Updates in Doctoral Ed

A 5 step program for finishing your PhD (finally!)

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - July 17, 2019 - 4:00am

Part of the fun of being Thesis Whisperer is the emails I get from all around the world. Many of them outline classic PhD student dilemmas, which are excellent blog fodder, such as this one, from Laura S:

Have you, or have you considered anything along the lines of *actually finishing* writing? I can produce writing like nobody’s business, and get well on my way into a paper. Finishing, however, is agony. I think this is in part because I’m a lateral thinker and a perfectionist. I’m sure you are familiar with these traits! It is also, however (as I’ve recently discovered) a particular challenge for folks with ADHD. Discovering as an adult that I had ADHD has been a real light on a lot of my patterns and tendencies, so when I feel ready (i.e. more research) I would be happy to contribute a couple of blogs on the topic if you are interested and think it would be helpful to others.

Now, I can’t talk about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder specifically because I am not an expert, but I do know a thing or two about finishing a piece of writing. The ‘Thesis Bootcamp’ program I run at ANU helps PhD students who have run out of time to complete their dissertation. The program is insanely popular, but it’s expensive to run. We can only take 26 people from up to 100 applicants, so we must choose people who are most at risk of dropping out. We look for people who have done most of the thinking and just need to write. Our selection strategy means most of our Bootcampers have faced significant challenges along the way, such as failed experiments, ill-health and conflict with advisors. Despite these issues, most of these people just need to sit down and, well – write. Sadly they can’t seem to do this on their own because they feel ‘stuck’. It’s almost like they have late stage dissertation constipation. 

image by @matbotsfield on Unsplash

At thesis Bootcamp, we use a range of strategies to help people move on from this ‘stuck’ feeling. We are proud that everyone who spends a weekend with us writes at least 5000 words, and many write more. At least a couple of people hit our ‘stretch goal’ of 20,000 words. After watching over 400 people go through this program, I’ve got a good idea of what it takes to finish a dissertation. Below is my patented, trialled and tested 5 step program for drawing a line under your PhD studies and calling it done.

Step one: identify what is holding you back

In my experience, there is a range of factors at play in people feeling unable to finish, but most people are held back by fear. Some people are in a comfortable rut and fear what comes next after their PhD – especially if the job market for their skill set is unclear. Other people are perfectionists – functional or otherwise- who fear the dissertation they are crafting will not pass. Others fear confrontation with their supervisor over the content of the dissertation. 

Unpacking the feelings with a professional therapist is the best way I know to put these fears to rest, which is why we hire at least one for the Bootcamp weekend (sometimes we have two!). Having a therapist on hand while confronting the fear of finishing is amazingly powerful. Some people who have resisted therapy in the past are finally free to share their concerns with an expert who can help them lay those fears to rest. Later these therapy resisters tell me that confronting their fear of writing helped them with other issues too. Some have saved their marriage, others have got divorced, some change careers or cities – some even decide to drop out of their PhD. The program is meant to stop the dropouts of course, but I figure that helping a person move on with their life without the PhD is sometimes the best outcome.

Step two: commit to it

Some people have a habit of restarting their writing (or even their whole project) over and over again. The reason for restarting all the time seems rational until you dig a bit deeper and see a pattern that stretches right back to the beginning of candidature. Restarting over and over is a symptom of perfectionism: if you feel like your writing is misshapen and ugly, working with the text long enough to finish provokes a range of unpleasant feelings. One way to avoid the feelings is by starting again with a ‘clean slate’. Other people have trouble committing to a structure for the dissertation. These people can be functional perfectionists, who are willing to accept their ‘bad writing’ but get obsessed with finding the perfect structure for the whole work. You will never find the perfect structure because it’s an illusion. A dissertation is a story of the research done, that’s all. You could tell at least10 different stories; some will be better or worse, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter because the PhD endeavour is a pass/fail proposition. Perfect is the enemy of done.  Just find a structure and stick with it long enough to get the whole thing written. 

Another good avoidance strategy is to funnel creative energy into side projects. Instead of finishing the (now slightly boring) big project, I encounter people who are getting stuck into journal papers, articles, blogs, podcasts – you name it! There is always another creative distraction if you look for i. It’s easier, in the moment, to go for immediate gratification ahead of long term benefits.

I don’t want to shame anyone for these behaviours – I’ve done many of them myself. There’s no need to beat yourself up. In fact, the shame spiral just makes things worse. If you really want to finish, learning to focus is crucial. In the first instance, just notice and be aware of your behaviour. Noticing helps you develop strategies to counter the unhelpful patterns. When you feel like starting over again because you hate what you have written, put it away for a day or two and then come back. I guarantee the writing isn’t as bad as you thought it was when you come back to it. Self-talk helps too. When the feelings that everything you write is shit well up, say out loud: ‘ok, it isn’t perfect, but it will have to do for now’, or ‘I’ll come back to this later, let’s move on’. Self-talk can help you suspend judgment and just keep writing – which is most of the trick to finishing after all.

Step Three: Write the conclusion before you finish 

In my What do examiners really want? workshop, I advise people who are to write a draft of the conclusion to their dissertation at around the six-month mark. The suggestion always gets funny looks, but there’s method in my madness. Writing the conclusion sometimes helps you think through your methods: what experiments or data gathering would you need to do to prove anything you said? Writing a draft of your conclusion also forces you to surface assumptions and biases so that you can be aware of them as you process your data. People ask whether writing the conclusion early is ‘cheating’. Of course, it would be if you just constructed the whole project to ‘prove’ what you thought in the first place – that isn’t research. My view is, writing the conclusion early is acceptable as long as you:

  1. consciously write the conclusion draft as a thought exercise only and/or 
  2. use the draft as part of the development of your project and method, and 
  3. take the opportunity to examine and critique your own biases. 

Writing the conclusion can work when you are close to the end as well. When you’ve finished most of the other writing, doing the conclusion can usefully narrow the scope of what remains to be written. The conclusion fixes your endpoint and forces you to commit to finishing – sort of like aiming an arrow at a target. Give it a try and see.

Step Four: list it out

When you have written the conclusion, start a list about what you want to achieve in the piece of writing and tick it off as you go. Making a list forces you to articulate a pathway to the end and define what ‘finished’ means. For example, at the moment I am working on a journal article about what non-academic employers want, using job ads as data. Here’s my list of provisional goals for the paper:

  • Why is it important to know what non-academic employers want?
  • Tell the reader why using job ads is a good approach and how you have used them.
  • Explain the key findings – particularly the unexpected ones
  • Explain the new curriculum model and how it could be used in research education and policy development.

The list is not a writing outline – I can address these points in any order I want to. The paper will be ‘finished’ when I’ve written about everything on the list to my satisfaction, so I try to keep the list as short as possible. After the first brainstorm, I leave it for a few days, review it (or share it with co-authors) and then finalise the ‘master list’. I then pretend the master list is not allowed to be altered. This forces me to commit. In my experience, this mind game is remarkably effective, but it only works for short pieces, so if you are employing this technique for a dissertation, do a goal list for each chapter.

Step Five: Imagine life without the dissertation

At Bootcamp we ask people to write on a single post-it note a fun, non-work thing they have been putting off doing. The answers range from ‘sleeping as long as I want’ to ‘having a baby’ or ‘riding a motorcycle around Sicily’. We then encourage people to imagine how they will feel when they do those things they have put off. People sit with dreamy smiles on their faces as they contemplate the bliss of a dissertation free life complete with babies, motorcycle rides and endless sleep (well, not all at once – I don’t think those things are compatible really!). We encourage people to keep the post-it note as a handy reminder of the long term rewards they can have if they do the boring, finishing bit first. Some people tell me they hang on to this encouraging piece of paper for years afterwards!

Ultimately, if you decide to finish, you will. And that’s all I have to say on the subject of Taming your PhD. Why don’t you go off now and do it?

Related posts

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Surviving the conference marathon

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - July 10, 2019 - 4:10am

This post is by Dr Imogen Wegman, a project officer at the University of Tasmania. Her research is cross-disciplinary, and she might attend a digital humanities conference, a history seminar and a GIS symposium within a month. Imogen is also a co-founder and organiser of Hobart’s monthly public history event ‘A Pint of History’. As a dedicated ambivert, she swings between loving and hating people, and has had to learn her limits.

people at a conference table from Unsplash by @wonderlane

So, you’ve found the call for papers, and submitted an abstract, been accepted, got your faculty funding or organised some extra shifts to get the cash, registered, booked travel and a lovely/scummy room, and decided which shoes will make your presentation really pop.

My first conference outside my university was a big one at a big university in a big city. I was eighteen months into my PhD, and while I’d presented my research to colleagues, this was new territory. Over the next week I fumbled my way through small-talk with professors and an overwhelming schedule but in the end I was still alive to tell the tale. Since then, I’ve attended conferences around the world and continued to learn not only how to survive, but to thrive in what can seem like a terrifying environment. Your supervisor should be able to help you write an abstract and paper, I want to help you prepare for the social aspect of conferences.

  1. Find the twitter hashtag

Live-tweeting was an emerging artform at my first conference, but I remember the excitement of finding the hashtag, and then being invited to a catch up of #twitterstorians. Although I knew almost no one, I knew that at morning tea on the first day I would have some people to talk to.

Not all conferences will be active on Twitter, or you may not use the platform, but it can be an excellent icebreaker. The same conference now blows up on Twitter with an entire sub-network of tweeters live-tweeting talks and organising unofficial social events. Introducing yourself as “we’ve never met, but we follow each other on Twitter” can be quite normal in the academic world. Levels of engagement with Twitter differ between disciplines, but it can open up an international network of advice, encouragement and collaboration. Conference hashtags are a useful introduction into this world.

  1. Find the solo people at morning tea

Lots of people go to conferences without knowing anyone there. Everyone quickly makes some contacts, so when you talk to one person, they’ll then introduce you as the conversation circle grows. This is networking – meeting one person who introduces you to two others who invite you to the end of day drinks. It might not end up with plans to collaborate on the Next Big Thing, but you will find acquaintances and hopefully even new friends. Take along some business cards so you can swap details quickly. As time goes on, you’ll build up networks and spend time catching up, but you have to start somewhere.

If you don’t know where to start, look for people standing alone with their cup of caffeine and (this is the important part) go and talk to them. Start with an introduction, and ask some questions about where they are based and their field of research.

If you are an old hand with lots of friends and colleagues, be kind and generous to the solo attendees. Remember that you once stood timidly in the corner, nibbling a sandwich with feigned nonchalance as you scoured the room for just one person you felt brave enough to talk to. Offer a friendly branch but (and this should go without saying) don’t force it on them.

  1. Prepare some small talk questions for awkward chitchat moments

Sometimes you’ll feel obliged to make small talk with your neighbour in the lunch queue, who will turn out to be a very significant academic. If your early career imposter syndrome is anything like mine, you may freeze and forget all sensible questions and hear yourself asking about their favourite Muppet. Instead, ask them about their career – “how did you come to be working in this area?” I (almost) guarantee they’ll have a tale of research twists and turns as they navigated the academic quagmire, whether that’s been for fifty or five years.

  1. Take a break

Conferences can be hectic: a packed program of talks, plus a formal dinner, a conference excursion, and all the pub visits…uh… informal networking opportunities at the end of each day. For extroverts this can be invigorating, but for many people conferences can be exhausting. All the brilliant talks leads to content overload, while you also try to keep a professional face and remember all the names of people you meet.

Learning to recognise when our brains are going into shutdown and need some quiet time is a useful life-skill. My symptoms include concentration levels down 80%, a struggle to stay awake, and the growing conviction that my seat is actually trying to kill me.

At the beginning of the conference, highlight the unmissable talks in your program, and add to that as you meet interesting individuals and promise to attend their paper. And then, when your concentration is dipping, find a session you can skip. It is perfectly fine to step back and take that hour to refresh. Take a walk, a nap, go to the venue museum. You’ll notice the improvement when you return to the next session. Likewise, don’t feel guilty if you skip some drinks or a dinner. It’s true, connections are made and people are met at these events, but if you’re a mental wreck you won’t be able to make the most of that anyway.

  1. Keep hydrated

Finally, drink lots of water. You’ll be eating too many small sandwiches, and drinking terrible conference tea/coffee, and possibly more alcohol/soft drinks than usual. I know this is what our mums tell us, but keep up the water levels. Dehydration will make you feel gross, and your concentration will go down. So fill up that conference water bottle, or pack your own, and try to empty it a couple of times each day.

And with those tips, you are ready to go and make the new conference friends who are waiting out there for you! I’m always keen to pick up new skills, how do you navigate conferences?

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Some new books on writing

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - July 3, 2019 - 11:15am

There’s a LOT of books out there on how to do a thesis/dissertation (some of them written by me). I’ve managed to plough through a couple of new books on the subject recently and this post is a compilation of my reviews plus one reader review from Jasmine Jenson at the end. There’s still a bunch of books sitting in my pile, so if you have a desire to read one and provide a review please send me an email!

Writing a Watertight Thesis: a guide to successful structure and defence, by Mike Bottery and Nigel Wright

In this short book, Bottery and Wright attempt a Herculean task: to lay out a formula to ensure your thesis gets a passing grade. A worthy goal and certainly there’s a market for such a book, given how anxiety provoking the examination process can be. Both authors are education academics at the University of Hull in England and the book does reflect their humanities background while aspiring to be a guide across disciplines.

As implied in the title, the book starts with a ship building analogy. The authors claim that a watertight ship and a watertight thesis share similar principles: both need to be designed for a particular kind of environment, use appropriate materials and be well structured. To ensure success, a thesis and a ship need to be tested before being launched to make sure they don’t sink.

I like this ship building analogy and found the first two chapters, where this approach is laid out in detail, much more successful than the rest of the book. The second chapter on making a research proposal steps you through a formula for a ‘big book’ style humanities thesis with a couple of useful exercises. This chapter would see most people in the humanities, through their first thesis milestone / confirmation presentation. If I’d paid money for this volume I would have been satisfied I got my money’s worth in this proposal chapter alone.

After a cursory discussion of working with your supervisor, the next couple of chapters focus on working through research questions and sub-questions. The authors claim this approach will work for other disciplines, but I am not so sure. The approach to research questions certainly wouldn’t work for people in creative practice based disciplines like architecture and design. I’m not sure it would work for people in history or philosophy either, let alone people in the sciences who are usually working on a series of papers rather than a ‘big book’ thesis.

The feeling that this book is not truly transdisciplinary intensified as I worked through to the end. There are chapters that deal with structuring the beginning, middle and end of the thesis, which is a good idea and if you were to follow the advice in social science or education you would certainly reap benefits. The chapter on doing a Viva seems like a very useful summary, but the final chapter on academic publishing is so short and perfunctory I am not sure why it is there at all, but the advice about doing a journal paper is sound enough.

I have some specific issues with the chapter on the examiner point of view, which raise more general questions about this book for me. Given there is a lot of research work on how examiners approach examining a thesis (which I have drawn on when writing about examination here, here and here in particular), it’s strange that the authors have not made reference to this literature in this chapter, or their bibliography.

In fact, given there is a big literature on all aspects of writing a thesis, I found the lack of sources for this book confusing. It’s like this book exists in a vacuum, drawing mostly on the experience of the two authors who may or may not have read the research and advice from others. There are many similarities between this advice and advice offered elsewhere, but this similarity is never acknowledged or contextualised. I am not accusing the authors of plagiarism, more pointing out a curious lack of interest in the work of others. More attention to how the authors’ advice conforms with, or differs from, the exisiting advice might have enriched this book and given the reader a few jumping off points to explore further, given the book itself is quite short.

So, should you buy this book? If you are in education or social science it’s a concise, reassuring guide that would be helpful, especially if your supervisor is not providing much direction. It does encourage a rather ‘vanilla flavoured’ style of thesis writing that would result in a work that sits firmly in the Dead Hand of the Thesis Genre. However, I don’t have a problem with this as following advice in this book would result in a thesis that no one could complain about, at least in education / social science. A finished – and safely passed – thesis is a good thesis after all: perfect is the enemy of done! If you are doing your PhD by publication, or in the creative practice based disciplines, this book will not be that useful and people in sciences might look elsewhere for more appropriate help, which comfortably segues to my next review…

Mastering writing in the sciences: A step by step guide, by Marialuisa Aliotta

Many books on writing are written by education scholars like myself, so it is refreshing to come across a book on writing by a practising scientist. Aliotta is a Physicist and aims her book squarely at the scientist audience. Ironically, while keeping her focus on the working scientist, Aliotta has produced a book on writing that may well be successfully transciplinary in a way that Bottery and Wright’s book is not. Unlike the previous book, Aliotta acknowledges sources and provides links to other works, including this blog, which contextualise her work in the advice genre. Where she has taken the advice of others, she has definitely made it her own, adding value and giving readers other avenues of advice to explore should they want to.

The book follows a production model of writing in five stages: pre-writing, drafting, revising, editing and proofreading. The chapter on note taking has a useful grab bag of techniques, including the literature review matrix and a modified version of the Cornell template. The only place I really differ here is the advice to take notes in long hand – I agree it tends to make information ‘stick’, but in terms of processing your notes to writing it introduces a transaction cost that will slow you down. The short chapter on drafting has one of the only descriptions of mind mapping that I have seen in a writing book, which is a great addition, as are the suggested exercises at the end that would help you action the advice in the chapter.

The chapters on revising and editing are chock full of good tips and strategies which will help the novice writer find many ways in to doing this difficult work. These chapters are too short to make you into a great editor, but they will help you on your way to being a good enough editor of your own work. Chapter 7 is a fantastic summary of some of the technicalities of presenting scientific research that will answer many of the commonly asked questions. This chapter will help you produce a ‘camera ready’ manuscript to impress your co-authors and journal editors. The worked out examples in chapter eight are gold, demonstrating the kind of fixes that are common to first drafts, demystifying this process significantly. Scientists will probably love the templates offered towards the end of the book, which would act as sure structural supports for journal papers in the sciences but perhaps have limited use beyond that purpose.

In summary, I liked this book and think it’s a very worthwhile addition to my library, but should you buy it? Certainly, if you are a scientist you will find it very useful. People in other disciplines will get good value out of more than half of it. My only gripe is the price – nearly $50 – which quite frankly surprised me when I looked it up because the quality of the paperback I was sent was not fabulous. It looked like some poor print on demand books and was actually quite fuzzy. I have poor eyesight and found it difficult to read for any length of time. Mr ThesisWhisperer suggested the book had been written in TeX, using computer modern as the font. Given the author is a scientist, I think this theory is probably correct. It would be easy for the publisher to fix and at this price point, I would expect them to do this before they publish, but margins are tight in the industry and perhaps they missed this quality step. Maybe borrow it from your library and then buy it as an ebook if you end up loving it.

Finish Your Thesis or Dissertation! Tip & Hacks for Success, by Kevin Morrell

This Review is by Jasmine Jensen: a PhD candidate in the Chemistry, Physics and Mechanical Engineering School at Queensland University of Technology. She is researching clay materials for their potential use in supercapacitors. Her other interests include chemistry education, science outreach and playing the violin. She can be found on Twitter as @jasminerjensen .

I was writing up some of my thesis (*cough* procrastinating on twitter *cough*) when Inger asked if anyone could review a copy of Finish Your Thesis of Dissertation! Tip & Hacks for Success, by Professor Kevin Morrell. I have read a few books on writing a thesis before (usually seen on the Thesis Whisperer blog), and jumped at the chance to read another one.

Morrell himself suggests in the book that this may be more suitable for undergraduate/honours or Masters students, and I would have to agree. Having already written a Masters thesis, most of the information and tips were definitely not new to me. However, I think this book is a good, broad over view of what to expect for someone who has never written or been exposed to a thesis before. Many of the examples in the book are drawn from an business and management research background; however it is possible to relate most of the tips to other research areas.

I read an ebook version of Finish Your Thesis or Dissertation! (the Kindle version is selling for approximately AU$5 currently), which was about 190 pages. The writing style is quite conversational, and I found that I would read big chunks quite quickly and not realise I had gotten so far. I really appreciated this style of writing, as I imagine a lot of the intended readers would be busy and might not think they have enough time to read another book. With this one, you probably do!

Some of the content covered ranges from starting out with creating a research question, how to set good goals and routines, writing an abstract, what journals are and how to find “good papers”, basic formatting and proofreading. I particularly liked a section on what to do if things went wrong – although the examples are not really applicable in my research area of chemistry, I liked the sentiment behind the examples of reframing your methodology and research questions. I especially liked how Morrell focused on not panicking, but fixing the problem.

My main issue with this book, is it seems to have a very abrupt ending. After a section on proof reading and preparing your thesis for submission, and then some tips from other supervisors, there’s just a final section basically going “The End!”. I can appreciate that writing something longer might seem like repetition etc but it just seemed odd after the rest of the book being so conversational and talkative in style.

There are other books which focus more specifically on certain points of the thesis writing journey. For example, some focus more on writer’s block, or perfecting grammar, or the literature review process. This book is good if you want something to give you a general guide to all of those things and more (and sometimes refers to other books or videos that can assist in more detail). Overall, I think it would be a good starting guide for students about to undertake a thesis for the first time, and isn’t necessary to read the book the whole way through to get some benefit (I must admit to skimming through the examples of successful research as they were all business based).

Thanks Jasmine!

Stay tuned for more reviews in coming months. If you’re interested in buying some books to help you with various stages of your research, I keep an updated Big List of recommended books for your thesis here. ANU students please note that Harry Hartogs bookstore on campus has used this list to top up the stock in their store on campus, which now has an excellent reference section up the front.

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Learning from Eminem?

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - June 26, 2019 - 4:00am

Dr Bronwyn Eager spent nearly a decade running her own creative business before completing a PhD in entrepreneurship and joining the ranks of academia. She is motivated by a desire to improve the lives of entrepreneurs and through integrating enterprise skills across the Academy. In her spare time (!?) she aims to foster research outputs through running Academic Writing Retreats in beautiful locations across the globe and is always up for a coffee and interesting conversation. Find Bronwyn on Twitter @bronwyn_eageror LinkedIn.

When seeking potential sources of inspiration for crafting the limitations section in your discussion chapter, the rapper Eminem is unlikely to come to mind. But after a guest speaker at RMIT University’s Professional Writing and Editing course recommended watching Eminem’s film 8 Mile for its insights into waxing lyrical about your work, I’m inclined to think that this controversial 2000s pop icon has some wise words to offer scholarly writers.

In the final scene of the film, Eminem stands on stage, ready to demonstrate his linguistically-savvy swordsmanship in a battle-rap. He is fronted by a crowd of adversaries, all of whom are ready to take him down, because he represents a member of an out-group, not yet worthy of respect. He hasn’t paid his dues. As a PhD student seeking to join the ranks of faculty… does this sound familiar?

Eminen’s epiphany: he won’t rise up to take the crown (or in the case of PhD graduation: a velvet chapeau ala Harry Potter’s sorting hat) through intimidating his opponent, or from degrading his competition. He’ll win-over his audience from acknowledging his failings. All of them.

As revealed in his lyrics from Lose Yourself, the theme song from the movie (bolded and italicised below)…

“If you had one shot, or one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted, in one moment, would you capture it, or just let it slip?”

Your discussion chapter is your ‘one shot’, your ‘one opportunity’ to convince your reader that you’ve made a significant contribution to academic scholarship – the cornerstone of a PhD.

“On the surface [you] look calm and ready…”

Hardly! By the time I got to the discussion chapter I was less assured of my academic abilities than when I first enrolled. The PhD journey can be a shortcut to insecurity, in part, because you realise the limitations of your knowledge. This can result in feeling paralysed to write even a single sentence for fear of a scholar waiting in the wings demanding that you justify your position, or questioning the credibility of your cited literature. I’ve met plumbers with more conviction than professors!

“[You] open [your] mouth, but the words won’t come out…”

What I didn’t understand about my discussion chapter was that there is a formula. Of sorts. Not the ‘paint by numbers’ rigidity that’s commonly seen in a methods chapter, but a structure nonetheless. One option is to restate each research question, then answer that question in reference to what you found in your data, and then link your findings back to the literature you cited at the beginning of your thesis. Did what you find support or refute what was said in the literature? Why? A response is required for each research question.

Following this, do an ‘8 Mile’. Offer up all the reasons why your findings are not as strong as you might have hoped. In his battle-rap, Eminem tells his adversary all the reasons why he’s not perfect. Didn’t like my sampling technique? No problem. I’ve told you everything that was wrong with it. Disarmed. Didn’t like that I interviewed 22 people once rather than 10 people twice? No problem. I’ve told you why I took that approach (backed up with examples from published studies where the approach I took was also used). Disarmed.

Pre-emptively disarm your audience and they will react like Eminem’s competitor: they’ll walk off stage without a comeback.

“[You’re] choking, how?”

The discussion chapter is wrapped in the weight of needing to justify why you’ve spent the last few years of your life sitting in that PhD office, potentially drawing a stipend and sacrificing alternative income streams in the pursuit of two letters before your name and three letters after.

“The clock’s run out, time’s up, over – blaow!”

The discussion chapter is most often the last chapter you write. Your candidature clock is ticking and you’re most likely ‘slightly over’ being a PhD student.

I remember begging my (very patient) supervisor… “just tell me what changes you want and I will make them”. She calmly reassured me I would get there. After several re-writes (and her very helpful guidance) I did. But during the process I was stretched beyond any elasticity coefficient I thought possible.

“Back to the lab again… And these times are so hard, and it’s gettin’ even harder…”

Expect that your supervisor will send your discussion chapter back to you for revisions. Multiple times. Don’t lose heart. You’ll get there. It’s part of the process of learning how to be an academic.

“The beat goes on: da-da-dom, da-dom, dah-dah, dah-dah”

What tips or fears do you have in relation to the discussion chapter? Leave your comments below.

Check out Eminem’s battle-rap here, noting extreme language warning!

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The artisanal PhD

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - June 19, 2019 - 4:00am

I’ll admit it: I’m a sucker for anything ‘artisanal’. I love homeware shops full of hand crafted ceramic bowls, grocery stores with local honey and cafes with stripped brick walls and special regional coffees. I am nearly 50 (I know, I can hardly believe it either) so as soon as I become aware that a trend even exists it is, by definition, dead.Artisanal-anything might no longer be on trend, but the good thing about being 50-ish is that you don’t care about being on trend anyway. There are lots of cafes / groceries and homeware shops where I can enjoy the artisanal vibe and feel no shame.

Proof that artisanal is so over – at least according to Google

While I don’t deny the pleasures of the artisanal when it comes to homewares, food and coffee, I am less sure that it’s a great idea when applied to research, at least if my experience counselling candidates is anything to go by. I try to set aside one hour a week to consult with individual candidates from around ANU. Many of the people I see are in my office are very stressed because they can’t finish on time, for one reason or another. Some problems are supervisor related, some are problems of project scope and others are straight up inefficient working methods.

Problems caused by inefficient working methods frustrate me the most. These problems are really easy to fix, but people ….resist. In fact, they often resist change with more energy than it would take to make the change. The problem is not a lack of knowledge or awareness. People will acknowledge they have massively inefficient ways of processing and handling information, yet in the next breath insist that they cannot work any other way.

I find it hard to be patient with this artisanal attitude, but I’ve realised that you cannot move people on unless you acknowledge where the resistance is coming from. Part of the reason people stick with known ways of doing things is habit, but a significant component is pleasure in the doing. As Cal Newport points out in his excellent book ‘So Good they can’t ignore you’, pleasure follows skill. You will enjoy a sport like tennis a lot more after you’ve been playing it for 10 years than you will in the first 10 weeks, when you are still learning. Switching to a similar game, like table tennis, will feel weird, even if you can do the basic moves of getting the ball over the net.

I’m all for preserving pleasure in research, but not at the expense of efficiency. Below are some thoughts on the main kinds of artisanal research pleasures and how you might be able to preserve the pleasure while using digital tools to boost efficiency.

Doing analysis ‘by hand’

In my area (vaguely sociology) there are a number of platforms available to analyse text data. I use Nvivo and their auto-coding product Interpris as well as the online mark up tool Dedoose and another corpus linguistics product called Lancsbox. These tools enable you to cut out bits of text, code, compare and count them to find patterns and add ‘memos’ to capture your theory about the patterns you see. All my digital tools replicate coding methods that can be done by hand using highlighter and post it notes, as in the image below:

highlighters, page of text and post it notes showing how text coding is done by hand

Looks like fun doesn’t it? It is! Doing data the old fashioned way feels pleasingly like being in kindergarten, but there are also some benefits to working with physical objects. Working on a physical page enables you to see text in context, rather than in isolated snippets. Working on paper helps you see the big picture and this is why people will sometimes stick with this method even though it’s much less efficient at helping to identify and describe patterns. Other disciplines will have ‘hand crafted’ methods too – when is the right time to let it go?

One way to decide to switch to digital methods is to consider the scale of the task. Doing things ‘by hand’ on a small sample of data is fine, but it gets less and less efficient over time. Really sophisticated analyses involving multiple datapoint just need raw computing power. Even people in history, anthropology and philosophy – disciplines most wedded to ‘craft batch’ style methods – can benefit from exploring supplementary digital options. If you are a PhD student, your skills with these digital techniques will be in hot demand when you finish, so I think you can’t afford to be purist and completely ignore them.

Printing out papers to read, rather than reading on a screen

Look, I totally get it. Paper is lovely and the reading experience is completely different. I still buy lots of paper books because I just prefer to hold something in my hand and having them lying around reminds me to read stuff. It’s much easier to flip back and forth though the pages in a book than on a device. Despite recent improvements that allow you to do approximate the page flip, most digital readers still reformat pages as you read, so it’s harder to find your ‘place’ again. It’s easier to teach with physical books – and you can lend them out to students, which is why we keep a small library of useful texts on hand in our office for candidates to borrow.

While I buy paper books, I do not print out research papers or articles to read. In fact, I cannot even connect to a printer at work so I am not tempted! Again the issue is scale, but this time it’s the opposite to my previous point. Small pieces of text are easier to manipulate, store, file and search if you keep them digital; whole books are easier to consume in the non-digital form. Of course, it’s still good to have the portability and accessibility of an ebook, so I will often buy both versions of books I use frequently.

Only taking notes on paper

Who doesn’t love a journal? People give them to me as presents frequently and I am always delighted. I have shelves full of journals stretching back to my undergraduate architecture school days. I open them occasionally, to visit Past Inger – she seems like another person altogether. These notebooks are full of fragmented, obscure notes that make no sense anymore. This is the key problem with keeping notes by hand: there is no context. The sequential pages are a bit like a blog: new entries tend to ‘drown out’  previous entries. It’s all too easy to lose important information.

I still like writing and drawing on paper – I do it all the time, but now, if I think I’ll want to refer back to the information, I photograph the results and store them in my Evernote database. Evernote has optical character recognition and can ‘read’ my handwriting, making my hand written notes searchable. I can also attach sound, writing and other files to my original hand made page to make ‘information rich’ nodes of information in my database. Notes on reading are best kept in bibliographic software; programs like Scrivener allow you to keep the notes close to the draft of the writing. While I take notes during meetings, I never rely on them as a record of what happened. I either send the person a summary of the key discussion and action points, or put the actions straight in my ‘to do’ list in Omnifocus. No one has time to read back through old journals and try to interpret what Past Inger was thinking!

Keeping references in a spreadsheet

I have not used the cite-as-you-write function of my bibliographic software since the day after I finished my dissertation. I know – I really should use it – but in practice I find it too annoying. 90% of my academic papers are written with other people; sending a paper with joined up references to people who don’t use the same software is a nightmare. Since I write what are essentially high-level text books, not historical surveys, my longer manuscripts have much less referencing than my dissertation. Unless you are writing long form, reference heavy text like a dissertation, or a history paper, I think it’s fine to do referencing manually. I don’t think it’s fine to keep said references in a spreadsheet, as I have seen some candidates do. That way lies madness.

What do you think? Do you have some artisanal research practices that you think are worth hanging on to? Or do you prefer to work entirely digitally? Love to hear more in the comments about your analog / digital hacks!

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The #PhDweekend

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - June 12, 2019 - 4:00am

This post is by Laura Wynne, a PhD student at the University of Tasmania. She has worked for six years as a researcher at the University of Technology Sydney. She researches housing policy and urban sustainability. She just submitted her PhD – only 10 days after her scholarship ran out. How did she keep to time so well and keep her weekends free? Read on to find out.

Images that appear on Unsplash when you type in ‘weekend’ – no computers!

Any PhD student worth their salt will tell you that #PhDchat is just about the loveliest place on twitter—on #PhDchat, people are supportive, friendly, generous with advice and celebrate one another’s achievements (what is this, some kind of parallel twitterverse?). But, despite all this, there is a part of #PhDchat that makes me sad: the #PhDweekend thread.

Sure, everyone there is still supportive, friendly and generous, but it’s the very premise that upsets me. Weekends are important. Our forebears worked hard to secure us two days a week of respite. Why are so many students spending so many of their weekends on the computer or in the lab (or, worse, on twitter)? I came across a tweet on #PhDchat the other day that might go some way towards explaining why #PhDweekend exists. A fellow student had tweeted to #PhDchat that her supervisor had told her that, in order to complete a PhD, ‘you need to suffer’. This idea that we must be miserable to do a PhD is absurd. The PhD should be challenging, yes, but should it really feel like suffering?

Beyond what it should feel like, there are many reasons why working all day, every day, doesn’t even make any sense. We know that, beyond a certain threshold, there is an inverse relationship between hours worked and productivity. This is for a number of reasons: firstly, working long hours is terrible for our health, and if you’re working long hours you’re probably sleeping less, too. Poor health and sleep deprivation lead, in turn, to reduced productivity. But there’s more to it than that. Parkinson’s law (nothing to do with the disease) posits that any task facing you will expand to fit the time you have to complete it. If you set yourself a week to do a task, it’ll probably take you a week. If you’re racing for a 3pm deadline, it’ll probably take you up to that deadline. Tasks don’t come with in-built timeframes—they expand or contract depending on how long we give them.

For some reason, we’ve arrived at a point where we’ve decided that all of our time—just about every waking minute—is potential PhD time. We try to fill up every hour with reading and writing and field work and emails and then wonder why we feel like we’re getting nothing done. It’s easy to fall into this trap: the pressure is high, jobs are scarce, funding is limited, making us feel the need to devote every minute of our existence to our PhD. But is that really the best way to go about it?

For me, working long hours is not an option. It’s not that I have kids or illness or anything like that. I am just incapable of working long hours. Give me three hours to do a task and I’ll do it in two. But ask me to work a 60 hour week and the mere anxiety conferred by the thought of it will have me shivering and sick within minutes. So when I started this PhD I needed to figure out a way to do it without giving my life—and my health—over to it. I decided to put a limit on how much time my PhD would take.

Trying to work out how much time your PhD will take is like asking ‘how long is a piece of string?’, except that the piece of string in question frays into dozens of tiny bits of string that may or may not be consequential until you’ve explored them right to their logical endpoint. So, with Parkinson’s law in mind, you need to reorient the question. Rather than asking, ‘how long will it take me to do this PhD?’, you need to ask ‘how much time do I have available to write this PhD?’.

When I first did this, the results looked a little scary. When you take away holiday time (ESSENTIAL!), sick time (inevitable), part-time work or teaching, the inevitable distractions of email, twitter, reading blog posts about PhD productivity, and all the other bits and pieces that take time away from the actually doing-of-your-PhD, you realise that you’re down to maybe 3.5 days a week over the life of your PhD (if you take 7 hours/5 days a week as your starting point—which you should. I’ll say it again: weekends are important. So is sleep.)

Then think about what you can actually achieve with those 3.5 days per week. For me, it doesn’t look like much at all. I use the pomodoro method (structuring my work in 25-minute high-focus sessions—no distractions allowed—with short breaks in between). A really productive day of writing for me would involve six pomodoros. Maximum. It might not sound like much, but that’s really tiring (in a ‘ooh yeah I worked hard’ way, not in a ‘ugh I’ve been staring at this screen all day’ way)—and it’s also time enough to get a tonne of writing done. Of course, on top of these six pomodoros, I’m doing emails, note taking, checking #PhDchat etc—all the stuff that isn’t reading, writing, fieldwork and analysis.

If you think about trying to do, say, six pomodoro sessions per day that you have available (which for me is at best 3 days per week over 3.5 years), you’ll realise that the PhD that you arrive at if you ask ‘how long is a piece of string?’ is completely unachievable within the actual time you have available.

So, instead of trying to find more time in your week, you need to re-scale your PhD to meet the time you have. This may be easier said than done, but the main message is: be realistic. What can you achieve in the time you’ve got? Remember, you don’t need to write the greatest PhD that’s ever been written, you should aim to write the best PhD you can achieve. That means taking stock of your resources (your mental capacity, your time, your energy) and being honest with yourself about what you want to get out of the PhD.

In addition to my daily six-pomodoro targets, I also set myself realistic targets for chapter writing. When I started writing my first chapter, I realised that I would spend the whole year trying to perfect that piece of writing, if I didn’t establish a timeline. Borrowing a habit from my husband (yes, we’re a two-PhD household!), in my third year I set myself a timeline that gave me 5-6 weeks to draft each chapter. (Of course, I’d done plenty of note taking, analysis and some rough sketching prior to this point, so I wasn’t starting entirely from scratch.) I blew a couple of these along the way, but, as I prepare for submission at the 3.5-year mark, I’m well ahead of schedule, if my peers are anything to judge by. Setting these deadlines encouraged the task to grow into the timeline (rather than the timeline growing with the task), directing me away from ideas of a ‘perfect chapter’ towards creating something resembling a chapter to send to my supervisors by the due date (usually accompanied by a slew of caveats about how it’s ‘just a draft’ and ‘very rough’ and the discussion section is ‘very preliminary’).

This method is staggeringly helpful. Feedback from my supervisors on my very-rough drafts takes me light-years ahead of where I would be if I was fumbling around in the dark by myself, trying to perfect each section. Plus, if nothing else, it gives me a sense of momentum. This sense of momentum and achievement is so very valuable in the PhD. It is so hard to know whether we’re doing enough. What these methods—the pomodoros and the six week chapters—have provided me with is a means of being accountable to myself. Using an app (I use Be Focused Pro, but there are dozens out there) I track my daily progress—each pomodoro is tallied up on a neat little graph so I feel good about myself every day. And—you’ll have to trust me on this—there’s nothing like the feeling of sending another chapter to your supervisor every six weeks.

The PhD is an unwieldy beast, but I’d suggest the best way through is to change the question you’re asking yourself: instead of asking ‘how long is a piece of string?’ ask yourself ‘how long should my piece of string be?’.

Thanks for that bracing dose of time management realism Laura! How about you? Does this time breakdown speak to you, or do you have another way to manage expectations and deliverables? Love to hear about it in the comments.

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New book! Becoming and academic

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - June 5, 2019 - 4:00am

I have a new book out!

Actually, that’s not entirely accurate… My book ‘How to be an Academic’ has been re-published in the US by Johns Hopkins University press as ‘Becoming an Academic: How to get through Grad School and Beyond’, which means it is now easily available in Europe and the UK as well as the USA. I’m also excited that ‘Becoming an Academic’, has a lovely shiny new cover which picks up on my ‘home brew’ pile of paper branding:

If you don’t already own the Australian version, you can buy this new release for a very reasonable price of $19.95 directly from the publisher, on the American Amazon site and the UK Amazon site and Book Depository.

It was an interesting process preparing the book for the US market. I searched and replaced every mention of ‘PhD Student’ with ‘Grad Student’ and all mentions of ‘Supervisor’ became ‘Advisor’. Then the hard work began. Apparently the book was ‘very Australian’, which meant I had to find US equivalents of references I took for granted, such as ‘having a whinge’, ‘lollies’ and ‘fish and chip shop’. I did win my lovely publisher over to keeping in the last piece about Gough Whitlam and The Dismissal, so non-Australian readers get a little bit of Australian political history at the end.

The US version of the book has a slightly different chapter order, which I think is an improvement. The chapters still tackle all the tricky aspects of academic life, like how to write to deadline, deal with rejection and manage academic assholes – as well as celebrations of the lovely sides of academic life, like friendships. I’m excited that this book is now easily available to readers in the UK and the US and I hope you enjoy it. Below is an extract from the introduction, as a bit of a taster.

Some years ago a more senior academic gave me a little pep talk about the difference between nepotism and patronage and the importance of cultivating Contacts. It took a while to appreciate the value of this cold-blooded advice. I went on to be rejected four times before I had to face up to the sad truth: no architecture department was going to hire me. Just like a bad boyfriend, the university was not willing to commit to me. I was just not sexy or interesting enough. I didn’t have a PhD or a list of publications the length of my arm. I needed to let go of my Brideshead Revisited fantasy of professors sitting around, drinking port with their students in book-lined rooms.

It’s an unhappy truth that a research-heavy CV is the tight leather trousers of the university employment dance. Teaching ability is like a good personality no one is going to take you home from the disco. Simon French reckons some people lead a charmed life and don’t get their heart broken until they fail to get promoted into the professoriate, or get retrenched because someone decides the university isn’t teaching medieval history anymore. Some aspiring academics are broken early on by an academic mentor or advisor who makes their life a living hell. Simon talks about bouncing back after the university has become your bad boyfriend. It’s true that people do react in different ways to being unlucky in love. Some will swear off having a relationship forever and go out to get paid more in the private sector; others stay, but are permanently bitter.

I don’t like bitterness. I decided to continue to love the university, while being aware of its faults. I put on the tight leather trousers of the academic employment disco and got a PhD. Fast forward nearly 15 years and, although the permanent job eludes me still, my contract is so long I am not that worried. I’ve learned to live by my wits and survive the Academic Hunger Games on my own terms. While I liked where Hil was going with much of his critique, in my opinion the resistance tactics he offered at the end of his book were just not useful. Most of them were geared to making it hard for your managers. I think this is tilting at the wrong windmill. Overwhelmingly, academic managers are just trying to cope with a system that is fundamentally unmanageable and underfunded; the real problem is the lack of vision and investment by successive governments. Academics who do not have secure employment would probably find themselves without a job next year if they made their managers’ lives hard by protesting. Protesting is fine for people close to retirement, but for the new scholar, it’s career suicide.

So this book doesn’t tell you how to resist; I seek instead to empower. I want you to think about your own terms of engagement with the bad boyfriend/girlfriend/significant other university, either as a grad student or an academic. I want to help you win the Academic Hunger Games, but not by stepping on other people’s throats. While there are a lot of hints, tips and tricks in here that have helped me and others, I also want to meditate on bigger issues. I want to talk about how to exist in a heartless workplace without becoming a jerk and how to persist in the face of difficulty – and when to give up. I want this book to help you think about what kind of academic you want to be and what sort of workplace you want to help create for yourself and others.

Some of the posts in this book deal with the emotional sides of academic life; others reflect on the kind of behaviours which are common in academia – and how to deal with them. Still more offer lessons on dealing with academia as a workplace and the kind of skills needed to prosper there. Some include more than a little critique of academia itself.

Regular readers will recognise some posts, no doubt, but you could think of this book as the remixed, 12-inch extended edition of the original songs. Creating this book gave me a rare opportunity to pull together scattered bits of writing from the blog and other bits of journalism, such as magazine articles; it was a bit like fitting pieces of a jigsaw together. Sometimes I’ve taken a paragraph from one post and attached it to the end of another, or pushed two whole posts together and edited them to the point where it has become something entirely new.

Like many academics, I have certain obsessions: the town/gown riots in medieval universities, the social function of food in academic settings, and a love of verbs that sometimes frightens my students. I tend to return to the same themes again and again, so the chapters came together relatively easily. Each is about different ways of being an academic. My special interest as a researcher is employability, so in that chapter I have brought together posts that offer advice on how to win the Academic Hunger Games, as well as cautionary tales. I then reflect on the culture of academia and the people who inhabit it. I follow with a chapter on being productive, touching on the specific workplace challenges and how you can use technology to solve them. In the chapters on writing and productivity I include posts on making academic work faster and easier, so you don’t get overwhelmed. The final chapter has been reserved for my most angry posts – those I have written for my union newspaper, reflecting on the broader political issues that impact academics and their work.

Related Links

Buy ‘Becoming an academic directly from the publisher,

 US Amazon link

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A PhD in 2 years… or less?

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - May 29, 2019 - 4:00am

This post is by Dr Carmen Blyth, who completed her PhD in 2015 on ethics in international schools at the University of Cape Town and was a postdoctoral fellow with the Decolonizing Early Childhood Discourses research project at the same university. She has worked with international schools and universities in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East for over 20 years as an EAP/ESL/EAL teacher, teacher trainer, and department founder. She currently enjoys mentoring PhD and IB Diploma candidates and is working on an anthology that explores the links between posthumanism and the autoethnographic turn. Her thesis was published in 2017 by Palgrave MacMillan as: International Schools, Teaching and Governance: An Autoethnography of a Teacher in Conflict . Connect with her on Twitter: @teacher whispers

I used to get raised eyebrows and looks of disbelief, when I responded to the question: ‘how long did it take you to get your PhD’ with the answer: 2 years. I could have said 14 months to submit and 22months if you include the graduation ceremony, but that would have been pushing the limits of most people’s credibility so I stuck to the round number: 2 years.

I have always been in a bit of a rush: 3 years for my BSc (Hons) in Physics, 9 months for my Masters in TESOL and now a PhD in less than 2 years. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the studying – I loved every minute of every degree. When I was young I had felt the pressure of time: there were places to go to, people to meet, and that I had better get on with it. However, this could not be said of my last time around the academic maypole with my PhD. I was 59 when I registered and now the rush was on exactly because I was literally running out of time. I had been everywhere I wanted to go, met everyone I wanted to meet, but this last academic goal had remained outstanding. I was worried it might remain permanently outstanding if I didn’t get my skates on and set a target for the very foreseeable future, which in my case turned out to be graduating at age 60.

But how exactly does one go about completing a PhD by thesis only in less than 24 months? The answer lay in knowing exactly what I wanted my dissertation to address (the research problem and questions) and how (methodology). I did a large amount of relevant reading prior to registering (the initial proposal had a reference section bordering on 30 pages), and most importantly finding the right fit in terms of supervisor and university.

A year before I intended registering I started my search for a supervisor. I wanted someone willing to join me on this marathon task tackled at a sprint.  They had to be knowledgeable about my research area (ethics) and have enough time to supervise me (ie: not already supervising a lot of PhD and MA candidates, or teaching a lot of courses). I found 3 possible candidates but after a series of long email exchanges, it was clear that only one had the time, knowledge, and willingness to give it a go.

I duly sent in my pre-proposal, was accepted and registered, and within a month had submitted my formal proposal (you are given up to 6 months to submit at this particular university) with the 2 year timeframe for completion included (one of my proposal readers thought this timeline was ‘overly ambitious’).  The process for proposal approval turned out to be quite long. I was on to writing the final chapter of the thesis when the approval came through! (‘Thank goodness for that’ was my only thought, a thought verbalized by my supervisor!). But the wait had been productive. I put in 6 hours a day (usually from 6pm to midnight) and submitted chapter drafts and redrafts virtually every Friday for my supervisor to look at, comment on and return the next week. We spoke once by Skype and once face-to-face at the university but apart from that it was all written feedback. I preferred this approach as it minimized costly (time-wise) mis-understandings and gave me comments I could respond to in detail.

I worked solidly every evening, including weekends (it really was so much fun and a real challenge to turn drafts around in record time). I was sure to fit in a swim and a run everyday – even if that meant getting up before the crack of dawn. It was during those swims and/or runs that I would solve some of my most pressing writing problems: issues with wording, clarity of expression. Sometimes I would re-organize whole sections in my mind as I swam or ran. And invariably every night before switching off my lap top I would back up all my work, including papers and/or books downloaded, drafts written and anything else pertaining to the PhD thesis (far better safe than sorry!). I would then make a list (pen and paper) of what needed to be tackled the next evening: readings to be reread, chapter sections to be reworked, notes to be read, references to be rechecked.

During this process I also started researching the university’s submission process: was it all done online or by hard copy? If online what did the process entail and how long would it take? Similarly if it was by hardcopy what was the timeline” How long did it generally take from submission to examiners’ report? And how long before the graduation date would I need for amendments (if needed) to be made and approved? My research showed that I would need to submit 6-7 months before the graduation date I had set myself (ie 14 months into the PhD journey) to give myself the necessary leeway should the unthinkable happen: the need to rewrite a substantial part of the thesis. In the end I made it to the deadline of 7 months pre-graduation date with a couple of days to spare – phew!

In the end I only had a very minor rewrite to do – it took me just a Sunday afternoon to complete and submit. Three pieces of advice were I think key to this easy turn around. Firstly: throughout the writing of the chapters I was constantly aware of the need to keep bringing the readers back to my research problem and research questions so that at no point would the examiners not understand how that particular chapter/section was relevant to the study. Secondly, I turned the notes on everything I read into a piece of writing that addressed my research problem and questions so that when I came to write a section on that particular topic I already had large chunks of writing I could copy, paste, and amend slightly. Thirdly, I was meticulous in proofreading my final dissertation and the citations. The moral of this third and final piece of advice is that mistakes/typos/misquotes/wrong citations make an examiner nervous.

I used to get raised eyebrows and looks of disbelief, when I responded to the question: ‘how long did it take you to get your PhD’ with the answer 2 years. But completing in less than 2 years is achievable even if you’re 60 – honestly!

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How to harness the power of semantic gravity in your writing

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - May 22, 2019 - 9:21am

A month or two ago, I wrote a post called ‘The Uneven U’ which outlined ideas about paragraph structure from Eric Hayot’s book “The elements of academic style: writing for the humanities”. Briefly, Hayot claims that there are five levels of abstraction in sentence structure:

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 paragraphs that are most successful at conveying information have an ‘uneven U’ structure, beginning at 4 (moderately abstract), going down through the levels to 1 (the most concrete), then back up to five (the most abstract). On a graph, the Hayot curve looks like this:

I’ve been teaching this concept since late last year and PhD students in my writing workshops tell me that they find it useful – if a bit difficult to operationalise. Most of my writing practice is based on teaching people to deconstruct other tests on the general principle that seeing how people in your own discipline do it can help you to better copy the ‘moves’ – and thus become a better writer, in that discipline at least. The trick to operationalising the Uneven U is to know how to write each type of sentence so you can start to see your writing process as a movement between abstract and concrete modes.

To help develop this ability to move between abstract and concrete, I suggest that people spend a bit of time with their favourite papers and graph paper to see if they can see this structure in action. I demonstrate how to deconstruct a paragraph by labelling each sentence on the Hayot scale then plotting it out as in the image above. In practice, I find defining a sentence at level 4 or 3 can be a bit subjective, but your mapping doesn’t have to be super precise to be useful. When you do this process for a page or so, you can start to see a pattern, but in all likelihood, it won’t be neat and tidy.

Take this abstract from a paper I was casually reading the other day: Mäntylä, M. V., Graziotin, D., & Kuutila, M. (2018). The evolution of sentiment analysis—A review of research topics, venues, and top cited papers. Computer Science Review, 27, 16-32. The paragraph is perfectly fine and corresponds with the ‘moves’ that Pat Thomson suggests are appropriate in an abstract:

Sentiment analysis is one of the fastest growing research areas in computer science, making it challenging to keep track of all the activities in the area. (Level 4) We present a computer-assisted literature review, where we utilize both text mining and qualitative coding, and analyze 6996 papers from Scopus (Level 2). We find that the roots of sentiment analysis are in the studies on public opinion analysis at the beginning of 20th century and in the text subjectivity analysis performed by the computational linguistics community in 1990’s (Level 2). However, the outbreak of computer-based sentiment analysis only occurred with the availability of subjective texts on the Web (Level 3). Consequently, 99% of the papers have been published after 2004. Sentiment analysis papers are scattered to multiple publication venues, and the combined number of papers in the top-15 venues only represent ca. 30% of the papers in total (Level 1). We present the top-20 cited papers from Google Scholar and Scopus and a taxonomy of research topics (Level 3). In recent years, sentiment analysis has shifted from analyzing online product reviews to social media texts from Twitter and Facebook (Level 4). Many topics beyond product reviews like stock markets, elections, disasters, medicine, software engineering and cyberbullying extend the utilization of sentiment analysis (Level 5).

Mapped on a piece of paper, this paragraph looks like this:

Most of the papers I advise students to map will not conform to a strict U shape, but this doesn’t mean the idea of moving between abstract and concrete is bunk. The curve in this graph is more like a roller coaster than an uneven U, although it does finish higher on the abstraction level than it starts (which corresponds with Hayot’s basic advice). This paragraph reads very well, despite not conforming strictly to Hayot’s curve, which suggests that movement from abstract to concrete and back again is more important than adhering exactly to the shape Hayot suggests. Any paragraph that shows up and down motion is still better than a paragraph that does not conform at all – but why?

To find out, we’re going to have to go into a bit of hairy theory (stay with me. The pay off is there, I promise). After I did my last post, Someone on Twitter (and I’m really sorry I can’t scroll back far enough to find out who) pointed me at literature on ‘Legitimation Code Theory’, remarking that they could see a resemblance. I book marked the link at the time, but, with life being busy I and all, I didn’t get to reading any of these papers until a couple of weeks ago. The prime mover behind Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) is a Sydney academic, Karl Maton. The basic idea, as outlined on his website, is to decipher the principles behind the ‘rules of the game’ in knowledge making practices and make the ‘DNA of knowledge’ more visible so that more people can access and participate in knowledge building. LCT attempts to operationalise observations by people like Pierre Bourdieu that social life has largely invisible ‘rules’ that tend to support and maintain certain kinds of power structures. To be honest, LCT seems pretty out there when you first read it, but I like the social justice angle and way people working in this mode draw on concepts from physics and chemistry to explain things like writing and comprehension.

Using LCT applied to semantics (as outlined on this page), we could say that Hayot’s curve visualises the semantic density (complexity) and semantic gravity (context dependence) of each sentence, building ‘semantic waves’ that build knowledge over time. Maton visualises this process of construction as a graph, similar to Hayot:

You can think about semantic gravity as being closer too, or further away from, something concrete, be it a place, thing or data point. In my workshops I use a chair to demonstrate how to think about writing at different levels of semantic gravity. We start at the lightest setting, which means you are standing at a distance from any specific chair, from this distance you can only see chairs as a group:

image by @jonasjacobsson on Unsplash

A low semantic gravity sentence (level four or five on Hayot’s curve) talks about a lot of chairs at once: “Universities have to supply a lot of chairs for students, making the chair buying budget a significant capital expense”. Personally, I would call this a level 4 sentence because it’s oriented towards a specific problem. The semantic density is correspondingly high too: we’d have to know what a ‘capital expense’ means to reach full comprehension.

We can increase semantic gravity by mentally ‘zooming in’ on a smaller cluster of chairs, like this:

Image by @antenna on Unsplash

A sentence with higher semantic gravity (more context dependant) would go something like this: “Purchasing chairs for universities are exposed to a range of wear and tear factors as we cannot prevent students from doing things like resting their legs on the seats or spilling coffee, therefore purchasing decisions must be carefully considered”. I would call this a level two or level three sentence on Hayot’s curve: it describes a particular setting or data point, without being too specific. The semantic gravity might be higher, but the semantic density is lower: the sentence is easier to understand, perhaps because we can visualise actual events (a late student spilling their coffee).

To get down to level one on Hayot’s scale, or to the highest semantic gravity setting, we have to focus in on one chair in particular. For this I go to my friend Tseen Khoo’s project Sad Chairs of Academia, a Tumblr blog with the tagline of “You think you’re having a hard time in academia, but have you ever thought of the chairs? Will no-one think of the chairs?”. You do wonder why no one thinks of the chairs when you see pictures like this:


That poor chair! Clearly it has had a hard life! We are now right up close to a concrete thing, place, person, quote, data point or whatever. A sentence with the gravity turned all the way up is a level one sentence on the Hayot curve, something like: “Chairs with fake leather covers are particularly prone to problems of long term problems of wear and tear; after ten years the covers are likely to have worn off the arms and seats, although the back rest of the chair might be less affected.” A level one sentence has the lowest semantic density – it is the simplest sentence to understand because it is the most concrete.

Once you have hit level one you must bounce up again through the levels of abstraction to help the reader see the ‘big picture’ again, quite literally when you think about it… Remember the movement is more important than the exact levels of each sentence and you should be able to put this ‘hidden rule’ of writing into action. I hope this detour into theory and broken chairs has helped illuminate the concept of semantic gravity – although I acknowledge it might be too out there and just leave you more confused than ever! Happy to try to answer questions in the comments.

Related posts on the Whisperer

The Uneven U

Are there only four kinds of writers


How to fix your academic writing trouble: a practical guide

The elements of academic style: writing for the humanities

Other websites

Legitimation code theory website

Patter (for lots of writing advice from Pat Thomson)

Sad Chairs of Academia and check out Tseen’s work on The Research Whisperer.

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In praise of professional naggers

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - May 15, 2019 - 4:00am

This post is by Dr Vanessa Corcoran, who earned her Ph.D. in medieval history in 2017 at The Catholic University of America. Her research interests include the medieval cult of the Virgin Mary, the intersection of gender and popular religious practices, and the textual representations of medieval women’s voices. Currently, Vanessa is an Academic Counselor in the Office of the College Dean at Georgetown University. She’s working on a forthcoming memoir of her experiences in graduate school, entitled “It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint: Lessons Learned on the Road to the Marathon and Ph.D.” Follow her on Twitter @VRCinDC.

image by @v_well on Unsplash

At the beginning of 2015, I flew to Dayton, Ohio for a two-week research trip at the International Marian Research Institution at the University of Dayton. This research center housed some sixteenth-century prayers guides I hoped would factor into my dissertation. I excitedly viewed the research stint as an opportunity to jumpstart my writing.

While I waited for my flight home, I emailed my mom and aunts. I wanted to ride the momentum I had created during the trip into a productive semester. I hoped they, some of the most positive role models in my life, would play a part in this,

I’ve always tried to hold myself accountable and to uphold certain standards. However, I’ve come to realize I need a little more help to make sure I do this consistently. It’s easy for me to say, “I am going to work on my dissertation today” – a fairly vague statement. While I accomplish things each day, I need more of a strategic approach to getting this thing done. It is a new, so why not use this time to really resolve to change my habits so I can finally finish? You all such go-getters – some regular accountability will do me some good!

It was time to bring in the big guns: my mom and aunts, all of whom are go-getters and have played such an influential role in my life. I asked them to be my “professional naggers.” Apparently, you can pay someone to call you to make sure you’re staying on track. But in all seriousness, I asked these three women if I could keep them informed about my writing goals, as well the regular obstacles I faced. I even created my own writing contract:

  • On the weekend, I will commit to at least one hour-long writing session
  • Each week, I will plan out concrete goals and e-mail them out to you
  • I cannot read more than 3 books or articles without a short (30 minute) writing session
  • I will update my bibliography on a semi-weekly basis
  • I will identify obstacles to productivity as they occur and work to eliminate them
  • I need loving support, but I also need some tough love. There are going to be days when I’m not motivated and am just having a “blah” day. I need to not wimp out.

Now that I’ve finished my dissertation, those were reasonable and achievable goals. There was certainly room for flexibility, nor was I bound to a particular word count.

With that support network in place, I set to work, optimistic about the road ahead. I took that writing contract and used it to guide my daily routine. Each morning, I’d send off a quick email to my mom and aunts, detailing my goals for the day. For example, on January 27, 2015:

  • 4 good pages written yesterday – wahoo! Things were slow for a good chunk of the day (also went downtown for a meeting mid-day), but then picked up tonight after dinner.

For today:

  • readSpeaking in the Medieval World by Jean E. Godsall-Myers
  • outline and write 3 pages for historiography section of introduction
  • start outlining speech section for Chapter 1 (and try to write 2 pages if there’s time)

If I didn’t have those distinct goals, the days would’ve blurred together, and likely been less productive. I primarily worked from home, and I was grateful that my husband Pat was able to support me while I focused on my dissertation. Each morning, Pat would get ready for work; I’d feed and walk our English bulldog Heshie, and then settle down with my laptop for a few hours. If my energy was flagging, I’d occasionally call my mom or aunts for a quick phone call. They’d offer a pleasant distraction as they talked about their days, and I’d talk about what I was working on, and what I intended to accomplish for the rest of the day. I’d get off the phone, feeling refreshed and intent on making the rest of the day a productive one.

A few months later, I received some negative feedback from my advisor that left me feeling completely dejected. I worried that this feedback was proof that I could not write a passable dissertation. I feared this was a tipping point and a clear indication that I might wash out of graduate school.

I called my parents in tears, “What if I don’t finish? Will you still support me if I drop out?” Without a moment of hesitation, they replied, “Honey, you know we love you no matter what. But we also know that you can finish – we have every confidence in you. You’ve always managed to pull yourself out of these tough spots, and we know you’ll do it again.”

I wrote to my aunts, feeling crushed. They responded offering similar support, noting, “I honestly do not know how you do it.  If I had to have my writing scrutinized, I would probably go mad. But chin up. You have done it before and will know what to do!”

Although it was certainly nice to have this supportive group cheer me on during moments of victory, such as getting approval to submit my dissertation for defense, it was equally as important to have them by my side while I worked through these difficult moments. In the weeks that followed, I sought to regroup and make the necessary tweaks to my writing. My team regularly checked in with me, to make sure that I wasn’t wallowing, and that I taking real steps to gain momentum again.

I was grateful that I had amassed a group of loved ones whose encouragement helped get me through a successful dissertation defense. While it was only my name that was listed on the cover of my dissertation, it was my personal squad who offered me the assurance that I had the capability of crossing that very important finish line.

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The Process

Is losing weight similar to writing a thesis?

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More advice on advice

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - May 8, 2019 - 4:00am

I’ve been blogging on the Thesis Whisperer since June 2010 – nearly nine years as I write this post. I started the blog, in part, because I wanted an online resource I could send to students. I’d been working as a research educator for about four years at that time and noticed PhD students asked me the same questions over and over: how do I start my discussion section?, What is theory? What’s the best way to take notes? How do you write so fast? How do I put publications in my PhD?.

I thought it would take six months to write everything down. Happily I was wrong and I still find the blog a stimulating, creative space to share my research and teaching.

Image by @punttim on Unsplash

I’m fortunate that many people have taken up the invitation to write for the Whisperer: this is important for a number of reasons. Through listening to stories we all get smarter. Other people have valuable perspectives and experiences to share and I am grateful they see the Whisperer as a vehicle. If you’re a long time reader you might notice I have a rhythm to the blog. You get a post a week: one week it will be a community member the next week it will be me. By only posting on alternate weeks, I weave my voice into the voices of others. There’s no doubt this makes the blog more interesting – and more sustainable for me (if I had to write 1000 words every week I think I would have given up long ago!).

I get about two or three story pitches a week and, over time, I have developed a rubric for whether I accept a community member post or not. I rarely reject a post, but I do sometimes ask people to change their post before publication and sometimes I edit heavily. The most common reason I ask for a revise and resubmit is when people send me a fairly similar version of ‘lessonsI learned from doing a PhD’. Without realising it, when they reflect on the PhD process, students say the same kinds of thing. This similarity is easy to explain: we all work within a system and this puts similar pressures on each one of us. It’s not surprising advice for dealing with the system tends to converge around the same kind of topics: choosing good supervisors; being organised; qualities of persistence and resilience; keeping to a writing schedule; learning to fail; staying healthy and so on.

I never reject the ‘lessons learned’ story pitches out of hand – usually there is something new and interesting to say because every person has a unique journey through the PhD. If can find this angle in the first draft I suggest the person rewrites it with their unique angle front and centre. It might be that they did a PhD by publication, or that they studied at a distance, were coping with a chronic illness or condition, had lots of kids or were a minority in their department (I wish I had more of this last type – hint hint!). Most people are happy to do this rewrite, realising how useful it will be to others facing similar circumstances to share their very specific tips. These posts don’t speak to everyone and often don’t get many hits initially. However, over time they become the ‘go to’ post for people who google this specific circumstance. I like the idea that they stay on the blog as

Sometimes I am sent ‘lessons learned’ posts that people have already published the post on their own blog. They kindly ask if I will republish, but I usually refuse. I try to work by the spirit of generosity: it’s better to promote their blog through social media than be greedy and use their content on mine. Recently I agreed to do this for yet another post and started to think about how to make this sharing practice have more impact. With that in mind, I asked on Twitter for people to share with me advice posts they have written on their own blog. I got quite a number of them and expect that more will appear in the comments to this post.

Below is the beginning of a guide to other PhD student advice posts I have been sent so far. I consider all these posts to offer ‘generic advice’ – not because they are bad or boring, but because they share good, common sense advice that is applicable to most people doing a PhD. I had a fun afternoon reading all of them: there are some excellent tips and observations in here, which I imagine will be useful to anyone starting – or trying to finish.

I will add more posts to the list over time – possibly as a section on my Community page. I’m still interested in publishing more unique accounts and perspectives on the Whisperer, so if you have one, please send it in!

Success factors

Advice from future Dave

Things I learned the hard way (in graduate school)

Oh the places you’ll go! Reflecting on my PhD journey

My thesis tis done… the end of the beginning

Reflections on my PhD journey

20 things I wish I’d known when I started my PhD

#PhDing… while taking comprehensive exams (US system specific advice)

Tips and Tricks for PhD students (the #phdlifehack)

5 pieces of advice for aspiring PhD students 

How to survive a thesis defence

5 years into academia – 45 things I have learned so far

Things a scientist should know

What I now know about the doctorate: illuminating the PhDarkness

Don’t do a PhD

Things I wish someone had told me when I started my PhD

To fund or not to self fund your PhD (you’ll need to scroll down a bit to get to this section)

What I learned in my first term as a PhD researcher

10 things I wish I’d known 10 years ago (warning – heaps of amazing links here. Don’t open unless you plan to spend the next two hours following them. I speak from experience!)

10 things I wish I knew when I started my PhD

Three things I wish I knew before starting a PhD

University email: a PhD exit strategy (little discussed, but very important information)

Advice for doing a PhD (A compendium of advice from Twitter)

PhD life: defeating isolation

I’m sure there are many more than this list, perhaps you are a PhD student with a blog and have posted one you would like to share? Or you might just want to share that piece of advice you found genuinely helpful? Interested to hear from you in the comments!

Related Posts

Five time management ideas – from part time PhD students

Coping strategies for full time workers who become PhD students

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05/06/18 PHD comic: 'Hiatus'

PhD Comics - May 7, 2019 - 4:59pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Hiatus" - originally published 5/6/2018

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

Beware the couch! Reflections on academic reading

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - May 1, 2019 - 4:00am

Reading – you already know how to do it well… or do you?

This post is by Dr Robyn Mayes, Associate Professor at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia.  She has a long-standing interest in critical reading and thinking practice, and is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.  In addition to creating reading videos, Robyn is developing a series of supporting micro-tasks and is keen to develop an online critical-reader community.  Her research and publications span the socio-economic and gendered geographies of mining (in particular, community experiences/development and corporate social responsibility, and new social movements) and labour mobilities (FIFO workers, 457 visa holders, and au pairs). Her current research, funded by an ARC Discovery Grant, examines work and workers in the gig economy, with a focus on digital geographies of work. You can find out more about Robyn and her publications via her QUT staff page or email her at robyn.mayes@qut.edu.au

Over the years, I’ve learned a few things about reading journal articles. One of the most important things that I’ve discovered is that spending time thinking about how and why I read, and practicing ways to become a better reader, is time well spent.

After all, the ability to critically read journal articles—and lots of them, just think literature review—is foundational to quality scholarship.Through this reading we gain rich and incisive understandings of peer-reviewed theories, methodologies, findings, and debates in our fields.  Ideally, we then usethis knowledge to advance our scholarship and contribution.

This kind of reading, however, is far from easy. Hence the reflection and practice, which I’ve distilled into a set of short ‘how to’ videos. In these clips I showhowI read and offer strategies and tips from a researcher’s perspective. Here’s the introduction video:

A lot of us struggle at times with the sheer volume of journal-article reading required to get ‘across’ a field or topic and then to stay on top of developments. This is particularly tough when you are starting your research degree especially if you are one of the growing number of students who has moved into a new discipline or field in your postgrad study.  We might also struggle to make sense of dense text and unfamiliar terminology, or to make the most of limited time for reading.  On top of this, the research thesis journey provides many opportunities to feel overwhelmed, if not inadequate, in theface of the towering stack (or big folder) of articles you have indeed managed to read, let alone have yet to read.  Here is where practical strategies have their place. 

So, what is this critical reading and how best to do it?

I would say let’s start with: ‘where to do it?’ Academic reading is highly active, requiring energy and disciplined creativity. Such activity is not usually associated with, and is often much more difficult to do, lying on the couch or reclining in the garden—the very places where I did a bit too much of my reading as a doctoral student. And then there is the question of print versus screen reading. I would also warn against the easy fiction that we are being active readers, when in fact we are merely deferring the hard work till some later time. Here the highlighter springs to mind. Often, we are just colouring lines of text (soo satisfying!) without any real thought about why and how these chosen words are useful or meet our purposes. In my experience, it’s very important to be Reading with Purpose (click through for video link).

You are also part of a community of readers, and it’s good to know what other students are doing. Click through the links to see videos of Denise and Jacquie reflect on their experiences and learning process including the ‘strangeness’ of unfamiliar genres and, spoiler alert!, candid confessions of not liking reading. It is important to keep in mind that reading journal articles is work. Indeed it can be hard work; though I find it difficult to convince family members and friends of this. There is also the odd fact that I often don’t feel like I’ve got much done when I’ve been ‘just’ reading. For me, the solution has been to read and write at the same time. For advice on this, see my video Reading as Part of Your Writing Practice.

Journal reading has an even less-acknowledged emotional dimension. Some journal articles fill me with excitement and offer inspiration. Some make me grumpy if not outright angry and others are deeply confusing.  Some fill me with admiration and sometimes this makes me feel as though ‘I’m not smart enough for this!’.

And then there are also the emotions that we bring to the text: sometimes anxiety, sometimes boredom, sometimes excitement.  It’s important to acknowledge these emotions as part of the reading process. To my mind reading is a conversation between you and the text; between texts and other texts including yours. Thus, you not only listen to the text but also ask questions, and have something to say yourself, as in all good conversations. There’s a clip for this too: Reading as Dialogue.

To keep this sense of dialogue and purpose at the heart of your reading:  you might try writing a map of the intended conversation before you start reading.  I have done this myself, for example, before setting out to read Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s beautiful and complex work on whiteness and sovereignty (Moreton-Robinson, A 2006 ‘Towards a new research agenda: Foucault, Whiteness and Indigenous sovereignty’ Journal of Sociology42(4): 383-395). You’ll see that I have tried to articulate the exact purpose of my reading and to bring some clear questions to the text.

I plan to continue to develop and refine these videos—so your feedback is most welcome.  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below [or email me at robyn.mayes@qut.edu.au]. Who knows maybe you’ll start some conversations about scholarly reading practice: what we do and why it matters.

Full list of videos by Robin Mayes on reading:

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Reading like a Mongrel

Surviving the reading marathon

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A big list of academic job interview questions (and how to answer them)

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - April 24, 2019 - 4:00am

Academic life has seasons, as Les Back so eloquently pointed out in his lovely book The Academic Diary. At the moment it seems to be the season of job interviews, at least for some recent graduates in my immediate circle. I’ve been doing some challenging emotional work assisting with preparation of job applications and interviews, which reminds me of what a stressful time the end of a PhD can be! Examination is one emotional hurdle; getting into the job market is another thing altogether. The combination of waiting for results and finding a job would try anyone’s nerves. I’ve written lately about the difficulty of getting short listed when people have weird attitudes about PhD graduates and how to get in the mind of a potential employer, but what about if you get that job interview? What can you expect then?

I’ve felt unqualified to do a post on how to ace job interviews as I have not exactly had a history of success there. It’s fair to say that I have only succeeded in a job interview if people had already decided they wanted to hire me. However, a couple of people have pointed out that I’ve had plenty of experience sitting on the other side of the table, at least in academic settings. I’ve interviewed and hired people for a long time now. I know what people do wrong in academic job interviews, particularly the right and wrong ways to answer questions.

Preparing for job interview questions in advance can help calm your nerves, so what are you likely to be asked in an interview for an academic job? A candidate I know has an interview next week and was given a huge list of over 60 authentic post-doc job interview questions, compiled by Dr Larissa Schneider, A DECRA fellow at ANU. Larissa got these questions from graduates who took notes in their job interviews – a nice example of collegial sharing in the sciences! Larissa kindly shared it with me on the understanding I would develop a blog post that did not reveal the specific jobs. Accordingly, I took the original list and developed a shorter, more generic one that still represents the variety of the original.

I include the altered list below, with some notes on things to think about as you develop your potential answers. Bear in mind these are questions posed to science graduates applying for a post-doc project doing research in a specific area for a year or more. If you are going for a lectureship or a job in the humanities, you can expect the questions to be a little different, but I think this list will still be a good starting point anyway:

How would you collect data for this project? The notes I was given suggest that interviewers will expect quite a detailed answer. What I would look for is a person who can identify risks with data collection and have some mitigation strategies in place.

How would you analyse data? Questions about analysis are directly testing out your capacity to do the work. I strongly recommend you sketch out a research plan in advance so that you have a good idea of the steps you would take. You might have to make some assumptions in this plan as you don’t have all the details as yet. Don’t worry too much: it’s the thinking processes that matter here.

Can you use [insert relevant analysis software]? If you don’t know the specific software in question, don’t panic! Describe other, similar ones you have used and how quickly you can learn more with the aid of YouTube and a few instruction manuals.

What can you add creatively to the research? This can be a very difficult question to answer on the spot. Make sure the sketch research plan I mentioned above includes a ‘further work’ section so you can spin out a few ideas ahead of time.

Where do you see yourself – short term / long term? I hate this question. Like most people I am kicking the can down the road of my career; reacting to opportunities as they arise. If you don’t have a clear idea of where it’s all going, just have a plausible reply handy. “Director of a research lab” is as good an answer as any for the long term career; “continuing research and teaching position” is a good enough short term goal. Good on you if you have more specific answers than this!

Why do you want to do the job? How will this position fit in your overall career plan? Not as easy to answer as you might suppose. Let’s face it, sometimes people apply for jobs that are convenient in terms of place or pay. There is nothing wrong with that, but it can make the potential employer feel they aren’t your first choice. Try to keep your answer focused on how this job fits in with your overall skills development and interests.

Tell us about your publishing experience. This question is testing what you know about getting papers into the pipeline, as well as how you respond to reviews and deal with co-authors. Don’t forget to include other forms of publishing if you have done them, but don’t emphasise these at the expense of telling the panel you can deal with the banal problems of the normal scientific publishing process. Science communication is very hip right now, but a working scientist needs to concentrate on communicating within a community of practice. This has different ‘rules’ to communicating with external stakeholders and the public.

How do you handle collaboration with external stakeholders? An excellent question – and difficult to answer if you have not really dealt with people in industry etc. If you haven’t actually dealt with this situation, emphasise that you understand the idea of negotiation being built on mutual interests and clear communication. For a good primer on the basics, check out the book Getting to Yes and for the nitty gritty of stakeholder engagement a good reference is Project management for the unofficial project manager.

How have you handled a difficult situation with people? Another great question. Luckily, academia is full of difficult people, so you should be able to think of a situation where you had to deal with someone being an academic asshole. Outline the situation and describe how you solved the problem with your superior negotiating skills. Don’t use managing your supervisor as an example – especially if there’s bitterness. No one wants to hire someone bitter about their supervisor, no matter how justified.

How did you handle a difficult situation with a project? A nice variation on the question above. Think of some specific example that demonstrates you are cool in a crisis / able to predict a problem in advance / good at managing fall out from problems or all of the above. I like to hear about banal, ordinary problems because it helps me get a sense of what that person will be like to work with.

How do you get things done? If you have a ‘getting things done’ system like Omnifocus, it’s a good chance to mention it, but don’t, whatever you do, bore people with the specifics of your system and try to tell them why it’s better than anything else. During this interview you are being judged on what kind of colleague you will be. No one wants to work with someone who tries to tell people how to do their job – it’s annoying.

How would you attract new/extra funding to the role? This question is testing your knowledge of how the funding landscape around you works. If you haven’t familiarised yourself with all the acronyms for the funding schemes, now is the time to do a deep dive on the Research Whisperer blog, which has been running almost as long as the Thesis Whisperer and has nearly a decade free to access wisdom.

What is the most exciting thing you have discovered in your research?/ What do you think is the best paper you have written? / what are you most proud about? I like these kinds of questions as it’s a chance for you to shine and tell a good story about yourself and your work. I think it says something about your powers of self reflection and self confidence if you can’t easily answer this question, so be ready to share.

What have you read outside your field that interested you? A curious question, but probing the less ‘visible’ parts of your professional persona. All of us have side research interests that feed our creativity, so this is a good chance to show your versatility as a scholar. If you can speak to what you bring back from this ‘extra-curricular’ reading to your current work – be it a method, theory, approach or procedure, even better.

What isn’t in your CV? I’d hate to get this one without being prepared. This is a good opportunity to pick up on a character trait, like your creativity, analytical ability, how fast you can read and digest information etc. Have a concrete example of this skill in action so that you can ‘show’ as well as tell. A similar answer could be used for the old ‘What are your strengths and weaknesses?’ question.

What’s your approach to teamwork? Depending on your PhD project, specifically the kind of lab settings you were in, you might not have as much to talk about here as you would like. Don’t forget, previous jobs in retail / fast food are settings where you also developed team work skills, often in much higher pressure environments.

Tell us your understanding of workplace equality and your direct experience of it Given that a woman was asked this question, I am not too sure of the intent behind it. Did they want to see if she would complain? I suppose this question is a good chance for you to share any additional training you have done, or initiatives you’ve been involved with that promotes this worthy aim. Otherwise, I got nothing!

Based on what you have read about this position, what would be your research question? This one will be a snap if you have already sketched out a research plan for this post doc position – hard if you have to make it up on the spot. My go to reference for articulating research questions properly is The Craft of Research.

What do you know about working with industry? I guess if you have never done anything with industry, you just have to own your lack of knowledge here. If you are still studying, it’s good to know that research impact and industry led research is becoming something that people ask postdoc applicants. Most universities have ‘innovation training’ or something similar – might be time to consider popping along to one of these so at least you can say you did something.

What do you understand about authorship and how people are ordered on papers. Hopefully you’ve had some experience of this already. The problem I find here is that what is taught as ‘best practice’ is routinely broken in reality. Authors seem to get chucked on papers for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with the Vancouver Protocol or any other rules. Here’s a good blog post that outlines some of the issues and might help you make a more informed answer.

Tell me about your PhD research. The important thing when you answer is not to rabbit on – the people on the other side of the table will be assessing how well you can succinctly communicate difficult information. Doing the 3MT competition is really helpful for exactly this kind of job interview question. Give a top level summary and then a sentence or two about the importance of your work. Write a couple of sentences down before you go in so that you keep on message.

I hope this big list of job interview questions will help you prepare for your post doc interview – or provide a starting point to think about how to apply for other kinds of academic interviews. Thanks so much for the list Larissa!

How what about you? Have you had an academic job interview, for a post doc, or some other kind of job? What questions did you get asked? Were there any unexpected ones? I’d love to hear about your experience of academic job interviews in the comments.

Related posts

What do academic employers want?

Academic on the inside?

I want to leave academia, what’s next?

Should you leave your PhD off your CV?

What is this anti-PhD attitude about?

Our research papers

“Academic superheroes: a critical analysis of academic job descriptions”

“A machine learning analysis of the demand for non academic  job opportunities for PhD graduates in Australia”.

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!

Who needs an editor? You.

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - April 17, 2019 - 4:00am

Karin Hosking is a Canberra-based editor and proofreader. She specialises in thesis editing and particularly enjoys working with students and academics from non-English speaking backgrounds. Her LinkedIn profile is here and she can be contacted via email at chezkaz@gmail.com. In this post Karin explains the basic work of an editor and what you can expect them to do for your dissertation.

I work as an editor and have felt a little overwhelmed by the number of language errors and typos I’ve spotted in books and on signs lately. There’s no need to be afraid of editors. Most of us are gentle, friendly souls who just want to help others communicate more effectively. Someone once described editors as ‘invisible menders’, and while not all editors are comfortable to remain in the shadows, the term describes my role quite well.

So, why do I have a bee in my bonnet?

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book from cover to cover without spotting any mistakes. Sometimes I notice inconsistencies (e.g. a word or character name written in two different ways, or with and without a hyphen), sometimes there are typos or transposed characters, or weird mixtures of past, present, future and conditional tenses.

Sometimes there are inconsistencies in the story or narrative. For example, my partner recently bought a book about the construction of a major rail line, and the text darted back and forth between saying it hadn’t been completed yet and saying it had. There had been multiple editions of the book, and it seems nobody checked whether material brought forward from previous editions was still grammatically correct. In another example, I read a book where the author appeared to have done a global ‘find and replace’ process where certain letter combinations occurred, resulting in absolute nonsense. Clearly no human eyes had read through the book between writing and publication.

I specialise in academic editing and most (though not all) of my clients come from non-English speaking backgrounds. There are specific rules about what professional editors may and may not do when editing theses; the Australian national guidelines are here and most universities impose similar rules. Essentially, I see my role as helping the candidate remove distractions (typos, inconsistencies, missing or repeated words, and strange punctuation) so their research shines through. In other (non-thesis) editing work I can be a bit more vigorous, perhaps rewriting or reorganising clumsily expressed passages. In any case, though, the author’s voice will still be there, just expressed more clearly or with fewer distractions.

Types of editing

– Substantive editing – concentrates on the content, structure, language and style of a document

– Copyediting – removes mistakes, inconsistencies, ambiguities and possible embarrassments from a document (most of my work tends to fall into this category)

– Proofreading – final checking and correction procedures before a document is signed off for publication.

Things a copyeditor might look out for

– Layout

– Punctuation

– Grammar and Syntax

– Forms of words (e.g. with or without spaces or hyphens)

– Capitalisation

– Spelling (in accordance with agreed version of English, or publication’s style requirements)

– Typos.

These types of errors are my bread and butter! You wouldn’t believe how often I see them …

affect/effect appraise/apprise asses/assess born/borne chaise longue/lounge complement/compliment dairy/diary discreet/discrete dual/duel elicit/illicit emigrate/immigrate extend/extent faze/phase flout/flaunt font/fount form/from forward/foreword its/it’s lead/led magnet/magnate metre/meter ordnance/ordinance pallet/palate/palette peak/peek pedal/peddle potable/portable principal/principle prostate/prostrate public/pubic rational/rationale ravish/ravage stationery/stationary team/teem there/their/they’re vial/vile waive/wave where/wear/we’re woman/women

… and of course, apostrophes in plurals. Oh, and scare quotes.

We copyeditors are famously detail-oriented … and this can be handy. One time I was editing a crime novel and noticed that a (male) dog introduced on page 178 had somehow morphed into a female dog by page 180. The author, concentrating on bigger aspects of the plot, hadn’t noticed. We had a good laugh about that!

How to get the most out of your editor

– Allow enough time for the task

– Factor editing into projects from the start, rather than as an afterthought

– Provide your editor with sufficient information to estimate how long the work is likely to take. If she asks for a sample chapter, she’s not ‘vetting’ you, she’s trying to work out how many hours your document will require

– Be clear about what you need … a quick check for typos, or more thorough grammar and fact checking? Keep in mind that there’s really no such thing as a ‘light’ edit – whether you have one error per page or one hundred, your editor will still need enough time to read every single word in every single sentence on every single page, to work out what changes to recommend

– If there are rules your document needs to follow, let the editor know. For example, does your university or publisher have a style sheet or guide? What version of English is required?

So … who needs an editor?

Anyone who publishes. Whether you’re writing a novel or a thesis, a journal paper or a restaurant menu, a museum sign or a sandwich board, it is a good idea to ask someone else to read through your material to check it makes sense and point out any embarrassing bloopers. It is also a good idea to use an actual editor rather than just a pedantic friend or relative. Qualified editors tend to have tools and checklists they can use to ensure fewer errors make it into print. We’re also remarkably good value. My hourly rate is about half as much as I pay my electrician or car mechanic, and about one-sixth what I pay my dentist!

Don’t think of editing as an additional expense. Think of it as an investment in making your book, thesis, report or website a pleasure to read.

Related posts

Explainer: how to prepare to be professionally edited

How to turn your PhD into a book (part one)

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Should you leave your PhD off your CV?

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - April 10, 2019 - 4:00am

A couple of weeks ago I shared some of the research I have been doing with my colleagues Associate Professor Hanna Suominen and Dr Will Grant about recruiter’s attitudes to PhD graduates.

I recommend you read the previous post on anti-PhD attitudes before this one, but briefly: our research concerns recruiters, who are important gate keepers in the non-academic employment process. A recruiter might be the first person to read your resume and most of them do not have PhDs. In fact, some have very little experience or knowledge of the PhD process. You need to account for this fact when you enter the non-academic employment market.

Model of professional skills required by non academic employers of researchers – from the research of Mewburn, Suominen and Grant (2018)

Recruiters are much more interested in your experience than your education and will not see the PhD as a reason to put you on a short list. While some recruiters see the PhD as clear evidence you are intelligent and dedicated, they might still actively exclude you from a short list on the grounds that the last PhD they hired did not turn out well. In my previous post I argued that a PhD positions you as a minority in the job market and you may face the kinds of discrimination that are routinely experienced by people of colour, older workers and those with disabilities.

After you read my previous post you might be tempted to leave your PhD off your CV altogether. Some people told me this strategy got them on the short list, but others said it made no difference. People who dropped the PhD had to account for the up to five year hole in their CV and usually did this by describing their PhD as a ‘large research project’ done inside the university. I think it’s important to bear in mind what I said in my previous post about what sort of activity counts as ‘work’ and how different experiences are valued. Recruiters think of the university as a very distinct kind of workplace and are often unconvinced that a PhD represents the right kind of experience.

If you want to minimise your status as a PhD holder, you don’t have to hide it completely; just move the education section further down so it’s not one of the first things recruiters read. As a research educator, it hurts my heart to think people have to actively hide their credentials and, to be honest, I’m not convinced it’s the right way to go. On the job market you still have many advantages over other people who do not have such highly developed skills in research and writing. The trick is to leverage the advantages of your PhD as best you can. Start by trying to understand what is going on in mind of the person reading your CV. Recognise and accept that some of the concerns recruiters and employers have are legitimate and make sure you address their concerns directly in your cover letter for the position.

Below I have listed some of the attitudes our research has uncovered and some ideas for how to counter these fears:

Employers are worried you can’t do the job that’s actually advertised

There’s a lot of talk about ‘transferable skills’, but I am not convinced there is such a thing. Take a deep breath and dwell for a moment with the idea that you have trained for a long time in a set of skills that are specific to academia and these skills – in their current form – might be of limited value outside of that context. Skills can’t directly be transferred, but they can be translated. You’ll need to demonstrate this translation has already occurred to any potential employer.

Writing is a good case in point. Just because you can write academic papers, or a 100,000 word dissertation, doesn’t mean you can do the kind of writing a non academic job requires. Recruiters know this and will not be impressed with the list of papers you sweated blood to produce. I have some sympathy with recruiters on this one. I recently advertised a job that did not require a PhD and people sent me CVs with reams of publications in areas like physics and biology. While I was impressed with the sheer number of papers, I did not ask for a research paper writer. I am well aware – as are most employers – that academic papers have very specific discipline conventions that may make them unreadable to the uninitiated. Looked at this way, a big list of research papers might make your considerable skills in writing look worse than they are!

Instead of a big list of publications, briefly tell your potential employer how many research papers you wrote and include a link to somewhere they can verify this information. Stop treating your CV as a kind of trophy cabinet and try to think about your writing skills from your potential employers point of view: what value add do your skills represent to them?

Have a look at the kind of writing on their website or publicly available company documents – and internal documents if you can get hold of them. Do you have evidence that you can do this kind of writing? If so, privilege this information over your list of research publications. If you can’t demonstrate you can write across genres, try unpacking the specialised PhD writing skill so your potential employer can understand how it applies to their needs. Don’t tell them you can do a literature review (a term not used outside of academia), explain that you are capable of ‘quickly distilling key information from a range of sources to inform others of the latest research developments’. Don’t tell them you can write compelling arguments, tell them you can use your writing skills ‘to influence key internal and external stakeholders’. Don’t tell them you can interpret data and develop theories, tell them you can ‘use evidence to explain a problem and convince others to take a specific course of action’.

I word of warning: don’t assume recruiters will  buy your attempts to repackage your skill set: it is always better to show than tell. If you are serious about working outside of academia, seek out opportunities to use your skills in other contexts. Finally and most importantly: remember every piece of writing you send to a potential employees is a demonstration of your expertise. If you can’t write a short, compelling email, format a word document or avoid egregious spelling mistakes, you are doing yourself damage from the very beginning. Your employer is going to read hundreds of emails from you, so start how you mean to go on.

Employers are worried that you will work too slowly

Speed is important in a business setting. Recently, a friend who works at one of the big four consulting firms complained over lunch that he had plenty of money to commission academic research, but that he was unable to find any academics who could deliver research within a reasonable timeframe. It turned out the academics he contacted proposed a 9 month research project, but he wanted it done in six weeks. I have sympathy for the academics in this case: if they had 6 weeks to do research and nothing else they probably could deliver. I explained to my friend that nine months is actually a pretty short turn around time considering how much teaching and other administrative work must be done. He was unimpressed: ‘speedy’ clearly means something different in academia than it does in business.

You’ll need to account for this different conception of speed in your communications with potential employers. Remember non-academics have no idea about what is normal in your discipline. If you wrote a lot of papers compared to others doing a PhD, tell them that you are ‘x% more productive’ than others in your field. If you completed your PhD without needing any extensions: congratulations! Tell the potential employer that only 20% of people manage this feat.

If it took more than three years to do your PhD full time, an employer might question your ability to get things done. This sucks for people who had terrible supervision or difficult experimental results that caused their projects to run over time. You’ll have to find a way to explain the situation without sounding bitter – no one wants to work with someone who blames other people for problems (even if it’s true). Trouble with finances is a good, neutral reason to explain longer time frames. Explain you had to go part time to support yourself and emphasise the time management skills you gained from juggling study and work.

Employers are worried you will be bored and run back to academia as soon as you have the chance.

Recruiters told us they were worried that PhD graduates would be a flight risk; liable to run back to the academy at the first opportunity. They know that some PhD graduates look at industry jobs as sloppy seconds. Now sit with this idea for a moment: are they entirely wrong?

You might tell yourself you are sick of academia – and there’s plenty not to like – but if that dream job came up, you applied and by some miracle got it … would you REALLY turn it down? If you can honestly answer yes, you are ready to leave. If not, you might need to see if you can follow your academic dream for a bit longer. Most recruiters are pretty good at their jobs and will sense if you are not committed to the idea of the ‘outside’.

You might be totally over academia, but convincing a non-academic employer – without sounding bitter – is easier said than done. I think the best strategy is to be honest and tell them why you applied for that job in particular. Be very specific: “I have done lots of interviews during my PhD and I’m interested in how these can be used to make products and services better”; “I prefer to work in teams and this job offers me opportunities that are not possible in academia” are both better answers than “there were no opportunities in academia for me”.

Employers think your expertise is too specialised

I did my PhD on hand gestures in architecture teaching. Clearly I don’t do anything like that now. A colleague of mine has a PhD in marsupial reproduction and is a now a really amazing business development manager. The idea that a PhD is destiny is a very outdated notion to us, but is it really? Let’s dwell with this idea for a moment and think about how the PhD process might force us to be too narrow.

Recruiters told me they prefer to see a masters degree on CVs as it suggests someone has research skills, but is not too specialised. There is some truth in this. I often talk to candidates in anthropology and social science who do not have any skills in quantitive analysis and are almost phobic of numbers. Likewise I talk to scientists who seem to lack basic skills in representing and talking about data, while displaying dazzling virtuosity in one specific, highly complex stochastic analysis types. The PhD does force you to specialise to the needs to your topic – which is ok if you are coming off an existing broad skill set, but many of us do not have this luxury.

During your PhD you could take short courses and broaden yourself out, but most people don’t even explore these options. I am no exception. I remember one of my PhD colleagues sweating over a course she took in statistics as an extra in her PhD, even though she didn’t need statistics for her topic. I thought this was a waste of time back then, now I think she was really smart. I struggled to learn statistics later because every job I’ve had in academia requires at least basic knowledge of how to process this kind of data. I often wish I took that stupid course with Paula.

Take a good look at your CV and ask yourself a hard question: are you too specialised? If so, do something about it – if you’re still inside the university, accessing extra courses is much cheaper than it will be when you finish. If not, what other jobs and experiences can you draw on to demonstrate a broader skill set? If every example of a skill set that you give an employer comes from your PhD, you make yourself look much more narrow than you are. You’ll need to think about how you are going to demonstrate important skills in team work too: our research shows this is one of the top priorities for employers. The PhD is the epitome of a solo pursuit, so you may not have anything you can point to in your university career that demonstrates teamwork, but what about before that?

All your work experience is potentially valid in the hiring process. When I went for my current job at ANU the interview panel asked me how I planned to be a manager when I listed no managerial experience on my resume. I realised I left out all the work I did managing both a book store and a record store (remember those?) in the 1990s when I took a break from study. I reached back into those experiences to explain to the panel the size of team I managed in those shops, the business processes I implemented when computers first appeared on site and the difficulties of managing employees who were dealing drugs under the counter… Jokingly I said “So if the police turn up, I’m your woman!”. The panel were much more interested in this experience than my PhD and to this day I wonder if those outrageous stories from retail are the real reason I got the job!

Employers think you will expect high wages

Most PhD students laugh out loud when I tell them this is a real employer fear. I’m sure you are more than ready to earn a proper salary. However, be careful not to over value yourself when you scan the available jobs. You are starting over in a new area and will need to go low and aim high. It’s a bit of a goldilocks dilemma though: too low and you look ‘over qualified’; too high and you look inexperienced. Judging by the discussions I’ve had with PhD graduates over the last couple of weeks, it can feel a bit ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’. If you go in too low, employers might think you will get bored.

I don’t know the way out of this catch-22 dilemma except to say that you’ll have to stick at it, perhaps longer than you would like. This is the time I should again highlight the value of doing some pro-bono work and networking. The idea of doing free work is to ‘get your feet wet’ and start to meet people who can speak for you being a bright spark who should be given a chance. For what it’s worth: this strategy has always worked for me. I have never once got a job by applying to a job advertisement ‘cold’. All my career success, as an architect and then an academic, has been the result of showing people what I am like to work with. People tend to love the way I work, so I have little trouble getting promoted internally, even if it’s a bit difficult getting my foot in the door – but this is a post for another time as I just hit triple my usual word limit… clearly I have a lot to say. Maybe it’s time to write that book!

I hope this post helps you start to think about positioning yourself and your CV. What do you think? Have you tried any of these techniques? Do you have any more advice to offer? Interested to hear about your experiences in the comments.

I have weaved in much that I learned from talking to PhD graduates on the blog, Facebook and Twitter into to my advice on hiding the PhD on your CV. I usually like to give direct credit for advice, but in this case I have chosen to leave off specific names because I don’t want to ‘out’ anyone for ‘devious’ behaviour. I sincerely appreciate these conversations: thank you. I am lucky the Thesis Whisperer is blessed with a highly intelligent and generous community!

Previous posts on our employability research

Academic on the inside

What do academic employers want?

I want to leave academia – what’s next?

What is this anti-PhD attitude all about?

Our research papers

“Academic superheroes: a critical analysis of academic job descriptions”

“A machine learning analysis of the demand for non academic  job opportunities for PhD graduates in Australia”.

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!

Lessons learned from an African PhD journey

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - April 3, 2019 - 4:00am

In Australia it is enrolment peak, with most PhD candidates starting before the end of March. I like to feature advice from students for other students. You are the ones most close to the experience, so advice from peers can be both relevant and useful. However, all the content on the Thesis Whisperer has been authored by candidates in Australia, Europe, the US and Canada – which gives it a definite Western bias. This is the first post from Africa and I hope there will be more in due course (please write in!). Pearl Osirike is studying for Her PhD in Ghana and shares her top tips.

Pearl is a Biochemist with interesting drug discovery and infectious diseases. She holds a first class degree as well as a masters degree from the University of Benin, Nigeria where she serves as an Assistant Lecturer. Currently, she is a first PhD student of Molecular and Cell Biology of Infectious Diseases at the West African Centre for Cell Biology and Infectious Pathogens, University of Ghana. Her research seeks to understand the mechanism of action of trypanocidal compounds. She is passionate about teaching and research with a flair for writing. She strives for excellence in everything she does and is excited about sharing her story to motivate and inspire others. Aside from her academic interests, she loves creativity and handcrafts, enjoys classical music and spending quality time with her family. You can connect with Pearl on her Blog , on Linkedin or Twitter as @gentlegirlie

I commenced my PhD programme in Molecular and Cell Biology of Infectious Diseases at the West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens (WACCBIP), the University of Ghana in August last year. WACCBIP is a world class research centre where young African researchers are groomed to be research leaders who would change the landscape of African research, and in fact, worldwide research in the nearest future. I enthusiastically bade my family, job and country farewell in pursuit of a dream. The African dream. My fairy tale story had only begun. The first few weeks were epic: I settled in quite well into the new environment, started meeting new people, began to understand the dynamics of the unique and stimulating place I found myself in. I quickly realized that the programme was a lot more intensive than I had anticipated. It has been several months down the line, and I could not have asked for a better opportunity! It has been one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. I have learnt so much; I have grown too. In this post, I share some life lessons gained in these few months. Ask the right questions All through my life, I grew up asking myself questions and silently finding answers to those questions without necessarily voicing them out. This might have been because of my naturally introverted tendencies or perhaps I grew up in a culture where asking questions was not particularly encouraged. In the past months, I have come to understand the importance of asking questions – and asking them out. In reality, there are no silly questions. However, there is a difference between an interesting question and an important one. The desire to answer questions drives every research – important questions to be more specific that provide answers to complex life problems. Ghanaians have a popular saying: “knowledge is not in the head of one person”. The more we ask questions, the more knowledgeable we become, and the richer our lives would get. Be open As Africans, you would agree with me that being open is not particularly one of our strengths. People tend to jealously conceal their ideas because they fear it could be “stolen” from them. Contrary to this belief, I find that openly discussing my thoughts help me realize how dumb or intelligent they are and crystallizes these ideas. I also receive constructive feedback by doing so. In this day and time, we cannot afford to be like the tortoise in the childhood folklore who in a bid to hoard his wisdom fell off a tree and cracked his shell. WACCBIP encourages us to discuss our ideas openly. These days, I am better able to share my opinions and my needs: It is a lot easier to get help from others if they understand how they can be of help. Also, I used to be a sponge when it comes to ideas – I read scientific papers, books, whatever just to glean knowledge out of it. I selectively took out what I found useful and discarded information I considered to be irrelevant. Now, I take everything with a pinch of salt: I called that “healthy skepticism”. I critically evaluate every information and make an informed decision on what my position is on the subject and how I can improve existing knowledge. Every opportunity is the right opportunity My experiences at WACCBIP have taught me that there are no “perfect opportunities” – every opportunity is just right. WACCBIP is blessed to have a rich network of international collaborators, who frequently visit, providing us with immense possibilities. I find that the most fruitful conversations with these people were during seemingly awkward times. To be successful in life, “you need to be sharp” as one of my lecturers is fond of saying. In essence, every opportunity you have is what you make out of it. The power of community At WACCBIP, we are not random researchers doing science instead we are a community – a formidable force. Everyone has a strong sense of belonging and responsibility. We are one big family made up of different people from different backgrounds with different strengths all pulling together their uniqueness in beautiful harmony. The centre has achieved all it has in such a short time because of its unity. If we are ever going to do anything epic in life as humans, we need to be united, and I have seen this at play. We must identify our strengths and leverage on it to add value to those around us. You are extraordinary As an African scientist, I have seen excellent examples of exceptional people who have achieved greatness despite their humble beginnings and against all the odds. This is a massive motivation for me. It makes me realize that my dreams are possible, and I can achieve anything I set my mind to be without any limitations. I have also seen incredible women excelling in every facet of life and these sparks up unquenchable fires in me. If they can, so can I – and so can you! Clarity I have always known about the importance of being clear about what one desires out of life but being at WACCBIP has made me better appreciate that. Before the commencement of any research here, one is expected to have an unambiguous picture of the task ahead: What research questions are you asking? What is your approach to answering these questions? When you get your answers, how do you deduce meaning out of it? How innovative would the answers you get be? What do you need to get an answer to your question and how long would it take you to do so? These are basic. The tune of your research would evolve as you commence but then you need to be on top of your game even before you start. I cannot help but notice how critical this approach is to solving real – life problems. You must always have a clear-cut plan for tackling any obstacle on your way. You should have a sense of direction because if you do not have a destination, you would never arrive. Have fun Work is just like air – it fills every space available to it. It is tempting to be so carried away with studies that my life becomes very triangular (class–home–church). In reality, this reduces productivity and heightens boredom. Thankfully, WACCBIP is a place where people work hard and play hard. We understand that achieving a work-life balance is essential. Writing on my blog is one of many other things I do for fun. Aside from the great joy I derive whenever I get the opportunity to put my thoughts together in one piece, it also helps me to express myself better and to improve on my writing skill which is invaluable for my research career. Celebrate small wins The workload is vast, so I have learnt to break down enormous tasks into smaller, chewable sizes for effectiveness and celebrate each small victory along the way. If I fail to do this, I get overwhelmed by the thought of the enormous task ahead, and I am barely productive. The environment at WACCBIP is very competitive. Everyone produces immense value – nothing short is expected. I find that each little victory gives me the strength to push on when the going gets tough. I initially set out to share only five lessons – I could not help but include an extra three. I hope to share more experiences as time goes on and events unfold. In the meantime, I hope you can learn some lessons from these and I would be glad to know which of these you find the most insightful. Thanks Pearl! How about you? Any further insights to offer our beginning students? Related Posts Advice for Newbies Be the Mouse 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!

What does academic work look like?

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - March 27, 2019 - 4:00am

As you probably know, in addition to being director of research training and blogging, I am an active researcher in the area of research education, particularly post PhD employability. Occasionally I like to colour outside the lines by dabbling in related fields of study. One area that interests me is the nature and extent of academic work – particularly over work. There is an appalling – and mystifying lack of research – on academic work hours, especially considering Academia is a huge, globalised industry employing hundreds of thousands of people worldwide and bringing in uncounted millions in revenue for governments and private providers.

There’s an old saying that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. To my knowledge, there is no recent time and motion study of academics so we really have no idea how many hours they work. Work planning for academics usually starts with an estimate of how they will spend their time to meet expectations, which is then negotiated with employers, with or without the help of a Union. I say this with love, but academics tend to be optimistic time managers who just work over time to accommodate their unrealistic promises.

Most academics I know work at least one day on the weekend and will answer emails at all hours. We do this because we love our work, which makes us very easy to exploit. Workplace exploitation has real consequences. I’ve been feeling compelled to do something in this area since I heard the sad story of Dr Malcolm Andersen. Dr Andersen’s story, and the grief of his family at losing him, really affected me. I stopped seeing this lack of research around academic labour as a curious oversight, and started seeing it as a matter of life and death that I wanted to do something about.

I started by writing a few thought pieces about it. I have a regular column in the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) newsletter The Advocate for about seven years now (it’s a great place to publish my most extreme political rants so that you don’t have to put up with it on the Whisperer!). I wrote a column about Malcolm Andersen here and I wrote about my own struggles with time ‘management’ here, where I declared my intention of using the app Timing to measure my own work hour and compare it to the expectations stated in my annual performance review. Late last year I reported back in The Advocate on that self experiment in an article called ‘Chewing on the FAT’. This post consists of an analysis of the data I had collected, which showed how much paid – and unpaid – time I was actually spending at work. Here’s a long quote from the article which has some of the results of my analysis:

Approximately 37.9 hours a week (2.9 hours more than I am paid for) were spent on ANU work. The rest was dedicated to my own projects, such as blogging. Due to the nature of my role, which is not a conventional faculty position, my work allocation is 50% teaching, 30% service and 20% research. Looking at my graphs, I am adhering to one part of this work plan directive: just over half my time is spent either in the classroom, or doing related tasks like preparing teaching and preparing reports. 

What is more interesting is the amount of ‘invisible work’ that I do to achieve this goal of 50% teaching – on the pie graph above it’s in purple (communication) and pink (administrative work, like filling in forms). Invisible work is a term coined by Anselm Strauss and Susan Leigh Star to describe forms of work that are not usually recognised AS work. It’s what my friend Ben Kraal calls “the work you do to do the work you do”. Teaching doesn’t just happen: teaching rooms must be booked, equipment needs to be working, tutors need briefings, guest lectures must be co-ordinated and administration systems negotiated so that marks can be sent to students. All this can be considered invisible work.

Although they might not name it as such, academics complain about invisible work a lot – for good reason. This work is rarely, if ever, measured, and so slips away from management view. My analysis shows that every individual email seems like a tiny spoonful of work, but clearing my inbox everyday takes more than 10% of my total time (some academics I know just ignore their overflowing inbox, but the nature of my role means this is not an option for me). Added up, the data show that for every substantive task I must add a 30% overhead of FAT (‘F*^k around time’). To avoid working overtime, I must squeeze other parts of my work to make room for the FAT. I can see the results in my service work, down to 5%, and my research time, currently sitting at 11% (half the time I am allocated). 

This invisible work is, I believe, the main reason academics complain about being ‘busy’ all the time. Tasks like email, meetings, attending to budgets and other administration work eats into the time academics have for other, arguably more important, tasks like teaching and research. PhD students directly feel the effects of this busyness. I suspect many of the complaints I field from students in my everyday work is the result of invisible work cutting into the time a supervisor would otherwise spend mentoring and talking about things related to the research work. The problem of invisible work is even more crucial for contingent faculty who are paid by the hour. An hourly rate of $42 for tutoring sounds ok, unless you factor in the three hours you might spend preparing and answering email. When I was a by the hour tutor I once worked out that I earned less per hour than I did working in retail.

We need further data so that we can see the nature and extent of the problem of academic invisible work more clearly. At the end of the article on Chewing the FAT I flippantly suggested that I had 11% of my time to do a project studying academic overwork, if the NTEU wanted to fund it. I’m grateful that Dr Karine Dupre, an academic in the field of architecture at Griffith university, who read the article and took me up on the dare. We started designing a study, starting with the idea of providing a group of academics with the Timing app to see if we could replicate my diary study at a bigger scale. Karine negotiated a small research grant from the Griffith branch of the NTEU and approached the developer of the Timing app for a discounted rate on the product, so we could enrol more people in the study. I then recruited my friend Dr Susan Mayson from Monash University. Sue is an expert on employment relations and human resource management and has subject matter expertise that Karine and I do not.

Setting up a study like this forces you to ask interesting questions, some of which sound quite basic, like: what exactly do academics do all day? For those of you not in the know, the usual way that universities try to divide up academic work is into three categories: ‘learning and teaching’, ‘research and the fuzzy’, catch all term of ‘service’. We think there is an emerging category of other, which we have added at the end of our list. This list provides a bit of food for thought in terms of what else might be going on your supervisor’s life:

Learning & Teaching

  • course delivery (face-to-face)
  • preparation
  • marking
  • administration
  • people management (tutors)
  • thinking and reflecting
  • travel (e.g. for class delivery/meetings)


  • PhD student meetings
  • PhD reading and reviewing student work
  • PhD administration (e.g. milestones review, assessor finding)
  • Project doing (analysis, data gathering etc)
  • Project meeting
  • Project administration
  • Project/grant writing
  • writing (articles, books etc)
  • Article follow-up (e.g. revision, media)
  • Management (e.g. steering committee)
  • Thinking and reflecting
  • Conference and workshops (organisation and/or attendance)
  • Travel (to conference, etc.)
  • Learning new skills


  • Reviewing (academic articles, textbook, NTEU documents, etc.)
  • Committees (LT, R, Equity, Health & Safety, etc.)
  • Faculty/Discipline/School/University meetings
  • Leadership activities (Program Director, HDR convenor, etc.)
  • External & professional engagement/leadership
  • Mentoring
  • Thinking and reflecting

Other Activities

  • Email
  • Blogging
  • Mainstream media engagement
  • Online engagement/social media

Reflecting on this list is a little bit exhausting! I’m writing about the work here as we are now recruiting for the study and I know that a lot of working academics read the blog and might want to be involved. Some students might even want to send this post to their very busy supervisor! We only have a small amount of funding and time, so we would like to start with looking at the work of academics working in the Australian system at level C (senior lecturer) or level D (associate professor) – and only Mac users at this stage, as Timing is not available on the PC (sorry!). Our hunch is that these people, as ‘middle managers’ are likely to be burdened with the most amount of invisible work. Of course, eventually we would like to broaden our enquiry to contingent workers and others to get a better sense of extent of the problems, but maybe next year. I only have 11% of my time to spend!

If you’re interested in taking part in our study, here is the link for the expression of interest.

What do you think of our list? Have we missed anything? Do you have other suggestions for what a diary study might encompass? Love to hear your thoughts in the comments.




Mind the Gap

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

Confused about this ‘gap’ in the literature that you are meant to find? This post is by Associate Professor Martin Davies; Principal Fellow in Higher Education in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education and a Senior Learning Advisor working with HDRs and staff at Federation University. He has written six books, including Study Skills for International Postgraduate Students(2011) and (with Ronald Barnett) Palgrave Handbook of Critical Thinking in Higher Education(2015). He completed double doctorates in Philosophy in 2002 and 1996. You can find out more about Martin on his website. You can read a review of one of Martin’s books here or read a previous post on doing a second PhD

What distinguishes a PhD from an airport novel, a corporate annual report, a parliamentary submission, a comic, or a racy Mills and Boon romance novel? They are all writing genres, but they are all very different. The defining requirement of a PhD is finding, articulating, and filling a research gap (hereafter, The Gap). Without this, the purported thesis is a mere collection of words discussing a topic. And this is never enough for a PhD.

But how does The Gap fit into your overall thesis? What is its job? How does it relate to the thesis outline, the introduction, body and other key thesis components? Importantly, how do you find one? These questions are seldom answered to the satisfaction of newbie PhD students.

Finding, articulating and filling “The Gap” is critical to thesis writing and marks it as a distinct writing genre. You can get to The Gap by thinking of the process as a series of narrowing “conversations”:

  • The general area is a particular conversation among academics in the field of study
  • The specific area is your focus on a particular part of the bigger conversation (a sub-set of the larger conversation)
  • The Gap is what you notice needs to be said in the conversation that has not been said before or that needs addressing in more detail
  • The research question/hypothesis/aim asks something to address The Gap in the conversation
  • The thesis statement is your proposed answer to this question posed to address The Gap in the conversation (or tentativeanswer if you are at Research Proposal stage).
  • To this we can add a ThesisOutline: a courtesy statement or statements to the reader of where your thesis is going and the shape and structure it is going to take. (You owe them this if they are going to plough through 80-100,000 words for you.)

All this can be viewed as an increasingly narrowing triangle moving from the general topic to the specific issue, thence to The Gap, as illustrated in the diagram below: 

A common question might be how “The Gap” relates to the Literature Review of the thesis. Your literature review has to be effectively in two parts:

    • The first part—the Introduction—provides sufficient reviewing of the literature to establish that The Gap is significant and worth investigating (otherwise they won’t read further). I call this the “Hook literature”.
    • The second part—the Literature Review proper—elaborates on the literature to further expose The Gap addressed in the Introduction. This expands on the Hook literature in much more detail (i.e., at chapter length).

Here’s a good example of the “Gap” in context. The gap is highlighted in bold and is followed by the thesis outline sentence and the thesis statement sentence (these appear in reverse order):

Prior research draws on the diffusion of innovation framework to explain organizations’ innovation and innovation-related behaviour (see for instance, Rogers, 1983; 1995). This framework has received widespread validation using different types of innovations, and is referred to as the traditional framework of innovation diffusion (Gallivan, 2001).  Attewell (1992) and Gallivan (2001) criticize the diffusion of innovation theory, arguing that it does not explain the pattern of the actual use of complex technology. This is because the main focus of this traditional framework is on factors which lead to the adoption of IT. Moreover, Attewell (1992) emphasizes the role of organizational learning and knowledge discovery to successfully implement and use complex technology. A few studies have recently begun to incorporate Attewell’s suggestion to investigate IT assimilation as an organizational learning process (see, for instance, Fichman and Kemerer 1997; Boynton et al. 1994; Armstrong and Sambamurthy 1999). These studies draw mainly on Absorptive Capacity Theory.However, there are three main problems with these studies(1)They fail to meet oneof the main conditions of the absorptive capacity theory, that is the intensity of effort(2)They use a static perspective on organizational knowledge. Such an approach is criticized in the knowledge management literature (Nonaka 1994; Cook and Brown 1999). (3)They provide inconclusive evidence about the role of the top management team on IT assimilation. (OUTLINE) These three problems will be discussed in detail in the next section.This study will overcome these problems by explicitly considering knowledge creation mechanisms. It will be argued that knowledge creation mechanisms will allow for a real test of the absorptive capacity theory. These mechanisms will enable the dynamic process of organizational knowledge to be captured, and to clarify the role of the top management team in the organizational IT assimilation journey. (THESIS STATEMENT) The remainder of this thesis is organized as follows. Section two discusses the motivation for the study. Section three discusses the theory development and research model. Section four develops the hypotheses. Section five describes the research method, sample, operationalisation of the constructs and measurement of the variables, and data analysis strategy.


Naturally, the hardest part of thesis writing is finding The Gap. It can take years! Fortunately, some tricks and techniques can help.

One is the Tracing a Path technique. On a piece of A3 paper draw a series of boxes. Each box contains name(s) from the scholarly literature, e.g., Jones and Harris (2013); Jamerson (2012); Fredrickson (1999), and so on. Once you are done draw a considered red line through the boxes, as in the image below:

If your considered red line goes through the middle of one of the boxes, you are heavily drawing on that literature for your thesis. If it scrapes the edge of a box you are marginally focussing on it. If it bypasses a box entirely it is not central to your interests. Then group the literature. Discard the literature that is not relevant to what you are doing. Now work backwards to find what The Gaps are in the literature you have assembled. Choose one that is academically interesting. Repeat as often as required, and as your reading becomes more focussed.

Another approach is the Venn Diagram technique. Plot your interests as a series of concentric intersecting circles as show below. The circles ideally represent narrowly-focussed areas of study (not broad fields like “Education”). Keep doing this until you know where you project intersects with the literature on the various areas indicated by each circle. Use as many circles as you need. (I owe these examples to Natalie Bowker from Massey University.) You should be able to put a cross where you are working, and this will form the major literature for your thesis, and the focus for your Gap-finding activities. See the diagram below:

Another technique is the Page 98 Paper technique (so described as it is on this page of Rowena Murray’s 2002 book: How to Write a Thesis).  The idea here to write a cryptic one-pager encompassing all of the following elements

  1. The general topic is … (25 words)
  2. My research question is … (50 words)
  3. Researchers who have looked at this subject are … (50 words)
  4. They argue that … (25 words)
  5. Smith argues that … (25 words)
  6. Brown argues that … (25 words)
  7. Debates centre on the issue of … (25 words)
  8. There is still work to be done on …(25 words)
  9. My research is closest to that of X in that … (50 words)
  10. My contribution will be that … (50 words)

The Gap is [8] of course, but this can’t be understood independently of surrounding context. The strategy of the Page 98 Paper is that colleagues, supervisors and significant others are more likely to read a thesis in miniature than a weighty chuck of a chapter. But it is also useful for Gap-finding as it forces you to find one.

The Table of Contents Technique requires a bit of positive imagery. (It’s best tried with a glass of your favourite tipple.)

Imagine a few years from now when your thesis is done and dusted. (You can be early in the first year of your candidature for this technique to work as long as you have done a bit of reading.) Now imagine your thesis has been through the examination process. You did well. The reports are outstanding. Now, imagine how the Table of Contents looks on this fine piece of work.Write it down just as you imagine itcomplete with major parts, sections and sub-sections (include sub-sub-sections if you like—within reason).

Now work backwards and establish where The Gap is amongst all the assembled headings and sub-headings in this highly structured masterpiece of scholarship. There must be one or it would not hang together! Do this as often as required, and at minimum every six months or so while you are writing your thesis. (I established my final Table of Contents on the island of Crete whilst on a doctoral travelling junket. I took a dip in the Med just to celebrate.)

Variation: Write down all your headings and sub-headings on small cards. Shuffle the cards. Now, put the cards in a natural order as though you were explaining their arrangement to an uninformed friend. What’s The Gap you are filling? Again, there must be one for this order to make sense.

Thanks for your hard won insights Martin (there’s not many people with two PhDs – for good reason!). How about you – was the process of finding the Gap confusing? Does it still elude you? Interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Related Posts

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What is this ‘anti-PhD’ attitude about?

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

Lately, more and more students want a non-academic job when they finish their PhD. Anecdotally, some graduates seem to be experiencing the PhD as a barrier to employment, not an enabler. In fact, I’ve heard so much negative talk about how employers react to PhD holders over the years that it seemed important to start looking at this phenomenon more closely. We’ve just started doing some work, interviewing recruiters and hiring managers, and I thought I would share some (very preliminary) research findings with you.

In case you don’t know, I’m actually an academic and for 10% of my time each week I study, well – research. Since 2014 I’ve been researching post PhD employability exclusively because I think it’s an important, but under-researched, problem. In 2014 I started working with my friend Dr Rachael Pitt (@thefellowette on Twitter) on academic employment. Rachael noticed that academic job ads asked for a ridiculous number of skills. We simply collected a bunch of academic job ads and coded them to find out what academic employers seemed to be looking for when hiring a PhD graduate. This research resulted in a paper called “Academic superheroes: a critical analysis of academic job descriptions”, part of which I shared on the blog here.

(Please do not confuse this paper with the recent book called ‘How to be an academic superhero’, which I won’t link to because I think it’s bad. This author read and quoted our research, but clearly didn’t really understand it, so his book mostly reinforces old fashioned, unhelpful ideas like ‘publish or perish’. If you want a good book on the topic of finding and securing an academic job, I recommend The Professor is In).

The obvious next step was to do a similar analysis of non-academic jobs, but we had to find them first. If you type in ‘PhD’ to a database like Seek.com, you’ll see pages and pages of academic jobs and precious little else. To solve this problem, I worked with my ANU colleagues Dr Will Grant and Associate Professor Hanna Suominen. We used machine learning (specifically natural language processing) to design an algorithm that was capable of ‘reading’ millions of job ads to find ads that were suggestive of PhD level research skills, but did not explicitly ask for a PhD. If you’re interested in reading more about this work, it’s documented in our paper “A machine learning analysis of the demand for non academic  job opportunities for PhD graduates in Australia”.

As it turns out, our analysis showed that 80% of Australian employers looking to hire someone with high-level research skills do not ask for a PhD. This fact is, in itself, is an important finding. If most employers don’t think that putting ‘PhD’ in a job ad is a good way to attract the best candidates to apply for research jobs, what do they think is important? We set about asking recruiters and hiring managers this question.

Recruiters and HR professional are important gatekeepers in the employment process; either doing the shortlisting or producing the ‘long list’ from which the shortlist is formed. As it turned out, getting these interviews was hard: harder than doing machine learning in some ways. Recruiters are busy people; difficult to reach and seemingly reluctant to give their precious time to researchers asking about their practice. We tried to place some 80 calls, but only eight so far have agreed to a phone interview, but what I found out during these conversations was fascinating.

Recruiters are looking for evidence you can do the job advertised. My participants told me repeatedly that experience was highly valued, over and above qualifications. Qualifications were regarded with suspicion, and the PhD was no exception. Just because you can demonstrate you have learned something, doesn’t mean you can do it well in practice. Recruiters told me that lack of experience was the primary reason why PhD graduates are often passed over in the shortlisting process, despite having plenty of evidence they can run a research project from start to finish. Since I see the PhD as a clear demonstration of work experience in doing research, I found this attitude mystifying, until I started to realise that what counts as experience depends on the way ‘work’ is understood.

I started to tune in on the words and phrases recruiters use to describe their understanding of the PhD and academia. A discourse analysis revealed that these recruiters saw academia not as a workplace, but as another ‘world’, almost completely separate from the commercial workforce (one even said academia is ‘another planet’ and academics as ‘aliens’). If these important gatekeepers don’t see the university as a workplace, they will not tend to see PhD as work. Alternatively, they will position the PhD as work that happened under such different conditions that it just doesn’t count as ‘actual experience’.

My social science training cautioned me to take a deep breath and not get outraged. I’ve been taught to take my research participants at their word, not assume they are labouring under a ‘false consciousness’ about their actions. I must assume my participants are telling me the truth, from their perspective, which enables me to ask a more important question: why might some recruiters form the opinion that academia is not a ‘real workplace’?

My friend @nontweetingnigel once told me that his PhD was ‘a job no one else would pay me to do” and I think he’s right. Work conditions in academia value inquiry and creation of new knowledge, so we take on the most difficult questions and problems. The aim of academic research is to answer questions, but we also value your ability to find more questions. We tend to be pretty relaxed about how long that process takes. By contrast, most non-academic employers value utility over novelty and depth. In my discussions with employers, employer groups and my latest discussions with recruiters most have told me they want the answers to questions – and relatively quickly. Projects are likely to be carried out under significant time constraints, closing out further questions as much as possible. Unlike academia, commercial reports are designed to be read by people in a hurry and tend to be short (never 100,000 words long!). Thus, viewed from the commercial side of the fence, academic research, with its long project timelines and documents, must appear more leisurely and less task focussed than research carried out for profit. We don’t experience it that way, but what is at stake here is not our perception of reality – it’s theirs.

This is a satisfying analysis, but I don’t think this is the whole explanation for anti-PhD sentiment. I got several comments along the lines that PhD graduates were ” a bit peculiar” and tried to probe this attitude more closely. One recruiter told me he used to routinely put CVs with PhDs into a shortlists at the start of his career but now is more circumspect. He noticed that some hiring managers would immediately throw resumes with a PhD on them out, or force him into into into arguing the case to hire the PhD candidate (from his point of view, a waste of time). He has now developed a “sense for when the hiring manager is open-minded” and will choose whether or not to present a PhD graduate not on fitness for purpose, but on the attitude of the hiring manager. I asked why he thought that hiring managers might become ‘anti-PhD’ on principle, and he used words to the effect that “hiring managers only have to experience one difficult PhD graduate and they never want another one”.

On the face to it, automatically assuming someone is going to be ‘difficult’ because they have a PhD seems fundamentally unfair. PhD graduates are people, and people should be treated as people – right? Sadly, in the employment process, people are often not treated as people but as representatives of a ‘type’. So what sort of ‘type’ is the PhD graduate? I’d suggest, in the popular imagination, The PhD graduate is someone like Sheldon Cooper on the Big Bang Theory: intelligent, but odd with difficulties fitting in socially. Of course, most of us are not at all like Sheldon Cooper, but many people do not encounter PhD graduates in their everyday life – at least not enough to counter the effects of this stereotype. It’s easy to forget when you are surrounded by Doctors all day that comparatively few people graduate from the degree each year and make up a vanishingly small proportion of the population. PhD graduates are therefore representatives of a minority group and are facing the ordinary problems minorities face when trying to enter areas of the workforce where they are under-represented.

I suspect what is going on here is similar to how racism, ageism and ableism distort the hiring process: discrimination. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest your name and gender will affect whether your CV finds its way to the top of the pile – it seems the PhD, in some circumstances, has a similar effect. The PhD marks you out as special and different, but sometimes being special and different is not to your advantage.

How can we counter this discrimination? I’m not sure. I am planning another post on how people ‘hide’ their PhD in the application paperwork, but for now, I’m interested in your thoughts and experiences. Have you experienced ani-PhD sentiment when attempting to find a job, or just in everyday life? If you want a non-academic job, what do you think you can do to counter this stereotyping in the way you present yourself in your CV and resume?

Related posts on Thesis Whisperer

What do academic employers want?

I want to leave academia, what’s next?

Academic on the Inside?


Here’s why you didn’t get that job – your name

“Academic superheroes: a critical analysis of academic job descriptions”

“A machine learning analysis of the demand for non academic  job opportunities for PhD graduates in Australia”

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