Feminist Research Methodologies: Challenges and Negotiations

UPDATE: The draft programme for this event can be found below:

Feminist Research Methodologies draft programme

This post is a not-so-subtle plug for something I’m really excited about- an event I’m organising in October this year. My research on the career aspirations of women doctoral students uses a feminist approach; it places value on women’s experiences and aims to produce knowledge which will make a difference to women’s lives (Letherby, 2003). However, in my reading around feminist research, various challenges to undertaking this kind of research started to surface:

  • What is the nature of the relationship between the researcher and the researched?
  • How does our position within the research impact on what is produced?
  • How do we adequately represent our participants? 
  • How do we navigate the ethical issues involved in our research? 

The way we negotiate these challenges, and how we reflect and write about these negotiations is a vital part of feminist research. Yet, when reading literature on this subject, I felt that the practical challenges implicit in this kind of research- and the negotiations involved- were not always made visible by feminist researchers. I decided to organise an event which would provide the opportunity for postgraduates like me to come together and share our experiences of facing challenges and overcoming difficulties in our feminist research.

I thought it would be great to open the event to students from different subject areas; my own research spans both Education and Sociology, and feminist research can take place in any discipline. I’m interested to see the different approaches which are taken in different disciplines, and finding out about the research that postgraduate students from across the country are doing. Hopefully it will be provide a catalyst for the development of a network of feminist researchers who are in the early stages of their research, where we can discuss our ideas in a supportive environment and learn from one another.

I’m also hoping that presentations which are given at the conference might be developed into a book proposal- so watch this space.

If you would like to present at this conference, please do get in touch. Abstracts of no more than 250 words must be submitted to the conference organiser Rachel Handforth at rachel.handforth@student.shu.ac.uk by 5pm on Friday 25th September, and should be aimed at one of the following themes:

  • types of feminist research methodologies
  • positionality and the role of the researcher
  • ethical issues in feminist research
  • issues of representation in theory and practice

The conference itself will take place at Sheffield Hallam University on Friday 30th October 2015. It is aimed at postgraduate students undertaking research utilising feminist perspectives. The keynote speaker is Jessica Ringrose, Professor of Sociology of Gender and Education at the Institute of Education, University College London.


Starting a Writing Group (re-blog)

Earlier in July I started writing for jobs.ac.uk, a well-known website which mainly advertises academic jobs. It also has some useful hints and tips for those looking to get into academia, and advice for those considering starting a PhD. As well as writing on my own blog once a month, I thought it would be good to share some of my experiences with a wider audience, including those who are considering PhD study. There was a lot I didn’t know when I started out, and I remember that it was useful to hear the stories of those actually doing it!

I wrote a short piece for jobs.ac.uk about my experiences of academic writing in the hope that it might encourage others to write with their fellow students- writing can be a lonely experience but it doesn’t have to be! Here’s the post I wrote about starting a writing group:

jobs logo 2

This month has been a varied one. I’m focusing on writing up some initial thoughts from my first round of data collection, as well as doing other things like organising a conference on feminist research and preparing to start teaching in September.

The problem is, there’s always something I could be doing. There are so many interesting things to get involved with whilst you’re doing a PhD- whether it’s writing a paper with one of your peers, helping to organise departmental seminars or volunteering to write a book review- and I find it really hard to say no to any of these opportunities!

I decided that some of these things that I had agreed to do needed to have some time dedicated to them, otherwise they just wouldn’t get done. I knew that I needed to start allocating time to write- I have deadlines looming and I can easily spend a week just reading books from the big stack piled up high on my desk instead of writing.

But the idea of spending a day typing by myself didn’t really appeal. As any final year PhD student can attest to, writing can be an isolating and lonely experience. I decided that even just among my peers there must be others who also face the same difficulty- of having specific writing projects they want to dedicate time to, but not necessarily making time to get around to them. I thought that organising something regular where we could all come together and write in each other’s company must be possible.

I spoke to one of my supervisors and managed to secure a small budget for a writing group for doctoral students in my department, allowing us to have tea and coffee throughout the day (and some cake in the afternoon to keep our sugar levels up- very important!). The group now provides a dedicated space for writing for doctoral students in the Sheffield Institute of Education, and offers a supportive working environment. It could even lead to future collaborations between us.

The first meeting of our writing group was in early July, and it was a real success! I booked a room outside of the office where some of us usually work; I felt it would be important for us to ‘get away’ somewhere so that we were less likely to get distracted by day-to-day things like checking e-mails. We worked from 10am til 4pm, with a break of an hour for lunch. Some people came for either the morning or afternoon session, and some stayed for the whole day, but this element of flexibility according to people’s various commitments seemed to be useful.

I thought it would be good to discuss what we were going to work on, so at the start we talked about what we wanted to achieve that day. For me it was to write a draft of a book review I’d volunteered to write- a goal which I had achieved by the end of the day! At the end of the day those of us who had stayed we discussed how we had found the experience and it seemed that it had been a positive experience for everyone.

The feedback was that it was a productive day, and that setting aside time specifically to write was really useful. We will continue to meet monthly and I hope that it will continue to be popular and successful. The writing group is something which I think will become even more important to me as I continue through my PhD- I can see the value of it personally, as I work better in the company of others- but it seems that it was a help to others in my department too. I’ve met people who I might not otherwise have met as a result of the group, which also helps to build a community amongst PhD students.

So if you’re struggling to write alone and are thinking of starting something similar, I can absolutely recommend it!

Avoiding your data (also known as burying your head in the sand)


It has been about seven weeks since I finished doing interviews with the participants in my study. I did 14 interviews in total, and they ranged from around 50 minutes to nearly two hours. Much as the process of interviewing was tiring, and the transcribing a bit of a nightmare, for the most part I loved doing the interviews and having the opportunity to talk to the female doctoral students who had agreed to share their stories with me.

But I’ve avoided really looking at the data I collected during those interviews. The thought of sifting through the transcripts and the responsibility of trying to derive meaning from them seemed so intimidating. I distracted myself with other interesting things; reading about feminist research and narrative inquiry, starting on my methodology, volunteering to organise a conference, and setting up a writing group. In my defence, these were (almost) all things I that needed to do, and would have had to do at some point- and so it hasn’t been a waste of time. Yet what motivated me to start this research was the opportunity to find out about the experiences of my participants, and understand the various factors which affect their career aspirations during their PhD. And I won’t achieve this by burying my head in the sand.

So I’m finally engaging with the interview data I collected. I decided to listen back to the audio and re-read the transcripts, without putting any pressure on myself to start immediately analysing what I found. I wrote short summaries of  the key points of interest in each interview, and made a note to go back and look at some instances in more depth. Even after just doing this, I felt immediately like I had made a decent start and that I was no longer, as Silverman (2009) puts it, ‘drowning in data’.

I found that listening back to the audio from one particular interview reminded me of the smaller details of the interview; where it had taken place and how warm it had been that day; the small talk we made before the interview began, and how one seemingly offhand comment revealed so much. How fast the participant had spoken throughout, except when she was unsure, or where I could see that she was recounting something which was more difficult to voice. The way she talked about not wanting to be defined by her studies, and what I’d felt and thought to myself when she said that.

These details are the things we easily forget or dismiss; the parts of the data we collect that are glossed over and therefore written out of research. But by writing them into our research, we give a more detailed, rich account of our data- what Geertz (1973) called ‘thick description’. Our research is more faithful, and more transparent for being written in this way.

My approach to research is reflexive; I believe that it is important to acknowledge the impact that I as the researcher have on the research, and to actively reflect on this. My relationship with participants affects what they tell me and how they ‘tell’ themselves. As Stanley and Wise (1993: 161) contend:

‘Because the basis of all research is a relationship, this necessarily involves the presence of the researcher as a person… One’s self can’t be left behind, it can only be omitted from discussions and written accounts of the research process… it is an omission, a failure to discuss something which has been present within the research itself… in doing research we cannot leave behind what it is to be a person alive in the world.’ 

This approach to research both acknowledges and values subjectivity. My own thoughts and reflections affect how the research is conducted- the questions I ask in the interview, the insights I draw from what participants tell me, and how I choose to write about them. The challenge comes in trying to express the subtleties of what participants disclose, drawing meaning from how they tell their stories and representing this in a way which is interesting, meaningful and respectful to them.

All of this requires an approach to research which is not evasive, and which places value on the contextual detail of the data- an approach which clearly stems not from avoiding your data and burying your head in the sand, but purposively engaging with the generously given stories of participants, and trying to do them justice in your representations.

Reflecting on Motivations for Doctoral Study

It’s exactly a year to the day since I interviewed for my PhD. It is a path I’d never really imagined taking. After graduating, I had no immediate desire to study any further, and unlike friends who longed to do a Master’s and took a year or two out in order to save for the tuition fees, I just wanted to find a job that was interesting and would pay well. Yet three years after graduating, I enrolled on a part-time MRes as part of my professional development after getting a new job, never dreaming that it would lead me towards a PhD.

Existing research focuses mostly on categorising the different motivations for undertaking doctoral study- for example personal interest in a subject area, or career development (Churchill & Sanders 2007; Gill and Hoppe 2009). Yet Brailsford (2010: 25) highlights a practical purpose in identifying individual motivations. He argues that for those commencing a doctorate, regularly reflecting on their original motivations ‘may be a valuable motivational tool itself’, helping to sustain individuals through more challenging periods.

There is a wealth of literature which highlights the difficulty in maintaining motivation throughout a doctoral degree (Golde 2005; Lovitts 2001; Powell & Green 2007). Issues such as isolation and poor relationships with supervisors can de-motivate individuals, despite their academic potential and original enthusiasm.

Taking up Brailsford’s challenge, I decided to take some time to reflect on my own motivations, re-visiting my personal e-mails and diary from the time for inspiration. I hadn’t realised how influential some of my friends had been in indirectly encouraging me to apply for a PhD.

One of my colleagues had completed a PhD some months before we started working together. I had always assumed that anyone doing a doctorate wanted to become an academic, and so was curious to understand why she had chosen a different career instead. I wanted to know if her decision was unusual, and whether the experience of doing a doctorate had made academia less attractive as a career option. This curiosity didn’t go away, and it eventually took shape as my PhD proposal. My personal interest in this topic was my main motivation for applying for a PhD.

Another of my friends who I studied with on the MRes had always planned on applying for a PhD afterwards. I envied his certainty, and was impressed at his unwavering determination to achieve his goal- to become an academic. When he began applying for PhD scholarships, I realised how jealous I was. Looking back at our e-mails from the time, I discovered that I the idea of doing a doctorate had been in my mind much earlier than I’d previously thought. However, I had felt that I didn’t have the necessary academic credentials and wouldn’t be eligible to apply:

‘How are your PhD applications going? I am majorly jealous, would love to be in the position to apply but alas I am not.’

When he said that he had seen an advertised PhD about feminist research and had thought of me, he asked me why I thought I wasn’t able to apply. I replied:

‘I can’t apply because it’s too soon, would be this time next year if I wanted to apply as I won’t finish the MRes til September ’15. Do you remember where the one you saw and nearly sent me was though? Might have a look just out of interest!’

In my diary from the time, I wrote about my experiences of studying part-time on the MRes and how much I enjoyed the time I spent working on my assignments at the weekend:

Just sitting in that office in Collegiate getting on with my work, I had one of the best days I’ve had in a really long time. Maybe this is what I want to do.

In undertaking this process of reflection, I discovered that my motivations were more wide-ranging than I had previously thought. I was motivated by the intellectual challenge of further study, and the idea of developing a career which allowed me to research what I was interested in full-time.

Thinking back to Brailsford’s proposition that doctoral students should regularly reflect on their motivations for studying, I have found it a useful and productive exercise. It’s easy to become de-motivated during the PhD, and I know that I get bogged down in the minutiae- whether it’s not being able to understand a certain theory, or feeling daunted about the upgrade process.

The way I’ve chosen to reflect on my own motivations is to physically look back at personal material from the last two years which shed light on my thoughts and feelings about doctoral study. Other ways of doing this could include re-reading your original research proposal to rediscover your interest in the subject area, or talking to your peers about what it was the motivated you to apply for a doctorate in the first place.

I would be really interested to hear what your original motivations for undertaking a PhD were, whether or not you reflect on them and whether you find doing this a motivational tool in itself. Feel free to get in touch!

Confidence and Conferences


This post covers some of the things I’ve been reflecting on after giving my first presentation since starting the PhD and after I attended a conference earlier this month.

I volunteered to present because I wanted to do something that would challenge me, take me completely out of my comfort zone and force me to face my fear of public speaking. Like a lot of people, I feel fairly confident chatting about my subject around the table with peers, but when it comes to standing up at the front of a room and being stared at, expected to be knowledgeable and interesting and personable (all at the same time), my legs turn to jelly. But I did it, and like always it wasn’t quite as bad as I thought it was going to be.

My nerves about presenting made me think about a paper given by Sara Mills and Katie Edwards on International Women’s Day this year about gender and performance anxiety. They observed that women are often viewed as ‘lacking in confidence’ when it comes to public speaking- I know I’ve attended various workshops on ‘how to build your confidence’ over the years. Yet, as Mills argues, what if we considered female performance anxiety from a different standpoint- not as a personal deficit in an individual, but simply as a gendered response to a wider social situation? Public speaking has traditionally been the preserve of men, and many of the traits associated with a talented public speaker- assertiveness, control and authority- are also associated with masculinity (for more on this see Mills, 2012).

Thinking about the way in which I felt before presenting at the Research Café, I realised that my main concerns were that I wouldn’t convincingly ‘perform’ this role as an academic presenter, and that I would be ‘found out’- that the audience would uncover all the things that I still don’t know and ask me difficult questions that I wouldn’t be able to answer.

Presenting your work and going to conferences are meant to be some of the more fun parts of academia. Much as I look forward to attending an interesting-sounding conference, part of me is always dreading it, particularly if I don’t know anyone else who is going. There’s a certain level of expectation at conferences- that you’ll have witty and interesting questions to ask, that you’ll find it easy to get chatting to others over the buffet table, and that you’ll understand all the various references to people and research that are casually thrown around.

In early April I went to Glasgow (I don’t recommend you travel from Sheffield to Glasgow and back in a day, it turns out it’s pretty far) for the British Sociological Association’s Postgraduate Day Conference. It was a good day, and despite my anxiety I did get chatting to people and it was great finding out about the huge variety of research being done by PhD students across the country. But reflecting on the conference the next day, I wrote this in my research diary:

I still can’t help feeling a bit stupid, though. There are so many people and things referenced that I don’t know. I (still) haven’t got a clue about what Weber thinks about teaching. I think I still feel like a bit of an imposter at these things.

The imposter phenomenon has been well documented by researchers in psychology (Langford and Clance, 1993; Sakulku and Alexander, 2011). Interestingly, the feeling of fraudulence and the resulting fear of being ‘found out’ has also been observed to be found more often, and with greater intensity, in women than in men (Clance and Imes, 1978).

Seeing the cartoon below posted by colleagues on Twitter made me realise how many people in academia feel this way. It seems to sum up how I feel, but also acts as a perspective check- the reality is that no-one can know everything, and just because I don’t know as much as others doesn’t mean that I don’t have a right to be here, or that I’m not good enough.

imposter syndrome

Reflecting on these issues of confidence, it seems to me that it’s something which is incredibly dependent on circumstance and context. Of course, there are individuals who will be comfortable in any kind of social or professional situation, who wouldn’t be phased by public speaking in any arena, or by that other expectation implicit in academia- networking. Yet there are others for whom public speaking wouldn’t be difficult, but who do not relish the idea of networking because it requires a degree of gregariousness which not everyone has.

One of the things that really resonated with me from the conference was when an early career academic talked about the difficulty she found in being expected to ‘network’ at conferences. She observed that the traditional view of networking requires you to be outgoing, and admitted that she found this challenging because she was naturally introverted, and would rather e-mail someone she wanted to have a conversation with after the conference instead.

It was so refreshing to hear that, and a bit of a relief too. However, it made me consider how academia and one of the main ways in which it is ‘performed’- through conferences which necessitate the delivery of presentations and the networking which is directly involved (not to mention the logistical aspects of travel and time away from caring responsibilities)- is not structured in a way which makes it possible for everyone to engage equally.

Why I ran away from my PhD for the day

Yesterday I had a run away day. I was sick of my work and wanted to get away for a bit, so I drove out the Peak District and wrote in my research diary for a while. The following is a little bit of what I wrote, reflecting on the benefits that a brief escape from your PhD can have.

As I write this, I’m sitting in a riverside cafe somewhere near Hathersage. I’m annoyed at all the people who have a seat by the window where they can actually see the river. That’s why I’m here really, I just wanted to look at a nice view and have a cup of tea. I feel like these people don’t need the view as much I do, or appreciate it as much as I would right now. It’s the same kind of irrational anger that I get when I don’t get a window seat on a train! Anyway, I now have a very expensive cup of tea, no view and a cake that I probably shouldn’t be eating.

I’ve sort of run away for the day. I’d driven to Collegiate for the interview, and I thought about going for a quick walk around Endcliffe Park, or maybe driving to Millhouses Park, but I got in the car and knew I wanted to go to the Peak. So I got in the car and drove, and just kept going. I just wanted to see some open space and some green. I forget how sick I get of the city, the built up environment- that feeling of being trapped, no matter how much I love Sheffield. Every time I see the hills, I feel like something inside me unwinds. I didn’t want to go home because I knew that it would mean that I had to transcribe.

It has been a funny couple of weeks. I’ve started my first set of interviews with my participants, which has been fascinating and exhausting in equal measure. I’m amazed at what people say, what they will tell you. I feel really fortunate, honoured that these women will give their time to me and tell me their stories- but in a weird way it feels like a huge responsibility, too. I want to do them justice, to represent their stories well and in a way that they would be able to recognise themselves within my research.

I’m sitting at a table by the window now. It’s really lovely here. It’s a garden centre sort of place, so there are books about bird-watching on the tables, and a big bird feeder just outside the window so you can see all the tiny pretty coloured birds eating and flying about, moving in that fascinating jerky way that they do. Then there’s the river flowing below and the fields and rolling hills behind. I feel a bit better already, sitting here and writing this.

I did an interview this morning, and I really didn’t want to. I felt really tired and ill this morning and it was a real effort to drag myself out of bed. The interview itself was interesting- I loved the story she told about when she got her PhD offer- but at nearly two hours it was pretty long, especially in comparison with the others I’ve done. I found my mind wandering, and was inwardly groaning at the amount of transcribing that I knew an interview of this length would entail. It’s not like the interview was a disaster- it’s not even like it even went wrong particularly- but if anything I needed to be more on the ball than usual in order to direct the interview better.

I feel as though the point of my PhD is being lost somewhere- in the dread of transcribing, the feeling that I’m always behind; the constant guilt. Before I started my data collection I set myself what now seems like a ridiculous target- to do one interview per day, with one day off per week, where I’d do an interview in the morning and transcribe it that afternoon. With transcribing taking usually 3-4 times the length of time that the interview lasts, clearly this was a bit of an unreasonable expectation. Not long after I started the PhD, a friend who is now a senior lecturer said that I shouldn’t be afraid to just take the time to sit and think about things. I feel like because of the way that I’ve needed to start data collection so early, I’ve had very little time to contemplate what I’m doing, and how and why I’m doing it.

Somehow I feel like sitting here and doing this is the best thing I’ve done in a little while. Surely there’s no point in doing a PhD and being given all this time and space, unless you sometimes have days like these? I loved driving with no particular destination in mind; that feeling of wandering and being free to do so. I genuinely love what I do and I don’t want to feel constrained by it. It’s just the thought of going home to three hours of interview material- I can’t bear it. But I don’t have the money it would take to pay people to transcribe the interviews for me. What will I do? Probably bite the bullet and just do it, eventually. But today is my run away day and I don’t want to think about it any more.

I’ve done an interview today. That’s enough. No more guilt. As I’m sitting here writing, I’ve realised that I actually have my hiking boots- and possibly a waterproof– in my car, left over from the last time I came out to the Peak. I think it’s time I went for a wander in the hills.

When I got home I felt like a different person- calmer, more relaxed, and more able to get back to work the next day.

To any of you who want to run away from your PhD for the day- I can highly recommend it!

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Collaborative writing, or something along those (blurred) lines

One bright Tuesday last November featured a new, surreal experience for me- being interviewed on BBC Radio Sheffield. My colleague and I were being interviewed by BBC Radio Sheffield about our research on the Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams song ‘Blurred Lines’.

I was the Research Assistant on the project over the summer of 2014 which aimed to explore different interpretations of the song, and was responsible for designing and sending out the questionnaire and analysing the responses that came in.

I generally hate any form of public speaking, and I really thought about saying no to the interview- my colleague could have easily done it by herself. But just being scared isn’t a good enough excuse for not doing something I know would be a valuable experience. I’m going to have to get used to putting myself in uncomfortable situations and challenging myself- soon enough I’ll have to teach undergraduate classes and present at conferences. Both of these things fill me with dread, but I don’t want to be scared of them any more.

With a small group of academics, I have been writing up the findings from the questionnaire and we have recently submitted our collaborative effort to the journal of Feminist Media Studies. It has been a brilliant project for me to be involved with- I’ve gained experience in analysing qualitative data, and had the opportunity to engage with literature about representations of gender in the music industry. Most of all, I’ve learned from my colleagues- how for an academic journal and how to write as part of a team.

Writing collaboratively has been an interesting, but challenging experience. It was the first time I’d ever tried to write a piece of work with other people- it’s just not something you learn how to do as a Master’s student. There were several of us contributing to the article over a period of three or four months, and and so the easiest way to write was to create a Google Doc which we could all add to, as well as edit the content.

When you write collaboratively, you write with two audiences- both the future readers of the article (it’s always hoped that there will actually be some!), and also the other writers. I found writing in front of my colleagues (all academics) as a Master’s student (I hadn’t even started my PhD at this state) a really daunting prospect. At first I was incredibly self conscious about what I was writing, and didn’t want to write any drafts directly into the Google Doc we were using where others would see it. I wrote initial drafts in Word before I deemed them good enough to be added to the Google Doc. What I hadn’t realised was that this meant that colleagues didn’t know what I had written, and so we ended up duplicating work. Not ideal!

Much as I felt like my initial writing wasn’t good enough to be shown to my colleagues, another issue was communicating clearly within the process of drafting sections of the article. We all have our idiosyncrasies when we write. I find it hard to write chronologically- I write in a very piecemeal way (don’t know where I’d be without copy and paste)- and I use a lot of ‘xxx’s, ‘…’s and different coloured fonts to remind myself where to go back to later on. Exposing these idiosyncrasies to other writers feels a little embarrassing, and expecting others to understand what you mean by them is a lot to ask!

I’ve learned the importance of being transparent when writing collaboratively. Sharing what you write isn’t always easy, but the feedback I’ve had on my contributions has always been constructive,  and has made me a better writer. As well, I have learned how to communicate better through the process of writing with others- adding little comments within google docs to say that you’re going to expand this section, or add your references later, doesn’t take much effort but is very helpful to other writers.

This is how it is in the world of academia, with a considerable amount of academic articles being co-authored. Interestingly, research has highlighted that women are more likely to publish collaboratively than men (Schucan Bird, 2011) I feel glad to have had experience of collaborative writing so early on in my academic ‘career’- if I can call it that at this stage!

If you’d like to read more about the research we did on Blurred Lines, the article we have submitted can be found here. Please note that this is our first version which has been submitted to this journal, and may change as it is subject to review.


Letters to our future selves

Over the last week or so, I’ve been meeting with those who have volunteered to be participants in my study. Like me, they’re all first year, full-time PhD students who are women. I’ve been talking to them about what the study involves, which is an interview once a year throughout the PhD, keeping a research diary and writing a letter to their future self.

Writing letters to future selves is an idea that people may have heard of in a slightly different form or a different context, for example where expectant parents have written a letter to their child at the age of 18. However, some people haven’t heard of it at all, and I wondered whether it might be something that participants would see as an additional, burdensome task that they had to complete on top of their own research.

I explained that the letter should be addressed to their future self, at the point where they were about to finish their PhD. I asked them to consider how they thought they would be feeling about their PhD by 2017, what advice they might give themselves as came to the end of their PhD, and what their hopes for their future self were. Towards the end of the time when the participants and I should be completing our PhDs, we will also write a letter to our past selves.  This will be an opportunity for us to reflect on our experiences over the past few years, and consider what we would have said to ourselves when we were starting the PhD.

The reason I’m using this method is because I think it will be really interesting to gain insight into how the participants (and myself) currently imagine who they will be in three year’s time. This isn’t something that most of us would do- really imagine who that future self could be, what they might be like and what they might have achieved- let alone address them directly from our current point in time.

Each letter is a snapshot, a moment where all the possibilities of who we could be are considered by who we are, now. These snapshots will be incredibly useful to me in writing about the changing career aspirations of female PhD students, particularly when the letters to future selves are combined with the letters to past selves, written towards the end of our time as PhD students.

In talking to the participants about the letters, I was really pleased by the generally positive reaction to writing them. One person said that she would be really pleased to have these letters to keep for posterity. I hadn’t really thought about this until she said it- these letters will exist long after my research has ended. They are highly personal artefacts from our journeys through this incredibly formative part of our lives, and will attest to who we were and what we believed was possible.

Though I found mine initially hard to write, I’d recommend doing this to anyone.


PhD working environments and why they matter

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Where we work is important. Where we read, write and discuss our work, whether or not we speak to someone during the day, and where we take a break from our work is important, too.

Until recently, I was trying to motivate myself to go into university every day. I used to hot-desk in an open plan space provided for PhD students from various disciplines. Even though during my part-time Master’s I did the majority of my work at home, it doesn’t seem to work as well for me now. I get bored, distracted, and if I’m honest, a little lonely.

Yet I found it difficult to want to go and work in a small, stultifying silent space where I always felt that I was encroaching on someone else’s territory (those who are further on in their studies don’t seem to want to hot-desk, which is fair enough even if it is a bit frustrating for the rest of us). I also didn’t know many people who worked in there, and the atmosphere wasn’t exactly conducive to striking up conversations.  So when I heard that I might be able to get a space in one of the related research centres, I jumped at the chance- if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

When I went in the following Monday to start working in the research centre, I felt instantly that I was part of an academic community. One of my fellow PhD students who I met on the first day also works in the office, and I was introduced to everyone else who worked there. My research involves looking at individuals’ experiences of studying for their PhD (for more details see here). I believe that working in an environment which is supportive and fosters a sense of belonging has a significant impact on PhD students. I know that my motivation and my focus have been vastly improved by moving into the research centre, and I’ve definitely been more productive in the few weeks I’ve been there.

Now I’ve moved into this office, I chat to people in the kitchen area when I’m heating up my lunch in the microwave. The other day a colleague left a journal article he thought would be useful for my research on my desk. I used to work full-time before starting my PhD, and it is these small, everyday interactions with others which I really missed. You don’t realise how good it is to have colleagues around you until you no longer have them.

Why is my new working environment worthy of writing about, then? Because I think my experience is similar to many others. Friends of mine who are also PhD students work in a variety of environments, from a desk at home to a small office space to their university library. Some of them like their situation, some of them don’t, and of course it’s important to recognise that people work differently and have different preferences.

Yet research has consistently highlighted isolation as being a serious issue amongst PhD students, particularly for those studying within humanities or social sciences (Ali & Kohun et al. 2006; Brown and Watson 2010; Golde 2005). In serious cases it can contribute to a student’s decision to leave their studies. Doctoral attrition, where students studying for their PhD leave before completing their degree, is a significant problem for universities across the world (Golde 2000; Lovitts 2001). By providing a place of study which is welcoming to PhD students, and offering them a space to call their own where they can leave their books and interact with their peers, this isolation can be reduced.

I’d be really interested to hear from other PhD students and your experiences. Where do you work? Does it work for you, and why?

On the edge of something

Wednesday 26th November saw the first official conference for members of the Sheffield Institute of Education. The Institute is relatively new, having only launched in May 2014. As a PhD student within the Institute, my supervisor encouraged me to use the conference as an opportunity to promote my research. So, a couple of workshops later I put together a colourful representation of what I’m going to be spending the next three years doing. Here’s me posing with it with my cup of tea:


Talking through my poster over lunch was a comfortable ease into presenting at a conference. Being surrounded by colleagues at a conference organised by my supervisors meant that it felt like a safe space- and one where I wouldn’t get asked too many difficult questions! I had drafted and redrafted my poster, trying to use as few words as possible, and find images which would make it more interesting to look at. So I was surprised when a colleague who came over to read my poster asked me who my participants were going to be. I turned to my poster, about to point out the relevant section, but I realised that it wasn’t there! I had assumed that it was obvious in what I’d written, but it wasn’t. So that was a bit embarrassing! But a useful lesson to learn, and I’ll certainly be checking the content of future posters more carefully!

Along with overcoming this first hurdle of presenting my work, I’ve been pretty busy trying to keep on schedule with the various requirements for my PhD. As I’m starting my interviews with participants in March, I need to submit my ethical approval forms early so that I get clearance from the University before I interview anybody. So after some useful feedback from my supervisors I’ve submitted my ethics form which is definitely a step in the right direction, and I’m hoping to have my ethical approval confirmed by Christmas.

Continuing the theme of important forms (there really is a lot more form-filling than I had expected…), after what feels like at least 200 drafts I’m about to submit my RF1 form (this imaginatively named acronym stands for ‘research form one’). This is the first part of a long (and slightly dull) process which is actually quite important. This form is a measure of whether my research can be considered ‘good enough’ (or not… a scary prospect) to be of a PhD standard. In June next year I’ll have to fill out a longer form and do a presentation on my research which will be the final stage of this process. Fingers crossed all goes to plan!

On a more exciting note, I have also managed to recruit a number of participants for my study. My call for initial expressions of interest has resulted in 16 volunteers (so far) which is great. I’m hoping to get a few more, assuming that some people who have volunteered might change their mind and drop out at some point. Actually doing the interviews with these women is by far the thing I’m most looking forward to. I have really enjoyed the experience of interviewing in the past, and much as I have learned from the various things I’m reading, I feel that I’ll learn a lot more from the women themselves. I can’t wait to start!

It’s good to feel as though I’m achieving some goals, because when every day is the same- reading, reflecting, writing, making cups of tea- at times it doesn’t really feel like you’re making much progress. So I decided to get involved with a few extra things as well as the everyday work. A while ago I started writing a jointly authored article with my lead supervisor, which has been an absolutely brilliant experience. I’ve learned so much about how to write with another person, and I’ve really enjoyed working with someone I have so much respect for and benefiting from her knowledge. I’ve also met with some research students from other disciplines, as we’ve been organising a series of research cafes which showcase the work of PhD students and post-docs from across the University. Our first event was last week, and it was a real success. It was really inspiring to see the range of research that goes on in the University, and it was nice to take some time out of my subject and hear about what other people are working on. Hopefully one day I’ll pluck up the courage to give as presentation about my own work!

Reflecting on the various things I’ve achieved in the last 10 weeks, I realise that I can be a bit hard on myself sometimes. I never feel that I’m doing enough, but looking back at what I’ve done so far, I think I’m doing ok. I just might be on the edge of something.