Updates in Doctoral Ed

03/11/15 PHD comic: 'Feeling sick'

PhD Comics - March 11, 2015 - 9:57pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Feeling sick" - originally published 3/11/2015

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

Book review: Writing for peer reviewed journals

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - March 11, 2015 - 5:00am

Here at the Whisperer we know you read a lot, so we try to do some of the reading for you. There’s a lot of books out there on doing a PhD and being an academic – which ones should you buy?

If you are a regular reader you will know that Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler wrote one of my favourite books ‘Helping doctoral students write’. Last year they produced a book on writing for publication called ‘Writing for peer review journals: strategies for getting published’. Pat Thomson authors the fabulous ‘Patter’ blog and we collaborate on some mutual research interests, so it is fantastic that ANU PhD student Briony Lipton sent in this review and you can get an unbiased view!

Briony Lipton is a PhD candidate in Gender Studies in the School of Sociology. Her research explores the relationship between academic women, feminism and university leadership in Australian Higher Education. you can find Briony on Twitter as @briony_lipton

I am on the precipice of submitting a journal article for consideration, and so it is timely that I should read Writing for Peer Review Journals: Strategies for Getting Published (2013) by Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler, a fantastic text for the PhD student or early career researcher wanting to improve the success rate of journal manuscripts being accepted for publication and build confidence as a scholarly writer.

I am a bit nervous thinking about the prospect of sending off my manuscript. Actually, I am more than just a little worried. My entire body is filled with academic anxiety that I somehow have to alleviate every day in order to sit at the computer and write. What’s worse is that I actually enjoy academic research and the writing process. Developing an argument that makes you feel like you can change the world; that you are contributing to new knowledge. It is my passion, and when I write (what I hope is) a wonderfully juicy and critically engaging sentence or paragraph, I just want to high-five myself (is that weird?).

Academic writing can be such a fun and creative experience. It is at this point, just when I am about to say to myself: ‘Briony, you are a genius, this is your destiny – you go girl!’ that the self-doubt begins to creep in: ‘is my analysis strong enough? Is my argument valid? Do I know enough about this topic that I am researching; that everyone keeps telling me that I am ‘becoming the expert in’?’ All my endorphins riding the waves of my academic enthusiasm dissipate and I am left with that gut-wrenching feeling that prevents me from pressing ‘send’ on my journal article submission, and forces me to close that folder in which a first, second, third…tenth draft sits, never to be proof-read again.

What Thomson and Kamler succinctly articulate in Writing for Peer Review Journals is that this is the catch-22 of publishing. Researchers feel that they need confidence in order to feel ready to publish, but in order to develop confidence they need to experience having their work published, and herein lies the conceptual trap: scholarly writers need that confidence, which they internalise and claim they do not have, in order to get their work published in the first place. As Thomson and Kamler state: ‘the key to the journal article is not only having an argument, but also the stance to assert its significance’.

As most readers may already be aware, academics are working in what has been aptly phrased as a ‘publish or perish’ higher education environment. Publications are now the measure of quality of research in academia both in Australia and overseas. Combine the underfunded expansion of Australian universities with a reduction in permanent or continuing academic positions, and the precariousness of the academic enterprise becomes all too real. Researchers’ anxieties over publishing are not unwarranted. Thomson describes her recent experience ranking of applications for a three year post doctorate award at her institution. The highest scoring candidate was:

… five years out of the PhD and already had five books and numerous journal articles. The sheer quantity of this output was almost impossible for any other applicant to come near.

I was shocked! Indeed, how could I possibly compete with a curriculum vitae like that? However, Thomson and Kamler qualify:

… this emergent cut-throat academic world is not one we wish to support and we are not writing this book simply to service these kinds of audit and competitive regimes’.

Thomson resides at the University of Nottingham, England, and Kamler at Deakin University in Australia. The British and Australian higher education contexts are not dissimilar and as such observations and experiences of the neoliberal corporatised university in operation and the motivations behind academic publishing described in Writing for Peer Review Journals can be applied in Australia, as well as across the United Kingdom and much of Europe. This is not just a ‘how-to’ book. Instead, Thomson and Kamler are fantastic at weaving together the theories and practices of academic writing with the complexities and contradictions that come packaged with scholarly writing in performative times.

Writing for Peer Review Journals offers a step-by-step approach. Pitched at all levels of academia (because don’t we all know a professor whose academic writing and structure could do with some improvement). The language and style of writing in the text is inclusive and articulate and does not undermine the experience and abilities of its reader. Thomson and Kamler cite that the text’s point of difference is in its focus on ‘the production, nature and sustainability of scholarship’. They approach academic writing strategies with a new conceptual framework; one that connects the writer, and text, with disciplinary, and national and international contexts.

For Thomson and Kamler: ‘learning is a process of becoming’ and this makes Writing for Peer Review Journals profoundly pedagogical. The text is filled with experiential and practical advice as well as qualitative interviews with academic writers, journal editors, and peer reviewers. Writing is not a straight forward linear process and the chapters are structured in a way that reflects this. However, it is easy text to navigate, and depending on where you are in your writing journey, you may wish to jump straight to particular areas of the text that you find relevant to your needs.

Although this text is such an enjoyable read, you may find yourself flicking back and forth to read all sections because every chapter has something to offer regardless of what stage you are at in the writing process. I found chapter one, “The Writer” to be particularly affecting. Thomson and Kamler’s words encouraged and emboldened me as they revealed the depth of their knowledge, experience and understanding of the issues that surround academic writing. Writing a journal article for publication is as much about the text as it is about the formation of one’s academic identity: ‘it creates the scholar who, at the end of writing, will be different to the writer who began’. The focus is on targeting the reader that you want your writing to engage with, rather than on the writing itself.

Writing for Peer Review Journals certainly dishes out the truth-bombs of publishing and I found this to be refreshing. The quantification of academic research via measurements of research quality and output has somewhat shifted the intentions of academic publishing and as a consequence scholars are either intentionally forgetting or perhaps unaware of the etiquettes that should be applied in the process of submitting a journal article for consideration. Now, I’m not talking about some old-fashioned propriety. It is about getting your journal editors and peer reviewers on-side. It is about creating a culture of collegiality, collaboration, and respect, which in the hyper-competitive neoliberal academy seems to be very much lacking.

So, respect your peer-reviewers, okay! Put in your best effort. Don’t expect your reviewers to offer feedback on work that is not ready. Although, please don’t feel anxious about this. Maybe these are also the first steps towards creating a culture of feedback where we rarely ever read snooty or contemptuous reviewer comments. Similarly, it is okay to not submit your articles to the top-ranked journals in your field. It is, as Thomson and Kamler point out, about making a contribution; one that clearly articulates why your research is important and why your intended readership should care about your research not just about point scoring.

While most high achieving PhD students and early career researchers should already be familiar with the discourses of the journals they wish to publish in and how to target their papers toward the specific audiences of those desired journals, this book nevertheless deserves a read because its content goes beyond what you can learn on the ‘instructions for authors’ page on the Taylor and Francis or Sage websites and tells you more than the vague 150 word ‘aims and scope’ description on the journal’s homepage. Even experienced writers may find something useful in Writing for Peer Review Journals (editor’s note: this is true!)

This book offers practical tips such as organising and structuring your writing sessions, and developing a timetable for research and publication to maximise your time and achieve your goals. Then there is the ever important chapter on “Engaging with Reviewers and Editors”, which demystifies what happens to your journal article in the peer review process and how to respond. I found this to be a particularly useful chapter as it was the part of the whole publishing process that I knew least about. Thomson and Kamler even provide a chapter on “Writing with Others” which I strongly encourage all to read, but this may be of most interest to humanities and early career researchers. Collaborative writing is integral to building your writing portfolio and it demonstrates to interview panels and promotion committees your ability to work in a team.

If you want to take your journal article submissions to the next level, I thoroughly recommend you read this book. Writing for Peer Review Journals will reinvigorate your writing purpose and make you want to open up that old Word document you have been avoiding and take another look at it. It is time for me to reassess my approach to writing for publication and submit that journal article. Wish me luck!

Good luck Briony! How about you? Have you read ‘Writing for Peer reviewed journals’? What did you think? Interested in your views in the comments. If you want to buy the book through our Amazon Store your purchase will donate money to the blog.

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03/04/15 PHD comic: 'A friendly reminder'

PhD Comics - March 6, 2015 - 9:48am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "A friendly reminder" - originally published 3/4/2015

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

My thesis is a cupcake, not a dragon

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - March 4, 2015 - 5:00am

My twin sister, Anitra Nottingham, finished her masters by research in the Faculty of education at the University of Melbourne last year. She sent me this post when she was towards the end of her project in a moment of clarity…

My friend Kevin has a Ph.D. His dissertation is about folklore, which means knows a lot about the power of analogy and metaphor. Just recently he gave me the most apt description of how it feels to write a thesis.

“Oh, it’s like a raven on your shoulder” he said over drinks “squawking at you every time you try to have a life.”

Then he told me a story of when he was where I am now (almost finished but not quite). He was wrestling with his conclusion and he went to see a sympathetic faculty member. “It’s a dragon breathing fire on me” he told her “but  you know, I am fighting, I have my sword…”

At which point she interrupted.

“Oh honey” she said “why don’t you ever talk about your dissertation like you talk about the things you like to do?” Then she asked him, “What do you actually like to do?”

To which he replied that he likes cooking, and when prompted further, that actually he loves to cook soup in particular. That he loves everything about making soup. The chopping, the frying and the mixing, the smell, the way the ingredients all came together to make something more than themselves, something delicious. He especially liked, he told her, to share soup he made with friends. Most of all, he enjoyed seeing them eat his soup.

“Isn’t that a nicer way of talking about a thesis?” Kevin asked me. Then he told me how this conversation changed everything for him. He stopped thinking of his thesis as a dragon that he had to slay, and more like a beautiful bowl of soup that he was meticulously preparing and serving to his readers.

Me? I like to make elaborate birthday cakes for my children. There’s the space shuttle with 36 candles on one side (so it was “taking off”) the failed, but ambitious, greek temple, the giraffe, the penguin, the pyramid, the… well… you get the picture.

I like the challenge of a novelty birthday cake, it requires creativity, patience, a steady hand, and usually involves some kind of equipment. Sure, you can get burned, sometimes cakes look amazing, sometimes less so but however they turn out I like watching my kids blow the candles out. I like that they will (hopefully) remember one day that I made that cake just for them. I know I put my best effort, my best self really, into making those cakes.

So from now on my thesis isn’t a raven, it’s not a dragon, and it’s not a pain in my a** (actually, it was, but that’s a story for another day).

No, from now on, it’s a cupcake.

A lovely, beautifully decorated (maybe slightly imperfect, like all homemade things are) cupcake. A cupcake that someone is going to (hopefully) admire while they read it, and (hopefully) remember, and enjoy. One day, when I am ready, I shall do my Ph.D—and it shall be a cake. A great big, probably fruit-filled, substantial, cake.

So how about you? Is your thesis a dragon, or a cupcake? What do you like to do? Does this help you think your thesis as something you like to do.

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Thesis Prison

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - February 25, 2015 - 5:00am

Family Thesiswhisperer has spent the last month in our hometown of Melbourne. We caught up with many friends and relatives while we were there, some of whom are doing or have just completed doctorates. One friend got pregnant twice during her doctorate and had a longer journey than most. While we raised a glass to her recent gradaution I asked her how it felt to be done. “Liberating!” she said “But the last three months was hell. No one avoids that bit right?”.

I nodded emphatically. No matter how well you plan it, there is bound to be a certain period of time where your thesis will dominate your life once you decide it’s time to get it Out the Door.

Part of the problem is that a thesis is such a long project. Many of us have to go back to a full time job before it’s entirely finished. Still more of us study part time from the very beginning and have to juggle multiple commitments the whole time. When your thesis time demands increase they can temporarily squeeze out all the other things that normally keep you sane.

Exercise, socialising, The Good Wife TV marathons are the kinds of things that get cut in order to make way for the thesis. It’s a bit like shrink wrapping your life so that only the boring working bits are left. After about a month or so you can feel like you are in Thesis Prison playing scrabble with the Warden. It’s a rare person who doesn’t get a bit stir crazy.

Thesis Prison is similar to the Valley of Shit, but without the self doubt because there’s no time left. March is peak time for thesis submission in Australia, so I’m sure some of you are in Thesis Prison right now. I can sympathise. Recently I started counting calories and running in an effort to lose my ‘baby weight’ (I should add – my baby is now 13 and taller than me). Over a couple of months I have lost a dress size, but I often felt like I was back in Thesis Prison.

So here are 4 tips for getting fit and/or surviving Thesis Prison. I’d love to hear how you are dealing with Thesis Prison in the comments.

Put on your damn shoes

Even though we all know that having a routine is valuable, sticking to it is much easier said than done. Although I’ve come to enjoy running, I almost always don’t really want to do it. But if I put on my running shoes I know I will eventually I will force myself to go because I’ve started the process.

Routines consist of smaller actions done in a certain order.

So, just sit down at your desk and start doing something. Anything. Try some small, but necessary tasks. Good examples are filing and tagging references in your database, cleaning and formatting data, copy editing etc. If you find you are developing a new kind of deferment activity, set a timer to limit it by using the pomodoro technique.

Conversely, just open your document anywhere and pick a place to start writing. Tell yourself that you can always throw it out if it’s crap. Or start reviewing your writing with Claire Aitchinson’s ‘storyline’ technique (described here by Cassily Charles) or Rachael Cayley’s ‘reverse outlines’. Both of these techniques are great for zooming out from a close engagement with your text to see the bigger picture. They can also help you spot opportunities for new writing.

It’s all about time served

Nobody even noticed my lifestyle changes until I’d lost nearly 10 kgs, which took around 3 months. Most of the time I just felt like I was missing out on all the cake and getting nowhere. Similarly Thesis Prison can be disheartening because Progress is often invisible. It’s possible to spend a whole day at your desk and feel like you have achieved nothing.

One solution is to visualise the progress somehow.

If I weigh myself once a week or measure my waist I can see the progress. I use the running apps on my phone to measure distance travelled and calories consumed. Likewise when I was doing my thesis I stuck a piece of graph paper on the wall next to me and charted my progress by colouring in a block for every 1000 words. We follow a similar principle in our Thesis Bootcamps where we hand out squeezy lego blocks for every 5000 words written. It sounds silly, but it works. Of course, there’s an app for that! Try the Writing Journal or use the progress bar tool in Scrivener.

Don’t compare yourself to the other runners

You see the same people running in your neighbourhood. There was one woman I started to think of as the Queen of Running. She always looked immaculate and barely seemed to raise a sweat as she lapped me easily. I stared at her enviously as I huffed around the park feeling like death warmed up.

Compared to the Queen of Running I felt like a faker, or at least totally inadequate. Then one day a friend stopped me on campus to say she’d seen me out on my run and nearly didn’t recognise me because I ‘looked like a pro’. She said I had inspired her to start running (presumably because if I could do it anyone could) and asked me if I could give her some tips. I was astonished. I just assumed I looked the way I felt on the inside while I was running.

The lesson? Thesis Prison distorts your perception of yourself. Everyone is running their own race. Just concentrate on winning yours.

Change it up

Running can be boring, so it’s necessary to change the route often and spend money on whole new playlists and outfits (that’s my excuse anyway).

Writing can be really boring, so try a diagram, or a matrix to progress your wrtiting in different formats. I have a hand out here which shows how you can use a spider diagram to ask questions. There is a good page here, designed for primary school teachers, full of other writing diagrams you can play with.

Alternatively, you could try setting up a matrix to play with your thoughts and see if you can make connections between ideas. There’s a good description of the basic concept on the My Studious LIfe Blog (where I stole the idea from) and I have worked this up into a handout you can print out and work from. A matrix is a helpful way to write because, while it forces some  hierarchy on your thoughts, it frees you up from having to make transitions or think about what order ideas should be presented in an argument. I’ve written more about both these approaches in my post about how to write faster.

A drastic solution is to take yourself to a new location where you have no choice but to finish. You could go on a research retreat; read Kylie Budge’s story about going to New York to finish her thesis for inspiration.

I still have another 12 kgs of baby weight to lose. I hope these techniques keep working for me. How about you? How are you coping with Thesis Prison? Any tips for your fellow prisoners?

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The Post PhD Blues

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - February 18, 2015 - 5:00am

This post is written by Brian Flemming, a mathematician working as a Systems Engineer in Edinburgh.  He has recently completed an Engineering Doctorate (EngD) as a mature student at Heriot Watt University, which he found an intensive and enjoyable experience, and which he credits with greatly increasing the effectiveness and authority of his work.  He is now appreciating the freedom to continue studying and spend time away on the hills, without the associated “PhD-guilt” of neglecting the books …

When Brian sent me this post I could instantly relate. In fact, this blog is the outcome of my own PhD blues where I needed something meaningful, creative and interesting back in my life. I know many people who have finished and express similar sentiments. Here are Brian’s thoughts.

One of the posts that caught my eye recently commented on the career prospects for the newly-qualified PhD, especially outside academia.  Getting a job in the first place — especially in today’s economic climate — is naturally of concern.  But the post-study period can be an unsettling time for a number of other reasons involving a range of emotions, which I’ll refer to collectively as the “post PhD blues”.

I’m in a different situation than most, in that the job I’m doing now is the same as before I started my thesis.  In December 2008, I started working on an Engineering Doctorate (EngD) alongside my “day-job”. 1,731 days later I submitted my thesis for examination, and was immensely proud to graduate as Doctor of Engineering last June.

I had always harboured an ambition to do a PhD, but it seemed unlikely that a suitable opportunity would ever arise.  Entrance to post-graduate education is increasingly competitive and expensive, and is practically inaccessible to those without some form of 3rd-party backing.  One would have to be highly motivated and determined (or wealthy enough) to make the attempt otherwise.  To someone like me, having already established a career, the chances of becoming a mature student seemed a pipedream.  Naturally, I jumped at the chance when our universities liaison manager asked if I wanted to do an EngD.  An EngD is a PhD-equivalent qualification combining technical research and study with an MBA component.  Without any further prompting I came up with a project that interested me, and which was subsequently accepted by management and the university.  I was in.

The four-and-a-half years or so I spent grafting away at my studies were an extraordinarily intense experience; tremendously hard work, of course, stimulating, frustrating, depressing and exhilarating in equal measure, but ultimately personally very rewarding.  Passing the viva so convincingly was truly a high point.  I felt on top of the world.  A PhD represents a pinnacle of learning, a measure of achievement to which considerable amounts of time and effort, as well as emotional commitment, have been devoted.  Who hasn’t suffered pangs of uncertainty over whether a line of research will be successful, or merely end up as a waste of time?  More worryingly, will your efforts be good enough to convince the examiners that you are worthy of a doctorate?  To put it bluntly, a PhD is b****y hard work and exacts a great toll on one’s character to see it through to the end.  A doctorate provides status in a society that values success.  No wonder the sense of triumph at the end can be so potent, and the glow of personal pride so strong.

I have to admit being disappointed in the glow of my viva success not to have received greater recognition from my employers.  But, no matter how elated I was feeling personally, reality had to kick in at some point.  There are plenty of PhD-level engineers working in the company, so one more wasn’t going to make much of a difference to its prospects.  There’s also plenty of R&D going on elsewhere in other departments.  My research interests had simply to compete for attention amongst all other claims for development funding.  The first of my “post-PhD blues” is that not everyone will share your excitement at getting a PhD, or will necessarily see the same value in your research as you do.  Those close to you will of course be pleased and share in your delight, but the wider world isn’t necessarily going to be bowled over by your accomplishment.  In short, your hard-won sense of achievement is likely to be deflated sooner or later.

Post-PhD Blue #2 concerns the process of getting back to ordinary life after completing the PhD.  Suddenly, there’s the “what-on-earth-do-I-do-now-in-the-evenings-and-at-weekends” syndrome to cope with.  For three or more years you were effectively your own boss managing your thesis from inception to completion, while having to satisfy the “must-have-it-now” demands of supervisors, university departments and sponsors alike.  Whatever else you’ve had to cope with, you’ve spent long hours chasing references, and agonised over the wording of every paragraph.  You’ve burned copious amounts of midnight oil, and had critical ideas at the most unlikely hours.  After living the “PhD-lifestyle” for so long you’ve forgotten what it is like to live an ordinary 9-to-5 existence.  Instead of those heady days obsessed with papers, presentations and conferences there’s now the tedium of the weekly timesheet and management priorities to cope with.  You might have hated it at the time, but you’ll gradually realise that that period in your life when you stretched your brain on the rack was a veritable paradise compared with the daily humdrum of the profit motive.

My final “post-PhD blue” is that a PhD isn’t an automatic ticket to a better life.  You might expect that the doors to promotion and a higher salary would open automatically, or that there would be a sure-fire guarantee of a place on the interview shortlist.  Unfortunately, life isn’t quite that easy.  For one thing, you’ll likely as not be over-qualified for a large number of jobs on offer.  Moreover, experience and industry-specific knowledge will often rank as high for the prospective employer as do theoretical skills and academic attainment: lack of the necessary experience can militate against the short list, no matter good you are academically.  As ever, it is also still as much “who-you-know” as “what-you-know” that gets you in line for the job you want.  Networking skills are still important for the post-doc, even for preferment within a company.

You might not experience any of the above and adjust to post-PhD life without any difficulty.  Others might not be so fortunate.  We should, of course, aim to get the best out of our hard-worn qualification whatever our circumstances.  However, my experience is that a PhD/EngD is ultimately about personal fulfilment and satisfaction.  Anything else is a bonus.

What do you think? Have you suffered the PhD blues? Or do you have plans on how to avoid it? Love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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So, you’re starting a PhD?

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - February 11, 2015 - 5:00am

This month, all around Australia, there will be a whole crop of PhD students starting their degree. It’s an exciting time, but a nerve-wracking one as well. Here’s another post to help you start your journey!

This post is by Erika Harris, PhD Candidate. Erika has a Master’s degree in Education, General Education and has worked in instructional design and development in both corporate and higher education settings in the U.S & Australia. Currently Erika is an educational developer, elearning, for RMIT designing online and hybrid courses working with academics in the higher education and vocational education sectors. In this post Erika reflects on the advice given about why NOT to do a PhD and why you would still give it a go anyway.

I am a new PhD student, and have been reading and conversing with current and past PhD students and have come to the sad conclusion that there are more cons to doing a PhD than there are pros.

The cons include the fact that a PhD can:

  1. take over your life
  2. stop you from having time with your family
  3. stop you from exercising
  4. get you into a mental funk
  5. mentally exhaust you
  6. create obstacles in relationships (both professional and personal)
  7. suck up all of your waking moments
  8. make you feel guilty when you are not working on you PhD
  9. make you feel guilty when taking a break
  10. seep into your every waking and sleeping moments of thought
  11. question your intelligence
  12. question your confidence
  13. realizing that I have to learn to play the PhD game

The pros of completing a PhD include the fact that a PhD can:

  • help me gain confidence
  • open up career doors
  • provide a sense of accomplishment
  • show my children that life-long learning is a part of their life too
  • first person in my entire family to reach this level of education

And that’s all I have for the pros. I understand that many readers of this post will say ‘wait, there are so many more pros to completing a PhD’, that may be so for the reader, but maybe not for me. I would like to know about more the pros for completing a PhD, so if you have more please let me know.

With that said, although I have only five pros, and 13 cons, why on earth would I complete one? That’s a very good question. One that I needed to think about before I wrote this post. For me, there are two very personal reasons why:

  1. I want my children to understand that learning is life-long. That mom is doing her ‘homework’ while they are doing theirs. As they are in primary school, we are all sitting together in the evening and getting our ‘homework’ done. Even if they don’t attend university when they are older, I am hoping to instil in them a quest for learning that doesn’t have to end, ever.
  2. Being first in my family to reach this level of education is important to me. Simple as that.

It seems that in the beginning it’s like when I was pregnant. I had so many other women come up to me and tell me their horror stories about being pregnant. Stories that I didn’t want to hear about. It’s the same with the PhD. I have had many conversations with people who have only told me about their horror stories of completing a PhD. It’s like, I will do it anyway, whether it’s going to be good – bad – or otherwise, but most of the journey will be up to me, and I will be in the driver’s seat navigating this journey. Of course, there will be obstacles placed in my way that I will have no control over, but ultimately I am the person who has chosen to go down the PhD route, so I will do my best to maintain control.

It’s possible that this control comes from naiveté of not knowing the PhD journey. It’s possible that my optimism comes from excitement on being on this journey. Maybe it’s just the newness of it all. I certainly do know that I don’t want my PhD to take over my life; I do know that I want to complete it. I do know that I don’t want it to take years (and I mean years) to complete it. I do know that I want my children to come along this journey with me.

I also know that I want to hear about the great stories and great journeys and all the pros of doing a PhD. So if any one has any good stories, please share them. I think that many new PhD candidates need to hear about those great stories, and not just the difficult/tough/hard/sad stories that are out there.

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What I Wish We Taught First Years

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - February 4, 2015 - 5:00am

This month, all around Australia, there will be a whole crop of PhD students starting their degree. It’s an exciting time, but a nerve-wracking one as well. Last time we heard from Jonathan Downie he was parenting a toddler. This time Jonathan has some good words of advice for those of you just starting on your PhD journey. You can read more about Jonathan and his work on his blog Rock Your Talk.

By the time this goes live, most of us will be well into the academic year and getting used to cycles of supervision meetings, reading, classes, seminars and conferences. For those of you who have just started your PhD, this is about the time when you realise that if you weren’t a nerd before, you will be one soon.

By the time I got about six months into my PhD, I was heading for THAT meeting. My early optimism (or should I call it cockiness?) was about to give way to humility and anxiety and I was wondering how I would manage to balance full-time freelancing and part-time research. Despite that, I still tell each new set of first years that the first two years of the PhD are the best two years.

I also try to pass on some of the things I wish I had done more (or less) during that time.

First on the list, oddly, is that I wish I had found a better work/relaxation/thinking rhythm. If I am honest, most of the issues I hit in first year came about because I got into the practice working long hours and sending early drafts to my supervisors without doing a sanity check over their contents. I had this insane thought that my first ideas would be my best ideas. Only the experience of having an early paper sent back for heavy revisions, and a colleague who recently read a paper draft and advised me to drop an argument I have been sitting on for over three years made me realise that ideas take time to mature.

As I mentioned in a post about how to write good talks, it is a mistake to assume that you can write a talk or a paper or a thesis going straight from idea to execution or from data analysis to finished chapter. It simply doesn’t happen like that. Your brain works best when you are calm, unstressed and when you let it work on things at its own pace. This absolutely includes taking days off, holidays and time with your family and friends. Not only will those around you thank you for taking time off, so will your thesis.

Your thesis and your mental health desperately need balance. This leads to the second thing I have learned: I need to recognise the difference between healthy diversion and damaging distraction.

Walk into a PhD student office and you are as likely to see social media or the news on their computer screens as you are to see journal articles or drafts of chapters. I am not about to sit here condemning. I do it too. However, what I have found is that I need to recognise when and how non-research web use is becoming damaging.

Here I don’t mean internet addiction but simply using the web, or email or anything else as a form of escapism to hide from issues. It could be a reaction to deadline pressure or a difficult meeting or just weariness but it is all too easy to bury yourself in some behaviour and find it becoming your routine for coping with difficulties in your PhD.

There are two problems with this. The first is that once you start this behaviour, it can be hard to stop. You can easily end up repeating that behaviour whenever you have a challenging task, losing time and making the situation worse, leading to more of the same behaviour. The second problem is that, rather than helping you calm, it can make your emotions worse, especially if you get caught in the trap of getting into heated discussions online or getting angry at those who challenge you.

If you notice yourself getting into these cycles, you need to honestly recognise which way out will work for you. My own method is to use leechblock to stop the cycles developing in the first place. I simply input my usual time wasting sites and get it to restrict my access. For other people, outside help in the form of counselling might be needed. You really do need to be honest with yourself and this includes trying to figure out better behaviours that will help you deal with issues rather than avoiding them. My personal favourite is going home early. You would be amazed at the boost you get from one hour less on campus.

The last thing I wish I learned is that the “h” in PhD doesn’t stand for hero. We all want to change the world, write the most quoted paper, engage with world leaders and end the war on something or other. One day, we might do it. But those things are not prerequisites for graduation. A PhD thesis has to be an original piece of work that addresses a specific research question in a rigorous way. That’s it.

While you should never lose your fire for big things, we have to be realistic about what we can achieve within 3 or 4 years. In fact, it is only realism that can help you stay excited for all those bigger dreams. Once you realise that your PhD doesn’t need to change the world but can be a springboard, it releases you from the pressure to be perfect and to write like Inger Mewburn or Pat Thomson from day one. As the famous quote says “there are two types of thesis: perfect ones and submitted ones.” May yours be one of the latter!

Thanks Jonathan! If you could go back in a time machine and tell your first year self one piece of advice what would it be?

Related posts

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Book Review: Ethics and Values in Social Research, Paul Ransome

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - January 28, 2015 - 5:00am

Here at the Whisperer we try to make your life easier by reading books and doing reviews. We try to review books which would appeal to most researchers, but some of the books we get sent have more specific audiences in mind. “Ethics and Values in Social research” by Paul Ransome is clearly designed for those in the humanities and social sciences doing field based research. I decided it had just wide enough appeal for us to review, but if you are in the sciences you might want to stop reading now (I wont be offended).

I was lucky enough to find two students engaged exactly this kind of research to review the book for us. Sandra Lauer is a volunteer member of the NSW Rural Fire Service, and is studying rural fire brigades and the concept of “shared responsibility” for her PhD at ANU. Jennifer Upchurch is a member of the youth service organisation, Rotaract, and is doing an ethnographic study of Australian Rotaract Clubs for her PhD at ANU.

Missing from many introductory social research textbooks is the connection to this bigger picture; an acknowledgment of the ways in which social researchers are part of what we are researching and how this may affect the participants and activities within our research.

As social researchers located in a specific discipline, the history and traditions of the discipline offer us theoretical frameworks from which we design, develop and conduct our research. Occasionally, there is a tendency to get lost in the academic jargon and literature of these traditions and we risk becoming distanced from the social world we are trying to investigate. Conversely, for those engaging as “Complete Member Researchers” (Adler 1987:35), it is also easy to become so involved in the social world of the researched that disciplinary traditions become distanced from our experiences in the field.

This tension increases the need to be reflexive about the research process; what is our ontology (how we see the world) and epistemology (how we understand knowledge) and what are the relationships between them? The bigger picture here also involves understanding ethics and values in considering our relationship and ethical responsibilities to our participants.

In Paul Ransome’s book, Ethics and Values in Social Research, we were pleasantly surprised to find an honest and open examination of the links between ethics, ontology and epistemology and how these drive the ethical and moral practice of the researcher.  This book gets researchers to think about the bigger picture by posing a series of ethical and methodological exercises to help strengthen reflexivity in their research practice.

Both of us are “Complete Member-Researchers” (Adler 1987) in that we are members of the populations they are studying. Because of this, we often talk together about how this impacts on our ethical responsibilities to our participants. Upon seeing this book advertised to review, we wondered, how might a book like this be used in helping research students to craft their ethics applications, methodology and methods chapters, and encourage reflexivity throughout the process?

The book starts with a rather traditional discussion of the definitions of ethics and values, and how these underpin the codes of professional and ethical practice, including a historical overview and practical examples. This section gives a good grounding in the practicalities of human ethics applications and ethical research design.  Ransome then puts researchers under the microscope in examining how the process of becoming an “ethical researcher” is socially constructed, for example by ethics statements and the institutional-legal side of the human ethics application process. Ransome reminds us that these procedures are a safeguard to ensure that the moral conscience of the researcher is engaged in the design of research itself.

The following chapters deal with the underlying philosophical principles of knowledge (epistemology) and reality/being (ontology) and link this back to how different research traditions will differ with their methodologies. The book provides in-depth discussions about reflection and reflexivity, the challenges of critical research and the complexities of ideological/political/value standpoints for social researchers. It is here that the book excels, taking the reader on a journey that highlights how different methodological paradigms impact on research design and the choice of methods, and how these then integrate with ethical considerations and value judgments.

The later chapters discuss different types of participatory social research, e.g. action research, and how these denote different research motivations and thus different ethical responsibilities to participants. In examining the “best practice” of reflexive practice, and drawing on the methodological discussion in previous chapters, Ransome encourages the reader to imagine themselves within the context of the research community around them, not just in the field with their participants. In a conversational tone, the book’s focus moves repeatedly from the researched to the researcher and back again. At times this is a little dizzying and a lot to process, but it is a conversation into which the reader cannot help but be drawn, as they question their relationships with their participants.

The final chapter looks at policy making from the standpoint of the researcher. It considers the researcher’s position in the current environment where policy outcomes are only measurable in the context of other policies and their outcomes. Ransome does some intellectual “heavy-lifting”, discussing how this might impact on the intentions of the social researcher in how they seek to affect change through policy, and consequently how this re-defines the ethics of research design itself.

We highly recommend this book as a “methodological gymnasium” for social researchers at any stage of the research process. For beginners in higher research planning their project proposals and reviews, the book allows you to chart the links between all of those ‘ologies in your research design and pave the way for much more reflexive project. For people who are halfway through a thesis, this book has prompts for helping you think about how your research outputs are motivated by your values. And for people writing up, this book might help you decode how your findings reflect your relationships with your participants.

To sum up, Ethics and Values in Social Research reminds researchers that reflexivity acts as a means for us to ethically respect ourselves and others in the research process:

“embracing the idea of reflexivity, we must accept that from the very moment the research process begins in the imagination of the researcher, social research is, in a truly experiential sense, a learning process for the social researcher.” (Ransome 2013:168)

This book will help you along in that learning process, at whichever stage you may find yourself.


Adler, P. A. (1987). Membership roles in field research (Vol. 6). Sage.

Other book reviews on the Whisperer

The best two books for writing a thesis

How to write a lot

BITE: recipes for remarkable research

Study skills for international postgraduates

Doing your dissertation with Microsoft Word

How to fail your Viva

Mapping your thesis

Demystifying dissertation writing

How to write 10,000 words a day

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - January 16, 2015 - 3:09pm

One of the most popular posts on the Thesis Whisperer is How to write 1000 words a day and not go bat shit crazy. Last year a Twitter follower brought to my attention a post called How I went from writing 2000 words to 10,000 words a day by the fiction writer Rachel Aaron.

I did a double take.

Can you really write 10,000 words a day? Well, Rachel says she can, with three conditions:

1) Know what you are going to write before you write it
2) Set aside a protected time to write, and
3) Feel enthusiastic about what you are writing

I read the post with interest. Much of what Rachel did conformed with what I suggest in my earlier post, but I couldn’t bring myself to really believe Rachel’s productivity claims. To regularly write 10,000 words: It’s the dream, right? Imagine if you could reliably write 10,000 words a day, how long would it take to finish your thesis… A week? How about a journal paper – a day?


Or so I thought.

I’m now a 10,000 words a day believer because I have been watching students write even more than this in a single day at the Thesis Bootcamps we run at ANU.

The Thesis Bootcamp formula was developed by Liam Connell and Peta Freestone of the University of Melbourne. Thesis Bootcamp (and the veteran’s days which follow) is a total program designed to help late stage PhD students finish their thesis document (In some countries this document is called the ‘dissertation’, but I will use the Australian term ‘thesis’ here). The Thesis Bootcamp concept is simple – put a whole lot of PhD students in a room for a whole weekend and set them the goal of writing 20,000 words each.

Yes – you heard me right.

At every Thesis Bootcamp we have run, at least one student will achieve this goal, and many write many more words than they thought they would. In a previous post Peta Freestone and Liam Connell wrote about the ideas behind Thesis Bootcamp. In this post I want to reflect on Rachel Aaron’s threefold advice and put in the context of thesis writing.

1) Know what you are going to write before you write it

Composing a Thesis requires you to do different types of writing. Some of this writing is ‘generative’ in that it helps you form and articulate ideas by… just writing as much as you can, not as well as you can. It works best when you don’t second-guess yourself too much. The philosophy is ‘make a mess and then clean it up’. Perfectionist writers have a problem doing this, which is why we see so many perfectionists at our Bootcamps.

At Bootcamp we teach our students to focus the generative writing energy to productive effect. An important step in this process is for the student to spend at least a week making a ‘Thesis map’  before they come to Bootcamp. The map is essentially a series of sub-headings which the students use as prompts for composing new text, or re-using existing text.

Students, particularly those in the humanities and arts, tend to agonise over the Thesis document ‘structure’. I think the anxiety stems from the idea that ‘Thesis structure’ is some kind of perfect platonic form they need to discover.

It’s important to realise that structure is made, not found. Thesis structure is strongly influenced by disciplinary precedent and the content of the Thesis itself. A history PhD it might follow a timeline from the past to the present; a science PhD might echo the order of the experiments that have been performed. But multi-disciplinary PhDs, or PhDs in ‘polyglot’ disciplines like education, do not have comfortable traditions. This means you’ll have to make the structure up. Try the following technique:

  • Try to capture an overview of the Thesis by completing the following sentences from the work of Rowena Murray):
    • This Thesis contributes to knowledge by…
    • This Thesis is important because…
    • The key research question is….
    • The sub-questions are….
  • Decide how long your Thesis will be. Most universities have a maximum word count. Aim for your Thesis to be at least 2/3 of this total (it’s likely you will write more than this, but this gives you some wriggle room).
  • Make a document with chapter headings and word counts next to them. Include an introduction of 2000 – 3000 words followed by up to seven chapters of equal length and a conclusion of around 4000 – 5000 words.
  • Under the conclusion heading write a rough list of points you think will go in there (hint – these should be answers to the research questions you have posed). Study these closely – have you got data, theories, evidence and arguments to support these conclusions? These concluding points, singularly or in combination, will form the ‘key learnings’ of the Thesis – the knowledge and ideas you want your readers to absorb.
  • Each chapter should have at least one key learning in it, maybe more. Under each chapter heading note the key learnings in the form of a brief synopsis of up to 300 words. This synopsis is like a mini abstract that explains what the rest of the chapter will be about.
  • Then make a list of the material you will include in the chapter as dot points. Don’t worry about the gaps and stuff you haven’t written yet – just make a note of them. These should be short sentences that will act as subheadings
  • Now ask yourself: If, at the end of the chapter, I want the reader to be convinced of the validity of this key learning, what needs to appear first? What comes next? And so on. Rearrange or write new subheadings as you go until you have arranged all the subheadings of the chapter in a way that tells the research story.

Following these steps will help you to create the Thesis map – but it’s important to remember that this is merely an aid to writing, not a plan set in stone. You can change, add and move stuff around as you write.

In our Thesis Bootcamps we ask students to just pick a spot on this map and start writing as fast as they can, not as well as they can. Does this generate perfect thesis ready text? Not necessarily, but many students say that the writing they produce at Bootcamp is clearer than the writing they did before it, when they are worrying over every word. I think the thesis map is a big part of this clarity because it keeps the focus tight.

This organising technique works best for very late stage thesis students, but it can be a way of creating order at any time in your journey and working out what you need to find out or write more about. I’ve made a downloadable cheat sheet which shows you my own Thesis map, generated by the above method so you can make one of your own.

2) Set aside a protected time to write

I’ve written so much about this, so I wont rehash it all here. If you are interested in some techniques and ideas for creating protective writing time, have a look at the following posts:

3) Feel enthusiastic about what you are writing

I think this is the ‘secret sauce’ in the 10,000 words a day recipe. Rachel Aaron did some deep analysis of her productive writing days and compared these to the occasional not-so-productive days. The days Rachel was able to write 10,000+ words were the days she was writing scenes she had been ‘dying to write’ – she called these the ‘candy bar scenes’. Days where she found it hard to muster 5000 words a day she was bored with what she was writing:

This was a duh moment for me, but it also brought up a troubling new problem. If I had scenes that were boring enough that I didn’t want to write them, then there was no way in hell anyone would want to read them. This was my novel, after all. If I didn’t love it, no one would.

In the fiction world the answer to Rachel’s dilemma was simple – make the boring scenes more interesting! Unfortunately in Thesis World this is not always possible. There will always be parts that are functional and unexciting; I call these the ‘dry toast’ sections – you need to do a lot of unproductive chewing before you can swallow.

There’s a term that describes this process in gamer culture – ‘grinding’. Grinding is being forced to perform the same action over and over again before you can ‘level up’ in the game and get more powers / weapons / armour or whatever. The level up is the pay-off.

One of the most genius ideas Liam and Peta incorporated into Bootcamp was the squeezy lego blocks. We give these out for each 5000 words written in a particular colour order: green, blue, red and gold. The blocks clip together to make a little lego ‘wall’ that the students can display at their writing station. When first presented with the idea of the blocks the students laugh, but all too soon, they are typing furiously with single minded purpose – to get the next block. We have a little ceremony every time someone gets a block, clapping them as they walk up to write their name on the board. It’s cheesy, but it works to turn writing from a source of pain to a celebration. So think about how to reward yourself for every 5000 words written.

Up for the challenge? Have a look at the testimonials on our ANU You Tube channel. I’d love to hear about other ways of doing writing marathons and what you think about this kind of ‘binge writing’.

If you are an ANU student, click this link to find out how to get involved in Thesis Bootcamp on campus.

If you are in the UK, Dr Peta Freestone is available to run Thesis Bootcamp in your university.

Related Posts

Rachel Aaron’s post ‘How I went from writing 2000 words to 10,000 words a day

“How to write 1000 words a day and not go bat shit crazy”

Video testimonials on the ANU Youtube channel

Feeding the crazy

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - January 14, 2015 - 12:26pm

Let me tell you a story about a friend, let’s call him Todd.

Todd used to work in an academic ‘think tank’ run by a famous professor, let’s call him Kenny. Kenny always tasked Todd with a series of high stakes, last minute projects. Todd always delivered on these projects, even though it caused him great stress.

While Kenny was leaning on Todd heavily, he never fully invited Todd into his intellectual circle. By ‘intellectual circle’ I mean the people who collaborated with the think tank or came to its seminars.

Kenny’s colleagues knew Todd was involved in the think tank work, but they didn’t understand exactly what Todd’s role was. Todd learned pretty quickly that if he presumed to talk to these colleagues when Kenny wasn’t around, or send emails to them, he would get the silent treatment. Even urgent requests about pay would get no answer.

I can only guess this silent treatment was Kenny’s way of exerting control. By holding Todd at a distance, and refusing to publicly acknowledge Todd’s contributions, Kenny could preserve the fiction of being a solo genius and avoid the danger of Todd being poached by another colleague.

Todd, being a modest kind of person, assumed he was left out for reasons that had nothing to do with Kenny’s ego. Todd merely assumed he wasn’t good enough. This made Todd paranoid. Eventually every action Kenny took, especially the silences, would drive Todd into a frenzy of self doubt.

This dynamic is best demonstrated in the story Todd tells about the photocopier.

While waiting for a print job to come through Todd flicked idly through another document which Kenny had left on the photocopier’s tray. It was useful to the work Todd was doing. Todd respected the office rules about not interfering with other’s printouts, so he left it there, but questions and theories about Kenny’s reason for printing it raced through Todd’s mind. Was this a test of some kind? Todd invented increasingly elaborate ideas about what this ‘test’ was about and how he could pass it.

Come Monday Todd was a nervous wreck. On being summoned to Kenny’s office, Todd felt an intense sense of dread. He nearly fainted with relief when the professor merely handed him the document, saying: “sorry – I forgot to give that to you last week”. Todd realised he’d spent three days feeding his own crazy for absolutely no reason. Suffice to say, in the interest of his own mental health Todd didn’t stay in that job much longer.

Silence is the most potent form of communication. Silence is particularly potent when there is an imbalance of power – stated or not.

Think about the last time you waited for your new love interest to call. Mercifully this is about 17 years ago for me, but I still remember the feeling of watching the phone and willing it to ring. After a couple of days I would come to the conclusion that I was totally unlovable and would be alone forever. Then they would call and act like nothing had happened because, indeed, nothing had happened! The worries were all in my own head. I fed my own crazy because I had temporarily accorded the man in question power over my emotional state.

Silence in the workplace can have a similar dynamic – affecting one person far more than another. This is because silence between two people can become a void that is quickly filled with all kinds of hopes, desires and theories. Silence on its own doesn’t necessarily let in the crazy, but silence from a powerful person can open the door to crazy like almost nothing else.

Why am I talking at such length about silence? Well, the most common complaint I have from students is lack of feedback from their supervisors. Most supervisors, myself included, need at least a month to give considered feedback on a 10,000 word chapter – sometimes longer. But I often talk to students who are working themselves into a froth of anxiety after only a week.

Most of the time, as the relationship develops, students grow more comfortable with silences, but supervisors need to be aware that they are always in a power hierarchy. Actions, even innocent ones, can be misinterpreted in ways the supervisor may be completely unaware of.

What do you think? Has there been a time when silence from another person has led you into a frenzy of self doubt? What happened and how did you deal with it?

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Where Have All the Ph.D.’s Gone?

Why the Council of Graduate Schools is taking on the challenge of studying job outcomes for doctoral students.

Vital Questions About Tracking Placement Data

This past year, I worked with the American Historical Association on its placement study. We were thrilled at the detail and depth we achieved using publicly available data to track 2,500 history Ph.D.’s who graduated between 1998-2009.

I am a great proponent of comprehensive placement studies because they can help shatter the myth that a tenure-track job is the only successful outcome of a Ph.D. Like many graduate students and Ph.D.’s, I, too, would like to see program-specific placement data.  If we are to reform graduate education, we should do so knowing the outcome of the degrees people already earn. Placement studies can provide the sort of concrete data we need to show the important contribution made to our society by humanists, social scientists, and scientists.

And so, I was excited to learn that the Council of Graduate Schools will undertake a best-practice study of how graduate schools track placement data. Organizations like CGS have a critical role to play in pushing for the collection and publication of accurate, detailed placement data. The council can set standards and guidelines so that placement data can be compared between universities and departments nationwide.

Over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to talk about my research on placement rates with several deans, directors of graduate career services, and faculty members who are eager to conduct their own studies. From those conversations, I learned about the many challenges that graduate deans face when they begin to tackle the problem of collecting placement data. Figuring out how to collect accurate data and how to pay for such large-scale studies are but two concerns. Other challenges in data collection arise from bureaucratic inefficiencies at their home institutions that transcend the graduate schools.

At most universities, data about alumni are gathered by different offices—alumni services, individual departments, fund raising—but seldom shared. Before deans begin to collect additional data, they need to know what the university has collected already. That requires buy-in from other top administrators. How do graduate deans encourage alumni services and development to share their alumni database? And once the deans have collected data on the placement rates of Ph.D.’s, where do they store the information, and who updates it? It hardly seems ideal to have placement data stored in an Excel spreadsheet file on Dropbox.

Several deans I spoke with felt that, in conjunction with placement studies, they would need to develop an IT database on a university network so that various groups of people could have access to the information and update it. That requires much more time, a much larger budget, and cooperation with other divisions in the university that may have other priorities.

CGS should make that a central part of its inquiry: Who are the stakeholders at the university—beyond the graduate school and individual academic departments—who need to be won over? What strategies have deans employed to share alumni data with other divisions? Is data sharing across the institution even feasible, and if so, how do we make it a reality?

Most institutions, with limited resources, will need the help and support of faculty members to do a better job of collecting placement data and alumni contact information for their individual departments. In an era of cutbacks and at a time when humanities and social-science departments are being eliminated, some faculty members view the attempt to track placement data as a hostile move by graduate-school administrators. Professors wonder: What are the goals of the graduate school in collecting this data?

Unless administrators across the university believe that there are many viable and valuable career outcomes for Ph.D.’s beyond the professoriate, and unless that message is clearly communicated to academic departments, faculty members won’t want to participate in these placement studies or make their data public.

An equally critical question: What are the attitudes of other senior administrators at the institution toward career options for Ph.D.’s? Those of us who are pushing for this placement data, with the anticipation that it will showcase the value of a graduate degree, would be outraged if these studies were used by campus officials (provosts, presidents, board of trustees) or state legislatures to gut liberal-arts programs and reduce money for graduate education in favor of, say, the business school.

Inevitably, institutional placement studies will show that a smaller number of Ph.D. graduates are in tenure-track positions than faculty or administrators expect. How do deans ensure that placement studies will be used to improve, instead of jettison, graduate education at their institution? We know the benefits of placement data, done correctly and accurately, but we should also be aware of, document, and strategize for, the potential negative fallout.

L. Maren Wood earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the founder and lead researcher of Lilli Research Group, a company that provides research consulting services for organizations and career coaching for Ph.D. job seekers.  She lives in Denver, Colo.  

3 Things I’ve Learned About Ph.D. Students and Placement

I’ve written about the ins and outs (and quirks) of the academic workplace for The Chronicle for the last five years. So there are some things about finding employment after graduate school that I just know to be true. Most people on the academic job market think landing a tenure-track position is a crapshoot. Many advisers can’t help their students find work outside of academe. And accurate information on Ph.D. placement is hard to come by.

But while doing the reporting for an article about how colleges should—but often don’t—collect Ph.D-placement data, I learned three critical things about graduate students and data on their job placement. Thanks to two dozen conversations I had with current and former sociology Ph.D. students and professors at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, I now know that:

1. There are lots of ways to collect placement data. Some institutions count only tenure-track or visiting-professor positions. At some places, nonacademic employment doesn’t make the cut. Others debate whether it’s best to track placement two or three years after graduation, in hopes that former students will have settled into a “real” job by then. The truth—that an adjunct position is what awaits many new graduates, in the humanities in particular—is apparently too much to put on display. At the end of the day, not all placement data are created equal.

2. Many prospective students don’t even ask about a department’s placement data. This baffled me at first, since I’ve written so much about the tough academic job market. Why wouldn’t students do something as simple as asking questions about where graduates end up working and how long it takes them to get jobs? But then student after student at CUNY told me how they had been more focused on getting into a program in New York City, where they wanted to live. They had also been lured by certain professors and, of course, the right financial package. Yet once the students were admitted, placement information typically still wasn’t on their radar—until a job search loomed. As Zoe Meleo-Erwin, a recent Ph.D. graduate in sociology from the Graduate Center, put it: “There are so many things that are more pressing at the moment. You have to keep your focus on all the mini-hurdles.”

3. For some students, knowing about a program’s spotty placement record wouldn’t make them think twice about enrolling. That’s because it’s human nature for a person to believe that he will be the one who gets a tenure-track job right away at a great college, in a great city, and at great pay. One former sociology Ph.D. at the Graduate Center said that, while applying to graduate schools, she “had this narrative in my mind that I would go to school for seven years and then there would be a job as a professor on the other end for me.” She held a one-year visiting-professor position at a college in New York State before getting hired as a tenure-track professor at a public institution in New England. Still, she said, “I wish somebody had told me the reality. But I don’t know that it would have made any difference to me.”

It’s easy to make the case that the road from Ph.D. program to employment has many of the same pitfalls today as it did 20 or more years ago. But Dean B. Savage, who has collected placement data on nearly 500 sociology Ph.D.’s at the Graduate Center, hopes that soon more colleges will follow his lead, to make the journey easier for students.

Said Mr. Savage, a professor of sociology at Queens College: “The time has come for programs to do this.”

The Ph.D.-Industry Gap

Imagine you’re a brand-new Porsche in 2011. You’re sitting in a dealership, being test-driven by many enamored consumers but never purchased. Later you hear that the 2011 Toyota Camry outsold the Lexus 1.5 to 1, the Cadillac 2 to 1, and the Porsche 10 to 1. You ask yourself: Was it worth being an impressive, expensive car, if no one ever buys you?

That ironic situation is very real for many Ph.D.’s. I faced it myself after getting my master’s and doctorate in computer science from Stanford University, where I built software that revolutionized the study of human movement, became an early expert and core developer of software featured in Scientific American, and was one of four Ph.D.’s chosen from Stanford’s engineering school for a research award.

Having learned after numerous discussions with professors that an academic career wasn’t realistic for my area of focus, I turned my attention to industry. Stanford’s tech-oriented departments drill into their students the idea that they will have no trouble getting a job in industry: The average Ph.D. student gets three job offers.

So I absorbed career advice. I did informational interviews. I received help and guidance from professors, who emphatically reassured me that I could easily get an industry job. I had my résumés submitted and vouched for by employees working in many of the companies where I applied. I prepared hard for interviews. Then the hard truth crashed down on me.

Despite having programmed computers since age 8, I was rejected from about 20 programming jobs. Despite being intimately involved in the management, marketing, user feedback, and design of a widely used software package supported by the National Institutes of Health, and endorsed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, I was unable to land a product-management job. Despite having processed large amounts of data using optimization, statistics, and control theory, my interviews for data-science jobs didn’t pan out either.

I reached out for advice. No one could pinpoint anything I was doing wrong. Professors and industry veterans inferred I must be saying something really crazy to destroy myself in 30-plus interviews: There was “no way” a person with my credentials could be denied so many jobs. However, I had said nothing crazy. My interviews had largely gone smoothly. And I did eventually land a job closely related to my Ph.D. But the opportunity didn’t arise until a year after finishing my doctorate. Before that lucky break, my accomplishments and efforts weren’t paying off.


As a scientist, I had already been gathering data about that question. Each time I was rejected from a job, I asked the companies for reasons. They were often vague, but two patterns emerged: (1) Companies hesitated to hire a Ph.D. with no industry experience (no big surprise) even if they had selected you for an interview and you did well (surprise!). And (2) my Ph.D. background, while impressive, just didn’t fit the profile of a data scientist (whose background is usually in machine learning or statistics), a product manager (Ph.D.’s couldn’t even apply for Google’s Associate Product Manager Program until recently), or a programmer (my experience writing code at a university, even on a product with 47,000 unique downloads, didn’t count as coding “experience”).

It was like being a chameleon and trying to get jobs where you had to be red, blue, or black. Yes, you’re capable of becoming any of those colors, but companies would rather hire animals that already were those specific colors. My unusual Ph.D.—in contrast to my professors’ beliefs—severely limited my career options in industry, despite my software background and my Stanford computer-science degrees (which are widely considered synonymous with wild success in Silicon Valley’s tech scene).

I eventually realized that, like many Ph.D.’s in many other fields, I had fallen into the Ph.D.-industry gap—i.e., the gap between highly specialized Ph.D. training and corporate-world expectations of hiring candidates who are industry friendly. Even in “lucrative” fields like computer science, job postings that say things like “Ph.D. or dropped out of Ph.D. a plus” show just how wide that gap really is.

So we have today’s employment climate. At one end, companies hire whoever can get the job done, like consumers buying reliable, affordable sedans. At the other end, universities, including deeply industry-savvy ones like Stanford, pump out Ph.D.’s who, like luxury cars, are too specialized and expensive for most employers.

I don’t believe that “top” graduates are entitled to jobs, or that going to a “top” university makes you “better” than anyone else, or that I “deserved” an easier job search. However, my story vividly shows that even the powerful “Stanford computer science” label can fail to overcome the industry skepticism of hiring a Ph.D. whose experience seems too academic and not industry friendly enough.

Awareness of that industry perception is alarmingly low: Even the world’s most respected, business-savvy professors can misjudge companies’ valuations of the doctoral degrees they so thoughtfully hand out. We need to talk about that publicly. When taxpayer dollars pay to produce large numbers of Ph.D.’s, only to have them struggle to contribute to the economy, society as a whole loses.

Chand John is a software engineer, entrepreneur, and biomechanist. He will be writing occasionally for the Ph.D. Placement Project blog on nonacademic careers for Ph.D.’s, and steps they can take to adjust to the industry job market and workplace.

What Informational Interviews Can Do for You

Ph.D.’s in the early stages of a career transition out of academe express frustration at how difficult it can be to find a nonacademic job. They don’t know what else they can do that will be interesting or where to look for job ads. They spend hours crafting résumés and job letters, send them out, and then never hear anything back. “What am I doing wrong?,” they ask.

My advice: Begin your career transition by setting up informational interviews. For most Ph.D.’s, that is news to them. What is an informational interview? It is pretty much what it sounds like: an opportunity for you, the job seeker, to learn about someone else’s job, organization, or company. It is not—and this is critical—an opportunity for you to ask for a job.

Informational interviews will introduce you, as a Ph.D. job seeker, to career paths you’ve never considered. As people who have been inside academe for upwards of a decade, we often have a limited understanding of the work force. Many of us chose academe because it promised an escape from the perceived dullness of the business world. As such, we have pretty limited imaginations when it comes to nonacademic careers.

Through these interviews, you will build a network of people who can help you land your first job. Most employers prefer to hire people they know or those who were referred by a trusted source. Networking will connect you to people who can recommend you for opportunities. Your new contacts can also give good advice on how to enter your new field: What experience should you acquire while you’re searching for a job? How can you tweak your résumé?

Ph.D.’s are simultaneously overqualified and underexperienced, and, on paper, may not look like a good fit for an entry-level or midlevel position. But when you meet, face to face, with people in an informational interview, you can showcase your talent and highlight your abilities. It may take 20 interviews, but you’ll eventually talk to someone who knows of an opportunity and can put in a good word.

How do you set up informational interviews? One key way is through alumni networks. Your Ph.D. department may not keep accurate lists of alumni (or share that information with students), but you can find them yourself. I obtained a list of recent Ph.D.’s in my department through an alumni database and tracked people through LinkedIn and company Web sites.

Conduct research on organizations and companies in your area, and contact people who work there. In seeking an informational interview, make sure you phrase your e-mail as an opportunity for you to learn, and not as a request for employment. Informational interviews are common, and most people will agree to meet with you.

You are probably already connected to people who can help you. Write a short e-mail that describes your education and background, and the type of work or opportunities you wish to explore, and send it to everyone you know. Someone will know someone who works somewhere who will agree to speak with you.

Within a few months, you will build a network, narrow your job search to a specific industry or field, and (with luck) land a starting position. So save yourself the frustration of applying for jobs online and start speaking directly to people. That is how you’ll get your foot in the door.

L. Maren Wood earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the founder and lead researcher of Lilli Research Group, a small education-consulting firm in the Washington, D.C., metro area. She will be blogging regularly for the Ph.D. Placement Project about nonacademic career issues for Ph.D.’s.

‘The Afternoon I Decided to Leave Academe’–and What Happened Next

Many Ph.D.’s who write about leaving academe knew it was not for them. I envy those people. I enjoyed being an academic, and I loved teaching. As a kid growing up, all I wanted to be was a teacher, and when I entered university, my career goal shifted to being a professor. When I decided to end my quest for a tenure-track job, I told a friend that, some day, I hoped I would enjoy whatever I ended up doing as much as I enjoyed teaching and being a historian.

I will never forget the afternoon I decided to leave academe. I had just learned that I was second in line for a visiting assistant professorship, with a three-year contract and a 3-3 teaching load. We were well into the summer, and this was my last hope of a job for the following year. The pay was less than $40,000 a year; the hiring committee admitted to me that the salary was probably not enough to cover living expenses in the area.

That afternoon I hit the brick wall. I had spent three years on the academic job market and felt further away than ever from my goal. Was I to work yet another year as an adjunct, scraping by, with no promise that the next year would be any better than the previous three?

I phoned my good friend who was facing the same reality. His dream was to be a professor, but, like me, he could not land a job. We had told each other the same piece of advice over and over again: It’s not you; it’s the system. The system is broken. You are not a failure; the system failed you. I told him that day, “I’m done, I can’t do this anymore.” He responded, “I don’t blame you.” The following year, he also left academe.

I cried at the end of the phone call and cried a lot more in the following months. I was angry—at myself, at the system, at the administrators who were cutting tenure-track jobs, at those who’d caused the 2008 economic crash. I kept looking at job boards, trying to find a reason my decision to leave was wrong. I spent days depressed, watching crap TV and drinking cheap wine.

Finally, when I started having success as a research consultant, I turned a corner. No, my consulting career is not the same as being an academic, but I have incorporated into my new profession things I enjoyed about academe: research and writing, leading workshops, and giving presentations. I still feel sad when I look at my history books, or when friends are creating their syllabi for the coming semester. But, over all, I enjoy my new life. People treat me with respect, they value my contributions, and my research is having an immediate impact.

Over the past few years, I have met many Ph.D.’s who are excellent teachers with exciting scholarship and impressive CVs. They, too, can’t find academic jobs. They, too, are looking for a way to move forward professionally, where they can make a living and have their contributions valued. Many, like me, have spent months consumed by grief over the loss of their dreams and fighting a sense of failure. But, as people who earned Ph.D.’s, they are hard-working and too ambitious to stay in a broken system. And they all eventually found new professions that bring them satisfaction.

L. Maren Wood earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the founder and lead researcher of Lilli Research Group, a small education-consulting firm in the Washington, D.C., metro area. She will be blogging regularly for the Ph.D. Placement Project about nonacademic career issues for Ph.D.’s.

Open-Mindedness and the Ph.D. Placement Problem

Alexandra Lord

So far on this blog we’ve been explaining how The Chronicle is going about the challenge of collecting data to achieve the goals of the Ph.D. Placement Project. We’re now opening up the blog to outside voices, to help illustrate the situation faced by many new Ph.D.’s, and in so doing to show what we’re trying to accomplish with the project. The following guest post is by Alexandra Lord, a historian who blogs, among other things, about nonacademic jobs for Ph.D. recipients.

When I began thinking about writing about jobs for the Ph.D. Placement Project blog, I felt a sense of panic. I was uncertain not about what I would say but about the form in which I would say it. As I struggled with this over several days, I realized that I was experiencing a creeping sense of déjà vu. It all reminded me of when I began my first nonacademic job search.

Although I had not been happy in academe, it had the lure of safety and familiarity. Academe offers one of the most clearly defined and straightforward career trajectories possible: teaching assistant, lecturer, assistant professor, associate professor, full professor. While people occasionally skip a few steps, every job applicant knows the order of those steps and the actions one should take to move on to the next step. The academic job market may be horrific and impossible, but at least you know what you are supposed to do.

When I left academe, I was terrified by the lack of certainty. I hunted for possible role models and was desperate for instructions that would tell me exactly what I needed to do and what I should aspire to do. In some ways, that hunt for clear instructions was not a bad thing. Nonacademic job searches differ from academic job searches in many fundamental and even dramatic ways, and I clearly needed to learn how to apply for nonacademic jobs.

However, I discovered, and am still in the process of discovering, the need to be comfortable with uncertainty. Leaving academe means that a career path will present multiple forks in the road. While that uncertainty can be quite terrifying, it can also be incredibly liberating in the long run. Best of all, it has forced me to be incredibly open-minded—always a good thing when conducting a job search.

In the short term, however, the uncertainty can be overwhelming. With no clear end and a seeming wealth of possible jobs, where do you begin? How do you know what you are qualified to do? Does a Ph.D. in a field such as English or history actually provide you with skills nonacademic employers will value? And if so, how do you market yourself and those skills? What is the “right” job for a nonacademic Ph.D.?

And, most important, just when will you get the job that will enable you to begin paying your rent?

For most of us, academics who have excelled at following the rules, the fact that there are no absolute answers to those questions can be quite terrifying. But being an academic actually has benefits when it comes to dealing with uncertainty. As researchers, most of us have a high comfort level with asking open-ended questions and conducting research that enables us to develop the best answers to those questions.

When viewed as a research problem, a nonacademic job search can and does become both familiar and feasible.

Alexandra M. Lord is a historian with the federal government. In her spare time she runs Beyond Academe, a free Web site that helps historians find work outside the academy, and The Ultimate History Project, an online Web journal written by professional historians and aimed at a general audience.

What Associations Have to Say

We’ve been reaching out to various disciplinary organizations to get a better sense of what information on Ph.D. placement is already being collected. Given the reach and resources of those associations, we hoped they might make good starting places in gathering data. We started with a list of about 50 organizations, and so far we’ve received responses from about 30.

It turns out that some, such as the American Historical Association, are already deep into their own efforts to get comprehensive data on the employment prospects of Ph.D.’s. Several groups are doing annual or biennial surveys, and a few are asking questions related to Ph.D. placement, like the American Psychological Association’s biennial Doctorate Employment Survey. (The 2009 results can be found here.) A few survey their members or departments but don’t ask questions about placement.

Of the groups that don’t survey at all, several have said they want information on their graduates’ trajectories but aren’t sure how to start that research. Often those groups have expressed interest in piggybacking on The Chronicle’s efforts, in whatever form they take.

Finally, a handful of groups have said they don’t believe it’s their responsibility to gather or to publish placement data, or don’t think it’s important.

We learned a few things from those conversations:

  • A majority of associations are interested in being involved. They want to know what happens to graduates in their field.
  • While many groups aren’t in direct contact with graduate departments, their membership includes a number of professors who serve as advisers to doctoral students, as well as the doctoral students themselves. One option might be to use those direct membership channels to reach out to the individuals who are seeing the challenges of the job search up close.
  • Associations are concerned about students’ privacy. We’re taking those concerns seriously: Whatever form the project takes, we’ll respect individuals’ information.
  • Disciplinary groups are less likely to keep track of graduates who have left academe to work in industry, government, or nonacademic nonprofit organizations, even if those were the desired careers for large percentages of their graduates. Gathering data on those graduates may require different research techniques. Right now, we’re imagining a database that pulls information from several sources, in order to capture Ph.D.’s at multiple phases of the employment process.

We want to follow up on the interest and willingness to participate that we’ve encountered from many disciplinary organizations. We’re working on a one-page description of the Ph.D. Placement Project that can be distributed to a wide range of disciplinary organizations, and through them to the graduate departments, advisers, and students they’re already in contact with.

If you work for an organization that has data on placement or that would like to get involved with the project, e-mail us.

Whatever form the project takes, we’ll respect individual’s information.”




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We’re Moving on 2 Fronts

The responses to our first job-placement survey have been overwhelming and passionate. Thanks to the more than 2,000 of you who gave us so many thoughtful responses, either through the survey or to our inboxes. You’ve given us a huge head start. Now that we’re entering the second stage of the project, we’ve closed the survey. (If you didn’t get a chance to share your thoughts, please contribute in the comments below, or send us a note.)

As we comb through the information we’ve collected so far, we are seeing that most of the challenges fit into two major categories:

The first is the data itself. Records may be kept by colleges, departments, advisers, or associations, but we have no reason to believe that any given sources are comprehensive, or that their variables line up with data gathered by others. Then there are the records kept in the minds of graduates themselves, a significant number of whom disappear entirely, and will require individualized searching to find.

The second problem is transparency. No matter how diligently data have been captured, few organizations have made the statistics public. (There are a handful of counterexamples, of course: See a roundup here.) The result is that graduate-school applicants have almost no way to compare multiple departments’ placement outcomes, much less compare those outcomes with their desired careers.

On Wednesday we asked readers of our e-mail list whether some form of directory that compared the availability of data—not necessarily job-placement rates themselves—would be useful, and 87 percent of the respondents answered with a fervent “Yes!” (You can still respond to that question, by the way.)

So it seems obvious that our project will have to proceed on two parallel fronts. The first is a data-collection effort, either with a comprehensive database or through targeted, careful sampling. The second is an investigation of public sharing: If information already exists, we need to develop ways to make it accessible and searchable.

To those ends, we’re compiling a list of the disciplinary associations and academic organizations that have data on job-placement rates. Some have already come forward to talk to us, but if you work for an association that has such data, please write to us at phdplacement@chronicle.com. Likewise, contact us if you’re in a department that keeps careful, long-term records of your graduates’ job status.

What do you think of those two angles? Please let us know in the comments.