Updates in Doctoral Ed

Thoughts on ‘Deep Work’

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

Cal Newport’s previous book “So good they can’t ignore you” is my all time favourite book on career building. Newport is an academic in computer science, but has made a tidy little side career in writing productivity books. I bought ‘Deep Work’ as soon as it came out and enjoyed it, but was so busy being productive on other projects that I had not got around to doing a review when Imogen Matthews sent me hers. I liked her take, and it certainly aligned with my views, so I was thankful that someone had done the review for me!

Imogen Mathew is a PhD candidate in Australian Literature at the Australian National University. Her thesis explores how Anita Heiss’s chick lit creates a more diverse, inclusive and glamorous Australia. She tweets at @ImogenMathew.

In a recent blog post entitled “How to Stop Flipping”, the Thesis Whisperer outlined the dangers of flipping between tasks without progressing on any of them. Her suggestion was to write a detailed and time bound to-do list, using the example of the literature review. The second dot point advised students to “look in your diary for stretches of uninterrupted time of at least 2 hours, but not more than four. Mark them as dedicated to your literature review”. The phrase “deep reading” recurred often throughout her list.

The Thesis Whisperer’s focus on deep reading provides a neat segue into my discussion of Cal Newport’s recently published Deep Work. Newport is a highly successful computer scientist at Georgetown University. Alongside his academic work, he has written a number of self-help guides for students in secondary and tertiary education: How to Win at College, How to Become a Straight-A Student, How to Be a High School Superstar, So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

Titles like these make me feel uncomfortable and reinforce my reservations about the genre as a whole: in my view, self-help books operate on the assumption of deficiency, they are prescriptive and often read as clumsy attempts to deal with complex problems. I probably wouldn’t have read Deep Work if a friend of mine hadn’t told me about it over lunch earlier this year.

Newport divides professional work into two categories: deep and shallow. Deep work encompasses “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate”. A PhD, in other words.

Newport presents deep work as a state under constant threat from its enemy, shallow work: “noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate”.

Shallow work could designate many different tasks: data-entry, committee work and time spent on network and social media applications (email, twitter, facebook etc.).

Newport’s advances his argument along two, inter-related lines. The first relates to the impact of technology on the economy and the corresponding mechanisation of jobs: as machines learn to do an increasing number of tasks better than humans, employability becomes correspondingly specialised. As the capacity for deep work is not easily replicable by machines, humans who have this capacity will be well-placed for employment now and into the future. Deep work further advantages its adherents through an “ability to quickly master hard things” and “produce at an elite level in terms of both quality and speed”

Newport divides Deep Work into two parts, beginning with ‘The Idea’ (deep work is meaningful, valuable and rare) before elaborating on ‘The Rules’: work deeply, embrace boredom, quit social media and drain the shallows (be ruthless, in other words, in the amount of time allocated to admin, emails, meetings and social media). Deep work should be so cognitively demanding that it cannot be sustained longer than four hours – after that point, we head into brain mush. Those new to deep work may only manage one hour.

For regular readers of the Thesis Whisperer blog, this is not new advice. Shut Up and Write, the Pomodoro technique and Thesis Boot Camps are all built around these principles. If we know all of this already, it’s fair to ask what possible value there is in a book such as Deep Work.

Newport’s contribution is situating the ability to engage in cognitively demanding work within existing and future economies. Transposition of Newport’s argument to the world of the PhD candidate reads something like this: it’s worthwhile cultivating deep work habits not only because they will help you get things done, but also because they will be an asset in the post-PhD marketplace.

For me, Deep Work provided a welcome opportunity to review and refine my study skills. Newport’s demarcation of deep from shallow work functions as a convenient heuristic for categorising the different tasks involved in producing a doctoral thesis. I felt challenged, in a good way, to work on the knotty and demanding questions woven into my research and to do this in a disciplined, distraction-free state.

In my spare time I work as a gym instructor, and in much the same way that I encourage others to push beyond their limits (“you are stronger than you think!”), I felt that Newport pushed his readers to curb tendencies towards distraction and to engage in an intimate—not to mention uncomfortable—relationship with their intellectual potential.

Newport’s disdain for social media will not be for everyone, nor his advocacy of a purposefully distant approach to email and administration. He concedes that this type of shallow work is inescapable but urges readers to limit it to the absolute periphery of their schedule.

The strategies promoted by Newport may appear to contradict findings from the Thesis Whisperer on academic employability: that to be a successful academic today you need to be as strong in the ‘shallows’ as you are in the deep. And this means using social network tools to connect and engage within the academy and beyond. Yet these contradictions are not as worrying as they seem: Newport would likely respond that by committing to deep work (and remembering that this is never going to exceed a maximum of four out of eight working hours) PhD students can make time for the ‘other stuff’ too.

A far more disturbing element to the book for me was its gender politics. Almost every example featured a male protagonist to illustrate the virtues of deep work. Male scholars provided the primary theoretical ballast to Newport’s argument. I couldn’t help feeling that Newport had imbibed and regurgitated the unhelpful equation that deep work equals brilliance equals male. Women were present on the periphery, stranded in the shallows of Newport’s consciousness.

Thanks Imogen! A very thoughtful review I think you will agree. Have you read ‘Deep Work’? What do you think? How do you create distraction free time in your schedule?

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09/15/17 PHD comic: 'Inner Gollum'

PhD Comics - September 18, 2017 - 5:25am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Inner Gollum" - originally published 9/15/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

09/13/17 PHD comic: 'Impostor Attack'

PhD Comics - September 14, 2017 - 12:41pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Impostor Attack" - originally published 9/13/2017

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09/06/17 PHD comic: 'Page Limits'

PhD Comics - September 7, 2017 - 10:09am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Page Limits" - originally published 9/6/2017

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09/01/17 PHD comic: 'Surveys'

PhD Comics - September 3, 2017 - 3:06am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Surveys" - originally published 9/1/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

08/28/17 PHD comic: 'Ritual'

PhD Comics - August 30, 2017 - 5:48pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Ritual" - originally published 8/28/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

Conference small talk – the definitive guide

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - August 30, 2017 - 4:00am

This post was originally published on the All things Linguistic blog about a year ago by Gretchen McCulloch. Gretchen started blogging as a linguistics grad student at McGill University, but is now a full-time pop linguist, bridging the gap between linguistics and the general public. She writes pop linguistics articles for various places and is currently writing a book about internet language for Penguin. She also cohosts Lingthusiasm, a podcast that’s enthusiastic about linguistics, with Lauren Gawne of the blog Superlinguo. I loved this post so much I asked if I could repost it for Thesis Whisperer readers who might have missed it.

The post tackles the tricky subject of making small talk with a speaker at a conference – a topic I’ve thought about writing, but never got to, so I was glad to find out that Gretchen had written a better one. As a regular guest speaker I know that many people eye you off at the conference morning tea, but don’t approach – making it a surprisingly lonely experience. Be kind to keynotes! Read this, muster up your courage and then start the conversation. Trust me, they will be grateful.

Making small talk with someone who’s just given a talk, whether at a conference or at a colloquium or invited talk, can feel intimidating, especially if you’re a student or early in your academic career. But as someone who’s currently spending a lot of time on the opposite side of that divide, I’ve realized that when I’m a speaker, I really really want people to come up and talk to me. So here’s your pep talk, and some tips on what to say.

The key thing to realize is that most of the time, you know more about the speaker than they know about you, so you need to start the conversation and you get to pick what it’s about.

Even before the talk, the speaker’s name and abstract has been emailed around the department or is in the conference booklet, and after the talk you’ve had somewhere between 20 minutes and an hour to hear them talk about what they’re interested in. If it’s a course, maybe you’ve even had weeks. Maybe you’ve googled them, maybe you’ve read their articles, maybe they’re your academic hero, maybe you just stumbled into the talk but now you find you’re enjoying it, whatever. You know something about them that makes them interesting to you.

The speaker, on the other hand, might not even know the names of anyone in the audience at all (at a conference) or might know only their one or two host(s) (at an invited talk). Or even if they know half the audience, if you’re one of the people they don’t know, then have no particular reason to want to talk with you. And even if they do have a general desire to meet people in their audience (and they probably do), all they have for small talk options with these unknown people are very general questions that can be asked of any linguist, like the classic academic icebreaker “So, what do you work on?” and its relatives “So, are you a student?” and “So, where are you from?” (Note that in an academic context, this means “What university(s) are you affiliated with?” and not “Where did you grow up?”)

Protip: if you’re new to academic conferences and want to seem like a srs linguist, make sure you have an answer to “So, what do you work on?” It’s acceptable to say “[phenomenon] in [language]” as a short answer, but it’s better to have a 30 second summary that gives the other person something more to hook onto, like “I’m looking at constructions like [Example McExampleface] in [language]. You might expect people to say [this thing], but in fact they say [other thing].” This gives them a couple of places to ask follow-up questions from if they’re interested. If someone gives you a “[phenomenon] in [language]” type answer though, a good way to continue the conversation is to ask “So what would that look like?/Do you have an example?/What have you been finding?” 

“What do you work on?” is a perfectly acceptable academic icebreaker for standing around the reception desk / coffee table / buffet line, but if you’ve just seen someone’s talk you can’t ask them what they work on – they just told you! If you hover around silently long enough, they might ask you instead, but you run the risk of someone who does know how to talk with speakers starting a conversation first. Of course, if you’re not actually interested in the speaker, you can leave without chatting, but if you are, there are better options than hovering around silently! Here are some of them:

Unlike the question period, you don’t have to have a formal “question” about the particular talk in order to go up to the speaker and talk with them afterwards. So instead think about how to start a conversation that will be interesting and relevant for both you and the speaker. A good way to think about this of options is to think about why you came to the talk and what you got out of it:

  • You like a particular article they’ve written or other thing they’ve done. If you know this in advance, you have time to work out some specific comment(s) or question(s) about it.
  • You’re working on or thinking about working on something that’s related to something they’re doing.
  • You’d like to ask some specific advice. (Not “how do I become you” but “I’ve done X and Y towards Goal. What would you suggest I do next?” Try not to ask things that are readily googlable.)
  • You work in Other Framework or with Other Language and you’d like to talk about how their thing might work with the thing you work on.
  • You know of a related study or data that they might find relevant. (Don’t frame this as accusatory “why didn’t you cite this??”, rather as helpful “there’s a paper that might be useful for you”.)
  • They mentioned something in the talk that you thought was interesting or got confused about, and you’re wondering if they could tell you a bit more about it. Not “please re-explain your entire talk to me” but “I’m wondering about what you said on slide 17.″ (Especially if they said “I’m not going into this in detail, but feel free to ask me about it later.” Take them up on this!)
  • You have some acquaintanceship in common, such as you’re working with their former supervisor or someone they went to grad school with. (”I just wanted to say hi – I work with Profy McProferson.”) You’ll probably still need to follow that up with one of the above topics though in order to turn into a real conversation.

It may feel self-promotional to go up to a speaker and say that you work on a similar area, but it’s actually a great idea, as long as you start with a quick version and let them ask questions as interested, don’t just jump right into an extended description. People do talks partly as a shortcut to networking – you could have a bunch of individual conversations with a roomful of people to see who has common research interests, or you could just give a talk and let them self-identify to you after. (Giving talks is, counter-intuitively, a great idea for introverts and socially awkward people! You get a defined role and a bunch of people wanting to start conversations with you about stuff you’re interested in.)

For example, I always want to hear from people who are working on internet language or public outreach projects, but same goes if you’re talking with a speaker about your mutual interest in split ergativity or Bantu languages or whatever. You’ll want to tailor this to what kind of conference you’re at though. If you’re at a big sociophonetics conference, it’s less interesting to come up to a speaker and say “I, like everyone else here, am a sociophonetician” than if you’re at a small general invited talk.

Here’s some more general tips, some of which are courtesy of twitter:

  • Several people mentioned that it can be a good idea to prepare a couple of potential questions or comments, especially if you’re worried about sounding more like a fan than a srs professional.
  • That said, as someone who has now been on the receiving end of occasional fangirling, I find it endearing but also I don’t always know what to do with it. It’s super helpful if you can set us on the course of having an actual conversation, rather than putting me into the weird position of “why yes, I agree, I am awesome.” It’s always nice and safe to start with “I enjoyed your talk” but follow that up with something concrete.
  • You know your own interests and also mine! I only know mine – tell me which of your interests matches mine and we can have a conversation about that. (”I really liked your thing about X, because I work on Y, and I think a Z approach can be useful for both of us/what we have in common is W/I was wondering how you deal with This Part.”)
  • Social awkwardness doesn’t evaporate when someone becomes a famous professor. They don’t hate you. In fact, for most professors, mentoring emerging scholars who are interested in similar topics is one of the highlights of the job.
  • Remember that the speaker was once a student just like you, and can remember what it was like to feel intimidated. And the further removed someone is from being a student, the more students they have interacted with along the way. They’re not expecting you to know all the things already. But they can’t read your mind to know that you’re wishing you could talk with them. You have to take that initial step and then they can meet you partway.
  • You know the speaker’s name, but they likely don’t know yours, if you’re worrying about whether to talk with them (especially at colloquia/invited talks where people aren’t wearing nametags). Feel free to introduce yourself by name and/or introduce anyone else you know who joins the conversation.

And some advice about what happens once you’ve started that conversation:

  • Pay attention to your surroundings and the speaker’s level of interest. It’s great to engage a speaker in conversation but you’re probably not the only one who wants to do so.
  • If there are lots of people who want to talk to the person, keep your comments brief or try to convert things into a group conversation, not an extended monologue from you.
  • If it’s immediately after the speaker’s talk and they haven’t had time to get water/food/coffee/etc when such things are available, suggest walking to the appropriate location rather than trapping them in a corner without sustenance.
  • If you’re talking about your own research, don’t be self-deprecating about it (”Oh I’m working on X but it’s not nearly as cool as your thing”). Even if it’s not going so great right now, there must be some initial reason why you thought it was interesting enough to work on. Find that again.
  • If you’re seated next to each other at a dinner table, it’s appropriate to have a longer conversation than if you’re at a standing reception (or keeping the speaker from the reception!).
  • As with any conversation, keep an eye out for signs the other person is becoming bored or distracted – it’s better to leave the other person wishing you could have talked longer than to have them hunting for excuses to leave.
  • If the person gives you advice, take it! If you meet the person again in 6 months, you want to be able to say “I read that article you suggested and I have X question/it was super helpful/it wasn’t completely related but it did lead me to this other great article” not “oops I spent all this time getting advice from you and didn’t act on any of it.”

Anyone who’s been on either side of the speaker/audience divide want to chime in?

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Gretchen also suggests this post on how to talk to famous professors

Why you should blog during your PhD

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - August 23, 2017 - 4:00am

I’m an advocate for blogging, obviously, but should you blog during your PhD? Will you have time? Will it be a distraction? I find it hard to answer those questions, but a growing number of people are doing it and I’m lucky enough that Gaia Cantelli wrote in to share her experience of blogging, which I think we can all learn from.

This post is by Gaia Cantelli, who is now a postdoctoral associate at Duke University, where she works on breast cancer and metastasis. She completed PhD from King’s College London, where she studied the molecular mechanisms driving melanoma metastasis. She is passionate about science communication and outreach, and you can find more of her writing at scienceblog.com and on her time4science site.  

This year, the PhD students of the Randall Division of Cell and Molecular Biophysics at KCL founded a collaborative PhD student blog. Here are a few of the reasons they feel writing and blogging in particular is a great opportunity for PhD students!

You get to explain what you love to the public

You got into your field because you love it and it’s only natural to want to understand why you do. A blog is a fantastic opportunity to explain to the general public how your area works and how your project is trying to make a difference. Explaining very complex concepts in a simple and accessible way can be much harder than to write them up for a bunch of academics. In fact, Richard Feynman reportedly once said that “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t really understand it”. That’s both a challenge to your understanding of your own work and to your writing skills!

 You get to practice your writing

No matter what stage of your PhD you are at, writing your thesis is always looming in the background! Writing is not something most PhD students will have practiced extensively before getting to the write-up stage (at least in the sciences!), which means most of us could probably use the practice! Brush up on your syntax and your grammar (can you remember the difference?), as well as your style and not least your typing skills! Come thesis time, you will be glad you’ve kept your writing muscles nice and toned. Plus, the writing practice you’ll get with blogging will pay off once you get a “real job” and have to deal with writing all day

You are free to express yourself

If you are a PhD student, it’s most likely that you’re very passionate and opinionated about your field. Sadly, it is also true that not many people might be agog to hear your two cents about it! A blog is a fantastic platform to express yourself and really get into the nitty-gritty of what bothers you or excites you about the hottest new development in your field. Plus, the Internet is a big place and it’s more than likely you’ll find other people (PhD students, other researchers or just enthusiasts) who agree with your opinions. Intellectual debate is always stimulating and fun (although the Internet is also full of not-so-nice people so be prepared for some not-so-nice comments if you post anything controversial!).

It’s good for your CV

Looming past your already looming thesis is your approaching need for employment. Whether you want to stay in academia or you want to explore your options in the private sector and beyond, employers always value writing experience – or so we’re told! Most jobs that are available to PhD graduates involve a huge percentage of writing, which is why it makes sense for employers to seek out people who not only can write but are passionate about writing!

 You work together with other PhD students!

Working on a cooperative blog with other PhD students from your area or department can be really fun as well as useful! After all, these are your peers and most likely your friends! Blogging is a great chance to work on a project together, bond and discover new sides of each other.

Thanks Gaia! Have you started a blog, or shared in the running of one? What advice do you have to share?

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08/21/17 PHD comic: 'Eclipse'

PhD Comics - August 21, 2017 - 9:10pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Eclipse" - originally published 8/21/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

The principled PhD?

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - August 9, 2017 - 4:00am

While PhD students can start at any time in some universities, in some there is a semester by semester intake. This means that some people will be starting their PhD this month. How should you approach this process to get the most out of it?

Judith Krauss, now Director of Studies for Sustainability, is still surprised she a) got through her PhD and b) had any friends left by the end of it. At the Global Development Institute (GDI), University of Manchester, she used in-depth fieldwork in Europe and Latin America to investigate cocoa sustainability initiatives and the environment, incorporating voices from cocoa producers via civil society to consumers and companies. Building bridges across constituencies partly stems from her background of working and volunteering e.g. in Morocco, South Africa, France and Germany in diverse private-sector, public-sector and civil-society settings, from a children’s safe house to the World Bank. As a post-doc, her focus in helping to establish GDI’s Brooks Doctoral College was on creating the best possible environment for PhDs, encouraging them to make their voices heard in academia and beyond. In all research, teaching and being, her aspiration is that people think for themselves and believe in themselves, extending also to volunteering e.g. for the Sustainability Challenge and Manchester Central Foodbank

After I passed my PhD defense in March 2016 (thank you God), friends in earlier PhD stages jokingly tried to see if I could somehow rub off on them. This is the hope of this post – sharing some thoughts on (surviving) the journey. Naturally my PhD principles are specific to my department, the Global Development Institute, University of Manchester (UK) and discipline of development studies, but I nevertheless hope some observations will be useful to everyoneon a PhD journey.

Work on your supervisor relationship(s).

There is a fundamental asymmetry worth recognising: whereas you work almost exclusively on your thesis, your supervisors will have several candidates to supervise, research to conduct, students to teach, books to write, etc. You are entitled to supervision, but try to be respectful of supervisors’ time: meet deadlines, negotiate when they will have time to read your work, both of which is in your own interest.

Clarify your relationship from the outset – what are the terms of engagement with primary/secondary supervisors? This may also involve telling your supervisors what kind of supervision you need from them. To relate across all differences in personalities and background, having continuous, open conversations from the beginning are crucial.

Listen to your supervisors. Mostly.

Especially early on, I was continuously amazed by how the things my supervisors said, while making no sense to me at the time, came back to me about three months later accompanied by a huge light bulb over my head. While I was exceptionally lucky with my supervisors, Prof Stephanie Barrientos and Prof Dan Brockington, there were issues on which we disagreed – some I conceded to them, but some ideas I also stuck to if I had a good reason to over-rule their academic counsel, often rooted in my practitioner experience.

I realised about 30 minutes into my first-year annual review that ‘I did this because my supervisors told me to’ was not going to be a satisfactory explanation any more. I decided to do what my supervisors recommended only if I could justify it as my decision for my thesis.

Break it down into manageable chunks.

Coming from the world of work, I found a deadline three whole years into the future difficult to wrap my head around. So I did what I have told many students since: translate it into manageable chunks. What does the overall word count mean in terms of chapters to draft, words to write, in what time frames?

Keep going.

In our first week, somone told us that a PhD was a constant assault on our self-confidence. It is. The only way forward is through. I discovered that continuous work was the answer to my frustrations with myself – I never had bursts of 3,000-words-a-day productivity, but just persistently read literature, worked on chapters, engaged with stakeholders, until my nonsense would start making slightly more sense. And, surprisingly, it did!

In order to keep going, it is also vital to devise strategies for how to give your brain space to breathe, and come back to work with fresh eyes (in my case: volunteering). And whatever happens, remember it is still an immense privilege to spend years of your life thinking, reading, researching. Appreciate the opportunity!

Engage with others’ work.

However lonely the PhD journey may feel occasionally, there will be others working on similar questions as you. Find them! Try to engage with whatever reading or research groups you can, ideally in your own backyard or further afield.

I was very lucky to have two reading groups in my department which were instrumental in helping me finish in three years and with no corrections (Global Production Networks/Environment and Development): these fora made me privy to a lot of brilliant people’s thinking, while forcing me to look up from my work to recognise the broader debates. Wherever you can get this additional input from – seize it! It helps make you a better thinker and raise questions you had never considered.

Appreciate all who contribute.

You cannot write your thesis alone. And ‘all who contribute’ is likely to be a large group of people –family, friends, supervisors, fellow postgraduate researchers who lend moral and other support (and vice versa!), but also anyone who contributes to your work. Appreciate them! Be clear that you cannot promise funding or support to stakeholders, but try to feed back findings to the public and your contributors.

That can also mean keeping them apprised of what you are doing, not necessarily only reporting back after you have made sense of it all. Strategies I chose were organising public engagement sessions and putting some outputs online, e.g. stakeholder reports and podcasts in three languages.

On a side note, the principle also includes your examiners – I would strongly advocate having nice people in your thesis defense. My examiners, Prof Bob Doherty from York University and Dr Rory Horner from my department, were not only a great fit academically, but made the viva a positive space for engagement.


After being on education’s receiving end for such a long time, it can be incredibly rewarding to give back and engage with students (not necessarily in lectures if that terrifies you). In essay-writing support and dissertation supervision, I found myself repeating to students what my supervisors had said to me, which helped me re-question if I was really making my argument clear in my thesis? And it can be comforting to know that beyond the hours spent staring at a screen, you are benefiting, and learning from, students.

Have a life.

Not as obvious as you think. To thrive in and enjoy (at least occasionally) your PhD, you need activities that have nothing to do with your work – triathlons, meditation, volunteering, whatever.

You need people in your life who have no idea what a methodology is, and frankly also don’t care, because they care about you, not your thesis. Incidentally, having to summarise your PhD for them may help you identify what is most important in your work.

The best of luck on your journey! What are your principles?

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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