Updates in Doctoral Ed

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

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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

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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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How to get a rock star supervisor

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

How do you choose the right supervisor? How do you know if it might be time for a change?

In this post Associate Professor Evonne Miller offers a check list of qualities of an awesome supervisor. I now blog with Evonne over at The Supervision Whisperers where the tagline is “Just like the Thesis Whisperer, but with more paperwork”.

Evonne is 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.

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 wellbeing 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 newtork, 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

Visit the Supervision Whisperers – a space for supervisors to talk about supervision

The tyranny of the awesome supervisor


04/14/17 PHD comic: 'Page charge'

PhD Comics - April 15, 2017 - 3:39am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Page charge" - originally published 4/14/2017

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04/12/17 PHD comic: 'Drive by'

PhD Comics - April 12, 2017 - 5:58pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Drive by" - originally published 4/12/2017

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Enjoying your viva

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

The Viva – a live presentation of your thesis to examiners – is not common in Australia. Our thesis examination is a blind peer review process, which has its own fears, but nothing like the anxiety that a viva can provoke. Horror stories tend to circulate, which is why I was happy to be sent this post by Dr Parmesh Gajjar

Parmesh completed his PhD in Mathematics at University of Manchester in June 2016, where he now works as a Research Assistant in X-Ray imaging. Parmesh has always taken a keen interest in the welfare and development of early career researchers; alongside helping to develop the Postgraduate Summer Research Showcase at the University of Manchester, he has also given talks on student experience at Vitae and ARMA international conferences. His current projects involve growing pastoral support for doctoral researchers within his research group.  

“I had my doctoral viva. And I enjoyed it.”

Yes, what you are reading is indeed true. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of my 3 3/4 hour viva voce. But it wasn’t just me. Both of my examiners also enjoyed the experience. Why was this the case and what lessons does it hold? From handing in my thesis until my viva, I was overcome by a crippling state of anxiety. I had heard all of the horror stories: people having their work rubbished, examiners proclaiming that their work was completely wrong; people leaving the exam room crying, with their confidence shattered in tiny pieces. What would my examiners ask me? What if I couldn’t answer their questions? Will they be fair? But I needn’t have worried. My two examiners conducted the viva in a manner that was stark contrast to everything I had heard about. From the very first moment, they sought to put me at ease, and every time they asked a difficult question, they stressed that it was not a test but simply a discussion. They had taken the time to carefully read my thesis, and it was a joy to scientifically converse with them. I had never previously had the opportunity to have such an in-depth discussion of my work, and this felt like a celebration of everything I had achieved over the past 3.5 years. I left feeling proud of my work, thinking that this is truly what a doctoral viva should be like! After having had my viva, the main part of the viva which I believe young researchers find daunting is independently expressing and evaluating their own work. With pressure from research councils to ensure that PhD’s are completed on time, many institutions now have systems for end of year vivas. In reality, these are often regarded as a box ticking exercise to satisfy administrators. In the rare cases where an actual formal viva does take place, the supervisor may even turn it into a whip-lashing session to drive more output from the student. It is rarely commented upon, but the presence of the supervisor changes the dynamic of the viva. Supervisors may not appreciate critique of work which has grown out of their own research, and so young researchers refrain from saying anything that may harbour offence. At UK institutions, PhD supervisors are seldom present in the final vivas, and the candidates have to be able to stand on their own two feet. If end of year vivas were conducted in a similar manner, formally with the supervisor in absentia, doctoral scholars would gain invaluable experience in critical analysis. Learning to communicate one’s research is a skill traditionally seen to be developed through giving presentations on national and international platforms. Whilst speaking in front of many academics is in itself a daunting task, tighter budgets mean that universities find it increasingly difficult to send many of their students away to present at meetings. Recently, an clever initiative at the University of Manchester has recreated the atmosphere of an international conference, but on their home turf. The annual Postgraduate Summer Research Showcase (PSRS) gives hundreds of postgraduate researchers an environment to practise communicating ideas, and comes at a fraction of the cost of sending the same number of students away to conferences. The Salford Postgraduate Annual Research Conference also brings researchers together and encourages them to present their work through interactive and dynamics media such as Pecha Kucha, performances and demonstrations Similar models could be adopted by other institutions to help their researchers communicate and network. The ability to articulate scientific ideas in a clear and concise manner can also be developed through other means. A tutor with the Brilliant Club mentioned how, after succeeding in getting a bored secondary school student to engage with their work, communicating ideas to any audience was a piece of cake. The focus during a PhD is primarily centred upon getting research done, but public engagement and outreach can have a pivotal role in helping researchers to develop the ability articulate and express ideas. Not only are these vital skills for successfully navigating a doctoral viva, but they also help the PhD become a highly valued transferable asset in the job market. Researchers, supervisors and programme directors alike should all seriously think from the outset about both gaining sufficient research material, but also learning how to communicate it. In this way the viva can cease to be examination, and turns into a celebration! Now, where is the cake? Related posts The importance of being interesting Thoughts on the three minute thesis

04/10/17 PHD comic: 'Book Trailer'

PhD Comics - April 9, 2017 - 8:05pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Book Trailer" - originally published 4/10/2017

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04/07/17 PHD comic: 'True Story'

PhD Comics - April 8, 2017 - 6:37am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "True Story" - originally published 4/7/2017

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04/05/17 PHD comic: 'Played'

PhD Comics - April 6, 2017 - 5:11am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Played" - originally published 4/5/2017

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Why you are not the ‘star student’ (and how to become one)

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

I have a friend doing his PhD, let’s call him Ronald.

Ronald is clever, bright and diligent. He’s spent many, many hours in the lab building prototypes and producing copious amounts of data. He’s clearly on the verge of a breakthrough that would change his field (but has yet to publish anything for fear of being scooped). In fact his work is so original and complex that most people don’t understand it. Ronald’s had the opportunity to go to a couple of overseas conferences, but he’s refused each time. He’s on a limited income and the funds on offer wouldn’t quite cover all the expenses he’d calculated.

Ronald always attends and contributes to lab meetings. He knows it’s important to talk about his work with colleagues, but only turns up to the social events occasionally. He has a wife and a large network of friends outside the university. He’s sociable, he just has a lot to do. His focus on work is absolute. Going out for a coffee during a work day would be a waste of time and he really hates the ‘paperwork’ parts of academia. The number of emails the school sent him asking for stuff drives him crazy. Last summer he just declared email bankruptcy and deleted all of the old mails on the assumption that someone would chase him up again if it was really important. It’s the work that attracted Ronald to the PhD in the first place and he wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of his breakthrough.

Sadly, Ronald’s supervisor, a big name researcher in his field, doesn’t seem to value Ronald’s qualities. This supervisor is extremely busy and a little bit curt with people he thinks are ‘time wasters’. Ronald doesn’t think he falls into this category, but he is constantly passed over in favour of Anna, a young woman who started a year after Ronald at the lab. Anna was offered the paid teaching and research work her supervisor didn’t have time to do. In her second year, Anna was the tag-along to the ‘big conference’ in the field with the supervisor, and given the honour of presenting the poster describing the work of the whole lab. Anna didn’t even have to fund this trip. She told Ronald she’d got a bursary for writing the most papers of all the PhD students this year (a bursary he’d never even heard of). Anna seemed to be publishing all the time, often as first author — a privilege that wasn’t accorded to other students, including Ronald. At social events Anna was the one everyone wanted to talk to. Anna was acknowledged as the ‘star student’ by everyone. Even the Dean speculated about which famous lab would accept her for a post-doc.

It was hardly surprising that Ronald was resentful of Anna’s success, but he was a nice guy (and politically smart enough) not to be a jerk about it. Outwardly he smiled and made nice with Anna, but inwardly he seethed. So, it seemed, did many of the students in the lab. Over coffee one day he told me the prevailing theory for Anna’s success was that she was sleeping with the big name supervisor. They do spend a lot of time together — she even house sits for him and walks his dog. At this point I felt compelled to point out this theory was blatantly sexist. Sleeping with students carries heavy penalties. Having a relationship with a student is the most certain way I know for academics to get the sack. Although relationships do develop between students and teachers, 99.999% of supervisors are way too smart to endanger their job. If they are going to carry on affairs and/or be unfaithful to partners it’s far more likely to happen with another colleague after too many drinks at the conference dinner, 3000 miles from home.

Even though I’d never met her, I suspected knew some stuff about Anna already. I asked Ronald how many of the statements below were true:

  1. Anna’s presentations are engaging, visual and interesting
  2. Anna can talk about her research well, both on stage and one to one. In her spare time, Anna volunteers for a local community group or has an interest in theatre.
  3. Anna helps publish the school newsletter, or runs the blog for the lab
  4. Anna is prompt and efficient when answering email.
  5. Anna regularly has coffee or lunch with a wide variety of people, even the receptionist.
  6. Anna is on the student-staff consultative committee and/or a participating member of the student union.

Ronald answered “yes” to all of these questions and looked startled. Sometimes people think I have super-natural powers of observation, but it’s not magic I assure you. Our research suggests that PhD students who have better networks are more employable. This behaviour must start during the PhD and you can see it in the ‘star students’. Anna isn’t a star student by who she is, but what she does. Let’s unpack these behaviours one by one:

  1. Your presentations are one of the rare moments where all that invisible work in the lab becomes visible. If they shine, you shine. You still have to do great research work — but the right people have know about it or that work is largely wasted.
  2. Being able to talk about your work is critical, but it’s not all about being on stage, 3MT style. You must be able to engage in professional conversations as both a critical and creative contributor. This is a difficult skill to master. Don’t under-estimate the amount of practice you will need, especially if you are the sort that has hobbies that are solitary, or conducted entirely online (like team based computer gaming). Even sport has more limited opportunities to practice because the interaction is largely structured by pre-set rules. Her work for community groups and theatre hobby means Anna has hours and hours more practice at talking to people about how to get (creative) things done than Ronald.
  3. Anna gets a number of benefits from her participation in the ‘non scholarly’ publication that are perhaps too numerous to list here. The most important, in my opinion, is that her skills at writing to deadline and managing technical aspects of getting words on the web are showcased to those who matter in management and administration. Once you are known to be good at this, other opportunities to engage with the media follow. Many non-academic staff members to know more about what is going on than academics, who rarely open that email newsletter. By helping out, Anna got access to all the valuable intel first.
  4. Email is one of those chores we all have to do. Being prompt and helpful sends an important professional message about your reliability in every single email. Reliability counts much more than you would think in academia. The person who gets chosen to go to the conference as a tag along has to be reliable as well as a good performer. Anna’s behaviour on email and her ability to deliver a great presentation tells her supervisor she is the package – both creative and efficient. Of course he chooses her, not Ronald who he has yet to see produce anything. As a result of this trip, Anna spent more one on one time personal time with her supervisor than any other person in the lab. When the supervisor sprained his ankle in Helsinki, she helped him navigate the healthcare system and carted his luggage about. They developed a high level of trust — hence the house sitting. And the dog walking? Her supervisor lives alone and needed someone to walk the dog while he had his foot up on the couch, recovering. Anna exercises her dog everyday and lives close by. It’s no bother to Anna to pick up Fido on her way past the door at 6am. So he gives her the key to the gate. This regular morning walk turned out to be a habit Fido enjoyed, so the arrangement stayed in place. Anna and her supervisor are now professionally friendly — not exactly friends, but close. It’s hardly surprising that she’s getting first author. Unlike the other students who are too scared of the supervisor to treat him like a normal human, she feels free to ask.
  5. Anna isn’t ‘wasting time’ having coffees and lunch. She’s having important down time from her work, maintaining academic friendships and building new ones. Connections with a wide variety of people at work has been shown to have benefits for creativity. By spreading herself around, Anna builds a stronger network of support, allies and potential collaborators. The reason everyone flocks to Anna at a party is they already know they can talk to her. Success breeds success. If a lot of people seem willing to talk to one person, it makes that person seem more approachable. By contrast, Ronald, despite being a lovely guy, didn’t have much ‘other stuff’ to talk to people about at those gatherings, which made conversations awkward.
  6. Involvement in the student consultative committee allows Anna to ‘peek behind the curtain’ and lear how the place really works. Sometimes people with fancy titles do not have much power and vice versa. Anna is more likely to meet people in high places through this work, never a bad thing. I suspect this is why the Dean thinks she is going places. But it’s not all about kissing up. She’s out to lunch with the receptionist remember? Turns out they met at the committee meeting and realised they had a very similar sense of humour and interests. Anna’s no snob: she understands that friendships should be with people you like, no matter what they do. The side benefit of this friendship is Anna got the early heads-up on the introduction of that paper writing bursary before it even got to the newsletter. With six months longer to prepare than other students, no one had a hope of beating her. If I was Anna’s mentor I would advise her to share that knowledge, not hoard it, but that’s a post for another time.

Ronald was operating under the basic assumption of fairness that is common to many people who have gone straight from undergraduate to PhD and never worked outside of academia. As an undergraduate you are consistently awarded for the quality of your work and achievements. It’s easy to think the only thing that matters is the work, but it’s not. When you get to the PhD stage you start to be rewarded for the way you work, not just the work itself. To be clear, I don’t think Anna was doing any of this ‘networking’ deliberately. The best networkers have an affinity with people and are well trained in the social arts of conversation. The rest of us have to learn the hard way.

I believe, with a few tweaks, Ronald could adjust his behaviour so it was more in line with what Anna was doing, while maintaining his comfort level with respect to social interaction. In my view he needs to do two things:

  1. Work on making his presentations amazing and get over the fear of being ‘scooped’
  2. Get more involved in the volunteer, community work that is available in the department. He could ask the receptionist for some suggestions, she seems nice.

But the biggest shift Ronald needs to make in his head. His lifetime as a ‘good student’ has conditioned him to think that anything but academic achievement is superfuous. I could see it in the way he denigrated others who did care for being “shallow” and worrying about “stuff that isn’t important”. Paying attention to how others perceive you is not shallow, it’s a critical part of the game. I would argue that being a helpful, engaged member of the community is more likely to lead to happiness too – and there’s nothing wrong with that at all.

What do you think? What do you do “extra” community work in your department? Would you recommend it? Do you pay enough attention to what others think of you, or do you think the work is the most important thing?

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03/31/17 PHD comic: 'Wish'

PhD Comics - April 1, 2017 - 9:50am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Wish" - originally published 3/31/2017

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03/29/17 PHD comic: 'Science Showdown US vs UK'

PhD Comics - March 29, 2017 - 10:05pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Science Showdown US vs UK" - originally published 3/29/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!