Visual tools in your PhD

Often, PhD students imagine their journey to be linear and then it ends up with pitfalls and successes:


This post is about when you get into the dips, or as I call them, pits of despair. Sometimes when you are in a lull you don’t know how you got there, or how to get out. This can be spurred by external issues (see How I avoided a PhD meltdown) or issues directly related to your project.

I have found when I am in the pits related to my PhD visualising helps. This only really works when it is an issue related to my PhD. Some issues I have had are:

  • being overwhelmed by the data, where do I start?
  • a document I am editing isn’t working, but I can’t figure out why
  • my brain feels like mush and nothing seems to be clicking
  • I  feel like an imposter who knows nothing

This post explains some tools for visualising that may help you see clearly. I am a visual person, so for me I believe this really helps me to understand where I should go next. If you are overwhelmed by external things, I am not sure that visualising will work.

I will briefly explain mind maps/diagrams, visual editing, drawing and visual data coding.

Mind maps/Diagrams

I have used mind-maps and diagrams at every stage of my PhD. They allow me to think in a way that is not linear and see how ideas interconnect. Some examples:


Above I have two examples of the way that I visualised the connections between my data. I have blocked out some of the ones in the mindmap above, but you can see that I have 4 main ideas which I have coloured coded and tried to see connections between all of them. When I made this diagram I was very confused by my data and how to represent the complexities of what I found. I am still unsure, but this helped me to see the main ideas that were connected and the ideas that I thought were the most important.

Nvivo also has a really cool tool where you can link your Nvivo codes to the mindmap:

Screen Shot 2019-11-02 at 12.43.40 pm.png

Unfortunately, I do not have many more examples, as often my mind-maps are on paper and after my computer died last year I lost all of my old photographs which contained most of my mindmaps.

Visual editing

At times I recognise that my writing is disjointed but I can’t see how. At times like this, sometimes a critical friend or your supervisors can assist; however, I think that figuring it out yourself might increase your own writing skills and editing abilities. I have three tricks I use for visual editing: cutting the document up, highlighting and post-it notes.

1. Cut the document up

This is a great tool for looking at your own writing in a different way and identifying how paragraphs/sentences might work in a different order:

  1. I print my document (one-sided) and cut out all paragraphs (you can also do this at the sentence level). Put all introductory paragraphs to the side, particularly ones that explain the structure of the writing.
  2. I mix them up remaining sentences and walk away (make a cup of tea or have lunch)
  3. Re-arrange the sentences/paragraphs in an order that you think makes sense, trying to forget how you had it structured previously.
  4. Open a new document and copy all the paragraphs in the new order. Keep your old document just in case.
  5. Assess if you need to change linking sentences, topic sentences and change if required
  6. Read the whole document and decide if you like the new structure better (maybe also assess what changed – just as a learning tool for yourself)

2. Use highlighters/the highlight function

I use this strategy when I feel that a paragraph is clunky. When I say clunky, sometimes this means that there are two paragraphs which appear to be organised well but are actually a mismatch of two different topics. For this, I use the highlight function in Microsoft Word. I identify the topics that I think the paragraphs have and use a coloured highlighter for each. For example in this picture, I have yellow for ‘othering’ practises, pink for the commodification of culture and green for claims to authenticity:

Screen Shot 2019-11-02 at 12.20.29 pm

It immediately became clear to me when I did this that the first paragraph was a jumble of topics. This was for my confirmation document last year and I had received feedback from my supervisors that this section did not read well. This helped me to understand why. Please also note, that this is a very early draft of this document, so please use it for understanding the technique, not the content.

3. Use post-it notes for structural editing

This tool I use for larger chunks of text which have multiple paragraphs and are too large to organise in the ‘cutting up’ method. Its very simple, I identify all of my section headings and write them on a post-it note. I re-arrange the post-it notes into themes or in an order that I believe works. This takes time and I play around with it until I feel the order is right.



This is a technique that I wish I was skilled in. My lovely friend Kieran has kindly offered to provide me with an example of the way he uses drawing in his PhD.


Kieran accompanied this image with a short description of how it helps him:

“Drawings and the archetypes and metaphors really help me personify the major actors or agents in the ontology of my study. With this big drawing in my mind, I can elucidate more freely without reading from notes. It is being added to all the time of course as I find new actors, agents and metaphors in the landscape of my ontology.”

I have added it into my plan for the next few months, to try and visualise my PhD and some of the interconnections between concepts. Definitely cool and a great technique to understand connections between things!

Visual data coding

For somebody who is a big Nvivo fan (for example Nvivo for a literature review: How and why and My adventures in transcription!) I actually did not use Nvivo much for my data analysis. This is because Nvivo for me is a data storage system, it does not analyse my data for me.

Here, I will briefly describe some of my initial steps of data organisation and coding:

  1. Read all of my transcripts without writing anything or coding
  2. Wrote some notes down (see image above under mind maps) and tried to see connections
  3. Used Post-it notes to move codes under larger themes (note at this stage I had not coded any of my transcripts – this was initial thoughts from just reading my data). As you can see here I used larger post-it notes to identify the broader themes and then smaller ones to identify sub-themes:Screen Shot 2019-11-02 at 12.39.28 pm.pngThe four here are an example, but I actually had many more (too many). I scanned these post-it notes into Nvivo so I would have a copy of them for the future.
  4. I coded the transcripts in Nvivo to these codes and themes I had worked out. I then printed these and cut out each quote and visualised them on large pieces of paper. This meant I could move quotes around and change the codes slightly where I saw fit. It is hard to photograph but looked something like this: D8MIFF9U0AILZBb            These pieces of paper are colour coded to broader themes and these colours match the mindmap in the first section of this post. As you can see this data was A LOT of data. This is where I got overwhelmed. What you can see here is about 1/3 of the data I showed my supervisors. Following this meeting, I did the mindmaps, which you can see in the beginning of this post.
  5. The step is happening now, I am writing and connecting more of my theory to data (very exciting) – maybe I’ll have a post on that soon!

I hope this post has helped you. There are many other ways I used visual methods in my work, but these seem the most translatable. For organisation using visual tools please see my post on How I plan in my PhD/Organise my desk.

Please share your thoughts, tips and tricks in the comment section!