Why what you don’t do is so important in your Phd.

Doing a PhD (or any kind of doctorate) is hard, right? Yes. It’s supposed to be hard. That’s why it’s worth something. There is a lot of attention in resources for doctoral students about how to do things: how to do a lit review, how to design your study, how to analyse your data, how to write up, how to prepare for your viva or examination, how to publish etc.

But what about what you don’t do? What about how not to do things, and why this is important?

My argument in this blog is that pursuing doctoral study with an exclusive focus on what you do, rather than what you don’t do, can be counter productive.

So what might not doing be important in? Pretty much everything.

Not reading

I often talk to students about their reading and lit review work. A very common issue is a sense of there not being enough time to read enough, or an experience that the to-read pile gets higher and higher, despite hours and hours spent reading.

Central to all doctoral work, and indeed all research, is a clear notion of scope. Not only what you’re trying to do, but in regards to its relation to a wider body, or bodies, of work. You can’t read everything. Obviously. You can’t even read everything on your topic. Nor even in the journals that really closely relate to your work.

So one way or another, you’re going to be making decisions about what not to read. Doing this explicitly, and thinking hard about it, discussing it with supervisors and peers, is really important. Because, what you don’t read might have big consequences. But drawing these boundaries is also a productive, affirming aspect of being able to figure out what you’re doing and why it matters.

A sign of doctoral development in a student might therefore be a more sophisticated capacity to make and justify decisions about what not to read, and to articulate the significance of these decisions for the work at and.


Not theorising

This might be less relevant for some studies where there isn’t a big theoretical component. Here I’m really thinking about my experience working with students in arts and social sciences (and I’m definitely not saying there isn’t theory elsewhere). I have sat in many proposal presentations, and read many applications or confirmation of candidature documents, where the student proposes working with several theories.

Almost always, the response among assessors is ‘do you need all those theories?’. In some cases, there really is an imperative to draw on more than one theoretical resource, because different questions demand different analytical sensitivities (Nicolini’s 2009 work on zooming in and zooming out is good on this). But often, the really honest, deep down answer, to the question ‘why so many theories’ is ‘because they are there, they seem interesting, and relevant’. That is definitely not a good enough answer. If you don’t look at ‘power’, say, there will always be people who hear you talk about your work and say ‘but where’s power in all this?’. And if you do look at power, others will wonder where the gender aspect is, or class, or race, or materiality…


Not gathering data

This is a biggie, and it has two key components. The first is not using too many data collection / generation instruments in the first place. The second is knowing when to stop getting more data. Again this probably has more a social science feel, but I expect similar principles apply in some lab work, and probably archival and textual analyses too.

I honestly can’t remember the number of times I’ve read applications or proposals that have a design involving interviews, focus groups, questionnaires, and documentary analysis. Often, the best answer to my question of ‘why?’ is ‘because the student has read about them and decided they are possible’. I’m guilty of this myself. In my Masters I proposed observation, interview, focus group, think-aloud, a survey, and document analysis. I was rightly pulled up and told that this long list was a sign that I wasn’t thinking hard enough about the evidence I need. Just because methods can be used doesn’t mean they should. And even if they should, do they have to be? I wonder whether a criterion of necessity might be interesting to play with? Thinking about what is possible is useful in the early stages, so you don’t overlook interesting or niche alternatives. But then a shift in your thinking is needed. Too many methods risks overwhelming participants and setting up for a mile wide but inch deep analysis. The more methods, the harder it is to bring them together in a coherent whole, often.

The second component is when to stop. What is your ‘I’m a doctoral student, get me out of here?’ tacit when you’re in the field? Lots of students answer this by saying they will wait until they reach ‘saturation’: the point when they stop learning new things. Nice idea in principle? Possibly, but it’s a risky strategy in practice. I’ve been involved in studies where after years in the field, saturation seemed a long way off, because the data kept opening up new avenues of enquiry, and we were able to follow them. I’ve done others (my PhD and a recent ethnography) where something like saturation was reached. So it’s possible, but no guarantee that it will work as a good get-out strategy.

You might instead choose a time limit, or have one imposed on you by logistical issues in your research site, or by your university. Whatever the ultimate end-point, before you get there, it’s helpful and healthy to regularly ask yourself: am I getting valuable new data here? What would happen if this was the last piece of data I collected? Do I really, really need more data?


Not writing

A doctoral thesis can seem scarily, overwhelmingly big. It’s often the longest text you’ve ever written, and even scholarly books related to doctoral work end up being shorter.

One symptom that you’re not approaching your writing in the most helpful way is the sense (which may be subconscious) that everything is too important to leave out. It is not. The bar that an idea or piece of information, or reference to literature, has to jump over to be included in your writing should be a pretty high one. A reader can pick up very quickly when the author has set that bar too low. The writing feels loose, indulgent, unfocused, and leaves a sense that the text has control of the author rather than the other way round.

This is even more so when it comes to writing for publication in journals or book chapters.


Not arguing

This theme has two related but distinct aspects to it.

One is not making too many arguments, or not taking your arguments too far in your thesis. This is the argument of the kind that the word ‘thesis’ refers to itself: the argument “This is my contribution to knowledge, this is what I have found/done that no-one has found/done before, and this is why it matters”.

Again, you don’t want these to be mile wide and inch deep. But you don’t want to push them too far either. I remember being challenged by my examiners in my PhD viva to extend my arguments to say something about gendered differences in the learning of geography in schools. While my data seemed to fit with this notion, my sample was too small to say anything substantial about this, so I defended my decision not to take my arguments down that path. The examiners were pleased with my response.

As a regular examiner of doctoral work, the conclusions is something I read right at the start (something that many examiners do). I’m most impressed by clearly articulated, coherent, insightful arguments. Not by wide-ranging or over-reaching claims to grandeur or Nobel prize-winning, earth-shattering revelations. Making arguments is a fine balance between humility and boldly owning and ‘spruiking’ (a wonderful Australianism that refers to what traders might do to entice people to buy their products) your accomplishments. There’s no chance you’ll hit this balance unless you think long and hard about what you choose not to argue.

Then there is the other not arguing: not arguing with your supervisor, opponent, assessors, reviewers etc. Defending one’s work or position is central to scholarship, and learning the capacity to defend is crucial in scholarly becoming. But just as important is knowing when to defend, and when to say ‘oh, yeah, that’s a really important idea, I hadn’t thought of it like that. Hmm… I need to go away and think about this for a while’.

Now, what I’ve learned over the years, is that it isn’t always obvious what kind of response I’m expecting from students I supervise. Sometimes I’m goading them into defending their position. Sometimes I’m really trying to get them to think differently, or at least pause to explore alternatives. It would be useful if a little light flashed somewhere that told students which game it was at the time. There isn’t. What might you do to figure out which is which?


And finally, a reward for not doing…

For those of you who have reached the end, a prize! By thinking hard about what not to do, you potentially will benefit from:

Having less work to do

  1. Making what work you do choose to do count for more
  2. Enhancing the quality of your work because there is more critical selective thinking behind it
  3. Did I mention having less work to do?
  4. Feeling less overwhelmed by there not being enough time, or there being too much to do
  5. Having more time to do other things that really matter (like self-care, being with family and friends, watching crap telly…)

I’d love to hear your thoughts on all this. Are there other things that learning not to do would be useful? (reading blogs about PhD work, possibly?!)

New paper on emergent learning at work

I’m delighted to announce acceptance of a paper by the Journal of Workplace Learning, co-written with my UTS School of Education colleagues Ann Reich and Donna Rooney. I will update this and my publications list with final publication details as they become available.

The paper draws on data from three different studies to specify particular kinds of learning that can occur when people do work about how work gets done.

The reference is:

Reich, A., Rooney, D., & Hopwood, N. (in press). Sociomaterial perspectives on work and learning: sites of emergent learning. Journal of Workplace Learning.

The abstract is:

This paper introduces, explains and illustrates the concept of ‘sites of emergent learning’,
which pinpoints particular instances of learning in everyday practice. This concept is
located within contemporary practice-oriented and sociomaterial approaches to
understanding workplace learning.
This conceptual development has been resourced by a secondary analysis of data from
three workplace learning studies. These were: (1) an ethnographic study of a residential
parenting service; (2) a case study of learning among engineers working on a railway
construction site; and (3) a case study of a multicultural unit that aims to enhance health
services for a diverse community. All were based in Sydney metropolitan area. The
secondary analysis was undertaken by identifying regular practices within each setting
where professionals discuss past and future work. These were then subjected to
theoretical scrutiny, identifying common and distinctive features.
Sites of emergent learning were identified within the handover, site walks and catch-up
meeting practices. They arise through and are constituted in relationships between social
practices and the materialities of work. Sites of emergent learning involve negotiating,
exploring and questioning practice and knowledge associated with it; they are instances
within work practices in which work is done about how work gets done, developing new
understandings of the past in order to reshape visions for the future. Alongside these
commonalities, each site of emergent learning displayed distinctive features shaped by the particularities of the practices and materialities of each site.

This concept is presented as a valuable tool to assist researchers of workplace learning. It elucidates particular learning-intensive features of practice, extending sociomaterial conceptualisations of professional and workplace learning.

New paper on simulation in higher education

I’m delighted to announce online publication of my latest paper.

Abrandt Dahlgren M, Fenwick T & Hopwood N (2016) Theorising simulation in higher education: difficulty for learners as an emergent phenomenon. Teaching in Higher Education. doi: 10.1080/13562517.2016.1183620

The url behind the doi number will give the first 50 people to click free access to the full paper. Please only use this option if you don’t have access through your institution (so that free access is preserved for those who really need it). Otherwise you’ll need to go through the normal channels, or you can contact me for a copy.

The paper was co-authored with Prof Tara Fenwick (UK/Canada) and Prof Madeleine Abrandt Dahlgren (Sweden). We looked at data from three studies of simulation in health professional education, and explore how sociomaterial theory can help understand what makes simulations difficult for learners, how that difficult arises, and what this means for educators. This is the latest in a series of papers about simulation, arising from a project I’ve been working on with colleagues at UTS (see here for more information on the project, and this link for a full list of publications).

Here is the abstract:

Despite the widespread interest in using and researching simulation in higher education, little discussion has yet to address a key pedagogical concern: difficulty. A ‘sociomaterial’ view of learning, explained in this paper, goes beyond cognitive considerations to highlight dimensions of material, situational, representational and relational difficulty confronted by students in experiential learning activities such as simulation. In this paper we explore these dimensions of difficulty through three contrasting scenarios of simulation education. The scenarios are drawn from studies conducted in three international contexts: Australia, Sweden and the UK, which illustrate diverse approaches to simulation and associated differences in the forms of difficulty being produced. For educators using simulation, the key implications are the importance of noting and understanding (1) the effects on students of interaction among multiple forms of difficulty; (2) the emergent and unpredictable nature of difficulty; and (3) the need to teach students strategies for managing emergent difficulty.

Theses with a difference: Taking chances in psychology

What a lovely piece of writing, and a lovely set of stories! A treat for all #PhD-ers out there!


Kerry Chamberlain
Helen OE

For some time now I have been banging on about the limitations of the ways that psychologists approach their research uncritically, and lamenting the way that so many psychologists simply take up theoretical ideas and methodological approaches from others, often without providing any substantial argument in support of their choices other than to point at references to published work as a (very weak) attempt at authentication. Doing research this way serves to limit ownership of the research, restrict reflexivity, and constrain creativity around what might be done.

So it’s time to celebrate some of those people I have been fortunate enough to work with – Joanna, Dany, Helen, and Megan – who have been brave enough to go their own way, take chances, position themselves differently, and work creatively in developing and producing their theses.  

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New paper on simulation in nurse education

I’m delighted to announce another publication from the project I’ve been doing with Donna Rooney, David Boud (both UTS School of Education),and Michelle Kelly (former UTS: Health, now at Curtin).

Kelly M, Hopwood N, Rooney D & Boud D (2016) Enhancing students’ learning through simulation: dealing with diverse, large cohorts. Clinical Simulation in Nursing 26(12), 171-176. doi: 10.1016/j.ecns.2016.01.010 

The highlights of the article are:

  • As healthcare simulation matures, new questions about pedagogy are emerging.
  • The challenges of large and diverse student cohorts need to be accounted for.
  • Relevant pedagogies are: informal learning, clinical judgement and sociomaterial.
  • Assist active participants and observers to become attuned to professional practice. Improving students’ noticing skills assists in learning about practice.

The abstract is:

As the field of health care simulation matures, new questions about appropriate pedagogy are emerging which present challenges to research and practices. This has implications for how we investigate and deliver effective simulations, how we conceive effectiveness, and how we make decisions about investment in simulation infrastructure. In this article, we explore two linked challenges that speak to these wider concerns: student diversity and large cohorts. We frame these within contemporary simulation practices and offer recommendations for research and practice that will account for students’ varying cultural expectations about learning and clinical practice in the Australian context.



Creating the literature review: research questions and arguments (Part 3 of 4)

Very helpful strategies for approach the nemesis that is the “lit review”

DoctoralWriting SIG


In Part 2, I explained how to generate the content of the literature review. At this stage it is just a list of assumptions (those labelled A to F in Part 2), and each assumption is a claim to be argued. Before expanding on each of these assumptions-as-claims, they have to be organised into a coherent writing plan.

Technique for connecting the content of the literature review

Finding a logical flow between assumptions can be challenging, but I’ve found a method for creating flow that seems to work well. If one can insert a connecting phrase (shown in italics below) between the assumptions so it reads like one long sentence that makes sense, then the order is probably logical. It might take a bit of arranging and rearranging to find a structure that works.

Success is best measured in terms of money (D)

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Habits, practices and dispositions of successful research students

This post brings together a number of things that I’ve come to see as important for research students. They are based on what I know from research I’ve done, literature I’ve read, experience as a supervisor, and conversations with many students and supervisors at universities around the world.

Constantly looking for your thesis thief

I’ve written a detailed blog post about this. Your thesis thief is the person who has ‘stolen’ your research by doing something really similar already! Regularly looking for this person is a good habit to cultivate as it avoids nasty shocks (believe me, I know how it can feel). It also requires and promotes good scholarly discipline in being able to define what ‘really similar’ would mean: in terms of topic, methodology, context, theory etc…


Ask for help… when you need it

Sounds obvious? Well experience tells us that many students ask for help when they don’t really need it. When I speak with other supervisors, we often chuckle about the number of times students approach us with questions where the answer would be on google (let me google that for you), somewhere in the university web pages, handbook, literature etc. That’s just a kind of minor annoyance / time wasting issue. What’s far more important is that any kind of research learning (master’s dissertation, doctoral thesis) requires the student to learn to help herself or himself. Of course, help-seeking is itself part of being an effective student (see below), but defaulting to dependence on others is the opposite of effective.

Student:           Can we have a meeting to talk about coding my data?

Supervisor:      What have you read about coding?

Student:           Er, not much. Just one paper but it was really confusing.

Supervisor:      Who have you talked to about coding? Have you asked any other students who have done it?

Student:           No. No-one.

Supervisor:      Have you tried some coding on your own data, a few times at least?

Student:           No, I wanted you to tell me how to do it right first.

Supervisor:      Sorry, no, I don’t think it is a good use of our time to meet. Come back when you’ve explored these other avenues.

I’m not saying this supervisor is doing the right thing, but it’s interesting to think about, isn’t it?


Cultivate, nurture and strategically access a constellation of supportive relationships

No matter how amazing and available your supervisor is (see below), you’re going to need other people to support you through the research journey. Some of these people it is their job to help you – librarians, IT support etc. I found personally that making a special effort with research / postgraduate administrators is a sound investment as they really are the oil and the fuel in the institutional machine. Others might be helping you as a favour, so you need to build a sense of mutuality in the relationship – peers who will help you with endnote, stats etc. Others have long been supportive of you, but now have to support you in this different endeavour, perhaps at a time when you’re less available to them – those providing emotional support, for example. There are others who might never meet you, or even know they’re helping you. I’m thinking here of Thesis Whisperer, Pat Thomson, and others in the amazing and helpful world of #phdchat and similar in the tweet- and blogospheres. Then there are academics in your field – people you meet at conferences and engage in corridor chat or discussions over coffee or dinner; people whose work you are reading whom you might email now and then; people who might be your examiners. So, your constellation will include your supervisor, family, friends, student peers, other academics; maybe dead people (authors of books can be a great source of support), people you never meet, people who don’t even know you exist!

It’s one thing to build this kind of supportive net around your research and your emotional and physical wellbeing. It is another thing altogether to use it effectively. The key is, when things get tricky, diagnosing what the problem really is, what kind of help you need right now, and who is best able to provide that help. Let me give an example from a study I did. A student doing economic history, Lucy, had waited months to get data from a national archive. It arrived by email and she opened up the file only to find huge holes in the data that meant she couldn’t do the study she had hoped to do. What did she do? She went out for a drink with a chemistry PhD student. Why? Because she knew this person well enough to feel ok crying (she needed to cry), but also because she knew chemists fail all the time (it’s true: they spend months trying to get experiments to work). She realised what she needed, right then, was not a solution to the data issue, but someone who could help her cope with the experience of her PhD falling out from under her feet.


Ensure time with your supervisor is as high value as possible

Your supervisor is important, but not all-important. She or he is very likely extremely busy, and in many countries, research supervision is a relatively (or completely) invisible form of work – ie not something that is awarded much time or money in the grand scheme of things. Yes, she or he is committed to supporting you, cares about you, and wants you to complete your study (as quickly as possible, if you don’t mind). But in the pecking order of things that are important and urgent today, reality is you probably don’t come top or even near the top of the list. So, your time with your supervisor is precious. Very precious. So precious that you’d be really, really stupid to waste it.

So what might ‘waste’ supervision time? I’m taking a rather extreme view here, but bear with me. I think anything more than a couple of minutes on something that your supervisor is not either uniquely or best able to help with, is wasteful. Exceptions might include time spent on things she or he needs to know, for example about circumstances outside your study that are affecting your work (though I’m not at all convinced the juicy details in this are warranted). If your time with your supervisor is limited and precious, why waste it talking about things that other people (or indeed just you) could sort out just as effectively?

Now, there are a lot of things that fall under the category of things your supervisor is uniquely or best able to help you with. She or he knows you (in a research capacity sense) and what you are doing better than anyone else (although of course pretty soon in the process you know more about your specific topic than your supervisor). But there are others who know just as much about administrative process, how to find literature, how to work software, how to correct grammar etc.

By implication, there is an onus on the research student to figure out what does indeed fall into this category that makes something an appropriate (ie high-value) use of supervision time. This will change over the course of your study. And there is responsibility on both sides to try to preserve supervision as a high-value-added activity.

Student:           Can you show me how to format endnote for APA 6th?

Supervisor:      Let me google that for you.

[No further dialogue needed]


Internalise your supervisor(s)

This connects with the previous point, because it can make time with your supervisor high value. After a while, you should be able to anticipate what your supervisor might say about a chapter you’ve sent to her. In which case, write your draft, leave it for a few days, then look at it as if you were your supervisor: what would she say about my structure? Where would she be confused? What would she like? What would she say needs more work, and why? Then re-write the chapter. Then send it in. A sign you’re not doing this is that your supervisor is giving the same kind of feedback each time. For example, you sent in your first findings chapter and your supervisor said you had ‘quotitis’ (hiding behind raw data too much). So when you send in the discussion chapter, check beforehand that the same problem isn’t there too.


Know the early warning signs, monitor yourself (and others) for them, and act accordingly

Most people come off the rails, or are at risk of doing so, at some point during a research thesis or dissertation. Being on the rails means studying productively, effectively, efficiently, while also maintaining physical and emotional wellbeing, and also being the husband, wife, mother, father, son, daughter, sibling, friend etc that you need to be for others around you.

Kearns and colleagues have a checklist of self-sabotaging behaviours that are very common (I have experienced all of them personally, in my time), but often unnoticed or ignored. They are:

  • Overcommitting. Attempting a study that is bigger or more complex than it needs to be. Taking on too many other responsibilities, spreading yourself too thinly. Refusing to let go of things that are important in your study, but not crucial. Setting yourself impossible volumes to read etc.
  • Busyness. Doing lots of work but none of it actually being productive work (eg spending a morning printing things or downloading things to read, when you should really be reading).
  • Perfectionism. A proper academic disease. There is no place for perfectionism in research. Sure we want to avoid sloppiness, and yes we want our writing to reflect the best of what we can do. But that is not perfection. No-one ever wrote a perfect paper, dissertation or thesis. Trying to do so can only be harmful.
  • Procrastination. Either putting off thesis work, or putting off the unpleasant and difficult aspects.
  • Disorganisation. If you find you’re not getting time to read and write, you’re not as organised as you think you are.
  • Not putting in effort. It’s a long, gruelling journey. Our motivation flags. That is normal and natural. But should be spotted and dealt with.
  • Choosing performance-debilitating circumstances. Working in unsuitable locations (you think you are productive reading in the coffee shop, or at home with the kids around, but are you? Really?)


There are other early warning signs too. Things like: not wanting to go onto campus because you feel really stressed about your research. Having a knot in your stomach when you see an email from your supervisor. Deferring meetings, not turning up, or just asking for email feedback (ie avoiding direct contact with your supervisor). I’m veering into territory that I’m not at all qualified to write about (eg symptoms and signs of anxiety, depression etc), so I’ll go no further. But you get the point.

Make time to read and write

If you don’t read and write you will not complete your dissertation or thesis. If you spend hours each week doing other things but not reading or writing, sooner or later, you will plateau and stop making any progress. This is a deal-breaker. You simply have to make time to read and write.

Act as if you are fearless

Sending writing you know is not perfect off to your supervisor can be scary. I know. Submitting your thesis or dissertation for examination is even scarier. Being scared is fine. Letting that fear affect your actions is not fine. You have to send your writing off for feedback. You have to submit (abandon is probably a better word) your thesis or dissertation at some point, even though it is not perfect.

Walk the fundamental scholarly tightrope

To be an effective student you have to be confident, assertive and ready to defend your point of view (even if that means disagreeing with people more senior or experienced than you). But you also have to be humble about what you and others know, subject yourself relentlessly and ruthlessly to self critique (asking could it be otherwise, could it be better, could I be wrong?), and be open to change suggested by others. This is one of the tensions that is written into the DNA of academic work and it’s far from easy to know when which aspect is more appropriate. But it is clear, I think, that falling exclusively or even predominantly on one side or the other does not bode well for success.