Archive for the ‘Thesis’ Category

Three letters, ten years, and a new red robe   Leave a comment

SmileWheeeeee-heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!    🙂

Yep, that’s right; I’m now officially Dr. Southall.  The letter from Liverpool University arrived last week.  My office door is already adorned with a new name plate, and I’ve changed my work e-mail signature to include the all-important extra three letters.  Well, OK, they aren’t really that important in the big scheme of things, but they represent a lot of work and a pretty big achievement for me, so I’m having fun doing the updates.

Part-time degrees always take a long time, and part-time Ph.Ds even more so; getting a Ph.D isn’t a quick process even when it’s done full-time.  Since I started working on mine, I’ve got married, moved house twice, moved office four times, and changed job (within the same institution) twice – all while working full-time on my ‘day job’.  Put that way, maybe it’s not so surprising that it’s taken the thick end of a decade, although it does sometimes feel as though I must have been slacking somewhere along the way to let it take that long.  Truth be told, I did continue to do some music and quite a lot of walking, but I doubt if I would have stayed sufficiently sane and healthy to keep going otherwise.

So, for anyone who’s thinking about setting out on the part-time Ph.D (plus full-time job) path, what’s it like?  What does it involve?

The first thing to say is that every Ph.D is unique, and so is every Ph.D student.  The things I found hard might be a doddle for someone else, and vice versa.  But in case it helps, here’s a rough chronology of how things went for me:-

  • 2005 : I realised that I had an idea for a research study, access to data, and a potential supervisor.  (Actually the last of these to fall into place was the supervisor; I’d had a bad experience, supervision-wise, with my M.Sc. dissertation, so I was very, very careful about finding a supervisor for my Ph.D.  Fortunately, I was also lucky, and that side of my Ph.D has worked out very well.)  I started to put together ideas for how the project would work, and find out about the application process operated.  I knew I was fortunate in that my employer was willing to pay my tuition fees.  What I didn’t know at the time was just how many years of tuition fees were going to be required!  Oh, and during 2005 I moved house, and also changed my job, moving temporarily from my academic department to a role organising short professional training courses.
  • 2006 : In 2006, I moved house again.  I also filled in a Ph.D application form, got the relevant signatures from managers and referees, and produced a 10,000-word proposal document.  This led to an interview in around September 2006.  I was accepted onto the course, to start in January 2007.
  • 2007 – 2010 : In a way, the background work for my research goes back years before I even started thinking about a Ph.D, but 2007 was the year when I started organising interviews, and trying to work out what literature I needed to review, in earnest.  2007 was also the year in which I got married, so it was a pretty busy and exciting time.  Over the next couple of years I collected 30 interviews, scanned in a couple of hundred photographs, arranged for recordings to be transcribed, and generally got on with the day job.  It was an enjoyable phase in many ways, but I was still very uncertain what angle I was going to take to discuss the large volume of data I was collecting.  Attending and presenting at several conferences did help with this process; there’s nothing like knowing you’re going to have to explain your work to other people to force you to decide what you think it means!
  • 2011-2012 : During this period, life got in the way quite substantially.  At the start of 2011 I was still seconded to the training unit outside my academic department, but half-way through the year it was announced that my home department was to be ‘downsized’.  Like everyone else involved, I had to go through a process of justifying my continued employment.  This took several months, and was very stressful.  Once the process was over, I moved back into the department permanently.  That first year back was also stressful, because of knock-on effects from the recent redundancies.  Perhaps not surprisingly, progress on my Ph.D slowed down a lot at this point.  However, I did complete the transcription and coding of interview data, and passed fairly smoothly through the process of upgrading from M.Phil to Ph.D study.  I also presented talks or posters at several more conferences.
  • 2013-2014 : There were a whole series of ‘false summits’ at this point, where I thought I was very close to being ready to submit my thesis, but it turned out that I wasn’t.  In the end there was a bit of a mad dash to get everything finished and handed in before my registration deadline at the end of December, 2013.  Everything went quiet for a while.  In March 2014 I had my first viva, which resulted in a long list of modifications and an extra year to do them in.  If life had been busy before, it now got very busy indeed…  Coincidentally, summer 2014 was also the year in which my department was transferred wholesale into a brand new faculty, on a brand new site.  By the end of 2014, I was a bit of a gibbering wreck.
  • Q1 to Q3 2015 : The gibbering continued well into 2015.  I handed in my modified thesis in March, and things went quiet again – on the thesis front, at least.  They were anything but quiet at work!  Then, just as teaching drew to a close, it was time for my second viva, which was a much more relaxed and happy affair than the first one.  The committee chair hummed and whistled all the way down the corridor to the meeting room, the viva started with the announcement that I had passed my Ph.D, and the rest of the viva was therefore more in the nature of a discussion than an examination.  Phew!    ….  However, that was not the end of the story.  Although no further ‘modifications’ were required, there were some ‘corrections’ to do.  Most were in the nature of ‘changing the line spacing from double to 1.5 lines’, and other such cosmetic issues, but somehow some actual extra work snuck in there as well.  I was beginning to despair of ever actually finishing the thing!  However, there was no time to dwell on the matter, because back in the day job there was a mountain of marking to do.  Once I’d done that, I got on with the thesis corrections.  Then I went on holiday, did a programming course, finished the corrections, and handed in yet another printed copy.
  • Q4 2015 : At last!!!!!  The internal examiner approved my corrections (plus a few corrections to the corrections), and in October I was instructed to get four hard bound copies made.  I must admit I hadn’t realised quite how expensive these were going to be; that’s £200 I’ll not be seeing again.  It was worth it though.  The final versions were satisfyingly heavy and really quite lovely to look at.  Or maybe they just look beautiful to me, because they’re mine?  Whatever – I like them!  Back I went to the graduate school office once again, to hand in the hard bound copies, and yet again, everything went quiet.  I had several more weeks to wait before the awards board at Liverpool sat to formally approve the award of my degree.  That board sat in late November, and I received my formal notification last week.  My certificate will apparently arrive some time later in December, and I’ll graduate at the Chester ceremony next spring.


So, that’s it, in a nutshell.  My journey to becoming a ‘Dr’, and earning the right to wear a scarlet robe instead of a black one.  There has certainly been a lot of hard intellectual work, a lot of writing, and a lot of editing, but the other thing that it’s required is a lot of persistence.  If there’s a single factor that’s necessary to succeed as a part-time Ph.D student, I’m guessing that might be it.  But that’s just my story.  Your mileage may very well differ…

Posted December 6, 2015 by HVS in Chester, Liverpool, Thesis

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Hardbound and Heavy

Hardbound thesis

The hardbound version of my Ph.D thesis in all its 100,000+ words of glory.

It’s done; it’s finished; it’s been handed in for the very last time.  I’m simultaneously proud of it and pleased to see the back of it.  There will be no more re-writes, no more extra bits and no more final, final, final, really-the-last-one editing sessions.  Well, at least, not until the next big project comes along… (and I’ve got a few of those on the drawing board already).

But for now, this is it – job done.  All I’m waiting for now is the official letter from the University of Liverpool in a few weeks time.  As to-do list ‘ticks’ go, this is a pretty big one.

Posted October 17, 2015 by HVS in Chester, Live music, Liverpool, Thesis

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Ph.D. Stack Overflow (in a good way)

Staggering under the stack

Four copies of ten years’ work add up to a lot of paper and board.  This is how I reckon I’ll look when I stagger into the Graduate School with the final product next week…

Well, it’s very nearly official…. (my soon-to-be doctorate, that is).

Today I took four copies of the final, final, final version of my Ph.D. thesis to the bookbinder.  Three copies will disappear into various university libraries, via a final approval committee at the University of Liverpool some time in November.  The fourth will live on my bookshelf.

Nearly there…!

Posted October 7, 2015 by HVS in Thesis

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“Five copies for binding…”

It’s a funny thing, this thesis-writing business.  The hand-in deadline – 31st December 2013 – has been on my mind and on the horizon for ages. I have been ‘approaching submission’ for a couple of years at least, a bit like a tiny space probe heading for a very large but very distant planet. I travelled & travelled, but the planet never seemed to get any closer.  And then all of a sudden it was the only thing in sight, touchdown was frighteningly imminent, and there was an awful lot to do in a very short time. This was of course the point at which Word decided to have conniptions about the size of some of my files – thank you, Scrivener backups, for saving the day and my sanity!  Then there was the minor problem of getting long complicated documents to output to PDF format for printing. I have done this many times for shorter, simpler documents with no trouble at all, by using ‘print to pdf’ from within Word.  Suffice it to say that on this occasion I ended up printing all five lots of 380 pages myself from the Word documents, which was probably doing things the hard way, but it got the job done.

And then it was Tuesday afternoon, just after the end of the Autumn term.  Retro-rockets were firing and kicking up moon dust and the altitude figures were suddenly in feet rather than miles…  And meanwhile back on planet earth, four copies of my finished thesis – all 380 pages of prose, photos, quotes and references – were now bound and labelled and on their way to Senate House.  At Reception, a lady from the Graduate School appeared, disappeared, and reappeared again clutching a form, a pen and a clipboard.  I filled in the form and handed it back, at which point Ms Grad School smiled, said nice things like ‘well done’ and disappeared again with the cardboard box of thesis copies and the paperwork.

And that, for the time being, is that. I am not yet ‘Dr Southall’; in fact,  I’m in Ph.D limbo.  I know I’ll have a viva some time in the next three months or so, but apart from that, for the first time since I officially set out on this voyage almost eight years ago, I’m not in control of what happens next.  It’s a tiny bit disconcerting.  However, it’s a pleasant sort of disconcerting in many ways.  For a start, and unlike last year, I won’t be working through most of the Christmas ‘holiday’, trying to get a full draft of all chapters completed. This year I can take time off to go walking, watch Poirot and Time Team, and finish knitting that jumper at last with a relatively clear conscience. I might even get started on the knitted woodlouse I’ve been planning for several months now. On balance, this particular limbo is actually quite bearable!

Happy Christmas everyone!

Posted December 21, 2013 by HVS in Thesis

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In praise of coffee shops

I discovered a long time ago that quiet, undisturbed places like libraries and study rooms don’t usually have the effect they’re supposed to have on me. With very rare exceptions (of which more later), settling down to work somewhere quiet and undisturbed usually results in me finding something fascinating to look at through the window, or rearranging my address book, or checking my diary for clashes, or looking at Facebook or Twitter or… well, you get the idea. I don’t need any help to get distracted; I distract myself. For some reason though I can work very efficiently when surrounded by other people, and coffee shops seem to offer the perfect blend of anonymity and company. I don’t feel like I’m the last human being left on the planet, I’m conveniently close to sources of coffee and cake, and I am irrationally embarrassed about being caught slacking in public. I don’t pretend to understand the last bit, but it works; when push comes to shove, I get more done in a coffee shop than in an office or library. (It’s a kind of solo version of Shut Up and Write.)

Because of this, I’ve spent a lot of time in coffee shops this summer. As well as getting the final, final draft of my thesis finished, I’ve also been working on first drafts for a book chapter and an academic article. It’s the first time I’ve done any of these, so there have been plenty of ‘what the heck am I supposed to do with this bit?’ moments as I got to grips with the subtle differences in approach and content required for the different formats – exactly the sort of mini-crisis which would have led to a prolonged bout of window-staring if I’d been on my own. Thanks to the local branches of Starbucks, Cafe Nero and Pret a Manger, along with the cafe downstairs from my office at uni, window-staring and other such distractions have largely been avoided and I’ve achieved what I hoped to over the summer. It cost me a small fortune in coffee and sarnies, but it was worth it. Thank you coffee shops – I couldn’t have done it without you…

There is one exception to my rule about libraries being too quiet, and that’s Gladstone’s Library at Hawarden in North Wales. There’s something about having busts of stern Victorian theologians gazing down at me which is at least as effective as the chattering hordes in Cafe StarManger in keeping me focussed on the job in hand. That and the thought of getting back downstairs in time for another pot of excellent tea and plate of home-made biscuits in a comfy leather armchair in the lounge. I suspect those Victorian theologians knew more than they were letting on about getting the job done, but in comfort…

Posted August 9, 2013 by HVS in Publications, Thesis

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Life in the cutting room

Yesterday, all my tribbles seemed so far away

One day, not too far in the future, I will have finished editing. Then I can tidy up…

Can it really be nearly six months since I last updated this blog?  Seems incredible to me, but that’s what the time-stamp on the previous posting tells me, so I guess it must be true.

I’m now deep in the editing phase of thesis writing, having finished my first complete draft of the whole thing in a burst of frenzied activity over Christmas.  In the process I have discovered the joys of Scrivener, which has to be the best thing in large document construction tools since the scroll.  It’s much less contrary and confusing than Word; you can get on with the job of reorganising and rewording text without getting distracted by the two million other options that Word keeps tempting you to try out with the format – and also without having to endure repeated hissy fits from Word in which it decides that a big document with lots of images is just too much for it to handle, and crashes, usually mangling the file out of sheer spite in the process.  Word and Scrivener together are a good team.  Scrivener concentrates on the big picture, leaving Word to faff about with the formatting and the references and all the other things that Word enjoys getting itself in such a state over.

Wish me luck with the editing!

Parker Quink ink bottle, by Mike Burger (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

At least I don’t get covered in ink these days…

Posted April 23, 2013 by HVS in Thesis

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Zombies for fitness and fun…

I’m currently less than two months away from finishing the final draft of my Ph.D thesis, which has very little at all to do with zombies.  The perfect time, therefore, for doing a little light research on something which has almost nothing to do with my Ph.D – i.e. zombies.  Not that I’ve needed do much in the way of active research; Halloween has just been and gone and the zombie meme has been working overtime, with undead representatives of every stripe crawling out of the woodwork all over the place.

For instance, the Plants vs. Zombies advice zombie recently joined forces with the American Dental Association to remind children to brush their teeth in a ‘Stop Zombie Mouth‘ campaign.  I love PvZ, but frankly, if I was being chased by a gang of brain-chomping ghouls I suspect that the presence or absence of spinach strands between my molars would be the last thing I’d be worrying about.  Maybe I’m just odd that way – and I guess I’m not really their target demographic for this campaign either.  For now I’ll stick to slinging Melonpults at Dr. Zomboss via my iPad.

Meanwhile, in another bid to help those of us who aren’t undead yet to keep our bods in tip-top condition, the people at the sports tracking website Tribesports have helpfully set up a series of ‘Zombie Preparedness Challenges‘.  After all, the First Rule of Zombieland is Cardio!  You know, I can’t help getting a bit concerned about all these zombies being so concerned for our health.  I think it’s just so our brains taste nice and fresh and well-oxygenated when they do finally catch up with us.

On that basis, it’s good to see that online monitoring service IfTTT (If This Then That) now provide a ready-made ‘recipe’ for keeping tabs on any Zombie warnings that might come out of the Centers for Disease Control in the USA.  That’s what I call useful technology – until they come up with a one-click recipe for Ph.D final drafts, at least!


Zombies, Run! logo

Zombies, Run!

*** Update: 7th November 2012 ~ Those zombies are really determined to get us all fit.  They’re even writing mobile phone apps to help now.  I need all the help I can get when it comes to rapid self-propelled locomotion, so I think I may have to give this a go… (Thanks to Matt in the IC for the tip-off!)

Posted November 4, 2012 by HVS in Memes, Thesis, Zombies

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