Revisting the literature

Having recently completed the writing of my thesis I wanted to return to reflect on the purpose of the literature review in the PhD thesis. Probably like most PhD students I began with a rough idea of the type of study I wanted to conduct with vague aims and questions. These were based on my existing knowledge and experience as a nurse and academic. In the initially stages of the PhD process I understood an extensive review of the literature around my topic area in order to identify the gaps in knowledge and lead to the refining or the research aim and questions. So my initial review did just that, it helped me define the aim for my study and refine my research questions and inform the underpinning theory of the study. It also informed the development of the topic guide for the focus group I conducted with MS nurses, as well as the interview guide I used to loosely inform my semi-structured interviews with the participants -people with MS and their support person.

The purpose of the initial literature review is quite clear; it identified the gaps in knowledge and understanding and allowed me to, progress to data collection. I recall my supervisors at the time advising me that the thesis had to have a “golden thread” running through it in order for it to present a coherent story. I admit I wasn’t confident at this stage what the golden thread was going to be but biographical disruption was the focus for the study so it seemed likely this would be it. I worried that my data might not highlight the golden thread, what if my participants did not have any disruption to their former self? Or would my thinking and seeking this out introduce bias to the study.

Using an interpretative phenomenological approach allowed me to consider my perspective and own it; appreciating how it influenced the study and how that enriched the interpretative process, whilst acknowledging that it was my own interpretation. I needn’t have worried about the data though. There was ample evidence to weave the golden thread through the data, however once the data were analysed and I had written my discussion, I developed a conceptual framework from the data. Now I had a problem, my initial literature review no longer quite sat well with the rest of the thesis. This meant a re-drafting of the literature review or substantive re-write.

Pat Thomson’s reminds us in her blog about the purposes of literature reviews. So now was the time to re-review the literature, this time with the whole thesis in mind, and that “golden thread”. At this point I’ll let you know that I didn’t enjoy doing the first review, so the prospect of a reviewing it in a short timescale wasn’t entirely welcome but I could see the need and had the drive to make it work.

The previous work did not go to waste much of it has been kept but reworked. There were the additional literatures from the discussion chapter also to consider. In my discipline the literature in the discussion should also reflect what is in the review chapter.

I re-ran my literature searches and updated my evidence tables. This time I had made the move to using Mendeley which is a referencing management system which is cloud based and free. Its value in helping to short circuit the laborious process of compiling the literatures was invaluable. I was able to search the articles from my search that I had saved in Mendeley in the themes of the review. Then very quickly and easily use flip charts with coloured pens to code and organise the literature so when it came to writing I could simply writ the review with the relevant literatures referred so feeling confident I had not missed a paper left in my office or elsewhere.

This time, knowing the findings felt more confident in approaching the review as I could construct the story of my thesis, and clearly identify the gaps my thesis intended to address. I was also more confident about the role the theory has played in my research so felt better informed to critique the relevant theories justifying why I had adopted a particular theoretical lens.

So re-visiting the literature has been a valuable experience. My literature review now clearly relates to my study and highlights why the research was needed. So the message from this blog, if you haven’t got it yet, it that the literature plays an important part in the development of your thesis and serves different purposes at different times. It also helps you grow as a researcher.

What is your experience? Have you tamed your literature yet, scared any ghosts or are you still gazing through misty lenses, looking for clarity?


Introduction to philosophy

I decided to sign up for the Introduction to Philosophy MOOC (that’s massive open online course) being run by the University of Edinburgh. The course starts on Monday 28th January and runs for 7 weeks and during that time about 30,000+ students will be engaging in learning and discussing philosophy.

The main focus is on the following areas:

  • Epistemology, our knowledge of the world and ourselves consists in, and how we come to have it;
  • Philosophy of science, conceptual issues in scientific research and practice;
  • Philosophy of Mind, what it means for something to have a mind, and how minds should be understood and explained;
  • Moral Philosophy,  the nature of our moral judgements and reactions – whether they aim at some objective moral truth, or are mere personal or cultural preferences, and;
  • Metaphysics,  fundamental conceptual questions about the nature of reality.

(Edinburgh University, 2013,

What’s my motivation?

Well I am in the final six months of writing and due to submit my thesis for a viva in July this year. Therefore I thought a brush up of my knowledge of philosophy might come in useful as well as allowing me to practice articulating my own philosophical way of being.

How do MOOCs work?

Basically, anyone can sign up for a MOOC. There are plenty on offer these days and they seem to the the biggest revolution in education in the past few years. I am a bit concerned about interacting with so many people. There the course platform hosted on coursera, but participants are often encouraged to use social media also, so you can find people discussion their MOOC on blogs, twitter, google, facebook etc. For me, I will likely stick to the course platform, twitter and my blog. I just can’t get to grips with google+ yet and facebook, I keep for non-work social stuff.

I hope to blog about my experiences of the MOOC on this blog, but if you are reading this and think, “that sounds interesting” why not join in, it’s free. 

Academic Writing Month: My pledge

It’s the 1st of November and the start of academic writing month. Academic writing month or #AcWriMo was started last year as #AcBoWriMo and based on the Novel writing month. The idea is to make public declarations of writing targets for the month of November on the PhDtoPublished and “call in” with your progress at regular intervals via twitter using the #AcWriMo hastag or on the PhDtoPublished blog site.

I have made my declaration. I aim to write around 30,000 words, that’s 1000 per day (yes a qualitative researcher can do maths). It seems crazy but the camaraderie will keep me going I think. I plan to complete my findings chapter and draft up the discussion chapter of my thesis. I have lots of notes so my target should be achievable  But as I work full time it is a challenge so I have some annual leave planned to help.

There is also support available from Literature Review HQ in the form of some free webinars, but there will be peer support on twitter through using the hashtag. I know some of my #phdchat colleagues have also signed up for #AcWriMo so it should be a collegiate affair.

I guess I could do this writing myself in the usual way of a PhD student but I am looking forward to the experience of writing alongside others in the month of November. I will update my progress in this blog also (I wonder if that counts towards my word target?)

Fancy joining in? Why not have look at the PhDtoPublished blog?

Are we nearly there yet?

The inspiration for this post came from a tweet by @evalantsoght who tweeted that being asked when you are likely to finish the PhD is like kids in the back of the car asking “are we nearly there yet?” A slightly irritating reminder that the journey still has some way to go!

I am in my final year of a part-time PhD and hoping to have my viva in early summer next year so I do feel as though I’m nearly there but keep getting a little panicky at what has yet to be done. So on thinking about preparing for the viva whilst still writing up I also reflected if it was too early to be thinking about this. Here is what I have been doing over the past couple of months and what I plan to do over the next few months…

I started to discuss with my supervisors who my external examiners might be around May time this year. As a member of staff in my institution need to have two external examiners. With the REF approaching I was also conscious that the demand for examiners might be high around the time I want to have my viva so thinking about this early and approaching potential examiners seemed prudent.

Who to choose?

I am fortunate in that I have had a say in who my examiners might be. I drew up a list of a few people based on discussions with colleagues who had recently been examined and thinking about key authors who are already referenced within my thesis. I hope to have selected examiners who are knowledgeable about my subject and methodology. Obviously I cannot name them here, but time will tell if I have chosen wisely.

Preparing for the viva

I attended a recent workshop held at my institution by Professor Gordon Joughin from the University of Queensland. This was a useful opportunity to explore the viva, our ideas of what the viva might be like along with some tips such as practicing questions before hand. Gordon also highly recommended Rowena Murrays book on How to survive your viva so of course  have purchased the book and hope by some miracle it will help me survive but I wonder if he means I ought to read the book or use it to as a shield to fend off any bullets that come my way?

What is really exciting though, is the prospect of joining with #AcWriMo. During the month of November a twitter community are coming together through the PhD2Published  blogsite and make public declarations of writing targets, and support each other through twitter and the blog. I’ve made my declaration, and hope to complete my findings and discussion chapter which should be a total of just over 30000 words and will get me well on the way be being “nearly there” in terms of completing the PhD.

I hope to blog during November about my progress on #AcWriMo (I wonder if this counts in my word count), so you can keep tabs on me and see if I keep my pledge.

Handle with Care

I haven’t blogged for a while as I have been immersed in the process of analysing my qualitative data, and trying into pull this together into something that might just be clever enough to call “findings”. However, I thought the process of dealing with qualitative data would be a useful topic to blog about.

I have quite a large data set, 25 interview transcripts in all, each about one hour in length so the logistics of handling such a data set required some consideration. The first decision to make was around transcription of the data itself. Now, many authors suggest that transcribing interview data yourself help “immerse” oneself in the data. I did do this for my masters research which only had seven interviews but studying for a doctorate part-time whilst working full-time and having a young family meant that for me, this was not an option. You see, I was a bit is a tomboy at school, preferring to spend my time drawing side elevations of houses to scale and making a garden trowel in the technology department rather than learning to type with all my girlie peers who aspired to be secretaries. Oh, how I now lament my lack of typing skills. I know that to type out 25 hours (plus) worth of interview data would have taken up an enormous amount of my time and that I would only be able to concentrate on accuracy of the data rather than the content. So I chose to pay a transcription company to do the transcription for me. Having someone do the transcription does not negate listening to the audio along with the files. This still meant I have to listen to each transcript again, going through the transcript making changes for accuracy, but I found it was much more time efficient and a  more productive way of immersing myself in my data.

Once I had the transcripts, I had to analyse the data. Here came another decision point, and one which has raised quite a bit of discussion during my supervision sessions. Should I use a computer assisted analysis product such as NVivo, or process my data manually. As someone who teaches technology enhanced learning, you might assume this is a no brainer; NVivo all the way! I did use NVivo but didn’t like working with my data in this. I found I was jumping ahead and not quite getting the depth of analysis I felt I wanted or needed and felt I could not easily visualise my data. So, instead I reverted to MS word and developed my own system. I even used highlighter pens, paper and flip charts!!!

I am challenged by my supervisors to justify my position in choosing not to use NVivo, yet try as I might, I have found no PhD regulation that states I must show that I have used it, equally in the theses I have read, unless the author specifically states they have used it I would not know if they had used crayons or not. It was good to be challenged in this way though, as it did make me think through exactly what the issues were and why I chose to do something in a certain way. I am happy working with my system and feel confident I can defend my decisions around my analysis yet I do feel as though I have failed slightly in not using NVivo.

My data is organised into theme tables for each participant, detailing the invivo codes from each, interim themes then master themes. They are then brought together in superordinate themes that provide overarching themes for the entire data set. It is detailed, perhaps a little laborious but, for me it works. I consider the analytical process more of a priority and I have used interpretative phenomenological analysis as the approach. The authors of this approach encourage a more manual approach to analysis like the process I have followed, so I am reasonably happy I have been true to the theory.

I would be interested to hear from readers of this blog what challenges they have faced when working with qualitative data, and if they have come across any requirement to use computer aided analysis. Equally, I would be keen to hear of those who have used it successfully.

Reflexivity: a journey with twists and turns

Becoming reflexive throughout the research journey in my PhD is a process which I have not always found easy. As my study has progressed and I have continued to chart my thoughts in an attempt at being reflexive either in my electronic diary notes or in hand written notes in my PhD “jotters”. (I have perhaps not been as systematic as I should have been.) However, recently I have been looking back at some on my earlier reflexive notes along with comments on early drafts of my work to see how my study has developed and I am glad to see that some progress has been made. But it is still work in progress.

I started out on my PhD thinking I wanted to explore a specific aspect of nursing however, my starting point was flawed and the process of realising this and changing focus was difficult. Sometimes it is challenging to be reflexive when you are heavily invested in an area and stepping back might be the wisest option. Fortunately my supervisors were wiser here and they challenged me to refocus my study which meant I wasn’t wholly entrenched in my own profession. Initially I wasn’t completely happy with the new focus, it didn’t feel like “my study” but I have come to enjoy the focus and feel much more open to the process of discovery.

I am now focussing on the experience of being diagnosed with MS, for the person and their closest support person. Reflexivity is still as important as before, my own experience as a nurse in the acute hospital setting and the hospice environment meant that my reference point for someone with MS was of individuals with significant physical symptoms. I had to explore how this might influence my preunderstanding of what a diagnosis of MS might mean for someone. My assumptions about being diagnosed with MS were that this would be a catastrophic event.

On reading the literature there is significant support for this view, particularly in the terms used by theorists such as Charmaz (1983) and Bury (1982).  Charmaz refers to the ‘loss of self’ as a result of chronic illness and Bury describes a theory of ‘biographical disruption’.  Both terms communicate the negative impact of the illness and led me to assume that this would lead to a negative psychological impact with an expressed need for support.

Additionally, on speaking to people about my research I met with further confirmation for my assumptions, an instance I recall which particularly confirmed this was when I met with a former colleague whose brother had had neurological symptoms for the previous year and was waiting and expecting a diagnosis of MS.  She described him as ‘beside himself with worry’ and like ‘a cat on a hot tin roof’ when outside the neurologists office.  This led me to become further entrenched in my own assumptions believing them to be true.

The challenge to look at how some people do get on with life as normal and learn to live with and adapt to having MS offered another possible alternative which my supervisors kept on encouraging me to consider.  Whilst I acknowledged this as a possibility and stated that I would be open to this possibility throughout the research I still held firm to my beliefs that a diagnosis of MS would be life changing.

A few years ago I attended the MS Society conference where I listened to a woman with MS give a talk about her experiences of living with the illness and how it had changed her life.  This I believe was the turning point for me in seeing a more positive projection of the impact of MS.   She then described how being diagnosed with the condition made her re-evaluate her life and ‘take stock’. The woman described how lucky she felt to have been given this opportunity which she put down to having MS changing her as a person.  One hearing this woman speak I was transfixed.   I thought to myself how fantastic it would be if some of my participants could describe so profoundly how MS has affected them. The main value of this experience for me was having my own previously entrenched assumptions exposed and challenged.

This experience and looking back on my reflexive notes helped me become more aware of my assumptions and how entrenched they were.  Instead of looking to my data for confirmation of my assumptions, being reflexive leaves me open to new possibilities and to be open to alternative (socially constructed) realities that exist.

As researchers it is important to expose and articulate our assumptions but it is not easy. My message in this blog is that keeping a reflexive diary is worthwhile, it is good to look back on and see the journey, re-remembering the significant points. I had forgotten about the chance meeting with my former colleague and how I felt this justified my stance until I revisited it in my diary. 

I would be interested to hear if any of the readers of this blog have had any other turning points in their studies and whether the process of being reflexive has helped refocus.  As I said in my first paragraph my reflexive journey is still work in progress, this is a mere punctuation in the process.

Photo courtesy of:

What a waste of time… or was it?

As a part-time PhD student who works full-time whilst juggling family life, time is always my enemy. There are never enough hours in the day, either to get enough work done, spend enough time with the family, or even just to get enough hours sleep at night. This will be a familiar scenario to many part-time PhD students and possibly even some who are working full time on their studies.

Such pressure  makes it crucial to make good decisions on how to spend time. So deciding to spend two hours at a research seminar which eats into my study allowance is not something I do lightly, but a recent seminar caught my eye. It was on discourse analysis (DA). “Perfect”, I thought, “I’ll go along to that”.

Although I am using interpretive phenomenological analysis (Smith, Flowers & Larkin, 2009) in my PhD study, DA is not a million miles away, as both concern analysis of discourse. I thought it would be useful to go along to the seminar and hear from a researcher very experienced in using this approach, in order to deepen my understanding on where the two approaches converge, and where they are significantly different. At first I was a little frustrated as the presentation covered mainly the academic debate about who was worthy of being a discourse analyst and who wasn’t. I have little time for what I consider, “academic snobbery” – this is not directed at the speaker but at the debate.

However, I did gain something unexpected from this session. The session made me think about my research in a way I had not really anticipated. There was a discussion surrounding objectivity and subjectivity which then moved to realism and constructivism. As the epistemological stance in my own study is informed by social constructivism the discussion caught my attention and has kept me thinking since. It has reminded me of one of my favourite children’s stories, The Velveteen Rabbit (by Margery Williams).

What is real? is a question the Velveteen Rabbit asked of the Skin Horse, who tried to explain that being real wasn’t about things or objects, but about meaning, which is created by experiences. The Velveteen Rabbit becomes “real” when his owner makes a fuss and he feels loved, he experiences the feeling of love giving his life meaning and thus becoming real. So what seems real, is in essence a construction of socially mediated experiences. This has helped me to consider the relationship between realism and constructivism and the philosophical debate surrounding each of these epistemological viewpoints, not quite what I was expecting from the session on DA but a pretty good outcome nontheless.

There is often little time for philosophical debate in our busy lives but sometimes it is worth making the time and something unexpected might happen.