How not to write a literature review: Part 1

2014.11.07.not-lit-reviewWhen I began my PhD studies nearly a year ago, I did so knowing that the first year would be, essentially, writing a literature review. I was told over and over again that it was all about reading, reading, reading, and writing.

Everyone I spoke to assured me that I would feel lost and confused. I was told to expect to feel like a failure; to expect to doubt myself. I was told that I would be reading more than ever before—and that some of the reading would be a waste of time.

Keep reading. Keep reading. Keep reading.

Those words echoed in my mind over the first eight or nine months.

But then—all of the sudden—I realised I wasn’t doing enough writing! In fact, I was doing very little writing.

Why? Because I didn’t know how.

I had done so much reading that all of the ideas were running wild in my head. I couldn’t corral them; I couldn’t control them.

When I attempted to express my ideas on paper, I felt that I wasn’t “good enough” to critique the works of others. I felt that I wasn’t clever enough to put my words and my opinions into the mix.

Eventually, I found a bit of confidence to start writing but it was a challenge. There were so many thoughts in my head—so many references to reflect on—that it was overwhelming. It was so overwhelming that I didn’t know how to organise my thoughts.

Soon, the overwhelming feelings morphed into fear which morphed into serious self-doubt—which only made the writing more challenging.

But I needed to write. So I did. I just wrote and wrote and soon I had 6,000 words. But the structure was confusing and there were lots of repeated ideas. Still, I kept writing. And eventually, there were more than 10,000 words. But the structure was still too confusing and there were still too many repeated thoughts.

The solution? Stop writing!

Yes, by that point the document was so confusing that I needed to start from scratch. I needed to build a new structure and start from there.

With the help of one of my supervisors, a new structure was determined. And then I started my word count over at zero. Oh, what a sad day that was!

With the new structure decided, I opened up a fresh document and began moving text across from the old one. I moved it bit-by-bit, starting from the top of the new document, working my way down. By the end of the first day, I was back up to 3,700 words. And by the end of the first week, I was up to 6,000.

But the words were better quality; the words flowed better and actually made sense.

Eventually, I found myself with a literature review of nearly 12,000 words, which has formed part of a larger annual review report of nearly 17,000 words (that’s 68 pages if you wondered).

I’ve sent the annual review report off to my advisory panel and now I have a week and a half to wait and wring my fingers whilst I stress and panic that it won’t be good enough.

And I will stress. Every single day. Because I am now so convinced that my literature review is absolutely horrible and there’s no way I’ll pass my annual review.

But just in case I’m wrong, I will continue to reflect on the document so that I can improve upon it for my main PhD thesis.

Of course, if I could start all over, I know what I’d do differently. And I’m going to try to remember those lessons when it comes time to start on my methods chapter (up next!).

So what’s my advice to someone starting out today? That’s easy: Start today!

Start putting your thoughts on paper immediately. They might be wrong; they might be conveyed in a casual or even half-baked manner; they might get deleted later. It doesn’t matter. Write! And write right now!

Why? Because you’ll get your ideas out of your head and onto a piece of paper (or a computer screen). Because you’ll have something to show your supervisors, who can help guide you in the right direction. Because you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment. Because you’ll have something to look back on later, showing how far you’ve come from Day One!

In between now and my annual review meeting later this month, I will be taking some time to read more about research methods for my investigation. But I’ll be reading with my pen and pad handy so that I can write as I read.

As you can tell, I’m running a little massively short on self-esteem just now. Hopefully I’ll be able to share some positive outcomes soon though!

The conference circuit

2014.07.02.me-sicsa-posterI’ve had a busy few weeks of conferences and seminars and am finally catching my breath again. I had originally planned to share each of these events separately, but I was fighting off the deadly common cold for much of my time on the “conference circuit” so never got around to it. Still, this is a good exercise in getting back to my PhD blog!

The first conference was the SICSA PhD Conference, held in St Andrews. The two-day event was open to Scotland-based computer science and informatics PhD students and provided opportunities for workshops and presentations.

I jumped at the opportunity to present my first academic poster at the event and was pleased to have been shortlisted for a prize. (Sadly, I didn’t make the final cut, but it felt good to be shortlisted for my first poster out of the gate!)

The following week I attended the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science (SGSSS) Summer School in Edinburgh. It was a bit difficult to decide which seminars to attend, and I admit that one or two of them were the wrong choice, but I gained a lot of useful information from all of them. (Yes, even the wrong choice ones.)

The best takeaways from the week were a better understanding of my own philosophical leanings (as they pertain to research) and some great insights into the design of mixed methods studies. And, of course, I made some excellent connections with other PhD students and some of the academic presenters.

Last week saw me travelling to Glasgow for the SGSSS Research Methods in Information Science workshops at the University of Strathclyde. I was very excited about the literature review workshop as that’s my biggest task for the summer. I’ve attended a couple of shorter literature review sessions, but this one gave such a great explanation of a narrative literature review that I feel everything else makes more sense now.

Of course, last week was also the 2014 iDocQ (also in Glasgow) which was by far the best of all of the conferences! OK, I have to say that because I was on the planning committee and chaired most of the day’s programme. (It truly was a team effort though, with Calum Liddle of The University of Strathclyde, Wachi Klungthanaboon of The University of Glasgow, and Chikezie Emele of Robert Gordon University all pitching in to do their fair share of the work.)

One of the delegates, Christine Irving, gave such a wonderful recap of the event that I’ll point you there for the full account!

I now have a bit of downtime (read: time to work on my literature review!) before my next conference (iFutures in Sheffield). I plan to present a poster and submit a paper for the conference proceedings there and am looking forward to yet another conference experience. And, hopefully, I won’t be sick this time!

[Photo Copyright Lynn Killick, one of my awesome office mates.]

 

What I say about “They Say/I Say”

2014.03.26.they-say-i-sayIt’s not often that I review books, but as it’s a bit of an academic “thing to do” I’ve decided that I will start participating in the practice. (Well, at least for some of the academic-y books I read; I’m sure the world doesn’t need yet another glowing review of the amazing works of Ian Rankin.)

I attended a training session on writing literature reviews the other week (presented by Dr Anne Schwan) and took on board the recommendation to read They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing (Graff and Birkenstein, 2014). In fact, as luck would have it there was a new edition being released the following week so I took the opportunity to pre-order it on Amazon.co.uk so that I’d have the latest-and-greatest version.

In a nutshell, They Say/I Say is an introduction to the art of writing an argument and creating an academic conversation. It is easy to read and offers examples and templates throughout the book—with useful exercises at the end of each chapter so that the reader can immediately put the concepts to test. Further, the authors use encouraging language that may help less-experienced students or academics overcome potential fears about not having the academic know-how or “credentials” to create arguments.

I feel that the book gave good (though sometimes basic) advice on how best to present an argument in a way that allows the conversation to continue. It helps to explain the process of—and the need for—summarising someone’s argument, as well as some “best practice” techniques for how and when to use quotes. (With an emphasis on making sure that quotes are relevant and to the point.)

My favourite thing about the book—and what I believe is the most useful reason for owning a copy—is the templates provided throughout the text. I feel that they work similar to a thesaurus by providing suggested ways to phrase an argument, in the same manner that we’d use a thesaurus to find alternative words so that we don’t continue to describe a flower as beautiful over and over again. After all, reading “He said…”, “He said…”, and “He said…” all in a row can get boring. But if you throw in a “The author notes that it could be argued …” from time-to-time is like describing that flower as prepossessing.

The third edition also includes new sections for writing about literature, using templates to revise, and even writing online. Further, the authors have launched a blog, continuing the lessons and conversation online. (I have added the blog to my RSS feed so that I don’t miss any updates.)

Practical pickiness:
On the practical side, the book is an extremely good value at around £12 for the paperback edition. It’s small size and light-weight materials make it easy to toss into your book bag for easy access when writing at the library.

However—and this is where my slightly obsessive-compulsive nature comes in—I was less than pleased with the book’s overall print quality.

First, the cover is a printed and coated card stock which feels weird to the touch. This printing method also means that the cover insists on curling upwards, meaning it will always look open when sitting on a desk. Next, the paper is (not too) thin and has a slight shine to it which is a little annoying as it gives off a slight glare from overhead lighting and doesn’t have the nice feel that other, less glossy papers have.

Again, this is my own personal brand of crazy and has nothing to do with the book’s substance and academic usefulness. (I am just very fussy about some things; don’t get me started on wonky staples!)

Recommendation:
Short and sweet: Yes! I recommend you get this book—or at least check it out from the library! (I’ve not been asked or paid to give this review, I just really like the book and believe it will be a useful tool.)

Reading habits

reading-habitsI’m struggling a bit with my reading habits just now and have decided to spend the rest of January getting a handle on them.

As you may know, the first year of a PhD is filled with reading. Lots and lots of reading. You’re reading through a massive collection of materials on your topic and writing notes about what you’re reading—all as part of your literature review.

The reading and taking notes part is actually pretty easy to figure out, but I’m struggling with how to find the best place for reading and taking notes.

What I know is this:

  • I can’t spend 8 hours in my office reading and taking notes because it’s too “stuffy” for me to read there and I’m constantly on edge waiting for someone to walk through the door.
  • I can’t spend 8 hours in a comfy coffee shop reading and taking notes because I’m a starving student and can’t afford to buy all those cups of coffee. (Actually, I’m more of a mint tea drinker.)
  • I can’t spend 8 hours at the library reading and taking notes because it’s much too quiet and I fear sneezing or coughing which means I’m very self-conscious.
  • And I can’t spend 8 hours at home reading and taking notes because that would provide too many distractions (Oh look! There’s a shelf that needs dusting …) and it would also mean I’d be home all day, every day.

I also know that I feel oddly guilty if I’m not in my office 8 hours a day. I feel like I’m “skipping school” or something. (Is this common for PhD students or am I alone in this weirdness?)

So, what do I do?

The simple answer is this: I need to find a way to combine my reading-and-note-taking locations throughout the day so that I’m putting in a “full shift” but so that I’m not losing out on productivity by constantly being on edge for some disturbance to happen.

The complicated solution to that answer, however, is what I’m struggling with.

But, as I am meant to be a researcher, I’m going to research! And I’m going to research by testing potential solutions and analysing the results.

With three full weeks (plus a full day) left in the month, I am going to start trying out different combinations of study locations to see what works best for me. There will be combinations of reading at home, in coffee shops, at my office, and in libraries at various times throughout the day. The number of locations I visit in a day will be switched up, too.

And, hopefully, by the end of the month I will have found a good pattern that works well for me. (I need a pattern; I work better with patterns!)

Of course, there’s always the risk that in my excited attempt to find a productive combination, I will work harder to be productive. In which case, even if I don’t find an ideal solution to my problem, I’ve hopefully been more productive than if I just stuck with the status quo.

I would love to hear from others on how they’ve managed to combine working locations to increase productivity. So, thoughts and suggestions for this eager reader?