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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