Virtuosity 11.11

Where words become worlds…

Archive for the category “Grad school”

Week 11 Thesis Countdown

Last week, I’ve interviewed over ten community members from my research site! Although I may need to do a few more interviews, this week is dedicated to writing the methods chapter of my thesis, parts of my findings chapter, and the theoretic analysis of my interviews.

The process of analyzing interviews can be rather slow. First, I contact people to see if they are interested in interviewing with me — these have been people who have offered to interview, or they are people who indicated on my learning survey that they’d be willing to interview. In order to select people, I do what is called purposeful sampling. In other words, I find people whose particular experiences (or lack of experiences) can help me understand particular questions that I have about the model I am developing.

Unlike research that we are used to (such as the physical sciences), qualitative research is about understanding how people define things on their own terms. Thus, even a simple term like “learning” may mean different things to different people. My interviews are to get at what people come to understand as “learning,” and how they learn at the Builder’s Brewery.

Once I’ve contacted people, and they have given me consent to interview them, I conduct a 1.5-2 hour interview. To help prepare my interviewees, I give my interviewees example questions ahead of time so that they know the things that I’ll be asking about. These interviews are recorded, while I’m also taking down notes about what they say. Afterward, I go back to the recording and transcribe the interview, so that I can pay attention to the exact words that participants use. These words and terms make-up the skeleton for my model.

Once I have the transcript and my notes, I code them. What this means is that I break up the interview into blocks, where each block signifies some code, or refers to a certain experience. I may have to go through transcriptions several times like this, because each time I go through a transcription, I may see different things.

Afterward, I put all my interviews side-by-side, and look for overarching themes and commonalities as well as differences. These get recorded, too, as thematic codes. This is what goes into my learning model.


Week 12 – Thesis Countdown

I’ve been busy these past two weeks with interviews and survey analysis! So far, I have interviewed six people from my community, and intend to interview a few more.

A few people have asked me about my research, and I’ve noticed that many people do not have a good understanding of the grounded theory methodology that I use. This methodology is very different from traditional research methods, in that I’m using an abductive process to create a theory of learning from the data that I’ve collected. Unlike the tradition of designing quantitative experiments and testing hypotheses, the theory-building process in my methodology is entirely qualitative, and is not based on experimentation or statistical significance. Instead, I collect data from a variety of sources, such as observations, participation, and interviews, to interpret and find patterns within these data to try and understand individual learning experiences. These patterns are then tested for trustworthiness by member-checking, and a process called triangulation (seeing whether these patterns hold across multiple time points, data sources, conditions, and situations).

This week, I will be analyzing my interviews thematically — I look at what all my interviews have in common, and also where they differ. By analyzing these data thematically, I can then compare it to my survey data to see whether these patterns hold true for everyone, or whether these are unique instances for individual people.

Also for this week, I’ll be doing a few more classroom observations, as well as continue teaching at my site.


Week 14 – Thesis Countdown

Although I am still collecting data from my research site, I’ve started to think about how to organize and write my thesis. For those of you who are unfamiliar with my blog, I have been doing research in Second Life for my thesis since April.

My data collection has three different phases:

  • Phase I – included detailed observations and field notes of classes, events, and chat logs from my site. In this phase, the intent was to understand the site, the community, and the activities that were happening at this institution in Second Life. I then began to develop a coding scheme to analyze my data and to develop a learning model from my analysis.
  • Phase II – I am currently in phase II of data collection, which includes surveys on what people do, and how they learn in Second Life, as well as detailed interviews with community members. During this time, I’ve started to interview different people within my community to understand their experiences and perspectives. These data are also coded, but with the intent to further develop my learning model and to refine the patterns that I am seeing. At this stage, I’m also testing for variations in my data, exceptions, and alternative explanations. In other words, my data collection and analysis is intended to further develop and test the validity of my learning model.
  • Phase III – Next month, I will be in the final phase of data collection. During this time, I will be rigorously testing my model, and deliberately looking for instances where perhaps my model does not hold up. I’ll also start the member-checking process – whereby, I will share my findings and observations with community members to see whether what I have learned and observed is an accurate representation of their learning experiences.

During my current, Phase II, of data collection, I’ve conducted three interviews. I’ll continue to contact interview people throughout the month. At the same time, I’ll be analyzing the transcriptions that I gather from these data, and comparing them with and against my survey data as well as data from Phase I!

As far as the big picture… there are 96 more days left before my November 30th deadline to get my first dissertation draft completed. That leaves me with 14 weeks left, and my goal this week is to write a draft of Chapter 4, which is the methods chapter of my thesis.



Bloomberg, L.D., & Volpe, M. (2016). Completing your qualitative dissertation (3rd ed). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE



From Here to There – A PhD Student Timeline

mountain-1510951_960_720The stages that grad students go through in order to earn their PhDs is somewhat of a black box for people looking from the outside. This is partially because everyone’s timeline is different; people may take longer to complete one part of their program over another. For example, my comprehensive exams took longer to complete because I was figuring out exactly what I wanted to research. My dissertation proposal stage, however, took only a few months to complete because my comprehensive exams gave me a very strong foundation. In fact, my comprehensive exams provided the backbone for the two chapters of my proposal! For those who are curious, here is a rough outline of my own journey through my PhD program:

First 2 years – PhD classes, along with an assistantship that paid my tuition and a stipend. I also took a research apprenticeship, which helped me understand the research process in social science.

Years 3-5 – Comprehensive exams. The comprehensive exams helped me specialize in my field and gave me a very firm background in online learning theories. To me, these exams were very tough, because after I took my coursework, I moved away from my university and my academic community. In doing so, I was rather isolated from having conversations that could have really helped with my thinking. I had three professors on my exam committee who read and graded my exams.

Years 5-6 – Thesis proposal and proposal defense. The thesis proposal took me five months to write and rewrite (Aug-Dec), about and three months afterward (Jan-Mar) to go through the actual proposal process. When a PhD student finishes their exams, they immediately begin forming their thesis committee, which is made (at a minimum) of their academic advisor, one external professor (who is either outside of your department, or outside of your university), and two other professors who have some expertise in your field.

For me, I have four advisors: my academic advisor, who is an expert on virtual research and digital ethnography; a professor who is an expert on learning theory; a professor who is an expert on theory and virtual research (my external committee member); and a professor who is an expert on qualitative research design. Once you complete the thesis proposal, your committee reads it, and decides on whether there needs to be changes to it, or whether it is good enough to defend. Sometimes (like in my case), the committee provides suggestions or questions that you must read and address — these questions strengthen your research framework. If you get the green light to defend (which I received in January, after the committee had a month to read the proposal), the university assigns an independent chair to your proposal. The independent chair is someone in the university outside your department who reads the proposal, and determines whether it is fit to defend. They are there to ensure that the proposal was graded fairly, and they oversee the proposal defense.

The proposal defense itself consisted of a 15 minute presentation where you address any questions or suggestions that your committee had. Then, everyone discusses the methodology and helps you finalize everything before you start your study. So in a way, your written thesis proposal may not quite look like your actual research study once it’s been discussed by the committee (as in my case).

After the proposal defense (if you get approved), you go on to the next stage, which is to submit your research proposal to the review board for ethical review!

What to do when you’re waiting for feedback on your comp

220px-montregousset001Each time I submitted a large assignment, like my comprehensive exams or my dissertation proposal, it took several weeks before I received feedback from my advisor and my committee. While I waited for feedback, I worked on other things. Here’s some suggestions on what you can be doing while you wait for comprehensive examination feedback:

  1. Write a memo about the process. Note the work you did, what you were thinking at the time, and take stock of how you’re going to take things forward.
  2. If this is not your last comprehensive exam (all institutions are different when it comes to the doctoral process), start on your next comp. You can begin outlining, framing key ideas, look for exemplars, etc.
  3. If this is your last exam, start working on the research question. Two books that I highly recommend are Terrill’s (2015) Writing a Proposal for Your Dissertation, and Bloomberg and Volpe’s (2015) Completing Your Qualitative Dissertation: A Roadmap from Beginning to End. Read example proposals from your department, and study how they are put together.
    1. Work on your conceptual framework. An excellent book to help you understand the different theoretical framings for your study is Ravitch and Riggan’s (2016) Reason and Rigor: How Conceptual Frameworks Guide Research.
  4. Check your transcripts, and talk with your advisor to make sure you’ve got the credit loads that you need. If not, now is a good time to make up work and tie up any loose ends.
  5. Update your CV, your websites, your portfolios, etc.

Take some time to relax, and unwind! Do yoga, exercise, or just lay down and breathe while you relax your muscles. When I was working on my exams, it felt as if I was on ultra stress mode every day for months. This takes a lot out of you, so remember to breathe and go slowly. You need to recover because the next big step is coming up!


Scrivener and Nonlinear Writing

I find that the beginning of any academic paper is an intimidating place to start writing. For some reason, blank screens constipate my mind, and the ideas stop flowing. I can barely get past the second word on my first sentence before I feel like blowing the whole thing up — except there’s nothing there to blow up to begin with!

To solve this rather peculiar problem, I write the findings first. It’s easier to write what has already been said, rather than (how I feel) making things up in the intro. Although programs like Word almost force you to write from the beginning, I’ve found that Scrivener’s nifty way of breaking each part of the paper down, so that you can start at any section, and go for it!

You can read more about how grad students can use Scrivener by checking out the DoctoralWriting SIG blog, which is chock full of helpful tips.

Happy Writing and Researching!


Find your inner warrior

Warriors create themselves through

trial and error,

pain and suffering,

and their ability to conquer their own faults.


Control the enemy

Your enemies are the things that keep you down. They are also the things that can make you strong, if you control and defeat them.

Enemies such as fear, procrastination, inadequacy, and low self esteem do not stay dead. Instead, they come back stronger and more clever. Do what you must to defeat them. It is the doing that makes you stronger and better than you were before.



Cut your enemy

You’ve identified your enemies. These are the things that keep you from your destiny.

Cut them. Face every day with a plan to fight against the things that keep you from your goals. Cut your enemies. With every dragon you slay, you grow stronger. Sometimes, that enemy is the fear that lies within yourself.



Do things. Do simple things that make you feel grateful to be alive.


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