Sunday, 14 December 2014

Integrated landscape management in Asia: who participates,who doesn't?

Till recently, I was working on a Global Review of Integrated Landscape Initiatives with Bioversity International and the Landscapes for People, Food and Nature Initiative. As part of the Asia review, we surveyed 166 landscape initiatives in South and Southeast Asia to get a better idea of what works in integrated landscape management and what doesn't. From the Bioversity website:
Integrated landscape management is increasingly gaining attention as a way to understand and address the complex and interconnected goals of agricultural production, ecological conservation, and livelihood improvement. Working at the landscape level means engaging with different actors at different levels, often with competing motivations. Bringing multiple actors together to initiate dialogue, facilitate participatory decision-making, and enable conflict resolution can be extremely rewarding, but is also challenging and time and resource intensive.
Building upon these findings, I wrote a post on the WLE Agriculture & Ecosystems Blog on how private sector stakeholders are still missing from multiple stakehoder processes in integrated landscape projects in Asia. The full blog post - The Private Sector: The least involved in landscape initiatives is here

A high altitude mountain landscape in Lahual, Himachal Pradesh. Photo: Chandni Singh

Thursday, 13 November 2014

ASSAR Annual Meeting: Notes on collaborative, interdisciplinary research

On my first day as a postdoctoral researcher on the ASSAR (Adaptation at Scale in Semi-arid Regions) project, I was hurled into a week-long ASSAR Annual Meeting held at IIHS, Bangalore. A wonderful mix between workshop, project meeting, networking event and academic brainstorming session, the week was the best possible induction I could get into the goings on of ASSAR. It also helped me understand how large collaborative projects spanning several continents work and how do highly motivated and skilled researchers work together to explore big questions of development in the context of climate change.

Oscars or Emmys? Round tables always work well
One of the days of the annual meeting was a national stakeholder consultation which attracted academicians, civil society actors and policymakers to a common platform. This day-long event was designed to facilitate multiple stakeholders to deliberate on the challenges and opportunities of adaptation at scale in India and Africa. I wrote a blog on it here.

The key things that stood out for me from the ASSAR annual meeting were:
  • Collaborative research, especially spanning several disciplines is tough. However, it is important to get people talking to each other so that we slowly understand the strengths and weaknesses of our disciplinary boundaries (theoretically and methodologically).
  • Academicians are also people and though our research speaks, in the end, we connect as humans to one another. My most interesting conversations happened in the innovative breakout sessions ('What are your expectations of ASSAR in 2018? How would you explain what ASSAR is trying to do to a 10 year old?') where I got to talk to people about how they felt, what they thought about the research project. 
  • A project as large as this requires frequent face-to-face events such as this one to build networks and establish linkages that can then be continued through online discussions.
  • Finally, having dedicated, skilled project managers is of utmost importance. You can have the smartest people in the room but without someone to steer it and glue it together, we are just the sum of its parts. 


Looking forward to the next annual meeting!

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Book Review | Ancient Futures: Lessons from Ladakh for a Globalizing World

I just finished reading Ancient Futures: Lessons from Ladakh for a Globalizing World by Helena Norberg-Hodge. It is strange that it is only now that I finally read this masterpiece; six years since I first went to Ladakh and began my journey of academic inquiry and personal growth. Ladakh was the place I discovered my love for ethnographic study and found the inspiration to undertake a PhD. Ladakh was the place I stood up to a corrupt Goba (village head) to support a women's Self Help Group I had closely worked with. Ladakh was the place I began understanding that the journey is the destination. But even if Ladakh was not such an integral part of my growth, I would still have been very sorry to miss Ancient Futures.

Drawing on decades of ethnographic work starting in the 1970s, when Ladakh was first 'opened' to tourists, Norberg-Hodge starts by painting an evocative picture of the social contentment and ecological harmony in traditional Ladakhi communities. It is so palpable that at first, she suspected that the smiling faces and cheerful communal work was a well-orchestrated lie. Acutely conscious of her perceptions coloured by a mechanistic worldview, Norberg-Hodge takes time to immerses herself in the Ladakhi life and as a result, skilfully discusses how religion, social norms, communal bonds, and environmental dependence made Ladakhis a content and sustainable community.

In the second half of the book, she turns witness to the recent inroads 'development' has made in Ladakh - from stories of shrinking families and severed social ties to shifts towards commercial (and unsustainable) agriculture; from incidences of previously unheard diseases like depression and obesity to increasing communal conflict in this largely peaceful land. Most importantly, she captures something I have witnessed across rural India - the alarming crisis around erosion of identity and shame over one's traditions as inferior when compared to the West. She holds that 'modernisation' (as defined and perpetuated by movies, advertisements and media) is often coveted without a clear understanding of the side-effects such a developmental model has spawned in the West.

Reeling from this dismal picture, the third section of the book offers a ray of hope. Here, Norberg-Hodge talks about various initiatives in Ladakh that are providing alternatives to the current top-down, infrastructure-heavy modes of progress. She elaborates on 'counter-development' a paradigm through which she envisions informing communities about the implications of the Western development model and working towards ecologically-sound, culturally attuned and autonomous development.

Religious sanction, communal norms, and ancient traditions collude to make life in Ladakh's resource constrained land inherently sustainable.
Long before 'bottom-up development' and 'climate-smart agriculture' became a fad, Ladakh's rural communities were practicing ecologically
sustainable agriculture and locally governed and managed their lives.     
Whether or not you know (or want to know) Ladakh, Ancient Futures is a book to read. Whether or not you are studying development and its discourses, Ancient Futures is an incredible read. If you have ever questioned the ease with which the allure of the West subsumes your own culture and identity, wondered about ecological sustainability and whether is is even possible in this day and age, toyed with metaphysical issues around contentment and happiness, Ancient Futures is a stimulating read.

For those interested, you can watch a documentary based on the book here and a TEDx talk by Helena Norberg-Hodge here

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Link Pack | Sustainable intensification in agriculture

Blog: Ian Scoones writes about the latest buzzword in agriculture 'sustainable intensification' (SI) and whether it can help address global food security. 

Paper: In a recent paper, Loos et al. (2014) critique the current definition of SI and highlight the need to look at issues of equity (who gains what?) and individual empowerment (to secure food). They conclude that in it's current framing, SI is a 'a vaguely defined global vision' that needs 'revisiting earlier, regionally grounded, bottom-up approaches'. Importantly, the paper also highlights the need for maintaining the multi-functionality of agro-ecosystems if SI has to be sustainable. All in all, a crucial reading for those interested in agricultural intensification and farming systems research. 


Thursday, 12 June 2014

Researcher’s social capital: Liaising with local actors for effective ethnographic research

Having a good relationship with a local NGO helped me participate in several
events not strictly related to my research. Seen above, women dancing on
Women's Day to kill time before the formal event began. They sang local songs,
spun in giddy circles and all in all entertained everyone around!
The doing of research is something that is very close to my heart and a subject I have not adequately touched upon in this blog. In an interdisciplinary field like mine that draws upon rural development, natural resource management, and climate change science, I have experimented with and relied upon several methods for collecting data. During my PhD fieldwork, I drew on my experience working with an NGO, to gain access to and acceptance in the community I was conducting my research in. And I realised that just as in any other endeavour, building networks, investing in relationships beyond the strict confines dictated by professional boundaries, and collecting data like 'branches to build my nest' (in the words of my supervisor) helped tremendously.

In a post at LSE's Field Research Blog, I elaborate on some of these points and discuss how liaising with local actors can help build a researcher's social capital and thus facilitate effective ethnographic research

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Link Pack | ICTs for climate change adaptation (among other things)

Paper:  Linking ICTs and Climate Change Adaptation: A Conceptual Framework for e-­Resilience and e-­Adaptation by Ospina and Heeks (2010) is a fascinating read. The authors put forth a framework to explore how ICTs can enhance individual adaptive capacities and contribute to the overall adaptation process. The paper also introduced me to 'ICT4CCA' which stands for Information and Communication Technologies for Climate Change Adaptation. Quite a mouthful but wildly interesting nevertheless! 

Book: I've just started reading Professor Sumit Guha's latest book 'Beyond Caste: Identity and Power in South Asia, Past and Present' as a way to educate myself with the multiple histories that shape caste in India. From the blurb I quote "'caste' should be understood as a politically inflected and complex form of ethnic stratification that persisted across religious affiliations". A review will be out soon!

Video: Lifelines is a beautiful video made by researchers at Oxford's School of Geography and the Environment which captures the intricacies of how rural-urban migration, unemployment, livelihoods and development mesh together to mould personal aspirations and fortunes in Uttarakhand, India. 

Monday, 2 June 2014

Shifting the discourse from adaptation to transformational adaptation

Shallow wells provide protective irrigation during in-season dry spells.
But these coping strategies may not work in an agricultural system that
is intensifying towards water-intensive cash crops. 
There is growing concern that climate change adaptation may have 'somehow lost its edge...lost its spunk and it became just another term for development'. My own research from Pratapgarh, a tribal-dominated rainfed region in Rajasthan, western India, showed that farmers mainly use short-term coping  that help them 'get by' rather than longer-term adaptive strategies that help build resilience to present and future risks. 

There is also a growing call for the need to move from 'mere' adaptation to transformational adaptation. Transformational adaptation places an emphasis on moving beyond coping to long-term sustainable change (on a temporal scale) and shifting from individual or local coping and adaptive strategies to making change across societies and economies (something researchers have said earlier too).

One of the key findings of my research on smallholder farmer vulnerability to water scarcity and climate change pointed to this precisely: there is only so much a farming family can do with individual coping strategies. Agricultural adaptation encompasses a wide range of options from various actors operating at, and embedded in, different scales. Thus, for farmers to 'successfully' adapt to increasing climate variability and future climatic change, they have to move beyond household coping. Such a transformation can only take place if farmers are able to utilise their ecological, social and institutional landscapes effectively and if these landscapes have characteristics conducive to transformational adaptation.



Further reading: 
  • Conceptualizing Transformational Adaptation by Pérez-Català, A. (2014) gives a basic introduction to key papers in a very readable post.   
  • In Informing adaptation responses to climate change through theories of transformationPark et al. (2012) give a comprehensive review of literature on transitions and transformation. 
  • Rickards and Howden (2012) present the debates around transformational adaptation nicely in their (open access!!) paper 'Transformational adaptation: agriculture and climate change'. The authors use case studies from Australian agriculture to explain the potential risks and gains posed by transformational adaptation and point towards the need for a systems-oriented thinking. 

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Link Pack | Rural landscapes, M&E for climate change adaptation

Video: Stumbled upon an interesting repository of images from the British Empire at Colonial Film. Each video is accompanied by an analysis which is quite useful. Watching one 1943 video In Rural Maharashtra, I was struck by how effectively the role of women in an agricultural household was portrayed. Another interesting insight was corn being called the main crop, which has certainly changed with the cotton boom in Maharashtra. It would be interesting to see a similar film being made now and comparing the two to document how rural landscapes and intra-household labour division have changed.

Reading resource: SEA Change and UKCIP recently held a webinar on monitoring and evaluation (M&E) methods in climate change adaptation. Here's a link to the interesting discussion, M&E guidance notes and recommended resources on the latest developments and toolkits in adaptation M&E. Highly recommended.

Blog: Patrick Dunleavy, author of 'Authoring a PhD' gives advice on writing good abstracts. He suggests rationing your words in these boxes:
Other people’s work and the focus of previous research literature? [50 words]
What is distinctive to your own theory position or intellectual approach?[40 words]
Your methods or data sources/datasets? [40-120 words, depending on how methodologically innovative your work is.]
Your bottom-line findings i.e. what ‘new facts’ have you found? Or what key conclusions you draw? [Assign as many words as possible within your limit. Be substantive. Don’t be vague, obscure, formal or conventional. Tell us clearly what you found out, not just what topic box you were studying in.]
The value-added or originality of your work within this field? [30 words - Make a moderate claim, motivate readers to learn more.]
          Call: SAGE Magazine has opened its call for contributors, especially focussing on unpublished writers. And LSE Review of Books has opened its Spring 2014 call for book reviewers. A great opportunity to read, be read, and (l)earn a book

          Saturday, 29 March 2014

          Book Review: Water Resource Management in a Vulnerable World

          Access to water is poised to be the issue future wars will be fought over, especially in the context of global climate change and its current and projected impacts. In Water Resource Management in a Vulnerable World: the hydro-hazardscapes of climate change, Daanish Mustafa, a Reader in Human Geography at King’s College, London, argues that the most pressing challenge facing us today is addressing water sufficiency while managing our increasing vulnerability to climate change. He deconstructs this crisis by examining what he terms the “hydro-hazardscapes of climate change”.


          Under this ‘hydro-hazardscape’ discourse, the main argument Mustafa puts forth is that apart from looking at structural solutions such as building dams, canals, tube wells and flood banks, water managers must look at the social, economic, cultural and political pressures that impact societies. For more about the book and the variety of case studies Mustafa uses to illustrate his thesis, read a book review I did for New Asia Books.

          Monday, 24 March 2014

          Book Review: Reclaiming Development by Ha-Joon Chang and Ilene Grabel



          Reclaiming Development was not an easy book for me to read. It made me uncomfortable in a way only a book aiming to question the status quo can. From the beginning, it grasped my attention in a bold, 'here is our argument and this is why it is important enough for you to listen to it' way. I'm glad I chose to review the book (and thankful to LSE Review of Books to send it to me!).

          In simple writing and concise chapters, Chang and Grabel (both noted development economists), put forth a compelling case for challenging the current belief that development is achievable only through a neoliberal model. The book first explores existing 'Development Myths' and then provides specific solutions drawing from several case studies.

          For more on the book and my review of it, you can go here.

          Wednesday, 19 March 2014

          Link Pack: Hydro-hazardscapes, waste management and mainstreaming CC adaptation

          Book: I am reading the latest book by Daanish Mustafa (Reader, Geography at King's College, London) 'Water Resource Management in a Vulnerable World: The Hydro-hazardscapes of Climate Change'. He introduces the concept of 'hydro-hazardscapes' to effectively capture the non-economic, socio-cultural values of water as well as emphasise the different constructions of threat as perceived by different stakeholders by using examples from Pakistan to USA. A review will be up shortly.    

          A woman in Pratapgarh draws water from a common well. Standing on a rickety ledge made of branches,
          she said it was a 'necessary risk' she had to take to fill water. "Right now it is ok Didi, in the monsoons
          there is moss on the wood, which makes it slippery."
           Hydro-hazardscapes indeed.
          Report: A study by the Centre for Policy and Research (CPR, India) makes a case for state-level climate change planning as a relevant entry for sustainable development process. Now we hope the people in-charge read it!

          Video: Satyamev Jayatean Indian television talk show that highlights social issues in India ranging from female infanticide and untouchability, to unsustainable pesticide use and growing water scarcity, is back for a second season. Anchored by Aamir Khan (one of Bollywood's bigwigs), it was wildly successful and provided a welcome break from the regressive and mind-numbing soaps that are the mainstay of Indian television. In the summer of 2012, brimming with the stories I heard during my fieldwork, I had applauded the show. Sitting with my 85-year old grandfather, in a village deeply divided along caste, class and gender, Satyamev Jayate provided us a platform to discuss social norms, agricultural transformations, and India's changing aspirations. Last Sunday's episode tackled waste management and discussed some innovative and contextual methods that challenged adoption of 'foreign and therefore superior' technologies like incinerators. It struck me how a lot of such initiatives are in South India. I particularly liked how some speakers mentioned the need for a discursive shift that treats 'waste' as a resource. If one internalises that a banana peel has a certain value, it will no longer be thrown away as 'garbage'. 

          Wednesday, 12 March 2014

          PhD Tips: Second Year or Fieldwork as a Planned Adventure

          When I wrote out tips for First year PhD students, I didn't realise it would become the most viewed post on my blog (nearly 1200 views to date!). Between picking up a new job, relocating back to India, and getting used to post-PhD life (who knew I'd miss it so?!), I found myself going through notebooks I'd kept during my fieldwork. Covering 11 months of fieldwork, the notebooks reminded me of the best part of my doctoral journey, which involved asking difficult questions, travelling to the back of beyond, and sometimes, eating opium for dinner! Today, I am writing about things to keep in mind during one's fieldwork, assuming you have a clear idea about what data you want to collect and how (methods and tools you are using). As before, this post would apply to people doing primary predominantly qualitative data collection. 
          • Do not underestimate the pilot phase: Give adequate time to piloting your tools. I spent two months making linkages within the community, piloting my questionnaires and different participatory tools, and familiarising myself with words I needed to know in the local dialect. At the end of the two months, my supervisor made a visit to the field location. She helped me revise my research tools, reconnect with my research questions and take a step back to see whether I was able to answer my research questions with my data collection tools.
          Initially, I had pictures for participatory ranking exercises. In the pilot phase I realised they were prone to
          tearing. So I got stuck them on cardboard squares and laminated. Cheap, durable and useful!
          • Plan your adventure: While this may sound like an oxymoron, having a clear plan that relates emerging data to your analysis is critical to good research and avoiding wasting time. As in any grounded research, data emergence and analysis is iterative and has feedbacks, but having a plan helps channel this process better. The worst possible outcome of fieldwork is getting inadequate data or too much irrelevant data. And with a plan in place, you can monitor your progress and enjoy and immerse yourself in data collection!  
          • Liason (formally and informally) with local actors: For field-based research, having a good link with local actors like NGOs or district officials is invaluable for collecting data, being introduced to key informants, and learning about the region. However, small NGOs are often overworked and understaffed, so make sure to be mindful of your demands on them. The NGO I worked with provided me entry into villages I was conducting my research in and I gave them unbiased feedback about their projects in the form of a report at the end of my stay. Contacting them before I reached the location and making my needs clear was very helpful.  
          • Transport: One of the most difficult parts of my fieldwork was arranging transport. Not knowing how to drive, I relied on the erratic public transport which was time-consuming considering the remoteness of my target villages. My suggestion is to organise independent and flexible transport. 
          For daily travel, I took a bus followed by the little jeep-like vehicle in the picture above. Funnily, the vehicle was
          my namesake with 'Chandni' written across its flank!
          • Language issues: Take time for choosing your translator. My translator became my friend and was useful in building acceptance within the community. Key to this is examining the positionality of the translator within the village and forecasting potential effects this might have in your data collection. I chose a young man from within the village to accompany me - he was accepted by female respondents as 'their son'and by the men as one of their own. Also, learn key words of your research in the local language to capture nuances. For example, I used to ask people whether they had taken loans from anywhere. In the local language 'loan' translated into salt. So during the pilot study, I had women guffawing at me (the obviously clueless outsider) - "Of course we get 'loan', without it we cannot eat." Had I not learnt that loan meant salt early, this would have led to a rather confused dataset about people's loan taking behaviour! 
          • Observe observe observe: Many of my insights into local perceptions and norms came from observation. Even when you are not collecting data, it is important to keep your researcher hat on. And so I drank my tea at local stalls, travelled by public transport, and chatted with school girls at the bus stop, I made it a point to absorb all I saw - from discussions about the weather, to empathising with the bad bus service. Once you build a rapport with people, you realise they are as curious about you as you of them.
          • Data recording is a balancing act: Make extensive notes during field work. I used quick diagrams and sketches to note things I couldn't capture in words. If you're like me and prefer plain old pen and paper, keep enough time to type up. This can be time consuming but try not to allow too large a gap between recording and typing up. Balancing directing a conversation and noting it down can be quite demanding. After the initial few questionnaires, I decided to record all my interviews with an audio recorder as well as take notes during the interview. The good thing about the recorder was that it took the pressure off me during the interview and helped me go over sections I wanted to examine closely. [I used this one but looks like it is not manufactured any longer. There is a lot of choice available based on memory, battery life, hardware compatibility, and sound quality, so choose what fits your needs and budget.]
          • Backup like there's going to be an apocalypse: Google Drive, Drop Box, external hard drive, best friend, do it all. There are several options today for backing up one's data so there is really no excuse for losing data.  

          I hope some of these tips help researchers about to start their fieldwork. It is a stimulating and challenging experience, but if done well, it can be a wonderful adventure too! Do you have any tips you'd like to add?

          Further Reading:

          1. Doing Development Research by Desai, V., and Potter, R. (2006) is a comprehensive book about planning and executing your research. A must read.
          2. The University of Leeds has a Researchers in Development PhD Network (RiDNet) which has some useful guides. They also have an annual conference for researchers to reflect on fieldwork. 
          3. For beginners, Research for Development: A Practical Guide edited by Laws, S., et al. (2013) is a useful start. 

          Friday, 21 February 2014

          Link Pack: Development economics, constructions of climate change


          Book: Zed books, one of my favourite publishers, recently reissued several pivotal books under their Critique Influence Change Series. I just finished the incredibly provocative and engrossing 'Reclaiming Development' by Ha-Joon Chang and Ilene Grabel which makes a compelling case against neoliberal hegemony and maps out alternative economic instruments that can usher in stable, sustainable, and equitable development. A review coming soon!

          Article: Recent research by Simelton et al. (2013) at the University of Leeds show that rainfall changes are easily confused with increased agricultural sensitivity and understanding perceptions of changes in the weather are crucial for adaptation decision making and action. Similar to my findings on farmer perceptions of climate change in rural Rajasthan!

          Blog: 'Making climate change visible' by Dr. Ian Scoones summarises discussions from the recently concluded STEPS-JNU Symposium on 'Exploring Pathways to Sustainability'. Key points: 1) To understand uncertainty as lived and experienced by the marginalised, it is important to question dichotomies of 'modern' and 'indigenous' knowledge. 2) Boundaries organisations and actors (e.g. researcher-activists) can begin to challenge one-sided constructions of climate change. 3) Perspectives and narratives from 'below' can help open the currently model-heavy, techno-centric discourse on climate change. 

          Friday, 7 February 2014

          Book Review: Food Security and Sociopolitical Stability edited by CB Barrett


          Global food price spikes in 2008 and again in 2011 coincided with a surge of political unrest in low- and middle-income countries. In some places, food riots turned violent, pressuring governments and in a few cases contributed to their overthrow. Foreign investors sparked a new global land rush, adding a different set of pressures, and the spectre of widespread food insecurity and sociopolitical instability weighs on policymakers worldwide. 'Food Security and Sociopolitical Stability' edited by CB Barrett represents a critical and timely contribution to food policy and global security discourses and a launch pad for political action. Read my review of it here.

          Friday, 31 January 2014

          PhD Tips: First Year or Becoming a Researcher

          The pre-viva thesis ready for binding
          I recently defended my thesis successfully. That I can call myself Dr. Singh is both an exhilarating and alarming feeling. What a way to end the year! As 2013 drew to a close,I reflected on my doctoral journey and realised what a beautiful, nerve-racking, stimulating, and tumultuous journey it has been: complete with day-of-printing Endnote disasters, I've-collected-my data-now-what panic attacks, oh-no-someone-already-did-my-research (and did it better!) horror shows. But it has also been a stimulating and humbling experience. I learnt and travelled, read and wrote about something I care deeply about. Being an Indian student on her first trip abroad, I also experienced a different culture (who knew that a Yorkshire pudding is not a pudding at all!!) and adjusted to a completely different academic system.

          Having completed my PhD in three years and three months, some friends have asked me how I managed. While a big motivation was having a limited scholarship, I do think I did some things right (with expert guidance from my supervisors of course) and so I began jotting down a few things down. Most of the 'tips' may be relevant for social scientists, with an element of primary data collection as part of their research. So here is what I did and also what I wished I did. 

          First Year or Becoming a Researcher


          • Read, read, read: Even if you have clear ideas about what your research is, take a month or two to challenge your ideas. Make mind maps, scribble, and have frequent discussions with your supervisors. Read widely and across disciplines. For me the vast landscape of literature was intimidating at first, especially since I was returning to research after two years of non-academic work. So take a few months to establish reading (and note-taking) habits, organising your routine, and finding a suitable place to work.  
          • Organise your literature well (I rename each paper as Author, Year) and put them in subject-wise folders. I mixed on-screen and off-screen reading but preferred the latter. I know some people use NViVo or Atlas Ti to organise literature but I jot notes in pencil and revise them as I type them into MS Word. Do what works best for  you. As long as your plan is simple and effective.
          • Organise what you do with the literature. Early in my first year, I made mind maps to understand what were the areas of literature I wanted to focus on. Identifying themes and writing short documents on them are useful starting points. Since I was exploring farmer perceptions of climate change, I realised I had to straddle literature from psychology, anthropology and the natural sciences. With a Bachelors in Botany and Masters in Environmental Studies, psychology was definitely not my expertise. So I broke down my literature search into key words, and spent days looking for relevant papers. In retrospect, time spent looking for papers is definitely not time wasted. Of course, the first source of relevant papers and authors were my supervisors. As I got ahead into the literature, my mind maps evolved and shifted their focus. But they were a critical tool in helping me clearly identify what I was looking for.
          • Use a reference manager from Day 1. I used Endnote (paid) because Papers or Mendeley (free) were not available then. Whatever you do, do not attempt to hand type your references at the end of the three/four years! I also made theme-wise subfolders within Endnote that helped me organise my references.
            A screenshot of my Endnote library organised into folders.
          • Write early and extensively. I wrote several literature reviews during my first year that were NOT summaries of literature. They tried to examine gaps in existing research as well as find bits relevant to build my own research questions. Writing early helped me find my voice, be critical, and get feedback on my approach, writing, and direction early on. [A note for non-native English speakers: Get a friend to edit your work before you give it to your supervisors. That way you get feedback on your content instead of meetings becoming grammar checking exercises.]
          • Following from that, make friends within your school/department. I have realised it is infinitely more helpful to have one critic who will always read your work than many who will skim through and not give any useful feedback. It is also useful to have someone who doesn't know your topic read your work. My mother and cousin were my go-to readers. 
          • Eat lunch away from your desk. In my first year I developed a lunch routine which involved chatting with a friend and going for a walk in Harris Garden afterwards. It was the best thing I did because it helped me clear my head, get a teeny bit of exercise, and move away from my computer! 
            Impromptu yoga is a good way to let off some steam! 
          • Learn what your university expects early on: Learn what are the formatting rules (margins, page numbering style, fonts, heading styles etc.) and make a template based on them. Use the template for all your writing so that you don't have. My university had a great course on using Word for your Thesis which was helpful.
          • Know when to stop: There is always going to be one more paper you can read. I still find it difficult to stop reading and start writing - but it is a skill as important as any other. For me, when I had formulated concrete research questions and had surveyed what I understood as the key literature around them, I stopped. Of course, being told by my supervisors that I was 'there' was helpful. 
          • Do not leave research methodology for the end: With primary data collection, developing a workable research methodology is crucial to the success of your project. While I had some experience with field work and was working within my own country (though in a context far removed from my own), I did fret over my research methods and their suitability. One of the best pieces of advice I got was to develop a clear plan of data analysis BEFORE data collection. Although I did have a plan and it did go awry, having thought of the possible pitfalls, I was able to deal with them better. 
          • Figure out what software you may need. Learn how to use it. One of my regrets is not actively learning qualitative data analysis software in the my first year. Though I took some basic classes in NVivo, after my fieldwork, I had forgotten it completely and had to re-teach myself. It was time-consuming and definitely nerve-racking. I also had to learn a climate data analysis software which I had not planned for. Again, a lot of time and peace of mind spent over learning software in the third year when time suddenly takes on another meaning. 
          • RSS and blogging: Colleagues in my department have mixed views about having an online presence and subscribing to what one friend called PhD 'self-help' blogs. Personally, I feel they are great tools when used in moderation. There is no point reading about 'how to do a great literature review' if you don't actually do it. I use Google Scholar Alerts and email alerts from some key journals for learning about new publications in my field. I subscribe to a few PhD productivity blogs that taught and inspired me, and, finally keep (this) blog to document my readings/ideas, write summaries of conferences, write short articles for a wider audience, and to have an online presence. Only late in my third year did I join Twitter and I am glad I waited because though a great tool, I was mature enough as a researcher to know what my tweeting boundaries were. 
          • The upgrade/PhD confirmation: In a recent seminar, a PhD colleague mentioned that first year students tend to focus on the upgrade report (usually submitted towards the end of the first year) without keeping an eye on the larger picture (the thesis). The best way to overcome this is writing your upgrade report in a way that you can use it for your thesis. Personally, I was able to use my literature review and methodology sections from the report (with generous changes of course). 
          • Don't ignore your non-academic life! International students, TRAVEL. The first year is a good time to explore the country and satisfy all your tourist cravings. I went on a HOST visit, several day trips with friends, longer trips to some European countries and innumerable long walks along the English countryside

          Quite a few points for someone who didn't know what this post was going to shape into! I'll write follow-up posts on second year and doing fieldwork, and managing data analysis and writing up in the third year soon! Questions? Suggestions? Leave them in the comments below!

          Resources: 
          1. If you're in the UK, check out these research methods courses. Most are subsidised if you're a student. 
          2. YouTube is a great resource to teach yourself how to use a software. I learnt NVivo myself through these great tutorials and went on to explain them to my research group, which helped me really learn the software. 
          3. My favourite PhD-related blogs: Patter, PhD Talk, Raul Pachecho's blog

          Saturday, 25 January 2014

          Link Pack: Social learning, climate change, new book on State regulation


          Sustainable development through social learning: A new paper in Nature Climate Change posits that wicked problems like climate change can greatly benefit from social learning approaches because they foster iterative, collaborative and participatory learning. An open access version of the paper is here.

          Ed Carr's blog: I have read several of Carr's papers and was really glad to find his blog which discusses climate change, adaptation, and development among other things. His work on 'livelihoods as intimate government' is particularly interesting.

          SEA identifies 12 issues around monitoring and evaluation in climate change adaptation projects (link). Key points: 1) adaptation is a process, not an end point and represents a 'moving target', 2) adaptation cycles are much longer than programme time frames, 3) uncertainty, scale, conflicting definitions of adaptation and maladaptive pathways, make M&E difficult.

          A new book ​​The Rise of the Regulatory State of the South: Infrastructure and Development in Emerging Economies, edited by Navroz K. Dubash and Bronwen Morgan tackles the interface between the State and it's regulatory role in infrastructural projects with case studies from the global south. Read a review here by Matt Birkinshaw.

          Monday, 20 January 2014

          Link Pack: Vulnerability indicators, pluralism, participatory farmer advisories


          1. A new paper by Katherine Vincent and Tracy Cull that reviews debates around using indicators to assess climate change vulnerability. The section on 'principles for developing robust indicators' is interesting and emphasises the need for a clear conceptual framework, transparent choice and aggregation of indicators, a critical examination of different methodologies and their assumptions, and finally, managing limitations of indicators (do they capture the spatio-temporal dynamics of vulnerability?).
          2. A review of Remapping India, a book by Louise Tillin which looks at the political origins of new states in India and looks like a book to delve into.
          3. 'Preserving pluralism in India today', the latest episode on the highly recommended The NDTV Dialogues. Interesting insights on pluralism in India and why secularism is not the opposite of communalism by Lord Parekh, Arun Shourie, and Professor Mushirul Hassan. 
          4. Blog on farmer perceptions of climate variability: Drawing on work in Kenya, CCAFS shows how blending historical climate data, short-term seasonal forecasts, and long-term climate change projections can help construct agro-advisories that aid farmer decision-making and risk management. 
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