Tag Archives: PhD

The Drama of AIDS

By Emily Garside
The moment that you had the idea and decided it was something you wanted to research (your Archimedes moment)

This was actually way before my PhD started. For context, I looked at the two plays I wrote my thesis on (Angels in America by Tony Kushner and Rent by Jonathan Larson) for both my Undergrad dissertation (Rent) and my Masters (Angels in America). So really I pin this moment down to when I discovered the plays…this was in my year abroad in Montreal (I’m British) and we rented the Angels in America mini-series. (On account of long Canadian winters, we were always looking for a new thing to watch.) I remember distinctly my flatmate saying ‘this is supposed to be good, it’s about people with AIDS’. Soon after, as a young musical theatre fan, I discovered ‘Rent’ and bought the cast recording, I don’t remember much else except listening to it on the bus home (on my portable CD player!) and falling in love.

It all began from there, nearly 11 years ago now. Those two moments planted the seed of interest. I fell in love with the plays several times over and in several stories I don’t have space for here! But I wrote one dissertation, then another and when I finished my MA, I realised I wasn’t finished with these plays and this topic yet!

How your background and experience may have led to your choice of PhD topic, no matter how tenuously?

I think my mish-mash of academic background influenced things a lot. I studied History at Undergrad level, and it’s where my academic interests lay. However while on my year abroad I started taking acting classes and studied drama for optional modules at University. What was a casual hobby became more serious and I went on to study at RADA for my MA. But despite ‘learning’ how to do theatre, my approach kept some of the historian’s mindset, always thinking about context and the wider picture not just the ‘text’.

I always say too I’m very influenced by being a working class girl. I’m very practical and don’t suffer pretentious fools. I hate the wishy washy approach of many literary scholars and I hate a worthier than thou attitude of many academics. Something that shaped the approach to my own research (and no doubt ruffled a few feathers along the way).

How your reading and research may have been shaped by things by extra-curricular or non-academic factors:

I think being passionate about theatre in the broader sense really shaped my research. I’ve been a theatre person since about age 15 and have always been both up to date and fairly encylopedic on the current and previous Broadway/West End shows. This was something my supervisors (all English literature specialists) weren’t prepared for and didn’t quite know how to handle. For me though this interest/context was the essence of what I looked at. And if I wasn’t such a theatre fan, and didn’t have all that information at my fingertips I don’t know what it would be!

I also had the advantage of practical training. This helped ansed shaped my work enormously. I was able to look at archival records, including the stage management ‘Bible’ copy of the scripts and understand all the technical elements and so ‘bring to life’ the physical play in a way people without that practical training probably can’t. The practical training also gives me a different perspective on the staging of the plays, the actors roles etc.

Finally  the main non-academic factors I was shaped by was being a self-funded PhD and the amount of extra curricular work this took. I supported myself through a variety of jobs and this certainly influenced the way I worked and my attitude to the PhD.
Emily Garside has completed a PhD in AIDS-related theatre at Cardiff Metropolitan University and is about to take up a position as Research and Development Advisor at University of South Wales, advising for the Creative Industries Research Institute. You can tweet her @Emi_Garside and check out her blogs Fixed Point Time and Mucky Phd.


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Sorry for the absence…

Dear follower,

Thank you for signing up to receive updates about this blog, “From Tweet to Thesis”. I unfortunately have not kept up my side of the bargain and provided anything to be updated about. The last two years exactly have been my most stressful ever, with PhD thesis submission, viva and effectively rewriting with a view to resubmission. Now that I have resubmitted my thesis, and am awaiting oral examination, I am in a position to resume this blog again.

If you are a PhD student, please feel free to submit a post about the inspiration behind their research question, via the “Contribute” page. If you know a PhD student, please encourage someone else to contribute.  I am also interested in the origin of ideas in general.

If you are not actually a follower but a random reader who has stumbled upon this site serendipitously, then I hope you find something to make it worthwhile to stick around. 🙂

Kind regards,

Pravin Jeya

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PhD as self-discovery

I decided to do a PhD because I had a question about law I wanted to answer. So the goal of the PhD has been to make that “original contribution to knowledge”. But as I progressed, I have found that my research has been plastic, in the Hegelian sense. On the one hand, I have shaped my research not only in deciding what to do but also in how my background has shaped my paradigm. In realising the latter, I started to learn things about myself. Doing the PhD became a process of self-discovery. In a sense, at some point, the boundary between my research topic and myself became porous.

As PhD student Kirsty Warren said in the video below, I didn’t start to discover myself by attempting to discover myself; I did it by getting on with life and focusing on something beyond myself. In a sense, as Hegel said, only by recognising that there was something outside me worth recognising did I recognise myself. I became a posthuman researcher.

Emily Warren, discovering herself

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When did you start your doctorate?

By Professor Emeritus Vernon Trafford

President Truman in Oval Office

Vernon’s PhD grew out of his professional work on an interdisciplinary, collaborative project

How often have you been asked that question?  What do you say?  Is your answer always the same?  If it varies why is that?  For some people the answer is easy; it is the date when they were accepted by or enrolled at a University.   For others, the answer is more complex.  I am in the latter category. What follows explains how I now view the question as well as how it links to my choice of my doctoral topic.

After leaving school I had various private and public sector jobs before studying for a BA at Liverpool University.  Then, lectureships in three polytechnics exposed me to the practicalities of my primary disciplines – political science and organization theory.   An invitation to be part of a British Council educational development project in Bhopal, India, was an opportunity to apply my learning in a new context.

Based at one of the four Indian Technical Teacher Training Institutions, the project comprised five sub-projects including education management. For eighteen months I contributed to the education management sub-project, working with counterparts to design, undertake and report on various small-scale research projects.   This involved travelling throughout the three states in the Western Region of India, presenting at regional or national conferences, providing management development workshops for polytechnics and writing detailed reports for the British Council.

Then I became the director of a new sub-project looking at institutional evaluation.  The purpose of this project was to improve the practice of evaluating polytechnic performance.  For years this function had been undertaken externally by ‘inspectors’ who checked regulatory compliance and seldom acknowledged positive achievement. Discussions at the State level in technician education resulted in twelve Polytechnic Principals being seconded to develop an appropriate evaluative instrument. They were the group from whom Polytechnic Evaluation Teams would be chosen.

In this project I was responsible for planning and delivering each stage of the developmental/training workshops, selecting and involving specialists in key aspects of the project plus editing drafts of working papers and operational manuals.  My filing cabinets in Bhopal and UK quickly filled with working papers and British Council reports.

As a result, it became apparent to me that the project was:

  • interdisciplinary at a time when this was rare in international development projects;
  • designed and operated as an evaluative process which replaced one that had been imposed by the prevailing technical bureaucracy on the polytechnics and so had been judged to be ‘not-fit-for-purpose’;
  • exemplifying successful international collaboration between the twelve seconded Polytechnic Principals and the small team of expert advisers;
  • converting an untried theory of institutional evaluation into a practical instrument and training professional education managers to use it.

Since my academic work in a business school also involved educational management developmental projects in Europe, I knew that the Indian project was quite unique. I concluded that it was suitable for doctoral level study and could make a contribution to knowledge.  Thus, my choice of the topic for my doctorate evolved naturally out of my professional practice with me as the insider researcher.

Foolishly, I believed that having a potentially worthy topic for doctoral research would instantly appeal to a university.  I put forward my case in a two-page synopsis outlining the international, cultural, technical, micro-political, behavioural and educational aspects of the project.  Appropriate sources were included to locate these components within their respective theoretical perspectives. Also, an agreed five-year time line illustrated the resources and schedules that would sustain the project.  My part-time research would be inductive, insider-based and use multiple methods to collect and interpret the data. This document was approved by the British Council, my counterparts in India and academic colleagues in UK.

My first application was to my Alma Mater. A beautifully phrased letter from them regretted that my proposal erred too much on ‘the practical aspects of your very interesting project’ and they wished me well.

My second application went to a business school that had international links in Europe.  They rejected it because ‘we have no educationalists on our staff.’

My unaltered proposal was then sent to two other universities.  It was rejected by a centre of development studies because it was ‘too educational’ and was also rejected by a school of education because it was ‘far too international for us to handle’.

My first interview was in a faculty whose Department of Education had institutional links with other countries.   I arrived with high hopes and was armed with my two-page outline, examples of the evaluative materials and some photographs too!  The staff member who saw me instantly launched into explaining why I should drop my ‘little project’ and join his team of econometricians who were studying longitudinal educational development in other Indian States.  I listened in silence until he finished and then refused his ‘kind offer’. . . .

Two weeks later I saw an advertisement in the education press to study for Ph.Ds at the University of Southampton.   Applicants were invited to provide a three-page outline of their intended research and a short CV.  My project outline was extended and submitted.  I was invited to the University for a sequence of meetings that commenced with the Faculty Doctoral Admissions Officer – a retired academic.  He obviously understood my ideas and for an hour asked searching questions about why I wanted to study for a doctorate, the origins and future of the institutional evaluation project, my conceptual understanding of multidisciplinary research and the difficulties of undertaking research in another culture and country.  By the close of that meeting my choice of a topic for my doctorate had been justified to his satisfaction.

The next meeting was with a possible supervisor whom, I was told, ‘normally has twelve doctoral candidates and last week one completed successfully so he could take you on.’  His questions then, and during the following years of our relationship, were Socratic in style and intention.  He helped me to understand the depth and complexity of my topic.  Although he was neither an expert in educational evaluation nor institutional management he was highly skilled in helping people, including me, to think.

Looking back, I realise that my undergraduate and graduate studies had each enabled me to start thinking like a researcher through the lens of disciplines and theories. Then, directing the institutional evaluation project had sharpened my research skills and appreciation of the interconnectedness of parts in a system.  Perhaps, sometime before the University of Southampton registered me for a Ph.D. I had already ‘chosen and started on my doctorate’.

Hopefully my experience of rejection letters and that first interview(!) are atypical of current recruitment practices.  Having now admitted numerous candidates to their doctoral studies and supervised over fifty to completion, it is fascinating to hear applicants’ answers to my question ‘When did you start your doctorate?’

Vernon Trafford is Professor Emeritus at Anglia Ruskin University. After working in the private and public sectors, he gained degrees in public administration and political science.  In 1978, he registered at the University of Southampton for his PhD in “Developing a critical success factor system of evaluation for polytechnics in India”. But, catching hepatitis and a substantial research grant in UK, plus writing a book, delayed his thesis being submitted until 1987 (Editor – that’s 9 years).   He has undertaken education-related consultancy assignments for QAA, OECD, the British Council, the World Bank and various governmental agencies. Since 2001, his research and publications are into the nature of doctorateness. His book with Shosh Leshem, “Stepping stones to achieving your doctorate”, was published by Open University Press in 2008 and has been reprinted three times.  Visit his website at www.vernontrafford.com.

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Martine Wright – Destiny calling

As I watched the Paralympics opening ceremony and the run-up on Channel 4, I couldn’t help but be moved by the story of Martine Wright, the GB sitting volleyball player. 

She strongly believed that losing her legs in the London 7/7 bombings, the day after we won the bid for 2012, was a part of her destiny, and not a freak accident. Her achievement at London 2012 is not only a consequence of her training, but also down to her overall experience, including sitting next to one of the suicide bombers.

Many of the contributors to this blog have written of how their PhD is not just about their research but is also the result of experiences. Elsewhere, I have blogged how an Olympic medal is like a PhD? Was your PhD part of your destiny?

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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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