Updates in Doctoral Ed

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

Related Posts

The Process

Is losing weight similar to doing your thesis?

We need to talk about disability and chronic illness during the PhD

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?

Related posts

Phd Stress

Why do people quit the PhD?

02/23/18 PHD comic: 'Winter Olympics'

PhD Comics - February 25, 2018 - 2:01am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Winter Olympics" - originally published 2/23/2018

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02/21/18 PHD comic: 'Whose interest?'

PhD Comics - February 23, 2018 - 4:08am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Whose interest?" - originally published 2/21/2018

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When is it ‘enough’?

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

I have worked exclusively with PhD students for over a decade now. I have clocked up the 10,000 hours Malcolm Gladwell says you need to be an expert, so I hereby declare myself an expert in the problems of research education.

One sign that you can genuinely claim the title of ‘expert’ is when you start recognising, and instantly categorising, the problems you encounter into themes; a kind of ‘knowing in practice’ that is different to pure subject matter expertise. Some of the most common types of PhD problem are shitty supervisor(s), poor inital research design and not enough time left. Don’t even get me started on the variations of I can’t write this! problem I have seen over the years (in fact, I’m writing a whole book about this one with Shaun Lehmann and Katherine Firth, which should be out at the end of the year).

It’s fair to say I haven’t encountered a genuinely new problem in research education practice for years now – just more variations on the themes I already know. As an expert, I have a ‘repertoire’ of responses and actions that I can apply to any given situation. While most PhD problems have solutions – a pep talk, a whiteboard diagram, a book or suggestion for a new strategy – others don’t. The hardest, most intractable PhD problem-theme is how do I know when it’s enough?

This question gets asked about a whole range of things: the literature, the data collection, the word count, the ideas, the bibliography. How much is enough anyway? Frustratingly, there is no clear cut answer to the ‘enough’ dilemma because every student and thesis is different. When a problem is so contingent on circumstances, I can only offer partial answers – here are three of them, and a strategy for each.

How do I know when I have read enough?

The only answer to this question is: “you won’t ever know”. Some people have compared the number of published papers each year to Mount Kilimanjaro, with the thin layer of snow on top being the papers that get downloaded more than twice. That’s an awful lot of excess academic production. There are mountains of literature on all kinds of topics. To avoid altitude sickness, you must try to set clear boundaries.

One way to start is to list the criteria that determine what is and isn’t relevant to your topic. For instance, some disciplines are fast moving, so you can use time as a criteria, then you only have to read back three years, five years or whatever seems relevant. Your topic might have a strong theme to guide your reading, for instance geographical location, historical period or type of participant. If you are doing a thesis on primary school aged students, for example, there’s probably very little point in reading literature on higher education. Methodology can be a strong way to determine you criteria. If you are doing a scientific study there might be no point referencing a qualitative study – and vice versa. There are, of course, exceptions, but mixing methodologies must always be done with care.

Whatever you do, you must account for it somewhere in the thesis – preferably in the literature review section. Some people develop their own, very specific criteria for political or theoretical reasons. I’ve met a couple of candidates who chose to only read and cite indigenous authors; some only to read and cite women writers. Such a strategy can carry risk, but I would like to think that a well argued reason for your choice should carry the day.

Exercise: try writing a short paragraph or two on your search strategy and the criteria you used so you can reflect on your choices and discuss them with your supervisor.

How do I know if this is original enough?

The originality question is a troubling one. While most people worry about not being original enough, or being scooped while they are doing the work, the opposite problem is possible and, perhaps, more common. Many academics promote multi-disciplinary work to solve this problem, which delivers on the originality, but can have unintended side effects. I have supervised at least one student who had a problem with being too original. She was mixing musicology and fuzzy logic. The mix was exciting, but everything about doing the thesis was very hard, particularly choosing examiners.

If you choose to do a multi-disciplinary thesis it is vitally important to have a strong idea of who the primary audience for the work is likely to be. My own thesis was about hand gestures in the architecture classroom, but I made sure to keep the focus on educators as the intended audience. This helped me take what I needed from anthropology and sociology, without getting too lost. The work would not have been considered original if I had constrained it to anthropology as there were plenty of people who had researched gesture, even amongst architecture students. But no-one had put it in context with the educational theories and practice of architecture, so I was able to find my niche.

Exercise: write a paragraph on the audience for your thesis. Who are they? What interests them about your topic? How will your thesis contribute to their knowledge in a unique way?

Have I written enough?

The glib (and largely correct) answer to this question is “when you have reached the word count specified by your university!”. Seriously though, we do know that many examiners prefer a shorter thesis, so finding the right length is what you might call a ‘wicked problem’. I encourage my candidates to write up to 80,000 words max, based on this literature. It’s not a hard and fast rule though, more like a rule of thumb. Recently I had a discussion with a colleague who was concerned that the theses in our school were too ‘thin’. His concerns were based on discussions with senior colleagues at conferences and seminars. We agreed there was more than a wiff of ‘young people these days!’, which might be a reaction to the trend to make theses shorter. Whatever the reason, there are clearly fashions and norms at play, like there is in anything. Your task is to try to ferret out what the fashions and norms in your discipline are and work out how you want to respond to them.

Exercise: ask as many senior people as you can about how long they like a thesis to be. If they can’t answer that question, try asking them what the most common length is. Try to gauge their reactions – do they seem to prefer the long ones or not? Keep good notes on the responses. When it comes time to make decisions, add up all the numbers you have and either average them out, or make a choice based on which numbers seemed to get most positive responses.

I hope that helps you – somewhat – with the enough problem. The only good thing I can say about these types of problems is, beware anyone who gives you a confident answer. An expert will know when to be cautious, being definitive about this kind of problem is a sign the person is a novice research education advisor. Do you have a problem that you have trouble getting a straight answer? I’d love to hear about them in the comments as they will probably make great blog fodder!

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02/14/18 PHD comic: 'Future Work'

PhD Comics - February 16, 2018 - 4:38am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Future Work" - originally published 2/14/2018

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De-stuffing your writing: or the The bumper list of words and phrases you could delete to make your writing more concise

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

This post is by Dr Katherine Firth, research fellow at Latrobe university and fellow Thesis Whisperer. Katherine blogs over at Research Voodoo. This is another in our series of posts about our upcoming book “How to fix your academic writing trouble”. If you are interested in getting advanced news of the book before it’s published, you can join the writing trouble mailing list here. Take it away Katherine!

As you probably already know Inger, Shaun and I are writing a book about Academic Writing Trouble and How to Fix It that distills the advice you would get if you took us out for lunch and asked us your most pressing questions. I’d love to have lunch with every single one of you, but currently I’m making do with the connections you can maintain on Twitter (I’m at @katrinafee and I tweet about writing, higher ed, food, social justice, and self-care) and via a blog (Research Degree Voodoo is 5 this year! https://researchvoodoo.wordpress.com), and hopefully soon via the book—they are all safe places where you can sit me down and go: ‘huh, this PhD thing, how does it work again?’.

This blog post is based on two sections from Chapter 5 of the new book. In turn, those chapters were developed from the article that has been consistently the most popular post on my own blog for the last three years: ‘10 tips for more concise writing’ (https://researchvoodoo.wordpress.com/2015/06/12/10-tips-for-more-concise-writing/ ). The post talks about all the filler words you should cut to clear up what you mean, and get back under the word count.


Is your writing described as ‘wooly’, ‘waffle-y’, ‘soft’, ‘cluttered’, ‘baggy’, ‘windy’, ‘verbose’ or ‘muddy’? Do you have hundreds (or thousands) of words over your word count, but instead of half writing the next book, you just have loads of dead wood? Are you nervous about putting forward your ideas and so avoid saying directly, instead putting a pillow of nice, soft, careful, words between you and the reader?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, your writing probably needs de-stuffing. Academic writing is best when it’s a streamlined office chair, not a comfy sofa. (Yes, at the end of the day, a huge, comfy sofa with too many squidgy cushions is divine. But academic writing is work writing, and work writing should be ergonomic, sleek and functional.)

That’s pretty clear when it comes to chairs, but how do we do this when it comes to writing?

Filler words (or pleonasms) are common words or phrases which can creep into your writing without conscious awareness that don’t add anything to the meaning.

While some of these fillers are conventional, many filler words are pointless ‘stuffing’ that can be eliminated from your writing without losing meaning. I do add these filler words in when I’m writing a blog post, to slow down the pace of dense information and to sound more conversational (the writing style equivalent of ‘grab a cuppa, sit down on the sofa and put your feet up, let’s have a chat’). An academic thesis is supposed to be dense and formal, so we take the squidge out.

At the end of this post, I include a bumper list of common filler words and phrases which you can use to search and pull them out of your text, and strip it back to something more official and functional.

Many filler words are the equivalent of ‘um’ or ‘uh’ in our writing. They keep the words moving while giving us a second or two to think about what is coming next. This is great for drafting because it keeps the words flowing, but while you are polishing up your writing you need to go through and delete them. I personally find getting started on the next sentence often a real effort, so I frequently start a sentence with an unnecessary filler word, like ‘Furthermore’.

Signposting words in writing are just like GPS directions: you want the voice on your phone or satnav to let you know ‘in 500m, turn right’, but you don’t want a voice interrupting every 30 seconds to tell you ‘continue straight for 500m’. When we are actually changing direction, words and phrases like ‘however’, ‘therefore’ and ‘in conclusion’ are really useful. If you have these phrases in every other sentence, or multiple signposts in a paragraph, you can probably delete them as excess padding.

There are lots of saggy stock phrases that we use to connect sentences or to signpost. You might need to signpost that you are using an point made by another scholar, or changing direction. Write ‘Pung explains’, or ‘First I will demonstrate’, rather than a longer, fluffier version, like ‘as Pung makes clear’ or ‘In order to understand this phenomenon we must first assess’. Replace saggy phrases with a more streamlined version.

Some writers use questions as stuffing too. If starting your paragraph with your research question makes it easier to draft a coherent reply, then go for it. Just make sure to take them out before you hand them in. On the subject of questions, I personally feel you should not use rhetorical questions in a thesis. The job of the examiner is to ask the questions, it is the job of the candidate to answer them. We are not in the Agora of Athens, rhetorical questions are not required.

While your ergonomic office chair should be streamlined, you don’t have to take out all the softness! We also use stuffing words, called ‘hedging’ terms, to imply uncertainty or openness to debate. You might use hedging words to avoid overstating claims, for example, ‘Using chlorine on wands may reduce the prevalence of wand weevils’, or ‘From the data, it is likely that adding red stripes makes Quidditch gowns more aerodynamic’.

You also use hedging terms when we need to ‘soften’ a sentence that can sound abrupt and rude without it–the secret here is to have just enough padding not to poke the reader.  ‘Smith is wrong to claim…’ is probably too harsh. ‘It has been claimed by scholars including Chang (1986) and Lorenzo (1992) that Smith’s claim is overstated,’ is probably about right. Two or three sentences futzing around not getting to the point is probably too much.

Okay, so it’s now time to go through our cluttered, overstuffed text, take of the cushions and strip it back to something more useful and streamlined. Fortunately, search and replace makes it easy to find all your ‘moreover’ and ‘makes clear’. Decide whether you delete the phrase, or replace it with a less fluffy version, when you get to that final polishing stage of writing.

The suggestions on this list are influenced by Helen Sword’s The Writer’s Diet , Stephen King’s On Writing, Patrick Dunleavy’s Authoring a PhD , and the Hemmingway app —all very much recommended if you want to take this process further.

At the same time, use the list with moderation and intelligence. All successful writing is a negotiation between you, your information, your readers, and the possibilities of language.  There aren’t really any hard and fast rules.

The bumper list of words and phrases you could delete to make your writing more concise

Phrases that gesture to places: delete or be more specific.



whether or not



phrases that include ‘of the’, ‘to the’, ‘on the’, ‘in the’, ‘at the’ (or of this etc)

in, by, for, at, on, of (especially in phrases like ‘of the’ or ‘at this’)

there is, there are, there were


Phrases that send us backwards in the text: replace with the proper name:










Phrases that make your writing more passive (though using the passive voice isn’t always a bad thing):

phrases that use ‘able’ or ‘ability’ (is able to, may have the ability to)

any form of ‘shall’ (should), use ‘will’

‘am, is, are, was, were, be, and been’ can suggest passive language, rather than active verbs.

to do (or any other infinitive verb forms as these are often used in passive or conditional verb forms)

is going to


Nominalizations (Swords Zombie nouns!), words that turn actions into things:

anything with the suffix -ion, -ism, -ty, -ment, -ness, -ance, -ence.


Overly-long, or over-used, signposting terms:

the following

at this point in time

end result

final conclusions

final outcome

first and foremost

for the purpose of

resulted in

when it comes to

with reference to

in order to

we must

it is essential to

I would describe this methodology as having

previous mentions in this thesis

relates to a number of different ideas

it is at this point

a brief discussion of/around


Adjectives or adverbs that describe information instead of providing evidence or data:







Anything with the suffix -able, -ac, -al, -ant, -ary, -ent, -ful, -ible, -ic, -ive, -less, -ly, -ous.

*Grammar vocab:

Noun: a thing word (e.g. book, chlorine, insularity) Proper noun: a name (like Faraday, or Paris) Verb: a doing word (run, assess, experiment) Adjective Description word for nouns (green, various, significant) Adverb Description word for verbs (quickly, significantly) Infinitive verb form: Verbs where no-one does them and they have no tense (time) associated with them. (to run, to assess, to experiment) Passive voice: A way of writing sentences that avoids the subject (person who does things). (e.g. ‘The experiment was carried out on 10mg of chlorine’ vs ‘I carried out the experiment on 10mg of chlorine’—in this case, the passive voice is correct.) Conditional verbs: If we want to explain something that is likely, possible, or hypothetical, we can use conditional verbs like ‘can/could’, ‘will/would’, ‘shall/should’, ‘may/might’ or a verb form like ‘were to’ (e.g. ‘if I were to write this sentence again, I would use fewer conditional forms’.) Suffix addition on the end of a word. A part of a word that is added to the end of the word, like ‘-ual’, ‘-ize’, or ‘-ate’ or ‘-ion’. Turns ‘concept’ into ‘conceptual’, which can be turned into ‘conceptualize’, which can be turned into ‘conceptualization’, which is why this is such a horrible word.

Related posts from our upcoming book

Join the ‘How to fix your academic writing trouble’ mailing list

Academic writing is like a painful, upper middle class dinner party

9 Tips for a fuss free (i.e. survivable) PhD submission

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

Are you close to submitting your PhD? Genevieve has some excellent pointers for you to smooth the process.

In 2016 Genevieve Simpson completed her PhD, which examined community, industry and government perceptions of residential solar energy technologies and policies to support its adoption. She is excited about the opportunity to take her findings out into the ‘real world’, but misses teaching and hanging out with her postgrad peers at The University of Western Australia. You can find her on Twitter as @gensimpson_wa

A friend of mine asked me for some advice about what to do in the lead up to the PhD submission. While I’m sure every experience is different, I think it’s reasonably safe to say that the following points would be useful for a majority of PhD candidates.

Know the administrative requirements for submitting

I’m putting this right at the beginning because it REALLY IS the most important of these tips.  Have a look at your University’s submission process and get some idea of how long each step is supposed to take and how far in advance they might need particular pieces of information. For instance, while it might be tempting to deal with all the paperwork once your thesis has been written you don’t want to get to submission day and find out that you needed to nominate your examiners at least two weeks prior to submission!  Become aware of the administrative requirements at the university, faculty and school level (if applicable).  Oh, and make sure that you don’t have any outstanding debts with the university.  The Guild fees that you were avoiding could become quite important when you can’t submit until they’ve been paid.

As a part of this, know what you have to do on your submission day.  You’ll be so tired and confused by this point it pays to have a list of instructions written out, even if they say: (1) turn thesis into a PDF; (2) put thesis on USB; (3) get signatures for submission form; (4) take purse (and relevant forms) with you to printers.  After all, if you end up getting to the printers and realise you don’t have your thesis on a USB and your purse is in your supervisors office (who has just gone home for the weekend) you may cry.  (Side note: accept that it’s ok to cry).

Present your research

Presenting your research isn’t (yet) a formal requirement for submitting a thesis at most Australian universities.  However, presenting your research to a general audience is a great opportunity to get some idea of the salient points you might put in your abstract and receive feedback from people on issues or strengths of the research.  Book your presentation well in advance of your thesis submission date – this will give you an opportunity to make changes based on the comments provided and also give you a sense of accomplishment (TICK! That’s done!) in the miserable period leading up to your submission.

Have a submission plan

While it might not be necessary for everyone to have a specific date that they intend on handing heir thesis in by, it will be necessary to map out the process for completing chapters/papers, submitting them to supervisors and dates for expecting feedback.  Even if you don’t like deadlines it’s useful to be able to have some idea about how complete each part of your thesis is and who is responsible for the next stage in its completion.  As part of your submission plan decide whether you’ll be submitting a bunch of papers with a brief intro/conclusion, a formal thesis with all traditional chapters, or something in between. Have a think about how each of the chapters fits together, so that you can finish chapter Y after you’ve written chapter X without having to rrevise section A.

Leave a lot of time for those things you think won’t take any time at all

That includes getting signatures from supervisors, checking the formatting of your referencing and doing the layout for the thesis.  Let’s face it, when the past 4-8 years of your life are hanging in the balance there’s a good chance that your supervisor will suddenly go on sick leave, your EndNote library will disappear and your copy of Word will decide it’s incompatible with Excel.  Set up a Dropbox folder for your thesis and give everyone who is important access to it in advance of your ‘special day’. You don’t want to be trying to email a 43MB thesis through the university’s 5MB-limited email the day before it’s due.  Be aware that printing of your thesis will take some time.  Know how many copies are needed, the quality of the binding, who has to receive copies via USB.  Find out whether your university has a preferred printer. And use them. I know my university printer is a little bit more expensive, but when I went in the woman knew EXACTLY how a thesis should look and so rejigged my PDF to have wider margins at the bottom and smaller ones at the top.  And while we’re on the subject of cost, find out in advance if your School pays for printing and how this will work. There may be some planning involved.

Have a sanity plan

You’ve probably heard this from almost everyone who has ever submitted a PhD thesis, but the final stages of writing are like a turbo-charged exaggeration of the entire PhD process – you’ll feel stressed, over-worked, confused, lacking in direction and have a serious case of the imposter syndrome.  Make sure you tell people around you what you’re about to go through and what your approach is. If you have serious FOMO tell your friends you’re unplugging for a bit and ask them to give you some space. If you are someone who gets overly stressed and physically fatigued try to make time for exercise in your day. And be reasonable with yourself if your sanity plan falls through. Don’t worry if a small drink turns into a massive night out or if those well-intentioned gym sessions turn into more hours at the computer. My sanity plan included socialising at least once each weekend, however about a month out from submission I was a crying mess on the couch so I just watched Gilmore Girls instead. And that’s ok too.

Have food hidden everywhere (and accept the consequences)

The final weeks of your PhD are a time for deep reflection (panic) and contemplation (stress).  The final weeks of your PhD are not a time to be worried about whether or not you are going to be able to fit into a bikini.  Comfort food is not only acceptable, it may save your life.

Get used to weird dreams

You wouldn’t believe the number of people who told me about their weird dreams and/or insomnia prior to submitting.  It was a lot. I normally suffer from weird dreams and/or insomnia, but this was a whole new level. And, consistent with what other people had told me, they didn’t stop after I had submitted my PhD. This is why it’s so important to…

Plan something nice for once you’ve submitted

Whether it’s a party, a holiday or a solid week of crafternoons it’s advisable to take some time off after you’ve submitted.  I had planned to take a three day weekend after submitting (which included a pretty sensational party) and come back to work to finish submitting my papers. I made it back on the Tuesday and then collapsed into a heap on the couch for two days after that, incapable of doing anything besides pressing ‘Enter’ when Netflix came up with the judey-wudgey ‘Are you STILL watching Gilmore Girls’ screen.  Give yourself a break, you’ll need it.

Tell people that they’re awesome

You probably only made it through your PhD because you had someone to cook you dinners, or someone to bring you coffees, or someone to do your laundry, or someone to format your work, or someone to proof read, or just someone to tell you that you could do it.  Thank them and tell them how amazing they are.

I think this is an excellent 9 point plan for submission, don’t you? What are you planning to do when you submit?

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What’s it like to be finished?

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02/05/18 PHD comic: 'Stipend Percentages'

PhD Comics - February 6, 2018 - 8:35pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Stipend Percentages" - originally published 2/5/2018

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01/31/18 PHD comic: 'FOMO'

PhD Comics - January 31, 2018 - 8:28pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "FOMO" - originally published 1/31/2018

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

Failing – and getting up again

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - January 31, 2018 - 4:00am

Welcome to 2018! I wish you all the best in achieving your PhD goals this year and commit to continuing to support you in my own, small way.

The New Year (whenever that happens for you culturally) is the time many set aside for reflection and goal setting. For some reason, people like to change things up in the new year. The gym I go to is always full of ‘January joiners’ – the people who sign up after new year hoping to improve their health (and maybe lose the holiday flab).

Sadly, most January joiners don’t tend to last much beyond January. Self imposed rules are prone to failure – perhaps because we immediately feel restricted by all those ‘must’ and ‘should’ declarations. This is why I use keywords instead of resolutions – I find they are a productive guide for action and making real change.

Last year’s keyword was ‘Less’, to quote myself in my opening post for 2017:

I’m going to aim to have less stress and worry. I would like to buy less, so I can have less of a mortgage at the end of the year. I want to eat less so I can lose this last 5 kgs of my post-pregnancy weight (when your teenager is nearly a head taller, it’s time). I want to be less lazy about exercise. I’d like to work less hours, but I don’t want to achieve less, so I’ll need to look for ways to be more efficient. I want to do fewer projects, so I can spend more quality time on the ones that are important to me…

In the spirit of this season of self reflection, I should report back on whether I lived by my keyword… and the answer is: nope.

Nope nopetty nope.

I totally and utterly failed at ‘Less’. In fact, when the team analysed my diary they told me we all worked the equivalent of 70 weeks instead of 48 last year (I’m not sure how that’s possible, but I’ll take their word for it). So I failed at spending less hours at work. We did save some money, so that’s a win, but I still bought stuff I didn’t really need. I certainly threw out food (usually salad, but it still counts). Did I lose 5kgs? No – I just weighed myself and I managed to gain 4.2. Crap!

In my defence, ‘Less’ is a very hard principle to follow in the competitive, under-resourced and over-stretched world that is contemporary academia. If your years as a high performing undergraduate haven’t instilled a ridiculous work ethic, the PhD certainly will. I often hear PhD students talking about themselves as failures for all manner of reasons, such as:

  • Not publishing any papers / ‘enough’ papers / the same or more papers than other people in your lab/office
  • Not finishing that chapter in the week / month / semester deadline you arbitarily set yourself
  • Not writing enough / everyday / the ‘right thing’
  • Throwing a lot of your writing out
  • Not reading enough
  • Reading stuff you later realise you don’t need to read and then dwelling on all the time you ‘wasted’ going up the wrong path.
  • Reading ‘too much’ and not writing ‘enough’
  • Not being as relaxed about your PhD as everyone else is
  • Being much more stressed about your PhD than everyone else seems to be
  • Being a terrible partner / friend / pet owner
  • Spending too much time being a good partner / friend / pet owner and not enough time on your PhD
  • Not standing up to your supervisor enough
  • Not pleasing your supervisor enough
  • Not seeing your supervisor enough
  • Stuffing up experiments / analysis / data gathering
  • Never finishing your ‘to do’ list
  • An overflowing email box

I am sure you can relate to at least one of the things on this list – if not, please tell me what university you work in so I can move there immediately. I could tell you that none of these things really count as failure, but that wont really help if you genuinely feel like they are. When your standards are ludicrously high, living up to them is probably impossible. Feeling like a failure seems to be the default setting for many academics, and it’s a worrying tendency. I want to start critiquing this narrative because it’s part of the problem.

Objectively, I failed spectacularly at ‘Less’. But failing is less important than how I acknowledge and respond to this perceived failure. One thing that helped me was listening to Kameron Hurley’s ‘Get to work Hurley!’ podcast over the holidays. She’s a fiction writer that Mr Thesis Whisperer is into and her podcast is aimed at helping professional fiction writers. I don’t really dig her fiction, though I did love her book Geek Feminist Revolution. The podcast is worth a listen though, because what she has to say is helpful for writers of any stripe.

In her ‘Home for the Holidays’ podcast, Hurley points out the tendency to think of creative work in terms of a linear progression. Not only do we think will we get better and better at something if we do it longer, we assume the rewards for hard work will be greater too. While there is some truth in time spent = better performance part, Hurley points out that linear thinking is a trap. It’s easy to suddenly fail and start to think you are on an inevitable slide downwards. Hurley then shared an insight the actor Neil Patrick Harris shared on Twitter:


Surfing, Hurley argues, is a more helpful and realistic analogy for creative work. Surfing involves paddling out to where the good waves are, attempting to catch one, then riding it as long as you can. As Hurley points out, the paddling out part is a giant pain in the ass. Writing involves a lot of research, preparation – and false starts. Making creative ideas happen is anxiety provoking – it’s very hard to force your brain to spit out the answers.

Once you have paddled out, the next problem is to catch a wave. You can think about the wave like a flow state in writing – where the work becomes less effortful and words are stacking up. It might take a long time for the wave to come by, or it might be there immediately – you can never know. Once you are on the wave, your problems don’t stop. As Hurley points out, you might fall off the wave early, and have to paddle out again, or you might ride it all the way to the shore. Riding the wave into the beach is one form of success, but if you are a professional writer, or academic for that matter, you are never ‘finished’ writing. Eventually you have to start the process over and paddle out again.

Once you know what a pain the paddling out bit is, it’s easy to delay or avoid paddling altogether and merely sit on the beach. It takes an effort of will to pick yourself up from failure. So admitting I failed at Less is a good first step. Clearly I need to do more of Less, at least until I get the hang of how Less looks for me. I think I know where I went wrong, so I have some ideas about how to start. Part of it certainly involves looking for the really good waves, not just jumping on the ones that roll in first.

What about you? Which items on my PhD perceived failure list do you relate to? Do you think these are reasonable grounds for declaring yourself a failure? If so, what do you think you can do about it?

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On life in the lab, and failure

01/26/18 PHD comic: 'Training Telephone'

PhD Comics - January 27, 2018 - 5:44am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Training Telephone" - originally published 1/26/2018

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

01/22/18 PHD comic: 'Psych'

PhD Comics - January 24, 2018 - 8:05am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Psych" - originally published 1/22/2018

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01/17/18 PHD comic: 'Let them know'

PhD Comics - January 18, 2018 - 5:35am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Let them know" - originally published 1/17/2018

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