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October 14, 2013

From Warwick to Oxford…Who You Know Won't Do You Harm – Dr Samantha Lyle

Full Title: From Warwick to Oxford - A Little Bit of Who You Know Won't Do You Any Harm

Since I arrived at Warwick as an undergraduate in 2001, these are some of the things that I have done:

  • Gotten a BA in Politics, International Studies and Gender
  • Dyslexia diagnosis
  • Refined my thinking/learnt a lot
  • Won a teaching award
  • Set up a highly succesful student society
  • Did loads of part-time work in catering, admin, research, careers service, teaching and as an academic coordinator
  • Made friends
  • Went on inter-rail
  • Galivanted about on a study trip to Berlingive_me_a_job.png
  • Met my partner
  • Did an MA part-time
  • Had two children
  • Made succesful funding bids
  • Organised a post graduate conference
  • Published joint papers and solo papers
  • Ran workshops
  • Organised speakers
  • Completed my PhD

When I arrived at Warwick in 2001 I was 24 years old (a mature student) with no A-levels, half a dozen GCSEs and an Access to Higher Education certificate. Now in November 2013 I am preparing to (finally) leave Warwick to take up a research post at Oxford University, and leaving has put me in a reflective mood. In an attempt to work out how all ths happened, ive realised that the relationships I have built here have been instrumental in generating opportunities.

Unlike the stereotypical academic, I love engaging with people. The most productive moments during my PhD were when I was in the Wolfson Research Exchange, surrounded by my peers from different disciplines. Looking back at my time here at Warwick, every job opportunity has come about from my networks. As an undergraduate I was aware that I should be ‘networking’ (cringe) and getting loads out of the Student’s Union. However, with all the paid work I had to do and the extremely challenging course material I had to grapple with, I didn’t have the time or the confidence to ‘network’. It wasn’t until I was a postgrad that I suddenly felt able, and then decided that I would actively shape my networks in a way that felt natural but was still purposeful. I have been strategic in how I use my time and whom I give my time to; I also have an eye on where things might lead. But I have neither aligned myself with people I don’t like nor generated projects with people who I think are powerful or useful, without also being committed to them or the project. All of my key moments at Warwick have been down to the relationships I have built with my peers and those higher up the university chain. A good example is when I got a summer research assistant post at the Medical School, which has ultimately led to my current post at Oxford (oh and meeting my partner along the way).

This sort of behaviour sounds suspiciously like ‘networking’. To me it sounds instrumental and even socially disingenuous however I am genuinely interested in talking to people and finding out about them and their work, but I don’t get jobs and opportunities just because I am nice and chatty. I am good at the work I do. Most of the opportunities seemed serendipitous, but on reflection it’s not that I somehow just end up being in the right place at the right time. I made conscious decisions to work out what was going on and where; I look for the connections when I meet new people and take part in projects that I find interesting.

I took longer than average to complete my studies here at Warwick, but I would have missed out on all of the other things that I did here had I gotten my PhD done sooner. It was my connection to people in conjunction with my PhD that got me the job at Oxford. I was lucky and got a break, but I generated that luck by nurturing and investing in the relationships that I made along the way.

Academia is competitive, especially within the Russell group, everyone who stands a chance has a PhD and a publication record but I think that meeting as many people as possible, talking about your work, listening to others and getting involved in your community is a really good way to gain opportunities that can lead to amazing things. So if you are a Warwick PhD student and you haven’t bought into the idea of ‘networking’ then think again and get yourself into the Wolfson Research Exchange, it’s a very good place to start.

April 27, 2013

#PhDOrBust… or Not: Is a PhD For Me?


Arrianna Marie (@ArriannaMarie) is a graduate student at the University of Chicago, U.S., in the MA Program of the Social Sciences. Her research interests are the post-colonial state in Africa, statelessness, refugees and internally-displaced persons. On a personal level, she is a tea-lover who loves to cook and eat.

I’ve been hesitant to write this post because it feels like I am possibly foreclosing options by doing so. After some deliberation, I decided to go for it.

PhD Or Bust! … or Notstudy_station.jpg

The litany of “Don’t Do It, Girl!” articles about PhD programs hasn’t been that convincing to me. Too often, they are written by tenured professors who write from a privileged position of relative security amid shifts in the Academy. On the other hand, I’ve read a good number of these articles from current or former PhD students, many of whom are facing high debt loads coupled with diminishing job security and clout in the workplace. Either way, their stake in this matter is not mine. More to the point, most of them do not resemble me remotely in terms of their social position. I am a Black woman with a “disability” who hails from a working-middle-class background (with more social than economic class). I do not have the same considerations as many of these writers do.

I’m in graduate school now, finishing up my MA in Social Sciences (Political Science) at the University of Chicago. I am right in the middle of the Academy. I am the frog who knows that the water is hot. I have lived the lean life of a graduate student, and it is not unlike the life of an un(der)employed recent graduate amid a recession in some respects. On the upshot, there are books, academic journals, and fascinating graduate seminars (my intellect frolics!).

As I finish my MA Thesis, I ask myself, “Do I really want or need a PhD?” After a moment, I break it down- “What do I want to do? How will a PhD help me accomplish this? Or will a PhD program mean years of foregone opportunities for practical work in the field in which I already work?”

What do I want to do? I want to do what I am already doing- research, writing, creating and designing training materials for non-profit organizations and NGOs serving “populations on the move” (thus far: homeless communities, refugees, asylees, trafficked persons, migrant workers). Do I have the skills that I need to do this? Yes. Am I gaining the experience I need? Yes. But do I need a PhD to do this work? The current answer is “No.”

In short, my interests have never been simply academic or intellectual. Yes, intellectual analysis informs my practice, but the former is not sufficient. In my experience, theorizing in an enclosed space and place is an exercise in futility. Good theory is dynamic and its validity is tested through practice.

I resist using a “Return on Investment” (ROI) analysis to assess whether a PhD is worthwhile for me, because economic analysis often fail to capture the “softer” benefits of education and other pursuits that do not immediately yield economic gains. On the other hand, as a product of home-schooling, I’ve always rejected the notion of education being legitimate only in institutionalized contexts, and it makes sense to consider the economic costs of a PhD program.

  • In 5-7 years, will practical work experience matter more than a PhD and its concomitant specialized skill sets (so often attuned to the academy)? If so, why get a PhD?
  • How much student loan debt do you have? Post-PhD, will your income be sufficient for repayment? What does the job market for PhD-holders in your field look like? What are the beginning salaries of successful job-searchers?
  • What does your funding package look like? Do you have a scholarship, fellowship, stipend or a TA-ship?
  • Furthermore, will you have to take out student loans to cover unanticipated costs during the PhD program (these costs include housing, health issues, and so on)? Will you need to work in addition to a full course load in order to make ends meet?

These questions differ from the questions I asked myself as an un(der)employed college graduate without much professional work experience. Now that I have years of professional experience and clearly-demonstrated skills, I have different considerations.

What Should Prospective Applicants to Graduate Programs Know?

To be honest, there was a lot that I did not know the first time I applied to graduate programs. I did not know that as I advanced in my graduate studies, I’d be asked to narrow my focus more and more. I did not know that the “life of the mind” is not without its fraught interpersonal politics (e.g. “Don’t cite Prof. X in Prof. Y’s class. They had a beef back in grad school.”)

And I most certainly did not know how hard and fast the lines between “traditional” disciplines in the Social Sciences are in spite of claims to “interdisciplinarity.” My undergraduate degree from U.C. Berkeley was in History, but my Thesis employed both Historical methods and interpretive methods employed by Political Theorists. Here at UChicago, my Thesis is based on ethnographic data and historical primary documents, while the methodology is squarely in the realm of Political Theory.

In a nutshell, everything I wished I knew before I applied to graduate school can be found on my colleague’s blog, where he has articles on every step of the process, including:

This seems like a long list, but I assure you, this blog is an excellent resource for prospective applicants to graduate programs (particularly in the U.S.).

In Conclusion…

After a talk with my mentor, a former Professor, I soberly reached the conclusion that a PhD is not a necessity for me, and would probably come at a great cost to me and my goals. To be frank, it was freeing. My perspective has shifted such that I can consider a PhD program as a possible future option, even as I continue to do the work that I love to do. I will still turn in my best possible Thesis, and I will still maintain communications with faculty members who taught and supported me through graduate school.

What are your considerations when you think of applying to graduate programs? How will you weigh the decision to go… or not?

March 11, 2013

Diary of a Social Researcher – Ayesha Siddiqi


Ayesha Siddiqi is a third year PhD student based at the Department of War Studies at King's College London. Her research is examining the political impact of floods in southern Pakistan. When not working on the PhD (and sometimes even while working), Ayesha describes herself as a hippie and enjoys all their stereotypical pursuits, traveling (the further, the better), yoga, sufism, political protests - perhaps everything except the marijuana! diary of a social research

A short while ago somebody who was very seriously considering doing a PhD, asked me for advice and reflections on my own journey thus far. As I was trying to articulate a diplomatic yet realistic account of the PhD struggle, my mind was yelling at her, “you fool, don’t do it”, “put this idea down and slowly back away”, “save your sanity” were some of the more polite things it said. Now, just a few weeks later if she asked me the same question I am certain the musings in my mind would be very different. I think I now have the answer she was looking for all along.

My research subjects are people who were affected by one of the worst floods the world has seen in recent history. These communities in southern Pakistan have not thrived in prosperity since the decline of the Indus Valley Civilisation a few thousand years ago; life was a challenge even before the natural disaster, but the floods made it infinitely worse. I have spent a considerable amount of time with them over the course of many months and witnessed their disappointments and joys, sometimes very intimately because I was there in their home eating their bread, other times, from very very far because I was only writing about it and even then, long after they had actually suffered. Yet I never share the stories of heroism I see or hear every day I spend in the “field”. I don’t mention them in conversations with friends. I especially don’t write Facebook statuses that begin with the words “I met an incredible woman/man of resilient Pakistan…”. I don’t do this out of fear that I would be trivialising their very real, very constant struggle for survival, into a sound bite, an interesting anecdote. I think that if I mentioned one of my most memorable moments in the “field” to a friend over a cup of coffee we would only speak about it in earnest for a few minutes before moving on to the next topic. My fear of making peoples profound and life altering exchanges with me into something only marginally significant to our lives is why I had chosen the option of silence in most situations so far.

I have not shared stories from my months of “field” research in academic settings either. This too has been driven by fear. Here however fear takes on a different guise; the fear that I may not be taken seriously as a researcher if I talk of personal stories, of small victories and colossal losses; the fear that my research can lose “objectivity” when my subjects become my friends; the fear that I’m just not good enough, or hard-core enough. I cannot say that I have conquered all my demons but I have recognised them and acknowledged that they are only as powerful as I allow them to be. I am now choosing to take away some of their power and share a recent story.

Earlier this week “I met an incredible woman of resilient Pakistan”, in Thatta (one of the districts that was the worst affected by the floods of 2010). This middle-aged woman had 14 children. All of them disabled. When you entered her home they were all lying on a row of beds and it felt like you had arrived at a local hospice. Her sons, culturally the pride and joy and also breadwinners of Pakistani families, are severely physically disabled and immobile. Around the time of the 2010 floods due to various different health complications, eight of her children died in a span of a few months. Due to an absentee husband and the condition of the children, this woman has no income earner in the family. Her daily routine therefore is to walk the eight kilometres distance from her village to Thatta city every morning where she spends the day begging in the streets, visiting shelters, getting as much money and food together as possible and then making the trek back home in the evening. When I met her, I said the usual “Assalamualaikum, how are you?” She smiled - a really warm genuine smile and replied “Alhamdulillah, God is very kind and I am very well”.

Not only is her story and her stoicism etched in my memory for ever, this small framed, soft spoken research subject rocked the foundations of my world. I have spent many hours since that afternoon wondering how she derives such strength from such loss. How is she able to remain this positive? How is it possible for her to smile so bright when there is such desolate darkness in her surroundings?

I was considerably unwell the afternoon I met this woman. I was suffering from high temperature, a wheezing cough and blocked sinuses among other things. Ordinarily if I was feeling like death I would have cancelled the rest of the Thatta trip and headed back to the comfort of modern medicine and chicken soup in the big city. After meeting this woman however, someone who had suffered so much and yet persevered in the face of such adversity, even the thought of calling it quits on the remaining few days of my trip was unthinkable to me. So despite my body telling me that it was not able to continue with the strenuous fieldwork much longer, my mind prevailed and I left Thatta only after I had finished every task I had assigned myself for the trip.

There are times in life you make plans knowing full well why you made that plan and why it’s a good idea to follow it through. Other times you know there is something you need to do but you’re not entirely sure at the time, why. Two years ago, I didn’t know why I wanted to do a PhD I just knew I wanted to do it. I remember giving different answers to almost every person who asked me this question during the early days. “To move up in my career”, “to have the option of academia open to me”, “to be considered for World Bank and UN jobs” were my usual responses. I know now that it was none of these. I was supposed to do not just a PhD, but this PhD, so that I could meet these “incredible men and women of resilient Pakistan”, maybe learn a thing or two about adversity since I have really had so little of it in my own life, maybe someday even share these stories without feeling the guilt of trivialising them. I was meant to undertake an academic pursuit where the “field” and the “work” interacted with my life to change my perception of the world. The PhD has changed my life; I mean really changed my life, how many other people can say that about their job?

March 05, 2013

Let Me Tell You a Secret


U. Ejiro O. Onomake is a third-year DPhil student based at the University of Sussex's anthropology department. Her research explores social relationships between Chinese and Nigerians. Outside of academia Ejiro spends time volunteering, traveling, tweeking recipes and has recently become an ambassador for SexyShred- a health and lifestyle challenge.u.Ejiro

Let Me Tell You a Secret

When people hear that I am in a doctoral program they often express some interest in my work or they say something that infers I have a great deal of intelligence. How does one respond to such a thing? In the beginning of my program I would laugh it off and say that was not true but as I’ve progressed into my program I have gone one step further, I’ve started to tell people the little known secret: Successfully entering and completing a PhD program does not hinge on intelligence. Yes a certain level of intelligence is required but what is even more important are the following: tenacity and groundedness. The initial entry into a doctoral program is akin to boot camp where you learn the basic skills required for researching and socializing in academia. During this stage your head is full of the research and theories of others. In my case my head was full of Bourdieu, Fanon, Marcus and many others. But as time passes and this phase of doctoral life ends you start to not only form your own research questions but to also conduct research in order to answer these questions. During and after my fieldwork I began to examine data and situate my research in relation to those luminaries whose ideas permeated my thoughts. In the midst of the writing up phase it is clear to me how I will complete my dissertation, through tenacity and groundedness.


Tenacity is crucial because some days you find your research to be mundane. After the excitement of returning from fieldwork wore off and I was entrenched deeply with my work, it felt stale. So I put one piece of work to the side and started working on another area. When I revisited the first piece of work it felt fresh and interesting. But that doesn’t always happen and sometimes you just have to stick with writing less interesting work and savor the parts you enjoy. There will be some periods where you feel like you’re muddling through and making little progress. This happens to many of us, and each of us finds a way to persevere and stay motivated. I keep my reasons for embarking on this PhD journey at the forefront of my mind and it encourages me during difficult times. What also keeps me focused is staying grounded.


Groundedness is one of those all-encompassing titles under which a myriad of points can be stored including ‘there is a world outside of your PhD’ and ‘do it your way’. These are all things that I hold onto and use as mantras. As doctoral students, while the PhD and everything related to it is a major focus of our lives, and rightfully so, it is not center of the universe. Most likely you have commitments and other roles outside of the PhD, which come in the form of family, friends, community and self. Realizing that the PhD is important but there are other things of equal and even more importance, helps to put things in perspective. Thinking of other things outside of your research also helps to maintain interest when returning to work. As for approaching your research your own way this is primarily about bringing your own creativity to your work. Coming into academia can sometimes make you forget all of your previous experiences-as if you joined the Borg and erased your previous life and experiences. Your previous experiences-both professionally and personal contribute to who you are and how you approach your research. And who you are a researcher clearly impacts and influences your research. This is an asset to be used regularly. For me previous work experiences in business and government provide a different insight into the lives of my research participants and my overall research. Also my ethos on living and our interconnectedness as human beings makes me view my research participants and the whole process of the PhD in a unique way. Draw on whatever makes you unique and let it become a part of your work.

So have faith in your intelligence and work on the other ignored points. Be tenacious and grounded in society at large. 

January 28, 2013

2013…A Fresh Start or Is It?


Duduzile Ndlovu (@mandlods) is a second-year PhD student based at the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of Witwatersand, Johannesburg, South Africa. Her research aims to explore gender and generational differences in migrants' memory making practices through the use of art to remember socio-political violence. Outside of the PhD, Dudu spends most of her time running after an energetic toddler son and balancing her love for music (learning to play the Piano). She blogs at CandidPhDTalk - visit, for more on her research.Dudu


As each New Year begins I am fascinated by all the hype we get into, a new year a fresh start! Is it really a fresh start? We are not younger instead we are older and hopefully wiser! The saying goes time lost is never regained. I lost a considerable amount of time in 2012 and sadly I will not get it back. I figure the best I can do is learn as much as I can from the experience. So here goes a post about my not so great 2012 which I hope will take me into a better 2013!

2012 was a difficult year at a personal level and this greatly affected me and spilled over into my academic work. I lost someone very close to me and did not cope with it very well. Unfortunately at the time I did not realise how much my emotions were affecting my work. I expected myself to get on with the program and this was a big mistake. I did not perform to my expectation and began to doubt my ability to complete my PhD. I am told the self-doubt and wanting to quit season, is a ¿¿rite of passage¿¿ for many PhD candidates and that¿¿s comforting. Rite of passage it may be but I learnt a few vital lessons that I think are worth taking with me into 2013 and sharing with you here. My self-doubt season was brought on by emotional fatigue and failure to take care of myself.

Taking good care of yourself emotionally, spiritually and physically is vital. In the same way that you can miss a scheduled car service and still be able to drive around, there is some damage happening to the engine though it may not be evident right away. If we pass up on taking care of ourselves, we may continue to work but may soon crush. Like I said I encountered difficulties at a personal level. I know now not to do it but I continued to expect results and make demands on myself. I had deadlines and plans, the perfectionist in me wanted to get it right at all cost. Unfortunately I was not able to perform the way I expected myself to and this set me back a couple of months. It is most likely that if I had taken time out to deal with issues it would have taken a shorter time.

The PhD will probably be the longest project I have undertaken since my first degree, which was four years long. The longest I was on the same job is two years and that¿¿s about as long as my attention span lasts on one thing. This could prove to be emotionally draining, when there is no end in sight and yet work still need to be done. It is important to have milestones along the way to celebrate and not wait the three to five years it will take me to complete the degree to celebrate. There is so much to the PhD more than the thesis and title. The networks we build over the years are something worth celebrating. In 2012 I have good reason to celebrate the twitter links I made, it has been worth the effort I put into it.

Lastly my biggest challenge in 2012 was the failure to reflect on what was happening and the flexibility to make the required changes. Goals and deadlines are important signposts that can help us to measure our progress however they may equally be the hurdles that bog us down. After our plans have been outlined and the clock is ticking, life has many uncertainties and has a habit of throwing curve balls at us. The best way to succeed in the midst of all the uncertainty lies in the ability to reflect and make the necessary changes.

Here is to a 2013 that is better than 2012! More reflecting and flexibility to change if needed!

January 18, 2013

A New Diagnosis – ‘Incredibly Ill–equipped Hulk Anxiety’


Sarah (@postlesbian) is a first-year PhD student based at Queen Mary, Univerisity of London. Her research aims to explore the influence of queer theory on lesbian performance. Outside of the PhD...wait, there's life beyong the PhD? For more information on her research and other problems, visit Feminist Inspector. Sarah


This semester I began my PhD journey and I have discovered a new and previously unidentified phenomena. Despite my numerous hours in the library and attendance at various research seminars, my original idea is not one for my thesis but a diagnosis of another aspect of PhD Life. Not far removed from the much suffered ‘Imposter Syndrome’, I have identified ‘Incredibly Ill-equipped Hulk Anxiety’ (IIHA).

Similar to: Imposter Syndrome; Inferiority Complex


At this point the findings indicate the root cause of IIHA is a change of Higher Education Institution.

Having completed my BA and MA at the same university my first move was at PhD level. Although my former institution was a highly regarded red brick Russell Group university, theatre was not the biggest jewel in its crown. Although, being fairly aware of how the PhD program works at my former university I am certain that I would not suffer IIHA if I had stayed. This is not to say that my current university is ‘better’ but it is on the cutting edge of theatre research, the drama department is its crown jewel.

My undergraduate program was traditional, offering a historical overview, working through Aristotle to Postmodern theatre. It was only in the final year of undergraduate study, when studying contemporary theatre that was I able to find my niche. My MA study took a more global stance introducing me to some work beyond Oedipus and Ireland but the dissertation was my real opportunity to focus on the kind of theatre I found fascinating. Given my research interests, I was drawn towards undertaking a PhD at a more ‘modern’ department. I hadn’t for a moment considered that there might be a gap in my knowledge.


The prominent symptom is anger. Irrational, incessant ire that is difficult to overcome. This is often directed towards previous education establishments; it can often be followed by petulant feelings of unfairness, culminating with a sense of being ‘let down’.

It took me a long time to work out what was wrong. I was religiously attending weekly research training classes and fortnightly research seminars and feeling like I was drowning with nothing to grab onto. At this point it’s important to mention that although many of those undertaking a PhDs in my department have also moved intuitions, most have come from other large theatre departments with similar forward thinking curriculums. At first I wondered if I’d been out of the game too long after taking a year out between my MA and PhD or if I was just dumb and wouldn’t ever be able to make sense of anything. Some concepts I’d heard of but didn’t really know the ins and outs, others I was encountering for the first time, but everything was assumed as a given. Nobody was taking about the Greeks and I realized I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

With this realization there was anger. I felt completely betrayed by my previous years of study. If an undergraduate was supposed to instil the foundations of knowledge, I had foundations for a shack; everyone else had a foundation strong enough for a three-story mansion. My knowledge was archaic in comparison and I was fretting about how I would possibly be able to continue with a PhD if I was already so behind.

Should I see my supervisor?

An important part of overcoming IIHA is starting to defuse the symptoms by working towards a level playing field.

I’m going to preface this by saying my supervisor is awesome. When they asked me to sum up my first semester and I began a diatribe about how I couldn’t possibly continue any further because I didn’t know anything, they didn’t even flinch. Which was a really good thing as I was already kicking myself mid-ramble for unveiling my major flaw but by that point it was too late. They immediately diagnosed imposter syndrome (IS) and began to smooth those ruffled feathers with soothing tales of how everyone feels that way. It was difficult to articulate the differences between IS and IIHA but I persisted eventually confessing the rage that was boiling within me. I realise now that it was important, for me, to tell my supervisor how I was really feeling rather than just except the soothing because it did something quite unexpected – it began to level the playing field. Suddenly I wasn’t alone with my darkest secret, my burden was shared, my supervisor began to offer manageable strategies to help work to increase my knowledge base and most importantly began to make sure I knew about the theories or ideas she was suggesting I look at, suggesting helpful starting point materials. I wasn’t joking when I said awesome.

Self Help:

The first step is admitting you have a problem.

It gets slightly easier once you admit that you have a got a gap in your knowledge. Or at least it starts to put an end to the vicious cycle of ‘how dumb am I’? Honestly, there is something about this lack of knowledge that already makes me feel like a failure, I know I will never be an authority on everything but everyone else seems to know so much more, perhaps a sentiment I am not alone in feeling? Until then I’m checking on the biggest anthologies on the topics that terrify me from the library and using them to ‘find my way in’.

January 10, 2013

How I do my PhD

Guest Post

Michael Saker is a final year PhD student at the Department of Sociology and Social Policy, Southampton University, United Michael SakerKingdom. His research is on Convergence Device and Pervasive Play, and his research interests include new mobile technologies, location-based play, and changing understandings of urban space. Outside of his thesis, he enjoys playing the guitar, making/listening to music, philosophy, going to the gym, photography and reading. You can find Michael on Twitter @michael_saker


I’m in the final year of my PhD, having recently upgraded in the summer. I’ve decided to use this space to briefly offer fellow PhD’ers some advice that has helped me along the way.

Be open to your project moving in different directions. As cliché as it is to quote Bruce Lee so early on and I’ve no doubt it has been done many times before, I nonetheless feel compelled and justified in stating: be like water. Don't constrain your project to an a priori path of progression devised in its infancy. Instead allow it the space needed to evolve and transform in interesting and un-thought of ways. This will then provide the opportunity to pursue potentially new avenues of interest, which could enrich your thesis.

Build a good relationship with your supervisors. I can’t stress the importance of this enough. A good relationship with your supervisors will not only increase your interest in your own project, which you will of course already be interested in; it will, hopefully, increase your supervisors’ interest in your project too. Defining your own area of research can be a wonderfully edifying process. However, beyond this, observing your supervisors supervision can also help you to fine tune your critical eye and pre-emptively avoid crossing paths of inconsistency.  

Plan your time wisely. Obvious I know, but let me state it nevertheless. Avoid spending months and months on one specific task. I learnt early on that spending too much time on one particular nuance can lead to an acute case of myopia. I am not suggesting you shouldn’t explicate certain areas of interest in a deep and focused fashion, as this is of course part and parcel of the PhD process. What I am advising is to make sure you occasionally check your original point is still tethered to the vessel from which it descended; as I have all too often come to the surface only to find myself adrift in the doldrums.

Variety is important. If one facet of your work dries up then swiftly move on to another watering hole. Indeed, if you’ve reached a part of your chapter that has got you stumped, for whatever reason, shift gear and try doing something that requires a different part of the brain (perhaps the bit labelled ‘painless’). Then when you feel refreshed, go back and try again.

Immerse yourself in university life. I know this sounds platitudinal, but build new networks and be open to working with a variety of different people. Forge connections that aren't immediately apparent and adopt a mind-set that can adapt to novel configurations, as and when they emerge. Take the time to see what other students are doing, and attend guest lectures as a point of principle. In short, ring every last drop out of the PhD process. (Again, apologies if this all sounds a bit trite.)

Set yourself deadlines and stick to them. A structured regime correlates with success. I like to know what I intend to accomplish on any given day/week and then stick to it as best I can. Procrastination often stems from a lack of structure. I’m not suggesting work constantly; what I am suggesting is when you do work, work effectively. An unflinching system will help you achieve this.

Make time for friends. PhDs can be extremely isolating. I went from seeing numerous people on a daily basis to being on my own the majority of the time. This solitude is then doubly felt by way of the esotericism any PhD brings in its wake. A corollary to this is a small disagreement I now have with Sartre’s dictum ‘hell is other people’. From my position, ‘hell’ is quite the opposite: it is a lack of other people.

It’s just a PhD. Just as Hitchens reminds us to ‘picture all experts as if they were mammal’, so too do I like to remind myself this is just a qualification. Don't become disheartened by the apparent success of this or that student. Focus on your own work, and keep in mind that we all operate differently. Lastly, look after yourself, mentally and physically, and make sure you don’t become your PhD.

December 04, 2012

Keeping PhD goals SMART & more

Dimi is a second year PhD student at the School of Education, University of Manchester. She is exploring the Dimi Kanevaengagement and participation of children who speak English as an additional language as they transfer from primary to secondary education in England. Social media links: @dimi_kaneva); Dimi's Blog; FB Page.
As a PhD student half way through the hustle and bustle of postgraduate matters, I can tell I have been through a steep learning curve. I have been constantly exploring and shifting my working habits to find a better way of dealing with the reading, writing and researching demands. Yes, you might have guessed already that I’m a bit of the procrastinating type (at times). But unfortunately, this is not all, as I can also be the workaholic when I get all the inspiration in the world flowing into my brain. These are happy times, then I can write effortlessly and I have time to accomplish all my goals. It’s an interesting one, mostly because doing a PhD is a process, writing is a process, reading is a process, researching is a process. It takes time to develop all these brilliant ideas, to allow them to mature enough to make sense to other people.
One of the most engaging journeys in my PhD has been the mission of finding how I work best. Still, this is a game of tossing and turning as my habits and preferences keep changing. For three months I like working early in the morning, the next four I’m like an owl up all night. I can be quite good and productive with my writing for a week, then I kind of slack for the next two… If only I could understand that. ‘But it’s a process!’, I have to remind myself every now and again and keep focussed for the next week of writing or that massive piece of analysis coming up.
So, what seems to keep coming back at me as a working strategy is the good old To Do list. I have been using lists to plan and manage my workload for quite a while. I find them useful as:
  • I am constantly reminded of what I have to be doing;
  • The list is on a piece of paper and not in my head which allows me to focus rather than worry about how much I have to do;
  • Ticking off items on my list brings a sense of achievement, hence the joy at the end of the week J (I stick to weekly To Do lists)
  • I have a good idea of the progress I make by flicking through old To Do lists.
All that sounds nice, doesn’t it? I’ll be honest, it took me a while to get here as getting a To Do list to work is not always easy. Let’s have a look at my first lists and the most common mistakes I made which actually made me feel useless, worn out and not making progress:
  1. Proposal writing – BAD
  2. 700 words excerpt for Writing group – GOOD
  3. Reading group email and room booking – GOOD
  4. EAL reading – BAD
  5. Confirm attendance for session – GOOD
Vague goals and unrealistic plans are the worst and I have learnt this from experience. They seem easier to set though, things like ‘read’ or ‘write’ come up naturally, but they are not easy to measure at the end of the day. They also make it impossible to draw the line, I am a PhD student and I am supposed to read and write for three whole years…
The idea of To Do lists is to help and to make planning work more effective. Ultimately, they are a tool that can enhance productivity and achievement. I will take the opportunity to recap on the SMART goals technique. SMART goals are:
  • Specific: Have you set out what exactly it is that you need to do?
  • Measurable: How do you know when you have achieved the goal?
  • Attainable: Is your goal achievable within the set time frame?
  • Realistic: Are you being practical about the required time and resources?
  • Timely: Is the goal appropriate for the current level you are working at? Is that what you are really supposed to be working on?
I try to follow these points when setting goals for my To Do lists. I am not always successful but always review them at the end of the week, especially when I haven’t ticked off everything. The end of the week is the time for reflection on what went well and what didn’t, so that I can be more specific and realistic the next week.
Do you use To Do lists? If so, do you always consider these points when writing them? What helps you work better?

November 16, 2012

The Art of Dissecting Journal Articles – Dana Cotto


Dana Miller-Cotto (@danacotto) is a second year doctoral student in the Educational Psychology department at TempleDana Cotto University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her research interests aim to investigate the role of ethnic identity on achievement and academic motivation. In her free time, she enjoys traveling, hiking, and attempting new pastry recipes. To learn more about her research interests, vist her blog Dana-Cotto.Wordpress

This semester has yielded numerous important milestones in my journey as a scholar. The biggest milestone for me has been developing a better handle on analyzing journal articles. One of the courses I’m taking requires us to get in to groups and to discuss an experiment or study from our assigned readings. Admittedly, I was a little apprehensive when I learned we would be partaking in this weekly activity. I have often been intimidated by the critical thinking that is needed when reading scholarly work. Thankfully, I’ve learned that it is a skill that is acquired after reading numerous articles over time. I’ve recently noticed a pattern of questions I now ask myself when tackling these articles. As a guideline for future use (for myself or for teaching undergrads) I have decided to post them here.

I break these down by section.

Literature Review

  • Have the authors convinced you that their research needed to be conducted? What argument have they made to convince the reader why this study/experiment is important?
  • If so, who would benefit from their research? How can it be applied to real world situations?
  • Have they covered a wealth of previous literature?
  • Is there a flaw in their logic? Have they made any unwarranted assumptions about previous research?


  • Evaluate the sample size. Is it large enough to be generalized? (Think power analysis).
  • How generalizable are the results based on the sample characteristics? For instance, is there sample too specific to be applied to other groups (i.e. sample includes upper middle class White students) ?
  • Is there anything about the way the authors selected participants that may have made this sample bias?
  • Are there any issues with the measures (e.g. could their measures being measuring something other than what they intended)?
  • What are the variables? Independent variable? Dependent?
  • Does the design align with their research goals? If not, how might they have improved on the design?


  • Were the correct analyses performed for the authors’ research goals?
  • Using your knowledge of statistics, do the results imply what the authors claim they imply? Were the results as significant as the authors claim? Are there any other exaggerated conclusions?


  • Overall, did the researchers draw appropriate conclusions?

General Questions

  • What kind of journal does the article appear in? Is it a top tier journal?
  • If the article is in a mediocre journal, what flaws in the experiment/study may have caused the article to appear in this journal?
  • If there are clear flaws in the experiment/journal, and the article appears in a top tier journal, why might the article have been published despite these flaws? Funding opportunities? The experiment is from an area outside of the journal’s main area?
  • Is there anything that is unclear?

I am so grateful for my experience developing my critical thinking in this class that I intend to do the same activity when I begin teaching.

Brief, relevant anecdote: a few days ago a friend of mine and I were discussing different techniques to get undergraduate students to think critically. We came to the conclusion that it is at first very difficult for them to think this way because they may not have been given many opportunities to do so in the past. High school, depending on where they attended, tends to require a lot of memorization and rote learning. Critical thinking is not something that is asked of them until later and when a professor first asks them to engaged in critical thinking, they’re often confused.

Are there any questions or tips you can add to this list? Feel free to add them in the comments.

November 13, 2012

Procrastination & the PhD – James Dennis

GUEST POST: University of London

James Dennis (@dennisdcfc) is a second-year PhD student based at the New Political Communication Unit at Royalphoto.jpg Holloway, University of London. His research aims to explore the effect of routine social media use on political engagement. Outside of his PhD James gets distracted by vinyl records, basketball, and the perennial life-destroyer that is Football Manager. For more information on his research visit his research website

Managing your time as a PhD student can be exhausting. As part of the PhD process students often find themselves swamped with a number of time-consuming tasks. Since the start of this academic year my juggling act has included redrafts on my literature review, a number of research skills workshops, preparations for conference presentations, teaching commitments, and external research. Often you’re doing these tasks for the first time and the learning curve only accentuates the pressure. Even for those who are blessed by a productive nature and excellent time management skills, the workload can be a strain. This is acutely felt by those who 'suffer' from a near-universal condition,procrastination. Given the personal freedoms associated with managing your own research and the often harmful working habits contracted during undergraduate study, completing the bare minimum can be a constant struggle. Do not fear though, help is at hand.

Managing online distractions

The Internet is far-and-above my biggest vice. I can easily waste an entire afternoon contemplating a friend’s latest tirade on Facebook or tweaking my fantasy football team. The ideal solution is to disconnect completely. However, this is increasingly difficult given the rich array of resources online and the move to cloud based services. Instead turn off those services that sidetrack you the most. Block email, IM, and social media notifications and revoke access to those pesky sites, like the Daily Mail gossip column (or so I hear…). This article offers an overview of simple tools for this purpose. Personally I use two browsers, FireFox with 'Leechblock' for work, and Chrome for play.

SMART Targets

Procrastination often comes from poorly crafted planning. Throwing yourself into your PhD without some kind of structure can be overwhelming and can trigger procrastination as means of distraction, which only worsens PhD anxiety. Specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-specific targets can help break down the colossal beast into something much more manageable. Try adopting a timetabled daily or weekly plan and prioritise the tasks that need to be completed. Make sure they are realistic targets. Failing to meet a set of unfeasible goals only heightens negative feelings which are the breeding ground for those comforting time-wasters.

A clear, organised, and efficient workspace

Your working environment needs just as much structure as your work itself. Clear the stacks of papers and books cluttering your desk. They can form an intimidating obstruction to productivity. The same applies for your virtual workspace. By reducing the time it takes to search and find the document you need, you will diminish the likelihood of becoming distracted. Try using Evernote, a note storage tool you can access from any device with access to the web. The in built search and tag functionality makes finding the relevant work a breeze. For those who prefer a pen and paper try the 'Page Camera'[1][function to convert your handwritten notes into digitally-optimised images. Finally if, like me, you enjoy working in a communal office space but need to send a signal to your colleagues that now is not the time to discuss the shocking revelations on last night’s Eastenders, then don a set of headphones. Even if the euphonious sounds of Slipknot aren’t your idea of a relaxing working environment, headphones without music still display a resolute 'do-not-disturb' vibe.

'All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy'

I quickly learnt that pushing yourself too hard can be an isolating and unproductive experience. The key to productivity is a positive state of mind. As with anything in life, you will encounter peaks and troughs during the PhD process. During those periods of dejection it is all too easy to think that the solution is a dose of hardcore, isolated study. As a result you can quickly find yourself staring longingly at a blank page hopelessly willing for some divine inspiration. This can manifest itself in all sorts of unpleasantries. It is therefore essential to embrace procrastination within your schedule, as the time you enjoying wasting isn't wasted at all. Long days in the library slaving away over your PhD should always be rewarded. Go out with friends and have a beer. Spend some quality time with your favourite TV show. Load up Football Manager and weep uncontrollably as Jeff Hendrick requests a transfer away from your beloved Derby County. The key is to ensure a healthy PhD-life balance.

Feel free to chime in the comments on your best strategies for avoiding procrastination.

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