Preparing for the PhD Candidacy — How to be READY

One of the biggest myths about writing is that you can apply generic rules and make them apply to every writing situation. Or that you can follow someone else’s process and make it work for you. You can’t. So take what I wrote in the title limply — adapt my process at will — you can’t do it wrong other than to do nothing. But while how I prepared for my candidacy exams may have made me READY, I can’t promise that it will make you READY. But if I make you feel the writing will be possible, then I’ve done my job.

This blog, in first draft, ended up being nearly 3000 words so, I’ve decided to split it into two parts. This part will address how I prepared. The second part will be about how I did the writing.

Now. To get back to where I had originally started this story. . . .

September was writing month for me. I scheduled my candidacy exam (also known as the comprehensive exam or comps depending on your discipline or institution) to start right after the September long weekend. All such exams in PhD programs have slightly different flavours. Ours, in my nursing program, is 30 days to write two 25-page papers. I was emailed three questions on September 4 at 0900, and then I picked two of the three to accomplish the task.  My end date was October 4 at 0900. So now that I’ve handed the papers in and the time on my exam has run out and the door for me to beg to have them back has effectively closed, I can say a little bit more about what I was up to for that month. I wrote two papers and each of them required a different approach to writing. I am going to do my best to articulate what those different approaches were and why they had to be different. I say “do my best” because, for the most part, for me, how I make my decisions in my writing approach are pretty much tacit.

But first…. here is how I prepared to write before the exam started.

In case your wondering, it was not a difficult decision to pick my two questions once they arrived. I knew with one reading of the questions which ones I would write about. I had been preparing for months. My exam questions were born out of a lengthy meeting with my committee back in April. My advisor asked me to write out several areas of learning I felt I needed to work on within my research area — the development of a measure to support contextual and constructionist writing self-efficacy. She also asked me to supply references, so I went through my boxes and my computer files and I pulled everything I had that would fit the study areas I described.

Our candidacy exams tend to present three questions that fall into some pretty predictable research domains: theory, method, knowledge translation/policy (or in my case in nursing education, pedagogy). In brief, this is what I told them I wanted to learn:

  1. Constructionist perspectives on writing self-efficacy and how that would fit with with Bandura’s social cognitive and self-efficacy theories which certainly, in the way cognitive psychologists tend to apply it in research studies, didn’t feel very constructionist in epistemology. How do you reconcile that?
  2. Mixing qualitative and quantitative questionnaire development approaches.
  3. Measurement of writing performance and how there was a real problem with how we were scoring writing in post secondary education and trying to use those performance scores in research.
  4. Socially constructed writing pedagogies. What are they and how do we implement them?

I presented these four ideas in a meeting. I also told them that I had no interest in writing 25-pages about statistics and in no uncertain terms should they dare ask me to write a paper about factor analysis, for example. We talked about the areas I did propose. Some interesting things came up — for example one committee member could see a close link between idea #1 and idea #4. My committee went off and deliberated for about six weeks or so, and met once without me present and I believe they wrote my questions at this meeting.

In the meantime, while I awaited instructions, I started to do research and pull literature. I focused on ideas 1 and 2, so I pulled all the literature I could on Delphi methods and cognitive interviewing and I started there. I had to write an abstract for a conference so this was necessary work regardless, but there was a chance I’d have to write about them on my exam too. I also pulled literature on genre theory, activity theory, and communities of practice. I also gathered all my literature on writing self-efficacy because, no matter what, I would have to link everything I wrote about to writing self-efficacy.

Sometime in the middle of June I got an email from my advisor with a suggested reading list “for my consideration” and was provided with three very broad areas of study:

  1. Social constructivism and relevant related or alternative perspectives that inform writing self-efficacy.
  2. The practical value and pedagogical implications of writing self-efficacy for nursing students and educators.
  3. Measurement of writing self-efficacy.

Not bad, I thought. Pretty close to what we had discussed in our meeting.

And then I spent the next 2.5 months just reading. I read everything I hadn’t already read on the list the committee made for me. Some of it was great and I wondered how I had never found these particular articles before. Some of it was utter garbage. I’m not really sure how they came up with their references. But I took the reference list as a bit of foreshadowing. There were measurement articles, cognitive psychology articles, writing self-efficacy articles, dissertations, and qualitative studies. There were articles there that I wasn’t sure why they had suggested them to me. Some of them were qualitative studies with children. One was a paper about “achievement goal theory” that was so dense I had to put it aside as unreadable about half way through.

I had done fresh literature searches but I also had a whole collection of papers that I been reading over the past several years which would be relevant. I concentrated on new reading. There were a handful of articles I re-read, but not too many.  I would say the bulk of my reading was feeding the first study area — the other areas I had been accumulating and reading literature for several years already.

In writing out my ideas of what I needed to learn, I said to my committee: There is something about this rhetorical genre theory, activity theory, communities of practice theory which keep coming up in my reading and I think they are the same damn theory! Well, long story short, they aren’t the same damn theory. They certainly connect with one another nicely though and there are a several papers out there that synthesize 2 of them together (activity and genre mostly) and a couple that synthesize all three.  So what I was seeing in my limited reading was astute. In my head I started collectively calling them “situated perspectives.” But what I really was hoping I would get to do was synthesize the three theories together with my own take.

In fact here is an excerpt of what I wrote about those three theories in my preparation document. I’m quite pleased at how well I saw the connection between these theories given I had maybe read one paper about rhetorical genre and one about activity theory. I had read Lave and Wenger’s book too, for another paper I wrote. Although, I see I’m a little fuzzy on what an “activity” is.

Screen Shot 2018-10-06 at 8.47.28 PM

I didn’t do any real pre-writing while I was preparing. I just read and annotated. I tend to take notes with a particular direction in mind and not having the questions, I could waste a lot of time taking notes and be off base from the actual focus of the question I would be asked. This is why I can never understand how people can annotate an article once in some database and not have to go back through it again with a different lens.

The one thing I did do, and I knew would be useful no matter what my questions were because all the questions would eventually ask me to draw in writing self-efficacy studies, was collect together all the writing self-efficacy studies I had and create a table which synthesized their methods and findings. The table had headings like: population, sample size, study design, writing self-efficacy measure, writing performance assessment method, correlates, findings, pedagogy. And I filled in all the blanks for each study — there were around 40 of them just targeting post-secondary students. I also took notes on self-efficacy theory from Bandura’s papers and some of the other key scholars in the area specific to writing self-efficacy and self-regulation (e.g. Pajares, Zimmerman).

I got to a point in my preparation though where waiting became torture. I felt saturated in my reading. I felt frustrated that I couldn’t start writing. I was feeling burnt out. I knew at that point, despite a pile of books I hadn’t touched, it was time for me to stop reading. So I stopped. I took the entire week off before receiving my questions and it was the best decision I ever made. I spent the week pulling electric fence wire off horse fencing, watching teen romance movies, and listening to ABBA. The perfect non-academic combination.

When I got the questions on September 4th I printed them out and read them once quickly. I made my decision as to what I would write and spent about a half a day sorting the literature — the stuff I had printed copies for — into piles. I will paraphrase my actual questions because they were each, written out, about a half a page long.

  1. Pick two-three theoretical perspectives that inform understandings of writing self-efficacy and explain which is the best perspective for understanding the assessment, planning, implementation, and evaluation of writing self-efficacy in nursing education. (Any nurses reading this are suffering post traumatic stress right now. Oh damn that nursing process phrasing… ugh… I don’t know if that is discourse that exists in other disciplines but assessment, planning implementation and evaluation is very much nursing discourse because that is the nursing process — the THING that guides everything we do. And if it sounds familiar it should. I don’t think it is an accident that there are similarities to the scientific method).
  2. What is the relevance of writing in nursing education. What do nursing faculty and nursing students say about how writing is taught in nursing education and what kind of pedagogy can make it better.
  3. What’s the best approach for developing and validating a measurement instrument.

The funny thing about candidacy prep is that you spend so many months reading and you envision your question and you envision the paper you will write based on that reading. My typical process is to read and formulate my own paper — not answer very specific questions written by someone else. There were pieces of each of these questions that made me a little bit crazy. The nursing process in one of them was one crazy making aspect — the fact that I had to link that theory question to the nursing profession at all was not a direction I really wanted to take. These questions had nuances within them that made me have to re-envision everything I had been contemplating while I was reading. It made me glad I didn’t do a lot of pre-writing before I had the questions.

So now I had to write. And the writing is the best part so that will be the focus of Part II. Stay tuned. Is this enough of a cliff hanger for you?

 

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