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 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

Dealing with Multiple Spinning Plates

Multi-tasking just became part of my daily life

Nobody ever told me or prepared me for just how much juggling was needed to thrive in academia. From teaching classes, to completing my degree, to doing my own research, to being an RA, to completing my roles in academic societies, to marking assignments, to attending meetings, oh and lets not forget emails, just to name a few. It was never like that when I started out, but as time moved on and my list of responsibilities grew, so too did the number of plates I had to spin all at once; multi-tasking just became part of my daily life

Tips for Multi-tasking

This section is not to say that I am the best multi-tasker, but to share some of the things that I have tried, including those that work for me. I was at a conference recently that had a workshop on resiliency in academia. One of the activities was brainstorming ways people manage this need for multi-tasking. As you would guess, what worked for some individuals did not work for all. So experimentation is key!

  1. Micro-manage yourself: This is what works for me. My schedule is broken down into specific time allocations for specific tasks. Once the time is up, I move on. At first this was hard. What happens when you’re in the zone for writing and the time is up? Do you waste that precious writing zone space? No, you capitalise on that and feed it into the next activity.
  2. Dedicate days to specific tasks: Have a teaching day or a meeting day. Personally, I have days dedicated to student supervision. All my supervision happens on those days only.
  3. Overestimate the time it will take to complete a task: Plan to be disrupted, plan for things to come up, plan to need to shift your attention every now and again.
  4. Take regular breaks: Chunking up time is a common way people manage multi-tasking. From coffee breaks between activities to full meditation sessions. Having a relaxing task between tasks can serve as a full stop for the last activity and a fresh new paragraph for the next activity.
  5. Lists: Who doesn’t like a good list? This post is a key example of that! Daily to-do lists and diary entries are also a common way of keeping track of what is needed each day.

What other tips or strategies do you use to keep all those plates spinning?

~ Chris

Dealing with Supervisor Feedback

The very first time I sent my supervisor a piece of my writing I was so anxious. I had read it over a million times. I also had a friend read it over as well and got their thoughts on it. I thought I had done a good job. After all, I had made it into the PhD program so I must be good enough to be here.

About a week later I got it back from my supervisor. The word document was covered in the garish red lines of the track changes function, there were crossed out sections and so many comment bubbles. My heart sank. Everything I had done was wrong. I was an idiot.

After licking my wounds I eventually took on board every point he made and my next draft was so much better. The flow of the piece, the logical connections, everything. What I realised was that the foundations of the piece were there, the surface just needed some rearranging and clarifying.

Looking back on this experience now (as well as having the experience of supervising honours students and giving them feedback on their work) I’ve realised a few things.

Detailed feedback means the reader has engaged with your writing

Giving feedback takes time and a lot of thinking. I’ve realised that for someone to literally tear my work apart takes a lot of time. And they wouldn’t do it if they didn’t care. The fact that your reader has so many thoughts on your writing means that they are passionately engaged in what you have written and want to make it better. And this isn’t just my opinion, I found this study  that basically says the same thing. If my reader was disengaged or didn’t care about my work they would probably just fix a few typos and send it back.

Academics aren’t explicitly taught how to give feedback

They give feedback the way their supervisors gave them feedback. So the quality of feedback can vary supervisor to supervisor. This is one thing to keep in mind. There are also some stock phrases we end up using which we understand but the receiver has no idea how to tackle. E.g., “I got lost”, “the writing doesn’t flow”, “the tone isn’t academic enough”. Eventually you’ll get the hang of these short-hand comments and understand how to process them. But academic writing is a world full of subtleties and annoying little rules that we have to learn.

The purpose of the feedback is different from undergraduate assignments

In undergrad you would have submitted an assignment and when you received it back it would have been evaluated. That is, you were given a mark and possibly a few comments. The purpose was summative as opposed to formative.

Whereas feedback on your thesis is supposed to improve it. You get to submit it a few times and get better each time. This type of feedback is different and takes some mental adjustment.

Looking back on my initial struggle with the benefit of hindsight made me realise that understanding and processing written feedback is just another skill to learn in the PhD process. And, it’s a skill you’ll need especially if you ever decide to run the peer review gauntlet and deal with reviewer feedback… but that’s an entirely different blog post.

Have you ever had a similar experience with receiving feedback from your supervisor?

– Alessa

Being Involved in Academic Societies – Is It Worth It?

From the Society of Personality and Social Psychology to the International Society of Behavioral Medicine and the Stress and Anxiety Research Society (just to name a few that are relevant to me), there are so many different academic societies out there for all sorts of disciplines and subdisciplines. These societies span both local (e.g., the Australasian Society of Behavioural Health and Medicine) and international (e.g., the International Society of Behavioral Medicine) territories. They offer fantastic opportunities for researchers and practitioners to network and cross-pollinate their knowledge. They also afford (voluntary) opportunities in being involved with the running of the society. But should you sign yourself up?

I am where I am today because of my involvement in academic societies

I am involved with both the International Society of Behavioral Medicine and the Australasian Society of Behavioural Health and Medicine. I hold different roles in both societies and have been involved with both of them for a number of year. Over that time I have had the opportunity to develop organisational, leadership, and communication/outreach skills (including to ECRs, other academics – including big name academics, society members and potential members, and other stakeholders) that I just would not learn in either teaching or research. So, without this being a brag-fest, yes, I think being involved with these kinds of societies are well worth it!

What exactly do these societies offer?

It depends… Doesn’t it always!? It depends on how much you are willing to give and what the society is willing to offer. Generally, there will be something targeted toward ECRs like resources, grants, postdoc positions, workshops, social networking opportunities, and professional networking opportunities. Generally there will be an executive committee which would see you placed in a position of responsibility over some aspect of the society. If the society holds conferences, then there will be multiple teams that you could be involved with in helping to plan the conference. You could also volunteer at the conference to help out with the day-to-day running. There could be websites and social media pages that need managing. The list goes on. Whatever the role, these extra duties provides the opportunity for you to showcase your skills to other academics (often very senior academics), to learn from the other society members and refine your skillset, and to be pushed to further better yourself in ways you might not have been expected to do so. Above all else, it is an amazing networking experience!

This all sounds very time consuming…

I would be lying if I said that it wasn’t. If you are on a 40/40/20 workload then this becomes what is known as ‘external service’ and contributes to your 20. If you are a student (like I was when I started with these societies) then I saw it as a way to break away from study without feeling guilty. However, ultimately, all my roles in academic societies probably contributes about half of my 20% service load for work. The other half is taken up by internal service; committees like ethics, academic progress/integrity, learning and teaching, and research. So while serving in academic societies is no small task, it also will not overload or overwork you.

The takeaway

If you can, I would recommend taking a more active role in at least one society. See where it takes you and what you can learn!

~ Chris

Advice for Day One of the PhD

It’s that time of the year when people in the Northern Hemisphere are starting their PhD programs. Here in the Southern Hemisphere people start at random times of the year. Nonetheless, I thought it might be time to write a blog post that outlines some advice I would have given myself on Day One of the PhD journey.

Consider teaching while doing the PhD

Teaching can help you cultivate important employable skills such as communication skills. Explaining a complex concept in a simple way in the classroom is a skill that takes a bit of honing. Also, another aspect of teaching is grading assignments. Although at first that process might seem a little tedious, it can actually improve your own writing skills. See this post for more detail.

Sort out your system of planning and plan out your year

Learn to become a proactive rather than reactive researcher. Start to plan out your days (see this post for more details). Also broaden your scope and start to plan out your year. Try and get a big picture view on the goals you want to achieve and then break those down into smaller goals for each month (or each semester).

Set up good writing habits now

Ultimately, the point of the PhD is to write a PhD. So it is worth your time investing in your writing. Read books on how to improve your writing. I’ve found ways to continually write throughout the PhD and make it less scary. 

View the PhD as a time to acquire skills

Develop your statistical and analytical skills. Learn different statistical programs. Create a list of skills that you want to achieve by the end of your program, rather than just aiming for that title.

Treat the PhD as a job

This advice, as controversial as it may be, was vital to my mental health. I chose to view it as a 9-5 job rather than as an all consuming part of my life and it made for a better PhD. Also, be prepared to ride the academic rollercoaster of having busy times and quiet times and learn to plan for that. 

Foster your friendships

Your PhD buddies are your most valuable resource. Don’t view them as competition. This also applies to your online network. Join academic twitter. I didn’t join until the last six months of my PhD journey and I regretted not joining earlier. There is so much kindness and sharing of resources and tips, you are honestly doing yourself a disservice not being part of that community.

Read our blog

This last piece of advice is probably a little cheeky. I guess I should say, read blogs in general. But especially the Thesis Whisperer’s blog or the Research Whisperer or Research Insiders.

What other advice would you have? Any other good blogs I should add to this list? If you are just starting out now, good luck and connect with me on twitter (@alessateunisse).

– Alessa