How I avoided a PhD meltdown

In August-September I had a few really bad months. Somebody really close to me died, my dog died, my partner had a sports injury, and then I accidentally drowned my laptop. This was a really hard time for me, to top it off I was busy with teaching undergraduates for the first time and trying to plan for my fieldwork (see my post on The P in PhD should stand for Paperwork.)

Losing my computer could have been the last straw to make me throw in the towel completely. I learnt two things from losing my computer: 1) IT departments will sometimes quote you more than the cost of a new laptop to fix your laptop 2) making regular backups is extremely important.

If I had lost all of my PhD files I honestly do not know how I would have reacted. I think I probably would have cried for a week and then seriously contemplated quitting. But I was lucky.

I was lucky because I use OneDrive, provided by my university, to automatically backup all of my files. My EndNote library is not kept in this automatically syncing folder because I have read that cloud storage can cause corruption of your EndNote library. It is kept in a seperate folder, but I use my online EndNote account to sync all of my References in library. People who use a Mac should note that for about six months I wasn’t syncing my files properly, so make sure you are pressing the sync button NOT the ‘sync status’ button (seems obvious in hindsight, but keep it in mind). In fact, the only file I lost was some of my NVIVO file (read more: Nvivo for a literature review: How and why) because I also do not keep that in my cloud folder as I am unsure of the stability of the file in cloud storage. I lost this because I had been inconsistent with adding my backup files into my cloud folder.

So yes, I was very lucky that I didn’t lose everything and I now take even more precautions. I have a 1TB hard drive that I have set up ‘Time Machine’ on and I also sync my whole PhD folder to my student folder on the University drives (when I am on campus).

So consider this your timely reminder to make sure you have a system for backing up your files and that you use this system regularly.  I didn’t expect for everything bad to happen at once, but this is the way life works sometimes and you need to ensure that accidentally drowning your laptop won’t ruin you! The title of this blog post may be melodramatic but you really don’t know when, or how, you may lose all of your files and trust me, the timing definitely will not be perfect!


The P in PhD should stand for Paperwork

If you have read the title of my post it might be pretty obvious what I will be discussing today: paperwork. I’m going to give you a brief overview of my own experience of post-confirmation paperwork and some general advice. I passed my confirmation in July, so while I was very excited and happy to have passed that milestone with very positive feedback, one thing loomed.

The dreaded ethics application. As a result of my honours project and some research assistant work I have previously completed ethics applications. So I was not overly concerned about my ethics application, as it was something I have experienced before. However, I wasn’t prepared for the leg work that is involved. For my honours project my supervisor helped a lot with the ethics application, by finding the peer review, organising the head of school declaration and creating the ethics application itself in our university’s software. It is only now I realise how much assistance I received for that application.

For my PhD ethics I was given much more space to learn. I found the ethics application software myself and transferred all of the questions to a word document. I would recommend this as a way to send drafts to your supervisors. Once I had some clarifying questions and edits from my supervisors, my various consent and PIS forms, it was time for peer review. This was the first step I had not encountered before. Who did could I approach that wasn’t already tied to my project? This is where my tips about treating your PhD like a job come in handy.

I approached someone I knew! Now, I currently tutor on a course for this person, but the way we met initially was through interactions on twitter and by me being present on campus. I think it is very important to develop relationships with the people who you share a hallway with. Peer review is a key example of this especially if like me, you feel awkward emailing people you don’t know out of the blue. After my peer review came back, with a few minor edits, it was time for the Head of School declaration. This one was a bit harder, I felt very awkward cold emailing someone I have met a few times – questions loomed in my head, does he know who I am? Have I ever introduced myself? etc. But I realised that this was part of the process and I had to just send the email and hope for the best. This also came back relatively quickly!

Following this I submitted my ethics application and gave a sigh of relief. However, this was only the first step towards my fieldwork which is planned for January 2019. I quickly realised my faculty has deadlines for funding related to international travel (we are allocated a certain amount per year for research funds). This meant finding two forms, one for approval of funds and the other for approval of international travel. I also had to create a travel diary in excel that showed what percentage of my trip would be personal or business. It was whilst doing one of these forms I remembered there was a process I had forgotten about: safety clearance. I quickly submitted these forms and began the process of safety clearance.

This is where my post may get a bit frantic, in reflection of my feelings. After realising I needed to apply for my safety clearance I began to search in the university website to find the correct form. To my frustration it wasn’t clear which form I had to fill in but eventually I found the first form. I began filling it in, when half way I was directed to also fill in another form. At this point, I thought ‘Okay, two forms isn’t so bad. Even if these two forms seem to have pretty similar information.’ After completing the first form I began on the second form. But to my dismay, it directed me to a checklist. This checklist advised me to fill in another four forms. At this point I was lost, I had 8 different forms (as I had somehow found another two forms related to international travel) open in multiple different formats and across multiple screens (web browser, pdf and Microsoft word). I felt very overwhelmed. Luckily, we have a good team of administration staff who are in my building and always willing to answer my questions. I confirmed with them I in fact only needed two of the forms. Now, after some time of stress and feeling overwhelmed I have the following clearances/things organised:

  • Safety clearance
  • Approval for international travel
  • Approval for funds to be spent on international travel.
  • Travel insurance: not included in the post, but it did involved filling in a form for every day of my trip – 98 days – about my location and what I would be doing, very tedious in itself, this is seperate to the excel spreadsheet but identical information.

All that’s left is ethics! Now my advice:

  1. Know your administration staff and don’t be afraid to ask them for help.
  2. Learn the policies of your faculty, especially if you are planning overseas travel (for my university these can be found online and in the student handbook).
  3. Plan a few months to organise your ethics application prior to submission. Getting the relevant signatures takes time; as does making sure your application makes sense to someone not involved!
  4. With your supervisor make a plan for submitting all of the paperwork needed, as sometimes their signature is required. You don’t want them to be away on a trip while you desperately need a signature!
  5. Plan for unexpected forms!
  6. If you need safety clearance you will need to think about the risks involved with your travel. This can be tricky.

I hope these tips help make your own process smoother for completing all of the post-confirmation paperwork!

Nvivo for a literature review: How and why

Recently, I decided to use Nvivo for my literature review. Firstly, Nvivo doesn’t take out all of the leg work of doing a literature review, for me it is an organisational tool. Secondly, I wish I had started this sooner!

The Why

I was reading about data analysis for my confirmation document and every book suggested familiarising yourself with the program you would use. At the time, I had no experience with Nvivo, I thought how am I going to get practise with no data? Some how along the way, I discovered that some people use it for their literature review. I decided this would be a fantastic, low pressure, method for familarising myself with the program. This actually had the unintended result of allowing myself to confidently say ‘Yes! I can do that!’ when offered Research Assistant work that would involve using Nvivo.

The next reason I decided to use Nvivo was I had no method for organising my quotes that I liked, beyond a spreadsheet and a word document. I personally didn’t like this method, as I felt I couldn’t search and categorise things the way I wanted. Nvivo allows me to categorise quotes under multiple ‘nodes’.

My research focuses on tourism and I wanted a method for sorting my articles (quickly) into: tourist, organisations, volunteers, and host communities. I also wanted a way of looking at how the methods intersected, along with the theoretical frameworks. I know this could probably be done in excel, but I couldn’t quickly access my quotes while searching for the above criteria (well, at least with my limited knowledge of excel).

The How

The next section will require some knowledge of Nvivo and will contain screenshots of Nvivo 11 for Mac. Although they have similar features, I know the Windows version might look different and has extra features. Throughout the post below I have tried to provide the alternate names for the Nvivo 12 (Windows).

Importing references

Firstly, I import my articles under the ‘internals’ sources and into a folder called ‘articles’. I name each one with the authors name and year. In Nvivo 12 (Windows) I think the ‘internals’ folder is simply called ‘Files’.

Screen Shot 2018-09-05 at 1.12.02 pm

This is a quick shot of what it looks like. If you already have a significant EndNote library you can import this, which is what I originally did. I code all of my articles using nodes kept in my ‘literature review’ folder. This will allow me to keep these nodes seperate from my data collection later.

At first, I was unsure of how to keep this current. My technique is to enter an article into EndNote, then manually import it into Nvivo. I then code it as I read. I think this is the most efficient method.

Assigning classifications to the references

As mentioned above, I originally wanted quick access to both sorting and finding quotes. To do this I use the ‘source’ classification available in Nvivo. This is called a ‘file classification’ in the Nvivo 12 for Windows.

Screen Shot 2018-09-05 at 1.16.37 pm

As you can see, my source classification has a title: ‘Reference’ and different attributes listed below. These will import from Endnote (some of them). The most important reason for doing this is it allows me to do a ‘Matrix Coding Inquiry’ which I will now show you an example of output:

Screen Shot 2018-09-05 at 1.20.15 pm.png

In the left column you can see some nodes I chose to display for this example. The row across the top shows the ‘attributes’. The intersections of these show the number of times these have been coded together. If we look at the yellow box, we can see I have coded ‘Images of Africa’ three times in a reference that has the attribute ‘volunteer tourist’. This is useful to me if I want to write about literature on volunteer tourists discuss their host communities. I can double click on this and view the three times I have coded this and it looks like:

Screen Shot 2018-09-05 at 1.22.28 pm.png

This of course takes a fair amount of organisation, but it helps me to easily find intersections of different categories. You can also look at the intersection of two nodes in the same way.

If you don’t need to find specific intersections you can also view individual nodes:

Screen Shot 2018-09-05 at 1.25.40 pm.png

I wrote this post because I struggled to find the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of using Nvivo for a literature review. I would strongly recommend it, as it is a great tool for this purpose. I’m not an expert at Nvivo yet, but I really enjoy using it.

If you have any questions, please feel free to comment below!

An update 3rd April 2020:

Nvivo 12 (for Mac) looks much more like Nvivo for Windows, and very different to some of the screenshots in this post. Please keep this in mind.

I have since made a new post with an update on my thoughts.

I have also made a YouTube video which may be of interest to you:

Tips for treating your PhD like a full-time job

I treat my PhD like a full-time job. I would like to start this post by acknowledging how fortunate I am to be able to do this. I have no kids, a supportive partner, a scholarship and desk space at my university. This post will not apply to everyone. I had a friend who  was forced to treat his PhD like a full-time job. This was because his supervisor was very stringent about him being in the lab every day. I, on the other hand, do not work in a lab and my supervisors do not check on me every day. This means I have to independently make sure I move my PhD forward every day. Here are some tips if you struggle to commit time to your PhD.

  1. I dress professionally every day. I am lucky, again, in this aspect because my profession is a school teacher. I already have an arsenal of professional clothes from working as a teacher, donations from my mum and mother-in law, and professional placements. Dressing professionally helps to put me in the mindset of work. Some mornings I feel like wearing my biggest hoody and leggings. If I chose to wear these, I can guarantee my mindset for the day would also be to relax and slack off. This doesn’t mean everyone who wears hoodies and leggings slack off, it just means that professional clothes put me into a professional mindset. It also means if I see someone important in the hallway I can confidently say hello.
  2. I arrive at the same time everyday. If you want to treat your PhD like a job, you should have an allocated start time. Mine is 8:30am, but I usually arrive before this time. This means I can settle in, check social media and begin to think about my day. Your start time could be later, or earlier, whatever works for you. But you need to make sure you are strict about following this.
  3. I plan my days. I have a weekly plan which outlines goals and tasks for the week. This helps me stay focused on the tasks I need to do.
  4. I smile at people in the hallway. This might sound weird; but, if I consider this a full-time, job the people in the hallway are my colleagues. I don’t smile at random undergraduate students, because they would probably think I was crazy, but I smile at the other postgrads and those who share the floor with me. This means I now have conversations with people I wouldn’t have met otherwise. It also means that I don’t feel as isolated. A PhD can be a VERY lonely journey. These small human interactions make it seem a bit more friendly and slightly more like a real job.
  5. I aim to have lunch with my ‘colleagues’ once a week. In my School there are multiple office spaces for PhD students. This means you don’t always see people in the hallway. I have organised a weekly lunch to keep in touch with people. I know that regular offices have a day of the week where they might order take-away and have a bit of a silly lunch. I consider this to be very similar.
  6. I pack my lunch, everyday. This one helps because it means that I don’t buy food from the outlets on campus (expensive and not always the best quality). It also means I don’t have an excuse to leave early, or go home because I am hungry. Most office workers pack their lunch every day (or if you work at my sister’s accounting firm they have lunch provided) so this is another way of treating your PhD like a job. It is all about creating a routine.
  7. I avoid social media. When I am in my office I tend to only use social media in my breaks between working. I have scheduled 90 minute periods, with 15 minute breaks in between. I also have a 30 minute lunch scheduled in. I tried Pomodoros of 25/5 but this did not work for me.
  8. I call it a job. I tell my friends, family, that it is a job. My partner knows that I leave the house at a certain time and that I am going to ‘work’. This helps me to remind people that although a PhD is ‘study’ it is also a full-time role.
  9. I make the most of my desk space. My desk is decorated, has piles of books, articles and other things on it. I’m lucky that I have a permanent desk. If you have a permanent desk you should consider making it the place you want to spend the most time at. One way to do this is to start using a whiteboard, calendar, post-its and other things to brighten the space and make it easier for you to feel comfortable.

I hope you have gotten some tips that might help you to treat your PhD like a full time job. Please comment below if you have any suggestions!


Advice for doing a PhD


Recently on Twitter I asked “If you could give only one piece of advice to a PhD student what would it be?” and I received lots of useful advice from the twittersphere. Might tweet spread further than I ever anticipated. I received 48 responses over all.

You can view the tweet above but I thought it might be worthwhile to summarise the tweets here. As a result, this post will be quite short as I think most of the tweets speak for themselves, so have a look at the thread!

Overall, it seemed to me the most common advice is:

  • Keep a work life balance, take your holidays and look after yourself.
  • It will be harder than you think.
  • It is a slow process, embrace the skills you learn along the way and it is your process. Don’t compare yourself to others.
  • Be organised and start writing early. Don’t assume you will remember everything from the start of your PhD at the end, having a system helps.

Here are some of the key tweets I liked:

I encourage you to read through the thread. It provides insightful advice from people who have been there before.

My own advice would be, don’t compare. I wish I had known this at the start of my PhD. I remember meeting someone in the sciences and following them on Twitter. They are about a year ahead of me in their journey, and were already teaching and publishing. I immediately felt like I wasn’t doing enough. Never mind that this person was doing experiments, so had results to share, and that they were a year ahead of me. My brain chose to ignore these facts. Remind yourself every time you compare, that it is actually impossible to compare your journey, even in the same field.

The time question

The very first day of my PhD I googled “how much time is enough to spend on a phd”. . A quick search revealed conflicting answers, some saying 9-5 Monday to Friday, others suggesting 12-15 hour days and weekends as a minimum. I have a tendency to overcommit myself, so I chose to listen to the 12-15 days and weekends advice.

In the beginning of my PhD I loathed workshops and social events. I honestly felt that if I wasn’t reading or writing, I was wasting my time. I had a very loud ticking clock in my head that constantly reminded me I was not doing enough. As a result, I would take readings home and sit on the couch while my housemates watched television in the same room. I would guiltily be drawn into the shows they were watching, all the while clutching my journal article and a pen in my hand. I would work on Saturdays and Sundays, trying desperately to keep my concentration while my family and friends attended fun events without me.

To an outsider this is obviously not sustainable. I was pretty stressed and miserable, I felt like I was constantly working and achieving nothing. In part, I was. By forcing myself to follow what I had read online, the ’12-15 hour days and weekends’ I was doing myself more harm than good. I was being less productive because I was tired and not getting any rest. Whenever I was working I was achieving less because I was exhausted. My scholarship says I can’t work more than 8 hours of paid work, Monday to Friday 9am-5pm. This is the guideline I now like to work with. I try to be working as though my PhD is a fulltime job, 9-5 Monday to Friday with sometimes 8 hours of paid work thrown in. For me working now means reading, thinking, workshops, social events within the faculty, meetings, student events and writing. While I am working my focus is to make the most of the hours I have during the day. As a result, I am less stressed and have a work-life balance.

I won’t lie, sometimes I work weekends or stay past 6pm. But this is when I want to and only when I know I am not compromising my physical and mental health. I don’t stay because I feel like I have to.



My 9 month anniversary

The 1st of May marked my 9 month anniversary of beginning my PhD journey. I haven’t been posting as much as I would like because I have been deep in preparation for my confirmation. I also partly felt that I couldn’t share this blog with anyone. I thought it was a bit personal, maybe too real about the PhD journey, would people not approve of what I posted? Would potential students find it?

On reflection, I don’t think my blog is too personal. I think it identifies the feelings I had in the first six months of my PhD. Feelings that are completely normal.

The main feeling I experienced in the last nine months, but mostly the first six of my candidature, was uncertainty. It is important to understand that you may feel this too and it is normal. It is normal because you have never been through this process before. You are learning and for the first time a lot of the project is only about you. Yes, you have supervisors but they will be guiding you, not driving every decision. Once you learn that it is okay to not know everything, you will be happier.

PS. If this thesis was a baby, I would have had it by now and I would be cradling a screaming newborn. All I have is an unfinished confirmation document.


A PhD is a massive undertaking. In the first four months, I have experienced doubt, unhappiness, anxiety and dread. But I have also experienced happiness, pride and satisfaction. I have definitely had days where I felt completely unqualified to be enrolled in a PhD, let alone the recipient of a scholarship (hello, imposter syndrome).

I realised yesterday, my feelings of anxiety weren’t necessarily about my own knowledge or skill level. Instead, they were stemming from my old friend, uncertainty. I have experienced many levels of uncertainty in the last four months. I was uncertain about research direction, reading, theory and more generally, what to do. This uncertainty paralysed me. I had some days where I did not get any work done. None, at all.

This to me was shameful. I felt like a failure. Why did I find it so hard to get started on work? The answer lay in the fact that I did not have a plan. The answer was that uncertainty scared me.


A topic at last! Or in other words, a lifeboat in the ocean of uncertainity

The whole month of September I was lost. I was lost in the sea of literature. I feel unmotivated and lazy. I felt that no matter what I read, it wasn’t enough. This, coupled with the uncertainty of not knowing what to write about, paralysed me.

Before September, I had already written  3000 words of a draft for one of my chapters. How many did I write in September?  0.

I did write some words in September as I have an annotated bibliography and rough drafts in Scrivener. But I did not write any real words that will eventually contribute to my thesis. This is because I was stuck in an ocean of possibility. I had dug deeper into my literature view and felt I was going around in circles. Every topic I read was uninteresting or had already a small amount of research. I didn’t know where I would fit.

Now, I have absolutely no advice on how to remove yourself from this paralysing position. For me, it happened randomly, on a Tuesday two weeks ago whilst trying to organise my thoughts in a mindmap. I suddenly looked up and I knew! The happiness that flooded through me was intense. I just wanted to share this, so anybody else doing a frantic google on ‘how to choose a PhD topic’ doesn’t feel as alone.

This uncertainty will pass. You WILL find a topic. You were allowed entry to the program because YOU are worthy.


The learning phase

I started my RHD journey with noble ideas about efficiency, resources and knowledge. I thought, this is simple. I’ll simply search the literature, write some things and submit my ethics approval! This will go swimmingly! In reality, it has been a month and I am realizing I was a little naive.

Firstly, I learnt that process that universities take their time, as every request has to pass through the bureaucracy. As a result this month has not been the most productive month.

Secondly, I have learnt some things about myself. The Pomodoro technique does not work for me. This has meant instead I make myself a rule, I read one article and then I can have a break. Only a short break, but it isn’t constrained by time limits, so I don’t feel disappointed to be half way through reading a news article when my ‘break’ timer finishes. I also like the method of working through a whole article before taking a break because I find that I tend to hyper focus on a task, and find it hard to get back into if I have to pause.

Thirdly, I have found that it is close to impossible for me to work electronically. I need to print articles or I just cannot retain the information I read. Printed, I can work through an article in less than an hour. Electronically, it can take me up to three hours. I am not sure why, but it just doesn’t work.

And lastly, I have found that on a topic I thought would be relatively small there is still quite a lot of research. I am finding that while there tends to be very little written after 2014, there is still a fair amount to work through. I am finding that what I have read is just a drop in a very wide pool. Definitely not something I expected when I started!

Is there anything you have found to be surprising about your journey? Comment below!