the other problem with research social networks

This is a guest post from Jonathan Downie,currently an independent researcher in interpreting. He recently finished a PhD at Heriot-Watt University. Jonathan tweets as @jonathanddownie.  He has also just published Being a successful interpreter ( Routledge 2016)

It’s amazing how the site that was an incredible tool for you during your PhD can turn into a thorn in your side after. While I was still poring over chapters and spending hours with data in the office, academic social networks like and Researchgate were my best friends. There I could download the latest research, scope out those who might scoop me and grab pre-print copies of papers that would be a pain to get otherwise. Nowadays, I am less of a fan.

There are few things more discouraging for someone between PhD and first post-doc than the incessant beep of emails telling me how many papers everyone else is publishing. Sure, I am happy for them, but is there any need to find out that seemingly every other researcher in my field is publishing perfect papers, while I dig my way through the one that needs written but seems to be trapped under a very heavy writer’s block?

Going by my daily emails, it would seem that some scholars are writing as many papers each week as there are people reading my papers. How can that be? Are there some fields where you can spit out a paper every week or so and others, like my own field, where the data analysis alone can keep you awake for a month?


Okay, okay, it isn’t quite like that, but to new researchers it can certainly feel like it. The pressure to publish doesn’t diminish after the PhD. In fact it gets worse. Suddenly, you need to balance earning money with wrangling data, and networking with literature reviews.

The problem with research social networks is therefore much the same as social networks in general: people only tend to tell the world about the good bits. In his book, “Crash the Chatterbox”, Steven Furtick talks about how, when we regularly use social media, we can end up comparing our real-life with someone else’s highlight reel. Who instagrams all the rejection notices they get from journals? Who posts the papers the reviewers hated on researchgate? Which site contains the unedited scrawl of academics trying their hardest to fit complex arguments into eight thousand words, without simplifying anything?

If you take your daily or weekly updates at face value, everyone in your field is doing better than you. Start thinking that way and your old friend, imposter syndrome, will arrive for a piggy back. The truth is that no one is writing a high quality paper every week but if you follow enough other researchers, the odds are good that someone will have published something while you were on holiday or changing nappies.

Big deal! All those new papers are going to do is give you more fodder for your next masterpiece. Celebrate the fact that knowledge is expanding and you have one less problem to solve. Once we understand that no one writes papers effortlessly, not even Pat Thomson or Inger Mewburn, we can gain a much healthier sense of progress and our own abilities.

No one finds academic writing easier than tying their shoes. And hardly any papers survive the journal process without any suggested edits. If they do, we might want to start having concerns about the quality of the work done by the journal. The whole point of peer reviewing is to make sure that the paper that gets published is as rigourous and strong as possible. 99.9 times out of 100, that means more work.

There is another side to this story, however. If you are on twitter, you might have seen the funny and brutally stories that were tagged with #overlyhonestmethods. While none of us might want to publicly agree with the kinds of decisions people admitted making, the truth is that we are often too quick to try to present perfection. Research sometimes sucks and there is no point in pretending it is always easy. Hence why phdcomics and the likes have been so enduringly popular.

Perhaps there should be a space on research social media sites for the projects that didn’t get funded and for the papers that got flat out rejected. I am sure scholars of all levels of experience had them and one of the most powerful moments of my PhD was being allowed to see the comments that an experienced academic got on a paper he submitted to a top journal. Once you know that your experience is pretty normal, it is much easier to swallow.

The same goes for publishing. If you have been through the academic publishing process, you will know that it isn’t all about writing perfect paper after perfect paper. There is hard work to be done at every step in the process and the elation of seeing your paper in print is simply the end of a very long and arduous chain of events.

So the next time you get those cheery emails telling you how many of your colleagues have published, take a moment to drop them an email to congratulate them and, if it is useful, have a look over their work. Soon enough, it will be your work appearing on someone else’s email. Until then, let’s remember that the world is nowhere near as simple as it seems on social media. It’s only the highlight reel after all.


Photcredit: Ornickarr Greenbarrow

Posted in early career researchers, imposter syndrome, Jonathan Downie, publishing, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

writing thesis chapters? beware ‘blocky’ writing

It’s very common to read academic texts, particularly thesis chapters, which present themselves to the reader as a series of blocks of stuff. Each big block of stuff may well be divided up into smaller sub-headed blocks.

This is not ideal.  Blocks can be a real problem for readers.

When supervisors read chapters that are blocks of material they often suggest that the text lacks flow, or it doesn’t yet have an argument, or it is incoherent. They may suggest that the blocks don’t connect sufficiently to the actual research that the writer is doing. In saying this, the supervisor is pointing to the fact that the chapter lacks a narrative ‘thread’. They cannot find a coherent line of argument, all the way through, from start to finish.

Sometimes the supervisor might suggest – or you decide for yourself – that the answer to the flow and transition problem is to add in more signposting. Alas. This is often not the best move. Simply saying In the last section I did this and now Im going to do that isn’t going to fix the block problem.  Nor is occasional sentence which says this means x for my research. The solution is not to add in a few things, but rather to step back to look at how the narrative needs to go. It is the overall narrative – and in most cases this is an argument – that creates coherence.

Using a backward mapping or reverse outline as a diagnostic strategy will clearly show whether you have a blocky writing problem. The strategy requires you to look at all of your topic sentences to see if they form a cohesive narrative. (Racheal @explorestyle has a very concise description of how to reverse outline.) Once you have your sentences you can clearly see the problem and begin to sort out how to rewrite.

But it is better to get coherence sorted at the start, rather than fixing up the blockiness as a retro-fit. How to avoid the big blocky revision? How to focus on the narrative at the outset?

One strategy is to use an outline. But blocky writing is often the result of an outline made up of bullets and chunks of material – ideas from the literature, quotations, bits of data analysis. The answer is that, rather than make your outline developed as amplified bullet points, develop your outline as a sequence of sentences.

Let me illustrate the difference. A block outline might look like this.

5644838033_8890fc2219_bMethods chapter:

  1. Action research
  2. Cycle One
  3. Reflection and use of diaries
  4. Cycle Two
  5. Analysis
  6. Ethics

This is a list of content. It isn’t a narrative or an argument.

What often happens next is that people take each of these points and then add in key content. So 1. in the outline above might become:

  1. Action research
  • Difference from other research
  • Three traditions
  • Cycles
  • Reflection and data analysis.

When the writer comes to writing from the block outline, they write about each of these sub-points, adding in the required detail.

6086229920_4dc2e1a941_bAnd what most often happens is that this ends up reading as blocks of stuff.

What’s more, it usually ends up reading like a a methods essay about action research than anything that is related to the actual project at hand. There might be a sentence or two here or there which connects the blocks of stuff to the research ( the add-in connection) , but the overall narrative is not about the particular research.

Outline planning in sentences looks different.  The example above could go something like this.

  1. This research uses action research because:
  • We wanted to research and manage the change at the same time, we can’t afford a lengthy failed experiment
  • We needed an emergent design so we could adjust what we were doing as we went along, hence AR
  • We looked at three types of action research. 
  • We are doing participatory research.
  • We opted for PAR because it allows many people to do the planning and data analysis; this creates ownership, spreads the learning
  • We have used three PAR cycles
  • We have used diaries and discussion for reflection and thematic analysis of artefacts and interviews.

These sentences position the writer and the writing at the start to talk about action research and their research at the same time. The sentences allow a discussion of action research, its traditions, debates and practice in relation to their research and the specific process they used.

Using the sentences as a guide means that the writer organises their material around the narrative ‘red thread’ not an abstract discussion. They don’t need to make a special effort to add in a bit here or there to make a connection with their project, that’s built in. They won’t need to add in a huge amount of signposting at the start of the section or at various points through the text, because they can make the purpose of the section clear through the actual narrative.

But you don’t need to do all this I hear you say? Well of course. You can just use bullet points and bits of material and write a narrative with a clear read thread. Experienced academic writers do this all the time without even thinking about it. However, not everyone does or can. The presence of blocky writing attests to the fact that many people find it tricky moving from accumulating their various bits of stuff to taking charge of the material and telling the story of their research.

And some people are bound to feel that writing in baby sentences – as in the example above – is a bit silly. Demeaning even. So an alternative is to write a chapter abstract at the outset, so that you begin writing from bullets knowing the narrative thread that you have carry through the chapter.

Outline planning in sentences  isn’t a strategy that is universal for all writers, all of the time, for all kinds of projects. But it can be very useful for people who haven’t yet worked out how to write in something other than blocks. Outline planning in sentences is a strategy  that you might try if you get feedback (or you see in your own writing) the presence of blocks of content, held together by the intrusive glue of excessive signposting and self conscious connections to your research.

It might even just be interesting to have a go and see whether and how using sentence outlines helps you work out what you really are trying to say, before you write screeds.

(And one final note: Yes, there are exceptions to the ‘red thread’ approach. People who are deliberately writing montage, for example, won’t do this kind of planning – or writing. They use a different kind of planning, planning which focuses on the aesthetics of juxtapositions and counterpoint. And their end result won’t read like blocky writing either.)

Posted in backward mapping, blocky writing, chapter, outline by sentences, planning, planning a paper | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

can you do too much reading?

I’ve just reviewed four papers. Because the authors didn’t know their field(s) well enough, they were unable to convince me that their paper made a contribution to the journal conversation. All of the papers suffered, in my view, from their authors not having done enough reading.

But while it is easy to see who someone hasn’t read enough, it’s much harder to draw a line and say when enough is enough. What counts as ‘enough’ reading? And can you simply read too much? And can you read too much at the start of your PhD?


In my writing workshops and courses I am often told about how bad a lot of early reading makes people feel… for instance…

  • Inadequate – engagement with other people’s work can leave the beginning researcher feeling depowered and depressed, unsure if they will ever be able to meet the same eloquent standards. Or…
  • Vaguely resentful –  too much immersion in dense and stodgy texts numbs the beginning researcher to the possibility that academic writing can be anything other than dire.

Conversation with peers and with supervisors is important if reading leaves you feeling like this. IMHO, reading ought to be interesting most of the time, if not actually pleasurable. But this doesn’t really answer the ‘enough’ question. Even if you feel good about the reading, can you actually overdo it?

Not everyone agrees that researchers should automatically do intensive and extensive reading at the start of a project. The sociologist Robert Merton argued that there was a tension between erudition and originality. It might be possible, he suggested, that originality and creativity could be diminished if a researcher was ‘infected’ by other people’s thinking. Following Merton’s line of reasoning might lead us to think that reading a lot at the start of a research project is counter-productive. We might assume that reading prevents us from sorting out our own ideas. Advocates of this line of thought might prefer then a kind of initial intellectual celibacy,  a period when the researcher works solely on their own assumptions and prior knowledge in order to sort out their own position. Then, and only then, do they take on the ideas and work of others.

Others – for example Harry Wolcott, who often said he’d rather write than read  – do hold that reading should come later in a research project. Engage with the literatures when you have concrete data you are trying to make sense of, they say. That’s the point at which you are trying to work out which line of analysis and argument to take. The point where you need to say whether you are adding to, contradicting, talking back to, finding problems with or finessing the work that others have already done. The point the authors of the papers I was reviewing seem to have skipped.

But it now seems axiomatic that doctoral researchers start by reading. It is interesting that institutions generally expect doctoral researchers to produce a well-worked out proposal for formal approval before they go on to field work. The proposal is largely a review of literatures and a research design and plan. (This proposal  process is as much about risk management as it is anything else – the proposal approval process is meant to identify those people who will struggle to complete a doctorate. How well this works is a question that I don’t want to canvass here). So these kinds of institutional requirements assume that reading a lot before beginning the research is an unproblematically good thing, rather than something about which there has been, even if there isn’t now, some debate.

It may well be that institutions and we supervisors need to do more about addressing the potential down-sides of reading a lot. Perhaps we need to stress rather more the importance of working – at the same time as reading – on progressing your own thinking about the actual research. Maybe we should really hammer home that the reading is for good reasons, not simply because it’s expected.

I guess it’s clear that I opt for early reading, rather than taking the non-reading position. However, I do think that there are risks attached to reading too much. There’s a point at which reading becomes an end in itself. An endless pursuit of something more, something   indefinable, a magic bullet leading to a new line of thinking. There is certainly a point at which doctoral researchers – indeed any of us – need to step away from the desk and get on with our own thinking.

Reading ought not to contaminate our thinking, but rather enhance it. Writing about what we are reading, as we are reading it, and writing about our reading in relation to our project, can go a long way to helping us sort out our own ideas, bouncing off the texts in our field. The literatures do have things to offer, providing we can deal with feelings of being inadequate, and don’t fall capture to the notion that all the texts are the gold standard of and for academic communication. Finding ideas for topics, refining our project, locating tools that we can use in our own research and locating prior work that we can build on – these are all in our reading. And these kinds of ‘tools’ are not only helpful in early doctoral work, but at the start of any research project.

But none of this ought to be at the expense of developing our own ideas and our project. If the reading is getting in the way, rather than assisting, or if it’s substituting for our own thinking, then maybe this is the enough already.

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starting the #phd – searching the field

A completed PhD is not simply the result of getting a piece of research and a thesis done.  Getting these two big things done requires that you first of all need to get to know your field, or fields. And getting to know your field means that, at the very beginning of the doctoral process, you have to find out how it developed, its key figures, its debates and texts, as well as what’s expected of people working in it. You also need to know the edges of the field and where the new work is happening. You also hope to get a sense of where the field needs to go.

And in order to do the required intellectual work on your field, you need to know how to search. University libraries routinely offer sessions on how to conduct a literature search. Sometimes, these sessions include the kinds of searching that academics routinely now do – and sometimes they don’t.

I’ve been thinking about all this because I’ve been teaching about working with literatures again. I’ve compared notes with some of my colleagues about how they start researching a new field and what they advise for people just starting out.

6292448083_ea935f5015_bHere’s a few of their/our core searching strategies.

  • Find someone in your university who knows the field and ask them for three key things you should read. You can then follow their writers, the journals in which they publish and their reference lists – working outwards from this small starting point to include more people and papers.
  • Find someone in your university who knows the field and ask for names of the key scholars in the field. As with (1) this provides an initial lead to books and papers, journals and debates. You can also check out whether these recommended folk have open access publications on their own academia or researchgate pages; you can also see their most cited work (and their h index ‘rating’, a somewhat dodgy measure) on googlescholar citations.

Doctoral researchers should expect their supervisors to help with (1) and (2).  Specialist subject librarians can point you to key journals and books. You can collect references from conference papers too, and it is particularly helpful if you attend a conference early on and get to see some influential people in your field. An additional and often very helpful approach is to ask social media for suggestions on who or what to read.

  • Find an international handbook, introductory text, state of the field commentary, or an introduction for dummies. Look for the key field contributors, arguments and texts and then go find the original works. Sometimes Wikipedia can be very helpful, but the entries are quite variable in their approach and quality.
  • Use key word searches on google scholar. Yes, I know some people are sniffy about google scholar but lots of us use it and some of us aren’t afraid to say so in public. Google scholar is a helpful resource because it not only provides links to papers and books, but also the papers and books that cite the paper you’ve landed on. The trouble is that googlescholar also produces a lot of stuff that isn’t relevant. You do need to pick only those few – yes few – that seem immediately most relevant, the ones that jump out and say me, me, me. Ordinary old google searches often produce a list of two or three ‘most read’ texts and these can be a helpful lead too. But be aware that different key words produce different sets of papers – so it is worth trying more than one key word search in order to get the most obvious list. Googlebooks searches and even searches of major online publishers can be helpful too – the online book publishers often list by ‘most popular’, and the books at the top of these lists can provide you with starting points.
  • 6292451889_4869386a52_bGo to a major journal publisher’s site and either look for the most obvious journal that addresses your field, or use key word searches. Use the journal page to see the ‘most cited’ and ‘most read’ papers – these lists says something about the centrality of the issue/writer/paper to the field. Check to see if the publisher has any ‘virtual issues’ in the field you’re searching. And conduct key word searches as before – again checking for ‘most read’ and ‘most cited’.

You can see that there is a hierarchy in my list above – it starts with finding people who know  – and then and only then moves onto strategies which use the power of algorithms to produce a list you can select from.

However, when you get to  (4) and (5) on my list you end up generating a lot more stuff than is actually relevant. So you need to be very discriminating. You need to focus on narrowing down big lists – that’s why looking for things that are cited a lot, and choosing only a few of the most obvious texts as lead–ins to the field may be the best early strategy.

It’s a good practice to take your early lists of possible texts to your supervisor. Ask if any of the things you’ve located are more important than others, and why. You will then not only get a clear steer on what to read and in what order, but also some further discussion of the field. While you don’t have to take your supervisor’s version of the field as fact, it is always useful to hear the ways in which more experienced scholars explain the field and its topography. Such discussions also help you to understand the perspective your supervisor will take on debates and your review.

As you get to know your field, your searching will become more sophisticated and discriminating. You’ll get much better at working out which processes will be useful and which won’t. You’ll develop a set of strategies that work for you.

And you never stop doing searches. Searching is a key academic practice. Whether you end up in or out of a university after your doctorate, getting to know the most central and useful papers and books in a field is a foundational step in any academic work.



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starting the #phd – selling up and leaving home

Many doctoral researchers choose to leave home to do their research in other countries. They do so for many reasons, and there are many different stories to tell about their experiences. This is only one, by Louisa Penfold. It first appeared on her blog. It seems appropriate to repost it now, at a time when the UK government is making increasingly inhospitable comments and moves towards all of we undesirable  ‘foreigners’. 

September marked one year since I arrived in England. Moving countries or cities is never easy but the process is broken down into such small steps that the change is not as overwhelming as it may seem to an outsider. The one thing I wish I had known before moving to England was how much I would love my work, studies and life here. Doing so has opened an expanding world of possibilities and connections, many of which I never knew existed.

The decision to do my PhD was bundled up in a handful of other life decisions, none of which were particularly easy to make. There were tears, long philosophical conversations with family and friends and many bottles of wine involved. To be honest, it was possibly the hardest set of decisions I have ever had to make. It was hard because I knew deep down how desperately I wanted it and how not doing it would require putting my soul into a box.

It all came from left of field. I had thought about doing a PhD but had never found the right opportunity. I could have easily continued doing children’s community art work in regional Australia. There were many aspects of my job that I truly loved and believed in. But there was also a continuous niggling feeling inside of me that knew there was a bigger place for learner-centred gallery practice and continuously felt frustrated at seeing the low status of children within many cultural institutions. After the initial proposal was made to me, it took about eight months of deliberating until I made the decision within myself that I would do it. I then set about refining my research topic and making plans. I knew that I wanted to explore child-centred education in practice and not just as an intellectual concept. I always enjoyed art history and theory-based university subjects but none of them made my tummy flip in the way that making art and making creative spaces did. So it was decided: child-centred education, in art galleries and in practice.

3813934377_b40fb8e2e5_bThen there were the finances. Not being a UK/EU citizen made me ineligible for any AHRC funding and the Australian government does not give out student loans to people studying abroad. The only financial option for me was to be awarded scholarships and grants. Miraculously I was awarded four all around the same time that covered my tuition fees and first two years of living expenses. Without these, my PhD simply would not have been possible. Just before I left Australia I sold the majority of my belongings. I gave my precious books and artworks to family and friends who have promised to give them back ‘when I grow up and have a home.’ I never cared too much about material things and it does not bother me that I no longer own any furniture, car or major assets. When people ask me where home is I don’t know what to reply. I have moved so many times and am continuously travelling. The idea of ‘home’ is never stable.

Starting out I set myself two goals: to submit within three years and to not get depressed and stressed out. So far so good. I had heard the horror stories of PhD supervisor and fieldwork gone horribly wrong. I guess the PhD candidate-supervisor relationship is so individual it is difficult to transfer one person’s experience onto another’s. I feel guilty writing this knowing I have friends going through supervisor hell but mine are fantastic. I am glad I moved here for them.

Of course there have been times when things have not been so rosy. The difficult thing about living abroad is that your heart continuously feels like it is being pulled in opposite directions by completely different things. Of course I miss my family back home. My two brothers and I live across three different continents. That sucks because I love them so much and no-one makes me laugh like them. But being in England is so professionally fulfilling. I absolutely made the right decision to come here even considering all of the trials, tribulations and sacrifices it involved.

This summer I spent two months in the Netherlands and the South of France. During this time I cringed every time I thought of returning to England, despite the love for my research. Yet something must have shifted in me during this time as when I stepped off the plane back in London the cold weather and (sometimes) cold interactions did not feel like such a struggle anymore. I am now in the midst of my fieldwork, which is all going extremely well. I am living in another new city and working with a fantastic team. Ideas are coming alive and growing in unexpected and interesting ways. I am excited for what is to come!


Photocredit: Flickrcommons: crazyvet

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doing field work? don’t ignore the anecdote

Anecdote. It’s the worst thing that someone can say about your research, right. This is an anecdote – it’s not “evidence”. Well, there’s a lot of ways to deal with that objection, and I want to offer only one here. And this is it – when we use anecdote in research, it’s as an integral part of the research… it’s not ALL of the research nor is it the END of the research. It’s simply A STEP in the research, and it’s very often a beginning point.

Let me explain.

An anecdote is a story, usually a short one. And it’s generally written as it was experienced – as a slice of life, a verbal version of a scene from a research cinema verite film. An anecdote is always written from a particular point of view – the person whose experience is being described, or the perspective of someone who saw an event happen. Key elements of the anecdote are:

  1. it’s a short and straightforward story
  2. it usually relates to one incident or event
  3. it focuses on one central idea
  4. it includes key, concrete detail
  5. it may contain quotes
  6. it closes quickly after the climax
  7. it requires some kind of punch line, or a snappy or whimsical ending, to make a point, and to make the story stick with the reader. (Van Manen, 1989)

Anecdotes often arise from field work. They are the things that we talk about immediately, and the things that stick with us for reasons that may not seem clear at the time. As Ely, Vinz and colleagues put it

Each researcher has one story or even several that burn to be told. We know it when we live it, when we come home literally chomping at the bit to write it or to call a colleague and share the core of a story that keeps hounding at us to be told and told again. You know these anecdotes when they resonate for you: you’re taken by it; you talk to yourself about it. Dream it. If it has happened to you, you’ll know what we mean. This is why anecdote should be among the first narrative forms to write – a bellwhether to reveal insight, something to hold onto and play out in many possible forms and venues. (Ely, Vinz et al p. 69)

These kinds of sticky research anecdotes contain a nugget of something that is worth digging out. They stick with us for a reason. We often find a Eureka moment as we write and craft them.  

Once written, we can ask questions of an anecdote, opening out what it might have to say to our research. Staying with an anecdote and working with it often allows us to locate an idea that otherwise might have slipped past. The anecdote might be a kind of metaphor which encapsulates several key themes in our data. Or it might provide a possible direction for further analysis, something we can tinker with, in ever more detail, as we get deeper into field work and/or analysis. An anecdote doesn’t provide answers, it offers a particular and specific entrée into critical thinking, and into a conversation with our data.

You can write anecdotes at any stage of field work. I certainly do. You don’t have to wait till the end. If you write anecdotes as you go along, they become part of your research field notes – or whatever process you are using to keep track of your thinking during the research. You can revisit anecdotes at any time, they help you to reflect on the place and significance of events, interactions, relationships, practices.

Ely, Vinz and colleagues suggest that it’s helpful to critically examine the anecdotes that we write, assessing their value for the research. They offer this question –

Do the anecdotes I write give me a clearer focus on the essential core of my research and help me see more clearly aspects of the work in which I am engaged?


Anecdotes are often used in final texts too. They capture a reader’s attention. But they are not simply inserted into a text to entertain. An adroitly chosen and well written anecdote can help readers to see layers of meaning – in just the same ways that the anecdote worked initially for us in the research process.

The anecdote below for instance, written from my personal experience and as part of an ethnography of learning in art museums, requires more from both the reader and me as the writer…

In May 2014, my partner and I visited the Musee Reattu in Arles, Provence. The exhibition at the time was devoted to clouds – the show was entitled Nuage – and it occupied the entire building. One large room, about half way around, was filled with cloud-shaped helium balloons. A not entirely unexpected contribution. We were walking a little behind two conservatively dressed elderly French couples. We had been following them for some time, losing sight of them as we stopped at particular works, then catching them up again. They walked at a regular pace through the allotted route, keeping the appropriate museum-like silence. As they reached the doorway which marked the end of the balloon room, one of the women turned. Kicking off her shoes, she tiptoed into the middle of the room and began, slowly at first, to throw the balloons up in the air. As more and more balloons became airborne she threw faster until the whole room was filled with floating silver pretend-clouds. She didn’t see her companions turn away and leave the room; we were close enough to see their startled and embarrassed expressions. We stayed for ten minutes watching her and what had become a veritable whirl, a single air-movement-swirl-cloud. She showed no signs of stopping when we also moved on.

This anecdote foreshadows an argument to come. Perhaps it’s already obvious to you where I took it… but there are more than one set of possible lines of further narrative contained within this single, small event. How I actually played out the argument depended on the rest of my analysis.

Like other narrative forms, anecdotes can focus or switch the readers’ attention, provoke responses, raise questions, disrupt what might have seemed like a straightforward and unproblematic analysis, offer alternative perspectives. A great anecdote can “touch, move or teach us” (Ely et al, p. 70).  It’s the brevity and immediacy of the anecdote that makes them memorable. And if they have a sting in their tail/tale, this helps the reader to remember the analysis and argument that follows.

So  – you can write narratives at any time in the research process. They are worth playing with during your research, even if they never appear in your final text. They are often the key to something important, an insight we might not have had if we thought of the anecdote as something only good for a chat over a coffee, or a laugh at the pub.

Write the anecdote –  then ask it what it is trying to show you.


Ely, M., Vinz, R., Downing, M., & Anzul, M. (Eds.). (1997). On writing qualitative research. Living by words. London: Falmer.

Van Manen, M. (1989). By the light of anecdote. Phenomenology + Pedagogy (7) 232-253

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starting the phd – money matters

It’s rude to talk about money. Indelicate. Unseemly. Well, I’m about to break that unwritten rule. We don’t talk about money and the PhD nearly often enough, in my view.

Why? Well… because at some point during their candidature, some doctoral researchers find their financial situation extraordinarily difficult. They end up going back to their parental home, they live on spare beds in friends’ houses, they squat, they even temporarily occupy 24-hour university facilities. All of this is clearly a huge life problem, as well as making research and writing almost impossible.

Of course, these very difficult situations not every one’s experience. But they are related to generally low levels of scholarship funding, and the competition for temporary work – and these are beyond an individual doctoral researcher and their supervisors to change. They need more collective political attention – and that means talking about it.

But at an individual level, as you start out on the PhD, it’s as well that you consider the worst case financial scenario. What would you do if you run out of money? It’s also helpful to think how you might avoid such fiscal catastrophe.

You see, doing a PhD is very expensive, not only in time and emotional energy. It always takes more money han you think. Even in the most favourable circumstances, it is rare to find someone with a just-completed PhD who doesn’t have maxed out credit cards and some kind of debt to a partner or family, or to a financial institution. All of us have had to make hard decisions about how we will afford to do a PhD.


Because the financial circumstances of doctoral researchers varies, it’s almost impossible to make helpful generalisations about the kinds of money issues you need to consider. For instance, self-funded PhDs and those who have some teaching duties build into their stipends are caught in different kinds of trade-offs than the person who is simply relying on a scholarship.

But here’s a few issues that are important at the start.

You absolutely need to consider your personal expenses. Your rent/mortgage will probably go up during the time you are researching – your food costs certainly will. Travel to and from the university, and parking at it, may well be a significant expense. You may also need new clothes or shoes. ( How do you feel about thrift shops?) And there may be medical/dental/optical expenses. You may have to give up things too – the phone plan, gym membership and the like. If you are paying for child care or after school care, this is likely to be a rising cost. If you have children, are a sole provider and are trying to do the PhD, the potential costs are gi-normous.

You need to think about what is absolutely essential in your life.

And there’s some research related issues too:

  • You may need to buy a new computer, or get a new one as you begin the thesis writing stage. You may have to upgrade your internet, get a new phone…
  • You may need to buy particular equipment. It’s almost always better to have your own audio recorder for example than rely on borrowing one.
  • Your university will probably give you funding for conferences, but they may well expect you to pay this up front and then claim reimbursement. This assumes that you have enough ready funds and/or a functioning credit card. And funding rarely covers the conferences you don’t give a paper at, and usually doesn’t cover all of the costs of the ones where you do. This might sound trivial, but conference costs build up over the time of the PhD.
  • Libraries are great and inter library loans are crucial, but there are likely to be some books that you just want to buy for yourself. Second hand bookshops and conference discounted books become like second homes to most of us during our PhDs.
  • A scholarship may provide some funding for travel to your field work site(s), but this may well be insufficient – the allowance may not take account of the times you have to travel and their various locations.

The truth is that most people end up doing some paid work during their PhD. If they are lucky, this will be within higher education – teaching, research work, or perhaps some kind of administration. But they may well have to go back to the job they are trying to leave – working in temporary posts in nursing, school teaching, clerical work, tutoring and so on. Or they might end up working in a café, bar, parking station, supermarket or call centre just to make the rent and food bill.

It’s as well to think ahead to what you are prepared and able to do by way of work, in case the situation arises.

And let’s not mince words. It’s tough to do a PhD when you are also working at the same time, particularly if it’s shift work. It’s especially difficult to face the last stage of the PhD – writing – when you have serious money worries. It’s a time when you want to have a secure and stable environment so you can just focus on the task at hand.

So it’s as well, as you’re about to start the PhD, to sit down and think hard about money –  what you might need, and what you are able to put in place, for the last long haul. You do need to ask yourself whether doing a PhD is affordable and whether you need to change something about the way your life is organised to relieve potential financial pressures.

Most of us will tell you it’s worth it, but the PhD always costs a lot. Don’t brush those concerns under the proverbial carpet at the start. They won’t go away.


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