[Edit 23/12/2019: I donated all of my Thesis Whisperer Amazon royalties (about $1000) to the NSW Rural fire service. Thanks to everyone who bought a book this year: you have made a difference. If you can spare anything else, please consider giving. The government has not funded services enough and volunteers are completely exhausted. Here’s a page with some options for giving (but note: if you believe in the human rights of LGBTIQ people, avoid giving to the Salvos). https://www.abc.net.au/…/bushfire-donations-heres-…/11696418]
It’s the end of another year? Was it just me, or did that go by very fast?!
Alert readers may have noticed that there have been fewer posts from Thesis Whisperer this year. In January, I shared with you my health struggles. Although these problems have largely passed, it’s taken a lot of ‘radical rest’ measures to get back to almost normal functioning. One of these measures was to start moving the Thesis Whisperer into a new phase – basically to start winding down operations.
In 2020 this blog will quietly turn ten years old. A decade of blogging for an audience of over 100,000 followers on various social media channels has been amazing, but all good things come to an end. During 2019 I have been asking myself: is it time to stop? If so, how?
After a lot of soul searching, I decided I cannot give up blogging altogether – I love it too much, but I do need to take my vow to do Less more seriously. So, in the middle of the year, I dropped post frequency from weekly to bi-weekly to see what would happen. No one seemed to notice this change, but I breathed easier. I’d been holding myself to a punishing weekly schedule for so long I didn’t realise what a toll it was taking on me. Slowing down enabled me to take a step back and think about where I was heading.
After careful reflection, in the new year, I plan to drop the frequency to monthly. More importantly, I will no longer be operating on a community content model, which means the only person you will hear from now on is me.
There’s a couple of reasons for this change.
I started this blog in 2010, 4 years into my career as a research educator with a just completed PhD in my hand. My content strategy was simple: I wrote the blog I wanted to read while I was doing my PhD and invited others to write it with me.
To my delight, well over 100 people have taken up this offer. Together we have produced over 600,000 words of content on a bewildering range of topics. In fact, many people wanted to write for the Thesis Whisperer that I have become like a popular journal: people have to get in line and wait. For years now, the Thesis Whisperer queue has been long. People have patiently waited up to a year to see their post ‘in print’. As you can imagine, there was a LOT of invisible work by me behind the scenes to make this community model function.
Behind the scenes, I was communicating with at least 50 people at a time and editing around 50,000 words of other people’s posts each year. I would receive up to 10 story pitches a week and had to work out a system for choosing posts and working with authors. I got good at writing kindly rejection letters and working with others to bring a promising idea in line with Thesis Whisperer ‘house style’. As you know, I have never been here just to showcase stories of misery – every post has to have a ‘learning moment’ for the reader. Not every post needs to connect with everyone, but if you are googling “How can I do a PhD with 4 kids in tow?!” or “should I quit?” the Thesis Whisperer has the answer.
The archives of this blog are a treasure trove of community wisdom. I am proud and honoured to be the custodian of this writing. I want to set up the Thesis Whisperer for the future so that this content continues to be available and searchable, but I don’t want to add any more to this body of work.
For the last couple of years, I found myself rejecting more and more story pitches, not because they were not good ideas, but they were too similar to what was already published here. As a result, the stories were becoming more ‘edge case’ and perhaps less relevant to most people. New readers and people starting their PhD have to dig hard to find the basics. The blog contains answers to most of the common PhD problems – more than half a million words of answers in fact. Part of being a leader is stepping back to make space for others to speak. People will still want to write about problems, but now they will have to find other outlets. I trust others will take up the challenge to provide those outlets. I’d love to hear about it if you do.
My vision for the next ten years (after which I hope actually to retire as I’ll be 60!) is for Thesis Whisperer to continue to be one of the most trusted sources on the internet for PhD students – and the academics and professionals that support them. I will continue to write here once a month. I will aim to write longer, more informative posts. I want to keep connecting you to useful information sources and other bloggers. I will bring stuff out of the archives by actively linking back and making ‘collections’ for you to explore. I hope you will still drop by and spend useful time here.
I want to continue blogging because I love the format, but also because I still have so much creative juice. My year of being more careful and making time to rest has helped me see where I can apply this juice.
As you know, I am a working researcher at the Australian National University with a specialty in research education. In my research life, I am still passionate about helping PhD candidates do their best work and find great jobs afterwards. One of the ways I have been doing this is in my collaboration with Dr Will Grant and A/Prof Hanna Suominen, using machine learning and natural language processing to make the labour market for PhD graduates easier to navigate. Our first product, PostAc, is now available for universities to purchase. PostAc contains over a million searchable, non academic, research jobs with a kick ass search engine that can help you explore your options. PostAc ranks all the jobs by a ‘nerdiness index’, using a complex set of algorithms Hanna developed from the text analysis performed by Will and myself. The nerdiness index indicates the research intensity of a job (see the image below). Type in any crazy search string – the crazier the better actually – and PostAc uses the machine learning algorithms we built to show you employers who are looking for people with similar skills and interests.
PostAc is for all PhD students, not just scientists, so a person with a PhD about masculinity in Game of Thrones can get as much use out of it as someone who has studied the bio-chemistry of ant communication. The job ad text is data: imagining yourself in these jobs can help you to work out what your strengths are – and how to fill any gaps. I’ve been taking a PostAc workshop around a few universities in Australia during 2019 and been energised by the excitement of people who have used it. I think many PhD students feel depressed about the academic job market and using PostAc shows them interesting, valuable and useful jobs for their skills elsewhere. Unfortunately, PostAc cost a lot of money to develop (around $250K so far), so we can’t make it free – but the team is committed to keeping this technology as low cost and accessible as possible. It’s my hope your university will purchase access to the product for you (please feel free to contact me via email if you would like me to contact your university on your behalf).
We will be releasing free, yearly reports on the state of the market – where to look for great research jobs outside of academia (you can download our first one here). The work is ongoing (part of the reason for commercialising is to make an income stream to help this happen). I’ll publish ongoing findings here, so watch this space for news. We hope to have an even more exciting product out at the end of next year.
Dropping the community content model has also helped me focus more on my book projects. While I was lying in bed over summer last year, wondering if I would ever be able to walk again, I decided that, if I recovered, books were going to be my main way of sharing knowledge. I’ve been true to this promise. This year, Katherine Firth, Shaun Lehmann and I finally published ‘How to fix your academic writing trouble’. I’m very proud of this book. Working with two hugely talented writing teachers taught me a lot and the feedback from the community has been amazing. I’ve been teaching from the book in workshops for the last year and watching people use our techniques to transform their writing has been truly satisfying. I have been working with Katherine and Shaun on a follow up book, tentatively titled “Level up your writing”, which will be finished in February next year (I promise Phillipa!). After this I have plans for attempting a definitive book on presenting research, a book on Post PhD employment and (maybe) a book on the machine learning technology that underpins PostAc. In other words, I am writing my ass off next year and really looking forward to it.
Taking the pressure off myself to maintain the community content on the blog has helped me return to some unfinished projects. I worked with the good folks at Johns Hopkins University Press to bring out a US version of Becoming an Academic. I’ve also long held the ambition to bring out a new edition of my 2013 self published book ‘How to Tame your PhD’. I put this book of blog posts together in the 5 weeks I had off between finishing at RMIT and starting at ANU in 2013. It’s been available online as an ebook on Amazon, and as a print on demand book through Lulu Press since then. This project was quite the technical challenge for me, which meant the book had quite a few typos and layout issues. I always meant to go back and fix these, but I got so busy just keeping my head above water that I never got to it. Making a bit of breathing space meant I could return to this project on the weekends and edit myself. I’ve learned so much about writing in the last six years – mostly from Katherine and Shaun, that I was able to polish it up nicely. I purchased a Grammarly subscription to help me clean the text and used Upwork to find graphic designers to make new, high resolution images. The book still follows the timeline of putting a thesis together – start, middle and end – but, as I edited, I took the opportunity to add in more content from posts I’ve added over the last six years. As a result, the book expanded from around 25,000 words to 40,000, so I increased the price slightly. However – true to my original intention – it is still intentionally cheap so that it will fit into a PhD student budget. You’ll find it online via Amazon in all their international manifestations; $10 for Kindle version and $15 for the paperback (or you can buy the paperback directly from Lulu Press if you don’t like Amazon).
Thesis Whisperer is run on a ‘not for loss’ model. My income streams are Patreon, book sales and running external to ANU workshops. With this money I purchase equipment, books and professional help for things like graphic design. Importantly, this money enables me to subscribe to a range of helpful services like Xero, Evernote, Grammarly and buy software like Timing, DevonThink, Omnifocus and Scrivener: essential to my workflow. Profound THANK YOU to everyone who has become a Patreon, bought a book or hired me to teach. I now raise more than I spend (which is one of those good problems), so, as usual, I have been donating excess Thesis Whisperer funds to charitable causes.
This year, on your behalf, I donated to:
- $1200 to UNWomen – a charity really dear to my heart. Please consider supporting if you can!
- $480 to Peter MacCallum cancer research (in memory of my mother)
- $500 to Wikipedia
- $600 to The Australia Institute (for their work on the economics of climate change).
I reserve some money for disaster relief donations. This year the remainder of my donation pile must go towards the Bushfire emergency here in Australia. I’ve been breathing in the smoke for days, which has been making me feel extremely worried about the future of our beautiful country if this is what the ‘new normal’ is like.
On that note, please take care of yourselves and your loved ones over the festive season. Life is too short and we are all fragile in some way. Making time for the things and people who bring you joy is well worth the effort. I wish you ‘radical rest’ and all good things over the next month.
Stay tuned in: I will be sending out my first post for 2020 in late January. I’m looking forward to the new, slower, more careful Thesis Whisperer unfolding in years to come.
Thanks for listening. With love,
P.S: Love the Thesis whisperer and want it to continue? Consider becoming a $1 a month Patreon to support my ongoing work.