Updates in Doctoral Ed

More advice on advice

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - May 8, 2019 - 4:00am

I’ve been blogging on the Thesis Whisperer since June 2010 – nearly nine years as I write this post. I started the blog, in part, because I wanted an online resource I could send to students. I’d been working as a research educator for about four years at that time and noticed PhD students asked me the same questions over and over: how do I start my discussion section?, What is theory? What’s the best way to take notes? How do you write so fast? How do I put publications in my PhD?.

I thought it would take six months to write everything down. Happily I was wrong and I still find the blog a stimulating, creative space to share my research and teaching.

Image by @punttim on Unsplash

I’m fortunate that many people have taken up the invitation to write for the Whisperer: this is important for a number of reasons. Through listening to stories we all get smarter. Other people have valuable perspectives and experiences to share and I am grateful they see the Whisperer as a vehicle. If you’re a long time reader you might notice I have a rhythm to the blog. You get a post a week: one week it will be a community member the next week it will be me. By only posting on alternate weeks, I weave my voice into the voices of others. There’s no doubt this makes the blog more interesting – and more sustainable for me (if I had to write 1000 words every week I think I would have given up long ago!).

I get about two or three story pitches a week and, over time, I have developed a rubric for whether I accept a community member post or not. I rarely reject a post, but I do sometimes ask people to change their post before publication and sometimes I edit heavily. The most common reason I ask for a revise and resubmit is when people send me a fairly similar version of ‘lessonsI learned from doing a PhD’. Without realising it, when they reflect on the PhD process, students say the same kinds of thing. This similarity is easy to explain: we all work within a system and this puts similar pressures on each one of us. It’s not surprising advice for dealing with the system tends to converge around the same kind of topics: choosing good supervisors; being organised; qualities of persistence and resilience; keeping to a writing schedule; learning to fail; staying healthy and so on.

I never reject the ‘lessons learned’ story pitches out of hand – usually there is something new and interesting to say because every person has a unique journey through the PhD. If can find this angle in the first draft I suggest the person rewrites it with their unique angle front and centre. It might be that they did a PhD by publication, or that they studied at a distance, were coping with a chronic illness or condition, had lots of kids or were a minority in their department (I wish I had more of this last type – hint hint!). Most people are happy to do this rewrite, realising how useful it will be to others facing similar circumstances to share their very specific tips. These posts don’t speak to everyone and often don’t get many hits initially. However, over time they become the ‘go to’ post for people who google this specific circumstance. I like the idea that they stay on the blog as

Sometimes I am sent ‘lessons learned’ posts that people have already published the post on their own blog. They kindly ask if I will republish, but I usually refuse. I try to work by the spirit of generosity: it’s better to promote their blog through social media than be greedy and use their content on mine. Recently I agreed to do this for yet another post and started to think about how to make this sharing practice have more impact. With that in mind, I asked on Twitter for people to share with me advice posts they have written on their own blog. I got quite a number of them and expect that more will appear in the comments to this post.

Below is the beginning of a guide to other PhD student advice posts I have been sent so far. I consider all these posts to offer ‘generic advice’ – not because they are bad or boring, but because they share good, common sense advice that is applicable to most people doing a PhD. I had a fun afternoon reading all of them: there are some excellent tips and observations in here, which I imagine will be useful to anyone starting – or trying to finish.

I will add more posts to the list over time – possibly as a section on my Community page. I’m still interested in publishing more unique accounts and perspectives on the Whisperer, so if you have one, please send it in!

Success factors

Advice from future Dave

Things I learned the hard way (in graduate school)

Oh the places you’ll go! Reflecting on my PhD journey

My thesis tis done… the end of the beginning

Reflections on my PhD journey

20 things I wish I’d known when I started my PhD

#PhDing… while taking comprehensive exams (US system specific advice)

Tips and Tricks for PhD students (the #phdlifehack)

5 pieces of advice for aspiring PhD students 

How to survive a thesis defence

5 years into academia – 45 things I have learned so far

Things a scientist should know

What I now know about the doctorate: illuminating the PhDarkness

Don’t do a PhD

Things I wish someone had told me when I started my PhD

To fund or not to self fund your PhD (you’ll need to scroll down a bit to get to this section)

What I learned in my first term as a PhD researcher

10 things I wish I’d known 10 years ago (warning – heaps of amazing links here. Don’t open unless you plan to spend the next two hours following them. I speak from experience!)

10 things I wish I knew when I started my PhD

Three things I wish I knew before starting a PhD

University email: a PhD exit strategy (little discussed, but very important information)

Advice for doing a PhD (A compendium of advice from Twitter)

PhD life: defeating isolation

I’m sure there are many more than this list, perhaps you are a PhD student with a blog and have posted one you would like to share? Or you might just want to share that piece of advice you found genuinely helpful? Interested to hear from you in the comments!

Related Posts

Five time management ideas – from part time PhD students

Coping strategies for full time workers who become PhD students

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Beware the couch! Reflections on academic reading

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - May 1, 2019 - 4:00am

Reading – you already know how to do it well… or do you?

This post is by Dr Robyn Mayes, Associate Professor at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia.  She has a long-standing interest in critical reading and thinking practice, and is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.  In addition to creating reading videos, Robyn is developing a series of supporting micro-tasks and is keen to develop an online critical-reader community.  Her research and publications span the socio-economic and gendered geographies of mining (in particular, community experiences/development and corporate social responsibility, and new social movements) and labour mobilities (FIFO workers, 457 visa holders, and au pairs). Her current research, funded by an ARC Discovery Grant, examines work and workers in the gig economy, with a focus on digital geographies of work. You can find out more about Robyn and her publications via her QUT staff page or email her at robyn.mayes@qut.edu.au

Over the years, I’ve learned a few things about reading journal articles. One of the most important things that I’ve discovered is that spending time thinking about how and why I read, and practicing ways to become a better reader, is time well spent.

After all, the ability to critically read journal articles—and lots of them, just think literature review—is foundational to quality scholarship.Through this reading we gain rich and incisive understandings of peer-reviewed theories, methodologies, findings, and debates in our fields.  Ideally, we then usethis knowledge to advance our scholarship and contribution.

This kind of reading, however, is far from easy. Hence the reflection and practice, which I’ve distilled into a set of short ‘how to’ videos. In these clips I showhowI read and offer strategies and tips from a researcher’s perspective. Here’s the introduction video:

A lot of us struggle at times with the sheer volume of journal-article reading required to get ‘across’ a field or topic and then to stay on top of developments. This is particularly tough when you are starting your research degree especially if you are one of the growing number of students who has moved into a new discipline or field in your postgrad study.  We might also struggle to make sense of dense text and unfamiliar terminology, or to make the most of limited time for reading.  On top of this, the research thesis journey provides many opportunities to feel overwhelmed, if not inadequate, in theface of the towering stack (or big folder) of articles you have indeed managed to read, let alone have yet to read.  Here is where practical strategies have their place. 

So, what is this critical reading and how best to do it?

I would say let’s start with: ‘where to do it?’ Academic reading is highly active, requiring energy and disciplined creativity. Such activity is not usually associated with, and is often much more difficult to do, lying on the couch or reclining in the garden—the very places where I did a bit too much of my reading as a doctoral student. And then there is the question of print versus screen reading. I would also warn against the easy fiction that we are being active readers, when in fact we are merely deferring the hard work till some later time. Here the highlighter springs to mind. Often, we are just colouring lines of text (soo satisfying!) without any real thought about why and how these chosen words are useful or meet our purposes. In my experience, it’s very important to be Reading with Purpose (click through for video link).

You are also part of a community of readers, and it’s good to know what other students are doing. Click through the links to see videos of Denise and Jacquie reflect on their experiences and learning process including the ‘strangeness’ of unfamiliar genres and, spoiler alert!, candid confessions of not liking reading. It is important to keep in mind that reading journal articles is work. Indeed it can be hard work; though I find it difficult to convince family members and friends of this. There is also the odd fact that I often don’t feel like I’ve got much done when I’ve been ‘just’ reading. For me, the solution has been to read and write at the same time. For advice on this, see my video Reading as Part of Your Writing Practice.

Journal reading has an even less-acknowledged emotional dimension. Some journal articles fill me with excitement and offer inspiration. Some make me grumpy if not outright angry and others are deeply confusing.  Some fill me with admiration and sometimes this makes me feel as though ‘I’m not smart enough for this!’.

And then there are also the emotions that we bring to the text: sometimes anxiety, sometimes boredom, sometimes excitement.  It’s important to acknowledge these emotions as part of the reading process. To my mind reading is a conversation between you and the text; between texts and other texts including yours. Thus, you not only listen to the text but also ask questions, and have something to say yourself, as in all good conversations. There’s a clip for this too: Reading as Dialogue.

To keep this sense of dialogue and purpose at the heart of your reading:  you might try writing a map of the intended conversation before you start reading.  I have done this myself, for example, before setting out to read Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s beautiful and complex work on whiteness and sovereignty (Moreton-Robinson, A 2006 ‘Towards a new research agenda: Foucault, Whiteness and Indigenous sovereignty’ Journal of Sociology42(4): 383-395). You’ll see that I have tried to articulate the exact purpose of my reading and to bring some clear questions to the text.

I plan to continue to develop and refine these videos—so your feedback is most welcome.  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below [or email me at robyn.mayes@qut.edu.au]. Who knows maybe you’ll start some conversations about scholarly reading practice: what we do and why it matters.

Full list of videos by Robin Mayes on reading:

Related Posts

Reading like a Mongrel

Surviving the reading marathon

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A big list of academic job interview questions (and how to answer them)

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - April 24, 2019 - 4:00am

Academic life has seasons, as Les Back so eloquently pointed out in his lovely book The Academic Diary. At the moment it seems to be the season of job interviews, at least for some recent graduates in my immediate circle. I’ve been doing some challenging emotional work assisting with preparation of job applications and interviews, which reminds me of what a stressful time the end of a PhD can be! Examination is one emotional hurdle; getting into the job market is another thing altogether. The combination of waiting for results and finding a job would try anyone’s nerves. I’ve written lately about the difficulty of getting short listed when people have weird attitudes about PhD graduates and how to get in the mind of a potential employer, but what about if you get that job interview? What can you expect then?

I’ve felt unqualified to do a post on how to ace job interviews as I have not exactly had a history of success there. It’s fair to say that I have only succeeded in a job interview if people had already decided they wanted to hire me. However, a couple of people have pointed out that I’ve had plenty of experience sitting on the other side of the table, at least in academic settings. I’ve interviewed and hired people for a long time now. I know what people do wrong in academic job interviews, particularly the right and wrong ways to answer questions.

Preparing for job interview questions in advance can help calm your nerves, so what are you likely to be asked in an interview for an academic job? A candidate I know has an interview next week and was given a huge list of over 60 authentic post-doc job interview questions, compiled by Dr Larissa Schneider, A DECRA fellow at ANU. Larissa got these questions from graduates who took notes in their job interviews – a nice example of collegial sharing in the sciences! Larissa kindly shared it with me on the understanding I would develop a blog post that did not reveal the specific jobs. Accordingly, I took the original list and developed a shorter, more generic one that still represents the variety of the original.

I include the altered list below, with some notes on things to think about as you develop your potential answers. Bear in mind these are questions posed to science graduates applying for a post-doc project doing research in a specific area for a year or more. If you are going for a lectureship or a job in the humanities, you can expect the questions to be a little different, but I think this list will still be a good starting point anyway:

How would you collect data for this project? The notes I was given suggest that interviewers will expect quite a detailed answer. What I would look for is a person who can identify risks with data collection and have some mitigation strategies in place.

How would you analyse data? Questions about analysis are directly testing out your capacity to do the work. I strongly recommend you sketch out a research plan in advance so that you have a good idea of the steps you would take. You might have to make some assumptions in this plan as you don’t have all the details as yet. Don’t worry too much: it’s the thinking processes that matter here.

Can you use [insert relevant analysis software]? If you don’t know the specific software in question, don’t panic! Describe other, similar ones you have used and how quickly you can learn more with the aid of YouTube and a few instruction manuals.

What can you add creatively to the research? This can be a very difficult question to answer on the spot. Make sure the sketch research plan I mentioned above includes a ‘further work’ section so you can spin out a few ideas ahead of time.

Where do you see yourself – short term / long term? I hate this question. Like most people I am kicking the can down the road of my career; reacting to opportunities as they arise. If you don’t have a clear idea of where it’s all going, just have a plausible reply handy. “Director of a research lab” is as good an answer as any for the long term career; “continuing research and teaching position” is a good enough short term goal. Good on you if you have more specific answers than this!

Why do you want to do the job? How will this position fit in your overall career plan? Not as easy to answer as you might suppose. Let’s face it, sometimes people apply for jobs that are convenient in terms of place or pay. There is nothing wrong with that, but it can make the potential employer feel they aren’t your first choice. Try to keep your answer focused on how this job fits in with your overall skills development and interests.

Tell us about your publishing experience. This question is testing what you know about getting papers into the pipeline, as well as how you respond to reviews and deal with co-authors. Don’t forget to include other forms of publishing if you have done them, but don’t emphasise these at the expense of telling the panel you can deal with the banal problems of the normal scientific publishing process. Science communication is very hip right now, but a working scientist needs to concentrate on communicating within a community of practice. This has different ‘rules’ to communicating with external stakeholders and the public.

How do you handle collaboration with external stakeholders? An excellent question – and difficult to answer if you have not really dealt with people in industry etc. If you haven’t actually dealt with this situation, emphasise that you understand the idea of negotiation being built on mutual interests and clear communication. For a good primer on the basics, check out the book Getting to Yes and for the nitty gritty of stakeholder engagement a good reference is Project management for the unofficial project manager.

How have you handled a difficult situation with people? Another great question. Luckily, academia is full of difficult people, so you should be able to think of a situation where you had to deal with someone being an academic asshole. Outline the situation and describe how you solved the problem with your superior negotiating skills. Don’t use managing your supervisor as an example – especially if there’s bitterness. No one wants to hire someone bitter about their supervisor, no matter how justified.

How did you handle a difficult situation with a project? A nice variation on the question above. Think of some specific example that demonstrates you are cool in a crisis / able to predict a problem in advance / good at managing fall out from problems or all of the above. I like to hear about banal, ordinary problems because it helps me get a sense of what that person will be like to work with.

How do you get things done? If you have a ‘getting things done’ system like Omnifocus, it’s a good chance to mention it, but don’t, whatever you do, bore people with the specifics of your system and try to tell them why it’s better than anything else. During this interview you are being judged on what kind of colleague you will be. No one wants to work with someone who tries to tell people how to do their job – it’s annoying.

How would you attract new/extra funding to the role? This question is testing your knowledge of how the funding landscape around you works. If you haven’t familiarised yourself with all the acronyms for the funding schemes, now is the time to do a deep dive on the Research Whisperer blog, which has been running almost as long as the Thesis Whisperer and has nearly a decade free to access wisdom.

What is the most exciting thing you have discovered in your research?/ What do you think is the best paper you have written? / what are you most proud about? I like these kinds of questions as it’s a chance for you to shine and tell a good story about yourself and your work. I think it says something about your powers of self reflection and self confidence if you can’t easily answer this question, so be ready to share.

What have you read outside your field that interested you? A curious question, but probing the less ‘visible’ parts of your professional persona. All of us have side research interests that feed our creativity, so this is a good chance to show your versatility as a scholar. If you can speak to what you bring back from this ‘extra-curricular’ reading to your current work – be it a method, theory, approach or procedure, even better.

What isn’t in your CV? I’d hate to get this one without being prepared. This is a good opportunity to pick up on a character trait, like your creativity, analytical ability, how fast you can read and digest information etc. Have a concrete example of this skill in action so that you can ‘show’ as well as tell. A similar answer could be used for the old ‘What are your strengths and weaknesses?’ question.

What’s your approach to teamwork? Depending on your PhD project, specifically the kind of lab settings you were in, you might not have as much to talk about here as you would like. Don’t forget, previous jobs in retail / fast food are settings where you also developed team work skills, often in much higher pressure environments.

Tell us your understanding of workplace equality and your direct experience of it Given that a woman was asked this question, I am not too sure of the intent behind it. Did they want to see if she would complain? I suppose this question is a good chance for you to share any additional training you have done, or initiatives you’ve been involved with that promotes this worthy aim. Otherwise, I got nothing!

Based on what you have read about this position, what would be your research question? This one will be a snap if you have already sketched out a research plan for this post doc position – hard if you have to make it up on the spot. My go to reference for articulating research questions properly is The Craft of Research.

What do you know about working with industry? I guess if you have never done anything with industry, you just have to own your lack of knowledge here. If you are still studying, it’s good to know that research impact and industry led research is becoming something that people ask postdoc applicants. Most universities have ‘innovation training’ or something similar – might be time to consider popping along to one of these so at least you can say you did something.

What do you understand about authorship and how people are ordered on papers. Hopefully you’ve had some experience of this already. The problem I find here is that what is taught as ‘best practice’ is routinely broken in reality. Authors seem to get chucked on papers for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with the Vancouver Protocol or any other rules. Here’s a good blog post that outlines some of the issues and might help you make a more informed answer.

Tell me about your PhD research. The important thing when you answer is not to rabbit on – the people on the other side of the table will be assessing how well you can succinctly communicate difficult information. Doing the 3MT competition is really helpful for exactly this kind of job interview question. Give a top level summary and then a sentence or two about the importance of your work. Write a couple of sentences down before you go in so that you keep on message.

I hope this big list of job interview questions will help you prepare for your post doc interview – or provide a starting point to think about how to apply for other kinds of academic interviews. Thanks so much for the list Larissa!

How what about you? Have you had an academic job interview, for a post doc, or some other kind of job? What questions did you get asked? Were there any unexpected ones? I’d love to hear about your experience of academic job interviews in the comments.

Related posts

What do academic employers want?

Academic on the inside?

I want to leave academia, what’s next?

Should you leave your PhD off your CV?

What is this anti-PhD attitude about?

Our research papers

“Academic superheroes: a critical analysis of academic job descriptions”

“A machine learning analysis of the demand for non academic  job opportunities for PhD graduates in Australia”.

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Who needs an editor? You.

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - April 17, 2019 - 4:00am

Karin Hosking is a Canberra-based editor and proofreader. She specialises in thesis editing and particularly enjoys working with students and academics from non-English speaking backgrounds. Her LinkedIn profile is here and she can be contacted via email at chezkaz@gmail.com. In this post Karin explains the basic work of an editor and what you can expect them to do for your dissertation.

I work as an editor and have felt a little overwhelmed by the number of language errors and typos I’ve spotted in books and on signs lately. There’s no need to be afraid of editors. Most of us are gentle, friendly souls who just want to help others communicate more effectively. Someone once described editors as ‘invisible menders’, and while not all editors are comfortable to remain in the shadows, the term describes my role quite well.

So, why do I have a bee in my bonnet?

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book from cover to cover without spotting any mistakes. Sometimes I notice inconsistencies (e.g. a word or character name written in two different ways, or with and without a hyphen), sometimes there are typos or transposed characters, or weird mixtures of past, present, future and conditional tenses.

Sometimes there are inconsistencies in the story or narrative. For example, my partner recently bought a book about the construction of a major rail line, and the text darted back and forth between saying it hadn’t been completed yet and saying it had. There had been multiple editions of the book, and it seems nobody checked whether material brought forward from previous editions was still grammatically correct. In another example, I read a book where the author appeared to have done a global ‘find and replace’ process where certain letter combinations occurred, resulting in absolute nonsense. Clearly no human eyes had read through the book between writing and publication.

I specialise in academic editing and most (though not all) of my clients come from non-English speaking backgrounds. There are specific rules about what professional editors may and may not do when editing theses; the Australian national guidelines are here and most universities impose similar rules. Essentially, I see my role as helping the candidate remove distractions (typos, inconsistencies, missing or repeated words, and strange punctuation) so their research shines through. In other (non-thesis) editing work I can be a bit more vigorous, perhaps rewriting or reorganising clumsily expressed passages. In any case, though, the author’s voice will still be there, just expressed more clearly or with fewer distractions.

Types of editing

– Substantive editing – concentrates on the content, structure, language and style of a document

– Copyediting – removes mistakes, inconsistencies, ambiguities and possible embarrassments from a document (most of my work tends to fall into this category)

– Proofreading – final checking and correction procedures before a document is signed off for publication.

Things a copyeditor might look out for

– Layout

– Punctuation

– Grammar and Syntax

– Forms of words (e.g. with or without spaces or hyphens)

– Capitalisation

– Spelling (in accordance with agreed version of English, or publication’s style requirements)

– Typos.

These types of errors are my bread and butter! You wouldn’t believe how often I see them …

affect/effect appraise/apprise asses/assess born/borne chaise longue/lounge complement/compliment dairy/diary discreet/discrete dual/duel elicit/illicit emigrate/immigrate extend/extent faze/phase flout/flaunt font/fount form/from forward/foreword its/it’s lead/led magnet/magnate metre/meter ordnance/ordinance pallet/palate/palette peak/peek pedal/peddle potable/portable principal/principle prostate/prostrate public/pubic rational/rationale ravish/ravage stationery/stationary team/teem there/their/they’re vial/vile waive/wave where/wear/we’re woman/women

… and of course, apostrophes in plurals. Oh, and scare quotes.

We copyeditors are famously detail-oriented … and this can be handy. One time I was editing a crime novel and noticed that a (male) dog introduced on page 178 had somehow morphed into a female dog by page 180. The author, concentrating on bigger aspects of the plot, hadn’t noticed. We had a good laugh about that!

How to get the most out of your editor

– Allow enough time for the task

– Factor editing into projects from the start, rather than as an afterthought

– Provide your editor with sufficient information to estimate how long the work is likely to take. If she asks for a sample chapter, she’s not ‘vetting’ you, she’s trying to work out how many hours your document will require

– Be clear about what you need … a quick check for typos, or more thorough grammar and fact checking? Keep in mind that there’s really no such thing as a ‘light’ edit – whether you have one error per page or one hundred, your editor will still need enough time to read every single word in every single sentence on every single page, to work out what changes to recommend

– If there are rules your document needs to follow, let the editor know. For example, does your university or publisher have a style sheet or guide? What version of English is required?

So … who needs an editor?

Anyone who publishes. Whether you’re writing a novel or a thesis, a journal paper or a restaurant menu, a museum sign or a sandwich board, it is a good idea to ask someone else to read through your material to check it makes sense and point out any embarrassing bloopers. It is also a good idea to use an actual editor rather than just a pedantic friend or relative. Qualified editors tend to have tools and checklists they can use to ensure fewer errors make it into print. We’re also remarkably good value. My hourly rate is about half as much as I pay my electrician or car mechanic, and about one-sixth what I pay my dentist!

Don’t think of editing as an additional expense. Think of it as an investment in making your book, thesis, report or website a pleasure to read.

Related posts

Explainer: how to prepare to be professionally edited

How to turn your PhD into a book (part one)

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Should you leave your PhD off your CV?

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - April 10, 2019 - 4:00am

A couple of weeks ago I shared some of the research I have been doing with my colleagues Associate Professor Hanna Suominen and Dr Will Grant about recruiter’s attitudes to PhD graduates.

I recommend you read the previous post on anti-PhD attitudes before this one, but briefly: our research concerns recruiters, who are important gate keepers in the non-academic employment process. A recruiter might be the first person to read your resume and most of them do not have PhDs. In fact, some have very little experience or knowledge of the PhD process. You need to account for this fact when you enter the non-academic employment market.

Model of professional skills required by non academic employers of researchers – from the research of Mewburn, Suominen and Grant (2018)

Recruiters are much more interested in your experience than your education and will not see the PhD as a reason to put you on a short list. While some recruiters see the PhD as clear evidence you are intelligent and dedicated, they might still actively exclude you from a short list on the grounds that the last PhD they hired did not turn out well. In my previous post I argued that a PhD positions you as a minority in the job market and you may face the kinds of discrimination that are routinely experienced by people of colour, older workers and those with disabilities.

After you read my previous post you might be tempted to leave your PhD off your CV altogether. Some people told me this strategy got them on the short list, but others said it made no difference. People who dropped the PhD had to account for the up to five year hole in their CV and usually did this by describing their PhD as a ‘large research project’ done inside the university. I think it’s important to bear in mind what I said in my previous post about what sort of activity counts as ‘work’ and how different experiences are valued. Recruiters think of the university as a very distinct kind of workplace and are often unconvinced that a PhD represents the right kind of experience.

If you want to minimise your status as a PhD holder, you don’t have to hide it completely; just move the education section further down so it’s not one of the first things recruiters read. As a research educator, it hurts my heart to think people have to actively hide their credentials and, to be honest, I’m not convinced it’s the right way to go. On the job market you still have many advantages over other people who do not have such highly developed skills in research and writing. The trick is to leverage the advantages of your PhD as best you can. Start by trying to understand what is going on in mind of the person reading your CV. Recognise and accept that some of the concerns recruiters and employers have are legitimate and make sure you address their concerns directly in your cover letter for the position.

Below I have listed some of the attitudes our research has uncovered and some ideas for how to counter these fears:

Employers are worried you can’t do the job that’s actually advertised

There’s a lot of talk about ‘transferable skills’, but I am not convinced there is such a thing. Take a deep breath and dwell for a moment with the idea that you have trained for a long time in a set of skills that are specific to academia and these skills – in their current form – might be of limited value outside of that context. Skills can’t directly be transferred, but they can be translated. You’ll need to demonstrate this translation has already occurred to any potential employer.

Writing is a good case in point. Just because you can write academic papers, or a 100,000 word dissertation, doesn’t mean you can do the kind of writing a non academic job requires. Recruiters know this and will not be impressed with the list of papers you sweated blood to produce. I have some sympathy with recruiters on this one. I recently advertised a job that did not require a PhD and people sent me CVs with reams of publications in areas like physics and biology. While I was impressed with the sheer number of papers, I did not ask for a research paper writer. I am well aware – as are most employers – that academic papers have very specific discipline conventions that may make them unreadable to the uninitiated. Looked at this way, a big list of research papers might make your considerable skills in writing look worse than they are!

Instead of a big list of publications, briefly tell your potential employer how many research papers you wrote and include a link to somewhere they can verify this information. Stop treating your CV as a kind of trophy cabinet and try to think about your writing skills from your potential employers point of view: what value add do your skills represent to them?

Have a look at the kind of writing on their website or publicly available company documents – and internal documents if you can get hold of them. Do you have evidence that you can do this kind of writing? If so, privilege this information over your list of research publications. If you can’t demonstrate you can write across genres, try unpacking the specialised PhD writing skill so your potential employer can understand how it applies to their needs. Don’t tell them you can do a literature review (a term not used outside of academia), explain that you are capable of ‘quickly distilling key information from a range of sources to inform others of the latest research developments’. Don’t tell them you can write compelling arguments, tell them you can use your writing skills ‘to influence key internal and external stakeholders’. Don’t tell them you can interpret data and develop theories, tell them you can ‘use evidence to explain a problem and convince others to take a specific course of action’.

I word of warning: don’t assume recruiters will  buy your attempts to repackage your skill set: it is always better to show than tell. If you are serious about working outside of academia, seek out opportunities to use your skills in other contexts. Finally and most importantly: remember every piece of writing you send to a potential employees is a demonstration of your expertise. If you can’t write a short, compelling email, format a word document or avoid egregious spelling mistakes, you are doing yourself damage from the very beginning. Your employer is going to read hundreds of emails from you, so start how you mean to go on.

Employers are worried that you will work too slowly

Speed is important in a business setting. Recently, a friend who works at one of the big four consulting firms complained over lunch that he had plenty of money to commission academic research, but that he was unable to find any academics who could deliver research within a reasonable timeframe. It turned out the academics he contacted proposed a 9 month research project, but he wanted it done in six weeks. I have sympathy for the academics in this case: if they had 6 weeks to do research and nothing else they probably could deliver. I explained to my friend that nine months is actually a pretty short turn around time considering how much teaching and other administrative work must be done. He was unimpressed: ‘speedy’ clearly means something different in academia than it does in business.

You’ll need to account for this different conception of speed in your communications with potential employers. Remember non-academics have no idea about what is normal in your discipline. If you wrote a lot of papers compared to others doing a PhD, tell them that you are ‘x% more productive’ than others in your field. If you completed your PhD without needing any extensions: congratulations! Tell the potential employer that only 20% of people manage this feat.

If it took more than three years to do your PhD full time, an employer might question your ability to get things done. This sucks for people who had terrible supervision or difficult experimental results that caused their projects to run over time. You’ll have to find a way to explain the situation without sounding bitter – no one wants to work with someone who blames other people for problems (even if it’s true). Trouble with finances is a good, neutral reason to explain longer time frames. Explain you had to go part time to support yourself and emphasise the time management skills you gained from juggling study and work.

Employers are worried you will be bored and run back to academia as soon as you have the chance.

Recruiters told us they were worried that PhD graduates would be a flight risk; liable to run back to the academy at the first opportunity. They know that some PhD graduates look at industry jobs as sloppy seconds. Now sit with this idea for a moment: are they entirely wrong?

You might tell yourself you are sick of academia – and there’s plenty not to like – but if that dream job came up, you applied and by some miracle got it … would you REALLY turn it down? If you can honestly answer yes, you are ready to leave. If not, you might need to see if you can follow your academic dream for a bit longer. Most recruiters are pretty good at their jobs and will sense if you are not committed to the idea of the ‘outside’.

You might be totally over academia, but convincing a non-academic employer – without sounding bitter – is easier said than done. I think the best strategy is to be honest and tell them why you applied for that job in particular. Be very specific: “I have done lots of interviews during my PhD and I’m interested in how these can be used to make products and services better”; “I prefer to work in teams and this job offers me opportunities that are not possible in academia” are both better answers than “there were no opportunities in academia for me”.

Employers think your expertise is too specialised

I did my PhD on hand gestures in architecture teaching. Clearly I don’t do anything like that now. A colleague of mine has a PhD in marsupial reproduction and is a now a really amazing business development manager. The idea that a PhD is destiny is a very outdated notion to us, but is it really? Let’s dwell with this idea for a moment and think about how the PhD process might force us to be too narrow.

Recruiters told me they prefer to see a masters degree on CVs as it suggests someone has research skills, but is not too specialised. There is some truth in this. I often talk to candidates in anthropology and social science who do not have any skills in quantitive analysis and are almost phobic of numbers. Likewise I talk to scientists who seem to lack basic skills in representing and talking about data, while displaying dazzling virtuosity in one specific, highly complex stochastic analysis types. The PhD does force you to specialise to the needs to your topic – which is ok if you are coming off an existing broad skill set, but many of us do not have this luxury.

During your PhD you could take short courses and broaden yourself out, but most people don’t even explore these options. I am no exception. I remember one of my PhD colleagues sweating over a course she took in statistics as an extra in her PhD, even though she didn’t need statistics for her topic. I thought this was a waste of time back then, now I think she was really smart. I struggled to learn statistics later because every job I’ve had in academia requires at least basic knowledge of how to process this kind of data. I often wish I took that stupid course with Paula.

Take a good look at your CV and ask yourself a hard question: are you too specialised? If so, do something about it – if you’re still inside the university, accessing extra courses is much cheaper than it will be when you finish. If not, what other jobs and experiences can you draw on to demonstrate a broader skill set? If every example of a skill set that you give an employer comes from your PhD, you make yourself look much more narrow than you are. You’ll need to think about how you are going to demonstrate important skills in team work too: our research shows this is one of the top priorities for employers. The PhD is the epitome of a solo pursuit, so you may not have anything you can point to in your university career that demonstrates teamwork, but what about before that?

All your work experience is potentially valid in the hiring process. When I went for my current job at ANU the interview panel asked me how I planned to be a manager when I listed no managerial experience on my resume. I realised I left out all the work I did managing both a book store and a record store (remember those?) in the 1990s when I took a break from study. I reached back into those experiences to explain to the panel the size of team I managed in those shops, the business processes I implemented when computers first appeared on site and the difficulties of managing employees who were dealing drugs under the counter… Jokingly I said “So if the police turn up, I’m your woman!”. The panel were much more interested in this experience than my PhD and to this day I wonder if those outrageous stories from retail are the real reason I got the job!

Employers think you will expect high wages

Most PhD students laugh out loud when I tell them this is a real employer fear. I’m sure you are more than ready to earn a proper salary. However, be careful not to over value yourself when you scan the available jobs. You are starting over in a new area and will need to go low and aim high. It’s a bit of a goldilocks dilemma though: too low and you look ‘over qualified’; too high and you look inexperienced. Judging by the discussions I’ve had with PhD graduates over the last couple of weeks, it can feel a bit ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’. If you go in too low, employers might think you will get bored.

I don’t know the way out of this catch-22 dilemma except to say that you’ll have to stick at it, perhaps longer than you would like. This is the time I should again highlight the value of doing some pro-bono work and networking. The idea of doing free work is to ‘get your feet wet’ and start to meet people who can speak for you being a bright spark who should be given a chance. For what it’s worth: this strategy has always worked for me. I have never once got a job by applying to a job advertisement ‘cold’. All my career success, as an architect and then an academic, has been the result of showing people what I am like to work with. People tend to love the way I work, so I have little trouble getting promoted internally, even if it’s a bit difficult getting my foot in the door – but this is a post for another time as I just hit triple my usual word limit… clearly I have a lot to say. Maybe it’s time to write that book!

I hope this post helps you start to think about positioning yourself and your CV. What do you think? Have you tried any of these techniques? Do you have any more advice to offer? Interested to hear about your experiences in the comments.

I have weaved in much that I learned from talking to PhD graduates on the blog, Facebook and Twitter into to my advice on hiding the PhD on your CV. I usually like to give direct credit for advice, but in this case I have chosen to leave off specific names because I don’t want to ‘out’ anyone for ‘devious’ behaviour. I sincerely appreciate these conversations: thank you. I am lucky the Thesis Whisperer is blessed with a highly intelligent and generous community!

Previous posts on our employability research

Academic on the inside

What do academic employers want?

I want to leave academia – what’s next?

What is this anti-PhD attitude all about?

Our research papers

“Academic superheroes: a critical analysis of academic job descriptions”

“A machine learning analysis of the demand for non academic  job opportunities for PhD graduates in Australia”.

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Lessons learned from an African PhD journey

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - April 3, 2019 - 4:00am

In Australia it is enrolment peak, with most PhD candidates starting before the end of March. I like to feature advice from students for other students. You are the ones most close to the experience, so advice from peers can be both relevant and useful. However, all the content on the Thesis Whisperer has been authored by candidates in Australia, Europe, the US and Canada – which gives it a definite Western bias. This is the first post from Africa and I hope there will be more in due course (please write in!). Pearl Osirike is studying for Her PhD in Ghana and shares her top tips.

Pearl is a Biochemist with interesting drug discovery and infectious diseases. She holds a first class degree as well as a masters degree from the University of Benin, Nigeria where she serves as an Assistant Lecturer. Currently, she is a first PhD student of Molecular and Cell Biology of Infectious Diseases at the West African Centre for Cell Biology and Infectious Pathogens, University of Ghana. Her research seeks to understand the mechanism of action of trypanocidal compounds. She is passionate about teaching and research with a flair for writing. She strives for excellence in everything she does and is excited about sharing her story to motivate and inspire others. Aside from her academic interests, she loves creativity and handcrafts, enjoys classical music and spending quality time with her family. You can connect with Pearl on her Blog , on Linkedin or Twitter as @gentlegirlie

I commenced my PhD programme in Molecular and Cell Biology of Infectious Diseases at the West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens (WACCBIP), the University of Ghana in August last year. WACCBIP is a world class research centre where young African researchers are groomed to be research leaders who would change the landscape of African research, and in fact, worldwide research in the nearest future. I enthusiastically bade my family, job and country farewell in pursuit of a dream. The African dream. My fairy tale story had only begun. The first few weeks were epic: I settled in quite well into the new environment, started meeting new people, began to understand the dynamics of the unique and stimulating place I found myself in. I quickly realized that the programme was a lot more intensive than I had anticipated. It has been several months down the line, and I could not have asked for a better opportunity! It has been one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. I have learnt so much; I have grown too. In this post, I share some life lessons gained in these few months. Ask the right questions All through my life, I grew up asking myself questions and silently finding answers to those questions without necessarily voicing them out. This might have been because of my naturally introverted tendencies or perhaps I grew up in a culture where asking questions was not particularly encouraged. In the past months, I have come to understand the importance of asking questions – and asking them out. In reality, there are no silly questions. However, there is a difference between an interesting question and an important one. The desire to answer questions drives every research – important questions to be more specific that provide answers to complex life problems. Ghanaians have a popular saying: “knowledge is not in the head of one person”. The more we ask questions, the more knowledgeable we become, and the richer our lives would get. Be open As Africans, you would agree with me that being open is not particularly one of our strengths. People tend to jealously conceal their ideas because they fear it could be “stolen” from them. Contrary to this belief, I find that openly discussing my thoughts help me realize how dumb or intelligent they are and crystallizes these ideas. I also receive constructive feedback by doing so. In this day and time, we cannot afford to be like the tortoise in the childhood folklore who in a bid to hoard his wisdom fell off a tree and cracked his shell. WACCBIP encourages us to discuss our ideas openly. These days, I am better able to share my opinions and my needs: It is a lot easier to get help from others if they understand how they can be of help. Also, I used to be a sponge when it comes to ideas – I read scientific papers, books, whatever just to glean knowledge out of it. I selectively took out what I found useful and discarded information I considered to be irrelevant. Now, I take everything with a pinch of salt: I called that “healthy skepticism”. I critically evaluate every information and make an informed decision on what my position is on the subject and how I can improve existing knowledge. Every opportunity is the right opportunity My experiences at WACCBIP have taught me that there are no “perfect opportunities” – every opportunity is just right. WACCBIP is blessed to have a rich network of international collaborators, who frequently visit, providing us with immense possibilities. I find that the most fruitful conversations with these people were during seemingly awkward times. To be successful in life, “you need to be sharp” as one of my lecturers is fond of saying. In essence, every opportunity you have is what you make out of it. The power of community At WACCBIP, we are not random researchers doing science instead we are a community – a formidable force. Everyone has a strong sense of belonging and responsibility. We are one big family made up of different people from different backgrounds with different strengths all pulling together their uniqueness in beautiful harmony. The centre has achieved all it has in such a short time because of its unity. If we are ever going to do anything epic in life as humans, we need to be united, and I have seen this at play. We must identify our strengths and leverage on it to add value to those around us. You are extraordinary As an African scientist, I have seen excellent examples of exceptional people who have achieved greatness despite their humble beginnings and against all the odds. This is a massive motivation for me. It makes me realize that my dreams are possible, and I can achieve anything I set my mind to be without any limitations. I have also seen incredible women excelling in every facet of life and these sparks up unquenchable fires in me. If they can, so can I – and so can you! Clarity I have always known about the importance of being clear about what one desires out of life but being at WACCBIP has made me better appreciate that. Before the commencement of any research here, one is expected to have an unambiguous picture of the task ahead: What research questions are you asking? What is your approach to answering these questions? When you get your answers, how do you deduce meaning out of it? How innovative would the answers you get be? What do you need to get an answer to your question and how long would it take you to do so? These are basic. The tune of your research would evolve as you commence but then you need to be on top of your game even before you start. I cannot help but notice how critical this approach is to solving real – life problems. You must always have a clear-cut plan for tackling any obstacle on your way. You should have a sense of direction because if you do not have a destination, you would never arrive. Have fun Work is just like air – it fills every space available to it. It is tempting to be so carried away with studies that my life becomes very triangular (class–home–church). In reality, this reduces productivity and heightens boredom. Thankfully, WACCBIP is a place where people work hard and play hard. We understand that achieving a work-life balance is essential. Writing on my blog is one of many other things I do for fun. Aside from the great joy I derive whenever I get the opportunity to put my thoughts together in one piece, it also helps me to express myself better and to improve on my writing skill which is invaluable for my research career. Celebrate small wins The workload is vast, so I have learnt to break down enormous tasks into smaller, chewable sizes for effectiveness and celebrate each small victory along the way. If I fail to do this, I get overwhelmed by the thought of the enormous task ahead, and I am barely productive. The environment at WACCBIP is very competitive. Everyone produces immense value – nothing short is expected. I find that each little victory gives me the strength to push on when the going gets tough. I initially set out to share only five lessons – I could not help but include an extra three. I hope to share more experiences as time goes on and events unfold. In the meantime, I hope you can learn some lessons from these and I would be glad to know which of these you find the most insightful. Thanks Pearl! How about you? Any further insights to offer our beginning students? Related Posts Advice for Newbies Be the Mouse 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!

What does academic work look like?

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - March 27, 2019 - 4:00am

As you probably know, in addition to being director of research training and blogging, I am an active researcher in the area of research education, particularly post PhD employability. Occasionally I like to colour outside the lines by dabbling in related fields of study. One area that interests me is the nature and extent of academic work – particularly over work. There is an appalling – and mystifying lack of research – on academic work hours, especially considering Academia is a huge, globalised industry employing hundreds of thousands of people worldwide and bringing in uncounted millions in revenue for governments and private providers.

There’s an old saying that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. To my knowledge, there is no recent time and motion study of academics so we really have no idea how many hours they work. Work planning for academics usually starts with an estimate of how they will spend their time to meet expectations, which is then negotiated with employers, with or without the help of a Union. I say this with love, but academics tend to be optimistic time managers who just work over time to accommodate their unrealistic promises.

Most academics I know work at least one day on the weekend and will answer emails at all hours. We do this because we love our work, which makes us very easy to exploit. Workplace exploitation has real consequences. I’ve been feeling compelled to do something in this area since I heard the sad story of Dr Malcolm Andersen. Dr Andersen’s story, and the grief of his family at losing him, really affected me. I stopped seeing this lack of research around academic labour as a curious oversight, and started seeing it as a matter of life and death that I wanted to do something about.

I started by writing a few thought pieces about it. I have a regular column in the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) newsletter The Advocate for about seven years now (it’s a great place to publish my most extreme political rants so that you don’t have to put up with it on the Whisperer!). I wrote a column about Malcolm Andersen here and I wrote about my own struggles with time ‘management’ here, where I declared my intention of using the app Timing to measure my own work hour and compare it to the expectations stated in my annual performance review. Late last year I reported back in The Advocate on that self experiment in an article called ‘Chewing on the FAT’. This post consists of an analysis of the data I had collected, which showed how much paid – and unpaid – time I was actually spending at work. Here’s a long quote from the article which has some of the results of my analysis:

Approximately 37.9 hours a week (2.9 hours more than I am paid for) were spent on ANU work. The rest was dedicated to my own projects, such as blogging. Due to the nature of my role, which is not a conventional faculty position, my work allocation is 50% teaching, 30% service and 20% research. Looking at my graphs, I am adhering to one part of this work plan directive: just over half my time is spent either in the classroom, or doing related tasks like preparing teaching and preparing reports. 

What is more interesting is the amount of ‘invisible work’ that I do to achieve this goal of 50% teaching – on the pie graph above it’s in purple (communication) and pink (administrative work, like filling in forms). Invisible work is a term coined by Anselm Strauss and Susan Leigh Star to describe forms of work that are not usually recognised AS work. It’s what my friend Ben Kraal calls “the work you do to do the work you do”. Teaching doesn’t just happen: teaching rooms must be booked, equipment needs to be working, tutors need briefings, guest lectures must be co-ordinated and administration systems negotiated so that marks can be sent to students. All this can be considered invisible work.

Although they might not name it as such, academics complain about invisible work a lot – for good reason. This work is rarely, if ever, measured, and so slips away from management view. My analysis shows that every individual email seems like a tiny spoonful of work, but clearing my inbox everyday takes more than 10% of my total time (some academics I know just ignore their overflowing inbox, but the nature of my role means this is not an option for me). Added up, the data show that for every substantive task I must add a 30% overhead of FAT (‘F*^k around time’). To avoid working overtime, I must squeeze other parts of my work to make room for the FAT. I can see the results in my service work, down to 5%, and my research time, currently sitting at 11% (half the time I am allocated). 

This invisible work is, I believe, the main reason academics complain about being ‘busy’ all the time. Tasks like email, meetings, attending to budgets and other administration work eats into the time academics have for other, arguably more important, tasks like teaching and research. PhD students directly feel the effects of this busyness. I suspect many of the complaints I field from students in my everyday work is the result of invisible work cutting into the time a supervisor would otherwise spend mentoring and talking about things related to the research work. The problem of invisible work is even more crucial for contingent faculty who are paid by the hour. An hourly rate of $42 for tutoring sounds ok, unless you factor in the three hours you might spend preparing and answering email. When I was a by the hour tutor I once worked out that I earned less per hour than I did working in retail.

We need further data so that we can see the nature and extent of the problem of academic invisible work more clearly. At the end of the article on Chewing the FAT I flippantly suggested that I had 11% of my time to do a project studying academic overwork, if the NTEU wanted to fund it. I’m grateful that Dr Karine Dupre, an academic in the field of architecture at Griffith university, who read the article and took me up on the dare. We started designing a study, starting with the idea of providing a group of academics with the Timing app to see if we could replicate my diary study at a bigger scale. Karine negotiated a small research grant from the Griffith branch of the NTEU and approached the developer of the Timing app for a discounted rate on the product, so we could enrol more people in the study. I then recruited my friend Dr Susan Mayson from Monash University. Sue is an expert on employment relations and human resource management and has subject matter expertise that Karine and I do not.

Setting up a study like this forces you to ask interesting questions, some of which sound quite basic, like: what exactly do academics do all day? For those of you not in the know, the usual way that universities try to divide up academic work is into three categories: ‘learning and teaching’, ‘research and the fuzzy’, catch all term of ‘service’. We think there is an emerging category of other, which we have added at the end of our list. This list provides a bit of food for thought in terms of what else might be going on your supervisor’s life:

Learning & Teaching

  • course delivery (face-to-face)
  • preparation
  • marking
  • administration
  • people management (tutors)
  • thinking and reflecting
  • travel (e.g. for class delivery/meetings)

Research

  • PhD student meetings
  • PhD reading and reviewing student work
  • PhD administration (e.g. milestones review, assessor finding)
  • Project doing (analysis, data gathering etc)
  • Project meeting
  • Project administration
  • Project/grant writing
  • writing (articles, books etc)
  • Article follow-up (e.g. revision, media)
  • Management (e.g. steering committee)
  • Thinking and reflecting
  • Conference and workshops (organisation and/or attendance)
  • Travel (to conference, etc.)
  • Learning new skills

Service

  • Reviewing (academic articles, textbook, NTEU documents, etc.)
  • Committees (LT, R, Equity, Health & Safety, etc.)
  • Faculty/Discipline/School/University meetings
  • Leadership activities (Program Director, HDR convenor, etc.)
  • External & professional engagement/leadership
  • Mentoring
  • Thinking and reflecting

Other Activities

  • Email
  • Blogging
  • Mainstream media engagement
  • Online engagement/social media

Reflecting on this list is a little bit exhausting! I’m writing about the work here as we are now recruiting for the study and I know that a lot of working academics read the blog and might want to be involved. Some students might even want to send this post to their very busy supervisor! We only have a small amount of funding and time, so we would like to start with looking at the work of academics working in the Australian system at level C (senior lecturer) or level D (associate professor) – and only Mac users at this stage, as Timing is not available on the PC (sorry!). Our hunch is that these people, as ‘middle managers’ are likely to be burdened with the most amount of invisible work. Of course, eventually we would like to broaden our enquiry to contingent workers and others to get a better sense of extent of the problems, but maybe next year. I only have 11% of my time to spend!

If you’re interested in taking part in our study, here is the link for the expression of interest.

What do you think of our list? Have we missed anything? Do you have other suggestions for what a diary study might encompass? Love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

 

 

 

Mind the Gap

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - March 20, 2019 - 4:00am

Confused about this ‘gap’ in the literature that you are meant to find? This post is by Associate Professor Martin Davies; Principal Fellow in Higher Education in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education and a Senior Learning Advisor working with HDRs and staff at Federation University. He has written six books, including Study Skills for International Postgraduate Students(2011) and (with Ronald Barnett) Palgrave Handbook of Critical Thinking in Higher Education(2015). He completed double doctorates in Philosophy in 2002 and 1996. You can find out more about Martin on his website. You can read a review of one of Martin’s books here or read a previous post on doing a second PhD

What distinguishes a PhD from an airport novel, a corporate annual report, a parliamentary submission, a comic, or a racy Mills and Boon romance novel? They are all writing genres, but they are all very different. The defining requirement of a PhD is finding, articulating, and filling a research gap (hereafter, The Gap). Without this, the purported thesis is a mere collection of words discussing a topic. And this is never enough for a PhD.

But how does The Gap fit into your overall thesis? What is its job? How does it relate to the thesis outline, the introduction, body and other key thesis components? Importantly, how do you find one? These questions are seldom answered to the satisfaction of newbie PhD students.

Finding, articulating and filling “The Gap” is critical to thesis writing and marks it as a distinct writing genre. You can get to The Gap by thinking of the process as a series of narrowing “conversations”:

  • The general area is a particular conversation among academics in the field of study
  • The specific area is your focus on a particular part of the bigger conversation (a sub-set of the larger conversation)
  • The Gap is what you notice needs to be said in the conversation that has not been said before or that needs addressing in more detail
  • The research question/hypothesis/aim asks something to address The Gap in the conversation
  • The thesis statement is your proposed answer to this question posed to address The Gap in the conversation (or tentativeanswer if you are at Research Proposal stage).
  • To this we can add a ThesisOutline: a courtesy statement or statements to the reader of where your thesis is going and the shape and structure it is going to take. (You owe them this if they are going to plough through 80-100,000 words for you.)

All this can be viewed as an increasingly narrowing triangle moving from the general topic to the specific issue, thence to The Gap, as illustrated in the diagram below: 

A common question might be how “The Gap” relates to the Literature Review of the thesis. Your literature review has to be effectively in two parts:

    • The first part—the Introduction—provides sufficient reviewing of the literature to establish that The Gap is significant and worth investigating (otherwise they won’t read further). I call this the “Hook literature”.
    • The second part—the Literature Review proper—elaborates on the literature to further expose The Gap addressed in the Introduction. This expands on the Hook literature in much more detail (i.e., at chapter length).

Here’s a good example of the “Gap” in context. The gap is highlighted in bold and is followed by the thesis outline sentence and the thesis statement sentence (these appear in reverse order):

Prior research draws on the diffusion of innovation framework to explain organizations’ innovation and innovation-related behaviour (see for instance, Rogers, 1983; 1995). This framework has received widespread validation using different types of innovations, and is referred to as the traditional framework of innovation diffusion (Gallivan, 2001).  Attewell (1992) and Gallivan (2001) criticize the diffusion of innovation theory, arguing that it does not explain the pattern of the actual use of complex technology. This is because the main focus of this traditional framework is on factors which lead to the adoption of IT. Moreover, Attewell (1992) emphasizes the role of organizational learning and knowledge discovery to successfully implement and use complex technology. A few studies have recently begun to incorporate Attewell’s suggestion to investigate IT assimilation as an organizational learning process (see, for instance, Fichman and Kemerer 1997; Boynton et al. 1994; Armstrong and Sambamurthy 1999). These studies draw mainly on Absorptive Capacity Theory.However, there are three main problems with these studies(1)They fail to meet oneof the main conditions of the absorptive capacity theory, that is the intensity of effort(2)They use a static perspective on organizational knowledge. Such an approach is criticized in the knowledge management literature (Nonaka 1994; Cook and Brown 1999). (3)They provide inconclusive evidence about the role of the top management team on IT assimilation. (OUTLINE) These three problems will be discussed in detail in the next section.This study will overcome these problems by explicitly considering knowledge creation mechanisms. It will be argued that knowledge creation mechanisms will allow for a real test of the absorptive capacity theory. These mechanisms will enable the dynamic process of organizational knowledge to be captured, and to clarify the role of the top management team in the organizational IT assimilation journey. (THESIS STATEMENT) The remainder of this thesis is organized as follows. Section two discusses the motivation for the study. Section three discusses the theory development and research model. Section four develops the hypotheses. Section five describes the research method, sample, operationalisation of the constructs and measurement of the variables, and data analysis strategy.

 

Naturally, the hardest part of thesis writing is finding The Gap. It can take years! Fortunately, some tricks and techniques can help.

One is the Tracing a Path technique. On a piece of A3 paper draw a series of boxes. Each box contains name(s) from the scholarly literature, e.g., Jones and Harris (2013); Jamerson (2012); Fredrickson (1999), and so on. Once you are done draw a considered red line through the boxes, as in the image below:

If your considered red line goes through the middle of one of the boxes, you are heavily drawing on that literature for your thesis. If it scrapes the edge of a box you are marginally focussing on it. If it bypasses a box entirely it is not central to your interests. Then group the literature. Discard the literature that is not relevant to what you are doing. Now work backwards to find what The Gaps are in the literature you have assembled. Choose one that is academically interesting. Repeat as often as required, and as your reading becomes more focussed.

Another approach is the Venn Diagram technique. Plot your interests as a series of concentric intersecting circles as show below. The circles ideally represent narrowly-focussed areas of study (not broad fields like “Education”). Keep doing this until you know where you project intersects with the literature on the various areas indicated by each circle. Use as many circles as you need. (I owe these examples to Natalie Bowker from Massey University.) You should be able to put a cross where you are working, and this will form the major literature for your thesis, and the focus for your Gap-finding activities. See the diagram below:

Another technique is the Page 98 Paper technique (so described as it is on this page of Rowena Murray’s 2002 book: How to Write a Thesis).  The idea here to write a cryptic one-pager encompassing all of the following elements

  1. The general topic is … (25 words)
  2. My research question is … (50 words)
  3. Researchers who have looked at this subject are … (50 words)
  4. They argue that … (25 words)
  5. Smith argues that … (25 words)
  6. Brown argues that … (25 words)
  7. Debates centre on the issue of … (25 words)
  8. There is still work to be done on …(25 words)
  9. My research is closest to that of X in that … (50 words)
  10. My contribution will be that … (50 words)

The Gap is [8] of course, but this can’t be understood independently of surrounding context. The strategy of the Page 98 Paper is that colleagues, supervisors and significant others are more likely to read a thesis in miniature than a weighty chuck of a chapter. But it is also useful for Gap-finding as it forces you to find one.

The Table of Contents Technique requires a bit of positive imagery. (It’s best tried with a glass of your favourite tipple.)

Imagine a few years from now when your thesis is done and dusted. (You can be early in the first year of your candidature for this technique to work as long as you have done a bit of reading.) Now imagine your thesis has been through the examination process. You did well. The reports are outstanding. Now, imagine how the Table of Contents looks on this fine piece of work.Write it down just as you imagine itcomplete with major parts, sections and sub-sections (include sub-sub-sections if you like—within reason).

Now work backwards and establish where The Gap is amongst all the assembled headings and sub-headings in this highly structured masterpiece of scholarship. There must be one or it would not hang together! Do this as often as required, and at minimum every six months or so while you are writing your thesis. (I established my final Table of Contents on the island of Crete whilst on a doctoral travelling junket. I took a dip in the Med just to celebrate.)

Variation: Write down all your headings and sub-headings on small cards. Shuffle the cards. Now, put the cards in a natural order as though you were explaining their arrangement to an uninformed friend. What’s The Gap you are filling? Again, there must be one for this order to make sense.

Thanks for your hard won insights Martin (there’s not many people with two PhDs – for good reason!). How about you – was the process of finding the Gap confusing? Does it still elude you? Interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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What is this ‘anti-PhD’ attitude about?

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - March 13, 2019 - 4:00am

Lately, more and more students want a non-academic job when they finish their PhD. Anecdotally, some graduates seem to be experiencing the PhD as a barrier to employment, not an enabler. In fact, I’ve heard so much negative talk about how employers react to PhD holders over the years that it seemed important to start looking at this phenomenon more closely. We’ve just started doing some work, interviewing recruiters and hiring managers, and I thought I would share some (very preliminary) research findings with you.

In case you don’t know, I’m actually an academic and for 10% of my time each week I study, well – research. Since 2014 I’ve been researching post PhD employability exclusively because I think it’s an important, but under-researched, problem. In 2014 I started working with my friend Dr Rachael Pitt (@thefellowette on Twitter) on academic employment. Rachael noticed that academic job ads asked for a ridiculous number of skills. We simply collected a bunch of academic job ads and coded them to find out what academic employers seemed to be looking for when hiring a PhD graduate. This research resulted in a paper called “Academic superheroes: a critical analysis of academic job descriptions”, part of which I shared on the blog here.

(Please do not confuse this paper with the recent book called ‘How to be an academic superhero’, which I won’t link to because I think it’s bad. This author read and quoted our research, but clearly didn’t really understand it, so his book mostly reinforces old fashioned, unhelpful ideas like ‘publish or perish’. If you want a good book on the topic of finding and securing an academic job, I recommend The Professor is In).

The obvious next step was to do a similar analysis of non-academic jobs, but we had to find them first. If you type in ‘PhD’ to a database like Seek.com, you’ll see pages and pages of academic jobs and precious little else. To solve this problem, I worked with my ANU colleagues Dr Will Grant and Associate Professor Hanna Suominen. We used machine learning (specifically natural language processing) to design an algorithm that was capable of ‘reading’ millions of job ads to find ads that were suggestive of PhD level research skills, but did not explicitly ask for a PhD. If you’re interested in reading more about this work, it’s documented in our paper “A machine learning analysis of the demand for non academic  job opportunities for PhD graduates in Australia”.

As it turns out, our analysis showed that 80% of Australian employers looking to hire someone with high-level research skills do not ask for a PhD. This fact is, in itself, is an important finding. If most employers don’t think that putting ‘PhD’ in a job ad is a good way to attract the best candidates to apply for research jobs, what do they think is important? We set about asking recruiters and hiring managers this question.

Recruiters and HR professional are important gatekeepers in the employment process; either doing the shortlisting or producing the ‘long list’ from which the shortlist is formed. As it turned out, getting these interviews was hard: harder than doing machine learning in some ways. Recruiters are busy people; difficult to reach and seemingly reluctant to give their precious time to researchers asking about their practice. We tried to place some 80 calls, but only eight so far have agreed to a phone interview, but what I found out during these conversations was fascinating.

Recruiters are looking for evidence you can do the job advertised. My participants told me repeatedly that experience was highly valued, over and above qualifications. Qualifications were regarded with suspicion, and the PhD was no exception. Just because you can demonstrate you have learned something, doesn’t mean you can do it well in practice. Recruiters told me that lack of experience was the primary reason why PhD graduates are often passed over in the shortlisting process, despite having plenty of evidence they can run a research project from start to finish. Since I see the PhD as a clear demonstration of work experience in doing research, I found this attitude mystifying, until I started to realise that what counts as experience depends on the way ‘work’ is understood.

I started to tune in on the words and phrases recruiters use to describe their understanding of the PhD and academia. A discourse analysis revealed that these recruiters saw academia not as a workplace, but as another ‘world’, almost completely separate from the commercial workforce (one even said academia is ‘another planet’ and academics as ‘aliens’). If these important gatekeepers don’t see the university as a workplace, they will not tend to see PhD as work. Alternatively, they will position the PhD as work that happened under such different conditions that it just doesn’t count as ‘actual experience’.

My social science training cautioned me to take a deep breath and not get outraged. I’ve been taught to take my research participants at their word, not assume they are labouring under a ‘false consciousness’ about their actions. I must assume my participants are telling me the truth, from their perspective, which enables me to ask a more important question: why might some recruiters form the opinion that academia is not a ‘real workplace’?

My friend @nontweetingnigel once told me that his PhD was ‘a job no one else would pay me to do” and I think he’s right. Work conditions in academia value inquiry and creation of new knowledge, so we take on the most difficult questions and problems. The aim of academic research is to answer questions, but we also value your ability to find more questions. We tend to be pretty relaxed about how long that process takes. By contrast, most non-academic employers value utility over novelty and depth. In my discussions with employers, employer groups and my latest discussions with recruiters most have told me they want the answers to questions – and relatively quickly. Projects are likely to be carried out under significant time constraints, closing out further questions as much as possible. Unlike academia, commercial reports are designed to be read by people in a hurry and tend to be short (never 100,000 words long!). Thus, viewed from the commercial side of the fence, academic research, with its long project timelines and documents, must appear more leisurely and less task focussed than research carried out for profit. We don’t experience it that way, but what is at stake here is not our perception of reality – it’s theirs.

This is a satisfying analysis, but I don’t think this is the whole explanation for anti-PhD sentiment. I got several comments along the lines that PhD graduates were ” a bit peculiar” and tried to probe this attitude more closely. One recruiter told me he used to routinely put CVs with PhDs into a shortlists at the start of his career but now is more circumspect. He noticed that some hiring managers would immediately throw resumes with a PhD on them out, or force him into into into arguing the case to hire the PhD candidate (from his point of view, a waste of time). He has now developed a “sense for when the hiring manager is open-minded” and will choose whether or not to present a PhD graduate not on fitness for purpose, but on the attitude of the hiring manager. I asked why he thought that hiring managers might become ‘anti-PhD’ on principle, and he used words to the effect that “hiring managers only have to experience one difficult PhD graduate and they never want another one”.

On the face to it, automatically assuming someone is going to be ‘difficult’ because they have a PhD seems fundamentally unfair. PhD graduates are people, and people should be treated as people – right? Sadly, in the employment process, people are often not treated as people but as representatives of a ‘type’. So what sort of ‘type’ is the PhD graduate? I’d suggest, in the popular imagination, The PhD graduate is someone like Sheldon Cooper on the Big Bang Theory: intelligent, but odd with difficulties fitting in socially. Of course, most of us are not at all like Sheldon Cooper, but many people do not encounter PhD graduates in their everyday life – at least not enough to counter the effects of this stereotype. It’s easy to forget when you are surrounded by Doctors all day that comparatively few people graduate from the degree each year and make up a vanishingly small proportion of the population. PhD graduates are therefore representatives of a minority group and are facing the ordinary problems minorities face when trying to enter areas of the workforce where they are under-represented.

I suspect what is going on here is similar to how racism, ageism and ableism distort the hiring process: discrimination. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest your name and gender will affect whether your CV finds its way to the top of the pile – it seems the PhD, in some circumstances, has a similar effect. The PhD marks you out as special and different, but sometimes being special and different is not to your advantage.

How can we counter this discrimination? I’m not sure. I am planning another post on how people ‘hide’ their PhD in the application paperwork, but for now, I’m interested in your thoughts and experiences. Have you experienced ani-PhD sentiment when attempting to find a job, or just in everyday life? If you want a non-academic job, what do you think you can do to counter this stereotyping in the way you present yourself in your CV and resume?

Related posts on Thesis Whisperer

What do academic employers want?

I want to leave academia, what’s next?

Academic on the Inside?

Elsewhere

Here’s why you didn’t get that job – your name

“Academic superheroes: a critical analysis of academic job descriptions”

“A machine learning analysis of the demand for non academic  job opportunities for PhD graduates in Australia”

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What nobody tells you about ‘minor corrections’

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - March 6, 2019 - 4:00am

Have you ever wondered what happens after the examiners give you feedback on your dissertation? In the UK and many other countries, this feedback is given in an oral presentation called the Viva. The viva is becoming more common in Australia, but most people will still get a written report from the examiners. It is your job to make changes based on this feedback, in consultation with your supervisors. It sounds simple, but in reality, making changes to a complete piece of work can be tricky.

This post is by Dr Mary Frank, who holds a PhD in Translation Studies from the University of Bristol, England. Her practice-based research investigated the interplay of translation theory and translation practice and led to three different translations of collection of satirical stories written in the German Democratic Republic in the 1960s. Her research interests are literary translation, the translation of literature from the GDR and prismatic translation (multiple translations of one text). https://www.linkedin.com/in/mary-frank-0b27619/

Photo by @anniespratt on Unsplash

In the UK system, the majority of PhD students pass their viva ‘with minor corrections’. Your examiners present you with a list of corrections, you go away and implement them. Easy, yes? Well, no, not necessarily.

If you’re lucky, corrections are simply typos, formatting issues etc. So far, so good. Any thesis will inevitably contain some of those, and you’d definitely want to correct them before submitting the final version. Corrections of that nature can legitimately be considered ‘minor’. But corrections of that kind are only a small part of the story. Much more problematic, in my experience, are corrections that, although still considered ‘minor’, involve re-thinking and re-writing. Nobody warns you that you’ll need to re-gather your energy and brainpower to tackle them. That, for me, turned into a struggle for which I was completely unprepared.

Let’s be clear: getting through your viva ‘with minor corrections’ is a great achievement. Your work is definitely of the required standard, but there are still tweaks to be made, perhaps to make connections clearer or to fine-tune an explanation. After all, you and your supervisors have become so close to your work that you may not realise that a particular point is not entirely clear to somebody reading it for the first time. This means that ‘minor’ corrections are entirely legitimate, and indeed should be welcomed as contributing to the quality of your final thesis. So why, when my examiners reeled off their list, did making those corrections seem like another huge mountain to climb? After all, it was the most likely outcome of the viva, so it wasn’t a surprise.

The problem, I think, was that after six years of researching and writing, and (for reasons beyond my control) a long and anxious wait for the viva, I had simply burned out. I had nothing left to give. While my supervisors cracked open a bottle of bubbly after the viva and people started gathering to congratulate me, I found it hard to celebrate. My brain felt completely drained, yet I knew that I somehow had to address those corrections before I could pass the finishing post. To my examiners and supervisors, those corrections were indeed ‘minor’, but to me they seemed bewildering and daunting.

“Do the minimum necessary,” my supervisors advised. For the first few days, all I could do was stare at my thesis. It was if it was carved in stone. It was only painfully slowly that my energy and brainpower returned and I felt able to tackle the typos, the easiest of the corrections. Once that barrier had been broken, the corrections that involved re-thinking and re-writing followed. In the end, I wrote three additional paragraphs at various points in the thesis and expanded my illustrations of an argument at another. Not, after all, a big deal.

Given that there is so little advice around on how to deal with ‘minor’ corrections, perhaps I’m unusual in having experienced this response. Or perhaps people like supervisors, having come out the other side, quickly forget what it’s like to have to re-visit your thesis at the very point when you may have nothing left to give. In case it helps others to avoid a crisis, here’s my advice:

  • Although the viva is the key milestone in your PhD journey, try to bear in mind that it may not be the final one. In the UK and similar systems, you may well need to make corrections, so be sure to preserve some energy.
  • When tackling corrections, it’s helpful to distance yourself from your thesis. Imagine yourself as an editor looking critically at somebody else’s work. That way, you’ll find it easier to break through that barrier of being unable to see how anything could be changed.

Thanks Mary! Are you tackling corrections now, or have you completed the ones asked of you? So you have any advice to offer?

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Bold requests

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - February 20, 2019 - 4:00am

Do you have trouble asking for what you really want? This post is by Brittany Amell and Lisa Armstrong, who are both PhD students in the School of Linguistics and Language Studies at Carleton University, Canada.

Brittany’s research interests include the research, theory and pedagogy of teaching writing (particularly doctoral writing), and how these areas intersect with and take up calls for a more inclusive academy. Her PhD research currently focuses on the writing that she and other doctoral students do for their degrees. Britt tweets from @balloonleap .Lisa’s research is in how language normalizes sexual harassment, especially in the hospitality industry. She is currently working on a critical analysis of sexual harassment policy in Canada. You can follow her on Twitter @AcademicLisa or on LinkedIn

What was your last “bold request”? 

We are PhD students in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada who began our MA theses together in 2015. Both first-in-our-family graduate students, and lovers of learning, we were motivated to make the most of our experiences as graduate students. One way that we’ve attempted this is through “bold requests”. Here, we explain what a bold request is, what might stop one from making a bold request, and some examples of the bold requests we’ve made (and what happened).

What a bold request is

Neither of us can remember exactly how “bold requests” came about, but at some point, we came up with the name and the general idea that we should be bold and ask for things we want—things that may be outside our comfort zones. We both realised the luxury and privilege we had to be in the position of novice researchers. Graduate school is a bit like playing in the sandbox on a huge playground for us. Sometimes it’s a bit rough and tumble, and you encounter bullies (among other obstacles), but there is also a sort of freedom to graduate school. If we don’t dream big now, we mused, when will we?

Sometimes the requests result in us getting what we want (what we really really want), and sometimes they do not. However, although they entail action, bold requests are more than that—they are an ethos. Bold requests have helped us to shift our thinking from “we could never do that” to “let’s try it and see what happens.” They’re like an antidote—or perhaps a multivitamin—for imposter syndrome.

It is all too easy as a graduate student to isolate yourself and quietly despair that you’re not good enough, not smart enough, can’t write well enough, etc. Bold requests can make you feel accomplished and proactive. Additionally, it’s also useful to practice bold requests with other PhD friends. When we make bold requests, we can’t wait to tell each other. We celebrate that request, no matter the outcome. The social aspect of bold requests is one of its key advantages; we could certainly make bold requests alone, but it’s more fun to share. Planning and chatting about bold requests fosters a sense of community and makes us feel we’re not alone in our struggles—one of our core goals as feminist student researchers.

Some examples of the bold requests we’ve made (and what happened)

We’ve both boldly requested scholarships, awards, meetings (we even boldly requested to publish a blog post on the Thesis Whisperer, a site we both admire). Britt co-edited a special issue for a national journal as the result of a bold request. We both have emailed academic rock stars (gasp!). And they’ve responded (double gasp!). Lisa emailed her academic idol, Deborah Cameron (the feminist linguist) to ask if she could work with her at Oxford. Professor Cameron said no (kindly) but offered some advice about Lisa’s research, and some ideas about who she might work with in future. Wow! Rather than being disappointed with her response, Lisa was proud for trying. That’s the thing about bold requests: even when you don’t get what you want, just the act of requesting is empowering somehow.

We’ve won awards, grants, and jobs; met big names in our fields; and created relationships with mentors and colleagues that we had not dreamt would be possible so early in our academic career. The key is in the practice of putting oneself forward. For anyone who has ever questioned their worth, engaging in a bold request is a big deal because it sends the message to ourselves that we matter enough to ask for what we want. Of course, it follows that not all requests will be granted—but some will! All we can say is that bold requests as an ethos has worked for us.

What stops people making bold requests?

So, perhaps by now you are ready to sprinkle the seeds of bold requests far and wide and see what springs up. But, like everything, there are a few caveats that would be remiss of us not to mention.

The first is not to bold request yourself right into a burnout. As you may have gleaned from our stories, bold requests can be simultaneously exciting and nerve-wracking, and we tend to choose our requests carefully in order to minimise stress.

Second, don’t be a stalker. While we’ve never had any request-ee respond negatively to us, we also don’t advocate pushiness. We find that generally, the golden rule applies: treat others as you would like to be treated.

Finally, we acknowledge that idea of bold requests comes across as very ‘neoliberal’. It in some ways implies that we suddenly make everything new and shiny in the dreary world of times to completion and increasing pressures to amp up our productivity. Equally, it implies that one merely need to find a way to play the game but don’t change it, as well as well as patriarchal (“just put on your best face”) and white privilege-y (“the only thing standing between you and your success is a lack of bravery”).

These are important criticisms. We see ourselves as implicated in an institution that is at times incommensurable with our desires for liberation. Rather than attempting to wave a majick wand to clear this all away with a grand convenient statement, we like to think of bold requests as a way to engage in “system hacking” (de Oliveira Andreotti, Stein, Ahenakew, and Hunt, 2015)

We may sound like sneaky salespeople but all we can say is to try it. Make a few bold requests and share them with a friend (but don’t hold them too tightly—as Britt’s dad says, “plan the plan, but don’t plan the outcome”). We came to academia to think as big as we can, so we encourage you to find some friends you can stick with and hold each other accountable to your best and brightest thinking. We hope this post is of benefit to you.

Thanks Britt and Lisa – I’m glad you made this ‘bold request’ to publish on the Whisperer! What about you? Made any bold requests yourself? How did that work out?

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The uneven U

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - February 13, 2019 - 4:00am

Publishers often send me academic writing books to review. I happily look through every book, but if I think I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it, I just don’t write a review. I don’t want to crush a fellow author’s soul. The rejected titles sit sadly, in small piles of guilt, on the bottom of one of my bookshelves.

Recently, during an office clean up, I picked up Eric Hayot’s book “The elements of academic style”, which was sent to me by the publisher, Columbia University Press, way back in 2014. On the strength of our recent book “How to fix your academic writing trouble”, Katherine, Shaun and I have been offered a contract to write a new book aimed at undergraduates (tentatively titled ‘Level up your Essays’). So instead of just refiling it on the reject shelf, I had a lazy flip through to see if there was anything useful. I’m ashamed to admit I totally failed to recognise what a gem “The elements of academic style” when I first looked at it. Talk about missing out all these years! Thankfully, you can still pick up copies of the book online, so here is my very belated review.

The full title of this book is “The elements of academic style: writing for the humanities”, which is one reason why it ended up in my rejection pile in the first place. I try to provide writing advice that is suitable for all disciplines, and this book is unapologetically aimed at literary studies PhD scholars. While I respect this laser-like focus, I think it’s a bit of a pity that science students or even people in other humanities disciplines like Social Science, probably won’t pick it up. A lot of the advice Hayot offers will work for anyone, most especially his concept of the ‘Uneven U’: absolutely breakthrough advice for structuring paragraphs.

Hayot’s Uneven U is a different take on the generic advice that is given to structure a paragraph, namely that one should start with a Topic sentence, then an explanation, example, analysis and summary. This standard paragraph formula is sometimes called TEXAS or TEEL (topic, evidence, explain, link). I’ve been teaching the TEXAS/TEEL method for years to great effect. It surprises me how often PhD students benefit from this elementary advice, but sometimes simple rules of thumb create useful clarity in the middle of a complex writing project. The problem with TEXAS is that it can make your writing quite repetitive. Not every paragraph needs all the elements of the TEXAS formula, which is why it doesn’t work all that well for introductions and conclusions (which require much more summery than paragraphs in the middle sections). Hayot’s Uneven U is the sophisticated, cocktail version of TEXAS and, I think, much more flexible and useful.

Hayot starts by claiming there are five types of sentences in argumentative writing and they can be thought about as being different conceptual levels (here I quote from page 60 of Hayot’s book):

Level five: Abstract; general, oriented toward a solution or conclusion
Level Four: Less general; orientated toward a problem; pulls ideas together
Level Three: Conceptual summary; draws together two or more pieces of evidence, or introduces a broad example.
Level Two: Description; plain or interpretive summary; establishing shot
Level One: Concrete; evidentiary; raw; unmediated data or information

Hayot suggests that your paragraphs should have an ‘uneven U’ structure, starting at statements that are level 4, going down as far as level 1, then ending at level 5. On a graph it looks like this:

A topic sentence doesn’t have to be a grand, sweeping statement as the TEXAS formula suggests, but a tight, problem-focussed starter. Save the grand sweeping statement for the end of the paragraph instead. The idea of sentences having conceptual levels frees you up from thinking that sentences have to be complex to ‘work’. I am always trying to ‘fancy up’ level one sentences, but since I started using this method I don’t bother, and honestly, they are much stronger.

I’ve been using this advice for a couple of months on my own writing and on others, and it works remarkably well. It’s hard to explain precisely how it works, so let’s look at a worked example. Here’s a paragraph from our most recently published paper “A Machine Learning Analysis of the Non- academic Employment Opportunities for PhD Graduates in Australia” :

The PhD was initially designed to train the next generation of academics, but this career outcome is looking less likely for today’s graduates (level 5). There have been claims that there is an over-supply of graduates for academic positions over the last decade at least (Coates and Goedegebuure, 2010; Edwards, 2010; Group of Eight, 2013) (level 4). The latest Australian data, showcased in the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) report (McGagh et al., 2016), suggest that 60% of Australia’s PhD graduates will not end up in academia, a finding consistent with other advanced economies (level 3). For example, a recent survey by the Vitae organisation (2013) in the UK showed that although the overall unemployment rate for PhD graduates was low (around 2%), only 38% of PhD graduates are now employed in academia after graduation. (level 1)

Mapped with Hayot’s method, it would look like this:

Yikes! Let’s fix it with the Uneven U method. To begin, I took the first sentence – which was level five – and made it the last one. I then reparsed the new first sentence to make it into a stronger topic sentence and created a new, second sentence pitched at level three. I turned the next level three sentence into a level two sentence and left the level one sentence alone. After that, I added another level three sentence and altered the final (which used to be the first sentence) to make it more clearly a level five. Here’s the result:

For more than a decade, scholars of higher education have claimed that there is an over-supply of graduates for academic positions (Coates and Goedegebuure, 2010; Edwards, 2010; Group of Eight, 2013) (level 4). If this oversupply problem is real, we should see more PhD graduates making a rational decision to leave academia at the end of their degree and statistics seem to be bearing out this trend (level 3). The latest Australian data suggest that 60% of Australia’s PhD graduates will not end up in academia, a finding consistent with other advanced economies (McGagh et al., 2016) (level 2). For example, a recent survey by the Vitae organisation (2013) in the UK showed that although the overall unemployment rate for PhD graduates was low (around 2%), only 38% of PhD graduates are now employed in academia after graduation. (level 1). If more PhD graduates are looking to leave academia, we must ask: does the PhD need to change? (level 4). Since the PhD was initially designed to train the next generation of academics, this change may be dramatic, with far-reaching consequences for candidates, supervisors and institutions (level 5).

When I map it again, the paragraph now looks like this:

I think you’ll agree the ‘tone’ sounds much more argumentative and there is also a sense of momentum that was missing in the first attempt (I really wish they would let you edit a published paper!). I’ve always struggled with the last sentence in each paragraph; the idea of doing a ‘summary’ sentence is not that helpful. My final sentences have always ended up being a bit wishy-washy and vague, now they are where some of the most provocative thinking happens, encouraging the reader to keep on reading.

The Uneven U concept also helps me help students who write paragraphs that lack ‘meat’. When I map the paragraphs that are hard to read I usually find the student is hovering around level three and needs to ‘land’ somewhere more concrete in the middle to give the paragraph more impact. The neat thing about the Hayot method is that you don’t have to go all the way down to level one: it might be enough to take a level three sentence and bang it down to level two.

I hope you have enough here to try the Hayot method for yourself: on your paragraphs at least. Hayot extends the theory to structuring subsections and even a whole work, which is a really mind-expanding read. However, it would take me an entire book to explain how the Uneven U helps you write a whole dissertation, and Hayot has done it already so check out “The elements of academic style” for yourself. The book is still available in paperback and a reasonably priced Kindle version. Be warned: it’s rather densely written and definitely not for beginners. People who are not literature scholars may want to skip some sections, but I think anyone serious about improving their writing to the ‘cocktail party’ level will find this book invaluable.

What do you think of the Uneven U? I found once I understood the concept, I started seeing it everywhere – or noticing the lack! Did I explain it properly, or do you need more information? Feel free to ask questions in the comments.

Related Posts

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There is a bit more about the Hayot book on the Patter blog, where Pat discusses the concept of the invisible work of writing.

Don’t let those sticky sentences confuse your examiner

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Some tentative advice about advice

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - February 6, 2019 - 4:27am
This post is by Dr Amber Gwynne, a researcher, writer and academic editor from Brisbane, Australia. Amber currently teaches into the writing program at The University of Queensland and shares her enthusiasm for grammar via edX’s English grammar and style MOOC, Write101x. You can find her on Twitter (@AmberGwynne) or at http://www.ambergwynne.com

Photo by @Codytdavis on Unsplash

Caveat lector… or let the reader beware: tentative advice about advice

Having come to the end of my PhD journey (I study self-help books, so I feel entitled to label things a ‘journey’ now), I have digested rather a lot of advice over the last four years. If you’re anything like me (neuroticcurious and concerned with doing things ‘the right way’), you may even have arrived at this very site searching for advice about anything and everything from how to formulate a thesis statement or write faster to managing difficult advisory relationships.

The thing is, however, that there’s an awful lot of advice out there. And then there’s just awful advice. So, how do you separate the wood from the trees, so to speak? And how do you ensure that the advice you seek or receive serves its function as helpful guidance without misdirecting, undermining, overwhelming, or otherwise un-helping you?

I cannot give you any definitive advice, but here are some lessons I’ve learnt along the way that might help you, too.

One size does not fit all.

PhD projects differ markedly from one another depending on the student’s geographical location, institution, discipline, object of study, theoretical framework, and methodological approach, among a stack of other variables. Perfectly sound advice that applies to one student may not necessarily apply to you. Collecting and processing quantitative data, for example, is different from collecting and processing qualitative data. Running experiments in a biomedical lab is different from sifting through archival materials. Working in a team is different from working at your 6th-floor desk with only a shrivelling succulent for company. Publishing in the hard sciences is different from publishing in the humanities—and so on.

Before you either blindly apply advice or freak out that you haven’t been or should be doing a particular thing, check both the source and intended recipient of the information or guidance and weigh up whether it is, in fact, relevant to you. (Remember that one time, for example, when a market researcher scolded you for collecting so little psychometric data about your survey and interview participants and you got really, really worried, but then your primary advisor reminded you that you’re not actually doing market research? Yeah. That.)

Timing matters.

Projects naturally change in shape, texture, and momentum as you go. What you do in the beginning is often quite different from the middle or the end. Even a single task—let’s say writing—might change from day to day, week to week, or month to month. Writing an introductory chapter is quite different from writing a body chapter or conclusion; writing a methodology section is different from writing an analysis. Appreciate that you can grow out of (or into) certain advice. What works well in one phase of your research or for one task might not work in the next, and vice versa. Be flexible. And be willing to take or leave advice on an ongoing, cyclical basis.

Advice-givers usually, but not always, mean well.

People give advice for a variety of reasons. They have accumulated significant expertise and want to share it with others. They might have made a mistake that they hope others can avoid. They care about their readers or audience. They care about you specifically. Giving advice provides a way for them to connect and share with others in their discipline or immediate environment. Or they may have had a particular piece of advice hammered into them (‘Never begin a sentence with a conjunction!’) and then feel compelled to robotically reproduce it.

Whatever the reason, listen graciously. Even unsolicited or gratuitous advice can have useful takeaways. But it also pays to take advice with a grain of salt. Unfortunately, academia is a place in which rigidity, egoism, nichey-ness (that’s a word now), and myopia thrive. (Remember the market researcher you just mentioned who was, funnily enough, prone to seeing the world exclusively through market-research lenses? Yeah. That.) Listen graciously, but also be careful and selective. Consider whether the advice-giver can offer relevant expertise. Have they conducted analogous research or navigated the demands of a similar process? On the other hand, can they provide a useful alternative perspective? Do their vision and values align with your own? And (last, but not least) is their advice about you? Or is it about them?

Advice can drown out your own voice.

The PhD process has an uncanny knack of undermining your confidence. Sometimes you may find yourself feeling as though you don’t know much at all, and you can easily tumble down the rabbit hole of seeking and internalising advice, leaving your own knowledge, skills, and intuition at the door.

Trust yourself. Back yourself. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If a piece of advice contradicts what you know to be true or effective for you, you can probably safely ignore it. Of course, knowing when to dip your toe into something new and when to put your foot down isn’t always easy, but try not to completely sideline your own experiences, passions, and gut feelings in favour of the so-called ‘experts’’. You will eventually reach a point at which you have genuine expertise to offer, too.

Sometimes you need to let go.

Like other readers who habitually consume advice literature, as PhD students, we often find ourselves at a crossroads where we need to put down the how-to guide and start doing. As one of my participants said about self-help books: ‘You’re always reading and reading and analysing, and you don’t know when to put them down and just start to live out your life.’

One of the most terrifying, but eventually liberating, realities of doing a PhD is that there’s often no singular ‘right’ way to do it, and doing something, anything, will propel you much faster and farther towards real progress than waiting to feel ready.  At some point, we simply have to take a deep breath, put aside the advice, and ‘live out’ our PhDs. It’s only by doing your PhD that you’ll realise how you should have done it. And that’s OK.

Thanks for your excellent advice about advice Amber! How about you? What’s the best (or maybe the worst) advice that you’ve been offered during the PhD process?

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2019. Bring it on! (gently this time)

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - January 30, 2019 - 4:00am

Welcome to 2019!

How did your 2018 resolutions go?

I find a theme is easier than a resolution, which tends to become a promise to myself that I don’t keep. A theme, summoned up in a keyword, makes decisions easier. One year I had ‘brave’ as my keyword, which worked really well. Every time I had to make a decision I asked myself – “Am I being brave?”. Sometimes the answer surprised me.

For the last two years I have been working the theme of ‘Less’. While acknowledging that pursuing ‘Less’ is the height of White Western Privilege, I’ve tried to work less hours, eat less, spend less money and so on. The first year I tried ‘Less’ it didn’t work out so well,so I tried Less again in 2018. This time I was more successful, as I reported in my last post for 2018. I managed to cut down from 60 hours to an average of 42 hours a week with the help of a few apps like Timing and Omnifocus.

Doing Less was a good start, but now I realise: it’s not enough to combat the pernicious culture of over work in the academy. To illustrate, let me share a very personal story.

I like to go to the Society for Research in Higher Education conference in the UK every December, if I can. As an Australian, attending is a huge investment of money and time, starting with 24 hours of plane travel just to get there. To make the most of it, I hit the ground running, taking just one day of rest before heading up to Cambridge to give a talk. In a fit of madness I drove from Cambridge to the conference venue in Newport Wales. What Google had promised to be a 2.5 hour journey ended up being a 6 hour, non stop drive in an unfamiliar manual car through twisty roads through a dark and rainy night. I gripped the steering wheel with sweaty hands and tense shoulders the whole way; by the time I got to the conference venue I was shattered.

Little did I know this was to be the beginning of the worst month of my life, at least if measured in health. The next day I woke up with rash on my back and arms and my lips felt a bit numb. I tried to participate in the conference while the symptoms got worse. To cut a long story short, I ended up in the emergency room twice in the UK. The last time I had to be taken there by ambulance after I collapsed on the floor with an attack of vertigo at Goldsmiths, just before giving a lecture to 250 people (I cannot thank Kate and Marie-Alix enough for holding my hand while I lay on the floor, waiting for the ambulance, thinking I was going to die).

I was lucky to have this health crisis in a country with a fantastic public health system (despite what everyone says), and that I spoke the language and had friends nearby. The NHS doctors ascertained I wasn’t having a heart attack or a stroke and treated the vertigo. I was looked after by my dear friends James and Nick, who helped me get on the plane home two days later. I went from the airport to my bed and basically didn’t get out again for nearly a month.

The vertigo was bad enough, but then weird neurological symptoms started appearing: pins and needles, muscle ticks, a strange feeling of sunburn. Waves of electricity going up and down my spine when I tried to sleep. High blood pressure. Fatigue like I have never experienced before. Another emergency room visit, 8 rounds of blood tests, an MRI and ultrasound scan – all failed to find anything substantially wrong with me. The uncertainty made me intensely anxious, no doubt this made the symptoms feel worse.

Being a medical mystery sucks. Doctors scratched their heads and said “virus?”. One gave me Valium, which actually helped a little. Xmas passed in a blur, then New Year. I alternated between crying and staring at the ceiling, too washed out to care. I watched a lot of Netflix. I half heartedly browsed social media. I fretted about what my future would hold if this state was permanent. When I was able, I read many of the books that had been sitting on my bedside table for years (the only good thing about the whole business).

Luckily, I have plenty of financial and emotional cushions. Sick leave was paid (appallingly, only around 1/3 of academics have access to this privilege). My husband and son surrounded me with love and care. Meals were cooked. I was driven to medical appointments. Hugs were always available. Friends messaged me from interstate and around the world. My friends in Canberra visited and didn’t mind if I fell asleep on the couch in front of them. My dear sister rang me everyday to offer words of comfort and encouragement. I felt loved.

I finally gave into what my body demanded and just worked on healing. After about a month, the weird sensations started to fade. The doctor cleared me to go back to the gym and do light exercise. The first day I could barely walk for ten minutes, but strength returned quicker than I thought. I still have more tests to go to rule out some more esoteric reasons for the symptoms, but every day I get better. I’m cautiously optimistic that the nightmare is be over.

I share with you all these gory details because I believe, at some level, what caused this medical catastrophe was 18 years of overwork in academia. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this physical breakdown happened after two years of really trying to do Less. Only after I managed to slow down was I able to hear what my body was trying to tell me and its message was loud and clear: don’t take me for granted.

This crisis has forced me to fully confront an uncomfortable truth: the academic system I work within valorises and rewards people who do themselves physical and mental damage. This is not just at ANU – it’s everywhere. I conformed to this system and reaped the benefits – but then I paid the price. So this year I need something more than Less.

I’ve been watching Australian politics slowly descend into farce, as it has in the UK and the US, and there are some parallels with academia. When politicians dare to question the system, or complain of bullying and overwork, they are shot down. Politicians who are benefiting from the system harp on endlessly about the need for ‘toughness’. The underlying assumption being, that thoughtfulness, care for others and an ability to admit you are wrong is ‘weak’. Similarly, in academia we are encouraged to be ‘resilient’ – which is almost the same thing as ‘toughness’ when you think about it. Resilience puts the onus on the individual to conform themselves to the system and take whatever is handed out. We only need to be resilient in systems that are badly designed and inhumane.

After a lot of thought, I’m going with ‘Care’ for my 2019 keyword. Care challenges us remake systems so they are well designed and humane. Care is thoughtful engagement and negotiations in relation to workplace demands, not just throwing yourself in and hoping for the best. Care is not individualistic, though practising care means getting an individual benefit. Obviously treating yourself with care means exercising, sleeping and eating well, but it also requires us to extend care to others. I strongly believe that following an ethic of Care is a win/win for staff and employer.

For me, caring means to continue to advocate for a better, fairer, more humane system in academia in words – and in actions. Lying in bed so long forced me to reassess how I spend my precious time and energy. I’ll continue my work with the ALLY network and the Union. I’ll continue to support the wellbeing of my team. Blogging stands out as important, fun and worthwhile – so does doing videos for my Patreon channel. Even though I have been told time and time again that I spend too much energy on writing books instead of journal papers, I am going to keep writing them because they are a good way for me to disseminate knowledge. In fact, I just signed a new contract.

I may never make it to full professor in living by an ethic of care, but I’m ok with that. But first – and most importantly – I’ve taken a couple of hours to craft this post. I’m going to take a well deserved nap.

I’m wondering, what is your theme for the new year? Chinese new year is coming up next week, so some of you will be still thinking about it. Anyone else keen on Care? What other ideas do you have? I’d love to hear how you are going with your new year’s resolutions in the comments.

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

Latest from the 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

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - 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

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - 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

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - 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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11/23/18 PHD comic: 'Your Research Focus'

PhD Comics - November 23, 2018 - 5:21pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Your Research Focus" - originally published 11/23/2018

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New podcast: Passionate PhDs

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - 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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