Tag Archives: PhD

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 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.


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?


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*


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!

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