Tag Archives: academia

“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



I feel really ashamed and embarrassed because I am behind with my project but it shouldn’t be like this. I have had to do no data collection, no transcribing, no recruitment of participants, no long observations, no travelling far distances or learning a new language,  nothing. All my data was there from day one, even before day one, I had my data long before I even started the PhD. But I am finding it a real struggle to analyse it. I can’t code beyond the descriptive. I don’t have the knowledge or vocabulary to do anything intelligent with it. My supervisors say to keep the project simple, but what about if I am not really capable of that either.

People give you pep talks and say you can do it and they believe you can do it. They seem to have this vague notion that you are intelligent. Of course they are going to say that. It’s just my swishy wool coat and smart leather bag that makes me appear intelligent you know. They want to spur you on. But what about if I am really just not capable?  I remember loving biology at sixth form and I had 100% attendance, but that still didn’t mean I could do it. I scrapped through with an E grade. And it is like with my steelpan playing. Turn up for practice and practice at home doesn’t make you a great musician.

But I will persevere, like I did with biology and music. Deep down I don’t fully believe that I can’t do it, there is still a small amount of hope there, I want to do it, I want my supervisors to love what I have done,  I want to have a PhD and I want to do this project.

But perhaps I am like those deluded people on The X-Factor where everyone around them says they can sing until it is too late and they have embarrassed themselves in front of a large audience.

Oh no, am I a bit like Jedwood in the thesis writing world? Well meaning, nice but ultimately a bit shit?

My last post ‘ No future for you, no future for me, no future for someone with a PhD? seemed to strike a chord with quite a few people as I received my greatest number of hits on a single post thus far. I think the inner sadness must have really come through in my writing style because my family had a little intervention meeting to check up on my mental health and other people have written me encouraging messages! However, although this was coming from a particular level of emotion, we can all feel happy, sad, optimistic and pessimistic all at the same time and this pessimism is not my constant persona. Rather I am quite an optimistic sort. Therefore I will write in the near future about strategies for looking for jobs outside academia as well as ways in which we can build our CVs to appeal to other sorts of employers – utilising some advice I have received from people in this hour of need, so thanks kind people!

My optimism has also come back because yesterday I had my annual review with my supervisors. I was quite surprised that many fellow students and their supervisors seem to be taking it as a bit of a tick box exercise, whereas me and my supervisors are ‘good girls’ as well like to think of ourselves and we like to obey all the proper rules and regulations and guidelines. So my reflective statement was properly reflective and very useful for me and my team so they could see inside my mind. Also, I reckon if I suggested it, we could have had a group hug because we are all enjoying being together in our meetings and learning from each other.

However, thoughts about group hugs aside, we were also in a very firm military mood and we planned out my timetable for completion. They are very keen for me to finish on time and will not even let me think about going over. Although I kind of want to go over just a tiny bit so I can carry on getting cheap travel with my railcard…. but I better not think like that or I will get told off.

So in the words of one supervisor, the next few months are a military operation as I am a little pushed for time given my current stage. The only long break I am allowed is two weeks off at Christmas and when I submit something for feedback I am not allowed to relax whilst they take a week to read it and we meet up. Nope, I have to get right on with the next task. It’s going to be back to back chapter after chapter.

I am however ordered to have scheduled leisure and mini-treats, for example, if I complete a really good piece of work one morning, I am allowed to have the afternoon off for example, and I do have two very short trips planned. Most extra-academic related things are off though. I am not allowed to attend long conferences, present at conferences unless its a presentation I have done before and I have only done one so this won’t happen, but basically I have no time to plan or practice new ones, and finally writing papers is definitely off the cards for now.

This is a bit of a relief actually because as my last post suggests, I have been so concerned about the future and being ’employable’, REFable’  and able to compete with others who are perhaps more driven and career minded and quicker at doing their work, that  that I’ve been neglecting the present. However now it is confirmed that for now that all these extra things that make you REFable and have ‘impact’ or what not,  is not even a possibility right now and that news feels great!

We will however create a publication plan at the end of my project, so publications are still going to be written and I will probably aim to present at the SRHE in 2016 or BSA in 2017 after I submit (yay!). Also, since I will be unemployed, I will have ample time for these activities 😉

So this is it. The proper pressure and relentless work starts now! I am looking forward to it actually. I respond well to drill masters, orders, punishments and little rewards. With no pressure to think too far ahead and about other things I can focus on my lovely exciting research project instead and cross the ‘career panic’ bridge later.

So here is my timetable if you are interested:


Variety is not the spice of life...

Variety is not the spice of life…

(c) Annika Coughlin 2015

I attended a departmental meeting today in place of the student rep who couldn’t make it. It was very interesting to see what is going on at UCL IOE and the department from the staff, manager and strategic perspective that you are not always so aware of as a student where your life revolves around yourself and your lovely project. However, it made me feel really depressed and realise that I don’t think I will be able to get a job in a university after the PhD, especially not a prestigious one like UCL, but I suspect not in any other establishment either.

Why I hear you ask?

Well, I’m not really much competition to other candidates for jobs that may come up in the future, although I must point out that I did not do a PhD to get a job because I was fully aware of the too many PhDs, not enough PhD level jobs situation. So I’m realistic. I’m not an amazing student that staff have their sights on as a ‘future star’, I have no teaching experience and to be honest am too scared to teach (well, undergraduates in particular), I don’t have any ‘REFable’ publications and I can’t see that I would ever do any ‘groundbreaking work’, I don’t have a massive urge or drive to be promoted to whatever sort of higher up positions there are in universities.

But I don’t particularly want to be a high flyer. I’m happy to be ordinary. I just want to be a researcher as I have done since I was 16. I would like to work in a nice place (ideally a university or somewhere that is for adult learners) and to be in a team that does interesting work and where I can be an apprentice as well as help others learn too. Ideally it would be a permanent research assistant job where the employer is keen to help each assistant grow in their experience and seniority rather than kick them out when the contract is over.

I don’t want to be an academic star. I’m happy to be anonymous.

I don’t think that this humble aspiration is achievable these days and maybe it never was, but in the meeting there was talk of preparing for REF2020, setting up of early career forums to help people get published and get funding and get promoted and all that.

Perhaps I am just feeling my age…. I am 35 this month but I know Professors who are only 5 or 10 years older than me and younger people who have more experience and done amazing, impressive things that makes them stand out. As time goes on and my PhD journey is in its middle phase, soon I will need to start looking for employment. But there are not many jobs about anywhere it seems, not only in higher education, and with this Tory government things are bound to get worse.

I get a feeling of the grimness of the late 1970s and 1980s. It feels really strong. Can you feel it too?

I know I am very very lucky to have funding to do a PhD, so I am happy as can be at the moment and do not want to come across as ungrateful, I’m just expressing the massive feeling of sadness that comes over me from time to time regarding my future (un)employment, which I am mentally preparing myself for. And since I was around in the 1980s, growing up on the dole, it feels like when this PhD is over, my life will come full-circle.

I am at the Centre for Longitudinal Studies Research Conference today (March 16th 2015) and tomorrow. I submitted my first academic poster to the conference and here it is, at the bottom, looking cute:



Here are a few more nuggets to whet your appetite:


One of my aims, the other aim may get itself a future poster if it is good.


One of my green blobs


Classic Mills!


Can you name all the Prime Ministers?


Introducing the 5 principles of the life-course

You can download the full PDF here.

I have never really understood the purpose of academic posters.  I kind of always cynically thought they are there as a useful thing for lonely conference delegates to pretend to read at tea and lunch breaks.  Is that true? Or is it just me that does that? I thought of lonely people when I designed it, so put a lot of detail into it so they could linger for a long time! They can use it as a conversation starter – naming all the Prime Ministers on the timeline for example.

So after the day at the conference, how do I feel? Well, I think the process of producing the poster was actually really useful. It is really hard to distil your topic down onto one page so that helped with my thinking.

However, I spent a huge amount of time on it. Perhaps too much given that I seem incapable of speaking to anyone about it so am currently thinking if it was worth the effort. I have not spoken to anyone about it partly because there is actually no room to stand by it, so no one knows it is mine. I am just hoping someone gets the vibe from the weirdo (me) standing behind them that I would be interested in hearing what they think.

So at the end of day 1, I still do not see the benefits of posters beyond making you think about the focus of your project and presenting your work in a visual pleasing way. I just feel socially awkward and stressed that I put all that work in and am not making a big enough effort to speak to people about it and get feedback on it.

Right, tomorrow is a new day. So I have produced some photocopies now. Perhaps that will help people to engage with it.

We shall see!

I have a little bit of a problem with time management and simultaneously over and under planning.

Sometimes I do very little planning and then just faff around aimlessly not really knowing what I should focus on, for example, I may want to plan my day’s work but for some reason get paralysed and can’t do it or make unrealistic plans.  Then at the other extreme I plan all details and well too far in advance. For example I have been planning my PhD graduation outfit and hairstyle that would suit a beret. Although now we have merged to UCL I will have to see what their gown colours are and re-adjust all my plans.

I love this hairstyle and dresses! A PhD beret would set it off perfectly! Photo by Cangaway on Flickr

I love this hairstyle and dresses! A PhD beret would set it off perfectly!
Photo by Cangaway on Flickr

Anyway, a few weeks ago, I passed the upgrade from MPhil to PhD (yay!) and this have given me the boost I need to really get down to serious PhD business.

So for the first supervisory meeting after the upgrade, I thought I’d make a plan or the next two years to see me through to the submission day. I have planned all my training for the year and all the conferences I want to go on and/or present at. Now, there is nothing wrong with this as such, but when I showed my supervisors, Alison and Sam, my time line, ghant chart and schedule, they looked at me a bit funny and suggested perhaps I have spent a little too much time planning (I’m so glad I did not present my 7ft 3D timeline landscape poster with milestones and stickers and glitter).

My supervisors are so kind and, Alison, hit the nail on the head when she explained why I keep leaping to the future. It is because I need security, stability and I like to do things robustly and make sure everything is perfect and thought through. There is nothing wrong with this of course, however, it does mean that perhaps because of this need to lay out everything perfectly I never get started or when I do I worry that it is not right. And this is causing me huge anxiety. It is over a year in, I have passed my Upgrade, I am doing OK, I just need to keep going but break it all down into chunks. Now, I know this. It is not the first time I have been told, but I don’t know why I keep slipping. Alison says it is perhaps because we all naturally revert back to type, so I just have to try to break the habit.

So they suggested I should put my blinkers on and just focus on the next three months as I can do all the planing in the world, but once I start analysing my data, these plans will have to be adjusted or even thrown out as I do not know what issues and problems I will come up against. That’s part of the PhD fun. So in these three months I will complete chapter 2 which is about the social context of cohort member’s schooling, and chapter 3 which is about lifelong learning and the changing nature of universities between the 1980s and 2008 (I have planned these using Murray’s outlining as mentioned in previous post. This level of planning is healthy).  I will also have completed some descriptive statistics on the new variable I have created (well, I need to re-do it as it went a bit wrong – will write another post on this). I will present this at a university seminar in May and perhaps make a poster out of it for a university conference in March. So nice, neat and manageable with planned dissemination activities and what not.

I like to summarise their nice well thought through advice to myself in a simple straight forward sentence which I will put on my wall: “Annika, stop planning your perfect graduation outfit and doing elaborate timelines and get on with this one task up until March, FFS!”

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.

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