Updates in Doctoral Ed

05/01/15 PHD comic: 'Amount of Time Spent Writing your Thesis'

PhD Comics - May 2, 2015 - 3:23am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Amount of Time Spent Writing your Thesis" - originally published 5/1/2015

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

Surviving a PhD disaster

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - April 29, 2015 - 5:00am

This post is written by Brian Flemming, a mathematician working as a Systems Engineer in Edinburgh.  He completed an Engineering Doctorate (EngD) as a mature student at Heriot Watt University in 2014 and is now appreciating the freedom to continue studying and spend time away on the hills, without the associated “PhD-guilt” of neglecting the books. In this post Brian tells us about a situation we all dread: discovering a mistake in his thesis after it had been submitted….

It was a sickening moment. I was staring at the computer monitor in disbelief. My jaw sagged open at the realisation I’d made a mistake in my thesis, which I’d just handed in for examination only the day before. And not a trivial mistake either: anyone with a working knowledge of the subject would have spotted it straightaway.

It was a pure Adams-esque moment, of the “…accidently chang[ing] down from fourth to first instead of third thus making your engine leap out of your bonnet in a rather ugly mess…” variety.

I’d been preparing a short presentation of background material for the viva when I decided to check on a mathematical equation in a company report to which my thesis was partly related. I’d chosen not to use this report as a reference to avoid any awkwardness over access to material not in the public domain. The equation concerned was the realisation of a physical definition I’d quoted in my thesis. I checked a few other references for corroboration. The uncomfortable truth was there in stark black and white: I’d misinterpreted the definition.

My initial reaction was of mild panic. Not that those working around me noticed anything different, but inside I was quietly dying. After all that hard work making sure the thesis was as perfect as possible, and now this. It was if a large black hole had opened up in front of me, and there was nothing to stop me being sucked in.

My first thought was to try and recall the thesis. There was still a week to go before the deadline for submission. There was conceivably just enough time to correct the draft and resubmit. On the other hand, I was due to start a long-awaited holiday abroad in the next few days, which would effectively scupper any attempt at resubmission.

Missing the deadline would mean an extra six months delay in completing the degree, which I was unwilling to contemplate. I was already fed up with whole process of writing the thesis and wanted to get it out of the way as soon as possible.

Sheepishly I wrote an email explaining the situation to one of my academic supervisors. His reply was reassuring. “Don’t worry”, he said, “it is only a draft. Any mistakes will be dealt with at the viva, and corrections can be done afterwards.” (Editor’s note: Australian students note: you probably don’t have this option)The pressure was off temporarily.

Even so, I didn’t fancy the idea of undergoing a viva without having an answer to a thesis I knew was flawed.

I looked at the damage again with a fresh perspective. With great relief, it transpired that I had implicitly been using the correct definition after all, so that my results were still nominally correct. My thesis was concerned with an alternative approach to the standard method. To save time, I’d simply ploughed on ahead with the analysis: the introductory description had been added in later, which is when and where the mistake had occurred. It could just be a simple matter of correcting the error and moving on; on the other hand, this would also be a good opportunity to improve the argument by making a stronger connection between the standard definition and my alternative analysis.

Time was still of the essence though, and it would mean working through the holiday I’d planned with my long-suffering better-half as a celebration for my finishing the thesis. The books would, after all, be following me to France.

We agreed a compromise whence I’d work on our rest days between sightseeing trips. The total sum of the changes were two chapters swapped round, a new introduction drafted, conclusions revised, and follow-on effects traced throughout the remaining text.

The laptop glowed red hot crunching new data. It had been hard work but I’d done it, and the end result was a much stronger and more convincing argument. The question still to be answered though was why the mistake had happened in the first place.

Because my project involved a wide-ranging mixture of techniques spanning physics and statistics, my two academic supervisors were from the separate schools of mathematics and physical sciences respectively. I had spent considerable amounts of time writing up summaries of essential theory to aid inter-disciplinary understanding, in which differences in notation had also to be overcome.

Crucially, neither supervisor was particularly expert in the field in which the mistake had occurred, so that I was effectively policing my own understanding of the subject. I could remember distinctly the occasion when I’d checked the meaning of that particular definition. I trusted I knew what it meant. Unfortunately, I’d assumed the wrong interpretation and pushed on with the mountain of other work still to be done, unaware of the inadvertent discrepancy between the introduction and the rest of the analysis.

The viva took place approximately three months after the original draft had been submitted, during which time I’d continued to refine the replacement sections. It was a full discussion of the thesis, including my proposed changes. Having worked hard to overcome the flawed earlier submission I felt far more confident in discussing the material than I might otherwise have done.   I passed: convincingly as it turned out. I’d demonstrated that I knew my stuff, and that is all I needed to do.

The moral of the story is that, no matter what the pressure, it pays to check and check and check yet again. Then check some more. In my case I’d let the pressure of work get to me instead of mentally setting aside the impending submission deadline, a tactic I’d found so effective in the past in maintaining a high standard of work. On the other hand, errors in execution are not necessarily fatal: the important point is your understanding of the subject matter, which includes knowing when you’ve made a mistake and what to do about it.

I should note, Brian had a viva to correct the record, Australian students will not have this opportunity. Have you had a near miss or PhD disaster? What did you do to fix it?

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04/22/15 PHD comic: 'How To Write An E-mail To Your Instructor Or Teaching Assistant'

PhD Comics - April 24, 2015 - 2:32am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "How To Write An E-mail To Your Instructor Or Teaching Assistant" - originally published 4/22/2015

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

Berkeley study finds high levels of depression among graduate students

Inside Higher Ed - News - April 22, 2015 - 5:00pm

A decade after a landmark study of graduate students at Berkeley, a new study finds many problems persist -- and many doctoral students are depressed.

Editorial Tags: Graduate students

The Big Chill

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - April 22, 2015 - 5:00am

Tolstoy could have been talking about research supervision when he said: ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way‘.

Supervising a research student involves relationship work. Relationship work can be difficult; when it goes wrong it goes REALLY wrong. But when it goes right, the supervisor/student relationship is the best kind of teaching and learning experience there is. I don’t talk about this positive side of research supervision very often, so I’m going to meditate on how a relationship with your supervisor can bring you joy by telling you yet another sad story (they don’t call me the Mistress of Misery for nothing!).

This story is about a student I know, let’s call him Chung (because not all the fake names I use should be Anglo-Saxon in origin). Chung worked well with his supervisor, in fact, the two quickly became close friends. Both shared a passion for climate science and drinking craft beers. Chung was new to town and his supervisor regularly invited him around for dinner with his wife and kids.

But what really made the relationship work was mutual respect.

While Chung’s supervisor was clearly the leader in the scientific project they were engaged in, Chung knew he wasn’t just another student. He was a valued and respected junior colleague. In the research education literature this is called something like ‘ideal student supervisor alignment’. In less pompous terms, the two had found a way to be friends despite the fact that one of them was in charge.

Chung went about doing his work in the lab with energy and enthusiasm. He is a friendly and outgoing kind of guy who, by his own admission, perhaps spends a bit too much time partying (it’s lucky Chung is super smart and can still make good progress on his research while hungover). Despite this active social life, Chung was not really plugged into the lab culture around him. Secrecy is a bit of a thing in science from what I understand – especially if the work is truly new and still embryonic. No one else was actively involved in Chung’s research, or really knew what he and his supervisor were doing together.

The potential of the research was exciting; they had already mapped out a plan for years of work together. It therefore came as a shock when Chung’s supervisor got brain cancer.

It was a bad cancer too. Chung told me they call this particular tumour ‘the widow maker’ because most people who get it die within 18 months. In Chung’s supervisor’s case it was quicker. While he was still relatively well, Chung’s supervisor went into hospital for a procedure to ease the pain. Unfortunately he got septicaemia and ended up in intensive care. Chung was able to see his supervisor once in the hospital. He told me the visit upset him; the person in the bed was not the person he knew. Chung’s supervisor recovered from this illness, but he was so weakened that all the doctors could do was make him comfortable and send him home. To die.

Chung tried to carry on the work alone, but the image of his dying supervisor haunted him. It was the beginning of a dark time. The work Chung was doing was so bound up with his supervisor’s life and personality that it was a constant reminder of the terrible suffering that Chung knew was happening. He found it harder and harder to focus and the project lost crucial momentum.

The situation was not helped by the fact that we live in a death denying Western culture. All the academics in the department were sympathetic and concerned about Chung’s welfare, but no-one offered to take him on, even temporarily.

Chung understood why: no one wanted to say aloud what everyone knew: chung’s supervisor was going to die. And he did, aged just 46.

While an email was circulated amongst the academic staff, no one in management thought to break the news of his death to his students as well. As a consequence Chung found out about his friend’s death through an email from an administrator asking him to clean out the supervisor’s office. A truly terrible way to hear about losing someone close.

Shortly afterward Chung hit rock bottom.

Everything ground to a halt. Going to work was a struggle. Chung spent hours at his desk doing essentially nothing, while berating himself for not getting a move on. His candidature time was ticking on and the sense of urgency turned into a weird kind of disconnected panic. It was at this point that a friend, who had grown concerned about Chung’s uncharacteristic behaviour, brought him to my office for a cup of tea.

We discussed what had happened and I suggested he visit the counselling centre who could help him deal with the feelings. It was at the counsellor’s office that Chung was able to cry for the first time. He cried for a whole hour while the counsellor sat with him and handed over tissues. On a second visit the counsellor helped him come up with a plan to extend his candidature and ease the anxiety.

Chung had himself diagnosed with depression in order to be eligable for this extension. Chung was not really depressed – he was just deeply sad, grieving for his friend, which is completely normal. It is a bizarre quirk of our system that a problem like this has to be medicalised. Ironically, shortly after being granted his medical leave, Chung broke his right elbow – but he was unable to claim more leave because three months is all you get.

I’m happy to report that, slowly, things began to get better for Chung.

He was given a new panel of supervisors, which was positive, but not without its challenges. No one else really understood the work that was being done and the new supervisors made suggestions which seemed to be tangents. Chung felt a sense of loyalty to his dead supervisor and initially resisted the changes, but he quickly realised this was not a productive way to carry on. He reminded himself that his supervisor was his friend too. His friend would want him to finish his PhD first and foremost. The changes ended up being a good thing and led the research in another exciting direction.

Chung told me he only really discovered how truly amazing his supervisor was after he climbed out of his grief cave and started working properly again. Academics all over the world mourned his supervisor’s death. It was weird seeing obituaries written that said nothing about their work together, but Chung was touched by the obvious sense of loss in the community.

While there is an amazing range of expertise at ANU, Chung needed to draw on his dead supervisor’s international network for help to finish his PhD. Academics from Japan, London, Netherlands and France contributed advice, equipment, samples and data. I guess this is the academic equivalent of bringing around a stew and putting it in the fridge of the bereaved; a tangible form of respect for the dead and help for those who live on.

My friend Dr Tseen Khoo says that ‘networking’ is often presented to research students in extremely simplistic ways and this story is a good demonstration of what gets missed when we think about networks instumentally – for what they can give us. Academic networks are surprisingly robust things that are held together, I believe, by a strange form of love.

Love for each other? Well, platonic love of course (most of the time!). Love for the work? Definitely. My friend Rachael Pitt calls it ‘the circle of niceness’ and we can really see it in operation in this story. Chung told me he felt a bit like an adopted child of his supervisor’s academic family – an orphan now, who needed help and nurturing.

Chung did other positive things. He kept in touch with his old supervisor’s actual family and still helps foster his supervisor’s young children’s interest in science. Chung said he knew he was getting better when participated in a fundraising walk against cancer and met a lot of people who were still in the grief cave. It was only then he realised he’d moved beyond sad into a better place. He still felt the loss of his friend like a missing tooth; but the pain had lessened and in its place was a gap he would just have to learn to live with.

This is a sad story, but it’s also, in a strange way, a lovely one. It speaks of the genuine attachment that academic work can produce between supervisors and their students. Only a few students (I hope) would have this experience, or will experience it in the future. If this is you, rest assured. It can get better. Seek help from your university. The systems aren’t perfect, but if Chung’s experience is anything to go by, there are people who will go out of their way to help you.

What about you? Have you ever lost a colleague or teacher who was also a friend? What helped you deal with grief and sadness?

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04/17/15 PHD comic: 'Teaching Pet Peeves, Part 1'

PhD Comics - April 18, 2015 - 3:00am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Teaching Pet Peeves, Part 1" - originally published 4/17/2015

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

Sink or Swim?

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - April 15, 2015 - 5:00am

This post is the joint effort of Victoria Graham and Michelle Redman-MacLaren, both of James Cook University.

Victoria is passionate about conservation biology and has dedicated the last four years studying just this. She loves to write and is currently completing an MPhil at James Cook University investigating the potential of a carbon incentive scheme for mitigating climate change and conserving forests in Southeast Asia. You can read about Victoria’s research here.

Michelle is an Australian social worker/public health researcher who has worked in rural, remote and international settings for over 20 years. Passionate about the Pacific, Michelle currently facilitates research capacity strengthening in PNG and Solomon Islands and is completing her PhD about HIV prevention with women in PNG. You can read about Michelle’s research here.

Anyone who has swum for exercise will know it can be grueling. We are talking about lap-swimming-in-a-pool for exercise here (not long, leisurely strokes in the warm Pacific Ocean for example). Both of us love to swim (well, ‘love’ might be a stretch for Michelle) and at the end of a recent #ShutupandWrite session, we talked about our respective progress with our swimming. During the discussion, we realised there are many parallels between swimming and writing a research thesis. So let’s jump in:

It is hard to get started and warm up, even with instructions and lanes to follow

When you first jump in the pool, there is a sense of both excitement and duty. You know a challenge lies ahead. The first few laps are the hardest as your body adjusts to being in the water. It is a struggle to regulate breathing as you adjust to the underwater-world. Swimming with limited breath can sometimes feel scary, but once you slow down and let yourself flow into the rhythm, you gradually unwind and take control. You recall the coach’s instructions and concentrate on the lane markers below – eyes pinned to floor. Focus, focus, focus, turn – and now onto the second lap.

Getting in the flow is pure joy

Like starting a research thesis, getting started is often the hardest part of the swim. The initial wobbliness is forgotten as you use your stroke to find rhythm. Perseverance is as essential to swimming laps as it is to writing a thesis. Gliding through the water without a worry in the world can be like the initial drafting of the thesis. Once you really discover what your research question is and better still, you think you know how to answer the question, writing can be pure pleasure. Maybe you will contribute something towards solving that biggest of environmental (or social) dilemmas of the 21st century.

Sometimes it hurts after a big session and you just need to rest

Usually after a big swim you feel exhausted. Goals have been set and attained. However, thinking about how challenging that swim was and how much you have yet to overcome is scary. Like in swimming, ‘thesis triumphs’ are short-lived as you realise this was only one day out of one thousand and ninety-five (365 x 3 years). The Imposter’s voice starts, “Maybe I should get out now while I can” and “What was I thinking taking this on?” Do not entertain said Imposter. Instead of swimming that extra lap (or writing for just one more hour), finish your session on a high and leave yourself wanting more. The next day your body will thank you. Remember, if you finish a session feeling defeated rather than exhilarated, it makes it that much harder to start-up again next time.

Sometimes there is no time to rest (and the coach won’t let you)

Rest in short breaks and rest in moderation. It is no good swimming flat out until you can’t swim anymore and then taking a long break. When you return to swimming after getting out of routine, it is harder to achieve your goals. Sometimes there are deadlines to be met “10 x 100 metres in 20 minutes”, and your coach is watching. Remember you approached your coach (or someone approached them on your behalf) because you knew you could achieve this goal with some support, so you had better listen to what they say.  In the beginning, the coach will explain the finer details – lift your arm higher out of the water more, pull your stroke right through…but as you improve and grow in confidence, you will need your coach less. This also holds for doing a research thesis- enjoy your supervisor’s interest in your progress (and the cheering as you earn it) because it will not last forever.

Swimmers around you may not be swimming at your pace – swim your own race

All swimmers need to swim at their own pace. If you start too slow, you feel left behind. But if you start too fast, you risk peaking too early. Swimming is less about intensity as it is about patience and perseverance. The first two laps always feel hard, not matter how fit you are. But get through them and you fall into a languid, fluid stroke. Just like swimmers, graduate researchers need to swim their own race. Sometimes you feel productive and awesome, other times you feel overcome. However, persevere, set your own goals and do not compare yourself to those around you. This is your race.

You need to sprint at the end – it’s the only way to make it on time

Most PhD students in the ‘final-lap’ of their thesis are sprinting. You know the research thesis is a marathon not a sprint, but like any good marathon swimmer, you know you need to sprint the final lap. You want to bring it home strong. The final lap is the best lap and you swim your best time on the home stretch. Once you reach your final lap, everything has crystalised. You have relaxed into your stroke, got your breathing pattern under control and you feel like you could keep going forever. In the final-lap’ of the a research thesis, you know what you are talking about and better still have the ability to express it up clearly. The end stretch needs to be focused for you to finish on a high.

So what have we learnt and what can we do differently:

Accountability is key – be it your peers, your family or friends. Writing goals are short-lived if you have no-one to be accountable to and worse still, no one to share your successes with (note the use of the plural here, because there will be many).

Perseverance is essential. You have probably heard it said a research thesis is 10% intelligence and 90% perseverance. Don’t force yourself into going too fast at the beginning; remember it is a marathon, not a sprint. Make sure you leave enough energy for your final lap. You will definitely want to sprint then!

Savour your energy. When you are feeling worn down after a big session, be kind to yourself. Rest and regain your strength. Remember; try not to finish each session feeling exhausted. Always, reserve a bit of energy for what’s around the corner.

Does our swimming metaphor resonate for you? Do you participate in a sport that has taught you something about writing a postgraduate thesis? Do you disagree? We would love to hear from you. Post your thoughts on twitter using the hash tag #sinkorswim

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04/13/15 PHD comic: 'Monday Morning'

PhD Comics - April 14, 2015 - 1:49am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Monday Morning" - originally published 4/13/2015

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

University leaders say masters reform is unworkable

University World News - April 11, 2015 - 1:40am
University leaders say the masters reforms designed to speed up graduation time could reduce the amount of time available to do the masters thesis by a third, to four months.

On April 18, 2013 ...

04/08/15 PHD comic: 'Acknowledgments'

PhD Comics - April 10, 2015 - 4:31pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Acknowledgments" - originally published 4/8/2015

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

Supervisor or superhero?

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - April 8, 2015 - 5:00am

At the end of March I attended the 2nd International Conference on Developments in Doctoral Education and Training at Oxford University (the program is online here if you are interested). I enjoyed catching up with colleagues in the ‘hallway track’ and hearing about new stuff happening in various universities. In particular I was impressed by the papers about how to better support supervisors to support you.

But many of my colleagues seemed disheartened about supervisor development work. I share in this despair. Despite our best efforts to make workshops and courses relevant and interesting, some supervisors avoid doing any professional development. Older supervisors can be particularly resistant, perhaps because they think they have nothing left to learn.

This attitude has always mystified me because I think one of the fun things about being an academic is that you never really master it. There is always something new to learn.

The truth of this really hit home for me in the last session I attended, unpromisingly titled ‘Benchmarking supervisory development’, by the respected Durham University academic Stan Taylor. Stan has carefully catalogued all the changes in doctoral education – increasing numbers of students, more diversity, different career destinations – and made some useful suggestions about how to rethink the way we do supervision.

I’m a great admirer of Stan’s work and was cheering him on until the very end, where he presented a checklist of things supervisors should be able to know and do. Stan made this checklist to evaluate whether his supervisor courses were effective. Supervisors were asked to respond how much they understood each point – from ‘not at all’, to ‘very confident’.

I reproduce this checklist in full, with apologies for the length (just skip to the end if you prefer):

Do you know and understand insitutional policies and procedures for:

  • recruitment and selection
  • health and safety
  • research ethics
  • intellectual property rights
  • roles and responsibilities of supervisors
  • roles and responsibilities of students
  • montoring progress
  • complaints and appeals
  • examination
  • quality assurance (code of practice

Are you aware of insitutional sources of support for students, including:

  • counselling
  • careers
  • visas and immigration
  • student union and societies
  • family support groups
  • ombudspersons

How confident are you that you understand the pedagogy of supervision, including:

  • supervisory styles
  • determining student needs
  • aligning styles and student needs
  • maintaining alignment during the project
  • supervising students in groups
  • cohort-building

Can you respond effectively to diversity? Including supervising:

  • international research students
  • non-traditional domestic students
  • part-time students
  • students studying at a distance
  • students from other disciplines

Can you play appropriate roles in supporting candidate career development, including:

  • academic careers
  • careers outside academia

Can you work effectively…

  • in supervisory teams
  • with supervisors from other disciplines
  • with non-academic supervisors

Can you support timely completion, including:

  • understanding the causes of delay
  • strategies to enhance completion
  • times and rates

I studied this list with a growing sense of dismay. As one of the people in my university tasked with helping supervisors, could I put my hand on my heart and swear I am accomplished at everything on that list?

Nope.

Before you judge me, bear in mind that I’ve studied doctoral education for nearly 10 years now. I know about many of things on that list in great, even obsessive, detail. I know at least something about the rest – in theory. But I’m not across all of it, particulary the administrative, intellectual property and other legal stuff. I seem to be always asking my students to chase up forms and guidelines so I can help them navigate through the various university processes like admission and milestone presentations (you almost deserve a PhD for that alone).

It looks simple as a set of dot points, but there’s just such a vast array of knowledge, skills and abilities packed in there. Let’s take just one of them: ‘strategies to enhance completion’. If I type ‘completion’ into my library I get 115 papers on that topic alone. Even I haven’t read all of them – and I’m a total research education nerd, not a busy chemistry professor.

In fact, I would bet good money that NONE of my colleagues, even the most experienced and awesome ones, could truly claim to embody that list. In the session I voiced these conerns and asked Stan if, maybe, we were asking too much of supervisors. If after 10 years of concerted effort I can’t tick everything off, how could I expect anyone else to?

He disagreed, arguing that doctoral supervision is the highest form of teaching and that we need to hold ourselves to high standards. While I agreed with the first point, I think I have to respectfully disagree on the second. ‘High standards’ does not have to mean ‘super human’.

I think we need to challenge the ‘supervisor as superhero’ idea and replace it with something more, well – human. But where can we look for these human-yet-awesome supervisor models?

Perhaps in unlikely places.

PhD student, Charlotte Pezaro at the University of Queensland reckons her supervisor is great because he is like Rupert Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s a brilliant analogy. I’m glad she’s too busy doing her thesis to write a post on it and graciously let me steal it. For those of you who haven’t watched all seven seasons of this fantastic TV show, like I have (more than once), Giles is a librarian, but secretly he is Buffy’s ‘Watcher’.

A Watcher is assigned to each Slayer to help her, well – kick demon ass. Giles does his Watcher duties in a particularly self effacing, careful way which many supervisors could learn from.

When Buffy encounterrs demon trouble at the local graveyard, Giles is at hand with a pile of books to help find the answer. Giles rarely knows exactly what book will do the trick, but he cuts down Buffy’s literature mountain by picking the sources he thinks will be most relevant. Not every problem can be solved by a book of course, so Giles is a dab hand with sword and is happy to serve as Buffy’s sparring partner to help her develop a full range of ass-kicking techniques.

When Buffy fails and doubts her abilities, Giles gives her feedback and advice. Often this feedback is positive and affirming, but not always. If Buffy has stuffed up, Giles will tell her exactly how and why it happened, but Giles does not criticise to demean or demoralise but to help Buffy grow. Even when Buffy resents Giles guidance (which she frequently does), she eventually takes it on board because she knows it comes from a place of love and understanding.

Giles always has Buffy’s back. This does not mean that he is always useful. Giles admits when he doesn’t know what to do next and is prepared to just sit with Buffy in the Valley of Shit – to keep her company and reassure her that she is not alone. Occassionally Giles himself needs rescuing and is appropriately grateful to Buffy when she saves his ass.

When Buffy gets her ass kicked by a demon, Giles is there with the tissues and bandages. He often feels frustrated that he can’t go out there and kick the demon’s ass himself, but he understands that this is Buffy’s fight.

So I want to be a supervisor like Rupert Giles. Warm, helpful, supportive – but falliable, vulnerable and sometimes in need of help myself. What about you? Who is your supervisor hero?

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04/01/15 PHD comic: 'Srsly, this happens.'

PhD Comics - April 5, 2015 - 7:01am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Srsly, this happens." - originally published 4/1/2015

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

Who should pay?

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - April 1, 2015 - 5:00am

All PhD students know that the student-supervisor relationship is fraught with potential pitfalls.

A recent letter I received highlights how important it is to establish clear rules between yourself and your supervisor regarding joint authorship of papers, especially when submitting a Thesis by Publication. The student was asking for advice for a friend and I really had no easy answers.

Instead I asked for permission to publish this letter so we can all think about, and learn, from what happened in this instance. I’ll be interested in what you think about this situation in the comments.

Dear Thesis Whisperer,

A fellow-student at my university has just submitted his Thesis by Publication, containing three papers all co-authored with his supervisory team.  Or were they?

This particular student is an international student who was studying on a scholarship.  His scholarship was awarded for three years, and he was able to get a six month extension.  At the end of 3.5 years the funding ran out, so he took on as much teaching as possible and worked hard to finalise these very good papers and submit them, and to include the updated versions in his PhD which he subsequently submitted within the required four years.

He worked for four additional months and then was presented with an university invoice for thousands of dollars of “supervisory fees”.  As an international student he was not entitled to continue studying for free after his 3.5 year scholarship ran out, and four months of supervisory fees added up to a lot of money.

His question is “who should pay?”  

Technically he is responsible for those supervisory fees.  The reality is that he was working for that extra four months producing papers from which his supervisors will benefit.  They were most definitely NOT working on those papers. In addition, some months earlier, they had benefited from his work by attending a conference in a glamorous European destination at no cost to themselves.

The student is trying to pluck up the courage to confront his supervisors and negotiate that they pay his “supervisory fees” out of their research budgets.  He is concerned that this may damage his relationship with the supervisors who are needed as referees for job applications.  He has also received one of his PhD papers back from a journal with a “conditional acceptance”, but requiring quite a lot of work.

He asks “how will I pay my rent if I keep updating these papers for free?”

He is teaching part-time at the university as an adjunct but has no research budget.  The university does not require the papers to be published in order for him to pass his PhD.  Updating and resubmitting the paper will enhance his reputation yes, but it will also enhance the reputation of the supervisors who are listed as co-authors.  Should he stand his ground and say that he will only continue working with them if he receives some sort of remuneration?

Should students continue working on papers after they submit if the university won’t give them a job?

What do you think?

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03/25/15 PHD comic: 'Class communication'

PhD Comics - March 29, 2015 - 1:29am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Class communication" - originally published 3/25/2015

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University colleges to increase staff PhDs tenfold

University World News - March 28, 2015 - 12:42am
Danish university colleges are developing a plan to raise the proportion of staff having a PhD tenfold, from 5% to 50%, by 2022.

The colleges - which are comparable to universities of applied s ...

This is not just a post about Instagram

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

Early this year the Australian Prime Minister, who was under a bit of pressure about a questionable decision at the time, dismissed social media as ‘electronic graffiti’. People in my networks were outraged and, of course, took to social media to express their outrage. For a few days feelings were high, which resulted in a creative deluge of hashtags and memes. All good fun.

The general feeling was that the Prime Minister was an out of touch loser who would find out just how far behind public opinion he was, come election day. I wondered if some enterprising soul might make bumper stickers proclaiming “I use social media and I vote”.

Just to be clear, I would totally buy one of these bumper stickers, should they become available, but the Prime minister’s comment left me more confused than angry. I couldn’t work out if the statement was a throw away line, or an inadvertently astute commentary on the role of social media in society today. I say ‘inadvertently’ because I don’t really credit many politicians with indulging in deep thinking.

Some people think of graffiti as wanton property discussion. If you have ever had to clean it off your front fence – repeatedly – then you might think this view is warranted. However, there’s a persuasive argument to be made that graffiti is a potent form of political protest, particularly for those who have no other voice. There’s certainly a growing understanding of graffiti as Art.

In other words: it’s complicated.

At risk of agreeing with our Prime Minister (there’s always a first time for everything I suppose) I think he might be on to something with the analogy between graffiti and social media. Both of them, by their very nature, resist clear cut definitions.

If you tune into the discourse, the hum of academic social life, you hear certain messages about social media. It’s talked about as a distraction, a way to kill your career dead and, at the same time, an absolutely necessary part of contemporary practice . As the person often tasked with teaching people to be ‘digital academics’ (whatever that really means) I know from first hand experience that there is a lot of confusion, angst and ambivalence in the academic community about social media.

I think the problem is that social media, like graffiti, is a form of self expression. There are a growing number of platforms out there through which you can use to express yourself. In fact, the sheer number is getting a bit daunting. So which ones do you choose to use and what should you do with them? This is a complicated question because, as I said, it depends on how you want to express yourself – and everyone is different.

There’s some evidence to suggest that people who find social interaction easy in real life will also find it easy online. I say this with love, but some academics are not exactly ‘easy’ with people… so, to make it easier, I often use White and Le Cournu’s concept of digital residents and digital visitors (thanks to Joyce Seitzinger for alerting me to this work). I ask people to think of the online space as an opportunity to build a house. What kind of house do you want? A shack by the beach or a luxury waterfront property?

The shack is what I call the ‘light touch enagement model’. The simple online shack would give you somewhere to put your CV, somewhere to put your publications and somewhere to help people find your CV and publications. What’s best to use will necessarily change as social media sites come and go, but here and now, in early 2015, I recommend you create a profile on the following sites:

  • Linkedin (don’t phone it in friends – the academic recruiters are looking there I promise you)
  • Academia.edu and/or researchgate. The jury is out, but I think academia.edu has more traction right now.
  • A page on your institutional site, if it’s available, so you can validate your affiliation. But don’t get comfortable! I notice that some universities delete the carefully built home pages of their academics who die or leave their institution, leaving us with no central repository of their work
  • Put all your publications in your library repository. This is a no-brainer – there’s a direct relation between doing this and citation rates.
  • Some kind of simple aggregator service, like Flavours Me, that puts up a ‘home page’ with links through to your other profiles.

If you’re more like me and you ENJOY mucking around on social media – or you want to experiment – add some more rooms! Some of these rooms will be like kitchens – fit for a purpose and relatively tidy. Others will be for play – like a cabana by the pool. My luxury waterfront mansion includes all of the services I mentioned above, plus:

  • Twitter
  • An outwardly facing Facebook fan page (a page that is connected to your account, but not part of your normal account)
  • Same thing on G+
  • Tumblr
  • Instagram
  • Pinterest
  • Mendeley / Zotero
  • The complete Google space (this could be a post on its own, so I wont go into detail other to say EVERYTHING THERE IS USEFUL)
  • Storify

How to present yourself to best advantage on each social media space is the next problem. What should you share? Who should you follow? Some people think it doesn’t matter much, but I disagree. How you decorate each ‘room’ in your house is important because it helps you decide what to do there, at the same time as telling others who you are.

This is identity work people! My favourite kind.

Let’s take Facebook as an example. Facebook is my loungeroom. I invite people in to see and comment on what is happening in my life, but I don’t show them the mess in my bathroom. A lot of complaining happens in the loungeroom, as well as showing of the holiday pictures.

Thus my criteria for friending someone is whether or not I would sit in my loungeroom with them and share my holiday snaps, thus I friend:

a) Family
b) People who I know and like in person
b) People I know I would like, should I ever meet them in person.

This last category is small because it takes more time. I’ll sometimes accept friendship requests, or extend them, because I’ve seen that person talking to other friends and laughed at what they have said, or I’ve talked to them on Twitter.

I do use Facebook as a way to access news too, so my Facebook fan page gives me a way to be a ‘news service’ in other people’s facebook feed, without putting pressure on them to come into my loungeroom. I’m not really interested in Google + or Linkedin, but I duplicate my news content there using Buffer, so I have a presence without having to actually be there (if that makes sense)

The building analogy sometimes needs a little creative thinking to be useful. I’m more relaxed about who I follow in Twitter because it’s more like the pub. I have conversations with people and follow them on the basis of that – but I am very careful about what I actually say. No one likes a messy drunk! Pinterest is clearly a kind of scrapbook, but I imagine it as a wall in the foyer of my house. I hang art there that tells people what kind of person I am, but not family photos. So making cool collections for other people to enjoy is my main activity.

Other social media platforms are more difficult to connect to a place, which brings me (finally) to Instagram. In some services you just must ‘dwell’ until the expressive potentials become clear. With Instagram this literally took years.

At first I downloaded the app and played with it. Instagram basically lets you muck around with images and post them to other sites. I could see the aesthetic appeal, but I couldn’t think of a use for it. For a couple of years it sat on my phone. I didn’t really use it, but couldn’t bring myself to delete it because, well – it was cool.

Friends who rarely make an appearance in Facebook and/or Twitter started telling me they were hanging out there, so I started just looking at everyday, to connect with them. I got very interested in the way they were presenting pieces of their lives, in particular the places they live and their hobbies. They were mindfully noting what was going on around them, but in playful and odd ways. I started to find that Instagram was relaxing and energising at the same time. I found myself there at odd times – on the couch on Sunday afternoons, or when I was alone on a bus or in an airport. Basically whenever I wasn’t particularly lonely, but open to company.

Finally it dawned on me. Instagram is Art*.

If it’s Art, then it’s like the verandah or my online house. It doesn’t have a purpose other than what it is: a nice place to be. It’s somewhere I can sit and just look out on the world, alone or in company. I can point out things from my balcony, but I don’t have to particularly engage with them or analyse anything. Now I know the purpose is not to have a particular purpose I am happy. I’ve relaxed about it and just strive to make my academic and home life into Art in Instagram.

It’s strangely enjoyable.

I’d be interested in what you think about this approach to social media strategy – is it helpful? Do you think of different rooms, or have another way to explain why you like some sites and not others? I’d be interested in hearing about it.

Oh and if you want to follow me on Instagram, you can find me here, but don’t expect me to be useful :-)

Related posts

An open letter to social media

Social media and your PhD

Why you should use Twitter

53 interesting ways to communicate your research

 Related links

White and Le Cournu’s concept of digital residents and digital visitors

People who find social interaction easy in real life will also find it easy online.

Tony Abbott’s questionable decision (!)

*I found out, by talking to people on Twitter as I wrote this, that my clever friend Dr Kylie Budge was on to the idea way before me – she’s got an open access paper about Instagram and art practice if you’re interested.


03/20/15 PHD comic: 'Carry on'

PhD Comics - March 21, 2015 - 12:21am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Carry on" - originally published 3/20/2015

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Four More Reasons People Quit the Ph.D.

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

This post is by Hillary Rettig, author The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer’s Block. Hillary lives with her partner, a physics professor at a midwest liberal arts college, and her two fabulous rescue dogs. She is a vegan, a free software/free culture advocate, a living kidney donor, and a former foster mom to four Sudanese refugee teenagers (“Lost Boys”), now all adult and living independently. Hilary coaches academics: check out her online classes, and telecoaching services. You can view more of her work on How to Finish My Thesis and Life Long Activist

After reading (and commenting on) Dr. Mewburn’s recent fantastic article on Why People Quit the Ph.D., I wanted to add four more reasons to her list. As a writing productivity teacher and coach, I frequently see these among graduate students who are stuck.

1) Prior Harsh Rejection

While rejection is endemic to work and life, not all rejections are the same. Some are harsh enough that they undermine you in ways that make it difficult to get future work done. If left unhealed, such harsh rejections can easily derail a thesis and career.

Some harsh rejections are obvious, but others may not be. A good rule of thumb is that if you can remember a rejection, and especially if the memory elicits feelings of guilt, shame, or anger, then it was probably harsh. Also, keep in mind that rejection:

(a) Comes in many more forms than most people realize, and includes things like callousness, capriciousness, disparagement, diminishment, bias, marginalization, hypercriticality, hypocriticality (neglect), and ad hominem attack. And,

(b) Can come from many more sources than most people realize, including not just your supervisor and other professional colleagues, but friends and family, or even a news story that disparages your work. And,

Blindsiding is a common amplifier of rejection harshness, because when you’re blindsided—for instance, denied a job, publication, or other opportunity that you were absolutely sure you were going to get—your defenses are down. (Moderate your expectations, people!)

And perfectionism, as usual, only makes things worse, since perfectionists not only set unreasonably high standards for success, they tend to overidentify with their work, and so can take rejection extra hard.

Harsh rejection impairs your productivity by making you terrified to show your work—and so you procrastinate as a way of avoiding that. (If you don’t finish, you can’t show!).

The solution is two-fold:

(a) Start showing your work, even if only a paragraph or sentence at a time. (E.g., “What do you think of this paragraph? I know it needs editing, but I’m pretty proud of the main point.” Or, “Do you have any suggestions for this paragraph? I can’t quite get it right.”) Be very selective in whom you choose to share with, especially initially: neither your supervisor nor family members may be the right choice. Most graduate students benefit from having a “writing buddy” or two to provide moral support, and gentle feedback and encouragement: such a person would be a great choice, and you can also tell her exactly what feedback would be helpful. (“I just want your overall thoughts on the piece—please don’t worry about the grammar.”)

(b) Defuse the underlying traumatic rejection through discussions with sympathetic friends and colleagues, journaling, or therapy. In some cases, you can address the person who rejected you directly, especially if you feel that they are not fundamentally mean or vindictive. (That’s the best reason to only seek to work with good, kind, generous people, and avoid the others regardless of how illustrious they are.) They may not have meant to hurt you, and may not even be aware they did. By having a non-blamey heartfelt conversation, you may get your healing plus affirm the relationship.

2) Challenging / Traumatic Field Work and Other Research

Sometimes graduate students whose field work or other research was emotionally challenging are reluctant to “revisit” it via writing. I’ve seen this in students in fields like anthropology or sociology, and also in historians researching topics like genocide. If the student has a personal connection to the topic—e.g., his grandparents were Holocaust survivors—or has bonded with his research subjects, this can make the situation even more fraught.

Sometimes just acknowledging the emotional challenge is enough to defuse it, especially if you’ve got a good support network. Journaling can also help you sort out your feelings. But sometimes you need professional help to deal with what might be actual trauma or which, along with being a mental health issue, can seriously degrade your productivity.

If you are wondering whether you should seek out a professional for this kind of issue, you should probably just go ahead and do so.

Ideally, academic departments would recognize that some types of research have the potential to create emotional difficulties for students, and do some work to prepare students and minimize the harm. But I’ve never seen one that did.

3) An Activist Component

Many thesis projects either intentionally or unintentionally challenge the status quo, and therefore can be considered activist as well as academic projects. When you add activism to scholarship, you add layers of intellectual, emotional, and strategic complexity. Intellectually and emotionally, your work could challenge not just you, but your committee members or others. Strategically, it could limit your career options.

It’s wonderful if you want to combine academics and activism, but do so knowingly, and with abundant support from other scholar/activists. In particular, you will have to figure out how to balance your activism with your career goals, especially if you’re hoping for a job at a conservative institution – which is not necessarily a sell-out, by the way, since we need radical viewpoints inside the system as well as outside it. It’s also not a sell-out to: (a) incorporate your radical views gradually into your work, so that your thesis might not actually be that radical; (b) collaborate with nonradicals; or (c) present a conventional / nonthreatening appearance that makes its easier for your more traditional colleagues to accept your more radical message. In fact, these moves are often brilliantly strategic.

For more on what an activist mission entails, see my book on sustainable activism, The Lifelong Activist; entire text available for free at http://www.lifelongactivist.com ).

4) Research Qualms

“Not enough.”
“Not the right kind.”
“Too narrow.”
“Too theoretical.”
“Not as interesting as I thought.”
“If only I could go back and…”

Many graduate students are dissatisfied with the results of their research, and that dissatisfaction, especially when coupled with regret, remorse, guilt, etc., can cause them to stall on their writing. Second-guessing your research is a pure waste of time, however; if your supervisor and committee think your research is adequate, you should accept their judgment and focus on your writing.

More generally, a major challenge in many fields, including academia, is learning to live with, and keep working past, your mistakes (Here’s a terrific video on that) It only makes sense that you’ll make some mistakes and misjudgments in what is probably your first big research project; and you definitely want to comprehend your weaknesses (and strengths, of course) as a scholar. When, however, your self-analysis crosses the line into harsh perfectionism—which typically leads to unproductive procrastination and dithering—you’re not doing yourself any favors.

So, keep your critical eye, and definitely create the list of things you would have done better “had you only known.” Then take those steps—on your next project.

Related links

Why do people quit the PhD?

Should you quit your PhD?


03/16/15 PHD comic: 'Who owns your data?'

PhD Comics - March 18, 2015 - 1:45am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Who owns your data?" - originally published 3/16/2015

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03/13/15 PHD comic: 'Sick Day'

PhD Comics - March 13, 2015 - 10:29pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Sick Day" - originally published 3/13/2015

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!