Using Lego Serious Play to explore my PhD research journey

Today I was lucky enough to get a place on a Lego Serious Play workshop run by David Gauntlett, who uses lego to conduct all kinds of interesting research in Media, Art and Design at the University of Westminster.

The aim of the session was to explore the use of Lego as a tool for gathering qualitative data during the research process, as well as reflecting upon my own PhD experiences so far and learning from other people’s experiences.

Using Lego for metaphorical modelling

David explained that the idea behind Lego Serious Play is that by using a visual aid the participants are encouraged to think about their experiences and opinions and represent them in model form. The idea is that it gives people a new way to express and explore complex subjects and ideas through a creative method.

As my PhD research is focused on exploring experiences and understandings of research impact (undoubtedly a very complex and often contentious issue), I thought this could be a useful tool for me to use during my data gathering stage.

Getting used to building with Lego


We started out by building a free form creature, which could be any life form, as realistic or fantastical as you like. This stage allowed us to become familiar with the Lego pieces and to explore how everything could be used and fitted together. I really enjoyed this, and made the Stompocopter (obviously trademarked, don’t go nicking my ideas all you toy companies out there), with a working helicopter tail and huge stompy feet.

Moving from literal to metaphorical modelling



After this stage we talked a bit about metaphors and how they can be used to explore ideas which are hard to describe by borrowing meaning from other items and concepts. We then applied this knowledge to building some models representing positive and negative supervisory experiences of a PhD. In mine, the model at the top uses parts from my earlier Stompocopter to represent a supervisor pushing a student to plough on through their journey without any real consideration for the student’s opinions. This has led to the student having to develop a very thick skin (represented by the crash helmet). The collection of objects below represents a more positive experience, with the skills and guidance from the supervisor represented by the wheels, ladders and spade which can all be used by the student to navigate issues and barriers during their journey.

Exploring our own PhD journeys

Now that we were all getting used to how to use and discuss the modelling we were doing, we moved onto the main task of the afternoon – representing our own personal journey through modelling.


I decided to use the concept of a river in my model, as I am interested in using the Kawa river model as a possible data gathering method during my case studies. The river here represents my PhD journey, with the tributaries indicating different paths of thought and possible directions I could go down with my work. The green bushes represent obstacles along the way, but by using the tools and skills I am developing (shown by ladders and bridges), I will hopefully be able to navigate my way through. I used the animals to represent different feelings throughout my journey; elephant – plodding away slowly at my research during difficult times, tiger – determination and passion for my subject, horse – a sense of urgency that comes in spits and spats, kitten – occasionally feeling overwhelmed and timid in my abilities. I found thinking about the theoretical side of my work very interesting, and represented the struggles I sometimes have with navigating complex theoretical work by using the web, as theory often seems to be something which needs untangling before I can move on.

Lego Serious Play as a research tool

Overall, I found the exercises really helpful in terms of looking at my PhD experience from different angles, and found that the modelling helped me to articulate my thoughts and feelings quite clearly. Doing this as a group was also beneficial in that people had the chance to learn from each others experiences too.

Having had an introduction to using Lego serious Play as a tool for exploring research ideas and potentially gathering data, I am going to consider using it as a visual method during my case study section next year.

As always, I’m very interested to hear from anyone who has comments about this subject or has carried out similar research themselves.


Submitting your Proposal/Plan…or yeay!

So this week I submitted my formal Research Proposal and Plan to my university PGR and ethics committee. Those of you who are further down the road in their PhD traipse will know how satisfying this is! Yeay!

Being someone who can procrastinate until the cows come home, and then until they have tea, get tucked up in straw, dreams some cow dreams….it was a real relief to feel like I finally have something down on paper. After months of reading, faffing, stressing and some (ahem LOTS) of reorganising my writing space, I finally have around 5000 words of fairly succinct explanation around my PhD topic and approach. And yes, I have worked out how much of my final thesis that equates to. And then immediately wished I hadn’t.

Now that this first hurdle is over, I really need to try hard to keep the momentum going and not sit back for a few weeks waiting for the comments to come in. So, I have devised a little plan of action for the next few weeks:

  • Plough through the ever-growing pile of articles bordering my writing space – I aim to read 2 articles a week, make notations and try and add a summary into my research notes.
  • Sign up to the EdD classes which start at my uni in Sep – these discussion sessions focus on methodologies and theories, which are both areas I need to focus on more.
  • Do some more blog posts! I think blogging about my theory and methodology reading might help me to negotiate some barriers.

Anyone else at a similar stage to me and have any tips/questions around where to go next and how to re-focus?

Creating a poster presentation – conquer your academic nerves

Poster presentationSeveral weeks back I went along to a really useful PGR support group for staff at my university. One of the key things that came out of the session for me was the decision to submit my first poster to a conference.

Presentation nerves

Now, to many people this may not seem like a big deal, but I’ll bet those are the people who have plenty of experience delivery conference papers, am I right? I have delivered 1 conference paper in my career so far, and it was terrifying. Brilliant, but terrifying.

Now don’t get me wrong, I know I will need to do many more conference papers in my future academic career, and I’m sure I will build up the necessary controls and confidence. However, for now I am quite happy to be honest and say I am not there yet. My ideas need much more development and I need more experience of talking people through them before I put myself through that.

Practicing with posters

Which is where the poster presentation comes in. For PGRs/ECRs or people in the early stages of a particular piece of research, it is a great exercise to take part it. It allows you to creatively explore your research questions and gives you the chance to practice talking people through them on a less formal level, not to mention allowing you to receive lots of useful feedback.

I am submitting this next week, so fingers crossed for me! If you have any feedback/suggestions, do let me know.

EndNote: five reasons to use it to organise your academic research references

EndNote: furthering my obsession with post-it-notes

EndNote: furthering my obsession with post-it-notes

Starting my PhD

As many PhD students have done before me, I got all excited after my official PhD acceptance and signed up for a string of development courses to get me off to a good start. Luckily, I work and study at an institution that takes great pride in its staff development initiatives, so all the courses so far have been useful for at least one aspect of my work or research, or both.

EndNote: addressing my ignorance of referencing software

However, they were all blown out of the water this morning after attending a session on EndNote – which has honestly changed how I work forever. I like to think of myself as fast at picking up new software and processes quickly and am generally up to date with developments in offline and online tools related to academia. That said, I completely admit to having a big gap where my referencing tools should be. As an undergrad I had little interest in referencing, and simply laboured away in my Word documents like most of my class mates, and as an MA student, working full time, I simply didn’t feel like I had the time to invest in it.

EndNote: A whistle stop tour

What a mistake that was! It could have saved me sooooo much time. This morning two of our brilliant subject librarians showed us lots of clever ways to use EndNote to help organise our reading and make referencing/citing/bibliographies much easier and quicker. I thought, there must be plenty of people out there like me who love clever bits of software and tools but have just simply missed the boat on this for one reason or the other, so I thought I would give you a quick whistle stop tour of my Five Favourite Awesome Facts about EndNote:

It can import all my saved PDFs

I have a folder on my work computer marked Reading, into which I chuck all manner of articles, book chapters and comment pieces that I come across in PDF form, with all the intention of reading them later, saved as some string of keywords which meant a lot to me on the day but which will remain meaningless gobbledygook for ever more. In EndNote, I have selected the folder and imported it, and hey presto, the clever sod has indexed it all and populated the referencing information, as well as storing my PDFs in the library for me to view at anytime. Amazing!

It has an EndNote version of post-it-notes

I’m a sucker for a post it note – look at the new lovely owl ones I got recently as a present from my mum – beautiful! I like to use them to note down thoughts I have when reading books etc on the bus. So, I was super chuffed to see that EndNote has this function built in so I can make comments on the pdfs that are stored in my EndNote library, therefore enabling me to save all my pointless scribbles in a very orderly fashion. Yippee.


I am forever realising that an article I need is either saved on my work pc when I am at home, or that I have left a useful book in my other bag, so the fact that I can save my whole pdf library in EndNote and access it from work or from home whenever I like, is a godsend.

Manual input

As my research focuses a lot on social media and online dissemination of research, a good proportion of my reading is made up of blog posts and websites, as well as traditional academic journals and books. Luckily, EndNote has the option to let me enter an item manually and populate whichever of the many reference fields I feel is appropriate, meaning I can save all these non-traditional references alongside my traditional ones, lovely.

It’s free!

As my University support EndNote, I get access to the full offline version for free, and lovely training sessions to help me use it too. From chatting to other researchers I think most UK universities tend to offer a similar perk to their students, but if yours doesn’t, then you can always have a bash at using the free web based version, although I’m not sure if it has all the same features.

Linking social impact research to practice

Naturally, as my work and my research are very closely linked, I look to my research as a way of informing my work and improving the support and advice that I can offer. For me, researching in the area of social impact is all about looking for new ways to create meaningful social impact and helping researchers to do so: I want my research to be practically useful to other researchers, thus creating some social impact of it’s own.

A support network for academic researchers

I think embedding this kind of impact support into university culture is really important; as  Ian M Carter points out in his DESCRIBE essay:

Making non-academic impact a part of research applies as much to the support structures as to the researchers and what they do’.

Basically, in order for researchers to be able to create meaningful impact, they need the required knowledge, guidance and tools. I believe it is important that the knowledge, guidance and tools are a product of rigorous academic research to ensure they are fit for the job, and it is this research that I intend to carry out.

Creating impact as part of your research journey

Ian also talks about the importance of making impact activities part of the research journey, something which I discussed in an earlier blog post. This really can’t be emphasised enough, as the earlier you embed research dissemination activities into your work, the more of an impact you will see over time and the more opportunities you will find for impact along the way, rather than just attempting them as an afterthought.

A flexible research impact toolkit

When designing my social impact toolkit I want to do it alongside the research journey, so that researchers can pick and choose their activities along the way and really work towards building cumulative impact as their work progresses. As Ian points out:

‘Institutions should be looking to embed expertise into their routine processes and activities, so that they are fit for purpose, for delivering high quality research and enabling its appropriate translation into practical benefit, not just responding to a particular (albeit very important) assessment process.’

Whilst a lot of ongoing impact discussions have been born out of the need to respond to REF2014 requirements, it is now time for us to make the activities that are useful and bring good returns, routine in our research. The most effective way to do this is to have a strong system of internal support that enables researchers and adapts to their needs.

A Merry Christmas PhD Summer School

PhD Christmas School

A bus-based revelation

I was reading a great post by @MillwoodMara on the @ThesisWhisperer blog this morning whilst en route to work on the dark, bumpy bus ride, and it got me thinking (which is no small feat at 7.30 am on a cold December morning).  Being a complete newbie to the PhD world, I haven’t really come across the concept of an academic summer school before, and all the name conjures up for me is images of sulky looking teenagers wishing they were at home with their friends instead of stuck at some Scout/Cubs-run organised ‘fun’ affair.

Academic summer schools

However @MillwoodMara explains that the grown up, academic version is a small (ish) group of academics, mainly PhD students, who come together over the summer to participate in discussion, workshops and debate. This sounds much more up my street! Unfortunately, they mostly seem to take place in America, which is a little far for me to travel.

My own personal PhD Christmas School

Not wanting to waste time sitting and sulking about how I couldn’t get involved, I decided the best course of action would be to run my own version of a summer school, albeit over my Christmas break, here on my blog. Yeay! I may be running it from my bedroom, and it may only have one delegate, but hopefully it will still help me to be productive and creative over my time off work, much like the proper summer schools in the US.

So this is how it’s going to work: the #PhdChristmasSchool will run from 19th December – 2nd January, and during these 2 weeks I will aim to post around six blog posts, each tackling a particular part of the PhD/research process. I will make sure to post them on Twitter using the hashtag, and hopefully some people will pick up on the hashtag and use it to hold discussions.

Most likely I will end up the only one in the discussions, but it will still be an interesting exercise, and will keep me focused over the Christmas break. (When I;’m not too busy eating my way through a ridiculous mountain of cheese, crackers and chocolate that is). So please do look out for the hashtag #PhDChristmasSchool and join in!

References shmeferences….

I had another brilliant meeting with my mentor this morning, who has been coaching me through the application process for my PhD and helping me to get organised and (almost) ready to start my actual research journey.

We talked this morning a lot about reference managing tools, which is definitely useful, but also somewhat mind boggling. I played around with Mendeley a bit a few weeks ago and managed to, rather haphazardly, start a small library of articles, books and web pages that I think will be useful. However, there seem to be a million useful features in Mendeley, none of which I have managed to get working, plus I can’t seem to get the Chrome plug in widget thingamy working, which means I have been entering all the information manually, which kind of seems to negate the point, no?

Anyhoooo, so my mentor suggested EndNote as a simpler and more robust tool for doing this, so I have booked myself on a training course in November and am mentally preparing to get my head wrapped around it without too much bafflement. I would be interested to hear from anyone who has experience with both/either and to hear what your preferences or key tips are?

Any advice would be very helpful.