The Literature Review as Dinner Party

The best advice I had on starting my PhD was to write 3000 words each month, no matter what. After 9 months, my average is closer to 2000 words each month and my literature review, minus the conceptual framework, research questions and methodology, is only around 10,000 words. It hasn’t been easy. I chucked out around 5000 words after 4 months, having re-scoped my research and completely changed the research question. There are still areas in family business, innovation and internationalisation which I haven’t explored in sufficient depth yet. Though with new papers coming out all the time, perhaps I will always feel insufficiently knowledgeable. So what’s the answer? It’s too early to say. As my research question, sub-questions and objectives continue to get refined, and my philosophy, methodology and research design take shape, the literature review will continue to evolve. Sensible advice, as always, comes from Kamler and Thomson (2014) in their chapter on literature reviews; this is unforgettably titled: “Persuading an octopus into a glass”. I read their book early on in my studies. It made a profound impression. Thinking of the literature review as a dinner party, where, as the host, I am orchestrating different conversations, showing appreciation asking probing questions and firmly in charge of proceedings. By the end of the evening, I hope my guests will have been entertained and informed. If my literature review can illustrate the fields relevant to my research, whilst also outlining the nature of the debate, define terms and establish how gaps in the literature justifies my research questions…then I will be satisfied.

Image below “Family Meal” by PascalCampion


My first year of teaching

My supervisor encouraged me to teach, pretty much from the early months of my PhD. Having run many training and development workshops in the past, I thought that teaching final year and postgraduate students wouldn’t be such a big leap, right? Wrong. The student-academic dynamic is very different. I have now taught final year undergraduates and Masters’ students, developed course material and taught small groups, individuals and delivered training to large groups.

This is what I have learned:

  • Listening is important. Probably the most important thing to do. I learned to listen carefully to students’ aspirations for their course, what they hoped to do in future with their degree and why they selected a particular thesis topic. Understanding the personal context of their studies helped me to explore how their learning could be made more relevant to their overall objectives for studying.
  • Ask searching questions. Even if I thought their project was unfeasible, I learned to ask students to explain how they would go about answering their research question, how they could collect their data, and even asked them to go out and try to find the relevant data before even completing their literature review. Students needed my guidance, not my control.
  • Believe in them. Even with students who seemed disengaged, I went back to my supervisor for advice and kept trying different approaches with them. Even while being candid about how they needed to improve, I always believed that they could improve and never gave up on them.
  • Ask them to submit written work as early as possible. Most students are marked on their written work, so they needed to understand how important it was to write. And then re-write, as early as possible.

I love teaching. It is exhausting, frustrating and distracts me from my PhD, but it is a privilege and a genuine joy. It has also helped me in my reading, writing and research: brushing up on aspects of business studies that are not core to my PhD has got me out of the narrow confine that is a PhD. Also, trying to explain a complex concept to someone else, helped me understand it more thoroughly. If you are offered the opportunity to teach while studying, then go for it!

Way to the Knowledge tomsumartin


No liberation without repression?

"How difficult it sometimes is to know where the black begins and the white ends." Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery (1901)

“How difficult it sometimes is to know where the black begins and the white ends.”
Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery (1901)

The brilliant and provocative Randall Kennedy, Harvard Law professor, has written a brilliant book about about people who do not defend their ethnic or cultural background. Otherwise known as “race traitors” or “sellouts”. In his wonderful book “Sellout” he describes the history of the black person who has compromised their racial identity for their own financial gain. He argues this is at the wider cost to the black community. He defends the right of the black community to ostracise sellouts and argues that the liberation of black Americans required a collective back-turning on treachery.

“There is much ostracism that is good: ostracism of racists, misogynists, fascists and purveyors of other hateful ideologies. We rightly describe as progress the repression of such ugly ideas and their attendant modes of conduct.”

He argues that the civil rights movement relied on creating a climate of fear amongst black people who would otherwise have sold out. Without the fear of black-on-black reprisal, blacks would have continued to ride the buses in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, and the boycott would never have happened.
Do you think that we are right to ostracise those whose views offend us? Can we defend the right to free speech, but legislate against their “attendant modes of conduct”?

Taming your tiger

“Staying OK” (Harris A, Harris, T., 1985) is an early self-help book, using Transactional Analysis methods. early childhood experiences shape our lives: for the better or worse. I was struck by their description of how we can continue to fear a person, or situation, that no longer has the power to threaten us:

“It is as if [we] spend out lives locked in a cage with an enormous tiger…and all we know how to do is walk backwards. Anyone else can see the tiger is fifty years old, toothless and slowing down. Also, the lock on the cage is rusty. Escape is possible. We do not see what may be obvious to others because our seeing apparatus is not working for us.”

Whether it’s an ex-friend, an ex-boss, an ex-colleague, how many times have I failed to realise that my tiger is now toothless, and that I’m fighting an enemy who no longer has power over me. In the PhD jungle, toothless tigers are lying in wait. I fear the pile of unread books; sitting down to write, when writing is so hard; the journal reviewers who turned down my first draft….This is where the world of blogs, writing workshops and coffees with friends come in: talking about your fears with other people, makes them much less scary.

Let me know what toothless tigers you have successfully recognised as such, and escaped from…

“Lords of the Swamp” by Gabor Dvornik


Research-led Teaching

Now 5 months into my PhD, I have been taught by research-active academics from a number of universities. I have also started teaching final-year undergraduate students, though the content and style of my teaching is fairly traditional at this stage.



I would love to develop research-led teaching, whereby I’m involving undergraduates in research work. Some of these students may also want to take up a research career in future. So, how would you go about setting up a research-led teaching programme?

• Relate the specific area of your research to the broader module outline and the broader curriculum: in my case, this could be to ask MBA or undergraduate students to think about “How does entrepreneurship work for family businesses? Think about family businesses that you know and think about what makes them successful? Which of their techniques for marketing, product development, training, succession planning etc. would be transferable to another type of business?”

• Stick to second or third year undergraduates who are keen to improve their academic and team-working skills. I’ve found a wide range of abilities and confidence in reading and writing, even amongst my final year students.

• Hold writing workshops to ensure their language, analytical and research skills are up to the job. Writing workshops would also improve my own writing abilities!

• Check that your academic colleagues are supportive. I suspect that some of the faculty would be more enthusiastic than others in letting undergraduates loose on a research programme.

Taking a longer-term approach yields better results: at UCL, a 3-year project encouraged students to take up a piece of research which had been conducted by students from the year above. This “mechanism of inheritance” meant that each cohort was learning from the previous year’s work. This process was repeated for 3 years until publishable materials were produced. The students found it valuable to join an evolving community of peer-researchers. Read more about the project here:

Have you ever tried research-led teaching, or been a student in a research-led teaching progamme?

Did you find the experience positive? Your comments, as ever, would be much appreciated

Finding your feet

Welcome to the first post on the Family Business PhD Blog. I am a PhD student at the University of Salford in the UK, researching the fascinating and volatile area of family businesses.



It’s my first month, so I’m still thrashing around in the literature and occasionally coming up for air. Finding my research question will take a while, as I am easily distracted. So far, I’ve found the following tools invaluable:

  • EndNote: satisfies my hunter-gatherer instincts for amassing huge amounts of (unread) articles
  • Inspiration: a mind-mapping tool which is great for capturing links between theories
  • Excel: I have a dorky spreadsheet which has one row per journal article and one column for the following: Journal Title; Journal Author; Themes; Methodology; Link to Family Business; Link to other research questions; Strengths; Weaknesses

I’m also finding the chocolate vending machine one floor down from my desk quite a handy little tool.

What tools did you find useful in your first month? What fell by the wayside as you got into your PhD…