Beginning the PhD Journey

May 9, 2018 00:00 · 890 words · 5 minute read

This week I commenced a PhD in Political Science and International Relations at the University of Western Australia. Like Stuart Lawson, I hope to document my journey over the next 5+ years through this blog.

Starting a PhD has always been a question of when, not if, for me. Many programs are naturally oriented towards those seeking an academic career, are offered full-time only, and assign students to a pre-determined topic to obtain studentships (especially in the UK). At this stage in my career, I see a PhD as something in parallel to my career that will enhance my existing practice and advocacy work, extend my research and writing skills, but not necessarily lead to a career change.

Compared to Europe and some institutions in the US, fewer academic librarians in Australia pursue PhDs. Those with them overseas typically obtained them before entering a library career. It’s not and shouldn’t be necessary to have a PhD for career advancement in libraries, so why bother? There’s been plenty of research on that point in libraries over the years, but primarily considering why librarians should do a PhD in LIS. I can and already have researched and published. But what I am seeking now is a framework to explore new methods, disciplines, and ideas. And for me that is best achieved in a discipline outside LIS.

My research will be centred on human rights, access to information, and how norms are contested and adopted. My interest in this topic arose when I was working at IFLA, advocating for the inclusion of access to information in the UN 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals. I documented this process in research published in 2016. It was not an easy ask. Often, we heard comments to the effect of, this problem will solve itself. Helen Clark, then the head of UNDP commented at the 2013 Open Government Partnership summit that “everyone has a mobile phone”. Anyone who works in libraries or advocates for access to the Internet knows this is far from reality. Billions of people are offline. So why the assumption otherwise? Since 2015 and particularly since the UK’s decision to leave the EU, the US and Kenyan elections, and crises in Myanmar amongst other issues, we have seen what happens when we fail to pay enough attention to media, access, and how we understand information. We saw the rise of misinformation, disinformation, categorised as ‘fake news’. We saw a rise in internet shutdowns as governments struggled to control their citizens. These are just some of the issues at the tip of the iceberg, and I’m looking forward to questioning more deeply.

When we make the case for libraries and information, it is to people outside our profession. When training librarians to be advocates, I stressed the importance of understanding their priorities and language, whether they were representing other NGOs, researchers, or government officials. By situating my work in International Relations, I am looking forward to having my own assumptions challenged, and strengthened.

A note on tools and methods

Over the past year, I’ve been working on a draft proposal and setting up a workflow for reading and writing. This has been a very interesting process given that my day job was also focused on understanding researcher behaviours, and the role of Open Access. As I’ve always found it useful to read how others have set themselves up, some notes on my own tools and methods:

Referencing: During my MA, I kept several printed binders full of articles, much like academics had filing cabinets full of key papers. This time around I’m entirely digital. I keep all my references in Zotero. You can see what I’m reading.

Notetaking and writing: Scrivener. All my notes, ideas, quotes, and writing is in Scrivener. It’s a little clunky, but you can include references using Scannable Cite in Scrivener then export the file to LibreOffice to share with supervisors and colleagues. Having everything in one app where I can easily tag, chunk, move around bits of text, and create new versions is great.

Thinking: I have a paper notebook where I scribble down ideas and thoughts. Sometimes I just need paper and pen. But I also use XMind (the free version) for more elaborate mind mapping.

Planning: OmniFocus. But open source projects like GanttProject are also just fine for setting deadlines and timelines.

Statistics: There’s no getting around it. The statistical turn in political science is here to stay. I’m brushing up my stats knowledge and learning R. I’m spending lots of time in Rstudio.

Finding articles: Patrick Dunleavy is right: Google Scholar is just easier. I spent 8 years without access to subscription databases, relying on Open Access only (and no, I have never used Sci-Hub). :earning to use databases again, even though I used to teach students how to use them, has been a big learning curve. The interfaces and pathways to access articles are frankly still terrible. Unpaywall is genius.

Dissemination: ORCiD, Zenodo are amongst the services I already use.

No surprises for guessing that I track largely along an Open Science workflow. The Open movement has come a little slower to political science and in my opinion was set back by the acquisition of SSRN by Elsevier. But it is encouraging to see a growing number of datasets and Open Access articles available.

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