Updates in Doctoral Ed

09/28/18 PHD comic: 'A Possible Phrase'

PhD Comics - October 3, 2018 - 1:55am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "A Possible Phrase" - originally published 9/28/2018

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Dealing with administrative grief

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - September 26, 2018 - 4:00am

Universities are big places, some of them have a lot of students to manage and complex timelines to administer. Most of the time, I hope, the administration of your degree will be invisible to you, but, when things break down, you can find yourself in administrative limbo. This happened to  Jessica Ritchie, a PhD student at the TC Beirne School of Law at the University of Queensland. Jess sorted out her administrative difficulties, but reflects here on how it happened and what support you need when you find yourself lost in the administative systems. You can find Jessica is on Twitter as @j_ritchie13

One of the most difficult things I’ve had to deal with whilst working on my PhD is managing the expectations of my university. In the end, I realised we were working towards two different goals.

While we both wanted me to complete the PhD, our relationship was more complicated than that. My Graduate School and administration were much more concerned with me getting the PhD done in three years. They had no real understanding or appreciation of the complexities of life, and the interruptions that this can bring to study. Our goals sometimes conflicted. My goal was to finish my PhD, but also be a competitive job applicant at the same time as staying in good health.

Image by @rawpixel on Unsplash

During my candidature, I became quite ill and required emergency surgery, after an extended time of going in and out of hospital. I wasn’t aware that I was meant to advise my Graduate School of my situation. My focus was on managing my health while trying to write, not looking up the policies and procedures for the university.

Long story short, not telling the graduate school what happened to me lead to a lot of administrative grief. I wasn’t able to complete the paperwork for a milestone – that had already been completed – because the technical due date was past. This technicality lead to me having to give an additional presentation; taking time away from writing, causing a lot of anxiety, stress and wasted time in meetings.

Going through the process, I felt more like a piece of paper than a human – I was reduced to just my due dates for completed milestones. The Graduate School and administration didn’t care that I was managing my PhD, while also teaching, publishing, supervising students for the pro bono centre, participating in conferences and seminars, and completing an invited overseas visiting scholar position.

To be honest it really soured my feelings towards the university and wanting to be on campus. However, there were four things that helped me through the process:

(1) I have an amazing supervisory team. My primary supervisor could tell that the process was not equitable, that it was upsetting me and took over and dealt with the administrative problems for me.

(2) I have some really close fellow PhD friends that really supported me and also shared their negative experiences with the Graduate School;

(3) I had picked a topic that I was and continue to be passionate about; and

4) I tried as much as possible to continue to focus on my goals, as that is what is the most important things to me – to finish my PhD – but to also be employable, while managing my physical and psychological wellbeing.

Whilst it is easy to reflect on the experience now and not get upset, it does make me glad I have a supportive supervisory team (and friends). If you ever face a similar situation you will realise how important both things are.

When I was looking at starting my PhD I did a lot of research (transferable skills!) on who I wanted as supervisors. I looked at potential supervisor profiles to see who they had supervised previously. I spoke to some of these students and asked them about my potential supervisors’ pros and cons. Further I looked at potential supervisor’s publications, and whether they collaborated with other researchers and in particular early career researchers.

Finally, I considered how my supervisors would complement each other and how they could help me develop my skills. This made my decision to approach my current supervisors really easy. As a consequence, my primary supervisor was really incredible in helping me and being very generous with his time sorting the problems out (Shout out to Professor Simon Bronitt).

In the end, it all worked out but not without some interruption to my writing process. It did lead to a lot of money being spent at local cafes, as I chose to work there instead of my university for a while. The main thing as always is to keep writing and ignore everything else, as hard as that can be – and now more importantly let me order another coffee.

Thanks for sharing your story Jessica! Do you have a tale of adminstrative grief to share? How did you end up solving the problem? Love to hear about your experiences in the comments.

Related Posts

How to complain – and be heard

Lessons from Downton Abbey: or why your faculty administrators are as important as your supervisor

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09/21/18 PHD comic: 'Career Goal'

PhD Comics - September 24, 2018 - 8:06am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Career Goal" - originally published 9/21/2018

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How to turn your PhD into a book

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

Turning your PhD into a book is a mark of success in many disciplines, especially the humanities. Many people pursue this goal immediately upon finishing their PhD as part of an overall academic career strategy. I didn’t have to, because I already had a job and I wanted to start building a research reputation in another discipline (and I started blogging).

Image by Sharon McCutheon on Unsplash

I feel like a bit of a fraud because I am sort of writing about something I have never done… However, Thong, (the husband of one of my PhD students, Nguyen) pointed out that I have been involved with five published books, with two more in the pipeline. You can thank Thong for convincing me I am experienced enough to give you a useful outline of the academic publishing process, so here we go.

As it turned out, I knew much more than I thought. I couldn’t cover everything about academic book publishing in one blog post, so this is part one of three I plan on the topic. I encourage you to write in with more questions. I know many established academics read the blog and I hope some of you will write in with further advice in the comments!

Step one: consider carefully… is it a book, or something else?

First of all, just because doing a book is prestigious CV addition, do you really need to write one? Doing a book is a HUGE time commitment, even if you start with a copy-edited dissertation manuscript. And don’t expect to make any money from all this effort; it’s a bonus if you do, but if you expect nothing, you won’t be disappointed. Don’t expect much measurable research impact either. You’re likely to end up with an expensive book with a small print run, that won’t result in piles of citations.

If you want to get your research out there for people to use, it might make more sense to write a series of blog posts, do a self-published ebook, a documentary film or exhibition. Or just leave the manuscript in your university library where it can be downloaded for free. PhD dissertations are the most downloaded type of document in many university research repositories so … do nothing. Your work will still have the potential to reach people who are interested.

It’s a different matter if you see a non-academic audience for your book. Some disciplines, like history, produce research with commercial potential. I’d encourage anyone who sees this potential to follow it up. A mass market publication has less academic snob value, but trust me: having a book that actually sells enough to give you a hefty royalty cheque is super satisfying!

Step Two: make contact with a potential publisher

Locating an academic publisher is actually a lot simpler than most people think: just look at the spines of the books on yourself and do some Googling. Unlike mass market publishing, where people rely on agents, academic publishing is still a ‘cold call’ proposition. Have a look on the website for instructions to authors about how to get in touch – and just… do it.

There are ‘slightly less cold’ approaches, which, I think, increase your chances. One simple (but maybe not obvious) technique is to visit the publishing stand at the next conference you attend and engage the people in the booth in a bit of a chat (it’s a good idea to skip a session for this purpose – they will be more willing to talk to you if it’s quiet). Don’t be shy, they are used to being approached. Generally the person selling books will either have a role as a scout, or be able to call in the person who is there for that purpose. Once they seem willing to talk, ask what kind of works they are interested in publishing. If their general interest seems to align with the work you have in mind, try out a short (I mean two sentence) pitch for your book idea and ask if it sounds interesting. Last year I did this at a conference and got a business card, which I then followed up with an email, very successfully.

Smart publishers are always on the look out for new work, so you might find they approach you. Great! Just make sure it’s a real publisher, not a dodgy thesis publishing mill. You can tell if it’s a real publisher because they will ask you to write a proper proposal. Anyone who promises to publish your PhD without changes is highly suspect. While some advisors will still tell you not to put your dissertation in the insitution repository, some publishers use this as a place to identify potential books and will approach you. Or, you could start a blog – if you manage to generate enough of a readership to be noticed, they will find you, trust me.

Step Three: sell the idea

The next bit – getting them interested in actually buying your idea- is tricky.

Book publishing, especially academic publishing, is a marginal business. Even boutique academic publishing outfits, who employ three people, are not charities. Publishers are interested in one thing above all others: selling books. It’s easy to lose sight of the profit motive when you work in an academic environment, which is essentially a not-for-profit enterprise.

Your mileage may vary, but I always prefer to get the publisher invested in the idea before I go to the trouble of writing a whole proposal. You might get a few knock backs before someone is interested. Doing heaps of work in a proposal template you’ll have to change anyway is a waste of time. Write a cover letter to your contact, or the email listed on the site for this purpose, with a short pitch for the book, clearly signalling the intended audience and why you are the best person to write it. If you have already published papers or, better still, blog posts, you can include some circulation numbers to demonstrate people might buy it. For example, here is a short excerpt from the pitch letter I recently wrote to a small, but well known academic publisher:

We cannot keep up with the requests for talks about our research and there is particularly intense interest from the community in the methods. A lot of people are fearful that ‘the robots are coming for our social science jobs’, but we have a totally different take, which is a ‘human in the loop’ approach (I wrote about this on the blog a couple of weeks ago: Are the robots coming for our (research) jobs?). I think now would be an ideal time to get something to market and your methods series format is perfect.

My approach here was to leverage the existing interest in our research work to demonstrate there was already a market. Note I use explicit commercial language ‘get something to market’ to show them I understand the profit motive. I didn’t try to tell them the work is intrinsically interesting or important, even though this is my primary motive in writing it. Being an important book doesn’t matter if there are not enough people willing to buy it. Of course, academics should publish non-commercial work, but that’s why we have journals and conferences.

I now need to convince the publisher that I am the one to get it to market. Having a successful blog is a huge advantage here, but this is a co-authored book. I know the publisher is keen the writing team doesn’t fall apart during the writing process. As I understand it, this happens often enough for publishers to be understandably skittish. The best way to prove you can write together is… to already have written together. So I followed with this paragraph to soothe their fears:

… What makes me really confident about the project is it builds on the strengths of our existing collaboration. Hanna could bring her 15 years of experience as a computer scientist working. Will works in science communications and, in addition to being a good writer, is used to working across disciplinary boundaries….

This letter got me an (almost) immediate request to submit a full proposal. The ‘almost’ is important, which leads me to step four… which will be in part two of this series because I have already reached my (self imposed) word count. Now I’m wondering: are you thinking about publishing your dissertation as a book? What questions are in your mind? Or do you have any experience of the publishing process you would like to share? Love to hear from you in the comments.

Related posts

So, you’re thinking of writing an academic ebook…?

How to make an index for your book or dissertation

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09/18/18 PHD comic: 'New podcast! Daniel and Jorge Explain The Universe!'

PhD Comics - September 18, 2018 - 7:19pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "New podcast! Daniel and Jorge Explain The Universe!" - originally published 9/18/2018

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09/14/18 PHD comic: 'Based on a true story'

PhD Comics - September 16, 2018 - 4:52am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Based on a true story" - originally published 9/14/2018

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Finishing a PhD … and starting a Masters degree?

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

This post is by Anna Wilkinson. Anna is a Research Fellow at Cancer Council Victoria, Melbourne, Australia. Anna has an extensive clinical background having previously worked as a nurse in diverse settings, including in rural and remote Australia and in the UK. This clinical work provided a foundation for further training in public health and Anna completed a PhD at the Burnet Institute and Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. Anna’s PhD focussed on better understanding HIV epidemiology, using quantitative analysis of large sentinel surveillance datasets. Her research interests focus on undertaking innovative epidemiological and public health research with particular interests in biostatistics, maximising the use of data and translating evidence into practice. Views expressed in this post are her own. Anna can be found on twitter as @AnnaLWil

In 2012 I was working in an independent medical research institute. Senior colleagues thought I was capable of a PhD. That level of academic achievement was somewhat mythical to me (my father never finished primary school), but it was an irresistible idea. I could spend hours with data and be called Dr. at the end –  sign me up!

As it turned out, I could do it. I submitted a PhD by publication in the final university business hours of 2015.

Image by @marvin_ronsdorfon Unsplash

Twelve months after submission, a somewhat messy year and protracted examination, my PhD was conferred and I had accepted a great job opportunity. I was delighted to graduate and felt, as many do, enormous relief and pride. A PhD is a pinnacle, the highest degree. I was formally and rigorously educated, exhausted, and poor. On graduation day (a hairdryer hot Melbourne December day) I celebrated with my considerably neglected partner. We had marvellous pizza and a cold drink and I thought of the immortal line from Shrek: “that’ll do donkey, that’ll do”.

My postdoctoral job is entirely focussed on data analysis and although I am many things, nurse, a doctor, probably an epidemiologist, and now a Research Fellow, I am not a statistician. The gaps in my knowledge started to come into focus and I found myself thinking about career doors that were not open to me. In the six months following my graduation I realised that my PhD did not deliver something I needed because I never asked it to.

Many people are lifelong learners and career shapeshifters. They trot down the side of the PhD mountain, shake it off, and head on up the path in front of them with ease, even if the path is tangential. But I found it upsetting to think that I was dissatisfied with my qualifications when the opportunity cost – and actual cost – of my PhD seemed very high.  I chastised myself for not thinking through my PhD better, being wasteful, indulgent and even cowardly. I burnt a lot of energy for the first half of 2017: kicking myself, cursing myself, talking myself in and out of things.

Facing up to the fact that I needed (probably more like wanted) to do more education as opposed to consolidating a postdoc career, felt like failure. I fell into some kind of a postdoctoral hole.

A friend recently blogged about parsing thoughts with the first screening question being, “Is it true?”. There two more but one is enough self-reflection for me. None of my thoughts about my education and career to date were true. Pretzeling myself into someone I did not want to be, to save face, was tiring.  A colleague, friend and straight up nice human once told me, a PhD never gets taken away from you. I needed to stop trying to take my PhD away from myself. It was marvellous achievement and wanting to reactivate my student number did not diminish its value.

When I floated the idea of doing a Masters to gain formal training in statistics with a select few of my friends and family I got a pause, followed by, “what?”.  I quietly began browsing university handbooks ‘just to see’ what was on offer. Perusing through courses, checking entry requirements and sizing up prerequisites was confronting. The first subject of a Masters in Biostatistics is Maths Background for Biostatistics. That sounds bad, especially for someone who did not complete high school maths. Compounding the terror, I had tried to do this subject during my PhD and did not get past week two. The voices of doubt were very loud at this point, a choir really, a gospel choir.

I have started my fourth degree, a Masters in Biostatistics, because I wanted to: 231 days after receiving my PhD and after approximately seven months of internal warfare and nausea. Pulling up out of the emotional hole and facing a fear of maths aside, it was a difficult choice. I work full time work and was facing a part-time load and full fees. Financial and personal resources have a higher value now, I guess an age effect. But I love statistics and I don’t want to boxed into one field nor be standing on the tectonic plates of grant funding.

I want to do much better analysis and work in collaborative teams on hard problems.  Finally, there is ongoing furore about the reproducibility of research, fraudulent research and the use p-values. One commentator offered an argument I do agree with. Part of the solution is training researchers in statistics and data analysis, and I would like to be part of that solution (an argument for more focus on coursework and training in statistics in Australian PhDs is for another time).

Thanks for sharing your story Anna! How about you? Might you need to do ‘extra’ learning after your PhD to enable you to get the job you want (or consolidate the job you have)? How do you feel about it?

Related posts

Upgrading from a Masters Degree to PhD

Masters students: second class citizens, or genius’s in the making?

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09/07/18 PHD comic: 'Your best friend'

PhD Comics - September 10, 2018 - 5:46am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Your best friend" - originally published 9/7/2018

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Are there only four kinds of writers?

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

Self-help books are my secret shame. I can’t resist them, especially if I find myself in an airport bookstore. The siren call of the self-help section means I inevitably board the plane clutching two more paperbacks (which I have no room for at home). My latest secret shame is Gretchen Rubin’s ‘The four tendencies: the indispensable personality profiles that reveal how to make your life better (and other people’s lives better too)’. I picked it up in the store with a smug smirk and started reading it. ‘Oh how very unscientific’ I chuckled to myself. I flicked through a few pages. ‘Wow, look at this dumbass quiz!’ I muttered.

Yet… I bought it (don’t judge me ok?).

Colour me surprised when I read the whole thing on the flights to and from the University of South Australia. Briefly, Rubins’ (largely unscientific) theory is that, when it comes to motivation, people tend to fall into four categories:

  1. Obliger: meets outer expectations; resists inner expectations
  2. Rebel: resists outer expectations and inner expectations
  3. Questioner: resists outer expectations; meets inner expectations
  4. Upholder: meets inner and outer expectations

According to Rubin’s (cough) theory, the tendencies overlap, so you can be an Obliger with a Rebel tilt, or an Upholder with a Questioner tilt. She expresses these overlaps in a diagram:

Gretchin Rubin’s 4 tendencies diagram from her website.

 

According to Rubin’s ‘research’, most people are Obligers: they find it hard to do things that are solely for their own benefit. If you’re the kind of person who finds it almost impossible to go to the gym without an exercise buddy, you are, according to Rubin, an Obliger. By contrast, an Upholder, while happy to be your exercise buddy, is also perfectly capable of going to the gym by themselves because they know it’s good for their health. A Questioner, on the other hand, is not a great exercise buddy because they only respond to their inner expectations. A questioner won’t go to the gym on a cold morning just to please you. Meanwhile, the poor Rebels might have wanted to go to the gym, but they resist all expectations, even their own. As soon as you expect a Rebel to be at the gym for an exercise date, they will not turn up, just to spite you (and themselves).

When I first read the descriptions of the four tendencies, I immediately categorised myself as an Upholder. They sound like they have their shit together. But when I did the quiz online, to my surprise, I tested as a Questioner. Which might be right because one of the first things Rubin says about these people is: ‘If your first reaction to the Four Tendencies is to think, “Well, I question the validity of your framework,” you’re probably a questioner.’

OK, she got me there, but I’m a researcher. I question things for a living lady!

I wanted to dismiss this book – I really did, but it was hard. When I read the list of Questioner strengths (data driven, fair minded, willing to play devil’s advocate, comfortable bucking the system) and weaknesses (unwilling to accept authority, analysis paralysis, refusal to accept closure on issues others think are settled) I have to say, I see myself in an unflattering, but realistic light.

Is Rubin’s framework a bit like a horoscope, in that you can apply it to anyone? Probably. But over the next week, I started to think about how this framework might apply to PhD student writers. Against my better judgment, the four tendencies started to appeal. Certainly this framework seems to explain some behaviour patterns I have observed over many years of working with PhD students.

So, I’m taking the idea out for a walk, without taking it too seriously, just to see if it’s useful to you. Read the descriptions below – do any of them resonate with you?

The Obliger

Since Obligers more easily meet outer expectations and not inner ones, they struggle with the lack of structure in a research degree. Humanities researchers without demanding supervisors will noodle around, probably reading a lot, but not making a lot of writing progress. Obligers in the lab usually do well, in the early stages at least. This is because labs impose a lot of external expectations; booking time on equipment, using materials before they go to waste, etc. When it comes to the writing part, however, science student Obligers tend to stall.

Obligers might feel a mild sense of panic about their writing progress, but they can push these feelings away by spending inordinate amounts of time on email and/or social media. Most Obligers find it easy to get very involved in the life of the department: organising seminars, writing groups and teaching, as well as doing stuff for their supervisors and peers. This activity FEELS like work, but they know that it isn’t really. Obligers might start to feel resentful that other people lean on them so much to organise social events, but still find it difficult to say ‘no’ and get started on their own stuff. However, when one of the few deadlines, like the confirmation or closing seminar, come around, Obligers shine. They can put their headphones on and really punch it out. In the face of a deadline, Obligers produce their best work but exhaust themselves in the process. After they have spent a week in bed, the Obliger promises themselves they are going to follow a daily writing plan, but then someone emails them about organising Christmas in July and… well…

Obligers benefit greatly from peer-led ‘shut up and write’ groups and similar, where they can turn all that willingness to organise others to their own best interest. Obligers particularly like writing retreats, like Thesis Bootcamp. I’ve made a habit of telling the students how much money we have spent organising the perfect writing environment and that all I expect is for them to take advantage of it and do the work. Now I realise why I say this: to an Obliger, being TOLD to be selfish is like catnip.

The Upholder

Upholder students intimidate everyone else, mostly because Upholders have their shit together on so many levels. Upholders can meet external and internal expectations easily so they can adapt to the lack of structure in the research degree, even if it takes a little while. While they are happy to be involved in the Obliger’s shut up and write group (and they are generally excellent, reliable contributors), they are just as happy sticking to their own writing schedule. In fact, they usually have a set of self-declared ‘rules’ around their working schedule. You are an upholder if you are generally feeling in control of your thesis and wondering why everyone is complaining about not having enough time. If only they would listen to you about your writing schedule! Upholders are not exactly selfish about guarding their writing time, but if you interrupt the schedule, expect them to get a bit cross, even rude. In fact, if there’s one criticism Rubin makes about Upholders is that they can get ‘stuck’ in habits and rituals they have made for themselves and convince themselves it’s the only way they can work.

Generally, supervisors love working with Upholders because they are simultaneously independent and open to direction. However, there is potential for conflict, particularly if there is disagreement amongst the supervisory panel. Upholders faced with a panel fighting will go into a tizz, trying to please everyone. Upholders are prone to perfectionism, which can be the result of their internal standards being too high. While supervisors are saying ‘good enough’ the Upholder is saying ‘it could be a bit better’. Upholders also benefit from deadlines that provide a natural end to this perfectionist cycle, even if it may cause them pain. I can’t offer other advice to Upholders because you probably have everything so handled, but try to be patient with the people around you. Not everyone has their shit together as you do!

The Questioner

Of all the tendencies, the Questioner is adapted perfectly to the lack of structure in a PhD program, in fact, they tend to thrive on it. A Questioner must convert an outer expectation into an inner motivation, so they are principally self-directed learners. Questioners LOVE to analyse, so they are happiest up to their elbows in a spreadsheet, or whatever pile of data/research material is available, trying to work out the ‘why’ of it all. When it comes to writing, however, they can be a bit hit and miss. The thrill of the chase for knowledge might be more intrinsically interesting than the plod of writing it all down. Questioners love to optimise and look for efficiencies. Even when they find writing productivity techniques that work, they are always on a hunt for different/better ideas.

Questioners can be exhausting students for their supervisors because they are reluctant to accept authority. If they decide their supervisor can be trusted, then they will fall into line, but they tend to be distrustful and are likely to resist suggestions. Questioners may struggle with some parts of the thesis more than others, particularly the literature review. Because questioners like to analyse, the endless, bottomless literature can put them straight into analysis-paralysis. While questioners might enjoy writing groups for the social aspect, they are unlikely to find it as helpful as Obligers or Upholders because they are not as driven by habit. The best advice for questioners facing a writing motivation problem (and I should know because apparently, I am one) is to try to convert the outside expectation that you will produce a document to an inner expectation. Questioners love to share their knowledge; the evidence suggests that examiners love to read a thesis to learn new things. So, think about your dissertation as a big gift to someone else that you will craft with loving care.

The Rebel

Rebels thrive on the lack of structure of the PhD – or they totally don’t. You can’t predict how Rebels will cope because they resist all expectations, even their own. A Rebel might make their own writing schedule, and then not follow it, then beat themselves up and go into a shame spiral for not following through. Rebels can get very demoralised thinking nothing will help, but that’s not true. For the Rebel, writing motivation has to come entirely from the inside. Finding inner motivation can be tricky, especially if you don’t love the work so enthusiasm is your best weapon against yourself. Rebels work best when they feel a ‘higher’ motivation, so they are most perfectly adapted to the basic premise of the PhD as the quest for new knowledge, especially if the research is aimed at helping other people and/or changing the world. Rebels fired up and passionate about their topic will endure incredible amounts of suffering and work harder than anyone else to achieve their aims.

The Rebel’s stubborn nature can be a source of strength. The inner monologue for many a Rebel is ‘you can’t make me!’. I’ve seen more than one PhD student finish in a blaze of glory just to prove other people wrong! Supervising a Rebel can be really challenging. While a Questioner can be talked around to accepting authority, the Rebel will resist even if they can intellectually concede you have a point. The way to help a Rebel is to stage your suggestions as information, consequences and choice. For example, I might say to a Rebel student suffering writer’s block “many people find the Pomodoro technique helpful”. I’ll then point out the consequences of not having a writing schedule: “The dissertation is such a big document you will exhaust yourself if you don’t break it down into smaller chunks”. Finally, I give them a choice about whether they should take up the suggestion or not: “I’ll send you a blog post about it and you can make up your own mind”.

So there you have it – the (kind of bullshit) four tendencies framework might be a good diagnostic tool… maybe? Rubin stresses that most people are not purely one thing or another; all of us can tilt towards an adjacent tendency. In my case, although I need to work from inner enthusiasm most of the time, I tilt Upholder. This explains my pragmatic side. I am responsive to an externally imposed expectation, especially if I am being paid to do it, or going to get in trouble if I don’t. But maybe that’s just because I like to see myself that way? See, I’m questioning it now! What do you think? Do you relate to any of the four descriptions above? Is this way of looking at things helpful? Love to hear your reactions in the comments.

Related posts

How to write 1000 words a day (and not go batshit insane)

How to write 10,000 words a day

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08/31/18 PHD comic: 'Exam View'

PhD Comics - September 2, 2018 - 3:49am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Exam View" - originally published 8/31/2018

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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

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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 ]

inger

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!

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