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Welcome to PhD and Beyond!

Welcome to the blog!

We are Alessa and Chris and welcome to our blog. We are both at the end of our PhDs in psychology and have started to venture out into the post-PhD world. 

Except, we have no idea what we are doing. We both have different expertise, different career goals, and had different experiences throughout our PhD, yet our experience of post-PhD life is very similar. Post-PhD talks we have attended have all said: “after your PhD, once you finish your post-doc, then…” but nobody has really explained how you secure a post-doctoral position or that first position of any kind or anything that happens between completing a PhD and starting a post-doc (such as how you manage finances, how you find post-doc positions, what is a normal post-PhD trajectory and what isn’t etc.).

In this blog, we will reflect on our experiences during our PhDs and will journal our current experiences to highlight our successes, our struggles, and the strategies we have learned throughout our journey. Hopefully, this will become a resource for future PhD candidates to draw on to help them navigate this complex and not so well documented time.

In this blog we will aim to have three different types of posts: #struggles, #successes, and #strategies. There will also be a few #supplemental posts, as well.

  • The #struggles posts will describe various roadblocks or frustrations we have encountered 
  • The #successes posts will revolve around successes and what we learned from them
  • The #strategies posts will outline tips and actionable steps that we have found useful
  • The #supplemental posts are anything that doesn’t fit into any of the categories

The main feed will have the most recent posts, but if you want to trawl through a specific category of posts, you can select the category type from the menu.

We would love to hear from you! Please feel free to use the contact form to send through your comments, feedback, or requests for new topics!

To the PhD and beyond!

~ Alessa and Chris

Student Research Programs: Self-developed vs Supervisor-developed

The Context

As always, this is my humble perspective based upon my experience, so please make of this what you will. There are also cultural differences (both in terms of people and in terms of institute cultures). But I have seen two broad categories of student projects. The first involves students being given a project. The second involves the student generating their own research program. So, what are the pros and cons of each? Should you push your own agenda?

Supervisor-Developed Research Programs

This involves joining an existing research program and being given a research question, a design, sometimes ethics is done and some/all data are collected. There are a lot of pros to this approach. You can be confident the project will be enough for your study, that the rationale is solid, and you can start right away. These kinds of projects also sometimes means access to more inaccessible samples. You can also be confident that your supervisor can provide a lot of support on the topic. There may even be scope to tailor the project to your interests – add a variable, ask a different question, etc.

But this comes at a cost… This is not your research baby, it is someone else’s. You’re playing babysitter, potentially for years. Are you happy to do this? Are you also happy to forego experiencing some of the difficulties in research?

Self-Developed Research Programs

The solution? Develop your own research program. Negotiate with your supervisor to generate your own research questions within their area of expertise. Choosing your own research project means that this is your research baby. You will almost certainly become attached to it. There is also a higher degree of agency. The precursors to arriving at your own research question also mean reading extremely widely, so not only do you have your own research question, you have a deep and intimate knowledge of both the area of your project, and those areas around it.

But this model comes at a pretty high cost. The anxiety, the uncertainly, the pressure, it is all much higher in this model. Supervision meetings may require you to justify your stance or convince your supervisor of your ideas, which can be daunting. Then there is just the general fear that you won’t be a good research parent to your research baby. That imposter syndrome. There can also be a lot of hesitation around making your own decisions and acting on a high level of agency. There is also a risk that your project, no matter how well you argue it, might have flaws or problems that neither you nor your supervisor saw. So the big question here is whether you can work in situations where there is a high level of uncertainty and where you’re required to make decisions?

Summing Up

Personally, I don’t think one approach is superior to another, but rather it is about what approach fits what student-supervisor combinations better. For supervisors, perhaps consider it on a student-by-student basis. For students, consider what you want out of your studies.

Publications: Writing for journal specifications

I saw this on twitter and realised what a brilliant idea this was.

I realised that there are particular types of journals that I’m more likely to target regularly than others and it would be a good idea to start summarising the important little details to have them accessible. So I fired up my Notion (I’ll talk more about this in a later post) and started a table. I created columns for:

  • Journal name
  • Paper type
  • Word limit
  • Abstract word limit
  • The number of key words allowed
  • Notes (such as the word limit includes or excludes the references and other little quirks)
  • A link to the author guide for that journal
  • The impact factor of that journal

See a blurry screenshot of my table here:

I only created this about a month ago but I’m amazed at how much I’ve already been referencing this table and been adding to it.

So this was just a short post to advertise this idea. Hopefully you find it as helpful as I did. Do you do something similar? How can I improve this even more?

– Alessa

Research Programs vs Individual Studies

The Context

Recently, there has been a bit of discussions in my circles about programmatic research and if this is something that we should be striving for as researchers. It got me thinking about what the purpose of programmatic research is and, ultimately, if this is something that we should be doing.

Programmatic What?

Programmatic research is this idea that multiple individual studies can be combined together into this conglomerate of research. There might be one overarching goal or multiple overarching goals in which each individual study strategically feeds into. Taking this approach means that you can construct a program of research that may span multiple years and teams, could produce multiple papers, and be presented at multiple conferences. This kind of work can also develop a social media presence or develop into a ‘lab’.

This Sounds Great!

It does, right? So why don’t we do this more?

Well… We do! PhDs are typically a form of programmatic research and most grants, by their nature, require programmatic research. Many supervisors also use the programmatic research with their students to divvy up aspects of the larger project to individual student projects. But, that does not mean that Programmatic research is the only option.

A Case For Individual Studies

Programmatic research works really well in most cases, however sometimes the individual components of the program are so disparate that, on the face of it, it does not look like a coherent program. Rather, it is a pool of individual studies on a related topic. This is, for myself, what typically happens. I have a pool of studies that, at first, seem unrelated. However, they are all acting as foundational studies for bigger research questions that will lead to programmatic research in the future. There is nothing wrong with dabbling in many areas of research, particularly if to develop your expertise in those areas. For example, I want to move into stress in minors, however there are so many unanswered questions that I need answers to before I can begin to ask the questions I really want to ask. I could label them “Chris’ mix of stress phenomenology studies in children and their parents” but it is not a program of research in the typical sense.

Closing Up

Long story short – my view is that programmatic research is definitely the goal and where we should all be headed, but that does not mean that we are all there, or that we should force programs of research prior to our fields being ready for them.

Publications: A study protocol

In my last post I discussed authorship and credit and the difficult situations we can find ourselves in. This type of thing can sometimes be avoided with planning. You may not have this level of control in every project you’re involved in. But if you can even suggest creating a protocol at the beginning of the project, this will go a long way in avoiding hassles at the end.

The World Health Organization has a suggested format for a study protocol that you could use. It may work for you, but it may not.

I was given a rough template by my supervisor that I’ve ended up modifying quite a bit for my purposes. I thought I’d list out the headings I use in this document as you might find them helpful too. (N.B., this is for psychology research, so you may need more headings/different headings etc, depending on your area).

Rationale and background information

This is a brief literature review and background on the topic directly relevant to the study. I often end up cutting and pasting this into the ethics application and using a modified version of this in the final paper too. This section often ends up about 2 pages, double spaced (roughly).

Study aims, objectives, and hypotheses

This is pretty self-explanatory, but it is good to get these clear from the outset rather than running a study and then trying to work out what your aim was.

Study design and participants

I like to write out the design (i.e., experimental? Correlational? Between-subjects design? Within-subjects design? Mixed design?) and describe the target sample. Are you using rats? Humans? First year psychology students? MTurk participants? Are you paying them? Are they volunteering their time? How will you recruit them? I also like to include a power analysis in this section.

Procedure

Here I list the procedure of the study. I like to do this in bullet points, like steps in a recipe. But I modify this when writing it up in the paper. But for the protocol I like to write it out in whatever way makes sense. So this may be a diagram, a flowchart, or bullet points. This includes a list of measures I will use. For example, if step 1 is “personality assessment”, I list all the measures I intend to use and cite them properly.

Statistical analysis

Here I write out how I intend to analyse the data. Sometimes, if it is complicated, I will list each variable that I expect to see in my dataset, how it is measured (categorical? continuous?), and what the outcomes or dependent variables are. Other times I keep if a little vague, knowing I will do a regression or an ANOVA etc.

Safety considerations

Are there any risks to yourself or your participants in this project that you should be mindful of? List them here.

Data management

Where will the data be stored? Online repository (I.e. open access?)  Identified or de-identified or anonymous? Who will have access to it? 

Duration of the project

How long do you think it will take to run the study?

Project management

This is where I bring in the he CRediT (Contributor Roles Taxonomy) that I mentioned in my previous post.

Budget and funding

Insert budget if necessary

Other

Any conflicts of interests? Which journal are you aiming for with this paper?

References

Insert a reference list

List of measures used

This section really helps me to visualise the study and spot potential problems. I will write out each measure that the participants will see, in the order they will see it. Write out tasks that they will undertake etc.

That is how I structure my study protocols. I don’t see any of it as a waste of time. Most of the sections you write here will probably be used in your ethics application or in your final paper. Otherwise, writing it out in full here can help you spot potential problems early. Lastly, it may help with the authorship issue if it is clear from the beginning who is in charge of what. Do you use a study protocol? What has helped you in this planning process?

– Alessa

Publications: Authorship and Credit

When you’re doing a PhD and writing up a study for publication, authorship can sometimes be an easy and obvious process. It’s your project so you’re number 1, the senior author, and your supervisors come after that.

However, sometimes things can get complicated. It could be that your supervisor had a lot of influence on your project, like coming up with the design and supervising the analysis, and even though you did all the hard work they feel like their intellectual contribution outweighs yours. It’s not fair, as this is your PhD, but sometimes this can happen.

Or, it could be that you’re working in a lab and helping on someone else’s project and you feel that you should be an author on their paper because you made significant contributions to their work.

Or, sometimes, people’s names get randomly added to your paper because that is the mystery of academia. I’m not saying it’s right, but I know it happens.

Authorship and credit is a tricky situation and there is a lot of politics involved. I am nowhere near experienced enough to really advise on this situation.

It would be ideal, in the planning stage of each project, to know what role each author will play and how much they will contribute. But sometimes this type of thing is worked out, messily, after the fact. The CRediT (Contributor Roles Taxonomy) can help here. And it may take the emotions out of the process. It clinically lists (almost) all types of possible contributions and you indicate which author or authors have been involved in each element. I set up a table like this and get each person involved to put their name in the column they think they will contribute/have contributed to.

Name Term Definition 
 Conceptualisation Ideas; formulation or evolution of overarching research goals and aims 
 Methodology Development or design of methodology; creation of models 
 Software Programming, software development; designing computer programs; implementation of the computer code and supporting algorithms; testing of existing code components 
 Validation Verification, whether as a part of the activity or separate, of the overall replication/ reproducibility of results/experiments and other research outputs 
 Formal Analysis Application of statistical, mathematical, computational, or other formal techniques to analyze or synthesize study data 
 Investigation Conducting a research and investigation process, specifically performing the experiments, or data/evidence collection 
 Resources Provision of study materials, reagents, materials, patients, laboratory samples, animals, instrumentation, computing resources, or other analysis tools 
 Data Curation Management activities to annotate (produce metadata), scrub data and maintain research data (including software code, where it is necessary for interpreting the data itself) for initial use and later reuse 
 Writing – Original Draft Preparation, creation and/or presentation of the published work, specifically writing the initial draft (including substantive translation) 
 Writing – Review and Editing Preparation, creation and/or presentation of the published work by those from the original research group, specifically critical review, commentary or revision – including pre-or post-publication stages 
 Visualisation Preparation, creation and/or presentation of the published work, specifically visualization/ data presentation 
 Supervision Oversight and leadership responsibility for the research activity planning and execution, including mentorship external to the core team 
 Project Administration Management and coordination responsibility for the research activity planning and execution 
 Funding Acquisition Acquisition of the financial support for the project leading to this publication 

Tenzing uses a google sheet template where each person lists their name and ticks the relevant sections they have contributed to. It then produces a nicely written out list of what each person did (image below taken from their article). This then can be included as an author note on your publication.

This may not be ideal for your situation if you’re in the middle of an authorship war, but may help you prepare for the next one. Using a taxonomy like this may help take the feelings out of the process and make it a more logical one. Have you used a taxonomy like this to help you sort out authorship?

– Alessa

Hello 2021

Well, hasn’t 2021 started off well? COVID is still around, US politics is still in the limelight, and we are all still writing. Nevertheless, welcome back to another year! It will be a different year for our blog, but change is good.

Some Tips to Prepare Your Year

Now is a great time to revisit some of our posts from last year about organising and preparing your workflow and writing habits. Here are a few curated posts that I think are particularly worth revisiting:

Planning your semester

Planning your academic year

Advice for one month into your PhD

Pandemics: Productivity or self-care?

I hate my thesis

Academic Writing Hacks Part 1: Setting up good writing habits

Academic Writing Hacks Part 2: Batching your tasks and conquering your schedule

Overworked then underworked then overworked – The Academic Rollercoaster

Dealing with multiple spinning plates

The Future for PhD and Beyond

This year we are moving to fortnightly rather than weekly posts. We will be looking at tips for publishing, managing authorship, developing research programs vs individual research projects, resources for fast-tracking or managing your research, and more! As you can see our focus is shifting a little away from the problems in transitioning from student life to academic life and focussing more on the struggles and strategies faced in research. We would also love our community to get involved, so please jump into the comments sections of our posts and share your experiences! For this post, I would love to see your goals for 2021 – What do you want to accomplish by the end of this year?

~ Chris

Goodbye 2020

We’ve made it to the end of 2020. That is certainly worth celebrating. We’re very proud that we managed to post consistently in our first year of this blog and hope you enjoyed our posts.

If there are any topics you would like us to cover in the new year, please comment below and we’ll tackle them when we can.

Speaking of next year: We have decided to reduce our frequency of posts to once a fortnight as opposed to weekly. Alessa has another major project to work on (i.e., giving birth and raising a tiny human) and will be taking leave to focus on that. However, she will continue to post on this blog (albeit less frequently).

We both wish you a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, or General Festive Merriment. We hope that your break is restful and restorative. And if that isn’t possible, then we hope it is productive. We’ll see you in the New Year!

– Alessa and Chris

Drowning in Email

(N.B., Sorry this one is a little longer than normal. It appears I have a lot of things to say about email).

Once I became a postgraduate student, my inbox became a terrifying place. Suddenly I had emails coming from:

  • My supervisor
  • My students
  • Email groups I was signed up to (e.g., all PhD students in the department were in an email group, smaller groups/lab/centres that had an email group etc.)
  • Conference groups (once I attended a conference, I was on their mailing list forever)
  • Alerts from ResearchGate or Google Scholar
  • Emails from collaborators with various drafts attached in the email
  • Emails coordinating meetings
  • Table of contents alerts from journals I had signed up for

The list goes on and on. I had to fix this because unread emails irritate me. I can’t stand that little number that tells me how many potentially important things I might be ignoring. I implemented a few things that might also help you.

Emails from students

At the end of each class I would always say, “if you have any further questions, please email me.” As a result, I would get lots of emails. I decided to change this. Each unit that I taught on had an online discussion forum. So what I told my students in the first class was that if they had a question about anything content related or assignment related, to post them in the discussion forum first. This way others could benefit from the answers and I wasn’t answering the same question again and again. Also, it could be that someone else in the cohort may know the answer and will respond more promptly than I could. But I promised them that I would check the forum once every two days (and once a day close to assignment due dates) and reply to questions there. Doing this really reduced the amount of emails I received from them because I was prompt and reliable with my responses. I kept my promises and they appreciated that. So now I end each class with “if you have any further questions, please put them on the discussion forum”.

Supervisor Emails

Most of the emails from my supervisor were in response to queries I had sent him. Although this was something that I wanted, it still clogged up my inbox. This needed to change. I had a regular fortnightly meeting with him and most of the questions I asked weren’t emergencies. They could wait two weeks until the next meeting. So, every time a question would come to mind between meetings, I would take of note of it (usually in the notes app on my phone) and 15 minutes before the meeting to write out a list of things I wanted to cover. He came to appreciate my list and started bringing his own list to the meeting, joking that I was training him to do this. Most of the questions were resolved in the meeting and I simply took notes. If anything couldn’t be resolved by the meeting, I would send a follow up email afterwards and we would take it from there. This cut down on the number of unnecessary emails we exchanged.

Setting up meetings

My most hated emails were the ones that went something like this “let’s set up a meeting about this. I’m free X and Y… how about you?” And then you would have a long confusing email chain of people spouting their availabilities and then changing their minds… and it went on and on. After some googling, I ended up finding doodle polls (but there are plenty of similar programs). But it essentially allows you to list possible times for a meeting and you send the link to everyone else attending the meeting. They just add their name and tick the times they are free. Once everyone is done, I then just send everyone a calendar invitation and move on with my life. It’s efficient and stops all those emails coming in.

Collaborator emails

In my PhD, typically it would just be my supervisor and I who would see drafts of my thesis, so this wasn’t too much of an issue. However, towards the end of this journey and now working with multiple collaborators on paper drafts has emphasised the importance of managing this process. Before, I would typically send a word document to person A (often my supervisor) of the latest draft. They would read it, make comments, and then send it back. I would save that as the new version of the paper and work on the comments. However, in my first post-doc position, I was in a situation where I would have to send the latest draft out to two or three people. I would then get two or three versions of the same draft all with comments from the various authors that I would have to integrate. One thing that really helped was using an online word document. My institution uses Office 365 (but others may use google docs, both would work). I would create a OneDrive folder and share it with the team. I would save the latest version of the paper in it and simply email the team a link to it when I was ready to have them view it. They would read and comment online and see other collaborators’ comments. (It should be noted that this is the ideal workflow, but not every academic is ready to embrace the future. Some still prefer being sent a word document of their own that they can work with track changes and send it back… sometimes you have to make concessions). But doing this really helped minimise emails as questions to each other were often made in comments on the word document rather than as emails. This type of workflow is still really new (to me and many others in academia) but I think it’s worth persisting with.

Everything else

I still haven’t unsubscribed from the Table of Contents alerts from journals. I really should, as I never read the emails. I have found the Researcher App and when I remember to use it, it’s great. I like that it links with my reference manager and any paper I like the look of gets sent there. I just need to get in the habit of using it more. I still don’t know what to do about the Google Scholar alerts or ResearchGate alerts. But now I have less emails coming at me from other parts of my day, I’ll have the mental space to try and figure out a solution.

I hope some of that was helpful. Are there any other ways to reduce the amount of emails you get? What do you do to streamline your process?

– Alessa

The Relationship with Your Supervisor After Finishing

There Is No ‘Correct’ End

The situation: You have just completed your degree. Your thesis has been submitted, it has been marked, you have just had your final meeting with your supervisor to talk over your thesis and say your goodbyes. Now what? There are lots of different possible outcomes at this point, and it really depends on the relationship you have with your supervisor, and both of your goals. Ending things here does not reflect badly on anyone, but it certainly is not the only option.

This post comes from the fact that in Australia, where I live, students are submitting theses now. I have had some people ask the question “what happens now”, and so I thought it may be a question others have lingering on their minds as well. This is from my personal experience, but please leave comments with other experiences you have seen or had.

The Conference Presentation

It is quite common that even after your thesis has been completed that you and your supervisor might agree to present the work at a conference. Typically, this would involve you continuing your regular supervision meetings while you prepare an abstract to submit to the conference. If accepted, you would work with your supervisor to create the oral or poster presentation. After the conference, that may be the end of things, you might go on to publish the work with your supervisor, or you may go on to work on other projects with your supervisor.

The Publication

In some cases, your work may be deemed publishable. If so, and if you choose to accept the challenge, you may very well continue working with your supervisor after your degree to work toward publishing. This is a process that can take months, so be prepared for the long haul. Publishing is a fantastic opportunity, but students sometimes struggle (myself included) to follow through with publishing thesis work due to their changing situation. Be it further study or work. It is unrealistic to expect a student to put their life on hold for a paper, but more often than not it is possible to achieve a balance between work/study and publishing if careful time management is used. If you want to be the first author on the paper, you need to do the majority of the work. Otherwise, your supervisor may ask to be first author if they have had to convert your thesis into a publication for you.

The Other Project

In some cases your relationship with your supervisor will expand beyond your degree and your thesis topic. You may become one of your supervisor’s natural collaborators (people they immediately turn to for collaboration on certain topics). This is a great way to expand your research portfolio, to network with your supervisor’s other collaborators, and to be part of projects designed and conducted by other people.

The Final Goodbye

In some cases, the thesis will be the end, or perhaps the paper or conference will be the end. Sometimes things come to a natural end, and that is fine. It is worth taking a moment to reflect on the experience you have had, the lessons learnt, and the skills gained, before moving onto your next big thing. In many cases, these are only temporary goodbyes. Goodbye in the sense of “we are no longer working closely together on a project” but where you may still keep in touch from time to time.

Planning your semester

A while ago I wrote a post that outlined how I plan my year. In that post I described how I set up my calendar to prepare myself for the year and I recommend going back and checking that out.

Today I wanted to focus on a slightly smaller scale: the semester. However, some people may prefer to do quarterly planning (i.e., Q1 = January, February, March etc.). Both are roughly around the same length of time.

During my PhD, a few weeks before the next semester started I would sit down and take stock by asking myself a few questions.

What is my current progress on my PhD?

I would look at how much I had written, how many chapters I had completed, how many studies I was in the middle of running etc. If you can’t face reality, then you can’t plan to fix it. I would look at how many studies I still needed to run, chapters I needed to write, etc, and write a list of things that I would ideally want to have done by the end of the semester. Would these studies require an ethics application? Could I use an existing application and just submit an amendment? Do I need to design a study from scratch or am I just modifying something I’ve already done? Can I finish one chapter this semester and start another?

How much teaching am I doing?

I would look at how many units I was going to be teaching on and assess the potential workload. How many hours a week of teaching would that be? How many extra hours of prep? Was it a new course that I hadn’t taught on before (much more prep) or something I had been teaching on for years (much less prep)? How many assignments would I need to mark? When are they due? How many assignments would I be marking simultaneously?

On a piece of paper (or an excel sheet) I would write the weeks of the semester across the top of the page and each row would represent a unit. I would put in blocks representing marking for each assignment. This was just a really rough idea to see if there was much crossover in marking time. I knew that when I was marking assignments, it can be difficult to focus on writing.

Once I had this written down, I had a better idea if I had overcommitted already. At this point I would often contact the unit convenor and say “I am happy to mark for assignment 1 but I’ll need help with assignment 2”. Getting this sorted way in advance was great not only for my peace of mind but for the unit convenor as well. It is better to underpromise and overdeliver. I would rather swoop in and mark extra assignments that weren’t expected of me than crumble at the finish line and beg for help.

Do I have any other commitments?

I would list down any other commitments I had this semester. For example, serving on committees, additional research work etc.

Putting it altogether

At this point I would look at my rough excel sheet (or piece of paper) and see where the gaps between teaching were. Then I would look at my list of research I wanted to complete and see what was realistic. Again, my motto was under promise and overdeliver. I would make a few goals that were realistic and achievable and add one extra “if I can it would be great to also do this” goal.

I found that just sitting down and having an entire semester’s commitments in front of me helped me to handle it all and make the best use of my time. I have glossed over a few things in order to give a general overview, but this is my rough process. 

Do you go through a similar process? If you do something different, I would love to hear about it.

– Alessa