Monthly Archives: June 2014

I get told all the time that I am very organised and efficient. Once when I worked in a department store, my colleague squealed with excitement when she saw how I had folded a table of men’s t-shirts and jumpers.  I must admit, the corners were sharp and looked great. I have also had people gasp at all the little extra attention to detail I bring to organising events. I would think of every possible scenario and plan for it. At school people called me Mary Poppins as my bag was always full of useful things. I have never seen Mary Poppins so never quite got the reference, but I assumed that was what they meant – or was it because I wore a long, full skirt and liked to yodel?

But although I love this praise (who doesn’t) now as a PhD student I feel a little bit uncomfortable because I worry that I am using my organisational ability as a smokescreen for my lack of intellectual ability. Being able to organise a messy cupboard is not quite the same as organising a literature review or structure a thesis or plan a big project.

I do not feel very organised at the moment, so that is why I feel odd when people seem to think I am – it’s a lie, they do not know the truth. I can’t seem to properly plan my time. Or even organise my notebooks. I start one, then another and then another and they are just full of nonsensical scribbles. I don’t even use a pencil case or have a neat desk. Sometimes I don’t even have a pack of plasters in my bag. And today I forgot my railcard and was sweating and panicking that a ticket inspector would catch me.

I want to do a really excellent project. I want to contribute something exciting. I want to do the research in a really robust way. I want to pass my thesis with flying colours. I want to become intelligent and for people to marvel at my amazing insights and squeal at my work just as my colleague in the department store squealed at my folding ability.

Perhaps this will happen one day – if I can get my act together and go to bed that is – but I have unfinished chores to do, back to pack, papers to print for tomorrow and where is my railcard? Oh, what-a-mess!


The real me

So I started this thesis nine months ago and as I mentioned in my previous post I had been struggling with the focus in order to tackle the literature review and one of my supervisors said I was actually making the whole literature review harder for myself by not having my aim sorted out.

So since this post I have been using the technique she mentioned and it is all becoming clearer and this in turn means that the literature has suddenly taken on a bright new light. I am now actually reading in a more focused way. I am reading exactly the same stuff as before from my ring-binder reading regime but as that song goes “I can see clearly now the rain has gone”. Before it was “raining in my heart” and I did not feel quite right. Although it is literally raining outside (well the clouds are heavy and I have to go to Sainsbury’s in a minute, so therefore it will rain) my heart feels sunny.

Nine months seems like an awfully long time and actually, I did know what to do all along but because of the lack of aim, I was struggling, well, aimlessly. As I mentioned in a post 6 months ago, reading is a neglected skill but the author had a solution! If only I had actually followed by own advice 6 months ago I may have been nearly finished by now.

So what I did was copy out the grid he uses to read article with and take notes from each paper. I have adapted it a bit to include more on the methods, underlying theory, analysis techniques used but it is a good way of summarising the literature. I’m not quite sure yet how to synthesise it all together, but I will tackle that when I have done a few more of these grids. I can do about 2 or 3 an hour I think – some papers are more complex and dense than others, but since I have read them all before they require just a bit of speed reading.



Literature reviewing grid: Adapted from ‘How to read journal articles in the social sciences’ by Phillip Chong Ho Shon


My second method is mind-mapping. I have bought some mind-mapping software, but I never enjoyed it so much, not for the brainstorming phase. Rather I have a 30 metre roll of paper from IKEA and have mapped out some thoughts on one tiny section of the literature review

1.5 meters of thesis done

1.5 meters of thesis done

At this rate, I hope to have enough work done to upgrade to the PhD in October. I just have to work fast and efficiently. Which brings me onto my final ‘tool’. A massive executive planner where each 15 minutes of the day can be planned.

Yes, I feel a bit stupid and slow off the mark admitting this as well as anxious about the time running away so fast but I also know it is all part of the learning process.

Now to go out in the rain.



I have been struggling with my literature review but did not really know it. Well, I knew because it has been going very slowly, but I thought that was because I am just a slow worker. However, upon reflection I am not a slow worker. When I worked in the menswear department in a department store I was super fast I could scan, fold and do the credit card transaction in super speed time, so much so customers would comment and crowds would form. When I worked in the library, I could shelve and tidy the heavy marketing books in a flash, all perfectly in order and upright, and some of those textbooks books were very heavy.

So when I met with one of my supervisors last week she said that the reason I am having difficulties in creating an outline for my literature review and actually writing it with purpose is because I do not know what my aims are. Instead I have been writing 2000 words here and there on seemingly random sections that do not seem to have a particular purpose apart from be standalone essays of sorts I suppose. In my head they kind of make sense, but my supervisors do not see it and I have not communicated well.

She helped me think about how to create aim which will eventually will become one aim and some objectives (remember there is a difference – see this blog for discussion on this issue: ) and of course they will also become research questions.

  • What you need to do is just write down an aim that comes to mind – what is it you want to do?
  • Then ask Why? Who cares? Why is it important/interesting? This takes the aim to a more theoretical level.
  • What hypothesis do you have? This is not just a quants thing – think about what you suspect to be the case, what your initial thoughts are, perhaps based on common sense assumptions.
  • Next ask What are the implications of this and also what are the limitations.

Another thing she said is that when writing your literature review, think of a framework to guide you. So for example, I think that C. Wright Mills’ Sociological Imagination where he talks about the importance of the interaction between history, biography and individual is going to be my frame. This is framing my whole thesis as it helps me to justify why I am using mixed methods and studying people’s educational trajectories using longitudinal data. I will be shifting from historical to social to individual perspectives. From policy to then how individuals enact policy for example. I will be looking at the context of people’s decision making of attending university at different time periods. Then this all links to my aims and the way I compose my research questions.

Now that I have a little bit more of a focus, I think the literature review should be much easier to write now. Better be because I have a big ball of anxiety in my chest where I feel like I have wasted so much time!

%d bloggers like this: