Should you write every day?

We all get stuck in a rut sometimes. I know in my PhD journey so far, I’ve gone weeks without writing on occasion. I’m too busy, there’s too much important “stuff” to do, and I don’t know where to start. But as I look back on my first 9 months, I realise my lit review just isn’t going to write itself.

When I’m procrastinating from writing, sometimes I enjoy reading. Tanya Golash-Boza of Get a Life, PhD, is one of my favourite bloggers, and her words of wisdom are always interesting. Her latest post, Daily Writing: How Prolific Scholars Do It, reminded me of the value and importance of getting into a writing habit. Perhaps it’s a new year’s resolution worth considering??

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How can you treat your PhD like a project?

As a “planner”, I found it very confronting when my usual organisational skills failed to wrangle my PhD into a set of nice, neat, sequential steps. But to hear that being “Lost in the Fog” is not a unique experience is comforting. Whether or not you’re an aspiring project manager, we can all learn a lesson or two here…

The Thesis Whisperer

Fiona Saunders is a Senior Lecturer in the Management of Engineering Projects at The University of Manchester and a part-time PhD student. Her research interests are in the management of projects in safety-critical industries. Prior to academia, Fiona enjoyed a successful 15 year industry career in project management. Fiona blogs at www.fionasaunders.co.uk where the original version of the post was published, along with a follow up post.

Long before I threw caution to the wind and (as a mum with 2 small children) began my part-time PhD my Professor (@AndrewWGale) gave me a very wise piece of advice Don’t be afraid of a PhD, it’s really just a project”. Now that I am entering the 3rd year of my part-time PhD I want to reflect on the similarities between a PhD and a project and offer some tips on how to use the tools and techniques of project…

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Preparing to present

The Melbourne Cup: “the race that stops a nation”. I look forward to stopping this afternoon, sausage and bread in hand, to watch some amazing equine athletes do what they do best. But for me, the revelry will be short-lived. I am working hard to prepare my presentation for our upcoming Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences Postgraduate Symposium, to be held at the University of Melbourne Werribee campus on November 20 and 21.

It seemed timely, therefore, that I stumbled across this blog post from Gradhacker (one of the blogs I frequent, to remind me that I’m not alone in this RHD journey). Entitled Conference Talks: A Head-butt or a Headache? it explores common ground we all feel: nervousness, panic, preparing and delivering your presentation, and helps put it all into perspective. Our Postgrad Symposium is a great place to practice these presentation skills, with an audience who understands how it feels to be an early expert in a scientific sub-discipline. All the best with your preparations!

What to buy your favourite PhD student for Christmas

Christmas is coming – what better way to thank all the supportive people who put up with your thesis tantrums, than to help them choose the perfect present for you!?

The Thesis Whisperer

Your hard working editor is off on a round the world holiday with the rest of family Thesiswhisperer, so this will be the last blog post until the 17th of January. I plan to go dark on email and all social media while I am away, but that’s more of a guideline than a rule… (where there’s a wifi there’s a way!).

While in the UK I’m giving a lecture at the University of Sussex on the 15th of December called: “What I learned about doing a thesis from reading trashy novels”. The kind people at Sussex have made some places available for students from other universities to come along; if you are interested you can book online here. I’m looking forward to seeing some of you there 🙂

I thought I would go with the holiday theme for this post and offer up 5 Christmas gift ideas for…

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A mid-candidature reflection

This blog is designed to help us all navigate the research process, by sharing advice and reflections about our own experiences. I recently chatted to one of our Veterinary RHD students over a lovely cup of tea, and it was a fruitful conversation.

In the beginning, there was an opportunity to do a research degree. Like many before, the “masters vs. PhD” question was posed, and the outcome was a part-time PhD enrolment – research would be part of the plan for the next 6 years. “I was to allocate 70% of my time to my clinical work, and the remaining 30% would be available for research. In reflection, this was just not enough – 70/30 might be ok for a masters, but poses challenges for a PhD. Maybe 50/50 would have worked better. 6 years is a long time to work on weekends making up the extra hours.”

Thankfully, previous study meant that skills in critical appraisal of literature were already well developed. A strong vision for the project, and savvy supervisors, resulted in a well-defined project in the first 6 months. But not all has been smooth sailing, so here are 5 “lessons learnt” from the experience so far.

  1. Plan your thesis. Get a chapter outline sorted early on – this becomes your table of contents. Then start writing. In a practical sense, this means turning your early investigations into something you can actually use. Your preliminary lit review notes become an introduction to your thesis. Writing up your methodology properly as you go means your materials and methods chapter is halfway there, before you even think about it as a chapter.
  2. Guard your time. Working in one-hour chunks around your other responsibilities might not be the most effective way to make progress. When you get a whole week to “work on your research”, plan it well. Order your reagents. Get your computer programs installed and working. Figure out how and when you will work, and what you expect to achieve. If you spend two days getting organized and planning, your whole week is quickly whittled away.
  3. A craftsman is only as good as his tools – so make your tools work for you. Referencing software is a good example; although Endnote is widely used, for some tasks (like searching and annotating) it can be clunky. For the purposes of this PhD, Papers for Mac suited much better. The lab book is another very useful tool – having all your records in one place, from thought processes to suggested computer code, becomes invaluable in the later seasons of the RHD process. If you can’t remember when you made a decision to go in a particular direction, writing your discussion will be harder than it needs to be.
  4. Recognise the rollercoaster. There is a cyclical feeling to any research project. Sometimes you’ll make great progress. Other times you might work hard for weeks and feel like you get nowhere. Ups and downs are normal. So, first accept that this is ok, and then do something about it! Often you will be stuck on one small aspect, and getting help from the right person with the right expertise can get you out of the doldrums and back on the right track.
  5. Networking! Get out there and talk to people. Meet your supervisors’ colleagues. Find ways to meet those working in related disciplines (especially our human health contemporaries). Go to conferences, both directly and indirectly connected to your area of investigation, and make the most of coffee breaks. These people will become your collaborators, fresh eyes on your project, and may offer the expertise you need to pull yourself out of a slump. Although some connections might be facilitated by your supervisor, it’s your project – so don’t be shy in getting out there.

From the joys of getting a valuable grant, to the anxiety of having to actually deliver on said grant, and looking ahead to the research questions you will answer post-RHD, it seems the research experience is delivering on the intellectual satisfaction front. There is always more work to do and new challenges to overcome, but satisfying the curiosity of an academic mind is a great reason to “do research”, and in hindsight it will all seem worth it.

So there you are – 5 quick tips from a current student. If you have an insight or thought about the RHD process, why not consider being interviewed for this blog, or even submitting a post from your own pen (or keyboard)? Get in touch at rhdandme@gmail.com

Has this post struck a chord, or do you have something to say about these tips? Leave a comment and continue the conversation!

We need to talk about titles

I know the right title is hard to find. How on earth do you sum up the nature and importance of your work in a single sentence? Titles deserve more respect than we give them, Jonathan Laskovsky asserts. I think he’s onto something…

The Research Whisperer

Jonathan LaskovskyJonathan Laskovsky is the Senior Coordinator, Research Partnerships in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University. He is primarily responsible for managing research partnerships support and administration within the College.

Alongside this role, Jonathan has research interests in modern and postmodern literature with a particular focus on fictional space and critical theory.

He tweets infrequently as @JLaskovsky and can be found on Linkedin.


A colon The dreaded colon

We need to talk about titles. We’ve been neglecting them and it’s starting to show.

Neglect signifies that we once cared for titles but, for some reason, the care has ceased or become sporadic at best (insert your favourite garden-tending metaphor here).

This neglect might partly be explained by the ever-increasing pressure on academic life: large teaching loads, increasing demands for research output, conferences, meetings and other administrative distractions, as well as our paltry attempts to maintain some kind of work-life balance…

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3MT – what’s the point?

Grand Final week. It’s a highlight on any Melbournian’s calendar. But my Grand Final of interest had nothing to do with red and white, brown and gold and a strange shaped ball. I am referring to the Grand Final of the 3 Minute Thesis at the University of Melbourne. The team I support was well represented, with two of the ten finalists from the ranks of the Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences. The presentations were engaging, fascinating and very well-rehearsed – it made me think about presenting research in a whole new way, about how I respond to every conversation that starts with “so, what exactly do you do?”

The 3 minute thesis started in 2008 at the University of Queensland, and has spread across Australia, into the U21 network of universities and into 18 countries outside Australia. Clearly, the creators were onto something. The idea is to explain your research project to a non-specialist audience in just three minutes. So, here’s my 3 minute thesis on presentation skills:

  1. You don’t need slides to do an oral presentation. The presenters in the 3MT are limited to a single static slide, no animation, no frills – and it works brilliantly. If you think about it, significant time goes into explaining a diagram or chart. You need to introduce what it is showing, clarify what the components are, draw attention to the important findings or features, and then explain how this advances your argument. Of course, this is a worthwhile investment if your audience needs all the evidence behind your work, but how often is that really true? If you’re short on time, simpler graphics can be much more efficient and effective.
  2. Shorter duration doesn’t have to mean simpler ideas. Your thesis, by definition, is full of complexity, whether it’s the concepts, the methodology or in the interpretation. Sure, you could present your research in a simplified form to cut down on the time. Or, you can draw on anecdotes, metaphors and emotional engagement of the audience to make ideas accessible. Tying your project into something your audience already has complex knowledge of is an effective method to get them “up to scratch” quickly. Of course, the linchpin is making sure you choose the right metaphor for your particular audience. If they’re not into computers, then using html code as a metaphor for a genome won’t help much!
  3. Rehearsal is not optional. Pauses are very effective if used strategically in speech, but less so when used because you’ve forgotten what idea comes next. Gestures and movement can be distracting if used haphazardly, but when strategically placed into the presentation, are great for engagement. It often seems some people are just “born presenters”, but this is largely a fallacy; like writing or networking, presenting effectively is something you can learn. I think it’s more like playing a musical instrument or dancing ballet – practicing smaller components and adding new techniques over time is the key. Most of your favourite lecturers from your undergrad degree weren’t born with amazing presentation skills, they developed them through observation and practice.

So, is my three minutes up yet? The most striking thing about the 3MT grand final was that every presentation ran exactly to time. The motivation, of course, is that any speaker who goes over 3 minutes is disqualified – I can think of some conferences that would benefit from the same strict rules! Unfortunately, the 3MT competition is only open to PhD students post-confirmation, but for anyone who meets the criteria, I strongly recommend you to get involved next year. If you’re not eligible, perhaps your 3 minute thesis should be developed for networking at conferences and functions.  It’s a great reason to think about your research from a new angle.