Thursday, 23 June 2011

Why we need to be talking about the LIS new professionals "clique"

Wow – what an incredible week. The aftermath of the New Professionals Conference is proving to be as lively and exciting as the event itself. I’m still not quite sure how it happened, but last night the reaction to my suggestion that the online LIS new professional community might be perceived to be a “clique” exploded on Twitter. At one point pretty much every tweet I could see in my stream contained  the word “clique”. It even picked up its own hashtag (#cliquegate). It was overwhelming and extremely surreal to see such a public debate amongst so many people (both new and experienced) on something that I had said. I found myself apologising for it, which I would now like to retract – I am not at all sorry that I got people talking about the “clique”. The reactions to the idea that we might be a clique were often emotive and defensive, ranging from bewilderment to anger. Many (again, both new and experienced professionals) felt that it was an unfair perception, and that the fault lay with the person who saw us in that way, not with us.

I’m not going to discuss my thoughts on whether we are or are not a “clique”. That has already been done eloquently, thoughtfully and thoroughly by a number of people, in blog posts (by Michael Cook and Stevelin), the Twitter debate which still continues as I type (albeit much less furiously), and the discussion on the LISNPN forums. What I would like to propose is that we need to accept, whether it’s true or not, that somebody perceives us to be a clique, and then we need to move on in whichever way we see fit. 

For anyone who is not aware of the context to the “clique” issue, it arose from the paper that I presented at the CILIP CDG New Professionals Conference on Monday. As part of my paper I presented some small-scale research in which I attempted to discover some experienced LIS professionals’ perceptions of new professionals. Two of my 35 respondents expressed some concern about “exclusivity” in the online new professional community, with one respondent saying that, although they thought they might still fall into the new professionals category themselves, they did not “identify with the current clique”. I suggested that this should be a concern for us, as it is something which could be creating a barrier between new and experienced professionals, and argued that we need to take the lead in engaging with our experienced colleagues, in order to break down such barriers for the good of the profession as a whole. 

One of the criticisms of my findings is that we shouldn’t take the thoughts of one person out of 35 in a survey to be a sign that there is a problem. I said right from the start of my paper that we could not draw any firm conclusions from my survey; with such a small number of respondents, we cannot take the opinions expressed to be representative of those of experienced LIS professionals as a whole. However, the fact remains that someone feels that we are a clique. It is possible that they are the only LIS professional in the country or in the world, or maybe one of two or three, who feels this way, in which case I might agree that they are over-sensitive. But it is also possible that one in every 35 experienced LIS professionals holds this perception, in which case we have a big problem. I suspect that the true figure lies somewhere in the middle of these scenarios. Let’s not forget that the only places in which I distributed my questionnaire were Twitter and the LIS-LINK Jiscmail mailing list, meaning that many of the respondents were probably Twitter users and thus more likely to feel involved in the general online LIS community; is it not possible that there could be many people who feel that we are a clique who did not even see the survey?

Whether we like it or not, the fact remains that someone, who is potentially one of us, sees us as a clique which they cannot infiltrate. I can understand why people feel upset about this; I know that we are a friendly and welcoming group, and I am also one of the many people who puts much of their spare time and effort into helping to maintain this absolutely amazing online community. I was disappointed, upset and concerned when I found the word “clique” in my survey data. I also hate the idea that I am part of a clique because the word makes me think of the popular groups at school, whom I would scurry past as quickly as possible for fear that they would turn their withering, disdainful gaze on me. I am also not accusing any individuals of being cliquey or unfriendly. I am simply reporting what I discovered, and arguing that we cannot dismiss it simply because we don’t like it or because lots of people think otherwise. We know that is easy to join the community on LISNPN and Twitter because we have done it, and we felt confident enough to do it. But do you not remember how daunting Twitter was when you first joined? Can you not imagine how it could be even more daunting for someone who is not hugely confident with the internet or social media in general? When many of us joined, the community was still in its infancy – can you not imagine how someone who wants to join in now might feel?

The argument that there is no room in the profession for someone who lacks confidence and feels unable to get involved has been made. I agree to an extent. However, people often need help to build up this point, and we shouldn’t be immediately banishing anyone for whom the confidence to express their ideas and take action doesn’t come naturally – librarianship is not The Apprentice! I have only become an extrovert in the past few years, during which my self-confidence has grown immensely for various reasons. Confidence can be developed and the ability to engage can be learnt. People may just need some support to get there.

Another point of view that has been expressed is that we have more important things to worry about than people feeling excluded from the online community. I am not denying that our profession is facing some massive obstacles and difficult times, and I do not for a second want to undermine the physical, mental and emotional energy, not to mention the time, that several people in particular are investing in trying to make a difference. However, I would argue that this perception of us as a “clique” is an important issue that some of us should be trying to deal with. Alice Halsey, Simon Barron and Biddy Fisher reminded us at the New Professionals Conference that advocacy starts on a personal level, in the way that we conduct and represent ourselves as librarians to the people we meet. Megan Wiley then pointed out that, in times of cuts, it is more important than ever for us to be communicating our own worth.  So, I would argue, the perceptions that people have of us are actually really important, and for me this includes the perceptions that we hold of other people in our profession; if someone views a particular group of librarians as being a clique, then someone within that group needs to try to change that. I feel that this could be my contribution to library advocacy, and, although I may not be doing anywhere near as much as those people involved in major advocacy campaigns, I could still help the cause. In challenging times, the LIS profession needs to be a united one, in which members support each other, and in order for this to happen we need to deal with any conflict, mistrust or negative perceptions within the membership.

While I do not apologise for raising this contentious issue, I do apologise for anything I’ve said that has made anyone feel offended or undermined. I cannot ignore the perception that was expressed in my survey. As I said at the start of my post, I feel very strongly that we have to come to terms with the fact that someone thinks we are a “clique”, accept it, and move on, in whatever manner we feel appropriate. For me, this is to try to do something about it. I started today, when I fed back material and issues from the New Professionals Conference to a group of colleagues during an internal staff development session. I addressed the issue of the clique head-on, and asked them to accept any offers of getting involved with us. My next steps will be to think and put into action other methods of engaging with people outside of the new professional community, as I suggested in my paper. It is, however, up to you how you want to proceed. I hope that some of you will join me in trying to ensure that we are not seen as a clique. I expect that many of you will feel that your time is better spent elsewhere, and that’s fine too. I continue to believe that we need to break down barriers for the good of the profession as a whole, and I feel that this is the first barrier that I should tackle.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Reflections of a first-time speaker

As I said in my previous blog post about the New Professionals Conference 2011, I was lucky enough to be selected as one of the speakers. This was my first proper conference presentation; I’d submitted a proposal, had it accepted, had written a paper, and was standing in front of approximately 60 or 70 expectant faces, with a PowerPoint, lectern and microphone. This is quite a difficult post to write, as I have very conflicting feelings about how things went; part of me is absolutely buzzing, and part of me is disappointed in myself. I worked so hard on my paper, and received some great responses from people, but I feel my delivery could have been much better and didn’t do justice to all the work I’d put into it. I am unsure whether I should publish this post, not just because I can’t decide how I feel, but also because I don’t want to come across as fishing for compliments. That is absolutely not the case. I’m supposed to be reflecting on my experience, and reflection is all about being critical and honest, so that’s what I’m doing.
Anyone who has been anywhere near me in real life or on Twitter over the past couple of weeks will have known that I was nervous! Really nervous. I get nervous before teaching or presenting. When I’m teaching, the nerves usually go away quite quickly once I get into it. The same happens when I present to colleagues. But when I’m presenting in an environment where a lot rides on how well I present, i.e. a job interview, the nerves stay with me, and try to infect my voice, my legs, my hands and my brain. So I didn’t have a track record that suggested I would be miraculously OK once I got up on stage! But I thought I might be. I was extremely well-practised. I’d done a final run-through before leaving the hotel room that morning, in front of the mirror, and I was pretty good. I was feeling nervous still, but confident that I could control the nerves. I’m not sure what happened, but this wasn’t the case. I remember how fast I spoke (I speak fast normally and I make a conscious effort to slow down when I’m presenting, but that went out the window). I remember falling over words. I remember trying to make my posture relax in the hope that this would make my brain relax, and I do think this started to work towards the end. As soon as I got off the stage, I wanted to go back up and start all over again and get it right. I was immediately disappointed in myself; I had worked so hard, had some great material, and I felt that I had spoilt it with my nervous, rushed delivery. I also felt that I had spoilt any chance of being asked to speak at other events. Several people have mentioned that speaking at one event like the New Professionals Conference has led to them being asked to speak at others, and, as nervous as I get, I do want to do more speaking, and presenting of my own research. I had hoped that yesterday would be a way in for me, but, to be honest, based on my performance, I wouldn’t ask me to speak at my event!
I’m not sure what I would do next time about the nerves. I rehearsed thoroughly and took Bach’s Rescue Remedy beforehand! I think maybe what might help would be to go and look at the room in advance, stand on the stage, work out how I’m going to hold myself and how I’ll stand in relation to the computer screen and a lectern if there is one, work out whether to hold my cue cards or put them on the lectern. I didn’t do this this time, and I think that might have been a mistake. I went in blind, and didn’t go anywhere near the stage until it was my turn to speak. I think another problem that I had was that I had a lot of material to squeeze into twenty minutes, so I think the presentation was always going to feel a bit rushed, even if I spoke slowly. Next time perhaps I need to be more realistic about what I can achieve in the time available, and adapt my proposal accordingly at an earlier stage.
However, as I said, despite a twinge of disappointment, I am buzzing! Despite my delivery of my paper, I received loads of positive responses to it, both to my face and on Twitter. Attendees appeared interested in what my survey brought up, and were tweeting as I spoke. My discovery that there was a perception of new professionals being a “clique” has sparked some discussion, and at least one blog post on this specific issue. Interest in what I said is still fairly high on Twitter several days later, including amongst those who didn’t attend the conference, which suggests I have made some kind of impact. The evidence-based nature of my paper was praised, and several delegates have told me that they found it relevant to their professional lives. I have been asked if I will be publishing a full written version of my survey results and paper and the answer is yes, I will! I am inspired to carry on writing and doing my own research, and the vague idea that someday in the future I could be a practitioner-researcher is becoming far more concrete and immediate a possibility. One of my objectives in my Chartership PPDP is to publish and to speak at conferences, and I am going to continue submitting paper proposals, both for written work and conference presentations. I intend to get better at speaking; practice makes perfect, after all! I will take the steps I mentioned above to try to minimise the nerves, and I will keep trying. OK, maybe no one is going to come knocking at my door asking me to speak at their event just yet, but that’s fine; I’ll just keep on submitting proposals and seeking out speaking opportunities myself.
I hope this post isn’t too self-indulgent. Perhaps it belongs in my Chartership portfolio as a private reflection. I think I am going to publish it; my suggestions for how to do things better next time might be useful for someone. I am feeling far more positive than negative about it now, and writing it all down has helped with that. Overall, speaking at the New Professionals Conference 2011 was the most amazing, exhilarating experience, and I would encourage anyone who is considering submitting a conference paper proposal for the first time to go ahead and just do it!

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

The CILIP CDG New Professionals Conference 2011

Yesterday I attended the CILIP Career Development Group New Professionals Conference in Manchester. I was lucky enough to be attending as a speaker, and the whole day was an absolutely amazing experience which left me exhilarated, emotional, inspired and drained! It was lovely to see some old friends and acquaintances, meet several people with whom I’ve built a rapport on Twitter but had not yet met in real life, and to see some new faces. Sadly there were a few people from Twitter who I didn’t manage to catch up with – hopefully next time! I’ve come away with a lot to think about and do, and a day later I am still trying to make sense of all of my thoughts, hence why this is probably the first of several blog posts!

The day was a mixture of presentations and workshops. The speakers, and several of the workshop facilitators, were new professionals themselves; this was one of the criteria for submitting a paper. The full programme of presentations and workshops is available here. The first speaker of the day was Helen Murphy, who introduced us to CPD: 23 Things for Professional Development (CPD23 for short), a project being run by librarians at Cambridge (including Helen) which will help LIS professionals to develop their skills through using 23 tools, one per week, and then reflecting on what they have learnt. Helen pointed out that CPD (Continuing Professional Development) is hugely important for new professionals, particularly in a time of economic downturn, and explained how CPD23 overcomes many of the barriers to CPD; it’s free, it’s self-paced (there are “reflection weeks” built into the programme to allow participants to catch up if they’ve missed a week), it’s inclusive, and it’s fun! CPD23 is open to anyone; to register, all you need to do is create a blog, if you don’t already have one, and register the URL at the site. I love CPD, and also love any chance to play with online tools and to blog, so I signed up for CPD23 a while ago, but if I hadn’t I’m sure Helen would have convinced me to register as soon as I got home; she was persuasive, engaging, funny and friendly, and really put across the benefits of participating in CPD23.

Next up was me, talking about why new professionals should be establishing dialogues with experienced professionals, and how we can go about it. I gave a brief summary of the results of a survey that I conducted on experienced LIS professionals’ views of new professionals, which yielded some interesting results. There were a lot of positive perceptions, but also some negative perceptions which I felt were creating barriers between new and experienced professionals. I suggested ways in which we can forge links and start conversations with our experienced colleagues, online and face-to-face, and also invited any attendees who were not engaging with the online LIS new professionals community to come and join us on LISNPN and Twitter. The slides are available here. I’m hoping to publish my full paper and survey results somewhere. I’ll write a separate blog post about my first experience of presenting, but I’d like to thank everyone who gave (and tweeted!) positive reactions to my paper – I hope it was of some interest and use.

The final paper of the morning was from Sam Wiggins and Laura Williams, who asked What makes an information professional? They discussed their own confusion over the word “professional” – they are coming to the end of library school and will soon be qualified, but does this automatically make them professionals? They carried out a survey to discover perceptions of “professional” amongst the LIS community, and received a lot of responses, from both new and experienced professionals. The responses to the question of “what makes an information professional” were varied, and from these responses it appeared that a range of elements are considered to contribute to professionalism; attitude, qualifications and skills. Some other really interesting perceptions came out of their survey too; for example, Chartership was not high on the list of things that were seen to  contribute to professionalism, and people still value the job title of “librarian”, although many felt that their job title did not express what they actually do. Interestingly, Sam and Laura found that the different LIS sectors placed different emphases on qualifications, attitudes and networking when it comes to professionalism, and they called for a “vocational approach” across all sectors which encompasses all three. I was extremely impressed with the research that Sam and Laura did for their paper (especially when they have both been so busy attending other conferences, meeting library school deadlines and working on their dissertations at the same time!) and they really got me thinking about the issue of what defines “professional”. I definitely agree with their argument that attitude and conduct is just as important as qualifications and skills.

The morning speakers then took part in a panel discussion, taking questions from the audience. An experienced professional who was attending claimed that professional bodies were reaching out to new professionals and that we were not engaging enough. My response was that engaging with professional bodies can be very difficult for new professionals because membership is expensive (leading me onto one of my pet topics – the badly-categorised membership fees for CILIP!). This made me feel that I really should contact CILIP about my feelings on the membership fee categories, rather than just complain about them on Twitter.

It was then time for the first set of workshops. I attended Alice Halsey and Simon Barron’s workshop on Getting involved: activism for new professionals. Alice and Simon are both members of Voices for the Library, giving up their time to campaign against public library cuts and closures. Their workshop was a really good mix of speaking and group discussion. They told us about their experiences and suggested ways in which we could get involved in activism, and encouraged us to share our ideas, experiences and concerns. I have been wanting to help with the campaign for public libraries for a while now, but wasn’t sure where to start, or whether I would even be welcome as someone who has not yet got involved, and who can’t claim to know much about the cuts other than what is reported in the media. Alice and Simon reassured us that we could all help, whether that means getting heavily involved with the various campaigns (or even starting our own in our local area), or just advocating for libraries in our day-to-day lives, to our family and friends. They also emphasised what activism can do for your CV; activism can fill any skills gap! I left feeling reassured that I am already doing my bit in the way I conduct and present myself as a librarian, and that if I want to get further involved then I can.

After lunch, we went in for the second set of workshops. I chose to attend Suzanne Wheatley’s workshop on #marketingyourselfonline. I am already a heavy user of Twitter and blogging, and am dipping my toe tentatively into LinkedIn, but I still found some of Suzanne’s pointers really useful. She emphasised that we need to really think about everything we put online, as it all reflects on us and it is easily accessible to our employers. Suzanne helped us to think about how we can market ourselves as a brand, asking us to think of six words to describe ourselves, which was surprisingly difficult (I came up with “academic librarian new professionals advocate writer” but that still doesn’t really say what I want it to)! As a result of Suzanne’s workshop I am going to work on my LinkedIn profile and start using it properly, connecting to other LIS professionals and joining in the discussions on the groups.

The presentations then re-commenced. The first speakers of the afternoon were Ka-Ming Pang and Jo Norwood, who spoke about building opportunities for student activism and why it matters. I feel that their presentation slides deserve a special mention, with gorgeous hand-drawn pictures! Ka-Ming and Jo felt that LIS students were missing opportunities to get involved in activism, and gave the results of a survey that they carried out amongst their classmates on the MA Information Studies at Brighton. They found that two thirds of their classmates were already engaging in activism, from using social media to promote libraries to writing to MPs about library cuts, but that there was a perception that CILIP were not doing enough politically. Ka-Ming and Jo felt that CILIP need to reach out to LIS students, contacting them early on in their course and better promoting library advocacy. They also argued that LIS students need to communicate more, using more online tools; they held up the HackLibSchool blog and the #libchat that is often run on Twitter by librarians and students in the US as examples of good communication between LIS students, which can help to create a “stronger voice” for advocacy.

Next up was Megan Wiley, who spoke about the need to develop professionalism in a careers information team. Megan is an information specialist in a university careers service, which is a very different environment to that of an academic library. I found Megan’s paper absolutely fascinating; although I knew a bit about what she does, I had no idea about the different issues that careers information specialists face. Megan explained the importance of promoting herself as a librarian; often careers advisors have no idea what the information specialists can do, meaning that they don’t always refer students to them when they could be really helpful. She explained that careers information teams can vary in their make-up and roles, and that a LIS qualification is not always needed, which can cause confusion over how a careers information specialist defines themselves. Megan conducted a survey of careers information workers to discover their perceptions of professionalism, and found opinions on roles and the value of a qualification varied. I hope Megan will publish her paper somewhere as I haven’t got anywhere near enough room in this blogpost to share all of the interesting points that she made! In short, working alongside careers advisors can cause difficulties for careers information specialists in understanding and promoting their role, and some careers information specialists did not feel that a LIS qualification was important. Megan argued that there is a place for careers information workers in CILIP, that a qualification is important for developing skills and understanding the wider profession, and that all LIS professionals, whatever sector they work in, need to be communicating what they do and what their value to the organisation is, particularly in a time of cuts. Megan’s paper was interesting, informative, thought-provoking, and a well-deserved runner-up for best paper.

The final speakers were Katie Birkwood and Naomi Herbert, who shared their experiences of how special collections outreach can help you, your career and your library. They explained how outreach benefits all who are involved; the community and the institution. Naomi discussed a project that she ran in which she worked with primary school teachers and children. She collaborated with two local teachers to overhaul the school’s Year 4 literacy module on explanatory texts, using a book from the library’s special collections called Hocus Pocus Junior, which, published in 1638, was the first ever book in English to explain magic tricks. The children came for a tour of the special collections and were able to look at the book, before making their own version. The project was highly successful, with some lovely (and amusing!) thank-you letters from the children, and has been run in subsequent years. Katie then told us about her project in which she ran a session at the Cambridge Science Festival, on “build your own astrolabe”. This came from the donation of Sir Fred Hoyle’s papers to the special collections. Katie worked with a friend who happened to be an astronomer to create a “build your own astrolabe” kit, and then ran sessions at the Festival, as well as creating a web-page on the library’s website on how to build one. This outreach project was also highly successful. Katie and Naomi also gave us some tips on how to find funding for outreach, how to approach it, and emphasised the importance of considering the practicalities (how are you going to manage 30 children needing a wee?). I had never considered getting involved in outreach, but as a result of Katie and Naomi’s paper I feel confident that I could make a case for it if I had an idea. It was also great to hear about such interesting projects. Katie and Naomi’s presentation was voted best paper by the delegates, and this was well-deserved.

Closing comments came from Biddy Fisher, past president of CILIP, who summed up the day with “amazing”. Biddy commented on the cuts facing public libraries, saying that Voices for the Library need all of our support, and reminding us that, in such difficult times, professionalism, whatever it means to us personally, means more in the outside world which we serve through our library services. Biddy encouraged us to promote free CPD opportunities such as CPD23 to senior management. She also highlighted the evidence-based research in several presentations, encouraging those of us who had done this to do more, and promoting the LIS-DREaM project, who are hosting their launch event soon. 

I very much enjoyed the day, which has left me with much to think about and do. I want to develop my LinkedIn profile properly, start on Thing 1 for CPD23, keep blogging, keep engaging with other LIS new professionals, do some more research and writing, and try to do whatever I can for library advocacy. I’ve also been left with some things to think about in terms of how LISNPN could develop and improve. I am already looking forward to next year’s event, and hope to be involved in some way.

Monday, 13 June 2011

My brief guide to surviving your LIS dissertation!

It’s hard to believe how  fast time flies – it seems like only yesterday that I was fighting with my MA Librarianship dissertation, and now it’s dissertation time for the next set of full-timers (and quite a few of the part-timers and distance learners who I know too). I remember struggling at various points of my dissertation – my background is in English Literature, with a bit of languages and history, so social science research was completely alien to me - but it came out well in the end, so I thought I would share a few tips for those of you working on your projects now.

Don’t compare your progress to your coursemates’ progress. You can’t compare your dissertation project to other people’s in terms of progress; you’ll be doing different kinds of research, the length of your various chapters will vary depending on your subject i.e. some literature reviews will be longer than others. Data analysis goes at different speeds depending on what you’re analysing. If your dissertation specification is anything like ours was, the word count will be a wide range (15000 to 25000 for us) so you can’t compare by word count. Dissertation supervisors will work in different ways too in terms of how they advise their students. Not to mention that some people will get full-time jobs starting before the deadline so will want or need to finish early.  By all means, support each other and discuss problems and ideas, but don’t try to judge your own progress against that of others. 

Don’t get too bogged down in research methodology. The research textbooks you read will contain methodologies that are way beyond what you are required to do, and this can cause you to panic. Similarly, if your course is like mine was, you’ll probably have had research methods lectures that covered research methods in general rather than narrowing them down to how they apply to you. Thus it can be easy to become overwhelmed. You need to research your methodology, choose the appropriate one(s), and be able to support your decision with background reading, but you will probably find that this is all a lot simpler that it first appears. Seek advice from your supervisor and clarify anything you’re unsure about; although it does not have to be a complicated process, you need to be using the correct terminology i.e. “survey” and “questionnaire” are not the same thing. Your supervisor can suggest appropriate research methods textbooks and guide you to the relevant sections. I found Alison Pickard’s Research Methods in Information to be really helpful.

On a similar note - don’t be scared of your data analysis! I put mine off for several weeks because I was overwhelmed by the amount of data that I had, and, with graph-making and analysis and the like not coming naturally to me, I felt like I didn’t know where to start. Luckily, my supervisor gave me a bit of telling-off, and insisted that I show her some analysis during our next meeting two weeks later; so I was forced to get on with it! Once I started it really wasn’t that bad. My suggestion is to just get on with it! As I said above, analysis doesn’t have to be complicated. If you’ve done a questionnaire, you’ll probably have some quantitative data, which is easy to put into graphs and tables (depending on which survey tool you use, it might even have done some of this for you already). This can be done on a basic level in Microsoft Excel – for most of this kind of data, you don’t have to use specialist programmes (seek advice from your supervisor). Qualitative data from questionnaires and interview transcripts can be content-analysed using colour-coding in Microsoft Word; again, it doesn’t have to be complicated! Programmes such as SPSS are useful for identifying relationships between different sets of quantitative data, but if you don’t need to use them, don’t!

While we’re on the subject of going beyond what you need to do; bearing in mind the overall limits of your dissertation is important too. If you’re full time, you’ve probably got 3 months to complete and write up your project. If you’re part-time or distance-learning, you’ve got to fit this in around your day-to-day life. The word count may seem massive, and you may have some great ideas, but you need to be careful not to do too much. The word count isn’t as large as you think once you get going (I had to cut 3000 words at the end to bring mine down to the 25000 word upper limit, and that was after excluding things I would have liked to add, and  I know that others were in a similar position). You’ll hopefully have chosen something that really interests you for your dissertation, and the temptation is there to want to investigate and cover everything, but realistically, you can’t. This is why it’s really important to liaise with your supervisor (or potential supervisors in the early stages) when formulating your proposal, as soon as you have some ideas, to try to ensure that you don’t embark on too big a project.

I’ve mentioned seeking advice from your supervisor several times now. I can’t emphasise enough how important regular contact with your supervisor is, whether face-to-face, via email or via telephone. As tempting as it is, please don’t avoid them if you’ve not made much progress. They want you to do well, and they’re there to support you. A good supervisor will tell you off a little bit if needed (as was the case with my avoidance of data analysis!), but they’re not going to be insensitive or cruel. It’s a good idea to set up a schedule of some kind for meeting with them, if you’re able to meet face-to-face – my supervisor asked us to meet her once every two weeks. Perhaps you could set up a schedule for emailing them too i.e once every two weeks you’ll send a summary of how you’re doing, in addition to any emails you send with queries etc. Time goes fast and it’s easy to go a few weeks without any contact otherwise.

It’s a good idea to make a timetable for yourself – you might even include this in your methodology chapter. Setting yourself deadlines, and making a visual representation of the time available and any commitments which you need to bear in mind will help you to manage your time and see what you need to do. If you’re anything like me, you can’t work to a final, overall deadline that is several months (in the case of distance learners, sometimes years) in the future, and you need more specific deadlines in order to keep going. However, don’t panic if your timetable changes. As I said earlier, chapters will vary in size, some aspects of your project will take longer than others, and you can’t always anticipate this. As long as you re-evaluate the time left and continue to set small deadlines, you will be fine.

This leads into the general issue of juggling work, social life, and other commitments with your dissertation. This was something which people highlighted as being an issue for them when I asked on Twitter if anyone had anything they’d like me to address in this post. I’m afraid I am not the best person to advise on juggling work and family commitments; being a full-time student I was only doing 4 to 10 hours of paid work per week, and I lived alone, so I didn’t find this too difficult; my paid work always took place at evenings and on weekends, so it was easy to work all day on my dissertation uninterrupted during the week. I suppose I would reiterate my suggestion of making a timetable and arranging your time around other commitments. In terms of social life, although you may well find yourself feeling guilty for taking time off from your dissertation, you do need some time out sometimes; going back to your dissertation with fresh eyes every so often is really helpful. If you’re worried about the guilt issue, put your time off into your timetable. It might be an idea to make it a regular slot; we had a tradition of going to the pub on Monday nights (started when we had a long day of lectures on Mondays) so some of us continued this. Knowing that I always took Monday night off meant that I could arrange my time accordingly, and not feel bad for going to the pub. One thing I would suggest though, for those of you completing your dissertation full-time over the summer, is to think seriously whether you need to go on holiday this summer. Some of my friends went on week-long holidays, but I’m glad that I didn’t; although you need to take time off to relax, a week in one go is a big chunk of time to be away from your dissertation when you only have three months in which to do it. I’m not trying to panic those of you who have already booked holidays – work it into your timetable and arrange a significant deadline for yourself before you go, so that you can enjoy it – but if you’re undecided, my suggestion would be to not go away for an extended period of time. The weather will still be pleasant in many holiday destinations in September once you’ve handed your dissertation in, and you’ll be able to enjoy it much more.

Continuing the theme of other commitments, don’t abandon your CPD, job-hunting, or conference/event attendance while you’re working on your dissertation. Although you’ve got a lot of work to be doing in the present, you need to keep thinking about the future. Again, build things into your timetable as far in advance as possible. Don’t miss out on something that could be really interesting, useful or valuable.

I was asked on Twitter to address the issue of keeping up with the literature. You’ll do your literature review fairly early on, and by the time you’re nearing the end of your dissertation, new literature may well have appeared. At the time, I dealt with this by simply repeating my literature searches every few weeks, to check for new material. Now, I would recommend using the Zetoc alert service, if you don’t already. You can sign up to receive table of contents for new issues of any relevant journals straight to your email inbox. I use this service now, and find it invaluable for keeping up with the professional literature when I’m very busy.

Another issue that I was asked to advise on was that of tracking references. I have to admit that I haven’t liked either of the referencing tools that I have tried so far (Endnote and Refworks), and that I found it far easier to keep track of my own references manually. I kept a running document of everything that I had read, and wrote down all of the details for the reference as soon as I had started reading it and decided that it would be useful. I checked my referencing and bibliography multiple times to check that I’d missed nothing out. If you want to find a tool for tracking references, I’m sure that a search for blog posts on the subject will yield some good advice. 

Make sure you know the requirements for layout, submission and any other specifications early on. Does it need to be bound? Make sure you know what kind of binding needs to be used, where you will get it bound, and how much time you will need to allow, well in advance. How many copies do you need to hand in? Do you need to submit an electronic copy? Does it need to be printed single-sided? Plan ahead for when and how you will print – there will be queues at the library and departmental printers close to the submission date! What are the layout requirements? I suggest that you set up a document in the correct layout, using styles and headings, before you actually write anything. If you’re unsure about any of the requirements, ask for clarification – these specifications are important and you don’t want to risk losing marks for something which could easily have been avoided.

Plan something fun to do afterwards! Even the prospect of something as simple as a pub trip on submission day will be something to focus on when times are hard towards the end! Additionally, I have to warn you that finishing my dissertation was in some ways an anti-climax. It was exciting doing the final bits and bobs, writing the acknowledgements and finally deciding it was finished and ready to print. But afterwards I felt a bit deflated, and didn’t know what to do with myself. I don’t really know what to suggest to avoid this; perhaps planning some fun things to do will not only give you something to look forward to, but will also give your free time some structure to replace the gap left by your dissertation!

Something that several people pointed out when I asked on Twitter about things to include in this post was that you should try to enjoy it! Hopefully you’ve chosen something you’re interested in. Yes, it will be a lot of hard work, but it shouldn’t be constantly nightmarish. If you’re struggling to get any enjoyment out of it, I suggest you try to take a step back – take an evening off and start again the next day. I wrote a blog post a few weeks ago in which I pointed out that library school provides you with an opportunity to carry out some original research, that you may not get again to the same extent, in terms of time, resources and support, so, as I said in that post, make the most of it! Your research probably has some practical use beyond meeting the requirements for a Masters’ degree and can form papers, articles and presentations in the future.
I also want to reassure you that you will be OK! You can complete your dissertation in the timescale that you’ve got, you can do your data analysis, you can get it up to the word count (and will probably go beyond). Your supervisor wouldn’t let you embark on a project that you couldn’t complete successfully. I know that at times it will feel like you’ll never finish, but trust me, everyone feels like that!

The issue was raised on Twitter of why bother doing a dissertation when you are already qualified from completing the taught part of your course. It never occurred to me not to do a dissertation. I would repeat my earlier argument that doing a dissertation provides you with an excellent opportunity to carry out some original research, that you may well be able to use and publish further. It also allows you to develop research skills, time management skills, data analysis skills and good writing skills, which are valuable skills to have. It gives you something to talk about in job interviews, and demonstrates your interest in the profession. It’s a massive piece of work that you can look back on and be really proud of.  As difficult as it was at times, doing my dissertation was a hugely rewarding experience, and I would encourage everyone to take the dissertation option if they possibly can.

I shall leave this post here, as it has become more than the “brief” selection of tips that I originally intended it to be! I hope it has been of help to someone; if I have any further ideas I might write a “part 2”. If anyone has any questions or comments, I would love to hear from you. In the meantime, good luck to all of you dissertation-ing this summer!