Updates in Doctoral Ed

A PhD… plus four kids?!

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - August 29, 2018 - 4:00am

I’ve written about PhD Parenting a couple of times, but I feel a bit like I do parenting-lite when I hear other people’s stories as I have but one child. How about doing a PhD with four kids at home?! This Post is by Sarah Stanford. As  a  Youth  Pastor  and  Youth  Worker,  Sarah  provided  support  for  many  young  people  who  were  self-harming.  Driven  by  a  desire  to  make  a  contribution  at  a  wider  level,  she  undertook  a  PhD  researching  self-harm.  Her  research  focuses on understanding, responding to, and preventing self-harm in schools, churches,  and  other  community  settings.  You can find Sarah on her website or on Twitter as @DocStanford

People tend to look at you weird if you have four kids. And people tend to look at you weird when they find out you’re doing a PhD. So you can imagine that I have had a generous share of strange looks over the last few years. Common reactions would include:

‘Are you crazy??’

‘You must be a supermum!’

‘How on earth do you do that?’

And of course, the often unspoken question: ‘Why?’

I received a lot of well-intentioned advice during my PhD. It turns out I didn’t follow most of it. So here are the rules I broke, and the things that worked for me.

(I will add a disclaimer up front: Yes, I had a very supportive husband. He would pitch in with all aspects of parenting and running the house. This is just my experience and it will be different for everyone.)

The rules I broke:

Get as much done as possible before your first

I’ve come across very organised people that schedule their pregnancies around their PhD plan. They have the first baby after the data collection, and perhaps add a second shortly after submitting.

I didn’t follow this sensible approach. I was pregnant with my first when I started my PhD. I squeezed in the bulk of my data collection in between #3 and #4. It was probably harder the way I did it, but I don’t regret it.

Get childcare organised while pregnant

Childcare places can book out quickly, especially those on-site at the University. This seems like sound advice, it just wasn’t the path we took. We chose not to use paid childcare, instead we juggled my PhD around my husband’s work. Towards the end we reduced his hours and juggled his work around my PhD.

Accept offers for help with childcare from extended family and friends

I highly recommend that parents take up offers of help with childcare from family and friends. Unfortunately this wasn’t available to us. Family members worked full-time, we lived in three different areas, and we hadn’t yet established a friendship network to share childcare. Definitely great advice, it just didn’t play out that way for us.

Use all small chunks of time

Making use of small chunks of time in your day can really maximise your efficiency. Unless you’re like me, and it just doesn’t work for you. I remember taking a stack of papers to the park to read, but I could never hold my eyes on the page long enough because my toddler would be wandering off. I would try to catch up on the literature while the kids were nodding off to sleep beside me, only to find myself reading the same paragraph repeatedly wondering what it even meant. The reality for me is that I work best with longer working sessions. It takes me a while to get into things, but when I’m in – I’m in deep. So I need to make time to allow my brain to do good thinking work.

Get your baby sleeping through the night ASAP

Seriously, people. Put your order in for a child that sleeps 12 hours straight from newborn. Ummm… yeah, didn’t happen in my house. But hey, breastfeeding through the night is biologically normal and a preventative factor against SIDS. It’s not all bad.

Schedule time to work away from the house + kids + distractions

I would do this at times, but I often found my best work was in my own house. It was noisy, and they did interrupt, but we tried to teach them that mummy needed to work.

Keep data collection simple

I was given very sensible advice about how to collect data in the most simple, efficient manner possible. In Psychology, that could mean a University student sample or recruiting online participants. Instead, I followed my passion and recruited eight schools to take part in my main research project.

Things that helped me:

Use a baby carrier

Invest in a good quality, supportive carrier that is comfortable for both you and baby. Join your local sling meet to find out how to use it. It makes it so much easier to work while keeping baby settled.

Trusting my instincts

One thing I’ve learnt as a parent is that everyone parents differently. Do what works for you, and follow your own instinct. If things aren’t working, read online, ask other parents, and experiment with different approaches.

Staying focussed

Doing a PhD is a massive undertaking, but the project can get increasingly bigger if it veers off course. Set clear goals of what your final thesis will cover, and how each study fits together, so that you can maintain productivity even during slower working periods.

Publishing throughout

I did my thesis by publication, and there were times I doubted this decision. Responding to reviews, re-writing work multiple times, and re-formatting for different journals can be very time consuming. However, I felt it saved time in having to write for the thesis and then re-write for publication. My fourth and final paper from my thesis was published a few months after graduation, so now my PhD feels properly “finished”.

Bulk cooking

Spend a day each month doing a massive cook up and fill the freezer. That way you can enjoy an easy meal with the kids without spending time cooking and cleaning up.

Do It Anyway

Most of the time during my PhD I didn’t quite know why I was doing it, other than it’s what I felt called to do. Sure, I believed that my research might actually help people. But when staring down the barrel of a hard day’s writing while the kids scream “Mummy” in the background…. yeah, nothing felt particularly inspiring. But I Did It Anyway.

Sometimes you just gotta do it.

An inspiring story Sarah! Do you have a large family along with a PhD? Or do you have to use extreme productivity techniques to fit your PhD around caring responsibilities? Love to hear about it in the comments

Related posts

Parenting through the PhD (or 5 ways not to go completely insane)

Single parenting through the PhD

The positives of PhD parenting

The perils of PhD parenting

Will my children be damaged by my PhD?

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08/24/18 PHD comic: 'Coming up'

PhD Comics - August 26, 2018 - 4:07am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Coming up" - originally published 8/24/2018

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

The Cornell note taking method – revisited

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - August 22, 2018 - 4:00am

Ah, effective research note-taking… the constant bugbear of academics everywhere. For years I have been searching for the best technique, convinced ‘the secret’ was out there, somewhere. I’ve sadly come to the conclusion that there is no perfect system, but there are a lot of good techniques that work in different circumstances. The Cornell Method is one of them.

Some time ago my colleague Dr Katherine Firth wrote an excellent introduction to the Cornell notetaking method here on the whisperer. This post is Hannah JensenFielding who is a  is a Master of Counselling/PhD (Psychology) student at the Universityof Queensland. Her current research project is a memory training program for community dwelling older adults. In the future she would like to focus on the role of experience in learning and psychological development. Her current hobbies include productive procrastination and ‘self-care’ activities such as Netflix. She can be found on Linkedin and ResearchGate, but the best way to contact her is by email: h.jensenfielding@uq.edu.au

Hannah has spent some time working with the method and has prepared a few tools that might help. Take it away Hannah!

So, you are in the process of researching and have discovered the age-old dilemma of ‘What do I need to remember from this text?’. This dilemma is often followed by deciding what to remember, which is then followed by a ‘But what if….?’.

The result is a summary of the text as long as the text itself.

Now we know a summary like that is not very useful but what can you do? How do we limit the number of notes we take when examining a text? One answer is the Cornell method.

The Cornell method was first devised in the 1950’s to help university students take appropriate summaries of what they were learning (from Pauk and Owens: How to study in College). The method limits the amount of space available for the students to summarise each text by means of a template:

The template includes space for recording bibliographic details, developing keywords and taking short notes. There is a summary section as a footer, theoretically making it easier for you to flick through your piles of notes and compare them.

Time has changed since the Cornell Method was developed. The Cornell template is not very user friendly on the computer. I have updated the design to suit note taking on Microsoft Word and gone a step further, in an effort to make it more useful for PhD students, or anyone else taking summarising texts for a large piece of work such as a thesis.

You can download my revised Cornell Template here.

Here’s a screen shot:

The first feature to note is the header.  There is a section stating, ‘Area of Research here’. On the MS Word file you can highlight this text and replace with the name of the general field of research that you are summarising, e.g. ‘Memory training programs’.

The second feature of the header is the page number which becomes damn useful if you print out the pages and a small child/dog/cat/other messy creature decides to play with the document.

Now the main feature is the table. As seen it has three headings: Keyword, Paper, and Summary.

Keywords refers to the word that you would use if you need to find similar texts. In the original method students are encouraged to develop keywords to help the process of linking your notes together, developing a picture of the research field. An example of a good keyword for me is ‘self-efficacy’. If I use it consistently I can search in the document to find my notes on similar texts with a focus on self-efficacy.

The second column ‘Paper’ is where you would write the name, year and title of the text you are summarising.

The final column is where you write the summary of the paper. Dot points are useful here but if you are desperate to write as much as possible then knock yourself out. It is in this column that the beauty of the Cornell method comes into play. I have constrained how much you can write in this column. The table cell will not grow if you go beyond the room provided.

If you write more than what can be written in the space available, that extra writing will not be visible.

This means you need to critically think about the text, specifically what you really need to remember about it, before you start summarising. Don’t worry: I’ve given you more space to summarise than the original Cornell template offers, so you will have enough room for all your notes if you are strategic.

The last feature of the Cornell method is the summarising box at the end of the page. Here you summarise the three papers of the page into a paragraph. This paragraph has great potential to just be inserted into your thesis if you play it right.

That in summary is the Cornell Method. I hope is serves you well.

Side Notes:

  • I have done up a very basic table (List of Keywords) in MSWord that you can use to record all the key words you develop for each area of research. This will help you stay consistent throughout your summarising and serve as a good look up table when you are searching for new literature.
  • Even when you use the template, the table does not automatically appear on a new page. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a way around this so you will need to copy and paste the table on each new page.

Related Posts

Turn your notes into writing with the Cornell Template

Endnote vs… well, everything else

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Doing a PhD with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - August 8, 2018 - 4:00am

Anecdotally I know that there are many PhD candidates out there with ASD: Autism spectrum disorder. I have quite a few family members and friends who are not neuro-typical, so I’m uncomfortable with the word ‘disorder’. As my nephew, who was diagnosed as being on the spectrum around age 7, puts it: “you say ASD like it’s a bad thing, when it’s just how I am”.

He’s totally right. ‘Neurotypicals’ are sometimes blind to the unique skills and capabilities that people with ASD have. The world is built around neurotypical ways, which makes studying while being on the spectrum particularly hard. I often get asked about PhD strategies for people with ASD, but, despite experience living and working with people on the spectrum, I am no expert. I was happy when Kim sent in this post and I hope it might encourage others living with ASD to share their experience.

Kim Kemmis has spent the last ten years working full time and pursuing postgraduate study in the Department of History at the University of Sydney. He recently completed his PhD on the life and career of the Australian soprano Marie Collier. His interests include Australian cultural history and the history of sexuality, and is currently writing on opera as a social phenomenon in Australia.

When I started my PhD I knew there would be challenges. For people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) there’s a huge boulder blocking the road, stopping us from turning intention into action. The way we process information and respond to the world affects how we work and how we connect to others, and for the HDR student there are some particular difficulties.

If research were only sitting in the archive working on documents it would be the best of all possible worlds. I can focus on the detail and feel the brain fire up with new information and connections and ideas. Back in the university study space where the work is more varied I need routine and habit, working at regular times in a quiet, unchanging working place, with minimal environmental noise like air conditioning hum or banging doors, where people don’t constantly walk past your desk or change your computer settings or move your books around. You will know this place by the unicorns roaming outside. Hot-desking is a vicious variation on the hell of open-plan, where even neurotypicals suffer.

Even in optimal conditions my brain won’t do what I want it to. At my worst, is not a matter of diving-in but zeroing-in. The brain takes its own time to engage with the text I’m working on. It doesn’t connect with anything beyond the immediate phrase I’m looking at. I circle around the text, looking for a phrase to spring off the screen or to catch my attention, to coax the brain into comprehension. Every few minutes I have to give the brain a break, preferably by doing something work-related or tuning into my music rather than social media. But usually it’s five minutes on, fifteen off until I get back to where I was. Sometimes I have to drag the brain back, with the to-do list, or by breaking the task down so I can do it in baby steps—any structure I can use to keep moving in the right direction.

On good days form takes care of itself. On bad days syntax and sentence structure fail catastrophically. The brain switches off between phrases and jumps to something else; I grab at what I thought I was writing, but my thinking has moved on and the sentence is a series of non sequiturs. My advanced writing skills need conscious reinforcement, and I can’t see if I’m making sense until I finish the sentence.

But after three-quarters of an hour teasing out the phrases and connections I suddenly get into the zone. Words start flowing out through the fingers and the actual ‘writing’ happens, and I have some sentences, even paragraphs that I can come back to and polish.

Connecting with others is difficult; activities such as class participation and supervision are complicated, and you become estranged from many of the collegial experiences. In my undergraduate days I was criticised for not joining in the discussions, even though I was probably working the hardest of anyone: trying to establish what people what were saying, analyse it, draw conclusions, then find a way of verbalising them, while not being able to read the class dynamics. Now that happens in supervision meetings. I try to work out the nuances (‘What exactly does she mean by subjectivity? Whose? Is that what I call subjectivity or is it something else?’), but there is no time to linger, and I have to hold the idea unresolved and try to pick up cues from the rest of the conversation. After twenty-minutes I run out of stamina, and I can’t express myself verbally. I have lost count of the follow-up emails starting, ‘I tried to say…’ or ‘I should have said…’, or even pretending ‘It’s occurred to me that…’ (NB I didn’t disclose my ASD to my supervisors: in retrospect, a big mistake.)

As a historian I have to interview people. It’s a misconception that people with ASD don’t have empathy. But using that empathy is exhausting, and so are the burdens of initiating and maintaining conversation, and the emails and phone calls required to keep the relationship going.

As a research student you have to make contact with peers and influencers and grow your network. That’s why we have conferences, which can be another circle of hell. You can stick with people you know and connect through their connections. But otherwise it’s cold calling, talking to people while pouring a coffee, using the pre-prepared starters, ‘What are you writing about?’, ‘How many years do you have to go?’, and the one-sentence, thirty-second or three-minute summaries of my research, formulated to avoid the full-immersion experience to which I have been known to subject people; all the while fighting the chaotic and exhausting coffeebreak noise, and the anxiety that as you lurch from sentence to sentence you will lose the thread or not be able to reply.

During papers I try not to be distracted by the rustling of pens scratching on poor quality notepaper, or the suspicion that the weird smells from the seats are possibly organic in origin. I enjoy the para-conference that Twitter provides; distilling the essence of a paper to 280 characters including the conference hashtag helps me engage, and the online interaction complements the more difficult physical socialising.

Presenting isn’t a problem. Once I’m at the lectern the technique kicks in and the anxiety starts to dissipate. But I stink without a script. Every word is prepared, even the impromptu remarks. Questions can be an adventure: remembering not to over-answer, monitoring the questioner’s expression to see if I have to ask ‘Am I answering your question or have I missed the point?’

Now I have finished my PhD I look forward to life as an Early Career Researcher and ask, ‘Does it get easier?’ No. But I have found ways of working that work for me—which is what the PhD is all about, for all of us.

Thanks for sharing your experience Kim! I’m wondering what you think – have you been diagnosed with ASD, or suspect you might have tendencies? What strategies do you have in place to cope with the challenges? Love to hear your ideas in the comments.

Related Posts

Stuggling with thesis production?

My own go to expert on all things thesis with autism is Daveena at the Scholar Studio blog – check it out

08/03/18 PHD comic: 'Summer Acronym'

PhD Comics - August 7, 2018 - 4:27am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Summer Acronym" - originally published 8/3/2018

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

PhD Fear (a personal account)

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - August 1, 2018 - 4:00am

This post is by Elaine Campbell. Elaine is an Associate Professor at Northumbria Law School, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. She is particularly interested in interpretative qualitative research, using story and narrative as a sensemaking tool. Elaine is due to submit her Professional Doctorate in Law in March 2019. Elaine’s thesis will explore her lived experience as a university law clinic supervisor through an autoethnographic lens. She can be found at @alawuntoherself and alawuntoherself.com

At 2.24pm on 6th June 2016, after a morning filled with panic, I plonked myself down at my kitchen table and wrote this:

I’ve got PhD Fear. I’ve had it for three days now, and there’s no sign it’s toddling off to find someone else to haunt. It’s always there, like a software programme quietly running in the background of my mind. A strange combination of lively moments of panic and levelling moments of stillness, I find myself overcome with the thought of completing a PhD. A PhD which I love, by the way.

I wonder how I got here. 

Image by @sebastian_unrau on Unsplash

Since 2015, I have written 8 journal articles, numerous guest blogs and media pieces, and presented at 7 conferences. I run my own blog which, through a public vote, was shortlisted in the UK Blog Awards. I got a mention in The Guardian. In July/August I’m delivering 3 international conferences papers. And I’ve got a guest blog, a magazine feature and 4 journal articles in the pipeline. Oh – almost forgot – I’m giving my first keynote at the end of the year.

I don’t say this to show off or make anyone who might one day read this feel inadequate. I’m saying it out aloud to prove to myself that I have a track record in managing my time, alongside teaching, admin and other projects, and producing pretty good stuff.

It’s not like I haven’t started the PhD. I’ve been immersed in it. I’m doing a Professional Doctorate, an enquiry-based project exploring my role as a senior lecturer in law. I draw on my lived experience and place my personal narrative at the forefront of my research. In short, I write about myself. Confessional tales, of which this is one, help me to figure out what I do, how I live, and invite readers to feel, think and respond.

Maybe it’s the size. Metaphors like ‘insurmountable mountain’ get used a lot in PhD student circles, as do comparisons to dragons. Perhaps I need to stop thinking of my PhD as Everest and start comparing it to my guinea pig Valentino. He’s quite small, in the grand scheme of things. And he doesn’t breathe fire (as far as I’m aware).

Maybe it’s that I’m terrified brain and fingers won’t work together to spill the good stuff into the thesis. I construct flowing sentences that sound really impressive in the cocoon of my brain, but, well, a bit rubbish when I try to let it out on the page. Perhaps letting it out is the only thing I can do right now. And later, when I can see it all there in front of me, I can polish it up.

Maybe it’s the time. I don’t have long. I’m almost in year two of a three year programme. The clock is ticking and before we know it December will be here. What will I have done by then? Something? Something that makes sense? Something that has rigour? Something that is good enough? Even while I’m writing this, I’m half whispering to myself ‘you could be reading… you could be drafting that conference paper…’ Perhaps something is good enough and I need to trust myself to keep chipping away at it bit by bit.

Maybe it’s the balance with family life. There’s a part of me which dreams of chucking it all in. I’m jealous of friends who do the 9-5 and spend evenings with their children. I worry that my sitting at the computer during ‘downtime’ will eradicate personal relationships, that the PhD will always be the priority. Perhaps I need to give myself time limits and book holidays in advance away from PhD-land.

Maybe it’s all of those things together. Panic and stillness. Dreams and reality. But what’s important is to face the fear. Stare it in the eye. Show it you know it’s there. Write a blog post about it. And then calmly ask it to move on.


Since I wrote this, time moved on. I moved on. I delivered those three international conference papers. I wrote those journal articles. And then I had a period of sick leave due to a really nasty bout of depression and anxiety.

For almost four months, I didn’t touch my PhD. My numerous lever arch files were banished to the back bedroom, underneath the spare bed (you know, the place you put things you want to forget). But I sought help, looked after myself, and eventually went back to work. And I slowly picked up the PhD. And I slowly started to write.

Reader, I’m due to submit in March 2019.

I think this is the point where I’m meant to say “see, there’s light at the end of the tunnel”. Or, “and now I face every day with confidence – no more PhD fear for me!”. But that’s not how it works. I still have days when I have absolutely no idea why I am bothering. And moments of utter devastation, where I convince myself I’ve written a whole load of garbage.

Sometimes when we go through a difficult period, we’re expected to adhere to a narrative that says the bad times are behind us. Onwards and upward, not peaks and troughs. But peaks and troughs are part of life, and they’re certainly part of the PhD ‘journey’. And they’re okay. And they will pass. And they might even come back again. And they’ll move on.

Thanks for sharing your inner thoughts so generously Elaine – how about you? Have you experienced the PhD Fear? Interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Related posts

The Valley of Shit

Leaving the Valley of Shit

The Swamp of Sadness









07/27/18 PHD comic: 'The point of no returns'

PhD Comics - July 28, 2018 - 2:36am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "The point of no returns" - originally published 7/27/2018

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

07/20/18 PHD comic: 'Dream on'

PhD Comics - July 25, 2018 - 4:49am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Dream on" - originally published 7/20/2018

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

Not doing the PhD (and being ok with that)

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - July 25, 2018 - 4:00am

Eleanor Malbon is a research fellow at the University of New South Wales and an aborted PhD candidate.  She researches social policy and public administration, which can be as dry as it sounds, but the people she works with are consistently interesting. You can find her research profile here and most of her published work is available on academia.com

Earlier this year I told some of my friends that I was enrolling in a PhD. This was a lie, but at the time I thought it was the truth.

In February I was made one of those offers that you can’t refuse, a true gift for an early career academic; I was offered a PhD place and a scholarship for work that I am already paid to do.

This would essentially mean that I could get a PhD the easy way. I could take the journal articles that I’m already writing and publishing (as a Level A academic) and wrap them into a PhD by publication, with a bit of extra writing to tie it all together. Plus I would get both a salary and a scholarship to do it. This is like getting a really big cake. My supervisor said to me “I wish someone had offered me an opportunity like this”.

I felt that I should take the opportunity because it was rare and good. I applied. I prepared my partner and my sister by saying “I need you to support me in this”. I told some other friends that I was excited. I pinned the proposal to my wall.

Then I freaked the fuck out.

I have a history of anxiety. That’s a nice way of saying that I currently have crippling anxiety and I have done for years. My anxiety episodes can last for weeks or months, and I can find it pretty hard to do anything except get myself fed, showered, and show up at the doorstep of my job. But some days, not even that.

In the days after I applied for the PhD I crashed. The main issue is that my work and the proposed PhD is in the discipline of social policy, and while I don’t yet know what my academic direction is, I know that it isn’t social policy. I was going to end up with a PhD in an area that I don’t even want to work in for the long term, while simultaneously not even knowing what I do want to research for the long term!

It was clear to me that I was acting out of fear. I applied because I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to keep my research position without enrolling in a PhD. I was scared that the Australian government would start charging students for PhDs. I was scared that I would look back at my work and wish that I had done a PhD (so I could go on to do a post-doc and keep running up the academic ladder).

I applied because it seemed like an easy way to get a PhD and I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to finish one otherwise.

But when I thought of not doing the PhD I had applied for I had a double loop of fear. Then I was scared that my anxiety was holding me back from achieving the things that I might be able to achieve if I were more confident, more decisive, more diligent and generally more ‘correct’ in the world of universities. Academia doesn’t make a lot of space for people who aren’t sure of themselves, it tends to eat them alive.

It was months before I made the obvious decision: I declined the offer. By this time at least, most of my closest colleagues and friends knew that I didn’t want to do this PhD. They helped me decline it.

This experience opened up something else in me. I started to try to tell the truth to my friends and to my colleagues. I started to tell them that my current work is only my job, it’s not my passion, and I don’t yet know what my ‘passion’ is and that I’m even starting to suspect that I don’t have one.

It’s an interesting experience to look my academic colleagues in the eye and tell them that ‘this is just a job for me’ and ‘I don’t want to be a Professor by the age of 35, and maybe never at all’. It’s not something that we often hear in academia. I don’t want to be defined by my job, by my relationship to cultural or economic capital, I’d rather be defined by my relationship to the people and ecosystems around me. I’d rather be able to be flexible in my work and listen to myself when I think I might need to leave.

This makes me different in academia, because an overwhelming narrative is that we are working to our passions and strengths, that we are giving social commentary in the hope that someone listens and it helps to solve some of the biggest questions we that face like climate change and global migration and how to act respectfully towards each other. But for me, for now, it’s just a job that offers me stability and kind colleagues while I try to look after my mental health.

I know that my reluctance to put my career first might mean that I don’t progress, or that eventually I stop getting work in academia.

Is there a place for me in academia? Is there a place for someone who insists on treating it as ‘just a job’? Are millenials even allowed to admit that they do something that is hard, challenging and time consuming just for the money, security and stability?

I want to keep making academia work for me. There are systemic problems that could mean that it might not always work for me, and at that time I will leave. But the key factor to remember is that my job needs to work for me and for my life, not the other way around. I’m going to keep researching, writing and giving conference presentations, not because it is my passion, but because it is my job and I’m good at it.

But when I do a PhD, that will be for me.

Thanks for honestly sharing this experience Eleanor – and for raising some pretty interesting questions about the nature of academic work. What about you? Do you think academia can just be a job, or does it have to be a passion? Do you sometimes wish you had refused the offer of a PhD? Love to hear your responses in the comments.

Related Posts

Should you quit your PhD?

Why do people quit the PhD?

Four more reasons people quit the PhD

How do I email my supervisor? Part two – the thank you note.

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - July 18, 2018 - 4:00am
The best blog post topics come from emails like the one I got a couple of weeks ago, from an international student studying at an Australian university. Here is the student’s dilemma: The questions might be naive, but I do want to learn more about the “Australian” way of sending regards to supervisors. My supervisor invited me to a formal business dinner this week with some other professors. As a PhD student who just started research, I felt thrilled about this occasion. He will be on his sabbatical leave soon and we will continue to contact via email, once a month. From the culture of my own country, I should send my supervisor an email containing all the following items. However, I am also thinking about the concerns listed in the brackets. I am not sure whether such a personal email is too far for this more professional supervisor-student relationship in Australia.
  • Thanks again for the dinner. (I have already expressed my gratitude orally and in a previous email. Will this be tedious?)
  • Thanks for all his guidance and caring for the past several months. (But it sounds like a concluding remark, which might not be proper at this time.)
  • Have a safe journey. (A must-say in my hometown. But I was told it was considered odd, or even rude by some Americans. The main reason for this email.)
  • Enjoy the sabbatical leave. (Enjoy?)
  • I will work hard during this period. (Another must-say. But I have never heard students promise this in western countries.)
I am struggling between my rational brain and emotional brain, as well as two different cultures. Looking forward to hearing from you.

Warm regards,

Courteous Student

Here is what I wrote back:

Dear Courteous,

Inter-cultural communication is, indeed, delicate work. Add to that the stress of playing the role of ‘junior’ colleague in academia… let’s just say, it’s challenging. Even students raised in the same culture as their supervisor can struggle with this kind of communication task, which is why it is an excellent topic for a blog post!

Image by @craftedbygc on Unsplash.com

When we write a letter, we are playing a role. Think about a letter you would write to a friend while you are on holiday vs a letter you would write to a politician, complaining about Australia’s refugee policy. Want to sound happy and affectionate to your friend and angry and persuasive to the politician. You are a different person when you write each letter. You play the role through your choice of greeting, the words you use, expressive punctuation and so on. For instance, you would not sign off an angry letter to a politician with “with love”; the recipient of your letter will feel very weird, and you will have failed to communicate.

Unlike other parts of formal education, you do not have a ‘social ritual’ that will guide you in everyday interactions with your supervisor; the relationship will emerge and develop over time. Each supervisor / PhD student relationship is unique. I have a very different kind of relationship with every PhD student I supervise, even though I like to think I approach everyone the same way. When the communication is electronic, the interaction problem is magnified because you don’t have live feedback from the person to judge and adjust your performance. Too casual? Too formal? It’s tough to find the right tone, especially at the beginning of your working relationship.

The ‘meta’ problem here is that you do not have a well-defined role to play. Are you a student? A junior colleague? A friend? You can be all three at the same time, or just one, depending on how the relationship between yourself and your supervisor evolves. Even if you do get to the ‘friends’ end of the spectrum, there will still be a power relationship that is unequal; at least until you graduate and in all likelihood, beyond. Recently I met my delightful and supportive masters supervisor at a social event, completely by chance. I studied with her 18 years ago now (!). Back then we were in almost daily contact, even though now we speak but rarely. We certainly became friends, after a fashion. But I still feel like a junior colleague when I talk to her. She’s the most unthreatening, lovely person you can imagine, so this wasn’t from anything she did at the time, or since.

It’s tricky, so let’s tackle it one letter at a time. Here’s what I would write, based on your list of what you want to express. My explanation for every sentence is in square brackets. Reading these notes gives you a sense of how difficult it can be to negotiate the supervisor/student power relations, even in a very everyday piece of correspondence:

Dear [whatever you call him/her – in Australia, most supervisors are more comfortable with first names from PhD students]

I hope you enjoy your sabbatical [‘enjoy’ is an entirely appropriate here – us academics are nerdy and a sabbatical is a dream come true!]. I appreciate all your guidance and care over the last couple of months [keep emotional stuff short and to the point, but don’t forget to include it. If you’ve already thanked by email for the dinner, don’t do it again because in Australia this will feel overbearing. We are not good with gratitude. Maybe it’s a convict thing?]. I plan to work on [insert something general, but specific here like your upcoming milestone presentation. Being specific shows your supervisor that you are confident and have things under control and that you have listened to their advice] over the next couple of months. I’m looking forward to our emails/touching base [this sentence confirms your agreement about communication over the next little while, so he/she knows you understand. The second mode of expression ‘touching base’ is more casual, depends on whether you feel your relationship is moving in that direction or not] every two weeks. Do let me know if you need to change this arrangement for any reason [indicates you are flexible and understand the nature of his/her leave – gives them something to thank you for, an important ingredient of this sort of communication. In English, saying thanks demands another thanks and sometimes it’s hard to know how to stop the cycle. One reason why emojis are so useful in text messaging!]. Safe travels! [this is a casual way of wishing someone all the best on a journey – not offensive and entirely appropriate. you can choose whether you use the exclamation mark – makes it sound more ‘jaunty’ if you do, thus decreasing the emotional content].

[your usual sign off … mine is ‘best’ if I don’t know a person that well or just my initial in lower case: “i”, if they are a colleague-friend ]


Have you ever struggled to find the right ‘tone’ to email your supervisor? What were you trying to say? Did you manage to communicate well, or not? Love to hear your stories in the comments – from your issues, more blog posts might come!

Related posts

How to email your supervisor (or the tyranny of tiny tasks and what you can do about it)

Five ways to avoid death by email

07/13/18 PHD comic: 'Hurry up and wait'

PhD Comics - July 16, 2018 - 6:53pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Hurry up and wait" - originally published 7/13/2018

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

Using oral feedback to complement written feedback

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - July 11, 2018 - 4:00am

Dr. Daveena Tauber is a consultant who specializes in working with graduate students and programs in the U.S. and internationally. Her work includes individual writing consulting, workshops for students and faculty, and program consulting. Find more information and resources at scholarstudioblog.com

Anyone who teaches or advises writers has experienced the infuriating déjà vu of reading a student’s paper or dissertation chapter and thinking, “I know I responded to this in the last draft, but here it is again…unchanged.”

In my teaching capacity, this moment has traditionally generated something I call ‘reader rage’ (basically road rage on the page). My brain whirrs:

Did they even read my feedback?

Do they give a shit?

Why do I bother?

But my work as a graduate writing consultant has pushed me into a more nuanced view of why students may fail to respond to faculty feedback. In this capacity, I often work with students to operationalize feedback from their dissertation supervisor. In these situations, I see that it is possible for students to read their professors’ feedback and give a shit and still not know how to do meaningful revision.

In fact, it is not uncommon for a student to call in a writing consultant when they have gone through two or three rounds of feedback on a dissertation draft without being able to produce a draft that meets with their supervisor’s satisfaction. At this point the supervisor is probably thinking, “well, this student doesn’t have what it takes” or possibly, “please shoot me if I have to read another barely-­‐changed draft of this dissertation.”

But I don’t think we should conclude that failure to revise is a priori evidence of lack of capacity to do the work. I have seen students fail to revise for reasons as simple as being too humiliated to ask the professor to translate her handwriting. At the graduate level, however, the reasons are generally more complex.

Being able to understand a supervisor’s feedback fundamentally means being able to do what psychologists call “perspective taking.” In interpersonal relationships, perspective taking is necessary to establish social connections and develop empathy. When we tell students to “write for your audience,” we are asking them to do a kind of rhetorical perspective taking—understanding what kind of written moves will satisfy the reader’s needs to know “where am I?” (context); to know what will happen (“signposting”); to know where the author locates herself in relation to her sources (authorial presence); and to help the reader make meaning of the data or ideas presented (analysis).

These are complex cognitive and rhetorical tasks.

If you have ever mis-­‐read the tone or intention of a text message, you know that interpreting writing in the absence of other social cues can be challenging. Students face similar challenges as they work to decode feedback.

For example, a student who gets the written feedback “unclear” or “confusing,” has to recreate the scene of the reader’s confusion, has to experience the text from the reader’s point of view. We frequently urge students to read their text aloud in hopes that they will catch their own errors, Escher-­‐esque syntax, or logical fallacies. This is a good strategy, and in some cases it allows students to externalize their text enough to hear the problems. But other times students cannot intuitively discern what is confusing, and unless they take the time to ask, are unlikely to revise in a way that addresses the confusion.

I see all kinds of students struggle to understand and incorporate written feedback, and the challenges can be intensified for neurodiverse students, for language learners, and for students who have not been avid readers. In fact, I see students struggle with written feedback so frequently that I have begun to mutter that writing is a lousy medium in which to give feedback about writing.

In my faculty development work on cultivating students as writers, I encourage dissertation supervisors to incorporate oral techniques, especially when students are not “uptaking” their written feedback. These strategies greatly support students’ cognitive abilities to understand their reader’s needs and thus to do meaningful revision.

Here are some strategies for supervisors to try (brave students may want to email this to their committee – Ed):

Ask the student to write you a follow-­‐up letter commenting on and asking questions about your feedback. This mitigates the problem of the student not asking when they don’t understand. Discuss issues at your next meeting.

Rather than writing copious notes to the student, write shorter notes to yourself about what you want to discuss.

Incorporate verbal feedback into your written feedback by using software like Jing, which lets you make five-­‐minute screencast videos with voiceover. The videos are stored in the cloud, and you can generate a link to paste into an email or into the comments feature in Word or Google docs. You can convey richer feedback in a five-­minute video than you can in five minutes of writing.

If you can do so with empathy and humor, read problematic passages out loud to the student, using tone to help them experience what their reader experiences, including, for example, abrupt transitions, digressions, or non sequitors.

Use a move I call “I follow you / I lose you,” to indicate the moment where confusion sets in. I will say, “I follow you here”—and read the last passage that makes sense, and then say, “but I lose you here”—and read the adjacent passage where I lose the thread.

Refer backward and forward in the text, saying things like, “I know this because you say so in the next section, but you haven’t actually introduced this concept yet, so do you see why the reader is confused?” Ask the student to include a letter with their next draft about what they have revised and why, much as some journals do during the revise and resubmit process.

For supervisors, the iterative nature of the thesis-­‐ and dissertation-­‐writing process lends itself to trying new ways to communicate feedback. I encourage you to experiment with finding what works for you and for your students.


Daveena is running a workshop on some of these issues. Information is below if you are interested

Are you an academic writer whose writing process or product is impacted by neurodivergence (such as ADD or dyslexia) or mental health issues?  Join Dr. Daveena Tauber of ScholarStudio for the new online workshop How to Thrive as an Academic with Writing Challenges Related to Neurodiversity or Mental Health. Learn new strategies for working with rather than against your cognitive and affective needs. Strategize about how to advocate for yourself and mobilize a team to support you. We will also address issues of identity and self-perception and bust through myths that may be holding you back. Walk away with a packet of exercises, tools, and resources designed specifically to help you move forward successfully.

Thanks Daveena – Do you get effective feedback already, or do you think your supervisors would benefit from reading this post? Which strategies have you tried?

Related posts

Why does feedback hurt sometimes?

Managing conflicting feedback on your thesis


07/06/18 PHD comic: 'Endless Cycle?'

PhD Comics - July 7, 2018 - 7:21pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Endless Cycle?" - originally published 7/6/2018

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

The Academic FitBit

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

First a trigger warning: this post discusses suicide and self harm. If you need to reach out, Lifeline in Australia provides a 24 hour crisis line on 131114. Sorry I can’t list services in every country this is likely to be read, but you can find information on mental health for PhD students on the Useful Resources Page.

If academic overwork had a Facebook status it would be ‘it’s complicated’.

Academics work hard, in part, because we have to, in part because we love it, and partly because of dedication to our students. But the endemic overwork problem must be addressed. The pressure to work long hours translates through the academic eco-system to PhD students, who are often tasked with impossible workloads too. When unrealistic expectations are a feature of PhD study; stress, overwork and mental health issues are the inevitable result.

Stopping the vicious cycle is a systemic AND a personal battle. I battle over-work by being a proud and active Union member. I battle the problem personally too, by trying not to over-work myself. I don’t always win.

To be clear, ANU were not foisting an unrealistic workload on me. My overwork problem was at least partly a problem of my own making. At the start of the year, I told you I was working 60 hour weeks, so I set myself the task of trying to do ‘Less’ again in 2018. It’s halfway through the year (yes, already!) so I thought I would report in. Am I doing Less? The answer is a qualified ‘yes’ – but I have only achieved this with the help of some software that my friend Dr Jason Downs put me onto, called ‘Timing‘.

Timing is like a FitBit or Apple Watch, but for work. Before you ask, Timing is a Mac product, but RescueTime is a cloud-based product with similar functionality. Basically Timing lurks in the background and watches how you use your computer. Once you’ve spent a bit of time training it, Timing automagically categorises your work. You can quickly add in non-computer based tasks in the timeline view to make sure you capture all your efforts. It doesn’t take much to keep the record accurate, and the effort is worth it because Timing allows you to access a range of neat dashboard views. For instance, here is a visual summary of my whole year so far:

If I divide my hours worked by the available work days I have been running Timing, the average is 42 hours of work a week. ANU only pays me for 35 hours a week, but I work for myself too. I cut a deal when I started in 2013 that I own the Thesiswhisperer. ANU does not pay for me to blog, but nor can they profit from it. If I take out my social media activities (my new YouTube channel and outside paid work) I get down to 38 hours a week for ANU.

So, I’m donating about 3 hours a week to my employer. I can live with that – for now.

If I am going to donate to my employer, at least I know the size of my donation. Timing gives me the comforting illusion that I am in charge of my time by enabling me to assign a productivity ‘score’ to each kind of task. Tasks you consider a bit of time waste, like email, can be ‘tuned down’ while productive work, like writing or teaching, can be ‘tuned up’. A glance at the productivity score lets me know how my week is tracking. If it’s high I am getting a lot of good, useful work done; if it’s low, I am in too many meetings or noodling around on expense claims or social media.

One thing I learned from my productivity score, is the weeks I work more hours, the less productive I am. Here’s a comparison of two weeks, one at nearly 55 hours (what used to be a typical week for me):

And one at almost exactly the ANU enterprise bargain agreement of 37:

Even though I work the odd stupid hour week, I am feeling much better. I don’t want to give the impression that this semblance of work/life ‘balance’ was easy to achieve. I partly created the problem, but in doing so, I had set cetain service delivery expectations. Now I had to wind them back – this was hard. I had to give a lot of pushback at work, which did lead to conflict as well as feelings of guilt, powerlessness, and anger. Coming back from the brink of burn-out is also just intense, bodily work. For the first couple of months, I cried in my office nearly every day. I leaned on a lot of people: friends, colleagues, sympathetic mentors. I saw a therapist – more than once. I acknowledge that even being able to push back is a form of privilege that’s not available to everyone.

It shouldn’t be.

A couple of weeks ago, there was sad news out of Cardiff University about a lecturer who took his own life, apparently due to stress and over-work brought on by marking season. My academic social media network lit up with the story. Everyone was horrified because the situation was just so… relatable. On Facebook, one colleague shared a story about how she had to take medical leave because her eyes ACTUALLY STARTED BLEEDING during an essay marking marathon. No one should have to work this much just to meet expectations. Reflecting on the parallels between that Cardiff lecturer’s experience and my own, pushing back before I hit crisis point may well have saved my life.

People usually screw their faces up when I tell them about Timing; I guess because it sounds like yet more neo-liberal performance management bullshit that has got us in all into this situation in the first place. But I would argue that monitoring your own work is profoundly different than being monitored because the power of the data is in your hands. For example, the data from my Academic FitBit came in very handy when I was negotiating a reduced workload with my manager. She wanted me to do a 50% teaching load, which I initially resisted. But she was right: Timing showed me that I do, in fact, spend 50% of my ANU time on teaching. My performance measures may as well reflect that fact.

Timing has enabled me to finally (FINALLY) crack the academic project management problem: a long-term goal of mine. I used to work in architecture offices where time really was money. I learned the power of breaking a project up into different tasks and using these calculations to tell a client when you would deliver and how much it would cost. I’ve  tried for many years to apply architecture project management techniques to academia, without much success. Architects are mostly bad at doing time estimates (which is why just about every building takes longer and costs more than thought), but they are still miles better at it than academics.

Making and managing a time budget is a critically important skill to learn when you are a student, but one that is rarely, if ever, taught. The most common reason people go over time on their PhD is because no one anticipated – or even asked the student to estimate – how long tasks might take. Up to now, I have been no better than most supervisors. I do have some rules of thumb which I share with my students. For instance, I tell them that every hour of interview time is about six hours of analysis, but I don’t know if that’s true! I just heard it somewhere. I just know it’s a good supervision tactic to do a back of the envelope calculation in front of a student to show them the project plan to interview 500 people is unrealistic. I know my students are likely to be slower than me, but if I know how long something takes me I can use the ‘multiply’ function on my calculater to give them some kind of estimate.

Now, with Timing, Architect Inger is back in charge. I can tell you how long it takes me to write and edit an academic paper: 26 hours (not including analysis time). Editing a whole book in Grammarly? 49 hours. Putting together material to run a workshop? Between 3 hours (lecture) and 37 hours (new half-day workshop). How long do I spend blogging? 2 hours a week, on average. Crucially, every single project I commit to represents at least a 30% ‘overhead’ of ‘enabling work’ -email, paperwork, meeting, phone calls, etc. This work is unavoidable, as my friend Dr Ben Kraal says: ‘It’s the work you do in order to do the work you do’.

Going back to the sad story of the lecturer at Cardiff, in the fight against the perverse effects of neo-liberal management, is collecting our own data is a weapon? Or, maybe, I am only handing my employer a loaded gun…? What do you think? Are you already succumbing to the overwork scourge? Have you tried to push back on unrealistic time expectations? Have any other tactics to share?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. I’ll be doing a walk through of Timing this week on my Youtube channel.

Related posts

Less is more?

An excellent analysis of the Cardiff situation by Liz Morrish on the Academic Irregularities blog).

Another excellent (and ranty) post from Jodie Lee Trembath on The Familiar Strange Blog

The tyranny of tiny tasks

06/29/18 PHD comic: 'What you said'

PhD Comics - June 29, 2018 - 8:22pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "What you said" - originally published 6/29/2018

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

How to be the ‘star PhD student’ – when you are an introvert

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - June 27, 2018 - 4:00am

Do you identify as ‘introvert’? Many PhD students do. If you are less comfortable with social spaces, the networking part of academia might be painful. To tell you the truth, I don’t really buy the ‘introvert/extrovert’ spectrum as I don’t identify as either. I’m always uncomfortable with such absolute descriptions as people are very complex, but I accept that some people find the label of introvert helpful in describing their experience of the world. I am comfortable in large social gatherings that are a persistent feature of academia, so I’m grateful when someone comes forward to write from a different point of view.

Sharon is preparing to submit her PhD Thesis in Renewable Energy Engineering at the University of New South Wales this year. Her research investigates some of the future effects of distributed generation on the electricity industry as more homes start to generate their own power using solar power and batteries. You can find out more about Sharon on LinkedIn

I wrote this post in response to a comment on a previous Thesiswhisperer post called Why you are not the star student (and how to become one). The gist of the article was that to be a ‘star’, you needed to extend yourself beyond your research and make connections. A comment was made that ‘academia: just another field where extroverts have the upper hand’.  Inger suggested that that may not be accurate and perhaps an introvert could respond.  I describe myself as an introvert, and I asked to write a response post.

It is perhaps best to start by stating how I see introverts/extroverts. I am an engineer, I am not going to be perfect on this by any means and can only speak from my experience as a self-defined introvert. The general trait of extroverts can be described as that they are energised by interacting with other people, and the more the better.  The inverse is the general trait of introverts. They are drained of energy by interacting with people; for them, the fewer the better.

For the rest of this article, I will speak as an introvert with strategies on how to be a ‘star student’.

The first thing to be aware of is that none of the traits or actions suggested in the article have anything to do with whether or not you’re an introvert.

  • Extroversion doesn’t mean you’re a good communicator
  • Extroversion doesn’t guarantee you will make good connections
  • Extroversion doesn’t mean you’re a good networker
  • Extroversion doesn’t guarantee that you’re great at time management.
  • Extroversion doesn’t mean you do high quality work, or publish more papers
  • Extroversion doesn’t guarantee that you are especially responsible or reliable

These are all personal traits, and any of them can be improved on if you choose to invest the time and energy.

This post is partially influenced by “The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research”, which I read the first chapters of very early in my PhD. On reflection, it’s surprising how much this book has shaped my actions in the two and half years since then. The single greatest takeaway I took from that book was that a PhD is a short term contract, with a known end in sight. As such, from the beginning of your PhD, you need to be planning for the end.

How does this relate to introverts?

As an introvert, I know that I have a finite amount of energy for face-to-face interactions.  After a while, no matter what I’m doing, who I’m talking to or how good and useful it is, I’m going to have to recharge by finding a quiet place.  Every day, every week, every month, there is a limit on how much I can handle.

When you have a finite resource, what do you do?  Learn to spend it well.

So what have I done?  I’ve tried to keep the end in mind – when my PhD finishes, I don’t know what opportunities I will have, so I have tried to maximise my options.  I’d like to stay in academia, and keep researching.  But such a role may also have a teaching requirement.  I may not be able to get a research position, so I may need to shift to industry.

In the process of preparing myself for the end of my PhD, I’ve ended up doing a whole lot of the things that Inger insists a ‘star’ student does:

  • I tutor one subject per semester.  Because I need teaching experience to maximise my post-PhD options.
  • I attend a weekly lunchtime discussion group.  Because I need to connect with my peers and become familiar with their research.
  • I organise that weekly group.  Because it proves my reliability and because it connects me with people I would otherwise not meet.
  • I attend regular seminars on research in my field.  Because I want to hear from and connect to other people working in my area.
  • I try to present at a minimum of one conference per year.  Because I need to both connect with others and present my own work.
  • I enter 3MT.  Because I need to get good at communicating clearly and concisely.
  • I meet newer students for coffee to mentor them.  Because I need to be able to lead and manage people who have less experience than myself, but also because I can learn from them – their thinking is not yet stuck in a rut.
  • I even get my morning cuppa at 8:45am, to maximise the number of people I am likely to see when I have the most energy.
  • I’ve written submissions to parliamentary inquiries.  Because genuine expertise needs to be heard where decisions are being made.
  • I put my hand up to write a post for ThesisWhisperer. (:D) Because I need to learn to communicate to people beyond my sphere of research.

And more.

Every single one of those things has a time and energy cost, some of them larger than others.  But I’m still on track to complete in a timely manner. And when I finish, I will have options, because I have built connections.  Not because I am an extrovert (HA. I am nothing of the sort), but because I worked out what was needed, and used my (physical, temporal, emotional) resources strategically.

When it comes to emotional energy – the best way to manage it is to plan ahead for any events that are going to be draining, and give yourself time to recuperate.

For example, I love teaching my students in tutorials.  I love seeing them start to understand things. But after I walk out of a 2 hour lesson it can be up to an hour before I’m much use to anyone. I usually run tutorials just before lunch, so I can have big break afterward.

At conferences, I set a goal of at least two good conversations (with business card exchanged) per day, which gives me both connection and break time. I write agendas for my supervisor meetings to make sure they’re productive, and schedule a break immediately afterward.

These are my management strategies but you need to work out what works for you.

If you are an introvert, you are recharged by quiet time, quiet spaces and not interacting with people. Social interaction is often a major drain on your energy levels. Giving a presentation, teaching a class, attending a conference or social drinks are all things that can leave you drained, possibly even exhausted.

Don’t avoid it – you need to do this stuff to maximise your future options. But work out how you can manage yourself so that you can do these things. Being an introvert doesn’t disqualify you from doing well in academia.

Thanks Sharon! Even as a person more on the extrovert end of the spectrum, I found some useful tips there, what about you? If you identify as introvert, what do you do to cope with the social demands of academia?

Related posts

Why you are not the star student (and how to become one).

How to win academic friends and influence people

Beautiful fusion deliciousness… or a hot mess?

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - June 20, 2018 - 5:00am

Interdisciplinary research. So hot right now… or is it?

To be clear – I’m a super fan of interdisciplinary work. I’m happily ‘post-disciplinary’ myself. My PhD was interdisciplinary, and my current job is transdisciplinary. I work with all kinds of research students, from physics to fine art; education to chemistry, I embrace you all! While I don’t identify with an academic discipline, I do identify with a role (‘academic developer’) and a professional practice (let’s call it ‘research education’).

Photo by @eaterscollective on Unsplash

While lots of people are involved with research education at my university, I am the only person who studies it as well. When asked how I can be an academic when I don’t have a discipline, I usually answer: “I research researchers – someone has to”. I make it sound cool and funny – to make people laugh – but if I’m honest, it’s a kind of lonely research life. Finding collaborators in one challenge, but finding the next job is even harder. The researching researchers business is vanishingly small. We are oddities in the academic landscape. At best, there is one job in each university for someone like me, whereas there are 60 for someone in, say, health sciences.

I see many research students on the verge of becoming ‘un-disciplined’ like me, By which I mean, doing research across and between disciplines and running the risk of becoming a specialist with limited career options. Almost without exception, these people are doing the most exciting and cutting-edge work. I see earth scientists working in anthropology; computer scientists working in chemistry; historians working in business; economists working in population health and so on. Super cool work, yes – but I fret about their future.

Interdisciplinary work is a bit like fusion cuisine: amazingly tasty and addictive when done well, but it’s so easy to make something… weird.

Something no one wants to eat.

Dr Emily Kothe and I came up with this idea during my recent visit to Deakin University. We were discussing the lasagne on offer in the downstairs cafe, which was a conventional lasagne in every sense, except with coriander sprinkled on top. We agreed that while coriander is an interesting and pleasant herb, it has a strong and distinctive taste. The taste of coriander has become so keyed in with South East Asian food that when encountered on top of an otherwise fine lasagne, it feels unpleasantly out of place. I’m in Italy; then I’m in Asia, then I’m … just feeling confused.

Similarly, the person doing an interdisciplinary PhD, to a greater or lesser extent, will not fit in the conventional academic mold. This makes you confusing to other academics at best and, at worst, being ‘un-disciplined’ can have all kinds of knock-on effects for your future career.

So my usual advice is to write a document for the kind of academic you want to be. This involves shaping the document for the reader who can help you most. Your examiner(s) usually know the post-doc opportunities or entry-level positions that are coming up. If they like your PhD, they are in a position to get you short-listed or recommend you on to someone else.

But what if that academic you want to be doesn’t exist, or there is a very limited market for them? I recently did commercialisation training where we were warned: ‘don’t try to create a market for your product!’ Sound advice for academia, at least most of the time. Recently I had a discussion with an earth scientist who is using scientific techniques on ancient human remains. It’s fascinating work which helps us understand the complex waves of human migration. Should she write a dissertation for anthropologists interested in ancient migration, or earth scientists interested in how to apply techniques to anthropological problems? In this case, it means a choice between writing as if you are an earth scientist or a sciencey-anthropologist.

It’s possible I am wrong, but my feeling is, there are more academic jobs for an earth scientist than a sciencey-anthropologist. Entry level jobs usually involve teaching massive, undergraduate entry-level courses, where a strong disciplinary background is an asset. A sciencey-anthropologist is a specialist from a different background who cannot teach an ‘Anthropology 101’ course. Unless you can find a university with a ‘scientific anthropology 101’ course (and there might be some), you are coriander in an Italian lasagne. You can probably get yourself a post-doc because what you are doing is cool, but it might be hard to translate that post-doc to something more permanent.

In my Italian lasagne example, the coriander was not an asset. But it’s easy to imagine a delicious South East Asian lasagne that looks like an Italian one but is packed with pork, fish sauce, chilli and yes, coriander. I’m drooling now: imagine a dish where every bite gives you the soft, creamy layering of lasagne, but the fresh flavours of Vietnam. Not many PhD students think about deliberately shaping their topic choices to become Vietnamese Lasagne, but it’s a smart strategy. There is a lot of mileage in standing firmly in your disciplinary background but reaching out to another discipline for techniques or topic knowledge that makes you interestingly different. Let’s say you are a historian, instead of studying politics or war, why not explore the history of an industry sector instead? You can turn yourself into a history lecturer (not many jobs) or a business lecturer who can teach history (lots of jobs).

Of course, I have assumed that you want to stay in academia – increasingly people don’t. In this case, ‘un-disciplining’ yourself and creating the market might actually be a smart strategy. One of my students, Jodie Lee Trembath, is doing some terrific work studying the experiences of academics who migrate for their work (and collaborating on a great blog project ‘The Familiar Strange’). We’ve talked a lot about her career options as she has progressed. While there are next to no academic jobs in studies of academia, there are a lot of potential jobs helping universities better manage and support people who have relocated for their work. Or she can go back to her home discipline of communications with a tool bag of useful methodological techniques from anthropology. Many of you will be in this position. Consider the computer science student who showed me their amazing work in computational biology last week. At the end of a PhD like this, you have a skill set for translating real-world problems into code. The person who can do this can pretty much name their starting salary at a big bank… if you should want to work at one, of course.

I’m not sure what kind of lasagne you end up being outside academia, but I bet it’s delicious. So now I’m wondering, those of you who are doing the fusion research-flavour game. How are you positioning yourself for future career success? Does any of this resonate? Or do you have other ideas? I’d love to hear them in the comments.

Related posts

PhD Career capital

What will you do when your doctorate is done?


The dreaded doctoral defense

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - June 13, 2018 - 4:00am

An oral defence, or Viva, is common in the UK, Europe, NZ. The viva is less common in Australia.  Most Australian students will do a final presentation before the PhD, but many universities are currently discussing how to introduce a defence as part of the examination process, so we can expect a defence of some sort to become more common.

In the USA, the viva is called a ‘doctoral defense and PhD students have the additional challenge of being examined by their supervision committee. The US system is so different I don’t tend to write specific posts to address the various challenges because I don’t have any first hand experience, so I’m always grateful when a US colleague offers to write one.

This post is by Author, editor, writing coach, dissertation nurturer, and spiritual counselor, Noelle Sterne, Ph.D. (Columbia University) has published over 400 academic, writing craft, and spiritual articles and stories and essays in print and online venues. She delivers workshops and presentations to university faculty and writers and assists doctoral candidates in completing their dissertations (finally). Her handbook addresses these students’ largely overlooked but extremely important nonacademic difficulties: Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015). In Noelle’s first book, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she helps readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings. Website:  www.trustyourlifenow.com.

This post is adapted from: Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles, chapter 7 – “The Dreaded Doctoral Defense”.

Most universities in the United States require a final doctoral defense of your precious work, although the procedures and formats may different from those in other countries. In the U.S., the advisory committee you’ve had a love-hate relationship with throughout your dissertation constitutes your defense committee as well. In other countries, the defense may be conducted with a blind peer review process (Australia) or as a viva (U.K.). For most students, though, it’s still a one-to-three-hour torture.

Almost everyone who has a doctorate has a final defense story. They may be different but they all have two things in common: few are pretty and theyíre emblazoned on the new doctor’s mind forever.

A friend of mine was obviously pregnant at her defense. After she successfully passed, her chair (supervisor), staring at her bulk, informed her with a tone of incontrovertibility that her entire graduate education had been a ‘waste’. Outrageous and maddening, I know.

Happily, she proved the chair monumentally wrong. Later, with two kids, she became an award-winning professor at Brandeis.

My defense was a little less dramatic but no less discomfiting. During the two hours of grilling and false camaraderie, my right foot fell asleep. As I rose for the verdict, my leg collapsed and I almost fell over the table into a bald committee member’s lap. They all laughed, almost as embarrassed as I. I still blush reliving it.

A fellow student in my doctoral cohort, by far the most brilliant of us all, felt he did so poorly at his defense that he cancelled a long-planned prepaid vacation to Scandinavia with his fiance. I never heard whether he ever went on the trip got married. This was mea culpa at its worst.

What do these cautionary tales tell you? To see your defense rightly. A rite of passage, certainly, it is nevertheless an important event in your progress and professional development. You don’t want to fail or flub it. You also want to maintain dignity and engender the respect of your chair and committee members’ your future colleagues.

As a consultant and coach to dissertation writers, I have often noticed that most candidates are petrified of the defense and either overdo it or try to underplay it. They imagine the committee asking impossible questions, like a detailed explanation of their statistical involutions, or asking ridiculous questions, like their opinion of the university cafeteria food.

Many candidates either spend every possible moment cramming, and risk predefense burnout, or avoid preparation entirely. James started preparing before he had even completed his data collection. He kept asking me questions about the required procedures and sent me loads of articles on defense advice, confessing he kept losing sleep panicking about his defense. I gently told him, several times, that his preparation, although admirable, was premature.

At the other extreme, Viola, a very bright candidate, told me years later that, despite my admonitions, she had minimized her defense and barely squeaked by. She knew the material but her nervousness and lack of preparation got the best of her. She regrets to this day not following my advice.

Recognizing that both extremes are, well, extreme, I developed the following suggestions for a good final defense before, during, and after the event. First, though, for your greater perspective, especially in U.S. defenses, some words about your committee.

Your Committee

Doubtless all members have their own defense horror stories, and your defense may trigger echoes of theirs. Their egos are at stake in your meeting, and they probably want to show off to each other. They also may want to show off by asking you tough questions. And yes, they may be unpredictable, quirky, mercurial. But remember that they are also upholding the high research standards of the university and their part in it. Keep in mind too that they have worked hard to get where they are. Theyíre not your enemies and want you to succeed, for you and for them.

So now, for you to make the experience a pleasant one for everyone, some advice on preparation.

Way Before the Defense

It’s better to be overprepared than underprepared. You will thank yourself for it later.
Remind yourself that you are the expert on your dissertation, especially every time your stomach sinks.
Read the university manual on defense protocols. It should tell you the time allotted for your introductory presentation, if you need a PowerPoint presentation and the number of slides, and whether the defense will be open to the ‘public’ (usually friends, family, and a few stray predefense doctoral students).
Attend several defenses before your own to familiarize yourself with the process. Observe how the candidates respond, and make notes on the positive behavior (poise and direct eye contact with the committee) and negative behavior (a lot of ìuhs,î ìahs,î and slouching). Youíll be combating your fear of the unknown.
Ask your chair for advice. About a month before the defense, schedule a meeting and discuss the defense format and range of possible questions. Ask the chair to look at your PowerPoint beforehand (they often want to and will critique it) and ask too for (diplomatic) insights on the committee members. If trouble erupts, such as another member calling for your running your statistics completely again or insisting that you ‘need’ to survey 132 more dock workers, the chair is supposed to fight for you (diplomatically).

Especially if other candidates have had your chair, study their final PowerPoints. When youíre ready for your own, use these and any outlines in the doctoral manual. Creating the new slides from your dissertation will help you remember, review, and summarize everything.

Think of the worst questions you donít want to be asked. Write them all down.

Type out your answers. You can refine them later. Make sure your dissertation backs up your answers (for example, correct number of participants, statistical results, themes revealed).

Know your material! Some candidates mark a hard copy of their dissertation at the pages reflecting anticipated questions. If you do, you can turn to the pages quickly. Alternatively, use the PowerPoint’s space at the bottom of each slide for your notes and scripts.

Rehearse with a relative or friend (something you can involve them in, and theyíll be tickled to help).

A Little Before

If your university has a media specialist, schedule an appointment for your electronic needs for the PowerPoint and have a list ready.

Visit the room in which the defense is scheduled, preferably with the media specialist, and plan together where you’ll place your computer and other equipment.

Alone in the room, do a mock rehearsal. Stand at the podium and look out into the vast sea of faces eager for your wisdom. See the chair and committee members sitting there beaming at you.

A few days before, decide what you’ll wear (even if the defense is by teleconference). Choose clothes that look and feel professional and get them in shape.

The day before, pack your materials: computer, flashdrive backup, hard copy, handouts, pens, pencils, recorder/phone app if you choose, and anything else that anticipates any technical malfunctions and may seem like overkill but will make you breathe easier.

Don’t forget the deodorant.

The night before, go to the movies, binge watch your favorite TV show, or do something physical. No alcohol. Get a good night’s sleep.


Arrive early and meditate beforehand either in your car, on a bench outside, or even in the empty room.

Reflect on your previous successful presentation experiences’ from your job, a speech at a wedding, an impassioned piece of advice to a friend who took it.

Set up your materials.

Tell yourself you are confident and passionate about your topic and findings.

When they enter, SMILE.

Stand up, stand straight.

Greet each committee member, even if your knees are shaking.

Look ’em in the eye.

Remember that you are the expert. Take a few deep breaths.

When the committee starts asking questions, have a notepad and pen ready to take notes, and take your time responding.

If you don’t know an answer, don’t fudge. Instead say, “That’s a very good question. I’ll have to think more about it” or “I’ll do more research on that.” Remember you are still the humble student. The committee will admire your response.


At the end of the defense, smile, shake hands (admittedly clammy), and thank everyone profusely. Tell them you enjoyed the meeting (it is possible).

Expect some revisions. Just because it’s the ‘final’ defense doesnít mean the committee can’t change its collective mind and swoop down on niggling and not-so points.

Collect the committeeís hard copies with their notes, if this is the procedure. Or offer to pick them up or ask them to email you their marked-up copies or lists of revisions.

Study up on all the red-tape requirements and regulations for revised documents, all committee signatures, and final deposit of the dissertation. You don’t want to miss any deadlines.

Throughout: A Few Helpful Affirmations

  • Every time panic hits, practice defensive affirmations:
  • I am perfectly competent, confident, express, poised.
  • I am in command of myself.
  • I look forward to sharing what I know and have learned.
  • My defense goes perfectly.
  • The committee is for me.
  • I trust my knowledge, good work, and good mind to come up with the right answers.
  • I know everything I need to know, instantly.
  • I now visualize the movie of my perfect defense. I see myself poised and self-assured, talking easily about any aspect of the work, adlibbing from the PowerPoint. I graciously accept all compliments about the brilliance of my presentation. I hear the chair’s magic words, “Congratulations! You have passed!”

* * * * * *
When you practice the steps here, you will be one of the few new Doctors without a defense horror story. Your story will be a much happier one, and as you continue in your successful professional career, your defense will shine forever bejeweled in your memory. © 2017 Noelle Sterne


Help – I’m drowning in my own notes!

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - June 6, 2018 - 4:00am

One of the delightful things about blogging is letters from readers; an endless source of delightful validation and sometimes, interesting problems to try to solve. This letter is a case in point. Dora, a reader from Croatia writes:

The situation I find myself in is, I think, one that all researchers have found themselves in… I have reached the point where my OneNote is overflowing with notes and quotes from the I’m-scared-to-count-how-many books/articles/web sites/journals I have researched, read through, commented on, etc. I have used over 60 tags to organize my notes and have been meticulous about tagging each note I write with as many tags as necessary. I can filter my notes via these tags… BUT, I have reached the point where there are simply too many notes… I find myself having to prepare a conference abstract, a presentation or paper and being overwhelmed by the amount of data I have collected. It seems too daunting to have to reorganize everything… The only solution I see is to go through ALL of my notes, add even more tags to make them even more specific and thus have less notes under each tag. But this seems like an endless task and something that could easily turn into a vicious loop. Any thoughts?

I have so many thoughts Dora! Thanks for writing in. The problem you describe is extremely common, but it’s only actually been a problem in the last ten years or so. It’s one of the ‘good problems’ created by the awesome technologies that allow us to capture, file and index endless reams of digital data. Unfortunately, these technologies enable us to become digital hoarders as well as productive researchers.

To be clear, I’m as bad as anyone when it comes to digital mess. In fact, I feel a bit unworthy to give advice on this problem, but I’ll give it a shot since it’s aan excellent way to start putting our collective heads to a solution. I have four ideas for Dora, drawn from my own habits, which I put forward in the hope that other readers will write in with more solutions to the digital hoarding problem.

Attach the information to the task

OneNote is a great tool – but I wonder if it is too great? The problem with OneNote, Evernote, and other conventional database systems is that you can capture just about anything: text, audio, links, URLs and so on. While I’m still an Evernote fan, I use it advisedly. It’s too easy to stuff anything interesting in there — and promptly forget about it.

It’s a bit like the problem of my spice cupboard. I have so many packets of random stuff that everything falls out when I open it. The solution to the spice cupboard problem is… don’t buy as many spices! Ideally, you only buy spices if you need them or use them frequently. Similarly, most of the time I want to store information for a specific, future task, not just for the sake of it.

For this reason, I store URLs, links to documents, notes to myself and other project focussed information in my task manager, Omnifocus2 instead of in Evernote (if you’re on a PC, I recommend Asana or Trello). If I attach the information and notes to the task, I am less likely to create an unfiltered mess. You could, for example, set up a task for each chapter or conference paper and attach relevant information to the task as a file, or as a link back to your Onenote database.

I tend to take project related notes in a Literature Review Matrix, which forces me to put ideas into conversations with other ideas, rather than as isolated fragments.

Tagging structures

I always tag information with at least two categories: one general and one specific. Say I have a piece of information about a presentation for my upcoming trip to South Australia (I’m coming for you on June 22nd UniSA students!). In my Omnifocus2 task manager, I have a category called ‘writing and presenting’ which shows all the things I have coming up and when they are due. I have matched my task categories with my top level tags in Evernote. Now the searches become task bound. For example, a URL about how to do better info-graphics will be tagged ‘writing and presenting’ and ‘infographics’ (sometimes I throw in the tag ‘cool!’ if it’s particularly good information). When I am putting together a presentation and need information about infographics, I can look through everything related to writing and presenting and narrow my search accordingly.

Again, the context is more important than the information itself. If the information or note is not related to a task, but just something you think you might need someday, consider whether you really need to store it in your database at all. When I see an interesting link go by, I save it into Pocket so that I don’t have non-project related stuff in Evernote. I have so much stuff in Pocket now, I don’t even look at it, but I know it’s there – like a security blanket I guess. Which leads me to point three…

Write first, search later

Howard Becker, one of my academic writing gurus said something like ‘How do I know what I think until I write it?’. His approach to writing literature reviews is to write what you think first, then search the literature you have on file. Your searching task is simple: you are only looking for specific information to back up what you think – or challenge it, often a narrower search than a search for general information on a topic.

The first time I read Becker’s advice, I was shocked. It seemed to fly in the face of what a ‘good researcher’ does, but I tried it… and never looked back. The challenging your thinking part is important. The process is iterative: I write what I think first (sometimes as freewriting or as a list), then I look for information related to what I have written. On subsequent passes, I refine what I think, add more ideas, look for more information, and repeat the process until I am satisfied (or until I have run out of time).

With every sentence, I ask myself ‘Do I believe myself? Would other people believe me? What challenges or counter-arguments are possible?’. These questions open up multiple avenues for new information searches on your own notes or files.

Let it go!

Your problem is not so how to store things, but how to find it again. As long as information is findable, I’m a fan of regular pruning. I clean out my papers database every couple of years and have deleted my entire Endnote database more than once. My iterative process, outlined in the previous step, means if I need information again, I’m confident I will find it. It takes a certain amount of faith in yourself and your abilities, to let information go. It’s perhaps an aspirational state right now, rather than a practical suggestion, but try to focus your attention on getting the process right and less on the content.

That’s all I have to offer on this problem – now I wonder what you all think? Do you have any suggestions to help Dora with her note taking problems?

Related Posts

Cornell note taking template

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Writing for social scientists by Howard Becker: Paperback and Kindle

I’ll be releasing extra tips in a video ‘extras’ version of this post: which will be made available to $1 per month subscribers to my Patreon Channel

06/01/18 PHD comic: 'Guess'

PhD Comics - June 1, 2018 - 7:08pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Guess" - originally published 6/1/2018

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