The joys of a good book

Recently, while on my first holiday trip away in quite some time, I read a book which was in no way directly or indirectly related to my PhD thesis. The book in question was ‘If Only They Didn’t Speak English: Notes From Trump’s America,’ by Jon Sopel. Jon’s book is written in a clear and concise manner, covering a wide range of topics in relation to how we in Britain, or indeed further afield, might better understand the American context and perspective. The first chapter entitled anger, looks at how the part of America that felt left behind under Obama and indeed previous administrations might have used a vote for Trump as a form of protest. Sopel goes on to offer a clear discussion of an American perspective on Politics in general, race, religion and oh yes, that much discussed travel ban and not least, gun control. All this is done with the deployment of clear argument and timely use of humour to retain the reader’s attention. This volume, although politically based was a delight to read while recovering from being down the PhD thesis rabbit hole for so long, which incidentally I passed last August. I am now looking forward to a new job and my graduation from Aberdeen on 23rd November, 2018. No more rabbit holes for me!    Here is a link to my thesis


I hear it  does a very fine line in insomnia cures!!!


Could Cardiff be the UK’s friendliest city?

I don’t know the answer to that but I love a friendly city and Cardiff is certainly that. Last week I attended the Political Studies Association annual conference over three days at Cardiff City Hall. The event was entitled ‘Politics of Our Times: Asking the Difficult Questions’ Not surprisingly it is fairly plain that we are indeed living in a time replete with difficult and multifaceted questions.
As usual there were a few take-home points for me:
1. A panel entitled ‘Voter Choice in Referendums’ highlighted some very interesting findings on the make-up of particular groups such as the 2016 EU Referendum, for example, Euro-sceptic offspring of Euro-sceptic parents.
2. Another panel focused on the role of evidence entitled ‘Improving Evidence Use in Government: How Can Academics Get their Research Heard?’ giving rise to such questions as: what does it mean? What counts? And how can academics get their research evidence heard by policy makers?’
3. The after dinner speaker at the annual dinner this year was Gary Younge, editor-at-large for the Guardian newspaper and author of ‘Another Day in the Death of America’ (Guardian Faber). His speech was particularly entertaining while still making a serious point – an ideal I am sure we all aspire to each time we present.
4. At the Public Policy and Administration Panel: Territorial Politics in the Age of Brexit, considered various questions, for example: Can the UK ‘manage’ Brexit? Are there enough civil servants to see us through the process? Do those civil servants have a real sense the role they must play in the process and how it affects their departments? Professor Janice Morphet of University College London presented some very interesting thoughts in: ‘Autopilot or Risk Mitigation? How Whitehall is Continuing to Deliver Post Brexit EU Policies’ which directly addressed some of the above questions.
5. As ever Professor Sir John Curtice from University of Strathclyde was present offering analysis of how the UK population feels about Brexit and the ongoing negotiations, the UK’s future relationship with the EU, arguing as many others did last week, that there is still a great deal of uncertainty around the long term impact of Brexit.
So I came away with more questions and issues to consider but this is no bad thing.
Finally, my own presentation – ‘Tracing the emergence and changing meaning of ‘resilience’ in public policy discourse in the devolved UK: A Research Design’, which I co-wrote with friend and colleague Dr Emily St. Denny from Stirling University, and I presented on the first day, I think went reasonably well. It was very interesting if not slightly unnerving for me as this was the first time I had presented at PSA on something unrelated to my doctoral thesis.
If you are interested here is the link below
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‘Politics in interesting times.’ A euphemism?

Last week, along with many others, I attended the PSA annual conference at Strathclyde University in Glasgow (excellent venue), entitled ‘Politics in Interesting Times.’ Perhaps ‘Bloody Terrifying Times’ might have been closer to the mark if you get my drift.
As usual there were a few take-home points for me:
1. From the Leonard Shapiro lecture presented by Mark Blyth – the global economy might be much more finely balanced than anybody realises!
2. ‘Impact’ – what does it mean? You’re not the only one who’s confused! (Rethinking Impact: Narratives of Research-Policy Relations – panel)
3. Don’t attend the dinner reception hungry because the speaker might be on before you eat. This can have a knock-on effect because you will have been plied with sparkling wine at the pre-dinner reception and there will be wine on the table, just to amuse you during the speech!
4. Should ‘Brexit’ actually be ‘NIBrexit’? Where does Northern Ireland fit in? It’s more complicated than you think. (Making Sense of the EU Referendum? – plenary)
5. Can the UK ‘manage’ Brexit? Are there enough civil servants to see us through the process? (Perspectives on Brexit – plenary)
6. Mental health – the role the police play in assisting those affected in obtaining emergency support. Are there sufficient resources available to provide appropriate places of safety and how long can the status quo continue? (Governance and Government in a Changing UK – panel)
As you see, I came away with more questions than answers but is this not a good thing.
Finally, about my own panel – I presented ‘Transition Policy for Young people with Disabilities: Low Attention Produces High Variation and Low Accountability’ on the first day and I think it went reasonably well. If you would like to read it here is the link: Russell at PSA 2017 04042017Russell at PSA 2017 04042017

Advantages of the HEA Fellowship path

When I first became a postgraduate student, it was clear to me that the learning environment was different and that I was going to have to enhance my professional profile over and above my research project. This Continuous Professional Development (CPD) can be achieved in various ways and one of the paths I chose was to participate in the Higher Education Academy (HEA) programme leading to Associate Fellowship of the Academy.
The Academy sets out a series of descriptors, each relating to the various levels of Fellowship achievable within the scheme. To hold Associate Fellow status it is necessary to meet the skills and competency levels covered in the first Descriptor (D1). This presents 6 areas of competency each of which requires the production of supporting evidence in the form of an account of the individual’s professional practice. This has then to be supported by two references from supervisors or other suitably qualified colleagues. Recording relevant activities and writing up, in my case, extended over a year, however it is possible to complete the process within about 6 months.
The accreditation gained as a result is recognised by many further education establishments, and is often something which is sought by them as proof of ability in the teaching environment.
While this was an additional challenge on top of a heavy research workload, I am not in any doubt that it was a worthwhile investment of my time. For details see

How to have the most positive viva experience – one opinion

As someone who has recently completed the process, ‘viva’ is a word which I think strikes a healthy dose of nerves among most PhD students. If you having put your heart and soul, and a lot more besides into producing a Magnum Opus, are about to undergo the ‘viva voce’, then I hope that perhaps some of these suggestions will help you feel a bit more confident about the whole thing. But do remember, some nerves are good, it means you care.

Firstly, read some general blogs on viva preparation. See for example:-

preparing for the PhD oral exam


1 gather together some examples of questions

Numerous blogs and guides suggest example questions but here are a couple of sources which I found were most useful to me:-

Sheffield University has a very good list of potential questions, as does the University of Reading in a guide entitled, The Graduate School guide to… surviving the viva

2 Try to have a mock viva

Arrange a mock viva with your supervisor and a colleague emulating the manner in which the viva will proceed. It is surprising how this can reduce pre viva nerves. It also gives an opportunity to take notes from which to formulate your plan for approaching the real thing.

3 Pre and Post notes

Before the mock viva make notes on how you think you should approach it and re-formulate these afterward to inform your plan of attack for the real viva. It is also important to research the external examiner as this may assist in predicting potential question areas.

4 On the day

Arrive early, this gives time to relax, organise and compose yourself. Know your work – this is an opportunity to let your examiners know that you are aware of the flaws in your thesis which you will have noted when reading and re-reading it time after time post submission. Remember that the examiners are there to constructively criticise, not to destroy your work.

5 Outcomes

And finally, most people going through the PhD viva process will have corrections.

Good Luck!!!

What’s your potential energy?

Hi, I’ve been away from the blog for a while but at long last, the PhD has been submitted (as a colleague once said, “It can tinker with your sanity.” I believe him!) and I’m just waiting for ‘viva’ in December (more on this later). Recently I attended a CPD course at the university so I’ll share my impressions about this remarkably entertaining experience. The course was entitled ‘Potential Energy’ and was presented by Piero Vitelli ( The aim of course which can be run over a two day period as a small workshop, or as was the case with the version I attended, a morning(3hour intensive version). I found the course particularly useful in that it made me consider what I could do even at a physical level to prepare for presentations, even if it was something as simple as chewing gum beforehand to loosen my tongue muscles beforehand, enable a more relaxed presentation. Furthermore, preparation takes place right up to the MOMENT the presentation begins and includes loosening up the entire body just as an athlete might before an event. This of course is constrained by available space and the absence of onlookers, unless you enjoy being a comedy act. The use of ‘Powerpoint’ was not omitted, but the way in which it can and should be used would be a surprise to many presenters, especially those who simply repeat what is on the screen. If you know your material as well as you know ‘Happy Birthday’, then the screen need only emphasise your dialogue, preferably in graphics and pictures. Repetition is important, although not to the point of boring the audience, and the presentation should circle round to re-emphasise key points made earlier. Of course this does not nearly cover all of the material presented but hopefully you are getting a feeling of how impressed I was. This was not the first time I had attended a presentation by Piero, having participated in his ‘Networking at Conferences’ course, and I would thoroughly recommend him to any individual or institution seeking to develop these skills amongst staff and students.

“Publish or perish” the academic cliché: the benefits of co-authorship.

When you start out on your PhD, others around you in academia ask, “Do you intend to publish?” “Where do you intend to publish?” “Will it be a book or several articles?”  These were questions that I was never quite sure how to answer. You can read all the self help books and blogs you like but I really don’t think you ‘get it’ until someone shows you. Recently, I was lucky enough that my supervisor, Professor Paul Cairney, kindly invited me to participate in jointly writing, along with our colleague, Emily St. Denny, an article for submission to a journal available to download here.;jsessionid=2c04nlf5aecja.alice Although I had presented material at conferences both individually and as part of a team, this was somewhat different. I think it is safe to say that many articles start out as conference papers, as is the case here, before being further developed in response to conference feedback. At this point, a critical decision must be made as to which journal you wish to make your submission to. This choice is often based on the type of articles or data which a given journal has a history of accepting, that is, some journals specialise in a particular area of the discipline, for example, social policy, public policy, or political theory. Authors also need to be aware that different journals may prefer articles of varying lengths and that a submission may have to be reduced in length to comply with acceptance criteria. One of the things that really surprised me was how long the whole process could take, from initial concept to presenting at conference, choosing a journal, acceptance of submission, major revision, minor revision, final acceptance followed by publication on line, which in this case was well over a year. Now however, I am able to say that I have a co-authored publication, and I am extremely grateful for the efforts of my colleagues. This experience has given me a better sense of what reviewers comments are asking for and has encouraged me to look forward to publishing a solo article a in the future.

“The pens in this hotel are really good!”

I know someone who likes pens and made the above statement over breakfast one morning, although whether any pens were actually liberated is a matter for conjecture. To put that in context, I spent the last few days in Sheffield, South Yorkshire attending PSA 2015. I had never been to Sheffield before, and what with being there to work and the weather being its usual British self, only providing sunshine when I was travelling or stuck inside, I didn’t see too much of the city but what I did see made me want to return to see more of what is clearly a friendly city. I know what you are thinking, what about the conference? Well, in accordance with what is becoming a habit for me, here are five things I learned: 1 Whatever panel you are on, you will get constructive feedback and make useful connections for the future; 2 Sometimes a chance meeting can be as fortuitous as attending panels e.g. the hotel dining room; 3 Bringing your own laptop can be very helpful when there isn’t one available and everyone on the panel needs power-point; 4 Some of the less obvious events can be the most enlightening (in a roundabout way) – I attended an event organised by the postgraduate network on what it is like to be a young woman in academia. This underlined for me just how supportive my supervisor and department have been of my work and my fledging career; 5 Total Exposure! This is not something weird or anti-social, but in fact a very interesting project launched by Matt Flinders (PSA Chair), and is designed to allow researchers in political science to reach new audiences with their work by pitching ideas to a group of commissioning editors for television and radio. These must be submitted by October 31st, 2015 – for more details see the link;

“That big river that runs through Glasgow is called the Clyde…., isn’t it?”

Between the 3rd and 6th September 2014 I attended the ECPR (European Consortium for Political Research) Conference at Glasgow University. This is a beautiful university and well worth a visit just to appreciate the architecture, especially if Hogwarts is your bag. They have guided tours, more than one museum and even a gift shop. Many of the rules of thumb which I suggested in my PSA blog still apply here, the main one being that it is much better if you don’t try to attend too many panels or round table discussions, the long term benefits are worth it. The reception you receive as an early career researcher from more experienced academics is a warm one. What made this experience an all together different one from PSA is that I was presenting a joint paper with colleagues Professor Paul Cairney (Stirling University) and PhD researcher Emily St. Denny (Stirling and Nottingham Trent Universities).

Five things I learned:
It’s OK to pick and choose what goes in a presentation i.e. if you have more than one case, it is not necessary to present the data from all the cases; Sometimes audiences can be really small; Small audiences can lead to really lively post presentation discussion; It really can pay you to wait until the very end of the book exhibition; Navigation is not everyone’s forte even if they are wearing a red ‘T’shirt!

I attended the political studies association conference in Manchester a couple of weeks ago. I had what I think can be described as a very useful week, a real education. Five things I learned:-

1 Presenting at PSA can be scary but does provide really useful feedback This year I presented at PSA for the first time, although I had been to Cardiff last year just to see what the whole process was about. I had presented a version of this paper before but this to me was ‘The Big One’ and, needless to say I was extremely nervous. As it turned out, my nerves were unfounded as the reception was warm and friendly. I received some very useful and constructive feedback e.g. info about a couple of academics who also study issues around transition, albeit in others areas of the UK and with different cases.

2 Networking opportunity PSA is where you get the opportunity to meet the ‘Gods’. They are all very approachable – human really, and will impart genuine advice and also put you in touch with others who have an interest. I met with academics at all levels, gathering a real sense of the profession along with sound career advice.

3 Up to date research inside and outside your own field PSA provided me with a fantastic chance to gain a sense of what others are doing with similar theories to myself but I was also are able to sit in on some genuinely interesting presentations which are well outside my own field of reference.

4 Its better if you don’t attend everything It’s an extremely full programme and I learned from last year’s conference that if I attended a panel during each session, my brain would ‘fry’. I paced myself this year and took time out. This made the whole experience much more enjoyable. The architecture around Manchester city centre is magnificent.

5 If you don’t recognise it don’t eat it!!! Manchester is chock full of restaurants and the food choice is extremely wide ranging, however, if you order something which you have never eaten before, you may get more than you bargained for!!!