It’s not just about the thesis…

In a recent lecture at ANU, the esteemed research education expert Dr Margaret Kiley claimed that if we set out to design the Australian PhD from scratch we wouldn’t start from here. The PhD assessment (in most cases, a long form thesis), she argued, does not not necessarily develop the full panoply of skills we expect in a working researcher, inside or outside of academia.

One of the clever students in the audience absorbed the implications of Margaret’s lecture straight away and asked:

If that’s the case, what should I spend my time on? At the moment I spend most of my time reading and writing because that’s what I’m being assessed on. Should I be doing more?

Joyce Seitzinger and I being silly in a photobooth for the Canberra Tourist board.

Joyce Seitzinger and I being silly in a photobooth for the Canberra Tourist board.

The student’s question went right to the heart of an issue that has been frustrating me for some time: many research students are so busy writing their thesis they fail to take advantage of what the PhD experience offers.

We know this because only about 50% of PhD students who register for events at ANU turn up – and I know we are not alone.

During a recent visit to the UK I spent a great deal of time talking to colleagues about how they ensure attendance – some use a ‘three strikes and you are out policy”. I’ve yet to implement this policy, but sometimes, especially when I have trays of sandwiches left over and a catering bill to pay, I’m sorely tempted.

Whenever I think of cracking down on non-attendance I have to remind myself – I made this exact mistake myself. I didn’t really take advantage of all the opportunities I was offered because I was so busy writing. I often reflect on how much I disadvantaged myself with this attitude. I’m doing some research with my friend Dr Rachael Pitt at the moment on the text of job ads for academics. We haven’t published it yet, so I can’t share the findings here, but let me just say it’s a much wider and more interesting skill set than we thought.

This research work has got me thinking: if I was to design a PhD curriculum that prepared me for my working life now, what ‘extras’ would I have included? The list is long, but here’s just a couple of things I would have done differently:

Participated in the three minute thesis competition: they didn’t have this in my day, but how I wish they did. The skills honed by the discipline of explaining your PhD quickly, in plain language, are invaluable and easily transferable. I need to talk in sound bites all the time – impromptu speeches in committee meetings being but one example. You must be precise, persuasive and memorable in order to convince other academics or employers to take up your ideas: if you make them snooze, you will lose.

Attended every seminar, party or mixer event in my faculty that I could possibly manage: I’ll admit, I sometimes used family duties as an excuse to avoid these, especially if the topic wasn’t interesting. I now spend half my professional life at some kind of social event or function, regardless of whether it’s interesting or not. That’s what academic life is like: you can’t just turn up whenever you feel like it. Being present is important – it shows people you care about them and builds relationships.

Picked a PhD topic that played to my weaknesses, not my strengths: I did pick a conceptually difficult topic, but I made sure to do it in a way that aligned with my interests and existing technical skills. I realise not all PhD students have the luxury of designing their own project and I actually envy those people now. I often get bored, frustrated or otherwise blocked with my professional research work. Learning to stick with the hard things and stretch myself would have stood me in good stead, not to mention all the extra skills I would have been forced to learn.

Attended every technical training session on offer, even if wasn’t immediately useful: I had the chance to do an Nvivo course worth about $3000 during my PhD – for free. I didn’t take it up because it was for transcripts, not film data (studying gesture remember?). Now I want to go back and slap past self upside the head for such short-sighted thinking. I should have found a way to use it, if just for my literature review, because I have never had the time since to go back and learn it properly. Likewise Excel and even MS Word. I learned all those programs ‘on the job’, like most people do. When I meet the occasional person who is properly trained, and see how quickly they can solve problems, I suffer pangs of regret.

Done more workshops on ‘non research’ things: I only attended the first session of the Melbourne University course “crafting a professional identity” because the next two days I wanted to ‘catch up on writing’. I regret this now. Managing people’s impressions of you, online and offline, is one of the most important factors in getting ahead in academia. The blog is excellent bang for buck in these stakes: I would have been writing papers till I was 60 years old and not have come to the attention of the right people to help me with my career. That three hour session laid the foundations for the blog, even though I didn’t realise it at the time – I wonder what other opportunities I missed out on by being ‘too busy writing’?

What I didn’t realise all those times I was ‘too busy writing’ was that doing a PhD is one of those extremely rare opportunities in a busy adult life you get to concentrate on your own professional development. Consistently placing writing above other kinds of PhD activity is undergraduate thinking. I thought assessment happened when examiners read my thesis.

But the real assessment happens when someone reads your CV.

The mistake is a natural one if you think about it. By concentrating on writing the thesis I was employing a strategy that worked many times before. But if my subsequent experience is anything to go by, in a job interview no one will ask you what your examiners thought about your PhD, or even how long it took. And why should they? A PhD is a pass/fail proposition remember?

Prospective employers might be interested (vaguely) in what your PhD was about, where you got it from, or who your supervisor was, but they will want to know the answers to other, more pressing, questions such as:

  • Can you teach big classes?
  • Can you manage multiple, conflicting demands on your time? (those of you who are full time students need to think about this one carefully. A PhD on its own might not really be considered evidence of this ability).
  • Do you know how to use [insert particular instrument, software or method]?
  • Have you had any experience with managing people, or a budget?
  • Are you a productive, effective committee member?
  • Do you know the basics of performance or risk management?
  • Have you shown evidence of contributing to your professional community in some concrete way? (reviewing, journal boards, conference organisation etc)
  • Have you collaborated with people in your field? (ie: can you work with others to bring in the big grants?).

If you are not prepping to answer for these questions at the same time that you are writing your PhD you could be in trouble. So I’ll leave you with a couple of questions to mull over:

  • What are you doing now that will help you answer those prospective employer questions?
  • Without putting your PhD timeline at risk, are there things you could be doing now that would lead to a better, more rounded CV?

Love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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54 thoughts on “It’s not just about the thesis…

  1. Olga Walker says:

    Hi there

    I really enjoy and learn from your posts and I look forward to seeing the email when i log on in the morning. Just a couple of thoughts…

    a) I would love to be able to attend workshops and events as you mention but being an off campus student makes this a little harder, though not unachievable.
    b) Some universities are more proactive in offerings for research students than others, and the notice between the event and the time of the event is sometimes only a week. if you have to travel over 1,000 ks and be away from home minimum of four days, then sometimes you just can’t be there.
    c) I would love to see more recognition for time and effort to deal with the administrative side of the PhD ie Research Proposals, Confirmation of Candidature etc.

    The admin side takes time and again some unis are more proactive in providing the relevant information and forms. We, for example, are advised to use a ‘specific’ text for guidance only to find that text has been undergoing ‘updating’ for over twelve months. The original version is not available so one has to scramble around to try and fill the gaps. I usually use advice from another uni and hope for the best.

    I am not saying that universities should do everything but improvements would be welcome in some areas. It doesnt make sense to keep re-inventing the same wheel.

    best wishes
    O W

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      You raise a very important point about distance Olga. We try to run as much of our program as we can in blended format, but no doubt there are some disadvantages in being remote that no amount of internet will make up for. There are various inequities in the way the job market operates – a post for another time. Thanks for the food for thought.

  2. amanibell says:

    Awesome post Inger. If doctoral students are interested in an academic career then they should say yes to all opportunities to gain teaching experience. Plus investigate any professional development related to teaching. While I was doing my PhD my uni offered a free (!!) Graduate Certificate in Higher Ed to doctoral students. I’m so glad I did it – it has directly led to my current job.

  3. Malba Barahona says:

    I agree to some extent with this post. No doubt that successful academics require lots of skills that go beyond the writing of the thesis. However, if you aren’t able to write a thesis, you will never be able to get a PhD.

    In another related point, I think that the reasons why PhD candidates do not attend seminars or workshops are varied. I wonder if the content, format and timing of the seminars have something to do with why PhD students do not attend the workshops.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Yes, that’s a good point. At ANU we try weekend, nights and all times of day as well as blended and fully online. We still the same result! I think people just prioritise their time in certain ways. You’re right about the PhD being the ‘meal ticket’ for the academic club, so everyone needs to think this through carefully so they don’t go off track.

  4. Rebecca says:

    Thanks for an extremely reassuring post!
    I’ve always sought these things out – my rationale was ostensibly to make myself the best possible job candidate, and that is part of it, but I also just love ‘productive procrastination’ (reading this blog is another example – I’m currently taking a break from reading an extremely dense book).
    I got a job teaching (not just tutoring) a masters course this semester as a direct result of attending a faculty morning tea.. so I definitely agree with you there.

    Regarding Olga’s point, I’m on a committee that just organised a “research retreat” for our faculty for people who are part-time or long-distance. It was held over a weekend and had heaps of the sorts of sessions normally run through Upskills and the library, as well as talks from academics on Confirmation, getting a job and so on (and it was catered, which everyone likes).
    It was received really well, so perhaps this is the solution to the problems you raised.

  5. Leigh Donovan says:

    Dear Thesis Whisperer

    To date I have to confess I have been a Thesis Whisperer ‘stalker’. Your posts keep me going in the land of PhD. I agree that attending events is an important component of the PhD. However I am a remote student, and I suspect there are many of us out here, making it impossible to attend University events. I yearn for the day when universities acknowledge the geographical distribution of their students, and also the many other commitments students now hold (I am undertaking full time PhD studies, hold down a part time professional position and am a single parent to three adolescent children).

    Given the progress of technology, I would love to see a ‘virtual’ world of PhD students come together via webinars, video-teleconferencing, live chat forums. I suspect Universities may find significantly increased attendance if students had the option of participating virtually. I know I would!!!

    From a somewhat isolated PhD Candidate…

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      IHi Leigh – and thanks for writing in 🙂

      I think there is a virtual world of PhD students on #phdchat and even on this blog, and others like it. But students need to be able to attend events within their discipline too. We do try at ANU, but we could do more. Open to suggestions about what might help bridge the distance?

  6. M-H says:

    I wish that more people in Universities who make decisions about what will be offered to PhD students and also supervisors would read this blog and the comments, and learn what students really want, and what might be possible. There is still so much focus on the project and the thesis, and not enough on ‘becoming a doctor’. And Malba, I really don’t understand how attending a course or a seminar from time to time will interfere with the project or thesis. In my experience people feel energised, revived and re-focused by these activities, especially if they are related to skills they can develop.

  7. Kalpana says:

    Thanks for the post Inger – I’ve been following your blog for ages now but this is the first time I feel I have something to add, a different point of view. Often unis make available all sorts of courses, expensive ones even, and many of us attend. However, this does not necessarily translate into an ability to use XYZ method or software. For example, I did courses in NVivo and various other software modelling courses. Unless you use the specific programs in any kind of sustained way, you lose all familiarity with the program. So at the end of the day, learning any program takes a LOT longer than the session(s) offered by the uni and it doesn’t make sense unless you feel there is a chance you will use it.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Yes that’s true Kalpana – and for writing workshops as well. Sustained practice is the only way to get really competent at anything and workshops which promise ‘quick fixes’ can be disappointing. But there is value in knowing how to get in and ‘start the engine’ in lots of different kinds of software and techniques. It reduces the barriers to further learning later on. I sincerely regret not taking the time to at least get some familiarity at least.

  8. Rhonda Wilson MHN says:

    Good tips… what we would do if we could go back…! I took the time to learn nVivo – fantastic!
    Add endnote to the list of to do’s…. everybody needs endnote to collaborate in real life!

  9. Anne says:

    This is a great post, thank you. I must confess to being one of the ANU students who sign up for events and then don’t attend due to the demands of writing, but your comments have inspired me to be a more diligent participant in the future!

  10. Anonymous says:

    Super, thoughtful post. thank you.

    I think that an early session/forum/discussion with new Phd students about their expectations for their period of study and the opportunities it will present wiould be invalueable. It would be great to have finishing students sharing what they learnt from the journey, (and not just the stuff related to their area of resarch), along with things they wished they had done differently.

  11. CyberFonic says:

    I’m one of those misguided folks who thought that a PhD was about research and making a contribution. Now I realise that it is an apprenticeship to become an academic researcher. Of course many of the skills are transferable to other areas, but a hard core engineer type who is out to solve real-world problems right now is a bit of a misfit.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      I’m not sure whether this is a criticism or not Cyberfonic! I was trying to draw attention to the time it grants you to develop yourself in various ways. I never meant to suggest that the PhD wasn’t a contribution, or that people shouldn’t look to apply what they find in practical ways – I’m hugely in favour of that. But our research is showing that the list of questions I put there will be on the mind of most employers, academic or not. If you aren’t after a job when you complete, then of course it may not matter at all. Some people do the PhD purely for interest and passion – some do it for that AND career advancement. Interestingly, I’ve found the people who turn up to all the ‘extras’ are usually the older people, who recognise a great opportunity when they see it.

      • Anonymous says:

        My comment was more in the spirit of an observation. As you say there are many reasons for doing a PhD. But in my experience the expectations are very much that PhD candidates are in training for a career in academia. If you work on the supervisor’s project and help him win grants; if you co-author several papers with the supervisor and get your h-index (or whatever) up, then you are looked after. Otherwise you are very much left to your own resources. Which in turn means that the three years available under Australian Research Training Scheme severally curtails involvement in the many valuable extra benefits.

    • maelorin@gmail says:

      I’ve had ‘fun’ trying to get across to some of my colleagues that I want my research to address ‘real’ problems – problems in practice – not just their favourite concerns.

      Though my biggest problems have been around methods and methodology. As a practitioner, I want my research to be useful as well as intellectually interesting >.<

  12. cassilyc says:

    Lots of wisdom as always, but just a quibble on one point Inger – ‘just in time’ versus ‘just in case’ learning. I do see some super dedicated bods arrive at the beginning of their research candidature and seek out every single workshop on offer, which doesn’t usually give them the future-proofing they hope for. The thing is, we know that learning doesn’t work like inoculation. So my sneaky hypothesis is that, now that you see the great value of some of the things that you learned, in hindsight you might wish that you’d learned them earlier, and from that you might be tempted to think that you could have vaccinated yourself for wisdom on day one. But I am skeptical about this. I think the only really effective ‘just in case’ measure is making sure you are connected to people, so that when you’re ready to learn something, you can quickly locate the tingling wisdom stuck on your networky web, waiting for you to go and get it and suck the juice out of it. (OTT?)

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Not OTT at all Cassily, I think you’re right in a lot of respects… But I still regret that Nvivo opportunity. If we are too instrumental in our approach to learning I think we can risk missing out on opportunities like this.

  13. Rock Doc says:

    Your thesis gets examined so that you have a piece of paper stating you have a qualification. That alone will not get you a job. It’s no different to finishing your Bachelors degree and looking for an entry level graduate job. It’s just a piece of paper saying you’re qualified. You have to stand out from everyone else with the same qualification.

  14. maelorin@gmail says:

    There is so much variation between universities, but also between departments within them, that it’s hard to compare what is on offer to PhD students.

    I came into my programme with a broad skill base and wide experience. I got involved in everything I could for the first few years. Seminars, talks, training sessions, teaching. And not just within my own school/division.

    Right now, writing is what I do. I still offer to teach – but budget cuts mean less work for non-‘continuing’ staff (aka those not already in academic positions). I rarely even go to campus these days.

  15. Rock Doc says:

    Reblogged this on Rock Doc's Blog and commented:
    I think this needs to be considered in context.

    I went to a regional university for my PhD which had a world leading department in the field of study I was investigating. It is considered a truly world class research department. However, the university itself? Not so much. And therein lies the problem. Although my PhD was recognised as coming from a “big name department”, the university itself offered little in the way of skills development, teaching opportunities, or workshops.

    Upon graduation, I was lucky that I found a postdoctoral position in a department where people knew of the high quality research being done in the department where I did my PhD. And I had the right technical skills – which I developed myself through trial and error during my PhD project. However, without that, I would have been in trouble. I had little in the way of teaching experience, I had undertaken no generic skills courses (they weren’t offered), and as I didn’t do my PhD at a Group of Eight university, we very rarely had workshops or seminars on offer.

    We need to face the reality that unless you’re at a major/Go8 university in Australia, then the ability to develop yourself outside of your PhD project can be extremely limited.

  16. ECP says:

    Reblogged this on NeuroBlogical and commented:
    Thank you! Some support for my take on a PhD; you need more than just a thesis at the end of your 3/4 years as a PhD student.
    Take the time to develop ‘transferrable’ or ‘extra-curricular’ skills that will be useful in a future position.
    I personally took on a few ‘society’ management roles, as well as non-PhD related course such as teaching and how to write as a science journalist.
    Below is a fab list of other suggestions one could take up as well as thesis writing/paper reading.

  17. Eavan Brady says:

    Hi Thesis Whisperer,

    Thanks for this article, I will be beginning my PhD in September and it is great to have these points in mind as I embark on this journey.

    Thank you!

  18. Rike says:

    Well, I tried attending the courses that are offered here in Birmingham, but found that they are of very poor quality, i.e. How to write well – which is comparable to the level as one might find it in mid-high school. It is not really motivating to attend more courses like this, although they are for free, so that I now stick to the advices in several books and try them out for myself and see how it works.

  19. Anonymous says:

    As a part time off campus PhD student, I have a 12 hour round trip to my supervisor. Not complaining, I made that choice to be supervised by an expert in my field. But surely the two Universities nearby to me could allow me attend their ” generic” workshops and events.

  20. Erika H says:

    I know we’ve also spoken about non-attendance at events, and it’s interesting how consistent it is, no matter the time or day, whether we advertise a year in advance, or the week before! I know things crop up and life happens, but it can be disheartening, especially when I’ve had to turn people away as the event was fully booked.

    I do wonder if it is, as you say, tension between what the PhD is assessed on, and wider, non-research specific activity during the PhD. I also wonder what part supervisors can play in this- if your supervisor has a very traditional ‘focus only on research’ approach I can imagine it is hard to allow yourself to do other activities that don’t have direct impact on your research.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Yes Erika – it’s one of the great mysteries of the research education profession! I think it would be useful to do some research on it… I’m thinking of sending a short ‘no judgment’ survey to non attendees each time to see if we can work out why.

  21. troyrhoades says:

    Reblogged this on Drops of Experience and commented:
    Doing a Ph.D. should be more than just reading and writing, this post in “The Thesis Whisperer” discusses other activities Ph.D. students should be doing to help them become better students and prepare them for the future.

  22. annainternational says:

    This is so so true. I went to a rather unique university where teaching is not part of the PhD programme, and all of us are now struggling to compete in the job market for lecturers with those who did plenty during their doctorate. It’s not just teaching though, in my discipline learning how to write good papers and get them published (a different skill to writing a thesis), research skills, admin skills, and presentational and IT skills are all things recruiters want that we don’t have. We did have a great bar though, so social skills…I’ve got those! 🙂

  23. marijapilley says:

    Thanks for this post! I see a glance of hope for me in it…. As a PhD student, for me all non-thesis activities and events are much more interesting and I’m investing much more time on it than I do on writing. So much that I feel that the writing is that odd process hrs I need to do only because I MUST, but definitely not for any satisfaction. However, obviously it is central to developing a thesis. My non-thesis activities include all the courses Cambridge offers ok communication skills, negotiation, personal development, personality tests, writing,…and many more. Seriously, that is the best part of PhD! Also, as my PhD topic is very interesting to me and also highly applicable in the ‘real world’, I contacted all the organisations in my town which might be interested in my work, as I want to volunteer/observe/work and get hands on experience.
    Anyway – I need to crack on writing as this is always my last priority considering all the other social events. Being an extrovert, it is hard for me to intrinsically motivate myself for working alone – but that’s what PhD is about, isn’t it?
    Thanks again for great advice and confidence boost with your advice.

  24. amandawise2013 says:

    Thanks. Wonderful post.
    As a supervisor, i have thought about developing a checklist of experience my students should acquire by end of candidature so that their CVs are competitive upon graduation. It includes the things you mention and also:

    1) Tutoring work – just enough for CV and extra income, but not too much as to take up valuable writing time.
    2) Guest lectures in the department.
    3) Convene an undergraduate unit – for example as a sabbatical or parental leave fill in.
    4) Convene an academic or PG workshop on your topic – or a conference panel – great way to connect with people in your area and build profile.
    5) Hold some kind of role like PG rep in relevant academic discipline association / research committee/network.
    6) Publish at least two journal articles.
    7) Attend and present at one domestic and one international conference.

    A big list – but selection committees I’ve sat on – that’s what the successful Level As bring. Particularly when we get lots of applicants with US PhDs.

    The problem is the trend toward the 3 year PhD makes this a big ask. It also important for supervising departments to extend these opportunities to their phds.

    • cynicAL says:

      Great post Amanda- I think this is also what most PhD candidate would like, but I venture to suggest that there are few supervisors like you and many feel the 3 year PhD pressure from their discipline/faculty/university. My discipline only encourages 7. tolerates 6, but whinges that it takes time from writing and as for 1. only if you do it for free and make up the writing time! Good to know there are those out there who think otherwise and will be supporting their students well.

  25. cynicAL says:

    I love the fact that some universities have actual research programs that are designed to support and build the skills that PhD candidates need. Others (like the one I attend) have tokenistic, almost insultingly basic courses that fail to recognise the principles and techniques involved in teaching adults. The pressure to finish a PhD in 3 years, the alleged lack of funds to provide PhD candidates with teaching experience, and the total lack of recognition that people need breaks and diversity to actually do a PhD that is more than an exercise in writing for 3 solid years. I should have explored the options at other Universities to see what they offered in terms of PhD support, but a great project and attending a top 100 University seemed like it would all be good. Wish I had known about your great blog and all the excellent advice you give before I started 3.5 years ago.

  26. Alyson says:

    Some great comments here. I’m locked in a battle with my supervisors who refuse to look beyond the PhD as one big project while I see it as a journey to develop skills and gain experience and confidence, during which the thesis is just a part. I work as a research assistant for another university but my supervisors see this as a distraction and don’t support me at all. Similarly they see conferences as a waste of time. I’ve just given my second conference paper and met such a wonderful group of people and found amazing resources I might not have found otherwise. The phd journey needs to be more than just study, people remember your personality, very few people actually read your thesis.

  27. Leila says:

    This is an amazing post. As someone who is hoping to start a PhD in the near future it is brilliant to read some information on important areas to try and find balance within. I know that I can sometimes struggle with that and put all the focus on writing when I know that I need a balance and to make myself a more well rounded researcher. Thanks for a great and enlightening post.

  28. Lilia says:

    Thank you for this post! It speaks right to my heart. Ever since I started my PhD, I have been feeling guilty about “working on the side” (organising research conferences, working in research projects at other departments, publishing in “other than my PhD” areas, teaching, etc.). This post reassures me, that it may all be good for something (e.g. a job) one day, even if juggling work and PhD gets overwhelming at times. There are a few reasons why I work parallel to my Phd. One important reason is, that it gives me a strong sense of contribution, participation and achievement, especially when I feel stuck, lost and insecure in my PhD. I don’t mind the workload juggle for this reason. Perhaps, even more importantly I get to meet and work with great people which I regret not having in my PhD study (where are the people???). However, needing to work for financial reasons or because “just a PhD may not be enough” any more is stressful and demotivating.

  29. Helen Feist says:

    Great post… and I agree wholeheartedly with what you have said. I spent a lot of thesis time working on committees (both in my field of interest and with the University), networking, offering to help other academics and other students, going to free courses when I could, and while at the time it meant I was forever feeling ‘guilty’ about not spending enough time writing and reading like the other students in fact I finished my PhD almost on time AND landed a fulltime research job before I had finished. I am now a deptuy director of a small research group at my University and it is the the committee skills, project management skills, ball juggling abilities and people management that has got me here just as much as my PhD qualification.

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