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.


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?

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