Posts Tagged ‘PhD’

With just a few days to go, I’ve been making some notes on the argument. Here is one of them, about the process of getting from data to theory…

Reflection as an entity and our perception of it are both “occasions of experience”*. All occasions of experience have a temporal and historical duration and so are portions not wholes. The entity of reflection is, therefore, a part; a fragment in a much bigger picture. Because that big picture is a unified whole it cannot be reported in an analysis of a part.

In many examples of social science research it is only occasions of experience that are considered suitable as units of analysis, but this invites conclusions from fragmented description and it creates – as a minimum – a division between observed and the observer. This might be unavoidable, or avoidable only with considerable artistry, but the researcher’s decisions on where the boundaries are and where the description of an entity starts and stops is always an arbitrary one. Reading too much into our analyses is highly risky since that sort of understanding is inevitably limited by and to our capacity to observe. The occasion of experience, in all its subtlety and complexity, is never fully capturable in an epistemic model built to analyse the parts. In themselves, these occasions of experience aren’t ‘things’ but patterns of inseperable relationships.

I think it is essentially my thesis that something of the nature of these patterns of relationships that are about the wider story can, however, be inferred.

(*after C H Waddington)

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Now that there is nothing material that I can do to the thesis – it just has to do its own work for a bit – I have been noticing how my thoughts explore areas of more practical application of some of the concepts, ideas and conclusions it contains.

One of these is the question as to why reflection in Personal Development should be more, not less, important as we get older.

If it is true, as Jung believed, that the purpose of the second half of life is to make sense of the first, well then that could be one explanation. And then it occurred to me that a function of the difference between decisions made lower in an organisation (typically) and those made much higher up is connected to reversibility. If organisations follow the same organismic logic of complex living systems, biologies, ecologies and so forth (that is, systems where there are complex circuits of flows of information), then this would make sense. At the bottom, it may be more than inadvisable to make decisions that result in irreversible changes, it may be impossible (i.e. the structure of the organisation will forbid it). At the top, reversible changes may be possible, but would be redundant and energy inefficient (or would be indistinguishable to lower level, adaptive changes).

In Batesonian terms this lower level decision-making is analogous to somatic change, which is like, for example, the body’s ability to regulate and adapt skin tone in reaction to sunlight, or its breathing in acclimatisation to altitude. These are changes, but the not of a parameter at a higher level. At higher, or senior levels, permanent change is much more difficult and much riskier because it could represent a loss of flexibility at a lower level. Like a lot of these meandering thoughts, I am sure it needs development, but it does feel like a significant idea.

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Handing the PhD in


That’s the instruction I usually have to give to others at the end of their Henley MBA exam, but today it’s something I have to tell myself (at least for a while) as I have just handed in my PhD Thesis to the Registrar at the University of Lancaster. Done. Dusted.

And what an odd feeling it is.

I am proud of the achievement, and thankful that I had time to make the thousands of small edits and still meet my own personal deadline of the end of February. Now I have to focus on being ready to defend my thesis to a panel of examiners in a viva examination in a few months The fact of the viva is both petrifying and  galvanising – something to occupy the mind, certainly. However, not feeling the need to sit in front of a screen for hours and hours a day with notes, papers and books trying to draft and craft a text is, well, weird.

I might even read a book for the fun of it (I brought two with me up to Lancaster – a Penguin paperback of science fiction short stories, and R G Collingwood’s autobiography. The latter title is cheating a bit, of course.)

Oh, but, you know, this feels good!!!

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I’m preparing to head south on my annual migration to the southern hemisphere for the March MBA starter workshop in Johannesburg.

As usual, I’m reflecting (pre-flecting?) on what’s to come, on how I’ll work with colleagues and new members of the MBA, what state of mind I want them to be in at various points, and so on…

It occurred to me, not for the first time, that reflection is not possible except when we are able to distinguish it as such, which means differentiating it from that which is not reflection. The two are interdependent and inextricably linked. This is how we find the outline of one, against the other. Hardly earth shattering? Maybe. Yet a crucial point precisely because we take it for granted.

So how do we know the difference, in general? This is occupying me, so I may return to this over the coming days as I blog the workshop.

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Sitting now in a session being run by Dr Caroline Gatrell here in Lancaster, on “Managing PhD study & other work”.

It’s a very useful exercise every now and then to get back in touch with the process of what you are doing when you return to a longer piece of

The big thing – always be reflecting on “what am I doing?” This changes as you go, but you need to know what claim you are making and where you will contribute to the debate (and what debate that is). Need to remember, also, that the examiners will be looking for ‘evidence of the ability to construct and present a coherent, logical argument’. This is not the thesis, but the context of the thesis.

Other lessons to bear in mind include need to be researching something that has a strong interest for you personally, and keep checking in on these.

I recently used, not for the first time, the Ben Zander talk recorded for TED in 2008, where he brilliantly engages his audience in the idea that classical music is for everyone. For the first time I saw a parallel with my PhD subject of reflection. In his talk, Zander analyses a short piece of music by Chopin to illustrate something much bigger. His phrase “now let’s see what’s really going on here” changes the tone, and moves from our unreflective attitude to music to a much more reflective place. He gives the sense that by unlocking the skill of the composer and the way that they wanted to make us feel in order to create the same thought in your mind that they had in theirs (surely this is a good definition of communication) we are then able to understand how to appreciate other pieces of music in the same way.

My data is like the one Chopin piece. It’s enough to examine one group’s interaction over a fairly short period of time in order then to go and see “what’s going on here”.

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Problems. Managers just love problems.  They grow very attached to them, and to the idea that development is all about becoming a better problem-solver. I would challenge this idea.

There’s no doubt in my mind, from experience observing over the years, that the majority of people who enrol on an MBA programme are highly efficient problem-solving machines. By necessity, though, they have become that and no more. And the demands of more senior levels in management (and, let’s face it, of later adulthood) mean that a highly analytical approach ends up doing more harm than good. In short, at some point the game changes from problem solving to problem setting. Or, as Paolo Freire called it, problem posing. It follows that the education of people as managers should prepare them not for a way to find answers to ever more complex problems, but to master the art of framing the context within which those problems may be said to exist. And to do this they need to change their way of thinking about problems.

The accepted way to do this in Management Education is through a rationalised process of reflective problem solving, often described in terms of learning or knowledge acquisition. There are few models of learning which are mainstream that do not stick like glue to a model of  understanding the world in a step-by-step, empirically testable and verifiable way.  Variables need to be identified and isolated, experiments conducted, and conclusions (embedded with myriad implicit assumptions) drawn. And this tends to be the case whether our research methods involve describing things or counting things.

The ‘problem’, so to speak, is that our world appears problematic only via that lens.  In my view the social world is not as neat as the classic scientific method would demand it be. It’s far messier, far more jagged, and far more beautiful. So perhaps instead of seeking to contain, to solve and secure “the” right answer to all the messiness, we should make the posing of the problem the problematic part. By this I mean taking a critical approach to the formation of our questions. Rather than being systematic, start being systemic.

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Back from the PhD Experience conference in Hull. There were three days of themed sessions with about 100 people in attendance.

It was a pleasant surprise to find so much common ground in the emotional states of people doing their doctoral studies, despite differences in subject matter (though I think most people were researching in the social sciences). The topic of procrastination and of “imposter syndrome” were discussed, but there were plenty of positive messages, too.

Highlights for me:

1. Giving my first conference paper, albeit a short one, was a good experience. It struck me how different this is from the type of work I do at Henley, where there is generally more of a workshop atmosphere, stops and starts and interaction. Here, I was supposed to talk, and they were supposed to listen. I learned that a good (and rehearsed) start is important.

2. Feeling that the central messages of my slot made people think. These were: that we reflect through telling stories, that stories only have meaning when they venture out and bump up against other people’s stories, and that a good model for reflection(or reflective learning in Personal Development) needs somehow to acknowledge the “inward-outward” necessity.

3. Spending time with several fellow travellers, and hearing about their research experiences, helps me in my own.

I also got a lot out of Ann Cunliffe’s session on research perspectives, and thoroughly recommend anyone looking for direction in social research to read some of her stuff.

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