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The deadline for submitting your dissertation is almost upon us, and many of you have already completed and submitted your work. Well done. However, there are inevitably always a few students in these last few days desperately trying to salvage something from the wreckage or, to put a more positive slant on things, trying to make sure they have perfected their opus before finally handing it in. If you are in that position, here are a few last-minute tips for you.

  • It’s probably too late now to redesign your project, develop a new sampling strategy or deploy a new analytical method, so don’t worry about anything at that scale. Relax. It’s too late. Instead, focus on quick fixes and last-minute checks (I’ll suggest 3 quick fixes below). Obviously do a careful proof-read, make sure you have followed all the House Style rules, and check the regulations about exactly how to submit the assignment. Check that your Conclusions map onto your Aims. Check that your Discussion maps onto your Literature Review. Check that your pages are bound in the right order. If you think it has all gone horribly wrong, look at Chapter 10 “Help! It’s all gone horribly wrong. What can I do?” in Parsons & Knight (2015) “How to do your Dissertation…”.
  • Quick-fix no.1: The Abstract. The abstract is one of the most important bits of your dissertation, one of the bits that most students mess up and one that can very quickly be fixed to make a good strong starting point at the front of your dissertation. The examiners typically look at the abstract several times, and it is often the first thing, and then the last thing, they will check at they assign your mark. Even if your dissertation is riddled with flaws, a strong abstract can still put the examiner in a positive frame of mind. The abstract needs to be simple and to-the-point, providing in one sentence each: your aim, your reason for doing it, your method, your observations and your conclusion. There is a model abstract in Parsons & Knight (2015) (it’s box 9.7 and page 136) that you can use as a checklist to make sure your abstract covers everything it should, or that you can use as a template if your own abstract is totally shot to pieces.
  • Quick-fix no.2: The Conclusion. Like the abstract, the conclusion is something that the examiner will dwell on, and is a point where you can convince the examiner of your outstanding excellence even if the rest of the project has holes the size of Arizona in it. Keep the conclusion brief: don’t use it to whine about how you didn’t have enough data or used the wrong equation. You can put all your whining and grizzling in the discussion. In the conclusion, focus on the positive. Include just clear, direct statements of what you have found out. You can even turn your failings into positives: “this project demonstrates clearly that method X, which was employed here, is not the correct method for future research to employ”. (If you play that gambit, make sure you also change your overall aim to include something about “testing method X”!) Use a numbered list or some bullet points. Tell the examiners that you did something, just in case they hadn’t noticed. This is your last chance to impress them.
  • Quick-fix number 3: The Reference List. Your examiners are not so naïve and foolish that they will be blinded to your intellectual inadequacies by a long shiny reference list. However, examiners are easily impressed by a long shiny reference list, and if there is nothing else for them to cling on to, being able to give you some credit for the quality of your sources will perhaps enable them to find you a few extra marks. At this late stage you don’t have time to rewrite your literature review or spend another three weeks in the library, but a couple of hours on Google Scholar or your preferred academic search engine can do wonders. Here’s the quick trick. Insert sentences into your literature review or methods section along the lines of: “many other researchers have employed similar approaches including Adams (2012), Baker, (2014) and Clarke (2016)” or “Similar work has been carried out in New Zealand (Adams, 2012), Bali (Baker, 2014) and Jamaica (Clarke, 2016). Even if you don’t now have time to get to grips with these papers that you have just scraped up from Google, or build them convincingly into your story, you can at least list some papers and then, of course, you can add them into your meagre reference list making it less of a liability to your prospects.

There are a lot of other quick-fix tips for last-minute checks and repairs on dissertations, but at this stage you don’t have time! The three above should at least give you something, whether it’s a hike up from appalling failure into the realms of a bare pass or, I hope, a lift from an already excellent project into one that your examiners will find to be outstanding. For more advice, of course, I will refer you to Parsons and Knight (2015) and Knight & Parsons (2003).

Good luck.

 

References:

Parsons, T. and Knight, P.G. (2015) HOW TO DO YOUR DISSERTATION IN GEOGRAPHY AND RELATED DISCIPLINES (3rd Edition)  (Routledge, London)

Knight, P.G. and Parsons, A.J. (2003)  HOW TO DO YOUR ESSAYS, EXAMS AND COURSEWORK IN GEOGRAPHY AND RELATED DISCIPLINES  (Routledge, London)

 

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NB: This post is published both here and (in due course) on Keele University’s Learning and Professional Development Centre “Solutions” blog: http://lpdcsolutions.blogspot.co.uk/ 

It seems appropriate that my first blog entry for Solutions, which I intended to submit for the start of the academic year and which was supposed to be about teaching time management to newly arrived students, should have been delayed by two months because I have been overwhelmed by – amongst other things – teaching time management to newly arrived students.

Most academics think about the start of October in the way that other people think about the start of January: a new year, big hopes, good resolutions, a fresh start. The new academic year brings with it a fresh crop of the bright young intellects that, changing every year, help to keep our own ideas fresh and constantly renewed. It is an exciting, promising time. I have had nearly forty new years now as a university lecturer or student: enough academic fresh starts to fill two of the lifetimes of my average undergraduate. I’ve done this before, and for me it is not scary. But for you, dear student, this is the first time. We see this academic induction, this welcome week, this fresh start, from very different perspectives. And I need to remember that.

We can try to serve as good examples to our students, but we don’t always have to be models of perfection. The fact that I have time-management problems of my own does not undermine my position in teaching time-management skills to students. It strengthens it. I am teaching from the front line of right now, not from long-remembered experiences of “when I was in your position”. I can face a problem on Monday, figure out a workaround on Tuesday, and teach it to my tutorial group on Wednesday. In my mid fifties I can’t pretend to put myself in my new students’ teenage shoes or claim to be facing the same struggles that they are facing as they settle into University. But I can share with them my equivalent struggles, and show them that fighting battles, finding coping strategies, and dealing with everyday academic problems are normal things that we are all learning to do. If a student sees that I am still learning, and still struggling, perhaps the student will feel less inadequate about their own struggles and their own early setbacks. It’s OK to find University difficult. These challenges are supposed to be here.

And here, for me, is the challenge of induction week. We want to be positive, supportive, and encouraging, but we also have to be honest, realistic and pragmatic. We want to say well done for scoring those A-level grades, but we also have to point out that much of what was covered at A-level was fundamentally flawed. Many of my students begin their degrees hoping for clear answers and reliable certainties. I have to tell them that there are no clear answers and that study at University will introduce them to a whole new set of uncertainties. Welcome on board, but hold on tight.

One of my Welcome-week activities that seems to help students feel at home is the start-of-course diagnostic assessment. Students seem accustomed  to having lots of tests and quizzes at school, so having a 15-minute short-answer test included alongside the many unfamiliar experiences of induction week seems to steady the ship for some of them. I tell them that the idea of the test is to help me work out the correct level to pitch material in the early sections of the course, and that it will also give them a broad indication of how far their pre-University work has prepared them for this new stage in their academic journey. They do the test, I let them mark their own or their neighbour’s paper straight away while I talk them through the answers, and as I take in their marked papers I give them a handout with all the questions and all the correct answers on it for them to take away. A couple of days later I see the students again, and tell them that in fact the first test was just a rehearsal, and the real diagnostic assessment is today. I tell them to put away any notes or devices, and I hand out the new, real diagnostic assessment. It is, to their surprise, identical to the one they did before. And here I deliver the first big lesson of the week. I was never interested in whether they knew the answers to the questions on the test. It doesn’t matter: they are only at the start of their learning journey. What I am interested in, and what I want to bring into the students’ line of sight, is what they did when they were presented with a body of information – answers – to take away. Usually, none of the students, or certainly very few, have done anything with the handout from the first test or followed up topics that they were unsure about. The marks for the second test are usually no better than the marks for the first.  And here is the teachable moment: the students can see that they totally blew their opportunity to do well on the second test by not following up the feedback on the first test; and they see that what I care about is not their factual knowledge but their approach to learning and their engagement with course materials. If there is a “mark” for the diagnostic assessment, it is the difference in scores between test one and test two. Most important of all is what you chose to do after test one. Or perhaps it is what you will do after test two. Welcome to the programme. Welcome to university.

Generally, this two-stage diagnostic assessment works well, but one potential downside is that I am in a small way tricking or misleading the students, and I don’t like to mess with their trust too much early on. It is important that the students see the key lesson from that exercise (why I had to trick them with that first test), and it is important to (re)establish trust quickly through other activities. One small way that I try to do that is by joining in with the students on further in-class exercises that they do. If I ask a tutorial group to take 60 seconds out and try to write a one-sentence answer to a sample question, I take that same 60 seconds and try to come up with a sentence of my own. Not one that I prepared earlier, but one made in the same time that the students are making theirs. I can then be much more believable if I agree (or disagree) with their argument that 60 seconds was not long enough, and they can even sympathise with me a little if, when I read out my own attempt, there is some comical error in it. If the students can then suggest improvements to my attempt, just as I suggest improvements to theirs, then we are (as a happy by product) well on the way towards addressing issues that surround the new NSS question about whether students feel part of a learning community. Of course they do – they are teaching me at the same time that I am trying to teach them. We are all in this together, even if we are looking at it from different perspectives of experience. And that is one of the most important lessons to incorporate into induction week. Even if it means that the time management exercise has to wait until next time!

We moan a lot when things are done badly, so let’s remember to say “thanks, well done” when things are done well. I have two instances where I would just like to say a little thank you and recognise good service: one from the AA and one from the NHS.

People criticise the NHS (National Health Service, for my non-UK readers), and my little example might seem trivial, but how about this for good service. I was moaning about some random ache or pain, so at 8.30 am my wife phoned our GP’s surgery to see when there might be an appointment for me. The receptionist offered me an immediate appointment and I saw the doctor at 9.15. The doctor thought that since I hadn’t been in for a while, and I am not as young as I used to be, perhaps I should have a bit of an MOT so he put me into the system for a blood test and an x-ray, both of which could be done at my convenience without appointment at the local hospital under the NHS. He printed out the paperwork for me to take away with me,  and I thought that since I was free I might as well go for the x-ray right away. No queue at the clinic, got in without a wait, and by 10am  the x-ray was done. Couldn’t do the blood test because they had to do it when I hadn’t eaten, so we saved that for the next day. Pitched up at the hospital bright and early and the blood tests were all done by 8.30am. So, within the space of 24 hours, we phoned the surgery, had an appointment, went for an x-ray and got a full set of blood tests.  That’s good service, NHS. Well done.

Since the first example was about the doctor giving me an MOT, it seems appropriate that my second example is to do with the car. It’s an old SEAT Ibiza, getting to the age where a few little things are starting to go downhill. Rather like myself. So, anyway, a warning light comes on. I look in the handbook and it says “check with your dealer, this could be serious”. I ring the dealer and they say I can drive it in, but they will charge me £80 just to do a diagnostic test, regardless of whether they find anything to fix! Also, they said, they can’t guarantee that it will be safe to drive it in with that warning light on. Not much help, and a rip off. So I ring the AA (Automobile Association) for advice. “Don’t worry” they say, “we’ll come out and have a look”. The come, they look, they fix it. Turns out that the warning light was just saying that one of the brake lights was faulty. The AA man fixed the brake lights, reset the warning light, and didn’t even charge me for the new bulb. Compare that with the dealer who didn’t mention that it could simply be a faulty bulb and who was going to charge me £80 just to take a look. Yes, I pay an annual membership for the AA, but instances like this make it seem very worthwhile. Well done to the AA: great service. To the dealer: you just lost yourself a potential future customer.

Credit where it is due, and voting with your feet when service is poor. That’s my message for today!

I have spent a lot of my career for the last 30 years or giving advice to young academics, and hearing their advice for me. Early on in that period I was young myself and was fortunate to have fantastic mentors and advisors throughout my early career. Thank you to all of you both for the advice you have given me and for allowing me to think through and reflect on my own ideas about so many of the issues that young academics – and not-so-young academics – face in their careers. In the last few years I’ve put random bits of advice onto social media here and there, and onto my own web page, and looking back at those I realise that my “advice to young academics” posts have have generated the most interest and stimulated the most conversation. Therefore I have decided to try and be a bit more organised about posting up that kind of material. From now on I will try to include tips for young academics more often into my Twitter feed @petergknight http://www.twitter.com/petergknight and I will try to develop that theme here too, with an “advice for a young academic” tag, or theme, or category here on my wordpress blog. A tag? A category? A book? Who knows… give me a break – I’m not that well organised: I’m an academic. My first bit of advice for a young academic is always to be aware that you are going to get a lot of advice from a lot of people, and most of it will be useless to you. Taking advice wisely is an important skill to cultivate as many senior academics have not cultivated the skill of giving it wisely.

A great deal has been written in the last few years about so-called “imposter syndrome” – the feeling experienced by many young academics that somehow they don’t really belong in their new role as a lecturer and that somehow they should never have been allowed to make the step up from being a student. The fear is that you are not good enough, that you don’t deserve this, that you won’t cope and that you will in due course be found out and exposed. There are books about it. There’s a TED Talk about it. Seeing what has already been written makes me feel like an imposter even thinking about writing this post.

If you are in that situation I have two pieces of advice to get you started:

  1. Get used to it. We all feel that way. Welcome to academia.
  2. Don’t worry. You are not an imposter. You are as good as it gets.

If you have got the job and you are now a young lecturer, well, you’re it. There is no imaginary, model super-lecturer to whom you are not matching up. Don’t imagine that you are God’s gift to academia, but equally don’t beat yourself up about being an imposter. Be realistic. Be honest. Just get on with doing what you can do and with steadily trying to develop your academic craft.

To some extent newcomers in any profession feel a little bit the same way that you do, but most professions don’t make such a big deal of it as we do. Partly this is because the very nature of academia is such that you have just been thrown into a big pool of competitive and arrogant individuals who are trying to convince the world that they are brilliant and who are trying to climb their greasy pole by seeming more brilliant than their “colleagues”. Sometimes even senior academics ease their own self-doubt by making sure they look better than their junior colleagues.  Partly imposter syndrome is worse for us because in academia the new recruits don’t just come in off the street, they convert directly from the ranks: from “the other side of the lectern”. Suddenly you go almost overnight from being a student to being a teacher. Of course you won’t feel confident right away. Of course there will be lots of things for you to learn. Of course lots of things will go wrong and make you feel inadequate. Don’t worry, this is what academic life is like. And it will always be like this, for your whole career, because you will always be able to find colleagues who are, indeed, genuinely brilliant. We can all have our heroes and heroines, but we don’t have to feel inadequate because we are not them.

You are not an imposter; you are just discovering the self doubt that is part of the territory of academic life. If you stare it in the face and turn it to your advantage it will not feel like a problem. If you are an imposter then we all are, which means that you are no less worthy than anyone else to get on with it and do your best.

So here is a longer list of tips for young academics suffering from imposter syndrome:

  1. Get used to it: it comes with the territory. Most good academics get this feeling.
  2. Turn it into a positive: use it to encourage reflection and development.
  3. Realise that you are actually not an imposter: you have strength and merit.
  4. Make a list of all your qualifications and strengths: recognise your virtues.
  5. Talk to senior academics and discover that they feel the same way.
  6. Talk to other young academics and discover you are all in the same boat.
  7. Helping others with their worry about this will help you with yours. Hold a workshop.
  8. You do not have to know everything, and it’s OK to say so when you don’t.
  9. It’s OK to learn on the job and to be on a learning curve.
  10. Keep asking for help and advice, keep learning, keep developing your craft.
  11. Never use “being an imposter” as an excuse for not being your best.
  12. Throughout your career a lot of people have looked at your CV and your achievements and have moved you up the ladder. Even if you have an unconventional background, or even if you are still learning the ropes, and even though – like all of us – you have a lot to learn, that does not make you an imposter. It just makes you one of us. Welcome to academia.

Partly because imposter syndrome has been openly identified and so widely discussed, more and more young academics are saying that they feel this way. In reality, there seem to be two completely separate levels of imposter syndrome. At one level, and by far the most common, I see young academics coming to terms with a challenging new career and attaching this label to their own poorly-defined portfolio of unease. At another level, and much less common, are those people for whom academic imposter syndrome is part of a broader problem of panic and anxiety issues. For this latter group, of course, I really would be an imposter if I tried to offer advice other than “seek professional advice”.

For the former group, those young academics who have picked up the idea of imposter syndrome as a neat way of defining their early-career status, I worry that in dignifying the notion with a fancy name they will allow it define them. For you I have one final piece of advice. If you have picked up the idea of imposter syndrome when in reality you are just a young academic getting started in a challenging career, just put it down again, and let it go. You are not an imposter. Don’t get a syndrome.

Bucket Lists

I’ve encountered all sorts of people lately who have made themselves a bucket list. Some of them think their time is running short and so they have made a list of things to do in the time that is left. Others are just organising their goals and plans and trying to make sure that life doesn’t pass them by while they are waiting for it to arrive.

But whatever the motivation, most of the lists I see are all very much the same. They are filled with big adventures and extravagant journeys. See sunrise at Machu Picchu. Sky dive from a balloon. Eat this extraordinary food. Swim with that extraordinary fish. Some are philanthropic, raising money for good causes. Some are the culmination of a lifelong personal dream. Some are made up on the spur of the moment when faced with the challenge of making a list. But the list is nearly always a list of things the person wants to do before they go. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a bucket list of things that a person wants to become before they go. I’ve seen lists of things that people want to achieve, or acquire, but never a list of things that we want to let go. I’ve seen lists of grand, magnificent, daunting things, but never a list of small things.

Is that how we see the measure of ourselves – in the big things that we have done? In the places we have been? In our adventures? Yes. Perhaps we do. But in the end, will we say “look – here is what I have done”? Or will we say: “look – here is what I have become”?

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1. There are no rules of writing.

2. If you want there to be rules for writing, that’s ok. You can make some up.

3. If you follow rule 2, you must delete rule 1.

4. If you delete rule 1, you’re on your own.

 

 

 


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