Tag Archives: student

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.

I asked my sisters what social class they thought they belonged to. I was surprised that our conversation lasted over an hour because I assumed they would say quite bluntly ‘we’re working class’ because this is what we were always brought up to feel by our father and it is a position I now feel comfortable saying, particularly over the last few years, as I view it as a political position rather than a simple objective category.

My father studied sociology and was quite into Marxism, so in fact we were more often we were ‘not the bourgeoisie’. Our childhood was punctuated with avoiding bourgeois things, like holidays, certain types of furniture, types of food and certain leisure activities. Upon reflection, I think a lot of this may have been due to lack of money. So rather than say we can’t do or have certain things because we can’t afford it, my father instead say it was bourgeois. For example, we had a massive dampness problem due to poor quality housing but my dad said that mould was good for us and it is bourgeois to think otherwise (we later got rehoused and our former flats demolished).

My parents were hippies and mother Swedish so our idea of nice home furnishings for example, was very different to the traditional English working-class ‘chintz’, which I yearned to have and one birthday got my dream of a pink floral lamp on a little wooden corner shelf. But over time as a family we had a higher income we could then afford nicer food, go to cafes and restaurants, discovered opera, experienced a bit of travel and I even got a proper bouncy (bourgeois) mattress to match my pink lampshade (although sadly I had to throw the lampshade away as it was damaged by mould).


My lamp was probably from BHS or Argos and looked a bit like this, but more traditional in shape. Oh how I miss thee! Photo from Flickr

My father was also anti-school (in terms of the way it is run), but not anti-education. So my father gained his degree in 1993 at the age of 44, my mother followed soon after and only around 5 years later did I and my older sister do our degrees and then Master’s degrees.

I always felt it very difficult to categorize my social class in objective terms (e.g. father’s occupation) because my parents were unemployed for a lot of the time I was growing up in the 1980s – although my mother did work on the Vauxhall assembly line when pregnant with me which I like to think boosts my Lutonian working-class credentials. My friends parents had proper working-class jobs like builders, so easier to define – they were working!

Then after these unemployed years, my parents were students – taking in turns the role of the housewife/househusband whilst the other studied, only getting professional type jobs later in life. Until his death in 2005, my father was a counsellor and project worker for people with drug problems and my mother now works in a university as a web editor. We all went to our local university, the University of Luton (now Bedfordshire – rebranded due to a merger as well as to disguise its connections to Luton to improve its rankings), following a typical working-class pattern of staying at home.

Going to this local post-1992 university meant that we did not feel like ‘a fish out of water’. We did not have any of those difficulties in fitting in or coming across people from other backgrounds. We were among a majority of working-class students and often mature and very ethnically mixed, too reflecting the local population. Only when I came to UCL did I for the first time ever hear in the corridors ‘posh’ voices from students who were younger than me – ‘posh’ voices on older people or lecturers was fine, expected, reassuring – but on young people, I really felt suddenly out of place and inferior.

On one of my first days I had to present a quick overview of my project and I looked up the other students to check them out. I had a mild panic attack when I saw some had gone to Oxford and Cambridge and then a massive sense of inferiority came over me, but I am dealing with this and do not feel bothered by it anymore, probably something to do with my age. Also, all the people I have met are lovely!

And although I can’t pass as middle-class, nor do I desire to, I can certainly do and participate in middle-class things with pleasure. I think mixing of cultures is the best way to be.

What social class are you? And has education helped or confused your class identity?

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!

As I mentioned in a previous post, at my last supervision meeting in December 2014, I have been told to focus on set small tasks rather than planning the future. Also I need to do one thing at a time, rather than doing everything all at once. The plan was to get three things done by March (I don’t know if I meant beginning or end of March… let’s say middle). One was a good draft of chapter 2 and 3 and also to merge my dataset and create my variable. One supervisor said she would be impressed if I achieved these things as they are all quite big tasks.

So how successful has this been since my last supervision meeting?

Well it has gone quite well.

First of all I designed my own motivational poster to keep me blinkered, can you spot it?:

Phew, I'm glad I tided up before taking this photo.

Phew, I’m glad I tided up before taking this photo.

Secondly I have been focussing only on one chapter and one topic – a historical look at the British education system.  A large part of the time has been spent working out the structure of it which involved quite a few revisions before I got it how I want it. So I have the structure, many of the sections started with some finished. However, it is turning into a big chapter with two parts, so actually I am only really one-third through it now, but that is OK as it is good that I know what is going in it.

Third I met with my one of my supervisors for a data merging training session and have finally created my own variable and merged some data, which is possibly one of the most important parts of the PhD process so far. So a big milestone.

So why is this post about to turn into a self-pitying session?

Well, some very negative behaviour has crept back in. When I am anxious or upset about anything I tend to stay up very late and either stare into space, or watch TV, mainly QVC. I have always done this (not always QVC, there are many other late night things to watch like infomercials for box sets of 1950s music, or one of my favourites, the magic bullet chopper) and think  it is an anxiety thing, not a PhD specific thing.  However, the terrible knock on effect is that either you get up very late the next day, or if you get up early, you are so tired all day that you cannot do as much work, so your anxiety gets worse as mentally you are not helping yourself by being sleep deprived.

I think what happened was that I realised as the deadline was approching, that I was a little overly ambitious about having a nice complete chapter to give to my supervisors by Thursday night, so I subconsciously decided to self-destruct. What I should have done is try to tidy up what I have, summarise for my supervisors what the rest of the chapter will look like and just keep on going. I know they will understand that it is still work in progress, but what I have done is quite big stuff in terms of structure etc.

So this paralysis lasts about 3 days and then I realise what I should do, but by then it is too late and I only have one full day now to tidy up this draft and then I worry that my supervisors will be disappointed in me. I also think it is disrespectful to give them something that is too drafty, so then I worry that they will read it, tutting throughout.

Now my paralysis has worn off, I remember that my friend once told me, that I should write a list of little tasks I can do when these symptoms set in. For example, perhaps tidy up Endnote, read a couple of articles from my reading pile or a chapter of a key book, maybe tidy up some files and so on. She said I should write these down because, as has happened, once one is in a state, one does not think clearly.

So I will do this now and add the list next to my motivational poster.

So tonight I will go to bed before midnight (ooh, that’s now!) and start afresh tomorrow. My motto ‘Focus’ may have to have a sub-motto: ‘It’s never to late to re-focus!’





(As it’s midnight, I wonder what Today’s Special Value is?….oh wow… it’s a Vax Vacumn cleaner…. I really need to watch it……)



When I handed in my upgrade document I took three days off. I thought this would be enough with the two days of the weekend making it up to five days of no PhD. I filled those days with lots of fun activities and catching up with family and friends. But when I tried to get back to work on the Monday after the weekend I felt a terrible anxiety and tightness in my chest. I couldn’t bear to look at my document and when I did I felt upset about my poor research questions and even started to feel a little bit paranoid that my upgrade panel must have read them by now and started visualising everything that can go bad at the meeting and how the panel must be trying to think of ways to diplomatically tell me my project design is rubbish. Of course this is possible, but I need to be mentally strong to take criticism well rather than take it too personally.

I think this anxiety spike was due to the fact that I actually needed a longer break to recover. During the week that I was supposed to be back into PhD mode, I decided that it is better to take an extra week off, but try to ease myself into working again by going to the library, paying of my HUGE fine (£16), browsing all the new books I got out and attending a couple of seminars at the university. I also decided that I may as well catch up on some other things like registering to give blood (haven’t quite plucked up the courage to donate yet!), going to the salon for a much needed restyle, getting the plumber in to do some big jobs, finishing off some admin tasks like researching accommodation for a conference, planning and booking my training and such like.

If most workers have two weeks off in the summer, then of course a PhD student can too, especially if like me you worked over the summer and in fact have not had any days off, not even a weekend for a couple of months. It is silly not to take a break. In fact we are allowed to have 8 weeks according to the official documentation.

So just as a new haircut is a fresh new start, holidays are meant to give you that feeling of a fresh or at least refreshed start. I now feel better prepared to start anew on Monday.

I get told all the time that I am very organised and efficient. Once when I worked in a department store, my colleague squealed with excitement when she saw how I had folded a table of men’s t-shirts and jumpers.  I must admit, the corners were sharp and looked great. I have also had people gasp at all the little extra attention to detail I bring to organising events. I would think of every possible scenario and plan for it. At school people called me Mary Poppins as my bag was always full of useful things. I have never seen Mary Poppins so never quite got the reference, but I assumed that was what they meant – or was it because I wore a long, full skirt and liked to yodel?

But although I love this praise (who doesn’t) now as a PhD student I feel a little bit uncomfortable because I worry that I am using my organisational ability as a smokescreen for my lack of intellectual ability. Being able to organise a messy cupboard is not quite the same as organising a literature review or structure a thesis or plan a big project.

I do not feel very organised at the moment, so that is why I feel odd when people seem to think I am – it’s a lie, they do not know the truth. I can’t seem to properly plan my time. Or even organise my notebooks. I start one, then another and then another and they are just full of nonsensical scribbles. I don’t even use a pencil case or have a neat desk. Sometimes I don’t even have a pack of plasters in my bag. And today I forgot my railcard and was sweating and panicking that a ticket inspector would catch me.

I want to do a really excellent project. I want to contribute something exciting. I want to do the research in a really robust way. I want to pass my thesis with flying colours. I want to become intelligent and for people to marvel at my amazing insights and squeal at my work just as my colleague in the department store squealed at my folding ability.

Perhaps this will happen one day – if I can get my act together and go to bed that is – but I have unfinished chores to do, back to pack, papers to print for tomorrow and where is my railcard? Oh, what-a-mess!


The real me

So I started this thesis nine months ago and as I mentioned in my previous post I had been struggling with the focus in order to tackle the literature review and one of my supervisors said I was actually making the whole literature review harder for myself by not having my aim sorted out.

So since this post I have been using the technique she mentioned and it is all becoming clearer and this in turn means that the literature has suddenly taken on a bright new light. I am now actually reading in a more focused way. I am reading exactly the same stuff as before from my ring-binder reading regime but as that song goes “I can see clearly now the rain has gone”. Before it was “raining in my heart” and I did not feel quite right. Although it is literally raining outside (well the clouds are heavy and I have to go to Sainsbury’s in a minute, so therefore it will rain) my heart feels sunny.

Nine months seems like an awfully long time and actually, I did know what to do all along but because of the lack of aim, I was struggling, well, aimlessly. As I mentioned in a post 6 months ago, reading is a neglected skill but the author had a solution! If only I had actually followed by own advice 6 months ago I may have been nearly finished by now.

So what I did was copy out the grid he uses to read article with and take notes from each paper. I have adapted it a bit to include more on the methods, underlying theory, analysis techniques used but it is a good way of summarising the literature. I’m not quite sure yet how to synthesise it all together, but I will tackle that when I have done a few more of these grids. I can do about 2 or 3 an hour I think – some papers are more complex and dense than others, but since I have read them all before they require just a bit of speed reading.



Literature reviewing grid: Adapted from ‘How to read journal articles in the social sciences’ by Phillip Chong Ho Shon


My second method is mind-mapping. I have bought some mind-mapping software, but I never enjoyed it so much, not for the brainstorming phase. Rather I have a 30 metre roll of paper from IKEA and have mapped out some thoughts on one tiny section of the literature review

1.5 meters of thesis done

1.5 meters of thesis done

At this rate, I hope to have enough work done to upgrade to the PhD in October. I just have to work fast and efficiently. Which brings me onto my final ‘tool’. A massive executive planner where each 15 minutes of the day can be planned.

Yes, I feel a bit stupid and slow off the mark admitting this as well as anxious about the time running away so fast but I also know it is all part of the learning process.

Now to go out in the rain.



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.

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

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