Since I started this blog in 2014 I see that a common theme is my lack of belief that I am capable of doing intellectual work. In particular I have struggled with the literature review. I don’t know how to read the literature effectively, don’t know how to take notes, don’t know how to bring it all together and write about other people’s research etc.

I have read all the books on how to do a literature review, attended training courses, sought advice from various people. However, 4 years into the PhD I am still struggling. However, this week I’ve had a bit of an epiphany. I finally feel that I have some control over how I am going to write one of the literature review chapters and I suddenly feel really light and relaxed and confident. There are two specific resources that helped me. First this mind map:


Thanks D.R. Rowland, whoever you are!

And secondly the book ‘The Literature Review: A step-by-step guide for students by Diana Ridley

But these resources aren’t the magic bullet, it’s not like I haven’t been told or read about how to do a literature review a million times, rather something shifted in my mind. I want to share with you the thoughts I have been having for 4 years and how these have stopped the advice in the books, and from other people, sinking in:

  • I am not capable of managing all that literature. It’s too big a task for me and I am not capable of tackling it. Other people are neater and more organised than me that’s why they can do it.
  • I am not capable of understanding the theories and concepts in the literature. Other people are more intelligent than me, that’s why they can do it. I can only do more basic and descriptive work.
  • The techniques I read in ‘how to do a literature review’ books all probably work, but they won’t work for me because I’m not clever enough to implement them.
    • I’ve given up on the suggested technique. It’s because I am stupid, lazy and don’t have the stamina to see it through.
    • If I create my own technique it will probably fail because I am stupid and it will probably be fundamentally flawed.This technique I’ve read in a book isn’t working for me, but I’ll persevere anyway because surely I’m the one that’s wrong here, not the technique.
  • I can’t let anyone know that I am not sure how to do a literature review. It’s OK to not know in the first year but to not know in year 4 is a disgrace. If anyone finds out they will be shocked.
  • Nobody must know I think these thoughts as they are self-absorbed.

Out of the above, I think the main thing I needed to stop thinking was that I can’t create my own technique to read, manage and record the important things from the literature. But I can. It was just having the confidence to give my own technique a go. After 4 years of struggle, it only took me 1 hour I’d say to sort out how I am going to manage and record the important things I have found in the literature! It’s really simple. Just some headings in an Excel spreadsheet, but the key thing is, they are my headings, bespoke to my project and needs. I will share with you how I am going to approach this task in a future post as I better make sure it actually works for me first.

So my advice to you would be to read the books on how to do a literature review, but also remember that you can create your own bespoke method too by drawing on what you have learned from your reading and through trial and error. If you are thinking the same negative thoughts as me you probably don’t believe me. You may even be thinking that I am more organised, disciplined and intelligent than you…….but I am not of course.  Just relax, have confidence that you are becoming the expert and finally, keep it simple, stupid!

P.s. Thanks also to the UCL institute of Education Academic Writing Centre for some advice given to me on a private forum about taking ownership of my writing.

So 6 months ago returned to the PhD. So how has it gone I hear you ask? Well first of all let’s start with the bad news. In the last post I boasted about how clean and tidy my desk is, well… that is all in the past because now it is worse than ever. It also has lots of snotty tissues strewn about…. but the good news is, these tissues are not a result of crying over the Ph, they are just the result of annoying hayfever).

My task for my return was to complete Chapter 1 – The Introduction. unfortunately version 1 was not very good when I submitted it in March and when I re-did it for May, version 2 was also not very good. So again alarm bells started ringing for my supervisors and for me because yet again no substantial progress was being made.

My supervisors sent me an email after version 2 to express their concern and how it really should be so much at a higher standard by now.

What was my reaction? Well after the heart stopping disappointment, I recovered and my sadness turned to anger.

So I wrote them a firm email in response. I explained why I thought it was impossible for me to be at the standard they expect because the last two years are a write off, how I felt that although it was quite poorly written that the ideas in there were good and that my thinking HAD moved on and a few other things.  I pressed send and off it went.

A week passed and I went to London for a supervision meeting. I was a bit nervous because I wondered if I had overstepped a line. So I opened the door, went and sat down and we began the meeting……

And what did they say….

Do you want to know?….


I am just building up suspense….                                                                                                    (photo by Kaysha on Flickr

They said something along the lines of: ‘Annika, your email was fantastic, we are delighted that you have shown some passion and that you are angry and that you are protective of your PhD! At last!’

Well that’s a turn around for the books. So after that meeting I think things have changed. They want me to take control of the thesis and that is what I shall do.

So I would advice any timid mouse PhD students out there to take control and show your passion as it helps you feel in charge. This is what your supervisors want!


Let it go! Let your emotions out and your problems (hopefully) will go away –  like a big hayfever sneeze! (picture by Chris Lee on Flickr


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.

“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

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 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.

In the first and second year of my fabulous PhD (I’m practising a positive mental attitude) I would bump into a fellow student, and we wouldn’t talk for long, but what we did ask each other was simply “Have you got your research questions yet?”. We both used to say, “nearly”, “I think so”, “perhaps”.

I did get my research questions at the end of the first year, in time for the upgrade, but until today I didn’t quite like them or I had a niggling feeling that they weren’t quite right. That feeling you get when you accidentally start brushing your teeth with your sister’s toothbrush and it feels different and you think it looks different but you don’t fully realise until she walks in a screams at you with hatred and disgust.

But today something amazing happened. I think I finally have three research questions that I like. They are actually still the same ones from all that time ago, but I have finally composed them in such a way that feels natural to me. Before I felt that they were a bit stuffy or as if they were written by someone else. I didn’t feel like I owned them. But now I can proudly declare them! ‘Well go on then’ I hear you say – well, I think I better get final approval from my supervisors first…… then maybe I will get a T-shirt with them printed on.

So how did this happen? Well, reading a lot more of the literature that linked directly to what I have been finding through my data analysis. This was the key to feeling more confident and more comfortable with my study. I realised that actually, I can answer them and that they only needed an extra word here or there to flow better. And one question that seemed to have a bit missing has now been repaired and another which was really weak now is nice and strong.

The research questions are vital to have nailed down for the particular type of method I will be using for the first stage of the data analysis. It’s called ‘structural coding’. Take a look at this book by Johnny Saldana (which is one of the most useful books I have come across so far) for suggestions on all sorts of coding types and here is a snippet of the structural variety.

Structural coding

Johnny Saldana: The coding manual for qualitative researchers

Strucutral coding 2image2image1(2)

I hope no one is reading this and thinking that it is odd that I only just feel comfortable with my research questions in my third year… ? Was everyone else sorted with this years ago and have finished their analysis already? Well, we are all different so stop having a go at me…. I THOUGHT IT WAS MY TOOTHBRUSH OK! *sob*

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