PhD Chat: New year’s resolution(s) – doing less

I don’t usually make new year’s resolutions – the timing is kind of arbitrary, and January is a terrible month for big changes because it’s cold, it’s a long stretch til payday, and you’ve just done the whole Christmas thing. But, the timing is good for me this year. Not because it’s the start of a new year, but because I had actual time off in which I did actual nothing. Christmas time off is the best time off because most other people are off too, so even if you do check your emails for some reason, there’s nothing there. It’s a proper break.

slow-down1Towards the end of last year I was struggling quite a bit health-wise. The problem was not the individual things I was doing, but that lots of it happened at once so I didn’t recover properly in-between. I was completely exhausted and ill, and mentally and physically not great. Which also means I didn’t have the energy to look after myself which then leads to making everything worse in a not-so-happy cycle of urgh. I finally feel better after a week of doing nothing but Netflix & a bit of reading, so I feel refreshed and able to make some changes.

I have lots I need to do this year, which I can translate into goals, but it’s the how I do those things that’s more important to me. I have one 2019 “resolution”:


I hope that this year will be a busy one – I’m starting my fieldwork which means if it’s not busy I’m probably having some recruitment problems! But that means it’s the best time to do less. It’s kind of a “less haste more speed thing” – I will be able to do more if I do less.

It’s helpful to be more concrete about goals – it’s very hard to practically do something if you haven’t worked out how to practically do it beyond a vague ‘less’. So:

  • I’m going to do shorter, more focused days as much as possible. This will get harder as time goes on, but in this quiet period I’m getting into work at about 10.30/11am, and leaving at 4pm. And that time will include a proper, long lunch break.
  • do lessEspecially when I can’t do short days, I’m booking working-at-home days into my diary. If it’s scheduled, I’m hoping I’ll feel less guilty and actually do it. It should also mean I have less days I need to take off randomly due to the consequences of over-doing it because I’ve already slowed down.
  • Keep protecting weekends and evenings. Apart from the end of last year, I’ve been pretty good at keeping my weekends and weekends work-free. Again, this might be something that changes depending on my fieldwork schedule, but it’s really important for me to have weekly protected rest time. I know when I don’t do this, the cumulative exhaustion takes hold and I become less and less able to function.
  • If I have to work a weekend, I will schedule a day off in the week
  • I’m putting my reading and writing tasks onto my to-do list and scheduling them into my week like an appointment. Otherwise I tend to leave them until they can be squeezed in, when I’m inevitably too tired to get them done well, so they take longer.

But I’m not going to be rigid about it. You only use a system if it actually works for you in a convenient way, so I’m just going to see how it goes. It might end up working better to do some longer days but only work 4 days a week, rather than shorter days for 5 days. I’ll see.

Doing less should hopefully mean I can consistently do more, both in my PhD-life and my social/hobbies-life, in a way that doesn’t make my health worse. In a way that I can enjoy it and not feel like it’s a struggle.

Do you have any 2019 PhD goals / resolutions?

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Best books 2018

I read 30 books in 2018, mostly in the first half of the year but rounded off with 3 books in the lovely liminal space between Christmas and New Year’s. Every year I set my Goodreads challenge to 50 books because that was always so easily achievable and I don’t like pressured reading, but, as life has changed, it’s time for a bookish change. I’m disappointed with my reading year not because I ‘only’ read 30 (numbers are always relative anyway), but because my reading was so inconsistent. Usually a binge of 2 or 3 then nothing for months. I’ve been too damn tired to read in any way consistently, and I’m working on how to manage PhD life with spoonie life with everything else life. So, Goodreads challenge for 2019: 12 books. One a month. But the aim is less about the number and more about finding a way to find the space and balance to read in a consistent way again.

I have five favourites from 2018 – the ones that have stayed with me in some way or meant something to me. Interestingly, I didn’t read much fiction that I liked this year, but loved a lot of heavy but amazing non-fiction. In no particular order:

pages for youPages for You by Sylvia Brownrigg (novel)

Novels set on American university campuses are my weakness for some reason, and this is also a lesbian/bisexual coming-of-age book in which neither gay character dies at the end (you’d be surprised how rare that is). It’s about the rush and passion and failure of first love, and as a result both characters are a little thin as it’s more about the getting swept up in each other. I didn’t mind that though, as it was just such an enjoyable beautiful little book. The chapters are short and choppy so it was a quick and easy read (which is what my brain needed), but with a richness in that pace and sparseness.

how to survive a plagueHow to Survive a Plague by David France (non-fiction)

This is a book about how knowledge and treatment of AIDS developed through the work of grassroots activist movements. It’s long, and a little dense in places, but it has to be because in order to truly understand why things took so long and why the work went in certain directions. France shows you the culture and main personalities of the activists, mainly in New York; the culture and struggles between the main scientists; and how both those things were embedded within wider institutional and socio-cultural homophobia. And, as a young gay man in New York at that time of the crisis himself, France is also able to offer his own experiences of the fear of the disease and losing friends. It’s a really important and interesting book that shows that activism, though sometimes feeling hopeless, can lead to profound change, and bears witness to the horrific experience the gay community went through. (If you don’t want to read all 700-ish pages of this, there is also a documentary of the same name which I haven’t seen yet, but should be a more condensed version!).

another day in the death of americaAnother Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge (non-fiction)

Younge took a random 24-hour period (Saturday 23rd November 2013) and wrote about every child and teen killed by gunfire (not including suicide) in America. There were ten. Each chapter discusses one child and what happened to them, but also who they were as people and what their lives were like. Each chapter also takes aspects of their story to discuss a different aspect of gun crime or American culture. It’s incredibly empathic and powerful. It’s not about gun control; but it is about gun control. The worst and most damning thing about this book is that it could have been written about any day. Any day. These ten lives are representative of so many:

Jaiden Dixon, Kenneth Mills-Tucker, Stanley Taylor, Pedro Cortez, Tyler Dunn, Edwin Rajo, Samuel Brightmon, Tyshon Anderson, Gary Anderson, Gustin Hinnant

EducatedEducated by Tara Westover (non-fiction)

This memoir is about Tara Westover’s family and her journey from isolated survivalism to PhD. It’s much more than a simple “I got an education and got out”. It’s really about the duality and complexity of everything – the mountains can be beautiful but deadly, the scrapyard a playground but dangerous, the father can be supportive in some ways but violently unsupportive in others. This could so easily have been a ‘misery memoir’ but that acknowledgement of the complexity of people and relationships, especially family relationships, means the story is told with a real empathy for everyone in it, even where she is (understandably) angry. And I think that’s what I liked so much about it – yes it’s a tale of a woman who endured terrible things and fought for an education, but it’s more about relationships and family and how complicated and difficult and messy they are, and how you balance that with yourself and the self you want to be when it feels like you must make a choice between family and your own selfhood.

the hate you giveThe Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (novel)

This was actually the final book I read in 2018, and it was a great way to end. I don’t read much YA as I often find themes are dealt with more thinly than I like, but this was amazing. It’s written from one character’s (Starr’s) perspective, but still manages to weave in lots of different ideas so they can be seen from Starr’s point of view. It’s never forced, like when a book is trying too hard to make a point so the story doesn’t work, but is incredibly well-crafted. It just took me a few chapters to get properly into it and then I was hooked. Although I read them about 6 months apart, this is a good fictional pairing for Younge’s non-fiction book above, but particularly focused on the Black Lives Matter movement.

Happy 2019 reading!

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PhD Chat: My PhD upgrade experience

presentationWhen you first start your PhD you are not actually technically a PhD student. You start registered as an MPhil student and, after a year or so, you do your upgrade to being a fully-fledged PhD student.

The process of your upgrade is different between different universities and even between different departments at the same university. So it’s worth checking what the requirements are for your department and, crucially, what the deadlines are, as the timing can also differ.

In my department I had to upgrade at about 1 year in. I had to choose two internal examiners, one of which had to be a more senior member of staff. And one month before the agreed date I had to submit:

  • A brief report on my PhD progress & plans. It had a tight limit of 4-6 pages, but you could also add appendices. I attached a review paper I had just submitted to a journal.
  • A (very brief) report from my lead supervisor, signed by my whole supervisory team

My actual upgrade involved:

  • A 30-minute presentation about my PhD, open to all staff & students with a Q&A
  • A mini-viva with my examiners straight afterwards. Mine only lasted about 45 minutes.

I was really nervous just beforehand, but it was actually completely fine.

The presentation:

I hate presenting – I’m not a ‘performer’ and I always fear I’ll be having a bad brain fog day, which includes word-finding & memory problems – not ideal for presenting! But it went well and quite a few PhD students came in support, so it helped knowing the audience would be a friendly one. (I’ll write a post at some point about preparing for a presentation when you have these kinds of spoonie issues).

Also – my lovely officemate came a bit early and brought me a bottle of water & a chocolate treat. I will definitely be doing that for other people in the future because I really needed them!

Tip #1: None of the questions I had prepared for came up in the Q&A, but a lot of that thinking through helped in the viva. So practice answering questions out loud you think people might ask!

The viva:

I had great examiners, which helped a lot because I knew they would be constructive and helpful in any criticisms/questions, rather than combative/mean. I found as soon as the viva got going my nerves very quickly disappeared. In part, that was because my examiners made me feel relaxed and comfortable, but also because it was basically a chat through my work, and ideas of things to think about or to include or to be clearer on. The viva went through, in roughly chronological order, from why I chose the specific topic that I did, to each of my studies, to analysis, to my publication/dissemination plan. We also talked about how my work fits in a wider context, which made me realise I could expand my thinking in how it’s situated much more.

It went very quickly, and I found it really helpful and motivating. If I didn’t have to do a presentation I’d even say the whole upgrade is quite enjoyable in a nerd way.

Tip #2: If you do get a say in who your examiners are, think carefully about your choice! What you want is someone who will be helpful to you and your PhD, whatever that means to you.

I did have the option for one of my supervisors sit in on the viva as an observer to take notes. I didn’t. In lots of ways this would have been helpful because so much of what the examiners are saying/suggesting is useful and there are only so many notes you can make yourself whilst also trying to think and answer questions. But, I know that I personally find being ‘observed’ extremely nerve-wracking so I would have found it more pressurising than helpful (even though all my supervisors are great).

Tip #3: I’d probably recommend to most people that having your supervisor there would be helpful, but remember to think about what would work for you.

I was surprisingly exhausted afterwards, even though it wasn’t a very long process, but I’d planned work things in for that afternoon. Don’t do this! I took the next day off and watched Buffy in my pyjamas while eating Lebkuchen, which was the better plan.

Tip #4: Take a bit of time out afterwards! Most of the actual work for the upgrade happens before it – in writing & preparing your submission – but you will definitely need a break. Have a little time out, relax, and come back motivated to get cracking – as an Official PhD Student.

i can do the thingI think the important thing to remember is that it isn’t a test, but is supposed to be a helpful process to give you a milestone in the long PhD journey and an opportunity to get some feedback on your work from experts outside of your supervisory team.

You can do the thing.


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PhD Basics #1: What is critical appraisal of literature?

“Critical appraisal of the literature” is something that comes up a lot in terms of an expected skill of PGRs, and was often a good chunk of the marks in undergrad essays, but not something that’s often explicitly taught. It feels like one of those things you’re supposed to just implicitly know, but it is actually something that can (and should) be learnt.

Critical appraisal is the process of carefully and systematically examining research to judge its trustworthiness and its value and relevance in a particular context. (Burls 2009)

confused signsLet’s break this down a bit:

– When it says “research” that’s both individual studies and the literature as a whole.

– Relatedly, the context matters (1): If a study is fairly poor quality, but lots of high quality studies conclude the same thing, within the context of the topic the conclusion is more likely supported, even if that particular study isn’t very trustworthy.

– Context matters (2): your research question matters – if in doubt, or feeling lost in a sea of possible literature avenues, always go back to your question. A study might be really interesting, well-conducted and written clearly, but if it isn’t relevant to answering your particular question, it’s not helpful to you.

– Trustworthiness is the extent to which you can trust the conclusions a particular study (or group of studies) make.

To add to Burls’ statement, I’d also say:

– The word ‘critical’ sounds negative but it’s also about strengths.

– But it’s more than just description of strengths, weaknesses, etc. You need to think about the implications.

– It’s not just about individual studies – you also need to think about the literature as a whole. So, what does the literature base say in answer to my question? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the literature as whole, as well as individual studies?

Top tips:

research1) When trying to consider ‘trustworthiness’, it can be helpful to work backwards, from the conclusion / idea back through to how they got there.

For example, for conclusion X, what is the evidence used to back it? How did they come to that evidence – methods used, analysis techniques, etc? Do you agree that what they did leads to conclusion X? Why/why not? Is what they did enough to lead to conclusion X?

If you’re thinking about the trustworthiness of a group of studies, rather than a single study, it’s exactly the same thing. You have a group of studies which, on balance, suggest conclusion X. How do they suggest conclusion X? What is the trustworthiness of the studies concluding X, and those concluding it’s not X, but Y and Z? What are the gaps or weaknesses which may make concluding X more tentative?

edit red pen adjusted_02) To help you synthesis literature more naturally, structure your introduction/discussion by topic rather than by paper. Even if you are critically appraising each study using the ‘by paper’ method, it’s not enough without also looking at the literature as a whole. In other words, rather than your writing being:

  • Paragraph 1: study 1 said this
  • Paragraph 2: study 2 said this
  • Paragraph 3: study 3 said this

Structure it like:

  • Paragraph 1: Topic 1 (Previous studies (ref 1, 3) say this about topic one)
  • Paragraph 2: Topic 2 (While some studies (ref 1, 2) show this, other studies (ref 2, 5) show that)

so what3) Think ‘so what does this mean’. To help you push your thinking and writing further, keeping asking yourself “so what does this mean”.

Noticed a study has a very small sample size? Great, so what does that mean? What are the implications? If you then add something about how it affects the stated conclusions of the study, what are the implications of that, perhaps within the wider literature as a whole? If you keep asking yourself ‘so what’, it will help ensure you are writing critically, rather than just descriptively.

checklist4) There is an anxiety with this that you don’t know enough to be able to appraise a study. That there’s something completely obvious about, e.g., the methods that you don’t see and everyone is going to think you’re an idiot (or will “find out” you’re an idiot, hello imposter syndrome). There is an element of experience that comes with this, but it can you to feel more confident if you:

  • Read lots of papers – the more you read the more you’ll get a feel for it
  • Think critically as you read. It can help to make little notes as you go, even if it’s just underlining something that you’re not sure of or something that seems important, to help you read actively rather than passively.
  • Use checklists/tools. CASP has lots of checklists of things to look for in different types of research (as you might need to think about different elements of methodology in an RCT vs a qualitative case study). But just remember these tools are a guide – just listing the answers to a tool’s questions for every study isn’t critical appraisal – you need to think about the implications of those answers and also synthesis the different studies.

Critical appraisal is something that you get more comfortable with the more you do it (though I don’t think that pesky imposter syndrome ever goes away). Hopefully some of the above & the links below will help you find your tricks to making it easier. Do you have any tips to share?

Other links:

How to read a paper by BMJ – a list of a number of different resources

How to read a [qualitative] paper by Trish Greenhalgh

Critical appraisal of scientific articles: part 1 of a series on evaluation of scientific publications. by du Prel, J. B., Röhrig, B., & Blettner, M.

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PhD Chat – How I organise my time & tasks

The best way of organising is the way that works for you. And once you find that way, using it consistently but being aware your needs can change. I used to be a big fan of bullet journalling, but I found it didn’t suit me anymore when I started my PhD.

7792F6EC-B66F-4953-A1F8-59EBFCE98410I now use a passion planner. I don’t do the ‘passion planning’ bit (though I’m sure it could be a useful way of making PhD goals), but the layout is exactly what I need. It has both monthly and weekly spreads, and the weeks are laid out with times for each day (including weekends) with space for to do lists and doodles. I tend to use the monthly spreads to note events/meetings which will take me out of the office, so I can at-a-glance 0ED6B419-1885-483F-B27D-5F3293565616see where I physically will be on a particular day.

Having space for to do lists means I can add things for the future where they need to be, rather than cluttering up my current list (which was always a problem with bullet journalling). The to do list is set up for you to order in terms of priority, but I don’t find that helpful as you need to know what all your ‘to dos’ are going to be in advance to order them and I always add things during the week. 0053E3BA-0383-45AD-9C04-147798C8FA04.jpegI list my to dos as they come, but I use a dash for ‘should do it this week’ and an asterix for ‘absolutely must be done this week’. (And occasionally also add a post-it note to the page with detailed to dos or a meeting agenda if they’re separate from everything else).

For more over-arching plans, I technically have a gantt chart. I say technically because I hate them so never use it but had to officially have one. What I actually use is this 6-monthly sheet above my desk, split into four sections for each month:


The ‘what needs to be finished’ list tells me what needs to go in the ‘things to work on’ list, and how much I’m away helps me to see how realistic everything is. The ‘things to work on’ list is too broad to be useful as an actual to do list, but it keeps me focused and informs what I need on my weekly to do list.

How do you organise your PhD / project time? I’m a huge nerd for organising and stationery so let me know what works for you!



I am an Amazon Affiliate so buying using the following links will give me a very tiny percentage of the sale:

Passion Planner:

What bullet journalling is:

Cheap packs of yellow legal pads to make to dos stand out:


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Chronically PhD #1 – what to do when you get ill

This is a new tiny series about doing a PhD with a chronic illness.

Everyone will get at least a bit ill a some point during their PhD, even if it’s just a week of flu. It’s different when you have a chronic illness, because it will happen more often, and probably take longer to recover from, so it’s good to have some tricks up your sleeve for coping with work & ill-health. Most people with a chronic illness are pretty expert in managing their illness and their life, and all of those tricks also apply to PhDing. Here are some of mine for the more acute / short-term illness blips:

In advance:

Have a buffer zone

I always try and give myself a buffer around a deadline, so that I can have a few days out if I need and still work at my normal pace to get everything done. It definitely helps to feel less stress when I do need time off because I know I have the time. But, as a more anxious person, it does mean I can get anxious about work/deadlines earlier than I need to, which is unhelpful to me and the people around me. But still, wherever possible get a buffer!

nopeWhen you get ill:

Give yourself a break

Give yourself permission to take time off. This sounds stupid but so many people don’t let themselves, guilt-free, have a sick day doing nothing ‘productive’. Working when you’re too ill is only going to make you feel worse, produce poor work, and make your recovery longer. If you struggle to give yourself permission, have a friend who knows you be the person who ‘tells you off’ and makes you stay home (with Netflix and not Mendeley).

Remember you don’t have to work at the office

If you’re feeling too grotty for a full day, but are able to work for a couple of hours, work from home. If you go into the office, you have to get dressed, travel in, and be somewhat functional & upright, which will reduce the amount of ‘wellness time’ you have. Stay in your pyjamas, in your bed / on the sofa, and keep those spoons for the work, not the stuff around the work. (But obviously take the full day off with no work if that’s what you need).

Make a ‘must must’ list

If you’re feeling stressed about the work you’re missing or the buffer getting shorter, make a ‘must must list’. Basically:

  1. Write a to do list for whatever it is that you’re working on
  2. Work out which things absolutely must happen this week. ‘Must must’ only!
  3. Work out which of those ‘must must’ happen today
  4. Absolutely ignore everything else on the list. They’re urgent, but not for today

Usually, I find my must must list is shorter than my anxious brain is telling me. Sometimes, I have urgent things to do but none of them are musts for today, so I can much more happily let myself recover.

This usually works in the short-term, but it’s also how I coped with much more severe illness and general life tasks like showering. Showering not a must must today? Then let yourself not and save those spoons to have a non-microwave dinner.

If you do your must must list and it’s honestly only must musts but there’s more than you can manage, it’s time to start letting other people know…

Let other people know

You don’t have to disclose anything you don’t want to, but it can be helpful if at least one of your supervisors are aware you have a chronic condition (you don’t have to say what it is, just how it affects you, like needing flexible working). If you’re starting to lose / go beyond your buffer and you’re worried, tell them. This isn’t just a chronically ill person thing, people get the flu all the time. Don’t make your stress worse by stewing in it alone while your supervisors are unaware until it’s too late. They might be able to move a deadline, advise you on what to do if they can’t, etc. It’s literally their job to support you through your PhD, but they can’t do that unless they know what support you need (and they’ve definitely had students who’ve had illness/childcare/life get in the way of a deadline before).

Have you got any tips for what to do when you actually get ill?

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Why you think your writing is the worst (when it’s not)

Writing is the worst. I mean, I’m sure there are some people who enjoy the writing stage of a project, but it’s the worst. I think it’s because good writing looks effortless – the words so obviously should go in that order that it must be easy to put them there if only you had the talent. But because it actually takes effort to make it look effortless, feeling like it should be easy makes it all the harder. This is why I sometimes think writing is hard / you think your work is crap:

1. You’re comparing a draft to a finished product

What you read, generally, has already gone through a lot of editing and, in the case of journal articles, peer review. Your draft will not look like an edited piece of work; no first draft is as good as the edited one. It’s difficult to find drafts to compare with, because they are rarely seen / published, but the photo below is a draft (with edits) of the first paragraph of Orwell’s 1984. That famous first line – which so obviously should have those words in that order – took a little while to get there. And look at all that scribbling out! There’s at least two different pens which suggests at least two rounds of editing, and probably more.

Photo 25-07-2013 17 51 38

2. Your ideas are non-verbal

(…or not quite verbal). Often, you have a sense of something, but you just can’t express it yet. Or you know what you mean but it’s all tangled up. It’s like it’s on the tip of your brain and you can’t quite read it. Which means you can’t quite write it. If you talk it through (either literally with another person, out loud to yourself, or on the page), it can help to make things verbal/untangled. Let it be un-self-consciously tangled and it should become clearer in the edit.

3. You have great taste

I can’t remember which writer it was, maybe Neil Gaiman, who said one of the reasons you think your own writing is terrible is because your taste is so good. You know what good writing from good writers looks like, and yours doesn’t look like that. Yet. It doesn’t mean yours is terrible, it just means you have more practice to do (or more editing, as per above). Just do some basking in the glory of your excellent taste.

I am at my procrastinating worst when it comes to writing, so this is mostly for me: just get the words out, it’s easier to work with something than a blank page. Great writing is all in the edit.




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PhD-ish #1: Podcasts

It’s okay to listen/watch/read something just for the sheer pleasure of it – not everything has to have a purpose. Sometimes, though, you want something engaging and fun that also gives you a little something more. That’s what PhD-ish recommendations are all about – those things that have nothing to do with your specific topic area but might help open up your thinking in some way (but are also entertaining in their own right).

This week – podcasts! I’ve linked suggested episodes to the podcasts’ own websites, but they’re all available on the usual pod-catchers.

secret feminist agendaSecret Feminist Agenda

Hannah McGregor is a Canadian academic who is really smart, really funny, and enjoyable to listen to. This podcast is about “the insidious, nefarious, insurgent, and mundane ways we enact our feminism in our daily lives”, is often related to academia, and is just so damn enjoyable as well as thought-provoking and inspiring. It’s weekly, alternating between a longer interview episode and a shorter ‘mini-sode’ with Hannah.

Hannah is also looking at podcasts as a legit form of academic output, and even piloted having it peer reviewed. You can read the reviewers’ comments and her response here.

Suggested episode: It’s really hard to pick one but try Bringing Yourself To Work feat. Baharak Yousefi. It is centered around academia & universities, and is essentially about how bringing your whole self to work is a radical act.

cropped-WitchPlease_960pxWitch, Please

Speaking of Hannah McGregor, she also co-hosts Witch, Please with fellow literary academic Marcelle Kosman. This is an incredibly funny, smart, feminist, intersectional, and loving critique of Harry Potter. It’s best to start at the very first episode as they start from book 1 and move through books and films. As they find their podcasting feet they get better as they go, but, honestly, this is my favourite podcast ever. It’s hilarious but so smart and so thoughtful. I’m a better reader because of it.

Suggested episode: Just start at episode 1 and then go chronologically.


Every week, Alie Ward interviews a different ‘ologist’ about their ‘ology’, from broad subjects like phonology (linguistics) to the more specific like rhinology (noses). Everything is fascinating if you look at it in enough depth, and I often find the topics I thought I would be least interested in are my favourites. And it’s just great to hear people getting the chance to really enthuse about their specialist area.

Suggested episode: Dendrology (trees) feat. J. Casey Clapp. Seriously, this guy is the most enthusiastic in the most lovely way about trees. I love him. Also hear the tale of the guy who accidentally chopped down the oldest tree in the world (always check in with local knowledge….)


This is a science-based podcast, but is more narrative in tone (it’s NPR, so has a This American Life vibe). Invisibilia is about “the unseeable forces [that] control human behaviour and shape our ideas, beliefs, and assumptions”. Although I’ve yet to listen to the latest season, everything I have heard has been incredibly interesting, and, given the story-telling style, easy to listen to even when it gets more complex.

Suggested episode: Entanglement. There might be better episodes but this is the one that immediately sprung to mind because I still think about the woman with Mirror Touch Synesthesia.

story colliderStory Collider

I’ve only listened to a couple of episodes of this but I think it’s a keeper. It’s basically personal stories in some way related to science and the week’s theme, recorded at a live event. As well as just being interesting, the ‘live’ element also adds an element of performance that the other podcasts don’t have. Sometimes it’s not just the story, but the way it’s told that makes it great – which is important to bear in mind when thinking about dissemination of your own research stories. And that you don’t have to be a scientist to have a science story to tell.

Suggested episode: Identity: Stories about figuring out who we are. The first part with Jason Rodriguez is a great story about learning to bring together his different cultural and professional identities.

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PhD #WeekInTheLife – June 2018

Reading/watching other PhD students’ week in the life posts & videos usually gives me a kick up the butt to get moving and/or makes me feel less like I’m the worst PhD student in the world and more like I’m feeling normal things. And it seemed like a good way to start changing this blog from being purely about books to more about research.

I’ll update this at the end of every day this week with what I’ve been doing & some more interesting photos when I’m at the museum. I don’t have much booked in at the beginning of this week (but work to do), and then I’m at the museum all day Thursday and Friday morning. I’m about 7 months into my PhD, and you can find out a little about my project here. (I’ll do a full post about what I’m doing soon).

Let’s see if the observation of a thing really changes that thing and I procrastinate less than usual just because I know I’m going to write about it…


Today’s about catching up on a few emails, then getting stuck into some literature.

I’m coming towards the end of my realist review (hopefully!). I’ll write a post at some point about my experience of doing a realist review as compared to a standard systematic one, but the main thing to understand for today’s work is that it has less clearly defined boundaries around what to include, so it can be hard to know when enough is enough. Or at least that’s where my anxiety lies. At the moment I’m deciding whether to include an area of literature as a formal part of the review or as a discussion point. I think it will be a (key) discussion point, and something I think about for my evaluation, but I just want to read around a little more.

It’s actually really interesting how little there is about the dynamics of caring relationships in dementia, both for professional and family carers, and how those dynamics can have an impact on, or be a context for, how psychosocial or creative interventions work. There is some research there, but not enough. (I got some really useful signposting from a researcher here in Exeter and someone I met on training last week. I’m definitely getting better at asking for pointers when I’m stuck, instead of just trying to wade through treacle by myself.)

nopeSpeaking of wading through treacle, I’m really tired today, so haven’t been the most productive. My health shenanigans include severe fatigue, and I haven’t been resting properly the past few weeks so it’s catching up with me a bit. I actually napped during the day at the weekend (which as a person who can’t sleep if there’s any light/noise is basically unheard of) after a week of headaches, nausea, etc, so I know the warning flags are out. I’ll be fine; I just need to pull back a little & reconfigure how I’m living before the warning flags become a proper flare-up that takes a lot longer to crawl back from. There’s always that tension, for everyone, between what you want to do and what your body can do, it’s just that my Threshold of Nope is much lower than other people’s. Early finish, then trash TV & a pizza for me tonight!


Another office day today, but thankfully not feeling quite so dead so actually getting some stuff done!

Got to the office at 9.45am, pratted about on Twitter a bit, then got started about 10ish. I’m definitely not including caring relationship dynamics as a formal part of the review, so, even though there’s more to read, I’m putting it to one side until I write the discussion.

This morning I refined and added to my programme theories (the theories I’ve developed as a result of the review, and will test in my evaluation). I’m not 100% happy with them but they’re almost there. Then I skimmed back through my research diary to check for notes I’d made myself to add into the theories or the discussion. (If you don’t keep a research diary I really recommend it – it means I don’t forget random thoughts or my thinking process, which is helpful when I can’t remember why I decided to do something a particular way).

Then it was all about starting the results section. Some of that was just figuring out how to write it by reading a few review papers & example PhDs – I’ve never done a realist review before & it’s a little less structured than I’m used to. But at 2K words today I’m around a third done with the results section draft! (Thank you past me for the clear notes on where the specific evidence for each theory is, except that one section where you didn’t)

In between those things I did small admin jobs – a few emails for the conference I’m helping to organise, and for the museum group on Thursday. (Also Twitter scrolling & a game of HQ Trivia).

A much better PhD day! (PhDay?). My body really needed to leave by 4pm, but I had to wait for someone, so left the office at 5, ready for another evening of pyjamas & trash to stay on top of health shenanigans.


Final office day of the week. Got in about 10am and did some admin/emails until supervision with my main supervisor at 11am.

The rest of the day was writing the results section, interspersed with a few emails and Twitter scrolling. Finally have a draft of this bit (and a shiny 6K words of the thesis done). I mean, it’s rubbish, some of the writing is truly awful & it needs some structural tweaking, but it’s so much easier to write from something than a blank page. Many of my shiny new words will be deleted and replaced, but it’s a start.

I’m at the museum tomorrow which is a bit more exciting, but I’m very aware I have no academic extra-curriculars this week, like teaching or exciting meetings, so I’m “not busy”. I also have this anxiety, writing what I’m doing here, that I’m also not doing enough work & it shows. Everyone in academia is extremely qualified, and there’s a pressure to be doing more, getting involved more, to show your worth to future employers and make sure you are extra-ordinarily qualified to have a chance. I hate competitive busyness and I generally do my best not to play, but, even so, I’ve clearly still internalised that pressure. Not just to play, but to show here how much I do, how well I do, how effortlessly I do. Having been a “disabled scrounger”, I know it’s not an issue just in academia, but in our culture more widely, but even knowing all that it’s hard to resist that internalised link between productivity and self-worth, and the anxiety that comes with that, particularly when you have additional limitations which mean you couldn’t keep up even if you wanted to. (Despite this ramble/rant, I am in a good mood today).

Had my dinner at my desk and left at 5.30 for a book club in town tonight – “Women & Power” by Mary Beard.

one cameraThursday

Thursday is museum day! I always work from the museum offices on a Thursday, either working on the dementia programme or just doing my usual PhD stuff but from there. Even though it’s not all directly relevant, it means I get to know the museum & the staff (& vice versa), understand these programmes better, how all the behind-the-scenes organising works, and just work in a non-academic environment. I love working on the programme itself. I volunteer at the sessions, so get to hang out & chat art with people and see the actual impact of the PhD with actual humans.  It’s so great.

The dementia sessions here run once a month, and are either object handling, art-making, or a tour of one of the exhibitions. People with dementia generally attend with a carer, spouse, or friend, and the way the sessions are facilitated mean they’re not based on reminiscence or memory, and everyone can enjoy and contribute on an equal basis. It’s about an ‘in the moment’ wellbeing and enjoyment, as well as intellectual stimulation and meeting other people.

lots cameraToday was a photography session, based around portraiture. After the usual tea & biscuits, we looked at old cameras (they’re such lovely objects), and at different examples of portraiture in photography art-books. We then went up to one of the museum galleries and had a quick look around a current exhibition of paintings about childhood, which mainly includes painted portraits of children. We talked a bit about the difference between a more typical “say cheese” photo we might have taken of others, and the various poses/framing/etc of people in the photos and paintings we looked at. Then, in pairs, people chose photos from the books, recreated the poses, and took photos using digital cameras. At the end of the session we had another cuppa and looked at everyone’s photos projected on the big screen. It was a fun session, and people really made it their own by changing up the poses and doing things like taking close-up pictures of hands. This is my favourite part of the PhD.

Back in the museum office, as part of helping to update their in-house evaluation of the programme, I inputted old (and today’s) evaluation forms, and worked on updating the registration forms. Next time I’ll start analysing past years’ data and finalising the new forms.

I left a little early to head back to the office as I had a follow-up webinar on the philosophical foundations of realist evaluation training I went on last month. Really helpful to talk through sticky issues of ontology, and especially being able to listen in on other people’s questions & answers. My head is full of nerding. That finished about 5.30pm, and I left the office at 6pm.

It’s been a good, thought-provoking, day.


Even though I’ve been at the museum a while, I hadn’t had an official induction, so this morning I joined a volunteer induction session.

When that finished at 1pm, I had a sunny lunch outside on the cathedral green, then headed to the office.

Following yesterday’s webinar, there are some conceptual things I want to tweak in my programme theories, and I want start my ethics form / evaluation planning (the data stuff I was doing yesterday is for the museum, not my PhD). But, I was really exhausted again and I knew I’d get frustrated with myself (like on Monday) if I tried to do something that required much concentration. So I spent the afternoon making notes so that I could still make progress today in a less taxing way and get into my thinking more quickly on Monday, and doing some admin like booking a hotel for a course next month. I also had a quick look through the prep tasks for a visual methods day I’m doing next week and holy hell the questions for discussion are so interesting. Ending the week feeling like I haven’t done nearly enough, but definitely happily motivated for the next.


I don’t work on weekends. Inevitably, that will change at some point, but I’m trying to go as long as I can without any evening or weekend work. On Saturday I have a recovery day which will be pure pyjamas (with a little tweaking of my D&D character before a new game starts next week), and on Sunday I’m officiating a roller derby game as my other alter ego, Dame of Thrones.

Typical week?

I picked this week mostly at random, but it’s turned out fairly typical. What I’m working on changes, and I sometimes have other meetings/extra-curriculars, but otherwise this is it – some feeling like I make no progress, some feeling like I make good progress, some museum, some reading, some writing. I was way less productive this week than I could have been (and would have liked) if I’d been looking after myself better recently (the contrast between high & low fatigue days is massive). So I’m going to get back on track with that & then I should feel a little more consistent across the whole week (and get more done overall without feeling ill as an extra bonus).

I really like reading about what other people actually do, so give me shout if you do your own PhD-InTheLife!

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Best books of 2017

At only 44 books (plus about 3 academic books), I read less this year than I have for a long time, but I’ve done so much outside book-life that I don’t really mind. For everyone, doing more of something has a pay-off of doing less of something else, and that’s even more true when you have a chronic illness that causes fatigue. I still read some really great stuff, and that’s what counts for me. This year I have a top 7 (in no particular order) which has turned out to be a great mix of styles and genres:

the-argonautsThe Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (non-fiction)

This is a book about the fluidity of the apparent juxtapositions within gender, identity, love, and parenthood, written in a fluid style that moves between memoir and academic analysis. The fluidities between apparent firm binaries forms the centre of the book as “an endless becoming”. Whilst I did want some of the threads to be developed further by Nelson herself, I enjoyed that it made me do the work and it’s more a collection of thoughts to consider. It’s not often I read a book where the overarching themes are clearer than the specifics, but I liked it. Full review here.

human-actsHuman Acts by Han Kang, trans. by Deborah Smith (novel, Korean in translation)

This book is a favourite not just because of the book itself, but also because I went to an incredible and weird immersive theatre experience called One Day, Maybe by DreamThinkSpeak which was partly based around the violence at Gwangju, which added something to my experience of reading (though I read it first). This book is stark and brutal, and is about the violence done to the body as a violence to the soul – as the violence of the Gwangju uprising and massacre afflicts the community’s soul. I love the control and simplicity of Han Kang’s writing and the way she uses multiple perspectives and tenses to circle around and show different views of not just the event itself but also its aftermath. I also really appreciated Deborah Smith’s translator’s note & introduction at the beginning. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as The Vegetarian, but it’s still excellent. Full review here.

saga vol 7Saga vol 7 by Fiona Staples & Brian K Vaughan (comics, fiction)

I’d been going off Saga a bit, but this volume pulled me right back in. It mainly focuses on Hazel and family, which I much preferred to when volumes are constantly jumping around the universe. Fiona Staples’ artwork is beautiful as ever, and there are some amazing bits of writing from Vaughan, particularly when describing [sad spoiler] and when Hazel is giving a one-line insight/commentary in her narration. The way it ends on just black pages was absolute perfection and I hugged it to my chest. Can’t wait for volume 8 (out in a few days!).

do what you wantDo What You Want edited by Ruby Tandoh & Leah Pritchard (non-fiction)

This zine is a mix of essay, comics, illustration, and recipes that covers a wide range of mental health issues by a wide range of contributors. It’s so incredibly good and there will definitely be things in here that resonate deeply. I had to read it slowly, because the very first essay/interview about ‘why should I go to therapy?’ hit me hard in the heart. It’s good. I think it’s sold out in hard copies but you should still be able to get an e-copy.

the white bookThe White Book by Han Kang, trans. by Deborah Smith (non-fiction, Korean in translation)

The only author to have two books on the list! Han Kang’s previous novels that have been translated into English have this way of not looking at their central character or message too directly, and she circles around them, showing you different perspectives on them. This novel/non-fiction/poetry/whatever short book does do that, but also feels much more direct and personal than her other work. It’s also more experimental, so probably won’t be for everyone, but I loved it. It’s a fragmented meditation on the colour white, without a clear narrative, but the thread is the death of Kang’s older sister hours after she was born. White is the colour of mourning in South Korea. Kang’s mother had told her that if her sister had lived, she wouldn’t have had more children, so Kang would never have been born, and there’s also a thread of Kang living in her sister’s place, and the complicated emotions her death then brings her. Throughout the book are some black and white photos from an art performance by Kang in which she ‘lent her body’ to her sister and interacted with white things. There are also ties to the violence and memoralising (or lack of) in relation to place, specifically South Korea and Warsaw, where she was living while writing the book. It’s something you could read very quickly, but it’s best read slowly, pausing at the blank white pages.

letters for lucardoLetters for Lucardo: Book 1 by Noora Heikkila (comics, fiction)

You guys. You guys. This is so good. It’s gay erotica about a relationship between a 61-year-old mortal and an eternally 33-year-old vampire. There is a lot of explicit sex in this (so it’s not one to read on the bus), but it’s also this really loving relationship between these two men – grappling with all the usual stuff but also the fact one of them is a vampire, and the other will die. Vampire-human relationships are far less creepy when it’s an older human instead of a teenage girl with a 200-year-old (eww), and showing the sexuality of someone older is rare and so well done in this. It’s also a book to shove into the hands of anyone who says explicitly consensual sex can’t be super hot. Because damn.

do not say we have nothingDo Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (novel)

This is a novel about the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution in China in the 1950s to 1980s and the present day (sort of), and I absolutely loved it. I’m not normally a fan of multi-generational historical fiction, particularly fiction that moves between two time periods because I always much prefer one time period over the other, but I equally enjoyed and was invested in, both time periods in this. Neither is written completely linearly but everything weaves together seamlessly. It seems to mirror the symphonies described in the book, with themes repeating and circling back around, while slowly it all comes together. I loved the writing style and the way she writes about language and music and what they can mean to people who deeply love them. I wanted to hug this book.

Happy read-whatever-you-want in 2018!


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