Showing posts with label career. Show all posts
Showing posts with label career. Show all posts

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

How to ensure that First Year @ University is a success

Logic of Failure - Metaphysics of Success

Many universities are concerned about failure rates. It is not uncommon for 25% of students to fail to complete their first year successfully. 

Academics are mildy irritated that they are constantly under pressure from the management to improve success rates. Rather cruel responses might run like this:

" I'm sorry, it is really beyond my control if you break up with your girlfriend in week 3 and stop attending classes."

[But depression is a REAL problem for some students. Check out this article: Yes, you can crawl out of your first-year depression at university  | Nell Frizzell ]

"Am I responsible if you lose the power of motion because you've been living on nothing but porridge oats for the last term before the exams, having spent your parents' money on beer."

"I can recommend counselling services. Remember ... you are now deemed to be an adult; you will be expected to take responsibility for your life. Time for a reality check?"

"Is it my problem if your only relationship effort went into your Xbox/Nintendo/ipad/SKY-tv ?"

On a more serious note, the most common reasons for dropping out or failing your first year are

- inability to adjust to life away from the safety, ease and security of homelife

- lack of independent revision skills

- acquisition of a drink or drug habit
- homesickness

- a disastrous and traumatic first year relationship

- pregnancy or serious illness

- lack of motivated study, planning and work skills

- failure to adapt to the new level of work expected in academia

- lethargy, indolence, incompetence

- doing a job full time rather than working on your degree

- having made the wrong choice of location, or university

- loneliness, depression, mental breakdown

- starvation or malnutrition; inability to cook

- failure to attend classes and exams

- poverty, poor financial planning and bankruptcy

- family bereavement or other crisis

- not understanding the requirements of the degree syllabus

- over-indulgence in leisure activities, especially solo

Play is a reward - not a replacement - for academic work achieved

Clearly there are both academic and socio-psychological-personal reasons for failure.

Students seldom drop out or fail because they are judged not to be brainy enough! Most hard-working students will have a very successful and enjoyable first year. So keep a sense of balance and maintain a sense of proportion. If you start to feel excessively pressured or anxious seek help early from tutors or from student services.

Generally the bar is set quite low in all but the most elite universities and in all but the most competitive subjects. In fact, you would be surprised how poor some of the academic work is that gains a pass. In my opinion some of it is GCSE standard. Having said that, will you be employable with a third class degree (=40%) ? By taking your first year seriously you establish strong skills that will be a firm foundation for your future progress.

The answer is probably yes if you have excelled in your extra-curricular activities and in your networking. I'm told that sport, volunteering and drama are recommended for character-building, confidence and leadership.

The good news, however, is that the pass rates for second and third year are typically 95%.

But there are also some other issues that require further explanation. 

For instance, across the US, the drop-out rate averages 25%, but you are twice as like to drop out if you are Hispanic, Black, or American Indian, compared to being a White student, research suggests. Why does this happen? 


Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(2013) and 
11+ English  (2015). Also available on Kindle, or to download.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Finding your authentic academic voice

Are you still sharpening your use of academic language, or are you loosening the reins?

The title of this blog points to the tensions involved in professional educational writing. In one sense the purely personal, original, pre-academic voice is a fiction. By joining the ranks of academe your voice has already begun to switch from a personal to a public voice. Taking the micky becomes parody or satire, for instance. Academic writing loses colloquial speech-like qualities and takes on the jargon of professional authenticity. And speech also tends to lose the accent and dialect of your class roots. Sadly, standard academic English is a rather middle-class business proposition. There is a gain but there is also a loss.

But academic voice in the arts and the social sciences need not be the bleak accent of dry neutrality and emotionless abstraction. Surely there's an error in losing the individual idiosyncrasy of the human pulse in this domain of work?

While it is true that the lexis of academic disputation is often overused it is clearly helpful if you want to signal degrees or shades of difference in your interpretation. In that regard arts and social sciences judgements are not derived from logical positivism, and evidence and interpretation have shades of gray. All writers also deploy a variety and range of connectives to link ideas and signpost the flow of thoughts. The trick is not to use them too much, or too little, because you will end up sounding like a robot, rather than a sentient and sensitive human creature! In summary ...

Language is your tool, not your master.

Is it worth pointing our that grammarians are divided between those who describe actual living usage, and those who try to enforce, regulate and prescribe based on tradtion? Our greatest writers, such as Shakespeare, were often ungrammatical by modern standards.

Have we become too prescriptive and normative in our deployment of academic writing skills? Academic composition has certainly spawned an academic sub-industry of poorly and well-paid tutors who will offer you the keys to success. They will help you to pay lip-service to the discourse of acdemia.

Academic discourse is a specialist use of English which is still evolving. I suspect that it’s becoming less stiff and stylised nowadays. An example of the current informaility is the tendency to use the first person pronoun “I” instead of the neutral objectivity of the third person. Even abbreviations and speech like contractions are now common, as I’VE noticed in recently published academic books. By claiming to be a common language of transparency academic discourse pretends to show us the ideas, rather than the person speaking them. Eventually by playing them game you lose your consciousness of the rules by which it operates.

At its worst academic discourse serves as a defensive armour or shield; at its best it supports the elegant deployment of necessary subtleties.

Any thoughts? Have you been sharpening or loosening your academic style?

Useful Sites

Academic Phrasebank. Created by the University of Manchester.

Using English for Academic Purposes. A Guide for Students in Higher Education

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(Quibble Academic, 2013)

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

PhD Roadmap: 9 Tips for a Successful Doctoral Submission

From time to time PhDs are submitted and they are failed. Your 3 to 7 year investment does not come with any guarantee of a pass. Nor is it enough complain that the supervisory team did not tell you that you might fail, or that you are at risk. While failure is very uncommon, there are no guarantees of success.

Most examiners are looking for positive evidence of success, but they are also required to identify weaknesses and errors. Both roles comprise the work of critical scrutiny and the professional process of examination.

On one occasion when I was serving as a PhD examiner we required major corrections with a 24 month timetable as that seemed to be the alternative to a failure. But the alarm bells ought to have been clear well before submission. Multiple errors and weaknesses may result in protracted re-submission or even outright failure.

Examiners often spot weaknesses that your supervisors may not have identified or scrupulously checked. It is not uncommon for examiners to check the accuracy of all your sources, for instance. Sometimes examiners will compete to find the most errors in your work!

Cumulatively minor changes are alarming because they point to a lack of accuracy and a poor standard of professionalism. Even minor corrections many involve months of tiresome (and expensive) checking of sources in overseas research libraries, if that’s where you used unique texts...

Here are some quick fix solutions to help you avoid the dreaded F-verdict.

1. Original Contribution is the Key

Be clear about your original contribution to the body of human knowledge. That’s what the doctoral qualification is based on. This does not mean that you will not be heavily dependent on a collaborative engagement with others and with past scholarship. But is does help you case if you are able to outline what you have discovered that is new. It’s not enough to create patchwork, a new mix, or a mash-up. Therefore stress the unique contribution of your work and be clear about which parts offer fresh interpretations or challenges to the orthodoxy. This does not mean that your work has to revolutionise the entire discipline or field of enquiry. But you will need a balance between humility and a realistic sense of what your achievements have been.

2. Errors in References, Footnotes and the Bibliography

These are the anchor for your work and the foundation for professionalism. If you have maintained these accurately from the start then your final preparation of your thesis will be stress free. It is essential that your format corresponds with that recommended by your institution, and that it is consistent. Check punctuation and title formats in italics, publisher, place and date of publication in the right order. If there are 12 or more mistakes you may be in trouble.

Also check that you are using standard editions of key works. Penguin Books, for instance, often modernise spellings and style, whereas Oxford UP does not.

3. Fat or Thin Bibliographies

Don’t force feed a bibliography with stuff that you never read or did not use. At the other extreme don’t just list the texts that you worshipped as your guiding lights. Omissions suggest you did not read enough, or that you are concealing your influences. On the other hand, unnecessary additions suggest a forest of confusion; they are the vice of excess packaging.

4. Ideological shorthand and sleight of hand.

A theoretical bag of tricks often appears to be essential for the post-post-post-structuralist. Don’t mix and match schools of ideas and concepts just for show, and don’t be shallow. Critical and theoretical terms often have distinctive histories and traditions.

You might hang yourself by a loose use of deconstruction and signifiers left hanging on inappropriate semiotics. Key words and ideas require careful and consistent use. Sloppy and inconsistent use suggests that you are unsure about the progression of your thesis.

5. The solution to the word/world/universe thesis.

If your thesis is too big it may buckle under the pressure. Don’t pretend that you can overturn a major scholar’s life’s work in 3 years' scholarship. Unless your are blessed with genius and superhuman powers your most original work will be achieved in your post-doc years.

6. Research sources need to show a chronological range.

If you just rely on research undertaken since 2000 you may well be losing vital evidence that supports the foundation and origins of your work. You may miss minority or contested debates. Similarly, your work also needs to show evidence that it is up-to-date. Again, sweeping generalisations about Descartes or Darwin, or Hegel or Derrida should be avoided. Be precise about intellectual phases and developments and reference works and texts rather than author summaries.

7. Avoid general statements that lack evidence

Scholars agree that...
Many critics have proposed that...
A minority of academics would disagree.

We need names and footnotes. Sweeping statements tend to betray lazy scholarship
We need precision and we are looking for nuance and detail. Demonstrate your familiarity with all relevant secondary critical texts by footnoting and discussing appropriately.

8. Tell-tale signs of the rushed submission

Apart from the multiplication of errors relating to accuracy, the obvious signs of a rushed submission will be evident in the style of writing. The style is uneven, sometimes colloquial, often fuzzy. The lack of lucidity and precision fogs the sense of your work. Baggy or half-baked sentences stifle communication.

9. Heads and Tails.

It is essential to write a solid introduction and a firm conclusion. These require more careful thought, and more studious revision than any other part of your work. They open and close the doors to success or failure. Poor openings and endings suggest a lack of confidence or an unseemly rush to complete against the clock.

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(Quibble Academic, 2013)

Also available on Kindle, or to download.

Also try: The Art of the Abstract

A Quick Guide to Writing and Abstract.