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We’re a supportive and encouraging network for women who are studying for a PhD in Scotland. We share our experiences of research, academia and PhD life in order to tackle the isolation that many PhD students feel, particularly PhD women.

Why you should bother keeping a journal and where to start

What is reflective practice?

One definition of reflective practice is:

‘…taking the unprocessed raw material of experience and engaging with it as a way to make sense of what has occurred… exploring messy and often confusing events and focusing on the thoughts and emotions that accompany them’ (Boud, 2001).

I don’t know about you, but the ‘messy and often confusing’ bit of this quote certainly rings true for me when I think of my PhD! Reflective practice gives me a map to make sense of my emotional (Morrison-Saunders et al 2010), sometimes overwhelming life as a PhD researcher. Journaling not only helps me to clarify my thoughts, feelings and emotions, but it helps me make connections with theory and practice, and to keep track of my mental wellbeing. While there is a wide range of literature aboutreflective practice in the research process (especially in feminist research) the practical steps of howto do it as you work towards a PhD are less apparent*. Sharing ideas from my own practice, this blog will introduce an accessible approach for anyone who wants to try out reflective journaling, with particular examples for doctoral researchers. There’s also plenty of references to further reading if you’re already a committed reflector, or would like to learn more about the approaches mentioned only briefly here.

Why bother?

As PhD researchers we already have so many demands on our time. Why should you bother with reflective practice? In her brilliant article Nathalie Johnson-Leslie says that: ‘reflective practice was essential for ‘taming the beast’ – the vivid (and very relatable!) metaphor she used for writing her PhD dissertation (2009, p.256).

However, in words also highly relatable for doctoral researchers, Finlay (2008) cautions that ‘…busy, over-stretched professionals are likely to find reflective practice taxing and difficult.’ (2008, p.10). While, the benefits of reflective practice are well established, I do recognise that it can be a challenge to find the time as part of an already busy schedule.

Jenny Moon, a key researcher in the field of reflective practice suggests that reflective practice can ‘enhance the conditions that favour learning’ (2015). We can benefit from reflection as it helps us to understand our own learning process, slowing down our learning and creating a space to process our experiences, and by increasing our skills of metacognition – that is thinking about the way we think (see also Moon 1999a & 1999b).

Of particular interest given the increasing recognition of the mental health challenges facing many doctoral researchers (Levecque et al, 2017), there is also a significant  of literature suggesting that journaling is good for our mental wellbeing (for a great summary of the large body of evidence see Ackerman, 2018).

Methods of reflection

There are lots of different ways to engage in reflective practice, some of which you may already do. These include using creative and visual methods (McIntosh 2010, Kinsella 2017) like this zineI made; through engagement with our peers in support groups (Bold, 2008); or writing groups (Cahusac de Caux et al 2017) like the one I’ve been part of with Phd Women Hannah Walters, Soumi Deyand Sihui Wang. I’m also lucky to meet regularly with my PhD journey-woman Donna MacLellanwhere, as peers and ‘PhD mamas’ both carrying out research with young women, we ‘tackle critically not only issues relevant to [our] PhD work, but also every day personal problems’ (Hadjielia-Drotarova, 2011 p.16). There isn’t space to cover all of these methods in this blog, so I’ve decided to focus on my constant companion in reflection – my journal.

The paper mirror

‘As a glass mirror reflects a visual image, the paper mirror reflects students’ inner worlds and making of meaning’ Hubbs and Brand, 2005.

There are a great many methods and processes you can use to structure your journaling practice (more information can be found in the references). Introduced here is a foundational framework which is clear and easy to follow – it’s the one that I use to form the basis of my journaling. This approach drawn from the work of David Boud (2001), a leading researcher in the field.

This way of planning reflective practice uses the ‘Three Occasions of Reflection’. These are:

  • In anticipation of events
  • In the midst of events
  • Reflection after events

The prompts set out in table form below can be used before, during, and after almost any situation. For example, a PhD supervision meeting, a fieldwork visit, or giving a conference paper.

My favourite places to write or think through my responses to reflective questions are on the subway, or in the last 15 minutes before I go to bed at night. I use a small notebook, that I take everywhere with me. In the past I’ve also used the notes section on my phone. By way of example, below is a page from my notebook where I reflected on writing this blog!  Let me know if you already use reflective practice to support your doctoral research journey, or if you decide you are going to give it a try please let me know how it goes! @amandasays.


Before events In the midst of events Reflection after events

Focus on myself as the learner

– what are my intentions and goals?

– how strong is my intent?

– what is going on around me? 


Return to experience

– take time to mentally revisit the event

– describe the rich detail of the way events unfolded

– what were my thoughts? What are they now?


– what do I need to know?

– what questions do I need to ask?

– how do others there do things?

– what does this mean for me?



– what do I need to change?

– do less of something?

– do more of something?



Attend to feelings

– what are my feelings? what were they at the time?


– would a creative approaches help reflective on my feelings more effectively (drawing, using different colours, writing a poem)



– what strategies and approaches can I bring?

– what must we notice?

– what if my assumptions are wrong? How will I cope effectively?



– consciously deciding to act from a new perspective 





Reflections on experience

– can I relate new information to what is already known?

– can I find relationships between what is old, and new ideas?




Table 1 (adapted from Boud 2001)

Some more journaling prompts for PhD researchers from the wonderful Pat Thomson https://patthomson.net/2017/01/23/managing-the-phd-keeping-a-journal/

Amanda Ptolomey is based at University of Glasgow where she is developing new sociological understandings of neurodiverse and disabled girls’ lives using zine-making as research method.

Before starting the PhD she worked in community development and peacebuilding education, where training other practitioners to use reflective practice was a key part of her role in two international research projects.

References and further reading

Ackerman, C., 2018. 83 Benefits of Journaling for Depression, Anxiety and Stress Management available online: https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/benefits-of-journaling/

Bold, C., 2008. Peer support groups: Fostering a deeper approach to learning through critical reflection on practice. Reflective Practice9(3), pp.257-267

Boud, D., 2001. Using journal writing to enhance reflective practice. New directions for adult and continuing education2001(90), pp.9-18.

Cahusac de Caux, Basil Khalifa Costas Derek, Lam, C.K.C., Lau, R., Hoang, C.H. & Pretorius, L. 2017. “Reflection for learning in doctoral training: writing groups, academic writing proficiency and reflective practice”, Reflective Practice, vol. 18, no. 4, pp. 463-473. Available online: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14623943.2017.1307725

Finlay, L., 2008. Reflecting on reflective practice. PBPL paper52, pp.1-27. Available online: https://www.open.ac.uk/opencetl/sites/www.open.ac.uk.opencetl/files/files/ecms/web-content/Finlay-(2008)-Reflecting-on-reflective-practice-PBPL-paper-52.pdf

Hadjielia-Drotarova, M., 2011.  “Peer reflection within the doctoral student process: A community of practice perspective”, Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Institute of Education, University of London, 6-8 September 2011 available online at: http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/204460.pdf

Hubbs, D.L. and Brand, C.F., 2005. The paper mirror: Understanding reflective journaling. Journal of Experiential Education28(1), pp.60-71.

Johnson-Leslie, N.A. 2009. “Taming the ‘beast’: the dance of sustaining reflective practice on the dissertation process”, Reflective Practice, vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 245-258.

Kinsella, N., 2017. A journey through the use of critical creative reflection to explore self in a PhD study. International Practice Development Journal7(2). Available online at: https://www.fons.org/Resources/Documents/Journal/Vol7No2/IPDJ_0702_03.pdf

Levecque, K., et al. 2017. “Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students.” Research Policy 46(4): 868 – 879.

McIntosh, P., 2010. Action research and reflective practice: Creative and visual methods to facilitate reflection and learning. Routledge.

Moon, J. Learning Journals: A Handbook for Academics, Students and Professional Devel-

Moon, J. Learning Journals: A Handbook for Academics, Students and Professional Devel-

Moon, J. Learning Journals: A Handbook for Academics, Students and Professional Devel-

Moon, J. Reflection in Learning and Professional Development. London: Kogan Page, 1999a.

Moon, J. Reflection in Learning and Professional Development. London: Kogan Page, 1999a.

Moon, J. Reflection in Learning and Professional Development. London: Kogan Page, 1999a.

Moon, J.A. 1999 a. Reflection in learning & professional development: theory & practice, Kogan Page, London.

Moon, J.A. 1999 b.. Learning journals: a handbook for academics, students and professional development, Kogan Page, London.

Moon, J.A., 2013. A handbook of reflective and experiential learning: Theory and practice. Routledge.

Morrison-Saunders, A., Moore, S.A., Hughes, M. and Newsome, D. 2010. Coming to terms with research practice – Riding the emotional rollercoaster of doctoral research studies. In: Thomson, P. and Walker, M., (eds.) The Routledge doctoral student’s companion: getting to grips with research in education and the social sciences. Routledge, New York. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/11233054.pdf

opment.London: Kogan Page, 1999b.

opment.London: Kogan Page, 1999b.

opment.London: Kogan Page, 1999b.

Orange, A. 2016. “Encouraging reflexive practices in doctoral students through research journals”, The Qualitative Report, vol. 21, no. 12, pp. 2176.


*I appreciate that some doctoral research programmes, in particular in areas of education, community development, nursing, and professional practice integrate practices of reflection as a key part of the curriculum.


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