Natalie Partridge and Gemma Molyneux are third year Sociology PhD students at Newcastle University. Gemma and Natalie are also the 2021/22 Sociology PGR Representatives to Student Voice Committee. On Tuesday 28th June 2022, they took PGRs from across Geography, Politics and Sociology out for an away day to Dove Marine Laboratory in Cullercoats. This post shares some visual minutes from the day.
Gemma Molyneux is a second year PhD student in Sociology at Newcastle, studying high school girls’ everyday experiences and consumption of STEM subjects at school. In the second post in our Plan B series, Gemma writes about adjusting her research in schools during COVID-19. She reflects on the changes she has made to the project, and the new questions and insights these have brought about.
Let’s get it out of the way first: COVID-19 came along and I am not going to get to do the research project I had planned. My planned research project involved exploring girls’ consumption of Science Technology Engineering and Maths (STEM) through a focus on everyday life. The project was intended as an ethnographic study within a high school. The aim was to observe first-hand the day-to-day lives of girls within the school environment, as they interact with their friends and the teachers, within class and break times. From this I would then have been able to develop some rich data that would have shown me the girls’ consumption of STEM within their day to day lives. But now, that’s not going to happen! On the other hand, life would be boring if everything went to plan!
So, what now? Let the roller coaster begin
The first bump began in March, when I started to consider: how long will this lockdown be? What shall I do with my project plan? Being positive, my supervisors and I decided to delay the start of the ethnographic fieldwork from September to January, allowing extra time for additional data to be collected (Plan B).
Second bump at the end of summer: will January be realistic? How long do you wait on the uncontrollable and when do you make a change and take control? Ok, we decided, ethnography (where you need to be around people) in a pandemic is not going to work, just move on. Hence, the decision to use virtual group interviews with students with photograph/vlog elicitation was made.
Let’s not go through the alphabet: Plan Awesome is born
In October the ride starts to change direction again: will/won’t the schools close? Along with the constant adrenaline rush of the possibility of the group of students or the coordinating teacher being isolated, will the interviews be affected? (still sticking with Plan Awesome!)
Just because it’s different does not make it wrong
Putting the roller coaster imagery aside, the truth is that the challenges brought about by COVID-19 on my research have been present, but not insurmountable. Changing methods changes the type of data you get, so being clear whether this data will answer the research questions has been important. They do say there is more than one way to skin a cat. Ensuring the alternative data collected from group interviews aligns with my research questions establishes that the change of plan still meets my objectives. Being open minded and generating many ideas for every possible method I could think of was helpful. I used a SWOT analysis to understand what all the different ideas meant to the project and whether they would answer the research questions. In creating the SWOT analysis I wrote down every method I could. Thinking through how these could be used or combined with others made me consider data generation in a more creative way. In addition, evaluating the methods’ negative aspects required creativity in generating possible solutions that could be put in place to mitigate these issues.
Changing the project has reduced the richness that a long-period study of students would have brought. However, now, the research includes a wider range of data sources with the potential opportunity to gain observations from students from more than one school and interviews with a range of teachers. Already some of the additional data sources that have been explored are giving interesting (and unforeseen) insights.
Being able to be flexible has allowed my project not to be derailed
It’s December in year 2 of my PhD and I have completed 5 teacher interviews and have started the school group interviews. Have I made the right decisions and the right changes? I am still prepared to be flexible for the probable additional bumps to come. I have to be positive and confident and remember ♫ Everything is Awesome ♫.
Angela Plessas is a third year PhD student in Sociology at Newcastle, studying polycystic ovary syndrome as a diagnostic category. Like many students, she has had to adapt her research project in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, shifting from interviews to a document-based approach. This transition has been challenging, but ultimately rewarding.
Documentary research methods are generally considered the realm of the Historian, not the Sociologist. Although they don’t necessarily have a ‘bad name’ in social research, they are certainly misunderstood. The precise steps for carrying out documentary research are seen as vague, and the resulting analysis prone to bias. Documentary research is usually considered, at best, complimentary to a researcher’s main choice of methods, but never the main method itself.
I was once guilty of these misconceptions myself, until COVID-19 changed everything. When the country went into lockdown in March, I was about to start interviewing GPs who have cared for women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). I knew these interviews would be challenging, but I felt ready. I had ethical approval, my interview schedules had been tried and tested, and I was in the early stages of recruitment. A few days into lockdown though, when communication with potential GP participants completely dried up, it became obvious that things had changed.
What is PCOS?
PCOS is a common endocrine condition, thought to affect 1 in 10 women around the world. My original ambition for this study was to ‘shed light on the true lived experiences of women with PCOS’, with a focus on experiences of diagnosis. However, thanks to my supervisors and their experience in in-depth research with medical documents, I began to realise that there was much more to PCOS diagnosis than that which takes place in a GP surgery. Many of these trends and practices are rooted in medical literature – its ambiguities, controversies and debates.
How my research changed
During lockdown, many GPs were working remotely and had to prioritise the most essential tasks over others. Even now, routine care remains severely disrupted, and GPs are tackling a huge backlog of care for those who had treatment postponed during lockdown. Recruiting and interviewing GPs in this environment seemed near impossible. Like most PhD students at a similar stage to myself, I needed to consider alternative options.
For my study, documentary-based research methods offered a practical way forward and an opportunity to conduct an entirely original study of PCOS-literature. Since adopting these methods, I have realised how rich and ripe for analysis PCOS medical literature is. PCOS has had numerous names throughout its history. It was once named after the researchers who ‘discovered’ it – Stein and Leventhal – before being known as polycystic ovary disease, and more recently, polycystic ovary syndrome. Although this name refers to ‘multiple cysts’ and to ‘ovaries’, many women with PCOS have no ovarian cysts whatsoever. Equally, many women who do have ovarian cysts, do not have PCOS. The fact that a huge and expansive body of PCOS medical literature exists, and that significant diagnostic dilemmas remain, also indicates a host of unanswered questions which need exploring.
These include questions like:
- What happened to Stein and Leventhal?
- Why does the name of the condition revolve around ‘cysts’ and ‘ovaries’?
- How many PCOS symptoms ARE there?
- How many PCOS ‘phenotypes’ ARE there?
- What makes it a syndrome?
There are a number of advantages to using documentary research. From a practical perspective, this approach is extremely COVID-safe. A documentary-based study also allows for a detailed and focused examination of the stories and debates which exist in relevant literature. These stories often go untold and unexamined and could help provide answers for the dilemmas and difficulties experienced by professionals in the field, as well as by women living with PCOS.
Doing documentary research should not be considered an ‘easy’ option. It must be systematic and rigorous. Narrowing down large samples of documents involves meticulous sorting and searching. The work is entirely desk based and I spend a LOT of time staring at documents on my screen. I occasionally experience ‘medical language overload’ where, as someone with no medical background, I start to feel overwhelmed by the new and unfamiliar terminology. Below is a good illustration of what this looks like!
My advice for others thinking of changing their projects is to talk to your peers and supervisors as much as possible. Many of us across Sociology and the HASS faculty have now been through significant project changes, some of which have been much more dramatic than this one! Try to stay positive and know that your project can still be truly engaging and enjoyable, even if it’s not what you originally had in mind.
I quickly learned to love and enjoy my newly adapted project. Although I’d still like to interview PCOS professionals, I am finding that using only documentary research methods is a truly effective way to understand the nuances and complexities of the PCOS diagnostic category. If it had not been for having to change my project due to the global pandemic, I would never have discovered this.
Adrienne Attorp is a Sociology and Social Policy PhD student at Newcastle University, studying agriculture policy and land use in Ireland. Here she reflects on the challenge of incorporating emotion in to academic work.
Question: As academics, and, in particular, as sociologists, how acceptable is it for us to be emotional? I don’t mean as individuals, but as professionals.
In general, emotion is a tricky subject. How much emotion is too much? Who gets to show emotion, for what reason, and when? Answers to these questions depend heavily on context.
For example, it seems it is not OK for women in positions of power to show emotion. That is a sign of weakness, evidence of a woman’s inability to hack it in a world of powerful men. Case in point (there are many): This past week, American Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was called out on Twitter for being ‘too emotional’ following an interview outside a migrant detention centre on the American-Mexican border.
Conversely, it seems it is OK (at least these days, in ‘the West’) for a man in power to show some emotion, or tap into his ‘feminine side’. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has political tears down to an art, and Barack Obama also cried more than once during his presidency (e.g. here and here). Both are applauded for it.
However, outside the modern political sphere, it is still not 100% OK for men to be vulnerable, unlike us delicate womenfolk. A quick Google search throws up myriad lists of the sort “when it is OK for a man to cry?” Apparently, there are rules governing this issue. Being emotional is complicated!
So what about emotion in academia? Obviously, to argue a point effectively, academics have to be measured and relatively neutral. The degree to which this is important depends somewhat on an individual academic’s chosen stance. In the context of policymaking, Cairney and Oliver (2018) write that an academic can chose to be an ‘activist scholar’ or an ‘honest broker’, the former being less neutral.
It also depends on discipline. Two of my supervisors are economists and they are clearly taken aback by the amount of ‘emotional’ language sociologists use. But, at the end of the day, even sociologists have to be careful not to get carried away, ‘activist scholar’ or not. We must take pains to present a balanced argument and not appear to be too emotionally involved in our research.
Intellectually, I understand that this is important, and I am not necessarily advocating otherwise. However, two years into this PhD business, I sometimes still struggle to put this into practice. How are we supposed to separate emotion from our work when so much of what we research as sociologists is, well, incredibly emotional? Sociology is about society, about lives. Sometimes those lives are pretty tough. Here at Newcastle University we have people researching everything from refugee experiences to child abuse and homelessness. That ain’t light stuff.
On a personal level, in reflecting on why I am here, in academia, it comes down to one basic fact: I am angry. Furious actually. The social challenges and ecological breakdown we are currently experiencing – the result of a whole host of interconnected political, social and economic factors – fill me with rage and frustration. I know that we, as a species, have the potential to be so much better.
On bad days, anger takes a break and grief and fear pay a visit. For example, last week I was sent into a bit of a tailspin by news that British Columbia’s once vast salmon run has all but failed to return this year. Although various pressures can be blamed for the decline of this great fish, something that has been happening for a while now, climate breakdown looks to be the main culprit: hotter, drier summers are causing many smaller spawning streams to dry up, and it also appears the salmon are not coping well with warmer coastal waters.
Salmon are the lifeblood of coastal British Columbia, where I grew up. They are a critical part of the regional food chain: a staple food for indigenous peoples who have lived in the region for thousands of years, as well as for everything from otters and orcas to the towering coastal trees (bears feed on spawning fish and leave the remains of their meal on the forest floor, thereby fertilising the trees. I find this incredible). Salmon’s precipitous decline is already having disastrous knock-on effects for all other life that relies upon them. The fishing industry was also historically a huge employer of British Columbians; the industry’s collapse has hit coastal towns hard.
The loss of the salmon is just one of the many cascading changes already being written on the land I love as a result of climate breakdown. This sometimes makes me feel overwhelmed, and yes, pretty damn sad.
(I hope we can leave aside, for now, discussion of the fact that I am clearly in an incredibly privileged position if it is salmon I am crying over. I can hear you saying: “Turkish forces are using British weapons to bomb Syrian Kurds into oblivion as we speak. People are already losing their homes because of climate breakdown, and in many cases, instead of finding safe refuge elsewhere, they are being kept in deplorable refugee camps not fit for any lifeform. And you are worried about a few fish?!”. I take your point, but that is a discussion for another blog.)
What does all this have to do with emotion and academia? Indeed, what does this have to do with my current research, which is mainly about agriculture politics and cow poo, not salmon or climate change? Well, I have chosen to focus my work on agriculture because so many of the challenges we face – social, political, ecological – converge in the food system. Modern food production is one of the biggest contributors to climate change and ecological destruction globally, and some of the poorest people in the world work in the agriculture sector, often under grossly unfair conditions.
I am under no illusion that by doing a bit of research on agriculture policy I will fix the food system or stop climate change. However, I have spent quite a few years trying to figure out how to use my anger and grief constructively, and, for the time being, this PhD is fitting the bill. I have convinced myself that trying to make change, however small, is better than making no change at all. Geographer Susanne Moser refers to this as grounded hope.
The question then is: how do I channel my rage, my grief, my fear and frustration into something that is powerful and effective in an academic setting?
Many of the people who inspire me most are writers. When I doubt why I even bother, passionate essays about social and political change by the likes of poet Adrienne Rich, writer and playwright James Baldwin, and modern climate justice advocate Mary Annaïse Heglar can often snap me out of whatever funk I have fallen into.
James Baldwin said “You write in order to change the world”. He argued, “The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way a person looks or people look at reality, then you can change it.”
As Sociologists, we are not writers, we are academics. But academics write, and many of us, social scientists in particular, are in this game to try and make things better. If we cannot effectively convey in our writing the emotions we feel, are we actually able to effect change?
Author and activist Naomi Klein is vocal about the need to be more emotional about issues such as climate change. She speaks about how she – particularly as a woman – has been trained to speak in a calm and measured fashion when communicating lest she not be taken seriously. However, she says this causes a disconnect between the message that she is conveying – the causes and consequences of climate breakdown – and her affect. She argues that in order for people to take the emergency we are facing seriously and treat it as one, those of us communicating about it need to, at least on some level, show how emotional we are about it.
Academic writing is not about persuasive essays, nor is it public speaking. I accept that a sound academic argument cannot be as emotional as a James Baldwin essay or the column of a talented journalist. But if academic writing is to be the main form of communicating my work, how do I convey my emotion? How do I encourage change rather than restrict myself to analysing problems in a clinical manner and identifying possible solutions? Perhaps a sideline in blog writing (haha) or public speaking is the way forward. However, if I do write emotional blogs, or give emotional speeches, will I lose all hope of ever being regarded as a serious academic? Can emotion and academic credibility co-exist?
As I write these questions, plenty of passionate scholars pop to mind. I guess the answer is yes: academic writing is just one of several tools that will allow me to convey my message. Nevertheless, I remain mindful that activism comes with its own set of risks, especially for women who hope to have their research taken seriously. I am going to have to figure out how to get the balance right.
Cairney, P., & Oliver, K. (2018). How Should Academics Engage in Policymaking to Achieve Impact? Political Studies Review. https://doi.org/10.1177/1478929918807714
Melissa Whitaker is a second year Sociology PhD student at Newcastle University, studying social media, gender and sexuality. Here she passes on some excellent, hard-earned writing advice.
Following on from the theme of recent blogs posts here, I wanted to talk about a useful lesson I’ve learnt as a result of attending a few writing workshops, summer schools, and of course, the sociology writing retreat: the value of writing a rubbish first draft. I have always found it very hard to start the writing process, to the extent that during my undergraduate degree I almost missed multiple essay deadlines.
I am great at planning. You might say too great, because I usually end up in an endless procrastination spiral of writing to-do lists for my to do lists, creating elaborate essay plans and then rewarding myself with a few goes on Candy Crush. When it comes down to actually writing, however, I have always been faced with an overwhelming anxiety, which I would try and avoid by making another cup of tea or re-organising my H drive. Although I have come a long way from handing in essays with just a few minutes to spare, I still struggle with the writing process, so I jumped at the chance to attend some academic writing events made available to me throughout the last year.
Snack writing, not writing with snacks!
My first experience with writing retreats was when I attended the BSA PG Forum in Glasgow back in April. I took part in a taster writing retreat lead by Tina Davey, founder of Quill Out, an organisation which arranges thesis boot camps and academic writing retreats to give academics and doctoral students the chance to get a good chunk of writing done. It was here that I first learnt of Rowena Murray and her academic writing techniques, particularly the idea of snack writing. I must say I was a little disappointed when I found out that this did not mean sitting down to write with a lovely packet of chocolate Hobnob biscuits (my personal favourite). Instead, it was explained that snack writing is when you do short bursts of writing, ideally on a regular basis, the idea being that by making writing a part of your routine it will soon become a habit and a much less overwhelming experience. This was an alien concept to me as I had always followed what I now know to be the ‘binge writing’ logic – sitting down with my laptop and writing until it’s done!
So, for the remainder of the session a group of us PhD students took part in a quick snack writing session, and I was completely surprised with how much I managed to get done. I think knowing that I couldn’t possibly write ‘the perfect draft’ in such a short amount of time meant that the anxiety that I am usually faced with when writing was replaced with a ‘just write!’ attitude. This was only a one-and-a-half-hour session, so I was excited to take some of these lessons with me and try them out on my own and at the Sociology writing retreat happening a couple of months later.
Sociology Writing Retreat
The PGR sociology writing retreat was my very first full-on writing retreat and I was excited to see if the skills I had learnt from my mini Quill Out session would be effective in a more dedicated retreat setting.
I don’t want to talk too much about how the retreat went because there are 2 fabulous blog posts already out there which you can read that tell you all about it (link?). But the structure of the retreat was inspired by Rowena Murrays ‘Writing Retreat Facilitator Guide’, in that there was a mixture of snack writing sessions, generous breaks (which included the appearance of chocolate Hobnob biscuits) and some lovely walks around the local area. Again, I found that the snack writing logic allowed me to abandon the quest for ‘the perfect draft’, which usually results in me re-writing the same sentence 15 times, only to end up with the sentence I began with. By simply giving myself permission to write badly, I found myself writing around 3,000 words in just one day! It’s fair to say that I knew most of it would be heavily edited, but the groundwork was done and I had something to work with.
NINE-DTP Summer School
Most recently, and what really inspired me to write this blog, was a mini writing workshop called ‘Academic Writing and Reducing Anxiety’ at the first NINE-DTP summer school which took place at Durham University. This workshop was facilitated by Dr Catriona Ryan, and throughout the course of the session she taught a group of us students her 7-step academic writing methodology for reducing anxiety. I won’t go through each step, but the general backbone of all 7 steps was planning is key! By making a really thorough plan and knowing exactly what we want from each section, paragraph and topic, we can make the writing process easier. We made countless spider diagrams for each paragraph we wanted to write, added relevant quotes and literature and practiced topic sentences until in just under 3 hours I had a skeleton draft of the chapter I wanted to write. Contrary to the statement I made in the introduction, I found that I probably wasn’t as good at planning as I thought, because none of the plans I had made in the past had made me excited to actually start the writing process.
Each of the experiences mentioned above have really taught me the value of writing a shitty first draft and I want to leave you with a quote from Rowena Murrays How to Write a Thesis;
‘It is yet another myth of academic writing that only students write badly, that only those who get blocked write very little: ‘Believe me, we’ve all written manure’ (Palumbo 2000: 37)’
If you are someone like me and has an outstanding capacity to procrastinate and regularly finds themselves overwhelmed by the concept of writing, then I urge you to have a look at some of Rowena Murray’s or Dr Catriona Ryan’s work and perhaps attend one of their workshops or retreats yourself.
I am of course not implying that this will fix everyone’s problems. Everyone works differently and you might find none of what they say useful, but if you are interested in learning more, here are some books which have helped me!:
Dr. James Cummings recently graduated from Newcastle University with a PhD in Sociology. Here he reflects on his PhD experience and dispenses some top tips for students who are about to start out on their own PhD, as well as for those who are still in it, and need a reminder that it’s all going to be a-OK!
Editor’s note: This is an abbreviated version of a presentation James gave at Newcastle University in June 2019. The full presentation can be found here.
I actually found it surprisingly difficult to sit down and begin putting together some thoughts about my PhD experience. I think part of the problem is that looking back, it doesn’t feel like clearly definable journey, something with a definite start, end and separable periods along the way, and it is certainly not something that now, having passed my Viva and made my final submission, I feel that I can look back on and give a concise summary account. Of course, there are those more tangible moments that we can pin the story of our PhDs on: project approval, the APR, ethical approval, fieldwork, writing up, submission and the Viva. But the PhD is much more than this series of stepping stones.
Having said this, however, I think the metaphor of stepping stones is perhaps a useful way to begin to think about the PhD journey. If pinpoints like project approval, the APR, or, further down the line, the completion of a certain chapter and even the Viva, are like stepping stones through a river, then ‘the PhD experience’ is something more like the water that rushes between these points; sometimes the water is clear, sometimes it’s murky; sometimes it’s calm and cooling, sometimes scary and seemingly out of control; it is something that often leaves us feeling out of our depth, struggling to keep our heads above the water, but also something in which we cast ourselves adrift and can be led to new discoveries, both academic and personal.
So what I want to share here are some of my experiences of wading through a PhD, some of the excitement and sense of achieve that comes with each step, some tips for standing up against the tide and some experiences of losing my footing, getting caught in whirlpools, but eventually, with the help of others, pulling myself out again. I hope that there is something in what I have to share that everyone can relate to, but I think it is important to start off by saying that just like if wading through a river no two people can step into the same patch of water, there is no singular or standard ‘PhD experience’.
Top tips for Surviving and Thriving during your PhD
1. Everyone’s experience of a PhD is different.
What works for one person might not work for another and we all work at different paces and intensities. While it’s sometimes tempting to compare ourselves to others as a way to try and gauge our progress, and we might long a universal secret to success, there is a limit to how useful such comparison or catch-all advice can be. When I think about my PhD cohort, each of us had very different experiences; we struggled with different aspects of the journey and excelled at different stages. Although we all helped each other along the way, each of us had to find a pace and style that worked for us.
2. Losing confidence and losing your way is completely normal and part of the process.
One of the most salient features of my PhD were the constant shifts in confidence. Over the course of my PhD, across the different aspects of my thesis and even over the course of a single day I often went from feeling like I knew exactly what I was doing and that what I was writing was insightful to feeling that I was completely lost and that everything I wrote was pointless.
I think one of the most important things to try and do along the PhD journey, but also one of the most difficult, is to maintain confidence in the value and quality of our work and our ability to complete it. This is important not only for our own happiness and stability, but with confidence comes excitement and motivation, and the whole process of doing the PhD become easier.
Losing confidence and losing your way is completely normal and part of the process. Thinking carefully about where uncertainties are coming from may turn them into opportunities for progress of a different kind.
3. Know your strengths and passions and use these to your advantage…
…especially when you feel stuck or lose confidence. Of course, an integral part of the PhD is being pushed out of comfortable ways of thinking and developing new skills, but knowing our individual strengths and returning to these when we need to can be an important way of regaining confidence, overcoming writers block and re-energising ourselves.
4. Spend time in your shared office, share your concerns and share your PhD journey with those around you.
I think that one of the things that makes us so susceptible to losing confidence and feeling lost along the PhD journey is the fact that it can be a lonely process; we devote ourselves to our individual projects and the thesis can sometimes feel like a rabbit hole that we’ve fallen into and can’t find our way out of again. Added to this is the pressure of knowing that responsibility for the quality of our research rest largely on our individual shoulders. We can often end up feeling alone and overwhelmed. This was certainly something that I felt at various points, especially during writing up, when the thesis begins to take shape but can feel like a hole that you’re digging deeper and deeper, and I know that loneliness was something that others in my PhD cohort struggled with. To some extent, this is unavoidable; we are the sole authors of our theses and no one else is as caught up in the minute details of our research as we are. But there are ways of coping with and reducing the feeling of isolation.
For me, one of the most important things that got me through my PhD and made me feel less alone was working in a shared office and having people around me who were going through the same issues. For all the trials and tribulations of doing a PhD, I still found it a massively enjoyable journey and I owe a lot of that to the people that I shared an office with. Even though we all worked on very different projects, having others around me with whom I could share my worries and talk through ideas made it so much easier to articulate and face up to a particular problem. Often just having someone to try and explain a problem to and the process of speaking out loud, was enough to put things in perspective, to gain clarity, and find a way to move on. Also, listening to other people’s worries reminds you that you are not alone and that it is normal to struggle.
5. Get involved with activities in the department and think of yourself as part of the research community.
In addition to feeling a sense of belonging to my office, something that has been very important for me is a sense of belonging to the department. This certainly helped me to feel less isolated and to feel that I haven’t just been working on my own research but have been part of a research community and contributing to the research culture in Sociology. This has also been the most important way in which I’ve gone from coming into the PhD feeling like a student, to finishing my PhD feeling like an academic.
6. Make use of your supervisors.
One of the key sources of support during the PhD process is, of course, our supervisors. Besides ourselves, the only other people who are deeply invested in our research and have an understanding of the specific problems that we might be facing are our supervisors. For me, my supervisors have been an incredible source of guidance and support.
7. Try to find a work routine and give yourself time and space to switch off.
Another problem that can arise in the PhD is the feeling that it is taking over your life; you wake up thinking about your research; you spend all day working on your research; you go to bed thinking about your research and, on occasion, you wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night having dreamt about your research. Sometimes, the way that the PhD pervades every moment of your life is unavoidable, particularly during intense periods of writing, and the only way to cope with this is to constantly carry a pen and note pad with you so that when an idea comes to you, you can note it down to think about later. However, I think it is also important to try and find ways to take time out from the PhD and to set some time aside to work on other things. It is much easier to maintain motivation and excitement about your research, and avoid exhaustion, when you feel that it is something you are engaged in for a defined period of time and working through in small steps, rather than something that is constantly weighing on your mind.
This doesn’t necessarily mean being in the office nine to five, Monday to Friday and it may be a matter of finding times and spaces that work for you. But it can be very helpful to aim for a routine and structured approach to work, especially during the writing up stages when we are most susceptible to feeling overwhelmed.
8. Diversify your PhD experience, break up the monotony of writing up with activities that are exciting but still feel productive.
Allowing time to get involved in activities that may have a connection to your PhD but don’t involve sitting down and writing can be a good way to maintain momentum and feel that you are being productive, while also taking a break from staring blankly at a word document wishing that words would appear.
There are all sorts of activities that can play this role. For me, teaching, in particular, has been an opportunity to take a break from writing while still doing something that was part of my PhD experience in a broader sense. I know that for others such activities have included organising events and conferences, making and showing films, writing short pieces for non-academic audiences, and engaging in volunteer work connected their research.
9. Sometimes you just have to power through and commit to getting something finished.
In spite of everything I just said about small achievable tasks and a comfortable work routine, there may still be times when you have to commit to finishing something, which may mean working through the night or typing out a stream of consciousness until everything you want to say is down on paper. It can be hard to push yourself in this way, especially in the early stages of writing up when your submission deadline seems far enough away that it won’t matter if you spend another week working on a chapter. But in my experience, a week can easily turn into two weeks, then a month, and so on. Sometimes, it is worth pushing yourself to hit a deadline and moving on to something else, even if this means producing work that you are not entirely satisfied with.
10. Your thesis doesn’t have to be perfect, it just needs to make sense and be finished.
This is of course easier to say than to put into practice and I know that the fact that we have chosen to do PhDs means that we are largely the sort of people who obsess over details and nuances, but I always found it helpful to remind myself that the PhD is our first piece of independent, large-scale research; it is not a magnum opus; it is only the beginning of our research careers and is bound to have its faults and things we wish we had more time and space to work on. A thesis has its limits and sometimes a well-used footnote that begrudgingly acknowledges these limits and gives you license to move on might just save you months of anguish and frustration.
So, those were my ten tips for surviving and mostly thriving during your PhD, these are things that I wish I could have told myself at the start of my journey, things I learned along the way and things that worked for me.
Of all of these, perhaps the first and the fourth points are most important, at least they were for me. The PhD is very much an individual journey and we can’t always judge our own success and progress through comparison to others, but this doesn’t mean that we are in it alone. It is a journey that we make alongside others and, for me, it was the support of friends and colleagues that carried me through my PhD and made it an enjoyable journey.
Further to two recent blog posts on the Sociology PGR writing retreat held in June, here are some more (final!) reflections on the experience. This time Claire, Karina and Adrienne weigh in.
The retreat was a great space to have some quiet time to write – actually doing this in a group made me much more focussed on getting my work done! I think watching everyone else get their heads down and write made me want to do the same. I really loved the structure, I think if I hadn’t have had this I might not have got as much done as I actually did. I am really glad we factored in some time to get out for some fresh air too.
It had been a good while since I had written anything structured so it did take me an hour or so to get into doing this, but the whole environment really helped me do so. If I was to do this again I would break my goals down into more specific and manageable achievements rather than having the aim of ‘starting to write a part of my literature review’.
It was lovely to socialise with the other PGR students who I don’t see very often, and get to know everyone better.
The retreat was very productive for me. I focused on the analysis of two interviews and wrote about them. I also finished some memos.
Staying away was an interesting experience and helped me achieve my goals. I had some time to share some ideas with colleagues and listen to what they are researching. We were in different phases of our work, so we don’t always cross over – it was important to discuss what we do and what we are planning to do in our theses.
I also really enjoyed socializing with colleagues in a different environment, and to get to know them a bit better.
One might expect that the primary benefit of going on a writing retreat would be getting a lot of writing done. Of course, holing away for two days with a bunch of other PhD students who are also trying madly to put words on paper is a boon for the writing process; I did manage to finish editing a paper I was working on, which I am obviously pleased about. However, for me, the best part of heading to rural Northumberland for a couple of days with other PGRs based here in Newcastle University’s Sociology department was the chance to get to know my colleagues a bit better. Yes, we worked hard and were productive, but we also spent lots of time talking to each other about our successes, our failures and our frustrations (and about non-PhD life too of course – we are only human!). This was not always formalised – the best chats often happened while preparing meals or playing cards in the evening. Speaking to other PhD students who are also in the midst of the struggle that is writing a passably intelligent thesis was reassuring and encouraging. Aside from this, it was just really nice to get to know everyone – I think this PGR cohort is now much more cohesive for having spent a bit of informal time together!
But…back to the writing. There were a number of tactics we employed at the retreat which I thought worked really well:
- We always wrote in set, scheduled chunks of time, which is something I find incredibly useful. It was good to be reminded how effective I can be when I work that way.
- We broke up the day with different activities, which made each chunk of time feel manageable. As a result, I felt I was able to write effectively, in a focused manner, nearly every time we sat down.
- We set writing goals before we left for the retreat, and mapped out how we were going to achieve them over the two working days. We revisited these goals each day, which kept me on track.
- Of course, being in a room where everyone else is also focused and working hard makes it a lot easier to do the same.
Overall the writing retreat was a great experience. I am looking forward to the next one already!
As described in our most recent blog, the Sociology PGR cohort went on a two-day residential writing retreat in rural Northumberland last month. It was hugely successful: everyone wrote lots, we got to know each other a bit better, and most importantly, we all had a good time!
Once back, we each took some time to reflect on the experience and write a bit about it. Some key reflections from Angela, Katrina and Melissa are highlighted here (stay tuned for part 2 next week!).
For me the writing retreat was really beneficial in helping me to think about the writing process and discover new ways of approaching it. I really enjoyed writing in a supportive and relaxed environment and spending time with the other Sociology PGR students.
I think taking myself away from my usual working spaces helped me to think a little more reflexively about my writing and meant I was able to re-examine some of my work using a bit of a different lens. This was beneficial in helping me to restructure my preliminary methodology chapter as I realised that during my initial writing-up phase, I’d become a little lost in writing up the specific details and had perhaps neglected to pay attention to how the different sections of this chapter could fit together. Completing these longer sections of writing is still relatively new to me and I am finding that being able to take a bit of a step back is incredibly important in ensuring I do not lose sight of the bigger picture.
Personally, setting a specific goal for each timed session proved to be particularly helpful in ensuring I was productive during my time at the retreat. The day before the retreat I broke down my goals into individual tasks that could be completed within the one and a half hour dedicated writing blocks. For example, I spent one session re-reading my methodology section and thinking about how I could reshape it, and another writing up a reflection in my research diary concerning my methodological decisions and how these are taking shape even as I write up the chapter.
For me, the main lesson learned in taking a bit of a lead in organising accommodation and transport for the retreat has been the importance of enlisting others’ help when trying to organise this kind of event. Although setting up a formal ‘steering committee’ was not really necessary, it was only through arranging group discussions, setting up a group chat and sharing out responsibilities that we were able to finalise the most important details of the trip, e.g. deciding on a structure for the retreat; establishing a deadline for setting individual writing goals; and deciding who would contribute what in terms of food and preparing meals.
This was my first experience of a writing retreat and I was pretty unsure about what to expect and how I would feel about it. As the dates for the retreat drew closer I became increasingly excited about, seeing it as a great opportunity to spend time with my PGR peers. Angela spent a huge amount of time and work researching, planning and booking the retreat, which I am massively grateful for. I think that having an itinerary really helped us to make to the most out of the time that we had away together.
Deciding on what piece(s) of work I wanted to focus on, before the trip, was really helpful, and this is something that I am going to try and use more within my own work schedule moving forward. My main focus while away was working on my presentation slide and script for the first year HaSS conference. I really lack confidence in any kind of public speaking/conference setting and typically put off this sort of prep work, so it was useful to set some time aside to focus on this. It was also really helpful talking to the others on the retreat about the content of my presentation, and more generally about public speaking/preparing for conferences. It was reassuring to hear that others feel the same way and to get some hints/tips on presenting techniques.
Over the retreat it was really interesting to find out more about everyone’s research projects in more detail. It also gave me the opportunity to talk about my own work in more depth in a friendly and supportive environment. Spending time with others further along their PhD was also really encouraging and gave us an opportunity to talk about practical issues with interviewing/recruitment and also about teaching opportunities within the department.
Having time set aside for breaks and the walk up to the waterfall worked really well and was something that I really enjoyed. I loved how relaxed I felt with everyone and enjoyed the evenings chatting and playing card games. I definitely gained a lot from the writing retreat experience and really hope that there is an opportunity to go on another soon!
My goal for the writing retreat was to write a small section of a chapter of my literature review – specifically, a review of a strand of literature which looks into the prevalence and character of online sexual harassment on mobile dating sites. I had made a writing plan prior to going so that I could spend my full time writing, rather than reading and looking over the literature. In my plan I set out the beginning, middle and end of my discussion and within each section I wrote topic sentences, the main points I wished to make and some quotes from literature to support my arguments. This was extremely helpful as it discouraged me from procrastinating and made delving into the writing exercise less overwhelming. During the writing retreat I succeeded in completing my planned writing goals. A lot of it I will most likely have to edit, as I was largely writing anything that came to my head and just getting it down on paper. However, I was surprised at how helpful ‘just writing’ is. The constant flow of writing, and the ‘don’t care that it’s not perfect’ attitude it encouraged, actually served to bring out ideas and discussions that I don’t think I would have considered if I was writing it in a different context (i.e. at my desk in the PGR office, going up to get more tea every hour). I think the fear of not being perfect can actually hinder the quality of writing sometimes, and this whole process did help me get over that and appreciate that sometimes we do just have to write a crappy first draft.
Whilst the main goal of a writing retreat is to get some writing done, the real value of this retreat (for me anyway) was the ‘peer mentoring’ and discussions that were had. Whether it was over tea and biscuits during our organised breaks from writing, or whilst having a glass of wine with dinner, being able to ask questions and hearing that others were having the same concerns as me, in a friendly and informal setting, was so helpful. Having people at different stages of the PhD, and who have different kinds of experiences and advice to offer, meant that a lot of us could ask questions about things, which someone later on their PhD could give some insight on. As a first year PhD, I found this really reassuring.
Stay tuned for more reflections on the PGR writing retreat next week! We hear from Karina, Claire and Adrienne next.
This year, Newcastle University’s Sociology PGR cohort went on our very first residential writing retreat. First year PhD student Angela Plessas, one of our PGR reps, writes here about her experience of helping organise the event (we are pleased to report she has nearly recovered from the experience).
Early this academic year, Newcastle University’s Sociology PGRs decided it would be a great idea to organise an off-campus writing retreat: a fun way to spend some focused time writing, while also providing a chance for us to get to know each other a bit better, thereby strengthening the PGR community. As one of this year’s PGR reps, I volunteered to help organise the event.
Of course, doing so was not entirely straightforward as there were a few hurdles to overcome. However, in the end, with the support of Sociology’s PGR Director Lisa Garforth (thanks Lisa!), we succeeded in putting together an event which catered to our individual writing needs while also making writing a fun and social experience.
First, we needed place to stay – somewhere that was relatively nearby and accessible, had suitable writing spaces and allowed us to keep within our available budget. Finding this kind of accommodation was a little difficult, but after much searching and a few false starts, we found one location that met nearly all of our needs: a YHA bunkhouse just outside of Hexham.
Next, we needed to get there. Again, arranging transport was far more challenging than expected. Restrictions on which minibus companies we could use, who was able to drive the minibus, etc., flummoxed all of our early planning attempts. Thankfully, we eventually found a minibus company that was both within our budget and on the university’s approved list of taxi companies! Result.
Once the basic details were in place, we got together as a group to finalise the specific details of the retreat. We agreed on the importance of goal setting and ensuring the retreat was well-structured. We also discussed practical arrangements such as cooking and who would bring what in terms of food contributions.
Having a clear structure laid out before our arrival played a major role in our productivity (thanks to Clare who wrote up a great structure and timetable for the retreat, with a mix of writing and group activities!). Although we were fairly disciplined in sticking to the timetable – particularly our planned one and a half hour writing sessions – we did adjust it slightly by taking a more informal approach to the peer mentoring and goal-discussion sessions, as well as the final debrief at the end. Doing this worked well for us, and as a group we really succeeded at sharing ideas, concerns and experiences, and encouraged one another to make the most of this intensive writing period.
Planning breaks into the structure, and even fitting in a walk to the nearby Hareshaw Linn Waterfall, gave us the time and space to think reflexively in a new and unfamiliar setting and to ensure that the time spent away from campus was especially productive.
The decision to set goals a couple of weeks before the writing retreat was also especially useful – it meant that we each knew exactly what we were working on, could prepare accordingly and were able to sit down as a group, eliminate distractions and work collectively towards achieving our individual writing aims.
For future writing retreats I think that trying out specific writing techniques such as the pomodoro technique (which involves working on a particular writing task within 25 minute slots), organising timed writing activities such as ‘free’ and ‘generative’ thesis writing within these 25 minute slots, or arranging sessions dedicated specifically to reading one another’s work and sharing feedback, might help us to work on developing specific writing skills and introduce us to new writing strategies aimed at increasing efficiency and productivity. Nonetheless, for a first writing retreat, this proved to be a great opportunity to spend time with our fellow Sociology PGRs, while also giving each of us dedicated writing time in a supportive and relaxed environment. We are already planning the next one! (We are thinking Greece, but aren’t sure the budget will stretch!)
Second year Sociology PhD Student Angus Mcvittie reflects on some of his favourite reads of the past year. The first in a series of book reviews to be featured on the PGR Sociology @ Newcastle University Blog.
Diane Reay (2017)
Since the first year of my undergraduate degree, I have been a big fan of Diane Reay’s work (something I mentioned on first meeting her to my now great embarrassment). In ‘Miseducation’ Reay combines an accessible writing style with a powerful and emotive critique of social injustice to produce a work that is as emotionally engaging as it is intellectually stimulating. Drawing on statistics, qualitative research data, and her experience as a working-class student and inner-city primary school teacher, Reay details an education system that reproduces privilege and punishes the working classes. Beginning with the introduction of mandatory state education, Reay considers how class shapes experience of education, from access to resources like “good” schools and parental support to the stigmatisation and devaluation of working-class culture and values within educational institutions. Reay shows the difficult road working-class children face to academic success, and the challenges met by those working-class children who do “succeed”, with particularly insightful reflections on her own experiences as an academically successful, working-class female.
Though apparently retired, Reay spoke at the “Bourdieu Study Group 2nd Biennial International Conference 2018: Reproduction and Resistance”, expanding upon the biographical element of Miseducation in a rousing performance which achieved a standing ovation. Soon after, organisers announced the study group is to hold an event in her honour at some point next year. In the meantime, I would strongly recommend ‘Miseducation; and more of Dianne Reay’s work, which you can find via her institutional profile page: https://www.educ.cam.ac.uk/people/staff/reay/
The New Social Mobility: How the Politicians Got It Wrong
Geoff Payne (2017)
Payne is another established scholar with a history of work challenging unfairness and inequality. ‘The New Social Mobility’ draws on a range of literature, research and theoretical insight to provide an engaging look at how social mobility has been misunderstood, and how we can begin to better understand it. Beginning by dispelling the many myths around social mobility (telling us mobility rates are not, for example, “low and falling”), Payne highlights how a focus on “upward social mobility” has obscured our understanding of the workings of social mobility generally, and how illusions of upward social mobility distributed by fair meritocratic means serves as a source of political legitimacy. In an accessible but extensive 200(ish) pages, Payne provides a balanced yet engaging argument as to how social mobility is neither as scarce nor as far-reaching as we have been lead to believe, as well as an exploration of who wins and loses in our current system of “mobility”. Payne writes in an enjoyable and witty fashion. His skilful deployment of poignant humour is a great asset to the book, though never detracts from the seriousness of the situation he seeks to reflect. The book has a point to make and does so well, ending on the proclamation: “Improving mobility rates will do little to reduce social inequality, but reducing social inequality is the sure way to achieving greater social mobility.”(p173)
Recently Payne worked alongside Lisa Garforth and Anselma Gallinat to organise the “Merit or Meritocracy” conference at Newcastle University, and edit a special edition of Discover society with articles from the conference delegates https://discoversociety.org/2018/10/02/focus-merit-and-meritocracy/ . More of his work can be found on his staff profile page at https://www.ncl.ac.uk/gps/staff/profile/geoffpayne.html#publications
Pitbull: The Battle Over an American Icon
Bronwen Dickey (2017)
Though its subject matter is far from my own area of research or “expertise”, I found this book to be an excellent read. ‘Pitbull: The Battle Over an American Icon’ considers the history of the breed and the social processes that have led to its stigmatisation. Banned in the UK under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, Pitbulls have become associated with crime and inner-city youth. Based in the US, Dickey’s own experience as a happenstance adoptive Pitbull owner inspires the book, which draws on interviews with various experts and dog owners, as well as on statistical data and policy, media and scientific literature analysis, to produce a truly engaging work. A journalist by trade, the book reads like an academic monograph (though to its credit is far more accessible than many) and is a stark and thought-provoking exploration of how social class and racial stigma, as well as poor academic practice and moral panic, have taken the Pitbull from “nanny dog” to monster over the last hundred years or so.
As a proud Rottweiler owner, I have my own experiences of the undue prejudice that people, with no knowledge of an animal, will attach to it because of its reputation or appearance. Reflecting on the book, I was struck by a strong realisation that even those most “aware” of processes of stigmatisation fall easily into prejudices not related to the subject matter of their own research. As I meet academics and other PhD students who grimace at the mention of a “Rottweiler” and comment on them being “scary” or “dangerous”, it is evident just how easily preconceptions can become embedded. The book is an excellent exploration of folk-devilry, and provides a call for reflection that can benefit even the most “aware”.
Bronwen Dickey has produced journalistic work on a number of topics some of which are linked on her website: https://www.bronwendickey.com/book-1/
 I wrote an article in this edition. This is therefore a thinly veiled plug for my own work.
 See also Simon Harding’s fantastic book ‘Unleashed’, which is equally deserving of a place on this list.
 Another breed deemed “dangerous” and frequently stigmatised in the media
 I should be clear; as a white heterosexual male this is about my only experience of “undue prejudice”