Lessons Learned: from a New Scholar (But an Old Hand)
My name is Peter de KAM, and I’m a Doctoral student at Converse College in Spartanburg, SC. It’s a small school that emphasizes mentoring relationships between Professors and students.
What makes me unusual is that I’m a non-traditional student. I’m 64 and have retired from two careers. I retired from my first career as a Captain in the US Air Force. I also retired from a second career at IBM, where I built a consulting organization then led a Global sales organization. I have also tackled “small” projects like delivering computer science training on a subscription basis to 15,000 Junior and Senior High Schools in and around Calcutta, India.
So I’m a “been there and done that” kinda guy. But I’ve found the working environment in a Doctoral program to be absolutely unique because it’s a deeply personal experience. Along the way, I realized that there were a basic set of questions people need to ask themselves if they want to be successful. So with guidance from the OMT Communication and Social Media team, I’ve captured the things I wish I would have known before I started my PhD program.
This list is by no means exhaustive. It’s a starting point, organized by guiding questions. If you have additional questions you think students should be asking themselves (and the lessons you’ve learned), please feel free to reach out to me.
What are some sources for understanding the Dissertation writing process?
I struggled a bit with the first draft of my first three chapters, because I didn’t understand how all of the bits and bobs all fell together. What made it worse is that my school doled out information on a just-in-time basis because that’s not how I learn… I trusted the process until I ran out of patience and found used copies of The Dissertation Warrior and The Dissertation Journey. There are lots of good references out there. But these were the ones that worked for me.
I can also recommend the presentations contained here. While some of the presentations are more oriented towards publishing, they are also directly applicable to the Dissertation and Paper writing process. The presentation on literature reviews is especially good!
How can I efficiently and effectively find content?
We all know that Google Scholar is probably the most used tool when it comes to research. However, you don’t always get a link to a paper. If this is the case, then you can use the article DOI listed in Scholar with Sci-hub to find what you’re looking for. I’ve found this to be a relatively efficient path that works about nine out of every ten times.
You may also want to consider looking at Z Library for books and articles. It is a “grey” site at best - but - if you absolutely can’t find or afford to purchase a reference – you can normally find it here.
Enabling the research process: How do I organize and create meaning from the content I’ve found?
Keenious is a free tool that analyzes what you’re writing and suggests articles relevant to the context of the sentence / paragraph you are working on. I’ve found Keenious to be an invaluable add-on for Word and the writing process in general because it can provide those “golden nuggets” you can’t find anywhere else.
I can also recommend two applications to help you understand the underlying structure of concepts and references.
INN, or the Inter-Nomological Network is an integrated theory development application aimed to reduce redundancy in research in the behavioral sciences. INN uses natural language processing techniques to return search results that are semantically related to the user’s query. For an in-depth explanation, please view the introductory video on the homepage.
Connected Papers uses DOIs, or other identifiers, to build a force-directed graph visual of related papers. Each research paper is represented by a circle, with similar papers clustered together in space and connected by strong lines. Less similar papers are presented farther away in space, often clustered in their own groups. More frequently cited papers are represented as larger circles, and more recent papers are represented by a darker color. This is very useful for looking at the network of papers that come out after seminal pieces, construct/scale development papers, and other impactful papers in the literature to get going on literature reviews. Albeit not a cure-all for digging into the literature, it can be a helpful tool to stay on track and find the high-value pieces to streamline your time.
How do I manage bibliographic information and content?
There are quite a number of options here. I will cover three.
The first option is Zotero. It seems to be adopted by quite a number of people because it’s free. While it is exceptionally fast and intuitive, you’ll have to manage content outside of its framework. I’ve seen people keep track of chunks of content in spreadsheets, MS Teams, or Evernote. I’ve used the lit review function for several papers recently and found it to work well for tracking content once you have a coding scheme. The student price for two years was $55, which is a real steal.
If your library has a subscription to Web of Science (WoS) I recommend you consider the latest release of EndNote (EndNote2020) to keep track of bibliographic sources because of how it is integrated into WoS.
If you want an integrated ecosystem of tools - check out Citavi. It’s been my 2nd brain because I can keep track of the content I’m generating. They have a ton of videos to get up to speed on the functionality it offers. While the company is based in Switzerland, they are VERY customer-focused and can serve anyone around the world.
How can I make sense out of all of the content I’ve amassed?
This is where the wheat gets separated from the chaff!! There are as many different ways to do this as there are researchers.
One possible way to look at making research, whether quantitative or qualitative, more efficient is with Catscanner. The service uses keyword dictionaries and computer-aided text analysis to quickly prioritize the 50+ .pdfs sitting around waiting around for you to read. It seems like a solid approach but needs to be piloted to determine its efficacy.
Another tool you can use is MAXQDA -- The two-year student version is $55 and another real steal. I found that MAXQDA can help in the daily grind of writing papers if you look at the task of writing as an offshoot of a qualitative research process. It’s worked for me. I manage quoted material as well as my own comments in a slick interface.
How do I write a research question(s)?
Once I figured out my research question(s), everything else fell into place. But the trick, of course, is figuring them out in the first place, then refining as you learn more and more about your topic and become more invested in it. Here are two key references that helped me build a logical framework for analysis.
The first reference is “Constructing research questions: Doing interesting research” by Mats Alvesson. And the second is ”A Guide to Argumentative Research Writing and Thinking: Overcoming Challenges” by Arnold Wentzel. You can find them on Amazon as well as eBay.
How do I choose an appropriate methodology to answer my research questions?
I’ll go out on a limb here and say that your research questions drIve the methodology you will use. I will also tell you about a little-known secret. CARMA (Consortium for the Advancement of Research Methods and Analysis) has an incredible array of streaming and live web lectures.
More specifically, CARMA has teamed with the Academy of Management to create a Doctoral Student Development Program and it has some of the best content you could wish for. Their Video Library currently contains over 180 recorded lectures from internationally recognized scholars on a variety of research methods (both qualitative and quantitative).
How do I prepare for comprehensive exams?
Here’s another topic, like generating research questions, that’s too big to cover here. But because I had an efficient method for keeping track of content and associated hashtags, I was quickly able to write solid answers and walked away with an outstanding rating. No muss, no fuss, just preparation.
For the uninitiated, I’m going to oversimplify my comments here because it’s important to understand the role of the IRB (Institutional Review Board).
We, you, are training to become researchers - not just report writers. The IRB is your school’s quality-review process to ensure we (as trainees) don’t do anything that might reflect poorly on the school. You will be asked to present the details of what you are going to do to collect your research data. I’m not talking about big picture stuff. My IRB wanted to see EXACTLY what I was going to do and how they were going to answer my research questions. The feedback you get may seem a little abrupt. However, the people reviewing your document have, in most cases, decades of experience. The people on the IRB want you to be successful so stop worrying, start listening and make the changes they want to see. Think like a researcher!!
What’s the best app to schedule people for interviews?
One commonly used (and free!) application is YouCanBookMe. Their free versions has 99.99% of the functionality you should ever need.
I know there are more questions people should be asking themselves. This is a living document. So, if you have constructive inputs that will contribute to the overall success of Doctoral students, drop me a quick note, and I’ll look into setting up a site to curate and post your updates.