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?

Hello blogging world!

Hi and welcome to my shiny new blog site!

Last week’s  #phdchat twitter chat topic was on blogging about your research and I committed to starting to blog about my own research. I shall start with a little introduction to gently ease me in. I am currently registered as a part-time PhD Student at Edinburgh Napier University. I work full time as a lecturer at the university.

My PhD study is about the impact of a new diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS) for the person diagnosed and their “support person”.  This is usually their partner or parent but this person was nominated by the person with MS.  The underpinning theory is that of biographical disruption (Bury, 1982), and loss of self in chronic illness (Charmaz, 1983) with my study hoping to contribute to the knowledge of how a diagnosis of MS impacts on how people affected assimilate this new identity and learn to live with it.

The study is qualitative, I have used a hermeneutic phenomenological approach most closely informed by Gadamer (1976).  I am currently analysing my data using interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) by Smith, Flowers & Larkin (2009).  I am finding this approach to be extremely useful as it follows how I would intuitively approach analysing qualitative data but it also helps me to interrogate this further while along the way providing me with a useful audit trail of what I have done.

The phd process hasn’t been an easy route to follow, there have been many ups and downs along with way but being part of the #phdchat community has helped me see that this is quite normal and it is great to have this support available 24/7!