January 7, 2018
And just like that…over 4 months have passed since the last entry (ironically the entry that was going to get me “back to blogging” in a rhythm that would allow me to record how the dissertation was unfolding as it was unfolding.) When I was going through coursework I was intentionally cobbling together a personal learning network on social media of others who were a bit ahead of me in the process so that I could look to and learn from them as they navigated the very uncharted waters of what one actually does when one enters the intensive research/writing phase of a dissertation. It seemed like what happened almost universally was radio silence—the once continuous stream of communication and information on social media disappeared.
And then after a time they’d come back telling the world they’d survived and all the champagne emojis would flow as we’d celebrate their accomplishment and the new consonants that could now be in front of their name. Though it was fun to see and celebrate, I always kind of wondered just what happened during their silence. Was this more secret initiation that you couldn’t talk about to the non-doctoral? Was there some kind of vow involved that conscripted you to forsake social media updates?
August 28, 2017
Interviews are wrapping up, focus groups are motoring along, coding in earnest has begun. I feel like I’m in the somewhat abstracted and murky middle ground of discovery. Stuff kind of comes into focus for a few minutes and I can see a larger picture. Then it all spins like a kaleidoscope and I lose all sense of direction. It’s dazzling. It’s disorienting. And I have a sneaking suspicion…it’s right on par for life as a researcher.
The last couple weeks of life as a research gathering instrument have once again taught me that this work is way less difficult in ways I initially expected it to be. People are more than willing to share their stories, ideas, etc. I still am totally amazed at the power of open space, an open mind and (on my part anyways) focused listening to create the atmosphere that leads to a genuine connection with another human. I think in many ways this personal learning might be one of the best things externally to come out of my doctoral journey. Well…clearly the 200+ page dissertation will be what brings world peace and makes me a rock star but…the listening and being present thing too I think might be a good side benefit!
On the flip side, the last couple weeks of life as a research gathering instrument have once again taught me that his work is way more difficult in ways I never imagined it to be. Synthesizing, abstracting, and generally sorting through all the pieces for the bits that are salient to my own tiny slice of research is a mental cardio workout, to put it mildly. When I was designing my study, I loved Charmaz’s perspective that as researchers we co-construct the data with our participants because this view felt alive and energetic. It resonated with my own views. While I still love it on some level….I’m realizing that co-construction requires a depth of engagement that basically takes all of your focus. Coding this data is nothing you can do while concurrently watching television or when you have a couple minutes waiting for a take out order. It requires space and time and a conscious clearing of your schedule. (Things I may or may not have said over the past couple weeks: I’m sorry I can’t hangout with you anytime this weekend because I need to spend time with my data.) Once you get into the flow it does indeed flow but…I must bring the intense focus I’ve learned from interviewing to the data itself and once again learn to listen in written words and typed metaphors.
And so…a new week begins. Back to opening time, opening space, opening the data, opening myself, and giving the kaleidoscope another twirl to see what might emerge.
August 7, 2017
And just like that…five weeks have passed. Week seven is in the books and I’m on the brink of my eighth week as a research gathering instrument. Though I had all good intentions of keeping up the weekly check in, the past month plus has been spent on the road visiting friends, visiting family, being a bridesmaid, and further fine tuning my packing skills by moving locations every two to three days. It was amazing though it did make me realize that life on the road and life as a writer are, for me at least, not so compatible.
The good news is I was interviewing (from such memorable locations as small closets and many a hotel room) and transcribing consistently so now have fourteen interviews down (when I left though I hoped to hit ten…I was stuck for awhile at seven…well laid plans are basically a siren call for unexpected chaos to enter the research process…frustrating but you do survive). I will have number fifteen tomorrow and will, hopefully, reach twenty by the end of August. I also have the first focus group scheduled for today beginning phase two of my research design.
Looking back at my life as a researcher these past five weeks, I can say with complete certainly I’ve become a much better interviewer. I’m much more comfortable listening without low grade panic that I won’t get good data. I’m much better at ignoring the voices of my own neurotic insecurities and entering wholly into the world of my interviewee. Its been such an honor to receive stories from each of my participants and I hope for them too it has been a good experience of being heard. As a person who naturally skews private and may even be guilty of seeing people more as a bit inconvenient to a very rich personal, interior world in my own head…the gift of intimacy has been humbling and inspiring to me on a personal level.
On a more practical note, its also been interesting going so deep into the qualitative research process. In many ways, it feels like a totally inefficient method and one I’d kind of not recommend to anyone who isn’t okay with very high levels of ambiguity. There is such a steep learning curve—the friction in human to human communication of any sort is a challenge to navigate and requires pretty deep reflection to test out and sort through. You will become hopelessly interwoven with your data and vice versa. This will most likely bring up things you never anticipated…its good stuff if you discipline yourself to work through it but…it will require work.
For example, I’m beginning to code my data which means I’ve concurrently begun fantasizing about algorithms that might do this all for me—computer code lines that I can blindly trust so I don’t have to deal with learning to trust myself again in this new endeavor. Like interviewing, like presenting, like writing…I know the early stages of fear and uncertainly always evolve into some level of mastery but like all of the former…knowing and feeling are sometimes diametrically opposed.
And so week seven of being a research gathering instrument finds me back at it again, showing up for the work with eager anticipation and a humble spirit ready to learn remember that this time and this challenge truly is a gift.
June 25, 2017
And just like that, I’ve amassed another week of life as a research instrument. This week has brought three more interviews and revealed what I hope are the first glimmers of actual categories emerging. In addition, I’m getting way better at interviewing, meaning I’m talking much less and listening feels like it’s slightly less exhausting than it was last week. Finally, I think I’m about 20% speedier with transcription and data cleaning than I was last week…which is massive.
My goal for this upcoming week is to get in four more interviews and bring my total up to ten. Though I was hopeful that having two people tell me almost verbatim the same info meant I was saturating a category thus could be one of those GT anomalies that only has to interview like eight people total to come up with a brilliant and robust theory…on my last chat with the supervisor he seemed to be using the phrase “at least twenty” quite a bit. If I can hit ten by the end of next week, I can use the following week when it seems many people take vacation to do a deep dive into actually assessing all thats come in on a somewhat deeper level and then strategize from there (yeah…gathering and assessing concurrently is a not so much thing not because I don’t believe in it but it feels like so much mental gymnastics to go back and forth so for me at least I think I need one of the other.)
In all honesty, the prospect of chatting with at least fourteen more people doesn’t feel like a bad thing because while its challenging and all to hold interviews, transcribe, etc. its even more super interesting to get a window into how diverse the world of design education really is. So far I’ve only swam in the pool of North American educators but in many ways between institution type and student population, all my participants seem to be worlds apart. This week I begin adding in international perspective to the mix (yep…first interview time where time zone is completely not in my favor but all part of the process) so it will be very cool to see if/how that perspective shifts anything.
And so week two check in seems a bit less dramatic than week one but I’m cool with it. There is indeed beauty in the routine slog and much celebration too that I’m actually at. this. place.
June 17, 2017
- Three interviews down.
- Two more scheduled.
- Multiple memos on all sorts of things.
- A coding scheme (that admittedly only exists in my head so far but still…that somewhat counts, eh?)
Time to make good on the whole “back to blogging” promise of last month and actually get back to the writing process about life in this interstitial place that is being a doctoral candidate and now also a research gathering instrument (related: I now relate way more closely to the non-human actors of surveys, questionnaires, etc.)
I still think that the whole doctoral process has two distinct parts to it. There’s the “constructing new knowledge part,” which is why you initially write the application letter, how you justify the tuition payments, what you tell people you want to impress at parties, and generally what seems to be the main impetus for doing a doctorate.
Then there’s the “constructing a new you part” which you definitely don’t put into the application letter, makes you constantly question if those tuition payments might be better spent on therapy…or maybe a beach house, and what you only likely bring up at parties after copious amounts of whiskey have made an appearance. As this is based on a sample of one, I cannot say this is a universal but I’m pretty sure “personal growth and transformation by being forced to work through my own issues” has not been on anyone’s list of “why do a doctorate?”
Yet, through my own nearly four years in, it is the latter that keeps surprising and fascinating me. Though this may be because I’m introverted and more than a little self absorbed, I still think there’s something to it.
And, as this is my blog for the next couple weeks “back to blogging” is going to look a lot like “here’s what I learned this week” through the process (and yep, these learnings are all helping me work through my “issues”.)
- Follow the flow. (or how I’m learning if I want people to take me into the rich parts of their stories, I must show up and be patient.)
Though I’m tightly planned in this endeavor and have the whole process journey mapped out, researching with humans (and I’m going to even say researching as a human) means it’s all inherently an experimental process. Hands down the biggest thing I learned this week is to be present fully with participants so they trust me and allow me to meander along with them as they share their ideas and process their motivations. It’s not a linear process for my participants and I must be open to the wander because then I can be part of the discovery. As a researcher I never realized what an intimate thing it is to gain access into participant experiences but I now realize these interviews are indeed somewhat sacred moments.
- Video is worth it (or how I’m learning to cringe a bit less at my own voice, gesturing, and generally be less self conscious.)
On my REB application, I had to do all sorts of justification as to why I wanted to use video. At one point I was ready to scrap it as in all honesty I didn’t have a great reason beyond just I thought it would be more personal to have faces than to just have voices. Though it was a hassle to justify, I’m 1000% glad I did because seeing expressions and gestures has made the data much richer than just voice alone could. Conversely, I feel like my participants seeing me in all my quirkiness (including with a small dog at one point) has made them feel more open and again helped them trust me.
- Listening is hard work. (or how I’m learning to not just nod and murmur comprehension all the while daydreaming but actually internalize what is being said.)
It seems fairly straightforward that in an interview you’d ask a question, the participant would answer, and you’d follow this pattern for the hour. Turns out because my interviews are unstructured, questions don’t occur in a linear manner but instead weave in and out of what is being said. Many times multiple questions get answered without me explicitly asking and even better, often questions I didn’t even think of are “answered” as I learn to step back and listen to my participants. This is hard stuff to navigate because if I haven’t been listening carefully it’s immediately apparent. On the other hand, if I am listening closely I can further prod and we can go even deeper together as we connect past segments together and see what more emerges.
May 16, 2017
This past Friday marked three weeks since April 21, the day that has become 100% memorable to me as the day when I passed my candidacy. The days leading up to this auspicious event I was on a daily blogging, check in kick, and I had secret thoughts that the twenty plus day practice might mean I’d keep up a daily (or almost daily) habit of writing and reflecting on what I’d been learning, reading, etc.
Turns out…not so much.
Daily writing taught me that as much as I applaud daily writing, daily reflection, etc. it’s hard stuff to both live and process in tandem. After the intensity that was April, self care looked more like watching a lot of HGTV and drinking craft beer and generally recovering from a years worth of feels that happened over the course of about 40 days.
But now…its three weeks (and three days) past April 21.
The ethics application is conditionally approved (which means apparently I’m not yet ethically fit for research with humans but with luck and a couple semantic revisions I shouldn’t mess people up too much with the interactions I have with them). So in anticipation of bigger stuff on the horizon, clearly time to get back to keeping up a daily (or almost daily) habit of writing and reflecting on what I’ve been learning, reading, etc. Though I’m mostly thinking this back to reflection thing isn’t a good idea…I think this era will prove to be quite an important one and worthy of something (somewhat) concrete recorded about its process.
First topic for getting back into things which is all based on reflection and zero based on reading: life post candidacy (*disclaimer: an overview for the uninitiated from the very narrow reflections of one person’s, highly personal experience.)
I don’t know if this is true for every institution or not but for me, candidacy felt like a rarified space, clothed in mystery. No one who had been through the process seemed to use anything beyond very non-committal adjectives to describe the process. This vagueness generally reinforced the idea that the whole thing is complete secret society level initiation. As I’ve now been through the process and been initiated into said secret society, I am no longer free to give specifics about what happens in the sacred space but…I can give away a couple hints about who you might be when you come to the other side which I will share below as my first tentative forays back into the saddle that is blogging.
Basically, you wake up the next morning post candidacy and have no more worries, problems, issues, etc. Even though legit all sorts of chaos might have prevailed in previous days, you feel fit and healthy and exude balance that others can’t help but notice and feel calmed by as they bask in your presence. You sleep deep and long. You exude a glowing radiance. You think, ”Wow…this must be what life feels like as a Doctor.” And related, “I will be very very very very good at life as a Doctor.”
This grounded zen lasts for about two days and then the realization hits you like a freight train that during your candidacy you spent about two hours convincing three strangers that:
- This super fringe area of research hasn’t been explored yet and this might be the reason all our lives are difficult.
- You are the best person to explore this super fringe area of research because you’re passionate, capable and have an airtight, foolproof plan for success.
- All of our lives are incomplete until you get approved to explore the super fringe area of research.
- It would really be a crime not to give you the green light because you’re basically going to bring world peace (albeit in a super fringe slice of the world) through your research.
After such a convincing argument….who could refuse?? Not the committee because you won them over with your charm, charisma, etc. Unfortunately, this now means….you actually MUST do said research.
You. Must. Do. It.
Pretty sure “must” is the ultimate zen-kill because “must” means all that you presented in somewhat airy, abstract terms has to land itself and work into the nooks and crannies of real life research. Describing a well intentioned, creative plan will get you past the candidacy but a full dissertation with actual data and such needs flesh and bones and blood (disclaimer should my ethics review committee happen to read this: all metaphorically speaking, of course) to actually work.
At this point you become amazingly adept at finding somewhat tangentially related diversions to make you feel productive yet also help you ignore the enormity of the task ahead. For me, finishing my ethics application and then endlessly pestering my supervisor to sign off on it was my task of choice. *Related: Whenever I’m stressed about anything my default is to begin pestering my supervisor. After almost four years, I think he’s become quite adept at indulging and ignoring me. Pretty sure this is the mark of a good supervisor.
Skilling yourself in something software related also helps because learning a tool makes you feel competent and in control (even though honestly…tools are pointless without a good plan but still…feeling in control is a pleasant drug.) Over the past three weeks I’ve attended numerous NVivo webinars, practice importing data, made pretty word clouds, and generally “oooh-ed” and “ahhhh-ed” at shiny capability that I’m 98% sure I will never need but…still pretty epic.
What continues to remain tricky and I’ve yet to find a good solution to is life in the nagging now-but-not-yet identity that is a doctoral candidate. As I’ve basically brought a village with me along this journey coming one step closer has meant that there have been many village celebrations which have included the inevitable question of “how much longer until you’re Dr. Lisa?” My answer thus far has been “about a year” because I do hope sooner than later is when I can wrap all this up and move along to other things.
That said…I still Must. Do. Said. Research. And here is the hangup because in addition to carrying candidacy in who I now see myself as, I still have traces of all the steps that came along during the process…the times I didn’t make it and the ways I failed along the way.
Lisa the Doctoral Candidacy. At such points as close as this March, these words felt like something that was just as likely to happen as for me to visit the moon. Yet, here I am and here I have been for almost a month. I didn’t realize how comfortable being a doctoral student had become until I crossed the line into the next zone of candidacy. I am once again in the early stages of another new liminal space. Now looking back, student life all feels like warm fuzzy nostalgia and it’s hard to remember how hard it actually was to navigate. I have no doubt this era too will have the same warm patina when I’m Dr. Lisa trying to figure out what’s next. Learning, like being a human, is a weird thing because its never a binary experience rather it’s living in the fluid tension of succeeding and failing co-mingled.
Which is where things get sticky and voices start up again in my head and I remind myself yet again that I made it this far and will eventually make it all the way. First step: back to a daily (or almost daily) habit of writing and reflecting so this era, which I think will prove to be quite an important one, doesn’t pass by in a blur.
April 22, 2017
- One SUCCESSFUL candidacy oral defense presentation! (Which feels like really maybe three life events rolled into one because speaking a presentation plus taking two rounds of questions….woah.)
This morning I woke up with the goal of keeping my mind as black as possible for as long as possible leading up to the 2:30 start time. My theory was that all the words and info were as settled into me as they possibly could be thus if I could just let the accumulated wisdom be the thing that drove me onwards…all would be good. If I let my pesky neurotic brain take over…things might not go so good.
So…I moved slowly through the day, went shopping, and generally puttered around all with the goal of not thinking. It mostly worked as I was able to make it to about 1:15 before the full gravitas of the situation hit me. Luckily by that time, time was already so close so I didn’t spend all that long in the “oh my goodness….what am I doing???” mode. After a practice round, a mega dose of magnesium, and a couple final touches on my webcam background, I logged in and basically the jet plane took off so there was no looking back. Roughly two hours later, after a presentation and two full and thorough rounds of questioning, I was politely asked to leave the meeting while the committee deliberated and then about ten minutes later called to re-join and given the good news that I was indeed a pass.
I’ve heard from people before that the presentation part is the nerve wracking part and then the questions turn into a fun experience because you get the chance to speak in depth to people who have read your work and are actually curious and interested in what you are doing. I have no doubt that this is true for others but I will say that my experience was almost the complete opposite. For me the presentation felt great and I think because I’d practice so much it felt like everything came together just right at the right time and in the right way. The questions on the other hand felt exhausting because I felt like I had to pay super close attention to the words and the overall nuance and remember the whys and the hows behind each of the points the committee was questioning. I came into the experience thinking that it would basically be a convivial chat but yeah…for me it was more like a marathon of looking at and trying to explain my own motivations. I think one of my best and worst attributes is that I act on instinct and what “seems” right for the moment and the situation and hold loosely onto any given situation. While that gets me nicely through daily life, that doesn’t seem to hold water in an academic sense so trying to get back to the real, root why took a somewhat profound set of mental gymnastics. But apparently, I was up to the task as I convinced the committee!
I’m still in awe that it’s done, I’m through, etc. I think this will take a couple days to sink in. And I’m fairly sure tomorrow I’m going to wake up with the same resident knot in my stomach that moved in just about a month ago and get to first remember all over again it’s done and then celebrate once more that this season is done. I know that there is so much massive work ahead of me and this is only just the beginning for now….I can rest.
April 21, 2017
*Further proof doing anything numerical and quantitative might not be a good choice: for the last 20 days I thought that when the magical 20/20 would arrive I would actually be on my candidacy day. Oops.
- More practice runs with the fam
- More tiny tweaks to slides and script
- One full read through the written proposal noting stuff and reacquainting myself
- Much staring blankly at the wall thinking woah…you are actually in. this. moment.
Again…nothing very sexy. Lots of talking and recording and more talking and trying to consciously slow myself down as I am talking. I’m so close now that I know I have lost the ability to hear myself talk and assess things like speed and coherence. This is comforting because I think it means I’m developing vocal chord memory (if that’s even a thing) of these words. This is unnerving because the words feel more like just noise than anything coherent.
Whatever happens…I’m deeply proud of myself for making it to this point and through these twenty days of very conscious reflection and discipline. It feels like my whole world is basically cheering me on and confident in my abilities and sending an insane amount of positive energy my way. It’s nice to be loved so well and supported so fully.
I wish I could peak into the future and see how it all turns out…just a tiny glimpse like reading the last couple pages of a chapter before beginning it. That said it seems like the theme of this whole season has been learning to trust. First it was trusting the call to this research area, this kind of alignment of my interest and story with this hole in documentation and research. Next it was trusting my supervisor to take care of me and advocate–to carry me through a system that I could not enter. I think now I’m learning to trust myself and the strength that I know is deep inside me, the strength that has been forged through all the months of just showing up daily to the process with open hands. It’s easy right now to say this is the hardest season of all but I think while enmeshed in any of the previous trust learnings…I’d say that was the hardest because it was the one where I was situated–present context has an acute discomfort that time always dulls.
And so, though there will be no peaking to the end of the chapter, no reading ahead to see how it turns out and if the tears will be frustrated ones of happy ones at least I get to do this process with a pretty amazing girl who’s admittedly deeply quirky and has her moments but when it comes down to it…is also totally strong, totally trustworthy, and will totally make it through, whatever twists and turns may or may not occur.
April 20, 2017
- Two complete run throughs including Q+A chat time with two completely different groupings of academics. Whew.
Today felt like a good run through for the “real day.” The first presentation was late afternoon (much like it will be on Friday) so I practiced trying to be a normal human for the morning and early afternoon–not giving too much into the desire to run into the mountains screaming, curl into the fetal position under the covers, etc. It helped that I had extended work meetings but even so, I think I have a somewhat good mental game plan for Friday morning.
The two groups I practiced with were composed of pretty vastly different academics. It was interesting to see and gauge reactions which honestly were quite different.
I left the first presentation (made up of primarily quantitative-oriented researchers) feeling deeply relieved that the experience was over. I think their comments and viewpoints were quite valid and interesting but they felt so far removed from my own grounding that enacting them in the ways they outlined really felt like they would remove “me” from the experience. As its ultimately my research (even though I’m not making the mistake that this will define me) this would be quite problematic. So…overall the experience felt super beneficial to see things from a viewpoint far outside of my own and also somehow through their eyes look back to be able to see, even more, where my own lines lie.
The second presentation was to people who are enrolled in the same program and institution as me. Though we are all studying different areas and are in no way really homogeneous…it still feels a bit to me like we’re an extended family and as such they’re a bit less intimidating. (Also…it was the second presentation so I didn’t have to wonder “if” I’d make it as just over an hour ago…I had.) The questions swirled around an entirely different set of items and they challenged me to dig into and consider some deeper “whys” in the research, digging into both its foundation and my own as an educator. I left the second presentation feeling profoundly thankful to have found this community.
And so one. more. day.
April 19, 2017
- Another day, another practice run (or actually many many practice runs but…just one recording.)
- More answers to questions that may or may not be asked
- Many more deep breadths
- Printed out all 82 pages of the proposal in case someone wants to reference a specific section and I need to do some quick scanning (because clearly 82 pages and swiftness go hand in hand!)
Not much new stuff to report. I am getting slightly better at not thinking panicked, irrational thoughts whilst in the early stages of the presentation but still tend to think around slide 13/14 that time has basically stopped and slide 41 will never arrive. Actually, I think I might just be getting better at ignoring said panicked, irrational thoughts. Tomorrow’s the double feature practice run with presenting to both the research lab and 806 so hopefully by tomorrow at this time I’ll be completely confident, and psyched-up-yet-relaxed leading up to Friday.
I got the “official” letter today outlining the process for Friday including timing, expectations, etc. It’s crazy to think that about a month and a half ago I was consumed with the angst of not having an external and could not imagine both having an external and being just a couple days from the main event. Though I would not wish the stress of this past season on anyone, looking back I think the ways it broke me were almost catalytic in the growth that I know is happening to me as I begin to build the “what’s next” bit of whatever the new season might bring.