Tips for writing a PhD thesis

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about whether or not I regret undertaking a PhD. This is mainly because today is my deadline. My writing up year has finished. I haven’t though. I still have a lot of writing to do, and although I’ve done a lot of work over the past six weeks or so, the finish line doesn’t seem to be getting any closer. Thankfully I have very supportive supervisors, who are very much on my side, and have been really understanding with how much I’ve struggled to balance full time work and PhD writing, and with the mental health difficulties I’ve had over the past four years.

If you’d have asked me at the beginning of summer whether I regretted starting a PhD, I’d have definitely said yes. I was working the most stressful and poorly paid job I’ve ever had, and I’ve never felt so undervalued. I loved working with children, a lot of the adults less so.  If you ask me now about whether I regret starting a PhD, I’m less certain. I’ve landed in my dream job, that would have been impossible without the unpaid work I did while I was studying, the only time I’ve been able to consistently volunteer, because I was fortunate enough to be fully funded for three years.

Either way, I can’t wait for it to be over, it’s drained so much from me, and I can’t wait to be able to sit at home doing nothing without feeling guilty about not working, to be able to look forward to leaving work knowing that I can relax, I mostly can’t wait to start tackling the massive stack of books I haven’t read for the last four years.

I’ve also been thinking about how many pieces of advice I’ve ignored, or wish I had heard, and thought perhaps I can use this weird reflective moment to try and be of use to other people. So here are my top tips, specifically for writing the thesis. (I’ll give you a bonus tip about applying: THINK VERY CAREFULLY ABOUT WHETHER A PHD IS THE RIGHT THING FOR YOU- can you get to where you want to be without? if so, do that instead):

  • Every time you read an article, book or chapter, or hear an interesting conference paper or lecture, don’t just write a list of quotes, try and immediately formulate some writing in response to it, even if it’s just a summary of ideas. Basically just write write write from the start.
  • Agree regular deadlines for written work with your supervisors from the start. If they’re quite laid back, impress on them how important it is for you to have strict and regular deadlines to work to. 
  • Make friends with the university librarians and library assistants. I was lucky in this respect, as I worked in the library. They are your best PhD allies. 
  • Find a good way of managing your physical and digital work. Scrivener is great for organising documents, unfortunately I acquired it quite late in my PhD. Writing such a lengthy piece of work is an inherently fragmented process, try and keep your files and papers organised, even when your head isn’t. When reading/ editing I work better from paper, if you have loads of printouts of your own work at various stages of completion, make sure you date it or recycle it if it’s no longer needed. On the front of printed articles, it’s useful to write a one sentence summary, not about what the article is about, but about how it’s useful for you. 
  • Don’t try and reinvent the conventions of a thesis. Yeah the standard formula of PhD theses is tedious, and the temptation to try and make the process more interesting and creative is high, but only like three people are ever going to read it, so just tick the boxes and get it done, you can write your masterpiece later.
  • Speak at conferences, write articles/book chapters, but make sure anything you do can be reconfigured with minimal effort into your thesis- don’t make more work for yourself, likewise with any upgrading written work early on, try and use it as an opportunity to draft an introduction or a methodology chapter.
  • Teach if possible. Try and leave room in seminars/lectures for conversations. MA students are good at giving feedback without even realising it, plus they’re not too jaded by academia yet, like other PhD students.
  • If you find high theory dense, inaccessible, dull and unhelpful- don’t try and write it.
  • If you have a good relationship with your supervisors, always take their advice. They’re trying to help you get a PhD. 
  • If you have a good relationship with your supervisors, tell them when they’re wrong. (obviously contradicts previous point, but hear me out). Towards the end of your PhD (maybe even from the start), chances are you’re more of an expert in your specific field than your supervisors. It’s okay to say “actually, I’m not going to take your suggestion, I don’t think it’s important to focus on that”, “that’s not really the direction I want to take with this” etc.
  • Talk about your work with your friends, especially those also doing PhDs, as you can offer each other advice, and they’re more likely to humour you. Some of my biggest breakthroughs have been from conversations with friends from different disciplines over a pint.
and these are the most important ones:
  • If you are working full time, and writing your PhD full time, seek help from the doctoral school/administrators, it’s not feasible, and it’s not usual. don’t kill yourself trying to make it work.
  • Mental health always trumps PhD. Don’t cut yourself off from friends, don’t stop doing the things you enjoy out of guilt. You don’t need to devote every waking second to your PhD. Look after yourself.
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously. Unless you’re becoming an actual real doctor, no one cares you’re doing a PhD except for you, and nor should they.
  • And finally, some advice for those who spend a lot of time with people doing their PhD: if they say “fine thanks” when you ask them how it’s going, it means “don’t ask me any more questions about it”, PhD students spend so much time thinking about and talking about their work- don’t feel you need to show any interest, they probably appreciate the break.
On the plus side, when this is all said and done I will have earned a gender neutral title at last.
Wish me luck, but don’t ask me how it’s going.

Feminism, Gender and Sexuality Seminar Series, UCL IOE

As part of the UCL Institute of Education Feminism, Gender and Sexuality seminar series, I’ll be presenting some of my doctoral work in progress.

Thursday 19th March 5.30 – 7pm: Room 539, 20 Bedford Way

The Great Wings of Silence: Queer Activism in Heritage Sites 

Sean Curran, IOE

Here’s the blurb:

Sean will present from their research about addressing the silence of LGBTQ narratives in heritage sites, using their own curatorial practice at the National Trust’s Sutton House in Hackney as a case study. Sean will raise questions about the roles of curators, artists and activists in challenging dominant narratives in public history and will present initial findings from a survey conducted with participants of a crowd-sourced LGBTQ intervention and will reflect on the challenges arising from practice-based research.

Evening session followed by informal drinks in the Student Union Bar (level 3)

About the Feminism, Gender and Sexuality Seminar Series

Organisers: Jenny Parkes, Emily Henderson, Charley Nussey, Claudia Lapping, Annette Braun

This group is designed for research students and staff to explore their work around feminism, gender and sexuality. We meet informally about three times a term, twice during lunchtimes and once during the evening; at each session a speaker is invited to reflect upon their ideas as they develop, and to use the discussion space for the exploration of their own questions. Session topics located within diverse disciplines are encouraged. At least one seminar each term addresses LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer) research. The session to be held in the evening will be followed by drinks in the bar.

To join the seminar series list contact

(the image is from an old Penguin edition of Woolf’s Orlando, which is where the ‘great wings’ quote comes from)

‘Making things’ exhibition

Just a quickie, to share the poster (click on it for a larger version) for an upcoming exhibition that I am part of, based at the Institute of Education, showcasing work-in-progress from doctoral students in the Art, Design and Museology department whose research includes an element of practice. My work is a piece called ‘The village folk had a lot to say about it’, and it is in response to the neglectful interpretation of Mary Lobb at Kelmscott Manor.

There will also be a seminar, as you can see from the poster, in which there will be a respondent to each of the student’s work and a discussion about how research and practice intersect. I’m delighted to say that Emily F. Henderson, a PhD candidate at the IOE researching feminism, gender and queer theory in connection with international Higher Education, has kindly agreed to respond to my work. You can check out her new book here.

The exhibition opens the week before 126 does- eeeshk, it will be an exciting few weeks!

Museum futures in an age of austerity

This weekend was the conference to celebrate 20 years of the MA in Museums and Galleries in Education at the IOE. It was a great opportunity to catch up with some former classmates and to meet professionals and fellow researchers who are making an innovative and inspiring impact on a sector in financial turmoil.

Instead of giving a blow by blow account of the three days, I thought it would be more useful to highlight some of the recurring themes throughout the wide range of papers given, and the three keynote speakers, which John Reeve neatly summarised on the final day. The obvious theme was austerity, and how museum and gallery professionals  are responding to this with creativity and innovation to provide new approaches to museum and education professionals with limited (or often no) funding. Advocacy was another theme, the importance of making the case, to institutions, schools, funders and the government. Another thread running through the conference was the idea of spectacle (in the form of big blockbuster exhibitions) vs engagement and meaning, which Professor Nick Stanley delved into in his keynote on the first day. In a time when many museums are hard pushed to put together blockbuster exhibitions (the definition of which was rightly problematised), curators and educators are finding ways to re-examine and re-interpret existing collections, and experimenting with different ways of approaching this, one of which was another recurring idea, that of the of artist intervention. This was underpinned by the idea of risk, and how many curators feel that artists aren’t bound by institutional standards meaning that their interpretation of collections have more room for creativity and rule-breaking, others suggested that curators may be censoring their own innovations in this sense, and that curators and artists are doing much the same thing. The final theme was about voices, particularly other voices, be it two way dialogues with museum visitors, a disruption of authority by inviting non-museum professionals a hand in curating and interpreting, or, as in my own paper, about marginalised voices finding their own ways of claiming heritage.

One of the most interesting and pleasing parts of the conference for me was finding myself in a community of fellow museum researchers, as PhDing can often be a rather isolated (and isolating) affair. I was particularly interested in the papers from other PhD students, and was really encouraged by the wide range of great research taking place. I particularly enjoyed Judith Brocklehurst and Annie Davey’s papers, as, although their research includes an element of art practice, they still got me thinking about more unique ways of approaching research. I also enjoyed Nina Trivedi from the University of Westminster, who was arguing that an exhibition catalogue has the potential to be a site in itself, and an alternative curatorial platform that allows contributors more risks that aren’t necessarily policed by the institutions as much as the exhibitions themselves.

Another paper I got a lot from was Helen Pike, events programmer from the UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, where they have a Timekeeper in residence, who questioned the authority of the linear nature of time and the reliance on timelines in museums. This felt like an unquestionably queer critique of museum practice to me. You can find more about this project here.

A great three days, with lots to think about, and a perfect way to celebrate the first 20 years of the MA. Here’s to another twenty!

‘Museum Futures in an Age of Austerity’ conference 14-16 June 2013

IOE Logo

Just a quick plug for a 3 day conference at the IOE in June.

‘Museum Futures in an Age of Austerity’
14-16 June 2013

Museum Futures in an Age of Austerity is a three day conference in central London. It brings together a diverse range of speakers to discuss the massive changes in practice, philosophy and policy that present both challenges and opportunities for the museum and its publics. This conference also celebrates 20 years of the IOE MA Programme: Museums and Galleries in Education.

The Call for papers includes the following themes:

  • Past futures – reinterpreting museum histories
  • Rethinking Boundaries
  • Sustaining cultural learning

The deadline for proposals is 5 April 2013.

There is more information, including a breakdown of the themes here.

LGBTQ History conference: LGBTQ Narrators and Oral Histories

I attended the What is LGBT(Q) History and Where do we stand? conference at Queen Mary, University of London on Wednesday 7th-Thursday 8th September. I decided to do a few blog posts, just to make it more digestible, and because my notetaking tends to be a bit scatter-brained and excessive.

My first question before even getting there was why the Q for Queer was in brackets…

Rather than going through each of the papers, I’m just going to pick out some of the points I found most interesting.

You can find out more about the conference here:

The first panel was about LGBTQ Narrators and Oral History(/ies)

Jane Traies, a PhD candidate from the University of Sussex spoke about her work with older lesbians and oral history. She said that older lesbians are overlooked in both academia and in popular culture, and the older queer generation is particularly hard to access. She managed to survey around 400 lesbians aged between 60 and 90, and then followed up with 50 indepth life story interviews. She referred to older queer people as “the closeted generation” which was a turn of phrase I like. Oral histories with older people, specifically marginalised people, is about restoring the historical record, and not only treating them as museum pieces with an interesting past, but capturing their experiences of today, the present. One of the questions asked was “do you consider yourself a feminist?”, a staggering 80% said yes, which is much higher than any other statistics for 3rd age populations, is it because they are older? is it because they are women? is it because they are lesbians? these are ideas she needs to unpack.Many of the younger women she interviewed (around their 60s) were young during the second wave feminist movement and thus may see feminism and lesbianism as inextricably linked. Those who formed their lesbian identities before the 1960s were less likelyto consider themselves feminists, she also found that those from working class backgrounds were also more likely to consider themselves feminists. Of the non-identifying-feminists, the adoption of butch/femme and mirrored heteronormal roles were more common. Jane’s research has confirmed for her that personal histories and identities and socio-political histories are linked and often in conflict. She also said it was important to disaggragate the LGBTQ acronym, but also to knit it back up again.

Of LGBTQ history, she said it was still troublesome to the academy, as it erodes traditional boundaries of histories and is interdisciplinary, and that LGBT histories are a political act and activism. She also identified that LGBTQ history is almost always researched by LGBTQ people, thus bias is unavoidable, and there are some academics that still believe that history can and should be completely unbiased.

She spoke of her methodology, which as an early stage researcher, was of great interest to me. She said that she feels she has a responsibility to the community that she is studying, and has been careful to include them at all stages and has co-produced their life histories and allowed them to choose their own psuedonyms and has consulted them with the transcripts. She also seeks feedback for her research with non-academic LGBT people, which she says is good practice for eliminating academic jargon.

More about her fascinating research can be found here:
Elizabeth Young (Uni of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada) and Alva Traebert (Uni of Edinburgh) were both looking at place in their research, Elizabeth at the ‘Bible Belt’ of Canada, Lethbridge, and Alva in Scotland from 1980-2000. Ideas that cropped up included; the importance of geography on shaping and informing sexual identities, how this geographic influence impacts oral methodology, the importance of preserving voices, issues of labelling and terminology (which was a theme that cropped up throughout the day and a particular anxiety in my research), the importance of being reflexive researchers who are mindful of ourselves and our own influence and interpretations of the stories that are told.

Alva was looking at AIDs/HIV and how young queer people in Scotland would have educated themselves during the AIDs/HIV crisis without the internet or access to formal education on the subject due to Section 2A (Scotland’s version of Section 28 which was repealed three years before the rest of the UK repealed Section 28), the absence of women in queer AIDs/HIV research, apart from as care-givers, how the “scene venues” as viewed by mainstream society are mainly very gendered places (ie: gay bars, parks etc.), the importance of acknowledging the tensions within the community and who polices the boundaries of community membership, the difficulties some lesbians find in being part of the lesbian community due to their femininity (which some of my friends have experienced first hand). She spoke of how she was using queer as an umbrella term for all LGBT people and their allies (which is what I plan to do in my research), but is mindful that it’s not a widely embraced term. She sees her role as not giving voices to queer people, but as facilitating queer people to find their own.

She finished by saying that being a queer researcher, working on a queer research project in a traditional university is still a challenge (I have recently faced a sea of blank faces when describing my research to some fellow PhD students at a university that is primarily education and social sciences) and that we need to start thinking about what it means to be a queer researcher.

Some good points cropped up in the Q & A which followed:

-“community” should perhaps be viewed as what we are not, rather than what we are.
– there is a queer generational gap, older queers believe firmly in identity politics (and therefore labels) whereas younger people are more inclined to think of identity as fluid. Jane said that she felt the LGBTQ were not great at intergenerational relationships.
– when doing oral histories, there is no truth. You get the stories that people want to/are prepared to tell and you become the co-producer and the storytelling becomes a conversation.

I’ll do a follow up blog post with more from the conference soon.