Category Archives: Top 10s

Is your conference audience really listening? Some uncomfortable truths

This is a follow-up to my posts about presentations and how to bore your audience. I also intend to write one soon about conference questions and how to deal with them, building on a recent post elsewhere on this issue.

I was motivated to write it when I was advising a student preparing to give a presentation, and I was thinking about my recent conference experiences.

Here’s the basic uncomfortable truth I think is worth confronting:

Many people in the audience in academic conferences is not listening closely to what you are saying, and those who are may be on the point of switching off anyway.

Why? Several reasons, some or all of which may not apply to particular conference circumstances. But the take home message – about making yourself, what you have to say, and any visual accompaniment SUPER-UBER-HYPER-MEGA interesting – remains true. It’s like 3 minute thesis but longer, without losing any of the punchiness, engagement, or entertainment.

 

Reason 1: they’re not there to listen to you anyway

Many conferences clump papers together into longer sessions with 4 or 5 presenters, maybe 15 minutes each. If you’re lucky these are on related ideas. Commonly the links between them are somewhat spurious. Either way, chances are you are not the star presenter that has put all those bums on seats (ignoring for now the fact that it is highly likely that there are more empty seats than those warming gently under academics’ backsides). They’ve come for the guru who’s on after you, or just because the guru is the discussant or chair. Or they’ve come for their colleague who is on before you. Or maybe they are just there because that’s the room they were in for the previous session and they’ve got so absorbed in their emails / youtube / facebook that they haven’t realised the session has changed.

 

Reason 2: what you’re saying is probably boring

Many presenters make the crucial error of assuming that other people are at all interested in what they have to say. That interest should not be taken for granted. It cannot by assumed by virtue of the fact that there are people in the room (see point 1). You have to earn it. Telling them about all the policy context and all the existing literature is not a good way to do that. Their puny interest levels have already plummeted somewhere close to absolute zero and short of a change in temperate of an order of magnitude required to produce nuclear fusion, you ain’t getting it back.

 

Reason 3: what you’re showing is mind-numbingly dull too

Readers of this blog will know I’m not a huge fan of bullet points (to put it midly). Perhaps you are reading what’s on the screen, making both yourself dull and the screen irrelevant. Perhaps you’ve got an overwhelming amount of text etc etc you know the score. The point is, your slides are probably as visually appealing or aesthetically pleasing as a bland thing that fell out of the bland tree and hit every bland branch on its way down to the bland ground.

 

Or perhaps, you’ve put crap and pointless animations in or are using prezi badly and have given your audience seasickness.

 

Reason 4: you’re being utterly outclassed by the competition

I find it helpful to think of conference presentations in terms of attention economics. Attention economy is not my idea (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attention_economy) but it’s a good one.

Basically in any situation, academic presentations in particular, lots of different things are competing for each individual’s attention. On the street it’s signs, adverts, other people’s clothes, pets, hot air balloons, dog turds, whatever. In the conference the competition is fierce. It’s huge. It’s immense. It’s…

 

 

wait for it

 

 

 

 

THE INTERNET!

 

Holy sh!t. Yes. Every conference I have gone to in the past couple of years has had wifi available for delegates in session rooms.

The nice idea is that people will be tweeting about what they hear and creating online scholarly discussion. This happens. A bit. Sometimes. If there is an ‘r’ in the month. And a full moon. And nothing has happened in the news, at all, for the past 10-15 days.

The rest of the time, your audience (who are either absent, not there to hear you, or bored to tears already) are being tempted away by…. THE INTERNET!

(and for those of you who’ve seen Avenue Q, we all know what the internet is really great for, don’t we? [that was a joke btw; I’ve never used the internet for that purpose and certainly don’t condone it, particularly not in conferences; it would be very embarrassing if you got caught, for one thing])

Maybe there’s work emails piling up that they would like to delete

Maybe they’re going on google and checking out your web presence on uni websites or academia.edu and coming to the conclusion that (i) you’ve got heaps of publications that they can read later, and given this experience, should really be saying something more interesting in front of them right now, or (ii) you’ve got no publications and therefore probably aren’t worth listening to; or (iii) can’t be found on the web, therefore don’t actually exist and your presence in the room is just a clever but sadly wasteful illusion.

Maybe they’re on facebook. A little red dot has just appeared on their web browser tab telling them they have a new message and it is oh so tempting just to flick and see what it is. How tempting to flick back to your home page or the conference twitter thread? About as tempting as switching chocolate cake with hot chocolate sauce and home made vanilla ice cream for last week’s dried lentils with stale bread.

Maybe they gave up long ago and are cruising nicely through a series of youtube videos. Lady gaga’s latest, a cow falling over in a field, or something equally enthralling (compared to your presentation, that is).

Maybe they’re watching live news streaming as nothing happens outside a hospital where a famous person has been admitted, or where a royal baby hasn’t yet been born.

Even if they don’t have the internet, and there might be some luddites in the room who have these weird old fangled things called pens and paper, they still have the infinite freedom and pleasure of doodling. Seriously, and I’m being totally honest here, some of the best roller coaster designs I’ve ever come up with have been done in conferences. (Yes I’m a roller coaster fanatic and my dream job is to be a roller coaster designer).

 

So there you have it

The set-up is against you in many ways. So unless you’re really engaging and interesting, you might as well be talking to a brick wall. Your parents / supervisor / best friend in the audience don’t count. Don’t just look at them and assume everyone is paying attention like they are (maybe they’re faking it anyway, or you’ve lost them too and they are busy checking out the latest viral clip from a vacuous TV talent show).

Don’t assume they’re there because of you. Don’t forget to earn their interest. And don’t forget you have to work really hard to keep it. Because other things are working their hardest to steal any hard won attention you have got.

Advertisements

Look before you leap (part 1): 10 things you should know about a PhD but may not have been told

1.     You and your work are crucial to the future of humanity and the world

No, really. Fact is, society needs knowledge. Society is changing. We need new knowledge. We are constantly playing catch-up, as well as relying on people to get one step ahead and shape our visions for the future. Without research we are doomed. And without doctoral students, a huge portion of the research pie simply disappears. Estimates put doctoral research output at over 50% of all research output in some countries (eg. Australia).

But it’s not just that doctoral students provide an army of research worker-ants (though they do and are increasingly seen in this light at a policy level). The point is doctoral work is cherished because in many ways it is unlike much other research. In arts and social sciences, where we tend not to join existing projects in labs, doctoral students get to pursue research agendas that are much more independent of the foibles, whims, narrowness of vision, and oddities of assessment that plague competitive funding for academic staff. Even in labs, students try things out and develop ideas that might never otherwise get done. We simply couldn’t do without doctoral students and the research they do.

2.     You’re in an astonishing position of privilege: don’t waste it

You’ll almost certainly never get the chance to repeat the kind of research process that your doctorate offers. Thank god! I hear you cry, it’s painful enough the first time! But think like this: afterwards, if you continue to work in research (in HE or Industry) 3-4 years full time equivalent to read, develop questions, explore methods, read some more, write, and re-write under close supervision will seem like an unreal paradise. The thrill of finding your independence, charting your path, going where your passions take you can rarely be unleashed in quite the same way. Whether you have a scholarship or are self-funding, circumstances have contrived to put you in a position of immense privilege. If you can’t match this privilege with your enthusiasm, passion, willingness to take on challenges, put in the hours, and do things outside your comfort zone, consider stepping aside and allow people who deserve the privilege to take your place. Seriously. It’s too precious to be wasted on half-hearted going through the motions (but please note the caveat relating to point 8: we can not always be fantastically motivated and energetic all the time).

3.     You’re in an astonishing position of privilege: don’t fail us

Your position of privilege should not be abused. Society invests in doctoral research (and even if you’re paying your own fees, you’re not footing the entire bill). You’ve got to deliver. The future of humanity and the biosphere depend on it (see above). There are lots of ways to squander your privilege, or make people question whether it was worth extending it to you in the first place. Constant moaning about how hard it is doesn’t help (get a grip. It’s a doctorate. Of course it’s hard. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be such a high degree would it?! And it’s not like everyone else’s life is easy anyway). From an outsider’s point of view, it’s a pretty raw deal if your hard work ends up gathering dust in a library shelf and isn’t made public and accessible somehow (not having time is no excuse). Dragging your thesis way out beyond reasonable timeframes places great strain on your institution, sometimes even negative penalties. Many students also have obligations to families and people in their care. They can only accommodate your hiding away in your office at nights and weekends for so long. Don’t plan a Nobel Prize, and if you feel the timeline slipping away, seek help, discuss with your supervisor how to change gears, send yourself on writing bootcamp, whatever it takes to get it done. Remember most theses are abandoned rather than perfected.

4.     No-one really gets what you’re doing or cares as much as you do

No, I am not contradicting myself (see point 1). Your PhD is more important to you than to anyone else in the world (don’t assume people see doctorates in the terms of point 1). Yes your supervisor(s) and institution care, but to a large degree because they want you to finish. Kind of the opposite of the golden handshake: “Hi, welcome to the PhD program. Now when do you think you’ll be leaving us?”. If you’re lucky and your supervisors won’t move, retire or die while you’re working on it. Even so their investment in your work is not the same as yours. Your husband / wife / partner / children / friends might care about you as a person, and for your wellbeing. They might even do the polite thing and occasionally ask how it’s all going, or even what it’s actually about. Truth is the answer they want is “Fine thanks. It’s about [topic in 5]”.

A friend of mine, when asked what he was doing for his doctorate would say ‘I’m working on a cure for cancer’. This response had many great qualities: brevity, clarity, and a pointing to something unquestionably worthwhile. In actual fact he spent his days doing what struck me as mind-numbingly dull experiments on cows’ feet. I digress but my point is, getting people to care is rarely a question of lengthy, detailed explanations of how you’re using critical theory, or doing advanced computer modelling of metal fatigue. You’re putting an end to racism! Stopping tall buildings from falling down!

To many people your PhD and the idea of a PhD will remain an enigma. They think you should get a proper job. They wonder what you do all day, and seeing your incessant facebook updates etc, come to the conclusion that you generally have a lie in, surf the net, drink coffee, come home before the traffic gets bad, and still don’t bother to do the laundry or washing up.

Two responses here: (1) acknowledging that many people in your life simply don’t and won’t get it: what you’re doing, why, how it’s hard, how come there’s next to nothing to show for it until right and the end, and even then it’s a huge anti-climax and you’ve lost your hair or gone grey in the process. (2) doing some targeted relational work, perhaps with the people closest to you, helping them understand that you’re not a state-funded dosser and that while you’d love to the washing up all day, sometimes Foucault (or the lab, archives, whatever) just can’t wait, and that writing 80,000 words isn’t as simple as writing 80,000 words. Figuring out your equivalent of ‘I’m working on a cure for cancer’ will help.

The third response is where even the most innocent “how’s it going?” question, or even no question at all, is interpreted by you as an invitation to moan about your supervisor, give a 2-hour lecture on postmodernism, or criticise the university bureaucracy. Look, mate, I’m simply not that interested, and can only keep up the pretence so far.

4b. Even the people who you think should really care, don’t automatically do so

Examiners, editors, reviewers, funding assessors, conference audiences. They’ve all done a PhD themselves, they chose academic work, damn it, they even chose my field! Surely they’d all love to hear me talk about my work for the next 3 hours. ‘Fraid not. You’ve got to make them interested, make them care. But in a bit more of a sophisticated way that ‘I’m finding a cure for cancer!’.

In my experience PhD-student presentations and publications tend to go one of two ways. The first is intolerable indulgence that rarely gets beyond ‘I find this really interesting and look at all this stuff I’ve read!’. The second says ‘Hey, I’ve got a really fresh idea and in a really short time I’m going to convince you that a new way of thinking is not only possible, but really worthwhile’. Which are you going to give? As an academic I depend on PhD scholarship to push the boundaries of knowledge, do some of the most diligent lit reviewing, and chart new territory. I’m potentially your most sympathetic and invested ear. Don’t blow it by assuming I care.

5.     Yes it is hard

You don’t have to look far in the internet or into research about doctoral education to read of struggle. The readings are hard. The theory is complex. I don’t understand the stats. My analysis is driving me crazy! Transcription is soooo tedious. Yes. It will be hard. It’s designed to be hard. It has to be hard. Not so hard you can’t see a way through. Not so that you’re left alone, unaided to figure out humanity’s next great cognitive or cultural leap forward. I’ve no problem with students recounting stories of struggle, isolation, writing block etc. They’re actually very useful for normalising precisely my point: everyone finds it hard. If you don’t, you’re probably not doing it right. My problem is when this becomes: oh, woe is me that I find everything so hard, that my readings are so impenetrable, that my stats are so complicated. Or, when the slightest sign of challenge leads to defeatism or default reliance on supervisors (less from personal experience and more from research, this one). It’s like when people at work come and ask me how to fix their computer, and when I ask have they put a description of the problem in google and seen what comes up, they say no. Be ready for hard stuff. And be ready to be resourceful, resilient, creative and independent in dealing with hardship. Don’t be scared to seek support, but do so in a considered and necessary way, and without the whingeing please. But, don’t let things get out of hand: preserving your physical and mental health tops the priority list (see point 8).

6.     You will continue to feel like a fraud

Maybe this underlies some of the ‘oooh it’s so hard’ victimisation that can be so unhelpful. You somehow fluked all the exams you’ve ever sat. Your doctoral proposal was secretly a sham and you were admitted by mistake. You passed your comps or doctoral assessment / upgrade / transfer out of sheer luck. Someone, someday, will find you out. Such feelings don’t make you special or different. They make you utterly like everyone else. So stop moping and don’t let it get in your way. Insecurity is understandable and natural, but truly unhelpful (as is its counterpart in intellectual arrogance; see below). Acknowledge what is scary, where you feel on more shaky ground, discuss it with peers and supervisors (don’t be ashamed: we all feel like that, and I for one have more respect for people who can be honest about this kind of stuff than those who maintain a façade).

7.     You’re not all that

Sorry, it’s just a PhD. While you’re in a position of privilege that is saving humanity from impending doom etc etc, at the end of a day you’re trying to justify being awarded an academic degree. Simples. You may wish to refer to my blog post ‘Say goodbye to your Nobel Prize and get a doctorate instead’. Yes, you are becoming a world authority on your particular topic. But you’ve still got lots to learn. So do the Emeritus Professors, by the way. What probably got them there was an openness to new ideas. Particularly early on I would advise being a little tentative in your assertions about things like good and bad research, valid methods, good theories etc. Chances are your eyes may be opened over the next few years and you may well be reconsidering some of your inherited and entrenched views. Arrogance in newbies is never attractive.

8.     Permanent head damage

I’m not associating PhD with Permanent Head Damage to make light of mental health. Many societies are fraught with ignorance and unacceptance regarding mental illness, and incidence of severe anxiety and depression are not unknown among doctoral student populations. But actually, there’s the point: forewarned is to an extent forearmed.  Be alert to signs of mental stress, be ready to talk to others and seek help. Any supervisor worth her or his salt with think no less of you if you ask for referral to a counselling service, or share with her/him that you are experiencing problems. My flippancy as regards ‘oh it’s so hard moping’ assumes that you, the readers of this blog, are smart enough to know where the limits to such provocations lie. A doctorate is a significant and challenging thing that is hard (see point 5) and undertaken by people who often feel vulnerable (see point 6) and who by definition lack certain forms of research experience (see point 7). We cannot expect to go through life free of all stress, pressure, anxiety, and emotional wobbles. Doctorates are no different. Be prepared, think about the protective factors that help keep everyday stressors from combining into complex, chronic and/or acute conditions (things like time off, time with family and friends, sleep, proper diet, contact with nature, saying no to things, exercise…). And don’t hesitate to seek help (the IT-google point doesn’t apply in this context). A doctorate can be a fabulous experience and the degree a valuable reward but it is not worth sacrificing your bodily and mental health.

9.     The rewards are always over the horizons, and academics are generally quite poor at celebrating success

One of the hardest things about doctoral research (indeed all research that I’ve been involved in), is the feeling that you never quite get there. You want to get admitted into the program. Great, but now you’ve got to work on your full proposal. Pass that – awesome! But now the dreaded ethics committee… and so it goes on. The day you finally press print on your thesis isn’t the wondrous moment you thought it would be – you’ve still got to get it bound and submitted, and to wait for the examination reports or your viva. If you’re lucky enough to have a viva, you might get a brief moment of celebration, but there’s probably at least a few typos to correct. By the time you graduate, you’ve moved on and the whole thing seems so far away you’ve forgotten what it was like. It pays to note this, and also to note that many academic workplaces struggle (I’m not sure why) to really mark and celebrate success. Don’t expect lots of warm hugs, pats on backs, champagne corks popping etc (either physically or metaphorically). Be ready to jump the hurdles, land, and keep going. Better still, get involved in peer communities and make it a point to celebrate successes together.

10.  The academic job that involves teaching and researching on your PhD topic doesn’t exist, and if it does, someone else will get it anyway.

A PhD is an incredible opportunity to follow or create a path of your own choosing, and should be valued and preserved as such. If you’re thinking of academic work, bear in mind the paths are pretty much chosen for you by things like job descriptions. And you’ve a better chance of winning the lottery without buying a ticket than you have of a head of department somewhere dreaming up a position description that has you written all over it. The good news is, that doesn’t matter too much if you’re willing to be flexible. By flexible I mean: teach horrible first year / 101 courses in an area you don’t know much about; join a research project based more on your skills than your substantive expertise; relocate geographically etc. Often one form of flexibility is enough to open up opportunities – if you can’t move physically, then be flexible in other ways.

If by some remarkable twist of fate a job does come up that seems to be written just for you, slap yourself in the face (metaphorically, perhaps): chances are, they had someone else in mind actually. This situation is likely a symptom of you being in a trendy area where there’s lots of buzz, hence the job being described that way in the first place. Also alas, hoards of other Nobel Prize-winning scholars with stellar track records and global networks that make the UN look like a no-mates loner. So when you don’t get THAT job, don’t dismay. Join the rest of us who have to be flexible.

How to be a crappy supervisor (or: how to confuse, depress and dumb-down your students)

After my blog post ’10 ways to annoy your supervisors’ I was contacted by a doctoral student who felt that an accompanying view from the other side could, and should, be expressed. I’m delighted to post her response. I’m particularly pleased by her direct challenge to my point about asking for permission before talking to others. I agree with her, as well as with my original point (yup, I’m human, so I can live quite comfortably with contradictions).

As you’ll see, my posts tend to be quite frank. The point is to spur discussion, debate and thinking (not to spout unquestionable truths). So thank you Verity Quill, for engaging with the post in exactly the way I hoped!

By Verity Quill, PhD (elect)

I just read Nick Hopwood’s discussion about ‘How to annoy your Supervisor”.  Well, it takes two to tango, as they say in the old country, so I thought it was worthwhile assembling some of the experiences of my fellow students and I into a collection of good natured snippets of Advice to Supervisors.  Note that these remarks are based on the combined experiences of people I know.  They are not intended to alienate my own quite beloved supervisors, about whom I am generally NOT talking about here.  Smooches to you, girls.

I have even been able to arrange my list using almost the same headers as Nick used for his list of ways to annoy supervisors.  Just to needle him.  So if you were ever wondering how to lose the attention of your student, how to confuse or depress them, dumb them down or how in general, to be a crappy supervisor, here are ten top tips to start you off.

1.       Disappear

Yes we have had supervisors go off the radar too.  Supervisors can get ill, depressed, overworked, they go on walkabout or have sudden carer’s duties, and they may not have made an arrangement with students before they went.  These are all reasonable reasons to disappear.  But you can disappear without any of that, just by going a very long time not answering emails.  A student may go on requesting meeting times, sending work, or posing questions by email without reply, for weeks or sometimes months.  See how long yours can go!

2.       Mess me around with dates and deadlines

Yes, you might not always be able to meet when planned, and yes sometimes work will take longer than expected: unexpected other-things-in-life can’t be ruled out. But as a rule, students still expect you to be there when you agreed to meet. The key for you to remember here is that you are the supervisor, so you call the shots.  Geoff’s supervisor was a master at this.  Geoff learnt from experience that when his supervisor arrived to a meeting late, she would still need to get to her next meeting on time.  She would rush through the supervision.  Geoff picked up on her brevity: he asked fewer questions and agreed with ideas to save time, figuring he would be able to work it out later.  Voila!  A confused student!  More fool Geoff, ay? Meanwhile Molly had a supervisor who she hardly ever saw, because he would double book himself and then when she came to his office, ask her to make a new time, or he would not be there at all.  The message she took away was, “I am not interested in your work”.  After months of not being able to see her supervisor, she was suitably depressed and unsure of the value of her project.  Careful though, some students in this situation will find it easier (and interesting) to discuss their ideas with other academics, see Tip 10 below.

3.       Agree to things that you know aren’t realistic

If a student asks you how long you need to read 8,000 words, and you say a fortnight, they’ll believe you.  If you know you have 240 essays to mark in the next fortnight and your wife is going to the Hebrides for a conference, leaving you and the kids, then it wasn’t a good idea to also schedule in a meeting to discuss those 8,000 words. But it sets you up perfectly to try Tip 4.

4.       Don’t read what I have sent till we meet

Your student Joe sends you a piece of writing (draft chapter, etc.) and you meet to discuss it a fortnight later. You haven’t read the writing, but Joe sits quietly in the office while you read it and give feedback on the spot.  You have finally found the perfect way to manage all the conflicting tasks in your day!  And probably, Joe is congratulating himself on finding a way to get feedback from you, because he knows if he reschedules, you will have still not read it the next meeting either.  Or maybe he is grinding his teeth and thinking about what you could have said if you had had time to think about his work.

5.       Take a very long time to give feedback

If you play it right you can really freak your student out by forgetting about feedback deadlines.  As the clock ticked on his scholarship, Harold sent his full PhD to his supervisor to read.  Four months later, the supervisor hadn’t finished reading it.   Given the nod by her supervisors, Jenny submitted her Intention to Submit form setting the big date for a month later.  One supervisor was still “just finishing” reading her final draft.   A fortnight later, three months after receiving the draft, he provided an hour of insightful, sit-down feedback involving theoretical and methodological implications, some of which Jenny incorporated into her final submission.  Her supervisor was surprised when she submitted on time, rather than read that new author he recommended.

6.       Make untimely suggestions

On that topic, a classic move you could try is to continuously suggest new areas of study.  Of course, we all know that at some point the PhD has to finish.  The manuscript must be submitted.  A line must be drawn, and those deeper and broader understandings must begin to flower in the garden outside the PhD enclosure.  But as your student prepares their final draft, pretend the world worked differently.  Hiding the twinkle in your eye, insist that she must incorporate X’s theory of the world, and needs to read their seminal work on the topic. Hoop-lah!  Confidence, gone!

7.       Expect my PhD not to change

One day way back when, I came to your office and pitched a PhD, and you said, okay, let’s do it.  Since then, I’ve been reading and thinking, trying ideas, failing and learning.  That’s good, isn’t it?  Now, my PhD is different.  If you don’t recognise it, see point 8.

8.       Leave the supervision with no idea what I was talking about

It can be really hard to describe what I’m trying to say, because my ideas are still forming about it.  Meanwhile, because you’ve read all kinds of stuff I haven’t, half the time I’ll say something that reminds you of X.  Please don’t therefore assume that I am talking about X, and forget to listen to what I’m saying.  So here’s how it works.  We’re sitting in your office, and I’m telling you about how this new idea fits in with my other ideas.  You get a glazed look on your face and start fidgeting.  When I finish explaining, you comment that it won’t work because of a series of factors, which don’t seem connected.  I am surprised, but decide to listen and wait for them to connect to what I was talking about.  Sadly, I never see how they connect, and then the time is up, so I agree to think about it.  Let’s rewind and run that again.  I was talking about my messy ideas, let’s call them M.  You listened, and probably quite rightly, noticed some of the early part sounded a bit like X.  You started thinking about X.  The next parts of M didn’t sound like X at all, which got you worried.  You started thinking about how common it is for people to misunderstand X, and began to fidget and prepare your discussion of the problems with misunderstanding X as I continued to talk about M.  You remember a really easy way to explain the problem with Example Y.  I finish.  You start talking about Y.  I don’t know why you are talking about Y, and you don’t know what M was about because you got distracted by X.

9.       Expect me to agree with everything you say

Your student wants to explore governmentality in their data, and you don’t see the value.  What’s more, the methods they want to use aren’t like your previous work in that field.  Here’s what you could do next:  tell your student not to follow that path as it will lead to uninteresting research.  Or you could ask your student to put together a clear argument for their new direction.  Ask for 2,000 words.  This is an important moment as your student may be learning to think for themselves.  Jeffery told his supervisor he was considering an ethnographic approach.  His supervisor told him ethnography was positivisist, and she pointed out that Jeffery’s work was not ethnographic as he would not be undertaking participant observation.  Jeffery found evidence to support a move from traditional forms of ethnography to more social constructionist approaches, and submitted 2,000 words on how he could undertake participant observation.  Both supervisor and student learnt more about ethnography, and eventually negotiated a middle path for its application in Jeffery’s research.  But wait!  You want to discourage originality in your student, so best you follow my first suggestion:  steer them back towards what you would have done.  When they disagree, insist that they don’t understand the literature.

10.  Try to protect me from other academics

NB. Nick here: please note how this goes against my original point on this issue, and to a large degree, I stand correctly corrected! 

This can work in a few ways.  I have seen supervisors who, when their student makes a public presentation, the supervisor answers questions from the floor.  Good idea!  If you answer ahead of the student, it says they don’t know, to everyone in the room, including the student. The student is there to answer questions, might have prepared themselves, and maybe they could answer perfectly well.  If they falter, then stepping in could be kind, and normally one is of course a very kind supervisor, but that is not the point of today’s lecture.  At the other end of the scale, I hear that some supervisors want their students not to talk to other academics without consulting their supervisor first, to avoid political mishaps.  This sounds like excellent advice for the production of damp students, still curled inside their cocoons: perfect for our purposes.  You wouldn’t want a student like Valerie:  she spoke to many academics in her vicinity while doing her PhD; she met them while attending their presentations, or in the hall.  She had long conversations with them over coffee or short exchanges in passing.  Their ideas, including their criticism, were inspirational and strengthened her work.  Describing her research to them made her more confident and clarified her ideas.  If you are working on particularly ground-breaking or competitive research, sure, then maybe secrets are important and boundaries are valuable. Otherwise, the point is to develop students who are able to speak and think for themselves, who have collegial connections into the academy after submission (enhancing their job prospects), who understand the politics of academia, and who are producing strong, well examined ideas, so share your understanding of the political landscape out there, and then encourage them to network and share their ideas.   But if you want vulnerable, unadventurous students, better keep them safe from other people’s ideas.

So that’s my ten tips for how to confuse, deflate, alienate and dumb-down your students.  These methods are field tested (though results may vary).   Good luck and enjoy!

10 ways to make sure your journal article never gets read, or worse, cited

Since posting this I have created a slideshow highlighting some of the key points, along with those from the previous post on not getting published in the first place.

You’ve gone through the tortuous process of peer review, and now your work is finally published. Of course the last thing you want is for people to go around citing your work, spreading your ideas, or worse, actually using them! But don’t worry, there are some very simple and easy things you can do to make sure this doesn’t ever happen. You’re in good company – plenty of people implement these easy to follow steps with nearly every piece of their published research.

The first few relate to making sure your work never gets read – thus ensuring it can’t be cited. Then we consider how to manage the unpleasant risks if someone actually reads your paper.

1. Give your paper a truly awful title

“A dull and irrelevant waste of time” – how does that grab you? That’s what a surprising number of titles I read in my ToC alerts seem like. To make sure I don’t click on the link, or develop any interest in what you have you have to say, (i) make what you have to say sound disconnected from any of the big ideas, concepts or issues I’m working on; and (ii) make it sound dull. I don’t have a psychic ability to detect interesting and relevant points buried in your paper. Neither am I stuck on a desert island with nothing else to do but read everything on the offchance something fun crops up. So a poor title will work wonders in ensuring I never read your work. Contrastingly, my last paper was called ‘Harry Potter and the child and family health nurse’, and the one before was ‘Fifty shades of practice theory’. Both promise to be exciting romps full of magic or steamy sex. And they’ve sent my h-index into the stratosphere. I’ve got an h-index googol on google (scholar).

2. Follow up your awful title with a horrendous abstract

You caught me in a rare moment when I could be bothered to forgive your poor titling skills and I proceeded to read your abstract. From this, I’ve learned nothing of your argument, or why I should read anything more. You’ve definitely forgotten to tell me how your paper joins an ongoing conversation or body of research. You’ve left me clueless as to what your methods or findings were. And I’ve no idea at all why I should care about what you’ve found out. Awesome. Instead you’re regurgitated existing literature, or barraged me with terms or concepts I don’t know, and dense text, so that reading your abstract feels like trying to swim through cold porridge. I forgot my snorkel and prefer eating porridge to drowning in it, so I think I’ll do something more productive like watching Celebrity Splash or Weakest Link on repeat.

3. Keep it a secret

Your paper has just been published online in the preview section, or maybe it’s actually come out in hard copy. Of course the last thing you should do is tell anyone about it! Definitely don’t put the details of it or a hyperlink on your email signature (ugh! reeks of crass self-promotion). Don’t mention it on academia.edu or your blog. Don’t update your university web profile. Don’t put a copy on your office door or tell your colleagues (you never want your Dean to know you’ve been so productive, do you?). Don’t put pre-prints in your university repository, and don’t make copies available via your own website (if copyright allows). And never do anything so stupid as to announce it on facebook or twitter! You’ve heard how putting stuff on social media can make it available to the plebian masses: imagine that! Hundreds of people, thousands maybe, reading your abstract, and maybe even downloading your paper! No, better leave it to chance and hope it crops up in search engines every now and then.

4. Publish in a really obscure journal

Some relatively young, open access journals do quite well (one of my most cited papers is in a free-to-all, online qualitative methods journal). But luckily, if you’re a citaphobe, there are some wonderfully obscure academic backwaters whose location in scholarly life is the equivalent of the dark side of the moon. There, your paper can Rest In Peace, free of the interfering gaze of interested readers. Hone in on those over-keen editors – she or he is probably trying to fill up unused slots for the next issue. What are those crazy academics doing leaving those slots unused? They must all be bonkers! I, however, see this opportunity for the amazing thing that it is (too good to be true?). If you’re in health or hard science disciplines, publishing in journals that aren’t indexed in Scopus is a pretty fool-proof way to make sure your paper isn’t read or treated as worth the paper it’s unlikely ever to be printed on.

5. Put in a great plot twist

Leave the best to the end, right? Wait until the last minute before your magical big reveal, where you make connections between your research and a wider issue, or link it into the big debate that’s raging in your field. Er… no, actually. It pays to treat your readers as if they were slightly more interested yet considerably more time-poor than readers of the British tabloid press (The Sun, The Daily Mail etc). If you read articles in those papers, you can see the authors don’t assume readers will get to the end of each piece. They barely assume readers will get much beyond the first sentence or two. So all the important information is captured succinctly as soon as possible. There is no secret pot of gold that rewards the readers who slog it out to the last full stop. In academic journals, every line you write is another few seconds of your readers’ time, competing for her or his attention with other much better articles, piles of marking, work on a research grant, or just buggering off home or to bed. If you’re saving the best til last, chances are your reader will have lost patience and think you and your research are no good.

6. Make your article as uninteresting and full of jargon as possible

Okay, your paper been read, but the danger of citation can still be headed off. One way of doing this is to do your readers a favour and present them with the intellectual equivalent of a marathon-meets-decathlon-meets-Tour-de-France. Make the paper as long as possible (use all available words, preferably more), and better still, make it feel even longer! Your readers’ brains should be sweating by the time they finish. After all it took you ages to go through all the drafts and revisions – why should your readers get of scot free? The decathlon element can easily be incorporated by making your paper address multiple ideas, concepts, methods, and arguments. Readers will feel short-changed if all you do is present a clear line of argument, a concise package of new knowledge, justifying your claims and their importance. More ideas! More complexity! More references! No-one ever said ‘That paper was just too clear for me’. No, they complain: ‘Pah! One well-presented and nicely explained idea. What do they think I am? A moron?’.

7. Hide your arguments in waffle

You’ve had a genius idea, or your data show something unexpected but really important. Worrying stuff. How will you hide forever in obscurity if someone actually finds this out?! No worries, there is extensive precedent for how to avoid this unpleasant eventuality.  Rather than making clear statements, and making it clear when you are arguing new ideas or presenting new material, you can bury your original thinking and novel claims in waffle. Pile it on! Never start a paragraph by announcing your great idea. Never conclude a paragraph by reinforcing your message. Preferably, hang your new claim off the end of a sentence with multiple clauses.

8. Therefore it can be seen that to a certain extent the statement is true

After all those months or years generating data, and those hours of tedium doing analysis, you’ve had your Eureka! moment. There’s strong empirical basis here to say something really bold, exciting, interesting, or controversial. Oops! Better manage this carefully. The best way is to utterly play down your claims or arguments. Hedge them like hell! Place them in multiple caveats! Belts and braces! Say more about your limitations than your diligent methods. If you do this, you can make your claims sound so inconsequential that no-one will give them second thought. Phew.

9. Therefore the earth is flat and revolves around the sun (and no-one ever said otherwise)

An alternative to point 8 is to make ridiculous, unsubstantiated claims. Better still, present them as if they are not controversial. Never anticipate a counter-claim. Never acknowledge alternative views or existing understandings. That defeats your purpose! No, stand firm and blast your audience with your findings. POW! Remember, whatever your field (science, social science, humanities, arts) what readers really want is reason to dismantle their entire discipline or maybe the whole of human history or contemporary society. Give them any less and they’ll think you and your research are as worthless as an inflatable dartboard.

10. Turn robust research into polemic

In some ways an extension of point 9. Don’t waste time giving details about your methods of data collection. No-one cares about analysis (qualitative interpretive methods, statistical tests etc), so leave those out too. Existing literature already exists, so no need to repeat it here, either. Use your valuable word space to present your view of the world, and elaborate on it fully. Yes, scholarly journals are really just expensive newspaper columns. Jeremy Clarkson gets to rant about the world, so why can’t you? If you’re unable to totally erase any empirical origins of your work, you can do the next best thing by describing it in fuzzy, unclear ways. Or by not presenting any data. Or by presenting data but allowing it to speak for itself. Or by presenting data that has no clear connection to your argument.

Coda

After the responses to point 7 in my previous post about avoiding publication altogether, I would like to reiterate here: it is my strongly held view that scholars have an obligation to make their work available to a range of audiences, not all of whom are academics and not all of whom can or ever feel inclined to access academic journals. This post focuses on publication in peer-reviewed journals because it is a crucial part of the academic endeavour. There are other crucial parts, too.

10 easy ways to make sure you have no publication record when you finish your PhD and forever after

Since posting this I have created a slideshow highlighting some of the key points, along with those from the subsequent post about not getting read or cited.

There is a lot of pressure on doctoral students and early career academics to publish. Want even the slightest chance of getting job? Publish. Want anyone other than your examiners to read your work? Publish. Want to actually contribute to knowledge? Publish. What to do the ethical thing and deliver what was promised to the people who funded your work, or those who contributed to it through support, helping with data etc? Publish.

Now, some of you may wish to do those things, but in my experience there seem to be plenty of people out there who don’t. They see publication as the ultimate stain their good reputation, the catastrophe to end all catastrophes, the academic apocalypse. They are the publishaphobes.

Well there is good news! By following these few and easy rules, you too can make sure your work gathers dust on library shelves (or better still in the basement), so that no-one ever reads it, and the labour of love that has invaded the last 3+ years of your life can all come to nothing more than some letters before or after your name. Perhaps the non-publishing option makes sense because you’re an intellectual fraud and are afraid of getting found out.

1. Keep your papers locked away in your computer / desk drawer

By far the easiest way to make sure you never have anything published is to never actually send anything off for review. Reasons for this may be fear of critical feedback and perfectionism (see below), but it’s worth making this simple but powerful point: NOT sending your paper (or book proposal etc) off is the only 100% safe guarantee to make sure you NEVER get published. Simples. When you wonder how those stellar professors, or the students / postdocs who seem to be on a fast-track to tenured jobs and academic stardom got so many publications, the answer is: they sent lots of stuff off for review (notwithstanding all the rejections they got along the way).

2. Wait until your paper is perfect before you submit it

You’ve realised that you have to submit something in order for it to get published. Well done you! But you know it’s good to be good to stand a chance, so you’re going to let it sit for a while and come back and tweak it later. You know you don’t take rejection or harsh feedback well, so better to get it perfect first, right? WRONG. Perfectionism is the enemy of publication. you’ll never write anything perfect so stop trying.

3. Send half-baked crap off while suffering EOS

The perfect counterpart to perfectionism. Or should that be imperfect? Pat Thomson has written an excellent blog post; about ‘early onset satisfaction’ (EOS) – a bad thing for writing and writers: “feeling too happy with a piece of writing meant that you didn’t rewrite and rewrite as often and as hard as you ought to” (the phrase being attributed to Mem Fox). Pat recalls a time when she was reviewing an article for a journal and came to the conclusion that the author had been struck with EOS, and probably hadn’t given it to anyone else to read, or ‘if they had, I’d have taken bets that they hadn’t asked anyone to ask them the hard questions – like – so what, and why should I care?’. Atta boy! Way to go! The peer review process isn’t 100% foolproof, so there is a small chance that someone will publish the rubbish that your bout of EOS has duped you into regarding as brilliant; but by and large reviewers will pick it up and ensure a quick and firm rejection (or major revisions). Phew!

4. Be crushed by rejection and negative feedback

Second only to not sending your written work out is this: sending it out, but then buckling completely when it gets rejected. There must be hundreds of (potentially) good papers stuck in limbo because their authors are defeated by something as inconsequential as rejection from one or more journals. So the editors and reviewers didn’t like your paper? EITHER: yes, they’ve pronounced true judgement on your intellectual worthlessness and the irrelevance of your research (in which case by all means leave your paper to rot in the depths of your hard drive); OR perhaps you went for the wrong journal, need to clarify your argument etc, (in which case get cracking on finding a different journal / making revisions, and get it out there again. no excuses).

5. Ignore word limits and reference styles

A fantastic way to get your paper bounced back to you before the editor has even read a word. The journal has a limit of 4,000 words including references, but your study is special, so all the rules for being succinct and equality of space in the issue should be disregarded just for you. Maybe you’ve used qualitative data so need long quotes from interviews (wow! what a pioneering thing you’re doing! Interviews!). Maybe there’s a lot of literature in your field, so you need 2,000 words just of lit review (wow! no-one else has read as much as you!). Maybe your theoretical framework is complex and requires detailed, lengthy explanation (wow!… [you get the message]). A journal editor worth their salt will open your paper, check the word count and bounce it right back to you if it is over.

Perhaps you’ve actually bothered to think about a key argument, and redrafted your paper so it is now a succinct argument that fits within the word limit (or is even well below it so when the reviewers ask for more explanation you have some room for manoeuvre). But fear not – you can still make sure you get rejected quicksmart. Each journal has a clearly specified reference style. But formatting references is boring. Or maybe you haven’t learned to use Endnote properly. Or maybe you think even though all other academics format their own references, the copyeditors should do this for you. Maybe you think the doi numbers in the new APA 6th reference style can be ignored (because you don’t have them and can’t be arsed to go and look them up for all the references in your bibliography). Way you go! You just got yourself a rejection! [I’m not joking: I foolishly neglected to look up the differences between APA 5th and 6th, and had a paper de-submitted from a journal and was smartly told to get the references right if I wanted my paper to be considered].

6. Pay no regard to the aims, scope, and recent content of the journal

Another brilliant way to avoid your work getting in the public domain is to do everything you can to secure a resounding rejection from the editor. Better still, you can get yourself rejected before your paper even gets sent out for review. By some miracle of accident or adversity you’ve got a paper under the word limit, with correct references. You heard from a friend that the Polynesian Quarterly is a highly respected journal, so you send your paper about political resistance in the slums of Detroit off to the editor. You’re not stupid, you see it isn’t a direct fit, but your research is just so good, they’ll want the paper. And anyway, this journal has a big word limit which you need. BOING! Back it comes with a: thanks, but no thanks (the first of these thanks really means: ‘what were you thinking?! why did you waste my precious time?). Now this is a fairly drastic example, but time and again I hear editors (and experience myself as an editor and reviewer) saying a prime reason for rejection is lack of fit with the journal.

There is a parallel here for book proposals. Your mate published her PhD through Publisher X, so you send your proposal in to them, too. A bigger BOING. Publishers have lists, scope, and priorities just like journals. (Except the fishing ones (often from Germany) who emailed you and said they’d like to publish your PhD; but you’re not considering them, are you?).

(If, on the other hand, you’d like your paper to go out for review, see the end of my previous post on selecting journals).

6. Write one title / abstract, and then a completely different paper

Almost as effective as a complete mismatch between your paper and the journal, is a complete mismatch between your title / abstract, and the main text. If a rejection is what you’re looking for, promising one thing and delivering another is a fairly safe way to go. Set the editor and reviewers up with grand yet specific expectations, but then write something that drifts off course completely and concludes in an utterly surprising way. That way you will confuse, disappoint, frustrate and irritate all the important people in one go.

With book proposals, a great way to get no interest all in your work is to get it send to the wrong sub-department. I did this brilliantly in a recent proposal I sent off to Routledge. The book I had in mind was about professional practice and learning, firmly within established fields of educational research. However my proposal clearly left the first reader at Routledge that it was a book about early childhood development. (It’s about child and family health practices). It got sent to the early childhood people and was swiftly rejected. As of course I would expect. This is not me moaning about Routledge: this is me saying I should have done a better job at making it clear where my work is located academically.

7. Give it all away for free

Please note: a number of people have taken issue with the points I make below. I won’t edit them here, so that the replies and comments make sense. But I will re-quote from the journal submission process to clarify what it is I am warning about. I am essentially saying that you need to make sure you can tick this box: “Confirm that the manuscript has been submitted solely to this journal and is not published, in press, or submitted elsewhere.” I have approved and published the replies because I think it’s important to be open and to be clear that there are different views on this matter. What’s really crucial is that you think carefully and seek informed advice.

Publishers publish to make money. They’re in it for profit. By and large they are not charities. All the big publishers gobbling up all the journals do so because they see there’s money to be made. How do they make their money? Because people or libraries, pay for access to journals, because people want to read them. And why do people want to read them? Because they can read something there that they can’t read elsewhere: something new!

So a great way to avoid anyone ever wanting to publish your work (in book or journal form), is to make sure that it’s all already out there in the public domain, preferably on a blog or academia.edu or a open access conference website. That way, when you’re asked to tick the box about original work, you can’t do so and your publishing treadmill grinds to a sticky, rusty halt. (Yes conference papers that get developed into articles are fine, and your thesis can be turned into a book; but you’ve got to be careful about it).

There’s a middle ground here. Before you finish your PhD, or perhaps shortly afterwards, you’re likely to get an email from a publishing company, saying they’d like to publish your PhD as a book. You’re asked to send your manuscript in, and miraculously, within a short time you’ve got the offer of a contract. No proposal. No reviewers’ comments. Just the offer. Your work will be out there, in a book with an ISBN, for sale on amazon etc within days. Problem is, other academics won’t really take this seriously as an academic book, because they’re not convinced a thorough peer review process was undertaken. I’ve used one of these publishers to publish a report that otherwise would have been printed in-house at my uni. Neither are great academic coups, but the published version is at least available online and reaches a wider audience. It doesn’t count as a book on my CV or for my research output. So if you want to show off your shiny book to your friends, and feel good about having got your work out there, but don’t care about your long term academic reputation and publishing prospects, go ahead.

8. Trap your paper in inter-author disputes

Many of us co-author journal papers with colleagues. If you’re hoping to avoid publication, a strong tactic is to make sure there is no clarity around authorial roles and sign-off. Not discussing what contributions, rights and responsibilities are expected from each author is a great way to start. Then, all being well, your draft can get stuck in limbo as authors keep adding changes, undoing the changes their colleagues have just made, and no-one knows who ultimately says ‘Enough! Let’s just send it off!’.

9. Only the best will do

Other students publish in poxy journals with low impact factors. You, however, are the next Einstein / Piaget / [insert relevant superstar here]. You’re head and shoulders better than all the other students around you who frankly, probably barely even qualify for MENSA, and can write their IQ without using standard form. You don’t want to pollute your academic CV with low- or mid-status journals. High status might not even match your utter brilliance. No, for you, it’s got to be Nature, New Scientist, BMJ, [insert your field’s top journal with uber-high rejection rates here]. Nothing else will do. You can say one thing to your publication track record: byeeeeee! [except it doesn’t exist anyway]

10. Cheat: send your article off to more than on journal at once

When the journal submission system asks you if you’ve sent the same paper off to any other journals, they don’t really care, do they? Luckily for all you publishaphobes out there, sending off the same paper to two (or more) journals at once doesn’t double (or triple) your chances of publication. It annihilates them. If you get found out (and chances are you will, because, guess what, editors talk to each other, know and use the same reviewers etc), not only is your work in an article-shaped coffin, but your the dirt is being piled on the remains of what was (potentially) your academic career. (This point neglects the idiocy of sending the same paper to two journals: they all have different aims, scope, length, styles, conversation histories – you’d have to be pretty naive to think that this is a way to go anyway, even if it wasn’t one of the seven deadly academic sins).

(NB. With book proposals it may be acceptable to make contact with multiple publishers at once, but check with your supervisor and others first as to how this might play; also remember different publishers means your proposal will be different anyway).

To all the publishaphobes have a go at diagnosing your phobia. While I’d secretly love you all to remain as you are and lower the competition in journals and books for the rest of us, I think scholarship will be the better for your participation. To those who are up for it, remember these 10 easy steps, but above all, remember never to take them!

How to give a presentation that bores your audience, giving a rubbish impression of you and your research

How many presentations have you been to in conferences, seminars, student assessments, where even 5 minutes afterwards, you struggle to remember anything interesting? Perhaps even anything at all? For me the answer is: far too many. What’s worse perhaps, is not leaving a presentation with nothing, but leaving with a negative impression of the research or researcher. Such impressions tend to be quite sticky and hard to dislodge (they leap back into life when you see something written by that person, or see their name in the conference program again and think: avoid like the plague!).
There’s plenty of stuff out there on presentations. I’m not claiming anything particularly original here: just my way of getting stuff off my chest in a way I hope is useful.

1. Don’t rehearse your presentation, just assume it will all run to time

A perfect way to give your audience nothing valuable to remember you by, or to irritate them, is to get to 2 minutes before the end of your allotted speaking time, and then to reach the point (slide, usually), where you say: “So my aims / research questions are…”. Well done. You’ve spent 90% of the time telling me about the background, what other people have done. I don’t care. I want to know what you have done. Sure a bit of ‘why is this important’ is useful. But don’t assume I share your passion for knowing everything that’s been done before in your field. If I’m in your field, chances are I know that already. If I’m not, I’m interested in you and your ideas more than all that context, existing research stuff. I’ve come to your session on the promise I will hear something new. Don’t cheat me by spending the whole time on stuff that is already out there. I want my money back.

2. Allow your talk to take up all the time for discussion

After all, we came to hear and watch you, right? Well, to the extent that I want to hear you say something new, yes. But not to the extent where I think you have the right to intrude onto interactive discussion time, just because your time keeping is so poor (or your preparation was so awful) that you’ve only just started talking about the interesting things. Tough! You’ve had your time (and you wasted it), it’s my time now. The impression this leaves me with (apart from your woeful timeliness), is that you don’t actually respect me or the rest of your audience: what you have to say is too important to give time and space to those poor people who’ve just suffered your endless presentation.

3. Design too many slides

You’ve got 80 slides for a 20 minute presentation. Ooh! You’ve been working hard. WRONG. You’ve been working poorly, and without due thought for your presentation and accompanying visual material. As you keep adding new slides, because there’s another point that you simply have to make, consider me in your audience: when you load up your presentation, I see ‘slide 1 of 57’ and my stomach sinks. I’m getting an ulcer already. I’m thinking ‘this loser doesn’t care one iota for my wellbeing. S/he is actively out to destroy my enjoyment of this session’. You’ve put me on the wrong footing before you’ve even started. I’m sat there plotting the nastiest possible question or comment I could make, on the (seemingly improbable) off-chance there is any time for discussion left after you’ve finished your marathon of what I’m now expecting will be verbal diarrhoea. With any luck the reasonable and ethical academic in me will hold back from giving you what you deserve. But do you really want to be on such thin ice?

4. Design boring slides

You’re not a techno-wiz, so you let PowerPoint seduce you into thinking we all love slides full of black text on a white page. After all, you’re so busy, and good visuals are really for arty types:  your job is to think and write. NO! If you’re using visual aids, then make them visual. Ask yourself: what are the images I can remember from presentations I have seen? I’m guessing the most useful, informative and memorable ones are not those with 100s of words, or (worse, see below), bullet points. If all your text is the same size, it says to me all the words and sentences are of equal importance. This may be the case sometimes. But in EVERY slide? Come on.

5. Use bullet lists when they are not appropriate

Did people use so many bullet points when we used overhead projectors and acetate? I’ve suffered death by bullet-point hundreds of times. And it only gets more painful with the repetition. They tend to come hand-in-hand with the sins of multitudinous slides and boring visuals. A bullet list says to me: these are a bunch of things that are related under a single topic, but they are in no particular hierarchical order, and they are all as important as each other. I’m assuming, if you’ve used a bullet list, that there’s no possible alternative way of illustrating the relationship between those things. So either, they all get the same treatment from you in terms of talk time (in which case this is going to be a loooooong slide, with no visual variation to help me through it), or you’re going to talk at length about one, and then rush through or ignore the rest, which isn’t consistent with the message that they’re all equally important.

6. Treat your audience like they are not worthy of what you know to be decent practice

“I know there’s too much on this slide and it’s impossible to read but…”. I’ve heard this dozens of times. From people who are telling me they know better. My thoughts when this happens are: if you know this is a bad slide, why are you showing it? The answers I come up with are:

You were too lazy to do a better one

You didn’t think this presentation was important enough to warrant more time in preparation; by extension this means you don’t really value me as an audience member

You know it’s bad but don’t know how to make it better; fine, we’re not all born knowing everything, but if we’re going to inflict ourselves on an audience, and we don’t know what we’re doing, we have an obligation to ask for assistance, learn, or stick to modes of address we are competent in

You haven’t done enough (or the right kind of) hard graft in terms of thinking through what you need to say, and what your audience wants to know; crappy slides full of too much information reek of ‘it’s all too important to miss out’, which reflects sloppy thinking at best

You think it’s fine for those up near the front to read what is on screen, but for those at the back to miss out. Presumably this is because the information isn’t that important. Or you don’t care about all of your audience, only the ones with sharp eyes and a tendency to sit near the screen.

7. Stand and read out the content on your slides

It’s fair to assume your audience is illiterate, so you’re doing them a great favour by reading the text that is in front of them. OR… your audience can read, but the text is so small (see above) that they’ve no chance of seeing it, unless they brought a telescope with them. So you’re doing those who forgot their telescopes a great service by reading it out. Given the text is so small, this is going to take some time. Yawn (with feelings of irritation and boredom now reaching critically acute levels). Either give me some time (and remember: silence is golden; see below) to read it myself, or give me something else worth looking at on screen.

8. Spend the first 10 minutes telling me what you’re about to say and other irrelevant rubbish / lies

It’s 10 minutes in, I’ve heard about your love of dogs, the history of your professional career including the paper-round you did as a teenager, and then you’ve talked through a bullet list of what you’re going to say. Unless this kind of signposting is really needed because you’ve got some complex structural things going on, my feeling is don’t bother. When I think of the times I’ve sat through this rigmarole, I realise most of it is lies anyway:

You don’t start by saying “I’ll start this presentation with an irrelevant and endless aside and then bore you with telling you about the structure of the talk” – you pretend that hasn’t just happened.

You don’t then say “While there are lots of important things I’d like to tell you about what I’ve been doing and thinking, I’m actually going to spend 90% of the time telling you what others have done” – even though this is seeming rather likely.

You don’t then say “Although discussion is central to academic work, and I respect you as my audience and want to hear from you, I’m going to ignore the time limits, and the chair, and keep talking until all the time is used”. Or, “I’m terrified of harsh questions so will avoid the chance by talking my way through the discussion time”.

If you have to give a structural overview (and think carefully about why this might be necessary), do it quickly. And don’t use bullets. If all your points come in no logical order and are of equal weight then you’ve no need to tell us what the structure is. This kind of structural overview reflects the need to communicate something more complex: by definition a bullet list is inappropriate.

9. Make a sloppy, half-hearted attempt to jazz up your slides

Irritating animations. Unexplained acronyms. Graphs I can’t read. Pointless clipart. Ugh! Just because you’ve now put a picture on your otherwise bland, over-full, and boring slide (usually next to an irrelevant bullet list) doesn’t make it a visual stunner. It says: I know slides are supposed to be visually interesting, but I can’t be bothered to do it properly, so here’s a picture of [insert random semi-related image here]. You think your wonderful animations tell me: I’ve been learning powerpoint, give me a medal! I can make the text come in letter by letter! No. Your ridiculous animations tell me: I have no idea how to approach effective use of technology and am duping myself that by learning some functions and automatically putting them into my presentation, I’m doing a great job.

10. You forget that your words are important, and that silence is golden

Not a contradiction, but I’m running out of slots in my top 10. Crap visual aids can encourage laziness in your audience (oh yes, I’m no paragon of an academic listener. I need all the help I can get to actually pay attention to what you’re saying). If your slides are full of text then I start reading and stop listening. Deliberately playing around with these things can be fun and effective: putting a bunch of unexplained acronyms on a screen and pretending everyone knows what they mean can give your sleepy audience a wake-up call, and make them listen to what you have to say. Absence of words on slides can help attune your audiences’ ears to you. Not a bad thing perhaps.

What of silence? How could you possibly have time to stop talking, given you’ve so much to say in such a short time. No! Silence is golden. It gives weight to what you just said (see: no contradiction with the idea that your words are important). It says [in silence]: just let that last comment land, have a think, it’s important. It also allows you to breathe, and (surprise!) check the time to see how you’re doing. You can also make eye contact with your audience, see who’s asleep, who’s grinding their teeth or putting their intellectual knuckle-dusters on / loading the shotgun full of nasty-question bullets (one for every bullet in your presentation, maybe). It gives your audience a chance to actually look at what’s on the screen, and then makes your voice (when you start speaking again), give them a change of focus. And anyway, a respite from your monotonous, hard-to-hear drawl is probably a relief.

That’s it. I could probably do a top 100 and still have things to comment on that have irritated, bored and exasperated me in the past. This is not fiction: this is borne of what I experience time and again from people who should, and do, know better. Final take-home rules that I use (by no means rules for everyone):

  1. 3 slides for 10 minute talk (and keep similar ratio as talk time gets longer)
  2. No bullets
  3. Max 30 words per slide
  4. No bullets
  5. Rehearse
  6. No bullets
  7. Plan to say less than you want to. Accept it.
  8. Did I mention no bullets?
  9. Don’t read out text verbatim: it’s very hard for listeners to follow speech from written text (tends to have lots of subclauses, no erms, ums etc, which give listeners a pause); I know this is common in philosophy and other humanities, but I find I drift off and learn almost nothing, and ask myself: why not just give me the paper and be done with it?
  10. No bullets (unless there really is no other or better way to express the relationship between several ideas).

As usual, I’ve been a bit flippant and black-and-white here. Do you agree with what I’ve said? Have you had similar experiences?

Top 10 ways to annoy your PhD supervisors

 

I should start this post by saying very clearly that what follows is by no means a comment on the many fantastic students I work with and have worked with. I should also be clear that this does not reflect official policy of UTS: it reflects my personal views and is deliberately provocative at times.

The title is a little flippant: this isn’t just about (not) annoying your supervisors, but about the broader and crucial issue of maintaining health supervisory relationships, and making the most out of what supervision has to offer. As you’ll see if you read on, successful doctoral candidature is also about being part of a wider institution and realising that doctoral education and support is much more than supervision.

This is written from the voice of your supervisor, and some points may be more relevant in social sciences and humanities, but most should be worth thinking about for all students.

1.   Disappear

This might sound obvious, but it happens quite a lot. Students, maybe because they are worried, or feel they haven’t been productive enough, can drop into radio silence. Chasing up disappearing doctoral students isn’t particularly pleasurable, and more importantly is a worrying sign. I’m not dismissing important and real issues around anxiety, and of course there are often good reasons why you might find it hard to keep up your work, or might lose confidence. Accessing counselling support services should never be discounted as an option. But going invisible / silent doesn’t do anything for your supervisory relationship and you should stay in regular communication with me.

2.   Mess me around with dates and deadlines

Yes, you might not always be able to meet when we planned, and yes sometimes your work will take longer than expected: unexpected other things in life can’t be ruled out. But as a rule, turn up when we agree to meet, and provide me with your work by the deadline we agree. If you are late, this can compromise my ability to give your work the time and attention it deserves. Equally: I have to make a firm commitment not to change meeting dates and to give feedback in a timely manner. It’s about mutual respect as much as anything else.

3.   Continue to work on texts that I’m reading for feedback

This really is annoying: you send in a piece of writing (draft chapter, etc) and we meet a week later. Meanwhile you’ve been working on the same text, and arrive by telling me that the text I’ve spent considerable time reading and preparing to discuss, is no longer the one you’re working on. Grrr! Make sure you have something else to work on while I’m reading particular pieces of writing.

4.   Assume I’m your default source of support

As your supervisor I’m an important port of call for many sorts of help, support, advice, and guidance. But NOT all sorts of help, support, advice and guidance. You have librarians, administrators, IT support, peers, friends, family, other academics etc as alternatives. Good students consider who is best to ask for help (I’ve published about this kind of relational agency). Asking me stuff that others could have helped you with is irritating and unproductive. Help keep our meetings focused on the stuff that I can bring most value to.

5.   Ask for help before trying to address something yourself

Related to point 4, but slightly different. This is doctoral study: high-level stuff where learning independence is a key factor. If you come to me with a ‘problem’ and want me to offer a solution before you’ve really tried out a number of things yourself, chances are I’ll say (yep, you guessed): “go and try out a few things yourself and reflect on how they go, then we can have a better discussion about how to proceed”.

6.   Agree to things that you know aren’t realistic

One of several points relating to clear, honest, shared expectations. If I say “when can you have a draft of your methodology written by?” and you say “one month”, then make sure that that is realistic. If you know you’ve got to look after the kids in school holidays, or have visits from demanding relatives, or a crazy month in your job, don’t be scared to tell me. I have to respect your other commitments just as I expect you to respect mine. I’d rather we negotiated a reasonable timeframe up front, than you agreeing to something unrealistic and then messing me around later (see point 2).

7.   Leave the supervision with no idea what I was talking about

Yes, I admit: I’m not always as clear as I’d like to be when giving suggestions to students I work with. I’m as guilty as the next person of being cryptic at times. I need you to help manage this. Don’t sit there nodding and writing notes in a supervision, as if you understand everything I’m saying, and then come back a month later and say “sorry, I didn’t do anything on that chapter because I didn’t really understand what you wanted me to do”. If say “It needs more voice” and you have no idea or are unsure what that means, then speak up! You’re not supposed to be psychic. But you are supposed to be an active partner in supervisions and to play an active role in reaching shared understandings of next steps.

8.   Agree with everything I say

One of my biggest fears is that as a supervisor I lead you into doing your doctorate the way I would have done it. I worry a lot if a consistent pattern emerges when you acquiesce to everything I suggest and don’t contest any of my ideas. This is your PhD, your name is going on the certificate. Show you’re becoming a scholar worthy of the title ‘Dr’ by being ready to disagree with me. You’re going to have to disagree with much scarier people in future, and stand up for your decisions, so get used to it.

9.   Talk to other academics without discussing with me first

As with any workplace, academic institutions are not free of politics. I very much encourage and support you to interact with and get support from as a wide a range of academic colleagues as is appropriate. But it’s much better to talk to me about this before going and knocking on others’ doors. I can then guide you as to who might be helpful (and guide you away from others who might throw a spanner in the works for whatever reason). I might also broker an introduction. Some supervisors might have, er, shall we say tense relations with some of their colleagues, so a bit of openness about reaching out isn’t a bad idea.

10.                 Expect me to know your field as well as you do

Simple truth: if I don’t know your field when we start, I certainly won’t by the time you’re getting close to finishing. I haven’t read everything you have. I don’t know your data as well as you do. You’re (becoming) the expert in that area. So think about what that means for how to make the most of your relationship with me as your supervisor.

Obviously, this isn’t the 10 commandments: they’re deliberately frank, flippant and perhaps provocative. These rules might not apply in your context, but I’m guessing the chances are something related to each point is relevant in some way to how you work with your supervisor.

Reference to the paper I published on wider relationships and relational agency:

Hopwood, N. (2010). A sociocultural view of doctoral students’ relationships and agency. Studies in Continuing Education, 33(2), 103-117.