What’s your back up plan?

Let me tell you a story about my PhD.

I studied how architects and students gestured when they talked to each other. I was trying to find out what role gesture played in classroom communication and what implications this might have architectural education.

Screen Shot 2014-11-17 at 12.00.13 pmGesture is a visual medium, so I decided to use participant observation and video ethnography to collect my data. I sketched out a research design and picked two universities as sites for case studies. I did an ethics application and then approached people I knew at each university. I asked if I could film them inside their classrooms and was grateful when they accepted.

I spent many days with these teachers and their students and encountered many unanticipated problems along the way. Cloud computing and large capacity smart phones were not yet available so data handling was … awkward. As it turns out, analysing film data is extremely time consuming; every mintute took me hours and hours.

Then there were the people problems. Being in the field was confusing and difficult for everyone. Observing in the classroom was full of basic, but tricky problems. Where should I sit? How long should I stay? Who should I film? I’m grateful, to this day, that my teacher informants, Pia, Anna, Simon and Peter stuck with me and the students put up with me.

After a year of struggling with these problems I finally started to see patterns in what I was observing. I talked about what I was seeing with whomever would listen. People seemed really interested (or, at least, were polite enough to pretend). I developed some theories about what was going on and wrote a small conference paper. I started to plan the last semester of data gathering and map out a structure for my final thesis.

More importantly, after being consumed with self doubt during the early stages I started to feel really good.

I had this research thing totally sorted!

Then, one day, I got a call from a member of department at one of my research sites. This person had become aware of my research through casual conversation with his colleagues. He demanded a meeting where he asked me long and searching questions about my ethics approval approval and my process of data collection, in, I might add, a quite agressive tone.

I was mystified at the sudden attack, but tried to stay calm. I used all my recently acquired participant observation skills to try to work out what was really going on in the conversation.

It became apparent that this person had formed the opinion that my research was deliberately designed to bring his institution into disrepute. This was bewildering until I remembered an important detail: the two research sites were in different universities who had long considered themselves rivals. I had studied and worked at one for a long time before moving to the other to do my PhD. I had thought nothing of this rivalry at the time but now it seemed I had a tribal warfare problem. Perhaps this person considered me a ‘defector’ out to do my old institution harm?

I talked fast, trying to convince him that my data could not be used to find out if one university was ‘better’ than the other – even if I had been interested in this question. But he just looked at me skeptically. My heart sank when I realised another important detail: this person did not have a PhD and had no experience of doing research. Talking about epistomology was probably pointless. He was never going to believe me.

The meeting ended on a sour note, with him promising to refer the matter to the ethics committee, who, I knew, had the power to shut the project down and make me destroy the data.

I went home in a state of extreme agitation. This was a problem I literally could not solve. Had I made a fatal mistake? I had followed all the rules set up by the ethics committee to the letter – but would that be enough to protect me? If I lost half my data, the case study design would no longer work. Could I even finish my PhD?

I waited on tenterhooks for the axe to fall, all the time berating myself for not anticipating the problem. A week went by. Then another. Then a month. I asked at my university, but no complaint had been receieved. I didn’t know whether to relax or not. I was having trouble sleeping.

Two months or so later I ran into the person at a social event and asked him if he had sent the complaint yet. He chugged his beer and eyed me for a moment, in silence. Then he said he had decided not to bother as no one but the examiners would read my thesis anyway. I politely thanked him and walked away, stifling the strong urge to throw my drink in his face. I wonder to this day if his concern was genuine, and I had allayed his fears through my mad skills of research ‘splaining, or if he was just screwing with me.

This story has a happy ending: I finished my PhD, but I think it illustrates an important point: you need a back up plan. Preferably a plan that involves losing ALL your data. This sounds drastic, but it’s really a sensible risk management strategy and is time well spent. I suggest you sit down and ask yourself a couple of difficult questions.

If you lose your data, can you easily source an alternative, equivalent set?

Researchers are being encouraged to share their results so in some fields there’s lots of open data around. Spend a bit of time searching and see what’s out there already (ask a librarian to help you if you are confused). Or have a look at data in the public domain such as government data or archival data. Find a set that looks promising and write a quick research plan around it. Maybe it’s so good you don’t need to collect your own data after all! (hey – we can all dream).

If you lose your data, can you alter your research question slightly so you still have a thesis without any data at all?

This is what Stephen Johnson calls ‘the adjacent possible’. Could you look at the historical dimensions of a problem, rather than the contemporary issues? Can you do a completely theoretical project? Decide on a few tacks and write a quick research plan based each of these new approaches and evaluate them.

Of course, some disciplines are more forgiving than others in this regard: most scientists will have no project without data. In that case you need to ask yourself the really hard problem:

If you lose all your data how long, realistically, will it take you to either design and conduct a new study in the time you have left, or support yourself long enough to do it all over again?

If you need to delay your submission, where will you live? How will you support yourself? Are there visa problems? What are the rules around extending your candidature?

I hope I’ve convinced you to spend a day or so and make yourself a back up plan now – hopefully you will never have to use it!

How about you? Have you encountered a big problem which put your whole project at risk? What did you do? What did you learn?

More posts like this one

The researcher’s hunch

The valley of shit

24 thoughts on “What’s your back up plan?

  1. That sounds like a very unpleasant conversation and two months to go through. Thanks for sharing the article and highlighting how important it is to have a back up plan and (if possible) regularly back up your data.

  2. Hi, I have been reading for a long long time. Reading about a lot of things happening to you while pursuing your doctorate. I also read some of the guest articles. I would like to congratulate you on completion of your degree. And hope you keep on writing. Regards from India.

  3. Hi. This post was truly interesting. I’m still in undergrad and am questioning whether I should continue my education or join the workforce. I really appreciate this article. It gives me a small taste of what pursuing a PhD might entail, and the problems that can arise. Congratulations on achieving your doctorate as well!

  4. Thanks, this was a pleasant read. I do wonder how much losing all of the data actually happens and how sensible it is to make back-up plans for that. I mean of course if that did happen it would be disastrous, in my field you certainly can’t do a theoretical project, but open access data does exist and you could run analyses on that. My point is that this scenario is so unlikely that I am not convinced it is reasonable to advice people to have a plan for it. There are many things that can go wrong and it is good to prepare for some of them but for the unlikeliest cases I think we just need to trust our luck.

  5. That sounds really scary. And I take your point about back-up plans.

    But … and sorry, I know this may be unfair as I’m only seeing what you’re writing and not how this person came across in real life … I struggled a bit with two points. You said ‘this person did not have a PhD and had no experience of doing research. Talking about epistomology was probably pointless. He was never going to believe me.’

    And then you seem offended when he said he’d not complained as it was likely only your examiners would read your thesis.

    I don’t really see why it’s impossible to talk epistemology with people who don’t have PhDs or research experience. They’re not idiots. But if it were impossible to translate your work into anything a non-PhD would understand, surely, he’s not far wrong to feel it wouldn’t have an audience outside academia he was presumably worried about?

    • I take your point – you don’t need a PhD to understand research, but it certainly helps. Perhaps I could have done a better job explaining it, but at the time I was relatively inexperienced at that particular skill. I needed the 3MT!

      • Oh – and for the record. I wasn’t offended at the examiner comment. I knew that was old school rubbish with online these databases. The urge to throw my drink was the level of stress he had put me though. It would have been polite of him to let me know he wasn’t going to pursue it.

      • Oh, yes, I can relate to that completely – feeling utterly menaced by someone who you know isn’t actually taking your point on board.

        I just quibbled a bit over how you put it, but that may be me being defensive over non-PhDs.

  6. I totally second the need to have a back-up plan! I essentially lost the majority of my field data (or, more accurately, the ability to collect it). I identified this as a risk early on (albeit an apparently unlikely one), and so I am using another publicly available data set to mostly address the same questions. Its not the PhD I planned, but it is a PhD and it will be done within the 3-3.5 yr timeframe. Without my back-up plan I’d probably be back at square one at the 2 year mark.

    That would NOT be a good thing, and to be honest, I probably would have pulled the plug. I certainly know others that have been in that position, and unless you can handle another couple of income-less years you need a plan B. Don’t let an overly optimistic supervisor convince you- you are the one that has everything at stake, so YOU need to be the pessimist and to come up with the plan B.

  7. I’m in (what I hope) is the last 6 months of my PhD and have what you have termed elsewhere, “thesis panic” (that is a great post). This article didn’t help that one bit! I’m sure it is a good idea to have a backup plan but as I don’t have one, it just made me feel ill …

  8. While it’s not the main point of the story, just gotta say: another really wowing example of your fantastic resilience Inger! Now if you could only bottle that…

  9. I’m at a late stage of my candidature and this post is incredibly timely as I’m currently experiencing some of these very challenges, but for slightly different reasons. Health-related problems over the course of my PhD meant that what began as a practice-led PhD has now become largely theoretical. However, while shifting to a different approach through necessity, I never actually made that decision strategically or consciously, it just happened…
    The challenge I’m left with now is that there is significant conceptual and structural work to ‘re-build’ and it somehow feels like the ‘core’ of what I set out to do has been lost. I have decided not to include significant amounts of content, including ‘data’, methodology and methods I developed specifically for the thesis. As my health situation has presented ongoing physical challenges as well as practically constrained what I had set out to do in my fieldwork, I spent most of the first two years just trying to ‘get by’ and do the best I could… Without being able to really stop and take stock (outside of extended sick leave), I feel like I didn’t have the opportunity to clearly assess the implications and consequences of the shift to a more theoretical thesis, or approach the problem in any systematic way. My supervisor, while supportive, hasn’t seemed to catch this problem, often putting it down to the general PhD ‘crisis’ everyone goes through… Right now I’m trying figure out what I can make out of what I’m left with, and the time and energy I need to do it.

    • Reconsidering the whole structure when circumstances change is a huge, huge job. This is hard intellectual work. I wish you all the best with it – can recommend ‘authoring a PhD’ by Dunleavy as a text I find helpful for this sort of problem.

  10. Academia is sadly laden with people who are jealous and/or out to mark their territory. Someone who I thought was a friend almost scuppered my PhD prior to recruitment. I had to go elsewhere to recruit in the end. It was however one of the most valuable lessons I learnt through my PhD and has served my research career well – don’t put all your eggs in one basket. If everything goes exactly as planned in your PhD, you’ve probably done something wrong.

    In relation to my smiling assassin, I quickly learnt after obtaining my first post doctoral research grant that she was green with envy and felt very threatened by me. It’s a shame because we could have worked so well together. It’s her loss however

  11. Good blog and a great way to intro the back up plan warning. Your central problem was just garden variety arsehole. Glad you got the PhD in.

  12. Great post. While I didn’t experience quite the same situation during my PhD, there was a moment, about mid-way through my candidature, when my supervisor sat me down and asked “what would happen if you couldn’t access your field sites anymore?”. Unfortunately, unexploded ammunition had been discovered and all access to my wetland study sites was prohibited! I was able to switch some focus so didn’t end up as serious a problem as it could have been. I was lucky I always had a “plan B”!

  13. Great question, every grad student should have a back up plan and discuss it with their supervisor. I had problems with my original plan 2 years into my PhD and when I tried to discuss the issues with my supervisor, he didn’t offer any solutions or advice. So I had to come up with some ideas on my own but it was a struggle as I didn’t have anyone on my committee to help me with this topic. It seems that some hiccups are just due to bad luck, but often it is an indication that the student was not getting good guidance (or not following it, though in my experience it is usually the former).

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