Tag Archives: phd

Anxiety in academic work

Hi everyone

This is a short blog post to accompany a YouTube video I posted recently, about anxiety in academic work and particularly among research students. It’s a fairly simple video in which I talk mainly about how own personal history and experiences of anxiety, and what I’ve learned about it along the way. No flashy data, no promises of solutions. Just an honest sharing of experience that puts anxiety out there as something that happens and is okay to talk about.

Why did I write it? Because of the work I do, I come into contact with students from lots of different universities and countries.  I got an email from a student who had experienced anxiety in relation to her studies. Part of what she wrote was:

It is a learning process, right? I’m still figuring out what works for me, like walking for long time is really good. But just recognizing that this anxiety is a problem, like a broken finger, for example, and that it needs some time, maybe medicine, to heal, has been a big step. And I know it goes away. Just being able to put a name on it, has helped me a lot. And what also help is to talk to people who experience such things, and realizing that it is so normal. For me, I’m having the ups and downs, and I have had some therapy. But I now somewhat accept this part of me, and that is why I want to make it normal for people to talk about.

This made me think. Anxiety is out there among research students. And I agree with her about how helpful it can be to recognise it and talk about it with others. I also agreed with her about how unhelpful it is to push things like anxiety under the carpet, hide them away.

So, I wanted to make a video about anxiety. But it’s not my area of expertise, either in terms of research I’ve done about doctoral students, nor in any medical or clinical sense. So I have to be careful. I thought it might at least be useful to reflect on my own anxiety, and lay out publicly what happened, what I tried to do in response, what worked, what didn’t, and how I view it all now.

If you want to follow up with a serious academic paper on this topic, I would recommend this as a good place to start: Wisker & Robinson (2018) In sickness and in health, and a ‘duty of care’: phd student health, stress and wellbeing issues and supervisory experiences. It is a chapter in a book called Spaces, journeys and new horizons for postgraduate supervision published by SUN Academic Press.

 

 

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When coding doesn’t work, or doesn’t make sense: Synoptic units in qualitative data analysis

You can download a full pdf of this blog post including the three examples here. Please feel free to share with others, though preferably direct them to this page to download it!

 

How do you analyse qualitative data? You code it, right? Not always. And even if you do, chances are coding has only taken you a few steps in the long journey to your most important analytical insights.

I’m not dismissing coding altogether. I’ve done it many times and blogged about it, and expect I will code again. But there are times when coding doesn’t work, or when it doesn’t make sense to code at all. Problems with coding are increasingly being recognised (see this paper by St Pierre and Jackson 2014).

I am often asked: if not coding, then what? This blog post offers a concrete answer to that in terms of a logic and principles, and the full pdf gives examples from three studies.

Whatever you do in qualitative analysis is fine, as long as you’re finding it helpful. I’m far more worried about reaching new insights, seeing new possible meanings, making new connections, exploring new juxtapositions, hearing silences I’d missed in the noise of busy-work etc than I am about following rules or procedures, or methodological dogma.

I’m not the only one saying this. Pat Thomson wrote beautifully about how we can feel compelled into ‘technique-led’ analysis, avoiding anything that might feel ‘dodgy’. Her advocacy for ‘data play’ brings us into the deliciously messy and murky realms where standard techniques might go out of the window: she suggests random associations, redactions, scatter gun, and side by side approaches.

 

An approach where you are a strength not a hazard

The best qualitative analyses are the ones where the unique qualities, interests, insights, hunches, understandings, and creativity of the analyst come to the fore. Yes, that’s right: it’s all about what humans can do and what a robot or algorithm can’t. And yes, it’s about what you can do that perhaps no-one else can.

Sound extreme? I’m not throwing all ideas of rigour out of the window. In fact, the first example below shows how the approach I’m advocating can work really well in a team scenario where we seek confirmation among analysts (akin to inter-rater reliability). I’m not saying ‘anything goes’. I am saying: let’s seek the analysis where the best of us shines through, and where the output isn’t just what is in the data, but reflects an interaction between us and the data – where that ‘us’ is a very human, subjective, insightful one. Otherwise we are not analysing, we are just reporting. My video on ‘the, any or an analysis’ says more about this.

You can also check out an #openaccess paper I wrote with Prachi Srivastava that highlights reflexivity in analysis by asking: (1) What are the data telling me? (2) What do I want to know? And (3) What is the changing relationship between 1 and 2? [There is a video about this paper too]

The process I am about to describe is one in which the analysts is not cast out in the search for objectivity. We work with ‘things’ that increasingly reflect interaction between data and the analyst, not the data itself.

 

An alternative to coding

The approach I’ve ended up using many times is outlined below. I don’t call it a technique because it can’t be mechanically applied from one study to another. It is more a logic that follows a series of principles and implies a progressive flow in analysis.

The essence is this:

  1. Get into the data – systematically and playfully (in the way that Pat Thomson means).
  2. Systematically construct synoptic units – extractive summaries of how certain bits of data relate to something you’re interested in. These are not selections of bits of data, but written in your own words. (You can keep track of juicy quotations or vignettes you might want to use later, but the point is this is your writing here).
  3. Work with the synoptic units. Now instead of being faced with all the raw data, you’ve got these lovely new blocks to work and play seriously with. You could:
    1. Look for patterns – commonalities, contrasts, connections
    2. Juxtapose what seems to be odd, different, uncomfortable
    3. Look again for silences
    4. Look for a prior concepts or theoretical ideas
    5. Use a priori concepts or theoretical ideas to see similarity where on the surface things look different, to see difference where on the surface things look the same, or to see significance where on the surface things seem unimportant
    6. Ask ‘What do these units tell me? What do I want to know?’
    7. Make a mess and defamiliarize yourself by looking again in a different order, with a different question in mind etc.
  4. Do more data play and keep producing artefacts as you go. This might be
    1. Freewriting after a session with the synoptic units
    2. Concept mapping key points and their relationships
    3. An outline view of an argument (eg. using PowerPoint)
    4. Anything that you find helpful!

 

In some cases you might create another layer of synoptic units to work at a greater analytical distance from the data. One of the examples below illustrates this.

The key is that we enable ourselves to reach new insights not by letting go of the data completely, but by creating things to work with that reflect both the data and our insights, determinations of relevance etc. We can be systematic as we go through all the data in producing the synoptic units. We remain rigourous in our ‘intellectual hygiene’ (confronting what doesn’t fit, what is less clear, our analytical doubts etc) . We do not close off on opportunities for serious data play – rather we expand them.

If you’d like to read more, including three examples from real, published research, download the full pdf.

How to make sure people care about your research

No-one cares about your research. Particularly if it’s your PhD (or any other kind of doctorate). In fact if someone knows it’s the latter, or you mention it, they probably care less, or at least have alarm bells ringing that you’re about to launch into a prolonged account of your scholarship woes, the fact your supervisor hasn’t replied to any emails for 17 hours now, the horrible ethics committee, and the impossibility of writing only 100,000 words when it’s taken you 7 years and you’ve just got so much to say…

Even more of concern is the journal reviewer, or assessor of your grant proposal who is put off and frustrated before they’ve finished reading the first paragraph.

Fear not, for help is at hand! Fortunately, there is a really easy and effective way to avoid all these problems. Admittedly, this assumes your research does actually matter in some way, in the sense that it connects with something wider and non-trivial.

My solution will cost you nothing: no hard currency, no bitcoins, and no sleepless nights. Probably not even any extra words. In fact you may end up telling and selling the story of your research in fewer words than before! All it takes is a bit of trust, and a few minutes of your time.

My solution is this: when introducing your research, use a sequence that follows a ‘so’ logic rather than a ‘why?’ logic. This may well involve reversing the order of your ideas and sentences. If so, rejoice! – because this means you’ve already had all the right ideas, made all the right connections. You just need to turn it all upside down.

So what on earth is a ‘so’ logic, or a ‘why?’ logic, and why do these matter?

A ‘why’ logic is based on a sequence of sentences where each sentence is followed by one that explains the first. Example:

My research is about improving generic skills of university graduates.

This is important because employers increasingly look for generic skills in recruiting new staff, and repeatedly report shortcomings among graduates.

This matters because generic skills are known to be crucial to successful business innovation.

This looks great, right? It’s clear, follows a nice logical order, and explains to the reader why your research is important. I’ll admit, it’s not bad. Just I think it could be better. What’s really going on in the sequence above is an unwritten conversation with the reader. Let’s look at it again, this time with the silent responses inserted:

My research is about improving generic skills of university graduates.

[So what?]

This is important because employers increasingly look for generic skills in recruiting new staff, and repeatedly report shortcomings among graduates.

[Yeah. And? Why should I care about that?]

This matters because generic skills are known to be crucial to successful business innovation.

[Oh! Now I get it!]

Look at it from the reader’s point of view. You first sentence left them unconvinced, and probably rang all the alarm bells of dread, foreboding the terrors I outlined at the beginning of this post. Only after pushing you twice for more information, are they rewarded with something that they actually ‘get’, and might even care about. To them your research, in only three sentences, has been an uphill slog, full of doubt, experienced as some kind of puzzle that leaves them guessing. After each sentence they are left asking themselves: “why?”. This is the reason I call this a ‘why?’ logic.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can swap ‘why?’ for ‘so’. And we barely have to change a word. In fact we delete quite a few!

Generic skills are known to be crucial to successful business innovation.

Employers increasingly look for generic skills in recruiting new staff, and repeatedly report shortcomings among graduates.

My research is about improving generic skills of university graduates.

In this logic, you start with the idea that the reader really ‘got’ in the first scenario. The thing that matters most universally, directly and immediately to your readers. The kind of thing that they will accept as obvious, perhaps even unquestionable. There’s nothing wrong with showing a reader that you are both on the same wavelength. Take a shared assumption about something that you know to be a common concern. Something you don’t have to convince them to care about. Exploit what’s already there between you!

Then simply follow up with a sentence that leads from that towards your research, in a gradually narrowing down. What’s happening this time, is something more like this:

Generic skills are known to be crucial to successful business innovation.

[Absolutely! You sound like a sensible sort of person who knows what I care about. I’m curious. Tell me more].

Employers increasingly look for generic skills in recruiting new staff, and repeatedly report shortcomings among graduates.

[Yes. That makes sense.]

My research is about improving generic skills of university graduates.

[Seriously?! Wow! That’s wonderful! It’s just what we need. And it sounds very focused too. Tell me all about it in intricate detail!]

At each step you carry the reader with you, and one sentence follows on from the next exploiting this. Sentence 1 [brilliant!] so…. sentence 2 [amazeballs!] so… sentence 3 [no way! Where’s that Novel prize nomination form?]

That’s it. It may take you more than 3 sentences (hopefully not too many more, though).

Give it a try. I dare you. What have you got to lose?

Acknowledgement

I would like to acknowledge the influence of Martyn Hammersley’s framework for reading ethnographic research (see my video and podcast), Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler’s miraculous ‘tiny texts’ approach to writing abstracts, the group of UTS Doctor of Education students based in Hong Kong, and Lee Williamson from UTS’ Research Office. Without you all this would never have come to fruition.come to fruition.

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!

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.

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.