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See you later 2018! What’s next for Thesis Whisperer?

December 19, 2018 - 4:00am

So, we made it to the end of 2018! This year was a bit of a blur for me – how about you?

At the start of the year I shared my key word: “Less”. Since I totally failed to do Less in 2017, 2018 was a do-over year to see if I could manage my work load better. With the help of an app called Timing (which I wrote about here), I managed to keep the hours in check pretty well. Here’s a snap shot of my hours from late November that shows I was tracking well to bring my total hours worked to an average of 41 hours a week:

Of course, when you do less hours, you write less papers. I’ve only managed two journal papers this year. I have, however, been very productive on other projects, arguably closer to my heart. I managed to keep running the blog each week and started a new Patreon Channel, where I share videos and extra writing every second week. I’m asking for $1 a month on the principle that PhD students don’t have heaps of money and every little bit helps!

Just keeping up with this content production schedule is a challenge, so a sincere thank you to those of you who have decided to become Patreons and help me throw money at problems. I hope to unveil a fresh new look for the Whisperer in 2019. This will be a big investment in overhauling the website and moving to my own installation of WordPress so the site is more searchable and mobile friendly. With the help of my Patreons, I’ve just spent just over $1000 on design; the next stage is to build a new site and migrate ten years of content.

The quote for the rest of this web work was an eye watering $10,000+, which I hope to fund via book sales and some extra contract work. If you would like to help, I have a new $5 a month Patreon tier. I plan to close this tier in the middle of the year when the work is done, so if you join now your total contribution would be about $30. No pressure: I’ll get there somehow – after 10 years in the same ‘clothes’, the Thesis Whisperer deserves this new look!

I’m expecting the UK release of How to fix your Academic Writing Trouble in a couple of days. I’m really proud of this book – it’s taken over three years to bring it together with my co-authors Katherine Firth and Shaun Lehmann. You’ve seen previews of some of this content, such as this post on how conjunctive adverbs stick sentences together and this one on why writing is like a painful, upper middle-class dinner party.

You can order it from the UK Amazon store right now and I will share the details of the Australian release when I have it. Speaking of releases, the UK and US rights to my book How to be an academic have been purchased by Johns Hopkins Press. We have been working hard on a re-edit for the American market. When it’s released next July it will have a new title Becoming an Academic – and a lovely new cover:

Last, but by no means least on the passion project list, our research team at ANU have been working on an app called ‘PostAc’. It’s a new kind of search engine for PhD graduates. At the moment it’s in user trial until April (thanks to the over 1000 people who signed up!). We’ll have more news on the future of the app after April, but until then, here’s a video:

As usual, Thesis Whisperer will be closed for the Australian summer. I’ve just been to the UK, but now I’m off to Beijing, Japan and the US. I hope you have a restful break if you are taking one, and see you in early February.

See you in 2019!

PS: If you’ve just discovered the Thesis Whisperer while the shop is temporarily closed, please visit the Best of the Blog archive for some good places to start exploring.

Cleaning up, ready for the next phase

December 12, 2018 - 4:00am

Is your desk a hot mess right now? Dr Linda Devereux can relate. In this post she shares the touching story of cleaning her office after the PhD was finished and the unexpected difficulty of the clearing out process.

Linda Devereux is a writing consultant and independent researcher. She has worked in higher education for many years researching and teaching in teacher education programs and managing academic language and learning units. She enjoys working with undergraduate and postgraduate students helping them to craft their writing and research. Linda’s doctoral thesis, a creative non-fiction text and exegesis, examined transcultural childhood memory. She is currently researching the transition to university for Australian students from rural and remote locations and has a number of creative life writing projects under development. Contact Linda via Linkedin

The PhD is finished, and finally, everything is packed away in my home office; but it took me 18 months to get to this concluding stage. My desk was unusable for the year-and-a-half that followed my graduation and the mess worsened as the months slipped by.

After the final printing, the lovely purple-bound copy of the thesis which represented so much work and took so many years of my life, sat there, buried. People sent feedback; lovely, generous, helpful comments to inform ongoing writing projects. I added their letters and cards to the piles. I had worked so hard and so productively for so long.

What on earth went wrong?

I really enjoyed the research and the writing. Of course, there were hard times, days that every writer has, where it felt hopeless and more was deleted than was written, and days where I – and my family – hated the PhD and everything that it meant in our lives. Overall, though, I relished the opportunity to obsess about my research over several years. The slower, part-time PhD worked well for me.

I worked as a university academic almost full time throughout the project in demanding academic positions (all academic positions are demanding in today’s higher education system) and I kept up research and publishing in a completely different field to my thesis. And I wrote a thesis in a vastly different style to anything I had ever done before, and in a multi-disciplinary field that was new to me. I decided to write my thesis on a topic that was meaningful to me, a personal passion, rather than to extend research in the field in which I worked. I wrote a creative non-fiction text and exegesis.

Those decisions led to challenges, but those challenges did not lead to the mess in my study that grew to the point where I could not even get across the room to my desk because the path was blocked by additional boxes of papers and books. How did I move from being a productive and successful PhD student and academic to having a study that looked like a hellish hoarder’s hideout?

The major problem was grief.

Grief and loss were key themes of the thesis itself and they punctuated my life over the last few years of my project as well. I wrote in the PhD about memory and how people can rely on objects, tangible artefacts invested with meaning which can come to represent intangible losses. At some level, my desk and the ephemera connected to the thesis became significant memory objects for me. They represented unprocessed losses that I could not easily sweep away.

During the final months of writing, and just following completion, I experienced one of the most intense periods of loss in my life. Three close family members died and two other family members nearly died. Well, technically, one of the latter two died as well, but was resurrected following twenty-five minutes of CPR and several bursts of the paddles brought by the ambulance officers. In addition, during the last three years my husband retired and I, unexpectedly, retired not long after completing the thesis.

I completed the PhD but the effort involved on top of everything else left me shell-shocked. There is more to some of these losses than I can explain here, but the loss of my brother during the final months of writing was particularly hard. Because I was writing, partly, about my childhood, he was, inevitably, part of the thesis. He was the only one of my siblings who remembered the key period in our family life that I wrote about. Now there is nobody else but me who experienced some of those things and nobody who can help me remember the details, or who understands the significance of particular events.

Vamik Volkan, one of my favourite theorists, writes about loss and grief and the way that humans invest meaning in objects. Volkan calls these artefacts ‘linking objects’ because they link the griever with something that is no longer accessible. The linking objects are invested with meaning and significance; they are connected to the grief in a very deep way.

My study became a linking object. I wrote the thesis. I finished it, but the grieving for what I lost along the way was not finished. The unresolved feelings seemed to pile up like the mess in the study and I didn’t know where to start with them. I knew that I needed to tidy up, to sort through the accumulated walls of books and papers. I could not face it. It was almost as if clearing everything away would clear away a last connection with my brother.

I was also really busy, and I needed time and space to tackle the mess. Stopping paid work gave me time, and the prospect of a houseful of visitors gave me the prompt I needed to clear up the physical space. As I did so, I noticed other changes. Re-reading notes, throwing out rubbish and filing things away created order. I said goodbye to that part of my life, letting go of material things that linked me to my study.

I filed the papers from my thesis, cleared shelves, and took a trailer-load of books to Lifeline. This process helped me to revisit what had happened, acknowledge how hard it had been, and celebrate how well I had done to complete the thesis, despite it all.

Now, as well as an orderly space, I have a beautiful one. My large desk is gone along with my worn-out chair and the battered, dark-coloured filing cabinets. The old furniture is replaced by a hand-crafted table made by my late father-in-law, a new, bright pink chair and slimline well-organised white filing cabinets that open smoothly. My study is organised, and I feel lighter and brighter as well.

I have begun new writing projects.

Thanks Linda! It seems appropriate to share this story as the next to last post for 2018. How about you? Does your desk need a tidy before the holidays? How are you going to tackle the big clean out?

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Perfectionism is a spectrum disorder

December 5, 2018 - 4:00am

Last year I had a health crisis, brought on by many years of just working too many hours.

After about 15 years of regularly doing 50 or 60 hour weeks something inside me just… snapped. It started with unexpected bouts of tears at work, then rapidly progressed to anxiety attacks, exhaustion and mood swings. The next step would probably have been depression, but luckily I took some action before that happened.

After more than a decade of working with PhD students experiencing mental health issues, I should have recognised some of the symptoms of burn out sooner. I have to say, it was a disconcerting experience. The temptation to stay in bed and avoid everything and everyone was strong. It’s taken a year, and quite a few different strategies, to find my way back to health and balance. A hard year, but in retrospect, I’m glad to learn my limits – and be forced to examine the effects my overwork on others.

Part of the solution was therapy, which has helped me see my tendency towards ‘rumination’: obsessive and repetitive thought patterns that can make it hard to concentrate and be present in the moment. My mind is always asking tricky “… but what if?” questions – you know, the extremely plausible sounding ones that only increase anxiety. I’ve often felt I’m in a pitched battle with my own mind.

I think I now understand one reason why mental health is such an issue for PhD candidates (and academics for that matter). We have minds that are conditioned by years and years of arguing. I’m extremely skilled at arguing with myself and building elaborate theories about what will go wrong in the future (based, it must be said, on scant evidence in the present). Now my strategy to counteract these thoughts is to pretend I am at a tiresome academic seminar, full of tedious old farts from around the faculty who have turned up just to give me a hard time… I’m getting better at telling them to shut up.

One of the things my therapist has been encouraging me to explore is a certain tendency to perfectionism. I have never identified as a perfectionist before, mostly because I have associated perfectionism with being ‘stuck’. I’ve met plenty of students who are so afraid of failing they can’t start – or they start over and over again, deleting all their previous work. By contrast, I am good at getting shit done. I can get a project out the door.

What I didn’t consider is that my standards are ridiculously high – not just in my work, but in my life. I take on more projects than I should – and they tend to be difficult. I will put in ridiculously long hours to keep up with my ambition to do these difficult projects. I’m always worried my work isn’t good enough. These feelings aren’t really the so-called ‘imposter syndrome’ (which is not actually a diagnosable condition), rather I think the constant worry is just a natural reaction to dealing with the hypercritical world of academia itself.

After my therapist encouraged me to research the problem, I discovered all this literature on ‘functional’ or ‘adaptive’ perfectionism. The symptoms might sound familiar:

  • A tendency to aim high at all times, even when it is not strictly necessary
  • Wanting to do your best at all times, even at the expense of your health and wellbeing
  • The perception that others expect a lot of you, coupled with a fear that you will not live up to these expectations
  • A need for control; over self and environment

The result of these thinking patterns is a tendency to excessive overwork – and constant worry that you will disappoint people. In myself, the need for control manifests in my obsession with a system to manage everything and an inability to sit in a window seat on a plane.

The difference between functional perfectionism and ‘maladaptive’ perfectionism is that a functional perfectionist can take pleasure in their success and cope a bit better with failure. A functional perfectionist will throw a party when they achieve something, where a maladaptive perfectionist will ignore their success and immediately set out on a more unreachable goal. A functional perfectionist has learned to harness their tendencies to good effect – this blog is a good example. When Pat Thomson and I studied academic blogs we found the vast majority published irregularly and did not have a coherent content strategy. Most academics seem happy just to put their thoughts out there for others to discover. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, but I just can’t bring myself to be so… relaxed. My blogging has RULES, around quality, formatting and content, which I have not deviated from in nearly nine years. That’s just a little bit… uptight, right? However, this attention to detail has resulted in the blog becoming a popular and trusted source of advice with around 100,000 followers on various channels. Perfectionism can have pay offs.

When I explained these insights to my sister, Anitra, she described perfectionism as a ‘spectrum disorder’. I think this is a great way of thinking about it: at one end are perfectionists who suffer from worry and anxiety, but are able to get things done; on the other end are people so paralysed by fear that they don’t do anything (or throw out everything they do because they perceive it as “not good enough”). Looked at this way, I would say almost every academic I have ever met would fall somewhere along the spectrum. I’m actually beginning to wonder if one can even DO the job without being somewhere on that spectrum.

So what can you do about it? For a start, you can just try to notice perfectionistic tendencies in action. The other day I found myself holding up a team member’s work while I fussed over the name of a survey she was about to send out. This was a good moment to reflect on what was important: the name, or the fact that the survey was sent to people? When I contemplate a new project or piece of writing, I take a moment to picture how I imagine the outcome. Then I ask myself whether my mental picture is realistic given the multiple time and resource constraints I’m facing and adjust my expectations accordingly.

The other piece of the puzzle is to try to be kind to yourself (I’m still working on this).

I’ll admit, I was worried that tackling my perfectionist tendency was going to result in a drop off of work quality. It remains to be seen if this is the case, but after a month or so of practice being less-than-perfect, I don’t think so. I suspect I sweat over tiny details, which are mostly invisible to others. How about you? Do you identify on the perfectionist spectrum? How do you harness your tendencies to the good, or does it get in the way of your success and health? Love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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PhD therapy animals

November 28, 2018 - 8:00am

Do you have a pet? Do we give our pets enough credit for helping us through the hard times? This post is by Dr Jo Clyne. Jo completed her PhD in History and Theatre Studies in 2015 at the University of Melbourne. She would like to thank her cat, Sam, for helping her through many long nights of stressful corrections. You can find Jo on Twitter as @joclyne1

Jo’s #academiccat: Sam

Academics and writers have known about the therapeutic benefits of animals for many years. Mark Twain was regularly photographed with several cats draped over him, and a personal favourite image is of E.B. White sitting at his typewriter while his dog Minnie looks on.

Contemporary academics and PhD students have adapted the trend for the modern age by posting pictures of their pets on social media with hashtags such as #academicswithcats #academicswithdogs #phdcats and #phddogs. The posting academic is usually suffering from feelings of isolation and writer’s block, and has momentarily found joy in the distracting antics of their pet. The accompanying image is generally their pet promisingly obstructing chapter drafts or sleeping on a stack of research texts.

The animals in these posts are often referred to as ‘research assistants’ or ‘supervisors’. Obstructive behaviours are endearingly rebranded as ‘help’. These images are a tribute to the non-judgmental companionship of animals during thesis candidature, a time often characterized by isolation and uncertainty.

In ‘Harry Potter’, and its less famous predecessor ‘The Worst Witch’, students are encouraged to bring an animal with them to boarding school as both companions and for more functional purposes such as delivering notes. In ‘The Worst Witch’ cats are book-listed and handed out to all new students on arrival. I sometimes feel that post-graduate students should be similarly equipped on enrolment, as frequent animal interactive can have a hugely positive impact on mental health.

It is imperative to point out to pet-less academic writers that a thesis therapy animal doesn’t have to be your own. I spent the first few months of my candidature happily writing my literature review on the back-porch couch with our neighbour’s cat. Dubbed ‘Puddings’ by my partner, my ill-gained cat liked the fact that I was always home and would make a big fuss of him during periods of extreme procrastination. When his owners moved house and took Puddings with them, I was devastated and instantly contracted writers block. This was somewhat alleviated when Sam the cat came to live with us. He immediately took over Puddings’ duties and I went on with the business of trying to write a PhD.

The value of a therapy animal to the hapless and overstressed graduate student is manifold. Firstly, writing up several years of research into a thesis is a solitary activity. Sharing a toilet-sized office with two other chatty PhD students can provide a feeling of solidarity, but in reality, if you’re also working two jobs and live an hour’s commute from Uni, you’ll probably elect to work from home. Animals provide the type of company that doesn’t prevent you from nailing that really tricky chapter. It’s also highly unlikely that they will do better than you in their confirmation hearing and boast about it for the next three months.

If you’re anything like me, your best (V energy drink fueled) thesis writing time is between midnight and 4am, after which you will fall asleep on the couch, Fox Mulder style. There are very few other members of your household who will be interested in keeping you company at such an antisocial hour. Here, your thesis therapy animal can be relied upon to sit either under or upon your desk, giving your arm the occasional encouraging lick. This experience can also be simulated by stalking other people’s pets on social media.

I once happened past a PhD student office with a sign on the door that said: ‘we like our door closed and our music LOUD’. As promised, extremely clamorous heavy metal music was emanating from the insufficiently sound-proofed door. Many students find they work better while listening to music, but I find it too distracting. Pets provide a delightful alternative white noise in the form of purring, breathing, cheeping, squeaking, chewing, yawning or snoring (my cat had sinus problems). It provides enough background noise to fill in the chasm of silence, without distracting from you from serious quasi thesis-related internet procrastination (have you SEEN the PhD Comics website?)

Animals provide warmth. Not just the sense of unconditional love that comes from pet ownership, but an increase in body temperature. My first three years of candidature were spent in a weatherboard house with no insulation. It was often colder inside than outside, and Sam proved to be an outstanding lap cat. By the same token, cats are drawn to the heat of laptop computers. If you have a heat-seeking cat, back up your work regularly. You have been warned.

PhD students are often urged to practice ‘self-care’, a movement that endorses exercise, mindfulness, healthy eating, a balance between work and leisure. But personally, I believe that there is nothing so meditative as watching a cat clean its paws on a sunny window ledge.

Thanks for this delightful tribute to our furry friends Jo! Now I’m wondering, do you share PhD times with a companion animal? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

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New podcast: Passionate PhDs

November 21, 2018 - 4:00am

Podcasts are still hot hot hot! I love listening to them when I drive, exercise and cook. I want to draw your attention to a new podcast specifically for PhD graduates by Elizabeth Lam, a chemist and science writer. Elizabeth is doing a new podcast about PhD graduates finding employment outside academia and tells you all about it, and how you can participate, in this post.

After graduating from her PhD in Chemistry, she worked as a research chemist in an analytical laboratory. Following her passion for science, Elizabeth has formed a team of graduate students to translate the latest research into simpler language to a broader audience. This science writing work has provided a foundation for further training in science communication and Elizabeth is now doing a Master at The Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science in ANU. Her research interests focus on cross-disciplinary collaboration and science communication. These together with her deep desire to help PhDs for their pursuit in non-academic career has brought her to start the PassionatePhDs podcast. She has discovered insightful stories and passion of PhD graduates working outside academia. She hopes the podcast could continue to bring insights for fellow PhDs. Elizabeth can be found on twitter as @ElizabetSHLam

Congratulations on PhD graduation! But what’s next?

To be frank, I do not know. Don’t take me wrong, I’m not saying I do not have life goals. In fact, I am very clear about the kind of person I want to be. I’m driven by curiosity, I like listening to people’s thoughts and ideas, and I hope to contribute my skills to make the world a better place. I want to be of some help, just do not know the exact direction to take at this very moment. Eventually, I decided to listen and learn from more people’s stories, so I launched a podcast – PassionatePhDs.

I explore the human side of PhDs – how they discover their passion, search for their life goals, and establish their philosophy. Since I began interviewing passionate PhD graduates who are now working outside academia, I have been amazed by their unique PhD journeys, words of wisdom and how PhD has shaped them into who they are now.

“You may never find the path. But you just stumble along and find things that you find interesting and all that you want to know more about but might not be, this is what I’m going to do, or this is what I gonna be,” said Dr. Salirian Claff, the first guest on PassionatePhDs.

Their words have resonated with my heart. In fact, these words have also resonated with other PhD students and graduates as well.

“PhD is not a process to limit your possibilities in the future, it should take you as an opportunity to explore the infinite possibilities for you to be in the future,” Dr. Jenny Jiang, one of the guests on PassionatePhDs.

But how can PhDs grasp these Infinite possibilities?

“I think it is so important to expose yourself to a variety of research disciplines and other opportunities because if you don’t learn more about other things that you can do with your career, you might close off of opportunities that you may find incredibly rewarding and exciting.” – Nathan Sanders, the second guest in PassionatePhDs.

“A mentor in my life really helps my career progression.” [How do you find your mentor?] “You just need to be blunt and say ‘I want to be like you!’” – Ian McDonald, the third guest in PassionatePhDs.

“You just need to try different stuffs… You may not know what you like or dislike until you try it and find out… It’s really important to have other things going on in your brain, give yourself a break from trying to bang yourself from the scientific problem that you’re having.” – Amanda Grennell, the fifth guest in PassionatePhDs.

It turns out PhD is not merely a process of digging deep into a particular subject area, it has equipped us with many soft skills and an insight to know more about our desire that hints to future career path.

So, what does a PhD mean to you? For me, it is a researching process, not only for science but researching process for my own personality, my own mission, myself. So now, I am connecting my two passion – helping others by sharing the words of wisdom from PhDs’ stories.

Creating the podcast series all by myself is certainly something that I have never thought to do. I was still researching with chemicals, test tubes and spectroscopic instrumentation a year ago but now I am interviewing these amazing PhD graduates working outside academia!

What would be the next step? What are the career options out there? What could a PhD do apart from being an academic? These are the questions I am searching for, and perhaps, many PhDs are searching too. I hope by sharing the stories of PhDs working outside academia, I could be of some help, or at least give some support to PhD students and graduates finding their career paths.

I would like to invite PhDs working outside academia to share your story and PhD journey to support and give insight to other PhDs who are still finding their directions.

If you would like to get involved and help to build PassionatePhDs, you can contact me via the form on my website.

It does not matter which area you are working in, be it the field of computer science, data industry, science communication, or administrative officer or whatever. If you are passionate about what you are doing and would like to help other PhDs in finding their directions, PassionatePhDs would love to share your story!

Thanks Elizabeth! And good luck with your project – I’m looking forward to hearing the stories. Are any of you podcast fans like myself? What podcasts would you recommend to other PhD students?

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How to successfully apply for a PhD place in Australia

November 14, 2018 - 4:00am

I’ve guided many a person into a PhD candidature, both at ANU and to other places, so I know how confusing it can be. The process of making an application to an Australian University is frustratingly opaque for many, especially people who do not have ‘connections’. This post by Madeline Taylor will be useful to anyone who is considering applying for a PhD in Australia. The general points are probably applicable to other countries too, but I will be interested in what people might share in the comments.

Madeline Taylor is a PhD candidate at Victoria College of Arts, University of Melbourne. Her research generally focuses on contemporary costume practice, technical theatre’s interpersonal dynamics and fashion display and performance, and her thesis is examining the collaborative practices of costume production. This research draws on her 15 years’ experience as a performance practitioner, working on over 85 productions in theatre, dance, opera, circus and film in Australia and the UK. Balancing her work and study is learning to be a mum to a 2 year old, her fern garden and hanging out with friends as part of fashion and design group the stitchery collective.

Deciding to start a PhD is alternately exciting and terrifying, especially if you need a scholarship to afford to study. In 2012, I decided to do my PhD. I wrote an application, put together my support documents for Honours 1 equivalency (at 83% I was a few points short of a greatly desired First), and crossed my fingers hard.

I was rejected.

Well, not entirely. Accepted into the PhD program but not awarded a living allowance scholarship. I knew financially and practically I couldn’t accept the offer. My tendency to prioritise paid work would mean research wouldn’t get the time it needed and would just end up feeling guilty and stressed. I backburner-ed study, but kept writing a articles and conference papers to build my research track record.

Fast forward to January 2017. After applying to four PhD programs around Australia, I was offered places in all four programs and three scholarship offers. To say I was thrilled would be an understatement. In this process I learnt a lot about PhD applications, and want to share some of my findings.

The most important things I learnt was how closely the PhD application process resembles a job hunt. This is particularly evident in how much personal connections count.

I don’t think it coincidental that the three institutions that offered me a scholarship were the three institutions where I knew or met people face-to-face. I was successful at QUT, where I did my undergraduate and honours studies and had been tutoring consistently for the last 5 years. I was accepted at Griffith, where I met with potential supervisors prior to submitting my application, a connection which grew out of chatting at a conference. Finally, I was accepted at University of Melbourne, where I approached a former honours supervisor who had changed institutions as a potential PhD supervisor, and I decided to fly down to meet the interview panel, rather than Skype in (I do not do good Skype). My unsuccessful scholarship application was with RMIT, with whom I only had email contact.

The value of personal connections was made clear in the post-mortem discussions, in which potential supervisors discussed defending my research project in the committee meetings in which students were ranked and scholarships were decided. Having someone go in to bat for you here is important. This means building rapport and making sure they really understand your project and its value is critical. Face-to-face chats are also helpful for information on an institution’s areas of growth to align with or allude to in the application. Don’t just rely on the university website for information about things like research clusters; I found that these are often out of date.

Obviously, the application itself has to be strong, both in content and structure. While the project content is up to you, I highly recommend asking friends or potential supervisors for examples of successful applications to get a sense of tone, formatting, and detail. From the examples I was given I took the idea to diagram my research plan timeline, which made it clear and visually interesting, and include potential research outputs, which I put on the timeline. For example, I suggested I would present my research plan at a national conference shortly after confirmation, and pitch a contextualising chapter as an article to a respected journal 6 months later. This evidenced I knew the field, and how I could engage with it.

Applying to four institutions meant that each application I wrote was stronger than the last. Just like a job’s selection criteria, each university will ask for different information in its proposal. I wrote these concurrently, so was able to transpose some of the unrequested information into the different applications which gave each one more depth. Further, having to rearticulate the same idea four different ways prompted me to drill down into the specifics of the project and think about it from multiple perspectives; this was very helpful in solidifying ideas and identifying gaps in my planning.

How institutions rank applications varies and is very opaque, relying on complex scoring calculations. Understanding the intricacies of this isn’t vital, but knowing what the scholarship committee look at might be. Does the institution focus more on alignment with supervisory team, or the university vision? How do they weigh publications or professional experience? How much attention is paid to previous research projects, or creative works? Knowing this allows you to tailor your proposal and support documents to the institution’s scoring model.

Finding the scoring criteria can be tricky, so getting it directly from potential supervisors or the HDR support team might be the best bet. If they don’t want to give it to you try searching the bowels of the net using some permutation of “phd scholarship criteria/ranking/scoring institution name”. I think establishing institution alignment was helpful to my success. In framing my research, I discussed not only the global changes and national and international conversations in my field the study was responding to, but how it connected to the university vision and aims. While only one sentence of my 2-page application, I also explicitly discussed the research’s connection and potential value to undergraduate courses and discipline pedagogy, for which I extensively researched course details in the university handbook.

Treating the PhD application process like a job hunt really worked well for me. If you fail in the first application and don’t have the capacity to study without scholarship I encourage everyone to try again another year. In 2012 it was suggested that I could start my PhD and reapply for scholarship after confirmation. I hesitated when others at the institution warned that a scholarship in this scenario was unlikely: advice subsequently borne out by friend’s experiences across several universities, although this might not be the case everywhere.

The intervening years since my first application have allowed me to grow personally and professionally. I now have a far stronger topic, more experience writing and researching to draw on, and the emotional resilience to deal with the PhD journey. That early rejection was the best thing that could have happened.

Thanks for sharing your story Madeline. How about you? What did you learn about the internal processes of the university during your PhD application process? There are many confused potential students out there who would value your advice!

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Not doing a PhD (and being ok with that)

What to say when someone asks “Should I do a PhD?”

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How to choose a thesis topic that actually matters

November 7, 2018 - 4:00am

Effective Thesis is a charitable project that aims to direct research into areas deemed crucial to significantly improving the world, but lack research attention. The project originated in the Czech Association for Effective Altruism.

This post is by David Janku. After finishing his Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Masaryk University and MSc in Organizational Psychology at the University of Leeds, David now runs the Effective Thesis project fulltime. He is interested in a prioritisation of global problems and improving research infrastructure and effectiveness.

In this post, David Janku explains the aims of the project and how you (or your undergraduate students) can participate.

It was in the final year of my bachelor studies  I first found out how hard it is to find a good thesis topic. I was ready to work hard on my final coursework thesis and devote hundreds of hours and exceptional effort. Bigger projects always motivated me. I was glad to have something tangible to finish my studies.

The only thing I wasn’t sure about was what exactly it was I would devote so much time and effort to. Most of my classmates felt the same and there was almost no advice at hand.

In the end, most of my classmates ended up tackling easily accessible topics they haven’t thought about very much. I was lucky enough to roughly know which area I was interested in, but had no idea what the specific question should be. When I heard that one of the teachers specializing in that area offered ready made topics, I didn’t waste a second. I made an appointment with him and agreed to work on the topic he proposed. I didn’t know nothing about it, but I was ready to learn more. The feeling of not having to search for a topic for next several weeks was a relief.

When I reflect back, it’s hard to believe how little attention all of us gave to such an important decision determining where we invest hundreds of hours and huge effort over course of months or even years. When I finished my bachelor studies, I’ve decided I want to do something about it. I’ve found that people from the effective altruism community had done research into which world problems are most pressing. Still, mMany of these problems lack research attention. I immediately saw an opportunity to link up problems that needed to be solved with students looking for topics.

I came up with the idea of my website: effectivethesis.com However, offering students topics in need of research still didn’t feel like enough. I wanted to help more.

Another thing I hated about doing a final undergraduate theses project is that it was unlikely my thesis would get read, let alone used to make a difference. I had not invested hundreds of hours and huge effort just to put my thesis in the drawer. I reached out to organisations working on some of the most pressing world problems and asked them whether they have questions they would like to research, but don’t have the capacity to do it themselves. I hoped that would ensure students’ work would be read and, hopefully, used. I also asked the organisations to provide students with consultations, to give them research user perspectives and ensure that outcomes will be of highest quality and relevance to the organisation.

From questions brought by organisations, we have created complete research topics, including justification of why the topic is important and some introductory sources to get a head start to the topic. Students could be sure they are working on one of the most pressing problems and cooperating with organisation that will utilize their work.

However, that is still not the end of the story. During the first year of existence, we found our advice and topics are not suitable for all students. Some students were struggling to find a supervisor at their faculty for a topic they liked. Some topics we proposed were too broad and would require narrowing down. Some students were struggling to assess whether they are a good fit for the topic they chose with their skills and longer term career plans.

To account for these issues, we have decided to take more individual path and started providing individual coaching helping students find the best thesis topic. In the coaching process, we try to take into account factors like longer term career goals, supervisor availability, students’ interests, skills, experience and course requirements. The aim is to help the student choose a topic tailored to their circumstances in such a way as to help them have the highest social impact. During an online call, the student can discuss coaches’ suggestions and design the final form of the topic. If students don’t prefer any of the suggested topics, they may clarify their expectations and coach will try to suggest new set of topics based on their clarification.

The coach will not help students with thesis writing itself, but if students decide to work on one of the proposed topics, we will try to connect them with external researchers or organizations working on the same problem. And what is the best thing? It all comes with no charge to you! Our aim is to help students and researchers to significantly improve the world via researchhave research impact. The only expectation we have from you is to conduct high-quality research and we will support you in that.

We have just started second year of this project, already managed to connect 12 students with organisations, found a topic for another 20 via Thesis Topic Coaching and in total helped 32 high impact projects to come into the light. Want to be part of this project? Get in touch and make your thesis meaningful!

Related posts

The thesis is a map, not the journey

The process

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The wildcard of examination

October 31, 2018 - 4:00am

In Australia, your PhD thesis is examined by a blind peer review process. This can produce mixed results, as we will hear in this story. Joanne Doyle is a PhD student at the University of Southern Queensland (USQ) in Toowoomba, Australia. Joanne’s research explores academic perspectives on the impact of higher education research. Prior to embarking on doctoral studies, Joanne was the Research Proposal and Project Manager for USQ’s Australian Digital Futures Institute. Joanne has a strong project management background and has worked across a range of sectors including mining, retail, service and education.

Without being too dramatic or self-pitying, it would be fair to say that I have endured more than my fair share of challenges during my PhD candidature.

Along the way, I lost two supervisors, was hospitalised three times, and was made redundant from my work role just prior to finalising a full draft of the thesis. But I had worked hard, and I truly believed that the spiritual principle of karma would ensure that I sailed through examination.

Unfortunately, this was not to be. For reasons outside my control, there were issues selecting examiners for my thesis, causing further disruption to my PhD journey and the process of examination. After spending three and a half years working towards submission, I found another delay to be almost unbearable. But not to worry. Encouraged by my faith in karma, I remained optimistic about the final stages of my doctoral journey.

Eventually I received my examination reports. To say they were polar opposites is no exaggeration. The first examiner judged my work to be “an exemplary thesis… one of the most outstanding pieces of doctoral research I have had pleasure to examine”. He further noted that “the thesis fulfils and then exceeds in most aspects standard requirements of doctoral enquiry”.

On the other hand, the second examiner criticised all aspects of the research, suggesting that the thesis did not demonstrate the skills expected at doctoral level.

The disparity of comments continued throughout the examination reports. The literature review was assessed as both “particularly impressive” (Examiner 1) and “superficial” (Examiner 2). My research design was deemed to be “well justified” (Examiner 1) and yet “a major flaw” (Examiner 2). The thesis was praised for evidencing “strong analytical and conceptual skills” (Examiner 1) and criticised for a lack of “balance and rigour” (Examiner 2). The candidate demonstrated an “ability to delve deep into research inquiry” (Examiner 1) to make an original contribution to knowledge that was high quality. The same candidate displayed limited understanding of the subject matter and was “misinformed” (Examiner 2).

And so I am left with major revisions.

Colleagues have told me that major revisions is a common outcome, and that students will often receive one positive review and one negative review. I understand it’s all part of the process of becoming an academic, and getting used to the system of peer-review and rejection that is so commonplace in seeking publication in prestigious academic journals. I am told it is necessary to have a “thick skin” to survive in this sector.

But I don’t want a life of harsh criticism. I don’t want to develop a discouraged and jaded personality. I am an early stage researcher – albeit with a few lines and some grey hairs – and I want my research to make a difference in the world. I aspire to contribute to the body of knowledge, and I need to believe in myself and the value of my research in order to achieve that. And yet, I am disillusioned by the system that assesses my research – where opinions can be so disparate – and I am annoyed that the perceptions of one individual can have such significant repercussions for another.

Perhaps I am a little more passionate about contemporary processes than others may be. After all, the focus of my doctoral research was exploring perceptions of impact (and I do appreciate the irony of my current predicament!) However, I am still reeling from such diametrically opposed feedback. I know one examiner was complimentary of my research, but I don’t think about him or her very much.

I focus on the second examiner.

I want to meet this person so I can put a face to the comments. Despite conjecture that young examiners are the harshest critics, I picture this person to be a grumpy older academic disgruntled by life. It helps me somewhat as I battle to synthesise the feedback.

It is really hard to read such scathing criticism of something you have nurtured and loved for over three years. In my moment of desperation, I turned to the Thesis Whisperer. I have followed the Thesis Whisperer throughout my PhD journey, and found solace in posts such as The Valley of Shit, and I’m Writing a Book No One Will Read. I typed “examination” into the search box, and was directed to Surviving A PhD Disaster which linked to What To Do When Your Thesis is Rejected by the Examiners. It was comforting to read that I was not alone in my predicament.

But it was the post 4 Things You Should Know About Choosing Examiners for your Thesis that really helped me. In this post, the Thesis Whisperer provides a succinct assessment of the examination grading process: “It’s not really a grade, but an indication of how much work needs to be done; from not very much to rather a lot”. I wish I had read this post earlier as it changed my perspective.

I re-read the examination reports, and the recommended revisions became bearable, even logical, improvements. I have committed to make the changes before the end of this year, guided once again by the Thesis Whisperer and the suggestions in Doing Your Amendments Without Losing Heart (or Your Mind).

It’s not easy to share examination feedback. However, writing this post has been cathartic for me. The act of articulating my anguish has helped me to accept my current dilemma. But, my reason for writing this post is far greater. I want to share my examination experience to help other students that tread this path after me, and to give back in some small way to the Thesis Whisperer blog, as an expression of my gratitude for being there when I have needed you most. But I must go now. I have an estimated four months of major revisions ahead of me!

Post-script: It took me three months to revise the thesis. Although I was despondent at the prospect of more work, I am now grateful for the feedback provided by the two examiners, and I have an increased respect for the peer-review process. In making changes to the thesis, I gained a better understanding of my research, and I was able to rationalise the harsh criticism that my thesis had received. I also developed skills in patience, perseverance and humility. The most valuable lessons are often learned during the hardest times. I couldn’t agree more.

Thanks Joanne! Do you have an examination story to tell? Love to hear about it in the comments.

Related posts

4 Things You Should Know About Choosing Examiners for your Thesis

Doing Your Amendments Without Losing Heart (or Your Mind)

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Are you prepared for the problems of success?

October 24, 2018 - 4:00am

The Thesis Whisperer blog has gone from strength to strength over the years. Visibility is a form of currency in academia. A rolling stone gathers moss as the proverb goes, and in my case moss = opportunities. Because of my profile, I get asked to keynote conferences, run workshops, contribute to books, be on grants and so on. Taking up these opportunities naturally leads to more conventional forms of academic success. I’m now an associate professor at a prestigious university. I get paid decent money to do what I love. On any metric I have won the academic hunger games, but does this mean I have a trouble-free life?

Sadly, no. While we are well prepared for failure in academia, no one prepares you for the problems of success.

Image by @fz_nsr from Unsplash.com

Failure in academia is normal. Not getting the job, not getting a paper published, not being accepted for that conference are garden-variety problems of the academic persuasion. There is plenty of advice on how to deal with academic failure – and plenty of sympathy. Problems of success are harder to spot, less discussed and, usually, garner little to no sympathy from your peers.

Consider my friend (and rather famous sociologist) Deborah Lupton. At time of writing, Deb has 26740 citations of her work and a h-index of 70 (which can be compared with my paltry 437 citations and h-index of 9). Recently Deb complained about being told off by peer reviews for not citing her own work when they read her anonymised papers… and then being criticised for self citing too much when she submits the final version! While most of us wont write 20 books and be known all over the world for being an innovative and creative thinker like Deb, I think it’s worth pondering on some of the ordinary problems that are a result of success. In fact, I’ve been mulling on this idea for years, but it’s never made it as far as a blog post until the other day when a colleague (who wishes to remain anonymous) helped me develop a list of success problems over lunch. I’d be interested in whether you have more to share in the comments:

Professional Jealousy

A long time ago I wrote a post called Academic Assholes and the Circle of Niceness which was, in part, prompted by my own experience. Professional jealousy can take many forms: being frozen out, people gossiping about you, people trying to damage your reputation, people ganging up to undermine you, or even having your work appropriated.

The problem with professional jealousy is the behaviour of others is never obviously directly connected to their envy of your success. For example, a person might consistently undermine the quality of your work to your boss, while claiming they are just concerned about your workload; or a person might leave you out of an opportunity because you seem to be “always busy blogging”. In PhD cohorts, professional jealousy often takes the form of questioning that undermines your confidence: “why are you spending time on that?”, “why haven’t you included [insert theorist here]?”, Or “why haven’t you considered [insert method here]?”. Such questioning can be helpful of course, but it can also be unwelcome and create a toxic work environment.

It’s remarkably easy to start blaming yourself for another person’s poor behaviour. Remember, it’s bullying if it’s targetted and repeated, so if a person consistently asks you questions and does not stop when asked, it’s not ok. I have no good solutions for dealing with professional jealousy. If it gets really bad, the best thing to do is take your bat and ball and go play somewhere else, preferably with other successful people who are not threatened by you.

The too hard basket

If you are visibly successful, good at your job and have unique skills, people will tend to bring you their hardest problems. This is flattering and generally a good thing. It’s nice to feel you are the expert and most academics love to share their knowledge. However, solving complex problems is time-consuming and sometimes (frequently?) there is little direct reward for you other than a warm, fuzzy glow.

Successful people have to learn to balance the time they spend helping others with time they spend doing their own stuff. Becoming the person who is always given the too hard basket is a particular trap for women, who are often seen (unconsciously) as ‘helpers’. My view is that being generous is the best policy, but setting boundaries is important. One of the boundaries you can set easily is time. If someone wants my advice on a general topic in my field, I usually offer to have lunch. That way I get to eat and have an interesting conversation, without taking time out of my workday. If people email me with a problem, I always answer, but sometimes not for weeks, and I never apologise for how long the person had to wait. Your time is a gift, so give it on your own terms and if people abuse it, don’t keep giving.

As good as (or better than?) your boss.

This is a tricky one for me especially. I have been working in my field for some 14 years now and have a wide range of theoretical and practical knowledge. I could probably do my manager’s job – if I wanted to. Yet I am in a chain of command and ultimately do not make the big decisions. I’m still learning how to sit at the back of the bus.

Being on equal footing in terms of knowledge, but not in terms of power, needs to be carefully managed. If your boss is insecure, they may take your advice as criticism; if your boss is overconfident, they may just ignore you. It can be hard watching someone make a mistake you know could have been avoided.

I see this problem in some supervisory relationships where the student is a long-standing practitioner in their field, and their supervisor has spent their life as an academic. It can be hard for practitioners to value academic knowledge and vice versa. Careful listening and mutual respect takes work on both sides, and the power differential can make that difficult.

Everyone wants a piece of you.

Remember what I said about rolling stones and moss? Success breeds opportunities; luck is where opportunity meets preparation. The more opportunities you get, the luckier you become! While opportunities are fantastic, everything has a time cost. When there are lots of opportunities on the table, it can be hard to set priorities. Taking up too many opportunities and not leaving enough time to do the stuff that makes you successful will, over time, undermine your success.

My friend Jason Downs used to have a job driving around valuing houses for banks considering giving people mortgages. He once said something wise and true: “I see my dream house once a week”. Part of the pain of letting go of opportunities is the fear that that opportunity will never be offered again, but there is always more than one dream house. If you do good work, and other people see you do it, that same opportunity, or a variation of it, will come up again. Trust me on this one.

So that’s my initial list of success problems – what about you? Do you have more to add or insights on any of these? Love to hear about it in the comments.

Related posts

Academic Assholes and the Circle of Niceness

Why does feedback hurt sometimes?

Love the Thesis whisperer and want it to continue? Consider becoming a $1 a month Patreon and get special, Patreon only, extra Thesiswhisperer content every two weeks!

 

How to turn your PhD into a book – part three

October 17, 2018 - 4:00am

This is part three of my series on academic book publishing. The aim of this series is to take you through the process of turning your PhD into a book – or perhaps writing a new book in the early part of your career. Not all academic disciplines are interested in book publishing and look to conferences, journals or even exhibitions for signs of academic productivity.

I recommend you read part one and part two before reading this post.

In part one I provided you with some thoughts about NOT writing a book. I then covered identifying the opportunities, contacting a publisher and pitching the idea. In part two I talked about how to interest the publisher and (hopefully) get a contract.

In part three I want to talk about what to expect in the book writing and editing process, focussing on some of the practical challenges.

Step six: Your proposal was accepted! Congratulations! Now you will understand the saying “Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it…”

By definition, a dissertation is not an easy read so most publishers will ask for at least some changes. For one thing, the book version will be a lot shorter. While your average dissertation in the humanities runs between 80,000 to 100,000 words, most publishers will be interested in something closer to 60,000.

You can do some immediate word reduction surgery on some parts, like the literature review, but past a certain point, reducing words will become very difficult. Once you start cutting, you will end up with holes and inconsistencies that need to be smoothed over. You will have to ensure jargon is explained and grammar is tightened. This is tedious work that cannot be rushed. If you’ve started a new job it’s likely you will be doing this work at night, which is probably unpleasantly like writing your dissertation in the first place.

Oh, the times I have moaned to my husband about my stupid, stupid decision to write a book at this editing stage… I’m a horrible person to live with too: demanding chocolate and hugs while listening to James Blunt albums on repeat. It’s got to the point where Mr Thesiswhisperer gets this resigned look on his face when I triumphantly declare I have new book deal (he’s a smart guy – I can’t fool him into thinking this time will be different!).

The first part of the production of the manuscript is what computer gamers would call ‘grinding’; a lot of repetitive work that seems to go nowhere. At some point, hopefully before your deadline, you will feel confident that the original content is ready. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a sign you are near the end of the process. In time elapsed, you are approximately in the middle… next comes editing.

My least favourite part.

Step seven: chasing the perfect

The last steps of the book preparation process are, in my considered opinion, the absolute worst. I’m a 95%-er; details and polishing are difficult for me. Making sure a manuscript is perfect drives me completely nuts. Some publishers provide help, but they often charge you for it – reducing your already slender royalty cheque to nothing. Even when you have a professional copy editor to hold your hand, which was my happy experience with ‘How to be an Academic‘ (thanks Tricia!), there is a lot of detail to chase up and correct.

Without a professional, it will take even longer to get a manuscript into shape. Editing ‘How to fix your academic writing trouble’ (which is coming out on the 23rd of December) was a group effort (thanks Shaun and Katherine!), but it nearly drove us mad. In the end we turned to Grammarly – an online, machine assisted copy editing and grammar assistant. This software helped us catch many small errors, as well as helping to smooth three writing ‘voices’ into one. The effort was worth it; our publisher told us that it was “the most perfect manuscript we have ever seen”, but there was a significant time cost. My tracking app ‘Timing’ showed me that putting the manuscript through Grammarly took around 40 hours, but bear in mind, this was just the final polish.

All up, the editing process was about 120 hours. Think about trying to squeeze this time into an already overloaded schedule and you can see how I ended up spending most weekends last year working on this book. Burning the candle at both ends in your late 40s has consequences. I suffered a severe bout of burn out by September and it took me over six months – and frankly a lot of therapy, gym visits and mindfulness app listening – to recover.

The key lesson here? You will probably need six months for the final ‘polish’ if you are working full time. If the publisher has asked for significant changes to your original dissertation, you may need to allow 12 months or more to deliver the final product. Building a realistic timeline is part of being a professional – it’s always better to deliver early than over promise and deliver late.

Step eight: marketing

Once your manuscript has gone into production, you will have a quiet time of up to nine months before the book comes back into your life again. This time you will be expected to do most of the marketing. This is not just because publishers are working to tight margins and cannot employ staff to help you – in a sense, you are best placed to know who the readership is and how to reach them. Here are some marketing ideas, in no particular order:

  1. Identify mailing lists, Facebook groups and other online spaces where you can share your book news in progress to build anticipation.
  2. Build your own mailing: I used Google forms to create such a list for ‘How to be an academic’ , offering a gift voucher for early purchase (a good way to build word of mouth). We are doing the same for ‘How to fix your Academic Writing Trouble’.
  3. Why wait for positive book reviews? Write blog posts or newspaper articles about the topic of your book before it comes out and direct people to your mailing list. Many reputable sites are looking for good quality content that is genuinely informative.
  4. Organise a book launch with a local bookstore. In my experience, this was relatively easy to do with the publisher’s help. I was able to find a free venue on campus and it only cost me $200 in sushi and $100 for an open bar. It was lovely to have a celebration after all that hard work.

Now I’m wondering: are you thinking about publishing your dissertation as a book or have you succeeded in achieving your publishing dream? Do you have any experience of the publishing process you would like to share? Does your experience differ from mine? Love to hear from you in the comments.

Related posts

Part one of turning your dissertation into a book

Part two of turning your dissertation into a book

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A voice from the precariat

October 10, 2018 - 4:00am

What happens after all the dust is settled and you start to pusue this thing called ‘an academic career’? This post is by Dr Pippa Yeoman, who has started what is beginning to be called the ‘post-post-post doc’ stage of the academic career.

Pippa is an ethnographer of socio-technical innovations in learning, who is coming to the end of her first postdoc position. Having spent more than 1,000 hours observing people at work, in a range of formal and informal learning spaces, she is keenly aware of the need for translational tools that work across academic and professional boundaries. At the moment she is developing tools to support the (re)shaping of space, curricula, and culture. In the future, she wants to develop scalable and humane ways of assessing valued learning activity across time and space. Her work is driven by a conviction that, given the tools, we can all make a positive contribution to (re)shaping the learning ecologies of the future. You can follow her @PippaYeoman or find out more about her work here.

You can often find me on the edge of things. For the most part it’s where I choose to be. When you do find me in the thick of it, it’s invariably when thinking and speaking collide fuelled by feeling and I really ought to remain silent. But my current state of in-betweenness feeds on silence.

I am a postdoctoral researcher.

I am one of the lucky ones. I moved from PhD to postdoc with relative ease. An ease that sometimes made me feel guilty when I found myself paralysed by the uncertainty of what lay ahead. This was my third, fourth or fifth career depending on one’s definition. I’ve held senior positions in industry and raised two small people while starting again.

I am an immigrant.

I am one of the lucky ones. We qualified for permanent residence in Australia because my husband had skills on the Migrant-Occupations-in-Demand List. But the relative ease with which we secured permission to enter masked the challenges associated with starting again. I have lived on four continents, studied on three, and worked on two.

I am a grown up.

Why then do I feel so powerless? I chose to return to university and I want to contribute—so why this disquiet? I am a postdoc at a research-intensive university on a government funded fixed-term contract and when the funding runs dry I will simply evaporate in the system.

I am part of the precariat.

I’ve spent seven years training as an educational researcher. But having enjoyed the privilege of full-time research I haven’t done ‘enough’ teaching. I’ve also spent too much time working across disciplines, so I don’t have an obvious ‘home’, and the effort I’ve put into service, leadership and industry engagement has eaten into time I ‘should’ have been writing. Whatever I have demonstrated there is always something I have failed to demonstrate, and it is this constantly shifting horizon that feeds my sense of powerlessness.

I could remain silent and maybe I should.

But there it is—the thing that keeps us silent—the fear of jeopardising the infinitesimally small chance of securing an ongoing position. Reading from a safe distance as peers unravel online I’ve caught myself wishing someone would stop them from speaking their hearts. We are trained to speak our minds and leave our hearts out of it. But I worry that if I don’t add my voice to the chorus rising then maybe it won’t swell to reach the ears of those who have the power to change things.

And, despite the complex nature of this problem, it does not absolve those in positions of power from responsibly considering the future of those they train. Why do we have to tread this path alone or vainly emulate outdated formulae for success? What is an educated, adult, and humane response to the current state of affairs?

Silence is not option, and ignorance is not a legitimate defence.

Rather than staring into the headlights of the oncoming train or failing to draw attention to the not so temporary road closure ahead, I have chosen to share my thoughts with those who silently walk with me, and those who will come after us.

To stay sane, I needed a way of framing my (academic) career as a unified whole. Something I could build that would have utility even if I ran aground. Looking for the underlying structure I imagined I was building a catamaran, a twin hulled vessel that could make the most of the prevailing winds with not one but two sails. For now, I am putting all my efforts into keeping it intact. But should I run aground I will repurpose one of the hulls and find my way to calmer seas in a canoe.

Learning to frame my work in this way required wrestling my divided heart into submission. Forcibly taking a breath and working out what motivates me as researcher. Mark Reed describes this as having many dreams in which doing what you love is possible. Pausing seemed counter intuitive. But I had spent way too long running on hope that was waning and fear that was rising and I wanted to avoid the tipping-point of desperation. This wasn’t about retreating into contemplation and avoiding action. It was an acknowledgment that extended periods of cortisol induced action don’t normally precede moments of clarity.

Having thought long and hard I decided to extend my contract by reducing the number of days I was being paid to work. I had gone from the final throes of the PhD straight into the postdoc and hadn’t slowed down. This isn’t an option for everyone, and there have been times when I’ve resented reducing my income and not my hours. But it did fix one problem—I now make a point of taking weekends!

In practice this strategy has only delayed the inevitable. But it has given me time to:

  • write up my research with a broad audience in mind,
  • submit work and deal with the rejection,
  • develop practical aspects of my research into workshops that will (a) form the basis of a DECRA or (b) a consulting model,
  • update my CV and website, and
  • enjoy coffee with people on the outside without being creepy or desperate.

More importantly it gave me permission to opt out of the hope economy, to find ways of being collegial without having to confirm the splendour of the emperor’s new suit. I am also learning to say yes from a position of strength and not the vain hope that ‘If they just knew how great I was they’d hire me!’ because they won’t. It’s more complicated than that and—despite the current valorisation of collaborative endeavours—becoming an academic means demonstrating you can think, work and write on your own. But, for now, I choose to hold onto the hope that if I manage to navigate the next stretch intact then actually being an academic will be a little less insular.

Thanks for sharing your story – now I’m wondering what other members of the ‘precariat’ might have to say about the post doc condition? Interested to hear your views in the comments.

Related posts

What do academic employers want?

I want to leave academia, what’s next?

How to get a job in academia when you finish your degree

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How to turn your PhD into a book – part two

October 3, 2018 - 4:00am

A couple of weeks ago I published part one of this series on academic book publishing, where I covered identifying the opportunities, contacting a publisher and pitching the idea. In part two I talk about how to negotiate the deal. In part three I will talk about what to expect in the book writing and editing process. (If you missed the last installment; step one can be found here – I recommend reading this post first).

Step Four: Don’t be an academic asshole about it

It’s highly likely, unless you did the slightly less cold call approach descibed in my previous post, that you won’t get a fast answer to your initial pitch to an academic publisher. Expect weeks, even months, between emails. In my experience, people behind the scenes in scholarly publishing are stretched for time, just like academics. Publishers are probably working on multiple projects or even multiple roles; many are working part-time. Factor the realities of their day to day work situation into your communication strategy. Don’t be pushy. Give people at least a month to respond to your initial pitch before following up to see if they got the letter.

Image by @impatrickt on Unsplash

Respect that publishers know how and what to publish – this might seem obvious, but it’s surprisingly easy to ignore. Good publishers, like good bloggers, know their audience. Publishers target specific markets; they know how to reach, connect and sell to certain bookstores and online distributors that supply these markets. They have past sales figures to guide their future decisions. Just because they have published similar books in the past does not mean they will want to print yours. Sometimes publishers just aren’t interested in your pitch – even if you think they should be.

For example, I was so convinced our book ‘Postgraduate study in Australia: surviving and thriving’, an edited collection of students writing advice for others, would be such an easy sell that I let the whole thing be written before I tried to pitch it. Big mistake (and one I will never make again!). I could not get a single Australian publisher interested, even with the figures about the reach of this blog, an obvious publicity vehicle. As a consequence, the project languished for ages and I was professionally very embarrassed at my overconfidence.

In the end, my colleague Chris cut a deal with a European publisher, with a much bigger price tag than I would like. I’m totally grateful to him for his efforts and admire his ‘never give in, never surrender’ approach because I am glad this book is in the world. I’m still convinced Survive and Thrive could have been a good buy for an Australian publisher. Colleagues have told me how they keep a copy of this book to give to prospective students considering doing a PhD. Other students have written to me to say how much they love the book, but it didn’t work out.

If this kind of bewildering rejection happens to you, don’t be an academic asshole about it. The temptation is to try and persuade the publisher they are wrong… It’s not a great idea. Academics are trained to argue, but outside of academia, people can find our style of arguing annoying. Don’t make the mistake of thinking arguing with a book publisher is the same as arguing with journal editors. It’s worth having a go arguing with a journal editor; my philosophy in that case is “if you don’t ask, you don’t get”. BUT, journal editors are usually academics; publishers are not. Trying to persuade a publisher they should publish (and probably lose money on) your book is probably a waste of time. Worse, if you end up on someone’s shit list for being a pain in the ass about it, you have burned future opportunities too.

I try to keep in mind my father in law Steve’s best piece of child raising advice: “good manners cost nothing and buy a lot”. Thank the publisher for bothering to respond to your email and move on to your next prospect. Shaking off rejection is a skill and you will get better at, I promise.

Step Five: A decent proposal

A publisher might see your dissertation as a good enough starting point and you will skip this next step, but in the conventional academic publishing business, you will need to do some form of proposal. A proposal is basically a long pitch document, guided by a series of questions. The questions will probably include, but not be limited to, the following:

  • Why you think a new book in this area is needed.
  • The value proposition of your book (I like to think of this as: what job does it do for the reader?)
  • An overview or synopsis of each chapter
  • Brief analysis of the market and readership for your book (including the academic courses your book could be used for)
  • Structure and format (this means number of pages, size and types of binding. Some publishers do not include this and will decide for you. Welcome to the pain of arguing about cover art…)
  • Competition / similar books on the market and your points of difference
  • Something about you (this is your opportunity to convince the publisher that YOU are the person to write this book)

I’ve found writing a proposal is similar to doing an ethics approval; the process of writing your ideas makes them more concrete, but it also means you see the holes in your reasoning and gaps in the material. This can make writing the proposal nerve wracking as it’s easy to entirely talk yourself out of doing the book at all (this has happened to me at least once, resulting in disappointment for the publisher).

The proposal process is a great way to solidify and shape your book. My latest book is a joint effort with Shaun Lehmann and Katherine Firth (of the Research Voodoo blog). “Your academic writing trouble and how to fix it” (out on the 23rd of December!), went through 18 months of revised proposal work.

One of the issues with this book was multiple changes of editor. While Inger initially ‘sold’ the idea of the book to an publisher over a coffee in the British Library. The early proposal reflected this in principle agreement and didn’t include very much detail. Here is the first attempt at our ‘value proposition’ statement:

Over our combined ~20 years of teaching and providing assistance to students we have found that there are a number of recurrent issues that students face when dealing with academics’ feedback. We find ourselves giving the same advice repeatedly, both to students and fellow academics alike, and would like to give them a concise and easy to use book that will summarise this advice. Under the current tertiary education model, students are expected to learn proper academic English writing by osmosis, that is copying the writing style of others without really understanding what they are doing and why they are doing it. We want to explain the ‘why’ and give some tips and tricks for fixing prose that has been deemed ‘defective’ in some way, while acknowledging the complexities and diversity of the ‘Englishes’ we are asked to engage with.

Unfortunately, the original publisher moved on after about a year. The project had been provisionally green-lighted, but the next editor did not have the same personal investment in the project. She was skeptical of the book premise, which forced us back to the drawing board. Towards the end of the proposal re-write, which had involved several skype sessions and many coffee meetings, that editor also moved on too! Thankfully, our last editor didn’t ask for us to make changes (thanks Karen!) and allowed us to move on to negotiating the contract itself.

While the planning was agonising, all that work resulted in a book that more or less wrote itself. As a result of this process, our initial pitch expanded a lot and, I think you will agree, the final version is a lot more convincing and clear:

All of us have extensive experience helping academics and graduate students fix their writing. We find ourselves giving the same advice repeatedly, both to students and fellow academics alike, and would like to make concise and easy to use book that will summarise this advice. The marketplace for writing advice books aimed at graduate students is becoming crowded, but there still seems to be an appetite for more – probably because of the multitude of problems graduate students face while trying to write long, original texts. Under the current tertiary education model, students are expected to learn proper academic English writing by osmosis: copying the writing style of others without really understanding what it is and why they are doing it.  This ‘apprenticeship model’ of teaching writing leads to poor understanding of how English works, creating problems that persist between generations of academics, in particular around giving and receiving feedback.

While most writing problems are easy to rectify, academics offering the feedback are often unable to explain exactly what is wrong and fall back on a relatively standard set of complaints which are common to all disciplines. These complaints are so common there are even joke websites to collect them. Poor feedback like “your writing doesn’t flow” or “I can’t hear your voice” can be difficult to action and leave many students confused about what to do next.

In our experience even a fairly basic understanding of why English works the way it does can solve a number of common academic writing difficulties. While many books on writing set out to explain how to write well, this book will work the opposite way by starting with the trouble the student is experiencing. The book will help the student diagnose the problem and provide tricks for fixing prose that has been deemed ‘defective’ in some way, while acknowledging the complexities and diversity of the English language in academic settings.

The advice in this book has been trialled on our blogs and in our classrooms so we know that it works well with the target audience. We will re-shape this content for inclusion in the book, often using feedback from readers to make the advice easier to follow. We will use 2017 to further road test our advice and create a buzz around the book. Readers familiar with our web presences will recognise the quality of contributions to this book and appreciate the convenience of having it packaged together. We are confident the book will have a large audience ready to buy it as soon as it is released.

I hope our faith in your interest in the book will prove true! Stay tuned for part three, where I talk about some of the practicalities of working with publishers to prepare and market the resulting manuscript. But I’m interested – how many of you have had experience of writing proposals? I’d be interested to hear your views in the comments as well as, of course, any questions.

Related posts

How to turn your PhD into a book – part one

How to make an index for your book or dissertation

About one of my books: “How to be an academic”

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Dealing with administrative grief

September 26, 2018 - 4:00am

Universities are big places, some of them have a lot of students to manage and complex timelines to administer. Most of the time, I hope, the administration of your degree will be invisible to you, but, when things break down, you can find yourself in administrative limbo. This happened to  Jessica Ritchie, a PhD student at the TC Beirne School of Law at the University of Queensland. Jess sorted out her administrative difficulties, but reflects here on how it happened and what support you need when you find yourself lost in the administative systems. You can find Jessica is on Twitter as @j_ritchie13

One of the most difficult things I’ve had to deal with whilst working on my PhD is managing the expectations of my university. In the end, I realised we were working towards two different goals.

While we both wanted me to complete the PhD, our relationship was more complicated than that. My Graduate School and administration were much more concerned with me getting the PhD done in three years. They had no real understanding or appreciation of the complexities of life, and the interruptions that this can bring to study. Our goals sometimes conflicted. My goal was to finish my PhD, but also be a competitive job applicant at the same time as staying in good health.

Image by @rawpixel on Unsplash

During my candidature, I became quite ill and required emergency surgery, after an extended time of going in and out of hospital. I wasn’t aware that I was meant to advise my Graduate School of my situation. My focus was on managing my health while trying to write, not looking up the policies and procedures for the university.

Long story short, not telling the graduate school what happened to me lead to a lot of administrative grief. I wasn’t able to complete the paperwork for a milestone – that had already been completed – because the technical due date was past. This technicality lead to me having to give an additional presentation; taking time away from writing, causing a lot of anxiety, stress and wasted time in meetings.

Going through the process, I felt more like a piece of paper than a human – I was reduced to just my due dates for completed milestones. The Graduate School and administration didn’t care that I was managing my PhD, while also teaching, publishing, supervising students for the pro bono centre, participating in conferences and seminars, and completing an invited overseas visiting scholar position.

To be honest it really soured my feelings towards the university and wanting to be on campus. However, there were four things that helped me through the process:

(1) I have an amazing supervisory team. My primary supervisor could tell that the process was not equitable, that it was upsetting me and took over and dealt with the administrative problems for me.

(2) I have some really close fellow PhD friends that really supported me and also shared their negative experiences with the Graduate School;

(3) I had picked a topic that I was and continue to be passionate about; and

4) I tried as much as possible to continue to focus on my goals, as that is what is the most important things to me – to finish my PhD – but to also be employable, while managing my physical and psychological wellbeing.

Whilst it is easy to reflect on the experience now and not get upset, it does make me glad I have a supportive supervisory team (and friends). If you ever face a similar situation you will realise how important both things are.

When I was looking at starting my PhD I did a lot of research (transferable skills!) on who I wanted as supervisors. I looked at potential supervisor profiles to see who they had supervised previously. I spoke to some of these students and asked them about my potential supervisors’ pros and cons. Further I looked at potential supervisor’s publications, and whether they collaborated with other researchers and in particular early career researchers.

Finally, I considered how my supervisors would complement each other and how they could help me develop my skills. This made my decision to approach my current supervisors really easy. As a consequence, my primary supervisor was really incredible in helping me and being very generous with his time sorting the problems out (Shout out to Professor Simon Bronitt).

In the end, it all worked out but not without some interruption to my writing process. It did lead to a lot of money being spent at local cafes, as I chose to work there instead of my university for a while. The main thing as always is to keep writing and ignore everything else, as hard as that can be – and now more importantly let me order another coffee.

Thanks for sharing your story Jessica! Do you have a tale of adminstrative grief to share? How did you end up solving the problem? Love to hear about your experiences in the comments.

Related Posts

How to complain – and be heard

Lessons from Downton Abbey: or why your faculty administrators are as important as your supervisor

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How to turn your PhD into a book

September 19, 2018 - 4:00am

Turning your PhD into a book is a mark of success in many disciplines, especially the humanities. Many people pursue this goal immediately upon finishing their PhD as part of an overall academic career strategy. I didn’t have to, because I already had a job and I wanted to start building a research reputation in another discipline (and I started blogging).

Image by Sharon McCutheon on Unsplash

I feel like a bit of a fraud because I am sort of writing about something I have never done… However, Thong, (the husband of one of my PhD students, Nguyen) pointed out that I have been involved with five published books, with two more in the pipeline. You can thank Thong for convincing me I am experienced enough to give you a useful outline of the academic publishing process, so here we go.

As it turned out, I knew much more than I thought. I couldn’t cover everything about academic book publishing in one blog post, so this is part one of three I plan on the topic. I encourage you to write in with more questions. I know many established academics read the blog and I hope some of you will write in with further advice in the comments!

Step one: consider carefully… is it a book, or something else?

First of all, just because doing a book is prestigious CV addition, do you really need to write one? Doing a book is a HUGE time commitment, even if you start with a copy-edited dissertation manuscript. And don’t expect to make any money from all this effort; it’s a bonus if you do, but if you expect nothing, you won’t be disappointed. Don’t expect much measurable research impact either. You’re likely to end up with an expensive book with a small print run, that won’t result in piles of citations.

If you want to get your research out there for people to use, it might make more sense to write a series of blog posts, do a self-published ebook, a documentary film or exhibition. Or just leave the manuscript in your university library where it can be downloaded for free. PhD dissertations are the most downloaded type of document in many university research repositories so … do nothing. Your work will still have the potential to reach people who are interested.

It’s a different matter if you see a non-academic audience for your book. Some disciplines, like history, produce research with commercial potential. I’d encourage anyone who sees this potential to follow it up. A mass market publication has less academic snob value, but trust me: having a book that actually sells enough to give you a hefty royalty cheque is super satisfying!

Step Two: make contact with a potential publisher

Locating an academic publisher is actually a lot simpler than most people think: just look at the spines of the books on yourself and do some Googling. Unlike mass market publishing, where people rely on agents, academic publishing is still a ‘cold call’ proposition. Have a look on the website for instructions to authors about how to get in touch – and just… do it.

There are ‘slightly less cold’ approaches, which, I think, increase your chances. One simple (but maybe not obvious) technique is to visit the publishing stand at the next conference you attend and engage the people in the booth in a bit of a chat (it’s a good idea to skip a session for this purpose – they will be more willing to talk to you if it’s quiet). Don’t be shy, they are used to being approached. Generally the person selling books will either have a role as a scout, or be able to call in the person who is there for that purpose. Once they seem willing to talk, ask what kind of works they are interested in publishing. If their general interest seems to align with the work you have in mind, try out a short (I mean two sentence) pitch for your book idea and ask if it sounds interesting. Last year I did this at a conference and got a business card, which I then followed up with an email, very successfully.

Smart publishers are always on the look out for new work, so you might find they approach you. Great! Just make sure it’s a real publisher, not a dodgy thesis publishing mill. You can tell if it’s a real publisher because they will ask you to write a proper proposal. Anyone who promises to publish your PhD without changes is highly suspect. While some advisors will still tell you not to put your dissertation in the insitution repository, some publishers use this as a place to identify potential books and will approach you. Or, you could start a blog – if you manage to generate enough of a readership to be noticed, they will find you, trust me.

Step Three: sell the idea

The next bit – getting them interested in actually buying your idea- is tricky.

Book publishing, especially academic publishing, is a marginal business. Even boutique academic publishing outfits, who employ three people, are not charities. Publishers are interested in one thing above all others: selling books. It’s easy to lose sight of the profit motive when you work in an academic environment, which is essentially a not-for-profit enterprise.

Your mileage may vary, but I always prefer to get the publisher invested in the idea before I go to the trouble of writing a whole proposal. You might get a few knock backs before someone is interested. Doing heaps of work in a proposal template you’ll have to change anyway is a waste of time. Write a cover letter to your contact, or the email listed on the site for this purpose, with a short pitch for the book, clearly signalling the intended audience and why you are the best person to write it. If you have already published papers or, better still, blog posts, you can include some circulation numbers to demonstrate people might buy it. For example, here is a short excerpt from the pitch letter I recently wrote to a small, but well known academic publisher:

We cannot keep up with the requests for talks about our research and there is particularly intense interest from the community in the methods. A lot of people are fearful that ‘the robots are coming for our social science jobs’, but we have a totally different take, which is a ‘human in the loop’ approach (I wrote about this on the blog a couple of weeks ago: Are the robots coming for our (research) jobs?). I think now would be an ideal time to get something to market and your methods series format is perfect.

My approach here was to leverage the existing interest in our research work to demonstrate there was already a market. Note I use explicit commercial language ‘get something to market’ to show them I understand the profit motive. I didn’t try to tell them the work is intrinsically interesting or important, even though this is my primary motive in writing it. Being an important book doesn’t matter if there are not enough people willing to buy it. Of course, academics should publish non-commercial work, but that’s why we have journals and conferences.

I now need to convince the publisher that I am the one to get it to market. Having a successful blog is a huge advantage here, but this is a co-authored book. I know the publisher is keen the writing team doesn’t fall apart during the writing process. As I understand it, this happens often enough for publishers to be understandably skittish. The best way to prove you can write together is… to already have written together. So I followed with this paragraph to soothe their fears:

… What makes me really confident about the project is it builds on the strengths of our existing collaboration. Hanna could bring her 15 years of experience as a computer scientist working. Will works in science communications and, in addition to being a good writer, is used to working across disciplinary boundaries….

This letter got me an (almost) immediate request to submit a full proposal. The ‘almost’ is important, which leads me to step four… which will be in part two of this series because I have already reached my (self imposed) word count. Now I’m wondering: are you thinking about publishing your dissertation as a book? What questions are in your mind? Or do you have any experience of the publishing process you would like to share? Love to hear from you in the comments.

Related posts

So, you’re thinking of writing an academic ebook…?

How to make an index for your book or dissertation

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Finishing a PhD … and starting a Masters degree?

September 12, 2018 - 4:00am

This post is by Anna Wilkinson. Anna is a Research Fellow at Cancer Council Victoria, Melbourne, Australia. Anna has an extensive clinical background having previously worked as a nurse in diverse settings, including in rural and remote Australia and in the UK. This clinical work provided a foundation for further training in public health and Anna completed a PhD at the Burnet Institute and Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. Anna’s PhD focussed on better understanding HIV epidemiology, using quantitative analysis of large sentinel surveillance datasets. Her research interests focus on undertaking innovative epidemiological and public health research with particular interests in biostatistics, maximising the use of data and translating evidence into practice. Views expressed in this post are her own. Anna can be found on twitter as @AnnaLWil

In 2012 I was working in an independent medical research institute. Senior colleagues thought I was capable of a PhD. That level of academic achievement was somewhat mythical to me (my father never finished primary school), but it was an irresistible idea. I could spend hours with data and be called Dr. at the end –  sign me up!

As it turned out, I could do it. I submitted a PhD by publication in the final university business hours of 2015.

Image by @marvin_ronsdorfon Unsplash

Twelve months after submission, a somewhat messy year and protracted examination, my PhD was conferred and I had accepted a great job opportunity. I was delighted to graduate and felt, as many do, enormous relief and pride. A PhD is a pinnacle, the highest degree. I was formally and rigorously educated, exhausted, and poor. On graduation day (a hairdryer hot Melbourne December day) I celebrated with my considerably neglected partner. We had marvellous pizza and a cold drink and I thought of the immortal line from Shrek: “that’ll do donkey, that’ll do”.

My postdoctoral job is entirely focussed on data analysis and although I am many things, nurse, a doctor, probably an epidemiologist, and now a Research Fellow, I am not a statistician. The gaps in my knowledge started to come into focus and I found myself thinking about career doors that were not open to me. In the six months following my graduation I realised that my PhD did not deliver something I needed because I never asked it to.

Many people are lifelong learners and career shapeshifters. They trot down the side of the PhD mountain, shake it off, and head on up the path in front of them with ease, even if the path is tangential. But I found it upsetting to think that I was dissatisfied with my qualifications when the opportunity cost – and actual cost – of my PhD seemed very high.  I chastised myself for not thinking through my PhD better, being wasteful, indulgent and even cowardly. I burnt a lot of energy for the first half of 2017: kicking myself, cursing myself, talking myself in and out of things.

Facing up to the fact that I needed (probably more like wanted) to do more education as opposed to consolidating a postdoc career, felt like failure. I fell into some kind of a postdoctoral hole.

A friend recently blogged about parsing thoughts with the first screening question being, “Is it true?”. There two more but one is enough self-reflection for me. None of my thoughts about my education and career to date were true. Pretzeling myself into someone I did not want to be, to save face, was tiring.  A colleague, friend and straight up nice human once told me, a PhD never gets taken away from you. I needed to stop trying to take my PhD away from myself. It was marvellous achievement and wanting to reactivate my student number did not diminish its value.

When I floated the idea of doing a Masters to gain formal training in statistics with a select few of my friends and family I got a pause, followed by, “what?”.  I quietly began browsing university handbooks ‘just to see’ what was on offer. Perusing through courses, checking entry requirements and sizing up prerequisites was confronting. The first subject of a Masters in Biostatistics is Maths Background for Biostatistics. That sounds bad, especially for someone who did not complete high school maths. Compounding the terror, I had tried to do this subject during my PhD and did not get past week two. The voices of doubt were very loud at this point, a choir really, a gospel choir.

I have started my fourth degree, a Masters in Biostatistics, because I wanted to: 231 days after receiving my PhD and after approximately seven months of internal warfare and nausea. Pulling up out of the emotional hole and facing a fear of maths aside, it was a difficult choice. I work full time work and was facing a part-time load and full fees. Financial and personal resources have a higher value now, I guess an age effect. But I love statistics and I don’t want to boxed into one field nor be standing on the tectonic plates of grant funding.

I want to do much better analysis and work in collaborative teams on hard problems.  Finally, there is ongoing furore about the reproducibility of research, fraudulent research and the use p-values. One commentator offered an argument I do agree with. Part of the solution is training researchers in statistics and data analysis, and I would like to be part of that solution (an argument for more focus on coursework and training in statistics in Australian PhDs is for another time).

Thanks for sharing your story Anna! How about you? Might you need to do ‘extra’ learning after your PhD to enable you to get the job you want (or consolidate the job you have)? How do you feel about it?

Related posts

Upgrading from a Masters Degree to PhD

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Are there only four kinds of writers?

September 5, 2018 - 4:00am

Self-help books are my secret shame. I can’t resist them, especially if I find myself in an airport bookstore. The siren call of the self-help section means I inevitably board the plane clutching two more paperbacks (which I have no room for at home). My latest secret shame is Gretchen Rubin’s ‘The four tendencies: the indispensable personality profiles that reveal how to make your life better (and other people’s lives better too)’. I picked it up in the store with a smug smirk and started reading it. ‘Oh how very unscientific’ I chuckled to myself. I flicked through a few pages. ‘Wow, look at this dumbass quiz!’ I muttered.

Yet… I bought it (don’t judge me ok?).

Colour me surprised when I read the whole thing on the flights to and from the University of South Australia. Briefly, Rubins’ (largely unscientific) theory is that, when it comes to motivation, people tend to fall into four categories:

  1. Obliger: meets outer expectations; resists inner expectations
  2. Rebel: resists outer expectations and inner expectations
  3. Questioner: resists outer expectations; meets inner expectations
  4. Upholder: meets inner and outer expectations

According to Rubin’s (cough) theory, the tendencies overlap, so you can be an Obliger with a Rebel tilt, or an Upholder with a Questioner tilt. She expresses these overlaps in a diagram:

Gretchin Rubin’s 4 tendencies diagram from her website.

 

According to Rubin’s ‘research’, most people are Obligers: they find it hard to do things that are solely for their own benefit. If you’re the kind of person who finds it almost impossible to go to the gym without an exercise buddy, you are, according to Rubin, an Obliger. By contrast, an Upholder, while happy to be your exercise buddy, is also perfectly capable of going to the gym by themselves because they know it’s good for their health. A Questioner, on the other hand, is not a great exercise buddy because they only respond to their inner expectations. A questioner won’t go to the gym on a cold morning just to please you. Meanwhile, the poor Rebels might have wanted to go to the gym, but they resist all expectations, even their own. As soon as you expect a Rebel to be at the gym for an exercise date, they will not turn up, just to spite you (and themselves).

When I first read the descriptions of the four tendencies, I immediately categorised myself as an Upholder. They sound like they have their shit together. But when I did the quiz online, to my surprise, I tested as a Questioner. Which might be right because one of the first things Rubin says about these people is: ‘If your first reaction to the Four Tendencies is to think, “Well, I question the validity of your framework,” you’re probably a questioner.’

OK, she got me there, but I’m a researcher. I question things for a living lady!

I wanted to dismiss this book – I really did, but it was hard. When I read the list of Questioner strengths (data driven, fair minded, willing to play devil’s advocate, comfortable bucking the system) and weaknesses (unwilling to accept authority, analysis paralysis, refusal to accept closure on issues others think are settled) I have to say, I see myself in an unflattering, but realistic light.

Is Rubin’s framework a bit like a horoscope, in that you can apply it to anyone? Probably. But over the next week, I started to think about how this framework might apply to PhD student writers. Against my better judgment, the four tendencies started to appeal. Certainly this framework seems to explain some behaviour patterns I have observed over many years of working with PhD students.

So, I’m taking the idea out for a walk, without taking it too seriously, just to see if it’s useful to you. Read the descriptions below – do any of them resonate with you?

The Obliger

Since Obligers more easily meet outer expectations and not inner ones, they struggle with the lack of structure in a research degree. Humanities researchers without demanding supervisors will noodle around, probably reading a lot, but not making a lot of writing progress. Obligers in the lab usually do well, in the early stages at least. This is because labs impose a lot of external expectations; booking time on equipment, using materials before they go to waste, etc. When it comes to the writing part, however, science student Obligers tend to stall.

Obligers might feel a mild sense of panic about their writing progress, but they can push these feelings away by spending inordinate amounts of time on email and/or social media. Most Obligers find it easy to get very involved in the life of the department: organising seminars, writing groups and teaching, as well as doing stuff for their supervisors and peers. This activity FEELS like work, but they know that it isn’t really. Obligers might start to feel resentful that other people lean on them so much to organise social events, but still find it difficult to say ‘no’ and get started on their own stuff. However, when one of the few deadlines, like the confirmation or closing seminar, come around, Obligers shine. They can put their headphones on and really punch it out. In the face of a deadline, Obligers produce their best work but exhaust themselves in the process. After they have spent a week in bed, the Obliger promises themselves they are going to follow a daily writing plan, but then someone emails them about organising Christmas in July and… well…

Obligers benefit greatly from peer-led ‘shut up and write’ groups and similar, where they can turn all that willingness to organise others to their own best interest. Obligers particularly like writing retreats, like Thesis Bootcamp. I’ve made a habit of telling the students how much money we have spent organising the perfect writing environment and that all I expect is for them to take advantage of it and do the work. Now I realise why I say this: to an Obliger, being TOLD to be selfish is like catnip.

The Upholder

Upholder students intimidate everyone else, mostly because Upholders have their shit together on so many levels. Upholders can meet external and internal expectations easily so they can adapt to the lack of structure in the research degree, even if it takes a little while. While they are happy to be involved in the Obliger’s shut up and write group (and they are generally excellent, reliable contributors), they are just as happy sticking to their own writing schedule. In fact, they usually have a set of self-declared ‘rules’ around their working schedule. You are an upholder if you are generally feeling in control of your thesis and wondering why everyone is complaining about not having enough time. If only they would listen to you about your writing schedule! Upholders are not exactly selfish about guarding their writing time, but if you interrupt the schedule, expect them to get a bit cross, even rude. In fact, if there’s one criticism Rubin makes about Upholders is that they can get ‘stuck’ in habits and rituals they have made for themselves and convince themselves it’s the only way they can work.

Generally, supervisors love working with Upholders because they are simultaneously independent and open to direction. However, there is potential for conflict, particularly if there is disagreement amongst the supervisory panel. Upholders faced with a panel fighting will go into a tizz, trying to please everyone. Upholders are prone to perfectionism, which can be the result of their internal standards being too high. While supervisors are saying ‘good enough’ the Upholder is saying ‘it could be a bit better’. Upholders also benefit from deadlines that provide a natural end to this perfectionist cycle, even if it may cause them pain. I can’t offer other advice to Upholders because you probably have everything so handled, but try to be patient with the people around you. Not everyone has their shit together as you do!

The Questioner

Of all the tendencies, the Questioner is adapted perfectly to the lack of structure in a PhD program, in fact, they tend to thrive on it. A Questioner must convert an outer expectation into an inner motivation, so they are principally self-directed learners. Questioners LOVE to analyse, so they are happiest up to their elbows in a spreadsheet, or whatever pile of data/research material is available, trying to work out the ‘why’ of it all. When it comes to writing, however, they can be a bit hit and miss. The thrill of the chase for knowledge might be more intrinsically interesting than the plod of writing it all down. Questioners love to optimise and look for efficiencies. Even when they find writing productivity techniques that work, they are always on a hunt for different/better ideas.

Questioners can be exhausting students for their supervisors because they are reluctant to accept authority. If they decide their supervisor can be trusted, then they will fall into line, but they tend to be distrustful and are likely to resist suggestions. Questioners may struggle with some parts of the thesis more than others, particularly the literature review. Because questioners like to analyse, the endless, bottomless literature can put them straight into analysis-paralysis. While questioners might enjoy writing groups for the social aspect, they are unlikely to find it as helpful as Obligers or Upholders because they are not as driven by habit. The best advice for questioners facing a writing motivation problem (and I should know because apparently, I am one) is to try to convert the outside expectation that you will produce a document to an inner expectation. Questioners love to share their knowledge; the evidence suggests that examiners love to read a thesis to learn new things. So, think about your dissertation as a big gift to someone else that you will craft with loving care.

The Rebel

Rebels thrive on the lack of structure of the PhD – or they totally don’t. You can’t predict how Rebels will cope because they resist all expectations, even their own. A Rebel might make their own writing schedule, and then not follow it, then beat themselves up and go into a shame spiral for not following through. Rebels can get very demoralised thinking nothing will help, but that’s not true. For the Rebel, writing motivation has to come entirely from the inside. Finding inner motivation can be tricky, especially if you don’t love the work so enthusiasm is your best weapon against yourself. Rebels work best when they feel a ‘higher’ motivation, so they are most perfectly adapted to the basic premise of the PhD as the quest for new knowledge, especially if the research is aimed at helping other people and/or changing the world. Rebels fired up and passionate about their topic will endure incredible amounts of suffering and work harder than anyone else to achieve their aims.

The Rebel’s stubborn nature can be a source of strength. The inner monologue for many a Rebel is ‘you can’t make me!’. I’ve seen more than one PhD student finish in a blaze of glory just to prove other people wrong! Supervising a Rebel can be really challenging. While a Questioner can be talked around to accepting authority, the Rebel will resist even if they can intellectually concede you have a point. The way to help a Rebel is to stage your suggestions as information, consequences and choice. For example, I might say to a Rebel student suffering writer’s block “many people find the Pomodoro technique helpful”. I’ll then point out the consequences of not having a writing schedule: “The dissertation is such a big document you will exhaust yourself if you don’t break it down into smaller chunks”. Finally, I give them a choice about whether they should take up the suggestion or not: “I’ll send you a blog post about it and you can make up your own mind”.

So there you have it – the (kind of bullshit) four tendencies framework might be a good diagnostic tool… maybe? Rubin stresses that most people are not purely one thing or another; all of us can tilt towards an adjacent tendency. In my case, although I need to work from inner enthusiasm most of the time, I tilt Upholder. This explains my pragmatic side. I am responsive to an externally imposed expectation, especially if I am being paid to do it, or going to get in trouble if I don’t. But maybe that’s just because I like to see myself that way? See, I’m questioning it now! What do you think? Do you relate to any of the four descriptions above? Is this way of looking at things helpful? Love to hear your reactions in the comments.

Related posts

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A PhD… plus four kids?!

August 29, 2018 - 4:00am

I’ve written about PhD Parenting a couple of times, but I feel a bit like I do parenting-lite when I hear other people’s stories as I have but one child. How about doing a PhD with four kids at home?! This Post is by Sarah Stanford. As  a  Youth  Pastor  and  Youth  Worker,  Sarah  provided  support  for  many  young  people  who  were  self-harming.  Driven  by  a  desire  to  make  a  contribution  at  a  wider  level,  she  undertook  a  PhD  researching  self-harm.  Her  research  focuses on understanding, responding to, and preventing self-harm in schools, churches,  and  other  community  settings.  You can find Sarah on her website or on Twitter as @DocStanford

People tend to look at you weird if you have four kids. And people tend to look at you weird when they find out you’re doing a PhD. So you can imagine that I have had a generous share of strange looks over the last few years. Common reactions would include:

‘Are you crazy??’

‘You must be a supermum!’

‘How on earth do you do that?’

And of course, the often unspoken question: ‘Why?’

I received a lot of well-intentioned advice during my PhD. It turns out I didn’t follow most of it. So here are the rules I broke, and the things that worked for me.

(I will add a disclaimer up front: Yes, I had a very supportive husband. He would pitch in with all aspects of parenting and running the house. This is just my experience and it will be different for everyone.)

The rules I broke:

Get as much done as possible before your first

I’ve come across very organised people that schedule their pregnancies around their PhD plan. They have the first baby after the data collection, and perhaps add a second shortly after submitting.

I didn’t follow this sensible approach. I was pregnant with my first when I started my PhD. I squeezed in the bulk of my data collection in between #3 and #4. It was probably harder the way I did it, but I don’t regret it.

Get childcare organised while pregnant

Childcare places can book out quickly, especially those on-site at the University. This seems like sound advice, it just wasn’t the path we took. We chose not to use paid childcare, instead we juggled my PhD around my husband’s work. Towards the end we reduced his hours and juggled his work around my PhD.

Accept offers for help with childcare from extended family and friends

I highly recommend that parents take up offers of help with childcare from family and friends. Unfortunately this wasn’t available to us. Family members worked full-time, we lived in three different areas, and we hadn’t yet established a friendship network to share childcare. Definitely great advice, it just didn’t play out that way for us.

Use all small chunks of time

Making use of small chunks of time in your day can really maximise your efficiency. Unless you’re like me, and it just doesn’t work for you. I remember taking a stack of papers to the park to read, but I could never hold my eyes on the page long enough because my toddler would be wandering off. I would try to catch up on the literature while the kids were nodding off to sleep beside me, only to find myself reading the same paragraph repeatedly wondering what it even meant. The reality for me is that I work best with longer working sessions. It takes me a while to get into things, but when I’m in – I’m in deep. So I need to make time to allow my brain to do good thinking work.

Get your baby sleeping through the night ASAP

Seriously, people. Put your order in for a child that sleeps 12 hours straight from newborn. Ummm… yeah, didn’t happen in my house. But hey, breastfeeding through the night is biologically normal and a preventative factor against SIDS. It’s not all bad.

Schedule time to work away from the house + kids + distractions

I would do this at times, but I often found my best work was in my own house. It was noisy, and they did interrupt, but we tried to teach them that mummy needed to work.

Keep data collection simple

I was given very sensible advice about how to collect data in the most simple, efficient manner possible. In Psychology, that could mean a University student sample or recruiting online participants. Instead, I followed my passion and recruited eight schools to take part in my main research project.

Things that helped me:

Use a baby carrier

Invest in a good quality, supportive carrier that is comfortable for both you and baby. Join your local sling meet to find out how to use it. It makes it so much easier to work while keeping baby settled.

Trusting my instincts

One thing I’ve learnt as a parent is that everyone parents differently. Do what works for you, and follow your own instinct. If things aren’t working, read online, ask other parents, and experiment with different approaches.

Staying focussed

Doing a PhD is a massive undertaking, but the project can get increasingly bigger if it veers off course. Set clear goals of what your final thesis will cover, and how each study fits together, so that you can maintain productivity even during slower working periods.

Publishing throughout

I did my thesis by publication, and there were times I doubted this decision. Responding to reviews, re-writing work multiple times, and re-formatting for different journals can be very time consuming. However, I felt it saved time in having to write for the thesis and then re-write for publication. My fourth and final paper from my thesis was published a few months after graduation, so now my PhD feels properly “finished”.

Bulk cooking

Spend a day each month doing a massive cook up and fill the freezer. That way you can enjoy an easy meal with the kids without spending time cooking and cleaning up.

Do It Anyway

Most of the time during my PhD I didn’t quite know why I was doing it, other than it’s what I felt called to do. Sure, I believed that my research might actually help people. But when staring down the barrel of a hard day’s writing while the kids scream “Mummy” in the background…. yeah, nothing felt particularly inspiring. But I Did It Anyway.

Sometimes you just gotta do it.

An inspiring story Sarah! Do you have a large family along with a PhD? Or do you have to use extreme productivity techniques to fit your PhD around caring responsibilities? Love to hear about it in the comments

Related posts

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Single parenting through the PhD

The positives of PhD parenting

The perils of PhD parenting

Will my children be damaged by my PhD?

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The Cornell note taking method – revisited

August 22, 2018 - 4:00am

Ah, effective research note-taking… the constant bugbear of academics everywhere. For years I have been searching for the best technique, convinced ‘the secret’ was out there, somewhere. I’ve sadly come to the conclusion that there is no perfect system, but there are a lot of good techniques that work in different circumstances. The Cornell Method is one of them.

Some time ago my colleague Dr Katherine Firth wrote an excellent introduction to the Cornell notetaking method here on the whisperer. This post is Hannah JensenFielding who is a  is a Master of Counselling/PhD (Psychology) student at the Universityof Queensland. Her current research project is a memory training program for community dwelling older adults. In the future she would like to focus on the role of experience in learning and psychological development. Her current hobbies include productive procrastination and ‘self-care’ activities such as Netflix. She can be found on Linkedin and ResearchGate, but the best way to contact her is by email: h.jensenfielding@uq.edu.au

Hannah has spent some time working with the method and has prepared a few tools that might help. Take it away Hannah!

So, you are in the process of researching and have discovered the age-old dilemma of ‘What do I need to remember from this text?’. This dilemma is often followed by deciding what to remember, which is then followed by a ‘But what if….?’.

The result is a summary of the text as long as the text itself.

Now we know a summary like that is not very useful but what can you do? How do we limit the number of notes we take when examining a text? One answer is the Cornell method.

The Cornell method was first devised in the 1950’s to help university students take appropriate summaries of what they were learning (from Pauk and Owens: How to study in College). The method limits the amount of space available for the students to summarise each text by means of a template:

The template includes space for recording bibliographic details, developing keywords and taking short notes. There is a summary section as a footer, theoretically making it easier for you to flick through your piles of notes and compare them.

Time has changed since the Cornell Method was developed. The Cornell template is not very user friendly on the computer. I have updated the design to suit note taking on Microsoft Word and gone a step further, in an effort to make it more useful for PhD students, or anyone else taking summarising texts for a large piece of work such as a thesis.

You can download my revised Cornell Template here.

Here’s a screen shot:

The first feature to note is the header.  There is a section stating, ‘Area of Research here’. On the MS Word file you can highlight this text and replace with the name of the general field of research that you are summarising, e.g. ‘Memory training programs’.

The second feature of the header is the page number which becomes damn useful if you print out the pages and a small child/dog/cat/other messy creature decides to play with the document.

Now the main feature is the table. As seen it has three headings: Keyword, Paper, and Summary.

Keywords refers to the word that you would use if you need to find similar texts. In the original method students are encouraged to develop keywords to help the process of linking your notes together, developing a picture of the research field. An example of a good keyword for me is ‘self-efficacy’. If I use it consistently I can search in the document to find my notes on similar texts with a focus on self-efficacy.

The second column ‘Paper’ is where you would write the name, year and title of the text you are summarising.

The final column is where you write the summary of the paper. Dot points are useful here but if you are desperate to write as much as possible then knock yourself out. It is in this column that the beauty of the Cornell method comes into play. I have constrained how much you can write in this column. The table cell will not grow if you go beyond the room provided.

If you write more than what can be written in the space available, that extra writing will not be visible.

This means you need to critically think about the text, specifically what you really need to remember about it, before you start summarising. Don’t worry: I’ve given you more space to summarise than the original Cornell template offers, so you will have enough room for all your notes if you are strategic.

The last feature of the Cornell method is the summarising box at the end of the page. Here you summarise the three papers of the page into a paragraph. This paragraph has great potential to just be inserted into your thesis if you play it right.

That in summary is the Cornell Method. I hope is serves you well.

Side Notes:

  • I have done up a very basic table (List of Keywords) in MSWord that you can use to record all the key words you develop for each area of research. This will help you stay consistent throughout your summarising and serve as a good look up table when you are searching for new literature.
  • Even when you use the template, the table does not automatically appear on a new page. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a way around this so you will need to copy and paste the table on each new page.

Related Posts

Turn your notes into writing with the Cornell Template

Endnote vs… well, everything else

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Doing a PhD with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

August 8, 2018 - 4:00am

Anecdotally I know that there are many PhD candidates out there with ASD: Autism spectrum disorder. I have quite a few family members and friends who are not neuro-typical, so I’m uncomfortable with the word ‘disorder’. As my nephew, who was diagnosed as being on the spectrum around age 7, puts it: “you say ASD like it’s a bad thing, when it’s just how I am”.

He’s totally right. ‘Neurotypicals’ are sometimes blind to the unique skills and capabilities that people with ASD have. The world is built around neurotypical ways, which makes studying while being on the spectrum particularly hard. I often get asked about PhD strategies for people with ASD, but, despite experience living and working with people on the spectrum, I am no expert. I was happy when Kim sent in this post and I hope it might encourage others living with ASD to share their experience.

Kim Kemmis has spent the last ten years working full time and pursuing postgraduate study in the Department of History at the University of Sydney. He recently completed his PhD on the life and career of the Australian soprano Marie Collier. His interests include Australian cultural history and the history of sexuality, and is currently writing on opera as a social phenomenon in Australia.

When I started my PhD I knew there would be challenges. For people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) there’s a huge boulder blocking the road, stopping us from turning intention into action. The way we process information and respond to the world affects how we work and how we connect to others, and for the HDR student there are some particular difficulties.

If research were only sitting in the archive working on documents it would be the best of all possible worlds. I can focus on the detail and feel the brain fire up with new information and connections and ideas. Back in the university study space where the work is more varied I need routine and habit, working at regular times in a quiet, unchanging working place, with minimal environmental noise like air conditioning hum or banging doors, where people don’t constantly walk past your desk or change your computer settings or move your books around. You will know this place by the unicorns roaming outside. Hot-desking is a vicious variation on the hell of open-plan, where even neurotypicals suffer.

Even in optimal conditions my brain won’t do what I want it to. At my worst, is not a matter of diving-in but zeroing-in. The brain takes its own time to engage with the text I’m working on. It doesn’t connect with anything beyond the immediate phrase I’m looking at. I circle around the text, looking for a phrase to spring off the screen or to catch my attention, to coax the brain into comprehension. Every few minutes I have to give the brain a break, preferably by doing something work-related or tuning into my music rather than social media. But usually it’s five minutes on, fifteen off until I get back to where I was. Sometimes I have to drag the brain back, with the to-do list, or by breaking the task down so I can do it in baby steps—any structure I can use to keep moving in the right direction.

On good days form takes care of itself. On bad days syntax and sentence structure fail catastrophically. The brain switches off between phrases and jumps to something else; I grab at what I thought I was writing, but my thinking has moved on and the sentence is a series of non sequiturs. My advanced writing skills need conscious reinforcement, and I can’t see if I’m making sense until I finish the sentence.

But after three-quarters of an hour teasing out the phrases and connections I suddenly get into the zone. Words start flowing out through the fingers and the actual ‘writing’ happens, and I have some sentences, even paragraphs that I can come back to and polish.

Connecting with others is difficult; activities such as class participation and supervision are complicated, and you become estranged from many of the collegial experiences. In my undergraduate days I was criticised for not joining in the discussions, even though I was probably working the hardest of anyone: trying to establish what people what were saying, analyse it, draw conclusions, then find a way of verbalising them, while not being able to read the class dynamics. Now that happens in supervision meetings. I try to work out the nuances (‘What exactly does she mean by subjectivity? Whose? Is that what I call subjectivity or is it something else?’), but there is no time to linger, and I have to hold the idea unresolved and try to pick up cues from the rest of the conversation. After twenty-minutes I run out of stamina, and I can’t express myself verbally. I have lost count of the follow-up emails starting, ‘I tried to say…’ or ‘I should have said…’, or even pretending ‘It’s occurred to me that…’ (NB I didn’t disclose my ASD to my supervisors: in retrospect, a big mistake.)

As a historian I have to interview people. It’s a misconception that people with ASD don’t have empathy. But using that empathy is exhausting, and so are the burdens of initiating and maintaining conversation, and the emails and phone calls required to keep the relationship going.

As a research student you have to make contact with peers and influencers and grow your network. That’s why we have conferences, which can be another circle of hell. You can stick with people you know and connect through their connections. But otherwise it’s cold calling, talking to people while pouring a coffee, using the pre-prepared starters, ‘What are you writing about?’, ‘How many years do you have to go?’, and the one-sentence, thirty-second or three-minute summaries of my research, formulated to avoid the full-immersion experience to which I have been known to subject people; all the while fighting the chaotic and exhausting coffeebreak noise, and the anxiety that as you lurch from sentence to sentence you will lose the thread or not be able to reply.

During papers I try not to be distracted by the rustling of pens scratching on poor quality notepaper, or the suspicion that the weird smells from the seats are possibly organic in origin. I enjoy the para-conference that Twitter provides; distilling the essence of a paper to 280 characters including the conference hashtag helps me engage, and the online interaction complements the more difficult physical socialising.

Presenting isn’t a problem. Once I’m at the lectern the technique kicks in and the anxiety starts to dissipate. But I stink without a script. Every word is prepared, even the impromptu remarks. Questions can be an adventure: remembering not to over-answer, monitoring the questioner’s expression to see if I have to ask ‘Am I answering your question or have I missed the point?’

Now I have finished my PhD I look forward to life as an Early Career Researcher and ask, ‘Does it get easier?’ No. But I have found ways of working that work for me—which is what the PhD is all about, for all of us.

Thanks for sharing your experience Kim! I’m wondering what you think – have you been diagnosed with ASD, or suspect you might have tendencies? What strategies do you have in place to cope with the challenges? Love to hear your ideas in the comments.

Related Posts

Stuggling with thesis production?

My own go to expert on all things thesis with autism is Daveena at the Scholar Studio blog – check it out

PhD Fear (a personal account)

August 1, 2018 - 4:00am

This post is by Elaine Campbell. Elaine is an Associate Professor at Northumbria Law School, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. She is particularly interested in interpretative qualitative research, using story and narrative as a sensemaking tool. Elaine is due to submit her Professional Doctorate in Law in March 2019. Elaine’s thesis will explore her lived experience as a university law clinic supervisor through an autoethnographic lens. She can be found at @alawuntoherself and alawuntoherself.com

At 2.24pm on 6th June 2016, after a morning filled with panic, I plonked myself down at my kitchen table and wrote this:

I’ve got PhD Fear. I’ve had it for three days now, and there’s no sign it’s toddling off to find someone else to haunt. It’s always there, like a software programme quietly running in the background of my mind. A strange combination of lively moments of panic and levelling moments of stillness, I find myself overcome with the thought of completing a PhD. A PhD which I love, by the way.

I wonder how I got here. 

Image by @sebastian_unrau on Unsplash

Since 2015, I have written 8 journal articles, numerous guest blogs and media pieces, and presented at 7 conferences. I run my own blog which, through a public vote, was shortlisted in the UK Blog Awards. I got a mention in The Guardian. In July/August I’m delivering 3 international conferences papers. And I’ve got a guest blog, a magazine feature and 4 journal articles in the pipeline. Oh – almost forgot – I’m giving my first keynote at the end of the year.

I don’t say this to show off or make anyone who might one day read this feel inadequate. I’m saying it out aloud to prove to myself that I have a track record in managing my time, alongside teaching, admin and other projects, and producing pretty good stuff.

It’s not like I haven’t started the PhD. I’ve been immersed in it. I’m doing a Professional Doctorate, an enquiry-based project exploring my role as a senior lecturer in law. I draw on my lived experience and place my personal narrative at the forefront of my research. In short, I write about myself. Confessional tales, of which this is one, help me to figure out what I do, how I live, and invite readers to feel, think and respond.

Maybe it’s the size. Metaphors like ‘insurmountable mountain’ get used a lot in PhD student circles, as do comparisons to dragons. Perhaps I need to stop thinking of my PhD as Everest and start comparing it to my guinea pig Valentino. He’s quite small, in the grand scheme of things. And he doesn’t breathe fire (as far as I’m aware).

Maybe it’s that I’m terrified brain and fingers won’t work together to spill the good stuff into the thesis. I construct flowing sentences that sound really impressive in the cocoon of my brain, but, well, a bit rubbish when I try to let it out on the page. Perhaps letting it out is the only thing I can do right now. And later, when I can see it all there in front of me, I can polish it up.

Maybe it’s the time. I don’t have long. I’m almost in year two of a three year programme. The clock is ticking and before we know it December will be here. What will I have done by then? Something? Something that makes sense? Something that has rigour? Something that is good enough? Even while I’m writing this, I’m half whispering to myself ‘you could be reading… you could be drafting that conference paper…’ Perhaps something is good enough and I need to trust myself to keep chipping away at it bit by bit.

Maybe it’s the balance with family life. There’s a part of me which dreams of chucking it all in. I’m jealous of friends who do the 9-5 and spend evenings with their children. I worry that my sitting at the computer during ‘downtime’ will eradicate personal relationships, that the PhD will always be the priority. Perhaps I need to give myself time limits and book holidays in advance away from PhD-land.

Maybe it’s all of those things together. Panic and stillness. Dreams and reality. But what’s important is to face the fear. Stare it in the eye. Show it you know it’s there. Write a blog post about it. And then calmly ask it to move on.

—————————

Since I wrote this, time moved on. I moved on. I delivered those three international conference papers. I wrote those journal articles. And then I had a period of sick leave due to a really nasty bout of depression and anxiety.

For almost four months, I didn’t touch my PhD. My numerous lever arch files were banished to the back bedroom, underneath the spare bed (you know, the place you put things you want to forget). But I sought help, looked after myself, and eventually went back to work. And I slowly picked up the PhD. And I slowly started to write.

Reader, I’m due to submit in March 2019.

I think this is the point where I’m meant to say “see, there’s light at the end of the tunnel”. Or, “and now I face every day with confidence – no more PhD fear for me!”. But that’s not how it works. I still have days when I have absolutely no idea why I am bothering. And moments of utter devastation, where I convince myself I’ve written a whole load of garbage.

Sometimes when we go through a difficult period, we’re expected to adhere to a narrative that says the bad times are behind us. Onwards and upward, not peaks and troughs. But peaks and troughs are part of life, and they’re certainly part of the PhD ‘journey’. And they’re okay. And they will pass. And they might even come back again. And they’ll move on.

Thanks for sharing your inner thoughts so generously Elaine – how about you? Have you experienced the PhD Fear? Interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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The Valley of Shit

Leaving the Valley of Shit

The Swamp of Sadness