Updates in Doctoral Ed

Bold requests

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - February 20, 2019 - 4:00am

Do you have trouble asking for what you really want? This post is by Brittany Amell and Lisa Armstrong, who are both PhD students in the School of Linguistics and Language Studies at Carleton University, Canada.

Brittany’s research interests include the research, theory and pedagogy of teaching writing (particularly doctoral writing), and how these areas intersect with and take up calls for a more inclusive academy. Her PhD research currently focuses on the writing that she and other doctoral students do for their degrees. Britt tweets from @balloonleap .Lisa’s research is in how language normalizes sexual harassment, especially in the hospitality industry. She is currently working on a critical analysis of sexual harassment policy in Canada. You can follow her on Twitter @AcademicLisa or on LinkedIn

What was your last “bold request”? 

We are PhD students in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada who began our MA theses together in 2015. Both first-in-our-family graduate students, and lovers of learning, we were motivated to make the most of our experiences as graduate students. One way that we’ve attempted this is through “bold requests”. Here, we explain what a bold request is, what might stop one from making a bold request, and some examples of the bold requests we’ve made (and what happened).

What a bold request is

Neither of us can remember exactly how “bold requests” came about, but at some point, we came up with the name and the general idea that we should be bold and ask for things we want—things that may be outside our comfort zones. We both realised the luxury and privilege we had to be in the position of novice researchers. Graduate school is a bit like playing in the sandbox on a huge playground for us. Sometimes it’s a bit rough and tumble, and you encounter bullies (among other obstacles), but there is also a sort of freedom to graduate school. If we don’t dream big now, we mused, when will we?

Sometimes the requests result in us getting what we want (what we really really want), and sometimes they do not. However, although they entail action, bold requests are more than that—they are an ethos. Bold requests have helped us to shift our thinking from “we could never do that” to “let’s try it and see what happens.” They’re like an antidote—or perhaps a multivitamin—for imposter syndrome.

It is all too easy as a graduate student to isolate yourself and quietly despair that you’re not good enough, not smart enough, can’t write well enough, etc. Bold requests can make you feel accomplished and proactive. Additionally, it’s also useful to practice bold requests with other PhD friends. When we make bold requests, we can’t wait to tell each other. We celebrate that request, no matter the outcome. The social aspect of bold requests is one of its key advantages; we could certainly make bold requests alone, but it’s more fun to share. Planning and chatting about bold requests fosters a sense of community and makes us feel we’re not alone in our struggles—one of our core goals as feminist student researchers.

Some examples of the bold requests we’ve made (and what happened)

We’ve both boldly requested scholarships, awards, meetings (we even boldly requested to publish a blog post on the Thesis Whisperer, a site we both admire). Britt co-edited a special issue for a national journal as the result of a bold request. We both have emailed academic rock stars (gasp!). And they’ve responded (double gasp!). Lisa emailed her academic idol, Deborah Cameron (the feminist linguist) to ask if she could work with her at Oxford. Professor Cameron said no (kindly) but offered some advice about Lisa’s research, and some ideas about who she might work with in future. Wow! Rather than being disappointed with her response, Lisa was proud for trying. That’s the thing about bold requests: even when you don’t get what you want, just the act of requesting is empowering somehow.

We’ve won awards, grants, and jobs; met big names in our fields; and created relationships with mentors and colleagues that we had not dreamt would be possible so early in our academic career. The key is in the practice of putting oneself forward. For anyone who has ever questioned their worth, engaging in a bold request is a big deal because it sends the message to ourselves that we matter enough to ask for what we want. Of course, it follows that not all requests will be granted—but some will! All we can say is that bold requests as an ethos has worked for us.

What stops people making bold requests?

So, perhaps by now you are ready to sprinkle the seeds of bold requests far and wide and see what springs up. But, like everything, there are a few caveats that would be remiss of us not to mention.

The first is not to bold request yourself right into a burnout. As you may have gleaned from our stories, bold requests can be simultaneously exciting and nerve-wracking, and we tend to choose our requests carefully in order to minimise stress.

Second, don’t be a stalker. While we’ve never had any request-ee respond negatively to us, we also don’t advocate pushiness. We find that generally, the golden rule applies: treat others as you would like to be treated.

Finally, we acknowledge that idea of bold requests comes across as very ‘neoliberal’. It in some ways implies that we suddenly make everything new and shiny in the dreary world of times to completion and increasing pressures to amp up our productivity. Equally, it implies that one merely need to find a way to play the game but don’t change it, as well as well as patriarchal (“just put on your best face”) and white privilege-y (“the only thing standing between you and your success is a lack of bravery”).

These are important criticisms. We see ourselves as implicated in an institution that is at times incommensurable with our desires for liberation. Rather than attempting to wave a majick wand to clear this all away with a grand convenient statement, we like to think of bold requests as a way to engage in “system hacking” (de Oliveira Andreotti, Stein, Ahenakew, and Hunt, 2015)

We may sound like sneaky salespeople but all we can say is to try it. Make a few bold requests and share them with a friend (but don’t hold them too tightly—as Britt’s dad says, “plan the plan, but don’t plan the outcome”). We came to academia to think as big as we can, so we encourage you to find some friends you can stick with and hold each other accountable to your best and brightest thinking. We hope this post is of benefit to you.

Thanks Britt and Lisa – I’m glad you made this ‘bold request’ to publish on the Whisperer! What about you? Made any bold requests yourself? How did that work out?

Related posts

PhD Fear (a personal account)

Perfectionism is a spectrum disorder

Love the Thesis whisperer and want it to continue? Consider becoming a $1 a month Patreon and get special, Patreon only, extra Thesiswhisperer content every two weeks!


The uneven U

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - February 13, 2019 - 4:00am

Publishers often send me academic writing books to review. I happily look through every book, but if I think I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it, I just don’t write a review. I don’t want to crush a fellow author’s soul. The rejected titles sit sadly, in small piles of guilt, on the bottom of one of my bookshelves.

Recently, during an office clean up, I picked up Eric Hayot’s book “The elements of academic style”, which was sent to me by the publisher, Columbia University Press, way back in 2014. On the strength of our recent book “How to fix your academic writing trouble”, Katherine, Shaun and I have been offered a contract to write a new book aimed at undergraduates (tentatively titled ‘Level up your Essays’). So instead of just refiling it on the reject shelf, I had a lazy flip through to see if there was anything useful. I’m ashamed to admit I totally failed to recognise what a gem “The elements of academic style” when I first looked at it. Talk about missing out all these years! Thankfully, you can still pick up copies of the book online, so here is my very belated review.

The full title of this book is “The elements of academic style: writing for the humanities”, which is one reason why it ended up in my rejection pile in the first place. I try to provide writing advice that is suitable for all disciplines, and this book is unapologetically aimed at literary studies PhD scholars. While I respect this laser-like focus, I think it’s a bit of a pity that science students or even people in other humanities disciplines like Social Science, probably won’t pick it up. A lot of the advice Hayot offers will work for anyone, most especially his concept of the ‘Uneven U’: absolutely breakthrough advice for structuring paragraphs.

Hayot’s Uneven U is a different take on the generic advice that is given to structure a paragraph, namely that one should start with a Topic sentence, then an explanation, example, analysis and summary. This standard paragraph formula is sometimes called TEXAS or TEEL (topic, evidence, explain, link). I’ve been teaching the TEXAS/TEEL method for years to great effect. It surprises me how often PhD students benefit from this elementary advice, but sometimes simple rules of thumb create useful clarity in the middle of a complex writing project. The problem with TEXAS is that it can make your writing quite repetitive. Not every paragraph needs all the elements of the TEXAS formula, which is why it doesn’t work all that well for introductions and conclusions (which require much more summery than paragraphs in the middle sections). Hayot’s Uneven U is the sophisticated, cocktail version of TEXAS and, I think, much more flexible and useful.

Hayot starts by claiming there are five types of sentences in argumentative writing and they can be thought about as being different conceptual levels (here I quote from page 60 of Hayot’s book):

Level five: Abstract; general, oriented toward a solution or conclusion
Level Four: Less general; orientated toward a problem; pulls ideas together
Level Three: Conceptual summary; draws together two or more pieces of evidence, or introduces a broad example.
Level Two: Description; plain or interpretive summary; establishing shot
Level One: Concrete; evidentiary; raw; unmediated data or information

Hayot suggests that your paragraphs should have an ‘uneven U’ structure, starting at statements that are level 4, going down as far as level 1, then ending at level 5. On a graph it looks like this:

A topic sentence doesn’t have to be a grand, sweeping statement as the TEXAS formula suggests, but a tight, problem-focussed starter. Save the grand sweeping statement for the end of the paragraph instead. The idea of sentences having conceptual levels frees you up from thinking that sentences have to be complex to ‘work’. I am always trying to ‘fancy up’ level one sentences, but since I started using this method I don’t bother, and honestly, they are much stronger.

I’ve been using this advice for a couple of months on my own writing and on others, and it works remarkably well. It’s hard to explain precisely how it works, so let’s look at a worked example. Here’s a paragraph from our most recently published paper “A Machine Learning Analysis of the Non- academic Employment Opportunities for PhD Graduates in Australia” :

The PhD was initially designed to train the next generation of academics, but this career outcome is looking less likely for today’s graduates (level 5). There have been claims that there is an over-supply of graduates for academic positions over the last decade at least (Coates and Goedegebuure, 2010; Edwards, 2010; Group of Eight, 2013) (level 4). The latest Australian data, showcased in the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) report (McGagh et al., 2016), suggest that 60% of Australia’s PhD graduates will not end up in academia, a finding consistent with other advanced economies (level 3). For example, a recent survey by the Vitae organisation (2013) in the UK showed that although the overall unemployment rate for PhD graduates was low (around 2%), only 38% of PhD graduates are now employed in academia after graduation. (level 1)

Mapped with Hayot’s method, it would look like this:

Yikes! Let’s fix it with the Uneven U method. To begin, I took the first sentence – which was level five – and made it the last one. I then reparsed the new first sentence to make it into a stronger topic sentence and created a new, second sentence pitched at level three. I turned the next level three sentence into a level two sentence and left the level one sentence alone. After that, I added another level three sentence and altered the final (which used to be the first sentence) to make it more clearly a level five. Here’s the result:

For more than a decade, scholars of higher education have claimed that there is an over-supply of graduates for academic positions (Coates and Goedegebuure, 2010; Edwards, 2010; Group of Eight, 2013) (level 4). If this oversupply problem is real, we should see more PhD graduates making a rational decision to leave academia at the end of their degree and statistics seem to be bearing out this trend (level 3). The latest Australian data suggest that 60% of Australia’s PhD graduates will not end up in academia, a finding consistent with other advanced economies (McGagh et al., 2016) (level 2). For example, a recent survey by the Vitae organisation (2013) in the UK showed that although the overall unemployment rate for PhD graduates was low (around 2%), only 38% of PhD graduates are now employed in academia after graduation. (level 1). If more PhD graduates are looking to leave academia, we must ask: does the PhD need to change? (level 4). Since the PhD was initially designed to train the next generation of academics, this change may be dramatic, with far-reaching consequences for candidates, supervisors and institutions (level 5).

When I map it again, the paragraph now looks like this:

I think you’ll agree the ‘tone’ sounds much more argumentative and there is also a sense of momentum that was missing in the first attempt (I really wish they would let you edit a published paper!). I’ve always struggled with the last sentence in each paragraph; the idea of doing a ‘summary’ sentence is not that helpful. My final sentences have always ended up being a bit wishy-washy and vague, now they are where some of the most provocative thinking happens, encouraging the reader to keep on reading.

The Uneven U concept also helps me help students who write paragraphs that lack ‘meat’. When I map the paragraphs that are hard to read I usually find the student is hovering around level three and needs to ‘land’ somewhere more concrete in the middle to give the paragraph more impact. The neat thing about the Hayot method is that you don’t have to go all the way down to level one: it might be enough to take a level three sentence and bang it down to level two.

I hope you have enough here to try the Hayot method for yourself: on your paragraphs at least. Hayot extends the theory to structuring subsections and even a whole work, which is a really mind-expanding read. However, it would take me an entire book to explain how the Uneven U helps you write a whole dissertation, and Hayot has done it already so check out “The elements of academic style” for yourself. The book is still available in paperback and a reasonably priced Kindle version. Be warned: it’s rather densely written and definitely not for beginners. People who are not literature scholars may want to skip some sections, but I think anyone serious about improving their writing to the ‘cocktail party’ level will find this book invaluable.

What do you think of the Uneven U? I found once I understood the concept, I started seeing it everywhere – or noticing the lack! Did I explain it properly, or do you need more information? Feel free to ask questions in the comments.

Related Posts

A helpful explainer from a university writing centre

There is a bit more about the Hayot book on the Patter blog, where Pat discusses the concept of the invisible work of writing.

Don’t let those sticky sentences confuse your examiner

Why it’s important to be exactly certain about how much you don’t know


Some tentative advice about advice

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - February 6, 2019 - 4:27am
This post is by Dr Amber Gwynne, a researcher, writer and academic editor from Brisbane, Australia. Amber currently teaches into the writing program at The University of Queensland and shares her enthusiasm for grammar via edX’s English grammar and style MOOC, Write101x. You can find her on Twitter (@AmberGwynne) or at http://www.ambergwynne.com

Photo by @Codytdavis on Unsplash

Caveat lector… or let the reader beware: tentative advice about advice

Having come to the end of my PhD journey (I study self-help books, so I feel entitled to label things a ‘journey’ now), I have digested rather a lot of advice over the last four years. If you’re anything like me (neuroticcurious and concerned with doing things ‘the right way’), you may even have arrived at this very site searching for advice about anything and everything from how to formulate a thesis statement or write faster to managing difficult advisory relationships.

The thing is, however, that there’s an awful lot of advice out there. And then there’s just awful advice. So, how do you separate the wood from the trees, so to speak? And how do you ensure that the advice you seek or receive serves its function as helpful guidance without misdirecting, undermining, overwhelming, or otherwise un-helping you?

I cannot give you any definitive advice, but here are some lessons I’ve learnt along the way that might help you, too.

One size does not fit all.

PhD projects differ markedly from one another depending on the student’s geographical location, institution, discipline, object of study, theoretical framework, and methodological approach, among a stack of other variables. Perfectly sound advice that applies to one student may not necessarily apply to you. Collecting and processing quantitative data, for example, is different from collecting and processing qualitative data. Running experiments in a biomedical lab is different from sifting through archival materials. Working in a team is different from working at your 6th-floor desk with only a shrivelling succulent for company. Publishing in the hard sciences is different from publishing in the humanities—and so on.

Before you either blindly apply advice or freak out that you haven’t been or should be doing a particular thing, check both the source and intended recipient of the information or guidance and weigh up whether it is, in fact, relevant to you. (Remember that one time, for example, when a market researcher scolded you for collecting so little psychometric data about your survey and interview participants and you got really, really worried, but then your primary advisor reminded you that you’re not actually doing market research? Yeah. That.)

Timing matters.

Projects naturally change in shape, texture, and momentum as you go. What you do in the beginning is often quite different from the middle or the end. Even a single task—let’s say writing—might change from day to day, week to week, or month to month. Writing an introductory chapter is quite different from writing a body chapter or conclusion; writing a methodology section is different from writing an analysis. Appreciate that you can grow out of (or into) certain advice. What works well in one phase of your research or for one task might not work in the next, and vice versa. Be flexible. And be willing to take or leave advice on an ongoing, cyclical basis.

Advice-givers usually, but not always, mean well.

People give advice for a variety of reasons. They have accumulated significant expertise and want to share it with others. They might have made a mistake that they hope others can avoid. They care about their readers or audience. They care about you specifically. Giving advice provides a way for them to connect and share with others in their discipline or immediate environment. Or they may have had a particular piece of advice hammered into them (‘Never begin a sentence with a conjunction!’) and then feel compelled to robotically reproduce it.

Whatever the reason, listen graciously. Even unsolicited or gratuitous advice can have useful takeaways. But it also pays to take advice with a grain of salt. Unfortunately, academia is a place in which rigidity, egoism, nichey-ness (that’s a word now), and myopia thrive. (Remember the market researcher you just mentioned who was, funnily enough, prone to seeing the world exclusively through market-research lenses? Yeah. That.) Listen graciously, but also be careful and selective. Consider whether the advice-giver can offer relevant expertise. Have they conducted analogous research or navigated the demands of a similar process? On the other hand, can they provide a useful alternative perspective? Do their vision and values align with your own? And (last, but not least) is their advice about you? Or is it about them?

Advice can drown out your own voice.

The PhD process has an uncanny knack of undermining your confidence. Sometimes you may find yourself feeling as though you don’t know much at all, and you can easily tumble down the rabbit hole of seeking and internalising advice, leaving your own knowledge, skills, and intuition at the door.

Trust yourself. Back yourself. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If a piece of advice contradicts what you know to be true or effective for you, you can probably safely ignore it. Of course, knowing when to dip your toe into something new and when to put your foot down isn’t always easy, but try not to completely sideline your own experiences, passions, and gut feelings in favour of the so-called ‘experts’’. You will eventually reach a point at which you have genuine expertise to offer, too.

Sometimes you need to let go.

Like other readers who habitually consume advice literature, as PhD students, we often find ourselves at a crossroads where we need to put down the how-to guide and start doing. As one of my participants said about self-help books: ‘You’re always reading and reading and analysing, and you don’t know when to put them down and just start to live out your life.’

One of the most terrifying, but eventually liberating, realities of doing a PhD is that there’s often no singular ‘right’ way to do it, and doing something, anything, will propel you much faster and farther towards real progress than waiting to feel ready.  At some point, we simply have to take a deep breath, put aside the advice, and ‘live out’ our PhDs. It’s only by doing your PhD that you’ll realise how you should have done it. And that’s OK.

Thanks for your excellent advice about advice Amber! How about you? What’s the best (or maybe the worst) advice that you’ve been offered during the PhD process?

Related posts

Unhelpful PhD advice

Thoughts on Deep Work

Love the Thesis whisperer and want it to continue? Consider becoming a $1 a month Patreon and get special, Patreon only, extra Thesiswhisperer content every two weeks!

2019. Bring it on! (gently this time)

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - January 30, 2019 - 4:00am

Welcome to 2019!

How did your 2018 resolutions go?

I find a theme is easier than a resolution, which tends to become a promise to myself that I don’t keep. A theme, summoned up in a keyword, makes decisions easier. One year I had ‘brave’ as my keyword, which worked really well. Every time I had to make a decision I asked myself – “Am I being brave?”. Sometimes the answer surprised me.

For the last two years I have been working the theme of ‘Less’. While acknowledging that pursuing ‘Less’ is the height of White Western Privilege, I’ve tried to work less hours, eat less, spend less money and so on. The first year I tried ‘Less’ it didn’t work out so well,so I tried Less again in 2018. This time I was more successful, as I reported in my last post for 2018. I managed to cut down from 60 hours to an average of 42 hours a week with the help of a few apps like Timing and Omnifocus.

Doing Less was a good start, but now I realise: it’s not enough to combat the pernicious culture of over work in the academy. To illustrate, let me share a very personal story.

I like to go to the Society for Research in Higher Education conference in the UK every December, if I can. As an Australian, attending is a huge investment of money and time, starting with 24 hours of plane travel just to get there. To make the most of it, I hit the ground running, taking just one day of rest before heading up to Cambridge to give a talk. In a fit of madness I drove from Cambridge to the conference venue in Newport Wales. What Google had promised to be a 2.5 hour journey ended up being a 6 hour, non stop drive in an unfamiliar manual car through twisty roads through a dark and rainy night. I gripped the steering wheel with sweaty hands and tense shoulders the whole way; by the time I got to the conference venue I was shattered.

Little did I know this was to be the beginning of the worst month of my life, at least if measured in health. The next day I woke up with rash on my back and arms and my lips felt a bit numb. I tried to participate in the conference while the symptoms got worse. To cut a long story short, I ended up in the emergency room twice in the UK. The last time I had to be taken there by ambulance after I collapsed on the floor with an attack of vertigo at Goldsmiths, just before giving a lecture to 250 people (I cannot thank Kate and Marie-Alix enough for holding my hand while I lay on the floor, waiting for the ambulance, thinking I was going to die).

I was lucky to have this health crisis in a country with a fantastic public health system (despite what everyone says), and that I spoke the language and had friends nearby. The NHS doctors ascertained I wasn’t having a heart attack or a stroke and treated the vertigo. I was looked after by my dear friends James and Nick, who helped me get on the plane home two days later. I went from the airport to my bed and basically didn’t get out again for nearly a month.

The vertigo was bad enough, but then weird neurological symptoms started appearing: pins and needles, muscle ticks, a strange feeling of sunburn. Waves of electricity going up and down my spine when I tried to sleep. High blood pressure. Fatigue like I have never experienced before. Another emergency room visit, 8 rounds of blood tests, an MRI and ultrasound scan – all failed to find anything substantially wrong with me. The uncertainty made me intensely anxious, no doubt this made the symptoms feel worse.

Being a medical mystery sucks. Doctors scratched their heads and said “virus?”. One gave me Valium, which actually helped a little. Xmas passed in a blur, then New Year. I alternated between crying and staring at the ceiling, too washed out to care. I watched a lot of Netflix. I half heartedly browsed social media. I fretted about what my future would hold if this state was permanent. When I was able, I read many of the books that had been sitting on my bedside table for years (the only good thing about the whole business).

Luckily, I have plenty of financial and emotional cushions. Sick leave was paid (appallingly, only around 1/3 of academics have access to this privilege). My husband and son surrounded me with love and care. Meals were cooked. I was driven to medical appointments. Hugs were always available. Friends messaged me from interstate and around the world. My friends in Canberra visited and didn’t mind if I fell asleep on the couch in front of them. My dear sister rang me everyday to offer words of comfort and encouragement. I felt loved.

I finally gave into what my body demanded and just worked on healing. After about a month, the weird sensations started to fade. The doctor cleared me to go back to the gym and do light exercise. The first day I could barely walk for ten minutes, but strength returned quicker than I thought. I still have more tests to go to rule out some more esoteric reasons for the symptoms, but every day I get better. I’m cautiously optimistic that the nightmare is be over.

I share with you all these gory details because I believe, at some level, what caused this medical catastrophe was 18 years of overwork in academia. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this physical breakdown happened after two years of really trying to do Less. Only after I managed to slow down was I able to hear what my body was trying to tell me and its message was loud and clear: don’t take me for granted.

This crisis has forced me to fully confront an uncomfortable truth: the academic system I work within valorises and rewards people who do themselves physical and mental damage. This is not just at ANU – it’s everywhere. I conformed to this system and reaped the benefits – but then I paid the price. So this year I need something more than Less.

I’ve been watching Australian politics slowly descend into farce, as it has in the UK and the US, and there are some parallels with academia. When politicians dare to question the system, or complain of bullying and overwork, they are shot down. Politicians who are benefiting from the system harp on endlessly about the need for ‘toughness’. The underlying assumption being, that thoughtfulness, care for others and an ability to admit you are wrong is ‘weak’. Similarly, in academia we are encouraged to be ‘resilient’ – which is almost the same thing as ‘toughness’ when you think about it. Resilience puts the onus on the individual to conform themselves to the system and take whatever is handed out. We only need to be resilient in systems that are badly designed and inhumane.

After a lot of thought, I’m going with ‘Care’ for my 2019 keyword. Care challenges us remake systems so they are well designed and humane. Care is thoughtful engagement and negotiations in relation to workplace demands, not just throwing yourself in and hoping for the best. Care is not individualistic, though practising care means getting an individual benefit. Obviously treating yourself with care means exercising, sleeping and eating well, but it also requires us to extend care to others. I strongly believe that following an ethic of Care is a win/win for staff and employer.

For me, caring means to continue to advocate for a better, fairer, more humane system in academia in words – and in actions. Lying in bed so long forced me to reassess how I spend my precious time and energy. I’ll continue my work with the ALLY network and the Union. I’ll continue to support the wellbeing of my team. Blogging stands out as important, fun and worthwhile – so does doing videos for my Patreon channel. Even though I have been told time and time again that I spend too much energy on writing books instead of journal papers, I am going to keep writing them because they are a good way for me to disseminate knowledge. In fact, I just signed a new contract.

I may never make it to full professor in living by an ethic of care, but I’m ok with that. But first – and most importantly – I’ve taken a couple of hours to craft this post. I’m going to take a well deserved nap.

I’m wondering, what is your theme for the new year? Chinese new year is coming up next week, so some of you will be still thinking about it. Anyone else keen on Care? What other ideas do you have? I’d love to hear how you are going with your new year’s resolutions in the comments.

Related Posts

Less is more?

Failing – and getting back up again

Love the Thesis whisperer and want it to continue? Consider becoming a $1 a month Patreon and get special, Patreon only, extra Thesiswhisperer content every two weeks!


See you later 2018! What’s next for Thesis Whisperer?

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - December 19, 2018 - 4:00am

So, we made it to the end of 2018! This year was a bit of a blur for me – how about you?

At the start of the year I shared my key word: “Less”. Since I totally failed to do Less in 2017, 2018 was a do-over year to see if I could manage my work load better. With the help of an app called Timing (which I wrote about here), I managed to keep the hours in check pretty well. Here’s a snap shot of my hours from late November that shows I was tracking well to bring my total hours worked to an average of 41 hours a week:

Of course, when you do less hours, you write less papers. I’ve only managed two journal papers this year. I have, however, been very productive on other projects, arguably closer to my heart. I managed to keep running the blog each week and started a new Patreon Channel, where I share videos and extra writing every second week. I’m asking for $1 a month on the principle that PhD students don’t have heaps of money and every little bit helps!

Just keeping up with this content production schedule is a challenge, so a sincere thank you to those of you who have decided to become Patreons and help me throw money at problems. I hope to unveil a fresh new look for the Whisperer in 2019. This will be a big investment in overhauling the website and moving to my own installation of WordPress so the site is more searchable and mobile friendly. With the help of my Patreons, I’ve just spent just over $1000 on design; the next stage is to build a new site and migrate ten years of content.

The quote for the rest of this web work was an eye watering $10,000+, which I hope to fund via book sales and some extra contract work. If you would like to help, I have a new $5 a month Patreon tier. I plan to close this tier in the middle of the year when the work is done, so if you join now your total contribution would be about $30. No pressure: I’ll get there somehow – after 10 years in the same ‘clothes’, the Thesis Whisperer deserves this new look!

I’m expecting the UK release of How to fix your Academic Writing Trouble in a couple of days. I’m really proud of this book – it’s taken over three years to bring it together with my co-authors Katherine Firth and Shaun Lehmann. You’ve seen previews of some of this content, such as this post on how conjunctive adverbs stick sentences together and this one on why writing is like a painful, upper middle-class dinner party.

You can order it from the UK Amazon store right now and I will share the details of the Australian release when I have it. Speaking of releases, the UK and US rights to my book How to be an academic have been purchased by Johns Hopkins Press. We have been working hard on a re-edit for the American market. When it’s released next July it will have a new title Becoming an Academic – and a lovely new cover:

Last, but by no means least on the passion project list, our research team at ANU have been working on an app called ‘PostAc’. It’s a new kind of search engine for PhD graduates. At the moment it’s in user trial until April (thanks to the over 1000 people who signed up!). We’ll have more news on the future of the app after April, but until then, here’s a video:

As usual, Thesis Whisperer will be closed for the Australian summer. I’ve just been to the UK, but now I’m off to Beijing, Japan and the US. I hope you have a restful break if you are taking one, and see you in early February.

See you in 2019!

PS: If you’ve just discovered the Thesis Whisperer while the shop is temporarily closed, please visit the Best of the Blog archive for some good places to start exploring.

Cleaning up, ready for the next phase

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - December 12, 2018 - 4:00am

Is your desk a hot mess right now? Dr Linda Devereux can relate. In this post she shares the touching story of cleaning her office after the PhD was finished and the unexpected difficulty of the clearing out process.

Linda Devereux is a writing consultant and independent researcher. She has worked in higher education for many years researching and teaching in teacher education programs and managing academic language and learning units. She enjoys working with undergraduate and postgraduate students helping them to craft their writing and research. Linda’s doctoral thesis, a creative non-fiction text and exegesis, examined transcultural childhood memory. She is currently researching the transition to university for Australian students from rural and remote locations and has a number of creative life writing projects under development. Contact Linda via Linkedin

The PhD is finished, and finally, everything is packed away in my home office; but it took me 18 months to get to this concluding stage. My desk was unusable for the year-and-a-half that followed my graduation and the mess worsened as the months slipped by.

After the final printing, the lovely purple-bound copy of the thesis which represented so much work and took so many years of my life, sat there, buried. People sent feedback; lovely, generous, helpful comments to inform ongoing writing projects. I added their letters and cards to the piles. I had worked so hard and so productively for so long.

What on earth went wrong?

I really enjoyed the research and the writing. Of course, there were hard times, days that every writer has, where it felt hopeless and more was deleted than was written, and days where I – and my family – hated the PhD and everything that it meant in our lives. Overall, though, I relished the opportunity to obsess about my research over several years. The slower, part-time PhD worked well for me.

I worked as a university academic almost full time throughout the project in demanding academic positions (all academic positions are demanding in today’s higher education system) and I kept up research and publishing in a completely different field to my thesis. And I wrote a thesis in a vastly different style to anything I had ever done before, and in a multi-disciplinary field that was new to me. I decided to write my thesis on a topic that was meaningful to me, a personal passion, rather than to extend research in the field in which I worked. I wrote a creative non-fiction text and exegesis.

Those decisions led to challenges, but those challenges did not lead to the mess in my study that grew to the point where I could not even get across the room to my desk because the path was blocked by additional boxes of papers and books. How did I move from being a productive and successful PhD student and academic to having a study that looked like a hellish hoarder’s hideout?

The major problem was grief.

Grief and loss were key themes of the thesis itself and they punctuated my life over the last few years of my project as well. I wrote in the PhD about memory and how people can rely on objects, tangible artefacts invested with meaning which can come to represent intangible losses. At some level, my desk and the ephemera connected to the thesis became significant memory objects for me. They represented unprocessed losses that I could not easily sweep away.

During the final months of writing, and just following completion, I experienced one of the most intense periods of loss in my life. Three close family members died and two other family members nearly died. Well, technically, one of the latter two died as well, but was resurrected following twenty-five minutes of CPR and several bursts of the paddles brought by the ambulance officers. In addition, during the last three years my husband retired and I, unexpectedly, retired not long after completing the thesis.

I completed the PhD but the effort involved on top of everything else left me shell-shocked. There is more to some of these losses than I can explain here, but the loss of my brother during the final months of writing was particularly hard. Because I was writing, partly, about my childhood, he was, inevitably, part of the thesis. He was the only one of my siblings who remembered the key period in our family life that I wrote about. Now there is nobody else but me who experienced some of those things and nobody who can help me remember the details, or who understands the significance of particular events.

Vamik Volkan, one of my favourite theorists, writes about loss and grief and the way that humans invest meaning in objects. Volkan calls these artefacts ‘linking objects’ because they link the griever with something that is no longer accessible. The linking objects are invested with meaning and significance; they are connected to the grief in a very deep way.

My study became a linking object. I wrote the thesis. I finished it, but the grieving for what I lost along the way was not finished. The unresolved feelings seemed to pile up like the mess in the study and I didn’t know where to start with them. I knew that I needed to tidy up, to sort through the accumulated walls of books and papers. I could not face it. It was almost as if clearing everything away would clear away a last connection with my brother.

I was also really busy, and I needed time and space to tackle the mess. Stopping paid work gave me time, and the prospect of a houseful of visitors gave me the prompt I needed to clear up the physical space. As I did so, I noticed other changes. Re-reading notes, throwing out rubbish and filing things away created order. I said goodbye to that part of my life, letting go of material things that linked me to my study.

I filed the papers from my thesis, cleared shelves, and took a trailer-load of books to Lifeline. This process helped me to revisit what had happened, acknowledge how hard it had been, and celebrate how well I had done to complete the thesis, despite it all.

Now, as well as an orderly space, I have a beautiful one. My large desk is gone along with my worn-out chair and the battered, dark-coloured filing cabinets. The old furniture is replaced by a hand-crafted table made by my late father-in-law, a new, bright pink chair and slimline well-organised white filing cabinets that open smoothly. My study is organised, and I feel lighter and brighter as well.

I have begun new writing projects.

Thanks Linda! It seems appropriate to share this story as the next to last post for 2018. How about you? Does your desk need a tidy before the holidays? How are you going to tackle the big clean out?

Related posts

Finishing with perspective (and without finding Oz)

Breaking up with your PhD is hard to do

Love the Thesis whisperer and want it to continue? Consider becoming a $1 a month Patreon and get special, Patreon only, extra Thesiswhisperer content every two weeks!

Perfectionism is a spectrum disorder

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - December 5, 2018 - 4:00am

Last year I had a health crisis, brought on by many years of just working too many hours.

After about 15 years of regularly doing 50 or 60 hour weeks something inside me just… snapped. It started with unexpected bouts of tears at work, then rapidly progressed to anxiety attacks, exhaustion and mood swings. The next step would probably have been depression, but luckily I took some action before that happened.

After more than a decade of working with PhD students experiencing mental health issues, I should have recognised some of the symptoms of burn out sooner. I have to say, it was a disconcerting experience. The temptation to stay in bed and avoid everything and everyone was strong. It’s taken a year, and quite a few different strategies, to find my way back to health and balance. A hard year, but in retrospect, I’m glad to learn my limits – and be forced to examine the effects my overwork on others.

Part of the solution was therapy, which has helped me see my tendency towards ‘rumination’: obsessive and repetitive thought patterns that can make it hard to concentrate and be present in the moment. My mind is always asking tricky “… but what if?” questions – you know, the extremely plausible sounding ones that only increase anxiety. I’ve often felt I’m in a pitched battle with my own mind.

I think I now understand one reason why mental health is such an issue for PhD candidates (and academics for that matter). We have minds that are conditioned by years and years of arguing. I’m extremely skilled at arguing with myself and building elaborate theories about what will go wrong in the future (based, it must be said, on scant evidence in the present). Now my strategy to counteract these thoughts is to pretend I am at a tiresome academic seminar, full of tedious old farts from around the faculty who have turned up just to give me a hard time… I’m getting better at telling them to shut up.

One of the things my therapist has been encouraging me to explore is a certain tendency to perfectionism. I have never identified as a perfectionist before, mostly because I have associated perfectionism with being ‘stuck’. I’ve met plenty of students who are so afraid of failing they can’t start – or they start over and over again, deleting all their previous work. By contrast, I am good at getting shit done. I can get a project out the door.

What I didn’t consider is that my standards are ridiculously high – not just in my work, but in my life. I take on more projects than I should – and they tend to be difficult. I will put in ridiculously long hours to keep up with my ambition to do these difficult projects. I’m always worried my work isn’t good enough. These feelings aren’t really the so-called ‘imposter syndrome’ (which is not actually a diagnosable condition), rather I think the constant worry is just a natural reaction to dealing with the hypercritical world of academia itself.

After my therapist encouraged me to research the problem, I discovered all this literature on ‘functional’ or ‘adaptive’ perfectionism. The symptoms might sound familiar:

  • A tendency to aim high at all times, even when it is not strictly necessary
  • Wanting to do your best at all times, even at the expense of your health and wellbeing
  • The perception that others expect a lot of you, coupled with a fear that you will not live up to these expectations
  • A need for control; over self and environment

The result of these thinking patterns is a tendency to excessive overwork – and constant worry that you will disappoint people. In myself, the need for control manifests in my obsession with a system to manage everything and an inability to sit in a window seat on a plane.

The difference between functional perfectionism and ‘maladaptive’ perfectionism is that a functional perfectionist can take pleasure in their success and cope a bit better with failure. A functional perfectionist will throw a party when they achieve something, where a maladaptive perfectionist will ignore their success and immediately set out on a more unreachable goal. A functional perfectionist has learned to harness their tendencies to good effect – this blog is a good example. When Pat Thomson and I studied academic blogs we found the vast majority published irregularly and did not have a coherent content strategy. Most academics seem happy just to put their thoughts out there for others to discover. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, but I just can’t bring myself to be so… relaxed. My blogging has RULES, around quality, formatting and content, which I have not deviated from in nearly nine years. That’s just a little bit… uptight, right? However, this attention to detail has resulted in the blog becoming a popular and trusted source of advice with around 100,000 followers on various channels. Perfectionism can have pay offs.

When I explained these insights to my sister, Anitra, she described perfectionism as a ‘spectrum disorder’. I think this is a great way of thinking about it: at one end are perfectionists who suffer from worry and anxiety, but are able to get things done; on the other end are people so paralysed by fear that they don’t do anything (or throw out everything they do because they perceive it as “not good enough”). Looked at this way, I would say almost every academic I have ever met would fall somewhere along the spectrum. I’m actually beginning to wonder if one can even DO the job without being somewhere on that spectrum.

So what can you do about it? For a start, you can just try to notice perfectionistic tendencies in action. The other day I found myself holding up a team member’s work while I fussed over the name of a survey she was about to send out. This was a good moment to reflect on what was important: the name, or the fact that the survey was sent to people? When I contemplate a new project or piece of writing, I take a moment to picture how I imagine the outcome. Then I ask myself whether my mental picture is realistic given the multiple time and resource constraints I’m facing and adjust my expectations accordingly.

The other piece of the puzzle is to try to be kind to yourself (I’m still working on this).

I’ll admit, I was worried that tackling my perfectionist tendency was going to result in a drop off of work quality. It remains to be seen if this is the case, but after a month or so of practice being less-than-perfect, I don’t think so. I suspect I sweat over tiny details, which are mostly invisible to others. How about you? Do you identify on the perfectionist spectrum? How do you harness your tendencies to the good, or does it get in the way of your success and health? Love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Related posts

PhD Paralysis

Are there only four kinds of writers?

Elsewhere: Self compassion counterbalances maladaptive perfectionism

Love the Thesis whisperer and want it to continue? Consider becoming a $1 a month Patreon and get special, Patreon only, extra Thesiswhisperer content every two weeks!

PhD therapy animals

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - November 28, 2018 - 8:00am

Do you have a pet? Do we give our pets enough credit for helping us through the hard times? This post is by Dr Jo Clyne. Jo completed her PhD in History and Theatre Studies in 2015 at the University of Melbourne. She would like to thank her cat, Sam, for helping her through many long nights of stressful corrections. You can find Jo on Twitter as @joclyne1

Jo’s #academiccat: Sam

Academics and writers have known about the therapeutic benefits of animals for many years. Mark Twain was regularly photographed with several cats draped over him, and a personal favourite image is of E.B. White sitting at his typewriter while his dog Minnie looks on.

Contemporary academics and PhD students have adapted the trend for the modern age by posting pictures of their pets on social media with hashtags such as #academicswithcats #academicswithdogs #phdcats and #phddogs. The posting academic is usually suffering from feelings of isolation and writer’s block, and has momentarily found joy in the distracting antics of their pet. The accompanying image is generally their pet promisingly obstructing chapter drafts or sleeping on a stack of research texts.

The animals in these posts are often referred to as ‘research assistants’ or ‘supervisors’. Obstructive behaviours are endearingly rebranded as ‘help’. These images are a tribute to the non-judgmental companionship of animals during thesis candidature, a time often characterized by isolation and uncertainty.

In ‘Harry Potter’, and its less famous predecessor ‘The Worst Witch’, students are encouraged to bring an animal with them to boarding school as both companions and for more functional purposes such as delivering notes. In ‘The Worst Witch’ cats are book-listed and handed out to all new students on arrival. I sometimes feel that post-graduate students should be similarly equipped on enrolment, as frequent animal interactive can have a hugely positive impact on mental health.

It is imperative to point out to pet-less academic writers that a thesis therapy animal doesn’t have to be your own. I spent the first few months of my candidature happily writing my literature review on the back-porch couch with our neighbour’s cat. Dubbed ‘Puddings’ by my partner, my ill-gained cat liked the fact that I was always home and would make a big fuss of him during periods of extreme procrastination. When his owners moved house and took Puddings with them, I was devastated and instantly contracted writers block. This was somewhat alleviated when Sam the cat came to live with us. He immediately took over Puddings’ duties and I went on with the business of trying to write a PhD.

The value of a therapy animal to the hapless and overstressed graduate student is manifold. Firstly, writing up several years of research into a thesis is a solitary activity. Sharing a toilet-sized office with two other chatty PhD students can provide a feeling of solidarity, but in reality, if you’re also working two jobs and live an hour’s commute from Uni, you’ll probably elect to work from home. Animals provide the type of company that doesn’t prevent you from nailing that really tricky chapter. It’s also highly unlikely that they will do better than you in their confirmation hearing and boast about it for the next three months.

If you’re anything like me, your best (V energy drink fueled) thesis writing time is between midnight and 4am, after which you will fall asleep on the couch, Fox Mulder style. There are very few other members of your household who will be interested in keeping you company at such an antisocial hour. Here, your thesis therapy animal can be relied upon to sit either under or upon your desk, giving your arm the occasional encouraging lick. This experience can also be simulated by stalking other people’s pets on social media.

I once happened past a PhD student office with a sign on the door that said: ‘we like our door closed and our music LOUD’. As promised, extremely clamorous heavy metal music was emanating from the insufficiently sound-proofed door. Many students find they work better while listening to music, but I find it too distracting. Pets provide a delightful alternative white noise in the form of purring, breathing, cheeping, squeaking, chewing, yawning or snoring (my cat had sinus problems). It provides enough background noise to fill in the chasm of silence, without distracting from you from serious quasi thesis-related internet procrastination (have you SEEN the PhD Comics website?)

Animals provide warmth. Not just the sense of unconditional love that comes from pet ownership, but an increase in body temperature. My first three years of candidature were spent in a weatherboard house with no insulation. It was often colder inside than outside, and Sam proved to be an outstanding lap cat. By the same token, cats are drawn to the heat of laptop computers. If you have a heat-seeking cat, back up your work regularly. You have been warned.

PhD students are often urged to practice ‘self-care’, a movement that endorses exercise, mindfulness, healthy eating, a balance between work and leisure. But personally, I believe that there is nothing so meditative as watching a cat clean its paws on a sunny window ledge.

Thanks for this delightful tribute to our furry friends Jo! Now I’m wondering, do you share PhD times with a companion animal? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

Related posts

In praise of academic spouses

Five ways to soothe an anxious PhD student

Love the Thesis whisperer and want it to continue? Consider becoming a $1 a month Patreon and get special, Patreon only, extra Thesiswhisperer content every two weeks!


11/23/18 PHD comic: 'Your Research Focus'

PhD Comics - November 23, 2018 - 5:21pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Your Research Focus" - originally published 11/23/2018

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

New podcast: Passionate PhDs

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - November 21, 2018 - 4:00am

Podcasts are still hot hot hot! I love listening to them when I drive, exercise and cook. I want to draw your attention to a new podcast specifically for PhD graduates by Elizabeth Lam, a chemist and science writer. Elizabeth is doing a new podcast about PhD graduates finding employment outside academia and tells you all about it, and how you can participate, in this post.

After graduating from her PhD in Chemistry, she worked as a research chemist in an analytical laboratory. Following her passion for science, Elizabeth has formed a team of graduate students to translate the latest research into simpler language to a broader audience. This science writing work has provided a foundation for further training in science communication and Elizabeth is now doing a Master at The Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science in ANU. Her research interests focus on cross-disciplinary collaboration and science communication. These together with her deep desire to help PhDs for their pursuit in non-academic career has brought her to start the PassionatePhDs podcast. She has discovered insightful stories and passion of PhD graduates working outside academia. She hopes the podcast could continue to bring insights for fellow PhDs. Elizabeth can be found on twitter as @ElizabetSHLam

Congratulations on PhD graduation! But what’s next?

To be frank, I do not know. Don’t take me wrong, I’m not saying I do not have life goals. In fact, I am very clear about the kind of person I want to be. I’m driven by curiosity, I like listening to people’s thoughts and ideas, and I hope to contribute my skills to make the world a better place. I want to be of some help, just do not know the exact direction to take at this very moment. Eventually, I decided to listen and learn from more people’s stories, so I launched a podcast – PassionatePhDs.

I explore the human side of PhDs – how they discover their passion, search for their life goals, and establish their philosophy. Since I began interviewing passionate PhD graduates who are now working outside academia, I have been amazed by their unique PhD journeys, words of wisdom and how PhD has shaped them into who they are now.

“You may never find the path. But you just stumble along and find things that you find interesting and all that you want to know more about but might not be, this is what I’m going to do, or this is what I gonna be,” said Dr. Salirian Claff, the first guest on PassionatePhDs.

Their words have resonated with my heart. In fact, these words have also resonated with other PhD students and graduates as well.

“PhD is not a process to limit your possibilities in the future, it should take you as an opportunity to explore the infinite possibilities for you to be in the future,” Dr. Jenny Jiang, one of the guests on PassionatePhDs.

But how can PhDs grasp these Infinite possibilities?

“I think it is so important to expose yourself to a variety of research disciplines and other opportunities because if you don’t learn more about other things that you can do with your career, you might close off of opportunities that you may find incredibly rewarding and exciting.” – Nathan Sanders, the second guest in PassionatePhDs.

“A mentor in my life really helps my career progression.” [How do you find your mentor?] “You just need to be blunt and say ‘I want to be like you!’” – Ian McDonald, the third guest in PassionatePhDs.

“You just need to try different stuffs… You may not know what you like or dislike until you try it and find out… It’s really important to have other things going on in your brain, give yourself a break from trying to bang yourself from the scientific problem that you’re having.” – Amanda Grennell, the fifth guest in PassionatePhDs.

It turns out PhD is not merely a process of digging deep into a particular subject area, it has equipped us with many soft skills and an insight to know more about our desire that hints to future career path.

So, what does a PhD mean to you? For me, it is a researching process, not only for science but researching process for my own personality, my own mission, myself. So now, I am connecting my two passion – helping others by sharing the words of wisdom from PhDs’ stories.

Creating the podcast series all by myself is certainly something that I have never thought to do. I was still researching with chemicals, test tubes and spectroscopic instrumentation a year ago but now I am interviewing these amazing PhD graduates working outside academia!

What would be the next step? What are the career options out there? What could a PhD do apart from being an academic? These are the questions I am searching for, and perhaps, many PhDs are searching too. I hope by sharing the stories of PhDs working outside academia, I could be of some help, or at least give some support to PhD students and graduates finding their career paths.

I would like to invite PhDs working outside academia to share your story and PhD journey to support and give insight to other PhDs who are still finding their directions.

If you would like to get involved and help to build PassionatePhDs, you can contact me via the form on my website.

It does not matter which area you are working in, be it the field of computer science, data industry, science communication, or administrative officer or whatever. If you are passionate about what you are doing and would like to help other PhDs in finding their directions, PassionatePhDs would love to share your story!

Thanks Elizabeth! And good luck with your project – I’m looking forward to hearing the stories. Are any of you podcast fans like myself? What podcasts would you recommend to other PhD students?

Related posts

Ever thought of podcasting your research?

How to start podcasting your research

Love the Thesis whisperer and want it to continue? Consider becoming a $1 a month Patreon and get special, Patreon only, extra Thesiswhisperer content every two weeks!

How to successfully apply for a PhD place in Australia

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - November 14, 2018 - 4:00am

I’ve guided many a person into a PhD candidature, both at ANU and to other places, so I know how confusing it can be. The process of making an application to an Australian University is frustratingly opaque for many, especially people who do not have ‘connections’. This post by Madeline Taylor will be useful to anyone who is considering applying for a PhD in Australia. The general points are probably applicable to other countries too, but I will be interested in what people might share in the comments.

Madeline Taylor is a PhD candidate at Victoria College of Arts, University of Melbourne. Her research generally focuses on contemporary costume practice, technical theatre’s interpersonal dynamics and fashion display and performance, and her thesis is examining the collaborative practices of costume production. This research draws on her 15 years’ experience as a performance practitioner, working on over 85 productions in theatre, dance, opera, circus and film in Australia and the UK. Balancing her work and study is learning to be a mum to a 2 year old, her fern garden and hanging out with friends as part of fashion and design group the stitchery collective.

Deciding to start a PhD is alternately exciting and terrifying, especially if you need a scholarship to afford to study. In 2012, I decided to do my PhD. I wrote an application, put together my support documents for Honours 1 equivalency (at 83% I was a few points short of a greatly desired First), and crossed my fingers hard.

I was rejected.

Well, not entirely. Accepted into the PhD program but not awarded a living allowance scholarship. I knew financially and practically I couldn’t accept the offer. My tendency to prioritise paid work would mean research wouldn’t get the time it needed and would just end up feeling guilty and stressed. I backburner-ed study, but kept writing a articles and conference papers to build my research track record.

Fast forward to January 2017. After applying to four PhD programs around Australia, I was offered places in all four programs and three scholarship offers. To say I was thrilled would be an understatement. In this process I learnt a lot about PhD applications, and want to share some of my findings.

The most important things I learnt was how closely the PhD application process resembles a job hunt. This is particularly evident in how much personal connections count.

I don’t think it coincidental that the three institutions that offered me a scholarship were the three institutions where I knew or met people face-to-face. I was successful at QUT, where I did my undergraduate and honours studies and had been tutoring consistently for the last 5 years. I was accepted at Griffith, where I met with potential supervisors prior to submitting my application, a connection which grew out of chatting at a conference. Finally, I was accepted at University of Melbourne, where I approached a former honours supervisor who had changed institutions as a potential PhD supervisor, and I decided to fly down to meet the interview panel, rather than Skype in (I do not do good Skype). My unsuccessful scholarship application was with RMIT, with whom I only had email contact.

The value of personal connections was made clear in the post-mortem discussions, in which potential supervisors discussed defending my research project in the committee meetings in which students were ranked and scholarships were decided. Having someone go in to bat for you here is important. This means building rapport and making sure they really understand your project and its value is critical. Face-to-face chats are also helpful for information on an institution’s areas of growth to align with or allude to in the application. Don’t just rely on the university website for information about things like research clusters; I found that these are often out of date.

Obviously, the application itself has to be strong, both in content and structure. While the project content is up to you, I highly recommend asking friends or potential supervisors for examples of successful applications to get a sense of tone, formatting, and detail. From the examples I was given I took the idea to diagram my research plan timeline, which made it clear and visually interesting, and include potential research outputs, which I put on the timeline. For example, I suggested I would present my research plan at a national conference shortly after confirmation, and pitch a contextualising chapter as an article to a respected journal 6 months later. This evidenced I knew the field, and how I could engage with it.

Applying to four institutions meant that each application I wrote was stronger than the last. Just like a job’s selection criteria, each university will ask for different information in its proposal. I wrote these concurrently, so was able to transpose some of the unrequested information into the different applications which gave each one more depth. Further, having to rearticulate the same idea four different ways prompted me to drill down into the specifics of the project and think about it from multiple perspectives; this was very helpful in solidifying ideas and identifying gaps in my planning.

How institutions rank applications varies and is very opaque, relying on complex scoring calculations. Understanding the intricacies of this isn’t vital, but knowing what the scholarship committee look at might be. Does the institution focus more on alignment with supervisory team, or the university vision? How do they weigh publications or professional experience? How much attention is paid to previous research projects, or creative works? Knowing this allows you to tailor your proposal and support documents to the institution’s scoring model.

Finding the scoring criteria can be tricky, so getting it directly from potential supervisors or the HDR support team might be the best bet. If they don’t want to give it to you try searching the bowels of the net using some permutation of “phd scholarship criteria/ranking/scoring institution name”. I think establishing institution alignment was helpful to my success. In framing my research, I discussed not only the global changes and national and international conversations in my field the study was responding to, but how it connected to the university vision and aims. While only one sentence of my 2-page application, I also explicitly discussed the research’s connection and potential value to undergraduate courses and discipline pedagogy, for which I extensively researched course details in the university handbook.

Treating the PhD application process like a job hunt really worked well for me. If you fail in the first application and don’t have the capacity to study without scholarship I encourage everyone to try again another year. In 2012 it was suggested that I could start my PhD and reapply for scholarship after confirmation. I hesitated when others at the institution warned that a scholarship in this scenario was unlikely: advice subsequently borne out by friend’s experiences across several universities, although this might not be the case everywhere.

The intervening years since my first application have allowed me to grow personally and professionally. I now have a far stronger topic, more experience writing and researching to draw on, and the emotional resilience to deal with the PhD journey. That early rejection was the best thing that could have happened.

Thanks for sharing your story Madeline. How about you? What did you learn about the internal processes of the university during your PhD application process? There are many confused potential students out there who would value your advice!

Related posts

Not doing a PhD (and being ok with that)

What to say when someone asks “Should I do a PhD?”

Love the Thesis whisperer and want it to continue? Consider becoming a $1 a month Patreon and get special, Patreon only, extra Thesiswhisperer content every two weeks!

How to choose a thesis topic that actually matters

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - November 7, 2018 - 4:00am

Effective Thesis is a charitable project that aims to direct research into areas deemed crucial to significantly improving the world, but lack research attention. The project originated in the Czech Association for Effective Altruism.

This post is by David Janku. After finishing his Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Masaryk University and MSc in Organizational Psychology at the University of Leeds, David now runs the Effective Thesis project fulltime. He is interested in a prioritisation of global problems and improving research infrastructure and effectiveness.

In this post, David Janku explains the aims of the project and how you (or your undergraduate students) can participate.

It was in the final year of my bachelor studies  I first found out how hard it is to find a good thesis topic. I was ready to work hard on my final coursework thesis and devote hundreds of hours and exceptional effort. Bigger projects always motivated me. I was glad to have something tangible to finish my studies.

The only thing I wasn’t sure about was what exactly it was I would devote so much time and effort to. Most of my classmates felt the same and there was almost no advice at hand.

In the end, most of my classmates ended up tackling easily accessible topics they haven’t thought about very much. I was lucky enough to roughly know which area I was interested in, but had no idea what the specific question should be. When I heard that one of the teachers specializing in that area offered ready made topics, I didn’t waste a second. I made an appointment with him and agreed to work on the topic he proposed. I didn’t know nothing about it, but I was ready to learn more. The feeling of not having to search for a topic for next several weeks was a relief.

When I reflect back, it’s hard to believe how little attention all of us gave to such an important decision determining where we invest hundreds of hours and huge effort over course of months or even years. When I finished my bachelor studies, I’ve decided I want to do something about it. I’ve found that people from the effective altruism community had done research into which world problems are most pressing. Still, mMany of these problems lack research attention. I immediately saw an opportunity to link up problems that needed to be solved with students looking for topics.

I came up with the idea of my website: effectivethesis.com However, offering students topics in need of research still didn’t feel like enough. I wanted to help more.

Another thing I hated about doing a final undergraduate theses project is that it was unlikely my thesis would get read, let alone used to make a difference. I had not invested hundreds of hours and huge effort just to put my thesis in the drawer. I reached out to organisations working on some of the most pressing world problems and asked them whether they have questions they would like to research, but don’t have the capacity to do it themselves. I hoped that would ensure students’ work would be read and, hopefully, used. I also asked the organisations to provide students with consultations, to give them research user perspectives and ensure that outcomes will be of highest quality and relevance to the organisation.

From questions brought by organisations, we have created complete research topics, including justification of why the topic is important and some introductory sources to get a head start to the topic. Students could be sure they are working on one of the most pressing problems and cooperating with organisation that will utilize their work.

However, that is still not the end of the story. During the first year of existence, we found our advice and topics are not suitable for all students. Some students were struggling to find a supervisor at their faculty for a topic they liked. Some topics we proposed were too broad and would require narrowing down. Some students were struggling to assess whether they are a good fit for the topic they chose with their skills and longer term career plans.

To account for these issues, we have decided to take more individual path and started providing individual coaching helping students find the best thesis topic. In the coaching process, we try to take into account factors like longer term career goals, supervisor availability, students’ interests, skills, experience and course requirements. The aim is to help the student choose a topic tailored to their circumstances in such a way as to help them have the highest social impact. During an online call, the student can discuss coaches’ suggestions and design the final form of the topic. If students don’t prefer any of the suggested topics, they may clarify their expectations and coach will try to suggest new set of topics based on their clarification.

The coach will not help students with thesis writing itself, but if students decide to work on one of the proposed topics, we will try to connect them with external researchers or organizations working on the same problem. And what is the best thing? It all comes with no charge to you! Our aim is to help students and researchers to significantly improve the world via researchhave research impact. The only expectation we have from you is to conduct high-quality research and we will support you in that.

We have just started second year of this project, already managed to connect 12 students with organisations, found a topic for another 20 via Thesis Topic Coaching and in total helped 32 high impact projects to come into the light. Want to be part of this project? Get in touch and make your thesis meaningful!

Related posts

The thesis is a map, not the journey

The process

Love the Thesis whisperer and want it to continue? Consider becoming a $1 a month Patreon and get special, Patreon only, extra Thesiswhisperer content every two weeks!

The wildcard of examination

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - October 31, 2018 - 4:00am

In Australia, your PhD thesis is examined by a blind peer review process. This can produce mixed results, as we will hear in this story. Joanne Doyle is a PhD student at the University of Southern Queensland (USQ) in Toowoomba, Australia. Joanne’s research explores academic perspectives on the impact of higher education research. Prior to embarking on doctoral studies, Joanne was the Research Proposal and Project Manager for USQ’s Australian Digital Futures Institute. Joanne has a strong project management background and has worked across a range of sectors including mining, retail, service and education.

Without being too dramatic or self-pitying, it would be fair to say that I have endured more than my fair share of challenges during my PhD candidature.

Along the way, I lost two supervisors, was hospitalised three times, and was made redundant from my work role just prior to finalising a full draft of the thesis. But I had worked hard, and I truly believed that the spiritual principle of karma would ensure that I sailed through examination.

Unfortunately, this was not to be. For reasons outside my control, there were issues selecting examiners for my thesis, causing further disruption to my PhD journey and the process of examination. After spending three and a half years working towards submission, I found another delay to be almost unbearable. But not to worry. Encouraged by my faith in karma, I remained optimistic about the final stages of my doctoral journey.

Eventually I received my examination reports. To say they were polar opposites is no exaggeration. The first examiner judged my work to be “an exemplary thesis… one of the most outstanding pieces of doctoral research I have had pleasure to examine”. He further noted that “the thesis fulfils and then exceeds in most aspects standard requirements of doctoral enquiry”.

On the other hand, the second examiner criticised all aspects of the research, suggesting that the thesis did not demonstrate the skills expected at doctoral level.

The disparity of comments continued throughout the examination reports. The literature review was assessed as both “particularly impressive” (Examiner 1) and “superficial” (Examiner 2). My research design was deemed to be “well justified” (Examiner 1) and yet “a major flaw” (Examiner 2). The thesis was praised for evidencing “strong analytical and conceptual skills” (Examiner 1) and criticised for a lack of “balance and rigour” (Examiner 2). The candidate demonstrated an “ability to delve deep into research inquiry” (Examiner 1) to make an original contribution to knowledge that was high quality. The same candidate displayed limited understanding of the subject matter and was “misinformed” (Examiner 2).

And so I am left with major revisions.

Colleagues have told me that major revisions is a common outcome, and that students will often receive one positive review and one negative review. I understand it’s all part of the process of becoming an academic, and getting used to the system of peer-review and rejection that is so commonplace in seeking publication in prestigious academic journals. I am told it is necessary to have a “thick skin” to survive in this sector.

But I don’t want a life of harsh criticism. I don’t want to develop a discouraged and jaded personality. I am an early stage researcher – albeit with a few lines and some grey hairs – and I want my research to make a difference in the world. I aspire to contribute to the body of knowledge, and I need to believe in myself and the value of my research in order to achieve that. And yet, I am disillusioned by the system that assesses my research – where opinions can be so disparate – and I am annoyed that the perceptions of one individual can have such significant repercussions for another.

Perhaps I am a little more passionate about contemporary processes than others may be. After all, the focus of my doctoral research was exploring perceptions of impact (and I do appreciate the irony of my current predicament!) However, I am still reeling from such diametrically opposed feedback. I know one examiner was complimentary of my research, but I don’t think about him or her very much.

I focus on the second examiner.

I want to meet this person so I can put a face to the comments. Despite conjecture that young examiners are the harshest critics, I picture this person to be a grumpy older academic disgruntled by life. It helps me somewhat as I battle to synthesise the feedback.

It is really hard to read such scathing criticism of something you have nurtured and loved for over three years. In my moment of desperation, I turned to the Thesis Whisperer. I have followed the Thesis Whisperer throughout my PhD journey, and found solace in posts such as The Valley of Shit, and I’m Writing a Book No One Will Read. I typed “examination” into the search box, and was directed to Surviving A PhD Disaster which linked to What To Do When Your Thesis is Rejected by the Examiners. It was comforting to read that I was not alone in my predicament.

But it was the post 4 Things You Should Know About Choosing Examiners for your Thesis that really helped me. In this post, the Thesis Whisperer provides a succinct assessment of the examination grading process: “It’s not really a grade, but an indication of how much work needs to be done; from not very much to rather a lot”. I wish I had read this post earlier as it changed my perspective.

I re-read the examination reports, and the recommended revisions became bearable, even logical, improvements. I have committed to make the changes before the end of this year, guided once again by the Thesis Whisperer and the suggestions in Doing Your Amendments Without Losing Heart (or Your Mind).

It’s not easy to share examination feedback. However, writing this post has been cathartic for me. The act of articulating my anguish has helped me to accept my current dilemma. But, my reason for writing this post is far greater. I want to share my examination experience to help other students that tread this path after me, and to give back in some small way to the Thesis Whisperer blog, as an expression of my gratitude for being there when I have needed you most. But I must go now. I have an estimated four months of major revisions ahead of me!

Post-script: It took me three months to revise the thesis. Although I was despondent at the prospect of more work, I am now grateful for the feedback provided by the two examiners, and I have an increased respect for the peer-review process. In making changes to the thesis, I gained a better understanding of my research, and I was able to rationalise the harsh criticism that my thesis had received. I also developed skills in patience, perseverance and humility. The most valuable lessons are often learned during the hardest times. I couldn’t agree more.

Thanks Joanne! Do you have an examination story to tell? Love to hear about it in the comments.

Related posts

4 Things You Should Know About Choosing Examiners for your Thesis

Doing Your Amendments Without Losing Heart (or Your Mind)

Love the Thesis whisperer and want it to continue? Consider becoming a $1 a month Patreon and get special, Patreon only, extra Thesiswhisperer content every two weeks!

Are you prepared for the problems of success?

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - October 24, 2018 - 4:00am

The Thesis Whisperer blog has gone from strength to strength over the years. Visibility is a form of currency in academia. A rolling stone gathers moss as the proverb goes, and in my case moss = opportunities. Because of my profile, I get asked to keynote conferences, run workshops, contribute to books, be on grants and so on. Taking up these opportunities naturally leads to more conventional forms of academic success. I’m now an associate professor at a prestigious university. I get paid decent money to do what I love. On any metric I have won the academic hunger games, but does this mean I have a trouble-free life?

Sadly, no. While we are well prepared for failure in academia, no one prepares you for the problems of success.

Image by @fz_nsr from Unsplash.com

Failure in academia is normal. Not getting the job, not getting a paper published, not being accepted for that conference are garden-variety problems of the academic persuasion. There is plenty of advice on how to deal with academic failure – and plenty of sympathy. Problems of success are harder to spot, less discussed and, usually, garner little to no sympathy from your peers.

Consider my friend (and rather famous sociologist) Deborah Lupton. At time of writing, Deb has 26740 citations of her work and a h-index of 70 (which can be compared with my paltry 437 citations and h-index of 9). Recently Deb complained about being told off by peer reviews for not citing her own work when they read her anonymised papers… and then being criticised for self citing too much when she submits the final version! While most of us wont write 20 books and be known all over the world for being an innovative and creative thinker like Deb, I think it’s worth pondering on some of the ordinary problems that are a result of success. In fact, I’ve been mulling on this idea for years, but it’s never made it as far as a blog post until the other day when a colleague (who wishes to remain anonymous) helped me develop a list of success problems over lunch. I’d be interested in whether you have more to share in the comments:

Professional Jealousy

A long time ago I wrote a post called Academic Assholes and the Circle of Niceness which was, in part, prompted by my own experience. Professional jealousy can take many forms: being frozen out, people gossiping about you, people trying to damage your reputation, people ganging up to undermine you, or even having your work appropriated.

The problem with professional jealousy is the behaviour of others is never obviously directly connected to their envy of your success. For example, a person might consistently undermine the quality of your work to your boss, while claiming they are just concerned about your workload; or a person might leave you out of an opportunity because you seem to be “always busy blogging”. In PhD cohorts, professional jealousy often takes the form of questioning that undermines your confidence: “why are you spending time on that?”, “why haven’t you included [insert theorist here]?”, Or “why haven’t you considered [insert method here]?”. Such questioning can be helpful of course, but it can also be unwelcome and create a toxic work environment.

It’s remarkably easy to start blaming yourself for another person’s poor behaviour. Remember, it’s bullying if it’s targetted and repeated, so if a person consistently asks you questions and does not stop when asked, it’s not ok. I have no good solutions for dealing with professional jealousy. If it gets really bad, the best thing to do is take your bat and ball and go play somewhere else, preferably with other successful people who are not threatened by you.

The too hard basket

If you are visibly successful, good at your job and have unique skills, people will tend to bring you their hardest problems. This is flattering and generally a good thing. It’s nice to feel you are the expert and most academics love to share their knowledge. However, solving complex problems is time-consuming and sometimes (frequently?) there is little direct reward for you other than a warm, fuzzy glow.

Successful people have to learn to balance the time they spend helping others with time they spend doing their own stuff. Becoming the person who is always given the too hard basket is a particular trap for women, who are often seen (unconsciously) as ‘helpers’. My view is that being generous is the best policy, but setting boundaries is important. One of the boundaries you can set easily is time. If someone wants my advice on a general topic in my field, I usually offer to have lunch. That way I get to eat and have an interesting conversation, without taking time out of my workday. If people email me with a problem, I always answer, but sometimes not for weeks, and I never apologise for how long the person had to wait. Your time is a gift, so give it on your own terms and if people abuse it, don’t keep giving.

As good as (or better than?) your boss.

This is a tricky one for me especially. I have been working in my field for some 14 years now and have a wide range of theoretical and practical knowledge. I could probably do my manager’s job – if I wanted to. Yet I am in a chain of command and ultimately do not make the big decisions. I’m still learning how to sit at the back of the bus.

Being on equal footing in terms of knowledge, but not in terms of power, needs to be carefully managed. If your boss is insecure, they may take your advice as criticism; if your boss is overconfident, they may just ignore you. It can be hard watching someone make a mistake you know could have been avoided.

I see this problem in some supervisory relationships where the student is a long-standing practitioner in their field, and their supervisor has spent their life as an academic. It can be hard for practitioners to value academic knowledge and vice versa. Careful listening and mutual respect takes work on both sides, and the power differential can make that difficult.

Everyone wants a piece of you.

Remember what I said about rolling stones and moss? Success breeds opportunities; luck is where opportunity meets preparation. The more opportunities you get, the luckier you become! While opportunities are fantastic, everything has a time cost. When there are lots of opportunities on the table, it can be hard to set priorities. Taking up too many opportunities and not leaving enough time to do the stuff that makes you successful will, over time, undermine your success.

My friend Jason Downs used to have a job driving around valuing houses for banks considering giving people mortgages. He once said something wise and true: “I see my dream house once a week”. Part of the pain of letting go of opportunities is the fear that that opportunity will never be offered again, but there is always more than one dream house. If you do good work, and other people see you do it, that same opportunity, or a variation of it, will come up again. Trust me on this one.

So that’s my initial list of success problems – what about you? Do you have more to add or insights on any of these? Love to hear about it in the comments.

Related posts

Academic Assholes and the Circle of Niceness

Why does feedback hurt sometimes?

Love the Thesis whisperer and want it to continue? Consider becoming a $1 a month Patreon and get special, Patreon only, extra Thesiswhisperer content every two weeks!


10/19/18 PHD comic: 'Also based on a true story'

PhD Comics - October 23, 2018 - 7:57am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Also based on a true story" - originally published 10/19/2018

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

How to turn your PhD into a book – part three

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - October 17, 2018 - 4:00am

This is part three of my series on academic book publishing. The aim of this series is to take you through the process of turning your PhD into a book – or perhaps writing a new book in the early part of your career. Not all academic disciplines are interested in book publishing and look to conferences, journals or even exhibitions for signs of academic productivity.

I recommend you read part one and part two before reading this post.

In part one I provided you with some thoughts about NOT writing a book. I then covered identifying the opportunities, contacting a publisher and pitching the idea. In part two I talked about how to interest the publisher and (hopefully) get a contract.

In part three I want to talk about what to expect in the book writing and editing process, focussing on some of the practical challenges.

Step six: Your proposal was accepted! Congratulations! Now you will understand the saying “Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it…”

By definition, a dissertation is not an easy read so most publishers will ask for at least some changes. For one thing, the book version will be a lot shorter. While your average dissertation in the humanities runs between 80,000 to 100,000 words, most publishers will be interested in something closer to 60,000.

You can do some immediate word reduction surgery on some parts, like the literature review, but past a certain point, reducing words will become very difficult. Once you start cutting, you will end up with holes and inconsistencies that need to be smoothed over. You will have to ensure jargon is explained and grammar is tightened. This is tedious work that cannot be rushed. If you’ve started a new job it’s likely you will be doing this work at night, which is probably unpleasantly like writing your dissertation in the first place.

Oh, the times I have moaned to my husband about my stupid, stupid decision to write a book at this editing stage… I’m a horrible person to live with too: demanding chocolate and hugs while listening to James Blunt albums on repeat. It’s got to the point where Mr Thesiswhisperer gets this resigned look on his face when I triumphantly declare I have new book deal (he’s a smart guy – I can’t fool him into thinking this time will be different!).

The first part of the production of the manuscript is what computer gamers would call ‘grinding’; a lot of repetitive work that seems to go nowhere. At some point, hopefully before your deadline, you will feel confident that the original content is ready. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a sign you are near the end of the process. In time elapsed, you are approximately in the middle… next comes editing.

My least favourite part.

Step seven: chasing the perfect

The last steps of the book preparation process are, in my considered opinion, the absolute worst. I’m a 95%-er; details and polishing are difficult for me. Making sure a manuscript is perfect drives me completely nuts. Some publishers provide help, but they often charge you for it – reducing your already slender royalty cheque to nothing. Even when you have a professional copy editor to hold your hand, which was my happy experience with ‘How to be an Academic‘ (thanks Tricia!), there is a lot of detail to chase up and correct.

Without a professional, it will take even longer to get a manuscript into shape. Editing ‘How to fix your academic writing trouble’ (which is coming out on the 23rd of December) was a group effort (thanks Shaun and Katherine!), but it nearly drove us mad. In the end we turned to Grammarly – an online, machine assisted copy editing and grammar assistant. This software helped us catch many small errors, as well as helping to smooth three writing ‘voices’ into one. The effort was worth it; our publisher told us that it was “the most perfect manuscript we have ever seen”, but there was a significant time cost. My tracking app ‘Timing’ showed me that putting the manuscript through Grammarly took around 40 hours, but bear in mind, this was just the final polish.

All up, the editing process was about 120 hours. Think about trying to squeeze this time into an already overloaded schedule and you can see how I ended up spending most weekends last year working on this book. Burning the candle at both ends in your late 40s has consequences. I suffered a severe bout of burn out by September and it took me over six months – and frankly a lot of therapy, gym visits and mindfulness app listening – to recover.

The key lesson here? You will probably need six months for the final ‘polish’ if you are working full time. If the publisher has asked for significant changes to your original dissertation, you may need to allow 12 months or more to deliver the final product. Building a realistic timeline is part of being a professional – it’s always better to deliver early than over promise and deliver late.

Step eight: marketing

Once your manuscript has gone into production, you will have a quiet time of up to nine months before the book comes back into your life again. This time you will be expected to do most of the marketing. This is not just because publishers are working to tight margins and cannot employ staff to help you – in a sense, you are best placed to know who the readership is and how to reach them. Here are some marketing ideas, in no particular order:

  1. Identify mailing lists, Facebook groups and other online spaces where you can share your book news in progress to build anticipation.
  2. Build your own mailing: I used Google forms to create such a list for ‘How to be an academic’ , offering a gift voucher for early purchase (a good way to build word of mouth). We are doing the same for ‘How to fix your Academic Writing Trouble’.
  3. Why wait for positive book reviews? Write blog posts or newspaper articles about the topic of your book before it comes out and direct people to your mailing list. Many reputable sites are looking for good quality content that is genuinely informative.
  4. Organise a book launch with a local bookstore. In my experience, this was relatively easy to do with the publisher’s help. I was able to find a free venue on campus and it only cost me $200 in sushi and $100 for an open bar. It was lovely to have a celebration after all that hard work.

Now I’m wondering: are you thinking about publishing your dissertation as a book or have you succeeded in achieving your publishing dream? Do you have any experience of the publishing process you would like to share? Does your experience differ from mine? Love to hear from you in the comments.

Related posts

Part one of turning your dissertation into a book

Part two of turning your dissertation into a book

Love the Thesis whisperer and want it to continue? Consider becoming a $1 a month Patreon and get special, Patreon only, extra Thesiswhisperer content every two weeks!

10/12/18 PHD comic: 'Glib'

PhD Comics - October 16, 2018 - 8:47pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Glib" - originally published 10/12/2018

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

A voice from the precariat

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - October 10, 2018 - 4:00am

What happens after all the dust is settled and you start to pusue this thing called ‘an academic career’? This post is by Dr Pippa Yeoman, who has started what is beginning to be called the ‘post-post-post doc’ stage of the academic career.

Pippa is an ethnographer of socio-technical innovations in learning, who is coming to the end of her first postdoc position. Having spent more than 1,000 hours observing people at work, in a range of formal and informal learning spaces, she is keenly aware of the need for translational tools that work across academic and professional boundaries. At the moment she is developing tools to support the (re)shaping of space, curricula, and culture. In the future, she wants to develop scalable and humane ways of assessing valued learning activity across time and space. Her work is driven by a conviction that, given the tools, we can all make a positive contribution to (re)shaping the learning ecologies of the future. You can follow her @PippaYeoman or find out more about her work here.

You can often find me on the edge of things. For the most part it’s where I choose to be. When you do find me in the thick of it, it’s invariably when thinking and speaking collide fuelled by feeling and I really ought to remain silent. But my current state of in-betweenness feeds on silence.

I am a postdoctoral researcher.

I am one of the lucky ones. I moved from PhD to postdoc with relative ease. An ease that sometimes made me feel guilty when I found myself paralysed by the uncertainty of what lay ahead. This was my third, fourth or fifth career depending on one’s definition. I’ve held senior positions in industry and raised two small people while starting again.

I am an immigrant.

I am one of the lucky ones. We qualified for permanent residence in Australia because my husband had skills on the Migrant-Occupations-in-Demand List. But the relative ease with which we secured permission to enter masked the challenges associated with starting again. I have lived on four continents, studied on three, and worked on two.

I am a grown up.

Why then do I feel so powerless? I chose to return to university and I want to contribute—so why this disquiet? I am a postdoc at a research-intensive university on a government funded fixed-term contract and when the funding runs dry I will simply evaporate in the system.

I am part of the precariat.

I’ve spent seven years training as an educational researcher. But having enjoyed the privilege of full-time research I haven’t done ‘enough’ teaching. I’ve also spent too much time working across disciplines, so I don’t have an obvious ‘home’, and the effort I’ve put into service, leadership and industry engagement has eaten into time I ‘should’ have been writing. Whatever I have demonstrated there is always something I have failed to demonstrate, and it is this constantly shifting horizon that feeds my sense of powerlessness.

I could remain silent and maybe I should.

But there it is—the thing that keeps us silent—the fear of jeopardising the infinitesimally small chance of securing an ongoing position. Reading from a safe distance as peers unravel online I’ve caught myself wishing someone would stop them from speaking their hearts. We are trained to speak our minds and leave our hearts out of it. But I worry that if I don’t add my voice to the chorus rising then maybe it won’t swell to reach the ears of those who have the power to change things.

And, despite the complex nature of this problem, it does not absolve those in positions of power from responsibly considering the future of those they train. Why do we have to tread this path alone or vainly emulate outdated formulae for success? What is an educated, adult, and humane response to the current state of affairs?

Silence is not option, and ignorance is not a legitimate defence.

Rather than staring into the headlights of the oncoming train or failing to draw attention to the not so temporary road closure ahead, I have chosen to share my thoughts with those who silently walk with me, and those who will come after us.

To stay sane, I needed a way of framing my (academic) career as a unified whole. Something I could build that would have utility even if I ran aground. Looking for the underlying structure I imagined I was building a catamaran, a twin hulled vessel that could make the most of the prevailing winds with not one but two sails. For now, I am putting all my efforts into keeping it intact. But should I run aground I will repurpose one of the hulls and find my way to calmer seas in a canoe.

Learning to frame my work in this way required wrestling my divided heart into submission. Forcibly taking a breath and working out what motivates me as researcher. Mark Reed describes this as having many dreams in which doing what you love is possible. Pausing seemed counter intuitive. But I had spent way too long running on hope that was waning and fear that was rising and I wanted to avoid the tipping-point of desperation. This wasn’t about retreating into contemplation and avoiding action. It was an acknowledgment that extended periods of cortisol induced action don’t normally precede moments of clarity.

Having thought long and hard I decided to extend my contract by reducing the number of days I was being paid to work. I had gone from the final throes of the PhD straight into the postdoc and hadn’t slowed down. This isn’t an option for everyone, and there have been times when I’ve resented reducing my income and not my hours. But it did fix one problem—I now make a point of taking weekends!

In practice this strategy has only delayed the inevitable. But it has given me time to:

  • write up my research with a broad audience in mind,
  • submit work and deal with the rejection,
  • develop practical aspects of my research into workshops that will (a) form the basis of a DECRA or (b) a consulting model,
  • update my CV and website, and
  • enjoy coffee with people on the outside without being creepy or desperate.

More importantly it gave me permission to opt out of the hope economy, to find ways of being collegial without having to confirm the splendour of the emperor’s new suit. I am also learning to say yes from a position of strength and not the vain hope that ‘If they just knew how great I was they’d hire me!’ because they won’t. It’s more complicated than that and—despite the current valorisation of collaborative endeavours—becoming an academic means demonstrating you can think, work and write on your own. But, for now, I choose to hold onto the hope that if I manage to navigate the next stretch intact then actually being an academic will be a little less insular.

Thanks for sharing your story – now I’m wondering what other members of the ‘precariat’ might have to say about the post doc condition? Interested to hear your views in the comments.

Related posts

What do academic employers want?

I want to leave academia, what’s next?

How to get a job in academia when you finish your degree

Love the Thesis whisperer and want it to continue? Consider becoming a $1 a month Patreon and get special, Patreon only, extra Thesiswhisperer content every two weeks!

10/05/18 PHD comic: 'Feelings'

PhD Comics - October 9, 2018 - 8:34am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Feelings" - originally published 10/5/2018

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

How to turn your PhD into a book – part two

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - October 3, 2018 - 4:00am

A couple of weeks ago I published part one of this series on academic book publishing, where I covered identifying the opportunities, contacting a publisher and pitching the idea. In part two I talk about how to negotiate the deal. In part three I will talk about what to expect in the book writing and editing process. (If you missed the last installment; step one can be found here – I recommend reading this post first).

Step Four: Don’t be an academic asshole about it

It’s highly likely, unless you did the slightly less cold call approach descibed in my previous post, that you won’t get a fast answer to your initial pitch to an academic publisher. Expect weeks, even months, between emails. In my experience, people behind the scenes in scholarly publishing are stretched for time, just like academics. Publishers are probably working on multiple projects or even multiple roles; many are working part-time. Factor the realities of their day to day work situation into your communication strategy. Don’t be pushy. Give people at least a month to respond to your initial pitch before following up to see if they got the letter.

Image by @impatrickt on Unsplash

Respect that publishers know how and what to publish – this might seem obvious, but it’s surprisingly easy to ignore. Good publishers, like good bloggers, know their audience. Publishers target specific markets; they know how to reach, connect and sell to certain bookstores and online distributors that supply these markets. They have past sales figures to guide their future decisions. Just because they have published similar books in the past does not mean they will want to print yours. Sometimes publishers just aren’t interested in your pitch – even if you think they should be.

For example, I was so convinced our book ‘Postgraduate study in Australia: surviving and thriving’, an edited collection of students writing advice for others, would be such an easy sell that I let the whole thing be written before I tried to pitch it. Big mistake (and one I will never make again!). I could not get a single Australian publisher interested, even with the figures about the reach of this blog, an obvious publicity vehicle. As a consequence, the project languished for ages and I was professionally very embarrassed at my overconfidence.

In the end, my colleague Chris cut a deal with a European publisher, with a much bigger price tag than I would like. I’m totally grateful to him for his efforts and admire his ‘never give in, never surrender’ approach because I am glad this book is in the world. I’m still convinced Survive and Thrive could have been a good buy for an Australian publisher. Colleagues have told me how they keep a copy of this book to give to prospective students considering doing a PhD. Other students have written to me to say how much they love the book, but it didn’t work out.

If this kind of bewildering rejection happens to you, don’t be an academic asshole about it. The temptation is to try and persuade the publisher they are wrong… It’s not a great idea. Academics are trained to argue, but outside of academia, people can find our style of arguing annoying. Don’t make the mistake of thinking arguing with a book publisher is the same as arguing with journal editors. It’s worth having a go arguing with a journal editor; my philosophy in that case is “if you don’t ask, you don’t get”. BUT, journal editors are usually academics; publishers are not. Trying to persuade a publisher they should publish (and probably lose money on) your book is probably a waste of time. Worse, if you end up on someone’s shit list for being a pain in the ass about it, you have burned future opportunities too.

I try to keep in mind my father in law Steve’s best piece of child raising advice: “good manners cost nothing and buy a lot”. Thank the publisher for bothering to respond to your email and move on to your next prospect. Shaking off rejection is a skill and you will get better at, I promise.

Step Five: A decent proposal

A publisher might see your dissertation as a good enough starting point and you will skip this next step, but in the conventional academic publishing business, you will need to do some form of proposal. A proposal is basically a long pitch document, guided by a series of questions. The questions will probably include, but not be limited to, the following:

  • Why you think a new book in this area is needed.
  • The value proposition of your book (I like to think of this as: what job does it do for the reader?)
  • An overview or synopsis of each chapter
  • Brief analysis of the market and readership for your book (including the academic courses your book could be used for)
  • Structure and format (this means number of pages, size and types of binding. Some publishers do not include this and will decide for you. Welcome to the pain of arguing about cover art…)
  • Competition / similar books on the market and your points of difference
  • Something about you (this is your opportunity to convince the publisher that YOU are the person to write this book)

I’ve found writing a proposal is similar to doing an ethics approval; the process of writing your ideas makes them more concrete, but it also means you see the holes in your reasoning and gaps in the material. This can make writing the proposal nerve wracking as it’s easy to entirely talk yourself out of doing the book at all (this has happened to me at least once, resulting in disappointment for the publisher).

The proposal process is a great way to solidify and shape your book. My latest book is a joint effort with Shaun Lehmann and Katherine Firth (of the Research Voodoo blog). “Your academic writing trouble and how to fix it” (out on the 23rd of December!), went through 18 months of revised proposal work.

One of the issues with this book was multiple changes of editor. While Inger initially ‘sold’ the idea of the book to an publisher over a coffee in the British Library. The early proposal reflected this in principle agreement and didn’t include very much detail. Here is the first attempt at our ‘value proposition’ statement:

Over our combined ~20 years of teaching and providing assistance to students we have found that there are a number of recurrent issues that students face when dealing with academics’ feedback. We find ourselves giving the same advice repeatedly, both to students and fellow academics alike, and would like to give them a concise and easy to use book that will summarise this advice. Under the current tertiary education model, students are expected to learn proper academic English writing by osmosis, that is copying the writing style of others without really understanding what they are doing and why they are doing it. We want to explain the ‘why’ and give some tips and tricks for fixing prose that has been deemed ‘defective’ in some way, while acknowledging the complexities and diversity of the ‘Englishes’ we are asked to engage with.

Unfortunately, the original publisher moved on after about a year. The project had been provisionally green-lighted, but the next editor did not have the same personal investment in the project. She was skeptical of the book premise, which forced us back to the drawing board. Towards the end of the proposal re-write, which had involved several skype sessions and many coffee meetings, that editor also moved on too! Thankfully, our last editor didn’t ask for us to make changes (thanks Karen!) and allowed us to move on to negotiating the contract itself.

While the planning was agonising, all that work resulted in a book that more or less wrote itself. As a result of this process, our initial pitch expanded a lot and, I think you will agree, the final version is a lot more convincing and clear:

All of us have extensive experience helping academics and graduate students fix their writing. We find ourselves giving the same advice repeatedly, both to students and fellow academics alike, and would like to make concise and easy to use book that will summarise this advice. The marketplace for writing advice books aimed at graduate students is becoming crowded, but there still seems to be an appetite for more – probably because of the multitude of problems graduate students face while trying to write long, original texts. Under the current tertiary education model, students are expected to learn proper academic English writing by osmosis: copying the writing style of others without really understanding what it is and why they are doing it.  This ‘apprenticeship model’ of teaching writing leads to poor understanding of how English works, creating problems that persist between generations of academics, in particular around giving and receiving feedback.

While most writing problems are easy to rectify, academics offering the feedback are often unable to explain exactly what is wrong and fall back on a relatively standard set of complaints which are common to all disciplines. These complaints are so common there are even joke websites to collect them. Poor feedback like “your writing doesn’t flow” or “I can’t hear your voice” can be difficult to action and leave many students confused about what to do next.

In our experience even a fairly basic understanding of why English works the way it does can solve a number of common academic writing difficulties. While many books on writing set out to explain how to write well, this book will work the opposite way by starting with the trouble the student is experiencing. The book will help the student diagnose the problem and provide tricks for fixing prose that has been deemed ‘defective’ in some way, while acknowledging the complexities and diversity of the English language in academic settings.

The advice in this book has been trialled on our blogs and in our classrooms so we know that it works well with the target audience. We will re-shape this content for inclusion in the book, often using feedback from readers to make the advice easier to follow. We will use 2017 to further road test our advice and create a buzz around the book. Readers familiar with our web presences will recognise the quality of contributions to this book and appreciate the convenience of having it packaged together. We are confident the book will have a large audience ready to buy it as soon as it is released.

I hope our faith in your interest in the book will prove true! Stay tuned for part three, where I talk about some of the practicalities of working with publishers to prepare and market the resulting manuscript. But I’m interested – how many of you have had experience of writing proposals? I’d be interested to hear your views in the comments as well as, of course, any questions.

Related posts

How to turn your PhD into a book – part one

How to make an index for your book or dissertation

About one of my books: “How to be an academic”

Love the Thesis whisperer and want it to continue? Consider becoming a $1 a month Patreon and get special, Patreon only, extra Thesiswhisperer content every two weeks!