PhD Lessons: Coming back in from the desert…


Like many other PhD students, I am experiencing some trepidation as I embark on the new academic year – and what is (should be? ought to be? see, I told you there was trepidation) my last year: The year of the big write up. I need to reflect on lessons learnt and lessons ignored after a tough few months. I have allowed myself to hide, certainties desiccating aridly, and it has been a mistake. So what should I have done … and could advise others to do… differently?

I must accept that there was a fairy-tale charm to my first year of study. I adopted the philosophy of saying ‘Yes!’ to everything. I found myself lecturing on ethnography to MDes students, tutored final year BA and MDes dissertation students, attended many (usually free – thanks, Twitter) PhD events across the UK, was selected for workshops with NatCen and AHRC, presented papers in Northampton, Birmingham, London, Glasgow and facilitated workshops for Arts4Health events, conferences and other university projects. My own research data was full and exciting, with ballooning participation and generous, detailed and moving responses from those involved. From this and my reading on method and subject matter I had a journal article and book chapter accepted for publication.

‘Too much!’ I hear you say?

‘No!’ I chirruped. ‘It’s all fine!’

It wasn’t fine.

Lesson 1: Embrace the opportunities, but remember self-care comes first

I started my second year pretty exhausted.  This time last year I was preparing for the ‘confirmation’ of PhD – a checkpoint of ability to proceed which entails a detailed research report and lengthy presentation to assessors and peers.  I also packed up the house we had lived in since 1998 and moved 400 miles north.  Either side of this I presented at two conferences.  Friends expressed concern about how I was managing, but somehow I didn’t pay attention.

Lesson 2: Choose where and when you want to present: Who do you want to see your work? Who would you like to network with?

Over the following months, I didn’t write anything ‘new’.  I had no idea of the hours involved in revising, tweaking, editing and proofing material for publication.  Most of my time was spent revisiting  text rather than creating it.

I also took on more teaching. As a self-funded mature student, I felt the pressure to create a strong CV for whatever comes next and -more pragmatically – earn my fees.  I continued to tutor BA and MDes students.  I taught and assessed two full modules for first year BAs, teaching to the limit of my allocation of hours as an associate lecturer.  A little too late, I realised that I had made this my job: As an ex-teacher, I slipped habitually into preparation, resourcing and providing additional formative feedback and ‘forgot’ I was supposed to be working on something else.

Lesson 3: Take rest: Work needs to be effective, not outwardly ‘busy’.  Don’t get suckered in by all those #amwriting posts… #amthinking and #amrecharging are pretty important

I had reached a tipping point where gaining (albeit valuable) experiences in academia needed to be less of a priority than ensuring I was in a good position to achieve the goal of submitting a thesis.

Lesson 4: Finishing the PhD is the priority

Suddenly it was spring.  I determined to spend more time at home (since the house move, I had committed to so much teaching that it was Christmas before I spent a full week in our new flat).  Full of excitement at kickstarting a new phase, I skipped merrily into Edinburgh for a day conference and instantly flung myself down the stairs at the railway station.


It turns out that breaking bones – radius, scaphoid ICYMBI – when you are knocking 50 is a bit rubbish.  A succession of splints, casts and physio (still ongoing) means I had to juggle pain management with attempting to think clearly.  I couldn’t drive and allowed myself to drift into that hermit-like existence I mentioned earlier. I didn’t speak to anyone outside my home. A friend died. Things got pretty bleak.



Lesson 5: Don’t isolate yourself.  Spend time with and talk to other friends, students, supervisors and informal sounding boards.  Loneliness is the enemy of the PhD student*                      

*I totally knew this and would happily counsel others…. realising a little late I wasn’t looking after this myself.  Don’t make the same mistake


Several things helped me on the path back out of the desert.  One was a brilliant summer school at GSofA in the Highlands.  Seeing more than a few people at a time, not to mention being away from home and husband for a week, plus driving for the first time in three months was a big deal. However, the summer school (and its setting on the beautiful Moray coast) revitalised me: It was a timely reminder that working creatively in research within communities was where I wanted to be.  I still didn’t write, but I did start to do some proper thinking.



Today I am travelling into university after what feels like an age .  I am meeting PhD friends and want to talk through some of this.  I will also be speaking to my SUPER supervisor and have committed to being honest about how the summer has been, rather than pretending it has been dandy during this arid patch.

These words are the most I have written for months, but I have determined that they are the start of a new phase where I will

  • remember self-care
  • think about where I network
  • rest
  • spend time with others
  • finish the thesis





On publishing for the first time

I have been spending the last few days checking the proofs for my first journal article.  This has been a long path and a far more time-consuming and salutary experience than I ever expected.

I might like to think that the image of my academic writing experience is like this:


when in fact it is much more  likely this:

I am of, course contractually obliged to share the work of the brilliant Bill Watterson here, as Calvin and Hobbes set the right tone for just about any situation… But seriously, I had concerns about getting my research ‘out there’ – Was it really of any interest, never mind quality?  Would I be able to make myself clear?  Could I do justice to what my participants have shared so far?  Was I ready to expose myself to criticism?  Would I just sound like a caricature of an academic writer?  Would the PhD police place a heavy hand on my shoulder and whisper, “I am sorry, madam, we are going to have to ask you to leave”?


In fact, the writing experience was initially exciting. An early conference presentation held lots of potential and it was almost a personal test to the nascent research to see if a full article could be generated.  It was a useful confirmation that I might be able to manage this PhD malarkey.  My super supervisor provided supportive challenges to imprecise ideas and wobbly organisation as well as useful conversations on suitable journals for submission.

Waving my article off to editors for consideration was a leap of faith and a learning opportunity.  Reviewer comments varied considerably and it was a challenge to read for the first time a critique of style or focus from someone who had not made the research journey with me in one way or another.  My confidence bubble burst as a smugly crafted bit of word-play was queried as confusing; some sections muddied the waters; the abstract promised ideas I hadn’t really delivered on; conclusions were too light. Too, too true.

Thanks to helpful Twitterers on academic writing, such as Pat Thomson and the Thesis Whisperer, I knew I needed to put on my big pants and deal with reviewer comments one by one.  Doing so helped me to address stylistic weaknesses and understand the need for greater clarity and precision.  In many ways, I am far less happy now with the piece of work than I was when I sent it nervously quivering into the ether:  I am far more aware of its flaws.

At least in part, my lack of certainty in the article is because time has marched smartly on in the meantime. It is nearly a year since the original draft was written.   The slow process of submission, reviews, edits and proofing means that I have further data, have refined my thinking and would offer a more nuanced analysis now.  A further factor is the unexpectedly long time taken in revisions and reiterations – I have not done as much ‘new’ writing as I would have wanted in the last few months.

However, the pain has been worth it.  As someone beginning my PhD in what we may politely refer to as ‘later life’, establishing a publication record before I complete my thesis feels crucial in positioning myself for post-doc employment and demonstrating the seriousness of such a career shift.  More immediately, the act of just writing has been invaluable.  A book chapter on ethics has also been accepted for publication in the autumn, full paper submissions to gain a place at various conferences have reinforced lessons learnt about writing more effectively.  All this store of formal writing has meant that scholarship applications and the internal PhD confirmation milestones have been easier (relatively speaking).  Of course, all these words will be reworked and developed in the next year, but having over 30k of them ‘banked’ makes me feel confident for the future.

And so, this is me, writing, writing.  Whether blog posts which help me crystallise thought, draft chapters for my supervisor or ‘side’ projects where reading leads me down paths which don’t really fit into PhD research but are too fascinating to release, writing allows me to celebrate how lucky I am to be doing this thing.

ICYMBI, Feeling lonely, feeling connected: Amateur knit and crochet makers sharing online will be published next month in Craft Research 7 (1) pp.9-27

Ethics, the personal, and the need to care for yourself as researcher

So, not posted for a while – the PhD engine caught up speed and carried me along. I have been / am busy with writing and presenting opportunities… all very lovely. The Facebook research group is amazing and I am tackling the analysis of hundreds of comments.

And then… and then… a stunning blow from left-field.

A warm, talented, generous supporter of the research – M – who had been emailing me with comments and advice, not participating actively in the Facebook group, but known to many members – took her own life following a long and difficult personal battle.

I was really rocked by this – our electronic ‘relationships’ aren’t really weak ties, are they… and the Facebook research group is an example of how human beings can find a significant connection despite not having met ‘IRL’. In addition to the impact on me personally, I needed to act ethically and appropriately as a researcher, but I had no idea how to handle the situation.

I spoke to my lead supervisor, who was kindly supportive and keen to understand how she could support me as ‘person’ first and ‘student’ later. She arranged to speak to the chair of the university ethics committee – a psychologist – to seek advice on a personal and professional level.

I was put in touch with Big White Wall – a free counselling and advice service subscribed to by many UK universities – perhaps your institution uses this service too. I didn’t know about it before, but wondered if I should have.


I had supportive and practical advice as a researcher – a specific post on the Facebook group, a reminder that if participants were distressed and wanted to remove themselves from the project, then they could, a thread providing contact details for mental health wellbeing charities such as MIND and The Samaritans. Most difficult – a note to the family expressing condolence, informing them about M’s contribution to research and a request for them to consider whether I had their permission to use the data or whether they would like it destroyed.

I am moved by the support at a personal level – Part of my own journey to this PhD focus has been a battle with mental health issues. My supervisors’ care and concern has been touching, as have the suggestions from an advisor on the ethics committee and the incredible pulling together of the research participants as they supported one another.

As a researcher, I think there are two areas I need to think about. Firstly, I have been reminded that the research itself – on how working with textile crafts can have a positive impact on mental health wellbeing – is really important. Many participants feel that knitting or crochet has ‘saved their life’ and I want to explore why and how this is. However, I also want to consider how universities support researchers and equip them with tools to manage unforeseen, difficult or traumatic events in their research processes. My university has already organised training for PhD supervisors on supporting mental health issues emerging in research. I am hoping to speak to the ethics committee and other students about how situations like this could be managed in the future.

I had excellent advice, but it was delayed as there was no existing protocol to follow. This is not a criticism, but a reminder that perhaps institutions and individuals need to think about the ethics of care here – how can researchers be encouraged to more fully consider ways to protect themselves from harm, as well as participants?



For wellbeing & productivity: breathe. pause. be.

Wait a minute.
Great reflection and advice here

the édu flâneuse

Come forth into the light of things, let Nature be your teacher. ~ William Wordsworth

Shark Bay, by @debsnet

Like many educators, I love my work and I love to work. Not only that, as a PhD researcher I love my PhD, treating it like a luxury, a privilege and precious ‘me time’.

Shell Beach, by @debsnet

While I’ve acknowledged before that we need to give ourselves permission to take a break, I’m often not very good at it. Sometimes I have to force myself to take a break.

long shadows in red dirt, by @debsnet

After an eleven week term, at the end of which I spent an entire weekend slogging away at my thesis, I was obsessed. Obsessed because all my waking and teeth-grinding-sleeping moments were taken up with work or PhD. My thoughts about my doctoral research were permeating every crevice of my mind and each nook of my time.

Hamelin Pool Stromatolites, by @debsnet

I was delighting in this immersion. I was happy to…

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on getting out of a stuck place

My academic fan-girling of Pat Thompson continues as she makes me feel better about writing / unwriting / rewriting once more


I’ve recently completed the first draft of (what will appear to the outside world to be) my second book this year. In reality, it’s a book that has been three years in the writing. It’s about the use of a particular social theory in one field of scholarship. There is a lot of work already about the social theorist, so I really feel I need to say something a bit different. No pressure then. But I’ve been stuck in a hard place for a long time. Fortunately, my publishers know me well and have been extremely patient with my tardiness and the academic equivalent of the-dog-ate-my-homework excuses.

Don’t get me wrong, I did have a draft. But it wasn’t a messy first draft in which everything was roughly in the right place. This was a draft in which one chapter was distinctly out of sorts, and another wasn’t in rude…

View original post 1,429 more words

Wellbeing – a doctoral thinking post

It’s an intangible concept, wellbeing… it carries with it notions of happiness or comfort and research in this area is the sort of thing that makes people roll their eyes and lament what rubbish academia is all about.  However, if my research is connected to wellbeing, I need to have some kind of clarity about the term.  What I am discovering is that no-one can decide (Dodge et al, 2012;  Statham and Chase, 2010; Pollard and Lee, 2003)  – even about its grammatical construction… hyphen, no hyphen? This uncertainty is hardly helping my sense of well,  you know…

Governmental organisations – and not just in the UK – have expressed the need to focus on wellbeing.  Were you aware that it was nearly a decade ago, that David Cameron (2006) gave a speech about his commitment – not to GDP, but GWB – the general wellbeing of the people? (Hmmm, yes, quite).  Perhaps it is inevitable that the terms set out here are related to economics and managing austerity:

“wellbeing evidence can not only help target public spending more effectively at improving people’s lives, but in many cases has the potential to deliver significant long-term savings by reducing demand on public services” (Berry, 2014, p.1)

Wellbeing in the 2014 all-party parliamentary report is posited as an outcome of something financial – a benefit that goes hand-in-hand with a comfortable income and purposeful employment, perhaps as one of the Wellbeing Analysts recommended (ibid., p.3) for each governmental department.  Apologies, my left-leaning petticoat is showing…


Let’s return to potentially safer ground and think about Ancient Greeks for a bit.  Epicurus was the chap who wrote first on hedonia – the reduction of pain and prioritisation of happiness or pleasure, although not necessarily the wild and indulgent behaviour, disregarding of others, which we have been led to understand by this term.  Aristotle appeared more focused on eudaimonia, where complex ideas about fulfillment through practical, rational actions such as supporting friendships perhaps reflect the more nuanced ways we may now perceive wellbeing (Waterman, 1993).


The tensions between these ideas have given rise to some complex and confusing descriptions of what wellbeing may be.  Dodge et al (2012) provide a really useful overview of these debates… is wellbeing a satisfaction with – or quality of – life, the fulfilment of goals, an absence of illness or a sense of ‘normality’?   The definitions become distorted as we grapple with questions of whose perspective? whose values?  Seligman (2011) tried to draw these nuances together in exploring elements such as engagement with others and finding accomplishment in one’s actions, which may not generate ‘happiness’, but are nevertheless important if one is to flourish.  Dodge et al,(2012), in attempting to pin down a formula for measuring a closely defined definition of wellbeing, suggest that the key is an equilibrium or  balance between one’s psychological, social and physical resources in the face of challenge.


The World Health Organisation (2014) has focused particularly on mental health wellbeing – a state in which ‘every individual realises his or her potential, can cope with the daily stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.’  Some elements here are problematic:   We are not necessarily talented at recognising our own ‘potential’ or the steps we take towards it (and are we ever ‘done’ with reaching it?)  Coping with ‘ordinary’ stresses is also complex – for some, their ‘everyday’ would floor most of us – caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s, pressing on with life after a cancer diagnosis or parenting in poverty.  For others, this may mean the courage to simply step outside one’s front door, managing the impact of unseen illness.  Often, working ‘productively’ in a community is an aspect significantly tied to economics and the world of employment and those struggling to find or keep work may feel they therefore do not contribute.  It may take the perspective of a friend or colleague to help us appreciate the contribution we do make – the kind word, the act of generosity, the offer of time to listen.

#wellMAKING, Craftivist Collective, 2014
#wellMAKING, Craftivist Collective, 2014

I am rather partial to the interpretations of wellbeing proffered by the New Economics Foundation (NEF).  In contrast to the organisational name, elements to support wellbeing appear more to do with one’s spirit  than finance or employed work –  including the need to Connect and enrich one’s experience through social relations, Be Active in anything from walking to dancing, Take Notice, catching sight of the beautiful, Keep Learning, to increase competency, sociality and self-esteem and to Give, sharing in mutual reciprocity (Thompson and Aked, 2011).  This is not merely fluffy idealism.  Wellbeing does have something to do with reflective mindfulness and may not be entirely to do with being ‘happy’ – although anecdotally it probably helps.  Michaelson et al (2009), also writing for NEF, focus on a dynamic approach to maintaining a sense of wellbeing and capacity for resilience through being vitally engaged in activities which make us feel competent.

What this has to do with knit and crochet needs to be explored in more detail for a post over on Recovered Threads, especially as in June I am hosting some ‘sit and stitch’ workshops for the LAHF / RSPH Creativity and Wellbeing Plus Week at Sheffield Hallam University and online… I’ll put a link here when it’s written.  If you are around for the workshops – digitally or physically, come and join the conversation.


Berry, Christine (2014) Wellbeing in Four Policy areas.  Available at:

Cameron, David (2006) Speech to Google Zeitgeist Europe. Available at:

Dodge, Rachel; Daly, Annette, P.; Huyton, Jan and Sanders, Lalage, D. (2012) The Challenge of Defining Wellbeing. International Journal of Wellbeing 2 (3), pp.222-235.

Michaelson, Juliet;  Abdallah, Saamah;   Steuer, Nicola;  Thompson, Sam and Marks,  Nic (2009) National Accounts of Well-being: bringing real wealth onto the balance sheet. Available at:

Pollard, Elizabeth, and Lee, Patrice (2003) Child Well-being:a systematic review of the literature. Social Indicators Research 61 (1) pp.9-78.

Seligman, Martin (2011) Flourish – A new understanding of happiness and well-being – and how to achieve them. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Statham, June and Chase, Elaine (2010) Childhood Wellbeing: a brief overview. Available at:

Thompson, Sam and Aked, Jody (2011) Five Ways to Wellbeing: New applications, new ways of thinking. Available at:

Waterman, Alan S. (1993) Two conceptions of happiness: Contrasts of personal expressiveness (eudaimonia) and hedonic enjoyment.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 64 (4) pp.768-691.

World Health Organisation (2014) Mental health: a state of wellbeing. Available at:

Does Quality Matter?


It fell to me this week to present to our PhD Art and Design seminar group – the topic was to examine notions of quality and ‘yardsticks’ in evaluating exhibited work (or, as I was rather more interested, whether work needs to be exhibited?)

I am, in my lefty, arty way, uncomfortable with the language of ‘quality’ – is that with a capital Q, and therefore bringing in ideas about quality assurance and an established view of what must be best? Am I nevertheless reliant on seeking out signals of ‘quality’ and authenticity, as in marks like this on a Moorcroft vase in my dining room?
John Carey, in ‘What Good Are the Arts’ (2005) articulates my concerns in presenting the problem that “Value […] is not intrinsic in objects, but attributed to them by whoever is doing the valuing” and so we use the same semantic field for the striking sculpture of Barbara Hepworth as for bargain cheese in a supermarket.

We are operating in a complex world of definitions: The root of the word comes from the Latin ‘Qua’ (who?) and from this we have ‘qualis’ or qualitas’ – roughly translating as ‘of what sort’. The Latinate base is still seen in 13th century French, where ‘quality’ indicates a person’s character, disposition or temperament. A century later, it is used for the first time in Old French to indicate social ranking. Varied dictionary definitions now furnish us with ideas about inherent traits or characteristics, special or distinguishing properties – along with a standard, as measured against others, or as a measure of excellence – free of defects.

But we still have to deal with Carey’s challenge of who is doing the measuring – and what influences us in this. For example, here is an exhibited work of art – what do you think?
Do you feel differently about its quality if you know this is a work by Charles Bronson? To what extent does our cultural and social framework affect our views?

Bronson can be considered as an example of ‘outsider art’ – where makers are self-taught amateurs who refuse to fit with conventions of approach or ‘quality’. However, we have also now codified this concept, so there are notions of excellence and meeting a standard… Pearl Alcock is just one ‘outsider’ artist now widely exhibited and positively critiqued.
And don’t get me started on that art / craft binary debate we somehow still keep having. If you look at the work of Jenni Dutton, recently exhibiting at City Hall in London, there can be no question about the quality of the emotive, skilful ‘Dementia Darnings’

and yet textiles is often still viewed as marginal.

I am particularly interested in participatory art – the emphasis being on the creativity of the amateur participant. For me, it is the ‘quality’ of the experience which holds more significance, as people have an opportunity to make something mindfully…
Matt Ratto and Stephen Hockema (2009) write on the need to reframe our view of the ‘qualities’ offered through shared critical making and engaging in practice together. Participatory arts, according to Toby Lowe (2015) are perhaps more about ‘equality’ and authenticity, but still grapples with our question:

“However, what is ‘quality’? What does it look like? How can we recognize it? And who has the authority to decide what is of quality?”

Stephen Pritchard has also blogged about this dilemma – In a fierce response to Lowe’s work, he examines the dialectic where the ‘quality’ of participatory art is judged – and therefore that there must also be poor or unacceptable outcomes. What impact does facing this have on the fact that participatory art is the new hot potato for economic and cultural policy makers?

The capitulation of participatory arts into little more than art as a form social work has a long history and is deeply problematic. That “quality” is judged by outcomes when working towards goals driven by social policy is inevitable – a Faustian pact that will always end in fiery torment.

Eleonora Belfiore, in her independent work (2015) and that with the Warwick Commission (Neelands et al, 2015) is grappling with the problems created by placing an economic value on art – for the purposes of funding and policy making – when cultural aspects of art have the capacity to improve wellbeing and the ‘quality’ of our social lives. However, as these things tend to go, there has also been criticism – for example from Voluntary Arts (2015) – of a focus on established notions of art and ‘quality’ which has left the importance of grassroots, community creativity out in the cold.

It is a Gordian knot, but I think it is important to keep evaluating what we mean by these terms and the impact it can then have on the way we view ‘quality’ in the arts. In my frustrated reading on the subject, I enjoyed this, and so I will leave you with it:

‘Quality … you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist. What else are the grades based on? Why else would people pay fortunes for some things and throw others in the trash pile? Obviously some things are better than others … but what’s the “betterness”? … So round and round you go, spinning mental wheels and nowhere finding anyplace to get traction. What the hell is Quality? What is it?’ (Pirsig, 1974. p.184)

Belfiore, E. (2015) ‘Impact’, ‘value’ and ‘bad economics’: Making sense of the problem of value in the arts and humanities.Arts & Humanities in Higher Education 2015, Vol. 14(1) 95–110
Carey, J. (2005) What Good Are the Arts . Faber, London
Lowe, Toby (2015) Quality in Participatory Art (online)
Neelands, J.; Belfiore, E.; Firth, C.; Hart, N.; Perrin, L.; Brock, S.; Holdaway, D.; Woddis, J.(2015) Enriching Britain: Culture, Creativity and Growth. The Warwick Commission, Warwick.
Pirsig, R. M. (1974)Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Bodely Head. Oxford.
Pritchard, S. (2015) Quality in participatory arts: fit for whose purpose & in need of qualification? (online)
Ratto, M. and Hockema, S. (2009) “Flwr Pwr: Tending the Walled Garden”, in Dekker, A & Wolfsberger A (eds.) Walled Garden, Virtueel Platform, The Netherlands
Voluntary Arts (2015) Response to the Warwick Commission Report #EveryoneCreative (online)