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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.

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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*

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.

You can  read all the Tweets from the event in this Storify (I just dumped all the Tweets there rather than create a proper story as one should do) or look at 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!

No. Don’t be ridiculous. But I think you can go on too many courses.

At the IOE we have a whole book full of courses we can choose to go on. These range from core courses that all PhD students have to do, to optional ones on a specific research method for example, or reading groups started by staff or students. There are also the personal development ones like to do with presenting, or reviewing journal articles. Then there are tons of external ones.

However, although I am very grateful to have all these courses as I know other places where they have none, I think that you can spend too much time going on courses and not enough time doing your work. This happened to me in my first year and I look back and wish that I have more to show in terms of pages written than I have.

I have been thinking about why I went on so many… especially today as I was looking through my diary and realised that once again I am signing up for courses that, although are relevant, are not actually essential. For example, I seemed to have signed up for a Narrative Analysis course that is held 5 hours away in Bangor, Wales (to be fair, when I booked I thought it was in Cardiff). When I looked at the description of the course, I thought to myself, why did I sign up for that? It’s exactly the same as one I am doing right now and only a short commute away!

I also signed up for a 10 week Saturday morning statistics class. I thought this would be a good idea even though I have done around 20 weeks worth of statistics last year and have all the notes etc from these classes as well as all the statistics classes I have been on since 1998. Although the teacher is good, we are learning the impossible software package R and I need to get to grips with SPSS syntax, so I think it is best I quit this course (It has nothing to do with it starting at 9am OK?)

So I did some self analysis. My problem is, until today when I had an epiphany, I don’t believe that I am capable of reading a book  on the topic and understanding it myself. I don’t believe that if I read something, that my interpretation of it is correct. I feel like I need to hear it from the professionals. Therefore I have to go on courses to learn rather than self study. This is a common theme throughout this blog and I am fed up with it. This has to stop! Right now!

You are so boring Annika... Yes, I know!

You are so boring Annika… Yes, I know! (picture by id-iom on Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/id-iom/ )

So I have quit the statistics class and I have un-enroled myself from others before they start. I have got some books out and I am going to trust in my abilities. Now I aim to select only courses and conferences that are directly relevant (please note, it is good to broaden out too, but for me at this stage, I need to focus!).

So my tip if you are worried about how many courses is enough or too much perhaps ask yourself why you are going on them. Perhaps you are excited and want to learn everything. Perhaps you have been out of education for a few years and want to get back into study mode, perhaps you want to know what all the key texts and debates are and discuss with others in a group. These sound like healthy reasons – but be aware and keep your focus!

If on the other hand your main motivation is lack of belief that you are intelligent enough to understand by yourself, then think about this and see why you have this feeling and sort it out!

How? Well I think this comes naturally over time as you realise that you are good enough and as your supervisors guide you and you pass your upgrade and you realise you understand the stuff you read.

But if you want to hurry this process along and stop wasting time, perhaps a training course in self reflection and self esteem raising would be a good idea. I’ll see if there are any running………… ARGH!!! STOP!!!!
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