Adonis Diaries

Archive for June 23rd, 2012

Perfect Thesis to whom? Get on with it and wrap it up…

Richard Butterworth finally got his PhD in Nov.2011 and could not help but extend his 10 tips (with slight editing, and sentences in parenthesis are mine)

Tip 1 – Academics need you.  Most PhD supervisors are keen to speak to any potential student who has a good research idea:  a good record of successful PhD supervision is essential to build a successful academic career.

Don’t be afraid to approach a potential supervisor directly. I developed a rudimentary research proposal and emailed every academic I could identify in my local region whose research interests seemed to fit.

Tip 2 – Its YOUR PhD – Take ownership: Whether the research idea is your own, or you have been appointed to research a topic as an advertised position, YOU are the one working day and night and living the research.

Your supervisors will have opinions or perhaps an agenda which will shape the direction of your research.  It is YOU alone who will have to defend it in the viva.

I have spoken to many PhD researchers who felt that their research was not their own and they were merely doing the bidding of their supervisor.

The result can be mixed – some drop out as the lack of control leads to a lack of interest or focus. Many work day and night to please their supervisory team and burn out, many are successfully awarded their PhDs but feel that they are a sham as their work was not entirely their own.

(I may add another reason why a graduate steers clear from academia after earning a PhD: They learn nothing in the last two years of the hard work…Totally dejected from the untenable and time-wasting process…)

Tip 3 – Write up as you are going: I am always amazed when I speak to PhD students who are in the third year and entering their ”writing up stage” and tell me that they have not written more than a few thousand words. They feel daunted and overwhelmed by the huge task of meeting that 40-80,000 plus word count (depending on the discipline).

“But you must have the literature review almost completed at least?” I say.  Many just have pages and pages of notes. I had written complete drafts of my Introduction, Background, Literature Review, Methodology and Scoping Study by the Midpoint of my PhD – 18 months since I began.

Sure, I would have to update and re-draft these sections – some of them extensively, but the knowledge that I had written about 40,000 words of what became a 90,000 document was of great comfort to me. I could pass these sections off to my supervisors for review whilst I embarked on my data analysis.

(Mind you that it is not that you have written something that the advisor will find time to read your stuff: While the advisor is lacking the courage of taking a look at your draft, start another draft. You are writing to understand your research…The more you write the better the picture…)

Tip 4Love to Hate your Thesis: You will at some point hate your thesis, trust me…This is OK, its normal – most people seem to go through it at some point – usually about two-thirds of the way through. This is completely normal and to be expected. Don’t panic, take a break – yes a break.

PhD students need a holiday too, even if it’s just a break from the research to do something different. When you return to the topic, your brain will have sorted out some of the problems you are struggling with on its own.

(The process is meant to make you hate yourself more than the research...You take a break from hating yourself for taking this stupid decision to go for a PhD…)

Tip 5Finished is better than perfect. I am a perfectionist by nature and I had to learn over the last few years the finished is better than perfect. Perfection, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

If you are lucky enough to reach the mythical land of perfection (which only exists in your own head), it is still highly likely that readers, and more importantly, examiners will find fault. This is what examiners are paid to do. The same advice applies to writing papers too.

(The best dissertations are from students who finished the PhD programs in less than 2 years…The thesis were follow ups on their masters thesis… and they were relatively thin books…)

Tip 6 – The written Thesis is just part of the PhD: The majority of PhDs have some form of wording on the first page which states something like the document is “submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the University for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy” .

Spot the keyword? “partial”. Before and during the viva the examiners will be considering many criteria in addition to the thesis such as the administration of the PhD, your training record,  publications and impact activities to name a few.

The point is, the Thesis does not have to be – nor is expected to be – perfect. The examiners will always have an opinion on how you have presented the results or the approach you took.

You will not know what this opinion is until you put the work in front of them – so don’t try to second guess but ensure that you can defend why you took a certain approach as opposed to another.

You made the decision (see Tip 2) based on the evidence in front of you at the time and you are the expert in this subject. So defend.

Tip 7Enjoy the Viva! Really. This is your chance to communicate your research, your passion, to at least two leading academics – sounds scary, but they will be genuinely interested in what you have done.

Most examiners want to pass a student – despite the horror stories that are popular amongst PhD students.

The truth is in the majority of cases they will have already made a decision about whether to pass you or not. I will be following this up with a more detailed post on my viva experience later.

(It is hard to fail someone after spending over 6 years in the program…)

Tip 8Have a plan for life post PhD.  Start looking for a job etc…although of course this is important – more how are you going to fill the void? And it is a void.

You will have been immersed in a particular subject and culture for at least 3 years, probably more. Once you have completed any changes demanded post viva and submitted the final completed thesis – the silence is deafening

(Most academics are those who started sending drafts of their research to various universities before even finishing the PhD…They want to teach and want to accumulate contacts and connections... Another reason to keep revisiting your drafts as you receive feedback from contacts…)

Tip 9 – It is worth it.  Completing the PhD was an anti-climax for me. (And for me. There were never a climax in the procedure…). There were no trumpets or angels, no being carried through the university on the shoulders of my peers, no huge pay-rise or immediate offers of employment, not even any champagne (although there was, strangely, many flavors of Schnapps…)

However, 6 months on from the viva and corrections it feels worth it. It is a validation of your research skills and prowess… You feel a little more authoritative when speaking to peers or students (although inside, you know that you are not any smarter than before), and you have survived – almost mentally intact….

(The company that had the monopoly to publish the thesis in official books for the university library discovered a blank page and wanted a good reason.  The error was that a blank page got inserted amid the over 300 pages while printing…It was the last straw, and I relieved the university shelves of my famous thesis… What I gained was establishing an experimental mind.)

Tip 10– Ignore tips 1-9

Is TAFTANAZ still a town in Syria?

Taftanaz is a jumble of simple concrete homes surrounded by golden wheat fields some 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the northern city of Idlib (see link in note), by the border with Turkey, and it had 15,000 villagers. It is located near a military base

Ben Hubbard spent two weeks inside Syria with a team of AP journalists. Taftanaz was among the hardest-hit areas the team visited.

“TAFTANAZ, Syria (AP) — The main street of this once-bustling Syrian farm town now stands eerily quiet, its shops charred black from arson, its shoppers replaced by cats roaming the rubble of homes destroyed by tank fire.

At dawn on April 3, Syrian forces shelled the town in the first volley of what residents say was a massive assault after a string of large protests calling for the end of the regime of President Bashar Assad. Soldiers then stormed in, torching homes and businesses and gunning down residents in the streets. By the time they left on the third day, at least 62 people were dead.

Two months later, the destruction remains, but most residents are gone. Locals estimate that about two-thirds of the town’s 15,000 people have left. Most don’t expect them to return.

Resident Bassam Ghazzal, who lost more than 20 members of his extended family in the attack, said:” There is nothing for people to come back to, and they worry that if they rebuild, the army will destroy it again. People don’t want to become refugees twice. Residents had long complained of State neglect and corruption that left many living in poverty. So when protesters inspired by the successful uprisings against autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt took to the streets in Syria, they followed along, first demonstrating for change in April 2011″

Local security officers quickly ended the protest, but the town organized more, sparking further crackdowns and arrest campaigns by regime authorities.

The Syrian army raided the village three times in the next four months. During a June raid, Ghazzal’s cousin was shot dead at a regime checkpoint while trying to flee, making him the first of the town’s “martyrs.”

Others followed. Some in the town took up arms, and an October clash between the army and local rebels killed 5 residents. Other residents buried them and held another protest the same day, Ghazzal said.

Then all was quiet until April 3, when tanks shelled the town from four sides before armored cars brought in dozens of soldiers who dragged civilians from their homes and gunned them down in the streets, witnesses said. The soldiers also looted, destroyed and torched hundreds of homes, bringing some down on their owners’ heads.

Videos shot at the time show tanks posted near the town’s entrance and huge columns of smoke rising throughout the area. Photos of the dead show bodies torn apart by shrapnel, charred by fire, crushed under rubble or with bullet holes in their chests, foreheads and temples.

Local activist Abdullah Ghazzal, a university student in English, says 62 people were killed during the attack, four of them burned beyond recognition. Two others have never been found.

The town had only a small rebel presence, though fighters from the area had killed soldiers at nearby checkpoints or destroyed regime tanks, said local fighter Sahir Schaib. Rebels also blew up 9 tanks as they left the town, mostly with homemade bombs planted along the roads.

Schaib said the onslaught was to send a strong message to neighboring villages: “There were lots of villages around that had just started protesting and they wanted to say, ‘This is what we can do to you. They committed the massacre to teach the entire region a lesson.”

Since the start of the anti-Assad uprising in March 2011, the regime has responded to unrest with brute force, dispatching snipers, troops and tanks to quash dissent. Activists say more than 14,000 people have been killed since, many of them civilians.

In general, the violence has not stopped the uprising, emboldening protesters, galvanizing international condemnation and leading many in the opposition to take up arms.

Taftanaz is a place where overwhelming force appears to have not only crushed a burgeoning protest movement but struck a blow against a community that may never recover.

The Syrian government rarely comments on its military actions and blames the uprising on armed terrorists acting out a foreign conspiracy. It bars most reporters from working in the country, and the AP was able to visit Taftanaz only after entering from a neighboring country.

The price of Taftanaz’s defiance is obvious around town. Homes have been reduced to rubble. Most shops along the town’s main street are shuttered, their thick metal doors scarred by shrapnel and gunfire. Black soot lines the windows of others. Yet others lie collapsed in piles of bricks and mortar.

“They took what they took and burned what they burned,” said Abu Eissa Ghazzal, 75, another member of the extended Ghazzal family. Standing near his torched grocery store on the ground floor of a three-story building, he despaired for the future.

“They didn’t leave me a single nail,” he said.

His younger brother had built the building after working for two decades in Saudi Arabia and lived with his family in the top two floors, Ghazzal said. Now all had been torched, and his brother and family had fled to a refugee camp in Turkey.

His older brother lived across the alley and refused to leave his home when the army came. When the attack was over, rescue teams found the 81-year-old man’s body still in his home, burned to a crisp.

“Now there is nobody left,” he said. “Who is going to rebuild all of this, now that all of those with children have left?”

The army has not returned since the April raid. Local activists still organize protests, though many fewer people attend, and rumors of impending military incursions often terrify residents.

Most of the dead rest in a long mass grave on the village’s east side, their names scrawled in marker on cinder block headstones.

Preceding most names is the honorific “hero martyr.” One inscription for the unidentified bodies reads simply “four people.”

“Most of them were my friends,” said Abdullah Ghazzal, the English student, walking among the graves. He pointed out the grave of his 44-year-old brother, shot dead that day.

“They also burned down his house,” he said.





June 2012

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