An exercise in academic writing

Andrew Bolster

Senior R&D Manager (Data Science) at Synopsys Software Integrity Group and Treasurer @ Bsides Belfast and NI OpenGovernment Network

Hold on, what?

I attended a Postgraduate Training event over the weekend, ‘Starting to Write in the First year of your PhD’, presented by the brilliantly wise and entertaining Daniel Soule.

What I expected:

How to start writing your thesis in the first year of your PhD

What I got:

Start writing in the first year of your PhD, for your own sanity and academic security

Now, depending on your academic background, these may sound exactly the same. They’re not. This post summarises the ‘best bits’ of the very very good course.

I was completely wrong to try to be lazy later

Over the course of the four hours, I came to realise that for all of my ‘I’m going to write my literature review now so I don’t have to do it later’ was complete and utter bollocks. But, if I can quote from the documentation of the course…

With a large and long project, it is important […] to monitor progress

Translation; don’t write for the future, write for now, and write for future-you’s sanity.

Daniel included some prompts that I’m going to show here.

But first, just buy How to write a Thesis by Rowena Murray. It’s fantastic and completly worth whatever you end up paying for it.

Summarising Current Research Status

This is for your own benefit but can be used as the basis of a review document to your supervisors/etc. Two/Three sentences each, starting with…

  • My project is about…

  • The stage I am at now is…

  • The next step is…

  • What I am interested in is…

  • The original contribution of my work is…

  • In the last month I have moved my project on by…

  • I need to find out more about…

(Adapted from Murray(2006) How to write a Thesis p.74)

Critical Reading Form

This is a format that forces you to be much more critical about the work you’re reviewing, especially when you work to the recommended time constraint of 15-20 mins per paper/article. (I have started to use Pomodoro to keep me in check).

The aim is to get in, and out of a paper as quickly as possible, while dragging back enough information for you to make the critical decision of whether the paper is worth going back to later.

If you get at far as the abstract and are already losing interest, it’s possibly not worth it.

Again, one or two sentences each

  • Bibliographic information: Authors,title, date, source publication, source location, and where you got your current copy

  • What is this work about?

  • What are the main findings of this work?

  • What gap in our understanding does this work fill

  • What research tradition/approach/method is used?

  • How is this work connected to the wider research field? (Be specific to cited papers/authors)

  • How is this work relevant to your assignment?

  • What are the limitations of this work? (again, be specific)

  • Useful Quotation/Algorithm/finding (if relevant/mindblowing)

  • GRADE: One of

  • 1: Very useful, return for more detailed analysis

  • 2: Useful and of general importance

  • 3: Relevant but minor

  • 4: Irrelevant

Critical Summary of Literature

Same as above, but looking at your entire body of reading over a period

Haven’t done this yet, but will be for Differentiation.

  • Who are the most important researchers to the topic and in what ways are they relevant to your research?

  • What methodologies/approaches/theories are involved in your research and from where are they drawn in the literature?

  • Why are these methodologies/approaches/theories important to your research, i.e. why are you using them , what do they enable you to do and why is that important?

  • What are the limitations of these methodologies/approaches/theories (i.e. who has critiscised them and to what extent are those criticisms valid)?

  • What are the most importat current questions or problems in your specific area of interest? (If these questions have been explicitly posed in the literature, who posed them? If the questions are implicit in the literature, where and how did you deduce them?)

  • What is the original contribution of your work? (i.e. where is the gap in the literature , the problems or questions raised previously either explicitly, and how will your work fill that gap?)

So I was wrong, what now?

I’m going to be spamming this blog with my CRF’s (where possible), but will switch off network notifications. Hopefully my views are useful to someone!

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