Updates in Doctoral Ed

01/12/18 PHD comic: 'Did you leave it on?'

PhD Comics - January 13, 2018 - 7:29am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Did you leave it on?" - originally published 1/12/2018

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

01/08/18 PHD comic: 'Number of Side Projects'

PhD Comics - January 9, 2018 - 6:46pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Number of Side Projects" - originally published 1/8/2018

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

12/22/17 PHD comic: 'On the side'

PhD Comics - December 23, 2017 - 8:03am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "On the side" - originally published 12/22/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

School is out for summer!

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - December 20, 2017 - 4:00am

The @ANUHDR team!

Well, that’s all your posts for the year friends – it’s nearly the end of 2017 already!

I’ve been a big year for me: three book projects completed and a big research project report released. I exhausted, so I’m off to Tasmania for some much needed R&R.

As ever, thanks to the wonderful team I work with at ANU. That’s us in the picture, from left to right: Bec, Me (in sunglasses), Victoria, Lily, Tania, Danny and Hannah. This year we were honoured with the Vice Chancelor’s award for Innovation and Excellence in Service. I want to take a moment to thank them – and all my colleagues who support

Victoria Firth-Smith and I accepting our Innovation in Service award from the ANU VC, Brian Schmidt

me, intellectually, logistically and emotionally at ANU and around the world. Although the blog never fits in my work hours, it wouldn’t be possible to do it without the people around me, including my wonderful husband Luke and my son, Brendan.

It’s going to be yet another long, hot summer here in Australia – I hope you find a cool restful place to be. For those of you heading into the winter months, stay cozy and warm. Normal programming will resume at the end of January, 2018. If you’re new to the blog and wondering what it’s all about, here’s the complete list of posts from this year to read while you wait for new ones to appear!

Gilmore Girls, myself
Your thesis is the map, not the journey
Your Phd can be your strongest career asset
The Month of Hell (TM)
Explainer: preparing to be professionally edited
How successful academics write
I call bullshit on pointless hope labour
How doing an internship saved my PhD
Academic writing is lie a painful, upper middle class dinner party
Thoughts on deep work
Haiku your way to a phd
How to be an academic
Conference small talk – the definitive guide
Why you should blog during your PhD
Don’t let those ‘sticky words’ confuse your thesis examiner
The principled PhD
The academic handmaiden’s tale
What do examiners think of the PhD by publication?
How to start Podcasting your research
Is it worth doing the 3MT?
We need to talk about competition
The vagueness problem in academic writing
Who is the client for your PhD work
The PhD – 30 years after…
Supervisor shopping
Your body is as important as your mind
Making the most of your conference money
PhD depression (or just the blues?)
PhD career capital
The professor is in
Seven spiritual lessons I’ve learned from doing a PhD
How to get a rock star supervisor
Enjoying your Viva
Why you are not the ‘star student’ (and how to become one)
Silent Sufferings
Ever thought of podcasting your research?
getting spiritual with it
How to stop ‘flipping’ and write a good ’to do’ list
Be the mouse
Using diagrams as research aides
Is the advice you get about your PhD wrong?
Helen Kara: book ninja
Going back to school again – a shopping list
Less is more!



In praise of academic spouses

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - December 13, 2017 - 4:00am

It’s almost Christmas time, when many of us have a bit of time with our families. It seems an appropriate place to pause and think about the myriad of ways that our families provide support for many of us.

This post is by Moira Hansen who is currently in the 3rd year of her Lord Kelvin Adam Smith-funded PhD at the University of Glasgow. As a graduate of both literary studies and life sciences, her research project – ‘”Melancholy and low spirits are half my disease”: physical and mental health in the life and works of Robert Burns’ – indulges her passion for arts, sciences and Scotland. Tireless support of her academic dreams and a firm grounding in reality is provided by her husband and her 12-year-old son. Respite from research and domesticity come in the form of the family’s two rough collies and the on-going battle to get to grips with her new patterns,having earned her black belt in taekwondo earlier this year.

Follow Moira on Twitter as @moiraehansen while updates on her research can be found at @bluedevilism

Research proposals, funding applications, research trips, conference attendance, journal articles, writing up, editing, viva prep, corrections, final submission…a doctorate is a long process, physically and emotionally draining, but worth it for the degree, the postnomial letters, the graduation celebrations.

But what if you don’t get these? What if, at the end of the three or four years, the sum total of what you have to show is a line or two of thanks in the acknowledgements section of the thesis and a seat halfway up the graduation hall where you can just about see what’s going on?

Such is the lot of the academic spouse. Truly the unsung heroes of the PhD journey.

Now I do have to confess a vested interest here; my husband undertook his PhD between 2009 and 2013. However, I’ll be the first to admit that I entirely underestimated the impact I had on that journey. I wasn’t a supervisor, a mentor, a funder, a colleague. My own specialism (literature) was entirely outside his field of research (microbiology of paediatric inflammatory disease).

It wasn’t until I started my own PhD in 2015, and found him doing for me things I had instinctively done for him, that I really gained an appreciation for the importance of this unique role within the PhD experience.

So what does your significant other do for you? Think about it. Really think about it.

Many things your partner does are come naturally within an established relationship and you might not even realise it. It might be dropping the kids off at school so you can make that early meeting, keeping dinner warm because you’re late leaving the lab (again!), making that long overdue dental appointment or remembering to send a card for a friend’s birthday. The kinds of things that happen in any relationship, not just ones with an academic.

But think about the psychological impact of such practical activities. You’ll not find a supervisor doing these things. It’s a different kind of care, care of the person and not the researcher. Yet, it is vital; we’re only too aware of the issues around mental health in academia, and these little things are just one less thing for you to worry about.

One of my favourite things to do was packing for conference or research trips. I’m now a dab hand at getting a week’s worth of clothes, toiletries and a laptop into hand luggage (useful for my own travels!) For both of us, it was my way of making sure he was looked after, even from a distance; the subconscious signal that I supported his trip, that I recognised its value to his research, even if it was another few nights away from home, from me and our son.

However, it’s not just about these practicalities. Your academic spouse will also recognise and help you manage the emotional demands that research places on you. You still can’t get your experiment to run, your statistical analysis to make sense, or negotiate access to that treasured-but-vital manuscript? It’ll be your spouse who becomes the release for those frustrations. They’ll let you scream, cry, rage and complain then quietly put the kettle on and never remind you that none of it is their fault.

They’ll develop some understanding of your research and become a sounding board for new ideas, a friendly ear for all the ‘thinking out loud’ as you try to make sense of your latest results, a test audience for your conference paper, the copy editor for your next article (or even your whole thesis). Yet, they remain distant enough that they can spot poor explanations and excessive jargon in your writing, ask questions from a different perspective that provoke alternative ways of thinking and prevent you from disappearing completely into your research bubble.

Keeping things grounded in this way is probably one of the most important things your academic spouse will do for you. They’ll recognise that, at times, there are looming deadlines which necessitate late nights and long hours but they’ll also be the first to tell you that you need a break, albeit in a roundabout way. It might be the bottle of wine in the fridge on a Friday evening or it might be that this is the weekend where you absolutely need to cut the grass, put up the new bathroom shelf or go shopping for a new sofa. It’s important that you listen to these ones; it may also be your partner’s way of telling you that they’re feeling a little neglected!

As a PhD student, your spouse will be on that journey with you every step of the way. Your worries will also be their worries, your victories will also be their victories. They’re probably the only other person as invested in your research as you are. I insisted on going with my husband to submit his thesis. The night before his viva, he slept better than I did.

But the nature of the role of the academic spouse is that you’ll be the only person who really sees what they do. Those sentences in the acknowledgements will never do justice to the sacrifices they have made for you. So make sure you tell them.

We couldn’t do it without them.

Thanks for these beautiful reflections Moira – how about you? Do you have a spouse or partner that supports you on your PhD journey? Maybe you want to show them a bit of love in the comments!

Related posts

Parenting your way to a PhD

Silent sufferings

12/11/17 PHD comic: 'Nuclear War Explained'

PhD Comics - December 12, 2017 - 5:19am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Nuclear War Explained" - originally published 12/11/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

12/06/17 PHD comic: 'The Office Coffee Flowchart'

PhD Comics - December 8, 2017 - 1:48am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "The Office Coffee Flowchart" - originally published 12/6/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

I want to leave academia – what’s next?

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - December 6, 2017 - 4:00am

Good advice on how NOT to be an academic when you finish your PhD is pretty thin on the ground. Many supervisors have never done anything else, and/or are not well enough connected with industry to know what is ‘hot’. Careers centres at universities tend to shape their offerings around the huge undergraduate cohort, who have very different needs.

If you want to leave academia at the end of you PhD it’s likely you will face some kind of career transition. While we train astrophysicists, we don’t have any astrophysics companies in Australia. Nor does industry seem to recognise disciplines like anthropology. If you want to leave academia, in many cases, you have to become someone else. Professionally at least.

In fact, there’s a whole range of careers out there you have probably never heard of while you were busy writing your dissertation, but they are hard to recognise. Out there, the skills you learn as an astrophysicist is more likely to be packaged in a job called ‘data scientist’; on the humanities side, an anthropology graduates might be suitable for a job called ‘UX designer’.

Many non-academic employers have hard problems to solve and would really value your skills. The problem is – how do you find each other?

I’ve been researching the complex issues around PhD graduate employability for some three years now. My colleague Rachael Pitt deserves the credit for starting me on this path. Our first project together resulted in a paper called ‘Academic superheroes: a critical analysis of job descriptions for the purpose of employability.’ In that paper we treated academic job ads as ‘wishlists’ where universities are describing the perfect candidate and performed a simple content analysis using the Researcher Development Framework from Vitae.

The premise of this initial research was: if you know what skills and attributes are most prized by universities, you can work backwards to the skills programs you want to offer. This ‘market research’ of academic employers gives us some data to guide PhD students who want to become academics. The results of that research were well received by the community and immediately useful to people like myself, who have to plan transferable skills programs.

The obvious next step was to repeat the process with non academic jobs, to see what skills and capabilities industry wants. But it was here that we hit what turned out to be a 2 year snag.

How do you decide what non-academic job is relevant to an analysis? Non-academic employers don’t tend to use the word ‘PhD’ in their job ads. If you type that term into a database you probably only see academic jobs. Yet, many employers, especially in knowledge intensive economies like Australia, are looking for people do highly complex jobs that involve research in some way.

I was stuck on this problem until my colleague Dr Will Grant from the Centre for Public Awareness of Science saw me present the findings from the Pitt / Mewburn study and was immediately interested in the problems I sketched out. Afterwards we had a coffee that turned out to be the start of a beautiful research collaboration.

Our initial idea was to find money for research assistant time to identify enough, relevant non-academic jobs and then repeat the procedure Rachael and I developed. Will made the genius suggestion that we approach the government for money. Since we are lucky enough to be located in Canberra, our nation’s captial, we literally walked across the road and had a meeting with Will’s contact in the Department of Industry.

The government were interested in funding research into the problem, but sent us back inside ANU to seek help from machine learning specialists. This was a research direction Will and I had not thought about at all, but ended up being amazing. Our initial inquiries led us to the clever people at Data61, in particular A/Prof Hanna Suominen. Hanna is an expect in Natural Language Processing as well as machine learning. Luckily, as a research supervisor and passionate educator, she was interested in the problem of PhD employability too.

To cut a very long and interesting story short, over the last two years Hanna inducted Will and I into some of mysteries of advanced big data / machine learning research techniques. As a primarily qualitative researcher, it’s been exciting to be able to participate at the leading edge of this emerging science. Machine learning enables qualitative research at a scale that is normally impossible ‘by hand’. (Along the way we have had lots of fun too. I count Will and Hanna as friends as well as trusted work colleagues, a lovely side-effect of this project).

Together we managed to design an algorithm that can ‘read’ job ads and rank them according to research skills intensity. Australia’s biggest online jobs market place, Seek.com.au, generously gave us every job ad from 2015 for our experiments. It took much longer than we thought (of course), but we did manage to measure the magnitude of the ‘hidden’ job market for PhD graduates in Australia, which we expressed as a distribution curve:

We’ve drawn the ‘PhD threshold’ conservatively at x=5. For those who remember their high school calculus, the area under the curve to the right of the threshold line represents the magnitude of the ‘hidden’ job market for PhD graduates. In case you’re wondering, it’s roughly 5334 jobs in our Seek data set from 2015 – enough for every available PhD graduate in Australia. Probably more than enough if you believe the research that suggests that only about a third of jobs are ever advertised in the first place. Around 80% of employers who wanted PhD level skills, did not mention the PhD at all, confirming the hunch that non academic employers don’t understand what a PhD graduate can do for them (oh, and there was one job for an anthropologist – but no one was looking for an astrophysicist. Sorry).

However, the ‘PhD shaped’ jobs weren’t where you might expect to find them. Consider the following graph, which compares the relative job market for people specialising in marketing and communications (orange), vs science (pink):

We train many more PhDs in science than we do in marketing and comms, but marketing and comms clearly has a much greater need for high level research skills. Why? They are grappling with an entirely new business model – it’s all about tracking and analytics now. Lots of marketing people are trying to work out where and when you might buy something so they can put targeted, even personalised, advertising in your way. The advanced technical skills needed for this work is much more likely to be taught in an astro-physics course than a marketing one. This is one reason for the massive shortage of data scientists, highlighted in this report on the ‘Quant Crush’ from Burning Glass.

There are big implications in this research for all of us in the business of research education. Should we be telling astro-physics graduates to look for a marketing job? Or should we change how we approach teaching marketing and comms to include these skills, and enrol heaps more students? Do we even need to be responsive to employer needs at this granular level when it’s likely, with technological changes, these needs change continuously?

These are still open questions we are exploring, but if you are interested and want to go full nerd, you can download our newly released “Tracking Trends in Australian Industy” report here.

In the meantime, our annoying research problem has unexpectedly become a most useful and fruitful research direction. Hanna, Will and I are now exploring the commercial possibilities of our algorithm. As I said earlier, Job ads are interesting and useful wish lists. By exploring the market for your skills via job ads, you can work out what research techniques are in demand, or what software packages / programming languages you should you learn. Universities are storehouses of learning that you can tap to develop yourself in all kinds of ways. All kinds of learning is available for free (or at least for cheap): courses, amazing mentors, online learning, libraries full of books and resources. With knowledge of where you are going, you can start to engage with industry and seek the experience that will make you a credible candidate, perhaps via an intern program.

Yes, it’s challenging to fit this ‘extra’ work into your PhD, but it’s an investment in your future. Our app will make this process much easier by putting the power of our algorithm in your hands. Our data insights can help you see what kinds of jobs you might be able to do, what kind of skills and experiences will make you competitive, and where the jobs are. This helps you make and action concrete career plans – hopefully settling some of the uncertainty that many feel, particularly towards the end of the PhD. We plan on making searching intuitive and fast, using the latest machine learning tools. Importantly, we believe in keeping this technology free for PhD students and graduates if we can. We’ll have to be creative to achieve this, but I’m reasonably confident we can make it work.

We aim to have a (free) beta version of ‘PostAc’ TM (App. No. 1872576) available by next May. If you’re interested in participating in the testing of the demonstration version, you can sign up here.

Obviously there is a lot more work to do yet, but I’m interested in your initial reactions to this body of research. Are you confused about how to get a non academic job? What information or data do you think you need to help you make good choices about developing your skill set? What are the challenges in making what is essentially a career transition to become ‘something else’ at the end of your PhD?

Related posts

‘PostAc’ TM (App. No. 1872576) demonstration version testing sign up

Download our report “Tracking trends in Australian Industry”

What do academic employers want?

Academic on the inside?


11/27/17 PHD comic: 'Awkward Media'

PhD Comics - November 29, 2017 - 6:33am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Awkward Media" - originally published 11/27/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

Post-it PhD!

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - November 29, 2017 - 4:00am

This post is by Jessica Ritchie, a PhD student at the TC Beirne School of Law at the University of Queensland. You can find Jessica is on Twitter as @j_ritchie13

I was having difficulty in organising the case law that I wanted to talk about in my thesis so that it worked as a narrative, not as disjointed notes. I needed to find the links between cases relating to the different areas relating to DNA evidence, but where to start?

Everything seemed relevant.

Sitting down in front of my computer for another day of writing seemed overwhelming. It was hard to focus my thoughts in an organised way. I want to write, but where should I begin, what is my structure? I tried writing the cases up in a document, this quickly got out of control. Writing a long list of incoherent thoughts might seem like a way to make sense of my train of thought, but such ramblings only cause more pain at editing time.

I read Inger’s recent post on ‘Using diagrams as research aides’ and thought, why not do a map of the cases?

When I was an undergraduate law student I had used flow charts to help map different legal processes, theories, and cases. Representing things visually really helped me in my recall. It is something I suggest to students I teach, but somehow I had forgotten that this was a useful tool for me personally in processing and organising information.

So I decided to sit down with an A3 piece of paper and start to write the relevant cases down that I wanted to write about… however, I then started to change my mind about the flow of the cases and ended up with a failed, static flow chart:

I didn’t want to waste time rewriting everything and so the idea to use post-it notes came to mind. This is not a new concept, but in the haze of my final year of my PhD I don’t always think clearly.

I started filling in post-it notes and sticking them to my cupboard door (yes, staff will go past your office and think you are going a little crazy as you surround yourself with post-it notes). This helped me start to see where cases naturally grouped together well.

Once I had done about three-quarters of the cases I could see themes that I could use as a logical progression of the case law in Australia (and interesting international case law). I could also see why they are important to my thesis. It helped me to identify cases that, while not directly dealing with DNA evidence, were important steps towards a legal development. Further, it helped me identify cases that I liked but really did not work and should exclude.

I then added headings, which, if a case had an overlap with another area, but it wasn’t the main finding for that heading, I wrote the case citation on the heading. This will help me continue linking between all the sections when writing. I highlighted the headings and cases to make it stand out more. After this I stuck them to A3 paper and photocopied them. I had something that looked like this:

The best part of this process is that if I change my mind and want to include additional cases I can easily move the post-it notes and re-photocopy my flow chart.

For the time being I have put the photocopies on my cupboard door as an easy reference and continue to add additional cases. While this seems like such a basic organisational thing to do, I sometimes forget that I can use different processes to help me with my writing.

This is what I have so far:

I sat down with these A3 pieces and wrote 7,000 original words in a day! Now I feel like the hard part has been completed and the task of writing it up feels much less daunting.  Most importantly, it was fun to do it this way and helped with my motivation with writing this chapter.

It also helps that I love stationary so it was fun to have a valid excuse to raid the stationary cupboard at university and use post-its and highlighters. (This is not a paid endorsement of post-it notes but I would happily receive free post-it notes or sponsorship from stationary stores!).

Thanks Jess! Are you a post it note fan? We’d love to hear how you use post-its in your research in the comments.

Related posts

Using diagrams as research aides

In praise of the humble whiteboard

Better than Donald – how to argue like a pro

11/17/17 PHD comic: 'Tax Attack'

PhD Comics - November 18, 2017 - 9:27am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Tax Attack" - originally published 11/17/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

11/15/17 PHD comic: 'Postdoctoral Spelling'

PhD Comics - November 16, 2017 - 9:58am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Postdoctoral Spelling" - originally published 11/15/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

Your thesis is the map, not the journey

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - November 15, 2017 - 4:00am

Before we begin the scheduled post, I want to interupt normal programming with a brief announcement. Australians reading this blog will know that we have an announcement about the outcome of our marraige equality survey due today. Here’s a message from the ANU ALLY group about how we can support our LBGTIQ colleagues and friends at ANU, thanks to our convenor Hannah Birke:

We have mentioned this before but we can’t stress enough how important it is to show the LGBTIQ* community your support at this time. The marriage equality debate, with all its negative impacts on the LGBTIQ* community, won’t just stop when the result is announced. The LGBTIQ* community will continue to be the target of discrimination and hate speech with the survey result providing new fuel, regardless of whether it is ‘no’ or ‘yes’.

The ANU Ally Network will run an event on Wednesday the 15th between 12 pm and 2 pm at the Pop-Up Club (that’s inside the Pop-Up Village). This event will be open to everyone from the LGBTIQ* community, as well as their allies and friends. To our knowledge, this is the only ANU-wide event on that day and we encourage you to come at least for a little while and show your support (and bring your friends and colleagues). The nature of the event will obviously depend on the outcome of the survey. There are plans for some small activities, but mostly it is about coming together and sending a strong message that no matter what the survey result is, the ANU community is proud of its diversity and is standing behind its LGBTIQ* community!

I personally hope that the outcome will be positive and will be there at the Pop up village event at 12pm. Whatever happens, I hope that if you identify as a member of the LGBTIQ* community, you are being well supported today. Know that you are beautiful and wonderful humans. To my fellow straighties, let’s encircle our LGBTIQ* students and colleagues with love today – take them out for a coffee, buy them a cake and, if it’s appropriate, be free with the hugs. Let’s hope they are happy ones. #solidarity

OK, back to our normal programming! This post is by my colleague and co-author Dr Katherine Firth. We’re writing a book together with Shaun Lehmann which will be called Academic Writing Trouble and How to Fix It. Take it away Katherine!

‘Writing trouble and how to fix it’ 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. I tweet about writing, higher ed, food, social justice, and self-care and via a blog Research Degree Voodoo (which is 5 this year!), 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 a section from Chapter 3 of the new book, and draws on something I draw on a whiteboard every single time I run a Thesis Boot Camp. The post talks about moving from your research question to your research answer, by means of a hypothesis: an educated guess at what your answer is going to be that you try out through researching and writing it up. It means you don’t have to wait to the end to get a clue about what the argument might be, and this helps you with structure, voice, clarity, and not being descriptive!

I can’t say how useful having a hypothesis is in shaping your writing and research. It helps you to shape your research proposal, your research plan, your first draft. It may be that your hypothesis is wrong, that’s fine. It’s easier to fix a wrong hypothesis than to introduce an argument into a draft that has none.  This is because drafts that describe your research journey are exploratory writing, whereas drafts that describe your findings and analysis are explanatory writing.

Scientific writing always has a hypothesis, and this is one of the reasons science theses are, on the whole, faster to write than theses where the hypothesis can only emerge very late in the process like anthropology or projects using grounded theory. But most humanities and creative projects can be written using a hypothesis, and it’s worth doing so.

Surprisingly, it is MUCH easier to rewrite a text that had set off in a definitive direction but the direction turned out to be wrong, than to rewrite a text that had no direction at all. You may need to change words, but it’s actually quite easy, fast work. Why is it easier to rewrite an argument that was wrong rather than to construct an argument for the first time? Because arguments are linear, and descriptive research is not.

When you have piles of articles, books, field notes, discussions with peers and supervisors, undergraduate text books, potential theories… it’s all messy and networked and multivalent and full of potential. Describing this research will also be messy, distributed and full of potential lines of enquiry. However, a thesis is just that, a single hypothesis that you explore in a linear manner across 70,000+ words. (Or, for some anthology PhDs, 3-5 articles, each of which takes a single hypothesis that you explore in a linear manner across 7,000 words).

To create a linear argument out of a mass/mess of information involves an enormous amount of work of constructing knowledge. It is really hard to turn the words of a description into an argument—you are often better off starting again with a blank page (though using your existing research, obviously!) than trying to wrestle that prose into a new shape. In cases like this, typing up 20,000 new words is surprisingly easier and faster than reworking your existing 20,000 words into a structure.

On the other hand, to update a linear argument involves just a bit of shifting. And that shift can be successfully achieved with quite small changes in your language, perhaps by using modifying words like ‘partially’ or ‘in only two out of the five cases’, or even ‘not’.

For example, you might start with something like:

Scholars have agreed for about the last 60 years that Middle Earth kingship was contingent on the support of the Silvan Elves (Baumgarden 1952, Schwartz 1992, Allan 2007, Ringwald 2014).

This close analysis of 7 manuscripts from the Kloster Anduin written between 1300 and 1400 will illustrate the ways in which the royal family of Naith maintained temporal power by courting and relying upon the institutions of the Silvan Elves.

Except you got to the archive, and all the manuscripts are actually letters between the prince and the elf lord quarrelling about money and lands. You’ll need to rethink your hypothesis, but you’ll find it extraordinarily easy to rewrite any draft introductions.

While scholars have agreed for about the last 60 years that Middle Earth kingship was contingent on the support of the Silvan Elves (Baumgarden 1952, Schwartz 1992, Allan 2007, Ringwald 2014), this close analysis of 12 manuscripts from the Kloster Anduin written between 1300 and 1400 will illustrate the ways in which the princes of Naith maintained temporal power in spite of extensive opposition from the institutions of the Silvan Elves.

Two tiny tweaks and a change of punctuation, and my argument now says something completely different. And the tweaks make all my wrong ideas completely disappear.

The reader doesn’t need to know that I thought I was going to find something, but when I got to the archive I couldn’t find it, and then I spent a fortnight walking through the woods totally lost and confused and panicking, and then I talked to my supervisor, and then I talked to my other supervisor, and then I wrote three drafts of the new introduction none of which were any good and then… [You are bored by now, and I can promise you, your examiner will be too.]

The thesis is a map to the best route to the destination of your new knowledge, not a travelogue of how you got there.

PS: I made up everything about those sentences about Middle Earth research—so sorry to everyone who is a more serious Tolkienite than I am and was wincing (or wondering who Baumgarten was).

Thanks Katherine! I’m sure Katherine will be happy to take questions, but hopefully you will be interested in following our progress through our Writing Trouble Mailing List.

Other posts in the Writing Trouble series

The vagueness problem in academic writing

Academic writing is like a passive agressive middle class dinner party

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


11/10/17 PHD comic: 'Staples'

PhD Comics - November 11, 2017 - 8:07am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Staples" - originally published 11/10/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

Your PhD can be your strongest career asset

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - November 8, 2017 - 4:00am

This post is by Owain Johnstone. Owain recently submitted his PhD thesis in Socio-Legal Studies at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, Oxford University. His research explores the role of the British state in influencing the social construction of ‘human trafficking’ since the first English law was introduced on the topic in the early 2000s. He can be found on LinkedIn: https://uk.linkedin.com/in/owain-johnstone-a1231344.

Is it just me, or does the end of the PhD sometimes feel like you’ve missed out on three (or four, or five) years of the career ladder that your non-academic friends have been busily climbing? Sometimes, when I occasionally contemplate leaving the academic bubble, I worry about having to start again from the bottom.

But I’m not sure I should. In fact, I think a PhD gives you a whole bunch of the sort of transferrable skills that are really valuable to employers. It might be difficult to see this from outside academia – a PhD can be a bit of a mysterious thing to the uninitiated – but that just means that we students need to make our case more clearly. So I’d like to start a conversation about what kinds of skills a PhD gives you that can be taken into the outside world – and that employers should value.

Here’s my list – feel free to add more in the comments!


In a lot of disciplines, as a PhD student, you’re pretty much on your own most of the time. Apart from friends and family, nobody much cares where you are, how you dress, what time you work, whether you eat… So it’s down to you. If you don’t have plenty of organisation, drive, self-discipline and time management, you’re going nowhere. If you’ve managed to do a PhD it’s proof that you more than tick the self-starter box.

Expert Communication

As PhD students, we spend a lot of our time writing or presenting to different audiences in different formats. Whether it’s a departmental discussion group, a poster competition, a conference paper, or even just putting forward an idea in a seminar – we’re always thinking about how to get our message across to people who might not share our expertise (or our opinions). And this isn’t just about throwing words out there. We also network – a lot. We need to get our work noticed, so we spend a lot of time persuading people that what we do is really interesting and important. It might feel like an uphill struggle sometimes, but it’s a skill that a lot of other people don’t have.

Management of others

We don’t just manage ourselves – we manage others too. It’s helpful to think in jargon-y terms here. So we sometimes manage downwards (i.e. the traditional kind), perhaps if we’re leading on a conference or heading up a committee or society (it might be something as simple as being student representative). But we also manage ‘horizontally’, when we’re involved in collaborations (maybe organising a workshop or a seminar). Remember that time you convinced your co-convenor to go with your idea? That’s management. Even more importantly, we manage upwards. We manage our supervisors, our directors of graduate studies, our departmental administrators – the list goes on. Think about the last time you negotiated with your supervisor about what your next chapter will look like, or discussed their expectations for when you’ll have it ready.

Managing Money

We don’t have very much of it, and we’re always asking for more. As a PhD student, most of us probably aren’t putting our names to major research grants. But we are applying for fieldwork funding, travel or conference grants, book grants, support funds, scholarships, etc. We spend quite a bit of our time making the case for why people should give us money (including putting together budgets and plans) – and then accounting for how we’ve spent it.

Project management

Self-management is one thing, but it won’t get you anywhere unless you have a workable plan for a thesis project – and then actually carry it out. A three year project is a major undertaking. It requires a lot of forward planning to get right. Plus, things go wrong – holes appear in arguments, fieldwork arrangements go awry, new books get published while you’re writing – and your plan has to adapt to them.

Argument and analysis.

I’ve left this one until last because it’s the most obvious – but that’s not to say it’s not important. Every PhD student can construct and sustain complex arguments, ask interesting questions, and choose appropriate methods to answer them. It’s not just research careers where that’s important.

So there you have it – six reasons why any employer should jump at the chance of taking on a recent PhD. If you’ve done a PhD, chances are you’ve shown you can manage yourself and others, communicate complex ideas clearly, handle money and plan a long, difficult project. What employer wouldn’t want to hire someone with all those skills?

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11/01/17 PHD comic: 'Stranger Theses'

PhD Comics - November 3, 2017 - 2:35am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Stranger Theses" - originally published 11/1/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

The Month of Hell (TM)

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - November 1, 2017 - 4:00am

Overcommitment is a constant problem for working academics who wear ‘busyness’ as a badge of honour. I think the overcommitment problem tends to start duing the PhD. This post from Evan Hayles Gledhill has real insight into why the problem happens in the first place – our own reactions to the hyper competitive research culture. Evan is a PhD student in the English literature department of the University of Reading and the founder of the amazing Logan Institute for the Study of Superhero Masculinities (which is well worth a visit!).

I first saw the film of David Mamet’s play Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), as an undergraduate pursuing a degree in literature and film, around 2004. It chimed with my ideas about the sort of working future I didn’t want to have, and the meaninglessness of labour under capitalism, but otherwise I thought little more about it – until I started my PhD in 2013.

Glengarry Glen Ross is a film about stress, pressure, and the achievement of seemingly impossible targets, in a competition that will see only the top two workers retain their livelihoods. You might be surprised to hear that James Foley’s film is about real estate agents, not adjunct lecturers or post-doctoral researchers.

The catchphrase of the awful office culture portrayed in the film is ‘always be closing’: it’s no good having leads on potential investors, and properties to sell, if the deal between the two is never completed. This constant recap of the relation between supply and demand reminded me of advice given to PhD students and early career researchers – what is the use of all their hard work if

a) no one knows about it or can access their results, and

b) they can’t show how their results answer a question anyone wanted to ask in the first place!

From the first year of my four year PhD project, therefore, I have been looking for opportunities that answer both parts of that equation. However, the injunction to ‘always be closing’ isn’t a friendly reminder to always be alert to the gap between your research results and its audience. It’s a sales mantra, a pressured demand to always have a deal in hand.

I took this a little too much to heart in year two of my PhD, and at the start of my third year I landed myself with ‘the month of hell’. It’s tempting to apply for any and every call that might give you an opportunity to publish or present. If the conference or the publisher is prestigious enough, it might be worth putting in the extra work to tweak your research, or even explore that odd tangent you keep on the back burner, if it fits neatly into their topic area. BUT I am here to warn the unwary of the dreaded deadline pile-up that Glengarry Glen Ross-ing will inevitably lead to…

At first, ‘always be closing’ meant that as I reached a deadline, and submitted my copy, I made sure I was simultaneously submitting an abstract or waiting to hear back on one. I maintained a steady ‘one in, one out’ policy. So far, so good. Until this summer, I ended up attending three conferences back to back. I had, foolishly, forgotten that although abstracts and opportunities flow in across the year, very often conferences fall very close together, scheduled outside of term dates. I survived June, but I had not learnt my lesson.

The thing about academic deadlines is that they are very often moveable feasts. The initial cfp will say that editors expect full articles/chapters in August, which becomes September after negotiations with the publishers, which becomes October after you have recovered from that nasty bout of flu/laryngitis/food poisoning/malaria that inevitably strikes when you have an important commitment. I realised at the start of August that my autumn looked like this:

September 4 Return edits on completed book chapter September 19 chapter due for different project, 7500 words October 1 Another chapter due, 8000 words October 22 Conference presentation, 3000 words plus slides October 28 Another presentation, 3000 words October 31 Edit and resubmit an accepted work November 4 Journal article due, 7000 words

I was also due to tutor a module I have never previously taught, to continue work on my actual thesis, and work three days a week in a support role for the Europeana Sounds project.

As I write, I am just days from the end of this nightmare, the light is at the end of the tunnel – and it might turn out to be a train! I have not yet alienated all of my students and colleagues, and my housemates have been very patient about my tendency to microwave endless bowls of tinned pasta. I have missed only one deadline by a significant margin (apologies to those editors), despite the aforementioned laryngitis, and a stinking cold this last weekend. But my bedroom looked like this:

Internally, my headspace looks similar.

‘One in, one out’ is a great way to plan your publications and presentations, as long as you note not only the deadline for the original submission, but also the date of the conference itself or the final publication timeline. If you get an acceptance without a clear timeline, ask! At least one of the above publication projects on my list didn’t provide this information up front, and I was foolish enough not to check. And, as much as this goes against everything modern work culture tells us, sometimes you just have to say ‘thank you for the opportunity, but it’s not possible for me to meet that deadline right now.’

I bet some people are wondering ‘where is this idiot’s supervisor??’ He is, very sensibly, looking at me with a very clear, and smug, ‘I told you so’ expression on his usually friendly face. Like all good mentors, he offers advice, and then allows his tutees to make their own decisions, and their own mistakes. If I had not lived through ‘the month of hell’ I wouldn’t have believed just how tired, messy, and exhausted I became. Some of us need to live it to learn it, so see some you later, in hell!

Thanks Evan! I hope that month in hell was worth it – what about you? Have you ever found yourself this over committed too? How did you cope with it?

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10/30/17 PHD comic: 'Current Law'

PhD Comics - October 31, 2017 - 5:21am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Current Law" - originally published 10/30/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

10/23/17 PHD comic: 'End Times'

PhD Comics - October 25, 2017 - 3:31pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "End Times" - originally published 10/23/2017

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Explainer: preparing to be professionally edited

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - October 25, 2017 - 4:00am

There’s a lot of confusion out there in PhD land about the role of professional editors. A dissertation document is basically a book. In the professional publishing world an editor would automatically be employed for this size of project. Editors can be expensive, but in my experience, totally worth the spend. However, this is not a decision you should make at the last minute. To get the most for your money it’s important to be prepared for the editing process.

I want to thank Karin Hosking for sending in this excellent explainer. Karin Hosking is a Canberra-based editor, proofreader and research assistant. She specialises in thesis editing and particularly enjoys working with students and academics from non-English speaking backgrounds. Her LinkedIn profile is here and she can be contacted via email at chezkaz@gmail.com.

Every document deserves an extra set of eyes! Some students ask a friend or relative to proofread their thesis for them, some cross their fingers and hope for the best, and some use a professional editor. Most of the students who use my editing services are from non-English language backgrounds, and in some cases the editing is subsidised (or fully funded) by their school or college.

The purpose of editing is to remove distractions so that your research is communicated clearly and effectively. Will you use a professional editor for your thesis? If so, what do you need to know about the editing process?

Don’t leave it till the last minute
Recently I received an email from an international student at the ANU. Her thesis supervisor had recommended she get her work edited (in her words: ‘my supervisor … told me I need an active editor who can rewrite many of patchy sentences and coordinate closely with me’), and another advisor at the ANU had recommended me. However, she wanted the work done immediately. The thesis was due for submission in one week.

I replied that I couldn’t help in her time frame (most good editors are booked out weeks, if not months, in advance) and suggested a few other local editors, though my guess is that they wouldn’t have been able to help at such short notice either. It’s disappointing to receive last-minute requests from people I’d like to help but can’t. So, please leave enough time for the editing process. You’ve been working on your thesis for years; please allow your editor two weeks with it. Editing requires intense concentration so works best when spread out rather than squashed into a small amount of time.

Editing ≠ rewriting
Australia’s universities put their heads together a few years ago and agreed on a set of guidelines for editing research theses. You can see them here. The guidelines outline ‘the extent and nature of editorial services that professional editors can provide when editing research students’ theses and dissertations’.

Most universities have their own variant of the guidelines (for example, at the ANU) but essentially they spell out what professional editors may, and may not, do when editing theses. We are allowed to check spelling, grammar and consistency; we are not allowed to rewrite, reorganise or reformat your work. We’re also meant to make suggested changes into your document but then return it to you in pdf format so you can consider whether to implement each change rather than just accepting the edits.

How to prepare for editing
Ideally the editing process should take place right at the end of the writing process. After you’ve written all the chapters, after you’ve prepared the front matter and end matter and references, after all your supervisors have given feedback and you’ve incorporated their suggestions. It is also more efficient if your editor gets to work on the whole thesis at once, rather than chapter by chapter.

What else should you do to prepare? If your university, school or college has a style guide or manual, please provide a copy of this to your editor. A style guide lists the institution’s preferred ways of dealing with things like layout, quotations, referencing, punctuation, spelling, figures and tables. While you should already have used the style guide in preparing your thesis, it will be a handy source for the editor to check anything that looks doubtful or odd.

You should also prepare a style sheet for your editor. A style sheet is a short document summarising any ‘rules’ you’ve followed in your thesis that you need the editor to be aware of. For example, did you consult a particular dictionary? How should numbers and dates be expressed? If you’ve used any unusual words in your thesis (indeed … who doesn’t?) make an alphabetical list of them so your editor knows they’re meant to be there and, say, knows whether they should be capitalised or hyphenated.

We’re here to help
Where can you find an editor for your thesis? Word of mouth recommendations are common. Maybe your school, college, or research supervisor knows a good editor. Maybe a friend who has already submitted their thesis can recommend one. Many editors are listed on editing societies’ websites such as this National Australian resource list or local lists, like this one for Canberra. Most will be happy to provide a no-obligation quote if you provide a sample chapter or two, an estimated word count, and an idea of your time frame.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions … we are here to help!

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