I keep getting phonecalls from my family asking if I am okay now that I have started my PhD and am I really ready to go back. I think ‘what on earth are they on about?’ But then they tell me that, the last time they knew anything about my PhD status is via my blog posts and the last few have been a bit grim, oh my!

A few weeks ago I had to attend a session with the student support team. In the room there was a proper professional psychiatrist with an NHS lanyard! This made me a bit worried because I didn’t think I had a proper serious condition that needed a psychiatrist and I suddenly felt stigma like that Goffman fella went on about. However, they were very impressed and satisfied with all that I had achieved to prepare myself for my return. The psychiatrist said that sometimes they have students coming to the ‘back to work’ meeting who say they want to come back, but have not actually done any work to reflect on what their issues were or make sure they have support in place to stop their stress or anxiety or whatever ruining their experience again.


Shake it all about: Signs in the student wellbeing offices

I was really happy that all that I had done was the right thing and celebrated my official stamp of approval to return with a suitably branded new rucksack so that I feel like a proper legitimate member of the UCL IOE community. Also, it is a great bag because I can fit two, yes two, flasks in for coffee and another one for homemade soup for my London days:


Cheeky Thermos says: ‘Happy to help!’

So what did I do to ‘recover’? Well I am not sure exactly. Mainly I suppose it is just taking time out to reflect, listen to other people’s advice(thanks everyone!) and just be more open and honest about one’s feelings. I did have counselling for 7 weeks leading up to the interruption, so I just continued building on that. I now see the PhD as a task. And I can do this task. Just like I am amazing at tasks such as tidying, cleaning, organising my haversack and creating magnificent art sculptures for my new clean and tidy study (see photo below).


Before: What the…?!


After: Wonderful! (no, it does not look like ‘The Ring’)

This probably isn’t handy advice for other PhD students struggling as not everyone is as amazing at cleaning and organising or art like I am (see how my self-hatred has turned into the opposite! Oh dear, have I developed a disorder to whatever that turnip Donald Trump has). But you must be pretty amazing at something – just try and apply that skill to the PhD.

I would also recommend also reading this book: Your PhD Coach. It has some handy exercises.






Additionally, my university has an online and telephone counselling service, so I feel like there is support there if I need it and that is comforting. I almost messaged them last week (my first week back) because I was in procrastination to the max mode. But I have decided to wait a bit because it is only week 2 and this is probably just the normal settling in process. I have a new temporary part time admin job (for Luton International Carnival) and need to settle into that, plus I need to get back into the swing of things in general.

So that’s all okay. I am not scared or embarrassed to admit I need help nor to ask for it. In fact I am quite intrigued to see how the online counselling session works. Can I just message them and say ‘help! I can’t stop cleaning my toilet’ when I have a procrastination attack? I’ll let you know.

Finally I have support of my writing chums and a Saturday study buddy. At least once a month I’ll join in our ‘Shut up and Write’ marathons which are 4 days of intense writing. I have booked them all in my diary and will use them to structure the rest of the month.

I think the key really is focus, a bit of planning, a tidy organised workspace and working on one’s self-confidence. Instead of spending a day or two recovering from when my demons attack me, now if they come, I just bat them away and it might only take 5 minutes or sometimes an hour, to recover from the negative thinking. I am still quite bad at procrastination and really need to work on that. However, right now my toilet is filthy and I don’t have an urge to clean it. Now that’s pretty good progress.

In June 2016 me and my supervisors agreed that I should take an ‘interruption of studies’ for six months on the grounds of health and wellbeing. The reason being that I had stopped making any PhD progress in what was my third and final year. We wanted to try and break down the negative pattern of submitting pieces of work that were always incomplete or not quite making sense in terms of my research focus. My supervisors were confused and worried that my perfectionism was paralysing me, I was tired, frustrated and depressed, so we decided to stop and break the cycle in its tracks.

So now it is October and I only have 3 months left of my ‘sabbatical’ which is worrying me a bit because what if I am not ‘cured’ now, what if the same patterns return. But thankfully I am actually also looking forward to going back. I have decided to return part-time to take off the pressure and am putting other strategies in place which I may discuss in another post.

This break has had a little pattern of it’s own. First of all I love that delicious feeling of lying down and watching trash TV with no guilt. Or going on a day trip to Margate with no pressure to read an academic book on the train.


Some sort of shell penis in Margate

I enjoyed joining in briefly with the Pokemon Go! craze.


Some sort of seal thing in Wardown Park

I have been playing in my band at fantastic summer events with no other stress apart from how to drain the huge puddles of water out of my pan.


Some sort of spendid summer scene at Luton’s Summer in the Sun (before the downpour)

However within this luxurious feeling I sometimes spend dark nights up late into the early hours (or as soon as I wake up, or just in the afternoon, any time really) feeling like a loser and my inner critic alter ego starts bullying me: “Other people I started with have finished or are close to finishing – you’re a loser”. “Other people have got some magnificent findings – your work is shit, you’re a loser”. “Other people are just all round better and more successful – you’re crap at everything and a loser”.

However coming out as a ‘loser’ has been quite good because lots of other people have also said they have had similar experiences. But you know what it’s like when you are feeling full of self-hatred, you only focus on the ‘other’ people you are envious of, not those others who are the same as you. It can take a whole day to get rid of my nasty alter ego voice. So days and days of my luxurious holiday feel wasted.

Much of my holiday has also been worrying about money. I am lucky to have savings and my mother is giving me pocket money for these 6 months (“you’re 36 and your mum is giving you pocket money, you’re a loser”). I now have to pay fees when I return as my ESRC funding has run out – another thing my inner critic likes to remind me of – ‘what a tosser you are, wasting all that time and money. Idiot loser.’

So most of this holiday has also been spent working or trying to find suitable work for when I return. I have been experiencing all sorts of casual jobs which has been useful in remembering that the PhD isn’t everything. I spent over a month doing some transcriptions which was interesting and reminded me of the work I used to do pre-PhD as a research assistant. But it also reminded me why people pay other people to do it.

Babysitting was fun but scary. I have limited child experience. I was worried her mother would be disaproving when she saw her 2 year old naked and covered in felt-tip pen (I like to let children be free!).


I let her feed me soap bubbles. They didn’t taste good. Don’t do it.

I am on a list of casual bar staff now too. I forgot how fabulous I am at customer service and banter with the general public, but I did not realise how much bar work results in getting alcohol all over yourself from head to toe. Also in a loud environment Fosters and Vodka sound exactly the same which results in some mixed up orders. However, I did see some very interesting patterns regarding the drink choices of different demographics (quick quiz – a punk’s fav tipple is:  a) Red Stripe b) Newcastle brown OR c) Malibu and Pineapple – – – answer at the bottom of this post).

Tomorrow I have to get up at 6am (omg, I’ve been waking up at 10/11am (maybe later) for weeks now!) for the selection day for Royal Mail Christmas Temp job. That’s kind of being a magical Christmas Elf isn’t it? And I am also meeting someone at Luton Culture to discuss being on their casual bar and front of house team.

So I think things will all work out in the end. Once I get some jobs sorted, I am going to get back into PhD reading in the last few weeks of my sabbatical and hope I can kill the inner critic.

Final fun fact – Did you know Paul Willis of Learning to Labour fame used to sell icecream to fund his PhD – well, I am hoping to be a casual for Gelato Heaven during their peak summer season – it’s all a sign!



Some sort of giant sociological ice-cream






ANSWER – A punk’s favourite tipple is Red Stripe! Well done if you got it right. You win…. a can of Red Stripe!

“I go through spells where I don’t do anything. I just sort of have lunch—all day.”

Writing is not my natural forte, I like the Nora Ephron quote above about her writing process, so similar to mine. I go through long dry spells where my motivation is on the floor, my focus too caught elsewhere, and I’m not entirely sure I’ll get a PhD at all – the guilt creeping in for every day off, or trip out for coffee. Secretly I feel abit like a dilatant, who if they can look and sound the part someone will eventually give them a PhD. Like Annika’s earlier blogpost, I have the “swishy wool coat and smart leather bag that makes me appear intelligent”.

The truth is I probably work far too much, and am anything but a dilatant. I am a part-time PhD student, with a full time job, who would eat, sleep, and breath my discipline if I could. This shouldn’t be confused with a recommendation that a PhD student eat, sleep and breath what they do. However, I honestly don’t know how I would be able to write, and maintain my energy, without this passion for what I do.

The barriers I have to writing are multiple; I work full-time, in a job that I love but no one day is the same; I take on voluntary roles; I try to maintain an active conference presence, trying to do all the extra things a good PhD student is suggested they should. With work and study I traveled between December, and April nearly 6,000 miles alone. Across April I spent nearly every Friday half way across the country, delivering presentations which consumed my attention the weeks before.  Add to this the perils of trying to have a personal life, and sleep, and good grief – I need a dry martini and lie down, which neither aid not abet the writing of 90,000 words.

But also I am Dyslexic, a fact which more often that not I have hidden by omission. When I write everything takes longer. It is also heartbreaking sometimes to be able talk with such confidence, and articulation, but then sit down to compose a paper, or write a chapter and feel my mouth crammed with cotton wool, that spills out on the page when I try to speak. If I could give a purely voce viva PhD I would.

How I’ve written…

I have tried many approaches before the one which has lead me to be invited to this blog. I wrote my Masters by Research like you would build an ice sculpture – I poured my thoughts into chapters far too big, and chiseled away at the big blocks of ice they created to craft the message. On starting to write my PhD I tried very much to do the same, to little success, it was part of the process, and helped shape my thinking, and gobbets of this drafting do appear occasionally in my current work, but in very small amounts.

Thus I feel I should give you a word of caution, my method of writing is yet to have been proven effective. I don’t have my PhD firstly, I wish I could tell you that I am now 50% through to the finished piece as a result of this plan, but I’m not. However I am more confident that it will come with time. But my approach to writing has been organic and grown unique to myself, and my life style, and I’d encourage you most of all to develop an approach in a similar way, which works for you, and responds to your needs, and helps you get the job done.

How I write now…

So how do I write now? I have spent months and months refining my arguments and thinking through a written thesis plan with my supervisors, during a period of no chapter based writing at all. This was a hard, and not over yet, but this was important as it weeded out a number of areas that made the thesis too broad, and unfocused, and have been put to one side, or recycled, as presentations or alternative projects and papers in the future.

My latest approach has been far slower, and is focused on writing very deliberately, purposefully. My supervisors regularly suggesting a good rule of thumb being that a tight argument should be traceable, in broad terms, from the first line of each paragraph. Each paragraph moving the argument forward one step at a time.

At one point, and very unlike me, I did the math and established that the average 10,000 word chapter is composed of about 34 paragraphs between 300-350 words. I don’t believe my final chapters should or will follow these rules religiously but suddenly if a chapter becomes 34 first lines, rather than 10,000 words, it is far less intimidating.


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34 first lines: argument plan

So I mapped the argument each chapter should try to make on one page of A3, and used this to then slowly and deliberately write the first line of each paragraph. This didn’t work at first, when I went back to my supervisors each line was at first too broad. One line alone could be 10 first lines. So cue my current position where I am going through the second round of first lines, distilling the essence of the points I want to make.

It becomes like planning each paragraph as though they were individual PowerPoint slides; as though my thesis was actually a presentation, playing to my strengths. This is where the storyboarding approach comes in, during the week which is when I’m at my busiest, and exhausted after a long day at work, I can plan each paragraph of a chapter using post it notes. Mapping out the first lines and points I want to make as I go along. Reordering and reworking them as I go.  My wall starts to look like a murder investigation, pinning evidence and possibilities across the wall trying to work out how things fit together.

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Planning the chapter as if it were a PowerPoint presentation

As I progess it becomes more and more apparent when a first line is not actually strong enough to from a paragraph of its own, but a line within a stronger paragraph, or when it should be removed altogether, because it just doesn’t fit when you line the post-its up. No matter how often I re-order and move them, it becomes clearer what moves the argument forward, and what doesn’t.

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Re-ordering the paragraphs

Then comes the weekends, and bank holidays. These are the times when I can sit down and spend a solid, extended period of time writing. But the work during the week, with post its make it easier, the process of writing becomes more a painting by numbers exercise, and at first is focused on taking the first lines from my post-it wall, and pouring them into into a table.

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Tabulating the paragraphs (with a side of macarons)

Yes, I write my chapters into a table. I number each row, both with its paragraph number in the chapter as a whole, and the paragraph number in the subsection of the chapter I’m writing. There isn’t a rule about this, but if these numbers get too high am I still being focused?

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numbering the paragraphs

If as I complete the paragraph the row of the table is suddenly spanning 3 pages, is this chapter trying to do too much or being too long? This process doesn’t provide answers to these questions; some paragraphs will be longer than others, as will some chapters. But the process keeps this in my mind, and reminds me to keep these things in check. My dyslexia means I really could write a 90,000 word sentence if I was want to do so, and sometimes even when I don’t want to. My longest sentence to date was one and half pages with nothing but oxford commas.

Cue the return to the wall, every time I reach a natural break, the end of the weekend, or the end of a particular writing focused day, I print the table, and pin it up on the wall. Taking the original post-it notes, I re-trace the argument I’m trying to make. Reading back the points I wanted to make, and seeing if the paragraphs do this. Again it is not a problem if they don’t – there might be a very good reason for this – but increasingly they do, and my hope is that this lends to the tightening of my argument across my thesis. I don’t know if this argument is right yet, but going to see my supervisors for my next meeting I think I have a clearer grasp on what I want to say.

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Rechecking the ‘evidence’: see how the orange post-its have moved!

So what?

A question from Pat Thomson, whose books I’ve also found incredibly useful when writing. But in relation to this approach the answer is I don’t know! – Maybe I’ll be Dr Dent in the next year as a result of this approach. That’s the dream. But this way seems to be helping for now at least.

My other tips are superficial, but they are vital to my process of working, and shouldn’t be under estimated. Every chapter has a sound track – One song or group of songs played on repeat. Chapter one is being brought to you by Hamilton;


Don’t ask me why this is important but, sitting at my desk, listening to the same music, focuses my mind – I know I’m writing chapter one when I listen to this. Things seem to come back to me far quicker as a result. If I try and write somewhere that’s not my desk, in cafes, restaurants, libraries, hotel rooms, and trains, listening to the same music wherever re-focuses my mind.

Finally, while I don’t have the time to, I always try to read something non-academic as I write; increasingly this has been things by other writers. Returning to Nora Ephron, my current choice of non-academic reading, taking an hour out, every couple of days or so, to read something that isn’t academic seems to help. Academia is not the only forum where people write, edit, and compose, I don’t think we shouldn’t underestimate the value their experiences can bring. Ultimately I think I have to get to a place where I walk into my viva I feel like the editor-in-chief of my thesis, confident to defend my argument and the choices I’ve made. Anything that can inspire me to do this is to be welcomed with open arms. And hey, some days its ok to just have lunch all day – you deserve it.

Find out more about Samuel Dent via https://samueldent.wordpress.com/

Follow him on Twitter where you can see more photographs of his post-it-note technique  @SRDent89



You know when you are little and you bravely climb a wall, but then you get paralysed with fear and have to shout ‘help I’m stuck!’ for someone to lift you off. In hindsight the wall was tiny, the distance and danger was all in your mind, but there was no way you could get over your fear by yourself. Well, this is how I feel about my thesis and have done I think probably for many months, but did not really know it was a big problem until another supervision meeting started with ‘Annika, this work doesn’t make sense to us. Are you OK?’.

A couple of weeks ago the supervision meeting started liked that. Which was very disappointing for me because every meeting of late has started with concerned looks and questioning of why my work always seems to be off on a tangent, why my supervisors can’t see where I am going and why I never seem to actually do what I said I would do in the previous meeting. It is quite obvious that I have some sort of anxiety problem but I sort of thought this was normal, but it has started to affect my progress so badly that I haven’t really achieved much and I am 2.5 years into the 3 year PhD.

So finally I have accepted the help of someone to take me off the wall. I saw a woman at my university who deals with students who need advice – normally for things like changing supervisors, extensions on assignments, financial worries – but she was recommended to me because she was lovely – and indeed she was. One thing we spoke about to try to boost my confidence in my abilities was to remember that I won a prestigious and competitive scholarship. This is some evidence that someone at some time saw that I had potential and thought I was capable of doing the PhD. Not everyone has this, so it is something I need to use to help boost myself. Grab what you can! Also I was reminded that my upgrade was really good. It was agreed by two eminent professors that I am capable and that the project plan was at a doctoral level. So after this meeting I felt much better. It is not arrogant to remember that you have achieved some very good things.

Secondly I booked an appointment with a counsellor. I went to an assessment meeting where they ask you open questions about every aspect of your life which is interesting but emotionally exhausting! I am not sure I want to go back – but know I probably should and would benefit so I better I suppose….

Finally, I have been making sure I exercise more and look after myself physically – which of course can positively  affect mental health. My going to the gym has been so erratic that my favourite  yoga instructor said ‘where have you been, are you OK?

Everyone is asking if I am OK. They have always asked this, but perhaps I never wanted to admit that I wasn’t OK (I don’t think I knew I wasn’t until this crisis). But now I feel like I am becoming OK again and that my thesis will be OK and OK is good enough!


Me stuck on a wall in the 1980s! Nothing changes eh?

I asked my sisters what social class they thought they belonged to. I was surprised that our conversation lasted over an hour because I assumed they would say quite bluntly ‘we’re working class’ because this is what we were always brought up to feel by our father and it is a position I now feel comfortable saying, particularly over the last few years, as I view it as a political position rather than a simple objective category.

My father studied sociology and was quite into Marxism, so in fact we were more often we were ‘not the bourgeoisie’. Our childhood was punctuated with avoiding bourgeois things, like holidays, certain types of furniture, types of food and certain leisure activities. Upon reflection, I think a lot of this may have been due to lack of money. So rather than say we can’t do or have certain things because we can’t afford it, my father instead say it was bourgeois. For example, we had a massive dampness problem due to poor quality housing but my dad said that mould was good for us and it is bourgeois to think otherwise (we later got rehoused and our former flats demolished).

My parents were hippies and mother Swedish so our idea of nice home furnishings for example, was very different to the traditional English working-class ‘chintz’, which I yearned to have and one birthday got my dream of a pink floral lamp on a little wooden corner shelf. But over time as a family we had a higher income we could then afford nicer food, go to cafes and restaurants, discovered opera, experienced a bit of travel and I even got a proper bouncy (bourgeois) mattress to match my pink lampshade (although sadly I had to throw the lampshade away as it was damaged by mould).


My lamp was probably from BHS or Argos and looked a bit like this, but more traditional in shape. Oh how I miss thee! Photo from Flickr

My father was also anti-school (in terms of the way it is run), but not anti-education. So my father gained his degree in 1993 at the age of 44, my mother followed soon after and only around 5 years later did I and my older sister do our degrees and then Master’s degrees.

I always felt it very difficult to categorize my social class in objective terms (e.g. father’s occupation) because my parents were unemployed for a lot of the time I was growing up in the 1980s – although my mother did work on the Vauxhall assembly line when pregnant with me which I like to think boosts my Lutonian working-class credentials. My friends parents had proper working-class jobs like builders, so easier to define – they were working!

Then after these unemployed years, my parents were students – taking in turns the role of the housewife/househusband whilst the other studied, only getting professional type jobs later in life. Until his death in 2005, my father was a counsellor and project worker for people with drug problems and my mother now works in a university as a web editor. We all went to our local university, the University of Luton (now Bedfordshire – rebranded due to a merger as well as to disguise its connections to Luton to improve its rankings), following a typical working-class pattern of staying at home.

Going to this local post-1992 university meant that we did not feel like ‘a fish out of water’. We did not have any of those difficulties in fitting in or coming across people from other backgrounds. We were among a majority of working-class students and often mature and very ethnically mixed, too reflecting the local population. Only when I came to UCL did I for the first time ever hear in the corridors ‘posh’ voices from students who were younger than me – ‘posh’ voices on older people or lecturers was fine, expected, reassuring – but on young people, I really felt suddenly out of place and inferior.

On one of my first days I had to present a quick overview of my project and I looked up the other students to check them out. I had a mild panic attack when I saw some had gone to Oxford and Cambridge and then a massive sense of inferiority came over me, but I am dealing with this and do not feel bothered by it anymore, probably something to do with my age. Also, all the people I have met are lovely!

And although I can’t pass as middle-class, nor do I desire to, I can certainly do and participate in middle-class things with pleasure. I think mixing of cultures is the best way to be.

What social class are you? And has education helped or confused your class identity?

Last week I met with my supervisors to discuss a draft chapter I submitted to them. I thought it was quite good. They thought the opposite. Yet again I had gone off on a tangent and rather get to the core of the discussion in the chapter, I spend too much time and space writing about all the background and things around it.This has been my problem from the beginning and I don’t seem to be able to snap out of this habit.

My supervisors say that they think I lack confidence. I don’t need to show all my ‘workings out’. Rather, I have to be a confident author who is telling a story to my audience and they basically have to be convinced by what I write. I am in charge and so need to start on the meaty bit and just go for it. At the moment I am trying to convince the reader that I am knowledgeable by showing them everything I know. However, I tend to run out of time and space for the meaty bit, so all the reader is left with is a start and pudding and no main – you get what I mean I hope!

I think I am in ‘special measures’, a ’cause for concern’ on ‘special review’ or whatever else terms are used when a student is not progressing as they are supposed to. This feels a bit of a blow. I am used to being quite in control and good at things. But in this PhD I have been …well…. crap.

So, I now have supervision meetings every two weeks and until I get back on track. My supervisors are really guiding me through how to write up my analysis.  They hope that if I have an example of one section that is done well, then I will be able to do the rest with ease.

This is what happened in my quantitative analysis write up. I needed just one paragraph that my supervisor helped me with, like a template, to show me how to describe quantitative data accurately.

After this terrible news I spent four solid hours crying in the library. I actually could see other students crying too. We were like snot brothers and sisters.

I am also so grateful that my supervisors have been understanding and nice. I was so scared they would tell me off and kick me out.

So, I shall keep calm and carry on. They key is to take it in stages. So my next task for my supervisors is to write just 1,500 on one theme in one section of the qualitative analysis. I have just 12 days to do this. Already I have felt myself veering off on a tangent, so I have to keep pulling myself back. But I think I can do it. I think this section is pretty good….. or is it? *weep*


A selfie I took in the library                                                         (from Aleksandra Waliszewska on Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/walisz/)





I think I am ready now to expose my research questions to the world. Here it goes:

  • Are 1958 British Birth cohort members’ perceived social class identities affected by participation in higher education? If so, how?
  • What role does structure and agency have to play on working-class cohort members’ decisions to enter or not enter higher education as a young or mature student at some point in their lives between 1976 and 2008?
  • What meaning and significance does having a degree hold for cohort members as they reflect back on their lives age 50?
  • Can understandings of participation in higher education across the lifecourse be enhanced by the use of a mixed methods secondary dataset and by applying mixed modes of analysis?

Why is that scary? Well, because someone might ask a question about it that I won’t know the answer to. Someone may say ‘that it is a shit topic’. Someone may ask ‘what’s the point’ and I’ll have to articulate an answer. Someone might say, ‘oh so and so already did that exact topic, I can’t believe you didn’t know?’ Someone may say ‘wow, briliant topic, your thesis is going to be so interesting’ and I’ll think, ‘well, not if I can’t do it’. Or someone may say ‘you’ve put an apostrophe in the wrong place’.

But I like them, they feel like my little friends, always by my side, quietly nagging me for not spending time with them and forgetting their birthdays… oh sorry, that just slipped out.

Go on, be vulnerable and show me yours (research questions that is).

Thanks to Jessica Gagnon for the video link.

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