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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:

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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?….

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I am just building up suspense….                                                                                                    (photo by Kaysha on Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/kaysha/)

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!

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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 https://www.flickr.com/photos/poopoolikepepe/)

 

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.

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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:

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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).

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Before: What the…?!

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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!

Pearl Jephcott was a radical youth worker who was made redundant in the 1940s and became a sociologist and researcher who studied everyday topics like women’s work, young people’s leisure, Notting Hill and what it is like living in the new high rise flats in Glasgow. She used what we may term innovative or creative research methods like diaries, children’s drawings, participatory action research, ethnography, mixed methods and so on. She died in 1980 at the age of 80 with sociologist as her occupation on her death certificate. However, she was an accidental sociologist and did it only because of her redundancy, says Tony Jeffs who was one of the many speakers and Jephcott fans speaking at a symposium about her life and work at the University of Leicester on 9th July.

To find out more about the event and Pearl, you can  read this new blog created by Jephcott fans and organisers of the event, John Goodwin and Henrietta O’Connor. Also you can read their article in the journal Sociology ‘The Legacy of a Forgotten Sociological Research Pioneer’ that outlines her work and her approach.

Here I wanted to focus on a new concept that was coined at the event to describe an approach to research that seemed to strikes a chord with many and I find inspirational when trying to figure out where I belong in the research community: ‘Jephcottian’ . I must say one thing first,  I have not yet actually read any of Pearl Jephcott’s work…but I would consider myself leaning towards the Jephcottian philosophy. What on earth does Jephcottian mean and how can you be Jephcottian if you have never even read her work? Well, don’t get irate, let me explain.

Jephcottian refers to the following, according to Goodwin and O’Connor and you can read an elaborated definition on their new blog

As the symposium went on, I think three other aspects of what constitutes Jephcottian can be made more explicit. The first is her philosophy of collaboration. She would work with huge teams of undergraduate and postgraduate students, with the people who she was studying, and other research assistants. She would often be leading the project, but the male Principal Investigator would inevitably get most of the credit. She however did not do this and she acknowledged the contributions of all who helped on the project.

Secondly, her work may be thought of as action research and participatory research in today’s terms. I think the following three projects listed below were dissertation student projects and it is interesting to learn that Pearl herself helped to redesign the bins on one high rise housing estate, much to the joy of the bin men and residents. If you live in a flat you will know that the bins are a common site for feud and passive aggressive note leaving (do not even get me started on my neighbour’s inappropriate use of the recycling bins (nappies), gross!).

A third aspect of her approach to work is that she used illustrations, paintings and graphics in her books. My sister is a graphic designer and we have often talked about how we would collaborate and do something sociological together. it could be something like designing an academic poster that is not incredibly dull and wordy, some exciting promotional materials to sum up my PhD topic when its finished that I can send to people as a form of ‘dissemination’ but also self-promotion when I am seeking work, etc. Starting simply though, I think we could all add a bit of graphics to our crosstabulations. Look at this one!

I think my multinomial regression would look extra swish with some graphics, although I think I best not attempt to draw a representation of a working-class and middle-class mature student….it could end up insulting to all concerned! Oh go on, here is my first attempt. Pretty good eh?

What do you mean what is it? – Those are power station chimneys in the background by the way if that helps your interpretation.

As was often mentioned in the symposium, a lot of today’s methods that are considered innovative, different and ground-breaking, Pearl was doing this a long time ago, and not because she was trying to be different, but because they all just seemed to be something worth trying out. To mix art and text is hardly something that radical is it really, we just seem to make it so.

However, the event was not a total love-in of all things Pearl, many comments were also brought up that there are certain things about her work that we could not get away with today. For example, her theoretical framework may be a bit lacking, she didn’t fully describe how she analysed her data, there may have been a moralising tone in some of her writing, she didn’t always let the participants speak for themselves in her write ups, she may sometimes over interpret what they said and so on. But, as was pointed out, you can’t really judge projects of the past by today’s standards. Also, Pearl was originally a youth worker.  Everything she did therefore, was from the place of wanting to help communities and young people in particular. The tone and approach is a product of the time, but, this should not detract from the main message of her work and approach, which was to value, research, and help to improve the everyday lives of people. One of the last things that John Goodwin said at the event was that the work of Pearl Jephcott reminds him of why he likes research and sociology in the first place a reminder that he needs in times when there is a big pile of student disciplinary files he needs to get through.

There is something I feel about her spirit too, she seems free, a renegade and independent – not caring what others may think of her. I don’t even know if this is the case, but for some reason Pearl makes me feel happy and excited about research and I haven’t ever read a word of it and I think that is a pretty cool impact for someone to have!

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.

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