Saturday, June 12, 2010

The things I wish someone had told me at the beginning

Firstly, I kinda wish that someone had told me to start a blog back then. But I wouldn't have started one as I was still totally insecure in my place as a research student, due to my aforementioned accidental entry and the fact I'd only been studying Linguistics for one year.

So I thought I'd pull together some insights from my first year as a recap, in an effort to share with new students.

1. You don't need to know everything before you enrol
I'm glad I took a little extra time to decide my topic before I enrolled and officially began. But it's a matter of preference, style and fate. The important thing is unless you've already done work on that topic, you're not expected to know much about it. Some people start with an area they want to research, then find the method; others know the method but not the site for research. For me it's great now as I collected all my data within the first 12 months which gives me 12 months to play with it and discover more relevant stuff about it. You can't prepare for all eventualities before you undertake research, and if you have your heart set on one outcome, chances are it won't happen. So things to figure out within the first six months: topic, method, methodological framework, site for research.

2. Plan ahead for Ethics Committee submission - but don't be scared
At least so far as Linguistics research goes, the Ethics committee isn't scary. We're not trying drugs out on humans or make-up on animals. We're interviewing people. It's worth knowing that I completed and submitted my Ethics application within 24 hours having belatedly realised I needed to get it in the next day if I was going to start my research when I wanted to. Ethics Committee meetings are few and far between so you have to work to their schedule. And they'll tell you if there's anything you need to fix up anyway. But remember you need your supervisors signature and 11 copies so there may be chasing required.

3. You really can write your thesis on 2 words - small is beautiful
I've studied 1 assignment from 6 students and I have more data than I can poke a stick at. Or more precisely, more data than I can transcribe, analyse, quantify and tabulate. I've spoken to several PhD students who started studying 30 students and ended up with 12, or started with 12 and ended up focussing on 1. That's not due to attrition - that's just where the pertinent, relevant and MANAGEABLE information falls.

4. Australian Citizens don't pay fees for research degrees
If someone had told me this sooner I might have actually thought of applying for a research degree rather than getting into it accidentally. The Australian Government pays our fees. Woo! And this isn't like HECS where you have a debt to pay back to the government.

5. Get to know your rights
Your rights to a desk, a functioning computer, a supervisor, a co-supervisor... and ask for them.

6. You'll get there
I remember being intimidated by research students who could not only name off the top of their head the writer to read on a topic, but also the year of publication. I surprised myself the other day by doing it to an undergrad student. I excused myself by explaining it's only because I read the same names and publication dates so many times, and then write it so many times as well! It's all repetition! Before long you'll start to carry yourself as a PhD student and ask genuinely intelligent questions of mere coursework and undergrad students!

7. Community community community
My supervisor's big on collaborative-study and socialisation theory of learning, so he likes to get all the students connected to each other. But there's other benefits. Someone to say "Yeah don't worry, that's normal" to you. Someone to borrow books from. Somebody whose time you can waste a little without feeling quite as guilty as you do with your super-busy supervisor. Somebody to check your work. It's all good. Of course, I'm always up for a natter so community works for me. I find I get more done as well when I'm studying with other people in the room - it's more a peer pressure, face-saving thing, but hey, whatever works!

Okay, I don't think there was really much there of use, but who knows...

And now some even less serious things:
  • There is power at uni in not carrying around a bag - because it means you either have an office to leave it in or enough friends to look after it for you
  • You know you're getting into your topic when everything seems to relate back to it, or you want to do research on everything. And I mean EVERYTHING! "Hmm... that'd be interesting to analyse..."
  • Don't let your research subjects choose their own code names for anonymity - you'll end up with Top Gun code names and be forced to refer to "Goose" "Iceman" and "Maverick" all throughout your thesis
  • EVERY researcher has a nagging suspicion that a) nobody in your field will find your research interesting or useful; b) nobody outside your field will find your research interesting or useful. At least, I hope it's not just me.
  • Beware borrowing books and printing articles. You will not get through all of them. The key is to prevent your desk becoming a fire hazard.
  • Conferences: you pay money to be taken seriously. They're probably useful too - I haven't been to one yet, I've just paid the rego fees! Eek!

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