How not to write a literature review: Part 2

As many PhD students will tell you, doing a literature review can be a daunting task. And for students in social sciences, that task begins when your studies begin… and it would seem that it never ends! Well, at least that’s my personal experience with the things. After all, I’m half-way through my PhD* and the thing still isn’t done. It just keeps growing, and growing, and growing.

Of course, hindsight being what it is, I know where I went wrong. And if I had it all to do over again, I would be in a place of happiness right now. Or at least I wouldn’t be quite this frustrated with the process. (Well, that’s my working theory at least.)

Part of the problem I’ve run into is that I am studying outside of my comfort zone. I am doing a PhD in information science, but my background is communications and media and culture. And I thought (incorrectly!) that my background in social media would have set me up for this experience. But I was wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Only I didn’t realise how wrong I was until after I’d compiled a fairly lengthy (and decent, if I can say so) literature review. It was a comprehensive review of literature about social media and reputation. And it really covered a wide breadth of disciplines—all helping to substantiate my research.

And then someone mentioned a few researchers from within the field of information science that I’d not really looked at before. After all, the papers weren’t about social media and had (I thought!) a very tenuous link to my work.

But I was encouraged to keep reading. So I read. And I read. And I read. And all of the sudden, I found myself understanding the connections—and understanding so much more about the domain of information science.

Now, I find myself reading even more—and growing my review even further. But I’m also realising that I’ve made a massive mountain out of a mid-sized molehill.

So, knowing what I know now, what would I have done differently? (Other than the “write early; write often” lesson I wrote about before.)

The truth is, I don’t know. I think that maybe I needed to ask different questions at the start of my literature searching. Or, importantly, I should have recognised earlier on that I was in a discipline that was unfamiliar to me so that I could have started to read some of the “introductory” texts earlier than I did.

Yes—that! I should have stopped to realise that I didn’t fully understand the field of information science so that I could have built a stronger foundation from the start. Instead, I’ve had to backfill large sections of my knowledge.

The good thing is that my literature review is starting to make a lot more sense now. And—hopefully!—this extra work now will save me some effort and frustration when it comes time to write up my thesis.

The other good thing is that I have learned some important lessons about literature reviews, my new field of study, and—importantly!—myself.

There is still much work to do—for my literature view, my PhD, and my own self-esteem—but I’m getting there. Slowly.

And maybe now that I am feeling a bit more confident, I’ll be able to write here on Just a PhD a bit more. (I’ve been ignoring this place because I haven’t felt worthy of writing about a PhD when I haven’t even felt worthy of doing one!)

So, that’s a bit more on how not to do a literature review. Hopefully, by the end of it, I will be able to give some great insight to how I will do my next one!

* Well, I’m half-way through my PhD studentship anyhow. At this rate, it’s going to take me a bit longer than the three years of funded studies. So that’s a stress I’ll have to worry about eventually.

2015 PhD resolutions

It’s a new year, so it must be time to make new resolutions! Generally speaking, my resolutions are tied to my long-term goals. They are designed to help me focus on the larger picture and, I’m pleased to say, I am pretty good at keeping them.

To that, my 2015 PhD resolutions are as follows:

Create a better, more productive work routine
The idea here is to divide my time better so that I have clearly defined blocks of time for reading, writing, and research. As it is, I feel a little guilty for spending time on certain tasks and that takes away from my overall focus and productivity. I hope to develop a routine that allows me a set amount of time each day or week to read the “fun” stuff (blogs and forum posts around my subject areas, for example) as well as the “real” stuff (academic articles and books, for example). The thought is that I will be able to fully focus on each task if I’m not feeling guilty about not doing something else.

Part of this will be looking at dedicated writing times and places. Over the next few weeks, I will work to determine the best way to divide my time and hopefully it will mean that I am enjoying more productive hours each week.

Set time aside each week for administrative tasks
Oh yes, the admin must get done! Yet inevitably emails go un-archived and papers go un-filed. That means my virtual and actual desktops have stacks of important things that are difficult to find. And that means I spend a lot of time shuffling through emails and papers I don’t need, just to access the ones I do. If I would just devote a bit of time to these things in the first instance, I would save myself a lot of time (and stress!) later.

Part of this will include a small administrative job I have with the school as part of my stipend. It will also include time set aside for maintaining this blog, which I hope to utilise a lot more as I start working towards my empirical research.

Build in guaranteed personal time
Much like the guilt I feel reading the “less serious” stuff for my PhD, I feel very guilty any time I’m doing non-PhD stuff at home. That guilt means that I’ve yet to finish reading an Ian Rankin novel that I started a few days before my PhD began more than a year ago! It also means I’ve yet to start on a new crocheting project or to make note cards for my Mum. And sometimes it’s even meant that I neglect my running—which means I’m neglecting my personal goals and resolutions.

Part of this will be working on my personal goals of being nicer to myself! It will also mean that I will allow myself to enjoy non-academic reading and to work on other projects without feeling guilty. Importantly, it will mean running more…which will help me to stay focused and energised. And that can only help my larger PhD and life goals, right?

So there you have it: My three 2015 PhD resolutions.

To add a wee disclaimer: I am not silly enough to think that these things are going to happen tomorrow. They are intended to be works-in-progress and I hope that over the next few weeks or months I will have formed new habits to help ensure I can make these things happen. Slowly, slowly, catchy monkey!

How not to write a literature review: Part 1

When 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!

What I say about “They Say/I Say”

It’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.)

Finding a method to my madness

[To jump right in] Last week’s panel review meeting went rather well. I was (as predicted) worrying about (mostly) nothing and the review was a simple(ish) chat about my progress to date. Of course, there had been an expectation that I might have had a bit more work to show as it was a “6-month review” but when it was explained that I started late and was therefore only at my 4-month mark, it all started to make sense.

One of the biggest things I took away from the meeting was that I really need to start giving more thought to my research methodologies. I mean, it’s great that I know I want to research how people manage their reputation online, but how do I actually accomplish that? (Yes, these are things you need to think of as a researcher!)

(In fairness to myself, I have known all along that I would need to pin down my methodologies, I’ve just yet to actually put a stake in the ground.)

Do I use in-depth interviews to really investigate how individuals manage their online reputations?

Do I use a large-scale survey to determine the percentage of people who do x, y, or z in the management of their online reputations?

Do I hold focus groups with the hope of generating a bit of conversation around topic?

Do I use observational tools, looking at publicly available data and information to make conclusions of what people appear to be doing—or not doing—in an effort to manage their reputation?

Or do I use a combination of methods?

And what about the validation process? How will I go about validating my research, especially if I’m opting to use in-depth interviews and case studies?

As you can probably tell, I don’t actually have an answer to these questions. In fact, the more I try to find an answer, the more I start to ask more questions! (Ah, the questions-answers-questions loop. It can be frustrating at times.)

So in an effort to help me determine what methods to use in my research, I’m doing what any good researcher would do: I am researching!

I am currently re-reading research articles to determine the varying methods that have been successfully implemented in the past. From there, I hope to be able to identify a couple of methodologies that seem likely to fit with my project.

At the same time, I will be accessing other PhD theses to see what methods others have used—as well as what methods others have eschewed—and their reasoning behind those decisions.

Over the weekend, I will make a list of further research articles to read, in the hopes of expanding my knowledge of existing studies so that I can better determine what methods might work for me. And—with a bit of hard work and a touch of luck—by next Friday’s supervision meeting I will be ready to talk to my supervisors about 2-3 potential methods.

Importantly, all of this research into research methods will also help me with my next big milestone: The completion of my RD4 form, which is an expanded research proposal that will include my intended methodologies.

As always—I’m open to input from others so please feel free to point me towards some great resource you think I should be considering!

Working out where to work

Last month, I shared with you my struggles for finding just the right place to work. I was finding it difficult to figure out how to manage my reading without being distracted—and without finding myself squirreled away at home all the time.

To find a solution, I decided to spend three weeks testing out various locations and work patterns. Though, sadly, I’ve not yet found an answer to my problem.

I did learn, however, that trying to work in more than two locations on any given day doesn’t work because I spend too much time settling into the new location—and too much time wondering when it’s time to move onto the next. However, two locations seems to work just fine—as long as I am clear about what my tasks will be at each location.

So, what’s the solution?

To be honest, I don’t really know!

But I do know that I read better away from the office and that I find resources for reading better when I’m in the office. I also know that I am able to write wherever I am—though it seems that my best focused-in writing sessions come right after lunch or dinner. (Yes, a full tummy helps!)

In the last week of my location testing, I found that I was giving myself clear tasks to complete at each location. A day’s tasks might be split up like this:

I would “assign” myself the task of reading two journal articles at home whilst eating breakfast and enjoying my morning coffee, after which I would make hand-written notes summarising each article before going to the office. On arriving at my office, I would have the task of typing up my notes then searching through databases for any new articles to add to my reading list. Then, on returning home in the evening, I would read another (short) article or search for interesting pop-culture stories related to my areas of interest (blog posts, opinion pieces, forum discussions—that sort of thing).

So I know that I work best in different locations. And I know that I work best with clear tasks in mind. But what I don’t know is how to stay focused on tasks—or how to prioritise them!

I guess that means it’s time to investigate some time management techniques!

(Thankfully, I am still feeling a renewed sense of excitement about the path I’m on, which is helping to keep me focused!)

[Photo note: This is a view of my comfy weekend reading spot: Home on my couch with my life-long companion, Tiger, listening to my hometown country station (KXLE Radio) streaming on the tablet and taking occasional breaks to draw abstract swirls. What a wonderful way to spend a weekend!]

Reading habits

I’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?

Lost in databases

I began my PhD nearly a month ago and have been spending much of that time searching for books and articles relevant to my topic. I’ve done basic library searches and I’ve done some minor database searches—most of which have brought me at least some results for useful reading materials.

But basic searches aren’t really enough when you’re trying to find articles on a focused area, which means I have to figure out a series of slightly complex databases.

I think that one of the biggest problems with databases (for me, at least) is that there are so many different ones I need to check and each one has its own format. There’s Nexis and the Web of Knowledge and the IEEE—and many, many more.

There are so many databases that have so much information that I’m getting lost.

My hope (and my guess) is that I will find my way around everything as I continue my research. I am hoping that I will start to instinctively know which databases to consult based on what type of information I’m searching for at that moment. And I am hoping that as I become familiar with each one, I will get used to how to use the search functions (which vary from one database to the next).

For now, I am learning how to manage and document all of the information so that I know where I’ve found things—and where I can find them again if needed. It’s a bit of a hodgepodge at the moment because I’ve not attempted such a monumental task before, but I am learning. Slowly but surely, I am learning.

One day, I hope to be sharing with you some of the tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way. In the mean time, however, I am open to any tips and tricks that you may want to share with me.

[Photo of “original” databases. Credits to shindoverse. Sourced from Flickr and used under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.]