Tag Archives: doctorate

Self-sabotage your academic career

I’ve been doing lots of workshops about academic careers, doctoral study, publications, perfectionism, study habits etc, recently.

Noah Riseman (of Australian Catholic University) pointed out this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education to me, and it is well worth a read. Be honest with yourself when you read it.

My big take home lessons (in a deliberately blunt style):

1. Don’t wait around for someone to pat you on the back and give you wonderful opportunities  / blank research funding cheques / book contracts / tenured jobs. If you’re not doing anything about this, you can pretty much assume no-one else is either.

2. Don’t delay by seeking perfection. Nothing you write will ever be perfect. Deal with it and get it out there. But don’t rush it all either. Hit the sweet spot (and I would add: be ready to accept that much if not everything we do at least in part reflects what we can do in particular times and circumstances).

3. Don’t mope and self-vicitimise in the face of failure and harsh reviews. Sure it will feel rubbish for a while. But if you’re not able to cope with criticism and rejection, academia probably isn’t for you. Sorry but that’s pretty much the size of it. And in case you doubt: I’m pretty happy to say I’ve been rejected by plenty of journals, research funders, and job panels in my time. Yes, it didn’t feel great when it happened. But no, I’m not embarrassed by it, or ashamed. Nor do I allow it to fuel self-doubt.

4. Be visible (and as per point 1, don’t expect others to go around shining the light on you), but be ready to step aside as personal and political storms pass.

5. Be flexible and coherent at the same time. Chances are the job that equals lecturing and researching on the topic of your PhD does not and probably never will exist. Be ready to go where the money is or jobs are. I moved from geography in secondary schools to a project about doctoral education, and now am researching health. But I can tell a coherent story about pursuing questions of learning, consistent methodologies, and developing theoretical approaches. Be ready to teach courses that aren’t in your direct area. It’s super-competitive out there so you can’t be precious. And you can’t be stuck in what was interesting / good for you at one moment in time. The world and academic disciplines will move (on) regardless of how much you still love your doctoral topic and paradigm.

Say goodbye to your Nobel Prize, and get a doctorate instead (or: frame your doctoral study around doctoralness)

This post highlights a few key points from a great paper (freely available) by Mullins and Kiley. The title sets the tone: ‘It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize’: how experienced examiners assess research theses. (Studies in Higher Education 27(4), 369-386, doi 10.1080/0307507022000011507)

I’m putting this post up now because it confirms some elements of what I’ve already written about parsimony, keeping your reader/examiner on track, structuring a thesis etc. And it will lay out some terms and foundations for posts that are coming soon – about literature reviewing, and qualitative research design.

Tip for readers of this post: try putting the text into a wordcloud and see what comes up!

First up: avoid irritating your reader

Sounds obvious, but examiners report experiencing this – eg. through typos, poor layout, unclear structure, lack of signposting, indulgence / overly verbose text. Johnston (1997) in Mullins and Kiley, writes:

Examiners require all of the normal forms of assistance which should be provided to any reader. They appreciate work which is logically presented, focused, succinct, summarised and in which signposts are used to help readers to understand the path they are taking through the work … One of the problems with work that is poorly presented is that the examiner tends to lose confidence in the candidate and can become suspicious that there are deeper problems of inadequate and rushed conceptualisation. (p. 345) 

‘Only’ a doctorate

A prior study by Winter et al found that doctorates were viewed by examiners as needing to:

· be a report of work which others would want to read;
· tell a compelling story articulately whilst pre-empting inevitable critiques;
· carry the reader into complex realms, and inform and educate him/her;
· be sufficiently speculative or original to command respectful peer attention (p. 36).

Note there is nothing here about telling the examiners all the ups and downs, emotional traumas etc that you went through. By being report of work which others want to read I would argue what is needed is an account of a successful piece of research. Issues of anticipating critique, being clear in complexity, and adopting a sufficient voice are important too, but wasted if they’re not part of telling a story about, and selling, something that gives us something new.

Put yourself in your examiners’ shoes

Your examiners are already very busy people, likely with family, personal and other things they might rather be doing of an evening than reading your thesis. But, like with peer review, they do this because they know it’s important (and examiners did it for them, right?). Mullins and Kiley list these as questions that examiners have in mind, and considering these yourself, regularly, throughout your candidature might not be a bad idea:

· How would they have tackled the problem set out in the abstract and the title?

· What questions would they like answers to?

· Do the conclusions follow on from the introduction?

· How well does the candidate explain what he/she is doing

· Is the bibliography up to date and substantial enough? · Are the results worthwhile?

· How much work has actually been done?

· What is the intellectual depth and rigour of the thesis?

· Is this actually ‘research’—is there an argument?

The ‘how much work has actually been done’ is an important one (as they all are). I myself was (rightly) pulled up in an assessment 3/4 of the way through my doctorate: I had utterly undersold my efforts in the field and analysis. Don’t be shy to leave your examiners in no doubt whatsoever how much time you spent generating data, how much data was generated, and how meticulous, iterative and thorough your analysis was. Don’t forget this concrete stuff because you’re living in the clouds of high-brow intellectual argument. They aren’t separate. But don’t forget Mullins & Kiley’s title either: it’s not a Nobel Prize here, only a doctorate.

Key tips:

Manage first impressions – don’t annoy your examiner, or set low expectations. What do you want your examiner to think after reading the abstract, first chapter, lit review:

“Ooh this one doesn’t look great, she’s going to have to pull something incredible out of the bag to get over the line”


“Wow. This is clear, crisp, easy to understand, clearly offering something new. This is a strong student, and unless there are some serious mishaps, this seems like it will sail through”.

Bear in mind, if you’re going for the latter, set up reasonable expectations – don’t promise Nobel-winning scope and then fail to deliver. As was noted above, make sure you live up to  your promises, and that the intro and conclusions line up.


Poor thesis characteristics:

Again, taking the list from Mullins & Kiley:

· lack of coherence;

· lack of understanding of the theory;

· lack of confidence;

· researching the wrong problem;

· mixed or confused theoretical and methodological perspectives;

· work that is not original;

· not being able to explain at the end of the thesis what had actually been argued in the thesis.

Think about what is not listed here. No thesis was failed for being too clear, for making the ultimate arguments really crisp and easy to understand, for adopting clean methodological and theoretical approaches, for being built around a consistent thread / argument across the thesis…

Brilliance in theses:

Mullins and Kiley list what participants in their study said made for an outstanding PhD:

·  an artistic endeavour where the student is designing the work and there is elegance of design, of the synthesis, and executions;

·  creativity;

·  design—where it all fits together;

·  elegant;

·  a well-sculpted piece of work.

I love the craft and artistry in these dimensions. I argue they all support my own view of “parsimony rules!”. But I love how this says brilliance comes not from pure technical rigour, nor from massive complexity, huge scale / volume of work. But from things like sparkle, excitement etc.


Dr… or not?

Mullins and Kiley offer a summary of what the final judgements depend on:

· the student’s confidence and independence;

· a creative view of the topic;

· the structure of the argument;

· the coherence of theoretical and methodological perspectives; and

· evidence of critical self-assessment by the student.

What’s going on here? All the stuff we’ve seen before, about coherence, structure, critique etc. What I’d like to point out here is the reference, again, to confidence. As a doctoral candidate you have to write/speak with confidence and authority. Being timid, underselling yourself, ducking your own view and resting exclusively on the writing of others – all potentially catastrophic in terms of nicely convincing your examiners that you don’t deserve the title ‘Dr’. You may just have to trust yourself, and accept that you are in a position to argue something, to tell the world something new and important. If you’re plagued by anxiety that your’e not good enough and the intellectual fraud syndrome, you’re not alone, but you’re not setting yourself up for a positive reading of your thesis either.

Not a Nobel prize, just a doctoral thesis

Did we mention that it’s not a Nobel Prize? Just a thesis! Only a thesis! This is not to trivialise what is a significant piece of work and time in someone’s life. But it is to say “be realistic!”, let parsimony rule. Instrumentalism or being just good enough need not follow from an approach that frames doctoral work around doctoralness.

Finally, I’d like to share a phrase offered by David Boud to a doctoral student. We were working on a one-page summary of the thesis, as a prelude to writing full chapters. “Getting this right is really tough, but important,” Dave said, “the rest… is mere detail”.