Updates in Doctoral Ed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slow Academia

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

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

The ethics of slow

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

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

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

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

Slow Academia as privilege

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

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

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

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

On the backs of others

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

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

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

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

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

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

All academia is privilege

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Slow academia

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04/27/18 PHD comic: 'Bliss'

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

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

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

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

Are the robots coming for our (research) jobs?

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

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

… or will it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please put Interpris in the cloud QSR!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A short video about setting up and using Interpris

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Coping strategies for full time workers turned PhD students

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be patient and embrace being challenged again

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

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

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

Don’t forget what works for you

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

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

Not everything needs to be new

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

Ignore social expectation and enjoy the journey

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

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

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

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5 time management strategies from part time PhD students

Five ways to soothe an anxious PhD student


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

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

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

How to make an index for your book or dissertation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step one: Develop some useful themes

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

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

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

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

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


Acronyms, value of                                         124 – 125

Arrogance                                                       50 – 55

‘Backstage work’                                            226, 236

Bookshelves                                                    306

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

Cultural Capital                                               46 – 47, 89 – 90, 245

Dinner Parties                                                 56, 60, 64

Competition                                                    260

Fashion                                                            85 – 90, 306

Gift economies                                                253 – 254

Hiring practices                                               62, 229 – 236

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

Migrants                                                         56 – 60

Salaries                                                           31, 222

‘service’                                                           101

The new normal                                              39, 229, 231

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

Academic journals, questionable practices of                  156 – 162

Academic hunger games                                                   13, 229

ADHD                                                                                67

Amabile, Tessa                                                                  46

Aaron, Rachael                                                                  198

Architecture as a profession                                             28, 218

Baby Boomers                                                                   283

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

Bullying                                                                             52, 54 – 55

Blogging and social media

The purpose of the Thesis Whisperer blog     9

Time implications of blogging                         12, 177

Starting blogging                                            22

Mark’s simple rules of blogging                     38

Safe Spaces?                                                   48, 267

Writing posts                                                  82, 263 – 264

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

As open access publishing                               154, 159, 220 – 222

Enjoyment                                                       256, 263

Mainstream media shit storms                      268 – 269

Social media shit storm                                  284 – 285


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

Step Three: throw out the themes

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

Index pages from “How to be an Academic”

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

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

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

Related posts

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

Buy “How to be an academic”

Enter the Glossators

Other ‘first draft’ posts from the Writing Trouble Series

The vagueness problem in academic writing

Academia is a passive agressive, middle class dinner party

Your thesis is the map, not the journey

04/04/18 PHD comic: 'Credit'

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

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

The tale of 23 Overdue Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related posts

Silent Sufferings

Feeding the crazy


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

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

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

Sins against the comma

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - March 28, 2018 - 4:00am

Do you struggle with commas? I certainly do. In my defence, the 70’s was not a great decade for grammar education. I was taught commas were ‘where you breathe’ in a sentence. Wrong, wrong mc Wrongtown! If you’re as confused as I am sometimes, Dr Janene Carey is here to help. Before taking up her current role as the journalist/editor of the Bellingen Shire Courier-Sun, Dr Janene Carey was a freelance writer and academic editor based in Armidale. Her website is www.janenecarey.com

Her website is http://www.janenecarey.com

While fiction writers have a special dispensation to scatter sentence fragments and comma splices throughout their ripping yarns, writers of academic prose are held to higher standards. Examiners of theses and reviewers of journal articles expect to see punctuation in the ‘right’ places; that is, correctly deployed according to the current conventions of formal writing.

Sins against the comma are legion, but I’m only going to discuss a few that I see frequently in my work as an academic editor. For a more comprehensive account of comma intricacies, check out  these  handy US and UK punctuation guides.

Academic writers are generally aware that they are not allowed to splice two sentences together with a comma; the union of two sentences (independent clauses) via a punctuation mark requires the presence of a semicolon:

The interviews were audio recorded, they took 1.5 hours each.

The interviews were audio recorded; they took 1.5 hours each.

It’s also perfectly acceptable and pleasing to transform the two into one by joining them with a comma plus a coordinating conjunction (FANBOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). The result is called a compound sentence:

The interviews were audio recorded, and they took 1.5 hours each.

The transgression of splitting the compound predicate becomes common as sentences increase in length. People who would easily recognise that no additional punctuation is needed in the sentence below about Anna’s dining habits may find themselves tempted to insert a comma in the structurally similar, albeit slightly longer, sentence beneath it:

Anna drinks tea and eats a biscuit.

Anna delicately sips a herbal tea, and nibbles on a ginger biscuit.

In each sentence, we have one subject (Anna) and a compound predicate featuring two verbs (drinks/eats) and (sips/nibbles). The unnecessary comma in the second sentence splits the compound predicate, creating a rift between Anna and her activities.

However, if we give Anna three or more things to do, commas between them are fine because that creates a list, and everybody knows commas are often used to separate items in a list! In the example below, the last comma is optional (it’s common in the US but generally omitted in the UK and Australia, except to prevent ambiguity):

Anna delicately sips a herbal tea, nibbles on a ginger biscuit, and burps surreptitiously.

Another option, if you are really keen to have a comma but don’t want Anna making offensive noises, is to repeat the subject, thereby creating what we saw in the third example – a compound sentence:

Anna delicately sips a herbal tea, and she nibbles on a ginger biscuit.

Here’s an even longer, more academic-looking sentence with the same sinful comma:

This qualitative study develops an in-depth understanding of the stresses experienced by home-based carers as they meet the complex needs of a terminally-ill family member, and explores the various strategies they deploy in order to maintain their physical, emotional and mental health.

Once again, there is a single subject (the study) and a compound predicate featuring two verbs (develops/explores). Once again, the comma inserted before ‘and’ is grammatically incorrect.

Options? You could simply omit the comma. Personally, I’d be inclined to make this two sentences by putting a full stop after member and starting the second sentence with: The study also explores …

Or, as in Anna’s case, you can repeat the subject and create two independent clauses joined by a comma and a conjunction (that virtuous compound sentence again):

This qualitative study develops an in-depth understanding of the stresses experienced by home-based carers as they meet the complex needs of a terminally-ill family member, and it explores the various strategies they deploy in order to maintain their physical, emotional and mental health.  

Here endeth the lesson. Now, dear readers and writers, go forth and sin no more!

Related posts

What font should I choose for my thesis?

Don’t let those ‘sticky words’ confuse your examiners

03/23/18 PHD comic: 'How you see your students'

PhD Comics - March 25, 2018 - 5:41am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "How you see your students" - originally published 3/23/2018

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

How to run a blog for 8 years and not go insane

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - March 21, 2018 - 4:00am

In June I will have been blogging for 8 years, which is a pretty decent run for an original content blog that aims to put out useful, high quality material 48 weeks a year. One of the key success factors in blogging is trust. If you publish roughly the same sort of post, at regular time intervals, people will trust you more because you are sending a signal you take the enterprise seriously. If people trust you, they are more likely to sign up and follow on social media – and share with their friends.

Many people underestimate how important being regular and predictable is to operating a ‘serious professional blog’. I’ve seen a lot of blogs come and go in the education space. I wonder if this is because people assume being a blogger just involves being creative. There is so much more to it than that. I’ve learned a lot about being regular and predictable by being a Qantas frequent flyer. I fly often, but my experience on Qantas is always more or less the same – if I notice the process, it has broken. They do this by making sure there are clear business processes and that everyone understands how they work.

Over the years I have developed business processes for managing a blog that work for me, drawing on a range of digital tools. I thought I would spend a bit of time explaining part of the process to you because I think it illuminates the problem of the academic writer – managing the endless academic writing pipeline. I got this idea from Pat Thompson, who has written about her (impressive) writing pipeline. Pat breaks down her writing tasks into: stuff she has to write (reporting on research projects), stuff she gets asked to write (such as book chapters), stuff related to supervision (writing with her students) and stuff she wants to write (projects which interest her). It’s a good set of categories that pretty much lines up with mine, but Pat leaves out blogging, describing it as “part of everyday activity, a bit like brushing your teeth”.

Unfortunately, I am not this kind of blogger.

In one of my favourite books of all time, “Chasing the Perfect: thoughts on modernist design”, Natalia Ilyin describes creative motivation as falling into two buckets: love or fear. While Pat operates from the love bucket, I definitely have my head stuck firmly in the fear bucket. Although I love writing blog posts, the only reason I have kept the whole operation going at such a high professional standard is from Fear of Embarrassing Myself and Fear of Letting People Down. Hence my blog ‘behind the scenes’ is run with as close to military precision as I can manage.

I would argue that managing a blog and managing a standard academic writing pipeline are essentially the same, which is why committing to maintaining a blog is excellent practice for an aspiring academic. The diary structure of blogging software makes the various stages of the standard academic writer’s pipeline problem much clearer. There will be some things in production, some things finished and waiting to be released and some things that are merely a twinkle in the writer’s eye.

The Thesis Whisperer has a community content driven model. In addition to the posts I write, others volunteer to author content that I edit and distribute. I am deeply grateful that many, many people have volunteered their time and effort to this purpose. The blog is richer because of the multitude of voices, but it does mean that behind the scenes is a lot of invisible work. I correspond with authors, edit posts, negotiate changes, choose images, mark up html and market them on my social media channels. The most annoying part of this process for me is setting up the publishing timeline (I am slightly number dyslexic, often swapping the last two digits in a string). I am, therefore, heavily reliant on my digital tools to manage the whole writing pipeline.

The three key tools are my phone, my electronic diary and Omnifocus. Before I go any further, yes – Omnifocus is a Mac only product (boo), but does have PC equivalents (try Trello or Asana). In this post I am going to explain how I manage my writing projects with Omni, but you should be able to apply the same general principles to any decent piece of project management software.

Capturing my ideas

My creative muse strikes at strange times: on airplanes, while driving, cooking or having a conversation with someone. I use a range of capture software, including Evernote, Apple Notepad and Pocket. I tried, for years, to have a system for this – because I love systems. However, what I have learned in the last eight years is that the system is less important than the fact that you WRITE THE IDEA DOWN SOMEWHERE – IMMEDIATELY.

Preferably record the idea digitally, but if you’re a journal writing type, snap a photo and send it to Evernote. Evernote has optical character recognition and can read your messy handwriting (I promise). Add as much detail as you can at the time and include a keyword which is distinctive. The keyword is critically important as it makes it easier to search for the idea later, but don’t rely on the keyword alone. Last year I made an infuriating note that just said “Flamingos!”. I swear it made sense at the time…

Lately I have just started asking Siri to take a note, which is as good as anything else. I end up with digital detritus everywhere, which offends my OCD tendencies, but ultimately if an idea is good it will keep burning inside me until it’s written. When the idea has come into focus, I add it to Omnifocus as an action, filed under the Project heading “Blogging” and the context “Considering/Ideas”. More on how Omni works in ‘managing the queue’, below.

While each of these is a technically an Omnifocus ‘project’, for me they are headings that correspond to areas of activity in my life, including my personal affairs (that project is called ‘being Mrs Mewburn’).

Capturing ideas from the community

I make it easy for people who are contemplating writing for the Whisperer by putting my editorial guidelines up on my About Page, along with an online ‘contact me’ form which delivers straight to my email inbox. My first stage in communication is to respond to the ideas and clearly explain the process to prospective writers. When I have confirmation that people understand what is involved (especially how long they will have to wait to see their post appear), I let them know I intend to publish and send the email and any attachments straight to OmniFocus2. Each email automatically becomes an action with the original word file attached for my records. It’s very helpful to have an original to roll back to if there are problems in the editing process.

Managing the queue

Sometimes I have had a year of content in Omnifocus, waiting to be queued. This is a lot of correspondance to manage, but Omnifocus makes this easy. I have previously blogged about how Omnifocus helps keep track of your stuff by assigning each note a ‘Project’ and a ‘Context’. As I noted in my image above, I treat Omni projects as areas of activites, the contexts help finer grained organisation. Here is how I arrange my blogging contexts:

Contexts, like projects, are just ways of tagging and viewing your individual actions. My blogging contexts correspond to each stage of the blog writing pipeline.

Basically, the email action sits in the ‘Production’ context until I have completed editing and mark up, when it is moved to the context ‘Scheduled’. I keep notes on any subsequent correspondance I have had with the author in the notes pane. When the post is in ‘Scheduled’, I know I have set the blog to automatically post it on the date set in the ‘due’ setting. I can see the blog post that is due to be published in my forecast view, so I remember to promote it on social media and be alert to an increased volume of comments (I have no filters on my comments, but this is a post for another time if you are interested).

The bottom right corner of this image shows the notes pane for this action, where the original email text resides as well as the attached Word file of the original text. Any further notes I have made are added to the top. Here you can see I have made a note of when I last communicated with Katherine (notifying her when the post would be published).

Closing the Loop

I used to just publish the post and leave it at that, but now I try to close the loop with the author and report back. I see this as a mark of respect for the time they have taken to contribute. The blog post will stay as an action in my system until I have emailed back this follow up, so I don’t forget. I generally send the statistics on the number of views (which can easily hit 50,000 given the size of the Whisperer mailing list), with some screen shots they can use in their folio or CV if they want.

If you think about it – publishing a paper follows roughly these steps. Ideas need to be captured, turned into actions, processed and then distributed. Along the way there are communication challenges, with editors and follow authors. Keeping track of the progress and status of each piece of writing is part of the kit of being a professional writer. I’ll share more of how I do this in a future post, but I hope this post has given you a bit of an insight into my blog business processes.

If you run a blog I’d love to know what tips you have for organising yourself and your content. Do you work from the fear or the love bucket? If you’re not a blogger, I wonder what steps you take to manage the other kinds of writing in your life? I’d love to hear about your academic business processes in the comments section!

Related posts

Why do academics blog? (a paper I wrote with Pat Thompson)

Blogging towards an academic self (a book chapter I wrote with Pat Thompson as part of the book we edited with Deborah Lupton: “The Digital Academic: critical perspectives on digital technologies for Higher Education” )

Blogging your way to a PhD

Why you should blog during your PhD

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03/14/18 PHD comic: 'Misunderreading'

PhD Comics - March 16, 2018 - 7:18pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Misunderreading" - originally published 3/14/2018

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

Leaving the Valley of Shit

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - March 14, 2018 - 4:00am

Some years ago now, I wrote about self doubt this way:

The Valley of Shit is that period of your PhD, however brief, when you lose perspective and therefore confidence and belief in yourself. There are a few signs you are entering into the Valley of Shit. You can start to think your whole project is misconceived or that you do not have the ability to do it justice. Or you might seriously question if what you have done is good enough and start feeling like everything you have discovered is obvious, boring and unimportant. As you walk deeper into the Valley of Shit it becomes more and more difficult to work and you start seriously entertaining thoughts of quitting… I call this state of mind the Valley of Shit because you need to remember you are merely passing through it, not stuck there forever. Valleys lead to somewhere else – if you can but walk for long enough. Unfortunately the Valley of Shit can feel endless because you are surrounded by towering walls of brown stuff which block your view of the beautiful landscape beyond.”

The post was, and remains, insanely popular. It consistently has the most hits per year. People often mention it to me when they meet me for the first time and I have even seen it stuck up on the wall of student offices and kitchens. It’s a deeply humbling and gratifying experience, as a writer, when your words clearly touch many people. In this post a recent graduate, who prefers to remain anonymous, reflects on the experience of leaving the Valley of shit. I think it captures the strange mix of feelings pretty well. I hope you enjoy it and, if you are still in the Valley, find some inspiration and hope.


“Today I got a date with my jury. So. Well. Pretty excited about it”

I announced my impeding PhD thesis defence to a friend with these words. And yet, the feeling was much more complex than just excitement. It was difficult to find the right words to express the intricate mix of fear, excitement, trepidation, and incredulity that I felt.

Most PhD students endure various phases of doubt, during which the prospect of defending seems very remote, and perhaps totally out of reach. Some named these phases “The Valley of Shit“. PhD lore and wisdom has it that all students will cross it sooner or later. It is then time for them to demonstrate their determination in face of hostility. It is supposed to end one day.

But some of us get stuck in it for a long time. Sometimes for so long that we may begin to think that we will never go out of it, that we have managed to fail our PhDs in a very special way.

I certainly thought this.

I stayed in The Valley for a very long time. Most of my PhD, actually. This lead to me considering quitting for a year and half. Even after my supervisors convinced me to finish it, I still wanted to quit academia. In the Valley my appetite for science, my curiosity, and my motivation drowned in the dark stinky water that surrounded me.

But this post is not so much about The Valley, it is about the feelings that I unexpectedly experienced at the end of my PhD, while I was getting out of the Valley. Perhaps these feelings define what it means to leave the Valley. I want to share them in the hope that it may bring a tiny light to some of the lost wanderers.

With my best non-native English speaking awkwardness, I wrote my friend:

“Something great happened in the last month, which I had not expected. I got excited about science again. Cool, eh? I am still plagued with doubts about the future, but I am considering the idea of doing a postdoc again.

More importantly, I am having fun writing up my thesis chapters. I already wrote a first draft of two chapters. Writing the second chapter was challenging, but I actually had fun doing it. This experiment has been a huge heap of stress during the whole of my PhD. There was always something stressing and time consuming in the future: getting the plants, keeping them alive, transplanting them, measuring the thousands of them, analysing the data, writing the paper. It was always a huge daunting task in the future. And now, the worst is suddenly in the past. The analysis is not quite finished, but the preliminary one is solid enough for a PhD dissertation.

 I read some papers, both some very inspiring ones, and some… not so good ones. It motivated me. To be more inspired. To try to do inspiring work. To write better articles than the bad ones.

This was good news. The passion for science, the curiosity, the challenges for the brain, the discovery had been pretty much one of my main personal drivers. I have invested more time into science than in anything else. If I look at the past ten years, I think that these were the most consistent drivers I have had. That is, before the past two years… And losing them left me empty, and lost. Not only because suddenly, it felt as if I had no future, but also because there was nothing else to replace them. Hell, that was not pretty.

 I am not sure what will happen next. But I get pleasure discussing science with people again, and I have fun writing. Actual fun. And I can begin to picture myself interacting with people, collaborating with scientists again.

 More than that, I got the feeling that my brain is working again. That it is clearer than in the past year or two.  

I still have a long way to go about gaining confidence, perhaps it will not be enough to get me to carry on in the field, and I know that it may go down again in one month when I will be exhausted and stressed and everything. But I am enjoying it right now.

I am even going to apply for a post doc.”

A couple of months later, I defended my PhD with honours.

I did not go back in the Valley during the end of the writing, nor during the preparation of the defense, despite the highly stressful moments that I had (accurately) anticipated.

In contrast to many students, writing the thesis was perhaps the part of my PhD that I enjoyed most. After years of struggling, I suddenly had a cerebral and organisational breakthrough. It took time and was occasionally frustrating. Of course, I had to finish analyses on the go (who does not?). But everything was faster because I felt that I could do it (or at least, quitting was not an option anymore), and because it was fun.

It was, all things considered, a much unexpected unfolding of the end of my PhD.

Several fellow students told me that seeing me experiencing motivation again, and managing the end of my PhD much better than the rest of it, gave them hope for their own PhD. And at least one of them experienced a similar relief after going through an ugly Valley of her own.

May our experience bring you a tiny speck of hope.

Editor: How about you? Are you still walking the Valley of Shit, or have you passed through into the sunlit fields beyond? Would love to hear your thoughts and reactions in the comments!

Related posts

The Valley of Shit

The Mountain of Happy

The Swamp of sadness

03/07/18 PHD comic: 'So productive'

PhD Comics - March 8, 2018 - 12:08pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "So productive" - originally published 3/7/2018

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

Is your PhD like a kaleidoscope?

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - March 7, 2018 - 4:00am

This post is by Miriam Wharton, a part-time doctoral student at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University in New Zealand. She is writing her thesis on the relational approach within New Zealand Special Operations Forces. She is also employed full-time. I think this post speaks to the rapid collapse of certainty you can feel at the start of a PhD as all your carefully laid plans do not survive contact with reality! Take it away Miriam.

All those excellent “How to do a PhD” books provide a linear progression from start to finish. They seem to encompass all the intricacies along the way, but ultimately serve as a sort of telescope that draws your vision towards a clear and cohesive end point where your research question is answered neatly, you wear the gown and funny hat and wield your well-earned testamur.

I was so sure the way to do a good PhD is to have it well planned out from the start. I’d lay the groundwork for my research proposal, I’d develop keen research questions that pierced succinctly to the heart of the research topic, and I’d tick my academic, methodological, conceptual, theoretical and content boxes along the way to the end.

That’s the way my journey to a PhD began – in my own head.

I spent a good four months with my soon-to-be supervisor, honing ideas and research questions in order to get the project through the initial enrolment gate and, I thought, set out a road map to completion that would be clear and easy to follow. I’m now four years into a part-time doctoral degree, and what have I learned so far? That every time I reach for that next milestone, my perspective on the subject shifts.

It’s like a kaleidoscope.

The field of study is full of colour, full of fascinating detail that I want to capture, in a way that’s both interesting and useful. I’m holding the instrument in my hands and peering through the eyepiece and it all looks beautiful. Intricate, but patterned and structured. I sigh in contentment, thinking how well I’ve laid the parameters and direction of my research. How well I have assembled my data and conducted my analysis. And in that moment of complacency, as my body shifts even slightly, the kaleidoscope image shakes, rattles, tumbles…and changes.

All of a sudden, I am looking at an image that has the same elements I saw before, but they are in a different position, or a different pattern, or a different set of colours. Perhaps all of a sudden I’m seeing pieces of the image I hadn’t paid attention to before, or even noticed, that seem far more important than they have any right to be.

This internal deconstruction and reconstruction of research, of the PhD process itself and its content, is both its beauty and its unexpected challenge. I have discovered how much I enjoy following the process; yes, even the academic paperwork that’s a seemingly endless part of doing a PhD. There’s a little buzz of satisfaction as I mark off each milestone, no matter how small. I also am enjoying the experience of assembling my data, of putting it together and beginning to see the patterns emerge. Those flashes of colour and intricacy are so exciting, even more so when it’s my brain that has put them together and brought them to life.

But what I have also found is that almost every new step brings with it a slight change in focus. Most often this is a refinement of perspective or approach, but sometimes it is a quite significant rearrangement of the image I am seeing. That can be a frightening feeling. I become afraid that I’m chasing a loose piece of glass inside the kaleidoscope that has shaken free of the rest of the pattern, and will lead me nowhere productive.

I question whether, if I hadn’t managed to understand my subject when I wrote my research proposal, whether I’m not as sophisticated a researcher as I thought I was. Maybe I should go back to Honours or Masters level and re-learn the stuff I’ve obviously not grasped yet!

I can list about six shifts so far – some very minor, a couple pretty significant – that have occurred within my research. Honestly, sometimes I’m still a little unsure whether these shifts are bringing me closer to, or further away from, a beautiful kaleidoscopic image that can be fixed and submitted to examiners with confidence. My supervisors would likely counsel me that I’m getting ahead of myself. But when every shift has occurred, it has left me feeling a little bit happier, a little more certain, that I’m on to something good. Each little piece of coloured glass clattering into place brings me closer to a beautiful image that pleases the eye and the brain.

I have found the following strategies to be useful when the parameters of my research seem to change around me, and that I’d like to suggest they might also assist you in a similar situation:

  • You should not underestimate the power of your overarching research question(s) in keeping your focus sharp, particularly if you’ve spent productive time at the beginning of the project thinking carefully about them. Revisit your research questions and let them reassure and realign your thinking. Nevertheless, a research project should be flexible enough to incorporate relevant yet unanticipated shifts; therefore…
  • Talk about the shifts you are seeing with your supervisors or another trusted and experienced person. Often working through the new angle on your research topic verbally, even if a little vague and unformed at first, can bring new clarity. I am also a big fan of whiteboard brainstorming, where you formulate your new or changing ideas in a visual format. In either approach, I believe the key is to do this in the presence of another person, one capable of asking questions and suggesting new approaches. It’s the tutorial method in a one-on-one setting, essentially, where your ideas are both challenged and encouraged. You are able to go down a rabbit hole to see where it takes you, but in a manner where you can be pulled back before you go too far if it is taking you nowhere productive.
  • Trust your intuition and your prior academic experience. At the postgraduate level, particularly at the doctoral level, you have spent years building up a body of knowledge (of content and process) that, whether you are conscious of it or not, has shaped and honed your abilities as a researcher. I don’t believe that the ‘in-one-ear-out-the-other’ method of learning and retention is ever entirely true. Even if your previous experience has been cursory and haphazard (and that’s unlikely if you’ve made it to postgraduate study), some ideas, methods and techniques will have stuck. Trust yourself.
  • Remain realistic about the scope of your project. While a certain level of demonstrated expertise lies at the heart of postgraduate work and the expectations of examiners, don’t try to be an expert in everything even remotely connected to your research topic. For one thing, you don’t have the time! For another, 100,000 words (or whatever your limit is) shrinks rapidly as you attempt to concisely yet comprehensively cover the pertinent elements of your thesis. If kaleidoscopic shifts begin to expand your scope beyond manageable limits, that is a warning sign. Consult with your supervisors, revisit your original research parameters, and stay away from an overly encyclopaedic approach.

Don’t be afraid if you see shifts in focus during your research project. I believe that more often that not these are good and useful experiences within the process that can be managed to produce a better thesis in the end. And who knows, maybe another researcher will come along and turn the kaleidoscope again, causing more shifts and seeing new things from a different perspective in the image you’ve created. That’s the beauty of research. It is also the ongoing challenge and opportunity for the researcher in the middle of a thesis project.

During the research process, have you experienced shifts in focus that have caused you concern, or excitement? What are some of the strategies you’ve used to manage those shifts in order to produce a better thesis product?

Thanks Miriam! – Ed

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Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - February 28, 2018 - 4:00am

This post is by a Phd student who would prefer to remain anonymous.

As we go through life (and for many of us, go through a PhD), we naturally accumulate adversities. When a new hardship rolls around I tend to respond in three steps:

  • Step 1: Grieve. All seven stages.
  • Step 2: Find a community of people also afflicted by my hardship, whether online or off.
  • Step 3: Rebuild my life around this hardship with the support of those found at step 2.

So when I developed a chronic illness and associated disability in the second year of my PhD the thought of resources, support and others out there who might share some of my experiences was comforting.

When I went looking, I was surprised to find something of a void. First, I scoured my University’s website. A disability counselling service is available (and is helpful) but is not specific to higher degree research. The Graduate Research School makes no mention of disability on their website, but maybe other Universities do better?

PhD support blogs such as the Thesis Whisperer, PhD Life, and Get a Life PhD are silent on the topic (you are right about this – sorry – Editor). I couldn’t find much of a hashtag community on Twitter either. Broader communities do exist, such as #phdchat (for PhD students) and #spooniechat (for people with chronic illness), but very little to combine the two.

There are a few wonderful blogs (for example: PhDisabled is a space for disabled students to share their experiences), but many are dormant and most are concentrated in the UK and US. Besides, why should a discussion of the added struggles of disability and/or chronic illness be limited to specialty blogs?

That disability has not reached the mainstream of diversity discussion in academia is surprising, though could be attributable to a lack of data. Although we know that around 1 in 5 people in Australia have a disability, little is known about the numbers in academia.  Gauging this is particularly difficult because many people choose not to disclose their conditions. We do know that people with disabilities are under-represented in tertiary education and that they report high rates of dropout. Nonetheless, significant numbers still exist and there is no reason to believe that this does not extend into higher degree research and beyond.

Why does it matter?

There is no denying the double-layered ‘Valley of Shit’ that the combination of chronic illness and a PhD provides: it is irrefutably awful. Whether the illness brings pain, depression, fatigue, anxiety, decreased mobility, stigma, endless appointments or some glorious combination of these, it makes an already difficult journey more difficult. It might make it hard to concentrate, to conduct field work, to go to workshops or conferences, to attempt networking, or to do any other essential requirement of a PhD. Due dates get missed, supervisors get cranky. And of course there is the constant concern about being ‘outed’ to colleagues and potential future employers. Recruitment discrimination against people with disabilities is real

On the other hand, academia can provide an excellent work environment for people who are unwell. Arrangements can be flexible and work can be delivered from bed or wherever is most comfortable. Disability advisors, while not specialised, are invaluable and not available in many other industries. And, most importantly, there is the particularly nuanced and invaluable perspectives that disabled and chronically ill people can bring to their departments and to their fields. These mutual benefits can be achieved but only with support, most importantly a supervisor who is able (better yet: trained!) to provide some flexibility for unwell students.

Where to turn?

I recently tweeted out asking for other disabled PhDs to contact me and was overwhelmed by the response. Obviously we are out there, and probably many people have a better established support network for this than I do. But what if they don’t? What if we all just need support through on a solo journey, with no acknowledgement of the extra-phenomenal nature of our achievements?

My efforts eventually led me to find Chronically Academic (CA), a small but growing network of academics with chronic illness. CA share my goal to raise the profile of academics with a chronic illness and/or disability and create a network from which members can access peer support. They have a blog, a Twitter page, a Facebook page and a private Facebook group, and while this group is not specific to Australia their member presence here is growing. You can join the Chronically Academic network here.

At the very least, establishing richer networks might help PhD students with chronic illness and/or disability feel less isolated. At best, maybe we can encourage the non-disabled academic community to notice, support or even value us. I think we deserve that.

I’d like to thank our anonymous poster for such a useful post – I hope it’s a strarting point for someone who might be seeking help. Now I am wondering how many of you have experience with chronic illness? What do you think academia can do to better support you, or people you know who are suffering?

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