Taking Care of Business and Working Overtime: Organising Data and Keeping on Task

Hello, fellow Gremlin Slayers! This blog returns after a break while I finished my PhD (and which was submitted for examination as of three days ago)! It’s a relief but also a strange feeling to have it done with, at least for the next couple of months.

To kick things off, Karen Hobday shares her reflections on self-motivation and managing feelings of overwhelm, both before and after fieldwork. Take it away, Karen!

My PhD topic is on the use of misoprostol for the prevention of post-partum haemorrhage at the community level in Mozambique. In 2014, I enrolled for my PhD and wrote out a beautiful 3 year plan for completion… I now laugh when I look back and think of my naïve ambition! Some of the major hurdles I’ve experienced include:

  • Waiting for feedback on my work;
  • Language (Portuguese and local languages);
  • Gaining the necessary permissions to conduct the research in country.

Sometimes I think I should receive a PhD in letter chasing from various bureaucratic layers!! I have fought many gremlins over the last year. The nagging voice that says ‘you’ve bitten off more than you can chew’, ‘you’ll never finish this’, ‘you should just give up, or change topics and/or countries’. What kept me going was the fact that I am not a quitter; when I am determined I will go for it with everything I have. This, and the thought of starting over made me physically ill.

It took me three cross-continental trips to Mozambique to collect my data. Grit and determination kept me going. I recently returned from my third trip and I can finally say I have finished data collection. Woohoo! I am currently in the thick of organising copious amounts of data, which seems to be the seldom discussed but essential step that comes before analysis. This is a huge task and is rather daunting to say the least. I am trying to take the approach of ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time’, basically working in chunks and documenting everything I accomplish daily.


The majority of my interviews are in different languages – four to be exact. I am in the process of transcribing the interviews from local language(s) into Portuguese, and then into English. This is a long and costly process but thankfully I have found some excellent people in Mozambique who are working on it. In the meantime I am transcribing the English interviews. I have used a friend’s new transcription software which has helped to reduce the time spent as it automatically uploads the text transcription from the audio file.

Sounds like magic…however, it’s not perfect due to the sound quality of the recordings and accents of the people I interviewed. Other researchers have recommended Dragon Naturally Speaking software but this comes with a price. As I have relatively few English interviews I will stick with my friend’s software which is much more affordable.  I have an excel spreadsheet of all my interviews and keep track of which have been transcribed, by whom and payment owing. I am also making notes as a first review of the translated interviews as an initial analysis.

Writing 1,000 words a day

To keep my head straight and to avoid getting overwhelmed, I am reviewing some of the reference books that I have been using as guides namely ‘How to Write a Better Thesis’, the ‘Unwritten rules of PhD Research’ and ‘Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day’.  To get into a good habit and boost my productivity I am starting to now write 1000 words a day, 2-3 times a week. This strategy is recommended by the always brilliant @ThesisWhisperer, whose blog I turn to when I am feeling stuck. I strongly recommend her article on How to write a 1,000 words and not go bat shit crazy.

Keeping on task

Another thing I am doing to help motivate myself and keep me honest is to write daily notes – a list of what task I have accomplished under the headings of transcription, data organisation, writing, etc.  I have been doing this regularly in a notebook but have just started keeping a running sheet in a word file as well. This helps me to see what I have achieved and where I still have to go. The task lists are visual – they are proof that I am accomplishing my PhD related work and moving forward.

The other trick I use is to apply the pomodoro technique – I try to transcribe, write or read articles in 25 minute chunks before stopping for 5 minutes for a break. This also helps to keep me focussed and on task.  I recently started using the app Focus Keeper but there are numerous apps to choose from, or you can just use a stop watch.

The above techniques help to keep me motivated and I usually manage to stay on task. Being productive is my greatest weapon at keeping the ever present PhD Gremlins at bay! I’d love to hear your tips for organising your data and boosting productivity – my twitter handle is @karhob.

It always seems impossible until it’s done –Nelson Mandela (This is on the cover of my PhD notebook!)