Updates in Doctoral Ed

When is it ‘enough’?

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

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

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

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

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

How do I know when I have read enough?

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

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

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

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

How do I know if this is original enough?

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

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

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

Have I written enough?

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

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

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

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

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

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



whether or not



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

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

there is, there are, there were


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










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

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

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

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

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

is going to


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

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


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

the following

at this point in time

end result

final conclusions

final outcome

first and foremost

for the purpose of

resulted in

when it comes to

with reference to

in order to

we must

it is essential to

I would describe this methodology as having

previous mentions in this thesis

relates to a number of different ideas

it is at this point

a brief discussion of/around


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







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

*Grammar vocab:

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

Related posts from our upcoming book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Know the administrative requirements for submitting

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

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

Present your research

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

Have a submission plan

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

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

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

Have a sanity plan

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

Have food hidden everywhere (and accept the consequences)

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

Get used to weird dreams

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

Plan something nice for once you’ve submitted

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

Tell people that they’re awesome

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

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

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What’s it like to be finished?

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

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

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

01/31/18 PHD comic: 'FOMO'

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

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

Failing – and getting up again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nope nopetty nope.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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Less is more?

On life in the lab, and failure

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

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

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

01/22/18 PHD comic: 'Psych'

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

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

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

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

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

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

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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

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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.

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Using diagrams as research aides

In praise of the humble whiteboard

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