Paper or Not?

Paper or Not?

We occupy the most rapidly evolving age of human kind to date, technology has started to become obsolete or outdated faster than my wardrobe. Big-shots in the technological field predict a fast approaching singularity  of technological advancement; expect that to happen when computers start to design computers for designing better computers. During the interim though, we’ve got what we’ve got in the present, and it’s expensive, so what’s worth your hard earned money? (more…)

Conferences & Conferences…


Photo by a tiny conference organizer (Paolo Saporito)

Photo by a tiny conference organizer (Paolo Saporito)

In any language of this world, Graduate Life’s translation could easily be “Conferences”. Conferences here, conferences there, doesn’t matter who you fero cum or you want to confer (for those of you who understand Latin)…this is a word whose echo stressed, stresses and will stress most of our readers. Then, if you are one of those who have ever wondered “confer…hence?”, you may want to have a look at this post, where I’m going to share with you the amazing experience of being not a speaker, not a presenter, not a panel spectator who struggles to get more free-food than the others, but a conference organizer, the most grey, banal, yet amazing figure in this world of weird translations.


Read it and Weep


H McPherson

H McPherson

The urban dictionary uses the expression “Read it and Weep” in the context of giving someone bad news, especially if that news is in written form. However, I am using the expression in a purely literary sense.  Although I am perhaps more than two years away from even beginning to write my PhD dissertation, I have been reading award winning alternative dissertations.  What I have read are things of beauty. Articulate, exquisitely crafted, rich with colorful imagery, depth and control of relevant theories. Some extend the boundaries of the genre moving between theory, fiction, autobiography, stream of consciousness fragments, poetry, epistolary forms, and bricolage. Some are hybrids that blend autobiography, ethnography, visual, and performative arts. Once upon a time, I did a MSc in plant breeding and genetics.  Quantitative all the way.  Hard science, pure science. Clean, precise. Predictable. Then my head went BAM and that is now all over. The end of my engagement with quantitative methodology. There is something about the depth and richness of context, of the ability to capture what people have to say in their own words, to describe experiences with emotion and depth. Qualitative methods, language – every word carefully chosen.  Every sentence slowly crafted.  A slow crescendo of language and theory building to a denouement, the outcome of a well-crafted story, where secrets are revealed, leaving no loose ends. There is no going back. I have found a new home.


Urban Dictionary, November 24: Folx. (n.d.). Retrieved Novmber 27, 2016, from

Our experience of a writing group as a PhD student: Growing in our identity and struggling with isolation

In our PhD Education Colloquium on October 17, Sara Doody, Sarah Marshall, Maggie McDonnell, and Erin Reid presented the following to our class. I was so inspired that I asked if I could incorporate their presentation into the GradLife blog, to bring it to a larger audience. I hope you are as inspired reading this as I was during their presentation.

Sara, Maggie, Erin and Sarah

Sara, Maggie, Erin and Sarah

We’re in our second year together as doctoral students, and we’re spending a lot of time reflecting on our development as doctoral students, researchers, and writers. We have been meeting as a writing group for about a year now, and plan to continue together at least as long as the PhD journey keeps us writing, if not beyond. We’ve all contributed to this text, so it is heteroglossic, although it’s worth noting that we have all nodded vigorously along as we each discussed our personal experience, as we planned the text.
Social Isolation (Sarah M) – next year we will have finished all our course work, so we will have no reason to actually see and be with anyone else in our DISE cohort. Here’s a nice quote from The Guardian Higher Education blog:
All PhDs are solitary affairs. When you carry out doctoral research you are, by definition, the only person working on the precise topic of your thesis. There will be others whose research is closely related to yours, but nobody else is doing quite what you are doing. In this sense, all PhDs are solitary affairs. (July 2014)
All of us are writing in isolation it would seem, but to use a metaphor, I see it as we’re like bees in a beehive. Each worker bee has their own hexagonal cell to look after, but in a beehive each bee, while working on their own cell, is also a part of the whole hive, as it is with us PhD students: we are a part of a bigger group. By participating in the writing group we are able to break the illusion of being alone – we are not alone. Not only are we writing with others in academe, but with our classmates we are at approximately the same phase of the process. Sure some are a bit ahead (preparing CPs) and others are not there yet (working towards preparing CPP), but we are all PhD3 in DISE.
One could argue that the construction of the author as an isolated producer of texts is only sensible if one takes a very limited, object centred, view of writing practice. The understanding of writing as process, as communication, and as therapy, cannot be supported by the concept of the isolated writer (Pheby 2010).
Society uses a convention that often shows writers, alone in their office or den, slaving away over an unfinished manuscript until – ta-da – it is finished; completely perfect and whole like the Virgin Birth. In my experience it couldn’t be further from the truth – writing is as collaborative as it is generative.
Renegotiating Identity (Erin) – Being a writing group member has allowed me to renegotiate my relationship to not only to writing, but also to my identity as a writer. Throughout my education, I was encouraged, largely implicitly, to view writing as a solitary activity…something that was best done in isolation, with the focus entirely on the finished product. Although writing was something to which I always felt drawn, it was often a site of intense personal stress for me. I struggled to see myself as a legitimate writer/scholar…I was constantly wracked with what I eventually named my CSD (crippling self-doubt). This struggle intensified dramatically when I found myself in graduate school as an MA student in Religious Studies where the long-standing meme of the solitary, struggling, silent and hopefully brilliant writer was in full force. Though the graduate students may have enjoyed some camaraderie in sharing an office and at times writing in the same space, work was never shared, only our anxiety. There seemed to me to be a direct correlation between the most stressed out student and the most brilliant – writing the bulk of my MA in 3 horrible weeks was a badge of honour for me as it was proof that the frustrated, procrastinating, blocked-yet-brilliant artist model was alive and well. But that process was so painful that it literally led to me being unable to move my head due to compressed vertebrae in my cervical spine. It took me at least a year to heal from writing my MA.
It shouldn’t be too difficult to understand why developing a new, healthier relationship to writing was one of the main reasons I decided to return to academia. I needed to find a better way to write, and a way to allow myself to identify as a writer; in short, I needed desperately to develop “new habits of the mind” (Spigelman, 1999). Writing groups have been transformational for me as the process of working with, responding to, and eventually collaborating with my peers has allowed me to identify myself increasingly as a practitioner, rather than simply a learner. As we began to share our work, we developed our skills in critical reading, editing, and giving feedback, which in turn have led to a growing sense of confidence in academic selves, something that Kamler and Thomson (2007) have referred to as ‘discursive social practice.’ Finally, writing groups allow us to identify ourselves as a member of a writing group facilitates our identifying ourselves of a larger peer community (Maher, 2008).
Assumptions – What’s Out There? (Sara D) I have always found writing groups incredibly rewarding. I’ve spent a lot of time in them, and have experienced the “Shut Up and Write”, the peer review, and the roundtable (where you read a paper at home and come prepared to give feedback). You could say that I am a serial “Writing Groopie”.
There is a common assumption of writers as isolated. Writing is often pushed into the margins and talked about as something you do “after” all of the hard work has been done. It is something you share only after it has been “perfected”, so it can be scary just talking about writing. The dominant assumption of writing seems to be that we have to work alone to craft the perfect text before we even think about sharing with others.
Writing groups are really useful vehicles for subverting these popular assumptions about writing. Scholars exploring doctoral writing groups assume that writing is a social practice. Whenever we write, we write to someone, and writing groups make this sociality visible. This is especially true of writing in academe, where we are trying to figure out how to write to a larger community of scholars and peers. As Anthony Paré (2014) writes, writing groups provide a space for us to learn how to participate in these conversations. Writing groups provide us with opportunities to explore how to give feedback and experiment with thinking and arguing like a scholar. He also believes “opening one’s mouth to speak in the doctorate…[is] fraught with danger” (p. 25). What we write and how we write it affects the ways in which we are viewed by our communities. While we learn how to speak from supervisors, writing groups provide a safer environment to test out ideas, ways of talking, and ways of writing (Guerin, 2014; Paré, 2014; Starke-Meyerring, 2014).
Reflexive Strategies (Maggie) We want to wrap things up with some ideas for how to get the most out of a writing group, based partly on what we’ve experienced, and partly on the ideas of those who have come before us.
Our group meets once a week – many groups meet less frequently, but we’re using the weekly appointment as a way of keeping ourselves connected to the habit of public writing. Typically, we use the Pomodoro method, so in our two-hour session, we write in 25-minute sessions, taking a short break to chat, or share bits of our writing. More recently, especially as we worked on grant applications and candidacy papers, we decided to dedicate one session each month to a share-and-respond session, wherein we exchange computers and comment in writing on each other’s work. We discuss our comments before we end the session, but we each leave with at least two other people’s feedback recorded in our text, for reflection and reference.
Of course, there are many different writing group formats, and as you might expect, there are a ton of resources for writing groups online, which if nothing else speaks to their effectiveness. Most academic writing groups recommend a few basic tips, which we’ve included below, along with some links to other writing group resources.
One of the tips is to find a common goal. Although we’re all researching different things – Sarah M. is looking at teacher education in physical therapy, Sara D. is writing about doctoral writing, Erin is exploring how religious education can be beneficial in adult language learning, and Maggie is looking at development of teacher identity in higher education – we’ve been writing together for almost a year now. About a month ago, Sara D. had a brilliant idea – we should present on writing groups as part of the colloquium! And then she added the most enticing part: if that works out, we should write a paper.
So now, as well as meeting regularly to work on our own writing, we’re starting to gather our collective thoughts and experiences, in order to write about our group and its impact on our personal doctoral journeys. When Sara began looking into writing groups, she found a great deal written from the perspective of those who encourage us to form groups, but only one written from the perspective of an actual group member (Maher, Seaton, McMullen, Fitzgerald, Otsuji, & Lee, 2008). So we thought that we should write and share, so others can benefit from this strategy. Since we still have some time before we get to the end of this particular journey, we’re not rushing to write this paper, but we’re gathering thoughts and reflections in preparation.
One of the methodologies we’ve begun using, then, is a form of reflexive memo. At the beginning of each session, we take five minutes to write about what we’re hoping to work on, our personal goals, and our feeling about the session. Then at the end of the session, we take another five to ten minutes to reflect back on the session. Over time, we will collect these, and collectively reflect on the reflections, so we can see how the group is working for us collectively and individually.
You can also use memoing with a writing group as another way of recording reactions to and reflection on each other’s work (Qualley & Chiseri-Strater, 1994), not to mention record and reflect on your own progress. Whether you use memos specifically or not, finding a way to engage in collective reflexivity can help improve your writing and your morale (Barry et al, 1999).

References and Resources:

Barry, C. A., Britten, N., Barber, N., Bradley, C., & Stevenson, F. (1999). Using Reflexivity to Optimize Teamwork in Qualitative Research. Qualitative Health Research, 9(1), 26-44.
Golde, C. M. (n.d.). Tips for Successful Writing Groups. Retrieved October 11, 2016, from
Guerin, C. (2014). The gift of writing groups: Critique, community and confidence. In C. Aitchison, & C. Guerin (Eds.), Writing groups for doctoral education and beyond (pp. 128-141). New York, NY: Routledge.
Haas, S. (2014). Pick-n-mix. A typology of writers’ groups in use. In C. Aitchison, & C. Guerin (Eds.), Writing groups for doctoral education and beyond (pp. 30-47). New York, NY: Routledge.
Kamler, B., and P. Thomson. 2007. The failure of dissertation advice books: Towards alternative pedagogies for doctoral writing, Paper presented at annual meeting of AERA, Chicago, April.
Lee, S., & Golde, C. M. (n.d.). Starting an Effective Writing Group. Retrieved October 11, 2016, from
Maher, D., Seaton, L., McMullen, C., Fitzgerald, T., Otsuji, E., & Lee, A. (2008). ‘Becoming and being writers’: The experiences of doctoral students in writing groups. Studies in Continuing Education, 30(3), 263-275.
Paré, A. (2014). Writing together for many reasons: Theoretical and historical perspectives. In C. Aitchison, & C. Guerin (Eds.), Writing groups for doctoral education and beyond (pp. 18-29). New York, NY: Routledge.
Pheby, A. (2010). The myth of isolation: Its effect on literary culture and creative writing as a discipline. Creative Writing: Teaching Theory & Practice, 2(1), 51-58.
Qualley, D. J., & Chiseri-Strater, E. (1994, Winter). Collaboration as Reflexive Dialogue: A Knowing “Deeper Than Reason” Journal of Advanced Composition, 14(1), 111-130.
Spigelman, C. 1999. Habits of mind: Historical configurations of textual ownership in peer writing groups. College Composition and Communication 49, no. 2: 23455
Starke-Meyerring, D. (2014). Writing groups as critical spaces for engaging normalized institutional cultures of writing in doctoral education. In C. Aitchison, & C. Guerin (Eds.), Writing groups for doctoral education and beyond (pp. 65-81). New York, NY: Routledge.
Studying for a humanities PhD can make you feel cut off from humanity. (2014). Retrieved October 19, 2016, from

Publish or Perish


Eight months ago I submitted my first journal article for publication. I was given lots of invaluable advice from other students and especially from my advisor. Things such as have friends/colleagues give feedback, read articles published by the journal to determine structural and language norms, and of course get an idea of the conversations occurring in the journal articles. I read at least 40 articles previously published in the journal. Then I just wrote it, my first journal article. My advisor gave feedback, and off the article went. This was at the beginning of my PhD studies.

Then, I waited. Forever.

Finally, six weeks ago I received a reply. The reviewers had wonderful comments that were insightful and remarkably helpful. They asked for changes. I mostly felt – wow – I would never have written this today. What a mess! It was not quite (but almost) embarrassing to read what I thought was good, and then finding it was not so good in light of everything I had learned about writing, and about my field of interest (science education). The thing is, there was no commitment to the article. Were they conditionally accepting the article IF I made changes, or …? Or what? Of course I made the required edits, and basically rewrote the entire thing. Groaning about duh, how could I have written this? And then I sent if off again, and the waiting resumed.

WooHoo! It was accepted today, exactly 8 months after I submitted it. So, there it is. Go for it, wait, edit and hope. Personally, what I felt was the best part of this process (aside from having an article accepted, which is quite simply amazing) was what I learned from the peer reviewers. I just learned so much, and I’m using all of of these newly acquired insights in an article that I am currently working on, and hope to submit before the end of the summer.

Cornerstones of Academic Writing

Cornerstones of Academic Writing

My journey with academic writing began when I was a senior undergraduate applying for a fellowship. I had never written a research proposal before and so the result of my futile efforts came in the form of a very literary and romantic piece of writing about a faulty protein in Crohn’s disease – certainly not what you would present to a grant committee. The moment I laid eyes on the edits made to my proposal by my supervisor and saw the generous red markings, I almost fell over in my chair. That was a low moment in my writing career. But after I sat down with my supervisor and discussed the edits, things become remarkably clear, making perfect sense. The most valuable lesson I took from him that day was one simple word: Flow, which is the very first cornerstone I will talk about in this article.

Shortly after this incident, I enrolled in a course offered by Graphos and the McGill writing centre called “Cornerstones of Academic Writing”. It was truly a very fun and interactive course that I recommend to graduate students who are struggling with their writing, wish to improve it or simply want to try out an elective in an unrelated field. I’ll be sharing with you a few pointers I picked up from the course.


The Writer’s Toolkit: 14 things that could change how you feel about writing


Somewhere between now and forever. That sounds about right. Isn’t that the gist of your reply to family members and friends who just don’t get why you’re still a PhD student? So much has changed in the world, and you’re still at it. I mean, how long does it take to write a thesis? Just write it already!

But you know, and I know, and Cecilia knows — it’s not that simple.

Or is it?

Unbeknownst to him, my supervisor gave some stellar advice in one plain sentence, a few weeks ago. Although this advice was not directly meant for me, and was part of a general conversation about papers and publications, it’s something I took to heart and have applied ever since: “Just sit down and write it – tell yourself you are going to work for this amount of hours, and sit there and write it”. Just sit down – best advice ever, because it made me concretely realize that writing is not challenging due to a lack of inspiration, but due to a lack of focus. If you give yourself the time and the space to do nothing else but work on writing, there will be no shortage of ideas, arguments, counterarguments and – eventually – words on the page.

I have been writing my thesis full time for two weeks. Every day. The encouraging thing is that it seems to get easier and easier, as does anything after copious amounts of practice.

I think what one needs is a “writer’s toolkit” – some strategies that work for you, that you can stick to, and that can serve as a comfortingly familiar routine, to help ensure your success on this writing mission.

Here is my toolkit:


The trick to writing

“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” ~ Red Smith


Joost Swarte

Today, I discovered the trick to writing. It’s plain and simple. So plain and simple, in fact, it’ll sound downright ridiculous. But here it goes:

The trick to writing is to write.

Doesn’t that sound absurd? Let me (slightly) clarify.

The trick to writing is to write as if you have no other choice.

This epiphany came from first-hand experience today, as I finally admitted to myself that this is the beginning of the end of my PhD journey. My general introduction was written in the winter (by me, don’t worry) and now I am beginning to produce as many journal-style papers as I can until I’ve conveyed everything worth conveying to the scientific community (I’ve collected a lot of data, it’ll be a while!). Today, I started to write my real papers.

Of course, by “started to write” I mean the process of actually typing strings of sentences onto a page. The “other” equally important process of writing (i.e., reading, annotating, outlining, bulleting, writing half-sentences that I reassured myself weren’t final because they did not contain THE perfect choice of words) had begun a while ago. And between that wonderfully productive time and today, something weird happened – I froze. Something about beginning the actual process of writing is inanely “freak-out-and-denial-worthy”, once you’ve grasped the reality that THIS tangible beginning of a collection of words, graphs and figures is going to be your Dissertation (capital “D” also spells “daunting”) and that you’d better be good at this because this is the beginning of your long career (hopefully) of pushing to publish papers upon papers (hopefully)…There’s an invisible line between the time when you’re ahead of the game and writing is easy because it’s early in the process, and when suddenly your task becomes to write and produce and submit and defend and graduate. Gasp. I recently crossed the invisible line and suddenly writing became less easy.


How to write a conference abstract (or how NOT to write one)

Source: PhD Comics

The summer and early fall are what I call “conference season“; somehow, all the conferences that interest me in my field always take place between mid-June and early September, and I find the rhythm of my summer (and much of the year) dictated by these events which are fixed points in time, unlike the rest of the wibbly-wobbly, and largely self-imposed, timeline of the PhD. Attending at least two conferences per year means having to stay on top of data collection, data analysis, presentation skills and networking. It also gives you the chance to think about your work from several angles, and especially about how it fits into the existing dialogue between researchers in your field, which is extremely useful for sitting down and writing papers (ideally right when you return from the conference). But it also means that, as much as my summers are characterized by last minute analyses, PowerPoint slides, practice talks, packing, travel and jet-lag, the winter months are characterized by writing abstracts, and finding an interesting story to tell about my research….

…in just a handful of words. (more…)

(mis)Adventures in manuscript-writing

I’ve been working on a manuscript on and off for a few months, but diligently for the past few weeks.

I enjoy writing, and usually start these things with a positive outlook (“My research is awesomesauce 😀 <3!”), but things go off-kilter when I start to tackle the introduction, and then all hell breaks lose once I get to the discussion.

Usually by the time I hand it in for review, I hate it and wonder why I ever wanted to write the stupid thing in the first place. (In reality, they’re never actually that bad, but I am very supremely excellent at being my own worst critic.)

I got the dratted draft paper off to my advisor mere moments ago.

And then, probably because I’ve been immersed in the creation (and re-creation… and re-re-creation) of figures for days, I felt compelled to share my manuscript-writing experience in the form of a graph. Behold:

Do any of you go through similar cycles when working on papers? Also. I would be super-entertained if you felt compelled to create your own graph, and share it with me (I’m collecting and posting them on my personal blog, you can check out the first submissions here!)

cross-posted at

An Academic Writing Group

Open Document. Name document. Save document … Stare indefinitely at blank document.

Whether you feel great anxiety at the thought of Academic Writing or whether you don’t particularly dislike it, I think it’s fair to agree that writing is a challenging process for everyone. And there is no shame in admitting that writing is difficult. In fact, novelist and playwright Joseph Heller once said, “Every writer I know has trouble writing”.

There are different degrees and reasons for this challenge, but most of us are likely to identify with at least one of these, at some point in our careers. We come from different educational institutions, cultural backgrounds and academic disciplines, all of which impact the degree of experience we have had with academic writing. At the start of our PhD careers, many of us find ourselves in a new country where we must read and write about complex concepts and ideas in a second (or third) language. Not only do we have to master the terminology of our field but we also have to learn the secrets of building a strong academic text — how to organize it so that it is clear and coherent, how to engage the reader and convey the importance of our work, and how not to slip into colloquial writing if we are not writing in our mother tongue.


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