Thursday, October 31, 2013

Bean-Counting as a Step to Thesis Writing?

Thesis x8 +1
Thesis x 8 +1 (Photo credit: anthonycramp)
by Susan Carter, Doctoral Writing:

At lunch the other day an academic friend declared that it was absurd for students to ask how many references were needed in an essay or thesis, as though you tallied these up quantitatively.

‘How long is a piece of string?’ was her standard response.

I didn’t agree; over time I’ve taken a different tack on this issue. Measuring out that string quantitatively gives another way to think quite deeply about thesis writing.

This insight was triggered when I’d organised a panel of academics for a workshop on thesis writing and a doctoral student asked them how many references were needed in the works cited list.

He had over a thousand - was this too many? And a professor from Engineering almost instantly replied ‘Yes, it is too many. You need about 200.’

I was startled that an academic made a quantitative suggestion so surely - tallying numbers seemed at odds with the requirement for critical evaluation and analysis.

Yet I could see that it was in that instance helpful. A thousand references would signal a lack of the critical evaluation needed to choose wisely - and instead of saying this and embarrassing the student, the academic answered in the terms of the question. The student was also in Engineering, so they were talking the same language.

Getting a sense of ‘how many’ helps judgment of how the research is positioned relative to what is expected in the thesis.

If there is a general convention that a thesis in this discipline has round 200 items in its works cited, knowing this begins to scope what can be in there, and what might not be. What isn’t really central enough for citation can be seen more immediately.

It’s a bit like packing a small suitcase: you choose what you will be wearing in advance because the spatial dimension dictates. You MUST decide what your criteria are for choice and then adhere to them.

So after thinking about this principle I suggest thesis writers try taking a bean counter approach to the task.

How many words in total are desirable? How many chapters are needed? About how long will the introduction and conclusion be? How detailed will the description of methodology need to be, and then if methods are to be contextualised within a methodology, how long is that likely to take? If the introduction is to be no more than 4000 words, what tasks must it do within this limit?

In New Zealand and Australia usually the total may not exceed 100,000 words, with an unspoken assumption that around 80,000 words suffices for an average thesis written in prose.

Thinking through the length factor bit by bit may reveal that the scope of the thesis needs to be cut back to ensure delivery of the right length of string, or at least a reasonably suitable piece of string.

Honing questions about quantity increasingly finely can show more clearly approximately how long there is for each little section or chore. Surety about the limitation on how much detail there is room for gives a more direct route to writing each section. It breaks it into doable pieces.

It may become apparent that there are only 1,000 words to describe the international context of a local problem, for example. References to literature might signal that literature was reviewed appropriately, but the sentences will possibly need to paint a broad brush picture in order to fit.

But in practice I find a sense of limitation can do more than render things doable because in small chunks, it can also give traction to the whole cognitive process of deciding what will be in and what won’t be.

It compels you towards the importance of each section in relation to the other sections, so towards a structural overview and understanding of the work as a whole.

This is my second blog prompted by a good rigorous debate with colleagues (see ‘Thesis length: what’s the limit?’ below) and I wonder if you have more to say on the topic of bean-counting or not.

Do you work on writing exercises or support by thinking with numbers? Or oppose the idea strongly?

For more on thesis structure, also see:

Carter, S., Kelly, F. and Brailsford, I. (2012). Structuring your research thesis. Houndsmills UK: Palgrave MacMillan.
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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

COAG Education Reports Show Early Childhood and Year 12 are Key

Literacy mountain
Literacy mountain (Photo credit: dougbelshaw)
by Bella Counihan, The Conversation

Educational outcomes in Australia are showing signs of improvement, particularly in the early years and in Year 12 attainment, according to the latest reports from the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) reform council.

But the reports also reveal that one in eight working age Australians have the lowest level of literacy, while one in five have the lowest level of numeracy.

More than a quarter of young people are also not fully engaged in work or study after they leave school.

The number of young people fully engaged in work or study is down 1.2% since 2006. This is in part due to a fall in full-time young workers and comes despite a rise in the proportion of young people in full-time study.

Professor Greg Craven, deputy chairman of the COAG reform council and vice-chancellor at Australian Catholic University, said while there were positive results in other areas, this development was of real concern.

“What happens to young people when they leave school is crucial to how we meet the future demands of our economy - and to the quality of their lives,” Professor Craven said.

The fall in full-time young workers was in part due to the effects of the global financial crisis, Professor Craven said.

The reports, which show the five year progress on state and federal government targets, also provides worrying signs in a number of other areas, including educational disadvantage and performance in the high school years.

Primary school reading and numeracy scores improved over the five years, but there was little or no improvement at the high school level.

But Professor Craven said Australian education was heading for “structural” improvement through greater access to quality early childhood education.

In 2008, COAG agreed to ensure that all children have access to a quality early childhood education program in the year before they go to school. This program would be delivered by a four-year university-trained early childhood teacher, for 15 hours a week, 40 weeks a year.

In 2012 the levels of enrolment and attendance at pre-school programs were high, with a national average of around 96%. The highest levels were in Western Australia and the lowest were in the Northern Territory.

“Down the track we should see the benefits of the early childhood reforms flow on to better primary and high school results,” Professor Craven said. The reports note that those Australian students in Year 4 who attended up to one year or more of early childhood education achieved a higher score on international tests than those who hadn’t.

The goal to lift the number of students reaching Year 12 or equivalent to 90% by 2020 was also on track. The most recent figures show the attainment rate at 85.9%, up from 82.8% in 2006.

Bill Fogarty, a research associate at The National Centre for Indigenous Studies' at ANU, said the good news on attainment extended to Indigenous students. “The reports show more Indigenous young people are attaining Year 12 or equivalent. This rise is a trend that we’ve seen for over a decade,” Dr Fogarty said.

“On the less rosy side, we see that from 2008 to 2012 there’s been no real improvement in school attendance at all for Indigenous students. And in fact, in the remote and very remote regions we’ve seen decreases. The Northern Territory as a whole has seen a 14% decrease in year 10 attendance which shows us that we still have a long way to go,” he said.

The reports also found that more than half of working age Australians now have higher level qualifications but that there was a disconnect between vocational training and getting a job.

The number of working age people with a higher level qualification has increased over the last five years. COAG reform council Skill in Australia 2012 report

From 2008 to 2012, the proportion of vocational education graduates who reported improved employment status after training fell by almost five percentage points.

Associate Professor at Griffith Business School John Rice said that recent reforms to the TAFE sector, particularly in Victoria, had been “a complete disaster”.

“Various providers are making qualifications available to eligible students for free - but many of these subsidised qualifications are not worth the paper they’re printed on, and certainly not worth what the States are paying for them,” he said.

When it came to the results on adult literacy skills, lecturer in literacies education at the University of Southern Queensland Stewart Riddle said the results show an important generational shift.

“Despite ongoing claims that we urgently need to return to the basics in schools, young people are more literate than older Australians. In fact, people in their 30s have the highest literacy and numeracy levels. It seems that the good old days of schooling did not actually provide people with better literacy skills at all,” he said.

Younger Australians are more literate than older Australians. COAG reform council Skill in Australia 2012 report

But more can be done to help working Australian men and women improve their literacy levels, Dr Riddle said.

The Conversation
This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.
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Lost For Words: Why the Best Literacy Approaches are Not Reaching the Classroom

Literacy Today
Literacy Today (Photo credit: dennyatkinson)
by Misty Adoniou, University of Canberra

It seems barely a week goes by without some commentary on falling literacy standards in Australia.

Recently, Western Australian Labor MP Alannah MacTiernan weighed into the debate and laid the blame for falling international test scores at the feet of academics and bureaucrats.

As part of a re-emerging debate on “whole language” and “phonics” approaches, in a recent op-ed MacTiernan described the successful transformation of one school and attributed its success to a phonics program.

Phonics is a “bottom up” approach to literacy learning that focuses on learning sounds and letter patterns and building skills in these areas before students move onto reading whole texts.

Whole language approaches also recognise phonics knowledge is requisite for literacy learning, but teaching is “top down” and moves from the meanings of words and text down to the phonics of those words.

Undoubtedly, MacTiernan, like every academic, bureaucrat, parent and teacher in the country, only wants the best for Australian children. If it works in one school then why not all of them, right?

But Australia’s scores in international literacy tests aren’t dropping because the students who sit those tests don’t know their sounds. They are performing poorly because they cannot comprehend what they are reading. They have poor vocabularies and cannot follow sentences that employ more complex language structures. They cannot read between the lines.

Our low-achieving students - both on international measures and the home grown National Assessment Program, Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests - share one, very telling, common characteristic.

They don’t speak “school English”, or Standard Australian English, at home. They may speak a language other than English, or Aboriginal English, or a creole, or “bogan” English - the kind where words like “youse” feature.

But it’s not school English; it isn’t how the teacher speaks and it certainly isn’t what international tests or NAPLAN reward.

So, it is the school’s job to teach school English to ensure everyone gets equal access to the learning that happens at school. And this is where we come closer to understanding why we have that growing achievement gap in Australian schools.

The number of non-Standard Australian English speakers in schools has grown over the years, and Australia’s education system doesn’t cope well with “non-standard”.

Many teachers struggle with these learners through their own limited understanding of how the English language works. This is in no way an indictment of teachers’ own English language skills, nor of their capacity to teach students well.

My observation of Australian teachers is that they are extraordinarily skilled at managing the learning process. What they do in the classrooms works wonderfully for most learners.

However, they are less effective with the students who write “I seen that at the movies”, or “My sister go to shopping on a car”. All teachers can correct those errors but far fewer can explain why they’re wrong to the students.

Typically teachers come from middle-class families with homes that were simply an extension of school. Mum and Dad spoke like their teachers, read the same books as their teachers and had similar life experiences and expectations as their teachers.

They have a good grip on Standard Australian English which comes naturally to them. But they don’t know how it works, and they usually cannot make their intuitive knowledge explicit to those who don’t have it.

Some in the community may be outraged that many of our teachers lack this explicit knowledge of language, and already there are murmurs about literacy tests for teachers in training.

The aim of these tests is to ensure that all teachers will know their past from their perfect, and their coordinating conjunctions from their modal verbs.

But that outrage, and those tests, miss an important point - being able to name parts of speech does not automatically convert to improved reading comprehension, any more than knowing your sounds does. The answer lies in the conversion of that teacher knowledge to effective student learning.

Each year, by popular demand, I deliver a workshop to about a dozen schools. It’s called “10 things every teacher should know about the English language”. The first nine include the usual suspects: verbs, phrases, clauses, sentences and I throw in a couple that are less well known: reference, ellipsis and theme.

But it is the tenth that is the most important. Every teacher should know that the purpose of language is to communicate; that it changes according to whom you are talking, why you are talking and what you are talking about. Therefore, all our teaching about language must be done in context and in the course of achieving real outcomes.

These days most Australian teacher education faculties teach language knowledge. In the best faculties, trainee teachers learn to teach language explicitly through beautifully written children’s literature.

Unfortunately these graduates are sometimes instead required to implement a commercial phonics program, where no books are read, no rich vocabulary is learned, no stories are written and lots of stencils are coloured in.

The “phonics versus whole language” debate is pointless, and it is distracting. Our failing students know their sounds, they can even read simple sentences. Their diet of bland and meaningless home “readers” with their repetitive sentence structures and controlled vocabulary has ensured this.

Such books teach our low-achieving students from non standard English speaking backgrounds nothing about how “school English” works and do not set them up for success in national and international literacy tests.

What these learners need is good literature, and teachers who have a strong understanding of how the English language works which they can convert to meaningful teaching.

Armed with better language knowledge and explicit instruction, we could see all schools lift the bar when it comes to literacy, not just the one in MacTiernan’s example.

Misty Adoniou works for the University of Canberra. She is a Senior Lecturer in Language, Literacy and Teaching English as a Second Language and teaches preservice teachers. She conducts workshops for schools in the areas of literacy and language knowledge and pedagogy.
The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.
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Do You Really Believe What You Are Writing?

Day 34: Thesis Status has Been Raised to Red Alert
Day 34: Thesis Status has Been Raised to Red Alert (Photo credit: Anomalily)

I often make my doctoral students cry, but I hasten to add it’s not because I am mean.

The supervision work I do is emotionally intense because I seem to have (accidentally) become a specialist in helping people who have had difficult candidatures for one reason or another.  

Gina Wisker calls these people 'doctoral orphans' - which is a nice description I think.

Doctoral orphans are interesting people. Wisker claims those who finish have become confident self learners. Certainly the ones I have met are self reliant and clever. Many academics, however, shy away from taking them on under the impression they will be too much trouble.

This is a pity because often orphans have developed advanced coping strategies and are usually fast learners once you point them in the right direction.

One technique is to take the existing writing apart and analyse it together (for a good explanation refer to Kamler and Thomson’s ‘Helping Doctoral students Write‘).

But taking your writing apart and properly analysing it is a bit like renovating a house. What you thought was a simple job can suddenly become complex.

You can find all sorts of stuff was not done properly in the first place. You might find that some problems are too expensive to fix and you are forced to knock it over and rebuild.

Recently I managed to provoke a full blown existential crisis in a student by using this co-writing method. As we started taking his writing apart I realised I couldn’t find any warrants. Warrants are the most difficult part of the standard argument ‘kit’ to understand, let alone explain.

I did a particularly crappy job explaining the problem (in my defence, I was horribly jetlagged). Since #acwrimo starts tomorrow (get your nerd on people!) it seemed appropriate to tackle this topic in more detail.

We all know that when you make an argument you must provide reasons to back it up. Your reader may not accept your argument if they don’t believe the reasons you give are relevant.

This is where warrants come in. A warrant is there to convince the reader that the reasons for your argument are valid.

It’s easier to understand how warrants work through examples. Let’s imagine for a moment I have done some research on the topic of doctoral orphans. I could start to make an argument about them with a statement like this:

“Doctoral orphans are often better students than academics think they are”

So far so good. I’m making a ‘knowledge claim’ about orphan doctoral students, but why should you believe me? I need to give you a reason, like so:

“Doctoral orphans are often better students than academics think they are because most academics do not have direct experience of working with them

Some people would be perfectly happy to accept such a statement, but I can’t be SURE. A tricky reader might for instance ask:

“Why does an academic necessarily need direct experience to know something? Can’t they learn from someone else?”

I can shore up the reason for my argument by providing a warrant. A warrant is a general principle and can take a number of forms according to Booth, Colomb and Williams in their excellent book, ‘The Craft of Research’:
  • cause and effect
  • one thing is a sign of another
  • a rule of behaviour
  • a principle of reasoning
Let’s try a ‘rule of behaviour’ warrant, like so:

"“Doctoral orphans are often better students than academics think they are because most academics do not have direct experience of working with them. Hearsay is not a good way to find out about a student cohort".

That’s ok, but it’s a bit thin and awkward. Let’s it again in cause and effect mode, this time making the warrant have two parts: a general circumstance and a general consequence.

“Doctoral orphans are often better students than academics think they are because most academics do not have direct experience of working with them. Without direct experience they are forced to rely on rumour and ‘what everyone knows’ – which might be wrong.”

That’s better.

But do I even need that warrant? This is where it gets complicated.

A warrant should be, according to Booth et al, a ‘common sense statement about the world that everyone considers self evident’. All disciplinary communities have their own forms of ‘common sense’.

Sometimes a warrant can be construed as condescending because you are telling the reader something they already know all too well.

Booth et al give this good, simple example of an extraneous warrant:

“Don’t walk down the stairs at night because you might trip over. It’s easier to trip over when it’s dark“.

Most adults know that it’s easy to trip when it’s dark - they don’t have to be told. Booth and his co-writers point out that we only need to provide a warrant like this only when speaking to children. We don’t want our readers - particularly our examiners - to think we are treating them like children.

This is why leaving out the warrant can make an argument stronger. Are you confused yet? Stay with me!

Remember, academic writing is terribly polite, even passive agressive. Leaving out a warrant is a subtle signal to the reader that you are ‘one of us’ -  part of a knowing community.

If we decide most people reading the piece will consider the warrant unproblematic, we can proceed straight from reason to our evidence and then a closing statement, like so:

“Doctoral orphans are often better students than academics think they are because most academics do not have direct experience of working with them. Some 5% of doctoral candidates experience a change in supervision, but many persist in relationships which are dysfunctional (Mewburn, 2013). Some candidates can ‘fall through the cracks’ and remain effectively unsupervised for long periods of time. When they eventually do seek help, our research shows, the ‘bad reputation’ of orphaned students, formed out of stories  circulating amongst colleagues, can affect individuals adversely as they seek alternative supervision. If academics had better information on the challenges and opportunities of working with this cohort, this ‘bad reputation’ could be overcome.”

That looks pretty good to me. I don’t think the warrant was adding much, but you might disagree.

Warrants highlight one of the main struggles of academic writing for the novice (or for experienced writers entering a new area for that matter).

Knowing when to leave out the warrant is like learning how to season the writing stew. You develop a feel through immersion in a knowledge community, you can’t learn it in advance, or all at once.

I might add, even seasoned professionals like myself find warrants tricky.

I had to consult two of the best writers on writing I know - Pat Thomson (‘Patter’ blog) and Rachael Cayley (‘Explorations in style’ blog) - while writing this post to see if it made sense (any remaining errors are my own of course!).

Pat agreed it was hard to do in a blog post and recommended this page of exercises. Rachael remarked in email:

“I feel like I see a lot more unstated warrants than I do explicit warrants; I often find myself asking the same question: “Can this move go unexplained in your field?” “Are you sure?” The resulting conversation is usually enlightening because the student realizes their growing disciplinary expertise (or the areas in which they are still feeling their way)."

This remark echoed the existential crisis experienced by my student. When I asked the questions like: “how do you know that?” he realised he didn’t have a warrant and couldn’t think of one. He then started to wonder if he believed in some of the things he was writing.

To his credit, he faced this bravely and it sparked a fruitful discussion about possible directions the thesis might go instead.

It’s going to be a bigger renovation job than we thought.
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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Communicating Effectively as an Online Student

Cover of "Effective Communication"
Cover of Effective Communication
by Dr Bruce Johnson

Online students have a unique opportunity available to them for communicating with their instructors because most are easily accessible by email or other forms of communication that have been made available.

Instead of waiting for a class time or specific office hours, online students know that they can receive a response within a relatively short period of time when they choose to communicate by email.

Instructors may also provide an option for contact by phone or instant messaging.

A problem that occurs with digital communication is that students may feel empowered to speak freely because of the anonymity associated with this form of contact.

When this occurs students often communicate reactively based upon an emotional response related to a classroom incident, feedback received, or anything else that has been perceived in a negative manner.

What this does is create barriers to meaningful interactions and portrays an uncooperative attitude. If the tone of the message is perceived as being aggressive this can demonstrate disrespect for the instructor.

Students must learn how to communicate effectively in the online environment so they can build productive working relationships and receive the assistance they need.

It's All about Your Attitude

As a student, you must learn to think before you act or react. Whether you are asking a question or responding to something that has occurred in the classroom you must first decide if you are going to ask for help or demand help.

You express this through the tone of your message which includes making the right word choices and avoiding extreme punctuation. For example, typing in ALL CAPS can be seen as SHOUTING. The use of multiple exclamation marks can also be seen as shouting or aggressive behavior.

If you are frustrated, write out what you are feeling on a separate piece of paper and then wait to edit it until you have been able to regain your composure.

Once you shift from an emotional state back to a logical and rational perspective, then you can begin to create your email or other forms of communication. Keep in mind that this is not a matter of "students versus instructors" as your instructors want you to succeed and do well in class.

Don't assume that something is being done intentionally to you, rather ask for guidance and assistance.

Expectations Matter

As you begin to think about sending some form of communication to your instructor, ask yourself: what do you expect your instructor to do when they receive your message.

For example, a brief message that states "it won't let me" doesn't really provide your instructor with an indication of how they can assist you. You need to learn to clarify what it is you need or are asking so that you can receive a helpful reply.

It is also important to know what the school policies and procedures consist of, along with the expectations of your instructors. This is an area of confusion for students at times because their needs or request may not align with what is allowed by the school or their instructors.

As an example, if the student sends an email and indicates that they are ill that day, what do they expect the instructor to do? Since an online classroom is open virtually any time of the day you should be able to complete your work, unless there is a medical reason why you are incapacitated. What this means is that your requests need to be realistic in nature.

For example, waiting until the last minute when an assignment is due and sending a request for an extension is also not a realistic expectation for an online class.

Learn to communicate frequently with your instructors so that you have established a rapport and you can contact them as soon an extenuating circumstance arises.

Developing Effective Communication

When you are ready to send an appropriate method of contact to your instructor, especially with emails, begin with a warm and welcoming tone to your message. Be sure that you respect your instructor's credentials and their preferred name.

Begin your communication with a request for assistance so that you establish you are asking for help rather than demanding specific conditions.

Next, clearly and concisely indicate what assignment or task is related to your request. Then provide an overview of the steps you have taken or what you have done to address the primary concern for this communication.

What you are doing is establishing a clear path for your instructor to review and respond to, which will lead to a productive outcome.

As an online student anonymity should never be leveraged when communicating with your instructors. They are owed a level of respect whether or not you believe they have earned it.

They also have your best interest at heart and can better assist you when you are in a receptive frame of mind and have provided a well-developed and well thought out message.

Effective communication means that you have established a productive working relationship with your instructors through any form of digital contact. This requires proactive and ongoing interactions rather than aggressive, emotional, or reactive responses. Use the ability to contact your instructor as a means of supporting your ongoing success and development.

Dr. Bruce Johnson has had a life-long love of learning and throughout his entire career he has been involved in many forms of adult education through his work as an educator, trainer, career coach, and mentor.

Dr. J has completed a Master in Business Administration (MBA) and a PhD in Education, with a specialization in Postsecondary and Adult Education. Presently Dr. J works as an online college professor, faculty developmental workshop facilitator, faculty mentor, faculty peer reviewer, and professional writer.

Dr. J's first eBook, APPRECIATIVE ANDRAGOGY: TAKING the Distance Out of Distance Learning, is available for sale in paperback, and also available for Kindle, Nook, and Kobo devices. Learn more by visiting

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Learning Languages for Hopelessly Busy People

Foreign language books available
Foreign language books available (Photo credit: Newton Free Library)
by Laura Canadeo

When you were younger life was devoted to school and its associated student responsibilities.

There weren't many constraints to deal with, such as a job, children, home keeping, and other grown-up obligations.

As an adult you still have goals and interests, and speaking a foreign language might be one of them.

It takes around 1000 hours of study to be considered fluent in most languages so, with all the time required, how can one realistically speak a new language when your schedule is already full?

A productive way to learn a language and strengthen skills when time is limited is to make use of idle moments, down time, travel time, and waiting time. While traveling or commuting to work, use those minutes for listening to podcasts or music in the language you're studying.

If you're at an advanced level, listen to an audio book in that language. Even if you're passively listening to music in another language, you are learning new vocabulary, and music is a wonderful memory aid.

While waiting for an appointment or standing in line, use a language-learning app on your smart phone or tablet to pass the time. Brief periods of study are small reinforcements that boost your memory tremendously.

Read 15 minutes each day. If there is a book that you like in English, try reading it in your foreign language. You don't need to read it word for word; understanding the basic storyline and becoming familiar with the sentence structures and new vocabulary will have an impact. Besides, you'll have great satisfaction and confidence after achieving such an impressive goal.

Of course reading a novel is one suggestion. The important thing is to read something, anything that interests you: magazines, comic books, romance novels, whatever will motivate you to read every day. In fact, reading 15 minutes each day exposes you to over 1,000,000 words each year.

If rereading a book doesn't interest you, watch a favorite movie in the language you're studying. You will already know the plot so this time you can follow the dialogue with better understanding. Use subtitles if you wish.  

Games and puzzles are a productive use of time as well, and there are limitless options available on the web. How about participating in a foreign language chat room? Not only do they provide practical conversation experience, they're also a wonderful source for potential foreign friends. The objective here is to squeeze some language learning into your relaxation time.

Have you ever tried incorporating the five senses into your language learning? This can be done wherever you are. Whenever you taste, smell, touch, hear, or see something new or interesting, think about these sensations in your new language.

By engaging with your senses you will train yourself to think more in the new language, not your dominant language. This is why so many language learners advance quickly when they travel to foreign countries.

They start to hear and see more foreign words than they do words in their own language. Eventually their brains stop translating into their own language and start thinking in the new language.

When brushing your teeth, for example, talk to yourself (silently or aloud) about the minty taste of the toothpaste, how fresh your mouth feels, the color of your toothbrush, how the bristles feel on your gums, how smooth your teeth feel, how foamy the toothpaste becomes, the water, and the brushing sound.

Involve your senses in simple tasks while thinking in the language you're learning. Don't worry about making mistakes. Think in words and sentences and let you mind be free.

To supplement language learning during your busy day practice these achievable approaches that will keep you on the path to fluency. You can do it!

Having an interest in foreign languages is rewarding and opens your world to new possibilities so don't let time constraints limit your potential to speak a new language.

I have always loved words, reading, writing, word puzzles, and learning foreign languages. I earned my degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Journalism.

I dedicate my English course to non-native speakers wanting to learn English, business English, grammar, or improve English vocabulary and conversation skills.

I speak English every day with professionals, artists, and students to help them converse naturally, write better, or prepare for presentations, interviews, or English exams. It's extremely productive, convenient, and enjoyable!

I welcome you to try a free 30 minutes conversation.

Visit my website and my entertaining English blog:

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Grant Writing

Grant writing
Grant writing (Photo credit: gbannerman)
by Cath Ennis, on :

Cath Ennis began her career in the life sciences by falling in love with David Attenborough’s programmes on the BBC. 

She subsequently studied genetics in Newcastle upon Tyne, England; obtained a PhD in molecular cell biology in Glasgow, Scotland; and did a postdoc in genome evolution in Vancouver, Canada. 
She then spent two years in the marketing department of a biotech company, during which time she learned many things - the most important being that she does not enjoy marketing and much prefers academia to the private sector.

She has been a grant writer / project manager at a large academic cancer research organisation since 2007, and specialises in cancer genomics and bioinformatics. Cath blogs at VWXYNot? and tweets as @enniscath


The title listed on my business cards is Project Manager, a role that takes up more than half of my time. However, if I introduced myself to you in person I’d tell you that I’m a project manager-slash-grant writer, and it’s the latter role that I’ll be writing about in this post.

While freelance grant writers do exist, I’m employed full time by a large academic cancer research organisation. I’ve been here since 2007, in two different departments, after a PhD and postdoc in molecular biology followed by two years in the marketing department of a biotech company.

In my last department I was the only grant writer for five principal investigators (PIs); in my current department there are more than 20 of us in the Projects team, although not all of us are directly involved in grant writing.

As well as managing one large and a few smaller research projects, I provide grant writing support to one PI and all the department’s trainees.


The primary role of a grant writer is to allow the PI to spend more of their time and energy focusing on the science behind the proposal, by taking on some or all of the other tasks involved throughout all stages of the grant writing, submission, and administration process (I like to call this entire process “grant wrangling”, and sometimes describe myself as a grant wrangler).

Although most PIs already know which grants they want to submit well ahead of time, I keep an eye on all relevant funding agency websites and let the PIs know if any specific competition announcements are a good match for their research.

Once the PI decides to apply to a given competition, I provide them with a summary of the external and internal deadlines, budget limits, proposal page limits, and the other sections required.

PIs at our institution apply to a number of government and charitable funding agencies, in Canada and elsewhere, so the requirements seem to be different almost every time.

My role during the actual grant application development and writing process is different for every grant - it depends on how the PI likes to work, who else is involved in the writing, and how familiar I am with the subfield.

In some cases I’ve merely collected the signatures required by the institution and the funding agency, proofread the final documents, assembled them into the final grant, and hit “submit”; in other cases I’ve worked with the PI to decide what the specific aims should be, done some substantial editing, and drafted whole sections (not the proposal itself, but other sections including the budget justification, technical and lay abstracts, etc).

In my last job I was also responsible for updating the PIs’ CVs; in my current job, our Admin department takes on this task.


I’m one of those annoying people who (usually) really enjoys their job, and grant writing is my favourite part of it (even some of my colleagues think this is weird).

My favourite thing about grant writing is that I get to read, think, and write about an enormously diverse range of research projects, without ever needing to pick up a single pipette.

This is something I’ve wanted from my career ever since I realised I was enjoying writing my PhD thesis much more than I’d ever enjoyed the lab work I was describing therein.

I’m much happier as a generalist than as a specialist, and can be useful to the PI even when I’m working on a grant in a completely unfamiliar field (I trained in genetics and molecular biology, but I’ve worked on grants that encompass bioinformatics, organic chemistry, and nuclear physics).

For example, I can flag specialist jargon that’s unfamiliar to me, and therefore potentially to a non-specialist reviewer.

I also enjoy the feeling of the whole team focusing on the same goal and working together to achieve it as the deadline approaches. Adrenaline addiction takes many forms …

Potential Pitfalls

You need perfectionist and control freak tendencies to be a good grant writer. You have to be able to quickly and accurately proof and edit large swathes of dense, technical text, and you have to check, double-check, and triple-check every single little thing against the funding agency’s guidelines.

However, if you have perfectionist and control freak tendencies, being a grant writer will drive you crazy at times.

Specifically, the times when the deadline is a few hours away, and the pressure’s mounting, but none of the documents that need to be completed are currently in your hands, and there’s nothing to do but wait for the PI to send them back to you.

Many PIs seem to suffer from “deadline addiction”, to the extent that they can’t write without feeling that pressure, and the final documents often appear with hours or sometimes even minutes to spare.

Deadlines really do rule your life in this job. You have to do whatever it takes to get the grant in on time, whether that means working over a weekend, coming into the office at 6am, or submitting a grant during the first intermission of an Olympic ice hockey gold medal game (I have done all of these things).

As mentioned above, this is usually not your choice - you’re at the mercy of the PI and whoever else is working on the documents you need.

You also have to plan your vacation time around grant deadlines. In Canada, in my field, where deadlines tend to cluster, this means that you’re not going anywhere between late August and mid-November. Ever.

To conclude, grant writing is a great niche for highly organised research enthusiasts who have strong writing and editing skills, a good work ethic, and who can work well with academics.

It’s not the best paying career in the world, nor the least stressful - but it’s a very intellectually satisfying one, even at 6am in an empty office.
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What Would a More Literate World Look Like?

Literacy rate by country based on CIA World Fa...
Literacy rate by country (Photo: Wikipedia)
by Stewart Riddle, University of Southern Queensland

Let us suppose for a moment that there is a magic bullet for curing illiteracy.

In fact, what if we were able to take the global literacy rate from 84% worldwide to something closer to 90% or even 99%?

What difference would it make? And what might the world look like?

Literacy at home

Here in Australia we know that functional illiteracy has a big impact on lots of Australians. To be functionally literate you need to be able to read and understand the things that get you through everyday life, including being able to understand this article.

Functional illiteracy is strongly linked to some of our big problems in health, employment and welfare dependency. The current discussion about endemic illiteracy in Tasmania also highlights these concerns.

But while there are problems, globally we compare well.

The results from the recently released Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) sees Australia coming fourth among OECD countries - following Japan, Finland and the Netherlands for literacy - performing well-above the OECD average.

Younger Australians (16-24 years) not only scored well above the OECD average in literacy, but were significantly higher than older Australians. For other countries, it’s a very different story.

Global literacy rates

Despite improvements in global literacy rates over the past two decades, over 774 million adults (over 15 years) are still unable to read or write. Two-thirds of them are women.

The highest rates of persistent illiteracy are in sub-Saharan Africa, South and West Asia. And in much of the world, girls in particular face huge inequities in access to schooling, as the story of Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai shows.

It is shocking to consider that according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), children born to illiterate mothers are 50% less likely to survive past five years-old.

In Latin America, children of mothers who have had some secondary schooling remain in school for two to three years longer.

On current trends, there will still be 743 million adults who are illiterate in 2015. And two-thirds will still be women. This comes at a purported cost of US$1.14 trillion to the global economy each year.

What might living in a more literate world look like?

Based on our understanding of the effects of greater literacy, our hypothetical, more literate world would look quite different.

The number one thing to notice is the shift towards greater economic prosperity. There would be lower unemployment rates, higher salaries and greater career flexibility.

These would work together to create an innovative, self-directed and highly motivated workforce that is adaptable and highly-skilled. Higher levels of professional development and continuing learning would also result.

At the moment, illiterate people earn, on average, between 30%-42% less than their literate counterparts around the world and are more likely to depend on welfare or unemployment payments to make ends meet.

Increasing literacy rates leads to increased productivity and efficiency for small businesses, along with reduced rates of employee absenteeism.

Health outcomes would also improve as a result of full literacy and economic prosperity, with better food and diet awareness, family planning and preventative lifestyle choices.

For example, poor health literacy is linked to higher death rates from heart disease. Those who are unable to properly read and understand preventative and treatment medications and instructions are at significant risk of failing to care for themselves properly.

Similarly, low literacy levels impact on diabetes prevention and care. And literate women are three times more likely than illiterate ones to know that a person in seemingly good health can be infected with HIV.

The huge disparities between high and low socioeconomic health outcomes would be largely removed by improving literacy rates. Child mortality rates would decline and life expectancies would increase.

Participation in the political process would also be boosted significantly, along with a better informed citizenry. Communities would thrive as community participation and investment grows. Tolerance and compassion would increase.

We also know there are strong links between literacy and crime. For example, prisoners who are still illiterate upon release are more likely to re-offend. In our more literate world, violence and crime would decrease.

Large-scale issues, such as famine, war and climate change, would also be able to be more effectively tackled by a much larger group of committed people around the world. The levels of ignorance, misinformation and political spin would be countered by an informed and critical global population.

The focus would shift to social equality, environmental sustainability and energy renewal, population dynamics and water conservation.

Women and girls would be given equal opportunities, while indigenous, migrant and refugee populations would be afforded more equitable social and economic outcomes.

A world away

Unfortunately, this world is still far away and there is no simple cure for illiteracy.

Foreign aid and international organisations certainly play a crucial part, and Australia has and will continue to help make progress (although there will soon be budgetary set backs).

More is being done to improve literacy levels at home. There are many projects and initiatives currently underway, including: the Tasmanian Adult Literacy Action Plan; the federal government’s Adult Migrant English Program, Skills for Education and Employment, LiteracyNet; and many more.

On a global level, UNESCO is leading the way through policy, research, advocacy and close networking with governments and NGOs around the world.

But there are many other organisations that work in various ways to address illiteracy, including World Literacy Foundation, the Global Literacy Foundation, the Global Literacy Project, and LitWorld.

But if we are going to come even close to meeting the 2015 Millennium Development Goals aim of “meeting the basic learning needs of youth and adults through the functional literacy approach and reducing adult illiteracy rates by 50%”, we still have a lot of work to do.

As UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said:
Literacy is much more than an educational priority - it is the ultimate investment in the future and the first step towards all the new forms of literacy required in the twenty-first century.
While we might not live in a fully literate world, through efforts overseas and at home, we may one day come close.

Stewart Riddle does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.
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UK Universities to be Hit by Large-Scale Lecturers’ Strike

the demonstration on the first day of the new ...
UCU demonstration (Photo: Wikipedia)
by Schools Improvement Net:

Hundreds of thousands of students could face disruption this week as universities are brought to a standstill as part of a national strike. This is from the Telegraph

Lectures and tutorials at universities across the UK are expected to be cancelled after unions representing academics and support staff vowed to press ahead with industrial action.

Members of the University and College Union will walk out on Thursday - alongside staff belonging to Unison and Unite - as part of an ongoing row over pay.

Unions insist that a one per cent pay rise offered to lecturers, technicians and administration workers represents a significant real-terms cut in salaries. It is claimed that staff have seen wages effectively reduced by 13 per cent pay over the last five years.

Activists suggest that tens of thousands of staff members will walk out this week in a move that could partially close universities across the UK.

It would be the first protest of its kind since academics took action in a row over pensions in 2011 and the first strike specifically related to pay since 2006 …

Are you involved in or affected by this planned strike on Thursday? Do let us know your thoughts about it in the comments below or via Twitter…
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Monday, October 28, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Doing Qualitative Research - A Practical Handbook

by Sally Brown, Impact of Social Sciences:

Sally Brown is a Research Fellow in the School of Medicine, Pharmacy and Health at Durham University. 

Her research interests include young people and sexual health, men’s health, and lay knowledge and understanding about diagnosis, risk and decision-making. Read more reviews by Sally.

In the fourth edition of his best-selling textbook, David Silverman provides a step-by-step guide to planning and conducting qualitative research.

Using real examples from real postgraduate students, the book aims to make it easy to link theory to methods and shows how to move from understanding the principles of qualitative research to doing it yourself.

This book will be of great use to students studying research methods, and will give them a thorough and readable introduction to what can sometimes feel like a rather overwhelming subject, concludes Sally Brown.

This originally appeared on LSE Review of Books.

Doing Qualitative Research: A Practical Handbook. 4th Edition. David Silverman. SAGE Publications. April 2013.

In the fourth edition of his popular best-selling textbook, David Silverman provides a detailed and accessible guide to planning and conducting qualitative research.

Aimed at postgraduate students, the book would be just as useful for early career researchers; it has also proven to be a good resource for dipping into from an experienced researcher’s point of view.

Silverman taught for 32 years at Goldsmiths, University of London, and as well as writing and editing a number of well known texts on qualitative research he has also run workshops for students in universities across Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia.

The breadth and depth of his experience of both carrying out research and teaching research methods shines through the book, not only in the range of examples he gives, but also in the clear and straightforward way he writes.

Throughout the book, he provides examples from a wide range of postgraduate students who, in their own words, tell stories about particular aspects of their research experience.

In my own teaching of qualitative research methods, I have found that telling students stories of “real life” research experience helps them to grasp some of the concepts they are hearing about; in particular they seem to enjoy tales of research not going to plan, and find it reassuring to know that things can go wrong but one can still recover.

I would expect that students will find the stories that Silverman provides both useful and reassuring; PhD students, who can sometimes feel quite isolated, will undoubtedly benefit from feeling that they are not alone in their research endeavours.

As this is a 4th edition, owners of previous editions, will, as the author notes in his introduction, want to avoid “the usual blather” about what is new in this one.

As well as one entirely new chapter, on how to formulate a research question appropriate for qualitative research, there are several new sections, including one on analysing internet data and another on evaluating qualitative research, and some parts which have been substantially rewritten or extended, for example the chapter on the role of theory in qualitative research, the nature of sampling, and how to write a good qualitative research proposal.

That section, in chapter 11, will be helpful for students who have come from a more quantitative background and find themselves having to write a qualitative proposal, only to struggle with the way research questions are approached differently by quantitative and qualitative researchers.

One challenge with a text of this nature, in tackling a large and still growing topic such as qualitative research, is how to fit everything into one (affordable) book.

Silverman has gone a very long way to addressing this challenge by providing detailed further reading lists and links to a companion website for the book, as well as links to many other useful websites on methods.

Thus the book works not only as a companion text for anyone working their way from the very beginning of thinking about a research project through to writing up and publishing, but as a very handy jumping off point into the wide world of qualitative research.

Throughout each chapter, there are exercises to complete which will enable a student to link the theories and techniques that the author has introduced and discussed to their own study; the book could thus be used as a course text for a taught course, or could be used by an individual studying alone.

Each chapter is very clearly set out, with the text broken into accessible chunks each headed by a distinct title; links and tips are sprinkled through the chapters, again all clearly indicated and easily found when flipping through the book to find something you know you saw earlier.

The “key points” box that ends each chapter is also a handy summary of what has just been presented.

Overall, this new edition is a comprehensive and welcome updating of what was already an essential text. Silverman takes his readers through a substantial and comprehensive introduction to qualitative research and gives them pointers for where to go next.

This book will be of great use to students studying research methods, and will give them a thorough and readable introduction to what can sometimes feel like a rather overwhelming subject. As such it deserves its place on reading lists.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

10 Truths a PhD Supervisor Will Never Tell You

Katie Edwards feature illustration (11 July 2013)
Source: Katie Edwards
by Tara Brabazon, Times Higher Education:

My father used to tell a joke, over and over again.

It was a classic outback Australian, Slim Dusty joke that - like the best dad jokes - I can’t remember.

But I do recall the punchline. “Who called the cook a bastard?” To which the answer was, “Who called the bastard a cook?”

This riposte often comes to mind during discussions about doctoral supervision and candidature management. Discussions go on (and on and on) about quality, rigour, ethics and preparedness.

Postgraduates are monitored, measured and ridiculed for their lack of readiness or their slow progress towards completion. But inconsistencies and problems with supervisors and supervision are marginalised.

In response, I think of my father’s one-liner: Who called the supervisor a bastard? Who called the bastard a supervisor?

To my mind, I never received any satisfactory, effective or useful supervision for my doctorate, research master’s or two coursework master’s that contained sizeable dissertation components.

I found the supervisors remote and odd. A couple of them tried to block the submission of the theses to my institution. Indeed, on three separate occasions in my career, academics informed me that if I submitted this thesis, it would fail.

The results that followed these warnings were a master of arts passed with distinction, a master of education with first-class honours and a dean’s award, and a PhD passed without correction. I was left with the impression that these supervisors had no idea what they were doing.

The worst supervisors share three unforgivable characteristics:
  1. They do not read your writing
  2. They never attend supervisory meetings
  3. They are selfish, career-obsessed bastards
I am now an experienced supervisor and examiner, but I still remember my own disappointments.

For the doctoral students who follow, I want to activate and align these personal events with the candidatures I have managed since that time. Particularly, I wish to share with the next generation of academics some lessons that I have learned about supervisors.

As a prospective PhD student, you are precious. Institutions want you - they gain funding, credibility and profile through your presence. Do not let them treat you like an inconvenient, incompetent fool. Do your research. Ask questions. Use these 10 truths to assist your decision. 

1. The key predictor of a supervisor’s ability to guide a postgraduate to completion is a good record of having done so

Ensure that at least one member of your supervisory team is a very experienced supervisor. Anyone can be appointed to supervise. Very few have the ability, persistence, vision, respect and doggedness to move a diversity of students through the examination process.

Ensure that the department and university you are considering assign supervisors on the basis of intellectual ability rather than available workload.

Supervising students to completion is incredibly difficult. The final few months require complete commitment from both supervisor and postgraduate.

Make sure that you are being guided by a supervisor who understands the nature of effective supervision and has proved it through successful completions. 

2. You choose the supervisor. Do not let the institution overrule your choice

As a postgraduate who is about to dedicate three or four years to an institution, you have the right to select a supervisor with whom you feel comfortable.

Yet increasingly, as the postgraduate bureaucracy in universities increases, administrators and managers “match” a prospective candidate with a supervisor. Do not let this happen.

Do research on the available staff. Talk directly with individual academics. Ascertain their willingness to supervise you, and then inform the graduate centre or faculty graduate administrators of their commitment. 

3. Stars are attractive but may be distant. Pick a well-regarded supervisor who does not spend too much time away

It may seem a tough, unusual or impossible task to find a supervisor who has a strong profile but rarely goes away on research leave or disappears to attend conferences.

Postgraduates need to be supervised by people with an international reputation whose name carries weight when they write references. But they must not be jet-setting professors, frequently leaving the campus and missing supervisory meetings to advance their own career.

They must be established and well known, but available to supervise you rather than continually declining your requests for meetings because they are travelling to Oslo, Luanda or Hong Kong. 

4. Bureaucratic immunity is vital. Look for a supervisor who will protect you from ‘the system’

There is an excessive amount of university doctoral administration. I understand and welcome the value in checking the ethical expenditure of public money; a programme of study submitted in the first year and an annual progress report through the candidature will accomplish this task.

But now we have to deliver milestone reports, public confirmations of candidature sessions, biannual progress reports, annual oral presentations of research and - in some universities - complete a form that must be signed off at the conclusion of every supervisory meeting.

Every moment a student is filling in a form is one less moment they are reading a book or article, or writing a key page in their doctorate. Time is finite. Bureaucracy is infinite. A good supervisor will protect you from the excesses of supervisory administration.

The irony of many graduate centres is that they initiate incredibly high demands on students and supervisors yet are incredibly lax during crucial periods of the candidature when a rapid administrative response is required.

One of my postgraduates had to wait 16 months for a decision on her doctorate. Two examiners had returned timely reports and passed with minor corrections. The third academic, however, did not examine the thesis, did not submit any paperwork and did not respond to any communications.

I sent email after email - made phone call after phone call - to the graduate centre trying to facilitate a resolution to this examination. Finally, after a rather intensive period of nagging, a decision was reached to accept the two reports and no longer wait for the third.

The question remains - why did the graduate centre take 16 months to make this decision? If I had not phoned and emailed administrators, would they have forgotten about this student?

A good supervisor must be an advocate for the postgraduate through the increasingly bureaucratised doctoral candidature. 

5. Byline bandits abound. Study a potential supervisor’s work

Does your prospective supervisor write with PhD students? Good. Do they write almost exclusively with their PhD students? Not so good - in fact, alarm bells should start ringing.

Supervision is a partnership. If your prospective supervisor appears to be adding his or her name to students’ publications and writing very little independently, be concerned.

Some supervisors claim co-authorship of every publication written during the candidature. Do not think that this is right, assumed, proper or the default setting. The authorship of papers should be discussed.

My rule is clear: if I write it, it is mine. If you write it, it is yours. If we write it together, we share the authorship.

It is important that every postgraduate finishes the candidature with as many publications as possible. Ask supervisors how they will enhance and facilitate your research and publishing career.

Remember, you are a PhD student. Your supervisor should assist you to become an independent scholar, not make you into their unpaid research assistant. 

6. Be wary of co-supervisors

Most institutions insist on at least two supervisors for every student. This system was introduced not for scholarly reasons but to allay administrative fears.

There is a concern that a supervisor might leave the institution, stranding the student, or that the supervisor and student might have a disagreement, again leaving the student without support.

These arguments are like grounding all aircraft because there are occasional crashes. Too often I see an academic “added” to the team to beef up his or her workload.

I have been in a university meeting where research-active professors were “added” to a supervisory panel not because they were excellent supervisors (far from it) but rather because they needed to boost their profile for the research assessment exercise.

Certainly there are many occasions where a co‑supervisor is incredibly valuable, but this must be determined by their research contribution to the topic rather than by institutional convenience.

I once supervised a fine thesis about Russian television. I had the expertise in television studies; a colleague held expertise in Russian studies and the Russian language. It was a great team. We met weekly as a group, with specialist meetings held with either of us as required to complete the doctorate. The candidate submitted in the minimum time.

At times, an inexperienced co-supervisor is added to a team to gain “experience”. That is, perhaps, understandable. But damage can be done to students through bad advice.

I know of a disturbing case in which an inexperienced co-supervisor chose a relatively junior friend to examine a doctorate. Before the senior co-supervisor had been informed, this prospective external examiner had been approached and had agreed, and the paperwork had been submitted.

Two years later, the candidate is still progressing with corrections. Each time he submits revisions that supposedly verify the concerns expressed during the oral examination, he is presented with another list because the inexperienced supervisor agreed to “corrections to the satisfaction of the examiner”.

This problem was caused by an overconfident but inexperienced co-supervisor being added to the team and then going on to appoint an overconfident but inexperienced examiner.

Sometimes - in fact frequently - less is more. A strong relationship with a well-qualified, experienced and committed supervisor will ensure that the postgraduate will produce a strong thesis with minimum delay. 

7. A supervisor who is active in the area of your doctorate can help to turbocharge your work

Occasionally students select a “name” rather than a “name in the field”. The appropriateness of a supervisor’s field of research is critical because it can save you considerable time.

Supervisors who are reading, thinking and writing in the field can locate a gap in your scholarly literature and - at speed - provide you with five names to lift that section. A generalist will not be able to provide this service.

As the length of candidatures - or more precisely the financial support for candidatures - shrinks and three years becomes the goal, your supervisor can save you time through sharing not only their experience but also their expertise. 

8. A candidature that involves teaching can help to get a career off the ground

In Australia, teaching with your supervisor is often the default pattern, and it is a good one. In the UK, tutoring is less likely to emerge because of budgetary restraints. But a postgraduate who does not teach through the candidature is unprepared to assume a full-time teaching post.

Many doctoral candidates are already academics and are returning to study. Others work in a diversity of professions and have no intention of taking a job in a university. Therefore, this “truth” is not relevant.

But for those seeking a career in academia who intend to use the doctorate as a springboard, teaching experience is crucial.

A postgraduate may see themselves as a serious researcher. But it is teaching that will get them their first post (and probably their second and third).

The ultimate supervisor is also an outstanding teacher who will train their postgraduates in writing curricula, managing assessment and creating innovative learning moments in a classroom.

None of these skills is required for or developed by a doctorate. You can be supervised well without these teaching experiences. However, if you have a choice, select the supervisor who can “add value” to your candidature.

One of my proudest moments emerged in a tutors’ meeting for my large first-year course at Murdoch University: creative industries. I apologised to my tutors for the hard work and low pay that was a characteristic of sessional university employment.

Mike Kent - who is now Dr Mike Kent and a tenured lecturer in internet studies at Curtin University - stated that the pay was an extra. He was being trained to teach. That was the value from the process. I still think tutors should be paid more, but I valued - and value - Mike’s insight. 

9. Weekly supervisory meetings are the best pattern

There are two realities of candidature management. First, the longer the candidature, the less likely you are to finish. Second, a postgraduate who suspends from a candidature is less likely to submit a doctorate.

The key attribute of students who finish is that they are passionately connected to their thesis and remain engaged with their research and their supervisor. I have always deployed weekly meetings as the best pattern for supervision to nurture this connection.

There are reasons for this. Some postgraduates lack time-management skills and would prefer to be partying, facebooking or tweeting, rather than reading, thinking and writing.

If students know that written work is expected each week, and they have to sit in an office with a supervisor who is evaluating their work, that stress creates productive writing and research. So if a meeting is held on a Thursday, then on Tuesday a student panics and does some work.

Yet if meetings are fortnightly, this stress-based productivity is halved. It is better to provide a tight accountability structure for students. Weekly meetings accomplish this task. 

10. Invest your trust only in decent and reliable people who will repay it, not betray it

This truth may seem self-evident. But supervisors - like all academics - are people first.

If the prospective supervisor needs a personality replacement, lacks the life skills to manage a trip to the supermarket or requires electronic tagging so that he (or she) does not sleep with the spouses of colleagues, then make another choice.

Supervisors should be functional humans. They can be - and should be - quirky, imaginative and original. That non-standard thinking will assist your project. But if there is a whiff of social or sexual impropriety, or if there are challenges with personal hygiene, back away in a hurry.

At times during your candidature you will have to rely on this person. You will be sobbing in their office. You will need to lean on them. You must have the belief that they can help you through a crisis and not manipulate you during a moment of vulnerability.

I knew a supervisor whose idea of supervision was a once-a-semester meeting in a bar where he would order three bottles of red wine and start drinking. The meeting ended when the wine finished.

Another supervisor selected his postgraduates on the likelihood that the students would sleep with him.

Yet another was so completely fixated by her version of feminism that all the doctorates completed under her supervision ended up looking incredibly similar. Any deviation from a particular political perspective would result in screaming matches in her office. This was not only unpleasant but destructive to the students’ careers.

The key truth and guiding principle is evident

Do not select a supervisor who needs you more than you need him or her. Gather information. Arm yourself with these 10 truths. Ask questions. Make a choice with insight, rather than respond - with gratitude - to the offer of a place or supervision.


A-levels toughen up ‘to prepare students for university’ in the UK

English: Central courtyard of Lancaster University
Lancaster University (Photo: Wikipedia)
by Schools Improvement Net:

In one of two separate reports on A levels released yesterday, the Telegraph is reporting that teenagers will be required to study a 200-year period of British or world history and read eight works of literature in depth as part of a major toughening up of A-levels …

… The subject-by-subject review, which was chaired by Prof Mark E. Smith, vice-chancellor of Lancaster University, said that changes to course specifications were needed because many academics feared that students “lacked some of the general skills essential for undergraduate learning”.

“These included both specific academic skills such as researching, essay-writing and referencing, and the wider skills of problem solving, analysis and critical thinking,” it said. “In addition, interviewees noted that some of their students lacked the requisite levels of literacy skills and mathematics.”

The review - which has been put out to public consultation - reserves some of the biggest changes for history A-levels.

Under plans, students will be required to study topics from a chronological range of 200 years - rather than 100 at the moment - because of concerns that previous courses were “too narrow”.

The minimum amount of British history that students must study will be cut by a fifth - from 25 to 20 per cent - because of the large focus on Britain’s past at GCSE and the need to expand teenagers’ knowledge of “more than one country”.

It also includes a new “historial enquiry” project - an independent piece of research that “investigates specific historical questions, problems or issues”.

In English literature, A-levels will include fewer set texts - going from a minimum of 12 to eight - but each work will be studied in more depth. Pupils will be required to cover at least one 21st century work and three pre-1900 texts, including one Shakespeare play.

For the first time, exams will also feature one “unseen” text, meaning that students “will need to read widely, broadening their knowledge and their critical and comparative understanding of literature”.

In further changes, the review recommends:

• A greater focus on social, historical and regional varieties of English as part of new English language A-levels;

• Introducing a “non-literary” text, such as a piece of journalism, into the combined English literature and language A-level course;

• Introducing more advanced maths into subjects such as computing, economics, geography and the three sciences - biology, chemistry and physics;

• Reintroducing traditional fieldwork to geography A-levels to ensure pupils “relate their learning to real experiences of the world”;

• Placing a greater focus on drawing in art courses;

• Renaming business studies as “A-level business” and turning computing into “computer science”, with more focus on developing “computational thinking skills”.

New A-levels in the subjects will be introduced in September 2015, with first exams being sat in 2017. The review does not cover maths, further maths and foreign languages, which are seen as the subjects in need of the most significant overhaul …
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