#litreview – getting to argument, part 2.

Writing about literatures doesn’t mean writing a summary of what you have read. You dont want a paragraph by paragraph laundry list of the texts you’ve been reading organised into a rough kind of order. Of course you write summaries as a means of making sense of your readings, but it’s not where you stop.

In writing about what other people have written you are: 

  • evaluating and interpreting, pulling out major points and
  • connecting these interpretations to your topic.

So what you are writing then is not a report, but an argument. You are saying how you work sits in the field and how the field informs your work. This is arguing a case. Your case. Your argument is based in what you think the literatures mean and how you have understood them. You must then not only establish where your research fits in relation to the topic, what you are building on but also what you might want to speak back to, or expand further. 

There are ways to make this writing task easier for yourself.

In the first part of this post I talked about developing three levels of themes from the data, and I showed how the three levels allowed you to structure a single piece of writing, a chapter, or establish where a global theme might fit as a section of a chapter.  Here’s a reminder.

So how to you get from that to the argument? You have the structure but is that enough?

One helpful strategy for making the argument is to go back to the basic themes. You”ll notice that I’ve written the themes as points, not as topics. Each theme expresses the sum of an interpretation of a body of texts. The themes, as Ive written them, are more like the reminder notes you might have if you are speaking in a debate. Each bullet signals the line you are going to take and the thing you want the reader/audience to remember.

Now, I often see people working with outlines when they write chapters. The outline that they use usually has headings and subheadings. The outline looks a lot like a table of contents. The outline lists the topics that are to be written about. It might look like this.

Now the risk of this topic-based approach is that it doesn’t actually tell you what you have to say. What is it that you need to say about wellbeing, or supervisor experience? What bit of agency are you going to write about?

Well, it’s not that you don’t know this. You have this all in your summaries of readings so you can go back and orient yourself. However, the temptation of a topic approach is that you simply to write summaries and/or you find it tricky to pull out the key thread that is most germane to your work. 

Outlines also support a tendency to write in little bites. First this topic, then that one. This kind of choppy writing is a characteristic of a lot of literatures writing and it’s one that makes it unnecessarily hard for readers – the struggle to put the bits together to follow the line of argument being made. 

Working with a topic outline is not the same as working with themes. 

Working with themes rather than topics allows you to do two important things – 

  • you have in front of you as you write, the point you want to make, the point that you are building on, the issue that is most important to your work, that you take up in your research design and/or analysis. So you have that in mind as you start to write. You know that this is the idea that holds these literature together and that you must both show and discuss. As a bonus, having the points of each basic theme clear also helps you to be more concise. 
  • you can see what is missing. If you look at the third element of this chunk on the doctoral experience you can see that these three things don’t appear to follow particularly logically from one another. It might be that there are some bits missing here, or I need to revisit my themes. Either way, focussing on the steps taken by the basic themes will allow me to see and get flow – a logical progression from one basic theme to another. 

Compare the two -points and themes – and see the difference. Imagine using both of them as the guide to your writing. I hope you can see the difference that a point might make.

Working with themes and not topics is a writing strategy. It isnt the final thing. You don’t necessarily want the reader to see all of your scaffolding in the final text. So, when you do write the final table of contents, you usually convert the themes to topics. This is something that you do on a second or third draft once you’ve got the sequence and flow of argument sorted out.

For a first draft, working with themes can really help. Give it a go yourself and see the difference it can make. 

Posted in academic writing, argument, literature review, literature themes | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Starting a part-time doctorate? Three top tips

This is a guest post by Dr @jonrainford. Jon works on the margins between academic and professional services. He is currently a freelance researcher and part-time lecturer, working with academics to develop their use of digital pedagogy

Doing a doctorate later in life is more likely to be a part-time affair. In the UK, the majority of the part-time postgraduate research students are over the age of 30. Despite 27,000 people undertaking this mode of study in the UK alone, it is less commonly addressed in guides to success in doctoral research. In this post I will share three things that ultimately had the greatest impact upon my timely completion.

I completed my part-time PhD, which examined widening participation policy and practices in England, in 2019. Over those five years I moved jobs twice (once as a result of redundancy) and a few months following completion lost my dad at the end of a three-year battle with Lung Cancer. Balancing employment and life challenges over a period that exceeds most full-time students creates the conditions for more of these life events to happen.  Therefore, despite every experience being different, it is likely that for most part-time PhD students, the doctoral journey will be paved with varied life challenges both personal and professional;  my own journey is not an exceptional one. 

Manage your project rather than it managing you

What sustained me though this period and kept me on a relatively steady course to completion was treating the process like a project to manage and doing exactly that. Whilst your journey may be different and some of my strategies might not work for you, planning and creating a structure to work to are likely to be invaluable. Even if you have a supervisor that understands the similarities and differences in challenges for part-time doctoral researchers, ultimately it is your project and taking control of it yourself is key. Your situation is unique to you and whist this will create specific challenges, what matters is working out what works for you and when. Understanding what you can do and when is important. You are likely to have discreet pockets of time to devote to your research and is important to understand how to maximise these. 

For me, early morning writing before work really allowed me to get into a flow. What I never cracked was editing before work, so I never planned to do this. Some days though, the writing did not flow. Rather than wasting this time, I always had a number of other tasks to flip to, such as a paper to read or some admin to catch up on. Thinking about the project in this way with a number of options helps you make progress even when you cannot write, or the pocket of time is too short for a specific task. You might also find that moving physical space can helped shift you into the right frame of mind. Coffee shops, trains, libraries and the garden all provided important spaces for focusing. It’s amazing how having a printed journal article or a chapter to edit and a finite train journey can really help focus you.

Build your own tribe

One of the challenges for me was feeling isolated. It was if no one around me understood the frustrations that come with the doctoral process. Some of you may be lucky enough to have a cohort of peers on the same journey as you. For those undertaking part-time PhDs in departments where there is little in the way of structured institutional support you might need to build your own networks. 

For me, twitter was invaluable in building and sustaining a network of peers. I also felt that adding face to face events to build these networks and sustain some of the connections really helped when the journey was more challenging. To do this, I targeted one or two key conferences per year. Whilst this can be a huge commitment for those without institutional funding, finding others with similar research interests or that have gone through the process ahead can make the difference in getting by or thriving. There are often discounted places or bursaries for students that can make conferences more manageable. Building networks also means that when you cannot make other events, there is a chance someone you know might be going, allowing you to get insights from them. 

Embrace your identity

The second key to success for me was understanding the real value of the part time doctorate. About a year into my project I realised the value the part-time structure offers to think through your ideas. Up to this point I often downplayed that I was “only” a part-time doctoral researcher and struggled to see how this was valuable in and of itself. Having to juggle a number of competing demands can hone project planning skills, time-management and the ability to prioritise tasks in a way that can pay dividends in your long-term success. Working in a related areas as a practitioner also enabled me to develop better understandings of my research, how to impact policy, practice and how to communicate with a wider audience than full-time study might have allowed me to do. Whilst your own situation might not present as close a link between your employment and research, the fact that you are juggling a major project under tight time-constraints in and of itself is something you should be ready to shout about on any job application – those skills are like gold dust in many organisations. 

There are many more tips and tricks you will develop on your journey that work for you. Sharing these within and beyond your networks on places such as twitter or a blog can help others benefit from your experiences.

Jon is keen to hear from other part-timers about their experiences and strategies so do contact him on twitter or via the comments section on this post.

Photo by alexey turenkov on Unsplash

Posted in 'mature' doctoral researcher, later on PhD, part time PhD, PhD | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

#LitReview – Getting to structure, part one

If you are about to start reading for your doctorate, or are already in the reading phase, then you know that you are reading in order to:

  1. refine your research question,
  2. locate your work in the field,
  3. identify your potential contribution, and
  4. find material that helps you to plan your research and analysis.

You may already know how all that reading will end up – you may have a chapter in the final text that presents your literature work, or you’ll weave the reading throughout the proposal and final thesis text.

You’ll notice that I’ve said your work on the literatures/reading. What is that work? Well, in addition to closely reading some key texts which are key to your research, you also need to read more widely in order to identity the key themes that relate to your topic (to do the four tasks outlined above). Yes. Themes.

And what do you do with reading themes? Here’s one way to deal with the themes you derive from your reading.

You will most likely work with three levels of themes. These are:

Basic themes – these come directly from the literatures that you are reading

Organising themes – basic themes are clustered together, and they collectively form a higher order idea. You assign a label – or category – to each higher order theme, a.k.a. organising idea.

Global theme – this is an overarching Big Idea which encapsulates an overall grouping of important and complex ideas and themes.

Let me give you an idea of how these three theme levels look. Imagine you are studying the doctoral experience. You have read a lot of stuff – books, blogs, papers. You have identified a number of basic themes. Each of these themes has a number of texts attached to it.

Once you have your basic themes, you can order them and then decide what higher order ideas they represent – organising themes.

And then finally, you can establish a global theme which brings together the organising themes, each one with their own set of basic themes.

You are likely to create more than one global theme in your literature work and they will either go into different chapters OR they will together form a stand-alone literatures chapter.

Once you have this kind of thematic pattern making work done, you are ready to move on to turning your hierarchy of themes into an argument. That’s Part Two of this mini-series.

Posted in academic writing, literature review, literature review structure, literature reviews, literature themes | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

dealing with rejection

This is a guest post from Dan Cleather. Dan is a strength coach, educator, scientist and anarchist. His latest book, “Subvert! A philosophical guide for the 21st century scientist”, was published in May.

Being an academic requires a thick skin. Very thick. Part of the job is dealing with a constant stream of rejections – on journal articles, grant applications, speaker applications, promotion requests… Rejection is always disappointing. However, over time we grow to understand that rejections often have little to do with the quality of the work. This helps us to protect our self-esteem – at least most of the time.

Experience is an important teacher in developing your thick skin. Once you have shepherded a few papers through a series of rejections and then ultimately into print, you can have confidence that your work is good, and put rejections down to editorial considerations or the vagaries of the peer review process.

But what if you are a student or an early career researcher? In this case you don’t have this experience, and each rejection can badly rock your self-confidence. I believe that rejections are a key factor in the growth of imposter syndrome in academia.

When one of my students first submits their work to an academic journal I always walk a weird tightrope in giving encouragement and managing expectations. On the one hand, I want to tell the student how good their work is. On the other, I need to prepare them for the fact that rejection is a very possible, and often likely, outcome. This post is the blog form of that conversation.

1. Appreciate The Statistics (Listen To The Horror Stories)

It is normal for excellent articles to get rejected. Some of the reasons for this are described later in this post. Everyone will have their own horror stories. Mine is that the first article from my PhD was rejected from 5 journals before I managed to get it accepted. It now has 41 citations.

It is also normal (but not right) for the peer review process to be a long, frustrating and unpredictable affair. One of the best students I ever worked with had to wait for 2 years to get her first article into print – it broke my heart, as the work was fantastic. One of my favourite articles took 16 months to get through peer review (at the same journal), and despite the fact that I think it is some of my best work it never gets cited.

Applying for grants is even worse. The process is highly competitive, and so a lot of good proposals don’t get funded. The image here is a summary of my own grant applications over the last 10 years. Weeks of work went into each of these failed applications. It is a story with a happy ending, but this is only because of a recent success.

The take home message here is that, in academia, everyone gets rejected, all the time. When you are starting out you need to fight hard to believe this. Rejections are always disappointing, but at least if you appreciate the statistics you can reassure yourself that they are normal. 

2. Understand Editorial Considerations

A key part of an editor’s role is to ensure that the content in their journal is of interest to their readers. Often, if you experience a desk rejection – that is your work is rejected without being sent out for review – it is because the editor has decided that your article is not appropriate for their journal, or they have other articles that they think their readers will find more interesting. Again, it needs to be emphasised that this has nothing to do with the quality of the work – you are unlikely to get an article about lung disease into a cardiac journal, no matter how good it is. Of course, you might disagree with the editor – you probably sent the article to the journal because you wanted to reach that specific audience. However, it is up to the editor to steer the direction of a journal – ultimately the articles published in a journal will largely reflect the editor’s tastes. If they don’t favour your work it is important to bear in mind that this is just one person’s opinion.

Another part of an editor’s role is to act as custodian of the journal’s status. Many editors will be interested in the impact factor of their journal – i.e. how many times the articles in the journal are cited by external sources. This is a pretty awful way of judging a journal’s quality, but unfortunately is part of the current academic environment. For this reason, some editors will also reject articles that they don’t think will garner lots of citations. Again, just because an article doesn’t get cited does not mean it is not a good piece of work. Similarly, it is pretty difficult to predict this (even if you wanted to), and editors get it wrong all the time. Of the articles I have been involved with, the most highly cited one with 59 citations, was rejected from at least two journals (as I remember) before it was accepted.

The point here is that the quality of the work is only one of a number of competing factors that are used in decision making – and sometimes not even the most important one. Many excellent articles are rejected (rightly or wrongly) based upon the editor’s prerogative. Often, success is predicated on getting your work in front of the right person, someone who knows enough about it to appreciate its importance.

3. Be Critical Of The Peer Review Process

Peer review is a notoriously fickle process, and it is helpful to a have a healthy scepticism as to its efficacy. However, many academics don’t, viewing peer review as a sacred cow that protects the integrity of the academic literature. This is demonstrably false – there are plenty of high profile examples that show that peer review often doesn’t even detect cases of academic misconduct.

There is evidence that supports the contention that peer review is a fickle process. For instance, one study showed that the rate of agreement between reviewers at the Journal of General Internal Medicine was little better than would be produced by chance. Similar findings have been found in the peer review of grant applications (e.g. in Australia and the US). Every reasonably experienced academic will be able to relate examples of conflicting peer reviews that they have received.

What is the point of peer review if it is such a random process? Well, in many cases, peer review will improve the quality of an article, and it does provide some (imperfect) form of quality control. However, from the point of view of this blog post, you should recognise that a positive or negative recommendation is to some degree a matter of chance, and that you shouldn’t invest too much of your self-esteem in an academic flip of the coin.

4. Recognise Reviewer 2

Reviewer 2 is the person who sticks their hand up at the end of a presentation and asks the presenter why they didn’t do the study in an entirely different way.

Peer review is supposed to be a critical evaluation of your work. Ironically, sometimes peer reviewers are horribly uncritical. In particular, when performing a peer review, you should judge the article on its own merits – not list a plethora of alternative things that could have been done.

Peer reviewers are human too. You are often dealing with competitors, who have their own egos, and may have conflicting ideas as to how research should be done. If it seems to you that a reviewer is being unreasonable, then they probably are – and that sucks. It may even result in a rejection. To protect your self-esteem you need to recognise when your work is being rejected by Reviewer 2, and again, not take it is a reflection of your ability.

5. Back Yourself

Peer review is a process that will tend to reward work that conforms with the status quo, but that will tend to penalise potentially transformative research that breaks the mould. Peer review processes that improve the overall standard of research also result in more exceptional work being rejected, and papers that challenge the status quo undergo more changes during peer review. This is possibly best illustrated by the number of Nobel prize winning studies that were initially rejected for publication.

Of course, if you receive a rejection you should consider the feedback carefully and try to learn from it. However, rejections should not make you feel that your ideas don’t have merit. The history of science is one of new ideas replacing old ones. Yes, we should expose our ideas to outside tests, and we should have the intellectual honesty to properly weigh up counter-arguments and consider that we might be wrong. However, if we believe that our ideas stand up to these tests, we need to have the confidence to back ourselves.

Where does this all leave us?

There is no doubt that rejection sucks. However, it is part and parcel of academic life. It is important that you are critical of the evaluative processes that are a part of academia, and that you don’t buy into them too fully. Celebrate the successes, but don’t pay too much attention to the rejections.

Posted in academic writing, peer review, rejection, research funding | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

revision – writing without protection

Academic writers need to let their readers know that they know what they are talking about. But feeling and talking like an expert is not easy – in fact, it’s often the exact opposite of how you think about yourself. So it’s helpful to be able to pick up the places in your writing where your text gives away your secret self-doubt.

Getting rid of self-abasing writing is a revision task. Put another way, moving from a first to a final draft is not simply about making the writing readable but also making the writing more authoritative.

One of the revision strategies you might consider is looking at your sentence beginnings. When we are writing crappy first drafts, lots of us write sentences that start something like:

What is really important is that…

It is crucial to note that…

Many readers will understand this to be…

We should not fail to see that…

It is vital to state that…

The major point here is that…

It is important to add here that…

Notice that ….

It might be argued that this is…

It is easy to ignore that…

I feel that…

These sentence beginnings often come immediately before a key point the writer wants to make. But the reader has to get through some superfluous verbiage before they get to it. And when they reach the point, its impact is dulled.

Of course, roundabout ways to start sentences are not wrong. But too many slow starts in a single text may leave the reader feeling uneasy. They may wonder – Perhaps the writer does not feel comfortable making their case? Perhaps the writer feels they need to have a bit of a warm-up before getting to the point? Perhaps the point is too point-ed for them?

Peter Elbow called the extra beginning words that come before the point protective scaffolding. The job of protective scaffolding is to support the writer get the text written. Protective scaffolding can be, Elbow suggests, a sign that an idea is not yet fully worked out. Yes, the point is too bald as it is and the reader does need some more information. Yes, the text does need to be more firmly stitched into the argument. Yes, the writer needs to remove the scaffolding and write more.

But protective scaffolding can also be there to protect the writer – a sort of textual disguise which takes the force and strength out of their point, says Elbow. Speaking with your hand over your mouth. Umming and aahing before stating the argument. Laughing before saying something terribly serious. Deflecting attention away from the speaker and their words.

Protective scaffolding is often used during drafting, as writers are still working out what they want to say and how to say it. But it may not be something that the writer wants to leave in their final text.

Elbow sees the use of protective scaffolding as a form of self-emasculation; the scaffolding erodes the authority of the writer, prevents the writing being too forceful, takes the punch out of it, deflects potential criticism before any exists. Removing the scaffolding does not necessarily mean that the argument falls down. Rather, the writer and what they stand for is revealed.

So take Elbow’s advice. When you are revising, first of all check where you have protective scaffolding in your sentence beginnings. Highlight them all, then ask yourself:

  • Does the idea that comes after the protective scaffold need more work?


  • Is my writing more authoritative and expert-like when I take away the scaffold and confidently state my point?

If the answer is (2) and you do feel like you have left yourself a bit exposed when the scaffold is removed, you still have the choice of adding more weight and evidence to the point. If that evidence is already there, then take a deep breath. Assume the position of authority. You go girl, just take up the persona of the assertive and knowledgeable writer. The reader will never know it feels a bit strange to you. They just read you as an academic writer who knows their stuff.

Adapted from Peter Elbow Writing without teachers. p 193-4

Photo by Yves Alarie on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, Peter Elbow, protective scaffolding, revision, revision strategy | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

running a tweetchat

updated tips for chats.jpg

During this difficult pandemic period, Anuja Cabraal and I have been hosting a weekly tweetchat on the #VirtuaNotViral hashtag. Now, a “twitter chat” is not a new thing and we are not the only people doing them. However, we’ve got interested in them as a particular type of social media interaction, and I’m using this post to do a bit of basic documentation and thinking in public about them. We are hoping that this might be the start of a paper about the tweetchat as a ‘thing’ (read this as maybe a genre?), so writing this post is also a bit of public accountability.

Here’s a few key points about tweetchats.

Location in time/space

  • Tweetchats use a consistent hashtag which signals their intention/mission/field. Tweetchats are often, but not always, linked to a bespoke twitter account with a clear focus and audience. Our #VirtualNotViral tweetchat focuses on providing support to doctoral and early career researchers and our audience are PhDers and those who work with them.
  • A tweetchat hashtag may alternatively be associated with either a personal or more general twitter account. This is the case for instance with Helen Kara’s #creativemethods tweetchat which she runs from her personal account. The chat topic comes from her ongoing interest in the use of creative methods in research.
  • Tweetchats are also often linked to a blog, website or publication. The chat may be one link in a chain of sites and activities. VirtualNotViral uses a common image across our website and twitter account so that it is possible to identify our “brand” and linked activity at a glance.
  • Twitter chats are generally scheduled at a regular time, day and frequency. They are a formal “event” and thus different from the normal chats that occur informally on twitter all of the time. Chats can be monthly, fortnightly or weekly. They could be daily of course, but this doesn’t seem to be the norm. Tweetchats start and end on time. The chat as predictable and routine helps to establish a community who participate regularly.
  • The down-side of the regular tweetchat is that it is synchronous and thus always excludes some people somewhere. ( Context doesn’t entirely collapse!)
  • Another downside is that you do need to have some kind of following somewhere to get a tweetchat going – but once the chat is happening regularly, then it tends to add to the community that already exists around the network and/or account(s).


  • Chat topics are generally advertised on twitter well in advance. Anuja and I use a VirtualNotViral postcard with a consistent design to advertise our chats. We schedule tweeting the card at different times during the week leading up to the chat.
  • Sometimes chat topics aren’t set, but open, and they depend on participants to take the conversation where they want. The open chat is more likely to happen when a tweetchat community is established.
  • Chats tend not to have rules, other than reminding people to use the hashtag whenever a post is made and being civil.
  • People who run tweetchats using their personal accounts often tweet before-hand that their account is likely to be busy for the next hour so that those who don’t want to chat can make a decision about what to do.


A tweetchat run by a single person, let’s call them the MC, generally introduces the chat – and topic if there is one – and asks chat participants to introduce themselves.

  • The MC of the open topic may simply wait for people to respond or begin with a few opening tweets to encourage responses. Their job is then to respond to comments and to keep the chat going by inserting a tweet or two if things seem to have gone silent.
  • The MC of the declared topic chat generally has a set of numbered questions which they introduce one by one. They will usually have these ready on a word document to cut and paste into tweets. The MC responds to each person who introduces themselves, as well as to the answers to questions. They keep track of any responses which haven’t used the hashtag and retweet them with the hashtag attached. They might also retweet some responses to encourage other people not yet following the hashtag to join in. Sometimes they provide a summary of the combined tweets to date. The MC may also decide to provide links to resources relevant to the topic.

Anuja and I run the #VirualNotViral tweetchat in much the same way. We usually have a guest. So there are three of us MCing. In negotiation with the guest, we set the style of the chat – this is either

  • where we ask the guest a couple of questions and then invite chat participants to ask questions and make comments, or
  • the guest asks chat participants a series of questions.

Anuja and my job is to introduce the guest and ask them a couple of preliminary questions. We also ask chat participants to introduce themselves. We take responsibility for responding to introductions, retweeting any replies that don’t have the hashtag and for reminding people of the time and hashtag. We also close off the chat with thanks to the guest and participant as well as advertising the next week’s chat.

We monitor the flow of chat and insert comments and questions if there seems to be a lull. We can, if the guest would like us to, number the questions that come in from chat participants so that the guest can work systematically through a list.

Anuja and I have our introduction and questions prepared on a word doc. on our desktops so we can simply cut and paste into tweets. We encourage our guests to prepare introductory comments too, as well as have some standby comments and resources to hand.

Tweetchats can get a bit fast and furious at times. Participants often start chatting with each other – this is great community building and networking and A Good Thing. But it can be hard for people to follow the threads of conversations. It is important for the MCs to try to create some coherence through numbering, threading, summaries, responses – and not to lose questions.

Anuja and I generally use Tweetdeck, so we can both use our personal accounts as well as both be on the VirtualNotViral twitter account. We are also talk backstage throughout the tweetchat – we use Whatsapp – and we work out which of us is doing what. (This is interesting in itself as Anuja is in  Australia and I am in England – so we are synchronously working across time zones and huge distances for an hour or so every week. ) Usually one of us takes responsibility for talking with the guest and the other responds to chat participants. I tend to think of this as analogous to talkback radio without the time delay – Anuja and I are sat in the outer studio, making sure things run smoothly, stay on track and there isn’t dead air time.


There is often a lot of useful information shared during tweetchats, information that is worth keeping. There are various ways to archive chats. Anuja is very good at making twitter moments; we advertise the links in the week following the chat, and put each link on a list on our website – they are here. Other people use sites such as Wakelet to store key tweets from a chat.

So that’s a preliminary account of tweetchatting.

We are keen to get beyond these organisational questions and consider the tweetchat more as a community building exercise. We would also like to understand how the tweetchat is used as part of a more general networked doctoral/supervision support experience.  

If you have any comments to make about your experiences of tweetchats please use the blog or VirtualNotViral twitter account – I moderate comments here so I can weed out spam. In other words, there might be a delay in comments being published, please don’t think there is anything wrong if they don’t appear straight away.


#VirtualNotViral tweet chats run every Monday at 9am BST and 6pm AEST.

Posted in academic writing, social media, tweetchat, twitter | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

the ‘later on’ PhD


It not unusual to think about the PhD as a seamless pathway from undergraduate to Grad School with maybe a Masters in between. But not all PhDers do go straight through. Many work, often for quite a long time, before they begin a doctorate. Some of these ’later-on’ doctorates are also undertaken part-time.

People who do doctorates after a significant period in work may well have come from a profession – think for instance of education, nursing, law, architecture, business, theology, engineering, journalism, art, music, medicine, social work. But there are also  ‘mature age’ (as they are called in some places)  PhDers rubbing shoulders with ‘straight through’ PhDers in other disciplines. And actually in some professional areas, such as my own, Education, it is pretty rare to see ‘straight through’ PhDers at all, even among full-timers. The vast majority of Education PhDers have had experience in the field.

These ‘later-on’ PhDers have, for whatever reason, decided that more study is for them. We don’t seem to have asked the later ons very often why they took on the PhD. But my guess is that a lot of people are strongly motivated to doctoral study for intrinsic reasons – it is something that they have always wanted to do, they haven’t had the time to pursue an idea, a puzzle, a possibility, before now. Some later ons may also be interested in a career change if the opportunity arises. Others may want to stay in their profession but work differently post PhD. A few may need a doctorate in order to get promoted. But what the professional usually wants from their PhD are systematic ways into core scholarly practices in research, and academic writing, rhetoric and argumentation, as well as immersion in the scholarship in their field.

Individual faculties/schools catering for lots of later-ons may recognise the value of their later ons’ work experiences, significant prior, applied knowledges and networks. Such faculties may even have particular ways of acknowledging and building on the later ons’ experiences, particularly in the design of the PhD research projects.

Let’s just pause for a minute to list a few of the things the professional brings. The professional arrives at their PhD with detailed in-depth current experience of practice, and a good idea about the kind of research that will make a difference in their field. They may well have sophisticated skills in argument – a lot of professional work involves making a case for something, gathering evidence, synthesising information, anticipating objections and difficulties. They are likely to be able to talk to a wide range of people, make connections, organise events and work in various teams and collaborations.  Depending on their work, they may have detailed knowledge of policy-making, have a long history of working in partnership with academics, know how to work with media and/or already be deep into some of the scholarly literatures in the field. They may also be risk takers, be independent, well-organised, self-motivated and resilient.

I’d put all of these things in my own audit of pre-PhD professional work knowledges and skills. Before starting a PhD I’d worked for twenty seven years in education as a headteacher and then as a senior civil servant, been involved in policymaking at state and national level, been spokesperson for headteachers as president of a professional association ( talking regularly on radio and tele) and written a lot of professional articles. I knew first hand about the realpolitik of schools and I certainly understood organisations and public policymaking. So I arrived at the PhD with a lot of ‘stuff’ relevant to partnership working, public engagement and impact. And I see similar knowledges, attributes and resources in the PhDers I work with, all but one of them with substantive work experience behind them, and some like me with a whole career’s worth.

The funds of knowledges that the ‘later-on’ PhDer brings are often unrecognised at institutional and policy level, where the model of the straight through persists. Take the current ESRC review of the social science PhD as an important and current example. The ESRC wants to find out if the skills taught in the PhD prepare graduates for careers within and beyond academia and they want to know the best ways to teach those skills. The ESRC intends to talk with PhDers about their experiences of training and employers about what they want from graduates.

This sounds reasonable, until I think about myself as a PhDer. As a senior civil servant, and with oversight of research in my job description, I would likely have been one of the people who was consulted about what we be expected from PhDers employed in our department. But what I was expected to know and thus asked about would have been dependent on timing – if I had already moved into a PhD I would likely be asked about my experiences of training. Not about what I understood of industry/professional work.

It’s important to note that I am not claiming exceptionality here. It’s the reverse. There are loads of later-on PhDs and they are on the increase. UKRI data from 2017 suggested that only 40% of social science PhDs are under 29. And 30% are over 40.  This suggests that at least 30% of social science PhDers are likely to be highly experienced and senior professionals choosing a later-on PhD. These PhDers not only bring a lot of knowledge with them, but by definition already have what employers need, recognise, recruit, promote and pay for.

Later on PhDers are pretty likely to already possess in spades, and do not need training, in what the Rapid Evidence Review undertaken for the ESRC says are needed in the workplace – A number of studies with social science graduates and employers suggest that skills in teamwork, communication, inter-disciplinarity, project management and leadership could be enhanced during doctoral training in order to better equip graduates for a career in the non-academic sector (p. 8).

The Rapid Evidence Review also states that when asked, employers don’t value the PhD as a qualification per se, but rather the skills that PhDers usually have, critical thinking and research skills.  But look at what’s missing here. What do universities value about what work experiences PhDers already have? My hunch is that universities generally don’t even ask about the work experiences of potential PhDers – although this may be the case for some disciplines.

My guess is that graduate schools don’t think a lot about what might be valuable in the professional and industry experiences of later on PhDers. How they might be built on. How they might be shared.  It is as if placements and collaborative schemes are the key to employability and careers. I suspect grad schools worry more about ‘later stage’ PhDers, as they are also called, looking for a career shift into academia. They worry about there being more supply than demand. That is a worry, but it’s not all that there is to be concerned about with the later on PhDer, and their experiences.

I speak to a lot of PhDers who feel as if their previous work history is actually seen as problem, that they are seen as deficient and ‘behind’ compared to ‘straight through’ peers. They fear they may be disadvantaged post PhD because of their age. (See here for one version of this sentiment.)

I am not the only one to see the lack of recognition of the later on PhD as a problem – see  here, here and here)

Failing to differentiate the different backgrounds of the PhD cohort really misses a trick. PhDers of any age are important and all have strengths and specific needs and goals. While they are not perhaps the majority of the overall PhD population, later on PhDers have important life and work experiences and funds of knowledge that they might share. They are a ready-made and on-hand resource. Training programmes might call, if not gleefully fall, on them. Graduate schools might pay their later on PhDers (who usually have mortgages and families to support) to co-design resources and programmes that ‘teach about’  beyond-academia work.

And yes, I know I can tell the ESRC all this. And I will. Maybe I’ll just cheekily send them this blog post. And hope they take note of the key point. The later on PhDer exists and in considerable numbers. They don’t have the same training needs as the straight through PhDer. They also may have different aspirations. What’s more, they should be considered assets, rather than aberrant. Later on PhDers are actually a potential resource for each other and their straight through peers.


A prickly post needs a prickly photo, this one by FloorTwelve on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, later on PhD, mature age PhD, part time PhD | Tagged , , , , | 17 Comments

how to start your literature review


Thinking of starting a doctorate? Already deep into PhDing and worried about the literature work?

Well, when it comes to working with literatures, the old saying that there’s more than one way to skin a cat might be ugly, but it contains an important truth.  There is no one best way to do the literature review.

But don’t despair. The lit review is not entirely unknown territory. There are three well-trodden literature pathways you can consider – a trio of ways to think about how to begin and get stuck into the initial reading, summarising, thematising, categorising, mapping. If you don’t want to invent your own process, then take a look at these.

  • begin with a short list – a set of recommendations about the key texts that you need to read. You need to get a short list from a supervisor, or someone you can trust, maybe someone who is working on the same kind of topic but is a year or so ahead of you. Once you have your list, your job is basically to find the key themes relevant to your work and locate the leads to other relevant texts.

Eventually you will get to the outer reaches of the field and draw the borders you need, but by then you will have a sold grasp of the texts that are most germane to your study.

  • begin with something that already offers an interpretation of the field, its history, key texts, themes and debates. You’ll get a head start from an encyclopaedia, an international handbook, an introductory text, a published literature review, or an idiot’s guide. You might even find a published thesis or research report which is relevant to your study. It’s helpful to understand that an existing review is not necessarily going to include the most relevant literature for your study, but you will likely find some leads to where you need to go to find them. You also need to hold any ready made view of the field up to some scrutiny as you go, as it is one (or a handful of) persons interpretation of the field – not yours. You need to know the field you’re working in, not someone else’s. Or if there’s more than one field, then you may also need to think about overlaps.

One modification of this approach is to get a Masters level reading list (again from someone you can trust) and make your way through it. I did this myself in my own PhD when I worked out I had to know something about geography – I bought a set of Open University text books and self-managed my way through three Masters modules.

  • begin with a big search using google docs or google scholar or an academic search engine. If you are doing a systematic review or a rapid evidence review you would start this way and you’d use academic search engines. If you’re not, and still want to start big, you might also use publishers’ journal websites to get going. The start-big approach benefits from you having pretty good speed-reading, as well as some clear selection criteria. These criteria might be about methods, as in the systematic review. Or you might decide on some specific questions based on your research topic – If I want to do this research, then I need to know about x, y, z, just for starters.

Key to the writ-large approach is the understanding that you are establishing the outer edges of the field, as well as the core texts, at the same time. So there is quite a lot of ongoing sorting to do as you go along, you’re thematising and classifying right from the get-go. Yes, get those postits and markers at the ready.

It’s also a great idea to team up with other people working on a similar topic. You can share references and texts. You can also form a reading group to tackle some of the more difficult texts together.

Writing with literatures? Well that’s another story.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash


Posted in academic writing, literature mapping, literature review, literature reviews, literature themes | Tagged , | Leave a comment

this, they, it, those, these – a revision strategy


One of my pet peeves is reading sentences which contain an ambiguous pronoun.  The pronoun stands alone, isolated. The lonely goatherd on the hilltop. Sentences that start with, or contain, an unattached this, they, it, those, these seem to expect the reader to just know what the this, they, it, those, and these refer to.

In reality, the singleton pronoun is screaming for some company. Without a noun, what we call the referent – the thing that the this, they, it, those and these refer to – the reader just has to guess what the writer means. The reader has to set up a bit of blind dating to get to the point.

Let me give you an example to clarify what I mean. Sometimes the lonely little pronoun this, they, it, those, these has to do the work of starting off a new sentence. As here:

Doctoral writing demands text work and identity work, patience, persistence and creativity. This is why it is often hard.

But this what? Doctoral writing? Text work and identity work, patience, persistence or creativity? Some of the above? All of above? Or is it the combination that is important? In which case write:

Doctoral writing demands text work and identity work, patience, persistence and creativity. This combination of time-limited practice, skills and habits often make it hard for new PhDers.

But hang on, what is it in the new second sentence? Here the solitary pronoun comes in the middle of a sentence, perhaps, as in this case, attempting to set the scene for the sentence or the paragraph to follow.

Doctoral writing demands text work and identity work, patience, persistence and creativity. This combination of time-limited practice, skills and habits means that new PhDers can have difficulty settling into their new programme. Because of this, supervisors and graduate schools need to provide a range of formal and informal support.

Oh dear, here we go again. What is this in Because of this? Does the writer mean supervisors need to attend to all of the issues listed or to the tricky combination, or both?

Doctoral writing demands text work and identity work, patience, persistence and creativity. This combination of time-limited practice, skills and habits means that new PhDers can have difficulty settling into their new programme. Because new PhDers may be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of new tasks and expectations, supervisors and graduate schools need to provide them with a range of formal and informal support.

Not fantastic writing I agree, but as it’s a draft, I get another chance to finesse the syntax.

But hang on a minute. What I’ve actually been forced to do, by getting rid of the ambiguous pronouns, is to get much more specific about what I actually mean. I had to specify what I meant by this, it and this (again). Having to sort out what the pronouns referred to compelled me to clarify that I was concerned about the combination and volume of simultaneous demands made of new PhDs. If I had stuck with the indeterminate pronouns, the reader would have had much less idea of what I was trying to say.

Using ambiguous pronouns is actually kinda sloppy. But sloppiness occurs for different reasons. Readers can interpret a writer’s use of vague pronouns as a lack of care. A reader might assume that if we don’t really spell out what we mean, and we just gesture towards something, that we assume the reader can figure it out for themselves. Not really what we want to communicate. But let’s assume that you are not cavalier about the reader and you really do want them to follow what you say. So think of the ambiguous this, they, it, those, these as a first step towards getting clear.

Writers very often use vague pronouns when they/we are speed writing and/or producing a first draft. The pronouns are a kind of shorthand for the-thought-we-don’t-have-time-to-develop. We are so focused on the big idea we can’t stop to build the finer details of our case. Locating this, they, it, those, these then becomes  important in working further on the text. Looking for the this, they, it, those, these which don’t refer to anything is one of the tasks needed in revision.

If you revise with a printout and a highlighter, then go through your draft text and mark every pronoun without a referent. Ask yourself what is the this, they, it, those, these I am referring to. Chances are you will find yourself not simply doing a proofing task where you correct grammar. Instead, you’ll be involved in refining your thinking – and you’ll be making your argument much more concise.

Watching out for this, they, it, those, these, an apparently small task, can do big work for making your writing clearer, better evidenced and thus more persuasive.


Photo by Mitchell Luo on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, grammar, revision, revision strategy, syntax, thesis revision, vagueness | Tagged , , , , , , | 11 Comments

“discussion” – it’s about moving forward


Discussion. It’s a word that immediately comes to mind when we think about communicating research. First we report the results, and then we discuss them. Discussion might be a separate thesis chapter just before the conclusion, or the end of a series of chapters each featuring a different key result, or the discussion might morph into a conclusion (as often happens in a PhD by publication).

Discussion is not a very helpful word. Its vagueness may be why many PhDers find discussion a hard chapter to write.

The word discussion can mean many things – its dictionary definition is often something like “a detailed treatment of a topic in speech or writing”. That actually doesn’t take us any further – what is meant here by treatment? Synonyms for discussion include argument, analysis and consideration. Perhaps these are slightly more helpful.

If you google “How do you write a discussion”, you get a lot of “Don’t be repetitive, Avoid using jargon. Be concise. Follow a logical thought process”, followed by “Identify patterns in the data, discuss whether your results met your expectations or supported your hypothesis, contextualise your findings within previous research and theory, and explain unexpected results and evaluate their significance”. This seems pretty helpful but it may still not be enough.

I’ve been thinking about how to provide additional advice about discussions and – well it’s hard. But I’ve come to think that one step might be to understand the point of discussion. If you get the purpose of academic discussion first of all, then you can begin to think about what needs to be covered.

The discussion is not a summary. There might be some summary involved at the start of a discussion if you are bringing some results or key themes together. But that is only the beginning. The discussion is not déjà vu. It must not simply repeat what has gone before. (See what I did there.)

The discussion has to move your analysis forward. The discussion has to establish what your results add up to. The discussion works from your specific research results to a bigger picture.

So here’s a metaphor that might help a bit. Your research is analogous to building your own car with some existing material and some new pieces. You have to carefully put the old and your new pieces together so that they amount to something substantial and innovative. Your research results establish the new pieces. The research discussion assembles the car, starts the engine and moves forward.

An academic discussion is thus where you do very particular work:

  • You keep hold of your results, but take a big step away. You move from your very specific results to however general you think you can be. You take a more distanced view.
  • As you take the step away, you also pick up the question you posed at the start of the research.
  • Then, you connect your research to the question you posed, as well as what is already out there in the literatures. This might take the form of comparing, contrasting, building on.
  • And you have to put all this together to make an argument that will go somewhere – you (and everyone else) started in one place and now because of your research you have something that not only can move – but is already moving somewhere new.

The idea of moving forward is key to understanding academic discussion.

Moving forward extends what is known. It offers a creative remix in which the known and/or established is combined with the new (your results) to offer something novel – something that can be seen as a contribution to general scholarly understanding about your particular topic. You stretch what is already understood, perhaps countering some of what is taken for granted. You offer a different perspective, a different application, a provocation, a theoretical challenge or insight.

But moving forward is not something that is accomplished in a page or two. Careful construction is needed. And here is where we go back to those dictionary definitions – the discussion is always an argument for a particular construction – your interpretation of all of your results put together, in conversation with the literatures, anticipating objections, acknowledging blank and blind spots.

And discussion is of course not all that matters at the end of your thesis text. The conclusion is where you explain how your new car, well I’ll keep going with this somewhat clumsy metaphor, moves the whole field forward. Your research not only answers your question, but it is a significant contribution. You have moved not only your own thinking, but also that of at least some others in the field, you’ve reached a new destination.


Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, argument, contribution, discussion, research | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment