«The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research Gordon Rugg Marian Petre THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PHD RESEARCH THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PHD RESEARCH Gordon Rugg and ...»
Once you’ve written something down, you’ve reduced the number of activities you have to do. Separating the activities is one of the disciplines that can help in writing. Writing can be approached as a series of ‘passes’: dumping ideas, prioritizing ideas, putting ideas in order, elaborating an initial structure, generating sentences from notes, editing for structure, editing for language, checking for redundancy, editing for ‘voice’ and so on. One of the most important aspects to isolate is ‘dumping ideas’. Once you’ve got something on paper, you can shift from generating to responding, and turn ‘writing’ into ‘editing’ for a while. A good tip to remember is: no editing until everything is written once.
Another discipline is Keep It Simple, Stupid (KISS) – a principle that applies to most design activities. The simplest language that does the job – the simplest vocabulary, sentence structure and rhetorical structure – is often the best. Keeping it simple is different from ‘schematic writing’. Whereas schematic writing reduces expression to the barest essentials (leaving out much of the detail and often realism), good ‘simple’ writing provides all the necessary information and detail in the most direct way possible. Think of the difference between the London Underground map and an Ordnance Survey map. Both represent the key paths, but one does so realistically, maintaining the relationships of the paths to the surrounding context and indicating the nature of the terrain.
• Writing is a skill, and like most skills it improves and becomes easier with practice
• Make a commitment to write something every day and to produce a ﬁnished piece of writing – a couple of pages – every week
• Try to present material in writing at every supervision session
• When someone critiques your writing, take the time to analyse the critique:
why did the critic make those comments or suggest those changes?
• If someone copy-edits or redrafts your writing, take the time to analyse the changes: why those changes, what do they change and how do they improve the prose?
Writing obstacles raised by students Problem: starting to write anything; not starting to write because the subject is not ‘good enough’.
THE PROCESS OF WRITING 131 Try just ‘dumping ideas’ as a ﬁrst step. Remember: any writing is better than no writing. Don’t worry about whether it’s ‘good enough’. It probably won’t be until you ﬁnish writing it – writing it is part of the process of making it ‘good enough’. (There’s a research literature on this subject...) Until you put marks on paper and let people scrutinize them, you won’t be able to get feedback about how well you’ve managed to convey your ideas, or on how interesting your ideas are, or on what insights they inspire in others.
If you have trouble writing something, it probably means you haven’t got it clear in your mind yet. Write whatever you can, and then consider why it’s so uncomfortable or seems incomplete. Gnarled sentences often signal tangled thoughts – so look again at the dense bits.
Consider writing tricks such as:
• Tell it to a friend over coffee. You might also try having the friend tell it back to you.
• Play ‘Eliza’. Eliza was a computer program that simulated a therapeutic dialogue. Actually, the program only had a limited number of conversational gambits, none of which added any new information, but those few could be, to coin a phrase, effectively elicitative. So to play the Eliza game, you simply start with an initial remark and then build on that through some simple-minded questioning. For example: ‘I want to write about purple elephants.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because purple elephants are more interesting than grey ones.’ ‘What makes them more interesting?’ ‘Because most elephants are grey, and purple ones are unusual.’ ‘Are all purple ones unusual?’ Every so often you can throw in a non sequitur (although it doesn’t have to be ‘What do purple elephants have to do with your mother?’ – the type of non sequitur which Eliza might use). What you’re doing is asking yourself repeatedly: what do I think, why do I think it and why should anyone else care?
• I know the main points but I don’t know how to present them;
• I can’t progress from the draft to writing the ﬁnal version;
• lack of clarity;
• ﬁnding a clear structure;
Good writing is typically a process of drafting and redrafting. So don’t expect to get from ideas to polished prose in one step. Going from ideas to notes is usually reasonably easy. So what’s the difference between notes and prose?
Usually: structure, order and complete sentences. The key is ﬁnding the right structure – ﬁrst the structure of the ideas and then the linear structure of the argument or story you want to make about the ideas.
Try some of the tricks for structuring ideas:
132 THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PhD RESEARCH
• Mind maps. Once you’ve got all the ideas mapped out, then you can try to arrange them into a linear order.
• Put ideas on index cards – one to a card – and then ‘sort’ or arrange them in different collections or structures. Again, you can do this in a series of ‘passes’: grouping by relatedness of concepts, grouping in terms of dependency, grouping thematically, prioritizing, ordering... trying to sort the index cards in different ways can help reveal ideas that don’t ﬁt (so that you consider why they don’t and why you want to include them) and also highlight the ideas that are focal.
• Outlining: experienced writers often advise writing a very detailed outline as a ﬁrst step. Different sorts of outlines can help: content outline (just a detailed hierarchical structure for the content, e.g. headings and subheadings); headings with small abstracts for each, indicating the storyline;
headings with ‘roles’ (what the section is and why it’s there, how it serves the overall argument).
Problem: using too many words to write something that my supervisor does laconically.
Solving this is a matter of practice, both of writing and of editing. Remember KISS. But also understand that ‘simplicity’ is not just a matter of word count – sometimes a few more words can make the writing simpler and more accessible. Work at the structure of the argument and review your draft for structure (the ‘highlighter test’ might help). Chaos and disharmony often result when you’re not sure where something ﬁts, and so you distribute bits of it all over the place.
Before you hand a draft to your supervisor, do an editing ‘pass’, looking speciﬁcally for redundancy or wordiness. When your supervisor does the cut, analyse the changes: what was expendable and why? What role had you thought that material played?
Problem: needing to develop an academic writing style.
Collect exemplars of papers that have a good writing style and an appropriate voice. Analyse the collection: what do the examples have in common?
What makes them appeal to you? How do they handle tough aspects of writing? How do they highlight and present key ideas? How do they introduce vocabulary? When you’re writing, consider how one of those authors might have structured or phrased your material. See if there’s an analogous passage in one of them that you can use as a model.
Problem: it’s easy to grasp my results from a table, but I ﬁnd it difﬁcult to explain the same thing in words.
Tables and graphs should always be introduced in the text. It’s not enough to say ‘The results are in Table 2’; Table 2 should be discussed in the narrative, and possibly also in the caption. This doesn’t mean describing Table 2 exhaustively, item by item. It means leading the reader through the signiﬁcance of Table 2 and its role in the argument. What does the table show?
How do you intend it to be interpreted? The text should describe the key THE PROCESS OF WRITING 133 features of the table that lead you to a particular interpretation. It should relate the information presented in the table to the greater argument. What messages do you mean to convey by presenting the table? The narrative should summarize the table and articulate your messages about the table.
Problem: lack of consistency (e.g. reference style).
This is just editing. Style is various and often personal. The keys are:
• meet the requirements of whatever forum you’re addressing (journals often have style guides);
• be consistent with whatever style you’re using.
You can choose your own reference style for your dissertation, so choose one that makes sense for you and then use it consistently. If you use a tool like the bibliographic software, Endnote, you can easily alter the style for different uses.
Problem: deadlines (always missing them).
Writing is hard, and it takes a long time. Always allow at least twice as much time as you think you might need. Consider how long you think the job will take; double the number, increase the units (be they hours, days, weeks or even years (!)) and add one. So, if I ﬁrst think a job will take ﬁve minutes, I can sensibly allow 11 hours.
Deadlines don’t go away. As your career progresses, there will be more deadlines and more responsibilities competing for your time. Cynical readers may wonder whether skill in meeting deadlines will result in The System viewing you as a safe pair of hands and dumping more work on you, until you reach your level of incompetence. Readers versed in realpolitik might answer that this depends on whether you exhibit skill in meeting The System’s deadlines as opposed to your own. We couldn’t possibly comment on this.
This chapter deals with ‘live’ presentations such as seminars and conferences.
Some of the issues relating to this topic are also relevant to written work – for instance, how to deal constructively with criticism, whether from the audience (‘live’ presentations) or the reviewers (written work). It would be a good idea to read our chapters on writing as well as this chapter if you’re about to do a presentation.
There are two main things that you need to bear in mind when doing presentations. The ﬁrst is the distinction between content and form. The second is the three golden principles: don’t lie, don’t try to be funny and, last but most important, don’t panic and blurt out the truth.
Content and form
The distinction between content and form is summed up in a variation on a song title: ‘It ain’t just what you say [content], it’s the way that you say it [form]’. Content is essential in a presentation. If there is no content worth mentioning, then the best that you can hope for is to be viewed as entertaining. That does not help you in an academic research career, where you are PRESENTATIONS 135 assessed by your peers in terms of how much interesting content you have to offer in your ideas and results. Speakers who give content-free talks can get pretty rough treatment from academic audiences. One such talk in an old university department was interrupted after ten minutes by one of the audience banging a ﬁst on the table and saying, ‘Are you going to say something worth listening to? Because if you’re planning to continue with this bullshit then I’m leaving.’ This is not the sort of reception that you should be aiming for. We will return to content soon.
Form is extremely important in a presentation. The form gives a lot of information about what sort of person you are, and what sort of researcher you are. There are plenty of popular books about public speaking which give detailed advice on what to wear, how to speak and so forth during a presentation. Unfortunately, the rules are somewhat different for public speaking, for teaching, for business presentations and for research presentations, so you need to be careful about which rules you follow for which setting.
Content in detail The principles for content are fairly straightforward.
Most presentations are divided into three parts. The classic advice is: ‘First, tell the audience what you are going to say. Then say it. Then tell them what you have just said.’ This is usually very good advice. The opening section sets the context, explains why your topic is important to the audience and prepares them for what comes next. The main section contains the main content and is usually the longest section. The closing section summarizes what you have just said. Each of these sections may have subsections, depending on the length of the talk.
Classic mistakes involving content There are various classic mistakes involving content. One is to misjudge the amount you can ﬁt into the time available. The best way of avoiding this is to rehearse the presentation and time yourself, then add or (more often) subtract material and try again until your timing is right. For short presentations this is simple and effective. For longer presentations it is not much fun rehearsing an hour’s worth of material for the third time, so a better strategy is to rehearse once, adjust the amount of material if necessary and have a plan about which bits to add or leave out depending on how the time goes.
A handy tip for timing is to have a master sheet in front of you which tells you which topic you should be covering at what time – for instance, ‘10.15 – slide about software failure rates’. This will give you an idea of how near you are to being on track. For very short presentations, careful rehearsal can make the timing much easier. One of us once had to give an eight-minute presentation as part of a job application, where ability to keep to time was one of the skills being judged. Our strategy was to rehearse the talk several times 136 THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PhD RESEARCH (including rehearsal to an empty room) and adjust the material until the talk took between seven and nine minutes. When we gave the real presentation, we deliberately did not check the time on our watch; instead, we watched the audience, whose expressions told us how near we were to the ﬁnishing time, and ﬁnished within seconds of the speciﬁed time without apparently needing to check the time. Showing off? Yes, but it made the right impression – most speakers have difﬁculty keeping to time on an eight-minute slot even with time checks, so keeping to time without looking at watch or clock was an indicator of professional skills.
There are various classic problems involving content. Probably the most frequent of these is the choice of appropriate level of material to present.
Giving a highly technical presentation to an audience with only basic knowledge of the area usually results in a very bored audience. Giving a novice-level talk to a highly knowledgeable audience is extremely embarrassing for everyone concerned. The best strategy is to check with the organizer about this, and to ﬁnd out the level of the audience well in advance. Most organizers are only too happy to help with this, and will treat such a question as a sign of professionalism on your part.
A related problem is how much the audience members already know. Again, it is worth asking the organizer about this. Then, if you have to cover a topic which is already familiar to the audience, you can include enough detail to show that you understand the topic, but move on fairly rapidly to material which is less familiar to them.
Texts about business presentations and public speaking usually emphasize the need to make the presentation interesting. There is often an implication that this should be done by keeping technical detail to a minimum and by using plain English. This is not a wise strategy for academic presentations.
If you are doing a PhD, you are likely to give two main types of presentation.
The ﬁrst is lectures to students on MSc or undergraduate courses, as part of your CV development. The second is talks to other researchers (for instance, seminars, conference papers, internal presentations on your progress and the dreaded viva). These two types have quite different requirements.