PhD Hacks: Creating a Secondary Sources Reading Journal

three notebooks stacked overlapping each other. The bottom one is open and reads 'reading journal - comics - criticism volume 1'

Secondary sources. Over the course of a PhD, chances are, you’ll read more articles, books, essays, reviews and blog posts than one would imagine humanely possible. GoodReads, eat your heart out. Enter the humble reading journal.

First off, yes, this is a slightly old-fashioned way of doing things when there’s so much by way of software for bibliographies and logging what you’ve read. However, there will be times when you’re without computer access, and there’s no guarantee you’ll remember exactly which quotes resonated and why later. Equally, if it’s a library book you’re working with, most libraries won’t be thrilled if you return the book with dog-earred pages and chunks of text covered in pink highlighter. As for e-books? Simply put, you can’t always copy and paste quotes. I personally hate trying to log quotes directly into Word or other software from a journal; I find it’s pretty easy to lose my place and the process becomes pretty time consuming in the long run.

As for transferring information from journal to thesis? Technically, I will be writing it out again. However, in my experience, I’m more likely to remember a source, its author and the specific section I want to reference having written it out by hand. Call it a decade of language oral exams talking, but paper beats a computer screen as far as memory games are concerned. Sometimes – and I can’t stress this enough – PhD candidates just need a break from a screen. Sitting in a cafe or the library or even just your couch, book and journal to hand with a mug of coffee? It’s a moment of quiet, and the break can help spark new ideas.

Two notebooks, the pages written on, overlapping

When it comes to set up, you don’t need anything fancy. I used the following headings:

Writer(s)/Editors (s) – important to distinguish, particularly if you’re working with multiple sources from an edited volume
Publication Details – self explanatory!
Synopsis – this is where your journal is a life-saver come lit review time! Even if you just copy a few lines from the blurb and then pepper in some of your own thoughts, this section is valuable. I tended to fill this bit in last, as it meant I could flag to myself whether the source was something I planned to reference, if it would be better suited to a paper than my thesis, or simply if it wasn’t what I had hoped for and therefore wouldn’t use just yet.
Quotes – I’m a lit grad, so my needs may vary to others, but finding quotes is hard-wired into me. I’d note down any lines that may support/refute whatever I was working on, as well as the page number.
Bibliography – Always check the bibliographies of books and papers you read, I can’t stress how useful this tip was for me. You never know if you’ll find something interesting or potentially of use. For the sake of making sure you remember it later, log it!

My headings worked for me, but there’s no reason why they can’t be customised to suit other priorities when it comes to secondary sources. Ultimately, this system helped me to log comic books, interviews, websites, reviews, theses, articles… No source was wasted either; months down the line, I would remember reading something, flip to it in my journal and find I’d already done the hard work of logging all the information I’d need. Sometimes I might reread the source as my priorities had changed, but every time, my wee journals came through for me. Whilst it may sound potentially time-consuming, it’s actually a brilliant time-saver and a calming process to boot. Is it old school? Yes. Is it an excuse to indulge in new pens and notebooks? Absolutely! Will it help you? I hope so. Oh, and at the end, when you’re finished? It’s nice having a physical log of all the work from behind the scenes!

Images copyright Cia Jackson 2020

Small PhD hacks to save time and money

Straight up, writing a PhD is hard. Throughout the process, most tips and tricks people passed my way tended to focus on themes like imposter syndrome, writer’s block, and how to get published. Now I’m on the other side, I thought I’d share the smaller, almost inconsequential things I discovered along the way which saved time, cash, and occasionally brought great satisfaction after a long day in the library.

  1. Find Free books
    Books are pretty crucial for us. Or, they are for those of us doing literature degrees, but I assume folk in STEM crack spines on books occasionally. They’re also often expensive and if it’s a new title, chances are the library doesn’t have it yet.
    There are two options here that I found pretty handy here. The first is to use your university’s Inter Library Loans service and request it. I found that if the ILL services couldn’t find the book I requested, they’d occasionally be super generous and order me a copy “for your retention” – i.e I got to keep it! So keep an eye on new and upcoming titles and get your requests in. You never know!
    The second option? Check out journals in your field and see what books they have up for review. It’s a win-win situation here as you’ll get a book and a publication in one go. Again, keep an eye on up-coming publications as sometimes, book review editors are open to suggestions and requests. Following them on Twitter can also be handy as they’re likely to share new books for review, and it’s an opportunity to create a connection.
  2. Select your champion
    Find out and make a note of the people specialising in issues such as research integrity, plagiarism, data management – basically all that stuff with small print most people don’t read until it’s too late. It may seem like work now and chances are you won’t necessarily need them, but it’s good to have their email noted down just in case. Knowing who to turn to when some of my research was distributed without my consent made life infinitely less stressful. That’s not to say these experts and champions are only there for the scary stuff . They’re specialists in these areas for a reason and there to help with the more benign too; even if it’s just establishing best practice for storing data (e.g. should you share a thesis Dropbox with your supervisors? Hint: no) or if you can publish your thesis chapters as articles prior to submission.
  3. Acquire L33t Hacker Skillz
    This requires you to spend some precious time now, but it’s a huge saver in the long run. You may think you know Microsoft Office, but do you know how to write and format a thesis using Word? Sure, you could download oodles of software suggested on Twitter, but most university IT services offer courses for staff and students. Some are even specifically aimed at PhDs and theses. Even if you consider yourself well-versed in Microsoft Office (or other programmes used by your subject), attending these courses can still allow you the chance to pick up handy tips and tricks which will come in useful long after submission. Plus it’s technically free, and did I mention the “saving time later” bit?
  4. Write everything down
    Pretty basic and not necessarily a hack per se, but it’s a good one. Make sure you have at least one notebook near you at all times. Ideas will usually strike at the most inconvenient time possible, and trust me, you will not remember them when you wake up/once you’re dressed/after lunch/whenever you open up a Word document. Having a notebook and pen in your bag or by your bed (and a notebook app on your phone) means you won’t lose possible exciting developments and changes in chapter direction later. It’s excruciating settling down to work only to realise you’ve completely forgotten the amazing thought you had in the shower. It’s also pretty handy having one in your bag for supervisions; again, there’s no guarantee you or your supervisor will necessarily remember everything you discussed in detail, and your notes could even spark more ideas later. Do yourself and your stress-levels a favour – write everything down in the moment.
  1. Repurpose, Reuse, Recyle
    You know those drafts that your supervisor may have totally slaughtered? You may not want to look at them now, but don’t delete them. Keep a file somewhere on a hard-drive or USB with old drafts. There’s still the chance you may be able to polish them up later for a conference, or publication. Even if those words don’t make their way into your thesis, they’re never a waste of time. Plus, once you’re done, you can go back and see how much your writing has improved!
  1. Confer-idays/Holi-ferences
    Attending conferences, much like a holiday, can also be pretty pricey. Obviously applying for funding is a must – and your College/School/Department/PGR Office might all have separate wee pots to help fund travel to conferences worth checking out. When I was looking for suitable conferences to send abstracts to, I was lucky in that most stuff in my field was UK-based, but as my partner is Canadian, I looked for conferences near/in his province so we could tack on a holiday to his family. It cut our costs down significantly, and saved us doing 2 trips. As an aside, your university might even have travel insurance/conference attending insurance and I 100% recommend looking into it as it’s a huge weight off your shoulders having that sorted too!

Obviously starting a PhD in 2020 is going to be dramatically different to the the Before Covid-19 times I was writing through. But these things are still worth keeping in mind. You never know when a free book or a handy tweet may come your way, or who might prove an amazing connection or help later down the line. Small wins and time-savers add up, and can make the difference on the days when PhD Life is getting you down.

Images copyright Cia Jackson 2020

7 things I wish I’d known at the start of my PhD

I’m finally on the other side of my viva and, were it not for the lockdown, I’d probably be living up that post-viva life. Lucky for me, lockdown life removed the stress of job hunting by simply removing that option and giving me hours at home with my thesis. Flippancy and pragmatism aside, I thought I’d share the few things I learned now five years of hard work is (hopefully) paying off. I always respected the PGRs and staff who were brutally honest with me, so I plan to be the same here. Buckle in, it’s a bit of a long one.

A white woman holding a softboud thesis standing behind giant letters spelling UOFG on University of Glasgow quarangle.
The day I handed in my thesis back in 2019. Real kind of the uni to just have these fancy letters lying around.
  1. Routine, routine, routine
    Supervisors and the like would probably like me to say that having a routine enabled me to get the best work done and cut down on procrastinating. Truth is…it doesn’t. Humans procrastinate, and sometimes there will be chapters or events or other such times where you struggle to sit down and engage. However, what my routine did was to give me valuable stability and designated time with and – more crucially – away from my research. We all need time to recharge, find new perspectives, and honestly with the world being as bonkers as it is on a good day, knowing that you’re sitting down 9am – 12 noon every Tuesday and Thursday with your thesis or that dinner is at 6.30pm can be more calming than desk yoga or an hour being lectured on sleep habits.

  2. Do things that scare you
    Yes, I am following up routine with something that essentially jars your system. I’m not saying take up extreme sports (unless that’s your jam), but personally, I found the occasions where I did something my younger self would have balked at were the occasions where I learned the most and found most rewarding. I was once told that imposter syndrome isn’t a sign that you don’t belong, but that you’re pushing yourself, and this is something I live by. You don’t need to take huge leaps into the unknown. But smaller steps, such as signing up to that workshop on publishing, submitting an abstract to a conference, or entering 3MT competition can lead to bigger things, even if you’re not accepted or don’t win. I do say this with the caveat that you shouldn’t be destroying yourself and your wellbeing to achieve these things!

  3. Embrace mistakes
    For all I love social media, when combined with academia it forms this horrendous space where there is a pressure to perform perfection and being busy. It’s kinda like the way those influencers inevitably make you feel pressured to diet and exercise and spend a small fortune on a diet teas and a swimsuit for which “one size fits all” absolutely does not fit all, or make you any happier. I’m all for shouting my successes, but it’s all too easy to forget the people behind tweets about papers and awards are likely as stressed and tired and worried about their academic CV – or indeed regular CV – as you are. I’m not even touching those Tweets going round about whether or not academics work 40+ hour weeks (please don’t do or encourage this!) I’ve always appreciated the PGRs and staff who have been brutally honest and shared their experiences of failure or making mistakes. It’s more encouraging to know it took 12 revisions to get a paper published, or that they have oodles of embarrassing stories from interviews they’ve had over the years too. It’s good to remember that we’re all human, but also those mistakes or less successful research avenues are valuable experiences where we can learn something, or find different – and even better – opportunities.

  4. Have a space to vent
    There will be times that are frustrating. Sometimes supervisors love your work, other times they may be less enthused. APRs can be a stressful nightmare (I loathed mine, and in darker moments wished tiny curses of inconvenience such as printers breaking and accidentally hitting ‘reply all’ on their emails to everyone involved in the whole damn process). You may not get on with people in your office. Your landlord may be a colossal waste of space. Having a temporary space for immediate release of all that pent up frustration is great. Bottling it up never ends well. I’m a strong advocate for the blank Word document where you rant about your APR comments, your latest supervisor email, your flat inspection – whatever! Tweet rants at your best pals then delete them later. Whap it on Facebook if that’s your preferred rage release space. You may not feel as angry or upset later – you probably won’t still mean it if you call someone an “utter bellend” or similar. Getting it all out on a page and then deleting it a few hours later after a cuppa or strong beverage can be extremely cathartic. And it’s probably safer than doing it in a blank email, as I’ve known some colleagues to do. That way an embarrassing conversation potentially lies. Ditto actually saying it to your letting agent / fellow GTA/ course secretary/ supervisor/ boss / your flatmate’s partner / your gran [delete as appropriate]

  5. PhD Squad – assemble!
    Whilst Taylor Swift’s squad may be somewhat questionable in its content and goals, I have to admit that the girl’s onto something. We don’t need a bunch of privileged white women backing us, but having a group of friends – in or outside of academia – is worth its weight in gold. I owe a lot to my best friends, partner and family for their support over the last five years. They’ve cheered me on, they’ve picked me up and dusted me off, they’ve let me bounce ideas off them, they’ve helped me consume way too many Rich Teas and bottles of Echo Falls Summer Berries from the corner shop (PhD life is expensive, stop looking at me over your fancy white wine like that!)
    Get yourself a squad, but don’t copy Taylor too closely, okay. No PhD needs a feud with Kim K on top of research deadlines.

Kind words from the Ingenious Women 2018 squad
  1. Know your worth
    Your time and effort is valuable; you are valuable. If someone asks you to give up your time to work on something in exchange for “exposure” or “experience for your academic CV”, tell them to get to *expletives*. Obviously this may go against the previous point of “don’t actually call someone a bellend to their face” from above, but trust me on this one in particular. Sure, these “opportunities” sound exciting and enticing – who doesn’t want to get ahead on their academic career before their first APR? But, you should always ask what the other person gets from your contribution too. More often than not, the deal works out infinitely better for them, whilst leaving you overworked and unrewarded with a load of emails from your supervisors asking where that chapter you promised has gone to. I’ve been there, I’ve done it (the taking on “opportunities”, not exploiting students bit). I’ve had one of those GTA contracts, I’ve done work and not been paid fully or acknowledged for it.┬áSometimes opportunities are genuine opportunities, but equally, the last I checked, Glasgow City Council aren’t accepting exposure or a line on my CV as payment for council tax bills. Know and remember your worth.

  2. Your wellbeing is more important than a bit of paper
    There’s definitely been a huge shift in attitudes towards researchers and mental health over the past few years, and that’s great, but awareness campaigns and shoving the phone number for the uni’s oversubscribed and underfunded counselling services in PGR handbooks won’t mean anything until everyone in academia starts actually doing more than the bare minimum here. Again probably another post in its entirety. I can see now that my mental health was the absolute pits in the first few years of my PhD, and I wish I’d been able to a) notice that and b) ask for help at the time. I’m not going to presume to tell anyone how to look after their wellbeing, but I do think there’s more value in this than academia lets us believe. One thing I would say, having been on the receiving end of such comments early on in my thesis from fellow PGRs further on in their research, ill mental health and “a breakdown in year two” is not and should not be normal. Please don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, and call them on it if they make similar remarks. Some of us already pay huge tuition fees, our wellbeing shouldn’t be seen as a”top up” or similar price to succeed in our research. Again, remember academic social media can play tricks on you and your perception of how other PGRs in your field are doing. Ultimately, as the saying goes, it’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to ask for help. I wish I’d felt more able to do so when I needed it.

Images copyright Cia Jackson 2020.