Dear Thesiswhisperer – support can uplift your PhD experience

As the Thesis Whisperer matures, students who look to it for support are starting to graduate. I always love to hear about their experiences and created the “Dear Thesis Whisperer” section to publish any nuggets of advice they want to share.

This post is from the new Dr Janet Fulton, who completed her PhD last year. Her thesis is titled ‘Making the News: Print journalism and the creative process’.

I became an official post-PhDer at the end of October 2011. The one thing that helped me throughout the process was actively pursuing any kind of support, from physical through to virtual.

I was very lucky in that our school provides a fair amount of support for research higher degree (RHD) students – those doing a PhD or Masters degree. We have a dedicated room with a desk, computer and storage space provided; there are annual seminars where it’s compulsory for RHD students to present their work; we receive a sum of money each year (to use for conferences, data gathering expenses, etc.); and, our school’s academic and support staff is (by and large) incredibly supportive.

But there are certainly horror stories out there.

A friend of mine did her PhD with such little support from her school that she rang me weeping one day and asked me to have a regular coffee hour each week, just to discuss her research. This happened right at the beginning of my PhD and I’ve never forgotten how lost and sad and lonely she was.

PhDing can be lonely and isolating. It doesn’t matter how loving and supportive your family is, if they haven’t gone through it themselves it’s impossible for them to understand what’s happening to you.  So, it’s really important to create a community, either physical or virtual, to help you through.

Here is some of the support I made use of. Some were more important than others at times but they all assisted in making my PhDing a little easier.

Find your fellow PhDers

I was blessed to have a group of fellow Media and Communication PhDers at my uni all going through at different levels. The experience within the group was a massive resource I drew on and I’d like to think that others who came after me have found my knowledge valuable as well.

Over the years we had various attempts at trying to meet formally either via regular coffee catch-ups or scheduled meetings, but busyness usually meant these formal forums eventually wound down. Most of the PhDers in our school are full-time academics doing research part-time (I don’t know how they do it) or full-time students teaching on a casual basis (don’t know how they do that either) so time is at a premium. I found it more valuable to just email someone to have a moan or ask a question or meet up for coffee.

Our RHD room setup was a valuable resource. When I started in 2006, there was only me in the room but over the years we’ve had more than a dozen coming and going, each bringing their own special experience into the mix.

Try to hang around with other academics

I worked in the RHD room from the beginning of my candidature and found it an excellent way to informally meet up with academics in the school. We have a strange mix of disciplines with academics from design, communication studies and information technology, but most have been very happy to chat in the lunchroom or in the corridors. The different disciplines bring their own take on problems. A great resource.

Twitter

I came to Twitter late in my PhD (early 2009) but talk about an instant support group!

There is the regular meeting of #phdchat on Wednesday nights (UK time), created and run by Nasima Riazat (@NSRiazat) but the hashtag can be used at any time to ask questions, update your own PhD status, make comments and observations and share experiences. Australia has its own version run by Dr Inger Mewburn (@thesiswhisperer) on the first Wedensday of every month.

Our little local group of PhDers tweet pretty regularly as well. I used the ‘List’ function to gather us all together so we could keep track of each other. At one stage, we had a hashtag called #phdequivalent where we decided that each day’s word output should be equaled by mls of wine or milligrams of chocolate. Yes, yes, sounds silly but silliness is sometimes REALLY IMPORTANT during the PhD process.

The only problem with Twitter is that it is possible to use it for evil instead of good. Twitcrastination: a way to use Twitter to not do PhD work. I remember tweeting once that you could always tell when I was trying to work my way through a particularly difficult bit because my tweets went up in volume and inanity.  I got a few virtual nods for that comment.

Bloggers

Blogs didn’t feature highly in my PhD experience but I was so grateful when @chloekillen put me on to the Thesis Whisperer blog. There were many times when one of Dr Inger’s posts would land in my InBox and I would read it nodding my head in agreement. If you aren’t on the Thesis Whisperer mailing list, it’s well worth getting that started but there’s also a rich source of previous posts on topics ranging from how to design posters to publishing during your candidature, tips on how to manage money, supervisors and alcohol (hmmm, wonder what Inger thought of our #phdequivalent hashtag) through to advice on using technology efficiently, etc., etc., etc.

The GradHacker blog is another great resource, although it’s not Australian. I come to this one late in my candidature.

There are lots of other blogs there and it’s just a matter of finding the right fit for you. The beauty of following these blogs is that you realise others are going through the same kind of things and the good, practical advice on these sites is invaluable.

Of course having a supportive family is important but using whatever tool you can to get your way through what is a difficult journey (sorry about that Australian Idol term but there’s no other way to describe it). I do understand that RHDers juggle families, jobs, etc. and there are distance students who can’t go to regular meetings or catch up with others in person, but that’s the beauty of the Internet – there are virtual communities that can provide an incredible amount of support. Do some googling and find one that suits you.

And speaking of supportive families, my lovely husband was (is) awesome but a friend and I joked one day that there really needs to be a PhD Partner Support Group. Although how they would fit it in when they have to cope with someone whose brain is soggy and non-functioning from PhDing is a topic for another post.

Thanks Janet – and congratulations Dr! How about you – are you close to graduating now? Do you have any advice to offer? You can write to us, or leave some drops of wisdom in the comments.

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12 thoughts on “Dear Thesiswhisperer – support can uplift your PhD experience

  1. I, too, have found that my fellow PhDer’s are immensely helpful and encouraging on so many levels. In fact, I firmly believe that my success so far is equally due to their input on my topic and insight into my personality as it is to the academic program. More recently, though, I think that my ability to stay productively engaged with my work should be attributed to the re-orientation I experience when connecting with my closest friends every few days. Somehow they keep me grounded in a proper perspective of this world which keeps me from falling into the “abyss of remiss”. It’s not that we always talk about my work. For me, it’s more about continually trying to be the right person, enjoying the fruits of reciprocal relationships, and pursuing the academics for all the right reasons. A clear conscience with friends and family goes a long ways towards efficiency of lit reviews, argument construction, and writing.

    • Very true. I found my friends outside the PhD stuff to be invaluable for destressing but I must admit that towards the end it was difficult to get my head out of the research. I actually had a chat to my friends about six months out to warn them I may be less available, stressy, cranky, teary, etc., etc. They were great about it and I now value them more than ever.

  2. Thanks Janet! I am closing in on submission and really have loved having social media to help buoy me along plus regular catch ups with PhDers across a range of disciplines. Am going a little stir crazy now though and feel extremely exhausted by this last sprint to submission… can’t wait to submit. Thanks for the tips on a few more people to follow on twitter.

  3. I recently withdrew from my studies. I’d had no support group, no one to turn to and just a bully of a supervisor. The whole experience really put me off. I miss my studies and feel lost now I am not studying but looking in to what felt like a dark abyss every day wasn’t for me.

    • So sorry to hear that! Most Australian insitutions have processes for dealing with these kinds of matters. I hope there’s an opportunity down the track for you to take up your studies again because it sounds like you enjoyed it :-(

  4. Never think that you are alone ; it’s the need to vent and be heard by your peers;express your life to the public,like blogging to search for connection of soulful understanding;then you be relieved of stress and pressure from within.I hope this small token helps.

  5. Pingback: Dear Thesiswhisperer – support can uplift your PhD experience | International Literacy Management | Scoop.it

  6. ovenmits22 I really sympathise. I am in the same situation at a Group of 8 university. No place to work on campus that is part of the department, (some) academics who bully and openly abuse students (HDR students shouldn’t be allowed to speak at reading groups “in case they say something stupid”), academics who publicly bicker with each other over your thesis, you have to fight tooth and nail to be reimbursed for conference expenses that are part of your entitlement package and students are treated like annoyances rather than colleagues (well mature-agers who aren’t destined to become academics are looked down on). All round it’s a really unhealthy environment that I’m happy to stay way from. I’m sure this is a case of a few dominant bad apples crowding out all the good people but it is nigh impossible to keep going and extremely difficult to create support networks. I’m now shopping around for a different department or Uni and on my list of “must have” criteria is evidence of support networks. Good luck and I hope you can go back to it, even at a different Uni where you can start afresh.

  7. I agree that the support system at your university makes a huge difference, so much so that it should be a consideration when you’re looking at graduate programs. I was lucky to be in a department with friendly and helpful grad students, but I’ve heard horror stories from postdocs about their experiences. Take the time to meet with graduate students when no faculty are present, and get the lowdown!

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