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Each time I have done a degree, MA, report for small research project for work etc, I’ve never really known how to do a literature review. I mean I know not to do the shopping list type and do it by themes, I know how to search the literature, I know how to manage and store references, but for some reason I never felt like I have ever actually properly done one.

Then when you do a PhD, the literature review is no longer say a tiny 4000 words of a 10,000 project. More likely it is multiple chapters and a billion words (well that’s what it feels like) and you feel like you have to do something properly because you don’t want to be caught out doing it wrong. You’re supposed to be the expert who has read all the relevant stuff and thought about it all deeply. This has caused me to become paralysed with fear!

I’ve been scared about not sounding clever enough. I’ve been also trying to produce something that you write in your final year, not the first year. I think this is because people tell you to look at other theses to see what one looks like. Well, that had an opposite effect on me because that is one they wrote in their final year. The first year literature review is never going to look as amazing and deep and intelligent as the final year one and there is no point trying to make it so, like I’ve been doing.

Another thing is that the research questions are supposed to emerge from gaps in the literature, so therefore you kind of think that you have to get through a lot of literature to know what the gaps are. And it is hard. How am I supposed to know because someone else might have done it but I just havent found it yet.

But one of the biggest things I did not realise was that theoretical stuff is ‘the literature’. I thought it was just empirical studies. So when my supervisors told me this, I felt relieved as I thought that I had not started my literature review, when in fact I had. You can also have a methodological review too. I’m going to have a smaller ‘methodology literature review’. Here I will put information about how other researchers researched the topic like I might say “so and so did this using 24 interviews blah blah whereas I think that this is a weakness which I will address by using a diff method blah blah”.

The biggest thing that made me no longer fearful of the review is that I no longer refer to it as ‘the literature review’. I’m not reviewing literature. I am reading, writing and thinking critically about it. I’m writing multiple little essays which have a common theme to create my story. That’s what I’m doing. In my final year, I will write it up and connect things more explicitly. But for now, little bits that connect – but perhaps not so clearly are fine!

In order to write these little manageable sections of the literature review, I use  Rowena Murray’s outlining technique. She refers to it but only quite briefly in the How to do a Thesis book (I’ve only got an old edition, so newer ones may be different). But in her book ‘Writing for Academic Journals’ she goes into more depth.

Outlining is where you create a very detailed outline of what you are going to write. So you break each topic and section down, and down and down again. Three levels of breakdown. Then you end up with nice little chunks. So now, I know that I need to write 100 words on a particular thing and it seems like an easier task. 100 words! That’s nothing!

 

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Murray (2005) Writing for Academic Journals

My supervisor recommended that I keep track of all my sections in a spreadsheet and colour code. Tick things off and feel a sense of progress.

So in summary – scrap the words ‘literature review’ – that’s a big monster heading that causes anxiety attacks! Secondly create level three outlines. How can writing 100 words be scary?

Hope this helps any readers who may also have a literature review phobia.

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

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

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

Instagram: Interview TV set design

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Annika: Yes, I know. Thank-you.

 

(c) 2014 Annika Coughlin

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