Updates in Doctoral Ed

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

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

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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How to successfully apply for a PhD place in Australia

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - November 14, 2018 - 4:00am

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

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

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

I was rejected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How to choose a thesis topic that actually matters

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - November 7, 2018 - 4:00am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The wildcard of examination

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - October 31, 2018 - 4:00am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so I am left with major revisions.

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

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

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

I focus on the second examiner.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related posts

4 Things You Should Know About Choosing Examiners for your Thesis

Doing Your Amendments Without Losing Heart (or Your Mind)

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Are you prepared for the problems of success?

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - October 24, 2018 - 4:00am

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

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

Image by @fz_nsr from Unsplash.com

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

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

Professional Jealousy

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

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

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

The too hard basket

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone wants a piece of you.

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

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

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

Related posts

Academic Assholes and the Circle of Niceness

Why does feedback hurt sometimes?

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10/19/18 PHD comic: 'Also based on a true story'

PhD Comics - October 23, 2018 - 7:57am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Also based on a true story" - originally published 10/19/2018

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How to turn your PhD into a book – part three

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - October 17, 2018 - 4:00am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My least favourite part.

Step seven: chasing the perfect

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

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

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

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

Step eight: marketing

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

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

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

Related posts

Part one of turning your dissertation into a book

Part two of turning your dissertation into a book

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10/12/18 PHD comic: 'Glib'

PhD Comics - October 16, 2018 - 8:47pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Glib" - originally published 10/12/2018

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A voice from the precariat

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - October 10, 2018 - 4:00am

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

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

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

I am a postdoctoral researcher.

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

I am an immigrant.

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

I am a grown up.

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

I am part of the precariat.

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

I could remain silent and maybe I should.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related posts

What do academic employers want?

I want to leave academia, what’s next?

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

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10/05/18 PHD comic: 'Feelings'

PhD Comics - October 9, 2018 - 8:34am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Feelings" - originally published 10/5/2018

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How to turn your PhD into a book – part two

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - October 3, 2018 - 4:00am

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

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

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

Image by @impatrickt on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

Step Five: A decent proposal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related posts

How to turn your PhD into a book – part one

How to make an index for your book or dissertation

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

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09/28/18 PHD comic: 'A Possible Phrase'

PhD Comics - October 3, 2018 - 1:55am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "A Possible Phrase" - originally published 9/28/2018

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Dealing with administrative grief

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - September 26, 2018 - 4:00am

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

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

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

Image by @rawpixel on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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09/21/18 PHD comic: 'Career Goal'

PhD Comics - September 24, 2018 - 8:06am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Career Goal" - originally published 9/21/2018

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How to turn your PhD into a book

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - September 19, 2018 - 4:00am

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

Image by Sharon McCutheon on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step Two: make contact with a potential publisher

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

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

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

Step Three: sell the idea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related posts

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09/18/18 PHD comic: 'New podcast! Daniel and Jorge Explain The Universe!'

PhD Comics - September 18, 2018 - 7:19pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "New podcast! Daniel and Jorge Explain The Universe!" - originally published 9/18/2018

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09/14/18 PHD comic: 'Based on a true story'

PhD Comics - September 16, 2018 - 4:52am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Based on a true story" - originally published 9/14/2018

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