Demonstrating criticality in the doctoral literature review


By Susan Carter

We have written many posts on reviewing literature—you will find more by using our blog’s search engine. The topic deserves our turning back to it from time to time because the task is challenging. The beginning of the process requires extensive searching in a world that is busy with a myriad of voices—that can be discombobulating, because some research articles assure early-stage doctoral students that they are on track, while others quite terrifyingly show them how naïve and unaware they are.

To add to the enormity of the task, each relevant article has its own literature. Initial reading is never a matter of crossing what must be read off a reading list but, rather, adding another five or so items to that list. But this post addresses the need to demonstrate critical analysis in writing about all this literature. Continue reading

New Year’s resolutions and doctoral writing: best wishes!



By Claire Aitchison, Cally Guerin and Susan Carter

Turning from one year to the next brings out self-auditing tendencies, the New Year resolutions. We have written on this before: drawing on psychology to build self-control so that those resolutions are actualized (2016) ; suggesting a series of practical approaches that might help doctoral writers get more pleasure and productivity (2015) ; and considering ‘habits of mind, body, time, place and pace’ with a range of options used by famous authors (2014) . That was useful advice, and the posts are still there for any wanting new year re-energisation. This year, though, we thought we would each describe our own aspirations for 2017.


This year Susan has set us on a provocation to declare our New Year’s writing resolutions. It’s a delightful (although slightly scary) suggestion to make something public that is generally private.  As usual, during the Christmas break I took down my annual writing schedule from above my desk, and before throwing it out, reviewed what I had achieved. It’s a satisfying task to reflect on what has come in as anticipated and to ponder further on what was not achieved. The most exciting thing for me is the little buzz that I get from the writing that happened serendipitously, not even imagined at the beginning of the year.

Over the years I have become better at planning my writing for the year ahead. I’ve also learned that the most crucial variable is how much control I have in my life.  There have been some years when new demands have seriously limited my ability to progress my writing goals. As a consultant over the last few years I have had more control over my workload and thus have had greater success.

I often co-author with colleagues with whom I have established productive working relationships.  Some years January commences with a number of commitments already in train and other times the horizon is pretty clear. Conferences and colleagues are always built into my planning – for me, both are powerful motivators.

But, what of my plans for 2017?  This year my job has changed and I am beginning to see how I can bring the learning from that into my work around doctoral writing. I enjoy new challenges and particularly enjoy working with colleagues who push my thinking. I always learn so much from working with others, whether it’s a simple trick with Word, or a new perspective; I find it invigorating. In addition I find stimulation from my work – many workshops have ended up being posts and then extended further into papers.

I also like to extend myself with a new theory  or a topic.  For example, I may be intrigued with a thought that returns and shapes up over months (or years!). Sometimes the theory comes first and sometimes it is the problem or issue that surfaces and troubles my thinking. The beginning of a year is a good time to do a stock-take to see if I can nail this down into something publishable.

So, what does this add up to? I’m devising my own year as a foray into new areas of interest.I will also continue to write with old friends and colleagues. Reflecting on my process for this post lets me see what might be of use to doctoral students; namely:

  • Make a schedule: to keep you anchored when things are madly busy and for a self-auditing.
  • Use the aspects of writing you know inspire you as motivation—acknowledge them and factor them in.
  • Accept that some writing obstacles are outside of your control.
  • Identify and acknowledge the learning you do as a writer.




Last year I tried to finish off a few writing projects that had been hanging around for some time. I wanted to get them off my desk to clear space for new thinking in 2017. So now I’m allowing myself to start work on some new projects.

As a first step, I’m preparing a couple of ethics applications. I hear from others about their frustrations at being forced to fill in the forms, and what they experience as delays when they have to amend applications to meet the requirements of their ethics committee. But in my field I don’t have the complications of human drug trials and medical interventions, working with children, with indigenous communities, nor negotiating the sensitivities of vulnerable groups. My work is regarded as ‘low risk’ in that I just want to talk to people about topics that are not particularly contentious or disturbing. This means that it’s usually fairly straight forward and at my university these applications can be approved by the core committee – I don’t need to meet particular deadlines posed by the less frequent meetings of the full committee. On the whole, I find ethics applications provide a very useful process that makes me think carefully about method and project design, why I want to do what I do, and how it can be useful to others. Obviously, I want my research to be ethical, and paying proper attention to this at the very beginning is appropriate and leads to better outcomes – in my experience, at least.

I’ve also been thinking about more creative, alternative research methods, and want to take the opportunity with new projects to try and push this a little further. One book that has inspired me is Helen Kara’s (2015) Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide (Bristol: Policy Press). She talks about shadowing, mapping, and transformative data gathering, all of which I find interesting. Others are doing fascinating work using big data and social media in their education research. I certainly don’t feel very confident about how to do anything like this, so it’s bound to be a steep learning curve! It feels promising to start the New Year with some new writing challenges – I’m keen to get on with it.


I’ve been in the habit with my academic writing of simply listing what I want to complete in the new year. There is something confirming about reviewing the year that has gone and looking forward to the one ahead. Primary questions are

  • When I reach the end of this new year, what writing will I be most satisfied to have completed?
  • What must I do?
  • What really interests me?
  • How theoretical am I willing to be? Am I willing to go further into theory this year?

Doctoral students usually find ‘what must I do’ the most important of these, and rightly so, but it is worth taking the annual cusp opportunity to face up to other relevant questions about direction.

It’s quite a personal consideration because it includes the persona in style and voice as well as the topic focus. I sit with an overview in mind and list goals for the year, usually on paper. I think about the pattern of the year, that is, when I might want to take a break; when teaching might be heavy; when there are deadlines that I already know I will need to meet. As the year feeds through, I follow this up with monthly goal-listing and weekly goal-listing. Somehow sitting and writing this down usually anchors my writing flow throughout the year. The trick is to take your own deadlines seriously.

This year, though, I am thinking differently. I want to focus on increasing the pleasure that I find in academic writing. So I intend to consciously treat both my writing and my academic work as a game. I am convinced by Jane McGonigal (2010): when we’re in game worlds I believe that many of us become the best version of ourselves, the most likely to help at a moment’s notice, the most likely to stick with a problem as long as it takes, to get up after failure and try again. And in real life, when we face failure, when we confront obstacles, we often don’t feel that way. We feel overcome, we feel overwhelmed, we feel anxious, maybe depressed, frustrated or cynical. We never have those feelings when we’re playing games; they just don’t exist in games.

I want to put behind me the irritation that I feel when writing doesn’t go well, or the dread I feel towards the drudgery of revision for consistency. I want to find pleasure in what I do, and courage to change my own patterns if I feel that they trap me in the same rut. For me this year, my ambitions are less with productivity and more with attitude.

McGonigal, J. (2010). Gaming can make a better world. TED, Feb, 2010. Available at

2016 – another good year for doctoral writing!

By Claire Aitchison, Susan Carter and Cally Guerin

It’s a convention at this time of year to reflect on what has happened over the past 12 months and thank those who have helped make all that happen – a convention of which we heartily approve as part of the season’s celebrations. This is our 50th post for the year, and we’ve covered all sorts of topics, received lots of comments on them, and seen our readership continue to grow. Continue reading

A review of ‘Social Media for Academics’ by Mark Carrigan


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By Claire Aitchison

Is it possible to write a book about social media with any chance of it not being out-dated before it hits the presses? This is the question I asked myself when I first heard of Mark Carrigan’s book: Social Media for Academics (SAGE 2016). In this case Mark has managed to do so and has produced a book about social media that is thoughtful, practical and relevant to his target audience – academics. Furthermore, the scope and the scholarly approach to exploring the whys and wherefores of social media for academics means this book is likely to remain relevant for quite some time yet.

Mark writes like an insider because he is an academic and researcher who is also an active and skilful social media user. Mark’s approach to social media is informed by his work as a digital sociologist and consultant. This means he is concerned not simply with how and what to do in the social media space; he is also interested in the social and personal functions of social media in higher education, digital scholarship, identity and engagement, and the implications arising from participation.  Continue reading

International Conference of Education, Research and Innovation (Seville, November 14-16, 2016)



By Susan Carter

I had the privilege of attending the ICERI conference this year, a large international conference attended by mostly Europeans, but with most parts of the world represented. Perhaps influenced by the recent theatre of the American elections, approaches to education at this conference seemed to emphasise education’s political and social benefits, its potential to be an antidote to powerbrokers by merit of the changes that it makes to individual lives. This potential seems relevant to, and maybe even an inspiring reminder for, doctoral writing, a process that transforms many of our lives. Continue reading

Is doctoral writing doing you harm?


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By Claire Aitchison

Writing is a physical activity that subjects the body to specific routines and impositions – it wears on the body in particular ways. I recall the deformed fingers of my grandfather: he had callouses from holding a pen, the physical manifestation of a lifetime of writing. Writers these days wear different traces of their labouring.

It seems particularly pertinent to raise this question during AcWriMo – a month when all around the world doctoral students are busy pushing themselves to write, write, write. Writing is the business of doctoral scholarship, but not all doctoral students realise Continue reading