One thing I have learned over the years I have been Whispering is, although the problems they face are similar, no two research students are alike. What works for one person may not work for another. For this reason I have developed a habit of ‘reverse advice’ lists, for example: “5 classic research presentation mistakes” “Are you getting in the way of your PhD?” , “5 ways to fail your PhD” and “5 ways to poster = fail”.
I like a reverse list because it highlights the problem more than the suggested solutions, leaving you free to choose your own.
This time of year I attend a lot of research student orientation sessions around RMIT, where I usually give my ‘top five newbie mistakes’ talk. I tell students there’s no need to take notes because I have blogged it (yet another reason to keep up a blog by the way). However a student wrote to me this week saying they had read through the whole blog (!) and I hadn’t actually written out this rant yet. Oops. Thanks for that. I’m lucky to have such a diligent audience!
I developed these ‘top five mistakes’ from years of listening to research students talk, reading The Literature and doing the occasional bit of research myself. This list is my opinion; as always, I hope that those of you with some more experience of studying or supervising will chime in with your own.
My colleague Dr Judy Maxwell is fond of saying that a thesis is like eating an elephant. I think the only way to eat an elephant is to approach it with quiet confidence, preferably from the rear, and use your knife and fork to take a small bite at a time.
This means you need to be writing all the time, not leave it all to some future time you will ‘write up’. Of course, it’s easy to promise yourself that you will write early and often, but hard to stick with the resolution. Even people who love to write can find the enormity of a PhD thesis confronting – and many of us don’t love the writing.
I think the trick is to treat writing like piano practice: just do it for its own sake, everyday. The best kind of writing is the sort we do for others: a blog post, a grant application, a long email – anything like this will do. When you write with an audience in mind you improve your fluency and clarity. Even taking notes is a great opportunity to sharpen technique; pretend the notes are for a research assistant who doesn’t have the same background as you and needs to put a paper together in a hurry (your future self will thank you).
Some of the daily writing will end up in your thesis – but don’t worry too much if it doesn’t for the first year or so. For more severe cases of deadline-itis I refer you to the ever popular post: “How to write 1000 words a day (and not go bat shit crazy)”.
Don’t attend other people’s research presentations
When I was a PhD student I received a steady stream of emails advertising seminars given by other research students, visiting scholars, professors in the faculty and the like. Many of them offered a free lunch. The problem was the reminder email would inevitably arrive just when I was having a good writing moment and I would ignore it in favour of doing work. This felt good – virtuous even. I was denying myself social contact and having lunch with my Thesis instead.
Sometimes as little as 50% of the people who register for my workshops turn up, I suspect for the same reason. Even when I offer a free lunch. I am not the only Thesis Whisperer in world; there are many of my kind who work to support research students. Whenever I meet another Whisperer they tell me it’s hard to get students to turn up, so I don’t feel too bad. Over the years I have started to give my workshops ridiculously exaggerated names like “Heinous research mistakes and how to avoid them” just to get business. If I called it “Ethics, plagiarism and copyright” people would stay away in droves.
I was one of you. I get it. I could give you all the community minded reasons why you should go, but I am going instead to appeal to your selfish side. You learn a lot from watching how other people present their work and even more from watching them being criticized. Let’s face it, it’s much better to watch someone else be torn to shreds than experience it yourself. If you watch enough of these you will start to work out, amongst other things, the devious questions which academics like to ask to trip new students up.
(And if you say you want to come to a workshop, please turn up! Think of the poor Thesis Whisperer in your university with an empty room and too many sandwiches.)
Don’t visit the 807 section of the library
We all went to secondary school and got a basic education in how to write and research an essay. Some of you may have gone on to do an undergraduate course which asked you to do a lot of essays, while others – like myself- will have specialised in a profession which did not emphasize writing skills.
Even those who did a lot of writing as undergraduates will need to step it up while doing a research degree. Your work will be judged by scholars of international repute whose standards are very high. Make a visit to the books residing in the 800’s section of the library, particularly in 807. You will find heaps there on writing style, researching tips and the like (in fact, I like to think if this blog was in a library it would be in the 800 section, hanging with the other cool kids).
Fail to attend to paperwork
Any university is a massive bureaucracy. At RMIT we have a policy on policies (true fact); we even have person whose WHOLE JOB is just to check every single form we produce.
Let’s take a moment to think about that …
… best not.
We might go mad.
Anyway, my point is that ‘paperwork’ is not some minor irritant. It’s central to your life as a student and academic. Paperwork takes time to process; ethics committees and scholarship applications can get held up if you don’t fill in the forms properly. Make sure the form you are using is the right one and up to date. I can’t count how many people hand in their ethics application on the form the supervisor sent them, which is 3 years old, then get pissed when they have to wait another month. Being angry at the need to do paperwork is like being angry about the weather – satisfying, but ultimately pointless. And while I’m at it: file them properly when you have finished. A well written ethics application can sometimes be feed right back into your thesis. Sometimes the writing you do on forms can be re-used on other forms, for example, grant and/or job applications.
Don’t use technology
Tools like Mendeley / Zotero / CiteUlike help you find out what other people are reading. Humans are, after all, the best search engines. I could bore for Australia on how you can leverage social media and cloud apps for productivity and your career advantage. Oh wait – I’m writing a book so you can read that instead. At least learn to use Endnote ok? It will help Aunty Thesis Whisperer sleep at night.
So that’s my list – what do you think are the top five mistakes research newbies make? Love to hear about them in the comments.