the foetus, primarily through the digestive process and the senses, so that the foetus can develop the right qualities to survive in the outside world. (Unfortunately, the foetus doesn’t know that the mother’s environment is subject to change.)

I have been thinking  about the origin of phd topics and how they are influenced by the environment of the PhD student. There may be no connection but this talk made me wonder whether the skills required to do a PhD or experience that led to a PhD topic are the result in part or indirectly of any foetal learning.

It is interesting that Paul’s book on foetal origin research was written while she herself was pregnant. Did her experience as an expectant mother make her look more favourably on doing the research?  


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Where did your “Archimedes moment” come from?

I started this blog because I was interested to in the “Archimedes moment” of PhD topics. It was my hypothesis that there was a connection between a PhD topic and the ‘environment’ of the researcher. The “Archimedes moment” – that moment of insight or aha or Eureka – was a moment of what Catherine Malabou calls le voir venir, where the researcher consciously or subconsciously looks back to what went before and then forwards to what is to come. Indeed, a number of contributors to this blog have often commented how the very act of writing a post was a cathartic process of making sense.

But one thing I have noticed during the course of my PhD is that there has not been just one moment of insight, there have been a whole series of them. I noticed I would have them at the oddest times – travelling on the bus or train, in church, watching TV and always when I was not thinking necessarily thinking about my PhD. In fact, sometimes I even had them while procrastinating. Perhaps the best example is my actual theoretical reading.  Sometimes, I would start reading a philosophical book and it makes no sense whatsoever so I put it to one side and get on with something else. I would then keep putting off going back to that book. But eventually I do and it makes perfect sense. It’s almost as if I had to do other things first, read other things first, come to certain points in my thinking first, before my brain was ready to process a particular philosophical text.

On the one hand, I would put this process of insight after preparation down to God. He knew, in his omniscience, what I needed to do and in what order; he had his teaching programme all mapped out, and if I tried to depart from it (unknowingly) it wouldn’t make sense. But then I wondered, how does he do that exactly? According to Jonah Lehrer, it’s done through the very structure of the human brain.

It turns out that there is no such thing as right-brained or left-brained people. Well, there are, but those people are suffering from brain damage. But the healthy person uses both sides of the brain. The left side focus on individual detail and the literal meaning of words and the right side focus on connections, underlying order, connotation and so on. We are physically reading or looking at some data, our brain will use the left side as far as possible to understand it but eventually it reaches an impasse where what we are looking at does not make sense. We give up in frustration and decide to do something else. But that’s when our right side kicks in. Having failed to understand on the surface, the brain goes under the covers and looks underneath the data. That’s when we get insight. It works when we are not actually ‘working’ because it is only reviewing the work that has already been done.  I’m going to hazard a guess but that must be why I’ve woken up in the middle of the night with a solution.

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Pulling a thesis out of a hat

By Katy Inglis


Watching magic tricks as a child made Katy want to find out how they did it.

I was 10 years old the first time I watched a show by Derren Brown, a hugely popular British magician/showman.  At that age, I didn’t quite believe in magic any more – I knew there was some kind of trick to it somewhere, if I could only see it – but I couldn’t get over how even through the television I was duped repeatedly.

I became fascinated with the elements of showmanship he employed, particularly the use of non-verbal cues to misdirect an audience’s attention.  As a child, that meant I started devouring books on body language.  (I should add that I have always been hugely driven academically, and I love to learn for the sake of learning.  Even when I was 10).  It became something of a hobby for me to learn about these non-verbal messages we use, but when it was time for me to apply to university, the possibility of studying Psychology hadn’t crossed my mind.

Originally, I applied to do Law.  I was young and influenced by the earning potential – what can I say, my academic morals weren’t quite established then.  However, meeting my boyfriend in the same year I was meant to do my Highers (Scottish A-Levels to everyone else) meant that not quite as much studying got done as was necessary and I didn’t make the cut.  Desperate to go to university, I applied to do Psychology and, happily, was accepted.

Doing Psychology as an undergraduate added a new depth to my hobby.  I started learning about the motivations for human behaviour and began to focus my reading about non-verbal cues on deception.  I was fascinated with how people could lie without saying a word.  I continued to watch Derren Brown on TV and added more shows to my repertoire, like Lie to Me, which hit screens in 2009 and introduced me to the legend that is Paul Ekman.  I have told this story to several people who have exclaimed I just like to watch TV, which – although somewhat true – is a little unfair.  I’m aware of the limits of these programmes and the artistic license they employ to create a good story, but their influence on my life is pronounced; I wouldn’t be doing this PhD without them.  For that reason, I can’t tell my story fully without telling you about them.  (And as an aside, if you’ve never seen either – get watching!)

More slowly than I like to admit – given the seemingly obvious connection in hindsight – I began to put the two together.  Magicians deceive professionally, though I’m quick to add this is not in a malicious way.  Instead, they foster a sense of enjoyment, wonder and awe in their audiences who go to these shows deliberately for the experience of being misled.  Misdirection is to magicians what the Bible is to a preacher.  Once I had that particular eureka moment, my path was clear.

I was incredibly fortunate to do my undergraduate degree in a university where one of the few psychologists who research magic works.  It was a rocky road to getting funding, but I was able to create a proposal that would allow me to live the dream and begin my PhD in the Psychology of Magic.  Essentially, my thesis investigates how magicians learn to manipulate social attention to be successful at misdirection.  I began to discover that magic wasn’t just cool; it gives psychologists an amazing tool to tap into all sorts of aspects of cognition.  The body of research is growing and soon I will be contributing to it.

Katy Inglis is a first year PhD student at the University of Dundee.  She holds a First Class Honours degree in Psychology and has worked as research assistant and an assistant psychologist between graduating in 2010 and starting her PhD in 2011.  Her academic blog is Not Just Another PhD, and she tweets far too much at @katy_inglis. You can also find out more at The Secret Diary of a Twentysomething.  When she occasionally has a life outside her PhD, Katy trains in Taekwondo, learns German, makes things (including really good cakes) and watches *all the things* at the cinema.  You can view her professional blurb at the University of Dundee’s Psychology People page.

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Hanging out with the oldies

By Anna Tarrant

Heidi and grandfather

Like Heidi, Anna close relationship with her grandfathers triggered her research interests

The title for this post reflects a common question I have been asked consistently throughout the process of conducting my PhD and subsequently since it was awarded in July 2011. I am a human/social geographer by discipline (although I find this restricting and have drawn upon a range disciplines to conduct my work). When I am asked “So what did you do your research in?”, people are often surprised by my response: “It is/was about grandfathers.” I am met with silence followed by “But that’s not geography!” The predominantly non-academic folk I come across think geographers explore volcanoes, aquatic environments, poverty, health and so on – and they do – but I was much more interested in the everyday; why I am who I am, what is important to me, who matters to me and why?

At the time it never occurred to me that in being labelled a geographer, people could no longer see what it was that motivates me as an individual, in my everyday life, as opposed to just my professional life. I was initially stumped by this question on several occasions (because explaining about masculinities theory and absent presences seemed rather inappropriate for the most part). I began to think about the question more; why grandfathers? What is it about me that means I am intrinsically interested in such a topic? There are academic reasons, as I outline below, but the more I ponder it, the more I have come to realise that it is because of my keen desire to maintain strong familial relationships and to enjoy the diversity of people in my everyday life, that I felt it important to explore roles that many people (and in this case men) find so valuable, important and meaningful to them. At the same time, my professional and personal life are not entirely separate; the boundaries between personal and private are blurred (especially as I have now started to use Twitter…a lot) and that is what has prompted me to write this blog post…as a way of reflecting on how the personal becomes political, how my personal interests have made my professional life so much more tolerable, even enjoyable and to understand what motivates me so I know what to pursue next. Given these musings, I realised maybe I do have something to contribute, and here it is.

Academic beginnings

Initially in agreeing to write this post I was concerned I would have little to write because to my mind my PhD topic was very much born out of interests developed in my academic undergraduate life. At this juncture I feel I should explain why I came to think this. I am 25 years old, fairly young for a Dr, even in the UK. Having completed my A-Levels at 18 with reasonable grades, I went to Lancaster University. I was fortunate enough to find a very interesting dissertation topic on older men, for which I interviewed my grandfather and several of his friends. This idea emerged because I sought additional reading about geographies of gender, a topic that inspired my interests and that I had a thirst to learn much more about; at this point unsure why! It was this that led me to realise that, academically at least, older men have received very little critical attention and focus in sociology and the social sciences. Through the support of two male supervisors at Lancaster University, I began to question more about these forgotten people (at least in the academic imagination), noting that in my own world, men have featured very predominantly, and in very supportive capacities. Having secured funding for a doctoral project on intergenerational relations between men, I did the required reading and set out to interview men who were fathers, and men who were grandfathers. I won a funded scholarship to Linkoping University, Sweden to theoretically explore the often contradictory identities of older and ageing men and from there my PhD topic evolved and was officially born.

Personal Reflections        

I cannot say that academic stimulation alone was responsible for my choosing to focus down on my particular project. I had particularly enjoyed interviewing grandfathers. I experienced a sense of pride when the men were pleased that they at last were getting some attention for the roles they play in their families. This reminded my very strongly once again of the men in my family life. I am blessed with a wonderful family and a very loving, caring father and I have always spent lots of time with my mother’s father and to a lesser extent my father’s father. My relationships with the men in my life, I am sure each have been partly responsible for my finding a lovely husband who has been incredibly supportive, particularly of my desire for an academic career. I am fairly sure that actually, what drives me is a desire to use my own positive family experiences as a way in which to really tackle the issues and inequalities many people face in their families and to explore how the positive character of family relationships can be replicated and used as a model for furthering social cohesion in communities and in everyday situations. I know this is a tough task but I am increasingly committed to the idea that everyday practices, the little things are incredibly powerful and meaningful to the quality of a person’s life.

So where am I going next? Just this Christmas I noticed something in my everyday life that I think may inspire further research questions. In talking to my husband’s grandparents it occurred to me that they don’t own a computer and that their local bank and supermarket were closing down, making it harder for them to access basic resources. I am now wondering how older communities cope with these changes and what can be done, in the planning of urban areas to aid in the continued inclusion of elderly residents. Inspired by my personal and familial relationships, this is research relevant to my career and to the lives of those who are (and are becoming) increasingly vulnerable.

Dr Anna Tarrant was awarded her PhD in Human Geography in 2011 from Lancaster University. She is currently Senior Teaching Associate at Lancaster University but has just accepted a Research Associate position with Open University where she intends to develop the research ideas discussed in this post. You can follow her on Twitter @dratarrant or subscribe to her blog, which is a space for her academic musings

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Listening to Music as Pain-relief

By Diana Hereld


The death of loved ones pushed Diana into studying how music can ease pain

If one were to ask for my academic or intellectual rationale for choosing music psychology, I would most likely rattle off something matter-of-factly about how I’ve grown up around music and psychology. My parents were psychologists; my mother has two doctorates so academic achievement was always very important. Yet they always stressed the cultural and intellectual importance of music. Music is what I do, and I have a lazy passion for the more philosophical side of things, so it simply ‘made sense,’ as it were.

As to my intellectual rationale for music psychology, it started exactly a year ago. From the time I discovered Dr. Victoria Williamson’s research in the applied neuroscience of music, I’ve been completely enamored with the field. Since I was a young child, I’ve been devoted to the pursuit of music in any way possible. I’ve been involved in music theatre, music video production and engineering, music composition, and music marketing in radio and television. As my emotional intelligence developed, however, I found I also had an intense desire to understand people and their motives. In high school and college, I took classes in philosophy, psychology and ethics. My first emphasis in college was music and psychology. But as I was strongly discouraged from pursuing majors with such ‘different focuses,’ I chose music alone. In line with this, I never resolved to solely do one or the other, and eventually it was cause for a year break before enrolling in a graduate programme. I found I simply could not be happy studying only music or only psychology. Enter my absolute elation upon discovering the Music, Mind and Brain programme at Goldsmiths College, University of London. I believe that their programme’s careful integration of music perception, neuroscience and statistical methods combined with a faculty of such encouragement and expertise will be just the training I seek in preparation of a PhD and a career in the field.

If someone were to ask to explain or justify my ‘non-academic’ journey into exactly what I have chosen to pursue, I still find myself needing to pause and really think it through. One catalyst for this is that my rationale is not static but dynamic, changing and evolving daily into something slightly new and adjusted. I suppose that that should say something in and of itself – the pursuit of music psychology has become my life blood – it’s what I think about most moments of every day. The more I’ve reflected on my own listening habits over the years, the more I realize there are few times I am without music. I use it advantageously in every possible situation. As an ENFJ (extroverted, intuitive, feeling, judging) Jungian personality type, being able to calm and put people at ease is one of my greatest joys, and strengths. Music can turn a moment of happiness into a moment of memorable bliss that stays with you always. It can also turn a slightly vague and uncomfortable memory into a transparent lake of psychoanalytical outpouring. Music is in everything, and it has the power to heal people.

If one were to ask the truly cementing factor in my life that secured music psychology, however, it is most of all the following. Last summer, I lost my step-sister, my father, and my best friend within two weeks of each other. Though I’d dealt with a fair share of hardship in adolescence, I’d never gone through anything of this magnitude. Through the process of witnessing my family’s grief (and my own) in spending time in hospitals and hospice, I felt more than ever an acute desire to help people through their pain. I never cease to be amazed at music’s capacity to bring about a mental resilience. I know music to be a healing tool, because I am a living attestation. There are many who would disagree with my personal ethic, but I continued to teach my private music lessons to children in the morning after I lost my father, and missed not a single lesson until several months later. I’m finding my time now to be alone and to grieve, but I honestly believe that the joy of working with kids in music sustained me through the more terrible moments, and as I said, I’ve kept in reserve the strength to maintain my lessons and lead a research project at the university. I wish to practice music psychology because I know it works. I now desire to delve further into the why, and the how.

My long-term goal is to complete a PhD in using music as a therapeutic tool in those who struggle with self-harm. From there exist many options I’d like to pursue, such as research and music therapy in a clinical setting. Though I have many different interests in listening behavior, emotional intelligence and applied neuroscience, the concept of psychological resilience remains of the most consequence to me, and I’ve many ideas how to pair this with music.

Diana Hereld holds a Bachelor’s degree in Music and Communication. She works currently as a psychology researcher at California State University, music tutor in piano and voice, and teacher for an early childhood music company. When she is not working, she spends her time independently researching all things music psychology and neuroscience, and theology/philosophy when it pertains to the former. Her interest is particularly in the way varied personality types respond emotionally to music, whether that can change over time in consequence of plasticity, and the implications for psychological resilience. She has just been accepted into the Music, Mind and Brain MSc programme at Goldsmiths College University of London for Fall 2012. You can follow her on Twitter @christypaffgen and subscribe to her blog, As the Spirit Wanes: The Form Appears.


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PhD on Procrastination

By Pravin Jeya

Teenage girl texting

Mobile phones are a constant source of procrastination

I struggle with procrastination. No doubt lots of PhD students and researchers will be able to relate to this. In fact, this post itself is being written because I’ve hit a wall, indicating that I needed to take a break. But recently procrastination went from being a barrier to my research to the very heart of my research. (That doesn’t give me an excuse to procrastinate, off course.)

It started with a particularly bad bout of procrastination. I just kept coming into uni every day with the intention of making a bit more progress. I had a number of things that I needed to do. And yet, I’d come in, check my email, check Twitter and then get sucked into the black hole of everything but my PhD. I needed help to climb out.

Well, shopping was the answer. No, I did not find inspiration in a wild shopping spree down Oxford Street (the university is close by). On the way home, I always pass by WH Smiths (a newsagent cum stationers) and every now and again I pop in to see if there are any interesting books for sale. I don’t usually buy because of limited financial means, I just like to be around books and make a mental checklist of stuff I want to buy when I get through the books I  have at home. Of course, I always forget the checklist.

So, one evening, I saw ‘The Procrastination Equation‘ by Dr Piers Steel. I thought to myself, that’s what I need but I didn’t pick it up because I didn’t think I could afford it. But I came into WH Smith’s about three or four times in a week and every time, I saw this book. Depressed about my current struggle with Procrastination, I picked the book up eventually. I looked at the front cover and the back cover. I noticed that the author was a ‘Dr’ and that he had reviewed all the research into procrastination because he struggled with procrastination. Finally, being a maths graduate, the idea of an equation appealed to me. I felt that this was the book I needed to help me get to grips with my procrastination, because it was debilitating. I am still reading this book at the moment and it is very enlightening.

One thing that caught my eye in the book was when Dr Steel described what procrastination was like. He described it as knowing what we need to do  but waiting until we are sufficiently close to our deadline to have the energy to take action. And as I read the words, a light came on. What he was describing was my theoretical framework, the dialectic between resistance and change that explains the slow progress of environmental behaviour despite ‘end of the world’ style predictions. And I knew that that’s what I was trying to do…look at law as a way for dealing with individual and social procrastination. From that moment, Dr Steel’s book became both my personal reading for dealing with a personal problem and a part of my research reading.

This is not my first post on how my environment influences my PhD.



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Giving children a voice on education

By Dr Narelle Lemon 

Children play chess

children learning, captured by Narelle's children-researcher-participants (supplied by Narelle)

My doctoral thesis was a huge learning curve, personally and professionally – perhaps one that could even be said to have had quite a number of pot holes, cliff hanging moments and resistance (and of course there were great moments of celebration and reward). But its origin and the why remained consistent. I wanted to make a contribution to the voice that young people and children have, to empower them and offer opportunities for them to share their experiences of learning and teaching.  I did this through encouraging them to be digital photographers of their learning and teaching experiences. Throughout an entire school year, the young children I worked with in a year one classroom captured their learning through visual narratives: their own digital images with their reflection and voice of the stories they wanted to share. What was important to them highlighted even further that young children, and in my doctoral study these were 5 and 6 year olds, are capable photographers and amazing sharers of their meaning making when trusted, empowered and listened too.

So to go back a few steps and frame where I had come from. I am an educator, trained teacher in music education. My teaching experiences allowed me to move between teaching high school students and in primary schools as well, and now I work in teacher education in the university context. My original thesis topic was to be on music performance and how students interpret their experiences. It emerged in the work I was doing at the time in a kindergarten to year 12 school and largely influenced by the changes I was noticing through teaching 3 year olds and then a class of 16 year olds on the same day.

My Masters had been in the area of music performance anxiety and I was noticing a few overlaps. In meeting with a potential supervisor, who had been one of my influential undergraduate lecturers, we soon unpacked that I was perhaps destined to research in another area. She gave me the best advice so early on in the journey, ‘Narelle, I think you are thinking too narrowly. Where do you really want to be in 5 years time? Will you really be teaching just music in a school? What do you actually really want to research?‘ Now this may sound a little harsh but in reality out conversation was nurturing and one where my tendency to go off in tangents and become excited about all things reflection, learning and teaching was dominating my enthusiasm, not my thesis proposal. So after a great heart to heart, and advice to go and chat with some of her colleagues, I met an inspiring researcher who would become my first supervisor. She introduced me to the world of image based research. What really excited me was listening to learners’ worlds, and understanding and appreciating their meaning making this way. Matching this to participatory teacher-research and photography was quite a momentous ‘ah ha’ moment. The turning of my eventual thesis topic.

At the time of wanting to study further and taking on the doctoral thesis journey, I had moved from teaching music into the generalist primary classroom. The passage of learning and teaching is one that has no ending. For me, my music teachers had characteristics about them that as a student I found enchanting. The teachers who impacted me significantly were engaging, enthusiastic, and they got to know me. They became my role models and have profoundly shaped the way I teach. In undertaking my doctoral research I wanted this to shine through as well. It was important for me to make a contribution to the field but also the children I was working with. I like to be creative and I like to challenge myself. My learning is ongoing and one that is very much open to learning from the children I work with. It is this way of thinking that has allowed me to have a career where I have taught music across the spectrum from early childhood to those in tertiary institutions. Opportunities have come along for me to challenge my notions of learning and teaching including being given the opportunity to teach in the year one classroom where my doctoral thesis study was set. This was a huge honour and a beautiful gift that also led me into looking at children’s narratives. The classroom, researched as part of my doctoral study allowed me to shift how I saw myself. It was the classroom where I moved from being a teacher to a teacher-researcher.

So in thinking about the thesis, the challenge was set for me, unexpectedly by a colleague, when she remarked in the months preceding my teaching the year one class of my doctoral study. Good luck with these kids, you’ll have fun with some of them. It’s a mixed bag of students who have a lot of special needs especially x, he’s a handful. There’ll be days when you can’t do anything with him and you’ll just have to sit him in the corner.  I was horrified. What sort of teaching was this? And what on earth did this colleague think I was going to do? There was no way I would ever let that happen but there was certainly definitely no way it would happen after a comment like that. As a teacher I believed it was my role to inspire every student to experience success and to achieve their potential.

My idea to use a digital camera in the classroom emerged as a tool to encourage students to be out of their seats, to move around the learning environment, to be creative and to reflect about their learning and teaching experiences.  I was excited and couldn’t wait to see what would happen. And the learning that occurred together was one of the most empowering experiences of my career. Through the digital camera I was invited into the world of each of my students; a world where each individual shared a part of their heart and allowed me to learn so much from them. It was a beautiful gift, one that I will treasure forever, that allowed me to see life and learning in such a different way.  It was with these realizations, and enthusiasm for what could be possible, that the thesis topic was chosen.

As a teacher-researcher I was fascinated by the concept of being able to change from what is often called a specialist teacher to generalist classroom teacher, and thus my reflective practice was running at full speed. While I was reading literature about digital technologies in learning, curriculum and assessment, I was also addressing my inquiry into pedagogy. I was also led towards reading further about reflective practice – what I was doing, what I was looking at and how I was developing my own understanding and knowledge of the thesis. So alongside the thesis learning curve, learning to be a writer and researcher, I learnt an incredible amount from the young children who allowed me to actually be their co-researcher during their growth as communicators of their lived experiences of learning and teaching.

Dr Narelle Lemon works at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia where she lecturers in Arts Education and the interdisciplinary field of Teacher Education. She completed her doctoral thesis at the end of 2010 and is now writing in the areas of Arts education, image based research, community of practice, and social networking. She tweets as @Rellypops and blogs at Chat With Rellypops



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