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The academic handmaiden’s tale

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - August 2, 2017 - 4:00am

Content warning – this post contains details and discussion of sexual assault and harassment. For more information and services, please visit the ANU Respectful relationships page.

Yesterday we got a damning report on sexual harrassment and assault in Australian universities.  It’s truly harrowing reading. I’m not going to recap the report, you should read it for yourself, but one thing is clear: the research workplace is no different to many others. Sexual violence happens here.

Yesterday was a difficult day around campus for many of us, especially survivors. Yesterday we began to speak freely of the times we have experienced sexual violence, or witnessed it. It was raw and difficult. Exhausting, but necessary. I have mostly stayed silent about my own experiences, but yesterday I felt I needed to tell some people. Now I feel compelled to write about it.

Sadly, many women will have experienced what I have: a scary encounter that leaves you profoundly shaken, but not physically hurt. I struggle with the idea of calling myself a survivor, and this is part of the problem. The difficulty of recognising, and calling out, sexual assault and harrassment is part of what makes it so pernicious in our culture – and one of the many reasons why most of it is unreported.

I can’t help contrasting the University with my experience of harassment in the building industry. In architecture offices male colleagues would frequently ‘massage’ my shoulders while they peered at my screen – and down my top. In the building industry, in the 1990s at least, sexual harassment was right in your face. In the university, sexual harassment and violence tends to be much more covert. Most of it happens behind closed doors, or in labs after hours.

In over a decade of working with PhD students at multiple universities I have only had a handful of people disclose sexual harassment to me, but I have no doubt that’s the tip of the iceberg. There must be many PhD students out there, all over the world, who never report. Some will fear their perpetrator, others will worry about their future career, still more will be confused and even ashamed. I wish I could say, hand on my heart, “report and all will be well”, but I think it’s clear that universities around the country have not done well in this respect. Failure to believe disclosures of sexual assault, or minimising the poor behaviour of others, can contribute to a general atmosphere of fear.

The vast majority of disclosures PhD students have made to me are not about sexual assault, but about ‘micro-aggressions’. This is poor behaviour which is largely non-violent and non-sexual in nature, but serves to make research workplaces hostile and unwelcoming. It’s not exactly bullying because it’s not directed from one person to another over a period of time, but it’s similar. Excessive aggression at presentations for example, or questioning your right to be in a space, in a conversation or even in a PhD program. Women, men and people who don’t identify as a either gender can experience micro-agressions from the academics who are meant to be there to teach and mentor them, or even from other students, but I’m sorry to say the majority of the stories I have heard are from women and the majority of the culprits are men.

And what are we supposed to make of the way some academic men seem to treat their female colleagues and students as a combination of surrogate girlfriends and help-meet? Just this week a young woman told me how her lab leader treated her like an unpaid servant, expecting her to organise his diary, take phone calls and do other kinds of secretarial paper work. This young women didn’t even identify the behaviour as inappropriate until another man said “I’m glad I’m a guy – he doesn’t ask us to do all that stuff”. The only thing that gives me comfort is that, at least in the incidents reported to me, it seems to be older men who act in these entitled ways. Perhaps generational change is happening. I hope so.

I’m sure some people will object to me making any kind of connection between sexual assault, micro-aggressions and excessive demands on women’s time and emotional capacities, but they all abuses of power and position that are just not OK. I have never formally reported anything that happened to me, so I totally understand the difficulties of reporting and speaking back to power – but if any of this is happening to you, I really hope you will at least reach out for support.

I also hope that this report starts a process of thinking about how to respond better to disclosures and make our university workplaces safer. I’d love to hear your point of view or even your experiences, should you choose to share them, in the comments, but I trust the conversation will be respectful. I will not hesitate to delete comments that attempt to shame others or minimise their experiences.

I’ll leave you with some contact numbers to seek help and support (Australia only) should you, or someone close to you, need them. I’d appreciate people in other countries offering details of support services if you have them.

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08/01/17 PHD comic: 'Nice try'

PhD Comics - August 1, 2017 - 6:23am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Nice try" - originally published 8/1/2017

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07/26/17 PHD comic: 'Half Summer Personality Test'

PhD Comics - July 27, 2017 - 7:20am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Half Summer Personality Test" - originally published 7/26/2017

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What do examiners think of the PhD by publication?

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - July 26, 2017 - 4:00am

For the last couple of decades people have been experimenting with different types of PhD programs. The PhD by publication has become popular, especially in the sciences, but how do examiners react them? The academic world is quite conservative and some PhD students have encountered difficulties in the examination process.

In this post, Christopher Keyworth shares his experience of examination. Dr Chris Keyworth is a post-doctoral research associate based at the Manchester Centre for Health Psychology, University of Manchester, UK. Chris’s main interests include understanding how people think about their health, and finding new ways of improving the health system. His current research, as part of a team of researchers at Manchester, focuses on obesity prevention in two specific areas – improving patient/general public understanding of obesity prevention through appropriate lifestyle behaviour change, and understanding the healthcare professional role in obesity prevention.  Chris’s ResearchGate profile can be found here (https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Chris_Keyworth), and he can be contacted via email (chris.keyworth@manchester.ac.uk) or through Twitter (@ChrisK_UofM).

Since Chris is from the UK, this account is of his ‘Viva’ or oral examination, but I think the lessons translate to other types of examination, including the blind peer review favoured in Australia. The questions asked by Christopher’s examiners were quite instructive and can help in the writing of such a thesis, so I want to thank him for sharing these observations.

Christopher Keyworth is…

The thesis-by-publication (or alternative thesis) format is becoming more and more ‘trendy’ for the modern day PhD student. This approach offers students an opportunity to write their thesis alongside writing peer reviewed publications and refining those all-important research skills. There are many excellent ‘how-to’ articles out there, but what do examiners think of alternative thesis?

I wanted to share with you some key take home messages that came out of my viva experience, which can hopefully help you when both writing your thesis and preparing for the viva.

Opening thoughts

Be prepared to have a discussion about not only why you chose alternative thesis format, but how this has helped you develop as an early career researcher (editor’s note: if you are submitting without a viva, it’s worth including this information in the introduction).

There are many advantages of this type of thesis and during my viva I had a great discussion about the ways this helped me develop my research skills. Not only is this an efficient way of writing your thesis as well as preparing and submitting scientific research papers, but it allows you to refine your writing skills throughout your PhD, a key skill for early career researchers. You develop your skills, and avoid duplication of work post-PhD.


One of the most important pieces of advice I can give you is ensure you have clear signposting. My examiners were impressed with the way I had made it easy for them to navigate their way through my thesis. The way I did this was writing short sections before and after each chapter. This is really easy, but a very effective way of helping your examiners follow your thesis. My examiners were impressed with my use of visual aids – such as a nice clear diagram outlining the different chapters of my thesis.

Publication strategy

My examiners were keen to discuss my publication strategy particularly in relation to where I saw my career going. Because my thesis spanned multiple disciplines, I was encouraged to reflect upon why I chose the journals I did. For me it was a case of wanting to publish widely to reach a more diverse audience. If your research is applied (I was a psychologist conducting applied research in a dermatology setting) you need to explain the benefits of publishing where you plan to. Also be prepared to talk about the challenges you have faced communicating your research to people from within, and arguably more importantly, from outside of your field.

I had attended and presented at many conferences, my examiners were keen to hear about my experiences of doing this, and what I had gained from attended multi-disciplinary conferences.

The way I approached this was by explaining that my publication strategy reflected my aim to develop connections between different disciplines. As a psychologist, my aim was to show how my research was applicable and relevant to health and cognitive psychology, as well as dermatology, primary care and health services research. I spoke about the novel aspects of each of my studies and why these would be appealing to potential journals (Editor’s note: this was a good way for Christopher to show off the professional skills in academic publishing he gained from doing his PhD this way).

Unique contributions

The word we are all too familiar with when it comes to research: transparency. Be clear in what your unique contributions are, and be prepared to explain in detail the steps involved in each of your studies.

Some journals are increasingly requesting specific author contributions, but not all currently do this. You will need to talk about how you conceptualised each study (why was this study needed) and the methodology you used. I was asked to outline the contributions of other authors, for example second and third coders for qualitative research, or multiple data extractors for systematic reviews.

I would suggest adding a section at the beginning of your thesis, or to accompany each of your articles which outlines the specific roles and responsibilities that you had, as well as those of your supervisors. As a side-note remember to obtain copyright permission for any published articles or articles in press. Similarly written copyright needs to be obtained from any co-authors of papers not yet submitted to journals
Also remember that just because your papers are published doesn’t necessarily mean they are exempt from constructive feedback. Quite the contrary. A really helpful tip when thinking about any papers you have published as part of your thesis, is to go back to the reviewer comments. Think about what points were raised, and how you addressed them. This certainly helped me when talking about published papers during the viva.

Here’s one I made earlier.

My examiners were interested in how each of my studies related to one another. There are of course different ways of writing and conducting PhD research (discussion about methodology is a topic for another day), but you may be conducting your studies sequentially (one by one) or in parallel. Alternative theses are not simply about cutting and pasting your journal articles together to form one document, far from it. Yes a paper may constitute a thesis chapter, but must be carefully weaved into your thesis to create a coherent narrative.

Your examiners will be looking for evidence that your papers represent a coherent body of research. You will need to demonstrate that the papers, whilst they must each represent a novel/independent piece of work, link to answer your over-arching research question. My examiners liked the fact that I included a visual representation of how these studies relate to one another. This can be really simple, but again a very effective way of visualising the structure of a thesis. Think ‘boxes’ and ‘arrows’. My PhD was conducted sequentially (studies were conducted one by one), and as a result I discussed with my examiners each study, and how they linked to the previous/next ones.

The importance of the discussion

Your examiners want to know how your work represents a coherent body of work, and in particular about the implications of your work in the ‘real world’. We had a very detailed conversation about my discussion chapter. In particular issues such as why would policy makers, funding agencies and the like be interested in my studies findings for example.

Remember the viva is a two-part process, the written part and the verbal part. A well written thesis can be made even better if spoken about with passion and enthusiasm. Thinking before your viva about what your examiners are looking for is half the battle.
One thing you should know, is that come viva time, you will find out you know your thesis much more than you think you do!

Good luck!

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07/21/17 PHD comic: 'Weekend Plans'

PhD Comics - July 22, 2017 - 9:23am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Weekend Plans" - originally published 7/21/2017

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07/19/17 PHD comic: 'The Mysteries of SPACE'

PhD Comics - July 21, 2017 - 3:28am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "The Mysteries of SPACE" - originally published 7/19/2017

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How to start podcasting your research

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - July 19, 2017 - 4:00am

This is the second post Dr Katie Linder has written for us on Podcasting. In Part One she discussed some of the benefits of being a researcher/podcast. In this post she lays out a pratical strartegy for starting. I think I might have to give it a go! If you haven’ t listened to Katie’s podcast Research in Action, do yourself a favour and tune in sometime.

Dr. Katie Linder is the research director for Oregon State University Ecampus and the host of the “Research in Action” podcast and the “You’ve Got This” podcast. She actively tweets from @Katie__Linder, @RIA_podcast, and @YGT_podcast. Most recently, she is the author of The Blended Course Design Workbook: A Practical Guide (Stylus Publishing). She also publishes a weekly email newsletter called Learn Like a Boss. You can learn more about her work and projects at her professional website.

In Part 1, I discussed some of the benefits I have found from being a researcher/podcaster.

As you can tell, I love this work. So much so that I started a second podcast on the side called “You’ve Got This” for higher education professionals wanting to increase their confidence and capacity for dealing with the day-to-day demands of academia. Rather than an interview podcast, this is a solo show that usually only runs 8-10 minutes per episode so that listeners can squeeze it into their busy academic lives. This show has only been running for about a year, and the weekly episodes cover things like getting book contracts, keynoting, building a scholarly pipeline and being an impactful teacher. It’s also available on iTunes and SoundCloud.

You’ve Got This” and “The Anatomy of a Book” are excellent examples of how anyone can create a podcast. I produce both completely on my own, with no support team, from a closet in my house. I record and edit the audio, write up show notes and market the shows on social media all on my own. (I do outsource transcription because I don’t always have the time to do it myself).

For those of you who might be intrigued, and who might want to dip your own toes in the podcasting waters, here are some of my recommendations to get started:

  • Listen to a bunch of podcasts and figure out what you like. What kind of show format draws you in? What episode length do you like the most? What kind of topics are most interesting to you? There are also several great podcasts on podcasting. One of my favorites is The Podcast Producers.
  • Find a gap. Just like our research contributions, developing a new podcast is all about finding a gap and filling it. Several people have emailed me to say that “Research in Action” is the only research podcast they’ve found that’s producing episodes regularly. Similarly, “You’ve Got This” was created because I wasn’t finding generalist podcasts for higher education professionals. I started “The Anatomy of a Book” because I love hearing about process and couldn’t finding anyone talking about book writing in academia.
  • Carve out some time. Producing a podcast can be a big time commitment. You’ll want to make sure you can commit to a regular posting schedule before you get started.
  • Choose a platform. There are many free options available (SoundCloud is a good example) and other audio hosting platforms just require a small fee (I use Libsyn to host all of my shows). Posting your show in iTunes is free. You may also want to build a small website where information about your podcast can be shared. (For “You’ve Got This” I bought a domain for under $15 a year and then used a free WordPress theme to organize the website’s content. I’ve built other websites before using WordPress, so I was able to do this over a weekend. “The Anatomy of a Book” is currently housed on a sub-domain of my professional website.)
  • Get some equipment. I have access to a studio setup at work (and you might too if you’re affiliated with a college or university), but my home setup is a closet lined with noise reducing foam that has a chair, small table and a microphone. Microphone equipment is relatively inexpensive and good audio quality is pretty important if you plan to make podcasting a regular thing. There are also a ton of blog posts that talk about the best kinds of equipment for podcasters – a common place to start is Pat Flynn’s “How to Start a Podcast” tutorial. You can learn more about the equipment I use in the show notes of this “You’ve Got This” episode.
  • Record. You can’t really launch a podcast without content, so get started with recording! For all of my podcasts, I pre-record several weeks’ worth of episodes so I don’t have to worry about getting behind.
  • Editing and post-production. For the podcast I produce at work, there are a couple rounds of edits that happen because we want to help our guests sound as good as possible. I work with our audio technician using Splice, which allows us to collaborate on audio editing.

For the podcasts I produce on my own, I can usually get the episodes in one take. I then edit in GarageBand, which mostly just means adding a pre-recorded intro and outro to each episode’s content. I taught myself to edit in GarageBand using some YouTube tutorials in about an hour, so the learning curve is relatively small.

For all of the podcasts I host, I provide transcripts for accessibility. As I mentioned, this is something I outsource for the podcasts I produce on my own (I use Transcript Divas). You may also want to create show notes for each episode. Although there are certainly podcasts that don’t do this, I think it’s a nice resource for listeners who want to follow up on resources that you might mention in each episode.

(If you have the funding, there are also a ton of podcast service providers that will help you edit your audio, produce show notes and complete all kinds of other tasks associated with podcast production.)

  • Post and share. Once your audio is ready, you can upload it to your platforms of choice. Again, there are a lot of online tutorials about how to do this, so you can check out those or just follow the instructions offered by the platforms you plan to use. Once the audio is up, make sure that people know about it by posting on social media channels and emailing friends and colleagues.

Podcasting can be a great way to share your passion for a particular topic, connect with a community of people with similar interests in that topic, and learn a new skill set that could be useful for your own professional development. For example, in addition to learning a ton of new things about research, I’ve also learned more about marketing, social media, creating images for social media (I recommend Canva for this), audio editing, sound quality, accessibility and much more.

I hope you’ll jump on in – the podcasting water is fine!

Thanks Katie! Have you got a research related podcast? We’d love to hear about it in the comments.

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Podcasting Part One



07/14/17 PHD comic: 'The Path to Enlightenment'

PhD Comics - July 16, 2017 - 7:51pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "The Path to Enlightenment" - originally published 7/14/2017

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07/12/17 PHD comic: 'The Conference Morning Session'

PhD Comics - July 13, 2017 - 9:18am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "The Conference Morning Session" - originally published 7/12/2017

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Is it worth doing the three minute thesis?

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - July 12, 2017 - 4:00am

This post is by Mary Woessner who is a PhD candidate studying clinical exercise science at Victoria University in Melbourne Australia. Her research is exploring if drinking beetroot juice can help improve exercise capacity and overall quality of life in patients with heart failure. Outside of her studies, Mary has an active interest in research impact and making science more approachable to the general public. This has led her to pursuing events like the Three Minute Thesis as well as writing blogs on the research experience. You can find out more about Mary on her linkedIn profile.

It is raw. It is real. It is one of the most challenging and taxing experiences a researcher can undertake, and presenting my Three Minute Thesis completely redefined my approach to research.

Naively I assumed preparing for this competition would be a breeze. The rules of the competition were simple. You have 3 minutes to give an overview of your PhD thesis. External judges would score the talk based on set criteria related to the comprehension, content, engagement and communication. When I entered the competition at Victoria University, I set low expectations. This is just for practice, I told myself. No pressure here. The initial heats took place in July 2016, at which point I was only officially 17 months into my PhD candidacy. Here we go.

Initial Heats: What was I thinking?

The day of the competition, I began to feel I was in way over my head. All of my competitors were presenting data from their studies and most were in year 3 or beyond. The speakers were dynamic and engaging, and I realized very quickly that I had not put as much time and energy into the preparation as my peers.

A student finalist from each college was selected, as well as an overall winner, a runner-up and a people’s choice. Although my presentation was not selected by the judges to advance, the audience voted me through as the people’s choice winner.

Most of that afternoon is still a blur to me, but one moment is crystal clear. I was in the elevator on my way out of the building when two audience members broke the unspoken rule of “never- speak on an elevator ride”, and struck up a conversation.

“So your research is on beetroot juice? You give that to heart failure patients and it could…help them walk more?”

The question was both inquisitive and curious, with a hint of cautious scepticism. But, in a nutshell, they got it. They defined my PhD in one sentence. And from that moment, my mindset began to shift. I can actually do this.

University Finals – Owning my story

I spent the next month prepping for the university finals, and this time I dove headfirst into the process. I analysed, reworked, tweaked and rehearsed my talk so much that I had it memorized two weeks early. I even recorded myself speaking so I could listen during my morning commute. Despite all of the extra preparation, my nerves were even higher than the first time. My heart was beating out of my chest, and I could hardly breathe.

As I tapped my foot, shook my head and started to hyperventilate, my friend provided some sage advice. Tell your story, she said. You know your story. Forget the words and remember the story. That was it. From then on, I was IN the moment.

With only 8 finalists, this round of competition went much quicker. I swear the judges took longer to deliberate than we took to present. The announcement remains a bit of a blur even to this day.

Mary Woessner.


Mary Woessner is the winner of the Victoria University 3MT Competition.

 There were photos, hugs, certificates and congratulations. I was flooded with excitement, relief and a fleeting sense of pride. I couldn’t stop smiling. Not only had I finished first overall, but I had again earned the People’s Choice title. While the overall win was an enormous honour, in that moment, the fact that I won over the audience was almost more personally significant to me. My research and my story was having an impact.

Asia-Pacific Finals: Stumbling with confidence

By this time, I had fine-tuned my practice techniques, and felt less nervous than the last two competitions. The support from the university was fantastic. Not only did they help me prepare, they arranged all of my travel and offered to fund a support person to attend the finals with me. I truly felt like they were setting me up for success.

The day of the competition was a constant state of organized chaos. The relaxed feel of the university heats was long gone as the judges had to score 50 three-minute talks in less than 4 hours. Everyone was nervous. Some talked through the nerves with their neighbouring competitor, others recited their talk in a hushed mumble and a few sat silently, eyes closed waiting for their moment. I employed all three techniques in rapid succession, jumping from nervous babbling to repetitive rehearsing, to complete mind blanking all in a 60 second span.

I don’t remember much of my time on the stage aside from the bright lights. Well, that and the one moment about halfway through where I lost my words. I was well-placed, well-versed, and then, I blanked. Time froze and that moment felt like a lifetime (it was actually about 3 seconds). I knew my talk was timed to perfection. In practice I consistently finished at 2:54. Quickly I weighed up my options. Cut out a paragraph to ensure a timely completion, or try to push through. I went for it. I finished just as the clock flipped over to 3 minutes.

I was not one of the top 10 finalists, so I was able to relax in the afternoon and support the other competitors. I felt this huge wave of relief, calm, and, perhaps most surprisingly, this deep sense of pride. For the first time, the weight of the moment truly hit me. I was one of 50 students here to present their research. I had done it. Hours, weeks and months of preparation, and just like that, it was over.

The first place, runner-up and people’s choice were announced and the event came to a close. As the afternoon turned to evening and the intensity of the competition became a distant memory, everyone enjoyed a social hour of hors d’oeuvres and wine. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I had this little fleeting thought. I want to do this again. By the time I was on my flight home the next night, the inner dialogue shifted. I will do this again.

Next Step: See you in two years

The competition was a game changer for me. I learned how to share my research with a general audience in a manner that was both factual and engaging. I hear myself use pieces of the talk as I discuss my project with participants, friends and colleagues. This experience was invaluable. For anyone contemplating their next professional challenge, I encourage you to consider this unique opportunity. If you do decide to take the leap, here are a few things I learned along the way:

  • Have as many people as you can review your work. I can’t tell you how many times I thought I had the perfect script, only to present it to blank stares from my flatmates. What you take as assumed knowledge, is very, very rarely that. You know a lot more than you think you do.
  • Practice speaking slowly. Practice speaking quickly. Present it while you run, listen to music, or walk to the train. Distract yourself. If you know it when you’re distracted, you really know it.
  • Approach the competition as a challenge and set realistic goals. As PhD students, we know the value of the process, but we also tend to be results driven. Set your own expectations of what a positive outcome means.

I have a year and a half of data collection remaining in my study, so I will be sitting out the 2017 competition. As intimidating and exhausting as it was, however, I truly cannot wait to spend another 3 months preparing 180 seconds.

Related Links

If you’re an ANU student reading this, and interested in doing some 3MT training, here’s a list of upcoming events my team is putting on to help you prepare and rock your 3MT presentation. Many people just come to these to sharpen their presentation skills, there’s no pressure to compete, so come along if you are interested:

 “How to win the 3MT with the Thesis Whisperer” A workshop with me about the 3MT rules and success strategies. Three minute theatre  Pitching and performance training with the excellent Dr Peter Coperman. Presenting in English for candidates with an ESL background: a new workshop which we expect will be very popular – be quick! Improvisation tools for persuasive and strategic communication in the sciences: a workshop run by the excellent centre for public awareness of science (CPAS). Improvisation tools for persuasive and strategic communication in the humanities: Why should scientists have all the fun? CPAS has adapted this workshop for non-scientists. #ANU3MT media skills: run by SCAPA, our strategic communication team. 3MT clinic : Come and show us what you have so far and we can give you feedback All winners and runners up will be invited to our intensive 3MT bootcamp weekend for finals training. And the ANU final is on the 6th of September. Last year 900 people came – join the fun! You can register here


We need to talk about competition

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - July 5, 2017 - 4:00am

Competition is like the background radiation of academia – ever present, but rarely visible. Here’s a field guide to some common forms of competition amongst research students and some useful ways to think about it. If just to prove that competition does not have to be a way of life, this post has three authors:

Simon Korwin Milewski, who holds a PhD in operations management from the University of York. He currently works in organizational development at a large steel and engineering company in Germany.

Gerald Payne Dyson, who recently finished his doctorate at the University of York and is currently Assistant Professor of History at Kentucky Christian University. His research focuses on the books of the medieval clergy.


Brigitte Leah Rohwerder a researcher at the Institute of Development Studies. She works mainly on a project providing rapid literature reviews for staff in donor agencies working on conflict, humanitarian response, governance and social development.

This post was written from the point of view of the humanities. I think a lot of the insights apply in the sciences too, but I’d be interested to hear your views in the comments.

As research students, we aim to advance our disciplines through rigorous research and intense focus on our studies. At the same time we are all too often full of anxiety and uncertainty that keep us from achieving our best. Even though other students among our friends provide support, the amount of inherent competition among research students is often overlooked. To spark a discussion on this topic, we have written a few thoughts on aspects of this competition between research students.

We are curious to compare our experiences with those of others. We do not intend to explain why students may compete. However, we present some typical areas of competition that we have experienced doing our PhDs in social sciences and humanities. We also lay out a few strategies for dealing with competition that may help others to cope with such situations.

We focus on four key areas of competition, namely:

  1. Competition over the quality of supervision
  2. Competition over the quality and quantity of data
  3. Competition regarding progress
  4. Competition regarding publications

Competition over the quality of supervision

As a PhD student, you are likely to engage in many conversations with other students discussing your supervisor(s). Sometimes, these conversations result in anxiety over a supervisor’s methods or how he or she interacts with your work. All of us, for example, often worried that our supervisors were not discussing our work in sufficient depth. This fear was intensified by fellow students’ anecdotes about the close supervision they received. Conversely, a friend often worried that because of the close guidance she received compared to others, she would not be able to work independently later on.

Do you have a good supervisor? Great! You will probably learn a lot from him or her that will equip you for future challenges in your academic career. It will probably also help make your project even better and have greater impact.

However, if you feel that your supervisor is not doing a great job, use that experience to your advantage. Learn to manage your supervisor and seek feedback from other experts in the field. Having busy supervisors forced us to work independently, and this became an area of strength that has been very useful working in our current jobs (both in industry and academia).

That said, not all difficult supervisory situations can be handled with stoicism and a willingness to learn from the experience. If your supervisory situation is intolerable, most universities have systems to aid you. Use them if necessary.

Key message: If your supervisor is good, great. If your supervisor isn’t good, try to use the experience to your advantage and learn to work independently.

Competition over the quality and quantity of data

For our studies, we all collected a considerable amount of qualitative data. While insightful and enjoyable, the urge to collect a huge amount of data was driven by stories we had heard about the data others had collected. This led to fear that we would not have enough material to work with in the end.

The problem was, like many other PhD candidates, we underestimated the broader implications of data collection. It is much more important that you prove your ability to analyze and critically reflect upon your data than having a huge amount of data. This is also an important point for those working in the humanities. When deciding on what and how much primary material to examine in your study, consider how much you can usefully and thoughtfully analyze rather than heaping up mounds of poorly considered and peripherally connected sources. At the end of the day, this part of your PhD is clerical work, while analysis and reflection are where you show that you are a good researcher.

Key message: Do not worry if others have collected more data than you. You need less than you think, and the value is created through your analysis. 

Competition regarding progress

The significant cost of a PhD means that there is pressure for you to finish your degree on time, regardless of whether you are self-funded or supported by an institution. We felt this pressure more acutely when other students talked about how they were nearly finished with their theses. Looking back, many of them were not as far ahead as they claimed to be or we believed them to be. But even if they had been, it should not have been a matter of concern. Writing a thesis is not a race against others, and it does not matter whether you finish first or last in your cohort.

Nevertheless, we always advocate having a full first draft in hand as early as possible. In almost any project, things change regardless of how well planned they may have been. Once you have hold the first draft of your thesis, it becomes much easier to work on shaping, adding and deleting parts of it. It is okay if your draft consists of copied and pasted sections, very rough drafts of chapters, notes and photographs of white-board sketches, screenshots or drawings. Besides, beginning to write in the first year of your PhD will help you to hone your writing skills and make for a more readable thesis in the end. Better writing means less revision when you turn your doctoral research into a book or series of articles later on.

Key message: It does not make sense to compete to finish first; a PhD is not a race. Having a full draft in hand sooner rather than later is helpful though.

Competition regarding publications

Our supervisors always encouraged us to attend conferences and publish in well-respected, peer-reviewed journals. We all presented at international conferences and published a number of articles before submitting our theses, although our PhDs were by thesis rather than by publication.

In spite of this, publishing was probably the domain where we experienced the most competition. It is typical that you meet other students, especially at conferences, bragging about how much they have already published. Unnecessary and off-putting as that kind of attitude may be, it does not matter what or how much others publish or whether they publish in good journals or not. What matters is that you aim to publish for your own good.

Therefore, collect data and draft your thesis as early as you can to maximize the time you have to attend conferences or submit to journals and work the resulting feedback into your thesis.

This competition for publication also exists among humanities PhDs, but many graduate students are not published until after they have finished their thesis and passed their viva. Do not be discouraged by this, but try to be flexible. Some theses will work better as a series of articles rather than a monograph. Also, feel out your publication options using your connections (e.g., your supervisor, your panel and conference contacts).

Friendly advice from senior academics can help you see your work in an honest light and overcome doubts instilled by comparison with your peers. Above all, persevere. It is worth the effort. After all, it is pretty cool to be a published author.

Key message: If you do not have to, publish only for your own benefit, not because others may or may not have published before you. Be flexible and seek advice when necessary.

Concluding advice: Do not listen to others (too much)

Obviously, as a PhD student, you will spend a lot of time with other PhD students. However, every PhD is different. Do not waste time comparing yourself, your supervisor, your progress or your publications to other students too much. Be confident.  Most other PhD students know just as little as you do. Therefore, don’t pay attention to others too much. Be aware of the competition among fellow PhD students, but don’t let it distract you.


When we came up with this post we focused on writing about the competition we had experienced first-hand. When we gave the manuscript to some friends from other disciplines they added many more potential areas of competition, such as:

  • competing for laboratory time
  • competing for conference funding
  • competing for teaching slots

and many more. What kinds of competition have you faced in your PhD? Did our experiences match yours? How did you manage those challenges? Feel free to share your own experiences with us.

Related posts

Thesis Prison

The Process


06/30/17 PHD comic: 'Academic Travel'

PhD Comics - July 1, 2017 - 6:56am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Academic Travel" - originally published 6/30/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

The vagueness problem in academic writing

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - June 28, 2017 - 4:00am

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

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

Part of our process with this new book is to test out some of our text on our audience – you. If you’d like to know more about the book before it’s published, you can sign up for our writing trouble mailing list. Here is the first post on ‘vagueness’ by Shaun – he’s interested to see if it’s too… vague. Take it away Shaun!

Research students often receive comments like these:

  • I’m not sure what you are trying to say here
  • Do you mean x, or y?
  • What is ‘it’?
  • Be more specific

Reading this feedback can be an incredibly frustrating experience. You thought had been crystal clear – why can’t your supervisor understand? Did they read it in the dark?

Unfortunately, it’s far more likely that your writing was suffering from ‘vagueness’ – a constant problem in English. English-speaking readers (especially in an academic context) will only do a very small amount of work to figure out what you mean before they respond with confusion. I’ve spent a lot of time with research students for whom English is a second/other language. Vagueness is an especially common for this group of PhD students, but it also plagues less experienced writers. Why does it happen?

When you level up to a research degree, there is increased scrutiny of your work. A big part of communicating successfully in academic English depends on your ability to identify and eliminate multiple meanings from your text. Surprisingly, once you learn how to do it, dealing with vagueness in your text can actually be very enjoyable, in addition to making you a better writer and editor.

Before I go on to explain some techniques to deal with vagueness, it is important to understand why the English language behaves the way it does when there is ambiguity. For this, I will turn to the work of the late anthropologist Edward T. Hall and his concept of high- and low-context cultures.

In essence, a high-context culture is one in which a listener/reader is comfortable making use of contextual information and applying their common sense in order to understand messages. These languages developed in tight knit communities who shared a lot of experiences in common. You can think about a high context language as being full of ‘insider speak’.

For instance, it’s likely that you understand cultural references and memes that completely mystify your parents. In a high context language you can take a lot for granted and don’t have to explain yourself. You may also see cultural communication styles like this referred to as listener/reader responsible. As it happens, some of the most common first languages of students writing in English are derived from high-context environments: Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Indonesian, Thai, Arabic, and to some extent Spanish and French.

On the other hand, a low-context culture relies much more so on the content of the message. Low context languages developed in situations where people living next to each other were different – such as in trading ports and countries that have been repeatedly colonised – such as England was for thousands of years. Waves of invaders: Romans, Vikings, the Normans disrupted the close bonds of society and this meant people had to work hard to understand each other.

In a low context language the recipient of the communication brings very little to the table in terms of securing understanding. The onous is on you to make yourself understood. These cultures are also therefore referred to as speaker/writer responsible. This communication style is especially common to the Germanic cultures of Northern Europe, and therefore to English as well.

Let me give you a small example of how this difference in context-reliance plays out in everyday speech, taking Japanese (high-context) and English (low-context) as our languages of comparison. Let us imagine two people stepping outside on a cold day. In Japanese, you can express that you feel cold by simply saying ‘cold’ – the listener will look at the situation at hand, understand that the weather is cold, and then guess that what you mean is that you feel cold.

In English, you need to do much more work. If you just say ‘cold’, your listener will probably respond with ‘what’s cold?’. This is because the listener in this case is not as comfortable with guessing what you mean based on context and common sense. For this listener, it is not possible to know whether you meant ‘I feel cold because the weather is cold’ or whether you meant ‘I’d like to direct your attention to the fact that the weather is cold, though I myself am not bothered by it’. Further, it actually isn’t even completely clear whether you are talking about yourself, as you haven’t said ‘I’. This is why in English we must say ‘I’m cold’ or ‘it’s cold’, if we hope to be reliably understood.

Stay with me – I will give a more academic example later.

As we can see, the English speaking listener (and by extension reader), is likely to be confused if there is more than one meaning implied in any statement. A useful way of thinking of this is that English speakers interpret communications on a possibility basis and not on a probability basis. Being 80% sure that you meant x is not acceptable, as there is still a possibility that you meant y. A successful English-language communication is one that has only one possible meaning.

So returning to the common (annoying) feedback at the top of this post, if you are being told that you are being vague, it means that you are writing in a higher-context mode than the reader and asking them to be probabilistic where they want more certainty.

How to Deal with Vagueness

Forget your supervisor or examiner, this is your reader!

Dealing with vagueness is about learning to ‘get out of your own head’. As I have implied, context-dependency issues can arise for writers with English as a second/other language, but they can also occur for native speakers who are simply too close to their work (a common problem for thesis students).

A useful technique is to learn to read your work through the eyes of a kind of caricature of the low-context communication mode. You need to imagine a reader who is highly intelligent and logical, but who has no common sense and will fail to interpret any multiple meaning in the way you had intended.

I call my version of this the Commander Data Meditation based on the robotic Star Trek character of the same name, but it works just as well to imagine Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory or any other hyper-logical character.

This technique is best used in combination with what I call the 48-Hour Rule. After you have finished writing, put aside your work for 48 hours. This is long enough to forget the exact words you chose, but to recall exactly what you meant to say. Sit down with your work, close your eyes, and put yourself into the mode of the character that works for you.

First warm yourself up with some simpler (and more humorous) examples. For each of the below, identify the multiple meanings, and then re-write them to make these multiple meanings clear.

Here’s an example:

  • During the incident, the defendant struck the man with a walking stick.
    • During the incident, the defendant used a walking stick to strike the man.
    • During the incident, the defendant struck the man who was holding a walking stick.

Now try the following:

  • The star was observed with a telescope.
  • I saw the tree coming around the hill.
  • It is widely acknowledged that flying planes can be dangerous.
  • I shot an elephant in my pyjamas.

Here is an example based on a real thesis:

“Some recommendations are still relevant and can be implemented. Most of the recommendations were related to project management, public debt management, budgetary reforms and financial sector reforms.”

In this case, two sets of recommendations are identified in the first sentence, 1) all recommendations, and 2) the recommendations that are relevant to be implemented. While it may have been perfectly clear to the writer that they were referring to 2) when they said ‘Most of the recommendations…’ in the second sentence, in my low-context mode it becomes clear that the writer could actually be pointing to either set of recommendations. I would then edit the text as such to remove this second meaning:

“Some recommendations are still relevant and can be implemented. Most of these still relevant recommendations were related to project management, public debt management, budgetary reforms and financial sector reforms.”

Now, go back to your thesis. As you read, try to identify where anything you are saying might be interpreted as having more than one meaning. Treat for vagueness as you have above.

While it can be frustrating to be told that you have vagueness issues, I think you can see how the fix is quite simple. The key is to remember that you aren’t writing for a clone of yourself, with all of your knowledge and experiences. Nor are you writing for someone who can be relied upon to ‘fill in the gaps’ in what you have said.

Thanks Shaun! What do you think? Is this post on vagueness helpful? Do you have any other writing trouble you would like help with? Now is the time to ask! We hope you will be able to buy ‘Writing Trouble’ in mid 2018, if all goes to plan.

Related posts

Using deliberate practice to improve your writing

Doing a copy edit of your thesis

Sign up for the writing trouble mailing list

06/22/17 PHD comic: 'Technically'

PhD Comics - June 25, 2017 - 1:34am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Technically" - originally published 6/22/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

06/19/17 PHD comic: 'Reader Reviews'

PhD Comics - June 21, 2017 - 7:39am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Reader Reviews" - originally published 6/19/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

Who is the client for your PhD work?

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - June 21, 2017 - 4:00am

This post is by Paula Hanasz, who has recently completed a PhD on transboundary water conflict and cooperation in South Asia. Paula has worked as a national security consultant and continues to provide freelance social research, business writing, stakeholder engagement and policy analysis services to government and NGO clients.

We previously met Paula when she was feeling PhD lifestyle guilt. Now that the hard slog is over, she has the time to reflect on how the similarities and differences between the PhD process and other collaborative professional endeavours.

Who is the client in your relationship with your PhD supervisor? No, really; who sets the scope of work, and who provides a professional service?

I know it’s heretical to bring consulting language into the hallowed halls of academia, but trust me on this one. Seeing yourself as a client seeking the specialist advice of a consultant could change the dynamics between you and your PhD supervisor. It could certainly give you the confidence to assert your right to the quality and quantity of guidance, feedback, and subject matter expertise that you require.

A client always has the right to demand (in the most courteous, professional way possible, of course) that the scope of work agreed to with their service provider has been fulfilled – or amended by mutual agreement.

If your supervisor is not providing clear, constructive guidance, or not doing so in a timely manner, as their client you have the right to ask for better service. Of course, as the client, the onus of responsibility rests on you to set clear expectations from the beginning. What is it that you can and can’t do yourself? What sort of support do you require to get you through the PhD process?

Now, that does not mean the client is always right.

In my experience as a consultant, the client rarely, if ever, knows what they really need. That’s why they hire external specialists with the expertise that they themselves don’t have. If you could conduct a major research project and write a book about it all by yourself, would you still be enrolled at a university to do so?

It is the job of the consultant to work with – not just for – the client in understanding, and then fulfilling, their requirements. This does not mean writing a thesis for you, but a good consultant will go above and beyond the bare minimum of the terms of reference. They will ‘value add’ (sorry, last bit of consulting-ese, I promise) by knowing what the client doesn’t know that they don’t know.

Let me clarify. The client will always have some idea of what they themselves lack in terms of knowledge or skills, and that’s why they hire external specialists. But they don’t know what they don’t know.

In the case of a PhD, you might be passionate about a particular subject but have no idea about the best theoretical framework for analysis. All supervisors should be able to assist with that. All supervisors who are also excellent service providers should be able to advise you that, for example, using a particular theory will align you with a school of thought that is falling out of favour in your field and could limit your post-PhD career options.

That’s the value add – something potentially significant to you that you didn’t even know you should ask about.

But PhD supervisors are rarely taught how to be excellent service providers to their PhD student clients. Scratch that – supervisors are rarely taught how to do the bare minimum as PhD supervisors. While prospective students have to go to great lengths to prove they are worthy of starting a PhD, no such qualifications exist for their supervisors.

That’s why it’s important to see yourself as a client; to be clear about the services you require, to set expectations about quantity and quality of guidance, and to establish time frames for deliverables (e.g., feedback from your supervisor on your drafts). And as a client, you should do your due diligence on prospective supervisors before you commence your PhD.

Unless you’re in the sort of program where a supervisor is allocated to you, you should be able to vet some candidates for the job.

How many PhD students have they supervised or co-supervised? How many of those students successfully completed their PhD under that supervisor? A high drop-out rate should be a big red flag for you. A savvy client will never hire a consultant with a reputation for shoddy work or not fulfilling their obligations.

If you can, speak to any current or past students of your potential supervisors to get their impressions. Is the supervisor frequently away or constantly busy with other research projects? They may be a ‘god-professor’ in their field but that doesn’t mean they’ll have time and energy to be great mentors. Sometimes basic administrative skills are more valuable in a supervisor than in-depth knowledge of some obscure theorem.

There are simple ways to gauge the professionalism of your prospective service provider/supervisor. Do they respond to emails promptly? Do they address all your questions? Do they know the university’s admissions process, or do they think paperwork and bureaucracy is beneath them?

You don’t want to find yourself in a position where your PhD is dragging on because your supervisor has failed to sign off on your milestone reports or forgotten to tell you that the university won’t allow you to submit your thesis until you do one more presentation. And you don’t want to turn up to meetings with your supervisor only to find that they aren’t there because they didn’t put it into their calendar.

You also shouldn’t have to waste time waiting for feedback because your draft chapter got lost at the bottom of your supervisor’s email inbox.

Obviously you won’t know the extent of your needs and the extent of (in-)competence of your supervisor until you start your PhD. But as a client, know that you are within your rights to change service providers if you are not getting the support you require. Your school’s research skills adviser should be able to provide you with guidance on how to do this, or whether it’s the right decision for you.

And don’t forget that you can supplement your supervisor’s services with specialist expertise from elsewhere. For example, there is an active and supportive community of scholars from every discipline on Twitter and using hashtags such as #PhDchat can connect you to people the world over with similar problems or requirements to yours.

So, who’s the client and who’s the service provider in your relationship with your PhD supervisor?

Related posts

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The tyranny of the awesome supervisor

06/16/17 PHD comic: 'Perfect'

PhD Comics - June 18, 2017 - 9:02pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Perfect" - originally published 6/16/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

06/14/17 PHD comic: 'Modern Romance'

PhD Comics - June 16, 2017 - 4:10am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Modern Romance" - originally published 6/14/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

The PhD – 30 years after…

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - June 14, 2017 - 4:00am

This post is by Dr Randy Horwitz, who is an Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson. He serves as the Medical Director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine and teaches medical students and see patients at the University Medical Center.

“Wow. So I guess you’re not using your PhD, huh?”

It would be a surprising question if it were the first time that I heard it.

Last week, another person offered their unsolicited opinion of my graduate degree and its apparent utility. True, the comment wasn’t overtly “snarky,” but the inference of years of wasted time and effort hung in the air.

I went to graduate school thirty years ago, right after my undergrad education, because I took an Immunology course taught by a gifted and unique professor who had a knack for inspiring students and sharing his love of a (then) underappreciated field. After taking all three Immuno courses at my University, in my mind, this was the best way to further feed my passion.

Thirty years ago, it was fairly typical to spend six-eight years in graduate school—a few years of coursework plus lab rotations, followed by the ever-important final choice of an advisor and project. Oral and written qualifying exams were next (failure relegated the student to a Master’s degree program), and finally three-four years of benchwork (we were all jealous of candidates in the humanities, who could “work from home” or spend hours in the library, rather than sleepless all-nighters in the lab).

And, yes, I do remember the anxiety—will I get scooped by a competing lab? Are my hypotheses valid? What happens if my advisor quits/moves/is killed in a car wreck?

Fast forward thirty years, and a post-doc, medical school, medical residency, and two Fellowships later. I am now a clinician at an academic medical center.

I see patients, attend conferences, and try to keep up with the latest clinical findings. But I am no longer working in a lab doing bench research. When folks see the “MD, PhD” moniker on my badge, they ask me about my research. When I tell them that I am a clinician, they assume that I am no longer “using my PhD.”

They couldn’t be more wrong.

Perhaps it took a few decades of perspective to realize that the value of a graduate education is to train the mind. To teach one how to think and to approach a problem. During grad school, my committee members taught me the value of knowing how to answer a question in the lab—using the latest technology in innovative and creative ways. But they also showed me that true genius is knowing what questions to ask.

I learned to love basic science and to appreciate the genius behind great experiments. I fondly remember the day that I read a paper by David Baltimore (Nobel-prize winning biologist) and shook with excitement when I actually understood the elegance and beauty of the experimental design. His genius was revealed to me, and, like a neophyte artist finally appreciating a Van Gogh masterpiece, I lamented the fact that I would never reach that stature.

I am now many years removed from my grad training. And, yes, I have not kept up with the literature in my field as I used to, so I’m a bit removed. But this distance has given me some perspective. Being able to focus on one area—one topic—is a learning experience unto itself. But the “life lessons” and thoughtful rigor learned from such an endeavor transcend knowledge in one area, and are applicable to all aspects of your life.

Not using my graduate degree? I cannot recall a day since then that I have not.

Thanks Randy! It’s heartening to hear that 30 years down the track the PhD experience can still be adding value to your life. What about you? Do you wonder what you will be using from your PhD 30 years from now? Or do you already have many years post PhD under your belt and can reflect on what the process means for you? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Related posts

Researching then and now

Writing now and then

06/09/17 PHD comic: 'The Date'

PhD Comics - June 13, 2017 - 12:30am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "The Date" - originally published 6/9/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!