The artisanal PhD


I’ll admit it: I’m a sucker for anything ‘artisanal’. I love homeware shops full of hand crafted ceramic bowls, grocery stores with local honey and cafes with stripped brick walls and special regional coffees. I am nearly 50 (I know, I can hardly believe it either) so as soon as I become aware that a trend even exists it is, by definition, dead. Artisanal-anything might no longer be on trend, but the good thing about being 50-ish is that you don’t care about being on trend anyway. There are lots of cafes / groceries and homeware shops where I can enjoy the artisanal vibe and feel no shame.

While I don’t deny the pleasures of the artisanal when it comes to homewares, food and coffee, I am less sure that it’s a great idea when applied to research, at least if my experience counselling candidates is anything to go by. I try to set aside one hour a week to consult with individual candidates from around ANU. Many of the people I see are in my office are very stressed because they can’t finish on time, for one reason or another. Some problems are supervisor related, some are problems of project scope and others are straight up inefficient working methods.

Problems caused by inefficient working methods frustrate me the most. These problems are really easy to fix, but people ….resist. In fact, they often resist change with more energy than it would take to make the change. The problem is not a lack of knowledge or awareness. People will acknowledge they have massively inefficient ways of processing and handling information, yet in the next breath insist that they cannot work any other way.

I find it hard to be patient with this  , but I’ve realised that you cannot move people on unless you acknowledge where the resistance is coming from. Part of the reason people stick with known ways of doing things is habit, but a significant component is pleasure in the doing. As Cal Newport points out in his excellent book ‘So Good they can’t ignore you’, pleasure follows skill. You will enjoy a sport like tennis a lot more after you’ve been playing it for 10 years than you will in the first 10 weeks, when you are still learning. Switching to a similar game, like table tennis, will feel weird, even if you can do the basic moves of getting the ball over the net.

I’m all for preserving pleasure in research, but not at the expense of efficiency. Below are some thoughts on the main kinds of artisanal research pleasures and how you might be able to preserve the pleasure while using digital tools to boost efficiency.

Doing analysis ‘by hand’

In my area (vaguely sociology) there are a number of platforms available to analyse text data. I use Nvivo and their auto-coding product Interpris as well as the online mark up tool Dedoose and another corpus linguistics product called Lancsbox. These tools enable you to cut out bits of text, code, compare and count them to find patterns and add ‘memos’ to capture your theory about the patterns you see. All my digital tools replicate coding methods that can be done by hand using highlighter and post it notes, as in the image below:

highlighters, page of text and post it notes showing how text coding is done by hand

Looks like fun doesn’t it? It is! Doing data the old fashioned way feels pleasingly like being in kindergarten, but there are also some benefits to working with physical objects. Working on a physical page enables you to see text in context, rather than in isolated snippets. Working on paper helps you see the big picture and this is why people will sometimes stick with this method even though it’s much less efficient at helping to identify and describe patterns. Other disciplines will have ‘hand crafted’ methods too – when is the right time to let it go?

One way to decide to switch to digital methods is to consider the scale of the task. Doing things ‘by hand’ on a small sample of data is fine, but it gets less and less efficient over time. Really sophisticated analyses involving multiple datapoint just need raw computing power. Even people in history, anthropology and philosophy – disciplines most wedded to ‘craft batch’ style methods – can benefit from exploring supplementary digital options. If you are a PhD student, your skills with these digital techniques will be in hot demand when you finish, so I think you can’t afford to be purist and completely ignore them.

Printing out papers to read, rather than reading on a screen

Look, I totally get it. Paper is lovely and the reading experience is completely different. I still buy lots of paper books because I just prefer to hold something in my hand and having them lying around reminds me to read stuff. It’s much easier to flip back and forth though the pages in a book than on a device. Despite recent improvements that allow you to do approximate the page flip, most digital readers still reformat pages as you read, so it’s harder to find your ‘place’ again. It’s easier to teach with physical books – and you can lend them out to students, which is why we keep a small library of useful texts on hand in our office for candidates to borrow.

While I buy paper books, I do not print out research papers or articles to read. In fact, I cannot even connect to a printer at work so I am not tempted! Again the issue is scale, but this time it’s the opposite to my previous point. Small pieces of text are easier to manipulate, store, file and search if you keep them digital; whole books are easier to consume in the non-digital form. Of course, it’s still good to have the portability and accessibility of an ebook, so I will often buy both versions of books I use frequently.

Only taking notes on paper

Who doesn’t love a journal? People give them to me as presents frequently and I am always delighted. I have shelves full of journals stretching back to my undergraduate architecture school days. I open them occasionally, to visit Past Inger – she seems like another person altogether. These notebooks are full of fragmented, obscure notes that make no sense anymore. This is the key problem with keeping notes by hand: there is no context. The sequential pages are a bit like a blog: new entries tend to ‘drown out’  previous entries. It’s all too easy to lose important information.

I still like writing and drawing on paper – I do it all the time, but now, if I think I’ll want to refer back to the information, I photograph the results and store them in my Evernote database. Evernote has optical character recognition and can ‘read’ my handwriting, making my hand written notes searchable. I can also attach sound, writing and other files to my original hand made page to make ‘information rich’ nodes of information in my database. Notes on reading are best kept in bibliographic software; programs like Scrivener allow you to keep the notes close to the draft of the writing. While I take notes during meetings, I never rely on them as a record of what happened. I either send the person a summary of the key discussion and action points, or put the actions straight in my ‘to do’ list in Omnifocus. No one has time to read back through old journals and try to interpret what Past Inger was thinking!

Keeping references in a spreadsheet

I have not used the cite-as-you-write function of my bibliographic software since the day after I finished my dissertation. I know – I really should use it – but in practice I find it too annoying. 90% of my academic papers are written with other people; sending a paper with joined up references to people who don’t use the same software is a nightmare. Since I write what are essentially high-level text books, not historical surveys, my longer manuscripts have much less referencing than my dissertation. Unless you are writing long form, reference heavy text like a dissertation, or a history paper, I think it’s fine to do referencing manually. I don’t think it’s fine to keep said references in a spreadsheet, as I have seen some candidates do. That way lies madness.

What do you think? Do you have some artisanal research practices that you think are worth hanging on to? Or do you prefer to work entirely digitally? Love to hear more in the comments about your analog / digital hacks!