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[You can listen to this blogpost on my podcast too ]

Update: I have added further links to blogs and resources that have helped me.

When I began the process of gaining a PhD by publication, it was part of a ‘learning how to learn’ trajectory. I had completed the Learning how to Learn course (a free MOOC), I had read Scott Young’s book and followed his blog, and I was in the mindset of breaking everything down to its most basic component.

How do we take notes?

How do you do a literature review?

I took a course (another MOOC) on doing a literature review and that helped a lot.

I found Dr Helen Kara’s blog, whose style and approach have inspired me a lot. She writes about research methods –the process, not the content — and just knowing that this was topic worthy enough to research on its own has opened up many more conceptual doors for me.

Through her and Twitter and my new understanding of research, I have come across more writers on how to do research.

I find Raul Pacheco-Vega’s work invaluable. He explains things, he highlights the ‘hows’ of research. He breaks down all the tasks that lecturers and professors long ago internalised into their processes, and he clearly explains how to follow and learn from his methods.

I follow him on Twitter @RaulPacheco and his blog is at

A very useful article of his I was reading this morning was about mind mapping the literature, finding the gap and writing paragraphs in your literature review.

I’ve been writing an article, an autoethnographic approach to understanding how one goes from citizen to journalist. When I look out to the literature, however, I often get overwhelmed by how much of it there is to map; how much there is to read. And there’s so much in other topics as well that it makes me pause in hesitation.

I was confronted with this idea of ‘there’s too much to learn’ yesterday and funnily enough, I had an answer straightaway.

My youngest went to the aerospace museum in Filton a couple of days ago. She went to see the Concorde at its last resting place. Tickets were £8500 she told me wide eyed and she knew that the last flight commander to bring that plane home was Captain Mark Bannister. These two bits of information were clear to her and she learned them straightaway.

I thought back to when I wanted to be a pilot when I was little, around her age and until I was much older. So, I asked her, would you like to fly a plane one day?

She looked at me and said, ‘No. The flight panel,’ she told me, ‘had a million buttons. Well not a million, maybe a thousand,’ she added with a nod and a look of you know what I mean? ‘How would I ever learn them?’

And that reminded me of how we do learn. ‘The pilot doesn’t start by learning each button on its own,’ I thought out loud to her. ‘The buttons probably fit in their own section. There might be eight sections on that panel. The pilot learns those first and then they look within that section to break down what different buttons do. That’s how you learn lots of things.’

She got bored at that point and walked off but now I have thought of an even better analogy — an actual analogy rather than an explanation. In a big supermarket, there are thousands and thousands of products. We don’t need to know all the products individually, we know that we are looking for bananas. We know there is a fresh fruit and vegetables section so we go there and look for the fruit. The things we need to know at any one time, are bounded. That’s comforting and manageable. Knowing how to approach a task gives us that sense of certainty. Knowing what the boundaries are for each task, helps.

When I was first doing a PhD, and even now when I look at ALL the literature that is out there, the vastness of it looks to me, like those thousands of buttons looked to my daughter in the Concorde. Learning how to do the next right step and process is comforting and makes research manageable.

From Helen Kara‘s and Raul Pacheco-Vega’s blogs I learned how to take notes for each paper –I use the ICA method and keep track in an Excel spreadsheet; I — introduction, C– conclusion, A — abstract. I copy and paste those three parts into a spreadsheet. I also use it to keep track of quotes and topics.

I have learned to note-take with highlighters in Microsoft Edge–a browser where you can use many tools on PDFs. I don’t have the space in our tiny flat to print out and keep track of all my research unfortunately. Maybe one day when I have an office.

Raul writes about learning to concept map by hand first but this site on concept mapping has really helped me. It helps find the linked papers to your own.

The tools help enormously. They make the difference between giving up and writing the next word, paragraph and even research paper. Most importantly they help with the writing and that’s the one thing I wasn’t doing enough of.

I’ve also found that using the highlighting method and the ICA dump helps me get to the end of reading a paper. One of my brain’s saboteur voices tries to stop me reading often by saying things like ‘why don’t you stop and research that part,’ or ‘you should be taking notes. What’s the point of reading if you’re just going to forget it all?’ etc. Well, now I am taking notes, I am highlighting and I am fulfilling the task I set for myself.

It all helps. I’ve written a first draft of a first paper. I’ve narrowed down the methodology I’m using, I’ve discovered a couple more research topics to pursue, I’ve submitted an abstract to a conference, I’ve written out my autoethnographic part, and now I need to map it to the literature.

And that’s why this morning I was reading Raul’s article on mind mapping the literature. I’m getting there, paper by paper.

Further resources

  • Research Insiders blog (link): Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree
  • Recommendations on Research Insiders blog (link)

Published by Joanna

A collection of fleeting thoughts that tend to focus around Bristol, food, movies, music and photography.

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