Overview of Heifer

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Disillusioned - Head of Department troubles

Hi Myoung,

I can sympathise - I am in the very odd position of being in a small social science research cluster within a science faculty, where were are treated a bit like second-class citizens and have been gradually compressed so we now only take up one corridor in the entire building! However, some of your problems puzzle me a little - especially your worry that your phd will be 'obsolete' if you get it from a department where very few people are working in that particular field. I can't see any reason why that would be the case unless your field is *really* miniscule at a national and international level; the only thing is that you'll have to reconcile your hopes of getting a job in your existing department with the reality of moving elsewhere. Presumably as your department moves away from research in that area, other departments around the country will be taking the opportunity to develop a specialism in that field. To give an example, the uni where i did my undergrad degree got rid of all its British politics lecturers bar one because they wanted to re-orient the department around international relations; a couple of years later a brand new British politics research centre opened at another university. There's always demand for the full range of specialisms - they just shift around a bit.

As for your head of department - do you really need to come into contact with him on a regular basis? If not I would suggest keeping your head down and trying to focus on the task of the PhD. If he's as irritating as you suggest, chances are he's annoying a lot of others in the department as well and things will come to a head before too long. As you said, there's not much you can do about it, so avoid getting involved with office politics as much as possible!

Job prospects for PhD students

In addition to the excellent advice below I would add 2 points. Firstly, many people who want to become lecturers accept that this is a longer term aim and take whatever relevant jobs they can until they are succesful in an academic job application. For example, the social sciences really lend themselves to jobs with think tanks (e.g. IPPR), public sector bodies with a research component (e.g. the National Audit Office) and charities. It is perfectly possible to keep publishing while working outside of academia and to use this experience to get a lecturing job later down the line.

Secondly, although it's not directly related to your question, and people may immediately argue that I'm wrong, it might be wise not to expect that a PhD which begins immediately after your bachelors degree will be done and dusted in 3 years. There is a good reason many funding bodies expect a masters degree, mainly being that students have a chance to improve their research skills, begin exploratory work on a topic and get experience of writing longer dissertations. If you are put off by the idea of taking longer than three years from the end of your first degree, then this might be something to bear in mind.

Hope this helps!

The 'Ideal' lecturer candidate

We had a workshop recently on applying for postdocs in the social sciences where we went through the different options available. It seems that for the 'big' postdocs like British Academy, Leverhulme and Nuffield, publications are essential but the most important thing is a well-thought out research proposal which is a significantly original contribution but also acheivable within the 3/4 year time frame. However, the ESRC postdoc scheme is quite different and offers a year's funding on the condition that you produce 3 or 4 publications - so the emphasis is really on people who have not published during the course of their PhD. On top of that, of course, there are the random post doc opportunities offered by departments/research centres where the most important aspects seem to be ability to fit in with the research agenda of the particular institution and the potential to develop a record of funding and publications.

Tips List

There's been mention of a PhD journal below, but I've found that even just keeping a word document with what I intend to do every day has been incredibly helpful. It might be something like:
Monday - chapter 2 corrections
Tuesday - chapter 2 re-write conclusion
Wednesday - start drafting interview schedules

I started doing this in January of this year and now when I look back on it, i can see where all the time has gone. If you are one of those people who are prone to thinking "I never achieve anything! I'm not working hard enough!" it is really reassuring to look back and see that progress has been made. Plus it forces me to be realistic and accept that it takes me 3 months to write a chapter even if I like to think I could do it in a few weeks if I just "tried harder" :-)

How does your department treat you?

Our department is fantastic - we have an open plan office with a desk, computer, book case and filing cabinet each, plus those of us in the hallowed final year have the option of moving to a smaller shared office. Unlimited photocopying, printing, phone calls etc. We are treated as equals by the staff and help out with the organization of reading groups, seminars etc, and student seminars are billed alongside the staff ones. I'm not sure whether this is because it's a science faculty though - by some quirk of admin, my social science research centre is located in the science faculty - as friends in other social science disciplines at the same university are treated much worse.

My husband, on the other hand, is doing an arts doctorate at another university and gets absolutely nothing bar a tiny room with about four knackered PCs (to be shared by around 30 postgrads). It's shocking to think there are no standards at all for providing office space/computers/basic resources for PhD students, considering we all pay the same (very high) fees in one way or another.

Qual Researchers - NVivo or NUDIST?

Hi BB,

I used Nvivo 7 to analyse my interview transcripts, although I tended to use a mixture of Nvivo and plain old Word documents/pen and paper. I found it really helpful for coding my transcripts as they were around 12+ pages of text each and I couldn't see a better way of doing an initial 'sort out' of what looked interesting/useful for my data chapters. Having said that, I ended up with over 90 codes and it can get confusing unless you are very comfortable working with the programme (personally, I find it easier to periodically print hard copies of documents and go back to pen and paper techniques).

My main reasons for choosing Nvivo were that it is offered free by my university (other friends used Atlas.ti which is a similar programme, but they had to pay for it themselves) and because I was able to pick it up on my own when there were no training courses available. I eventually managed to go on a training course run by the Staff Development Unit because it is not offered to students - perhaps you could ask your supervisor if he/she knows of any courses running?

As to the methodological side, I agree that it is possible to be sucked into a software mindset and lose the 'connection' with the raw data. There have been a few instances while writing my data chapters when I have rediscovered relevant quotations which were 'lost' because they didn't fit in with my original choices of codes. There isn't much published literature on the pros and cons of using qualitative software - although I can dig out the references I've got if you're interested.

Hope this helps!