One Year Post-PhD and COVID

It was around this time last year that I submitted my PhD. I still remember being given the ‘PhD Party Hat’ of my department to wear. I was told that every PhD student before me for the last 20 years or so out of my department had worn that hat and that it symbolised a major milestone in my academic journey. Congratulations were had, and then I went home.

The submission of my thesis felt fantastic. For that time I had forgotten the struggle of trying to line up post-PhD work, but that came back the moment I got home. Fast-forward 12 months and here I am writing this blog post whilst in the midst of planning to chair my first Teaching and Learning committee meeting that will help to steer the academic body’s preparations for teaching next year. A lot has changed, COVID hit hard, and I think it is now time to reflect on the year.

The period between submitting my PhD and securing work was a period of trial and error, but ultimately, online job adverts were my saviour. Money was hard for a few months. The teaching semester was over, my institute did not employ PhD students to teach, research assistant funds had dried up, and I was relying on my partner almost completely. We were barely making ends meet.

What I did not realise is that this was all a bit of tough love. I was put in a position where I had to move outside my comfort-zone. In fact, I had to move interstate for work. I had some hesitation – I was moving states into a job with a lot of unknowns. But the position was a dream job. It was a Level B 40/40/20 position. I could do my own research, the institute had small student cohorts, and my external service was encouraged.

Then COVID hit. I was unsure how things would go, especially with the tertiary education sector struggling. But, in fact, my institute grew during COVID; while other institutes were firing staff and restructuring, we were hiring. I ended up spent most of the year working from home, but I was still connected to my colleagues which helped a lot. Less than 6 months into my job and I was encouraged to apply for the Associate Head of School for Learning and Teaching role that was coming up. I figured “why not” and applied for the experience. Lo and behold, I received the position. Since then, I have learnt a lot.

Wrapping things up, this year has been turbulent for all of us. Somehow, the stars aligned for myself during this time and I have ended up in the most wonderful job role. The anxiety and stress that preceded this job was not pleasant at all, but perhaps that was needed to help me consider moving interstate.

~ Chris

Thesis by Publication or Monograph: A Case for Monograph

Last week, Chris made the argument for the Thesis by Publication route. Today, I want to talk about why I decided to do a monograph.

My PhD continued the research from my Masters degree

The research I had done in my Masters of Research degree was the beginning of a big project. I was developing a self-report scale which required several studies to create. The two studies I had conducted were the beginning of that research program and I couldn’t publish the work without further studies. So, it didn’t make sense to me to write up the studies in my PhD as publications when the actual publication would include studies from a different degree. Also, it would be weird to constantly cite an unpublished thesis as setting the groundwork for a PhD (if I were to do a thesis by publication).

Flexing my writing skills

Writing a publication is a different skill from writing a thesis. Publications are much more concise and don’t have the same scope to dive deep into a topic. I ended up writing a paper that contained 5 studies (two from my masters and three from my PhD) and publishing that. Writing up 5 studies in a 10,000 word limit was agonising and if I were to put it in my thesis, that would only be one of the three papers I would need (as opposed to the three chapters it ended up being). So writing my PhD as a monograph allowed me to dive deeper and explain the process.

By some twist of fate, one of the people who blindly peer reviewed my paper prior to publication also ended up being one of my thesis examiners. In their report on my thesis they explained how they really enjoyed seeing a more in-depth explanation of the process of creating this scale. So, at the end of my PhD process I had not only written a paper but also a monograph and it gave me an appreciation of both styles.

Avoiding Repetition

One issue with the Thesis by Publication route is the amount of repetition that can occur (especially if each paper is essentially a small extension of the previous work). I wanted to avoid this repetition and I could easily do that by referring the reader to concepts covered in previous chapters.

So, the factors that influenced my decision to go down the monograph route were

  • The research my PhD was based on wasn’t published yet and needed to be published along with the studies from my PhD
  • The studies would all be similar and tell a story that would work better in a “book” vs. a series of papers
  • I still wanted to write papers, but I could easily adapt chapters from my thesis, cut them down, and publish them anyway
  • It was my only chance to really “write a book”. The PhD is a special time and your only chance to really dive deep into a topic and try and become an expert on it. Should you go down the academia route, anything you write thereafter will be heavily focused on publications.

So, have I convinced you to write a monograph yet? Or are you still on the thesis by publication train?

– Alessa

Thesis by Publication or Monograph: A Case for Publication

The Discussion

Alessa and I are going to tag team this topic. My thesis was by publication, while Alessa’s was a monograph. For each of us, the decision came for different reasons. In the end, we each chose the most appropriate format for our specific projects. This week and next we wanted to share our reasons for choosing the format we chose. Perhaps it will help you think about your own format. One thing we had in common, though, was that we were both going to publish our work.

Studies had clear boundaries as what were going to be published together

I had a very complex roadmap for my PhD. If study A produced X finding then I would do study B, but if I found Y finding then I would do study C, and so on. Despite the complexity I also had every study mapped to specific papers. I knew which studies were going together and, generally, which journal they were going to be published in. With such a clear insight into what the publications of my PhD would look like, it made a lot of sense to write my thesis as publications.

Training for post-PhD life

I knew very early on that I did not want a post-doc position. I wanted to jump right into the life of an academic, and I knew that was a hard goal to meet. I still remember receiving the harsh but well-intended employment advice “teaching kind of sorts itself out, if you’re a bad teacher we can fix that. But if you’re a bad researcher, that’s a different story”. So I knew my research game had to be as onpoint as possible. So writing my thesis by publication offered the opportunity for me to fine tune my writing abilities and to continue to secure new publications under my belt. With each new publication I was being asked to peer review more and more. So not only was I publishing, but I was getting my name out into the world and people were noticing (to some extent).

Speed up the time between thesis and publication

By completing my thesis by publication, I was able to publish as I went along with my thesis. In the end, copies of the published journal articles were included in my manuscript, rather than having two versions of every document. This had the added bonus of suggesting to my thesis markers that the work had already undergone rigorous peer review.

The publishing headspace

The last reason for going down the thesis by publication track was that it got me into the headspace of seeing research as a means to publish. Every study was crafted with the intent of publishing. Every word was written with the same intent in mind. This is a headspace I still have now that I am doing research for a living.

What about you?

Did you complete or are you completing your PhD by publication? What drove you toward that decision?

~ Chris

Managing References – Work Smarter, Not Harder

I still remember the time I had to write a reference list for my first psychology undergraduate essay. I tried to add to the reference list each time I mentioned a new paper. But then I would savagely cut my paper down (because I was way over the word limit) and then have to cross-reference every single in-text citation with my reference list. It was a pain and it took ages. Time I would have rather spent writing a good essay. Also, referencing styles are finicky and a pain to learn.

I was fortunate enough, in my second year, to be introduced to the concept of a reference manager and I have never looked back. It fit beautifully with my philosophy of “working smarter, not harder”.

The benefits of a reference manager

There are many reference managers on the market. For example, Mendeley, Zotero, Endnote… the list goes on and on. For an in-depth comparison, check out this thorough (but slightly unreadable) page on Wikipedia. Here is a slightly more readable blog post that compares five different reference managers.

I won’t waste time describing exactly what they are (see this Nature article for more information), but they all serve a similar purpose: It is a way for you to collect your references in one place, read/highlight/annotate them (depending on which program you choose), insert citations as you write, and then insert a perfectly formatted reference list with the click of a button.

I use Mendeley for my work. Here is a list of things that I love about it:

  • I can read, highlight, and make notes on the PDFs
  • It syncs over the cloud so I can move between devices and pick up where I left off
  • I can change the citation style easily
  • Some journals with specific citation styles have a “style” that can be uploaded to Mendeley from their website
  • I can search my PDFs easily
  • I can collaborate with other people by creating a “group” and we share references in that group

In short, if you are writing up research then you need a reference manager in your life. Investing time up front to learn it will save you time down the road.

Additionals to a reference manager

However, a reference manager alone may not be enough and I’ve known this for a while (but have been trying to ignore this problem). The twitter thread linked below describes how one person catalogues papers. I like her system and I’m thinking of doing something similar. At the moment I just have many different folders with unhelpful labels.

I loved this video on how to use slicers in an excel document. I created one for a scoping review and it made life so much easier rather than using tables in Word. I plan to create one for my next post-doc position and maybe one day go back and make one for my PhD topic. Maybe.

But if you’re just starting out, I would recommend starting one now. Future you will thank you.

What else do you do to organise your references?

– Alessa

Shifting Fields Post-PhD

Shifting Can Be Adaptive

I want to reflect on a recent endeavour of mine – branching out into a new area of research. My research focuses on adult psychological stress (think sitting in traffic). However, I have become fascinated by childhood psychological stress. While this doesn’t seem like a big shift, it is like moving from personality to neuroscience. Stress in children is much more complicated than in adulthood and is a process that is continually evolving into late adolescence. So why the move? My general interest in people’s beliefs about stress is naturally leading me in this direction (and there is a grant available). So this shift is a natural shift that will come with many positives. What I should add is that it is not so much a shift in the sense of me leaving adult stress behind, but that I am branching out to also consider children.

What Does a Shift Look Like When You’re A Full Time Academic?

I am still going through the process of shifting and my experience may be different to others. I have started more than a year in advance of the grant. I dedicate one day each week for reading and synthesising the childhood stress literature. From just finding the literature, to working my way through some incredibly dense systematic reviews and theory papers, I can tell that 12 months of work will be pushing it, but doable.

It is hard carving out a whole day for just reading. It eats into time that I could be writing papers or doing teaching prep. But I use this as my leftover time. I am on a 40/40/20 workload. So I schedule my two days of research and two days of teaching first, and then my last day, by default, is this work. Service work gets slotted in between the gaps or eats into my reading day. This seems to work for me.

Is It Worth It?

This comes from the perspective of grant funding. If I am doing a years worth of work for a shot at a grant, what happens if I don’t get the grant? Was it all a waste of time? Well, I am seeing benefits already. Firstly, childhood stress research looks at schooling stress a lot. There are many relevant ideas from the adolescent literature applicable to my own teaching. This area is also giving me a greater appreciation for other factors that might also influence adult stress. So regardless whether or not I end up receiving this grant, I can see the usefulness of this endeavour for my own work.

Would I Do It Again?

Yes, in a heartbeat. Keep your core research interest going and then branch out to new areas, explore new ideas, read up on something unrelated to your work.You’ll be surprised just how easy it is to assimilate ideas from other fields or areas of work.

What About Your Experience?

Have you branched out to other areas before? I would love to hear about your experience in the comments!

~ Chris

Writing Pet Peeves or my “Old Man Yells at Cloud” post

I’ve been marking assignments recently, as well as reading a lot of research for a scoping review, and both of these tasks have struck a nerve with me. There is a lot of bad writing out there. Writing that hurts my brain and I feel the need to vent.

A few caveats:

  1. I’m not brilliant at writing (I just work hard at it)
  2. English wasn’t my first language
  3. I’ve done a lot of bad writing, especially in my undergraduate years
  4. My writing will never be perfect but, with the help of kindly co-authors and reviewers, I will always strive for improvement

So, I’m writing this post partly to a “past me” who could have benefitted from this and partly for anyone else who is in the mood to be angry at academic writing with me. On to the list of pet peeves:

Using Acronyms and Abbreviations

As an undergraduate, I would write an assignment and be way over the word limit. But I had a trick up my sleeve, just replace every instance of “Emotional Intelligence” with EI. Brilliant, my word count had significantly reduced. Then I would find other words to abbreviate and continue with this trick until I was under the word limit. Now, as a marker, my brain melts when I see sentences like this: 

“Although EI is vital in understanding SI, you cannot underestimate the importance of GAD and ToM in this area. Especially when ASD has been found to affect both SAD and AQ.” 

And this is even more frequent in published papers. Science is becoming unreadable. Every additional abbreviation in a document adds to the reader’s working memory load. I spend so much time remembering what all the abbreviations mean, I find it hard to grasp the main point of the writing. I’ve made a rule for myself: if I must have an abbreviation in something I am writing, then I only have one.

Redundancy

Redundancy in writing is frustrating, especially when it is combined with excessive abbreviations. For example, “this research study….” Why not just say “study” or “research”? Why both? These are writing habits we’ve picked up on the way and we use them mindlessly in our writing, probably just to get something on the page, and that is fine. The first draft is always hard to write. But then we should all go back and mindfully review our writing and delete those redundancies. Concise writing takes work and mindful attention.

Complexity in word choice

Just because you’re an academic doesn’t mean your work needs to be unreadable. Sometimes, when an author is using complex words, I visualise them sitting around in top hats and monocles looking at me as if I were stupid. Scientific writing shouldn’t make the reader feel stupid, it should make them feel informed. A writer should always be teaching with their writing, not signalling that they are in a snooty academic club. This applies to you whether you are an undergraduate student or a professor (e.g., use vs utilise, in contrast vs. contrarily etc). Use simple words that are used commonly rather than rare words and make sure you are writing for a general academic audience, not just the 5 people in your field.

Complexity in sentence structure or paragraph structure

When a piece of writing has long complex sentence after long complex sentence, it’s exhausting to read and hard to process. I’ve linked two twitter threads below that discuss not just writing, but also how to structure a paragraph in an informative way.

However, for me, I like to drop a paragraph of my writing onto this site. It’s just a great way to visualise how many complex sentences you have and where you could make things simpler.

I’ve come to the end of my rant. Thank you for reading. Do you have any writing pet peeves?

– Alessa

Using Your Degree to Start a Business

“Everyone needs a good side hustle”

I still remember hearing this at a conference I was at recently. It was surprising to hear this idea of having a side hustle – a business that effectively ran itself or which required minimal involvement. Something that brought in a bit of extra money. But how does one achieve this? I have had a somewhat decent stab at this, so allow me to share my experience.

Private Tutoring

The most obvious side hustle is private tutoring. If you have the time, then in person tutoring is fantastic. It can be done in groups or one-on-one. You are effectively the personal trainer for someone’s brain rather than their body. Moreover, it is a side hustle where you choose the hours, has next to 0 start up costs, and will be sending clients your way quicker than you realise. Letting course and unit convenors/coordinators know you are offering this service will help them to refer students onto you (free marketing).

For a time, I even did ‘academic coaching’ which, rather than helping students through coursework, involved helping to train students how to study, how to manage their time, how to complete an exam, how to survive in honours, etc.

Academic Services

I am leaving this vague, because I am sure it will be different depending on your field, but in psychology I leveraged my affinity for statistics to end up landing a number of casual contracts. People hated statistics and were willing to pay people like me to do it for them or provide consultation on how to do it. Think about the skills that you have learnt from your degree that others do not enjoy doing and offer it as a service.

Starting a Brand New Business

So this is moreso a story of my partner who completed an undergraduate degree, but it still showcases the point. He took his understanding of learning theory, behavioural psychology, and working knowledge of ABA (a type of therapy for children with autism) and created an entirely new business model in that field. He left academia entirely.

“But Chris, I don’t know what kind of a business I could start up” I hear you say. Neither did my partner, and when we arrived at our idea, we were really unsure if it would fly. But it has been very successful. For him, this is becoming a full time job – so it is not so much a side hustle as an alternative to academic. But it does highlight how you can use your degree in a different way.

Another idea (in fact it is how I created my backup plans if academia fell through) is to consider how your degree might provide solutions to problems (that may or may not yet exist) in other areas. You have a chemistry degree, great, how might that relate to, say, childcare? Perhaps you can arrive at some new chemical approach to removing baby stains or something (I am literally making this example up as I go along here – can you tell?). But this kind of creative thinking might just land you a new business idea. Let the inner entrepreneur out!

What About You?

Have you used your degree to start a business? What did you do? What it a side hustle, was it temporary contracts, or did you create a whole business that became your full time job? Did you do something different?

~ Chris

PhD Pets

Have you heard of the physicist F.D.C. Willard? He published in Physical Review Letters in 1975. Did you know he was a cat? Felix Domesticus Chester Willard… doing better than many of us early on in the PhD in the PhD journey.

Pets are an important part of our lives, however the question is, should you take on the responsibility of a pet during your PhD?

Pets are good for your health

Many studies have shown that owning a pet can decrease blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels. Also, they can reduce your risk of dying of heart disease. When we are going through the struggles of a PhD, anything that can boost your health should be considered.

Pets are good for your mental health

Pets can make you less lonely, provide a buffer against stress, and improve your executive functioning (i.e., a set of mental skills that allow you to think flexibly, use your working memory, and also manage your self-control). Your mental health is very important during this time, so perhaps having a pet should be worth considering.

Pets can make you more productive

Although most of the studies I read about this discuss bringing pets to your workplace, if you are working from home a lot (as many PhD students do) then I think this would equally apply. Pets can reduce workplace stress and nurture productivity. Having animals around can help you put things into perspective

As this blog post points out, getting a furry research assistant (AKA therapy animal) may have many trickle down benefits that aren’t immediately apparent. The unconditional love of an animal may get you through those tough times.

I spent the last year of my PhD living in a house without a pet, and it was tougher than I expected. I didn’t realise how much I depend on stroking a cat’s back (or forcing him to cuddle me) to improve my mood. I’m pleased to report that I have now rectified this situation and adopted a new furry research assistant to see me through my post-doc position.

Fluffy white cat sitting in front of a desktop computer

I know this was a brief post, but I’d like to know, do you have a “research assistant” to keep you company? How have they improved your life?

– Alessa

Advice for One Month into Your PhD

About a month ago Alessa wrote on advice for day one of your PhD. Today I want to talk about advice one month in. Things I wish past-me had known at this point in the journey.

Turbulence is OK

By this point you are one month into a journey that spans years. You don’t need it all sorted out yet. Personally, I was flip flopping around between ideas with what I wanted to do for a few months before a clear plan appeared before me. Even then, my plan was more so planned flip flopping than anything else (I basically had statements like “let’s try X and if we get outcome Y then we do A, otherwise we do B” as my plan).

Don’t Compare Yourself to Others

It is so common to compare oneself to your peers to determine progression. “Oh but Jane has started data collection, Mark has submitted ethics, oh my god, Harriet has already published a paper one month in!”. Other people’s journeys are their own. Wherever you are at right now is where you are meant to be. The odds are you are at a different point to those around you, but that is OK.

Start Thinking About Conferences and Papers

“But Chris, you just said turbulence is OK, how can we be thinking of conferences and papers!?” I hear you all crying out to me. Depending how you’re doing your thesis, you may be completing a thesis by publication. If so, you need to be thinking about what papers will come from your thesis at the same time as planning the major milestones of your candidature. It is worth remembering that one study may not equal one paper. My thesis had 5 papers over 9 studies. The other consideration is what conferences you want to attend. Conferences are fantastic for networking and career progression. They’re also a lot of fun. But many of the big conferences require abstracts anywhere from 3 to 6 months ahead of the conference (I have even been to one that required abstracts a year in advance!). So you need to be on the ball with this one, guys.

Don’t Plan Nine Studies

OK, so I did 9 studies as part of my PhD. That was absurd, even my markers commented it was way too much. But I had a story I was telling. I set out a problem in my first chapter and I only just solved it by the end of my last study. You don’t need 9 studies to get a PhD. I have (anecdotally, mind you) heard of people with 3 studies getting a PhD because it was just a nice tight set of studies that laid out a problem and addressed it. But if it is going to take you 9 studies to tell your story, then go for it.

Foster Your Friendships

I know Alessa spoke to this, so I will refer you to her post for specifics. But one month into your PhD I don’t want you to forget the importance of your friends. They are absolutely invaluable. Once you get stuck into the PhD it is very easy to quickly start to isolate yourself and get lost in your work. Schedule regular lunch breaks together, meet up after hours for social time (we played board games or went to salsa classes).

What About You?

How are you tracking one month into your PhD? For those further along, what advice would you give to others that are one month in?

~ Chris

I hate my thesis

There comes a point in your PhD journey when you sigh and say “I hate my thesis.” This point may come only once or be a daily occurrence. I know it happened to me. Sometimes I said it regularly (but jokingly) when yet another experiment had failed. I said it once or twice seriously when I felt overwhelmed, especially towards the end. If you’re saying it seriously you could be in the “Valley of Shit” as coined by the Thesis Whisperer. Recognising that you have this problem is the first step to fixing the problem. Here are a couple of things to consider.

You need a short break

When was the last time you fully unplugged from your thesis? Do you sit there every day trying to write words that won’t come or read papers that you don’t want to read? Do you ruminate in guilt but still  are unable to muster the energy to do anything? Perhaps it’s time to take a short break. Spend two days (or a week or maybe even two weeks) getting away from your thesis. No reading, no writing, no experiments. Nothing PhD related allowed. (N.B., if you’re taking more than two days you may want to discuss it with your supervisor. Call it a mental health break). It may be that you just need a little time away to recharge.

You need a long break

If you took a short break and it didn’t help perhaps you need a long break. Talk to your supervisor and perhaps a counsellor or psychologist and see if you can take a semester off. Immerse yourself in teaching or volunteering or listening to podcasts. Find something to rekindle your passion to give you some perspective.

You need to change topics/supervisor/lab

If you took a break from your thesis you may realise that you enjoy research but the topic you are currently researching is not sparking joy. Perhaps you may need to have an honest discussion with your supervisor (or perhaps a mentor). Think about which elements you like and which ones annoy you (a pros and cons list, if you will). It could be an easy fix, slightly tweaking the direction of your thesis. It could be a massive change (like changing topics, changing supervisors, or changing labs). But you may need to do something. It’s better than spending your days being guilty and accomplishing nothing.

You need to stop

Maybe you took a break and realised that research or academia is not for you. This excellent blog post  from the Thesis Whisperer discusses how poor supervisors typically are at discussing non-academic job options. Perhaps taking a look at this site might help. Or your institution might have career counsellors that can help you. Also, reach out on twitter for advice. I cannot recommend this enough. Getting that PhD may no longer be necessary for the career you want.

You’re in a pandemic and everything is awful

Lastly, perhaps it has nothing to do with your thesis. It may be that you’re living through a pandemic. This article explains it beautifully. Your surge capacity has been depleted: “Surge capacity is a collection of adaptive systems — mental and physical — that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters.” The author describes how this surge capacity depletion is more likely to happen to high achievers (i.e., You!). Take a read of that article and it may help you gain some perspective on the situation. I know I took a lot from it.

In short, a break may fix your problems. You may rekindle that romance with your thesis and find your passion again. If it doesn’t, you might need to break up with your thesis or perhaps realise that we are living through *unprecedented times* and we’re all sitting at home waiting for the times to become precedented again.

Have you been in this situation? How did you resolve your thesis despair?

– Alessa