How to manage your time during the PhD: Balancing the thesis, writing for publications and gaining teaching experience

During my PhD career at Cambridge (September 2012 to July 2016), I spent around 95 per cent of my time in a magical sphere called the University of Cambridge Writing Group. In this space, I wrote nearly my entire thesis, published three peer-reviewed journal articles, won a Best Paper Award and landed a job as Lecturer in Education immediately after graduation. I now have friends who write to me from time to time to get my advice on time management, on job hunting and on work-life balance. While I keep emphasising to them that publication is the most important, I feel obliged to tell the ‘truth’ behind all these ‘hard facts’ or what some people would call ‘achievements’.


Cora Lingling Xu

The truth is, when my current Head of School asked me how I found my experience at Cambridge, I told him that these have been the best four years of my life so far. This is the truth. Yet this is not all the truth. There were difficult periods throughout my PhD, moments of doubt, agony, and despair—this is no news to anybody pursuing or holding a PhD. What I want to share in this post, therefore, is how I have survived all the difficult moments. I want to offer three reflective moments.

Moment 1

Venue: Tea Room, Sociology Department, Free School Lane

Date: 31st December 2012

Attendees: Moira, Christine, Dee and Emma

Event: This was probably the second Writing Group session that I had attended. Moira, Christine, Dee and Emma were all senior PhD students finishing their PhD theses. These were the people that I later looked up to and often sought advice from. During one break, Moira made a comment about minding her ‘authorial voice’. This little phrase stuck with me ever since. I started to realise that the PhD experience (at least for social sciences) was really about developing an academic identity that is primarily represented by one’s written work.

Moral: This revelation was pivotal in that I made a conscious decision to frequent the Writing Group, because this was so much more than a writing space. It was a place for me to get inspiration, seek advice and develop friendship; it was my support network and my ‘security net’. I am not asking everybody who reads this post to join the Writing Group (although it is a worthwhile idea), but rather I am suggesting that buddies at the Writing Group were the ones who helped me survive all the self-doubts, agony and despair. It is essential for PhD students to feel secure and supported among like-minded friends. So, your first task is to seek such a space and grow with it.

Moment 2

Venue: Barbara White Room, Newnham College

Date: April 2014

Attendees: Writing Group buddies

Event: I received a notification from the European Educational Research Association (EERA) that my article had won the Best Paper Award and that it would be published in the European Educational Research Journal (EERJ).

Moral: Start publishing as early as you can. I learned about the EERA Best Paper Award competition when I attended the European Conference on Educational Research (ECER) in 2013. The prospect of publishing a paper at the EERJ was appealing. I carefully studied previous winning essays and prepared my article while I was conducting fieldwork. At that time, I only had some preliminary analysis of the first round of interviews. However, I wrote up my analysis and got helpful feedback from my supervisor Professor Diane Reay and my friends, including Dr Erin Spring, who was then a PhD student. This was my first article, published in early 2015.

When I nearly finished my first phase of fieldwork in March 2014, I wrote another article for a conference in Denmark. This article was based on more comprehensive analysis of the bulk of my empirical data. Although the analysis was relatively crude and broad-stroked, I gained some valuable feedback at the conference and my article was included in a special issue, published in October 2015.

As I was writing my findings chapters, I began to write my third article, which was submitted to the British Journal of Sociology of Education in early 2015. I received reviewers’ ‘ruthless’ feedback in July 2015, which, when I look back now, was hugely beneficial to strengthening the rigour of my analysis. I submitted my revised version in September 2015 and the article was accepted in February 2016.

To summarise, it is never too early to write for publications during your PhD. I began writing for publication as soon as I had some data at hand to analyse. I was constantly thinking about the next article and how I could make sure that I had a worthwhile message to communicate to readers of my targeted journals. My motto, which I have inherited from my wise Writing Group buddies, is that you write (a lot) to become a good writer and similarly, you write (a lot of articles) to become a good published author.

What I found most beneficial was that I had supportive but critical colleagues to comment on my drafts. At Cambridge I co-organised a reading group with Dr Selena Yuan in which we regularly critiqued on each other’s works and helped each other publish more effectively. Cambridge is a gold mine of talented and critical friends, so start building a network to support each other’s publication journeys.

Moment 3

Date: Some time in 2015

Venue: Origin 8 Café, FOE

Attendees: Elizabeth and Pu Shi

Event: I came out of GS4 and ran into Elizabeth and Pu Shi, who were having a meeting at the café. Upon learning that I was acting as a Teaching Assistant to facilitate a Master’s research methods class, Elizabeth commented that I was career-oriented.

Moral: Yes, I was quite strategic about gaining teaching experience during the PhD. Since 2013 I had been supervising Tripos Sociology papers and Research and Investigating projects. However, I ensured that such teaching did not take up too much of my time. Now that I think about it, I spent around ten to fifteen per cent of my time doing supervisions and acting as a teaching assistant. I also gave some guest lectures at different universities, such as the University of Northampton and the Open University of Hong Kong. These experiences proved instrumental for informing my pedagogical understanding and helpful in allowing me to construct a coherent narrative about my repertoire of teaching experience.

To return to what I set out to answer in this post: How did I manage my time during PhD in order to balance finishing the thesis, writing publications and gaining teaching experience? Firstly, I established an important network of support from which I gained inspirations, friendship, and a sense of security. Secondly, I began writing for publication as soon as the early stages of my data collection, and I kept writing for publications throughout the PhD journey. Lastly, I strategically sought opportunities to gain teaching experience, while ensuring that teaching did not take up too much of my time.

Dr Cora Lingling Xu graduated with a PhD from the Faculty of Education in 2016. Her doctoral thesis examined the identity constructions of tertiary-level border-crossing students from mainland China to Hong Kong. She is currently a Lecturer in Education at Keele University. You can follow Cora on Twitter @CoraLinglingXu and find out more about her research on and Research Gate

On 2 May 2017, Cora is organising a British Sociological Association funded Early Career Forum event on Transnational Education Post-Brexit at Keele University. You can sign up for this event here.

On being an ethnographer

I’m writing in the arid, breezy shade outside my £10 per night hotel in northeastern Uganda. This weekend I’m taking a break from PhD life. Not really. I’m actually here to interview alumnae from the secondary school where my research is based.

Profile me crawling

Jacqueline Gallo in Uganda

Being an ethnographer, everyday and every moment can be a research moment.  There is taking a break, but not turning off. My master’s supervisor, Dr. David Mills, with Morton, describe on the first page of their book that ethnography is ‘being, seeing, writing.  Simple participles that belie the complexity of their meanings.’ (Mills & Morton, 2013). They write about education in the broadest sense of the word, including formal and informal education settings.

My research brought me to northeastern Uganda for the year studying how secondary school girls are preparing to exit school and embark on a life beyond their all-girls, Catholic-founded boarding school. I am writing this post for students considering, preparing for, or interested in ethnography in education.

So, why I am staying in a hygienically challenged hotel only thirty minutes from my home site? I’m here because life is blurred. I am not from this land and although adopted by members of the local Karamojong people, I am not one of them. If ethnography requires seeing, being and writing, then I am embracing it entirely.

This year I am working at the oldest school for girls in this region as a teacher while also researching there. This school is in the heart of an historically war-torn region that today is ‘peaceful’ so long as ‘peaceful’ only means that tribal cattle-raiding with AK-47s and roadside ambushes are a thing of the past. Today, severe food insecurity, chronic poverty, forced marriage, and the highest gender-based violence statistics in the nation plague the region still (Irish Aid, 2010). Only 2% of girls here have completed lower secondary school and a mere 1% have completed upper secondary school (UNESCO, 2011).

2 Girls Nakiru, Regina

Two illiterate sisters, part of the 99% of girls who do not step into a secondary school, rest after they’ve completed a sowing job.

If I am to study how prepared these girls will be for life after secondary school, then I must know more than just who they are and how they feel now. Ethnography demands context and genuine immersion into others’ lives.  I need to move beyond just their school environment. Immersion is mandatory into the whole of their situation. This means meeting school alumnae, parents, learning their language, and getting to know the women who came before and those among them who lead challenging lives without having had formal education.

During preparation for this and my previous ethnographic study, well-intentioned people inquired about my ability to cope with the basics of moving abroad. But this isn’t just moving abroad, this is research. And this isn’t a personally removed form of research. This is immersive, full-on ethnography which is full of vulnerability, risk, complication drowned in enduring questions:  Is this moment ‘research’ or just my life right now? Does this new knowledge belong in a travel journal or my research journal? Perhaps the most difficult…are we becoming friends or am I still a researching?

There are no easy answers because your ontological and epistemological underpinnings and the context of everything, matter. The best answer I can give is to advise budding ethnographers that the research ‘hat’ is always on. I like this metaphor, albeit cliché, because Ugandan President Museveni loves wearing big cowboy hats with a string around his neck – this signature style is plastered on worn, bright campaign shirts throughout the region. It is the same for the ethnographer; the hat is always on. You might complement the hat with a decorative feather like Karamojong men or take it off your head to have small moments to yourself, but the hat is at least around your neck if not fully on your head.


A worn out but still worn campaign shirt of President Museveni in his signature cowboy hat

I imagine this is easier for me as I am researching in a country where I do not have previous work experience nor did I grow up here. I offer this metaphor because keeping the hat on, I imagine, would be especially challenging if performing research in an environment that was previously known to you. Caution is advised!

Today  I was invited to the mud home of a promising alumna whom I interviewed a few weeks ago. I was challenged, asking myself if the hat was still on or were we becoming friends? This kind, talented woman is helping me connect with other school alumnae and will serve as my interpreter for interviewing parents. Hat on – snowball selection. But how firmly placed and solitary is this hat?

I choose to think of this budding relationship as professional and perhaps the start of genuine friendship. When she and her mother invited me to visit her sick brother in the local missionary hospital, I believe I was invited as a friend. But just as President Museveni wouldn’t take off his hat in the blistering sun, I did not take mine off either because the hospital visit is an opportunity to learn about life’s challenges here. I think of this visit as wearing my hat but putting a decorative friendship feather on the side.

Man Hat

Typical man of the region with his knitted hat and signature stick of the pastoralists. Men sow their own hats here and decorate them with ostrich feathers.

I encourage others to consider this hat metaphor because you may think you already know how to handle this immersive and holistic methodology just as I thought I knew when I arrived in Kenya for the first time. However, looking back at field notes from my Master’s study, I am still shocked at how isolated I felt during deep immersion. My isolation and despair is exemplified from this troubling field note:

I am never alone. I…take walks into the valley and hide under bushes or trees to have a moment of silence. This doesn’t work. Before long…a Maasai herder will spot me across the valley and come to show me his cattle – after a short session in pantomime, we sit in silence but together. I must accept I will have no time to myself and make the most of my time outside the home, albeit never alone, at the Maasai church on Sundays or with market women who teach me beading. I am a spectacle anywhere I go with curious and sometimes suspicious stares my way, being shouted at by passers-by, or politely exchanging pleasantries with curious, friendly Kenyans when all I want to be is invisible.

When all I want to be is invisible. I can see now that I did not yet know how to wear the ethnographer’s hat. It was new, awkward and not fitted to my head. Now, I am learning how to decorate my hat whilst keeping it on. In the rare instances where my internet is strong enough, I will watch a little American TV to relax. I don’t take my hat off entirely but keep the string around my neck because even these moments of relaxation, moments of home, help me learn about myself as a researcher and what I need so that I may never desire to be invisible again.

IMG_5184 (1)

I often visit these women in the village. We take a photo each time to see how we change. They know I’m a researcher and encourage photos to share their lives with the world “ulayá ” or abroad.

How will you wear your hat? Take the hat cliché to heart my dear ethnographers; it will save you from isolation, loneliness, and becoming too comfortable.

The last thing to mention here is that whilst writing this post from the shade behind my palace of a hotel, a goat jumped out from behind the building less than a meter away with a big BAAAAH! I jumped in surprise almost throwing my computer into the dirt beyond my blanket. I saved the computer and remind you to be ready for the unexpected and keep your hat on a string!



Irish Aid. (2010). Country Strategy Paper 2010 – 2014 Summary Uganda.

Mills, D., & Morton, M. (2013). Ethnography in education. London: Sage.

UNESCO. (2011). Global Education Monitoring Report. Retrieved from


Suggested reading for budding ethnographers:

Abu‐Lughod, L. (1990). Can There Be A Feminist Ethnography? Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory, 5(1), 7–27.

Abu-Lughod, L. (1991). Writing Against Culture. In R. Fox (Ed.), Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present (pp. 137 – 162). Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

Burke, J. F. (1989). Becoming an ‘inside-outsider’. Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford, 20(3), 219 – 227.

Burke, J. F. (1992). Research in a post-missionary situation: among Zairean sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford, 23(2), 157–68.

Geertz, C. (1975). The interpretation of cultures: selected essays. London: Hutchinson.

Ong, A. (1988). Colonialism and Modernity: Feminist Re- presentations of Women in Non-Western Societies. Inscriptions, 3(4), 79–93.

Stambach, A. (2010). Faith in schools: religion, education, and American evangelicals in East Africa. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Walford, G. (2008b). The nature of educational ethnography. In G. Walford (Ed.), How to do educational ethnography (pp. 1 – 15). London: Tufnell.


Jacqueline Gallo is a second year PhD student in the Faculty of Education, spending the year researching in the Karamoja region of Uganda. She is a member of the Education, Equality and Development research group.  She invites your comments and will respond when the internet is strong!  Follow her on Twitter at @jgallovanting.

Finding my research interest


C.J. Rauch

Graduate students learn very quickly how to perfect their elevator-pitch, the generally accessible, succinct description of their research. It is employed at conferences, social situations in college, and even family gatherings—Aunt Muriel always seems to ask, “Remind me again what exactly it is you do?” I usually say that I look at pre-service teachers’ (i.e. students studying to become teachers) epistemology (philosophy of knowledge, knowing, and learning) and beliefs about teaching. Aunt Muriel tends to respond by inquiring, “And how exactly did you decide to do that?”

My research interests grew out of my own personal background as well as prior research. In undergrad, I studied education and completed my teacher training; I then went on and taught high school social studies and history in my home state of New Jersey. There, I came to see the many different paths my colleagues took into teaching. Some, like me, studied education as part of their undergraduate degree—in programmes with a variety of sizes, structures, and emphases. Some earned a postgraduate teaching certificate. Still others entered via alternate teacher education programmes. For some, teaching was a second or third career. I began to wonder how these different experiences may have led to differences in teaching styles or educational philosophies.


Jesus College Graduate Student Conference

 As I embarked on my master’s research at the Faculty of Education, I took this interest and honed in on one particular philosophy. I was on the then-named Politics, Development, and Democratic Education MPhil route, so I was naturally curious about beliefs about democratic education. In studying pre-service teachers’ beliefs about democratic education, I stumbled upon a chapter that discussed a little bit about epistemology. It quickly led me down a rabbit-hole that would become the crux of my doctoral research.

It was not long before my readings led me to the works of William Perry, Marlene Schommer-Aikins, and Barbara Hofer and Paul Pintrich. I was fascinated! I had some exposure to political and education philosophy in undergrad, but never would have thought much epistemology at the time. I felt it was a crucial element of teacher education, but quickly came to realise that there was a significant gap in understanding teachers’ epistemological development. It is in this gap that I attempt to situate my research.

I have no idea what future research interests may crop up as I continue my academic career. I have found drawing from my experience and my past research to be particularly helpful. It keeps my work interesting to me, as well as connected to the larger corpus of work. Plus, an appreciation for the element of chance adds an element of excitement!


C.J. Rauch is a third year PhD student at the Faculty of Education researching pre-service teachers in undergraduate teacher-education programmes in the United States.  He is the former president of the Jesus College MCRYou can follow him on Twitter at @CJRauchEduc or read his research blog at

Making research accessible through animation

In 1976 the Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) launched their manifesto which stated “nothing about us without us.” This kick-started the disability movement in the United Kingdom and contributed to the development of the social model of disability. Mike Oliver (2002, p.14), one of the pioneers of the social model of disability, argued that, epistemologically, research must reject the notion that is investigating the world; rather it should replace it with an understanding that “research produces the world.”In testament to this and the disability movement, the most important things to me as I go through my PhD is ensuring that my work maximises participation and inclusion and that the participants take an active role in the research. This notion has strongly influenced the way I am trying to go about my research, and accessibility is a key issue for me.

Hannah Ware

The young people I research with have been identified as having special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). They have difficulties with speech and language communication, meaning that researching in typical ways might not be particularly accessible or useful. Ethically and morally, it is integral that my participants truly understand the purpose of the research and are engaged and enthusiastic about participating. The research explores how the young people view and describe themselves, as well as  how young people experience belongingness in different educational settings. In order to research this, I co-construct narratives with the young people using different visual methods for elicitation.

I have spent a lot of time reflecting on the best way to communicate the purpose of my research to the young people. I have decided to use my animation skills to make the research, concepts, and ethics explicit. For example, part of the animation explores the importance of being able to say yes and no, or choosing to be silent. I have used animation combined with a narrator and also text to create an accessible video. The text that I have used is a symbol and text language called Widgit and it is often used in special schools. The symbols are designed to visually convey the concept of the word to help readers and non-readers access meaning. Increasing understanding through making text accessible is a key way to helping make my research more inclusive.

If any readers have the time, I would encourage them to click on the link below and take a few moments to watch the animation; I would be grateful for any feedback!



Hannah Ware is a second year PhD student at the Faculty of Education researching alongside young people identified as having special educational needs and/or disabilities. You can follow her on Twitter at @warehannahware  or email her at 



A poetic reflection on a Cambridge PhD

Chesterton Road, 2014
It’s hard for me to write a sentence
which conveys all the things that I feel
For what seem like an importance
is a bit hard for one to deal.

“tread softly on my dreams, dear professor”
for it is fragile and soft,
“tread softly on my wishes, dear professor”
for it needs to be kept aloft.

Keep me grounded, however,
to remind me of reality,
Keep me grounded, however,
so I don’t lose focus in its entirety.

Being in this city overwhelmed me,
but at times it gives me peace,
though the thought of it scares me,
but I’m not alone in the least.

Being in this city excited me,
for the knowledge I’m gonna get,
Being in this city exhausted me,
for the standard I am expected to be at.


“tread softly on my dreams, dear professor”
for I need it to keep aloft,
keep me grounded, however, professor,
so my journey be smooth and soft.

This poem represents my overwhelming thoughts during my first term as a PhD student at the Faculty of Education in Cambridge. Leaving Southeast Asia and Brunei and embarking on a  PhD meant that I was on a risky, rocky road less travelled. I immediately faced new challenges: immersing myself in an unfamiliar environment; being in a single-sex, mature college (I chose Lucy Cavendish, which only admits women above 21); living with then-strangers (now turned friends); and preparing a draft of my PhD literature review.

Amy Haidi with friends at Lucy Cavendish College

Despite experiencing common PhD feelings such as perfectionism, the impostor syndrome and high expectations, I quickly found my niche and felt part of a supportive community. This enabled me to satisfy my thirst for knowledge and helped me overcome such feelings. Cambridge truly is a special place for learning. The libraries are amazing, the lectures are thought-provoking, and my supervisor and other academics act both as guides and sources of wisdom. Additionally, my friends find themselves in the same boat, each in their own way, and they act as sounding boards—and some even seem to become partners in crime. I have grown a lot since writing the poem two years ago, and all in all, I feel truly blessed to be here.

Hamizah (Amy) Haidi is a third year PhD student at the Faculty of Education. Her research explores the development of reflectivity in Secondary Science (Chemistry and Biology) pre-service teachers in the Cambridge Secondary Science PGCE in the UK. You can follow her on Twitter at @AmyHeidi or read her blog:

The intersection of PhD life and College life

As storied and unique as Cambridge is, its collegiate system is perhaps simultaneously the most baffling, interesting, and worthwhile. Particularly as a foreigner, I had little idea how to go about selecting one, or what would come with being a member of a college. I was originally bemused by this system and thought little more of it than an idiosyncrasy of an eight hundred year old university. It was after my arrival that I came to understand its value and appreciate what it had to offer.

On the surface, the colleges each provide accommodation, dinning facilities,

Faculty of Education

pastoral care, and various funds and bursaries. Almost more valuable, however, is the community of scholars that it provides.

Obviously, the Faculty of Education provided me with a diverse community of both peers and senior academics. I quickly met people from all around the globe with a wide range of experiences and research interests. Naturally, everyone had a keen interest in education, which I greatly appreciated. However, I also quickly came to appreciate the diverse community in my college, Jesus College; I met students that I likely never would have come across if it had not been for the college system.

Jesus College

Through the MCR (“Middle Combination Room,” i.e. the college graduate society) events, my friend group expanded to include graduate students in archeology, pharmacology, development studies, geology, linguistics, plant sciences, and countless others. As a result, conversations over dinner are always fascinating and wide-ranging. While I have not become an expert in these other disciplines, I certainly have gained a modicum of understanding of some of the big issues—if not an appreciation for them. In some cases, these interdisciplinary discussions have even informed my research!

Beyond the community of people, my MCR provides another meaningful aspect to life in Cambridge. Getting involved meant a range of academic, social, and welfare activities outside of “work.” Having enjoyed the activities so much, I decided to get involved in the MCR committee and help. It not only gave me

CJ and friends

C.J. Rauch with fellow Education PhDs 

something to do in the evenings, but gave me a further chance to get to know others in my college—not just graduate students, but undergrads, senior academics, and administrators.

As with many things, what you get out of college life depends on what you put into it. I have loved my experience in my college and MCR; I no longer see it a weird relic of the Middle Ages, but a strength of a modern university.


C.J. Rauch is a third year PhD student at the Faculty of Education researching pre-service teachers in undergraduate teacher-education programmes in the United States.  He is the former president of the Jesus College MCRYou can follow him on Twitter at @CJRauchEduc or read his research blog at