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Archive for the 'PhD Journey' Category

Dr. Kusha Anand on information and digital literacies for life

By Nazlin Bhimani, on 7 November 2019

Dr. Kusha Anand, who took the Information and Digital Literacies in 2014, writes about her experience of the course and the long-term benefits of developing research skills.

About the course

A specialised course on what is expected of the literature review at doctoral level is an important addition as it allows one to gain insights into the dos and don’ts of searching and developing a systematic way of working with a huge digital library of subscribed electronic resources.  This blog presents my reflections on the course “Information and literature searching” (now aptly renamed ‘Information and Digital Literacies) given by Nazlin Bhimani. This course incorporated information and digital literacies and looked at ways of searching, finding, accessing, evaluating, managing and using literature.  It was delivered through presentations and exercises, with adequate time set aside for questions and answers.

Nazlin encouraged information searching in a structured manner so that we were able to map our keywords to our research topics, and after thorough systematic searching were able to add relevant literature to visual maps. By visualising our topics by keywords and then attaching the relevant literature, we were able to see the links from various keywords and concepts and fine-tune our research questions. In the process, we were introduced to the different information portals in order to find specific literature to the various themes.  Another area that was effective was the discussion on issues such as credibility of the research, its integrity, comprehensiveness and depth. This broadened my understanding of matters relating to scholarly communication (including authors’ rights and open access). I was also able to pick up some useful tips which I now find invaluable.

Engagement with the tutor

The course enabled me to understand the need to consider depth and scope and to prioritise my reading – I took the most important and relevant literature first rather than downloading lots of articles and not knowing where to start.  Nazlin also provided advice on numerous bibliographic management software tools and taught us ways in which we could stay current. The course showed me not only how to identify relevant literature but also how to evaluate it in order to gauge its usefulness for my research and to understand where the gaps might be.  This was important in terms of checking to see whether my research would be original and would be an addition to the existing knowledge in the area.

In addition, Nazlin has been instrumental in strengthening my understanding of literature searching and the types of resources available to me. Due to the complexity of my research topic, she offered to give me a one-on-one tutorial in which she elaborated on effective information/literature search strategies that I could use on the myriad search interfaces so that I was able to find relevant resources.


Overall, this course has benefited me enormously as I have so much more confidence in handling print and online information sources and this in itself adds to my mental wellbeing. The course has acted as a catalyst to my approach to information and literature searching and it has to be emphasised that these skills were not simply relevant to my thesis but are now being used in my postdoc work.

Getting away from it all…

By Nazlin Bhimani, on 16 October 2019

Image of Chapelgarth Estate in North Yorkshire

Chapelgarth Estate in North Yorkshire

In September I was one of the lucky PhD students selected, after application, for a space on an academic writing retreat at Chapelgarth Estate. The space was provided by ICHRE visiting scholar Dr Marcella Sutcliffe. This was the first time I had been on a writing retreat and although I was not sure what to expect, I knew intuitively that I needed to get away from the pressures of everyday life and to have the time to focus on my academic writing. The pressures of undertaking a part-time PhD are enormous and the biggest challenge for me was finding the time to think and to write as thus far I had been trying to write to meet deadlines – before supervisions or for a publication. The writing retreat was a facilitated retreat with a group of academic staff and doctoral students, nine in total, from different higher education institutions. I had read about Rowena Murray’s work on writing retreats and wanted to experience the type of structured writing retreat that she has been so successful at implementing.  The retreat at Chapelgarth used Murray’s structure and was facilitated by Dr. Marisela Mendoza from Nottingham Trent University who was trained with Murray.

The retreat began on Tuesday late afternoon when we, as a group, set our writing goals for the first session of Day 1. I have been using HMI reports to get evidence of pedagogical practice in interwar London elementary schools and my goal was to look at how arithmetic and mathematics was taught during this period. This would constitute a section in one of my ‘findings’ chapter. On Wednesday morning, we began writing for 1.5 hrs, after which we had a 30-minute break. This pattern of writing for 1.5 hours and taking a break (half-an-hour or more depending on the time of day) carried on throughout the retreat.  In total, we had 7 writing sessions following Murray’s structure (see plan below).

Image of the writing retreat structure from: Murray, R., & Newton, M. (2009). Writing Retreat as Structured Intervention: Margin or Mainstream? Higher Education Research & Development, 28(5), 541–553. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360903154126

Murray, Rowena, and Mary Newton. 2009. ‘Writing Retreat as Structured Intervention: Margin or Mainstream?’ Higher Education Research & Development 28 (5): 541–53. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360903154126

image of lamas in the fields around Chapelgarth Estate

Lamas in the fields around the Estate

The retreat allowed me ‘head space’ in an environment that was conducive to reflection, whilst at the same time, providing a communal writing space which ensured that maximum use was made of the available time.  The community of scholars that I became part of was itself supportive as it allowed for the sharing of ideas and an exchange of information – and the size helped in this respect as we got to know each other quite quickly. Additionally, and just as importantly, the physical environment at Chapelgarth Estate contributed to a sense of peace and well-being as the anxiety one usually associates with deadlines was forgotten about during this short stay. Chapelgarth was a home-from-home experience without all the hassle of everyday life. The chef and Marcella provided some wonderfully nutritious and delicious meals and Marcella’s care of our every need added to the experience. Of course, the beautiful woodland walks, the wonderful garden, the sunny weather, and the woolly lamas were all  a delight and also contributed to my experience. The end result was coming back with written content that I am happier with in terms of quality. I am very grateful to ICHRE and Marcella Sutcliffe for making this possible for me.

If you are interested in attending the retreat, please contact Dr Marcella Sutcliffe at Chapelgarth Estate.

A Commonwealth Scholar’s PhD Journey

By Nazlin Bhimani, on 9 November 2018

In this post, Dr. Deepa Idnani, who completed her PhD this year, highlights the myriad experiences she encountered on her doctoral journey as a Commonwealth scholar at UCL Institute of Education, London. 

During my doctoral journey at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), India, I was awarded the Commonwealth split–site Scholarship to study at the UCL’s Institute of Education, London, UK. It opened a gateway to the vast resources that were unexplored and which infused in me a new vigour and enthusiasm in my work. This post outlines the experiences which proved to be both a fascinating process of creative self-empowerment, and to provide the opportunity to contribute to my discipline.

The Library

Level 5 ‘Silent Study Area’

The library is one of my favourite places to visit.  It’s a place beyond the collections it houses.  It is a place for exploration and a place that allows one to meet, interact and, share interests and ideas with other researchers.   The Institute of Education Library was for me, a place where I felt welcomed and at ease: peace and serenity abound. I explored the literature in the books, journals or e-resources, and wrote my chapters in the library as the beautiful architecture, ambience and calmness helped the ideas to pour forth like a cloud burst. The Library has a team of librarians and IT specialists who were on hand to answer any questions. Of significance is the time when the IT team managed to retrieve the recordings I had made during my data collection phase which appeared lost to me!

The Role of the Supervisor 

My first meeting with my supervisor Dr. Annette Braun at the UCL Institute of Education (henceforth IOE) is a gentle and heartwarming person. She asked me to prepare a work plan for the next year, which helped me to both prioritise and schedule tasks thereby  setting the  pace and rhythm for my research.  It is this that helped me complete my thesis on time. Dr. Bruan helped me to understand different cross-cultural perspectives and guided my reading of relevant literature. She pushed me to unexplored terrains and her encouragement and instinting support facilitated me to present at international conferences like BERA, BSA and to publish in international journals. Dr. Braun took a genuine interest in me and nurtured the researcher in me.

Classes at IOE

Outside Senate House Library

Whilst at the IOE, I took a number of classes such as ‘What is a Doctorate?’ with Dr. Claudia Lapping, ‘Ethical Issues and Intellectual Property Rights’ with Professor Michael Reiss and Nazlin Bhimani, ‘Managing your Ph.D’ with Dr. Richard Freeman, ‘Theory in Research’ with Professor Paul Dowling, and ‘Information and Literature Searching’ by the IOE’s Research Support & Special Collections Librarian Nazlin Bhimani.   The latter course was particularly well-designed and structured for it introduced the concept of curation of knowledge in catalogues and indexes as well as in books, journals, open access resources.  This was complemented practical demonstrations as well has hands-on exercises.  The various online resources including  databases  such as SCOPUS and the Web of Science proved invaluable for my research. In addition, the ethical use of information sources by referencing and citing appropriately were highlighted as well as the need to manage time more effectively through the use of bibliographic referencing software such as Endnote, Zotero and Mendley. The nuances of disseminating research in different formats including open access enhanced my understanding of the publishing process.

Finally, the information on how to make use of the best libraries around London, such as the other UCL Libraries, the University of London’s Senate House Library and the British Library proved useful for my research. For instance, I used the British library to access the archival material such as manuscripts and rare audio and video recordings on India’s role during the WWII. Using the libraries around the beautiful city of London enriched my life as a researcher in so many ways.  However, I could not have done this easily were it not for the clear organisation and structure of the libraries and the approachability of the library staff.

Another course I took was a collaboration between Melbourne Graduate School (MGSE), Ontario School of Education (OISE) and Institution of Education. This course provided me with the opportunity to present my work online and discuss key issues in education with experts and students from these three institutions, thereby building bridges which enabled an understanding of diverse perspectives from scholars based in different parts of the world.


During the initial phase of Ph.D., getting time to read was a struggle with job, family responsibilities and finding time for my children who are aged 5 and 11 years.
In time, though, as I set priorities, I was able to maintain a schedule, study for four days and take three days off and thereby have time off to rest and come back to my studies refreshed.  I was also able to work more from home and to spend the weekends studying in the last year of the exchange as my husband took care of the children.

Pursuing Hobbies

The time off helped me to pursue my hobby which is travelling. I was able to use this as a stress buster and I also joined UCL’s Theatre Society. This allowed me to do something creative outside of my research field and meet other students at the university.


My advice to new students is to ensure you plan: as planning is the key to the successful completion of the Doctorate – which will have its turns, twists, highs and lows. It will though be, by far, the most rewarding and satisfying of life’s journey.


I would like to dedicate this post to all my teachers, colleagues, friends and students who have encouraged and inspired me on my PhD journey. Special thanks also to the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission, UK for enabling me to experience this fascinating journey.

My Online PhD Journey – Growing My Own Identity

By Nazlin Bhimani, on 17 August 2018

In the second of these posts on the PhD journey, Dr. Chua who recently passed her viva, writes about her experience of the Online PhD at the Institute of Education, London.

I am grateful for the day I found out that the PhD was being offered online at the IOE. Doing the PhD online allowed me to be with my family and colleagues in Singapore. The PhD has changed my life and in the post below, I am going to tell you about my journey on the online programme.

My desk at home where I worked on my PhD

I remember the first time I logged into Moodle in 2015 and watched Richard Freeman, programme leader of the online PhD, introduce himself in a video. He was seated in his office and he showed us a view from his window. I do not remember the view, but I immediately had a sense of place even though I was not physically in UCL IOE – it was bizarre! I also vaguely remember one of his first posts – something about different ways of tying shoelaces. It must be an analogy for research methods as henceforth, the world of research methods opened up through Richard’s various creative, and often intriguing assignments. One of the assignments I remembered vividly was about transcribing an interview with the late Princess Diana from YouTube. It was bewildering the number of varied ways in which we produced the transcript and the discussions we had online making me realise that what had initially seemed a mundane reproduction of information, had evolved into an understanding of different subjective human experiences! It made me appreciate how research is part of our lives, and an extension of what we do to help us become who we will become.

Then, the course on information and literature searching presented a huge light-bulb moment in my research journey. This was when I met Nazlin Bhimani who gave much care through her detailed comments and feedback on our tasks. She didn’t just point us to information, but she developed our research technique. We got started on mindmapping our literature review and trialling a great variety of tools, databases and software that could help us organise our data. It got me started on organising and evaluating my literature review, and I began to set up an e-filing system for my literature and my notes. This headstart in establishing an information management system was critical as I was able to readily search and retrieve articles and notes each time I needed to revise my writing. I continue to use the same system for my other research work.

My only regret is that I have not been able get to know other staff and students at CCM as I have little contact with them, apart from my supervisor Graham Welch. Graham was an excellent mentor, who always got back to me quickly with comments that more often than not, stretched my thinking. The routine of drafting and then meeting on skype helped to pace my work. I also had the opportunity to learn about the research work of some of the faculty, including Grahams’ various national-level education projects, and the transformative research on throat cancer patients by my upgrade examiner Evangelos Himonides. During my doctoral studies, Graham made me reflect on my motivations for my research and continually prompted me on what I hoped to achieve for society. I was constantly reminded of how research must serve the greater good, and researchers have a role to play in making this world a better place.

Here are some shifts in thinking I have as a researcher.

My first and only visit to the physical library

First, for information gathering. I was and am still amazed by how much research and information gathering could be done without being in a library! In fact, I have only visited the physical IOE library once in the first year of my online MPhil/PhD. The IOE Library’s digital collections have grown beyond the physical library. The extensive support was invaluable for me as a long-distance learner, for they increased the efficiency of my work manyfold. The  online library guides were my constant companions during the writing process, particularly the A-Z referencing with APA guide.

Second, research is not just a personal endeavour to interpret information and uncover knowledge. The whole process is pretty much a social learning experience. To a large extent, the writing developed when there were insights inspired through interactions with others. Lacking the face-to-face interactions meant paying more attention to fellow students’ work on Moodle and giving more thought to my own posts since these were communicated in writing rather than verbally. Most insights were inspired through my work with colleagues, and in return, my research brought forth new understandings.

Third, our research work may impact others in ways that we might never know. I am sometimes surprised when I hear random remarks that mention a finding from my work in different contexts. Hence, researchers have a social responsibility. And we must believe that research can make this world a better place (or not). I have been inspired again and again by the impact of research at IOE reported in the media.

My thesis for binding and submission for viva

So, now that I have been awarded the PhD, looking back, the online PhD journey has been an incredible experience. My research was on growing music teacher identity. But I feel that this journey has been transformative to my own identity. For this reason, I am intensely grateful to the tutors at IOE who have made the doctorate possible for distant learners like me.

I wish so much for continued access to the amazing electronic resources in the library which has been my close buddy for the past 3.5 years in my PhD journey. It isn’t just a repository of information, but it has become a friend whom I would greet first every time I went online for anything related to research. As I speak, I know our dedicated tutors are working to continue to support students with these resources post-PhD. See https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/doctoral-graduates-need-five-years-post-phd-career-support.

This blog is dedicated to Graham Welch, Richard Freeman, Nazlin Bhimani, Evangelos Himonides, David Baker, Jo Saunders, Lucy Green, Gary Ford, Hazel Croft and all who have made a positive impact on my online PhD experience, and inspired me to be a better researcher, a better person.

Siew Ling Chua

‘Long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror’; or, surviving the PhD

By Nazlin Bhimani, on 8 August 2018

This is the first in a series of blog posts by the Institute’s doctoral students who are either on or have completed their PhD journey.  Dr. Sara Young, who recently passed her PhD viva, has written about how she survived the PhD.

Spring 2018 View across Gordon Square (Photographer: Sara Young).

The adage ‘war is long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror’, said to date from the First World War, could just as well be applied to the long drawn out process of attrition that is a PhD.

Boredom because of the interminable hours you endure going over the same thing again and again until you’ve lost all sense of time or feeling. The endless days spent simply staring at a computer screen. A day during which you’ve written 150 words, deleted them, re-written them, changed the first word, put in a full stop, and then decided you preferred the first version that you wrote at 10am, and forgot to save.

Terror because of the nagging doubts that accompany you throughout the process: fear you won’t meet deadlines, fear it won’t be good enough, fear that you’ll have wasted your time and that the sacrifices you made putting your life on hold for the past four or more years will just have been an exercise in futility.

Here are some of my moments of boredom, sheer terror – and survival:

  • Year 1, December 2014: Working on the first draft of my literature review at the IoE over the Christmas holidays with a January deadline looming; I finished at the end of the afternoon to realise that it was only me and the security guard left in the building.
  • Year 3, Summer 2017: When my laptop broke down as I was writing my data analysis chapters, and the IT technician delicately suggested I may have lost the entire hard drive. Knowing I had almost everything backed up on USB sticks stopped me having a complete meltdown; ultimately, the wonderful IT genius salvaged everything, but I was without my laptop for five weeks while the computer company repaired it.
  • Year 4, February 2018: Attempting to revise the first five chapters of the thesis within a month. It snowed a lot; I trudged to and from the train station in the dark, cold, wet, fed-up and wondering why I was bothering. I sat on a lot of cold trains and in equally cold libraries. At some point, I received a text from a friend reminding me it was my birthday, which I had actually forgotten.
  • Year 4, June 2018: Finally… sitting in the Fitzroy Tavern in Charlotte Street, celebrating a successful viva.

So how do you reach that final point?

Travelling to the IOE in all weathers (Photographer: Sara Young)

For me, the best antidote to the self-doubt and panic that set in, was simply to get on with it. I established my routine, and stuck to it. Everyone has their own method of working: for some people, targets and specific support networks are invaluable. For myself, I don’t count the number of words per day; I don’t enjoy writing groups; and I feel uncomfortable discussing my work while it’s still in progress. I find it almost impossible to pull an all-nighter. Instead, I found that starting work sitting in a corner of the 6am commuter train worked for me; working through lunch, battling through the afternoon and then going over what I’d written that day during the 5pm train journey home. I tried not to think too far ahead, about how much there was to be done, but just focused on what needed doing that week. I broke each chapter down into sections of under 1,000 words each. The prospect of writing 500 words on ‘Bilingualism’ felt a lot more focused and achievable than an entire chapter of 10,000 words on ‘Everything To Do With Language’.

To wind down, some people practise yoga. I preferred to take long walks round London. In doing so, I discovered I could work things out in my head that had been bothering me; I unfortunately also destroyed countless pairs of shoes.

Another resource that was extremely valuable was that of the IoE library. It was through sessions held at the Newsam that I first heard of ERIC and Copac, and understood how to navigate them together with Google scholar in the quest to locate exactly the item you want. There was always someone available to offer lucid advice, be it on finding the right books, resolving a technical issue or simply explaining the new photocopying system. Or sometimes just for a friendly chat about how things were going, equally important when a typical PhD day is mostly spent working in silence.

View from the 5th floor of IOE Library (photographer: Sara Young)

Over the course of my PhD, the library became part of my landscape. Long Sunday mornings spent at the small wooden desks on Level 5 looking out over the University buildings and watching the changing seasons: autumn leaves blown around in the wind, snow falling, glorious spring sunshine.

What also helped was establishing firm deadlines with my supervisor. Like most supervisors, she was extraordinarily busy, and needed to work to tight submission dates and supervision meetings. I used it as a way of organising my own schedule.

I took inspiration from other people that work to strict deadlines. For people who work in the theatre, opening night is a (generally) unnegotiable event. Having booked a theatre for the run, with tickets sold, and the publicity posters up in the tube, you can’t suddenly go, ‘Actually, we’re not ready. Can we open next month please?’ Newspaper editors can’t postpone tomorrow’s front page until things have quietened down a bit. I used this to motivate myself and tried to apply similar principles to my own deadlines.

Yet whatever you find to inspire you, writing a PhD remains a lonely business. At its worst, it’s miserable, depressing, and most of the time you wonder why it’s even worth it. I suffered palpitations from drinking too much coffee, and realised I had eaten nothing but cheese on toast for a fortnight. Whatever I did with the thesis, nothing seemed to look any different from the way it had several months previously, or even a year before. Even as something appeared finished, it needed revising in light of another chapter, or another article published that I needed to include. And yet gradually, despite my constant worry that it would never end, the work started to take shape.

Nearing the end of my PhD, I began to understand that even if you don’t see it at first, you gradually find yourself becoming more confident whenever someone asks what your PhD is about. You realise that you have become a slightly different person: you have the courage of your convictions, you have a voice.

And when you have submitted the thesis, undergone the viva, and received the final notification of your award, you realise that it is truly your work that you have successfully defended, your ideas, your project. So that however long it takes, and however difficult the process, when you use your new official title of ‘Dr’ for the first time, you remember that the journey was in fact, all worthwhile. Good luck!

Dr Sara Young, UCL Institute of Education