Preparing for a doctoral consortium

There are many opportunities for doctoral students to participate in a doctoral consortium in the ed-tech research community, amongst others. A Doctoral consortium is usually organized by conferences where graduate students come together to present their work to experts in the field and peers, and get feedback from them. The expert panel might also offer advice on career and other skills. Some conferences also offer Young Researcher’s workshops/ Early Career Workshops which are useful for graduating students and young researchers in the field.

Having attended two doctoral consortium in different conferences, I would recommend PhD students to do it at some point of time.  I found it useful for a number of reasons, so in this post I’m going to list why I think so and how to prepare for a Doctoral consortium – some tips on making the best use of it.

Why participate?

  • Enhancing research skills: It’s a wonderful opportunity to put your thoughts together and think about the big picture of your research. It helps you identify the core ideas of your research and present them succinctly in a limited time. Explaining a potential 60,000 word thesis of your PhD in less than 30 minutes is a great skill to acquire. In some conferences, you might be asked to present a poster explaining your research as well. Also, it is a place where you can actually discuss more about your methodology and design, and not just the results.
  • Expert feedback: It is a great place to get some early feedback (and criticism) on your PhD work and thesis statement. It’s nice to have some extra eyes other than your phd supervisors. You become clear on what your claims can be and what your limitations are. You will be prepared to answer any question and know what to expect as possible questions next time when you present your work to different audiences. Even if you don’t get great advice at all times, you will most likely walk away with a better understanding of what you want to do. And if there’s a certain problem you’re grappling with in your research, you can ask for specific advice.
  • Networking: You meet other PhD Students from closely related fields. Not always do we get a chance to meet students from other universities around the world and know about their research. They are also sailing on the same boat, so it is always good to connect with your peers to get some support, and their feedback on your work. It is also a good opportunity to network with experts in the field and introduce your name in the research community. Who knows, the academic expert you impressed might be the person who gives you a job when you graduate 🙂
  • Financial Support: Most conferences provide some level of financial support for grad students who get accepted to the doctoral consortium. This is especially useful for self-financing students, as it covers registration fees or travel depending on the conference.

Based on my experience and the advice I’ve heard, here are some tips to make the best use of your time at the Doctoral Consortium:

  • Pick the right time to go – Best to go when you have conceptualized your research and done some work, so that you don’t go as an empty slate. The experts want to see what you have thought through so they can give you advice. Also don’t go too late (for example when you are almost submitting your thesis) by which time you can’t make any more changes to your research and thesis.
  • Make a proper submission – Most doctoral consortium require students to make formal submissions which include a short paper describing the research, supporting documents like a letter of support from the supervisor, and sometimes your own statement and CV. They usually look for sharp minds who can benefit from the discussion and contribute to the research community, so make sure you follow the mentioned format while submitting your application with well-written documents.
  • Practise and be ready to explain your research – You are usually provided a limited time to present (15-20 mins), and given that you are attempting to present your whole thesis in this time slot, practise well in advance to highlight the key aspects. Even better if you can present to your local peers and get their advice earlier. Sometimes, we tend to run through some ideas quickly without noticing that they need more emphasis or highlight less important aspects more, which your peers can notice for you.
  • Go prepared with your questions & answers: It is always nice to be prepared with questions to ask advice from experts. If there’s a particular problem you’re grappling with in your research, make sure you point that out and ask for suggestions. This helps you get focused attention on that problem rather than spend a lot of time on other minor things you are  not very interested in. If you want feedback from a specific expert, you can try mentioning that too. Be prepared to face tough questions and criticism on your research work (a good rehearsal before your phd defence). Also, if your peer’s work is previously made available, take some time to read about their research so you can contribute to the discussion and add value with your feedback.

Writing and publishing journal articles

Last week I attended a talk in UTS by Professor Witold Pedrycz on the essentials of effective publishing and how to disseminate research results. He is a well known Professor in the field of Computational Intelligence with  great credentials (Editor-in-chief of very high impact journals, 40,000+ citations etc.). In early stages of PhD and research, we tend to make pretty basic mistakes that could lead to rejections and dejection. These are my notes from his talk where he explained the key components expected from a well-written paper and how to avoid common mistakes. It was quite useful to hear about the do’s and don’ts of publishing from an experienced academic who rejects almost 2000 articles every year for his own journal 😉

Why, how, when to publish?

Why: People might have different personal motives for publishing (expanding CV, meeting KPIs, new year resolutions… :p ), but the key reason why a research should be published is to share important research findings to the research community.

How: The most popular way to disseminate results is still using journal articles. Publication in journals are considered secure and more established, thanks to the detailed peer review process involved. Most points of this post are mentioned in the context of journal articles in particular, although some may also apply to conference articles and other publications. 

When: There is no hard deadline; but the general rule is to publish when we have results to share, and not too late.

Choosing the right journal:

  • Read articles in the journal and research the style of the journal before submission.
  • Check journal citation reports for confirming the claimed impact factorThomson Reuters
  • Be cautious of Beall’s List: Potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers (scholarlyoa.com) containing details of blacklisted publishers and journals. Short peer review process and sudden request for fees are signs of predatory journals.
  • Not publishing in a good journal could be a bad hit to building a good CV later.

Checking criteria:

To make articles publishable, these are the three key points to keep in mind:

  1. Originality/ innovation – Novelty in the area of research identifying differences from what was already done by others
  2. Relevance/ Motivation – Clear objective of research on why it is done
  3. Presentation/exposure – Understandable writing

All the three criteria are equally important, and we will have to consider revising the paper even if it fails to achieve one of the above.

Preparing to write a quality manuscript:

Follow the standard article structure:

  • Title:
    • Use the fewest possible words to adequately describe the contents of the paper
    • Should contain findings, specific, concise, complete, attract readers
    • Don’t use jargon, abbreviations, ambiguous terms, unnecessary detail
  • Authors and affiliations
  • Abstract:
    • Strongly impacts editor’s decision
    • Should be precise and honest, stand alone entity, uses no tech jargon, brief and specific, cites no references
  • Keywords:
    • Important for indexing to make the article identified and cited
    • Check the guide
    • Specific (E.g. Specific algorithm rather than ‘neural network’ since it will bring millions of hits), avoid uncommon abbreviations and general terms
  • Introduction:
    • Why the current work was performed (Aims, significance), what has been done before (Literature review of prior work), what was done in the current research (brief), what was achieved (brief).
    • Consult the guide for word limit, set the scene, outline problem and hypothesis, balanced lit review (if included here), define non standard abbreviations and jargons, get to the point and keep it simple.
    • Lit review – well focused and linked to the paper.
    • Don’t write extensive review, cite, overuse terms like “novel” etc.
    • Mathematics: formula in papers – explain symbols, use standard notations.
    • I would also like to highlight Swales’ Creating a Research Space (CARS) model that provides a useful guide for writing introductions and other sections.
  • Flow of presentation:
    • Top-down approach: main idea→ fundamentals → algorithms → experiments → conclusions.
    • Avoid mixing different levels of abstraction (Explain concept, numeric values in introduction and not straight away in the experiment section, Explain what tool is used in the experiment section and not in the introduction section).
    • Brief, illustrative examples to motivate.
  • Results:
    • Use tables, figures to summarize, show results of statistical analysis, compare like with like (E.g. A simple, but commonly made mistake: “The results from this study are higher than the other study”: Doesn’t compare ‘results’ to ‘results’, but compares ‘results’ to another ‘study’).
    • Don’t duplicate data among tables, figures and text, use graphics for summarization of text (avoid large tables with many numbers).
    • Graphics: stand alone captions, easy to interpret, don’t overuse colors in charts (alternatives: diff types of lines), only essential information.
    • Clear legend, better organized data, present trend lines, don’t leave areas underutilized.
  • Discussion:
    • Study’s aim and hypothesis
    • Relating to other research
    • Avoid grand unsupported statements (E.g. novel organization method has enormously reduced the learning time), introducing new terms
  • Conclusion:
    • Put your study in context
    • How it represents advance in the field
    • Suggest future experiments
    • Avoid: repetition with other sections – same sentence in abstract, intro, discussion, conclusion, overly speculative, overemphasize the impact of the study.
  • Acknowledgement:
    • Contributions to paper: supplied materials or software, helped with writing or English, technical help.
  • References:
    • Include recent references
    • Check guide for correct format
    • Avoid: citing yourself/journal excessively, citing bad sources – which are not available, wikipedia – volatile, local language
    • Review paper requires experienced writing skills, survey paper has to digest and synthesize available research.
  • Supplementary material

Language essentials for a quality manuscript:

Ensure your manuscript has the three C’s below:

  1. Clarity
  2. Conciseness
  3. Correctness

Common traps: repetition, redundancy, ambiguity, exaggeration

You can make use of language editing services to polish the manuscript if required. Free tools are available online for checking surface level errors like grammar and spelling.

Ethical issues:

  • Multiple submissions, redundant publications, plagiarism, data fabrication and falsification, improper use of subjects, improper author contribution.
  • Plagiarism: Check the IEEE FAQ for details on plagiarism. Unacceptable paraphrasing, even with citation could be plagiarism.

Cover letter, Revisions and Responses to reviewers:

  • Write a brief cover letter to the editor to convey particular importance of your manuscript to the journal. Suggest potential reviewers (if required).
  • Indicate if the submitted paper is an extended version of a conference paper to avoid conflict of interest.
  • Review process: Draft a detailed letter of response to reviewers: respond to all points (accept with changes made or reject with polite reasoning), provide page and line numbers to refer to revisions, additional calculations if required to make the paper stronger.
    • E.g. “Thank you for the comment. However, we feel that the assumption in our model is supported by recent work by”.…. Rather than “the reviewer is clearly ignorant of the work of…”
  • Rejection: Not to be taken personally, try to understand why; don’t resubmit without significant revisions to another journal.
  • Journals allow paper to be distributed as an open source resource with an additional fee to reach wider audience (if required).

 

 

Critical analysis for researchers

A critical approach is often needed for researchers when it comes to reading, writing and analysis of research articles. Being critical is not to find faults, but rather to ask questions and evaluate the reliability of what is stated. Here’s some useful information from a UTS session on ‘Critical Analysis – What is it and Why is it important for Researchers?’ 

  • There’s often not one absolute right or wrong answer, or one correct interpretation.
  • Pay attention to:
    • Can you make an outline of it?
    • Can you identify the evidence or reasoning that supports it?
    • Are they supporting it, challenging it or simply stating it?
    • What sort of language do they use?
    • How the paper’s argument has been structured
    • How the authors discuss or refer to the work of others
    • How diagrams and other non-verbal elements (if any) have been used
  • Ask questions. It is important to question the evidence behind arguments, ideas and decision making
  • Aim to address most, if not all of the below questions for your research: (Source: https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/uploads/production/document/path/1/1710/Critical_Thinking.pdf):

critical-thinking-model

critical-thinking-qns

Some practical advice for critical writing

  • Move beyond describing knowledge and facts to questioning, analysing and evaluating knowledge.
  • Put boundaries to your research.
  • Acknowledge what remains problematic or unresolved (Limitations/ Future Work).
  • Provide claims with support, do not generalise (E.g. “Most authors agree..” – Who are these authors?).
  • Stick with the same terminology throughout all chapters.
  • Put evidences in tables to highlight them and to avoid descriptive text.
  • Give signals to readers and help them read through – by outlining mini introductions for each section and signposting to move from one chapter to another.
  • Identify the key arguments and relationships between authors in your literature review.
  • When integrating arguments from different sources, paraphrase them.
  • Support your key arguments with more references.
  • Include how you added more knowledge in the final chapter.
  • Add recent references during submission by including more recent work done, which did not previously exist in your initial literature review.
  • More resources on critical thinking here:

Reading research articles

Reading research articles can be a daunting task for new students. Even after reading many articles over the last few years, I still take time to read, understand and critically evaluate research articles (Takes double the time for theoretical ones, since I’m from a technical background). I’m no expert on this topic (or any topic for that matter :p), but I thought this post could be useful for fellow students who toil with research papers just like me. The post is going to be a combination of few tips from my own experience plus a useful course I attended at UTS by Dr. Terry Royce (Reading & writing for your Literature Review: Getting started and what to look for).

glasses-272399_1920

The first thing to keep in mind while reading articles is that it is a time consuming process. So do not get dejected if it takes longer than your allotted time. Not everyone reads in the same pace as you. Give yourself more time, especially if you’re reading a new topic. Your reading skills will definitely improve with experience.

Concentration is key, so take a break and refresh your mind if you’re stuck with an article for very long. How I wish it was as easy as reading a fiction novel for hours with absolute concentration… Sigh!!

Read articles in whichever form that is comfortable for you – either soft or hard copy is your choice. I recently moved from hard copy to soft copy format since it is more convenient to look up my notes anytime and easily portable. I still print important articles and make them ugly with highlights though 🙂 Managing and organising all articles you’ve read/ going to read is another arduous task, for which you probably have to plan early!

Now for the ‘real strategies’ for reading:

  • Read widely and extensively. When you get a fuzzy boundary sense after extensive reading (that the article doesn’t add anything new), that’s when you stop. PhD students might want to read over 300 articles before writing their thesis 😮
  • Learn ‘purposeful focused reading’ – you don’t necessarily have to read a whole book if you only need a chapter of it. Similarly, you can only read what you need in an article.
  • Employ these reading strategies:
    • Reviewing (looking at title, keywords and flipping through)
    • Skimming (for an overview)
    • Scanning (locating specific information or ideas)
    • Reading analytically (text structure, categories, hierarchies)
    • Close reading (observing details)
    • Reading critically (connecting what you read to what you know)
  • Identify the key features and the research arguments from the paper.
  • Look out for the important and relevant details from different entry points:
    • Abstract – What is the issue/project/question? What are the methods/argument/point of view? What are the results and implications?
    • Introduction – What is the topic area? What are the definitions, issue parameters and stages?
    • Conclusion – What are the general areas and specifics covered? Is the focus from the introduction reiterated? What are the implications?
    • Thesis – What is the claim made?
    • Evidence – Is the evidence presented, interpreted and connected to the claim?
    • Rhetorical Staging – How is the article rhetorically staged? (You should be able to draw a diagram to build and reinforce the points stated, if the article is well written)
    • Alternative views – Are there other points of view or counter arguments?
  • Think critically by learning to hear your own voice amidst the authors’ voices in the paper, and be sceptic (not cynic) – This critical thinking skill is another topic by itself!
  • Get started, summarise relevant points, assess the claims around your research and reflect to make critical judgements.

Happy Reading 😀