Tag Archives: writing

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 go through spells where I don’t do anything. I just sort of have lunch—all day.”

Writing is not my natural forte, I like the Nora Ephron quote above about her writing process, so similar to mine. I go through long dry spells where my motivation is on the floor, my focus too caught elsewhere, and I’m not entirely sure I’ll get a PhD at all – the guilt creeping in for every day off, or trip out for coffee. Secretly I feel abit like a dilatant, who if they can look and sound the part someone will eventually give them a PhD. Like Annika’s earlier blogpost, I have the “swishy wool coat and smart leather bag that makes me appear intelligent”.

The truth is I probably work far too much, and am anything but a dilatant. I am a part-time PhD student, with a full time job, who would eat, sleep, and breath my discipline if I could. This shouldn’t be confused with a recommendation that a PhD student eat, sleep and breath what they do. However, I honestly don’t know how I would be able to write, and maintain my energy, without this passion for what I do.

The barriers I have to writing are multiple; I work full-time, in a job that I love but no one day is the same; I take on voluntary roles; I try to maintain an active conference presence, trying to do all the extra things a good PhD student is suggested they should. With work and study I traveled between December, and April nearly 6,000 miles alone. Across April I spent nearly every Friday half way across the country, delivering presentations which consumed my attention the weeks before.  Add to this the perils of trying to have a personal life, and sleep, and good grief – I need a dry martini and lie down, which neither aid not abet the writing of 90,000 words.

But also I am Dyslexic, a fact which more often that not I have hidden by omission. When I write everything takes longer. It is also heartbreaking sometimes to be able talk with such confidence, and articulation, but then sit down to compose a paper, or write a chapter and feel my mouth crammed with cotton wool, that spills out on the page when I try to speak. If I could give a purely voce viva PhD I would.

How I’ve written…

I have tried many approaches before the one which has lead me to be invited to this blog. I wrote my Masters by Research like you would build an ice sculpture – I poured my thoughts into chapters far too big, and chiseled away at the big blocks of ice they created to craft the message. On starting to write my PhD I tried very much to do the same, to little success, it was part of the process, and helped shape my thinking, and gobbets of this drafting do appear occasionally in my current work, but in very small amounts.

Thus I feel I should give you a word of caution, my method of writing is yet to have been proven effective. I don’t have my PhD firstly, I wish I could tell you that I am now 50% through to the finished piece as a result of this plan, but I’m not. However I am more confident that it will come with time. But my approach to writing has been organic and grown unique to myself, and my life style, and I’d encourage you most of all to develop an approach in a similar way, which works for you, and responds to your needs, and helps you get the job done.

How I write now…

So how do I write now? I have spent months and months refining my arguments and thinking through a written thesis plan with my supervisors, during a period of no chapter based writing at all. This was a hard, and not over yet, but this was important as it weeded out a number of areas that made the thesis too broad, and unfocused, and have been put to one side, or recycled, as presentations or alternative projects and papers in the future.

My latest approach has been far slower, and is focused on writing very deliberately, purposefully. My supervisors regularly suggesting a good rule of thumb being that a tight argument should be traceable, in broad terms, from the first line of each paragraph. Each paragraph moving the argument forward one step at a time.

At one point, and very unlike me, I did the math and established that the average 10,000 word chapter is composed of about 34 paragraphs between 300-350 words. I don’t believe my final chapters should or will follow these rules religiously but suddenly if a chapter becomes 34 first lines, rather than 10,000 words, it is far less intimidating.


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34 first lines: argument plan

So I mapped the argument each chapter should try to make on one page of A3, and used this to then slowly and deliberately write the first line of each paragraph. This didn’t work at first, when I went back to my supervisors each line was at first too broad. One line alone could be 10 first lines. So cue my current position where I am going through the second round of first lines, distilling the essence of the points I want to make.

It becomes like planning each paragraph as though they were individual PowerPoint slides; as though my thesis was actually a presentation, playing to my strengths. This is where the storyboarding approach comes in, during the week which is when I’m at my busiest, and exhausted after a long day at work, I can plan each paragraph of a chapter using post it notes. Mapping out the first lines and points I want to make as I go along. Reordering and reworking them as I go.  My wall starts to look like a murder investigation, pinning evidence and possibilities across the wall trying to work out how things fit together.

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Planning the chapter as if it were a PowerPoint presentation

As I progess it becomes more and more apparent when a first line is not actually strong enough to from a paragraph of its own, but a line within a stronger paragraph, or when it should be removed altogether, because it just doesn’t fit when you line the post-its up. No matter how often I re-order and move them, it becomes clearer what moves the argument forward, and what doesn’t.

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Re-ordering the paragraphs

Then comes the weekends, and bank holidays. These are the times when I can sit down and spend a solid, extended period of time writing. But the work during the week, with post its make it easier, the process of writing becomes more a painting by numbers exercise, and at first is focused on taking the first lines from my post-it wall, and pouring them into into a table.

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Tabulating the paragraphs (with a side of macarons)

Yes, I write my chapters into a table. I number each row, both with its paragraph number in the chapter as a whole, and the paragraph number in the subsection of the chapter I’m writing. There isn’t a rule about this, but if these numbers get too high am I still being focused?

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numbering the paragraphs

If as I complete the paragraph the row of the table is suddenly spanning 3 pages, is this chapter trying to do too much or being too long? This process doesn’t provide answers to these questions; some paragraphs will be longer than others, as will some chapters. But the process keeps this in my mind, and reminds me to keep these things in check. My dyslexia means I really could write a 90,000 word sentence if I was want to do so, and sometimes even when I don’t want to. My longest sentence to date was one and half pages with nothing but oxford commas.

Cue the return to the wall, every time I reach a natural break, the end of the weekend, or the end of a particular writing focused day, I print the table, and pin it up on the wall. Taking the original post-it notes, I re-trace the argument I’m trying to make. Reading back the points I wanted to make, and seeing if the paragraphs do this. Again it is not a problem if they don’t – there might be a very good reason for this – but increasingly they do, and my hope is that this lends to the tightening of my argument across my thesis. I don’t know if this argument is right yet, but going to see my supervisors for my next meeting I think I have a clearer grasp on what I want to say.

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Rechecking the ‘evidence’: see how the orange post-its have moved!

So what?

A question from Pat Thomson, whose books I’ve also found incredibly useful when writing. But in relation to this approach the answer is I don’t know! – Maybe I’ll be Dr Dent in the next year as a result of this approach. That’s the dream. But this way seems to be helping for now at least.

My other tips are superficial, but they are vital to my process of working, and shouldn’t be under estimated. Every chapter has a sound track – One song or group of songs played on repeat. Chapter one is being brought to you by Hamilton;


Don’t ask me why this is important but, sitting at my desk, listening to the same music, focuses my mind – I know I’m writing chapter one when I listen to this. Things seem to come back to me far quicker as a result. If I try and write somewhere that’s not my desk, in cafes, restaurants, libraries, hotel rooms, and trains, listening to the same music wherever re-focuses my mind.

Finally, while I don’t have the time to, I always try to read something non-academic as I write; increasingly this has been things by other writers. Returning to Nora Ephron, my current choice of non-academic reading, taking an hour out, every couple of days or so, to read something that isn’t academic seems to help. Academia is not the only forum where people write, edit, and compose, I don’t think we shouldn’t underestimate the value their experiences can bring. Ultimately I think I have to get to a place where I walk into my viva I feel like the editor-in-chief of my thesis, confident to defend my argument and the choices I’ve made. Anything that can inspire me to do this is to be welcomed with open arms. And hey, some days its ok to just have lunch all day – you deserve it.

Find out more about Samuel Dent via

Follow him on Twitter where you can see more photographs of his post-it-note technique  @SRDent89



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 have a little bit of a problem with time management and simultaneously over and under planning.

Sometimes I do very little planning and then just faff around aimlessly not really knowing what I should focus on, for example, I may want to plan my day’s work but for some reason get paralysed and can’t do it or make unrealistic plans.  Then at the other extreme I plan all details and well too far in advance. For example I have been planning my PhD graduation outfit and hairstyle that would suit a beret. Although now we have merged to UCL I will have to see what their gown colours are and re-adjust all my plans.

I love this hairstyle and dresses! A PhD beret would set it off perfectly! Photo by Cangaway on Flickr

I love this hairstyle and dresses! A PhD beret would set it off perfectly!
Photo by Cangaway on Flickr

Anyway, a few weeks ago, I passed the upgrade from MPhil to PhD (yay!) and this have given me the boost I need to really get down to serious PhD business.

So for the first supervisory meeting after the upgrade, I thought I’d make a plan or the next two years to see me through to the submission day. I have planned all my training for the year and all the conferences I want to go on and/or present at. Now, there is nothing wrong with this as such, but when I showed my supervisors, Alison and Sam, my time line, ghant chart and schedule, they looked at me a bit funny and suggested perhaps I have spent a little too much time planning (I’m so glad I did not present my 7ft 3D timeline landscape poster with milestones and stickers and glitter).

My supervisors are so kind and, Alison, hit the nail on the head when she explained why I keep leaping to the future. It is because I need security, stability and I like to do things robustly and make sure everything is perfect and thought through. There is nothing wrong with this of course, however, it does mean that perhaps because of this need to lay out everything perfectly I never get started or when I do I worry that it is not right. And this is causing me huge anxiety. It is over a year in, I have passed my Upgrade, I am doing OK, I just need to keep going but break it all down into chunks. Now, I know this. It is not the first time I have been told, but I don’t know why I keep slipping. Alison says it is perhaps because we all naturally revert back to type, so I just have to try to break the habit.

So they suggested I should put my blinkers on and just focus on the next three months as I can do all the planing in the world, but once I start analysing my data, these plans will have to be adjusted or even thrown out as I do not know what issues and problems I will come up against. That’s part of the PhD fun. So in these three months I will complete chapter 2 which is about the social context of cohort member’s schooling, and chapter 3 which is about lifelong learning and the changing nature of universities between the 1980s and 2008 (I have planned these using Murray’s outlining as mentioned in previous post. This level of planning is healthy).  I will also have completed some descriptive statistics on the new variable I have created (well, I need to re-do it as it went a bit wrong – will write another post on this). I will present this at a university seminar in May and perhaps make a poster out of it for a university conference in March. So nice, neat and manageable with planned dissemination activities and what not.

I like to summarise their nice well thought through advice to myself in a simple straight forward sentence which I will put on my wall: “Annika, stop planning your perfect graduation outfit and doing elaborate timelines and get on with this one task up until March, FFS!”

In May I wrote a blog post called “We all need a little bit of discipline (and punish) now and again” which was about the one day writing retreat I attended ran by Rowena Murray organised by the SRHE. In that post you can see how the ran according to Murray’s schedule.

I decided about a month ago, that I needed to run something like this myself on a more regular basis as I felt that working alone at home all day was making me feel a bit lonely and my productivity was sipping a bit with days and days going by and only scrappy bits of work being done. So I contacted a couple of former colleagues from the University of Bedfordshire who are on Twitter and I know are doing part-time PhDs and tend to work weekends on it.

So on Saturday, on the Bedford campus, we ran our first one day writing retreat.

A couple of participants surprised me by saying that their friends and colleagues were not keen to come because they were worried about the idea of working with others as they assumed there would be interruptions, or that the idea was for group feedback and group discussions which perhaps people sometimes do not want or want to avoid!

I found this strange as I deliberately called the writing group a ‘Shut up and write!’ but perhaps my ‘advert’ was not so clear and came across as too friendly but speaking to each other during writing time is strictly forbidden!  I wonder if this dread of working in groups comes from people’s experiences of working in open plan offices where the idea is that you are supposed to collaborate and share ideas whereas in reality open plan offices can often be the noisiest and least productive places to work.

However, by the end of the day, they were converted.

Feedback from participants fitted the feedback from every other writing group like this which were:

  • Realising how much you can get done
    Realising the importance of breaks
    The benefit of working in a different environment
    Benefit of avoiding social media/internet
    Benefit of working with others present to help motivate you to continue and avoid temptation.
After Shut up and Write! you will have avoided temptation and will feel virtuous. Photo from Patricksmercy on Flickr

After Shut up and Write! you will have avoided temptation and will feel virtuous. Photo from Patricksmercy on Flickr

Although we are not allowed to speak to each other during writing time, you can during breaks and I thought this was useful as I learnt about Jon Rainford’s work and realised we were reading some of the same books etc. So if you have similar subject and topic ideas, this chatting is good! However, you should not feel that you have to talk during breaks. I would hope that if people did not want to talk because they are in a thinking zone, then that is perfectly permissible.

So we are going to run a group once a month on a Saturday. The good thing about doing it on the Bedford campus with participants who are staff is that we have access to room booking as well as the staff kitchen and fridge.

If you want to run one, feel free to use this schedule as a template or refer to the original Rowena Murray schedule which involves a longer day than ours:

Five minute writing task:
Write down your short, medium and long term goals in full sentences for 5 minutes.
Short term means by the first break.
Medium term is by Lunch.
Long term is by the end of the day.

Share these goals with a person in the room (or whole room if group is very small).

Role of facilitator – to keep time and announce when it is five minutes before the end of each session. They also tell the group that in this five minutes everyone needs to write a sentence to themselves about what they are going to do after the break.

10am to 10:15 welcome and goal setting. Make cup of tea

10:15- 11:30 am Session 1 (1 ¼ hours)

11:30 – 11:45 Break [step away from the computer and stretch]

11:45 – 12:45: Session 2 (1 hour)

12:45-1:30 Lunch [go for a brisk walk after eating]

1:30-2:45 Session 3 (1 ¼ hours)

2:45-3:00 break [step away from the computer and stretch]

3:00 – 4:00 Session 4 (1 hour)

4:00 Did you meet your goal? Quick chat and feedback.

I also join in the Bi-monthly  Shut Up and Write group on Twitter and like that too. You can join on Twitter (see @SUWTUK for the UK group #SUWTUK , @SUWTues for the Australian one which I cannot work out the time zone difference, but I think it is something like 1am UK time, and finally there is the North American group @SUWTNA which is on at around 4pm UK time).

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!



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.

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.



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