How to survive your PhD – a free course

A year and a half ago, ANU gave me a chance to make a MOOC.

For those of you in the know, a MOOC stands for ‘massive open online course’. ANU has partnered with EdX, a MOOC delivery platform, so that thousands of people have the chance to participate in ANU courses from around the world, for free.

The process of bidding to run a MOOC at ANU is by competitive tender, so I was surprised when I was given special funding to do one. It was an honour to be singled out and ‘jump the queue’ so to speak.

It showed that ANU management had pleasing faith in my abilities…


Should they really have so much faith?

In less than an hour I had convinced myself that ANU management had made a big mistake. Sure, I had run a successful blog for 5 years – and authored a few online courses – but this was different. I’d never done anything on this scale before. It was sure to be a miserable failure.

It felt like I’d been asked to organise a massive party. What if no one enrolled? Not only would I fail, but EVERYONE IN THE WORLD WOULD SEE ME FAIL. The whole world would discover what I had known, secretly, for a long time… I am only pretending to be clever and interesting.

I am not as good as everyone seems to think I am.

I’ve seen this pattern of thinking, which is called ‘imposter syndrome’, in PhD students many times, but it took me a surprisingly long time to recognise it in me. After (metaphorically) smacking myself upside the head a few times, I applied the imposter syndrome cure I always recommend to others. I decided to suspend judgment. Just get on with it and worry about if it was any good later.

So I tried to write down ideas – any ideas, bad ideas, stupid ideas…

Screen Shot 2015-06-30 at 5.37.41 pmI worked on ideas for nearly a year, but made frustratingly slow progress. I had what golfers call ‘The Yips’ – a sudden and unexplained lack of ability, just when I needed it most. As the Yips dragged on, and on, the fear started to set in. Everything I wrote seemed dumb, boring, pointless.

ANU got a bit worried about me for real at this point, and a couple of people were assigned to help.

Talking with generous, open-minded colleagues was just what I needed. Katie and Chris listened to my account of my troubles and encouraged me to see these as the themes for the MOOC. We worked together to re-orientate the MOOC around the effects of emotions on research student performance and eventually (after much debate) called it How to survive your PhD.

The title makes it sound like it’s just for students. While it certainly aimed at you, we think it can be so much more than a normal course that teaches you stuff. We imagined How to survive your PhD as a node in a huge global conversation, where students and supervisors could, together, work to understand the emotional problems that can get in the way of good research progress, find and share new strategies for coping.

We have designed it so that this conversation can spill into other spaces – social media and campus coffee shops; supervisors offices and classrooms. And since we have a massive, global, free platform, why confine it to the university? We thought mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and partners might want to join in the conversation too. Many of these people are heavily invested in the success of their loved ones. So we decided to write in plain language to make it accessible to anyone who is genuinely interested in helping PhD students survive and thrive.

As I worked with Kevin Ryland to develop the course content, backed with research sourced from a wide range of literature on emotions, the very problems I had been experiencing started to become modules.

The module on Confidence is all about the imposter syndrome. Why it happens, who tends to suffer from it most and how to combat it. I then wrote about Frustration, particularly why writing is frustrating. Students report that supervisors often give bad feedback – why does this happen when supervisors  are themselves expert writers?

My experience of the Yips became a module on Fear. Why do we sometimes fear writing? How can we get over our fear and write anyway? Many people I know are afraid of presenting their research in public – yet can teach a huge class without any problems. What’s all that about?

A module on Confusion was next, which proved to be quite confusing to write. I found myself looking at my own emotional responses in a different way. I did a lot extraneous, perhaps unnecessary, reading. This experience became a module on Curiosity. Curiosity is important to researchers, but it can also be a problem because it’s hard to shut it down once it gets going.

By this time I was nearly half way through the MOOC, but the enormity of the writing and thinking task was getting to me. Hours of writing paralysis at my desk meant I had to I spent many weekends working while my family went out and enjoyed the Canberra sunshine.

I listened to a lot of James Blunt. I ate badly and let my exercise routine slip. I re-experienced Thesis Prison – the feeling of the world going on around you while you are stuck in a room – writing, writing, writing.

This experience eventually was incorporated in the module on Loneliness. Many research students have strong family connections and lots of friends – yet can still feel very alone. Why is the sense of intellectual isolation so intense and so common? Is it just a part of the process, or something we foster deliberately? Is there really anything that others can do to help?

I was grinding through the writing work by now, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, which (perversely) made me start to lose interest. My heightened attention to my emotional state caused me to critically reflect on my work problems. I love problems. I love researching them and thinking of solutions. But when I have solved the problem, even if just in my mind I’m over it. The next bit, the actual doing, is boring!

Ah – boredom! Of course!

I junked a module on courage and put Boredom in its place. It turned out to be the most enjoyable of all the modules to write. I researched what boredom is and why it happens. I found a whole lot of research on boredom which was anything but boring. I wanted to end on a high note, so I scoped out a module on Love.

Then I got stuck again.

Luckily by this time I had enlisted a trusty team of moderators to help me run the MOOC. Steph, Marg, Anna, Jonathon and Kat are all PhD students and so are in touch with the emotions I was exploring on a daily basis. They started to contribute ideas and review the content. We still haven’t finished the last module on Love, but it’s shaping up to be very interesting!

So, are you interested? ‘How to Survive your PhD’ runs for 10 weeks, but it’s designed to be lightweight and easy to manage and should take you no more than an hour a week. We’ll be extending the conversation onto social media so you can participate in a number of different ways.

Research students and supervisors are the main audience and will get the most benefit, but I can imagine that family members and partners, who no doubt have a keen interest in supporting you to finish your research degree, might want to join up too. I’ll be in there chatting with you everyday, along with my team of trusty moderators.

You can sign up for ‘How to survive your PhD’ here.

Or you can watch a video trailer here.

Filming the MOOC was very confronting, and a story in its own right, but here’s a trailer to give you a taste of the content look and feel.

Crucially, unlike other offerings in this space, ANU has made this course completely free. I know that other MOOCs have grown campus communities around them – I’d love it if we could do that with this MOOC too. So why not grab a friend or two and convince them to enrol? It would be a good excuse to grab a coffee once a week and have a chat.

If anyone is a research developer and interested in running it in a formal way, please feel free to email me if you need advice or ideas.

As you can tell from the above, this MOOC extremely hard to write and put it together. I complained about it to everyone who would listen (thanks Twitter!) but I’m glad I did it. I’m especially glad I had the able assistance of a team of people including Kevin Ryland, Katharina Fruend, Nguyen Bui, Chris Blackall and Crystal McLaughlin and top level tactical support from the ANU online team leader Richard Robinson and DVC Marnie Warnes-Harrington. I’m so lucky to have a team of able moderators in Steph, Marg, Anna, Jonathon and Kat. Special thanks to Nigel Palmer who played the role of critical friend so well.

I do hope you’ll think about coming to my MOOC party – and that some of you will invite your parents and partners. I think it will be fun! If you have any questions about the course and how it will run, please feel free to put them in the comments.

Related Pages

Sign up for ‘How to survive your PhD’

Watch a video trailer for this course

75 thoughts on “How to survive your PhD – a free course

  1. Adam Fletcher says:

    Fantastic project! Appearing on video is not for the faint of heart.

    You might want to have a look at the Youtube video description though – this line seems to have escaped the editor:

    ‘Take this course for free on edX: [link to course] — NOTE: if the course isn’t free, omit “for free”‘

      • Adam Fletcher says:

        Thanks I understood that from the post above – just pointing out that the video description seems to have included a line written before the decision to make it free was taken.

        Nice video by the way.

      • Larisa Barnes says:

        That’s great to know – thank you. I emailed the edX to see if I had to pay $50 for a certificate, or if I could start the course and then decide to enroll in the certificate course

  2. sciencesonneteer says:

    Just watched the intro vid and signed up straight away! Looking forward to constructive ways to become more emotionally resilient.

    A fellow PhD student and I LOVE your blog and swear that knowing that these thoughts and feelings we have are normal – i.e. par for the course (pun somewhat intended!) – is what keeps us sane and moving forwards.

    Had an absolute Valley of Shit week last week stemming from a huge bout of Imposter Syndrome – my first long-term stay in VoS – and it would be fantastic to learn ways to better deal with that and all the rest of the PhD feels.

    So, thank you for putting all of this together. I can’t wait to learn!

  3. Elaine says:

    I just signed up! My supervisor recommended your blog. It is good timing as I am on my final stretch towards completion and the course content seems so fit to support me towards the end of the process. I am excited to learn 🙂

  4. Heather says:

    Sounds awesome! I’m a postdoc, and all the topics seem very relevant to postdoc life as well 🙂 Will there be assignments? And if I’ll be away for a week or so (the course starts in the middle of my long-awaited summer holiday…), is that okay?

    • A Dutch PhD-student says:

      Yes! I agree that I think (and hope) that this course will also be relevant for postdocs, or other junior scholars. I nearly finished my PhD and am now contemplating whether to continue in academia; a decision, which, for me, kind of hinges upon whether I’ll be able to cope with these emotions (and better than I did during my PhD).

  5. Rachel says:

    Hi Inger – this course sounds great. Just a few questions.

    1) Do you know when the course will begin?
    2) What sort of participation is involved, for example, will students be committed to writing pieces about the topics involved? Or is the participation more informal?

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Have a read of the edX page for the start date and syllabus outline. It will be discussion based and informal with only one written piece at the end if you want to get a completion badge.

  6. Virginia says:

    I’ve just signed in. I was un my way to see my study councelor and seeing your post made my day: i feel like you had read my mind as i read. Thank you for putting your knowledge out there for all of us… And for free! <3

  7. Ariella says:

    Hi Inger – This course looks fantastic. I will be away for some of the weeks it is running though. Will the info from each week remain online so that I can catch up afterwards?

  8. Vijay says:

    Wow….Cant wait to see the course. Thank you so much, Inger for your hard work and effort in helping PhD students to complete their course

  9. Fiona Firth says:

    Thanks so much, Inger. Can’t wait for the course to start. As an off campus, part time and late onset PHD I am looking forward to all the modules, including loneliness and imposer syndrome.

  10. graemeo28 says:

    I’d really like to do the MOOC. To lurk and learn and apply the knowledge with the PhDs I support and interact with on a daily basis HOWEVER I’m taking leave and aiming to unplug for that time which parallels with the first 4 weeks of the course. When will you be rerunning the MOOC? Any date at this stage?

  11. Gill Mc says:

    Excellent initiative and bouquets to ANU for making this so accessible for all of us out here in PhD land. I’m looking forward to getting underway, and will encourage colleagues to follow suit 🙂 Congratulations, Inger – let’s do this.

  12. rashidamurphy says:

    Dear Thesis Whisperer, if I haven’t said this to you already, then here it is. I survived my PhD because of you and a few supportive friends and family. Your posts always came at the right time during my 4 year sprint. Now, as I wait for examiner reports to come in, I smiled when I saw you bring up the Imposter Syndrome … and it never gets easier to think of oneself as clever and interesting, even when (in my case) my thesis (novel) was shortlisted for an international award. You, however, are fabulous and your course should be mandatory for anyone embarking on the journey.

  13. Tash says:

    I’m still but a lowly undergrad but one with lofty ambitions. It’s Honours for me next year and then, hopefully, time to get down and dirty with a PhD. So while I could be jumping the gun just a biiiiit, given much of what you write has already helped me considerably I figure it can’t hurt to have a look now. What say you Oh Whispery One?

  14. AC Uribe says:

    Hi! I was having a horrible day today, not being able to write a line (I’m in the last revision, but I feel like the dissertation is not worth it…) and your post helped at lot. Just wanted to say thank you for the work you do. Greetings and thanks again!

  15. Academieke says:

    I’m very excited about the course and got 4 other PhD students at my research centre signed up for it as well, we’re planning to follow the course together and meet every week to do so. I think it will be a great opportunity for us to talk about the struggles we have and what kind of strategies each of us use to deal with them.

    Do you know what time the sessions will take place? Just want to start booking a room at work to organise the sessions. Thanks!

  16. Anonymous Guest says:

    You can write a book at the PhD level if you donot wish to write your doctoral thesis,however writing your Master’s thesis is compulsory as per current education system,in order to prove that you’ve passed that course and also for getting eligible to join anywhere as a PGT

  17. Moto Psychler says:

    Hi Inger,
    I’ve enrolled for the course as I’m entering my PhD and this knowledge looks to be too valuable to pass up. However, as a mature-aged student starting late into a research career, I’m new to all this MOOCing. I have read the course details on edX and your blog, I have also google how MOOCs work, but I’m still at a loss to find how the content is delivered, if there is a set time I am required to be available for course viewing, or any other info helpful to us older, less computer-savvy individuals. Other than that the course is 10 weeks, for 2 hours/week, starts on the 26th and has a lot of beneficial content, I’m pretty much in the dark. I’d be very grateful if there were a page, or any sort of link, to information that could shed some light on how this all works.

  18. pindanletters says:

    Hi Inger,
    I’ve also just signed up – I’m an external student living in remote Australia, in my third year and just beginning to encounter substantial paper/chapter writing challenges. So looking forward to the course!

    I’m also keen to clarify the timing? I think the course starts tomorrow (although in enrolling it says starts Aug 25). I can’t seem to find out what time the weekly sessions will run.

    Thanks, Michelle

  19. JenniferCarter says:

    Can’t believe what I am reading, I signed up yesterday for the course before I saw this and I was wondering what it was about. I was already a blog follower of the The Thesis Whisperer-imagine the power of the cosmos

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