Organizing your family photos: A metaphor for data analysis

Raw data, like raw film, takes work!

This summer I revisited a neglected personal project: organizing family photos into albums. My mother always dutifully printed off her films, wrote on the backs of pictures, and put them into albums. For a while, I did the same, dividing pictures into albums for me and my husband as well as each of the children. Then came the advent of digital cameras and after that, camera phones. Now everyone was taking pictures, but few were printing them off. At first, I tried to keep up with printing and putting into albums, but eventually gave up. I took the few pictures I had printed, and those people had mailed me, and shoved them into a photobox. Years later, I discovered this box again, full of pictures without homes that I need to make decisions about.

The decision making around those pictures is metaphor for the data analysis each researcher must do. For some photographers, each photo is precious and needs to be kept. For some researchers, every answer to every survey or interview question carries important information. However, to report the raw data, unanalyzed, would be akin to filling up a photo album with pictures in the order you pick out of the box. No rhyme, no reason. From the viewpoint of the researcher, this may seem valuable, but research is meant to be read and understood, so analysis is key.

Depending on the methodological framework, some data analysis is straightforward and follows given steps. However, for many researchers who embark upon thematic or content analysis, the structure is less obvious. Consider your research questions? Are you looking for specific themes or content as dictated by understandings developed by previous researchers? Then decide what those are and sort the data accordingly. If the data were pictures, you might consider sorting chronologically, by occasion, by holidays, or by featured people in the pictures.

Data is easier to work with once analyzed.

Next consider how salient the data is. Do you have some aspects that only occur once? Does that make them stand out as memorable and important or suggest that they are of lesser importance and may not contribute to the larger argument. Using the picture metaphor, do you have a picture of a long-lost relative that is important to keep because it is the only one that exists of that person or is this someone no one knows and therefore the picture would seem out of place on the album?

While this very general discussion might not alleviate all of a researcher’s questions about data analysis, it may shed light on why data analysis can be challenging. We want to keep all the data or we get overwhelmed by the decision-making, sometimes having to take the time to consider what our rationale is for our choices, so that we can feel confident in enacting them.

Completed data analysis is like a well-curated photo album.

Looking at your salient data, how clearly does everything fit within the theme? Does it appear that what you first thought was one theme adequately covers the data within it or does it need to be split into more themes? Consider if you were making an album of cousins and realized that you had too many for one album. Would you split the pictures up further in some way? Grouping them by family of origin or those closest to you? There often is no one right way to sort the data, but you will need to consider what your rationale is for making these decisions. My mother might argue that family of origin makes most sense, but then, she knows everyone in the pictures. My children might argue that they only want to see the cousins they actually know because otherwise the album is full of pictures of strangers. The importance is in having a sound rationale for deciding what fits into a theme, just as one decides what fits into an album.

5 years after graduation: A PhD journey retrospective

As I drove into campus today and witnessed students in convocation garb being photographed by family, I was reminded that on or near this day, five years ago, I was awarded my PhD.  Here is a numerical retrospective of my PhD journey:

10 teacher workshops

9 professional association memberships

8 different graduate courses taught

7 single-authored conference presentations

6 refereed journal articles

5 years since convocation

4 grants as Principal Investigator (PI)

3 grants as co-investigator

2 office moves

1 academic appointment

These numbers represent some picking and choosing to match up with the countdown and the list is by no means exhaustive. What they represent for me is dynamic interesting work that has also been emotionally and intellectually challenging. I look forward to celebrating more milestones in the coming five years. I will keep you posted.

Job searched and found

One of my first posts to this blog was about my job search:

“Anticipating the completion of my Ph.D. this academic year, I have been responding to job postings for Assistant Professor (Tenure Track) positions. This has involved the creation of a teaching and researching portfolio of quite some length. Online resources such as youtube videos from university HR departments and sample Statements of Research Experience and Statements of Teaching Philosophy have been insightful as to ways others have found of expressing what they do and why, as well as what employers look for and why. None of this replaces in-person mentorship for which I am extremely grateful to several professors who have been willing to read over my writing and provide me with constructive feedback. The job market for professorial positions is competitive and despite preparations for success, one must somehow also prepare for rejection. I am grateful to those university personnel who take the time to update applicants on the status of one’s application.  Wish me luck!” January 16, 2012

Looking back at this post two things stand out:

1. Oh boy, if I had only known how long it would take!

2. Why didn’t I add hyperlinks to make the post more useful to the reader?

In January 2012, I had just begun to write up my PhD research results into a dissertation. I kept myself to a tight timeline and encourage (nagged) my readers to do the same. As a result, I defended in August of that year and crossed the stage in November. With a PhD in the pipeline, I began that fall as a sessional instructor at the University of Calgary. From December 2011 – December 2014, I sent out job applications for any Assistant Professor and Instructor positions within Canada that I felt qualified for, some in German departments, but mostly in Education faculties. I even sent out two Post-Doc applications. The job applications resulted in three interviews. The first was July 2013, 18 months after I had started applying for positions. Receiving this interview taught me that there was no point in applying for general education positions or any that I was only remotely qualified for. It was a position that closely fit my qualifications that netted me attention. The second interview was for my dream job (on paper, didn’t get to find out for real). The experience was also valuable because I was able to visit a university I only knew by reputation, affording me the thrill of meeting some of my heroes, while also casting the institution in a more realistic light. The third interview was the charm. I was offered the position I now hold: Instructor in an education faculty with an administrative position that draws upon my international research experience and ties in nicely with my work in teacher education. Looking back, three years as a sessional instructor seems like a long time, but as I knew even back in 2012, there aren’t enough positions for all of the wonderful people out there who are qualified, interested and worthy. Still, on one hand, while I wish I had spared myself applying for those positions that weren’t a perfect match, on the other hand, I know that each application and interview was a step toward that one that proved successful and the one in which I believe I will be happiest in.

So, to make up for the lack of hyperlinks in the original post, here are some resources and tips based on what I found helpful in my job search as well as my experience on a hiring committee:

1. The cover letter is the most important item in your package. Taylor it to the job advertisement specifically addressing how you fit what they are asking for. All of the other items may just be glanced at, but if you point out one item in your package that is specifically relevant to the job, it will get more attention if you highlight it in your cover letter. For tips on this and all matters academic job related, visit http://theprofessorisin.com/. You can find out why your cover letter sucks and how to stop acting like a grad student.

2. If you are asked to provide a portfolio, put together one document with samples of your best work, rather than a collection of separate documents. I modeled the one I used to land the prestigious university interview after one I found online where someone was applying for tenure. I introduced each section with a brief explanation of what it showed about my skills, relating it back to the job advertisement.

3. Read up (or watch) all you can about academic interviews and take advantage of one of those how to eat properly dinners your university might offer. Going from the free food diet of grad school to the fine dining of (some) academic interviews can quite a challenge. Don’t forget to practice answering those typical academic interview questions out loud! You will be glad you did.

There are a great many tips out there, some useful and some not. Take these for what they are worth and good luck!

Successful defense!

I was ecstatic to have defended my dissertation “Simultaneous and Sequential Bilinguals in a German Bilingual Program”. The committee’s questions were challenging to be sure, but that was to be expected, especially in light of the many disciplines that were represented around the table. There were certainly times during this whole process when I felt that I may have bitten off more than I could chew. Having chosen such an in-depth project required equally detailed writing. The end product, including those edits that I had to make afterward, is the result is as much about learning to writing as it is about the content. I wish I knew then what I know now and I certainly aspire to apply what I have learned to future writing.

I was especially delighted to have four guests at my open defense, who shared in the excitement and also gave me some excellent feedback.

Looking back, I wish I had gone to some doctoral defenses before my own. I felt confident about the process, having witnessed a few Master’s defenses. In hindsight, I realize that doctoral defenses are that much more difficult and it would have helped to attend one.

Looking forward, I have plans for articles stemming from this dissertation and a few courses lined up to teach in the fall semester. The job search continues as well.

 

 

Writing my dissertation

I thought I had posted more recently, but the work of writing my dissertation consumed most of the last few months. There is the feeling that it will never be done, never be perfect, and some days, even the feeling that it is all wrong! Then there comes a point when it comes together and one can be satisfied, maybe even content. The near final edits occur (of course, there is more editing after the defense) and the document is printed and distributed. I submitted my dissertation to my committee on June 25 and now I am preparing for the defense.

Job search

Anticipating the completion of my Ph.D. this academic year, I have been responding to job postings for Assistant Professor (Tenure Track) positions. This has involved the creation of a teaching and researching portfolio of quite some length. Online resources such as youtube videos from university HR departments and sample Statements of Research Experience and Statements of Teaching Philosophy have been insightful as to ways others have found of expressing what they do and why, as well as what employers look for and why. None of this replaces in-person mentorship for which I am extremely grateful to several professors who have been willing to read over my writing and provide me with constructive feedback. The job market for professorial positions is competitive and despite preparations for success, one must somehow also prepare for rejection. I am grateful to those university personnel who take the time to update applicants on the status of one’s application. Wish me luck!

University Teaching

I have three opportunities to teach this semester. The first is part of a LANG course through the Language Research Centre. Open to senior undergrads and graduate students, this block week course offers lectures on the theme “Global Issues in Language Teaching and Learning”.  For more information, check out http://arts.ucalgary.ca/lrc/. I will be teaching on Wednesday: “Global Schooling Solutions for Linguistic Diversity”.

The second course I am teaching is a section of GERMAN 202 Beginner German. I look forward to teaching university students interested in acquiring a second language. I hope to integrate drama, film, music and technology where suitable.

The third course is a teacher preparation course. I will provide one weekly seminar to students in their first year of an after-degree program. The course is still in development and I am part of a larger team, so I look forward to learning more about it this month.

Language Research Centre

Over the course of my M.A. and Ph.D., I have had numerous opportunities to attend lectures at the Language Research Centre (LRC) of the University of Calgary. Topics range from language acquisition to theoretical linguistics to educational or social issues within the fields language teaching and language learning. This April I attended a symposium on Adult Language Learning for International Adult Learner’s Week. I decided to write an article for teachers in the journal Notos based on that event. This article goes beyond reporting the event and involves tracking down the research behind the claims made by panel members. The article has been accepted for publication and should appear in September. Once it is, I am hoping to provide a link.

Data collection

When people ask me how my research is going, I always tell them that I am now in the most satisfying part: data collection. I just love the feeling of getting stuff done. After a long period of conceptualizing the research, it is wonderful to be able to DO research. On top of that, I love working with children and teachers and so find myself in an environment where I feel really at home. It is great to begin transcription of the interviews and tasks and hear some of the comments that support my proposed arguments. Everything is on schedule to conclude data collection at the end of this month. Then the writing begins!

Candidacy oral exam successfully completed

I am still debriefing from my candidacy oral examination that took place yesterday. The paper provided the springboard for questions on theories behind the methodologies and application of the methodological tools to my research proposal. Some questions were truly challenging, because it was clear that the questioner had something particular in mind, but had to craft the question in such general language that it was difficult to decide which direction to take the answer. The post-examination feedback is perhaps most useful. I now know what area of reading I need to concentrate on before beginning my literature review. I also have a few points to discuss with committee members with regards to the wording of specific interview questions that generated a great deal of discussion. For example,  how does one ask parents what dialect they speak at home when the term dialect may convey connotations of judgment regarding the validity of that language variety?

The next step is to receive Ethics Approval from both the University and the School Board, but both processes are underway, so I feel confident that my data collection will begin in the new year.