Updates in Doctoral Ed

Loving the PhD life

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - May 30, 2018 - 4:00am

For some people, especially those with no dependents or complicated financial situations, the PhD can offer some distinct lifestyle benefits. In this post is by Cassandra Wardle. Cassandra is a PhD student in the Griffith University School of Environment, the HDR representative for Griffith University, and an intern at the Australian Academy of Science. You can find Cassandra on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/cassandrawardle/

I recently saw a psychologist to help with time management, stress management and to get better at ‘saying no’ (ie: how to do it). When I told her that I was a PhD student the psychologist actually laughed and said, “There’s no getting around it, these will be the most stressful years of your life”.

The PhD is stressful. These are words I hear often, both from fellow students and academics alike. And they are phrases I find myself repeating to family and friends, justifying why I was late, once again, to an event. But overall, I love my PhD.

The two competing mindsets can be confusing, to me and to others. I often see perplexed looks when I list everything on this week’s ‘to do’ list to someone and follow it up with: “but I love it!”.

When talking with my friends and fellow students (i.e. complaining about how time poor we are over beers at the uni bar at 2pm on a Wednesday), we agreed that if you look past the constant 60+ hour work week, the lack of sleep, the stress that we’ll never finish, the stress that we might finish and have to work ‘a real job’, the stress that we’ll never actually find a job due to the increasing number of graduates and shrinking job market… there are a lot of things to love about this lifestyle.

So for those that need a little help digging through the anxiety, stress and self-doubt to find the positives, here are the top 10 things I love about my PhD (in no particular order) with the hope they will inspire you to think about your top 10.

    1. It feels amazing to know I’m not ‘stuck in a dead-end job’, and I always feel positive about my career and professional development.
    2. I often work from home, in my pyjamas, with The Simpsons on in the background (I’ve seen seasons 1-12 so many times that it’s now become a way to support myself financially by winning drink vouchers at Simpsons trivia comps).
    3. I get to tailor my project in such a way as to learn specific new skills that I haven’t yet had a chance to develop. This has ranged from interview skills to stats techniques to presenting in front of a wide range of audiences.
    4. I cook a delicious breakfast every morning (eggs, sausages, bacon, tomatoes, the works). As someone who is notoriously late (no matter how early I get up) and whose morning routine fits 100% into Parkinson’s Law, I’m enjoying this before I have a boss who pays attention to when I get into the office each day.
    5. Because the PhD lifestyle often conflicts with ‘normal’ 9-5 working hours, my schedule is flexible and my time is entirely my own. I can break up my day by going to the gym at midday, I can grocery shop at odd times when the shops are less busy, and I can wake up at 10am (and then work til 3am) if I feel so inclined. This flexibility has also allowed me to play with my work schedule and find the times of day I’m most productive (10pm it turns out, unfortunately).
    6. The additional research assistant jobs I’ve accepted to supplement my scholarship have provided me with amazing networking and funding opportunities – and a glimpse into research areas quite different from my thesis.
    7. On occasion I get to travel to some pretty cool places for free (and by ‘free’ I mean undertaking the terror-inducing task of presenting my findings to international audiences at conferences and continually cringing internally at my awkward attempts to network).
    8. I don’t have time to have the quarter-life crisis that many of my non-PhD friends are having.
    9. I get to continually apply this misattributed Hemingway quote: “write drunk, edit sober”.
    10. And, most importantly, I get to spend every day exploring a topic that I love, with the hope that my work will make a small contribution to both the academic literature and to the world.

I completely understand the stressors that many students face. As the PhD student rep at my university I have seen countless horror stories first hand.

We’re all overworked, underpaid and stressed out perfectionists with imposter syndrome. Given recent findings about mental health issues among PhD students , many things need to change.  Of course, universities and supervisors have a large role to play. BUT perspective is everything, and when our projects, our relationships or our lives go to shit, it might be helpful if we have some tiny positives to hold on to.

Thanks Cassandra! What about you? What would be in your top ten list of things to love about the PhD?

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Gilmore Girls, myself

The principled PhD



05/25/18 PHD comic: 'Summer'

PhD Comics - May 26, 2018 - 7:48pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Summer" - originally published 5/25/2018

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05/21/18 PHD comic: 'Upgrade'

PhD Comics - May 23, 2018 - 9:23am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Upgrade" - originally published 5/21/2018

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

The ghost of the ideal scholar

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - May 23, 2018 - 4:00am

Are we seeing a new moral panic brew around reading?

When I was growing up, in the 70s and 80s, TV had been around for more than a generation, but the early 80s saw the glorious invention of the videotape machine. No longer at the mercy of the TV Networks and their schedules, my generation was able to watch whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted.

It was a revelation.

Before the videotape was invented, seeing a movie, show or cartoon more than once was rare. For the first time, machines enabled re-watching, sharing and access content that was usually out of reach to teenagers, because of things like strictly applied “school night” bedtime (thanks a lot Mum). I remember my twin sister and I pestering our parents to tape “Jaws” so that we could play it during our 14th birthday sleep-over party. After some cajoling, our parents relented – we were thrilled! We even made a shark tooth-shaped cake, complete with icing ‘blood’, to celebrate the watching experience (sadly, “Jaws” proved to be un-exciting – we all fell asleep before the end).

Before the videotape machine, the act of re-watching or consuming entertainment, on demand, was only possible via books. The lure of TV was a massive worry for adults at the time. I remember my parents talking with their friends about the ‘death of reading’, clearly worried their kids would “only want to watch TV for the rest of their lives!”. My mother fretted about my ‘short attention span’, which was supposedly going to cripple me for life. Of course, it did not. I went on to be a functioning adult with an attention span long enough to hold down a job and pay the bills (something I remind myself of each time I fret about my son playing too many video games).

It seems reading is under threat still – with the lure of social media apparently about to kill our ability to read novels. There is, however, one profession where the habit of reading is entrenched: academia. If there is one PhD requirement that translates across all disciplines, it’s the need to read HEAPS. When I started my PhD, I was shocked by the sheer scale of the reading endeavour. Every time I felt like I was getting on top of it, I’d discover still more. Yet, the PhD stands out as the time in my life where I was able to read at the level that a scholar needs to read to be truly informed on a topic. I am not so sure PhD students can really achieve this aim today.

Academics, under pressure to conform to performance metrics, have produced more and more reading material. All this busy writing has resulted in the creation of a reading mountain, so large it is a sincere threat to our ability to do our jobs. I’d be lying if I said I’m as well read now as I was back then. I mostly read abstracts and skim the rest. I do this just to keep abreast of trends. It’s rare that a paper gets my whole attention for the 40 minutes or so I need to do a deep and thoughtful read.

I have felt guilty about my reading habits for years, but I was forced to re-examine my attitude when I read a paper called “The active skim: effective reading as a moral challenge in postgraduate education” by Hannah Wohl and Gary Alan Fine. For the first time, I saw my dodgy reading practices documented, validated as ‘normal’ and even described as a form of “legitimate deviance” in academia. I’m so happy to be labelled as ‘deviant’!

In this paper, published last year in “Teaching Sociology”, Wohl and Alan draw particular attention to the practice of ‘skimming’. Skimming, or only reading a paper in part, without engaging deeply in the majority of the text, is a result of the heavy reading load that most students encounter in graduate school where “… serious students find themselves in endless webs of citations tempting them toward other texts.” this, Wohl and Alan argue, ends up with students who “find themselves swimming in a sea of words with no shore in sight.”.

The problem, from Wohl and Fines’ point of view, is the defacto standard we set for a ‘proper scholar’ is a person who reads everything deeply and reflectively. Once you become alert to this pattern, you see it everywhere. Advice to graduate students often reminds them of what an exacting reader they can expect to examine their texts – and of the consequences of failing to please this invisible person. One must aim to ‘read broadly’, ‘know the entire field’, ‘read and think for a year at least’, ‘make sure your research really fills a gap’ and so on. This kind of banal, generalised advice annoys me because it’s often dolled out with little recognition of the sheer scale of the literature students face. My own, tiny, field of research education is huge: typing ‘advising research students’ into Google Scholar gives me over 280,000 hits and the first 20 pages all look relevant.

No-one can ‘know the entire field’ even if they ‘think and read for a year at least’. Yet, in our heart of hearts we yearn to be be the ‘proper scholar’ who does ‘read broadly’ before daring to write. No wonder it’s common to experience the state Wohl and Alan describe as an ‘ideal self’ that is constantly “under siege”.

If you think about it, the model of ideal scholarship we are trying to live up to is born of a different age, when we lived as cloistered monks. If someone else is doing your washing, cleaning the house and feeding you, it’s possible to dedicate most of your waking life to being scholarly. Additionally, those early scholars had much less actual content to read. These days, with our vast online repositories, reading everything is impossible, but skim reading becomes an activity Wohl and Alan describe as “fraught with guilt” because it is always haunted by the ghost of the ideal scholar.

Alan and Wohl argue that skimming is not cheating, but a pragmatic response to the realities of the situations students – and academics for that matter – find themselves in. Wohl and Alan argue that “Active skimming is not a lazy task” and should be taught as a legitimate skill. With that in mind, here are three tips for effective skimming:

1) Work out when to skim and when not to skim – save your in-depth reading for the most important texts in the first instance. Wohl and Alan suggest students identify and read the ‘canonical texts’ in their discipline deeply. In the humanities, this usually consists of texts by old (dead, white) guys… I know some students who deliberately avoid such texts, but I feel duty bound to point out that you ignore them at your peril. In the sciences, the idea that any text is ‘canonical’ is disputable — new research continually supplants the old. You might decide, for instance, to only read papers on a topic published in the last 18 months and ask your supervisor for a few ‘classics’ to supplement this list.

2) Separate the act of downloading the article and reading as much as possible. If you get caught up in reading as you are searching, you will make the process take longer and are more likely to wander off track, increasing your anxiety at the same time. Skimming is easier if you do it in batches. I like to set the morning aside for downloading and the afternoon for reading. Try using the bedraggled Daisy diagram that I documented in this post on using diagrams as research aides to design a search strategy. Set a timer and download a whole bunch of them, making a pile to read after lunch.

3) Do a fast read through of your pile without taking any notes the first time. The fast read is just that: fast! Set a timer and see if you can run your eye over the whole thing in 5 minutes or less. If the article is well enough written, just reading the first ‘topic’ sentence of each paragraph should be sufficient for you to get a grip on the flow of arguments or ideas in the paper. You’ll find, as you practice this technique, you will hone what Wohl and Fine call the skill of ‘selective attention’. Your eye will start to pick up themes, concepts or ideas that are useful. Set aside those that pass the skim test for more detailed reading and note-taking.

I hope this post helps you be comfortable with your legitimate academic deviances! Does anyone else have reading tips or strategies to recommend?

Related posts

The Bedraggled Daisy – using diagrams as research aids

Reading like a mongrel

Surviving the reading marathon

Curing ‘Readitis’

 “The active skim: effective reading as a moral challenge in postgraduate education” by Hannah Wohl and Gary Alan Fine


05/18/18 PHD comic: 'Priorities'

PhD Comics - May 19, 2018 - 6:06am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Priorities" - originally published 5/18/2018

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05/14/18 PHD comic: 'Having Kids vs. Writing Your Thesis'

PhD Comics - May 16, 2018 - 5:18am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Having Kids vs. Writing Your Thesis" - originally published 5/14/2018

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

Upgrading from Masters to PhD

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - May 16, 2018 - 4:00am

In Australia, enrolling in a Masters by research (or ‘MPhil’) it is a relatively common pathway to a PhD, but how hard is it to achieve the ‘upgrade’? This post is by Jonathan O’Donnell, who has spent most of his career in universities, helping academics to find funding for their research. His doctoral research looks at crowdfunding as a model for funding research. He runs the Research Whisperer, with his colleague, Dr Tseen Khoo of Latrobe University. It is the absolute favourite bit of his professional world.

I recently upgraded from my Masters by Research program to a PhD. A little while afterwards, I received this enquiry from a colleague:

“I have a friend who wants to start a PhD, preferably with an Aussie university. He has done several years of fieldwork already but has no Masters, just an honours from a UK university. Can you give me some info into the process of starting a project as a Masters and then upgrading to a PhD.  It may be the best route for him to take.”

I thought that my reply might be helpful for other Thesis Whisperer readers. Here is what I wrote (with a bit of judicious editing).

First of all, I should say that I don’t really know what I’m talking about. This advice reflects my own personal experience, which is based on my enrolment at RMIT, in Australia. If you are thinking about doing this, please get advice from your chosen university first.

I’m sure that processes will vary between universities, but here is the main story, as I understand it.

All universities want to know that you will be a good bet when you enroll for a PhD. The standard way to show that is to have done a good honours degree and/or a Masters. However, not everybody has gone down that route. Some have been in industry. Some haven’t had the opportunity due to socio-economic or other personal reasons. So some universities provide another route (sort of like mature aged entry into an undergrad degree).

At RMIT I enrolled in a Masters by Research as a stepping stone towards a PhD. This gave the university some comfort, as they could see whether I’d be a good fit or not. It also gave me a way out, if it wasn’t working. I could graduate with a Masters, and everybody would still be happy. Also, I felt that, if it all went completely to hell, I’d feel better dropping out of a Masters than a PhD (I don’t know why).

In Australia, all Higher Degree by Research courses (Masters and PhD) have milestones – Confirmation of candidature; Mid-candidature; and Completion. I’m doing my studies part time, so I came up for the Masters confirmation of candidature after two years. That seemed to go OK.

My next milestone for the Masters was my mid-candidature. Because I wanted to upgrade to a PhD, this became the confirmation of candidature for my PhD. That is, if I did well enough, I would be confirmed as a PhD student, and all the work that I’d done towards my Masters would be counted towards my PhD.

That’s what I did last month. It went very well.

My plan is to do a PhD with publications, and one of my supervisors was worried that I hadn’t done enough writing. I had one journal article under review and had done another conference paper. She would have preferred two or three journal papers, preferably with one accepted. But in the end, the review committee was very happy with my progress.

It they hadn’t been happy, I guess they could have either:

  • Accepted that I’d passed the mid-candidature of my Masters (and allowed me to continue the Masters), but not confirmed me as a PhD student.
  • OR if I’d done really badly, they might have had reservations about my progress in my Masters (which would have nixed any suggestion of a PhD).

But my supervisors were happy with my progress (mostly), and I did a practice presentation about four months ago, so there was lots of scaffolding to make sure that I didn’t fall.

As always, the wonderful Thesis Whisperer, Inger Mewburn, has a great article about how to get into a PhD program that might help. The bit that you want is the last couple of paragraphs: “…you can try enrolling in a ‘lower degree’ with the intention to apply for a transfer to a PhD.”

Good advice from that article, and borne out in some of the comments is:

  • Work out who you want as a supervisor, and get them on-board first. They may smooth the way for you (or rescue your application if it gets mangled by the bureaucracy).
  • Look for someone who has grant funding in the area, as that may make it easier to cover costs (e.g. fieldwork) and maybe even a stipend. This will vary according to discipline. In most Social Sciences, Humanities & Business (where I am) your project has little or no relationship to your supervisors work. But it may be different in your field.

If you want to work out who has funding in Australia, use my handy guide to searching the ARC database of funded grants.

The big caveat is that I’m not sure that all universities will allow students to do this. I’m studying at RMIT in Melbourne – it isn’t a ‘tier one’ university. Elite universities might be a bit more picky – they may require students to do a full Masters, and then enroll in a PhD (madness, in my opinion). I have no idea how this works overseas.

So there you have it – enroll in a Masters, prove that you can do some work and then upgrade to a PhD. Seems to be working for me. Maybe it will work for your friend, too.

Thanks Jonathan

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PhD to … start up?

05/11/18 PHD comic: 'Twenty Years'

PhD Comics - May 14, 2018 - 6:22pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Twenty Years" - originally published 5/11/2018

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

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

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - May 9, 2018 - 4:00am

This blog post is another in a series towards developing ideas for the new book I am writing with my ANU colleague Shaun Lehmann and Katherine Firth of the Research Voodoo blog.

“Your academic writing trouble and how to fix it” was born of our frustration at reading the strange comments supervisors sometimes write on thesis drafts. Sometimes academic feedback makes even less sense than the text that inspired it. In this book we work backwards from these hard to interpret supervisor comments to tell you want we think your reader is complaining about how how to fix it. Writing Trouble will be a swiss army knife of a book, containing a range of strategies and tactics for fixing academic writing that is good, but not yet great.

Our publisher has been relaxed about us sharing our work in progress on our blogs and the process has really helped us make the book better – so thank you!. Parts of this post on hedging language will end up in chapter six: “Uncritical! How to make writing that persuades”. We are currently in the final (more boring) part of editing the book. This segment is the rough first draft I wrote some time ago. Katherine is currently working on expanding and polishing it up, so we welcome your feedback! If you’re interested in knowing more about the book before we publish, you can sign up for our writing trouble mailing list.

We are also collecting examples of hard to understand feedback to illustrate the book – if you’d like to share feedback you have received we are collecting them here. We hope to be able to offer people who donate text a discount on their purchase – stay tuned!

Sometimes writers get feedback encouraging them to be more assertive, like “I don’t hear your voice” or “yes, but what is your opinion?”. When you get this kind of feedback, your reader is frustrated because you are not ‘taking a stand’ in your writing. Taking a stand means making an argument for – or against – something.

While academic writers need to take a position in their writing, they must be careful not to over claim, especially when putting forward a theory to explain the observed evidence. Knowing exactly how much you know and don’t know about something – and how to write in a way that your reader understands your level of certainty – is fundamental to being an academic, which is why skilful academic writers know exactly how to employ ‘hedging language’. Being precise is one of the most, if not the most, important of the academic values and we must be as precise about our uncertainty as we are about everything else. Hedging language is tentative: words and phrases like might, maybe, sort of, I think, possibly and so on. These terms help us modify strong claims without losing valuable nuance.

Sometimes we see writing advice that suggests writers get rid of hedging language to avoid sounding ‘wishy washy’, but remember – when it comes to writing you are at a painful, middle-class dinner party. It is vital that you do not conflate ‘taking a stand’ with ‘writing forcefully’.

Just as yelling louder will not help you win a fight with your family member at a Sunday dinner, getting rid of hedging language to look more confident will not endear you to your academic reader. People not trained in academic ways of thinking can find the use of hedging language extremely frustrating to read. However, we are dealing with hard core notions of truth, and certainty, here – we must therefore be careful. With the possible exception of maths (in particular, maths proofs), all research is, to some extent, tentative. Hedging language introduces intentional vagueness to avoid sending clear signals to your reader.

You might be thinking – “but early in this book you told me I should avoid vagueness – now you are telling me to introduce it deliberately? What gives?!”. We know it sounds contradictory, but when you write academically you must bear in mind that you are communicating within academia, not just communicating about what you found out. Going with the idea that academic writing is a form of fencing or a passive agressive middle class dinner party, there are (largely hidden) rules around how you can express our interpretations of data.

Hedging helps us be intentionally vague so that the reader is forced to ‘read between the lines’ about what we think about a data. When we use hedging language we must balance between what we see in the data we are writing about, and the world from which we extracted the data. One motivation for doing this, according to Hyland (1998), is to “seek self-protection from negative consequences of poor judgment”.

Here’s a silly, totally made up example: imagine you have been taking photos of the night sky and have noticed there are more stars than there should be. You could form a theory that the extra stars are UFOs, but, if you want to be taken seriously in academic, you’d want to be very careful about how you write about this theory because, well – most people don’t believe in UFOs. The incautious student would write something like this:

“The extra stars shown in the table and images above are UFOs”

The word “are” signals that there is a direct correspondence between the data and the theory. It’s highly likely that an academic reader would just put a line through this sentence and write “rubbish”. If instead, you want to draw your reader into your theory while shielding yourself from ridicule you could write something like this:

“One possible interpretation of the data shown in the tables and images above is the existence of UFOs or other, unexpected stellar artifact”

This sentence is top notch hedging in action. We have actually said something faintly ridiculous (that UFOs exist), but we have left the reader unsure of whether we believe the statement either. We included a classic hedge word (possible) at the start of the sentence and then threw in a modifier (or) at the end.

In our UFO example, hedging language functions to distance ourselves from the proposition so we don’t entirely ‘own it’. It’s a bit like putting something on the table and backing away, then pointing at the item and asking the reader what they think it is, rather than telling them what you reckon. Hedges rely strongly on context to make sense – and reader will subjectively interpret them. In a strange way, hedging language helps us collaborate with our readers to find collective meaning.

The use of hedging language is connected to how we make knowledge within communities. Academia is profoundly hierarchical and it is important to bear this in mind when you want to disagree with anyone else’s theories, interpretations or evidence. We use hedging to signal to the reader that we are cautious, careful researchers who pay due attention to the accepted ideas and theories in our field, not cranks. Rarely is academic writing confrontational; the clever academic writer strives for an air of humbleness when they disagree with anyone.

Cultivating the right degree of academic humbleness is a matter of careful word choice, including careful use of hedges. This is one of the many reasons academic writing is accused of being obtuse, but it’s sadly unavoidable when you are a student and need someone to approve of your work. Hedging language is, therefore, a vital part of any researcher’s writing toolkit. Hedging language helps us indicate the precise degree of uncertainty we feel about a finding, fact or idea.

In the final book we will include a table and examples of how to hedge with style! Are there any questions? We’d love your feedback.

Related posts

Click here if you’d like to donate examples of feedback for our Writing Trouble Book

Don’t let those sticky words confuse your examiners

Academia is a painful, upper middle class dinner party

05/02/18 PHD comic: 'Open Questions'

PhD Comics - May 9, 2018 - 3:18am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Open Questions" - originally published 5/2/2018

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

Slow Academia is for the privileged – but then, isn’t all academia?

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - May 2, 2018 - 4:00am

Is academia too Fast? In 2011, I wrote a piece called Slow academia in which I mused:

“If you think about it, a thesis or dissertation is the epitome of Slow. Even if you finish in speedy fashion you are unlikely to turn one out in less than three years. Over those years you have to do a lot of different things: talk to people, collect data, record observations or make stuff. At the same time you must absorb information and engage with other people’s ideas. In a way, doing a thesis is like a long, slow conversation with these ideas and things, during which you try to tease out what ‘knowledge claims’ you can make. The outcome of this ‘conversation’ is recorded in writing – a thesis or dissertation text, which is examined by others who decide if the quality of the conversation is good enough for you to take on the title of Doctor.”

Others have been attracted by the idea of Slow and taken the idea much further than me. Last year saw the publication of ‘The Slow Professor’ by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber. I read it with interest, but didn’t get around to writing a review before Dr Alison Edwards suggestested this post, which was a lovely extended mediation on the idea of Slow.

Alison Edwards (PhD Cantab) is based in Amsterdam, where she works as a writer, translator, editor and independent scholar. Her latest research focuses on English in continental Europe and its role in local identity construction. She is the author of English in the Netherlands: Functions, Forms and Attitudes (John Benjamins 2016). She also blogs at www.theroguelinguist.com. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

During my PhD at Cambridge, I developed the nervous habit of tying knots in my hair. Sitting in the library, I’d twist clumps of it around and around my fingers into a tight, fist-sized tangle. The procedure was very satisfying – until the knot wouldn’t undo and I’d have to cut it out. At the hairdresser’s, I’d say I’d gone to a fancy-dress party with a beehive up-do and couldn’t brush it out; that felt less freakish than admitting to wilful self-mutilation.

I wasn’t worried, though, as all my friends had their thing. One developed such a violent eye twitch she was sent for brain scans in case it was a tumour. The real problem was stress. Day in, day out, you had to excel. Write another paper, go to yet another conference, run this workshop, follow that training, say yes to every opportunity that comes your way. You were constantly asking yourself: am I good enough? Am I doing enough?

Worse, you were (or felt as though you were) surrounded by people whose first-year thesis work led to meetings with Bill Gates and Barack Obama. And these were the people you’d be competing with for academic jobs – mere mortals were never going to get a look in.

One of the perks of Cambridge life is that ‘bedders’ came into your room every day to empty your bin, but rumour had it the real aim was to check you hadn’t killed yourself.

Slow Academia

The pressures of academic life are by no means exclusive to top-notch institutions, nor to the PhD experience. Far from it. And so, almost inevitably, people have begun calling for a “Slow Academia”. Something akin to its cousins in the Slow Movement, like Slow Food or Slow Travel or Slow Parenting.

But recently, critics have come out of the woodwork. Slow academia represents privilege, they say:  it’s for those who can afford it, who have already reached the scholarly summit, and it comes at a cost to those below them on the academic food chain.

The ethics of slow

Slow Academia is a response to the university as anxiety machine. To a creeping, aggressive brand of academic capitalism, characterised by rampant managerialism and an insidious audit culture.

Proponents of Slow Scholarship, Slow Science and the Slow University believe resisting Neoliberal U means embracing the ethics of slow.

Letting ideas ripen and brewing papers gradually, rather than submitting them half-baked. Striving for quality, not quantity. Connecting with students and spending time on well-crafted, inspiring lectures. Taking care of ourselves and others. Making time to think, digest, reflect (“Bear with us, while we think”, write the authors of the Slow Science Manifesto).

The key is, according to the authors of The Slow Professor, to “remind ourselves of why we went into teaching, and what it is we love about scholarship”.

Slow Academia as privilege

It all sounds lovely, but not everyone is impressed. As one critic of The Slow Professor writes,

I have never seen such a grotesque example of tenured faculty privilege […] Poor darlings […] Let’s hope we don’t see the “Slow Nurse”, or “Slow Doctor” movements picking up amongst the professions. Why should academia bathe in this self-indulgence?

At issue is that not everyone has the luxury of taking 17 years to write a book. Not everyone can labour over the composition of “slogs” (slow blogs) and “sleets” (slow tweets). Moreover, some see avoiding social media (“We are scientists. We don’t blog. We don’t twitter. We take our time”) as an abdication of role of public intellectual.

Not everyone can afford to resist by publishing in places that don’t count when it comes to metrics. Not everyone feels they can risk treating research targets as a pirate code (“more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules”). As Liz Morrish points out, “the slow, careful writer who wishes to do scrupulous and yes, pleasurable work” faces being subjected to “capability procedures”. And of course, not everyone can afford to work as a part time or self-funded academic (as – full disclosure – I do).

On the backs of others

One important argument runs that those who embrace slow do so on the backs of others. Mark Carrigan and Filip Vostal write

those already at the summit of the academic career structure [… ] enjoy a security being systematically denied to ever greater swathes of their younger colleagues. […] “slow professorship” only makes sense when such decelerating professors can take it for granted that junior associates will accelerate to pick up the slack.

In this sense, Slow Academia can be seen as conservative and exclusionary; see for example this thoughtful piece by Heather Mendick:

Slow academia is becoming a conservative movement – harking back to a ‘golden age’ of higher education that never was.

The past privileged space of academia was premised on the exclusion of others […] Spending time in the ethereal domains of the Slow university, requires the unpaid and unacknowledged material labour of others, be they cooking and cleaning for us, caring for our children, or otherwise servicing our needs. We need to interrogate slow, by asking: Who can go slow?  And, what difference does it make which university you’re at, which contract you’re on and what other responsibilities you have?

We could go further still and say that slow risks acquiring the stink of self-righteousness. Not everyone is equally well equipped to fight the culture of fear. Not everyone has the wherewithal to stand up to managerial bullying. Simply surviving rather than politicking shouldn’t become a badge of shame.

All academia is privilege

Slow Academia is privilege, but then no one is denying that. As Agnes Bosanquet at The Slow Academic points out, “Many tenured and tenure-track academics have been casuals themselves, and I think they are keenly aware of their privilege.”

It is privilege in the manner of all slow movements. Take Slow Food: “something to be carefully prepared, with fresh ingredients, local when possible, and enjoyed leisurely over conversation around a table with friends and family.” This is privilege itself, but that doesn’t make it any less desirable for many of us.

And at the end of the day, isn’t academia already privilege, even for those at the bottom of the university food chain? For starters, the luxury of being a knowledge worker at all means you were born in a time and place where you could get an education. Nobody becomes even an adjunct without the right degree, probably several of them.

I grew up not certain university was on the cards, however desperately I wanted it. To this day I thank my lucky stars I was born in a country (Australia) that made it possible through student loans. After undergrad I worked for several years before I could pay for a master (part time, alongside work).

Then it took a few more years of working two jobs and saving, working and saving, to afford the PhD. I was lucky to get a scholarship that covered my fees, and continued working throughout; always on the sly because Cambridge doesn’t condone dividing one’s precious attention (unless of course it’s by teaching for them).

But however hard the slog, however many sleepless nights and anxious days, however many nervous knots I managed to tie my hair, I’m aware that even the chance to pursue that path was a privilege. The coal mine was my grandfather’s only option. I get to read and think and discuss and write, however hurriedly at times. Yes, Slow Academia is a privilege. But so is all academia.

Thanks for this thoughtful piece Alison – what do you think? Are you embracing your privilege and ‘Slow’, or do you think about academia differently? Love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

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Slow academia

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04/27/18 PHD comic: 'Bliss'

PhD Comics - April 27, 2018 - 6:09pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Bliss" - originally published 4/27/2018

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04/25/18 PHD comic: 'How good'

PhD Comics - April 26, 2018 - 4:10am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "How good" - originally published 4/25/2018

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

Are the robots coming for our (research) jobs?

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

As a researcher, it can be tempting to ignore the current hysteria about automation. I’ve had a bit of a “not my circus, not my monkeys” attitude myself. Perhaps whole industries will disappear, our taxis will become self driving and our fast food outlets staffed by robots, but research work? I like to think research takes genuinely human talents of creativity, curiosity, wisdom and even empathy and emotion (as much as we don’t like to admit it). To replace our work with machines will be difficult, expensive and time consuming

… or will it?

I don’t want to be an alarmist, but I’ve had a few experiences over the last couple of weeks that have left me wondering about what the future holds.

Let’s start with writing. Thesis Whisperer Jnr is at the pointy end of his secondary school journey and is doing his ATAR subjects (the Australian equivalent of ‘A levels’ or SATs) and has to write a lot of essays for English and Economics. He knows what I do for a living, but for some reason, he resents my insistence on the correct use of apostrophes and modal verbs, so he leaves me out of the writing process. However, when an assignment is due, I am always called on for a last minute copy edit. His content is good, but hella messy. When I try to explain where he went wrong, we argue. By the end of an essay, we are both frazzled, and I don’t feel a lot of learning has occurred. My sister, Anitra, suggested I buy Grammarly, which she used to re-teach herself grammar when she was doing her Masters degree, so I bought him a subscription.

Grammarly brought peace back to our household. For some reason, Thesis Whisperer Jnr is happy for a machine to correct him instead of a parent (who knew?!). As I watched him use it, I’ll admit, I got a bit Grammarly-curious. What would it say about my writing? So I snuck into his account and loaded up a paper I was revising to resubmit. This paper had been laboured over for nearly a year by four authors. Colour me surprised when the program calculated I had 98 errors – what?! I rolled up my sleeves and started correcting.

Grammarly highlights your mistakes, makes suggestions for corrections and tells you what you did wrong. I’ll admit, I learned stuff. Spending a couple of days engaging with the software to improve this piece of writing was a weird experience. It felt… alive? At some point, I started talking to it. I thanked it a few times and apologised when I appeared to make it unhappy. Like any pair of writers, we didn’t always agree on matters of style. The image below is where I have used Grammarly to write the previous paragraph of this post:

“repurchased peace”? Bitch please. I got this.

Grammarly is an excellent example of a new ‘human in the loop’ method of working. I think this paper ended up being one of the best I have ever written. With machine assistance, I became a ‘writing cyborg’ – better than a mere human. A lot of people I talked to online seemed a bit disturbed at the idea of becoming a writing cyborg, some were outright dismissive of Grammarly’s value, but I like it and have decided to keep using it. Much of my writing is public and I should make some attempt to be well-dressed.

I was still musing on this experience when I encountered my next ‘human in the loop’ opportunity. One of the perks of being a prolific blogger is the loot. I’m not going to lie – getting free stuff is pretty great, but it does sometimes come with the expectation that you will promote the products. In the past, I have been given complimentary copies of Nvivo, a popular text-based analysis software. The latest versions are machine learning enabled – but I do research work with machine learning scientists, so I haven’t bothered exploring this capability.

Despite getting a freebie, I haven’t spruiked it here because I strive to appeal to all disciplines and Nvivo is a qualitative researcher’s tool. Besides – and I say this with love – Nvivo is kind of hard to use. It’s a powerful beast, but complicated, with a steep learning curve. Over the years I have developed a bit of relationship with the Nvivo sales team, who ring me up now and then to do customer validation work. I complained to them multiple times about the complexity of the product, and they said they were working on it. A couple of weeks ago, several members of QSR international, the company who makes Nvivo, came to visit me to show me the fruits of this labour – a new product called ‘Interpris’. I could barely contain my excitement when I saw what Interpris could do.

For those of you who are not familiar with the qualitative research, text-based coding techniques are used to analyse transcripts of interviews and open-ended questions in surveys (coding methods are outlined brilliantly in Johnny Saldana’s Qualitative Coding Manual). Most of the work – the tricky part at least – is coming up with themes to apply to the text. Theme generation is where the ‘human magic’ lies. The process is immersive; a matter of reading the text over and over, thinking and imagining what it can mean, then highlighting the relevant part of the text where the themes occur. Interpris can, apparently, generate themes automatically.

Since Interpris is PC only at the moment, and I am a Mac girl, Mr Thesis Whisperer had to set up an old PC for me to try it out. The tech support piece was significant – Mr Thesis Whisperer was like this for a long time:

Please put Interpris in the cloud QSR!

As it turned out, the set up took much longer than the analysis work. I deliberately fed it a complicated excel file, expecting the software to choke, but it swallowed the sheet without missing a beat. It was weird watching a progress bar say ‘analyse’ themes’, rather than do it myself. When the results popped on the screen, I gasped. At first glance, the results looked utterly plausible.

At this point, I actually had to get up and go for a walk to get some air. I don’t exagerrate when I say Interpris had done in less than a minute what would take me at least a day – maybe two. In fact, I had been putting off doing this particular bit of analysis because I knew it would take ages and I’ve been busy dealing with an increased teaching load. I honestly didn’t expect the software to get anywhere near a human effort with no input at all. I panicked for a moment, wondering if machines were REALLY coming for my job.

After I had calmed down, I went back and looked more carefully at the analysis – and breathed out. Interpris hasn’t stolen my job – yet. It had noticed all the essential themes in the data (sobering), but it also pulled out unimportant stuff. I needed to do some ‘gardening work’ to shape the results the way I wanted to, but this process was straightforward. The product is user-friendly and makes nice, clean looking graphs. Here’s one I made about the barriers to completion faced by our Thesis Bootcamp participants:

In my view, QSR is definitely on the right track with this product. Interpris strips back all the complexity of Nvivo and makes the machine learning capability the centrepiece of the user experience.I completed an analysis that would probably have taken me two days in just 47 minutes. With time savings like that, QSR can justify the hefty price tag of $1500 per year, especially for government clients. While it’s true that Interpris can’t do the really sophisticated forms of text-based analysis (yet?), my experience suggests that for open-ended questions in survey data it works just fine. Just like with Grammarly, sometimes we disagreed on style, but Interpris makes me into an incredibly efficient researcher-cyborg.

The QSR team told me that “university researchers had not shown much interest” in Interpris, which is why they aimed it squarely at government clients. I find this attitude from the qualitative research community disappointing. I’ve noticed that there can be a certain strain of purism in some disciplines, like anthropology and sociology, who turn their nose up at tools that make research easier. I’ve had PhD students at ANU say using software to help do analysis is “cheating” and I know this attitude comes from more senior members of staff. In my view, privileging of ‘artisanal’ approaches is sticking our collective heads in the sand.

While the machines are not coming for our jobs soon, in my view the smart researcher looks for opportunities to collaborate with them – now. We have a role in shaping what these machines become and being afraid of what might happen is not going to change the fact that parts of our jobs that we hold dear will become automated. I graduated architecture school on the crest of the digital wave in the mid-1990s and watched older architects struggle to adapt to drawing programs. Those who didn’t adapt ended up out of work pretty quickly.

I fear that is what is going to happen to researchers who do not jump on the machine-assisted bandwagon. What do you think?

A short video about setting up and using Interpris

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Coping strategies for full time workers turned PhD students

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - April 18, 2018 - 4:00am

Have you given up a great full time job to do your PhD? Some of you might have done this fairly recently – what changes can you expect?

Jo Khoo is currently enrolled in a PhD at the University of Wollongong, Australia. Her research focuses on health services use and financing, particularly related to service delivery for people living with chronic diseases and the role of health insurance. She commenced a PhD full-time in 2016 after a decade working as a public health professional in research management, information systems and health policy. Jo has managed to combine her love of travel with study and work experiences, having spent time living in Italy and Vietnam. She hopes to have the opportunity to continue combining this passion in her future career.

Find out more information about Jo here [https://www.linkedin.com/in/jo-khoo/]. She also tweets @jokhooz1.

I made the decision to commence a full-time PhD after ten years in the workforce. At the time, many people made encouraging comments such as, “you’ll be fine, you’re very organised.” While I appreciated their compliments, I didn’t share the same level of confidence. Although I worked with researchers every day as part of my job, I still felt like I was stepping into the unknown.

During the early days of my PhD, I found that some of the ways that I used to work were not always helpful and added to my stress levels. I found many resources aimed at students transitioning from undergraduate and Masters degrees to PhDs, but not many aimed at those making the transition from full-time work to full-time study.

Based on my experience, here are five realisations that helped me make the transition.

The learning doesn’t stop at the end of the PhD

When I started my PhD, I was struck by the amount of time I now had to read and think about issues. I knew this was a luxury not afforded in many jobs, so I wanted to make the most of it. Accustomed to project management, I embraced learning in my PhD with a very structured approach in which I set a series of goals and timeframes to work through. However, I soon realised that I have to be willing to go where my research leads me rather than rigidly following a pre-determined plan.

A friend said to me, “you’ll spend the first year realising how much you don’t know” and that statement has certainly rung true.

I could spend every day in the three or four years of my PhD reading yet I still wouldn’t scratch the surface of all the things that are of interest to me and relevant to my research. However, there’s nothing to stop me taking some of the PhD mindset to the next stage of my career (wherever that may be) and ensure that I make time for learning on a regular basis.

Be patient and embrace being challenged again

The idea of greater intellectual challenges drew me to a PhD but the reality was more difficult than I imagined. Prior to starting a PhD, I had been in my job for more than five years and knew how everything worked. Relinquishing the role of “problem-solver” for “newbie” was hard.

I tried to apply some of my work-place problem solving skills, but soon found out that quick fixes are not compatible with high quality research. There is a reason that is takes several years to complete a PhD and a key factor is that clarity and more sophisticated reasoning evolves over time. While good time management is important in a PhD, not everything can have a deadline imposed.

As an aside, there is an important distinction between challenging yourself and isolating yourself. There has been numerous times when I have needed to put aside my ego and the thought that “I should be able to work it out” and just ask the question!

Don’t forget what works for you

Generally, you get to decide your own working structure throughout your PhD but don’t disregard what you already know about the working environment and schedule that work best for you.

I work best with structure and the feeling of making progress every day (however small that is) so having an office to go to every day, writing lists and breaking work into chunks that can be completed in a few hours or a day, are strategies that continue to work well. Despite trying to convince myself for a while that I could do more work at home, if I’m honest with myself, I’m more productive out of the house at this stage of my research. I miss the social interaction if I’m at home for days on end.

Not everything needs to be new

Starting a PhD brought change at professional, financial and emotional levels. I found that keeping elements of my former routine were comforting and provided much needed balance. I continued to work one day a week at the organisation where I had previously worked full-time. Being able to spend a few hours a week focussed on work not related to my PhD was helpful. The moral support and advice from former colleagues, many of whom have had the experience of completing a PhD, has been particularly beneficial.

Ignore social expectation and enjoy the journey

Our society focuses on a fairly narrow, linear model of career progression. Leaving a steady full-time job and sacrificing income and free time for an uncertain future career can bring both overt and subtle judgement from those around you. However, it is the path I chose and I have no regrets. I am lucky to be supported by those closest to me and energised by the knowledge and skills I am gaining. While there are things I have given up, I feel like I am gaining much more.

Change is not a comfortable process and settling into a PhD, committing myself to several years of full-time study, was a difficult decision. However, it has been immensely rewarding and enjoyable in ways I had not predicted. Despite the fact my professional and personal identity is changing, I realise that I didn’t leave behind my previous career completely and my skills and experience have helped me in my PhD in numerous ways.

While these have been the take away points from my experience, I would be interested to hear advice and experiences from others in a similar situation.

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5 time management strategies from part time PhD students

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04/12/18 PHD comic: 'Remind me'

PhD Comics - April 14, 2018 - 10:10am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Remind me" - originally published 4/12/2018

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

How to make an index for your book or dissertation

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

Dear Readers. Shaun Lehmann, Katherine Firth (of the Research Voodoo blog) and I are currently in the process of writing a new book for Open University Press called ‘Writing Trouble’. ‘Writing Trouble’ will help you diagnose and treat your thesis writing problems.

The proposed book evolved out of our work on the Thesis Bootcamp program, a writing intervention originally designed by Peta Freestone and Liam Connell. Over the years all of us have been running our own bootcamps we have met hundreds of students struggling to put their final thesis draft together. These students have supervisors who are clearly great researchers, but cannot give good feedback on writing. The book works backwards from the confusing feedback students have showed us.

Part of our process with this new book is to test out some of our text on our audience – you. Here is part of another chapter from our section “Where’s your discussion section?” where we deal with the purpose of the conventional ‘bits’ of a thesis and how to treat them. This piece of writing on indexing relates to a previous piece I wrote on the Whisperer about how to do a glossary. It’s the first draft, so your feedback is appreciated!

If you’d like to know more about the book before it’s published, you can sign up for our writing trouble mailing list.

The index is the elder sibling of the glossary, who has grown up, moved to the big city and started doing drugs. Anyone who has been asked to write one will tremble a little in their boots, at least the first time. Basically, an index is a quick look up list of terms that appear in your dissertation or book. In a similar way to the glossary, an index serves a rhetorical as well as a communicative role by throwing a spotlight on the parts of your book that will be most interesting and useful to the reader.

Indexing is an even more labourious process than making a glossary, but the return on investment is definitely worth it. Beyond the academic examination context, a good index is a vital tool in convincing a reader whether or not to read (or buy) your book. How often have you flipped to the index of the book to see if there’s enough on the topic you are interested in to warrant the effort? That’s right – almost every time.

Until this book, only Inger had experience of writing an index and she did a pretty horrible job of it. Here is what she learned.

Step one: Develop some useful themes

To begin, you need to think about why a reader might want to buy or read your book in the first place. You are not writing a novel, so being practical is not a bad place to start. As a thought exercise, try to think about the kind of problems that your readers are looking to solve. Think of words or phrases to represent these problems and you have a rough list of themes.

Inger’s previous book “How to be an academic” was a practical guide to surviving in academia, especially if you are a precariously employed academic. She started by generating a list of things like “making money”, “dealing with assholes”, “writing quickly” and so on. She then tried to think about the themes she thought were important, to give the index reader a sense of the broad range of topics in the book. This generated terms like “networking”. These themes guided the next step: identifying the areas of text where these themes were discussed.

Step Two: find the chunks of text that relate to the themes

The next step is the absolute worst part of the whole process, so prepare yourself. To get to a list-y looking thing, one must read a text that one is incredibly sick of reading by now with a forensic eye. The purpose of this step is to take note of the various manifestations of your themes in the book and make a note of their location. DO NOT DO THIS STEP UNTIL YOU HAVE PRINTER READY TEXT OR YOUR PAGE NUMBERS WILL BE WRONG.

Each time you find that theme in chunk of text, think about a short word or phrase that might relate to that theme and note the page number. Inger’s first pass looked something like this:


Acronyms, value of                                         124 – 125

Arrogance                                                       50 – 55

‘Backstage work’                                            226, 236

Bookshelves                                                    306

Cleverness                                                       46, 49, 250 – 251, 255 – 257

Cultural Capital                                               46 – 47, 89 – 90, 245

Dinner Parties                                                 56, 60, 64

Competition                                                    260

Fashion                                                            85 – 90, 306

Gift economies                                                253 – 254

Hiring practices                                               62, 229 – 236

Love of the work                                             18, 76, 264, 288 – 291

Migrants                                                         56 – 60

Salaries                                                           31, 222

‘service’                                                           101

The new normal                                              39, 229, 231

Academia as a Bad Boyfriend                                           16 – 19, 32 – 33, 36, 231

Academic journals, questionable practices of                  156 – 162

Academic hunger games                                                   13, 229

ADHD                                                                                67

Amabile, Tessa                                                                  46

Aaron, Rachael                                                                  198

Architecture as a profession                                             28, 218

Baby Boomers                                                                   283

Becker, Howard                                                                125, 153 – 154, 193, 195 – 196

Bullying                                                                             52, 54 – 55

Blogging and social media

The purpose of the Thesis Whisperer blog     9

Time implications of blogging                         12, 177

Starting blogging                                            22

Mark’s simple rules of blogging                     38

Safe Spaces?                                                   48, 267

Writing posts                                                  82, 263 – 264

Value of sharing for your career                    112, 220, 303 – 304

As open access publishing                               154, 159, 220 – 222

Enjoyment                                                       256, 263

Mainstream media shit storms                      268 – 269

Social media shit storm                                  284 – 285


At a certain point in making this list, Inger gave up trying to keep it tidy and started using Nvivo, a text analysis software. This worked well, but she doesn’t recommend using this software unless you have the skills; there’s a big learning curve and you have a book to deliver.

Step Three: throw out the themes

When Inger’s publisher got this index, carefully compiled over a couple of weekends, she smiled kindly, thanked Inger for the effort and gave it straight to a professional. When it came back, it looked completely different. In Inger’s version, dinner parties appeared under the theme of ‘academic’: a vague sort of category, in the final version it appeared under D, you know – for dinner party.

Index pages from “How to be an Academic”

The lesson? When you are generating an alphabetical list, it’s best to bear in mind the alphabet. Inger was close, she just needed to throw away the themes and arrange the list of key words in alphabetical order. The final touch would be to try to think of words that are related to each other and put “see also” under them.

Job done, no drugs necessary. Except, maybe – coffee.

This is how I did an index, but I’m sure there are more elegant and sophisticated techniques. Have you ever done one? Do you have tricks to share? Love to hear about them in the comments!

Related posts

Sign up for the ‘writing trouble’ book news mailing list.

Buy “How to be an academic”

Enter the Glossators

Other ‘first draft’ posts from the Writing Trouble Series

The vagueness problem in academic writing

Academia is a passive agressive, middle class dinner party

Your thesis is the map, not the journey

04/04/18 PHD comic: 'Credit'

PhD Comics - April 5, 2018 - 6:16pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Credit" - originally published 4/4/2018

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

The tale of 23 Overdue Books

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

When you do a PhD, life doesn’t just … stop. Most of us start a PhD later in life (the average age on entry is 32), with family and financial responsibilities. Everyone has a role when a crisis hits – supervisors, administrators, family and friends. How can we support each other better? This post is by Phillipa Bellemore who is a PhD student in Sociology at Macquarie University in Sydney. Her PhD explores the relationship between refugees and receiving communities in Australia. Phillipa’s blog can be found here http://refugeementoring.com/

My complicated relationship with libraries dates to my childhood. I love books, but sometimes returned them late feeling a naughty child under the librarian’s stern gaze. Last December, when I tried to borrow books, I realised a freeze was placed on my library card. Internally I groaned. At the library desk, the librarian suggested checking my online library record.

Behold 23 books; three months overdue. Over $1,000 in fines.

I am outwardly an organised student, but library books were last the last thing on my mind as I struggled to appear normal and in control.

During a three to five year PhD it is probable that you or a loved one will experience a crisis. In 2016 my daughter called from Brisbane to say that she was sick in hospital. I flew from Sydney for a few days that morphed into a month, while tests and a diagnosis of Stage 4 lymphatic cancer was made, followed by operations and chemotherapy.

I turned back into ‘Mum’ again, and my PhD was shelved. While in Brisbane a library email notified me of an overdue library book and fine. It took several emails to clarify that I was stuck in Brisbane and couldn’t return the book. Despite this, I received an email declaring my leave without pay could not be processed until the library fine was paid. I was unable to resolve my leave without paying a fine which I felt was unwarranted. Eventually with help from my supervisors and HDR manager we sorted it out and no fine was applied and my leave was approved.

My daughter and her partner returned to Sydney and lived with us while her aggressive treatment continued for four more months. It was an awful year and hard to make sense of a healthy young woman becoming a cancer patient. In November, I attended a Courage and Renewal retreat to ready myself for the coming year of interstate fieldwork. Over a retreat lunch I reflected on the hospital treatment and how confronting the experience had been. A fellow retreater was a cancer counsellor. She gently asked “When is it going to be your turn to fall apart?”.

I thought I’d handled the year well. Staring at the library fine the following month I realised my unconscious had other plans. After returning the books, I visited the library to mitigate the situation. The desk librarian seemed sympathetic and he twirled his computer around suggesting I email the library. Fighting an urge to procrastinate, I emailed explaining what had happened, that I knew I was in the wrong and asking if the library would waive the fines.

Back at university, once I started speaking about my daughter’s illness, other students shared their adversities. I was amazed to hear stories from PhD students: mental health issues, sickness, hidden disabilities, sick children, of parents, friends and siblings who died during their PhD, relationship breakdowns and how these events had impacted their ability to concentrate, research and write.

We are scholars AND we have a life that claims our attention outside the academy. How to support a PhD student in need?

Small kindnesses count. A hug, a card, a supportive email, a bunch of flowers, a short telephone call, sharing a cup of tea – all make tough times less alone. My HDR Mentor friends were there to listen and I attended mentor events such as dinners and meetings, which were comforting. Many staff sent supportive emails. My PhD friends kept in touch via email and phone. It was a lifeline in a dark time.

When I returned after five month’s leave sitting on my desk was a “care package” my PhD buddies had gathered, with a candle, biscuits, chocolates, teas and even porridge. I felt wrapped with care.

When a PhD colleague looks sad, “disappears”, dresses with less care, behaves out of character, ask “how are you travelling?”. Be prepared to hear uncomfortable things – don’t give advice unless asked. Discuss what things might help them and that might include seeing a counsellor.

In my case, I hated people reassuring me my daughter was “lucky”, because she would be cured of cancer. Their comments negated what she had endured and what we had witnessed. The impact of adverse events can linger. I still get teary when I see someone with cancer who has no hair, or view photographs from my daughter’s time in hospital. It was hard returning to PhD routines and particularly fieldwork, as mine involves interviewing refugees, whose stories can be harrowing.

I call on HDR administrators to have courage to apply compassionate rules and ditch the red tape. The last thing I felt like doing from a hospital bedside was emailing the library, filling in leave forms and providing evidence from busy doctors that the cancer was real. Who makes this kind of story up? I dreaded the forms. Instead of a form, my daughter’s university, trusted that she was telling the truth, did not ask for evidence, wished her well and said they looked forward to her commencing her masters in 2017 instead of 2016.

When I emailed the library asking for my fines to be waived I had no idea what to expect. Afterwards, over lunch with a PhD friend, we discussed how incidents like the library fine can tip us into despair. Then my phone rang, a friendly voice, a library manager – he had waived the fines. I was touched that he called rather than dispatching an impersonal email. What a difference speaking to a person and knowing their name. The next day he emailed saying I was free to borrow again, and wishing me a lovely end of year break with my family.

An act of kindness, inviting me to reimagine my relationship with librarians. The library manager saw beyond 23 overdue books, and acknowledged a person in need, rather than a student to be punished. I’ll be forever grateful.

Postscript: Phillipa’s daughter has now recovered from cancer and is studying on a master’s program at an American university. Phillipa is returning books on time and completes her thesis this year. She and her family are living their best lives. 

Thanks for telling your story Phillipa – I’m sure it resonated with others who have gone through similar situations. How about you? Have you faced a crisis which impacted your ability to study? what helped you through?

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Feeding the crazy


03/30/18 PHD comic: 'Inbox Anxiety'

PhD Comics - March 30, 2018 - 1:49pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Inbox Anxiety" - originally published 3/30/2018

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!