Monthly Archives: January 2014

You know when you are trying to sort out your page numbering in Word and you get really frustrated  and you cry a little bit or sometimes a lot… well, fear no more. If you just want to have a couple of blank pages in your document, say for the chapter title but you don’t want a number ruining the nice clean page, don’t bother doing all those section breaks etc – just simply colour over the page number!

This will definitely come in handy for the thesis.


I’m bad at speaking English but it’s the only language I know

This is what Director Spike Jonze said when accepting his Golden Globe Award and it led me to think about to what extent native speakers can improve their English when we no longer participate in English language classes and perhaps feel we don’t quite have the time to sit down and focus on learning grammar and such like.

I have heard it said many times, but can’t find any evidence for it, that Margaret Thatcher got rid of the teaching of English language in schools in the 1980s and 1990s and that is why people of my age are bad at grammar. Although I have no recollection of studying English language even though I have a GCSE grade B in it  I am not sure I can blame Margaret Thatcher for all my problems and have decided to actively improve my English.
In the ‘How to write a thesis’ book I mentioned before, the author Rowena Murray gives readers this fun quiz, how many do you know?:
  1. What are the definite and indefinite articles?
  2. When and how do you use a semi-colon?
  3. What is a personal pronoun?
  4. What is ‘the antecedent’?
  5. What is subject–verb agreement?
  6. What are the essential elements of a sentence?
  7. Give examples of sentences using the passive and active voices.
  8. What is the difference in meaning between the two?
  9. Define ‘sentence boundaries’ and say why they are important.
  10. What is a topic sentence?

I am ashamed to say that I knew only four and she says if you know five or less, then you have a problem! I won’t give the answers here as it is important for everyone to do a bit of self-study, but I have to say that my mind was blown when I discovered what a topic sentence was and already I feel that I can improve my writing but will have to actively work on it and not rest on my native speaker laurels.

In a previous post I said I would ask my supervisors the question: “What is the best and most useful way to show you what I have learned and read and have been thinking to move the project forward?”

We decided that I need to show them something in writing, so not just scrappy notes. One said that it is best to start writing from the beginning of the doctorate. But this always makes me think write what? I know nuffink so can’t write nuffink! But after a bit of a discussion I think I have finally got it. There are things I can write about. The ethics of the research, the dataset I am using, the ‘factual’ stuff about the historical context, the methodology.

We have decided that I will produce something every month for my supervisors to read. That way they can look at the content but also how I write to help me become an academic writer. Both my supervisors have a lovely clear writing style, so I am confident that we are all on the same wavelength about what we think a good academic writing style looks like which I think is important.

The book by Rowena Murray ‘Writing for Journal Articles’ (see her top 10 tips from the book on The Guardian website) was recommended to me by my supervisor. Although there are some useful things in there, the problem with some of the writing books I have been reading is that they are geared toward people who are knowledgeable on their subject and are perhaps writing about something that they have been researching for many years – they actually have something to write about and tend to focus on tackling the issue of finding time and space to write. But for a full-time student, this isn’t really an issue.

So instead I think I will buy Rowena Murray’s book ‘How to write a thesis’.

So I am feeling optimistic and excited about writing – learning by writing I should say – as at last Murray’s book about writing a thesis addresses the whole idea of what to write even if you don’t yet know what you are writing about. Yay!

© Annika Coughlin 2014

Sometimes I worry that I have nothing to show for all that I have been thinking and reading. But how do you ensure that you properly reflect to your supervisors what you have learned and discovered from your reading. How do actually present that? How do you communicate your current thinking and the connections you are making. Do you have to write an essay for them before each meeting to summarise what you have found out? What about if things are still so up in the air that all I have written down are some handwritten scribbles in a notebook or annotations in the margins of articles. I don’t think I could write everything up nice and neatly before every meeting as it is almost like nothing is quite ready yet to be put to print in a nice neat way.

This is the question I am asking my supervisors tomorrow. What is the best and most useful way to show you what I have learned and read and have been thinking to move the project forward?

© Annika Coughlin 2014

Up until quite recently, I was involved in research to do with the impact of writing retreats on academic identity and productivity. My colleague and I wrote a paper which provided a ‘how to’ guide on how to set up a writing retreat (pre-publication version available here) in order to create the correct atmosphere for a sense of community and productivity for novice researchers.

What we don’t look at in our research is how to write well – the technicalities and what it is that makes for a good writer.

I don’t think I am a very good academic writer and I am not a very good speaker either but these are two things that you are assessed on and which eventually means you earn a doctorate. But can this change? Can you learn how to become a good academic writer? I hope so.

I have a book by Patricia Goodson called ‘Becoming an academic writer: 50 exercises for paced, productive and powerful writing.’

Here is the content outline:

Chapter 1. Get Ready to Practice
Part I. Practice Becoming a Productive Academic Writer
Chapter 2. Establish and Maintain the “Write” Habit
Chapter 3. Practice Building Academic Vocabulary
Chapter 4. Polish the Grammar
Chapter 5. Get Feedback
Chapter 6. Edit and Proofread
Part II. Practice Writing Sections of Journal Articles, Research Reports, and Grant Applications
Chapter 7. Exercises for Writing Introductions, Purpose Statements, or Specific Aims Sections
Chapter 8. Exercises for Writing the Methods Section
Chapter 9. Exercises for Writing the Results/Findings Section
Chapter 10. Exercises for Writing Discussion or Conclusion Section
Chapter 11. Exercise for Writing Abstracts
Appendix: Additional Resources
Author Index
Subject Index

I will have a go at these. Much of the literature tends to be about how to improve productivity and avoid writer’s block – there is no point in producing lots of stuff that is quite frankly rubbish and not at a high standard. I am not quite sure exactly what my problems are just yet, but my mum who used to proof-read my work seemed to suggest there was much room for improvement! And as mentioned before, I don’t feel like I have a very large vocabulary which I think is a problem for speaking and writing.

Goodson suggests that like an instrument you need to practice. Just like my steelpan I suppose, in three years of being in the band I am much better than I used to be and am now even teaching others how to play. So perhaps this can happen with writing?


© Annika Coughlin 2014

This is an order to myself! In a previous post I started that I had started a worklog in an Excel spreadsheet. Of course it didn’t last. I think the main reason is that it isn’t really necessary if you trust yourself to do what you need to do. Clocking in, having managers check up on how long you spent on toilet breaks, check you aren’t chatting to your friends and such like is something that gets left behind when you leave school and if you don’t work in a place where your every action in monitored and checked against the clock (as documented about Amazon for example ). For some people with bullying bosses and a competitive working environment this can happen and not just in factory style workplaces. I don’t want to be a part of this sort of environment. I like a more flexible way of working.

I think when you are doing your PhD, the pressure to try not to disappoint your supervisors and to try to justify your existence to tax payers who pay me through the ESRC to do this research is enough.

Of course, like in all work, time-management is a challenge but guilt and a sense of duty is all I need to keep me in check –  and an occasional disapproving look from friends and family when I slip up.

But perhaps this is just idealised thinking – perhaps students should invest in a clocking in machine for the home – perhaps a sexy vintage one.

Oppression - in sexy walnut!

Oppression – in sexy walnut!

And if I am good, I could reward myself with this gold badge:gold badge

(I secretly like the idea).

Last year before leaving to do this PhD, I worked in an office that had the biggest most industrial printer around. So when it came to writing my research proposal for the PhD I just did a quick literature search (just using search term ‘mature students’) and printed off around 50 articles on this magnificent machine. This big pile of journal articles had been hanging around on my desk ever since, for coming up to a year now, and since I started my PhD I have been lost as to where to start reading and what to read and getting terribly anxious about not doing any reading. But the answer has been staring me in the face all this time.

After reading Jessica Hayton’s blog where she discusses that people suggest a few articles and one book a week is what you should be aiming for, then I felt inspired to set myself a challenge, starting with these printed articles.

I decided to read 2 articles a day and try to get through a book a week for the whole of January.

I went to Sainsbury’s where they have quite a nice little stationery collection and got a jaunty red ring binder, some page dividers and some reduced priced Post-it notes. I also got a reduced priced rainbow trout and made a delightful experimental cous cous dish, but that’s another story.

I chose at random 14 papers and put them in the ring binder separating each batch of 14 by a page divider to indicate each week. Then when I read the papers I write a few notes throughout and also on the front page (just key points from the article and how it might be useful (or not) for my project) and put the date on it when I had read it. I also put a little green dot on it if the article is also in my Endnote account. I may also invest in some gold star stickers if the article was mind blowing and really relevant. Or perhaps a gold ring binder to put them in… we shall see. Here is a pic of my system, the blue post-it note on the top has my monthly target/plan written on it so I don’t forget.

Ring-binder reading regime  (p.s. curtain panel system from IKEA)

Ring-binder reading regime
(p.s. curtain panel system in background from IKEA)

I am reading the articles quickly as the aim of this exercise is to get an overall picture of what people are researching and writing about and to discover key words and themes. I will then do a proper literature search starting in Feb. In Feb I won’t print out every single article, probably just the front page of each (or first four pages, but double sided and two to a page so it is just one piece of paper) and read online instead (unless they get gold star status). But will still use the ring binder method as I think it is good to have something in print, even if just the first page just in case all the computer files go missing etc.

Regarding books, I will start with a book my second supervisor wrote (luckily it is nice and slim) and then move to other books that seem relevant from there…… in time the RRR (ring-binder reading regime) will evolve into something quite perfect I am sure.

(c) Annika Coughlin 2014

I am reading a lot about widening participation, non-traditional students, access and such like in higher education for my project. The idea of a non-traditional (undergraduate) student is not a clear cut category. So a traditional student (in the UK, USA that is – other countries might have other ‘traditional’ characteristics) is a young male from a middle class background who is white.

Non-traditional students are defined with many characteristics but one of the main ones seems to be that they are first in the family to go to university or what is known as first-generation students.

I was thinking about my own situation. My parents were both mature students in around 1993 when I was 13. Both from a working class background and they were the first in their families to go. But that meant that me and my sisters were probably defined as a more traditional student because of the fact that both of our parents had been to university. So how does the concept of ‘first in the family’ apply when your parents went, but when they were in their 40s and just 5 years before you did?

The fact that they went just 5 years before me doesn’t mean we all suddenly became middle-class and all the social and cultural capital that goes with it… but it must be quite usual for children of mature students to then go to university as the idea of going to university becomes normal and achievable – but I haven’t found any research on this yet. But if someone is researching the children of mature students, do let me know what you find!


© Annika Coughlin 2014

A librarian from the University of Bedfordshire recommended a book to me called How to Read Journal Articles in the Social Sciences by Phillip Chong Ho Shon. I think it was probably the first time that a book had made explicit that reading is rarely taught. We all have these courses, blogs and books about how to write, the importance of writing and indeed in a paper I wrote with a colleague Petia Petrova, the best environment to cultivate a writing atmosphere, but what about reading? That is probably the most important bit. Writers block isn’t necessarily an actual thing – often it can be because one hasn’t actually read enough or the right things to have anything to write about.

I also think reading is the thing that makes you able to have something to say verbally. I didn’t know what to expect from a reading group, but yesterday I realised that those who could contribute tended to be able to do so because they had read other works and could make links to these authors, theories etc. I, who couldn’t contribute, wasn’t because I didn’t understand the topic of neo-liberalism as such, but I just had nothing to add because I wouldn’t be able to back anything I said up with literature or experience or examples. and then of course one gets the feeling that one is thick and everyone else is so articulate and clever and well read. Well I can be well read too and contribute something useful, I just need to read more relevant things and read them skillfully and deeply!

Last term, I did feel rather anxious that I hadn’t gotten into a proper reading routine, but having the reading group as well as a new term means that I will now get some sort of reading plan written out. But I don’t really know what a reading plan would look like? A few articles a day plus a book a week? What is achievable and what is the best amount to read? I am sure I read some blog posts on this…

By the way, another useful book on the topic of reading skills is: The Good Study Guide by Andrew Northedge especially chapter 5 (in the second edition) and chapter 2 in the first edition.


© Annika Coughlin 2014

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