Updates in Doctoral Ed

The Academic FitBit

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

First a trigger warning: this post discusses suicide and self harm. If you need to reach out, Lifeline in Australia provides a 24 hour crisis line on 131114. Sorry I can’t list services in every country this is likely to be read, but you can find information on mental health for PhD students on the Useful Resources Page.

If academic overwork had a Facebook status it would be ‘it’s complicated’.

Academics work hard, in part, because we have to, in part because we love it, and partly because of dedication to our students. But the endemic overwork problem must be addressed. The pressure to work long hours translates through the academic eco-system to PhD students, who are often tasked with impossible workloads too. When unrealistic expectations are a feature of PhD study; stress, overwork and mental health issues are the inevitable result.

Stopping the vicious cycle is a systemic AND a personal battle. I battle over-work by being a proud and active Union member. I battle the problem personally too, by trying not to over-work myself. I don’t always win.

To be clear, ANU were not foisting an unrealistic workload on me. My overwork problem was at least partly a problem of my own making. At the start of the year, I told you I was working 60 hour weeks, so I set myself the task of trying to do ‘Less’ again in 2018. It’s halfway through the year (yes, already!) so I thought I would report in. Am I doing Less? The answer is a qualified ‘yes’ – but I have only achieved this with the help of some software that my friend Dr Jason Downs put me onto, called ‘Timing‘.

Timing is like a FitBit or Apple Watch, but for work. Before you ask, Timing is a Mac product, but RescueTime is a cloud-based product with similar functionality. Basically Timing lurks in the background and watches how you use your computer. Once you’ve spent a bit of time training it, Timing automagically categorises your work. You can quickly add in non-computer based tasks in the timeline view to make sure you capture all your efforts. It doesn’t take much to keep the record accurate, and the effort is worth it because Timing allows you to access a range of neat dashboard views. For instance, here is a visual summary of my whole year so far:

If I divide my hours worked by the available work days I have been running Timing, the average is 42 hours of work a week. ANU only pays me for 35 hours a week, but I work for myself too. I cut a deal when I started in 2013 that I own the Thesiswhisperer. ANU does not pay for me to blog, but nor can they profit from it. If I take out my social media activities (my new YouTube channel and outside paid work) I get down to 38 hours a week for ANU.

So, I’m donating about 3 hours a week to my employer. I can live with that – for now.

If I am going to donate to my employer, at least I know the size of my donation. Timing gives me the comforting illusion that I am in charge of my time by enabling me to assign a productivity ‘score’ to each kind of task. Tasks you consider a bit of time waste, like email, can be ‘tuned down’ while productive work, like writing or teaching, can be ‘tuned up’. A glance at the productivity score lets me know how my week is tracking. If it’s high I am getting a lot of good, useful work done; if it’s low, I am in too many meetings or noodling around on expense claims or social media.

One thing I learned from my productivity score, is the weeks I work more hours, the less productive I am. Here’s a comparison of two weeks, one at nearly 55 hours (what used to be a typical week for me):

And one at almost exactly the ANU enterprise bargain agreement of 37:

Even though I work the odd stupid hour week, I am feeling much better. I don’t want to give the impression that this semblance of work/life ‘balance’ was easy to achieve. I partly created the problem, but in doing so, I had set cetain service delivery expectations. Now I had to wind them back – this was hard. I had to give a lot of pushback at work, which did lead to conflict as well as feelings of guilt, powerlessness, and anger. Coming back from the brink of burn-out is also just intense, bodily work. For the first couple of months, I cried in my office nearly every day. I leaned on a lot of people: friends, colleagues, sympathetic mentors. I saw a therapist – more than once. I acknowledge that even being able to push back is a form of privilege that’s not available to everyone.

It shouldn’t be.

A couple of weeks ago, there was sad news out of Cardiff University about a lecturer who took his own life, apparently due to stress and over-work brought on by marking season. My academic social media network lit up with the story. Everyone was horrified because the situation was just so… relatable. On Facebook, one colleague shared a story about how she had to take medical leave because her eyes ACTUALLY STARTED BLEEDING during an essay marking marathon. No one should have to work this much just to meet expectations. Reflecting on the parallels between that Cardiff lecturer’s experience and my own, pushing back before I hit crisis point may well have saved my life.

People usually screw their faces up when I tell them about Timing; I guess because it sounds like yet more neo-liberal performance management bullshit that has got us in all into this situation in the first place. But I would argue that monitoring your own work is profoundly different than being monitored because the power of the data is in your hands. For example, the data from my Academic FitBit came in very handy when I was negotiating a reduced workload with my manager. She wanted me to do a 50% teaching load, which I initially resisted. But she was right: Timing showed me that I do, in fact, spend 50% of my ANU time on teaching. My performance measures may as well reflect that fact.

Timing has enabled me to finally (FINALLY) crack the academic project management problem: a long-term goal of mine. I used to work in architecture offices where time really was money. I learned the power of breaking a project up into different tasks and using these calculations to tell a client when you would deliver and how much it would cost. I’ve  tried for many years to apply architecture project management techniques to academia, without much success. Architects are mostly bad at doing time estimates (which is why just about every building takes longer and costs more than thought), but they are still miles better at it than academics.

Making and managing a time budget is a critically important skill to learn when you are a student, but one that is rarely, if ever, taught. The most common reason people go over time on their PhD is because no one anticipated – or even asked the student to estimate – how long tasks might take. Up to now, I have been no better than most supervisors. I do have some rules of thumb which I share with my students. For instance, I tell them that every hour of interview time is about six hours of analysis, but I don’t know if that’s true! I just heard it somewhere. I just know it’s a good supervision tactic to do a back of the envelope calculation in front of a student to show them the project plan to interview 500 people is unrealistic. I know my students are likely to be slower than me, but if I know how long something takes me I can use the ‘multiply’ function on my calculater to give them some kind of estimate.

Now, with Timing, Architect Inger is back in charge. I can tell you how long it takes me to write and edit an academic paper: 26 hours (not including analysis time). Editing a whole book in Grammarly? 49 hours. Putting together material to run a workshop? Between 3 hours (lecture) and 37 hours (new half-day workshop). How long do I spend blogging? 2 hours a week, on average. Crucially, every single project I commit to represents at least a 30% ‘overhead’ of ‘enabling work’ -email, paperwork, meeting, phone calls, etc. This work is unavoidable, as my friend Dr Ben Kraal says: ‘It’s the work you do in order to do the work you do’.

Going back to the sad story of the lecturer at Cardiff, in the fight against the perverse effects of neo-liberal management, is collecting our own data is a weapon? Or, maybe, I am only handing my employer a loaded gun…? What do you think? Are you already succumbing to the overwork scourge? Have you tried to push back on unrealistic time expectations? Have any other tactics to share?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. I’ll be doing a walk through of Timing this week on my Youtube channel.

Related posts

Less is more?

An excellent analysis of the Cardiff situation by Liz Morrish on the Academic Irregularities blog).

Another excellent (and ranty) post from Jodie Lee Trembath on The Familiar Strange Blog

The tyranny of tiny tasks

06/29/18 PHD comic: 'What you said'

PhD Comics - June 29, 2018 - 8:22pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "What you said" - originally published 6/29/2018

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

How to be the ‘star PhD student’ – when you are an introvert

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - June 27, 2018 - 4:00am

Do you identify as ‘introvert’? Many PhD students do. If you are less comfortable with social spaces, the networking part of academia might be painful. To tell you the truth, I don’t really buy the ‘introvert/extrovert’ spectrum as I don’t identify as either. I’m always uncomfortable with such absolute descriptions as people are very complex, but I accept that some people find the label of introvert helpful in describing their experience of the world. I am comfortable in large social gatherings that are a persistent feature of academia, so I’m grateful when someone comes forward to write from a different point of view.

Sharon is preparing to submit her PhD Thesis in Renewable Energy Engineering at the University of New South Wales this year. Her research investigates some of the future effects of distributed generation on the electricity industry as more homes start to generate their own power using solar power and batteries. You can find out more about Sharon on LinkedIn

I wrote this post in response to a comment on a previous Thesiswhisperer post called Why you are not the star student (and how to become one). The gist of the article was that to be a ‘star’, you needed to extend yourself beyond your research and make connections. A comment was made that ‘academia: just another field where extroverts have the upper hand’.  Inger suggested that that may not be accurate and perhaps an introvert could respond.  I describe myself as an introvert, and I asked to write a response post.

It is perhaps best to start by stating how I see introverts/extroverts. I am an engineer, I am not going to be perfect on this by any means and can only speak from my experience as a self-defined introvert. The general trait of extroverts can be described as that they are energised by interacting with other people, and the more the better.  The inverse is the general trait of introverts. They are drained of energy by interacting with people; for them, the fewer the better.

For the rest of this article, I will speak as an introvert with strategies on how to be a ‘star student’.

The first thing to be aware of is that none of the traits or actions suggested in the article have anything to do with whether or not you’re an introvert.

  • Extroversion doesn’t mean you’re a good communicator
  • Extroversion doesn’t guarantee you will make good connections
  • Extroversion doesn’t mean you’re a good networker
  • Extroversion doesn’t guarantee that you’re great at time management.
  • Extroversion doesn’t mean you do high quality work, or publish more papers
  • Extroversion doesn’t guarantee that you are especially responsible or reliable

These are all personal traits, and any of them can be improved on if you choose to invest the time and energy.

This post is partially influenced by “The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research”, which I read the first chapters of very early in my PhD. On reflection, it’s surprising how much this book has shaped my actions in the two and half years since then. The single greatest takeaway I took from that book was that a PhD is a short term contract, with a known end in sight. As such, from the beginning of your PhD, you need to be planning for the end.

How does this relate to introverts?

As an introvert, I know that I have a finite amount of energy for face-to-face interactions.  After a while, no matter what I’m doing, who I’m talking to or how good and useful it is, I’m going to have to recharge by finding a quiet place.  Every day, every week, every month, there is a limit on how much I can handle.

When you have a finite resource, what do you do?  Learn to spend it well.

So what have I done?  I’ve tried to keep the end in mind – when my PhD finishes, I don’t know what opportunities I will have, so I have tried to maximise my options.  I’d like to stay in academia, and keep researching.  But such a role may also have a teaching requirement.  I may not be able to get a research position, so I may need to shift to industry.

In the process of preparing myself for the end of my PhD, I’ve ended up doing a whole lot of the things that Inger insists a ‘star’ student does:

  • I tutor one subject per semester.  Because I need teaching experience to maximise my post-PhD options.
  • I attend a weekly lunchtime discussion group.  Because I need to connect with my peers and become familiar with their research.
  • I organise that weekly group.  Because it proves my reliability and because it connects me with people I would otherwise not meet.
  • I attend regular seminars on research in my field.  Because I want to hear from and connect to other people working in my area.
  • I try to present at a minimum of one conference per year.  Because I need to both connect with others and present my own work.
  • I enter 3MT.  Because I need to get good at communicating clearly and concisely.
  • I meet newer students for coffee to mentor them.  Because I need to be able to lead and manage people who have less experience than myself, but also because I can learn from them – their thinking is not yet stuck in a rut.
  • I even get my morning cuppa at 8:45am, to maximise the number of people I am likely to see when I have the most energy.
  • I’ve written submissions to parliamentary inquiries.  Because genuine expertise needs to be heard where decisions are being made.
  • I put my hand up to write a post for ThesisWhisperer. (:D) Because I need to learn to communicate to people beyond my sphere of research.

And more.

Every single one of those things has a time and energy cost, some of them larger than others.  But I’m still on track to complete in a timely manner. And when I finish, I will have options, because I have built connections.  Not because I am an extrovert (HA. I am nothing of the sort), but because I worked out what was needed, and used my (physical, temporal, emotional) resources strategically.

When it comes to emotional energy – the best way to manage it is to plan ahead for any events that are going to be draining, and give yourself time to recuperate.

For example, I love teaching my students in tutorials.  I love seeing them start to understand things. But after I walk out of a 2 hour lesson it can be up to an hour before I’m much use to anyone. I usually run tutorials just before lunch, so I can have big break afterward.

At conferences, I set a goal of at least two good conversations (with business card exchanged) per day, which gives me both connection and break time. I write agendas for my supervisor meetings to make sure they’re productive, and schedule a break immediately afterward.

These are my management strategies but you need to work out what works for you.

If you are an introvert, you are recharged by quiet time, quiet spaces and not interacting with people. Social interaction is often a major drain on your energy levels. Giving a presentation, teaching a class, attending a conference or social drinks are all things that can leave you drained, possibly even exhausted.

Don’t avoid it – you need to do this stuff to maximise your future options. But work out how you can manage yourself so that you can do these things. Being an introvert doesn’t disqualify you from doing well in academia.

Thanks Sharon! Even as a person more on the extrovert end of the spectrum, I found some useful tips there, what about you? If you identify as introvert, what do you do to cope with the social demands of academia?

Related posts

Why you are not the star student (and how to become one).

How to win academic friends and influence people

Beautiful fusion deliciousness… or a hot mess?

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - June 20, 2018 - 5:00am

Interdisciplinary research. So hot right now… or is it?

To be clear – I’m a super fan of interdisciplinary work. I’m happily ‘post-disciplinary’ myself. My PhD was interdisciplinary, and my current job is transdisciplinary. I work with all kinds of research students, from physics to fine art; education to chemistry, I embrace you all! While I don’t identify with an academic discipline, I do identify with a role (‘academic developer’) and a professional practice (let’s call it ‘research education’).

Photo by @eaterscollective on Unsplash

While lots of people are involved with research education at my university, I am the only person who studies it as well. When asked how I can be an academic when I don’t have a discipline, I usually answer: “I research researchers – someone has to”. I make it sound cool and funny – to make people laugh – but if I’m honest, it’s a kind of lonely research life. Finding collaborators in one challenge, but finding the next job is even harder. The researching researchers business is vanishingly small. We are oddities in the academic landscape. At best, there is one job in each university for someone like me, whereas there are 60 for someone in, say, health sciences.

I see many research students on the verge of becoming ‘un-disciplined’ like me, By which I mean, doing research across and between disciplines and running the risk of becoming a specialist with limited career options. Almost without exception, these people are doing the most exciting and cutting-edge work. I see earth scientists working in anthropology; computer scientists working in chemistry; historians working in business; economists working in population health and so on. Super cool work, yes – but I fret about their future.

Interdisciplinary work is a bit like fusion cuisine: amazingly tasty and addictive when done well, but it’s so easy to make something… weird.

Something no one wants to eat.

Dr Emily Kothe and I came up with this idea during my recent visit to Deakin University. We were discussing the lasagne on offer in the downstairs cafe, which was a conventional lasagne in every sense, except with coriander sprinkled on top. We agreed that while coriander is an interesting and pleasant herb, it has a strong and distinctive taste. The taste of coriander has become so keyed in with South East Asian food that when encountered on top of an otherwise fine lasagne, it feels unpleasantly out of place. I’m in Italy; then I’m in Asia, then I’m … just feeling confused.

Similarly, the person doing an interdisciplinary PhD, to a greater or lesser extent, will not fit in the conventional academic mold. This makes you confusing to other academics at best and, at worst, being ‘un-disciplined’ can have all kinds of knock-on effects for your future career.

So my usual advice is to write a document for the kind of academic you want to be. This involves shaping the document for the reader who can help you most. Your examiner(s) usually know the post-doc opportunities or entry-level positions that are coming up. If they like your PhD, they are in a position to get you short-listed or recommend you on to someone else.

But what if that academic you want to be doesn’t exist, or there is a very limited market for them? I recently did commercialisation training where we were warned: ‘don’t try to create a market for your product!’ Sound advice for academia, at least most of the time. Recently I had a discussion with an earth scientist who is using scientific techniques on ancient human remains. It’s fascinating work which helps us understand the complex waves of human migration. Should she write a dissertation for anthropologists interested in ancient migration, or earth scientists interested in how to apply techniques to anthropological problems? In this case, it means a choice between writing as if you are an earth scientist or a sciencey-anthropologist.

It’s possible I am wrong, but my feeling is, there are more academic jobs for an earth scientist than a sciencey-anthropologist. Entry level jobs usually involve teaching massive, undergraduate entry-level courses, where a strong disciplinary background is an asset. A sciencey-anthropologist is a specialist from a different background who cannot teach an ‘Anthropology 101’ course. Unless you can find a university with a ‘scientific anthropology 101’ course (and there might be some), you are coriander in an Italian lasagne. You can probably get yourself a post-doc because what you are doing is cool, but it might be hard to translate that post-doc to something more permanent.

In my Italian lasagne example, the coriander was not an asset. But it’s easy to imagine a delicious South East Asian lasagne that looks like an Italian one but is packed with pork, fish sauce, chilli and yes, coriander. I’m drooling now: imagine a dish where every bite gives you the soft, creamy layering of lasagne, but the fresh flavours of Vietnam. Not many PhD students think about deliberately shaping their topic choices to become Vietnamese Lasagne, but it’s a smart strategy. There is a lot of mileage in standing firmly in your disciplinary background but reaching out to another discipline for techniques or topic knowledge that makes you interestingly different. Let’s say you are a historian, instead of studying politics or war, why not explore the history of an industry sector instead? You can turn yourself into a history lecturer (not many jobs) or a business lecturer who can teach history (lots of jobs).

Of course, I have assumed that you want to stay in academia – increasingly people don’t. In this case, ‘un-disciplining’ yourself and creating the market might actually be a smart strategy. One of my students, Jodie Lee Trembath, is doing some terrific work studying the experiences of academics who migrate for their work (and collaborating on a great blog project ‘The Familiar Strange’). We’ve talked a lot about her career options as she has progressed. While there are next to no academic jobs in studies of academia, there are a lot of potential jobs helping universities better manage and support people who have relocated for their work. Or she can go back to her home discipline of communications with a tool bag of useful methodological techniques from anthropology. Many of you will be in this position. Consider the computer science student who showed me their amazing work in computational biology last week. At the end of a PhD like this, you have a skill set for translating real-world problems into code. The person who can do this can pretty much name their starting salary at a big bank… if you should want to work at one, of course.

I’m not sure what kind of lasagne you end up being outside academia, but I bet it’s delicious. So now I’m wondering, those of you who are doing the fusion research-flavour game. How are you positioning yourself for future career success? Does any of this resonate? Or do you have other ideas? I’d love to hear them in the comments.

Related posts

PhD Career capital

What will you do when your doctorate is done?


The dreaded doctoral defense

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - June 13, 2018 - 4:00am

An oral defence, or Viva, is common in the UK, Europe, NZ. The viva is less common in Australia.  Most Australian students will do a final presentation before the PhD, but many universities are currently discussing how to introduce a defence as part of the examination process, so we can expect a defence of some sort to become more common.

In the USA, the viva is called a ‘doctoral defense and PhD students have the additional challenge of being examined by their supervision committee. The US system is so different I don’t tend to write specific posts to address the various challenges because I don’t have any first hand experience, so I’m always grateful when a US colleague offers to write one.

This post is by Author, editor, writing coach, dissertation nurturer, and spiritual counselor, Noelle Sterne, Ph.D. (Columbia University) has published over 400 academic, writing craft, and spiritual articles and stories and essays in print and online venues. She delivers workshops and presentations to university faculty and writers and assists doctoral candidates in completing their dissertations (finally). Her handbook addresses these students’ largely overlooked but extremely important nonacademic difficulties: Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015). In Noelle’s first book, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she helps readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings. Website:  www.trustyourlifenow.com.

This post is adapted from: Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles, chapter 7 – “The Dreaded Doctoral Defense”.

Most universities in the United States require a final doctoral defense of your precious work, although the procedures and formats may different from those in other countries. In the U.S., the advisory committee you’ve had a love-hate relationship with throughout your dissertation constitutes your defense committee as well. In other countries, the defense may be conducted with a blind peer review process (Australia) or as a viva (U.K.). For most students, though, it’s still a one-to-three-hour torture.

Almost everyone who has a doctorate has a final defense story. They may be different but they all have two things in common: few are pretty and theyíre emblazoned on the new doctor’s mind forever.

A friend of mine was obviously pregnant at her defense. After she successfully passed, her chair (supervisor), staring at her bulk, informed her with a tone of incontrovertibility that her entire graduate education had been a ‘waste’. Outrageous and maddening, I know.

Happily, she proved the chair monumentally wrong. Later, with two kids, she became an award-winning professor at Brandeis.

My defense was a little less dramatic but no less discomfiting. During the two hours of grilling and false camaraderie, my right foot fell asleep. As I rose for the verdict, my leg collapsed and I almost fell over the table into a bald committee member’s lap. They all laughed, almost as embarrassed as I. I still blush reliving it.

A fellow student in my doctoral cohort, by far the most brilliant of us all, felt he did so poorly at his defense that he cancelled a long-planned prepaid vacation to Scandinavia with his fiance. I never heard whether he ever went on the trip got married. This was mea culpa at its worst.

What do these cautionary tales tell you? To see your defense rightly. A rite of passage, certainly, it is nevertheless an important event in your progress and professional development. You don’t want to fail or flub it. You also want to maintain dignity and engender the respect of your chair and committee members’ your future colleagues.

As a consultant and coach to dissertation writers, I have often noticed that most candidates are petrified of the defense and either overdo it or try to underplay it. They imagine the committee asking impossible questions, like a detailed explanation of their statistical involutions, or asking ridiculous questions, like their opinion of the university cafeteria food.

Many candidates either spend every possible moment cramming, and risk predefense burnout, or avoid preparation entirely. James started preparing before he had even completed his data collection. He kept asking me questions about the required procedures and sent me loads of articles on defense advice, confessing he kept losing sleep panicking about his defense. I gently told him, several times, that his preparation, although admirable, was premature.

At the other extreme, Viola, a very bright candidate, told me years later that, despite my admonitions, she had minimized her defense and barely squeaked by. She knew the material but her nervousness and lack of preparation got the best of her. She regrets to this day not following my advice.

Recognizing that both extremes are, well, extreme, I developed the following suggestions for a good final defense before, during, and after the event. First, though, for your greater perspective, especially in U.S. defenses, some words about your committee.

Your Committee

Doubtless all members have their own defense horror stories, and your defense may trigger echoes of theirs. Their egos are at stake in your meeting, and they probably want to show off to each other. They also may want to show off by asking you tough questions. And yes, they may be unpredictable, quirky, mercurial. But remember that they are also upholding the high research standards of the university and their part in it. Keep in mind too that they have worked hard to get where they are. Theyíre not your enemies and want you to succeed, for you and for them.

So now, for you to make the experience a pleasant one for everyone, some advice on preparation.

Way Before the Defense

It’s better to be overprepared than underprepared. You will thank yourself for it later.
Remind yourself that you are the expert on your dissertation, especially every time your stomach sinks.
Read the university manual on defense protocols. It should tell you the time allotted for your introductory presentation, if you need a PowerPoint presentation and the number of slides, and whether the defense will be open to the ‘public’ (usually friends, family, and a few stray predefense doctoral students).
Attend several defenses before your own to familiarize yourself with the process. Observe how the candidates respond, and make notes on the positive behavior (poise and direct eye contact with the committee) and negative behavior (a lot of ìuhs,î ìahs,î and slouching). Youíll be combating your fear of the unknown.
Ask your chair for advice. About a month before the defense, schedule a meeting and discuss the defense format and range of possible questions. Ask the chair to look at your PowerPoint beforehand (they often want to and will critique it) and ask too for (diplomatic) insights on the committee members. If trouble erupts, such as another member calling for your running your statistics completely again or insisting that you ‘need’ to survey 132 more dock workers, the chair is supposed to fight for you (diplomatically).

Especially if other candidates have had your chair, study their final PowerPoints. When youíre ready for your own, use these and any outlines in the doctoral manual. Creating the new slides from your dissertation will help you remember, review, and summarize everything.

Think of the worst questions you donít want to be asked. Write them all down.

Type out your answers. You can refine them later. Make sure your dissertation backs up your answers (for example, correct number of participants, statistical results, themes revealed).

Know your material! Some candidates mark a hard copy of their dissertation at the pages reflecting anticipated questions. If you do, you can turn to the pages quickly. Alternatively, use the PowerPoint’s space at the bottom of each slide for your notes and scripts.

Rehearse with a relative or friend (something you can involve them in, and theyíll be tickled to help).

A Little Before

If your university has a media specialist, schedule an appointment for your electronic needs for the PowerPoint and have a list ready.

Visit the room in which the defense is scheduled, preferably with the media specialist, and plan together where you’ll place your computer and other equipment.

Alone in the room, do a mock rehearsal. Stand at the podium and look out into the vast sea of faces eager for your wisdom. See the chair and committee members sitting there beaming at you.

A few days before, decide what you’ll wear (even if the defense is by teleconference). Choose clothes that look and feel professional and get them in shape.

The day before, pack your materials: computer, flashdrive backup, hard copy, handouts, pens, pencils, recorder/phone app if you choose, and anything else that anticipates any technical malfunctions and may seem like overkill but will make you breathe easier.

Don’t forget the deodorant.

The night before, go to the movies, binge watch your favorite TV show, or do something physical. No alcohol. Get a good night’s sleep.


Arrive early and meditate beforehand either in your car, on a bench outside, or even in the empty room.

Reflect on your previous successful presentation experiences’ from your job, a speech at a wedding, an impassioned piece of advice to a friend who took it.

Set up your materials.

Tell yourself you are confident and passionate about your topic and findings.

When they enter, SMILE.

Stand up, stand straight.

Greet each committee member, even if your knees are shaking.

Look ’em in the eye.

Remember that you are the expert. Take a few deep breaths.

When the committee starts asking questions, have a notepad and pen ready to take notes, and take your time responding.

If you don’t know an answer, don’t fudge. Instead say, “That’s a very good question. I’ll have to think more about it” or “I’ll do more research on that.” Remember you are still the humble student. The committee will admire your response.


At the end of the defense, smile, shake hands (admittedly clammy), and thank everyone profusely. Tell them you enjoyed the meeting (it is possible).

Expect some revisions. Just because it’s the ‘final’ defense doesnít mean the committee can’t change its collective mind and swoop down on niggling and not-so points.

Collect the committeeís hard copies with their notes, if this is the procedure. Or offer to pick them up or ask them to email you their marked-up copies or lists of revisions.

Study up on all the red-tape requirements and regulations for revised documents, all committee signatures, and final deposit of the dissertation. You don’t want to miss any deadlines.

Throughout: A Few Helpful Affirmations

  • Every time panic hits, practice defensive affirmations:
  • I am perfectly competent, confident, express, poised.
  • I am in command of myself.
  • I look forward to sharing what I know and have learned.
  • My defense goes perfectly.
  • The committee is for me.
  • I trust my knowledge, good work, and good mind to come up with the right answers.
  • I know everything I need to know, instantly.
  • I now visualize the movie of my perfect defense. I see myself poised and self-assured, talking easily about any aspect of the work, adlibbing from the PowerPoint. I graciously accept all compliments about the brilliance of my presentation. I hear the chair’s magic words, “Congratulations! You have passed!”

* * * * * *
When you practice the steps here, you will be one of the few new Doctors without a defense horror story. Your story will be a much happier one, and as you continue in your successful professional career, your defense will shine forever bejeweled in your memory. © 2017 Noelle Sterne


Help – I’m drowning in my own notes!

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - June 6, 2018 - 4:00am

One of the delightful things about blogging is letters from readers; an endless source of delightful validation and sometimes, interesting problems to try to solve. This letter is a case in point. Dora, a reader from Croatia writes:

The situation I find myself in is, I think, one that all researchers have found themselves in… I have reached the point where my OneNote is overflowing with notes and quotes from the I’m-scared-to-count-how-many books/articles/web sites/journals I have researched, read through, commented on, etc. I have used over 60 tags to organize my notes and have been meticulous about tagging each note I write with as many tags as necessary. I can filter my notes via these tags… BUT, I have reached the point where there are simply too many notes… I find myself having to prepare a conference abstract, a presentation or paper and being overwhelmed by the amount of data I have collected. It seems too daunting to have to reorganize everything… The only solution I see is to go through ALL of my notes, add even more tags to make them even more specific and thus have less notes under each tag. But this seems like an endless task and something that could easily turn into a vicious loop. Any thoughts?

I have so many thoughts Dora! Thanks for writing in. The problem you describe is extremely common, but it’s only actually been a problem in the last ten years or so. It’s one of the ‘good problems’ created by the awesome technologies that allow us to capture, file and index endless reams of digital data. Unfortunately, these technologies enable us to become digital hoarders as well as productive researchers.

To be clear, I’m as bad as anyone when it comes to digital mess. In fact, I feel a bit unworthy to give advice on this problem, but I’ll give it a shot since it’s aan excellent way to start putting our collective heads to a solution. I have four ideas for Dora, drawn from my own habits, which I put forward in the hope that other readers will write in with more solutions to the digital hoarding problem.

Attach the information to the task

OneNote is a great tool – but I wonder if it is too great? The problem with OneNote, Evernote, and other conventional database systems is that you can capture just about anything: text, audio, links, URLs and so on. While I’m still an Evernote fan, I use it advisedly. It’s too easy to stuff anything interesting in there — and promptly forget about it.

It’s a bit like the problem of my spice cupboard. I have so many packets of random stuff that everything falls out when I open it. The solution to the spice cupboard problem is… don’t buy as many spices! Ideally, you only buy spices if you need them or use them frequently. Similarly, most of the time I want to store information for a specific, future task, not just for the sake of it.

For this reason, I store URLs, links to documents, notes to myself and other project focussed information in my task manager, Omnifocus2 instead of in Evernote (if you’re on a PC, I recommend Asana or Trello). If I attach the information and notes to the task, I am less likely to create an unfiltered mess. You could, for example, set up a task for each chapter or conference paper and attach relevant information to the task as a file, or as a link back to your Onenote database.

I tend to take project related notes in a Literature Review Matrix, which forces me to put ideas into conversations with other ideas, rather than as isolated fragments.

Tagging structures

I always tag information with at least two categories: one general and one specific. Say I have a piece of information about a presentation for my upcoming trip to South Australia (I’m coming for you on June 22nd UniSA students!). In my Omnifocus2 task manager, I have a category called ‘writing and presenting’ which shows all the things I have coming up and when they are due. I have matched my task categories with my top level tags in Evernote. Now the searches become task bound. For example, a URL about how to do better info-graphics will be tagged ‘writing and presenting’ and ‘infographics’ (sometimes I throw in the tag ‘cool!’ if it’s particularly good information). When I am putting together a presentation and need information about infographics, I can look through everything related to writing and presenting and narrow my search accordingly.

Again, the context is more important than the information itself. If the information or note is not related to a task, but just something you think you might need someday, consider whether you really need to store it in your database at all. When I see an interesting link go by, I save it into Pocket so that I don’t have non-project related stuff in Evernote. I have so much stuff in Pocket now, I don’t even look at it, but I know it’s there – like a security blanket I guess. Which leads me to point three…

Write first, search later

Howard Becker, one of my academic writing gurus said something like ‘How do I know what I think until I write it?’. His approach to writing literature reviews is to write what you think first, then search the literature you have on file. Your searching task is simple: you are only looking for specific information to back up what you think – or challenge it, often a narrower search than a search for general information on a topic.

The first time I read Becker’s advice, I was shocked. It seemed to fly in the face of what a ‘good researcher’ does, but I tried it… and never looked back. The challenging your thinking part is important. The process is iterative: I write what I think first (sometimes as freewriting or as a list), then I look for information related to what I have written. On subsequent passes, I refine what I think, add more ideas, look for more information, and repeat the process until I am satisfied (or until I have run out of time).

With every sentence, I ask myself ‘Do I believe myself? Would other people believe me? What challenges or counter-arguments are possible?’. These questions open up multiple avenues for new information searches on your own notes or files.

Let it go!

Your problem is not so how to store things, but how to find it again. As long as information is findable, I’m a fan of regular pruning. I clean out my papers database every couple of years and have deleted my entire Endnote database more than once. My iterative process, outlined in the previous step, means if I need information again, I’m confident I will find it. It takes a certain amount of faith in yourself and your abilities, to let information go. It’s perhaps an aspirational state right now, rather than a practical suggestion, but try to focus your attention on getting the process right and less on the content.

That’s all I have to offer on this problem – now I wonder what you all think? Do you have any suggestions to help Dora with her note taking problems?

Related Posts

Cornell note taking template

How to stop ‘flipping’ and write a good To Do list

Here’s an excellent set of posts on Tagging from the Zapier Blog

Writing for social scientists by Howard Becker: Paperback and Kindle

I’ll be releasing extra tips in a video ‘extras’ version of this post: which will be made available to $1 per month subscribers to my Patreon Channel

06/01/18 PHD comic: 'Guess'

PhD Comics - June 1, 2018 - 7:08pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Guess" - originally published 6/1/2018

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Loving the PhD life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related posts

Gilmore Girls, myself

The principled PhD



05/25/18 PHD comic: 'Summer'

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

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05/21/18 PHD comic: 'Upgrade'

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

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The ghost of the ideal scholar

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

Are we seeing a new moral panic brew around reading?

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

It was a revelation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related posts

The Bedraggled Daisy – using diagrams as research aids

Reading like a mongrel

Surviving the reading marathon

Curing ‘Readitis’

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


05/18/18 PHD comic: 'Priorities'

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

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

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

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

Upgrading from Masters to PhD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks Jonathan

Related Posts

Masters students: second class citizens?

PhD to … start up?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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!