Organising and searching the literatures

What a lot of books!

What a lot of books!

This week the Graduate School hosted a workshop on “organising and searching the literatures” for new doctoral students. In the past few years I have included this topic, albeit briefly, within the longer workshop “The beginner’s guide to the doctorate”. However, I was reminded not long ago that it can be hard for those of us who are experienced researchers to remember quite how daunting it can be to navigate the literatures.  Pat Thomson’s blog has a number of entries that doctoral researcher should really read about literature reviews.

The initial stages of a research degree are all about becoming familiar with your field, to understand where your proposed research project will fit, to see where the gaps are, to ultimately be able satisfy the claim for originality that you’ll make.

So where to begin? A strategy for searching out references is quite a good place, it can be easy to fall into a trap of aimlessly searching the internet for anything that might be relevant to what you’re doing so our first topic was to take stock and think about how to search effectively for things. This might sound a little bit basic but it’s important to realise that there are different strategies depending on what you are searching. We have become used to using google to find answers to questions but we need to keep in mind how databases operate to search them effectively. Jane Belger, the research and knowledge librarian, gave the following advice to boost our “finding out skills”.

Some key resources that might be helpful in the search of the literatures

Working with literatures #phdknowhow from Professor Pat Thomson

Literature reviews – beware The List from Professor Pat Thomson

Reference Management

We then moved onto how to organise stuff, it is one thing being able to find reference material, to skim read and to feel you’ve achieved something but it is quite another to be able to organise your references in a meaningful way replete with notes about why that reference is relevant, what you thought about etc.

At UWE we have an institutional subscription to a reference management system called Refworks. This is an online reference management system that integrates well with with a number of databases that the UWE Library subscribe to, it has a neat plug in for Microsoft Word called write ‘n’ cite and has loads of different bibliographic referencing styles that can be used.

Here’s the support document form UWE about using Refworks.

On the other hand there are other solutions available to manage your references that are better in other ways, for example for storing and/or annotating PDF files. Here’s a useful comparison of the most popular tools. This is by no means an exhaustive list of what solutions are out there and I think it fair to say that there isn’t a perfect solution for everybody so…

My advice is to use a tool that suits you, to learn how to use it properly earlier rather than later, and then stick to it. Trust me when I say that it will save you time if you develop an efficient system before you get into the depths of writing.


The word welcome created from 3 dimensional lettering

We’ve recently welcomed our latest group of new postgraduate researchers: this happens three times a year (October, January and April) and the aim of the Welcome Event is to provide a space for our new postgraduate researchers from all over the university to get together and to find out who’s who and what’s what with regard to postgraduate research here at UWE.
Paul Spencer, doing an admirable job of standing in for Neil Willey, started us off with a general introduction to the Graduate School. Here are Paul/Neil’s slides:

Paul also showed the excellent Illustrated Guide to a PhD by Matt Might to help us put this “creating original knowledge” business into some kind of perspective.
Some of our current research students then passed on their thoughts about “What I know now, that I wish I’d known when I started.” The format is that we give some willing volunteers this title – but nothing else! – and ask them to just ‘tell it like it is.’ As always this was the highlight of the afternoon, and huge thanks are due to Niamh, Tori and Hazel for their time and effort in sharing such comprehensive, thoughtful and practical insights with the group.

We also heard from the UWE Students Union (UWESU) and from Dr Tilly Line of the UWE Careers Service, about the great advice and support on offer to PhD’ers in terms of representatio and career planning.
Finally I summarised our skills development programme for postgrad researchers and, with some tongue-in-cheek help from Piled Higher & Deeper, ventured to offer a few of my own hints and tips on how to survive your PhD:

Very best wishes to all our new postgraduate researchers – wherever your research journey takes you, professionally and personally, we look forward to travelling with you.

Research in Contemporary Context #vitae13

Research in definition

Research in definition

Using ‘Research-Based Learning’ to Enhance Doctoral Skills Development

At the recent Vitae Researcher Development International Conference myself and Neil Willey presented a workshop outlining our approach to a new module aimed at doctoral students. The Prezi we used can be found here:

Research in Contemporary Context module prezi.

In October 2012 in the Graduate School at UWE we started running a new module for doctoral students that we hoped might enhance their experience of personal and professional skills development. Perhaps a bit ambitiously, we hoped it might help solve a number of commonly perceived challenges including; the separation of research and skills development activity, the provision of credit for the full range of skills development activities and the delivery of skills development for students who spend most of their time away from the university. The module is called ‘Research in Contemporary Context (RCC)’ and we used ‘Work-Based Learning’ modules at UWE to inspire its design as a ‘Research-Based Learning’ module. The module booklet with details and an introductory ppt are embedded below – what follows are some thoughts of how we designed it and how we run it.

Work-based learning embeds learning in a workplace. It usually involves an interaction between work activity and university-based sessions that results in the development of professional competencies. It’s widely used to deliver professional practice qualifications. We reasoned that there was an analogy with doctoral students developing skills – their research was their work and skills development their university-based sessions, which should interact to develop professional competencies expected in researchers. A potential catch was that we needed a set of professional competencies to provide a framework – which we quickly realized could be Vitae’s Researcher Development Framework.

The Vitae Researcher Development Framework

The Vitae Researcher Development Framework

So, here’s what we do. We have six 3 hour Professional Practice workshops dedicated to RCC on topics we have chosen to match some of the descriptors on the RDF. We also ask that students identify 6 workshops from the UWE Skills Development series. The default module run for students on the module is 2 years and 10 months, i.e. from when they register they have this long to do all the workshops. This is so that students can do workshops when they coincide with relevant phases of their research. Before each Professional Practice workshop we use Blackboard to make material available to students. We then run the workshop with both actual and remote attendance, after which students return to their ‘workplace’, i.e. research. Before the end of their run, students must submit a Reflective Portfolio of evidence for each workshop topic in action in their research or research discipline, and an in depth case study of one of them. If these are satisfactory they are then awarded 30 M level professional practice credits. We chose a Reflective Portfolio because we felt that reflection would not only encourage topics to seem alive in student research but also because most of them were best engaged with by doing them or seeing them in action, reflecting on them, and doing again, i.e. they were based in practice. The advice we give is below.

How does this help with skills development? First, we hope that it embeds thinking about professional practice and skills development in student research, breaking down the feeling that students take time out to do these as separate activities. It also involves supervisors in skills development because students talk to them about it and they help with assessment at the end. Second, students get credits for activities that map directly onto the RDF. We think this not only helps with engagement but also provides a concrete, professional development outcome from the time spent. Third, by providing fully interactive remote access to workshops that support research-based learning, and having students submit their Portfolio electronically via Blackboard, a student can complete the module without having to travel to the university. At UWE more than 50% of our students are PT, and FT students are located on a number of campuses and frequently research off campus, so this has met a real need. In addition, we record workshops so that students can watch them at any time, reminding them of topics as they see them in action.

And finally, we have students from across all disciplines taking the module. This has made for very interesting discussions on many topics and enabled students to meet a wider variety of researchers than they do in, for example, their research group or centre. It’s still early days but we feel that our ‘Research In Contemporary Context’ module is an interesting attempt to overcome some of the challenges of delivering skills development to busy, and often disperse, doctoral students.

UWE Graduate School – One year on

From: Neil Willey, Director of the UWE Graduate School

Party Cake

It’s just over a year ago now that UWE set up its university-wide Graduate School and then celebrated the launch, so I thought it might be a good time to reflect on how things are going. Personally, I think we’ve now got a pretty sturdy one year old and that we’ve already mostly done teething and walking! I’m pretty acutely aware, however, that walking is just the start and that, let alone running, we probably need to be triple jumping or something fairly soon. There are two things that particularly struck me during the year and which make me think triple jumping might be possible…….

The first is the great team of people that were assembled into the UWE Graduate School. I’ve realised how many people at UWE already appreciate this, and really do wish that all the research students and supervisors at UWE have the opportunity that I do to engage with Graduate School staff – because I think they would then realise the interest and expertise available to them. I believe that the Graduate School can be really helpful to PGR students and supervisors across the university but that we all have to, somehow, be in sufficient contact with each other for this to really happen. During the first year this was exemplified to me in skills development events for students and supervisors. The development events that I was part of seemed to be of great benefit to everyone, which is making me think a great deal about how we can extend the experience to more students and supervisors.

The second thing that spurred me on to believe that the Graduate School at UWE can really go places is the real importance of PGR, both generally and to UWE. Contact with lots of students and supervisors from across the university over the course of a year really emphasises what fantastic things PGR students and their supervisors do. I’ve learned about so many things from across all the Faculties that could really make a difference to the world. To me it seems crucial that UWE has signalled its intent to have a healthy PGR community, but I do wonder if we all realise how central it can be to all that UWE wishes to be.

So, after a year I’m confident that we’ve made a good start and that the UWE Graduate School can really be helpful to PGR students and supervisors. Contact across the Faculties has given me quite a clear picture of the UWE PGR community and how the Graduate School can help. It has, however, started me thinking that perhaps the more channels of communication are available, the more difficult it is to communicate.  It’s also been a reminder of the committee work necessary in a large institution! Overall, I’m happy that we’ve now got an overall focus for PGR at UWE that we can build on to respond to the needs of our research students and supervisors.