Initial stages of data analysis: Deep down in the pond of data

Doing a PhD is not easy, but it’s fun. And it’s all the small chats in the common room or the corridor that make us convinced that despite being buried somewhere in the piles of reading, data, writing, you name it, we are still on the right track. This post is the result of one of these chats and reflects on my current messy situation of not being quite there yet, even though I’ve worked my a*** off. I would like to reflect on the pond of data and how to manage this when things get hopeless and stop making sense yet again. So this post will be more or less about goals (again!) and discipline (I cannot overemphasise the importance I put on this!).

What makes the pond of data so deep and how to keep our heads up…

  • Information overload

I feel like I have been at this university doing this research forever, and dealing with my data makes my head hurt. There are piles of it and it all seems relevant, important and immediate to deal with. Well, hold on there, immediate makes me stressed and thinking that I will never get it sorted and organise myself to do it all. So I forget about making small steps and progressing day by day as I jump into big conclusions. In this respect, here’s one of my currently favourite quotes to perhaps keep me grounded:

Do the difficult things while they are easy and do the great things while they are small. A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.  ~Lao Tzu
  • Messed up goals and steps

Occasionally, I completely change my way of working when I don’t feel productive but I do stick to my precious goals and To Do lists. I have a long-term goals file which includes items such as ‘Finish PhD on time’ and ‘Explore potential career options’  just to keep me focused on the bigger picture. But there’s also a short-term goals file – these change a lot more – every 6 months or so and they give me the real sense of achievement and a programme of following little steps towards the bigger picture. I suppose the short-term goals are what keeps me on track and disciplined rather than despairing that I will never finish this PhD. So if you are a bit stuck, go an organise yourself with a goals timetable. Then revise it every now and again, then tick what you’ve done. It works for me. You may also find my post on SMART goals helpful.

  • Discipline

Going through the pile of data gets demanding and exhausting. It requires attention and discipline to stay on task and look for the right things. This relates back to the goals and being clear what it is exactly that you are doing. If you are sifting through the initial data transcripts to sort out themes, don’t spend too much time analysing single excerpts. If you are working on linking data and theory, don’t get distracted with codes and nodes which are not helpful at this point. I guess one was of tackling this is to work in shorter blocks of time with a clear instruction – I usually write these on a sticky note and put it on my screen… It is then right in front of me to remind me what I am doing and reduce the temptation to go where I am not ready to be – e.g. analysing interviews before reading them all and familiarising myself with the data. Makes sense?

  • Motivation and striving to get better

I do that by challenging myself every time I find that I work within my comfort zone. If I am comfortable doing X amount of reading/writing /transcribing in 3 hours, next time I try to complete it in 2.5 hours. Once it gets comfortable again, I reduce the time. Of course, there is a limit to how much can be reduced and also not all PhD activities could be organised this way, but it works. It works to the extent that 4 years ago while doing my Masters degree I strongly believed that 1000 words a day was my absolute maximum, to be at the stage now that I can comfortably produce 2000 words in 2-3 hours… (not every day and time I write 🙂 )

What are your ways of dealing with piles of research? What else would you add?


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