Updates in Doctoral Ed

11/10/17 PHD comic: 'Staples'

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

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

Your PhD can be your strongest career asset

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

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

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

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

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


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

Expert Communication

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

Management of others

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

Managing Money

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

Project management

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

Argument and analysis.

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

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

Related Posts

What do academic employers want?

Book review: the professor is IN

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

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

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

The Month of Hell (TM)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Internally, my headspace looks similar.

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

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

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

Related posts

How to stop ‘flipping’ and write a good ‘to do’ list

How to write 1000 words a day and not go bat shit crazy

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

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

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

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

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

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

Explainer: preparing to be professionally edited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Posts

Doing a copy edit of your thesis

Should I get an editor for my thesis?

10/16/17 PHD comic: 'Confusing Malaise'

PhD Comics - October 18, 2017 - 7:02pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Confusing Malaise" - originally published 10/16/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

How successful academics write

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - October 18, 2017 - 4:00am

Helen Sword is, hands down, one of the best writers on academic writing working today. The difference between Sword and other people working the writing advice patch is that she uses an interesting range of research approaches to inform her work. A new book from Sword is a nerdishly exciting moment for research educators like me and always an automatic buy. This time I was lucky enough to get a review copy of “Air and Light and Time and Space: how successful academics write” in the post.

In the interest of full disclosure, I know Helen professionally and admire her as a generous and talented senior colleague. I am one of the people interviewed during Sword’s research process for this book. I read the book with interest, but I threw out my review when Dr Amani Bell, a fellow higher education researcher, contacted me to ask if she could do one for me.

Dr Bell is a Senior Lecturer, Educational Innovation, and Honorary Senior Lecturer in the Sydney School of Education and Social Work, at the University of Sydney. Her main research focus is exploring student-staff partnerships to enhance higher education. She tweets at @AmaniBell. Take it away Amani!

How’s your writing going? If you’d like to reflect on your behavioral, artisanal, social, and emotional writing habits, try Helen Sword’s BASE quiz (background info here). It’s only four questions, so it’s pretty quick. Just drag the sliders to see the range of possible responses, admire the shape it creates, and then click on ‘see my profile’.

My profile is, rather delightfully, called the ‘seabird’. It brings into focus what I already know – that I ‘struggle to write as productively as [I] would like to’ and suggests that I ‘establish a more productive daily routine: for example, by joining with other writers to start an accountability group or a weekly write-on-site meet-up.’ I’m directed to the relevant section of Sword’s new book – Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write – for further suggestions, examples, and readings.

I am a longtime fan of Helen Sword’s work on academic writing. I first came across her lovely piece in Studies in Higher Education on Writing higher education differentlySword writes the first part of the paper in a conventional way, and then the second part in a more daring, direct and elegant way. This paper really transformed my thinking about how to write about my research.

A side note – I didn’t know Sword at that time, but I sent her a quick email saying how much I appreciated her paper. She ended up mentioning me in the acknowledgements of her 2012 book Stylish Academic Writing, which goes to show that a short note of thanks can mean a lot to an author.

Air & Light & Time & Space builds on Stylish Academic Writing to focus not so much on writing but on writers.  As Sword says on the first page:

…whenever I was invited to talk about [my books on academic writing] with faculty and graduate students, I noticed how quickly our conversations about sentence structure and style strayed to other writing-related issues: for example, work-life balance…or power dynamics…or emotion. …Gradually my scholarly gaze began to lift from the words on the page to the people who put them there…

So over a period of four years, Sword interviewed 100 academics writers and surveyed a further 1,223, including PhD students. From this impressive data-set, Sword has drawn out many different ways to approach academic writing. This is a welcome relief from the message that there are only certain ways one can be a successful writer, such as writing a certain number of words every day, or writing at a particular time of day. Sword showcases the writing habits of her research participants ‘in all their messiness, contradiction and variety’.

Each chapter contains many brief excepts from Sword’s interviewees, as well as page-long interludes that provide deeper insights into the practices of academic writers. One featured writer is the Thesis Whisperer herself (see page 143), who also gets an index entry, which is surely something to tick off the academic bucket list! The chapters conclude with a ‘Things to try’ section, so that you can apply the chapter’s findings to your own writing.

Air & Light & Time & Space busts the myth that skilled academic writers easily and quickly churn out perfectly formed prose. Describing academic writing as artisanal means viewing writing as a craft, a painstaking and time-consuming path towards making something beautiful. While I have been working to write more stylishly since first reading Sword, I see this process as a lifelong journey.

As you’d expect, the book is beautifully written. I liked that at the beginning of Part 2: Artisanal habits Sword shares with us six ‘false starts’ to the section, giving us a rare and welcome glimpse into the writing and editing processes. Sword also shares stories about the places in which she writes, and the people she writes with. In that spirit, I wrote this blog post in various ways and venues. I made hand written notes on the bus, jotted down notes in emails to myself, let things dwell in the subconscious a while, and then pulled it all together in Word. I found that writing with a glass of wine in hand at an airport bar wasn’t as effective as with a cup of coffee in my office! One of the main themes of Air & Light & Time & Space is to experiment with writing in different situations to find out what works best for you. For me it’s deadlines, travel, retreats, and Shut Up and Write. For you, it may be a completely different set of conditions.

What emotions do you feel about your writing? Frustration? Anxiety? Pleasure? Satisfaction? These are some of the emotions most commonly reported by participants in Sword’s study. Most participants reported a mix a positive and negative emotions about writing: ‘an indication that emotional ambivalence is the norm rather than the exception’ (p153). Of particular interest to readers of this blog is Sword’s finding that female PhD students are three times more likely than male PhD students to report wholly negative emotions about writing. Sword felt that this was likely due to the tendency of women to underestimate their abilities – imposter syndrome strikes again – and that ‘only after academic women have finished their PhDs and moved into academic positions does this emotion gap begin to narrow, although the prevalence of negative-only over positive-only emotions persists until retirement age’ (p154-5).

I enjoyed the details of Sword’s research study in the appendix, and it’s good example of how to write up research methods clearly and elegantly. Her very extensive and generous acknowledgements section is also a pleasure to read, and the bibliography – well let’s just say I have major bookshelf envy and would love to see Sword’s bookshelves!

If you’re looking for a quick fix, this ain’t it. As Sword says in the preface, Air & Light & Time & Space: ‘offers no ready-made blueprint for academic success…[i]nstead you will find here a flexible, customizable building plan intended to help you design your own writing practice from the ground up.’  If you’re looking for inspiration, and for guidance about writing that will keep you company throughout your PhD and beyond, then I highly recommend this book.

Disclaimer: I have met Helen and am an admirer of her work, but purchased the book from my own funds and was not solicited to write this review.

Thanks Amani! Yes – I was thrilled to be in the index #bucketlist. In my opinion, if you are seriously interested in improving your writing – or teaching others, this book is an essential buy. Did you do the quiz? What’s your BASE profile, and did you find the quiz helpful? Did anyone get the coveted ‘rock’? Let us know in the comments section.

Other books by Helen Sword (if you buy these using the link your purchase supports the Whisperer)

Stylish Academic Writing

The writer’s diet: a guide to fit prose

Recent book reviews on the Whisperer

The Professor is IN

Critical thinking – the hardest doctoral skill of all?

Will my children be damaged by my PhD?

10/09/17 PHD comic: 'Lab Business'

PhD Comics - October 12, 2017 - 4:58am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Lab Business" - originally published 10/9/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

I call bullshit on pointless ‘hope labour’

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - October 11, 2017 - 4:00am

About 30% of my work week is classified as ‘service’: work that supports others in the community, such as sitting on committees, writing reviews and references, consulting on problems and so on. As a result of this higher than usual level of service work, the sheer number and range of things I do in a day can be bewildering.

Sometimes I feel like I work behind the counter at an academic delicatessen serving an endless line of hungry customers. Three thin slices of policy analysis? No problem. 100 grams of soothing hurt feelings about the feedback your supervisor gave you on that draft? I can do that for you – and I’ll throw in a book recommendation too. A medium size container of problem solving? How about a large one with a hand full of diplomacy? It’s on special this week!

Keeping up with all the multiple, sometimes conflicting demands is hard. Unfortunately all the people standing in the line at my academic delicatessen are invisible to each other and have no idea how busy I am. Sometimes I feel like I am flinging packages of intellectual cheese and salami at people at random. Then, into all this frantic motion, walks in that one customer. If you’ve worked in retail you know the sort. Their demand to be served right now seems thoughtlessly entitled given how many other customers are waiting for service.

This week that customer was a journal publisher asking for yet another peer review. “Can’t you SEE I’m busy!” I yelled at the screen.

To give you some context to my annoyance, in case you didn’t know already, the conventional academic publishing system is seriously flawed. Many academic journals are owned by corporations that leverage the free labour of academics into ‘share holder value’. This is a way of privatising public money that has many ramifications for our universities, as I have written about at more length elsewhere (see “The academic writer’s strike”).

I’m conflicted about publishing in journals because the system seems so broken. So I approach the problem using a simple formula. For every submission to a journal, regardless of whether it gets accepted or not, I do at least two reviews. In this way, in theory, I give back pretty much what I ask. But somehow it never works out that way – I always do more peer reviews than I planned.

So, despite my annoyance, I read this peer review request carefully. Unlike most of the requests I get, the paper was about research students. So I asked myself a harder question: does the paper actually look important? A quick read of the abstract indicated it was about supervision. There is a lot – I mean a LOT – published about research supervision. This one would have to be something special to convince me to spend time on it and unfortunately it wasn’t. Yet another, very small scale institutional case study. I’ve read masses of these and in my opinion, they don’t offer much more than what we already know, so I pressed ‘decline’.

So far, so normal, but the link in the email immediately redirected to a request for me to refer the paper on to a colleague. This is when I got cranky at my demanding customer. Please bear in mind, I was tired. It was 11pm and I had been working in my academic delicatessen since 10am. For some reason the immediate request that I pass this on to yet another over worked colleague rubbed me the wrong way. I wrote a rather snippy reply, which you can see in the image below:

In case you can’t read it, my response was as follows:

“(the reason I declined is) The burden of reviewing, frankly. I have a policy of only performing the same number of reviews that I ask from the community. I have submitted 4 papers for peer review this year and therefore was planning to do 8 (assuming there are two reviewers on each paper). However, I’ve already 18 this year and it’s only July. By the by, I have noticed the quality of reviews of my papers are dropping, which suggests more and more inexperienced academis are taking up the slack – probably without adequate support and mentoring. If the system is to survive, the business model really needs to be addressed. This is not a problem specific to your journal, but I thought I would point it out since you asked”

To be clear my comment wasn’t meant to infer that people who are inexperienced are always bad reviewers, or that experienced academics are necessarily great at it, but the overall drop in quality needs some explanation. That more inexperienced academics are being drawn into reviewing seems as good a reason as any; at least, it’s consistent with the general culture in academia of pushing un-wanted work onto junior colleagues.

I posted my rant to Twitter and Facebook and got a deluge of responses. Most people agreed with my sentiments, but some took issue with my interpretation and even called me selfish – a charge I reject whole-heartedly. Some people on editorial boards told me they had already reviewed 40 or 50 papers because people like me were hitting the ‘decline’ button more and more. Others told me that the reviews they got were dropping in quality too (a memorable line from a review received by a colleague in statistics was “what is this p-value thingy?”).

Look – I could be wrong. If anyone has any evidence that something else is going on, I’d love to hear it in the comments, but let’s assume for a moment that more and more junior colleagues are being asked to provide journals with peer reviews because senior people like me are not contributing enough anymore. What is the problem here really?

With my fulltime wage comes the expectation I will give back to my community and that my employer will be supportive. However, many early career academics have insecure employment and PhD candidates are on very low incomes. If these less advantaged academics are being asked to take up the slack, they are effectively being asked to prop up a disintergrating publishing system with their free labour. A system, I might add, that is also experiencing enormous growth due to pressure by our employers to have ‘outputs’ and, presumably, the publishing company share holders, who want to pocket the profits.

What are the consequences for the individual and academia more generally? More importantly, as a PhD student, how should you respond to this pressure?

‘Service work’, such as peer reviewing, is often presented to our junior colleagues as an ‘opportunity’ to add to the CV, not what it really is: free labour in the expectation of some kind of other, unspecified reward later on. In a recent paper I wrote with colleagues we called this type of work ‘hope labour’ (following Kuehn & Corrigan, 2013 – reference at the end of this post).

Asking people to contribute hope labour walks a fine line between providing opportunity and exploitation. In my view, before a PhD student or a paid-by-the-hour (or ‘gigging’) academic says “yes” to any service work request, it’s worth asking a few questions:

  1. If you have not done this kind of service work before: is this a good opportunity to develop new skills?
  2. If you have done this kind of work, how exactly does doing more of it benefit you?
  3. Will the service work be recognised in some way?
  4. Does this service work help you build your network in such a way that might lead to future (paid) opportunities?

If you can confidentally answer “yes” any one of these questions, the service work is probably worth doing. Now, let’s subject peer review requests to this rubric.

Aside from (potentially) keeping you abreast of new developments in the field, after you have done enough peer reviewing to get a sense of it, I question whether most PhD students or gigging academics should do more. I think the time is better spent reading over your colleagues’ manuscripts instead. Providing helpful feedback to those around you is a way of building a community of support and collegiality that is of immediate benefit to everyone, including you (as the saying goes, you have to earn the right to ask a favour). So, unless the paper promises to be fascinating, after you’ve done four or five peer reviews you might want to start saying “no” more often than “yes”.

Recognition can take many forms other than money: a certificate, the right to claim an association, a free lunch – whatever. One of the key problems with peer reviewing is there is little or no recognition. Journals sometimes send form letters as a thank you – but most often you get nothing. If you review regularly with a particular journal it’s worth asking for a testimonial from the editor saying you did a good job. If they are not willing to do this, seriously consider a blanket “no” in the future. Trust me there will always be others asking for your time.

From the academic networking point of view, peer reviewing for a journal is virtually useless. The whole point of peer reviewing is to be invisible, so your work will go largely un-noticed as well as unrewarded. Unless you have some kind of ongoing relationship with a member of a journal’s editorial board, very few of the people who matter to your future career are seeing you work and, more importantly, getting to know what you can do. Why not volunteer to be on an organising committee for a conference instead? This enables you to meet people and work alongside them – crucial for building networks that might eventually lead to paid employment.

So I call bullshit on journal publishers’ endless demands for hope labour, especially from PhD students. I recognise that academia needs a gift economy to operate, but it should be full time academics like myself doing the lion’s share – and I should not have to work past 11pm at night to satisfy the demands of for-profit companies. If you’re a fulltime academic, or a member of an editorial board, I hope you think carefully about the opportunity you are really offering before you invite someone with less status and salary than yourself to do extra work. And seriously, if we can’t keep this shop open without people being decently compensated for their work, we might want to think about closing the doors on our current model of peer review publishing – for good.

What do you think? Maybe you disagree? Maybe you can shed some light on the problem? Or perhaps you want to share your experience of hope labour to help others work out what work to accept and which to reject. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Related posts

The academic writers’ strike


Kuhen, K & Corrigan TF 2013, ‘Hope labor: The role of employment prospects in online social production’, The Political Economy of Communication, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 9-25.

10/04/17 PHD comic: 'Signs you're ready to graduate'

PhD Comics - October 6, 2017 - 8:32am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Signs you're ready to graduate" - originally published 10/4/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

How doing an internship saved my PhD

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

This post is by Mia Tarp Hansen, a Danish third year PhD candidate in political science, enrolled at La Trobe University in Melbourne. Mia’s research is located in Kazakhstan and Central Asia, specifically focusing on civil society conditions and policy in the area. Mia has spent 1.5 years in the field, mostly in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, where she has worked closely together with diplomatic representations, NGOs and independent media in order to understand their experiences in the region. Her passion for the region started at age 12, when she first arrived in Kazakhstan to live in a completely alien place, which turned out to be home above anything else. She is currently writing up her thesis, expecting to submit shortly. You can follow Mia on Twitter at @AlmatinkaMia

It was a warm summer day in Kazakhstan. I was having a pretty tough time. Mid-thesis crisis. Emotionally demanding fieldwork in Central Asia, a break-up, and just the feeling that I didn’t succeed with my fieldwork, or my PhD. I was supposed to do productive fieldwork in the political sphere of Kazakhstan. Instead I felt that I spent a lot of time feeling frustrated about my interviews and my work.

I didn’t want to go on. I was tired of academia; tired of the advice we had received at my university. All the seminars were about how to build an academic career – but what if you don’t want that? What if you want to work in the field? I didn’t want to go back to my desk and my PhD. I felt that I was a failure. I felt that I wasn’t a good academic.

As a go-around solution I panicked, which turned out not to work. Then, my partner at the time gave me the best advice I received that year: to apply for an un-paid internship, relevant to my studies and expertise. He could see that I was burnt out, and that I didn’t know where I was going. I thought “what the heck”, and I decided to apply. I sent off a few applications to some diplomatic representations in Central Asia that use graduate students as unpaid slaves. I ended up getting two offers, hooray! I accepted the most convenient one. I was to work in a real diplomatic representation!

A month later I flew to Tajikistan, a beautiful, poor, and wild Central Asian state. My university in Australia – somehow, and thank God – supported me, and decided to continue my scholarship, as I managed to convince them of the relevance of the internship. And it did in fact turn out to be invaluable for my PhD.

Working in the field instantly felt like the fix, which I had yearned for. I was able to get my hands on things. But interestingly, I felt how my research skills from my PhD applied exactly to the tasks we were doing – and how my knowledge on Central Asia really paid off here.

The first weeks were chaotic – the country went through some violent clashes in the capital, and the political situation in the country shifted quite dramatically as we watched. Later, we had a big earthquake, and one day my flat also went on fire… Plus the repeated food poisonings. But I also saw also the unbelievable beauty of Tajikistan, and the warmth of the people there. It was a pretty crazy time, and it was definitely chaotic, but life still had much more structure than my “PhD life” previously had.

I worked 9-5 every day at the diplomatic representation. It was my first structured life in years. Getting up early, doing the job. Guilt-free evenings (well, except for that PhD…). I loved it. The imposed structure of the day made me realise that I work better in the mornings and afternoons – before, I had spent days struggling to get my PhD work done in the late afternoon and evenings, battling procrastination and daily chores. Now, I found my personal work rhythm. But more importantly, I got to work in the field, so to say.

I found out that my skills were applicable. My colleagues highly appreciated my capacities and input, and I absolutely loved using my research skills and my expertise a place where they were needed, a place where they came of immediate use. And most of all I enjoyed feeling that I made a difference. One day my boss, a career diplomat with years of experience in Central Asia, told me: “Mia, you’re the best Central Asia analyst I have ever worked with.” That was kind of a turning point for me. It turned out I was not the failed student I thought I was!

After three months in Tajikistan, my contract ended and I had to fly back to Kazakhstan to commence my second round of fieldwork, getting the final interviews done. Unlike the previous round of fieldwork I had there, I got up in the morning, did interviews and transcribed them as soon as I got home. If I didn’t have interviews, I worked from 9-5 on my thesis, and got home and had a guilt-free evening, maybe a night out with friends. I managed to get more than thirty interviews and meetings done in a bit more than a month, in two different cities. And I had fun doing it.

Why this sudden efficiency?

First of all, I had learnt my work rhythm. I had also through my internship in Tajikistan acquired some solid networks in my field, which meant that doors that were previously closed to me for my interviews now were open. But most of all I had realised the importance and application of my PhD. That my work was important and that it did matter. I was eager to write my PhD and do it well, because I had gained the contacts and the experience in the field that means that I (hopefully) will be able to get a job, and apply my skills where I feel they can be of use.

Thanks Mia! What a great story. How about you? Have you found some way to apply your skills and knowledge ‘outside’ academia in a way that gave you fresh energy for your PhD? Love to hear about your experiences in the comments.

Related posts

Academic on the inside?

What do academic employers want?

10/02/17 PHD comic: 'Impostor, Pt. 4'

PhD Comics - October 3, 2017 - 9:19am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Impostor, Pt. 4" - originally published 10/2/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

09/27/17 PHD comic: 'Impostor, Pt. 3'

PhD Comics - September 29, 2017 - 6:07pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Impostor, Pt. 3" - originally published 9/27/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

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

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - September 27, 2017 - 4:00am

This blog post is part of a series dedicated to developing ideas for a new book I am writing with Shaun Lehmann (@painlessprose on Twitter) and Katherine Firth of the Research Voodoo blog. “Writing Trouble” will be a Swiss army knife of a book, containing range of strategies and tactics for fixing academic writing that is good, but not yet great.

We generated chapter titles from the bad feedback PhD students have told us about over the years. Parts of this post will end up in chapter two: “Your writing doesn’t sound very academic”: how to convince your reader you belong”. The book will be published by Open University Press and will hopefully be out in late 2018. If you’re interested in knowing more about the book before we publish, you can sign up for our writing trouble mailing list.

Although I got reasonable marks for my creative essays in high school,  literary criticism was never my strong suit. One of the issues with my analytical writing was that I didn’t really understand how to use verbs.  It wasn’t until I nearly finished my masters degree that I found out that verbs function in academic conversation much like table manners at a middle class dinner party.

Let me explain.

I owe much of my education in verbs to the good work of Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler and their excellent book ‘Helping Doctoral Students Write’. This book was crucial for helping me understand that in humanities writing, the verb you use to describe someone else’s work indicates your feeling about the quality of the work. For instance, “Mewburn (2010) argues…” is kinder than “Mewburn (2010) asserts…”. By using the verb ‘argues’ I invite the reader to consider that what Mewburn is doing is actually arguing – a scholar who asserts is not really a scholar at all.

Looking up the verbs in a dictionary makes the difference quite plain. According to Google, the first definition of ‘argues’ is “give reasons or cite evidence in support of an idea, action, or theory, typically with the aim of persuading others to share one’s view.” By contrast, the definition for ‘asserts’ is “cause others to recognize (one’s authority or a right) by confident and forceful behavior”. In the humanities, at least these days, we are meant to make knowledge by persuasion, not through authority. Authority is used more often in political or religious arguments. If you read back into the history of Western academia, you will find examples of writing that seems very strange to contemporary eyes. The tone is much more commanding and confident – this was because the origins of Western universities were monastic and it was acceptable to make an argument on the grounds that God had ordained something.

Times have changed (despite what some Australian politicians would like to think). When you think about it, most academic writing is highly passive aggressive. By using a verb to express your evaluation of someone else’s work you avoid directly stating your opinion, leaving it up to the reader to infer what you think. To read between the lines if you like. In academic writing you would never, for example, write “Mewburn (2010) is shit – don’t bother reading this paper. She’s a rubbish scholar”. You’d say something like: “Mewburn (2010) relies on insufficient evidence”.

You mean the same thing, but it’s you know – polite. At least it’s polite according to dominant cultural norms in academia which, it’s important to recognise, are not ‘natural’. While some people struggle mightily with the idea that verbs are like manners at a middle class dinner party, Indigenous students, and people who are first in family to get to University, tend to get it straight away. When I shared this analogy with one Wiradjuri woman she laughed and said “Right, so to succeed in the academy I have to write like an uptight white person? That makes perfect sense. I’m surrounded by them all the time”.

Sadly true.

Kamler and Thomson were writing for humanities scholars, but their work led me to develop an interest in deep nerd grammar within the sciences. The most interesting difference between science writing and humanities writing is the use of verbs, or rather – the lack of them. When scientists are evaluating the work of other scientists they tend to drop the verb altogether. In the brilliant “Disciplinary Discourses: social interactions in academic writing” (told you it was nerdy) Ken Hyland points out that scientists will make a statement and then put the reference for the fact at the end of the sentence, like so (totally made up example):

“The molecules in saline solutions cluster together tightly (Mewburn et al, 2010)”.

By placing the reference at the end and not associating it with a verb, the scientist ‘imports’ this idea without comment and effectively expects the reader to accept the idea as fact. Even when they do include verbs, scientists do it in ‘sciencey’ ways. If the scientist was inclined to more ‘flowerly’ language, they might use a neutral verb, for instance:

“It has been shown that molecules in saline solutions cluster together tightly (Mewburn et al, 2010)”

In this sentence, the passsive voice functions to leave out the identity of the person who showed how the molecules cluster, that’s because, generally, in the sciences the identity of the person who did the work is irrelevant. Scientists are assumed to be identical to each other and employ scientific methods and procedures exactly the same way. This point of view has been questioned by some who argue that scientists are human like the rest of us, but that’s not a Pandora’s box that I need to open here. To complicate matters further, not all scientists use verbs in this way all the time. Hyland points out that Biologists are the outliers of the science world and tend to deploy verbs much more like humanities people. In other words, it’s complicated, but you need to know the norms of your ‘tribal dialect’ to fit in.

So how can you operationalise this knowledge? Well, unless you want to take a risk challenge academic norms (and hey – don’t let me stop you!), give your writing an ‘uptight white person’ make over. Grab a few papers from scholars you admire and make a list of the verbs they use. Then cluster the verbs into three columns based on a passive aggressive index: “this work is great”, “This work is fine” and “this work is terrible”. You can look at my own verb cheat sheet as a model, but you’re best advised to make your own.

When you’re finished, stick your cheat sheet to your wall. While you are doing your literature review, examine your feelings about the work you are reading, and then pick a verb from the list that fits your judgment. Varied verb use will make your writing more interesting and precise If you are a science student, closely examine your own verb placement and compare it to work in your discipline – could you afford to use a few more verbs? Or do you need to pare it back?

I hope that’s clear – I’ll be making edits when I put this post into the book, so your questions are helpful!

More Writing Trouble posts:

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

The vagueness problem in academic writing

09/20/17 PHD comic: 'Your Social Parabola'

PhD Comics - September 21, 2017 - 4:06pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Your Social Parabola" - originally published 9/20/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

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?

Related posts

Shut Up and Write

Drop and give me 20,000 words!

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

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!