Updates in Doctoral Ed

11/29/18 PHD comic: 'Academic Conclusions'

PhD Comics - December 3, 2019 - 10:37pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Academic Conclusions" - originally published 11/29/2018

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It all depends!

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

I’ve written before, here, about how much bad advice there is out there for PhD students. One of the reasons that advice can be misguided or inappropriate is the many differences between PhD students in terms of age, discipline and projects. Comparing yourself to other people, particularly when it comes to making progress, is a game of diminishing returns, which I wrote about most recently here. I thought the message needed to be repeated yet again when I read this submission by Ellie Wood, which made some excellent points on diversity amongst the PhD student cohort.

Ellie Wood is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. Her research uses both social and natural science methods to study causes of degradation in ruralTanzanian communities and impacts on ecosystem services. Ellie wants her interdisciplinary study to inform effective and equitable conservation. Alongside her research, Ellie loves science communication and getting involved in outreach projects across Scotland and further afield as often as she can. You can find Ellie on LinkedIn, follow her on Twitter @EllieWood24, or contact her via email at Helena.wood@ed.ac.uk.

Doing a PhD is an absolute nightmare, I reckon, and I say so. Frequently. The drag of PhD research is go-to water-cooler-chat for many students (well, if not you, maybe I drink water and whine about my PhD enough for the rest of us).

Okay then… PhDs aren’t horrid all the time. But they definitely are horrid. Nightmares. Some of the time. The timing and mode of nightmarishness is different for everyone, which means that you might find yourself in the midst of your PhD having scary experiences that are also very different to the experiences of the people around you. And that can feel isolating… which really compounds the horrid scary nightmarishness of it all. I want to tell you that feeling this way, and in fact having what feels like a different PhD experience, is totally fine and normal. And there are ways we can help each other banish that these creepy crawly thoughts from our brains, so we can focus on fun stuff (which might in fact be creepy crawlies – hello entomologists!).

The super variable experiences of PhD students are really unsurprising when you consider the different places we’re all coming from. PhD students can be aged roughly between fifteen and ninety five years old. They have different cultural backgrounds, have gained different life experiences, training, education and jobs. My PhD is interdisciplinary so even within my project I myself have varying levels of knowledge and confidence: I did a biology undergraduate degree and now do 50/50ish ecology/social science which basically means I started with some knowledge and skills in half of my project, and zero knowledge or skills in the other half. Which has been both as fun and as terrible as it sounds.

But anyway. We’re not talking about that are we. And you don’t have to be doing an interdisciplinary PhD to feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, and some people have pointed out that this can actually be a really great and productive thing*, and in fact at the very core of novel research: we’re all supposed to be doing something that’s never been done before, right?

My two housemates and I are all PhD students, working in relatively similar fields, but our methods, learning, and work schedules are very very different. I spent much of the first year of my PhD just reading which was both an amazing privilege and totally terrifying when some of my classmates were collecting data in the lab from Week 2. But this was how my PhD needed to work, and yours might too.

Different students also have different commitments (to research, teaching, extracurricular activities, their personal life) and that is fine. Plus, although PhDs can be very stressful, they are often also very flexible, which can be great if you’ve got other stuff going on – like kids you need to drop off at nursery, or a job you’re doing at the same time as studying. And it’s okay to utilise that, even if you’ve got lots of 9-to-5 colleagues making you feel bad. Comparing yourself to other students simply will never be a case of comparing like-for-like, so don’t bother.

So PhD students are a diverse and interesting group, yes. But we need some support when we’re having worries about being a bit too different and interesting, and we do need to be able to tell if we’re veering off track. We need to share experience and knowledge and talk about whether what you’re going through and the work that you’re doing is normal and okay.

Thankfully, despite all our differences, there is a pool of experience common to PhDs that we can all contribute to and share inI recently read The Unwritten Rules of PhD Researchwhich was genuinely helpful and it kind of blew me away that a computer scientist and someone who does something called “knowledge modeling”could write a book of advice for any PhD student. And what about all these blooming blogs and articles – who do the authors think they are trying to relate their own life experiences to mine? Well, as you may have guessed, I think that these blogs and articles are great. I love reading about other people’s experiences, even though those writing them are probably doing very different research to me. There’s a big pool of wisdom out there which you can share in, gain some knowledge, and comfort in not feeling alone. And that doesn’t need to mean that someone else’s experiences need to match your own entirely. For example, I didn’t find every word in Unwritten Rules helpful and relevant (yet), but it was very useful to me still. It was part of my building of a knowledgebase of other peoples’ experiences, which has helped me no end during my PhD.

So please remember that there are many diverse journeys to getting your PhD, and the experiences that students have are correspondingly diverse. Remember that all of those students were all recruited to do a PhD because someone who’s already got one thinks they are capable of it. You were invited to do your PhD because someone believes in you. Diversity is a wonderful thing. In life and in research groups. So celebrate it, and don’t worry if you feel like you’re doing things in a different way to other people. But when you do feel unsure and alone – ask someone about it. Get help, and you’ll probably find out that you are not the first person to have this experience and although it might not fix everything, it might help you to realise that what you’re going through is normal.

* My supervisor pointed me to this article during my first week as a PhD student because 1) he’s great and 2) he understands how prevalent feelings of stupidity are amongst students, and how important it is to know that it’s normal and, in fact, useful.

Thanks for sharing Ellie! Couldn’t have said it better myself. What do you think?

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11/22/18 PHD comic: 'Vacations'

PhD Comics - November 25, 2019 - 12:50pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Vacations" - originally published 11/22/2018

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11/15/18 PHD comic: '#nolife'

PhD Comics - November 16, 2019 - 12:56pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "#nolife" - originally published 11/15/2018

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Setting yourself free of perfectionism?

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

Are you a perfectionist? I always thought I wasn’t, but my therapist introduced me to the idea of ‘functional perfectionism’ last year. This  forced a rethink, which I documented in this post where I wonder if perfectionism  is a spectrum disorder. One of the perfectionist traps I fall into all the time is unhelpful self talk, so when Gabriella sent me this post I knew that it would resonate with other perfectionists out there (and I know there are a few!).

Gabriella Wilson is currently a doctoral student at the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University, researching the visual language and presentation of activist art. She has a dark past working in the visual arts as an artist and gallery professional but has seen the error of her ways, and now finds herself immersed in the world of graphic design. She also tutors at the Queensland College of Art, assists at the design studio Inkahoots, and volunteers for Animal Liberation Queensland. To top it off she is mum to a beautiful daughter Elkie, and two fur babies Izzy and Tully. She is wife to the most patient human being on earth. Her goal is to communicate about social injustice and help shake things up a little. You can find a little more about Gabriella here.

I realised the other day, in the midst of a brutal surge of anxiety about my PhD, that I never fully commit… to… A-N-Y-T-H-I-N-G…. UNLESS I am assured it will be successful. Mistakes? Phooey. Perfection. YES! Pleasing and impressing. YES! Life’s Journey in a straight line. YES!

I am a recovering perfectionist, as so beautifully coined in the book The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life by Tal ben-Shahar. A bit of a cheesy title, but a real winner in my books. It turns out I am a text book case. I had all the right ingredients in that cocktail shaker called childhood to create a delicate, sweet blend of self-loathing and perfectionism.

Mixed in was a swash of controlling, critical and sometimes violent (from Dad to Mum) parents. A really big dose of volatile and emotionally abusive parenting. A dash of loss and rejection, and a lingering terror. My early life was filled with it. Terror of my father and siblings, but the more subtle terror of making mistakes. Mistakes (failure) were dangerous. Life was dangerous. Emotions were dangerous. Like I said, TEXT-BOOK-CASE.

Fast-forward 40 and a bit years. The sometimes-debilitating terror associated with my PhD is not the first time in my adult life I’ve gone through this. Growing up believing your stupid, while simultaneously being ambitious and intellectually curious makes for an interesting headspace to do your PhD in – read – life can be messy.

I’ve gathered countless pieces of evidence that I am stupid. Every school report card reflected it. No-one (maybe because it was the eighties) seemed to notice that I was actually a very curious child. A great quality for intellectual pursuits. To help remind me of this paradox I’ve got my grade four report card on my wall alongside a photo of me in the Courier Mail. It’s a photo of me in the crowd at one of the mid-nineties protests over university funding cuts (doesn’t THAT seem funny now?), holding a sign I painted ‘Only the Educated are Free – Epictetus.’ I was at the tender age of 17 when I felt the significance of that quote. Stupid and worthless? Its debatable.

So, on this report card my teacher writes, “Gabriella is capable of better work. She’s inclined to dream and this affects the accuracy of her work. Gabriella’s reading difficulties hamper her progress in other areas.”

It’s true. I was capable of better work. But did anyone ask if I was ok? Did this teacher give me more help? Nup. Did I dream in class? Totally. I fantasied about all sorts of things that were far more interesting than what was happening there or at home. And its the most important quality I possess now. My ability to ‘dream’ i.e. to think laterally about a given problem, is my best asset.

Stick it grade four teacher.

Did my reading difficulties ‘hamper my progress’? Yeah for a time. But now, I’m a voracious (albeit slow) reader. Nothing is ever set in stone. But I still don’t understand why I didn’t get more help? Did I just annoy the shit out of every teacher whose path I crossed?

When the terror of failure hit yet again this year, and through my pounding heart I realised that I hadn’t fully committed, I thought f**k, not again. Really? Are we doing this again? Yes, we are doing this again. Life is going to get messier.

Through the mess though, I realised that when I undertook my postgrad degree I wasn’t truly interested in ‘contributing new knowledge’. I just wanted to make some cool shit, work out how to make the world a better place and begrudgingly write about it. I knew I would learn a lot – which is I guess what I wanted – but I didn’t really think through the line ‘unique contribution to knowledge”. Phooey.

I’ve always had one foot out the door at all times. I never fully commit. Right. Lesson one: BRING-THAT-FOOT-IN. Check. And when I sit with the commitment to finish, I also realise, to my deeper horror, that I need to accept the possibility of failure and that lifeis uncertain, hard, and there it is again – messy. Say WHAT? I need to accept that I may not attain my doctoral qualification? Either through an unannounced life event, or through my own terror, I might not make it to the end?

Rejecting this reality equals a world of anxiety and pain. If I don’t give myself permission to make a mistake and fail, then the internal monologue is “you have no choice, you MUST get this”. “You MUST succeed, because if you don’t, you’re worthless.” Panic ensues.

I’ve been down this road before. Many times. I’ve been hooked on the thought that I’m a piece of shit so many times that I just used to drink it away. Now, with great determination, I face it.

Lesson two: I work on what Tal Ben-Shahar suggests in his book and practice the acceptance of reality and the potential for failure. Check. I might not finish my PhD, but that doesn’t mean I am not a worthy individual, who won’t go on to find meaningful pursuits in life and thrive. As I know from that grade four report card: nothing is set in stone.

The last realisation to come out of the mess, and perhaps the more subtle but most important lesson is that my worth as an individual, if hooked onto external things like my PhD, a piece of paper, is bound to cause more mess and anxiety. I know that its more than that too. It represents hard work, intellectual rigour and an important contribution to knowledge. It represents passion and yearning for a better world.

BUT, I will try not to let the attainment of that piece of paper determine whether or not I make an important contribution to a better world, and I will try not to let it determine my ability for self-love and worth. I am worthy and loveable no matter whether I am Dr. Gabriella or simply Gabriella. And from the band Idles comes lesson three: ‘If someone talked to you, the way you do to you, I’d put their teeth through. Love yourself.’ Check.

For those of you who struggle as deeply as I do with your PhD journey, and with this thing we call life, I’m sending you love too.

Thanks for sharing Gabriella! What about you? Has this post resonated with your inner perfectionist at all? What advice would you offer others struggling to put the perfectionist beast back in its box?

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11/08/18 PHD comic: 'Instagrad'

PhD Comics - November 9, 2019 - 12:55am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Instagrad" - originally published 11/8/2018

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11/01/18 PHD comic: 'Recurring Nightmare'

PhD Comics - October 31, 2019 - 8:41pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Recurring Nightmare" - originally published 11/1/2018

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PhD Bamboo

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

Do you ever feel like your PhD is in control of your life – and not in a good way? This post speaks to the resilience you need to complete using the story of a bamboo plant, which can be an invasive weed if not properly controlled!

Fiona Robards is an independent consultant providing strategic planning, policy and resource development to the government and community healthcare sector. You can find out more about her here.

When I started my PhD, I was full of enthusiasm, excited by this new opportunity and period of growth. I read a Thesis whisper blog by Jodie Trembath about having a PhD symbol (she originally called it a PhD totem but changed this on the request of several First Nations scholars in the US).

I bought an Asian bamboo plant for my desk at my new university workspace. I loved the way it was so green, fresh and growing strongly – like me – so I decided it was my PhD symbol or PhD bamboo. It grew and grew, rapidly, as did I. When I looked at the PhD bamboo it filled me with enthusiasm.

After a year or so the plant became so tall it was no longer supported by the small green pot. I went away to a conference with a colleague looking after my PhD bamboo. When I returned, my colleague has stuck a post-it note on the pot saying ‘replant me!’. The message was clear! So, I replotted the plant, or rather, removed it from the soil and placed it in a tall vase of water.

The PhD bamboo entered a new growth phase, as did I.  With data collection complete, and moving into the analysis phase, my skills and knowledge continued to grow.

Like many PhD journeys, I went through a more challenging period. My paid employment in the study ended, and I lost access to my workspace. I worked from home, and my PhD bamboo came with me. I felt less supported by my supervisors and became more isolated.

The PhD bamboo became so tall that not even the vase could hold it upright, it began to collapse without adequate support. Another transformation was needed, so I chopped each branch in half, stuffing the vase full.

During this last year, I attempted to resolve the issues with a lack of support from my supervisors with little success. I came to detest my PhD bamboo. No longer fresh and healthy it was struggling, like me. I didn’t like having the PhD bamboo in my study – but I felt I couldn’t part with it given it was my PhD symbol. So, I hid it behind the door in my spare room.  I would forget about the plant until I was vacuuming, then I would curse the “bloody PhD bamboo”. Through a lack of nurturing, some of the PhD bamboo died.

Nearing the end of my candidacy, I moved the PhD bamboo back out into a prominent position and transferred it to a larger vase. No longer constricted, it looked happier and began to grow again. The PhD bamboo had room to move, and soon, so would I.

I submitted my thesis. While the journey is not over, I felt it was time I could finally let go of the PhD bamboo. I didn’t want to destroy it, so instead, I decided to set it free to the world. After toasting it at my celebration party, I put it out on my front fence for a passer-by to adopt into a new home.

I do not miss the bamboo, but I do have some sadness about the journey we went on together. There was unnecessary hardship. Positively, the PhD bamboo and I both grew much and went through several transformations. Thankfully the bamboo has a new life, and so do I.

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Being in a Minority: It’s Not All Bad

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - October 23, 2019 - 4:00am

Some time ago I wrote a post about what I thought was an ‘anti-PhD attitude’ displayed by some recruiters I interviewed for a research project. In that post I suggested that the small number of PhD graduates in the workforce led to graduates facing similar problems to other minorities who faced problems like stereotyping. After that post came out some people objected to my use of the word ‘minority’, although they did not suggest a better term (I am still trying to think of another way – if you have suggestions I welcome them!). One reader wrote to me with a positive take on occupying a minority status, and I encouraged her to write a post on her experience.

This post is by Michele Seah, a PhD candidate at the University of Newcastle. She recently submitted her thesis on the material foundations of late-medieval queenship, focusing on three queens consort in fifteenth-century England. Her research involved delving into the economic resources, particularly the lands, that provided these queens with their financial and material wealth. She also looked at how those resources were expended in the maintenance of queenly households and networks. She does not consider herself an extrovert at all but has learnt how to harness her courage in the cultivation of networks and building her people skills. It’s a work in progress. You can find Michele on Twitter as @mlcseah.

There are two specific ways I was positioned as a minority during my PhD: being an Asian woman and being a medieval scholar. Being a medieval scholar was the more difficult of the two!

Painting of Queen Elizabeth 1

I was one of the few women postgraduates working regularly – or even occasionally – in the postgraduate room where I was assigned a desk. I worked primarily at home, but also wanted a space to call my own on campus. All of the regulars working in the same room were men; other women came in only occasionally. Whenever I chose to go to campus, I was surrounded by male postgraduates, but it was not a major problem. I never found myself on the receiving end of discriminatory remarks, or anything like that. OK, the room had a nickname: ‘the Men’s Shed’. It was a moniker with slightly derogatory overtones, or, at least, it seemed so from the occasional ‘jokes’ made about the gender imbalance in the room. The guys in the room, outwardly at least, always treated me as just another PhD student and a colleague. They seemed unconcerned about the fact that I was Asian and a woman. I have never felt like I was intruding and the community spirit in the Men’s Shed kept me buoyed throughout my postgraduate years.

The more significant minority experience for me was created by my topic area. I certainly believe I was the only PhD candidate working on medieval history in that particular history department at the time and the difficulties were compounded by there being no medievalists on staff. It is too long a story to recount how I ended up focusing my postgraduate research in that specific field. Doing so has presented some challenges, not least the fact that my supervisors are both early-modernists and non-specialists in my field. It is difficult to bounce ideas and discuss contextual issues about your topic when your supervisors are not really conversant in the field. By the end of my candidature, however, I discovered that I had taken them with me along for the ride and they had invested time and effort in getting to know my topic and being able to discuss the thematic issues, even if the nitty-gritty details of my research were still a mystery to them.

The experience made me especially aware of the enormity of the task that all supervisors take on and I’m particularly grateful to my supervisors. But I did feel quite alone, especially at the beginning. I encountered few, if any, other history candidates whose research was remotely related to mine. There was no jolly medieval collegiate atmosphere in my university to help me stay enthusiastic about my research. No one to talk medieval history with me in the corridors and tea-rooms. This feeling was exacerbated by the fact that most of the leading scholars in my particular field of research are not based in Australia and the main conferences are held overseas. The other history candidates around me seemed to be able to organise and participate in reading/writing groups, go for conferences within Australia and interact with many Australia-based scholars in their field. I had to meet the networking challenge another way.

First, I made an effort to reach out to scholars in the English department of my university, who I knew were working on topics within a chronological century or so of my research. This small group of people did not work on topics that were very close topically or regionally to mine; the research methodology they employed was different and there was little overlap to generate meaningful exchanges of ideas. However, it was a pleasure to be able to occasionally wallow in the late middle ages in the company of like-minded individuals.

Next, I endeavoured early on to connect with other scholars in my field internationally. I set up an Academia.edu page and a Twitter account. With these tools I was able to initiate and form tentative connections with the broader scholarly world and escape the geographical boundaries of Australia. Being Twitter ‘friends’ adds an interesting and often useful aspect to setting up connections with other scholars and researchers and lessened the feelings of isolation.

Lastly, I decided early on that I needed to participate in relevant conferences sooner rather than later. Local postgraduate seminars and conferences were the practice grounds for papers that I then tweaked and edited for overseas conferences. I joined the Australia/New Zealand association for medieval and early-modern studies and presented at their biennial week-long conference quite early in my candidature and took part in their training seminars for postgraduates. From there I gained the courage to submit abstracts to major overseas conferences and went over to present. The relationships I formed with the people I met at these seminars and conferences have been priceless. Some meetings were so fortuitous that it seemed like sheer luck, but on reflection it was my willingness to get out there, network, and take a chance on getting to know people that played a large part in enabling these valuable connections to be formed.

In short, a topic that makes you a minority in your university can seem daunting, but I have few regrets in choosing this particular pathway. I believe there have been more positives than negatives and I have developed strategies for dealing with the challenges.

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Me, myself and I

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - October 16, 2019 - 2:00pm

Do you ever find yourself in conflict WITH yourself? The part of you that wants to watch Netflix might war with the part of you that wants to finish your PhD, as just one example. How do we better manage these multiple, internal voices?

This post is by Michael Healy, a careers and employability educator and PhD candidate at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia. In his practice and research, he is focused on exploring the pedagogy of careers and employability learning in higher education. In particular he is evaluating how reflective writing tasks focused on values clarification can improve the career optimism and self-efficacy of nursing students. You can find Michael on Twitter as @mojohealy

It is well known that the doctoral education experience is a serious challenge to mental health and wellbeing. As a “part-time” PhD candidate with a full time job and a family, I know the challenge of maintaining the balance of wellbeing, relationships, and productivity. I do my best, but the weight of my responsibilities and concerns is often overwhelming. Fortunately, my PhD research into reflection and self-management, as it relates to career development, provides me with some useful reflective tools that I can use myself.

In particular, I am interested in the ways we ‘narrate’ our lives inside our head. Although we call this our internal monologue, most would admit to hearing more than one voice. For this reason, my research is based largely on Hubert Hermans’s dialogical self theory. According to Hermans’s theory, the self is a not a single entity, but rather a “society of mind” made up of numerous I-positions, in constant chattering dialogue with each other.

Hermans has described I-positions as actors on a stage, each playing their part, but I’m not sure this is the best metaphor. The cast of a play is organised and rehearsed, for a start. For most of us, the dialogical self is more like a fractious political forum, characterised by debate and dissension between I-positions. In difficult times, our I-positions judge, berate, and disparage one another. In turn, these dialogues evoke anxiety, depression, and despair.

The good news is that the dialogical self’s society of mind doesn’t need to be a fractured, adversarial dystopia. There are several kinds of supportive I-positions which can act as mediators, leaders, and healers:

  • Meta-positions take a global view, from some distance above the fray, to analyse I-positions and evaluate the credence of their claims.
  • Third-positions reconcile conflicting I-positions into new positions, accommodating the core values of both rather than privileging one over the other.
  • Promoter positions integrate, mediate, and inspire innovation in communities of I-positions.

I will share a little of my own dialogical self, to illustrate how some of my I-positions influence me and how I enlist supportive I-positions to help keep my PhD work in balance with my other responsibilities. All you need to know is that I am married with one young child, I work full time, I study a part-time PhD, and I enjoy riding my bike when I get a chance to. Imagine it is a beautiful Sunday morning.

I-the-cyclist notes that it’s a beautiful day for a bike ride. I-the-health-kicker concurs, noting that I’m overdue for some exercise while I-the-nature-lover gets excited about checking out a nearby state forest.

I-the-PhD-candidate interrupts to suggest that the day would be much better spent at my desk, writing. I-the-professional agrees that I should be at my desk, but notes that there are work deadlines looming and notes that this work, not the PhD, pays the bills. I-the-writer notes that whether I study or work, I should maintain my daily writing habit, with a pointed stare at I-the-procrastinator, who desperately wants to mow the lawns and do the laundry before tackling any real work.

I-the-daddy, in the sweet voice of my five year old son, reminds me that I’ve been promising to teach him to ride his bike. I-the-hubby, in the sweet voice of my lovely wife, suggests that Poppa look after the boy so we can see a movie. I-the-family-man guiltily notes that both wife and child need my time, and accuses I-the-cyclist, I-the-PhD, and I-the-professional of misplaced priorities. Meanwhile, I-the-introvert sulks, muttering about needing time to himself.

The tension in these dialogues is clear, although my vigette is a relatively peaceful one. When I’m under stress, these dialogues can spiral out of control into unrestrained internal conflict which leaves me stressed and exhausted. One way to mitigate these downward spirals into chaos is to identify and amplify helpful meta-, third-, and promoter-positions.

I-the-analyst is a meta-position which reflects my natural ability to reflect on challenges and apply rational thought to them. I-the-analyst has the credibility required to temper the more negative contributions of I-the-procrastinator and I-the-introvert. Another meta-position is I-the-strategist, which uses my professional skills and knowledge to manage my career and my studies effectively. I-the-analyst and I-the-strategist make a good team.

I-the-scientist–practitioner is a third position that integrates my professional work with my PhD study. It mediates the tension between the different activities, in large part because it works with I-the-strategist to make decisions that allow me to maintain balance.

I-the-life-coach is a promoter-position which establishes and monitors health, productivity, and relationship habits. He understands that they work together: a bike ride is good exercise and valuable time to myself in nature, allowing me to re-energise for family activities and refresh my mind for writing. When I-the-coach consults with I-the-strategist, my career ambitions become more action-oriented and I am more proactive about implementing my ideas.

Another promoter-position emerges when I-the-family-man shrugs off his guilt complex and instead focuses on what he can do to be present as a husband and father. I-the-family-man plans activities like family bush walks and picnics. He recognises that I-the-PhD and I-the-professional are both working for the good of the family and that they model positive qualities such as life-long learning and the pursuit of meaningful work.

The doctoral education experience can evoke and amplify unhelpful I-positions until the dialogical self is a cacophony of competing voices. As I have described with my own example, it is useful to take some reflective time to identify the voices adding to the noise and allow meta-, third-, and promoter- positions to make themselves known. You can then give these helpful positions the authority to organise, challenge, and quieten the less helpful positions. It is an ongoing challenge as the dialogue ebbs and flows, recedes and explodes, but the effort is worth it if it allows you to make some small steps toward recognising your strengths, mediating your anxieties, and living a healthier PhD life.

Thanks for this interesting perspective Michael. I wonder how many ‘I’ voices you have in your head? Feel free to share in the comments!

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Book review: two new guides to academic life

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - October 9, 2019 - 4:00am

The high degree of autonomy one gets as an academic is both a blessing and a curse. Making your way up what counts for a career ladder these days is tricky. It’s hardly surprising that the academic career guide is an emerging book genre with strong sales. I’ve benefitted from the academic guide to life genre myself. My book How to be an Academic (which was republished as Becoming an Academic in the USA and UK) sold astonishingly well and I continue to get lovely emails from people, thanking me for writing it.

I wrote this book, in part, because I didn’t see the kind of guide I wanted on the shelf. When I started out as an academic, nearly 20 years ago now (!) there were very few guidebooks that explained how an academic job worked. Those that did exist seemed to have been written for someone working in the 1950s. It seems publishers have woken up to the fact there’s a market amongst PhD students and early career academics for advice books. Two new books about being an academic have landed on my reviewer pile in recent times: How to be a Happy Academic, by Alexander Clark and Bailey Sousa and Survive and Thrive in Academia: the new academic’s pocket mentor by Kate Woodthorpe.

They have quite different advice and strategies, so I thought I’d give you a brief overview of both so you can decide which is the best for you.

How to be a Happy Academic by Alexander Clark and Bailey Sousa. Sage. $29.95 AUD

As a super fan of post it notes, the cover of How to be a Happy academic made me, well – happy (well played cover designer!). The slightly unconventional vibe of the book’s title is reflected in the rest of the layout, which is cleverly designed to reward the quick flick through. Key messages are printed in huge type throughout, sometimes taking up half a page so that the physical book kind of screams affirmations at you. The layout also helps you find key sections really easily.

The basic premise of this book is that academics can be both happy and efficient: a dream I would like to believe in too, so I was happy to strap in for the ride.  The book is fairly hefty at over 200 pages and extremely well referenced. I don’t say this just because they cited me (well, maybe just a little bit); it was heartening to see I was in good company. Just about every major scholar on doctoral education and productivity was in there. This careful engagement with the literature has resulted in a considered and interesting book on how to approach academic work.

Instead of giving you ‘tips and tricks’, How to be  a Happy Academic encourages you to first define what success looks like for you – and work backwards from there. There are a number of structured activities that step you through the process of evacuating and analysing your own values and motivations. I suspect if I had done these steps I may have triggered an existential crisis, so I didn’t – but they looked pretty great. I’m certainly going to take some of these into the classroom with me and try them out with PhD students who are wondering if they want to be an academic or not.

The mid section, which attempts a new theory of academic work was the most interesting one for me. Clark and Sousa start with a diagram called ‘The Core’ which attempts to describe academic work in a wholistic way. The Core has six major dimensions or facets, including: habits and systems, creativity, human work, learning, influence and persuasion and writing. The authors go on to unpack each of these facets in a separate chapter. These chapters are necessarily short, but they open up topics so big that each one is a necessary surface skim rather than the deep dive I was craving. That being said, it was honestly refreshing to see a human centred way of looking at academia, which resonated with my own experiences. Each chapter had really excellent suggestions for getting these key dimensions of academic work right.

The last section, of case studies, is the least successful part of the book in my opinion. While these are interesting and read as authentic, I don’t think they add that much value. But perhaps I am not the right audience. I have seen enough in my 20 years for these stories to seem annoyingly familiar. If I was new to the profession, these case studies might function as the window into the academic world they are intended to be.

So, should you buy this book? Honestly, it will be most useful for people who are early career researchers or established academics like myself who mentor others. If you are still a PhD student, you might want to hold off until you have decided you want to commit to academia, although the first section on values will be useful for anyone struggling with the existential question: what do I want to do with my life?

Survive and Thrive in Academia: the new academic’s pocket mentor by Kate Woodthrope. Routledge. $29.95 AUD

Survive and Thrive in Academia aims to be a ‘supportive comrade’ to people starting out in the academic profession. This book is for people who are confused by the academic workplace  and lack good mentors of the human variety to help them through it. Sadly, many people lack good mentors and role models (it’s certainly one of the factors which accounts for the popularity of this blog for nearly a decade now), so this book will find a ready audience.

Survive and Thrive breaks down academic work in the conventional way, with sections on teaching, research followed by a catch all section on administration, management and leadership. It’s 231 pages, but a small format paperback, so it lives up to the ‘pocket’ label. This book is explicitly in the ‘tips and tricks’ genre, with these elements carefully boxed out so you can flick though and get the highlights quickly. The book is well referenced with helpful suggestions for further reading.

The advice offered in each section is solid and pragmatic – you won’t go wrong following what Woodthorpe has to say. Where the book is really helpful is in explaining the broader ‘neo-liberal’ policy context and how this affects the way the academic workplace operates (in Western countries at least). For example, the section on teaching contains an excellent and necessary section on ‘surveillance’ and evaluation of teaching, including the criteria that administrators use to judge whether your teaching is successful. I wish someone had put this in my hands when I started teaching, although I suspect it might have completely freaked me out. Likewise, the section on creating your niche gets right to the heart of what conventional academic success is all about. Sadly, I didn’t have the pocket mentor to explain it to me… A much older colleague dropped the knowledge over a cigarette one morning. I’d hunted him down because I was despondent after yet another unsuccessful job interview. ‘No one understands a generalist in academia’ he explained, after a long, thoughtful drag on his cigarette. I based the next five years of my career on this one comment. Survive and Thrive makes the same point, but in more detail and without the second hand cigarette smoke.

While Woodthorpe’s wisdom and experience ooze out of every page, this book is not going to start a revolution. If there was one criticism I was going to offer it would be that Survive and Thrive is deeply conformist in the way that How to be a Happy Academic is not. But it’s a jerk move to criticise people who choose to conform rather than rebel. I’ve rebelled a bit, sure – but I’ve also conformed . I’ve benefitted from rebelling more than from conforming, but all have to eat, so I’m not going to judge. Woodthorpe aims to help her audience to survive by understanding and responding appropriately to the demands the academic workplace, not to rock the boat. Judged by that criteria, the book succeeds admirably and deserves a place on the shelves of many early career academics.

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Starting a PhD… at 58 years old?

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - October 2, 2019 - 4:00am

Did you know that the average age on entry to a PhD in Australia is 34 years old? Over the time I have been whispering this average age gets older and older. There are a few PhD students at ANU who enrolled in their PhD in their late sixties and early seventies. It’s never too late to pursue the PhD dream, but what’s it like for people who are older to be surrounded by younger students all the time? Catherine Racine offers her story.

Dr Catherine Racine is an independent Canadian scholar who graduated from Durham University in 2017 after living in the UK for seven years. Her thesis was titled “Beyond Clinical Reduction: Levinas, the Ethics of Wonder and the Practice of Autoethnography in Community Mental Health Care,” and examined the moral process of the clinician and the intractable problem of dehumanization in community mental health care. She is a member of several professional research organisation and is currently starting her own consulting practice.

This was the only picture I could find that did not show an older lady looking either sad, or doing domestic work. See my footnote at the end of the post.

I completed a Ph.D. at 63, two weeks before falling in love for the first time in a decade and frittering away two post-doc years swanning around Europe, circling the globe from Canada to Europe and returning at last to my tiny pied-a-terre in downtown Vancouver. At the tender age of 65 I am, this week, beginning my new career as an independent scholar and you better believe I’m scared, but also excited. I forfeited a decent pension as a government employed psychotherapist to fulfill this dream and must now support myself because my little pension won’t cut it.

Like many women who dread becoming bag ladies, I agonized over the financial pros and cons of my Ph.D. dream and not a few friends echoed my fear. “Will you ever work again? Can you afford this? What about your pension?” But pitting my yearning of many years to undertake this work against the terror of financial insecurity finally seemed a desecration and the yearning won.

I may regret the decision to have escaped the intellectual wasteland and micromanagement of my workplace for another eight years but I doubt it.  I could have stayed and still be listening to the suffering of those who come to community mental health centres for help. I could still be witnessing and contributing to their dehumanization, and enduring the appalling limits of “care” that can be offered in my role. Instead, I travelled to Durham, in North East England, to examine the ethics of wonder in community mental health care. I now find I’ve rather a lot to say on the matter and the responsibility and authority to say it.

Was I crazy? Was it worth starting this project at 58 – self-funded – when the colleagues I left behind were putting in their last years of work and socking away their pensions and RRSP contributions? Hell yes. I fulfilled a major life’s dream of doing this Ph.D. and even managed a perfect pass. I reoriented my life, my perspective and claimed a clearer, stronger unapologetic voice for the work that lies ahead. How could I regret that or the Herculean effort it took that showed me who I am?

I have a big year planned of writing and publishing, public speaking and starting an online counselling business, but who knows what lies ahead. Have I ever earned a living doing any of those things? No, but this Ph.D. guarantees that if I can’t walk on water I can dive confidently into any deep end trusting I won’t drown. That’s money in the bank. That’s also why I’m writing to extend a wholehearted plea to any woman over the age of 50 who has ever nursed the dream of doing a Ph.D. sometime in her life to get cracking! Getting a Ph.D. is not a waste of time, effort or resources just because a woman is half-way or more through her life. It is not a “vanity degree” although I have heard more than one academic asshole suggest as much. This lengthy and expensive undertaking has been the most galvanizing, transformative and confirming of my entire life.

The bloody-mindedness and stamina it demands and the suffering it pretty much guarantees makes a Ph.D. as far from a thrill-seeking venture as one can get. There is nothing quick, dirty or particularly “fun” about it as the literature on Ph.D. related depression will tell you, but it gives. Completing a Ph.D. grows you up, develops your grit, gives you a thicker skin, hones your discipline, engages with your deepest passion and vastly expands your limited self-perception and understanding of the many confinements imposed by the world around you. It is a serious, mysterious undertaking and its process and gravitas are priceless at any age.

Learning to see how power works, how it is used and abused within the university system and even by academics engaged in work attempting to subvert the “dominant discourse,” was the most surprising gift. This was the game changer that enabled me to more than “glimpse” the underpinnings of all those limitations I had thought were self-imposed, justified or impossible to overcome but never were. The process of the PhD can give the older woman the keys to the engine room of her culture, gender, race and class, and the blueprint of the precision machinery that propagates her ongoing suppression. This means she can never again seriously doubt the gravity of her situation, her capacity to respond or her ability to see beyond towhat is yet to be imagined. That’s quite a payoff.

There are many reasons why pursuing the dream of a Ph.D. at 50 or 60 or even 70 or 80—why not?—could be the greatest move a woman will ever make. Even, that is, if her chances of working in the Academy are already diminished by her age and sex, which they surely are. But, then again maybe they don’t need to be if greater numbers of older women came forward to assert their place at this high table. I am preaching to the choir, but the interests of the “mature” female student cannot be overstated given what they have to offer, and their impressive under-representation in the post-graduate student body. The university is no more immune to the scourges of ageism and sexism than the rest of our culture, regardless of how inclusive it may claim to be. University is a young person’s game and this poses a significant barrier to women like me, and possibly you, and is all the more reason to confront it and break it down.

Had I known what this adventure would cost —in every way—I would never have had the courage to jump. But having become a scholar and seen all that was needed to complete this beast, having travelled, made many new friends and colleagues and joined communities within and beyond the Academy, my heart fails me to think of all I would have lost had I just stayed home.

Thanks for your courage Catherine! Are you an older person enrolled in a PhD program – or perhaps you have finished and wondering what comes next? Love to hear your about your experience in the comments.

[Later Edit}

Technically people over 60 are defined as ‘seniors’ by the Australian government and this language tends to follow through into strategy and policy documents. In previous conversations with students in their 60s and 70s, people have suggested ‘vintage’ – playfully – as an alternative, to try to shift the meaning in a more positive direction. I don’t like either term, hence my scare quoting. Sadly the term ‘older’ is too vague (some countries where the whisperer is read do not enrol candidates over the age of 40, therefore ‘older’ is too subjective) Ageism and discrimination are deeply built into our everyday life.  I use a site called ‘Unsplash’ to source royalty free, high quality photos. Every search of ‘older woman’ turned up pictures of sad women alone on park benches, or grannies playing with grandkids. There was a distinct lack of ‘middle aged’ looking women in there too – and the ones that tended in this direction tended to be ‘glammed up’… This was the only photo I could find on the site that had an older woman doing something active that had nothing to do with domestic work. I like that it is a much older lady than is talked about in the post. The oldest PhD student at ANU is 82 and people have graduated with PhDs in their 90s. Our conception of who a PhD student ‘should be’ needs to be constantly challenged! Have a look at the link below to a student in their 20s complaining about being stereotyped and I welcome your debate and discussion about the issues in the comments.

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09/25/18 PHD comic: 'Soonish SMBC PHD Crossover Comic!'

PhD Comics - September 26, 2019 - 5:17pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com title: "Soonish SMBC PHD Crossover Comic!" - originally published 9/25/2018

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

How to approach an inter-disciplinary thesis

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - September 18, 2019 - 4:00am

Are you doing interdisciplinary research? I did. It was hard. Universities are often very well set up for individual disciplines, but if you don’t fit firmly into one of these, you can easily find yourself marginalised. How should you go about doing interdisciplinary research so that you don’t ‘go down over interdisciplinary waters’ so to speak?

This post is by Varuneswara Reddy Panyam, a Master of Science Student in the mechanical engineering department at Texas A&M University. He loves to play tennis, write and bike in his free time. Varuneswara received his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Shiv Nadar University in 2016. He did research on refrigeration systems in New Delhi for a year before moving to Texas for grad school. His MS research is focused on bio-inspired design of power grid networks. Find out more about Varuneswara on his personal website: https://www.varuneswara.com/

Interdisciplinary research utilizes techniques from two or more disciplines to come up with solutions to problems. Increasing number of universities worldwide are recruiting professors who can lead interdisciplinary research projects. While there are many benefits that entail doing interdisciplinary research, there are some downsides to it as well. My masters research was highly interdisciplinary involving the application of network analysis principles from ecology and mechanical engineering to electrical power grid networks in a quest to improve their robustness and resilience. I had to overcome several obstacles and issues that are inevitable in interdisciplinary efforts. In this article, I present some of the important issues and possible solutions to avoid/overcome them and get the best out of your opportunity.

Find suitable collaborators

Finding the right people to work with is crucial. If you are fortunate enough to have joined an already functional interdisciplinary team, then you can escape this major initial roadblock. But if you are aiming to start a new interdisciplinary project for your Ph.D. thesis, then you may find this first step time consuming and difficult. I spent almost a semester after starting my Ph.D. trying to find collaborators. I met about 7-8 professors, had multiple email exchanges and meetings with two of them before I finally started work with one professor and her research group. Patience is very important in this phase as convincing a faculty from a discipline other than yours is very difficult. Do your homework, learn about the professor’s current projects and find a way to convince them of your proposed idea’s novelty and feasibility. Don’t pin all your hopes on a single preferred faculty as they might not be equally interested in your idea. If you get a thumbs down from a faculty of your choice, shrug it off and move on. Such rejections will become commonplace in future as you go on to do bigger things. This whole experience initiating contact and brainstorming with multiple faculty members, although exhausting, gives you an unparalleled advantage as your ability to form and lead teams will be extremely valued by any employer.

Communicate often

Frequent communication with every member of the team is very important to successfully carry an interdisciplinary research project forward. Professors heading interdisciplinary projects often have other important projects and unless you remind them of your progress, expectations, important meetings, paper deadlines etc., there is a good chance that you will fall behind. Take the opportunity you have to organize meetings as this is good practice for you to take leadership roles in your future workplace.

Do not give up on any opportunity you get to present your work to different types of audience. Because impact of your research work can be amplified by better communicating the results to the researchers in different fields. You never know who might find your work interesting and useful as your work pertains to different disciplines. Further, talking to people with different backgrounds and expertise levels is a good way of improving your own speaking and presenting skills.

Take ownership of your work

Since a lot of researchers get involved in interdisciplinary projects, oftentimes your contribution can get obscured. It is thus very important to take ownership of your work right from the start. Talk to your advisor and collaborators and tell them about your ideas and what you expect your contribution to be toward the project. Be clear about the order of authors on conference and journal papers. However, be open to changes in the order should things go in a different direction. Bringing up author order might sound awkward at first, but it is very important to ensure that your work gets the deserved recognition.

Keep creating new energy and perspectives

Multi-disciplinary research is as mentally taxing as it is rewarding. Ph.D. students tend to be perfectionists and go on wild-goose chases, which can be even worse when doing interdisciplinary research as we may not be an expert in other disciplines we are studying. This constant need to be on your toes lead to burnouts and stagnation. Since you have access to people from different backgrounds, seek out their help and advice. Talking to people sometimes gives you a fresh direction during times of stagnation. Don’t stop doing the things you enjoy. Watching movies and writing my own movie ideas used to be my favorite past time during my undergrad. Whenever I get stuck these days, I watch my favorite movies and unwind to find a new perspective.

Pursue research ideas and grant writing

The ultimate goal of training Ph.D. students is to make them independent researchers. A significant part of being an independent researcher is to write successful grant proposals. Students in interdisciplinary teams may sometimes not gain enough depth in any of the relevant disciplines, resulting in poor disciplinary knowledge and proposal writing experience. Students in interdisciplinary teams should therefore proactively spend time reading a lot of literature in the disciplines they are involved with and seek opportunities to write grants for others. This practice could go a long way in writing excellent grant proposals as you transition from being a Ph.D. student into full time researcher.

Despite the drawbacks and hard work it requires, interdisciplinary research offers the opportunity to acquire a very broad skill set. It will force you to learn a lot in a very short amount of time. Moreover, the impact of interdisciplinary research projects tends to be very high. A lot of experiences you gain doing interdisciplinary research are good practice for future career, be it in academia or otherwise. I think that perhaps universities can do their part by starting separate entities to help students and faculty with the various obstacles they face during the course of interdisciplinary research projects.

Thanks Varuneswara! I agree that universities could do more to make interdisciplinary research easier. What do you think? Have you faced any barriers working across and between disciplines? What advice do you have to offer others facing this challenge?

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Book review: The Scopus Diaries

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - September 11, 2019 - 4:00am

This post is by Dr Abel Polese, a researcher, trainer, writer, manager and fundraiser dealing with development and capacity building in Europe and Asia. He is also interested in Science Excellence, Open Science and alternatives indicators to measure science performance. In this post, Abel shares the story behind his book The SCOPUS Diaries and the (il)logics of Academic Survival: A Short Guide to Design Your Own Strategy and Survive Bibliometrics, Conferences, and Unreal Expectations in Academia”. The book is a reflection on academic life, research careers and the choices and obstacles young scholars face at the beginning of their career. You can find him, and learn about next #scopusdiaries workshops, on Twitter at @Abiquitous and @scopusdiaries.

In May 2011 I woke up, for the first time in my life, in the grip of a panic attack. My 3-year fellowship in Edinburgh was ending and I had no concrete employment perspectives. Out of 60 applications I submitted in 2010/2011, only two were followed up by an invitation to an interview but, in no case, I was offered a job. 

People kept telling that my profile was strong and I would eventually find a job. However, whilst learning to accept rejection as part of of the game, I was left on wondering why applicants with apparently weaker regularly CVs got the jobs I was applying for. What was wrong with me? Why employers would not notice my enthusiasm, my allegedly excellent publication and funding record? Wasn’t this all they wanted, according to the the job ads they published?

As of today, I know that it was not. But the unwritten rules of academic job hunting are to learn the hard way. Eventually, in June 2011, I secured funding a 3-year fellowship in Estonia and moved out of the UK with enough time to lick my wounds and reflect on my failures.   

The SCOPUS Diaries and your personalised career path

In March 2015, I delivered my first training on how to manage your academic career. This may sound a bit like “do as I say, not as I do” since, not long before, I had been myself in desperate need of such a training. However, my level of reflections on academic life was already enough, in my view, to train a team of Armenian historians in how to get their research results published internationally.

Encouraged by the feedback received, I went on developing further sessions for scientists based in countries where recently introduced higher education reforms required to target SCOPUS-indexed journals, but only few understood how to do that. My Estonian origin turned to be a blessing. The country had just introduced an easy and effective system for evaluation of academic excellence and allocation of public funding. I first studied for my own survival and then used it as a case study to coach researchers in getting the career they felt they deserved.

Writing a book about all this was far from my plans. But, in December 2016, at the end of a workshop at Vinnitsya Medical University, the vice rector said something like “can I get a copy of your book, where you explain how to publish in SCOPUS journals?”. While answering that there was not such a book, I realised that there could be: times were ripe and this was my long-awaited chance to launch a discussion beyond my discipline and with no disciplinary boundaries. Reminiscent of Johnny Depp’s “Rhum Diaries”, I decided to call it “the SCOPUS diaries”. 

Publishers easily sell academic books at €100 per copy and I never questioned this practice when submitting a book proposal. But, when you write the book of your life, you just want people to be able to read it. I decided to pay for an ISBN and make it freely accessible as PDF online. The content, I was confident, would speak for itself.

Epilogue: what makes an academic career?

The process took almost two years but the time was well invested. I found a publisher that processed the manuscript fast, left me most choices on layout and agreed to sell the e-book at €5.99 (paperback €19.90). A “real publisher” meant an additional layer of motivation to improve the text, that went from 45.000 into 80.000 words and took a Q&A format where I answer, usually within one page, the questions an hypothetical young scholar asks about several topics:

1) Writing: there are already many trainings in academic or creative writing. However, there is little reflection about how to address your audiences and speak to them in a way they will appreciate you

2) Publishing: between writing and publishing there is a peer review process whose dynamics you need to reflect upon to minimize rejection. Good articles get rejected because they are sent to the wrong journal or are presented in an improper way.

 3) Growing: What distinguishes a junior from a senior academic? There are many ways to grow academically and you need to choose your own way.

 4) Shining: You write, you publish, but you need to get yourself noticed. You also need to decide whom you want to be noticed by and what approach would give you most chances to emerge as a scholar.

 5) Niching:  you cannot be famous everywhere but amongst certain audiences. There is no academic “Olympus” but many and you need to choose which one to enter. What are your selling points and what publics can best appreciate you?

 6) Networking: working solo is fine, but collaborations help you to get faster where you want to. Whom to network with depends on your career choices. But a reflection is needed.

 7) Funding: everyone is asked, at some stage of their career, to do fundraising. But does everyone need to secure funding? And what kind of funding (multi-million or in kind) is for you?

 Surviving academia?

Academia is a perverse world where pressure comes, rather than from your institution, from yourself. Think of how many tasks, formally counting little towards your promotion, you signed up for, often voluntarily, in the past year.

The main idea behind the book is that when making career choices you should think, rather than ticking boxes; prioritise the things that make sense strategically to your career (and your employer of course) and leave time for your life and the things that you love to do and that made you choose an academic career in the first instance. 

Identify things that you can and neglect them, without feeling (too) guilty about it: simply accept that you cannot possibly please everyone and this applies also to untenured scholars. Since you won’t be able to do all the things officially needed to get tenure, concentrate on what you do best, develop a unique profile and you will find your niche.

 Going from 10 to 5 articles a year might sound like going down. But time is limited and perhaps this year you devoted more time to your family, hobbies or took time to reflect about your life. This is also an achievement. Few will admit it but, in the long term, your career highly depends on how healthy you stay in your mind.

 I like to think of the book as a half autobiography that explains how certain things have worked for me. They won’t necessarily work for you but you can take advantage of my reflections and cost-benefits analyses so to come up with your own career strategy.

Thanks Abel – feel free to check out his book via the link the bio.

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On finishing ‘early’

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

Recently I published a post from Carmen Blythe on finishing the PhD in 2 years, which provoked a storm of comments. Some people pointed out the many advantages that Carmen had, which helped her finish in such a short time. You might have been left wondering: what about ‘normal people’ – can they finish early to?

There are a bunch of PhD students who routinely finish early: part timers. While they are more likely to drop out in the first couple of years, statistically people who start as a part timer to finish much earlier than their full time comrades; sometimes within four years (which is like being enrolled for two years full time). I guess we don’t notice this happening around us because finishing in 4 years instead of 8 means you are still around for a long-ish time. Truly, our part time students are the quiet achievers of the PhD world. I’ve wanted to highlight this phenomenon for a while, so I was glad when Alison sent in this post.

Dr Alison Bedford is a recent PhD graduate from the University of Southern Queensland, parent, wife, secondary History and English teacher, sessional lecturer in History teacher education, and generally busy human. Her research interests include Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, Foucault’s concept of discourse, science fiction and History curriculum and pedagogy. You can find her on LinkedIn and Twitter @bedforda1

Engaging with #phdchat on Twitter and other platforms is equal parts terrifying and hilarious for a new PhD candidate (see @legogradstudent and @GameofAcademics as evidence). The internet can quickly become a vortex of stories of bad supervision, huge writing deadlines and long journeys through the Valley of Shit. It seems that stories of happy, early completion of a PhD are as real as unicorns.

But as @thesiswhisperer points out in the later chapters of How to Be an Academic, if it was all bad, people wouldn’t finish their PhDs or become academics at all. To that end, I would like to share a positive PhD story. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows (because nothing ever is) but I hope it serves as a counterpoint to the many stories of woe (which are important in highlighting some of the deep inequities and flaws in the current state of academia in Australia and elsewhere).

My wife and I decided to start a family in 2013; at the same time I was offered the chance to enrol in a PhD in English Literature. So, with three months to go before our baby, Nigel-Wade*, arrived (my wife carried him), I started my doctoral studies. “How hard can it be? Babies sleep all the time!” I thought. “You’re mad!” I was told by my colleagues and boss, who nonetheless gave me their total support. So there’s the first three positives: I had a supportive partner, a full-time job (more on this later) and supportive colleagues. Having that good personal support network was obviously a huge advantage and the first sprinkle of unicorn-magic.

The other big advantage I had was a crack supervisory team (see The Tyranny of the Awesome Supervisor) who had different but complementary approaches to my work. This meant instead of feedback in stereo or open disagreement, feedback on my writing was often double-layered and therefore doubly helpful. One supervisor tended to provoke me to think more deeply and read more widely to enrich my scholarship, while the other got into the nitty-gritty, honing my writing and developing my academic voice. I know this is not everyone’s experience and I cannot advocate strongly enough that finding a good supervisor is one of the key ingredients to being able to become a PhD unicorn.

Yes, I did say earlier I had a full-time job (and I continue to do so). Work and study are not incompatible, but another bout of unicorn-magic made this work well for me. As a school teacher, I get about 12 weeks of holidays a year (for angry rants about how little teachers do, please see MP Andrew Laming). As my wife prepared for her return to work, Nigel-Wade was enrolled in a day-care centre we loved. Him being in care allowed me to work full-time on my thesis in my school holidays (I have been teaching for 15 years and so have been able to get to a point where I rarely have to bring work home) and so I would not speak to my supervisors for the 10 weeks of term, then send them 5000 words at the end of each holiday. I think the key here is not finding a work/study balance, but rather being very productive in the time you give to both. I work hard at work and at uni to ensure I have the time for other things.

So, my recipe for unicorn-magic so far, is support, good supervision, and good time management – if you aren’t across these read ALL THE POSTS on the Thesis Whisperer blog immediately! The real horn on the horse though is WRITING. I watched another PhD student read, and read, and read, and read… and then not submit their unfinished thesis because they had overwhelmed themselves with research and were unable to find a way through to a finished product. Even if it is not your natural mode of working, writing to think or to synthesise is a unicorn-hack of epic proportions. My own approach was to do a ‘chunk’ of research and reading (e.g. second-wave feminist responses to Mary Shelley, or understanding the methodology of contextual biography) – this might be a few days or a week, but rarely more than two weeks. At the end of this time, I would turn all my notes into prose – much of which became a part of my thesis or where spun off into conference papers of publication submissions. The first 2000 words I wrote for my literature review were rubbish, but as I read more, I added and refined chunks until it evolved into the 12000+ word chapter in my thesis.

I studied part-time, while raising a child and working full-time (I went 0.8 in my last year to allow me to engage more consistently with my work as it approached completion) and submitted my thesis for examination 5 years and 2 months after I started, 10 months prior to my official deadline for submission. I know I am hugely privileged to have had all of the positive experiences I have had and lucky that my studies were not derailed by serious illness or disaster (because as everyone knows #lifehappens). Was it all rainbows and sunshine? No. Of course I would have preferred to spend my holidays at home with my boy and I am revelling in that now I can. The guilt all parents feel of putting their child in care is real and unavoidable. Did I have negative experiences? Yes. The dressing down from a senior academic at one of my first conferences made me question the validity of my work.  The elation of a book contract was quickly dashed by a soul-destroying peer review that saw the contract vanish in a puff of very un-unicorn-like smoke.

Doing a PhD is not easy. But some have it easier than others and it is possible to become that mythical creature who finishes their studies in the given time with their personal lives and health intact. Following much of the wonderful advice in the #phdchat community and writing often might mean when you wander into the forest of academia, you are the one rare unicorn who emerges unscathed.

*note: this is the pseudonym we used for our unborn foetus, we did not name our child Nigel or Wade and we definitely didn’t hyphenate the two. Apologies to any Nigel-Wades reading this.

Thanks Alison – I commend your steady diligence that led to such a good outcome. Calling all part time students out there: are you closer to the end than you should be at this stage? How do you make time to progress your research amongst all the other things you do? Please share your part time magic unicorn dust with us all!

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How your writing centre can help you finish your PhD

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - August 21, 2019 - 4:00am

Being a research developer is a bit like being a GP: problems looked at early can be treated easily, but the longer the patient waits, the less we can help. 

This post is on the value of getting problems in writing treated early and is by Dr. G. David “Dave” Beasley. Dave completed his PhD in eighteenth-century British fiction at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) in 2017. His work focuses on the intersections between Gothic fiction, Enlightenment, and dissenting religious communities. He is also interested in the Gothic’s impact on the development of detective fiction. He is currently the Professional Writing Consultant at the UNLV Writing Center. More information can be found by visiting: https://writingcenter.unlv.edu/our-staff/administration

One of the most difficult things about the dissertation process is its solitary nature. When I reached that stage of my degree, I felt like people told me to go sit in a corner and write until I produced something perfect and brilliant. It took me a long time to understand that my dissertation was never going to be perfect; it took me an even longer time to understand that it wasn’t supposed to be. By the end of the process, I felt completely isolated by and with my dissertation and was at a loss as to what to do about it. What I know now is that at least some of that could have been rectified had I taken full advantage of campus resources, especially the campus writing center.

It is possible that I am overly biased in favor of writing centers because I now work full-time as a professional writing consultant in one, but I also know that the writing center is a great and often overlooked resource for those in the midst of the dissertation process. Some of this is the fault of writing centers; we often do not do as much as we could or should to reach out to graduate students. Much of it, however, seems to be rooted in outmoded notions of writing centers: many students, graduate or otherwise, do not make use of writing centers because they think that writing centers are places where “bad” or “broken” writing goes to “fixed,” or they think that writing centers are places where grammar scolds pontificate on the wonders of the semicolon and/or yell at students about commas with coordinating conjunctions. The dissertation process only exacerbates these concerns because they are overlaid by the certainty that no one in the writing center is going to have the content knowledge to be of any help to someone working through a dissertation.

Happily, much of this is not true. Writing centers can certainly help with grammar and punctuation if need be, but the goal of most writing centers is to engage writers about their ideas. One thing is true though: odds are that no one will be an expert on the content of your dissertation. But that does not matter in the least. Good writing centers count on writers to be experts in their subject areas; their goal is to help the writer think through those ideas as thoroughly as possible while offering assistance with structure, organization, and formatting. What’s more is that many, if not most, writing centers are staffed by graduate students and administrative faculty with advanced degrees. As a writing center administrator and consultant, I don’t have much content knowledge about most of the writing I work on with students—my PhD is in eighteenth-century British Gothic fiction—but I, along with almost every other consultant and administrator I know both at my university and other universities, have a wealth of knowledge about argument structure, good consulting practices, academic writing, and documenting sources.

The technical aspects of academic writing are important, but perhaps the most valuable service offered by writing centers is the non-evaluative nature of a writing consultation. What I mean by that is that writing centers are places where no one is going to sit in judgment of your research or your writing because writing centers understand that drafts are works in progress by their very nature. As a result, they are great places to go to get initial feedback on a chapter or a section of your dissertation. Also, most writing centers do not require you to have a draft already in order to have a consultation. Some of the best consultations I have are with writers that come in looking to make an outline or to discuss ideas before they start drafting. A good consultant can help you to see the strengths and weaknesses of your argument, and they can help you devise a strategy that will allow you, your ideas, and your research to shine.

Writing centers are also a chance to get a second pair of eyes on something before it goes to your committee chair. Sending written work to my chair was always daunting for me. To some extent, I think this comes with the dissertation territory, but I also think that my writing, my dissertation, and my mental health would have benefitted from regular writing center consultations. Many writing centers also allow students to request specific consultants to work with, so you often will have the opportunity to develop a relationship with a consultant and work with them over the course of your entire dissertation. I have a number of graduate students and faculty members that I work with over the course of entire projects; these relationships are part of what makes writing center work so worthwhile for me. Additionally, I regularly meet with one of our consultants to brainstorm ideas and to get a second opinion on my own writing.

In short, writing centers are an excellent but often overlooked campus resource that all graduate students, but especially those writing dissertations, should make use of regularly. Let me close on this note: chances are, you pay some sort of student fee that goes directly or indirectly to your university writing center; those folks are going to get paid whether you show up or not, so give them something to do. You will be glad you did.

Thanks Dave! How about you? Have you visited an expert like Dave or myself for advice? Was it helpful?

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Keep the quirky bits! Turing your PhD into a best selling book

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - July 31, 2019 - 4:02am

Dr Lynne Kelly has authored and sold more books than anyone else I know – and I live a life surrounded by people who write and publish for a living. I’ve known Lynne for many years, both personally and professionally. She wrote non-fiction books before she started her PhD so perhaps it is no surprise that she is the only person I know who turned her PhD into both a serious ‘academic book’ and a best selling non fiction book: ‘The Memory Code’. 

I didn’t feel up to reading her more serious tome, so I bought the Memory Code and it totally blew my mind. It’s hard to describe, but basically Lynne connects places like Stonehenge with ancient Australian Aboriginal memory practices and shows how oral cultures stored knowledge in material things. I’m ashamed to admit that I needed someone to make a connection to my own (very white) heritage in order to start to really understand the incalculable loss of Australian Aboriginal knowledges and cultures that has happened over the last 200 years, but Lynne did this for me. I am deeply grateful to the Aboriginal elders who willingly shared their practices with her so that she could write the book and I’m glad that so many have kept these practices alive against almost overwhelming odds.

Deep respect.

Lynne’s Memory Code book got a lot of kudos as well as selling a heap. It was even listed as the favourite book of a famous actor in an airline magazine (I think this might be the only time in history a PhD has been recognised in this way!). She followed up ‘The Memory Code’ with a new book called ‘Memory Craft’ which I haven’t read yet, but is prominently featured in every bookstore I have visited lately, so I assume it’s doing equally as well as her first one. When she offered to share a bit of her wisdom on how to turn your PhD into a best selling non-fiction book, I jumped at the chance.

Are you writing a PhD in the humanities or business and would like to be a best selling author and make real money from your PhD? Read on. Sorry people in the sciences – most of you probably won’t be interested in this post, but if you are the type of scientist who would like to be the next Neal DeGrasse Tyson, also read on!

Here’s Lynne’s official bio:

After a long career in secondary education, Dr Lynne Kelly is an Honorary Research Associate at LaTrobe University. She researches the memory systems used by indigenous cultures and early literate cultures around the world. She now implements contemporary adaptations of these memory methods in her own life, in schools and with adults of all ages. Lynne’s research offers a radical purpose for ancient monuments including Stonehenge, and is published by Cambridge University Press as Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies(2015). A version for the mainstream reader, The Memory Code(Allen & Unwin, 2016) is also published in the US, UK and translated into a number of foreign languages. The Memory Craft(Allen & Unwin, 2019) offers readers the way to implement these memory systems in their own lives. She won the Senior division of the Australian Memory Championships in 2017 and 2018. You can find out more about Lynne on her website. Take it away Lynne!

The cover of Lynne’s latest book ‘Memory Craft’

Posts and comments on this blog talk about the lack of respect for doctoral qualifications awarded to us elites, closeted in our ivory towers. We not only have the ability to change this misconception, I believe we have an obligation. We must stop worrying what other academics will think and write for the general public once we have that title and bit of paper, if not before.

Some of the most valuable moments of your research will never make it into your thesis and have no place in academic journal. Those quirky bits, the things that you laugh about over coffee, are the gold that makes you human rather than an automated wordsmith.

Seven years ago I completed my PhD thesis about the incredible knowledge systems of indigenous cultures and how they memorise vast amounts of pragmatic information. I used these ideas in archaeological interpretation offering new insights into the purpose of monuments such as Stonehenge and lesser-known sites. I turned the thesis into an academic monograph for Cambridge University Press. That impressive looking book granted me authority and status and little else. Almost no-one read it.

I wrote a serious non-fiction book for the mainstream market, adding in Easter Island, the Nazca lines and other ‘mysterious’ sites. The Memory Code attracted a lot of attention to my research.  I wrote articles for mainstream magazines and blogs. My most recent book is a how-to book on optimising your memory. Can you imagine me presenting about Memory Craft at an academic conference? It is drawing even more attention to my serious research.

The clue for writing for a general audience is in those little anecdotes that you chatted about over coffee and people found interesting. As you focus on the thesis, just scribble them down. That notebook will be a treasure trove to be plundered when you surface from the struggle.

For example, the Luba people of The Congo use a piece of carved wood about 20 cm long, encrusted with beads and shells, as a memory device. According to the academic literature, this lukasa was used to encode an unimaginable amount of cultural knowledge. In my thesis and academic work, I quoted that research. But the truth is, I didn’t really believe it. It was just too grandiose a claim. So I grabbed a bit of wood from the guys who were building our veranda and glued on some beads and shells. I started encoding a field guide to the 412 birds of Victoria. I was astonished how effective this memory device proved to be.

I confessed over dinners that, much to my shame, even such sloppy research justified the claims of the Luba. That quirky bit made its way into The Memory Code and has been quoted back to me more times than I care to remember. Many readers have been similarly astonished at how well a lukasa has worked for them.

Confessing my stupidity brings me down from that ivory tower and invites readers into my world.

All indigenous cultures use memory palaces, a technique which is almost always attributed to the ancient Greeks. Basically, you walk around building and associate a bit of information with each location within. When you want to remember that information, you imagine yourself walking round that building again, location by location, and the information will come back to you in sequence. Cicero and St Augustine wrote about it; Homer almost certainly employed it. My research showed this method is used by all indigenous cultures, and to much more impressive effect. Australian aboriginal songlines, Native American pilgrimage trails and the Inca ceques are all examples. In the thesis and academic tome, I justified that claim with lots of research and people’s names in brackets.

For the broader public, I talk about encoding the landscape around my home with a history trail starting from 4,500 million years ago until the present. I used to walk this path with my little dog. When I got to the Cretaceous, little Epsilon-pi would always turn and pull to go home. I would pick her up and carry her until we arrived at the Cenozoic when all the dinosaurs had been wiped out. From then on, she would walk happily. That anecdote is quoted back to me constantly. A few sentences about a little dog brought to life the way I was physically walking my landscape and attaching information to it, and through that, to the amazing feats achieved by indigenous cultures through their songlines and pilgrimage trails.

If you want to write serious books books or articles to go beyond an academic audience, then imagine yourself having dinner with a Year 12 student who has no background in your subject. And try to make them laugh or cry. If you want to reach an even broader audience, make that a Year 10 student.

Don’t try to justify everything by referring to a higher authority; the urge to cite is so ingrained in us. You are already the authority. Readers trust that the academic stuff is in the background somewhere because you have a doctorate.

If your research is very narrow and you can’t imagine the mainstream audience taking any notice, then ask yourself about the bigger picture. How did you get hooked into this little corner of knowledge? How can you make your experience relevant to a reader’s life? Is there some sidetrack you’ve taken that really grabbed your attention even though it doesn’t fit in the thesis? Is there some story, preferably scandalous, about one of the people related to your research? Is there any way your research relates to popular culture?

The way to peoples’ hearts and enthusiasm is to put yourself in the story and tell them about the quirky bits. You are not an academic coming from on high but a flawed person trying to understand something which excites you. Excite them too, and they will view academia very differently.

Thanks so much Lynne: I’ve got Memory Craft on my bedside table to read next! Now I am wondering what you think. Have you thought about how you might write a best seller using your PhD research? We find it hard to engage people in the three minute thesis competition – but it’s great place to start if you have a popular book burning inside you, wanting to get out (ANU students, see this page for details).  Interested to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

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What’s therapy got to do with it?

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - July 31, 2019 - 4:00am

It can be hard to reach out for help when you are feeling down. I avoided therapy until I was 47, even though I knew I could probably benefit. Looking back, I wonder why I waited so long. The chance to talk about your self for an hour in a situation where someone has to listen sympathetically is amazingly… well, therapeudic. I’m a huge fan of therapy now and tell everyone to go, but I have noticed that some people get really uncomfortable when I suggest it, particularly men. Therefore I would like to thank Alex for sending in this post.

Alex Hubert graduated from the University of Kent with an MPhys in 2014. He then decided with what he described as ‘overwhelming naivety’ to take on the challenge of a PhD Warwick University. He is hoping to submit this year. He loves giving presentations, both scientific and non-scientific and is a frequent speaker at the Warwick physics postgraduate seminar series. Currently, I he is writing a series of talks on wellbeing using stories from is own life. You can find out more about Alex on his website.

Often, I have heard the phrase, “Physicists aren’t human”. Said in jest about an awkward social encounter, or unpopular interest. I know why it is said. It is supposed to raise up the physicist, to say in a comedic fashion ‘we don’t need to be human, we don’t need deep relationships. We have our deep connection with physics and that is enough’. It is something I believed for a long time. To the mental health of a physicist it is an incredibly dangerous idea.

I entered counselling when I was 18. I had absolutely no idea what it was for and how it would help me. All I knew is that counselling was the place people went to when they felt like the world was too much to continue functioning as a human being. When emotions became too much. It was the place where humans entered feeling rubbish, and left feeling great. It turns out instead of knowing very little about counselling, I knew absolutely nothing about it.

I am still in counselling (I’m 27 now). It has done more for my PhD than any lecture course, more than any supportive friendship, even more than my supervisor (but don’t tell him that!). At 23, a year into my PhD, I had something akin to Serotonin Syndrome. It left me couch bound unable to set foot outside without an onslaught of an A4 page list of anxiety and panic symptoms. At one point even the act of eating would set off the anxiety. I did use counselling to get better, but that is a story for another day. I now stand near the end of my PhD, a published physicist, my thesis written and submitted. I learnt that counselling wasn’t a treatment at all. It was an education. An emotional one.

And even though I am a physicist, and I practice physics, I am a human being doing it. With my human brain and my human emotions driving it. All aspects in my PhD have a psychology to it, from using anxiety to help check all the possible things that could go wrong with an experiment, to the excitement and happiness associated with a new understanding. All these emotions run behind the scenes at each of our desks, driving our work and more importantly our relationships. And the vast majority of us have absolutely no formal education in them, other than what our parents picked up from their parents and so on.

I am still in counselling not because I feel low or frustrated, or any of the other possible traditional reasons. I am very content with my life and ‘happy’. I am still in counselling to continue my education. The more I understand how others see the world and how I relate to them, the greater number of connections I can make, the more contented I feel.

In our specialist, career orientated culture we isolate ourselves from subjects and people we do not know. We give ourselves a name and stick with it for the rest of our lives, we feel safe, powerful even. But not content. We feel alone.

I am not just a physicist; I am much more than that.

Thanks for sharing Alex: Does anyone else want to bravely share their stories of therapy? My feeling is, the more we talk about it, the more we normalise it and that can only be a good thing.

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A 5 step program for finishing your PhD (finally!)

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

Part of the fun of being Thesis Whisperer is the emails I get from all around the world. Many of them outline classic PhD student dilemmas, which are excellent blog fodder, such as this one, from Laura S:

Have you, or have you considered anything along the lines of *actually finishing* writing? I can produce writing like nobody’s business, and get well on my way into a paper. Finishing, however, is agony. I think this is in part because I’m a lateral thinker and a perfectionist. I’m sure you are familiar with these traits! It is also, however (as I’ve recently discovered) a particular challenge for folks with ADHD. Discovering as an adult that I had ADHD has been a real light on a lot of my patterns and tendencies, so when I feel ready (i.e. more research) I would be happy to contribute a couple of blogs on the topic if you are interested and think it would be helpful to others.

Now, I can’t talk about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder specifically because I am not an expert, but I do know a thing or two about finishing a piece of writing. The ‘Thesis Bootcamp’ program I run at ANU helps PhD students who have run out of time to complete their dissertation. The program is insanely popular, but it’s expensive to run. We can only take 26 people from up to 100 applicants, so we must choose people who are most at risk of dropping out. We look for people who have done most of the thinking and just need to write. Our selection strategy means most of our Bootcampers have faced significant challenges along the way, such as failed experiments, ill-health and conflict with advisors. Despite these issues, most of these people just need to sit down and, well – write. Sadly they can’t seem to do this on their own because they feel ‘stuck’. It’s almost like they have late stage dissertation constipation. 

image by @matbotsfield on Unsplash

At thesis Bootcamp, we use a range of strategies to help people move on from this ‘stuck’ feeling. We are proud that everyone who spends a weekend with us writes at least 5000 words, and many write more. At least a couple of people hit our ‘stretch goal’ of 20,000 words. After watching over 400 people go through this program, I’ve got a good idea of what it takes to finish a dissertation. Below is my patented, trialled and tested 5 step program for drawing a line under your PhD studies and calling it done.

Step one: identify what is holding you back

In my experience, there is a range of factors at play in people feeling unable to finish, but most people are held back by fear. Some people are in a comfortable rut and fear what comes next after their PhD – especially if the job market for their skill set is unclear. Other people are perfectionists – functional or otherwise- who fear the dissertation they are crafting will not pass. Others fear confrontation with their supervisor over the content of the dissertation. 

Unpacking the feelings with a professional therapist is the best way I know to put these fears to rest, which is why we hire at least one for the Bootcamp weekend (sometimes we have two!). Having a therapist on hand while confronting the fear of finishing is amazingly powerful. Some people who have resisted therapy in the past are finally free to share their concerns with an expert who can help them lay those fears to rest. Later these therapy resisters tell me that confronting their fear of writing helped them with other issues too. Some have saved their marriage, others have got divorced, some change careers or cities – some even decide to drop out of their PhD. The program is meant to stop the dropouts of course, but I figure that helping a person move on with their life without the PhD is sometimes the best outcome.

Step two: commit to it

Some people have a habit of restarting their writing (or even their whole project) over and over again. The reason for restarting all the time seems rational until you dig a bit deeper and see a pattern that stretches right back to the beginning of candidature. Restarting over and over is a symptom of perfectionism: if you feel like your writing is misshapen and ugly, working with the text long enough to finish provokes a range of unpleasant feelings. One way to avoid the feelings is by starting again with a ‘clean slate’. Other people have trouble committing to a structure for the dissertation. These people can be functional perfectionists, who are willing to accept their ‘bad writing’ but get obsessed with finding the perfect structure for the whole work. You will never find the perfect structure because it’s an illusion. A dissertation is a story of the research done, that’s all. You could tell at least10 different stories; some will be better or worse, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter because the PhD endeavour is a pass/fail proposition. Perfect is the enemy of done.  Just find a structure and stick with it long enough to get the whole thing written. 

Another good avoidance strategy is to funnel creative energy into side projects. Instead of finishing the (now slightly boring) big project, I encounter people who are getting stuck into journal papers, articles, blogs, podcasts – you name it! There is always another creative distraction if you look for i. It’s easier, in the moment, to go for immediate gratification ahead of long term benefits.

I don’t want to shame anyone for these behaviours – I’ve done many of them myself. There’s no need to beat yourself up. In fact, the shame spiral just makes things worse. If you really want to finish, learning to focus is crucial. In the first instance, just notice and be aware of your behaviour. Noticing helps you develop strategies to counter the unhelpful patterns. When you feel like starting over again because you hate what you have written, put it away for a day or two and then come back. I guarantee the writing isn’t as bad as you thought it was when you come back to it. Self-talk helps too. When the feelings that everything you write is shit well up, say out loud: ‘ok, it isn’t perfect, but it will have to do for now’, or ‘I’ll come back to this later, let’s move on’. Self-talk can help you suspend judgment and just keep writing – which is most of the trick to finishing after all.

Step Three: Write the conclusion before you finish 

In my What do examiners really want? workshop, I advise people who are to write a draft of the conclusion to their dissertation at around the six-month mark. The suggestion always gets funny looks, but there’s method in my madness. Writing the conclusion sometimes helps you think through your methods: what experiments or data gathering would you need to do to prove anything you said? Writing a draft of your conclusion also forces you to surface assumptions and biases so that you can be aware of them as you process your data. People ask whether writing the conclusion early is ‘cheating’. Of course, it would be if you just constructed the whole project to ‘prove’ what you thought in the first place – that isn’t research. My view is, writing the conclusion early is acceptable as long as you:

  1. consciously write the conclusion draft as a thought exercise only and/or 
  2. use the draft as part of the development of your project and method, and 
  3. take the opportunity to examine and critique your own biases. 

Writing the conclusion can work when you are close to the end as well. When you’ve finished most of the other writing, doing the conclusion can usefully narrow the scope of what remains to be written. The conclusion fixes your endpoint and forces you to commit to finishing – sort of like aiming an arrow at a target. Give it a try and see.

Step Four: list it out

When you have written the conclusion, start a list about what you want to achieve in the piece of writing and tick it off as you go. Making a list forces you to articulate a pathway to the end and define what ‘finished’ means. For example, at the moment I am working on a journal article about what non-academic employers want, using job ads as data. Here’s my list of provisional goals for the paper:

  • Why is it important to know what non-academic employers want?
  • Tell the reader why using job ads is a good approach and how you have used them.
  • Explain the key findings – particularly the unexpected ones
  • Explain the new curriculum model and how it could be used in research education and policy development.

The list is not a writing outline – I can address these points in any order I want to. The paper will be ‘finished’ when I’ve written about everything on the list to my satisfaction, so I try to keep the list as short as possible. After the first brainstorm, I leave it for a few days, review it (or share it with co-authors) and then finalise the ‘master list’. I then pretend the master list is not allowed to be altered. This forces me to commit. In my experience, this mind game is remarkably effective, but it only works for short pieces, so if you are employing this technique for a dissertation, do a goal list for each chapter.

Step Five: Imagine life without the dissertation

At Bootcamp we ask people to write on a single post-it note a fun, non-work thing they have been putting off doing. The answers range from ‘sleeping as long as I want’ to ‘having a baby’ or ‘riding a motorcycle around Sicily’. We then encourage people to imagine how they will feel when they do those things they have put off. People sit with dreamy smiles on their faces as they contemplate the bliss of a dissertation free life complete with babies, motorcycle rides and endless sleep (well, not all at once – I don’t think those things are compatible really!). We encourage people to keep the post-it note as a handy reminder of the long term rewards they can have if they do the boring, finishing bit first. Some people tell me they hang on to this encouraging piece of paper for years afterwards!

Ultimately, if you decide to finish, you will. And that’s all I have to say on the subject of Taming your PhD. Why don’t you go off now and do it?

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