By Julia Hayes, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

It can be really hard to feel like you are good at anything when doing a PhD, and so when I heard the advice to do something you are good at to keep you sane during the process, I knew mine was drawing. Having used drawing in my role as child psychologist and a conference illustrator, I wanted to use drawing in my research with Colombian children with disabilities. What I hadn’t expected was that drawing would also become central to my own journey through the process. Not only did it help me navigate the ‘should I quit my PhD?’ moment, but it also helped me clarify, and communicate, my research proposal. This blog tells my story before giving some practical steps for building your own creative talents (yes, you have them) and inspiration for how you might illustrate your final thesis.

To PhD or not to PhD?

When I started my PhD, I was warned by wise professors that there would be times when I would want to quit. As predicted, that tricky moment arrived for me, when I realized that my original research proposal was no longer feasible.  But what does one do with that feeling? And how do you know if it’s a temporary moment of doubt or a wise moment of clarity which suggests you should take another path? Drawing on my 20 years of experience as an Educational Psychologist, I tackled this dilemma using a technique that I usually use with children: person-centred planning. Sitting with supportive friends and family, you visually map out a dream future – one with no time or money constraints – before planning practical, realistic steps to reach it. Being clear about your dream future helps you know what you really want, and when the unexpected plot twists of reality bite, being clear about the dream helps you plan new steps accordingly.  

An illustrated conversation that helped Julia decide not to quit her PhD

In a make-or-break illustrated conversation about my future dreams with a graphicker friend, it transpired that doing a PhD was, after all, consistent with my dream. Armed with this picture and advice from my supervisor, I made the decision to carry on. One year later, and after 8 months of enjoyable fieldwork with schools in Colombia, I can say this was absolutely the right decision for me. I had already worked as a disability consultant in Colombia multiple times, but the PhD has afforded me invaluable opportunities to observe, listen and reflect, transforming my understanding of Colombia, its education system and culture. However, that won’t be the case for all, and I strongly believe there is no shame in walking away to pursue a dream using a different path. 

Communicating research ideas

While I, like all good PhD students, have practiced my 3-minute elevator pitch to summarise my research, I do question whether anyone remembers what I said 3 minutes later. Drawing helps me to clarify the essence of what I am trying to communicate, and creating a visual summary of my key messages provides people with a quick, accessible and engaging way to understand my research, seen in this poster of my research proposal for the  Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC) competition.

But how does that help you if you think you can’t draw? First, a quick disclaimer: as I already mentioned, I can draw. Known as graphic recording (or sometimes ‘sketchnoting’, scribing or visual recording) I have drawn at events ranging from small community consultations with children with disabilities to large international live-streamed events, such as the Global Disability Summit (2018), and I also had the amazing opportunity to finish my fieldwork by illustrating UNESCO’s 2019 International Forum on Inclusion and Equity in Cali, Colombia.  But back to those who think they can’t draw: almost everyone thought they could draw at some point in their childhood – so when did you decide you couldn’t? Remember when you were little and you could draw not only a house, but a car and a horse? The same basic shapes provide the building blocks for creating more complex drawings, and there are lots of products out there to help you rediscover your creative side. 

How to draw: A few tips 

For those who are interested in developing their drawing skills, these are useful:

  • Online training: The most recent innovation is interactive online training that allows individuals, or whole teams, to access online coached sessions, such as the course offered by Graphic Change who offer a free boot camp
  • Face to face training: There are also many providers who offer training to teams in not only drawing skills, but also graphic facilitation – in which you use visuals to accompany consultations and staff training. Considered the godfather, David Sibbet established and has trained many of the graphic facilitators out there today.

Illustrated thesis inspiration

So what is next for me? As I enter the 3rd year of my PhD, grappling with a mountain of data and the fiendishly difficult craft of writing, I’ve sought inspiration from researchers who have illustrated their theses in different ways. These include a combination of comics and text (see Bailey’s (2017) ethnography on a Minecraft club), an illustrated theoretical framework (see queer theory explained by Barker & Sheele, 2016), co-created comics with participants (Mendonça, 2018), a presentation of children’s views on illustrated school desks (see ‘school desk confidential’ by Wright, 2019) and a whole thesis written as a graphic novel (see Sousanis, 2015).

I remain undecided on how I might use my drawing skills for my thesis, but I know that whilst I will inevitably  suffer the angst-ridden toil of crafting the perfect paragraphs in the coming year, it will be the drawings and their visual message that people will remember and, I hope, use to make a difference to the education of children with disabilities.


Bailey, C. (2017). Investigating the lived experience of an after-school Minecraft club. Doctoral thesis, Sheffield Hallam University.  Accessed via:

Barker, M J &Scheele, J. (2016) Queer: A graphic history. Icon books.

Brown, S. (2015). The doodle revolution: Unlock the power to think differently. Portfolio.

Emberley, E. (1972). Ed Emberley’s Drawing Book: Make a World. Little Brown & Company.

Mendonça, P. (2018) Situating Single Mothers through Values-Based Cartooning, Women: A Cultural Review, 29(1), 19-38, DOI: 10.1080/09574042.2018.1425534 

Sousanis, N. (2015). Unflattening. Harvard University Press. For excerpts see

Wright, L. (2019). School Desk Confidential: Critical Commentary. Roundtable2(2), 6.

Julia Hayes is an Educational Psychologist and international consultant in inclusive education who loves drawing. She has put her career on hold to further research the education of children with disabilities in Colombia. The purpose of her research is to explore how an innovative Colombian model of education, called Escuela Nueva, addresses the education of children with disabilities. She can be contacted via twitter @juliainclusion or email

Posted by:fersacambridge

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