Tag Archives: academic

I was reading Jon Rainford’s blog where he was questioning what he, as a PhD student should blog about. Blogging might be useful for oneself in terms of recording the PhD ‘journey’ (hate that phrase), and for other PhD students to read who are in the year below you to see what to expect. I know that at my university, I have met people around campus who know me through my blog and we had never met in real life before until then. So I do know that blogs can be of great interest and support to others and that is why I write and read them too.

They also said my hair looked better in real life than online.

Although I disagree as my stock photo of me ‘smugly standing on top of a roof terrace in Montreal with my trendy haircut’,  I think is my best one and I thought my hair was at its best then too, and it was about 30 degrees Celsius there …high humidity is not a friend of those of us with kinks and flicks.

Too smug, not smug enough, or just about right?

Too smug, not smug enough, or just about right?

Anyway, on the other hand, how many blogs can you have out there about the PhD journey?  Sometimes you don’t really want to necessarily reveal your work or findings, either because it is work in progress and you don’t want to share it yet, or perhaps you are worried someone will steal your work or ideas.

I have this worry a little bit, because I am using secondary data so anyone can do exactly the same as I have done, although I did create my own variable which I will be sharing for all to use when my PhD is published.

Here is a little sexy sneaky peak at my findings… have a look…. nice isn’t it!

Have you ever seen such a stunning Relative Risk Ratio?

Have you ever seen such stunning Relative Risk Ratios?

Do you want to know what the above data means? Well, Ok, it means that the 1958 British Birth cohort members who have a degree and were from working-class backgrounds are 7.71 times more likely than the middle-class to have gained their degrees as an older-mature adult (age 43-50 in 2001-2008) than young (by 23 in 1979-1981).  Women are 2.81 times more likely than men to have gained their degrees at this age than young. What do you think about that eh?

I am very excited about my project and I think the time is coming for me soon to write something about my work rather than my hair or feelings. Or feelings about my hair. Although I think a blog about the ups and downs of one’s hair when a PhD student would make the most fascinating reading. Someone please feel free to steal and do that idea! Ta!

Last week I interviewed my supervisor for a promotional video to be used on the department’s webpage. She then interviewed me back about my PhD topic.

The last time I properly saw myself on camera not messing about and therefore in ‘natural’ mode was when I worked in a department store and had to watch a playback of CCTV footage when I was involved in catching a credit card fraudster (rather fun – the perpetrator said she had no idea that I knew she was a crook, so I felt rather smug about my acting skills). But watching that back was horrid, not because of the terrible crime (and by the way, it was sooo obvious the credit card was fake, Natwest does not use comic sans as their logo font), but because you get to see your mannerisms that you never actually see. But thankfully you don’t get to hear your voice. However, this interview I will have to see my horrid mannerisms and hear my voice when it gets published.

I don’t think I came across very relaxed in the interview, I stumbled a bit and my supervisor didn’t ask a question I had rehearsed a hilarious answer to – this was meant to be my moment where people gasp at how witty and natural I am on camera. However, I really did enjoy talking about my work and it is good to have the opportunity to practice speaking about it. So in this post, I will recreate the interview in an idealised form – including all the wonderful witty and intelligent things I wanted to say. You might like to try it yourself – it is good to practice being interviewed for when  you are famous.

Instagram: Interview TV set design


Supervisor: So Annika, you are one of our new PhD students in the department. What is the topic of your PhD/thesis

Annika: I am using the 1958 British Birth Cohort study to look at people’s educational ‘careers’ through the lifecourse. I am particularly interested in looking at patterns of participation in Higher Education over the lifecourse. What types of people went onto Higher Education and when did they go. For this cohort, attending University at a young age was quite rare. When they were 18 in the mid 1970s only around 8% of the whole UK population would have attended and of this 8% most would have been middle class young males who went to grammar school. I am interested in the outliers – those who studied at a higher level, but were never expected to at childhood as well as those who were expected to go to university young, but didn’t.

Supervisor:  What appealed to you about using the 1958 cohort study as a key source of evidence for your  thesis

Annika: This group of ‘baby boomers’ are very interesting in terms of educational reforms. They were one of the first groups to have to stay on in school as the school-leaving age was raised from 15 to 16 in 1974. They were also caught up in the shift from selective schooling system (the 11+ tripartite system) to comprehensivisation. Then in terms of Higher Education, as older adults they would have been able to take advantage of various reforms in HE, particularly in the 1990s when polytechnics became universities.

In terms of the actual data, the 1958 British Birth Cohort Study (also known as the NCDS), has a mixture of quantitative and qualitative data. So you have the very large sample of around 17,000 at the beginning of the study where you can look at childhood test scores, parental aspirations, teacher’s aspirations an ‘imagine you are 25 essay’ the children wrote when they were 11 and most importantly for me, the 220 life history interviews conducted at age 50. I am experimenting with mixed methods, so this dataset is ideal.

Supervisor: Are there advantages or disadvantages of the sample all being born in a single week in 1958?

Annika: To investigate a topic using people all of the same age is very interesting because you are controlling for age and generational effects – everyone in the sample would have experienced the same societal changes. They would have been brought up with similar attitudes and expectations around education, gender roles and employment. Of course this will differ according to social class, region and of course they are all still individuals with agency and different life experiences – but I like the fact that they would have all been brought up in the same era.

In terms of disadvantages, [note: hilarious joke coming up] I can’t see any just yet – however, I was reading one of the lifehistory interviews and one cohort member pointed out that since they were all born in the same week, they would all have the same starsign – Pisces I think – so therefore the data and their destinies may be influenced by that, so that is something to bear in mind and may skew the data! (filming has to stop as we all, including the filming crew, burst into laughter).

Supervisor: What are the advantages of using existing data in your PhD research? – are there any disadvantages?

Annika: Well, the disadvantages of using interview data someone else has designed and collected is that you do not get to ask the participants direct questions about your topic of interest. You can get frustrated because the interviewer doesn’t probe where you might have. However, I actually find this a very interesting challenge methodologically – how they talk about education spontaneously without being probed is interesting for me in itself and lends itself well to narrative analysis. A big advantage is that I have access to a very large dataset. Ranging from 11,000 to 17,000 depending on what sweep I am using and then the 220 life history interviews – which is a very large sample for qualitative research.

Supervisor: What a wonderful topic and a fabulous interview. The best I have ever heard!

Annika: Yes, I know. Thank-you.


(c) 2014 Annika Coughlin

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

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

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

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