Updates in Doctoral Ed

Supervisor Shopping

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - June 7, 2017 - 5:00am

This post is by Associate Professor Evonne Miller, the Director of Research Training for the Creative Industries Faculty at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia. She detests meetings and leans towards the hands-off supervision style, but her students will attest that she is passionate about their research and does yell at them (kindly) when needed.

Evonne wrote me this post ages ago – as a result of the discussion it provoked we launched a new blog: The Supervision Whisperers. If you’re interested in more of what Evonne and I have to say about supervision, pay us a visit!

Whether it is art, science or a little bit of magic, choosing the ‘right’ PhD supervisor is one of the most important decisions you will make. There is no doubt that a little bit of luck (or magic) is involved, and both students and supervisors sometimes wish they had a crystal ball that would enable them to see into the future. In the absence of that, however, below I suggest four practical questions/considerations that might help you when selecting your PhD supervisor. This decision will have a significant impact on your PhD experience, so implore you to think carefully and make a considered decision.

 Are they an active, engaged and respected researcher?

Of course, they need to be an expert in this field of research. The best place to start is by reading your potential supervisors biography, publications and recent competitive grants. Have they held important leadership roles (e.g., conference, professional associations, journal editor, etc.), do they have a history of successful, timely completions and where do their students now work? Most of this information should be very easily accessible online, and if it is not, I would argue this is a warning flag.

What is their personality and “supervision style”?

Unfortunately, the first step only tells you whether they are good researchers; you also need to know how they supervise and if their approach is aligned to your personality, learning style and expectations. You need to meet face to face, or via Skype, to have a conversation about whether they like to meet fortnightly, monthly or not at all, and if that meshes with your expectations. Some supervisors are micro-managers with Gantt charts, strict meeting and activity deadlines, whereas others are more relaxed and laidback – the best supervisors mix both these styles depending on the student and their time in the thesis journey. Being a good supervisor is very different from being a good researcher; it involves developing positive working relationships that foster motivation, honest communication and celebrate successes.

At this first meeting, you will get a sense of their personality and approach to supervision – and if they don’t tell you their expectations, ask. Trust your instincts: if you don’t get on with your supervisor, you’re going to have a very, very tough time.

 Research their “Character”. All academics are smart – find the kind academics to be your supervisor.

Ideally, you will be able to talk to their former students about their experiences (keeping in mind that people have different personalities and different thesis journeys). But if you cannot talk to past students directly, you can get a sense of how satisfied they were with their supervision experience by reading the acknowledgement section of their thesis. Below are excerpts from five PhD theses; while people differ in their writing styles and use of emotion, reading between the lines gives you a sense of how engaged each supervisor was in their thesis journey.

“For guidance, assistance and support in the research and writing of this thesis, thanks are due to my supervisors”.

“I would like to thank my supervisors for providing constructive feedback at critical points of the research development”

“You are a rock star supervisor, and I would not have survived this journey without you. You have been incredible, and I am so truly grateful to have had you by my side for the wild ride that has been my PhD journey. The clarity and knowledge you have imparted has been invaluable”

“This dissertation would not have been possible without her support, guidance and encouragement, providing me a shoulder to cry on when all seemed hopeless, instilling me with confidence when I questioned my ability, and for the early morning and late evening texts, emails and messages that seemed to shine a ray of hope on what appeared to be an overwhelming amount of information”.

“The person most directly responsible for my development as an academic is NAME. Knowing what I do now, if I could go back in time and hand pick any supervisor in the world it would be NAME. Work wise, the only thing that seemed more important to him than his passion for his research was the well being of his doctoral student”

I would argue that, if at all possible, you want to work with “the rock star” supervisor; not someone who was helpful in providing “constructive feedback” at times.

 How can they help you? Be strategic.

Take some time to reflect on what you most what to get out of your PhD – and make sure that the supervisor you select is in a position to support your endeavors. Do they have a scholarship on offer, part time teaching or research assistant work? Are they connected with industry or the communities you need to access. For example, if you want to conduct ethnographic fieldwork overseas or with in a large company, look for supervisors who already have these connections.

 Develop an external support network 

Finally, you will be working with your supervisor for a minimum 3-4 years. Even in the best relationship, there will be disagreements and drama, criticism and crying – ideally in private, but a good friend of mine recently burst into tears at the start of her final seminar (the combination of 5 years part time thesis enrolment, while working full time with two young children).  We all understood: doing and completing a PhD is an emotional journey. Completing it requires a good external support network, so make fostering friendship with your fellow PhD students a priority – unlike your family and non-academic network, they will “get it” when you are frustrated with data, tangling with theoretical concepts or are elated because you got an article published.

Finally, like many great ideas, this post was triggered by a conversation over dinner with friends who were doing their PhDs and lamenting their choice of supervisor. So, if you are reading this and thinking: I am or have completed my PhD IN SPITE of my supervisor – you are in good company. The reality is that many of us have less than positive memories and tales of supervisory conflict, woe and drama. And I know that some students do not have the luxury of picking their supervisors, or the relationship may have broken down. In these situations, how you manage the situation and your interactions is critical and I recommend (1) contacting the higher degree research support team at your university for advice (there are lots of processes, policies and practical tips to assist) and (2) reading some books on interpersonal communication and strategies.

If, like me, you completed a thesis with limited help, I have two messages for you – first, well done! You know that this PhD was hard earned and you did it. Second, looking back, was there any early warning signs you could share to help others and any specific steps you could have tried / put in place that might have helped?

Related posts

The tyranny of the awesome supervisor

How to email your supervisor (or the tyranny of tiny tasks)

The supervision whisperers blog





06/02/17 PHD comic: 'Let's meet after'

PhD Comics - June 3, 2017 - 11:51pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Let's meet after" - originally published 6/2/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

05/31/17 PHD comic: 'Gravitational Waves New Detection'

PhD Comics - June 1, 2017 - 10:35pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Gravitational Waves New Detection" - originally published 5/31/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

Your body is as important as your mind

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - May 31, 2017 - 4:00am

Paul T. Corrigan finished his PhD in English at the University of South Florida after six years in the program. He now teaches writing and literature at Southeastern University (USA). You can look him up at paultcorrigan.com.

At twenty-three, I stood in front of a mirror. After working out strenuously for months, I was in as good physical shape as I had ever been. But I knew for the next couple years I would get to exercise less, much less. I was about to start a PhD and start teaching full time. And my wife had just given birth to our second child. So I sighed, smiled, and accepted the inevitable.

I was prepared to make a tradeoff. Since I couldn’t do it all—degree, job, family, fitness—I figured I’d put my body on hold while I worked on my brain. Sure, I wouldn’t be in my early twenties anymore when I got back to exercising. But, given all the fitness I’d banked, I should be alright, right?

As it turned out, grad school cost my body more than I had anticipated.

I stopped exercising, stopped sleeping well, and (to my great surprise!) stopped metabolizing as quickly as I had. I started sitting in a armchair for hours and hours every day (reading, writing, grading) and started stress eating, especially French fries. I ate lots and lots of French fries.

I told myself, this was all temporary, just for a little while. Soon enough, I’d get through the degree and get back to the gym.

One year turned into two. Two years turned into three. Three years turned into four.

Somewhere along the way, I sat on a panel giving advice to incoming grad students. I had a whole list of suggestions: 1. Don’t have kids. 2. Stay physically active. 3. When you figure out how to stay physically active, let me know what the trick is. I haven’t the foggiest . . .

At the end of my fourth year in the program, I finished my qualifying exams, one of the most stressful experiences of my life. Afterward I went into minor depression, I believe. Though I already had a clear idea of what I wanted to write for my dissertation, it still took me that entire next year to write a prospectus. In the past, I had once written over two hundred pages for one course in a single semester. But in that fifth year I produced less than a page a week.

What happened? Part of the picture is that, for the first time in my life, I had put on a few pounds. (Did you see this coming? Did I mention the French fries?) The weight itself isn’t my point—not my weight and certainly not anyone else’s. My point is that in my case gaining weight was part of generally not taking care of my body. Not exercising led to being tired; being tired led to not exercising. This cycle exacerbated the stress and depression. And all of that cut into my productivity.

In The New Science of Learning, Terry Doyle and Todd Zakrajsek cite Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey to make the following point: “Getting adequate exercise, especially aerobic exercise, is ‘the single most important thing a person can do to improve their learning.’” Also on the list: get more sleep.

How could this be? How could an hour of walking be more useful for learning than an hour of reading or writing? It’s simple.

Your brain is part of your body. When you neglect your body, you neglect your brain. When you take care of your body, you take care of your brain.

At the end of that hard fifth year, I realized my faulty tradeoff—brain over body—wasn’t working. So I changed what I ate. I started walking every day. I started running a little. I bought good jogging shoes. I started running a lot. I worked my way up to a 10k. I lost a good bit of weight. I put a lot of time into this renewed effort to attend to my body. What I knew now, though, was that it was not time taken from my studies.

It was part of studying.

And it paid off. Feeling much better, in my sixth year, I proceeded to write and defend my entire dissertation, nearly 300 pages. That’s about six times as productive as the year before.

I don’t want to pretend any of this is simple. If I could start over at twenty-three, I don’t know whether I’d manage to do things differently or whether I already did the best I could while I could. That’s all anyone can do. I have no prescriptions or judgments for myself or for anyone else. My point is simply that there’s no such thing as ignoring the body to attend to the brain because in the long run—and PhD programs are always a long runbody and brain aren’t separate things.

Related posts

How doing a PhD is like losing weight

Thesis Prison


05/24/17 PHD comic: 'The trick'

PhD Comics - May 26, 2017 - 7:28pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "The trick" - originally published 5/24/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

05/22/17 PHD comic: 'Limits'

PhD Comics - May 24, 2017 - 6:40am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Limits" - originally published 5/22/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

Making the most of your conference money

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - May 24, 2017 - 4:00am

This post is by Dr Alexandra Hogan, a mathematical infectious disease modeller. She submitted her PhD thesis at the Research School of Population Health at ANU in November 2016. She is now working on models for malaria transmission at Imperial College London.

For an academic, participating in conferences is important for lots of reasons: sharing research and having it critiqued, building networks, identifying collaboration opportunities, and staying up to date with advances in the field.

For PhD students there are additional advantages: you can use conferences to make your name known outside your immediate geographical area, potentially improving future employment opportunities.

For me, they have been invaluable in feeling included in my scientific discipline; for being part of a bigger student group outside my university; and for receiving a motivational boost when the PhD journey is feeling long and difficult.

There’s also a cost: conferences are expensive, particularly when you are travelling from Australia to, well, anywhere. There is time off research, travel time, and sacrificed casual income. Finally, it takes considerable time to apply for travel funding and prepare a talk.

Therefore, once you’ve made the commitment, you want to get fantastic things out of it – but to reap the benefits, it takes a bit of strategy and effort. So, here are my tips for making the most of your conference.

Befriend the PhD students.

Getting to know the students from other institutions is really important: you’ll have new connections at different universities, people to discuss PhD difficulties with, you can find out about upcoming events, and you’ll have more fun. Some conferences I’ve attended have offered a discount at a local hostel and encouraged students to stay there: this is a good thing to do as in the evenings there will be social things happening that you definitely want to be part of.

Wear your nametag.

This might sound obvious, but there are always people who don’t. If you don’t wear your nametag, other attendees won’t know who you are, and might assume you are not part of the conference or are someone too important for a nametag – either way they won’t say hello.

Don’t just hang out with people from your institution.

Do talk to lots of people…but not people you already know well. The whole point of going to a conference is to meet new people, and it’s hard to do this if you stick with people from your own university.

Actively seek out people you want to meet.

I’ve read some blogs suggesting that you get in touch with people you want to meet before the conference, to organise a meeting time. I don’t normally do this, as most people won’t be that organised, but certainly advise being proactive during the conference week.

At a recent conference, the first plenary gave an excellent talk, relevant to my work – but there were over 800 people at the conference spread across several big rooms, so I wasn’t sure I’d casually meet her by chance over the week. I sent an email introducing myself, suggesting a chat over one of the breaks, and we convened later in the week.

Make the effort in the breaks.

The whole point of going to conference is not about listening to presentations, but to actually talk to people. Academics are not typically known for their outstanding social skills, and a lot of people (even well known professors) can feel quite anxious about it. Use the coffee breaks to try and meet some new people – see the next few points.

If someone gives a great talk – let them know.

However, if you just say to someone ‘I really enjoyed your talk’, they will say ‘oh, thank you’, and the conversation can stall. Instead, link your compliment to your own research. For example, ‘I really enjoyed how you talked about methods for model fitting, it’s actually similar to an issue I’m working on with some data for influenza…’, it then gives the academic a chance to say ‘thank you’ before leading into a conversation about mutual resesarch interests.

Ask questions at talks.

Simple questions are fine – usually the speaker is relieved if they don’t get stumped on anything tricky! Sometimes, I think a talk is fantastic and want to ask a question, to show how interested I was – but then can’t think of one.

A good strategy is to ask the speaker to re-explain one of the charts or graphs on one of their slides (this only works for quantitative disciplines). E.g. ‘Thank you, I really enjoyed your talk. Would you mind just going back to slide 10, I was a bit confused about what that chart is showing…perhaps you could explain that part again?’.

Embrace social media.

I mainly suggest you do this because it’s really fun, but it’s useful too. It can make you feel more part of the ‘conference community’. You’ll get to know more people. If there are parallel sessions, it means you can get an idea of talks you might have missed.

Go to the conference dinner.

Always go to the dinner. It’s one of my favourite parts of a conference, as everyone is relaxed, and you can get to know your colleagues in an informal setting. Sometimes there is dancing! My advice is not to talk about work and not to sit with people from your own university (point 4). If you have a drink or two, keep it sensible.

Pace yourself.

Conferences can be really exhausting. At the beginning of my PhD, I thought I had to go to every session, and would be completely burnt out by the end of the week. It’s good to go through the program to identify the ‘must-attend’ sessions, sessions your interested in, and some spots in the program where you can have a break or catch up with a colleague.

Great tips! Thanks Alexandra. What about you? Attended any conferences lately? What are your tips?

Related posts

Dear Conference organiser

How to win academic friends and influence people


05/19/17 PHD comic: 'Upgrade'

PhD Comics - May 22, 2017 - 4:11am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Upgrade" - originally published 5/19/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

05/17/17 PHD comic: 'Wearable device'

PhD Comics - May 18, 2017 - 7:24am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Wearable device" - originally published 5/17/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

PhD Depression (or just the blues?)

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - May 17, 2017 - 4:00am

While many people will suffer ‘the blues’ during the PhD, in some cases the problem is more serious and can lead to or trigger clinical depression. In those cases, all the practical advice in the world won’t help and you need to seek medical attention. If you are worried about how you feel, and nothing seems to help, please visit your GP for advice. The website Beyond Blue has many excellent resources and information if you are worried about another colleague, family member or student and are not sure what to do.

If you are suffering from the blues, here’s some practical advice that might help. I’d like to thank Ümit Kennedy for sending in this post. Umit is a PhD candidate with the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University. You can connect with her via email at umit.kennedy@gmail.com or on social media using @umitkennedy. Although the days of her PhD blues have passed, she still uses these tips to get back on that horse every time she is knocked down.

I am well and truly in the middle of my three year PhD at an Australian University. Right now I’m experiencing some of the darkest days of my PhD journey so far. I am just so down. I hate my life. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve lost all my confidence. I feel like a total fraud. I’m feeling more and more distanced from ‘normal people’. (Mainly because it frustrates me more and more when people don’t understand what I’m doing or just can’t see the value in it.)

I’m calling what I’m feeling “PhD blues”.

From an outsider’s perspective I have nothing to feel down about. I just had my first ever article accepted for publication in an academic journal. I’m well on track, ahead even, with a clear plan for completion. I participate, go to conferences, speak on panels, and submit abstracts left right and center. The problem is that whenever I ‘achieve’ something it doesn’t feel like an achievement.

Even having an article accepted, for example, in my experience, involves a pretty brutal reviews process in which everything including your ideas, argument and writing is criticized. So it can be hard to feel appropriately pleased about an achievement when the process of attaining it leaves you feeling lesser, little, unqualified, and no longer confident to submit anything ever again. Of course, you have to get over it and get back on that horse. Here are some of my practical tips to get out of the “PhD blues” and get on with it.

Achieve something

Do something that makes you feel like you have achieved something today. It might be as simple as cleaning the kitchen and cooking a beautiful meal. It might be organising your study, or wardrobe. It might be going for a walk or a run. It might be getting creative and making something. Weeding the garden, or in my case the pot plants on our little balcony. Attending to the piles of washing. Deep cleaning the bathroom. Grocery shopping. Putting everything up for sale on eBay. Finishing that novel that has been sitting on your bed-side-table for an eternity and finally giving it a place on the bookshelf. Anything that will make you feel like you have achieved something today. Sometimes just succeeding at being an adult (by doing any of the things mentioned above) is enough of an achievement to make me feel a bit better.

Treat yo’ self

By this stage of my PhD journey I have developed a reward system for myself. Whenever I have achieved a goal or worked particularly hard I reward myself by going to my favourite shopping center, buying a crème brulée late, and allowing myself to browse through my favourite stores. On a down day, treat yourself. Instead of treating yourself for achieving a specific goal, you are treating yourself for making it this far. And that is a pretty epic achievement worth celebrating!

Work on something completely different

I know this can feel like procrastination or a waste of time, but seriously, we both know that on a down day no amount of progress on the thesis is going to take place. Today would otherwise consist of many tears and watching YouTube or Netflix in bed. So instead, today is the day to develop those ideas for an article that has nothing to do with your research, but that you are excited about. It’s a day to write that blog post. Or as I’m trying to do now, write something practical that will feel like an achievement at the end of the day even though it hasn’t progressed my thesis. If writing is thinking, and I think it is, then you can’t go wrong.

Take this one step further and do it where people can see you. I love going to a busy coffee shop and writing. Even if what I’m writing is useless, I enjoy imagining what people are thinking when they see me: ‘Is she a journalist? Is she writing a novel?’ They’re probably not thinking any of those things, but it makes me feel like I’m interesting and like the image I portray is desirable. Look the part, feel the part! Am I right? Going to a busy coffee shop or library can also make you feel like you are part of the world, which I think is important when we are feeling isolated and alone.

Find the right people

I know how much my PhD is responsible for my feelings because life seems okay again when my husband gets home from work and we have some time together. Similarly, life feels okay again when I catch up with a good friend (who understands the academic/research journey). Or my parents, who I’m fortunate enough to say, also understand the academic/research journey. So much of my “blues” is to do with my isolation as a PhD student. The only community I have found is at conferences, and my only connection to those wonderful people is predominantly through social media. The right people are crucial. My hairdresser the other week was NOT the right person, and made me feel a million times worse when she had no idea what a PhD was and questioned why on earth I would want to spend so many years of my life “studying”. “I’M NOT STUDYING!” I wanted to scream. Find the right people and spend some time with them.

Break it down

Finally, after you have done all these things and feel like maybe you can face the world again, break it down. Break the rest of your PhD down into bite site, achievable pieces. Make an ACHIEVABLE timeline. Create a weekly or fortnightly to do list. Try to limit your to do list to one substantial task each week or fortnight. The goal of this exercise is to make you feel like “yeah, I can totally do this”. Next week all I have to do is *insert whatever you need to do next week* and I can totally do that! Feeling like you can achieve next week’s task (with all the tasks mapped out ahead of you until completion) will motivate you to keep going. Breaking it down and creating a timeline can feel really overwhelming, so make sure you’re ready for it – make sure you’ve given yourself some R&R time before you get stuck into planning. And yes, it will take you hours, but it’s not a waste of time, I promise. I revisit and re-create my to do list and timeline every time I’m feeling overwhelmed.

Don’t think about post PhD life

Recently, this is what has really got me down! My advice is don’t think about what will happen after the PhD. You will need to face this at some point, but that time has not come yet. Right now you need to get the freaking thing done! As my Dad has started saying (and as he was once told) “just get it done, it’s not your life’s work”. And as my husband reassured me the other night “the doors will start opening as you publish, teach, and build a network” and those things can’t really happen until I get more done. So the focus for now is getting more of the research and thesis done. Worry about the rest later.

Quit feeling guilty

So you haven’t really got anything done this week? Did you try? If you’re a PhD student the answer is most likely yes. (We tend to be a pretty hard-working, self-disciplined bunch.) Well, either you were tired and needed a break or you actually spent all the time where you feel like you were doing nothing thinking. Quit feeling guilty. Ideas do actually take time to develop and your brain never really switches off. Sometimes you just need to sit on things. I can guarantee that the periods where you are highly productive more than make up for the days (and sometimes weeks) where you feel you have made no progress. So quit feeling guilty and give yourself a break!

I wrote this article after searching “PhD Depression” for many hours. I could absolutely relate to everything I was reading, but I couldn’t find anything to help me get out of the dumps. So here is my experience of what has helped me.

These are my practical tips. Feel free to share yours.

Related posts

The process

PhD paralysis



05/12/17 PHD comic: 'Free excerpt - We Have No Idea'

PhD Comics - May 14, 2017 - 6:00am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Free excerpt - We Have No Idea" - originally published 5/12/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

05/10/17 PHD comic: 'Peaking'

PhD Comics - May 12, 2017 - 5:23am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Peaking" - originally published 5/10/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

PhD career capital

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - May 10, 2017 - 4:00am

My sister is fond of reminding me that, in 1992, after returning from my first overseas trip to Europe, I told her I wanted a career where I could “get on and off planes and talk to people for a living”. It’s appropriate then, that I write this post while flying high above the red centre of Australia on my way back to chilly Canberra from tropical Darwin.

In the getting-on-and-off-planes-and-talking-to-people business, expectation management is crucial. Sometimes people ask me to do a one hour talk on:

  • How you got so ‘big’ on social media
  • What PhD students should do to be successful
  • What you’re researching right now

Of course, any one of those topics is a talk on its own – maybe even a course. In the past, I’ve tried to cover all three and just left everyone feeling confused. Now I spend time talking to my prospective hosts about exactly who is in the audience, what stage of the PhD process they are at and what I can offer them from my repertoire.

Delightfully, the Darwin hosts gave me an open invitation to come up to the tropics for a few days and talk on whatever topic took my fancy. However, they were immediately wary of the topic I suggested: academic employment prospects for PhD graduates.

“It won’t be too depressing, will it?”, they asked anxiously.
After a long pause I replied: “I’ll try to be upbeat.”

Look. There’s no getting around it. Talking about career prospects in academia, especially in Australia, can be depressing. I did my best to do an upbeat, yet informative and pragmatic talk about building an academic career. At the end I invited PhD students to come and talk to me, one on one, about their own career plans. I get most of my good ideas for blog posts from these conversations with PhD students, which are the very best part of any speaking gig. But in this case I had an ulterior motive.

Last year, with my excellent research collaborators Will Grant and Hanna Suominen, I helped design and develop a machine learning natural language processing algorithm (ML-NLP) that can ‘read’ job advertisements. I’ll call what we made ‘The Machine’ for simplicity’s sake (and because it’s kind of cool). The Machine can sort job advertisements along a spectrum of research skill intensity and display the results. The purpose of The Machine was to report to the government the demand for research skills amongst Australian employers.

Most employers are not familiar with the skills of PhD graduates as, until relatively recently, there’s been so few of them. As a consequence, most employers who are clearly looking for PhD level research skills do not list PhD as a qualification. The machine can see where an employer wanted a PhD graduate, but didn’t know it and can sort a huge data set much more effectively than a human and show us where the ‘hidden’ jobs for PhD students are outside academia.

We found lots of interesting things with our Machine, which I can’t tell you yet because we are still finalising our initial report and papers. However, the project has already moved on to a new and even more exciting stage. We’ve been given the opportunity to build a product, with the ultimate aim of (hopefully) providing a free, or at least very low cost, advice to PhD graduates who are seeking to work outside of academia – some 60% of you and rising.

As part of the ‘customer validation process’ I aim to talk to at least 100 PhD students and recent PhD graduates about what they are doing to further their career goals. In Darwin I took the opportunity to continue the talks I started with PhD students at ANU. These interviews are fascinating and are turning upside down some of my preconceptions about the way PhD students go about career building.

I expected PhD students to be confused, but some are confused about which of the amazing options available is the best one to take. Other people I’ve spoken to feel their options are very limited. Age, disciplinary specialty and caring responsibilities can restrict career options, but this seems to happen less than I thought. I expected PhD students to be anxious and worried about the uncertainty surrounding this next stage of their career. Many, perhaps the majority, of people I have spoken to so far are very worried, but  there are a small proportion who are not. While some of them freely admitted to being in denial, there are PhD students out there who don’t have the foggiest idea of what to do next, but are genuinely relaxed, even excited, by the uncertainty of it all.

Relaxed and excited by financial uncertainty? How can this be?

As a life-long Worrier, I find this lack of stressing about the future admirable. Worry About What Is Next consumed most of my PhD time and was part of the reason I rushed through it. While I’m happy to dwell in uncertainty in my research, I don’t like uncertainty about income. I grew up in a household with constant money troubles, which was, frankly, traumatising. The PhD was a time of tight rations in the Mewburn household and brought some of these unpleasant feelings back. Sometimes the uncertainty of What Comes Next made it hard to concentrate, so I went into a kind of denial. There were many days I felt like I was walking on a tightrope, just concentrating on getting the PhD done, too scared to look down or think too much about the future.

I’m starting to wonder: what separates those students who are consumed with anxiety from those who aren’t? I think the answer lies in what the unworried do.

To help me unpack this, on the long plane flights to and from Darwin, I re-read part of one of my favourite books on career building: So Good They Can’t Ignore You, by Cal Newport. If you are wondering about how to build a post PhD career and haven’t yet read this book, you really should.

Newport’s book is aimed at unsettling what he calls the myth of passion based career advice. Don’t follow your dream  he says: passion follows skill, not the other way around. Newport’s basic point is that happiness in a job is a combination of freedom, mastery and connection. If you are great at what you do (mastery), you are likely to have more autonomy (freedom) and the last is obvious (it only takes one bully to ruin your working life).

The best part of the book is where Newport discusses the concept of career capital. Most great jobs, he argues, require skills that are both rare and valuable. If you have rare and valuable skills, you will have a good stock of career capital and always be in hot demand.

This started me thinking about my own career capital. My biggest ‘asset’ is this blog actually – it demonstrates my expertise to a large network of people on a regular basis. Being known as a good communicator is a clear asset in academia, but I need to be more than just a blogger. Many people can write well, but I can write fast. I honed this skill over a period of more than ten years, basically just by reading books, teaching writing to PhD and writing a lot – on the blog and elsewhere. I also have some solid skills in analysis. Many people can analyse and interpret qualitative data, but most seem to do it without using software tools. By knuckling down and learning these tools – the latest of which is machine learning – I can tackle complex projects in short time frames. Being fast is vital because, as Newport points out, there is always a ‘cloud of other expectations’ in academia, just waiting to rain on your research parade.

To develop skills that are rare and valuable, Newport argues, you must be prepared to take a ‘craftsmanlike approach’ to your work. This involves spending time to get really good at your craft by stretching yourself, just a little bit, all the time. The aim of all this practice is to get so good they can’t ignore you. Newport gives many interesting examples of craftsperson-like approaches to work (I hate that making this term non-gendered makes it awkward, but the patriarchy oppresses us all). The examples he gives are mostly male, but they are varied: from banjo playing to making computers, so I’ll give him props for range.

What I am beginning to see in all the people who are genuinely excited about the uncertainty of their PhD future is a commitment to their academic craft – whatever that might be. They talk about writing papers to learn the tricks of academic publishing. They seek out opportunities to teach. They go to conferences and watch other people speak, so they can learn how to be good at presenting. They talk about just loving a technique, or approach to research – after working hard for years and years to master it. The attitude is ‘work the skills, the rest will follow’.

I wish I could go back and tell PhD Inger this. I did work skills and indeed, the rest did follow. If I didn’t end up in academia, I’m sure those rare and valuable skills would have found a home somewhere else.

This is clearly a kind of mindful practice involved in this craftsperson’s attitude – a willingness to be in the moment and stay with the struggle of learning a rare and difficult skill. Worry can make concentrating difficult, so maybe this is a way through for those of you who, like myself, fret about the What’s Next. Ask yourself: What rare and valuable skills can I develop? Look around you: what is the work that most people avoid? People avoid hard things. Get good at the hard things – you’re very clever, so this will be easier for you than for many people.

I’m looking forward to sharing more about our ongoing research and development soon. I’d love to speak to you if you are willing to share with me your own approach to your post-academic career. You can send me an email at inger.mewburn@anu.edu.au. I’d love to talk to people of all stages – including people who have graduated and are looking for work, but I’ll leave you with a few questions to see if we can have a conversation here too:

What is your career capital? The valuable and rare skills you have developed up to and including your PhD. How do they make you so good they can’t ignore you? Are you

Is your career capital transferable to another kind of job outside of academia? If so, have you worked out what that job might be?

Related links

Deliberate practice

Academic on the inside?


05/08/17 PHD comic: 'Sisyphus'

PhD Comics - May 9, 2017 - 8:18am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Sisyphus" - originally published 5/8/2017

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05/03/17 PHD comic: 'Recursive'

PhD Comics - May 4, 2017 - 5:38pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Recursive" - originally published 5/3/2017

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04/28/17 PHD comic: 'Automatic Reply'

PhD Comics - April 29, 2017 - 5:12am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Automatic Reply" - originally published 4/28/2017

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04/24/17 PHD comic: 'Meeting comprehension'

PhD Comics - April 26, 2017 - 10:27am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Meeting comprehension" - originally published 4/24/2017

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Seven spiritual lessons I’ve learned from doing a PhD

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

This post is by Shifa Desai, a part-time PhD student at the University of Exeter in the UK. Shifa is doing research on self-initiated expatriate academics who have spent most of their careers working in different countries. She is also an ESL teacher, teetering on the edge of burn-out between full-time employment and part-time research.

Much of PhD work is about organizing logic and reason through research. This is the domain of the Intellect. When I’m not engaged in making my research intelligible, I devote part of my day to spiritual practice and I engage that part of my mind where reason and logic are not required.

While I grapple with stacks of published articles and academic literature in my field of educational research, I am struck by how akin the PhD struggle is to my spiritual journey. I have outlined seven spiritual lessons I’ve learned.


I stand on the shoulders of giants. I am star-struck by a number of great thinkers in my field, the first being my supervisor. There is a man who lives his purpose; producing volumes of research articles; an enlightened plenary speaker at many, many conferences, and always taking the time to swiftly respond to my often panicky emails about methodology. Then I have to credit Derrida with confirming my suspicion that all of life is built on the principle of the absurd. My fractured identity has been honed and crafted by the postmodern gurus whose theories I wear like research skin.

Do what is needed. Don’t worry about the outcome.

Very often, I come down with a really bad case of imposter syndrome. I doubt my data, I think my research goals are crap, I agonize over the cost of a PhD and whether it’ll be worth it in the end. Or if there ever will be an end. Most of all, I think I’m going to fail my viva. It’s then that I recall the primary lesson of the Bhagavad-Gita. If you think you’re going to fail, do it anyway. Put in 100 percent effort. Commit to the cause. Give your power to that which you can control. The outcome is not in your hands.

You don’t need to see the whole picture. Just take the first step.

The time had come for me to press pause on the voluminous reading for the literature review and write this chapter. Do I start with educational theories? Do I go with neo-liberal discourse first? Post-structuralism? They all needed to feature, but where do I begin? So I did. Reading-writing-typing-deleting is taking action. And action generates more action. I opened a book, cited a reference, typed a summary, deleted it, reworded it and did this daily. And then wondrously, paragraphs turned into pages. And pages into a thesis chapter.


You will spend a great deal of time alone. PhD work is not like sweating in unison in a spinning class. It’s a solitary climb up your research Everest. Wear good boots.

Be in the moment

Nothing has taught me more about mindfulness than transcribing semi-structured interviews. I decided to transcribe verbatim each of the interviews for my research. The rigor of sitting, listening, typing hour-long interviews, doused with “err,” “ uhm”, cough, giggle, “you know” absorbed my head-space, and shut out neighbors slamming doors on my thirty-third floor apartment building.

Everything is connected

I used to think I had the most undisciplined mind. Sitting to read a book on narrative research, or something similarly thesis-related, my thoughts would jump to yoghurt. And navel oranges. Oh, and record Scandal!

The call of real-life imposed on my well-intentioned academic moves to make progress with my study. Then it occurred to me. Perhaps the mysterious channels of how we grow our intelligence is simultaneously open to other secular ideas that float in student atmosphere. When you meditate the same secular thought invasions will inflict you. Maybe because you make the intention for your mind to be wide open. There doesn’t appear, to my mind anyway, a different mental gateway for thoughts about navel oranges from Egypt and thoughts about phenomenology. So now I sit and study with a yellow legal pad for list-making, plus my research diary plus a large A3 kitchen organizer!


A PhD will not be rushed. I have devoted whole afternoons to carefully plotting my thesis work plan, complete with chapter submission due dates, making appointments for interviews, making appointments for follow ups, revising chapters and all that goes with it. I first did this 18 months ago. I did it again 5 months ago. That’s because I didn’t manage to get the submissions, interviews, revisions done as intended in the first plan. That’s because a lot of it depended on the availability of other people. And work commitments. And ordering books that take 2 weeks to get delivered and that’s not on the plan.

So the second thesis work plan is supposed to be an improvement of the first plan, but I visited a psychic medium a few months ago and according to him my plan will be delayed into 2017. So now I rest in the refuge that I am only guided by my work plan, doing what is needed in the moment, like reading Foucault Studies or, Thesis Whisperer, while noting on my kitchen planner that mashed potatoes is the perfect comfort food to carb up for another mile on the research climb.

Thanks Shifa! What about you? Do you have a spiritual or religious practice that helps you cope with PhD stress? We don’t talk much about religion in academia, but what lessons can we learn?

Related Posts

PhD detachment

Musings on the unruly PhD

04/21/17 PHD comic: 'Professor Chat'

PhD Comics - April 22, 2017 - 5:07am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Professor Chat" - originally published 4/21/2017

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04/17/17 PHD comic: 'The March'

PhD Comics - April 19, 2017 - 6:47am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "The March" - originally published 4/17/2017

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