Friday, April 22, 2016

Doctoral Writing and Decision-Making in the First Few Months

PhD doctoral hood for different universities a...
PhD celebration - the endpoint? (Photo: Wikipedia)
by Susan Carter, Doctoral Writing:

I’m working with a promising new doctoral student and conversations are mainly around scoping her project. I’ll call her Angel, although she has kept her Chinese name.

Our talk circles round the decisions that need to be made in the first year, and preferably in the first few months. It’s a process of thinking, choosing and writing. First, decisions are approached at several different levels.

We begin with identifying the problem that is driving the research. I want her to write that clearly. This leads to how her doctoral project might produce better understanding the problem with a goal to mitigating it.

One set of considerations hovering through our talk regards methods and methodology. Will her project be mixed methods, and which methods? Will the triangulation of these methods be likely to show something really useful? How much data will be needed? How will it be gathered? How will she delimit what is in the study and what is not? She’s considering the methods and models described in the extensive literature review that she is ploughing through.

At the same time, we both want to find the shortest route to completion - Angel’s left a toddler at home with her diligent parents and her husband but wants to finish quickly and to be reunited with the family.

She’s coping really well with the emotions associated with this: the entire family believe that they will all benefit from her doctorate, and she is managing herself and the project really well. Yet the separation is still sometimes overwhelming; the unfamiliar Christmas celebration with its joyful tableau of mother and son, and its focus on family, brought unexpected emotional turmoil. Desire for the fastest, smoothest route is not just about institutional desire for timely submissions: it relates to her quality of life.

So we are considering the scope of Angel’s work and thesis carefully: how much will be enough to be recognisable as a PhD and no more? Questions about scoping take us back to the literature, and to other theses in the field.

I’m also keen that Angel designs a research approach that she will enjoy rather than simply applying other people’s approaches that seem to have worked. The methods she gains expertise in during her doctorate may well be ones she uses for the next five or ten years as well.

At another level, we are thinking about the best possible doctorate to give Angel the future that she most wants. She intends to return to her homeland to develop her career there, so is looking at the kinds of jobs her PhD might prepare her for.

She’s considering at what level she would prefer to work: in a university department, in a university management role, in a government role with leadership in Educational policy making … She also needs to think about where she and her family might like to live, given that her husband and the grandparents would be involved.

I’m encouraging Angel to write as we go through these conversations. We run through the pros and cons of different options in our meetings, and she writes this reasoning down in the week before the next meeting. This enables her to capture the small details of decisions likely to slide out of mind when it comes to defending her methods in writing later. Some of what she produces will fit neatly into her introduction; some will go to the more detailed methodology section.

Where possible, she is building literature that informs her choice into her Endnote library and into this early writing. This is partly for safekeeping from the limitations of memory, and it also establishes the habit of linking her project to literature and capturing that linkage in writing.

Another benefit is that we have begun working together on writing, a pleasurable part of supervision from my perspective. We are establishing expectations for meeting deadlines with writing and feedback, and trust with that. I’m figuring how to scaffold her development to where she is a confident fluent writer in English; we are both learning who the other one is, and how to best develop together as a team. For a start, Angel is learning to listen to my curious kiwi accent …

Do you have other ways of starting off new supervisions and ensuring that you begin writing early? We would like to gather more possibilities, especially around how to get useful writing in the early stages of the doctorate.

The Ever-Tightening Job Market for PhDs: Why Do So Many People Continue to Pursue Doctorates?

Mel Evans / AP
by Laura McKenna, The Atlantic:

If you’re a grad student, it’s best to read the latest report from the National Science Foundation with a large glass of single-malt whiskey in hand. Scratch that: The top-shelf whiskey is probably out of your budget. Well, Trader Joe’s “Two Buck Chuck” is good, too!

Liquid courage is a necessity when examining the data on PhDs in the latest NSF report, “The Survey of Earned Doctorates,” which utilized figures from the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center.

The report finds that many newly minted PhDs complete school after nearly 10 years of studies with significant debt and without the promise of a job. Yet few people seem to be paying attention to these findings; graduate programs are producing more PhDs than ever before.

Getting a PhD has always been a long haul. Despite calls for reform, the time spent in graduate programs hasn’t declined significantly in the past decade.

In 2014, students spent eight years on average in graduate school programs to earn a PhD in the social sciences, for example. It takes nine years to get one in the humanities, seven for science fields and engineering, and 12 for education, according to NSF.

In other words, PhDs are typically nearing or in their 30s by the time they begin their careers. Many of their friends have probably already banked a decade’s worth of retirement money in a 401K account; some may have already put a down payment on a small town house.

While most doctoral students rely primarily on some combination of grants, teaching assistantships, and research positions to cover tuition and living expenses, they also often use personal savings, spouses’ earnings, and student loans.

Consequently, more than 12% of all PhDs complete their doctoral programs with over $70,000 of combined undergraduate and graduate student-loan debt. Rates are especially high in the social sciences and education. Those debt levels are alarming, especially because fewer students have jobs lined up immediately after graduation than was the case 10 years ago.

The job market for those with advanced degrees is clearly tightening, according to the NSF study, with many more PhDs in all fields reporting no definite job commitments in 2014 compared to 2004. Nearly 40% of the PhDs surveyed in 2014 hadn’t lined up a job - whether in the private industry or academia - at the time of graduation.

It may not be surprising that PhDs in the humanities and social sciences are struggling to find tenure-track faculty jobs. After all, graduate schools produced two new history PhDs for every tenure-track job opening in 2014. However, with the heavy push towards STEM at universities and opportunities for positions in the private industry, the employment woes for engineering and science PhDs are puzzling.

PhD graduates who reported that they had accepted positions found work in the private industry, academia, or as post-docs. Most PhDs in the humanities, education, and social sciences who have secured plans will work in academia - but the report does not indicate whether they are employed in tenure-track positions, in non-tenure track jobs, or as temporary adjunct jobs, which have grown in popularity in recent years.

A PhD who wins the rare job as a tenure-track professor earns on average about $60,000 per year, according to the NSF report. In contrast, post-doc positions - temporary research spots that are most common in the sciences and draw 39% of the PhDs with post-graduation commitments at universities - pay a little over $40,000 per year. Incidentally, the median entrance-level salary for college graduates with a BA in 2014 was $45,478.

It’s unclear what happens to the 40% of PhDs who don’t get a job of some sort - even of the post-doc variety - after graduation. Perhaps some move onto other professions after a year or so. Maybe some work for peanuts as adjuncts. Others may rely on their partner’s income.

What’s more, as Inside Higher Ed’s Scott Jaschik notes, the tightening job market means increases job market competitiveness, as new PhDs must compete for positions not only with their own cohort but also with the unemployed PhDs who graduated in previous years.

So, you would think that this kind of information, which has already been discussed in many news articles and books over the years, would dissuade universities from admitting more students. You might even think that super smart students would try their hands at other careers. After all, when news about the bad employment market for lawyers came out, the number of applications to law schools plummeted. Wouldn’t the same thing happen to PhD programs? Apparently not.

In 2014, doctoral programs in the United States awarded 54,070 PhDs - 12,000 more than in 2004. All fields, except for education, saw an increase, with the biggest increases in science and engineering.

Why hasn’t all this information helped winnow down the ranks of aspiring professors - why hasn’t it proved to be an effective PhD prophylactic? Are people risking so much in the hopes of getting a cushy job with a six-figure salary and no teaching requirements? Is it because academia is a cult that makes otherwise sane people believe that there is no life outside of the university? Are graduate programs failing to inform their students about the realities of the job market? There are no answers to those questions in the charts and graphs from the NSF.

Without serious changes in higher education, such as higher pay for adjunct professors or decreasing the time spent in graduate school, chances are thousands of new PhDs in their early 30s will be struggling this fall.

About the Author
  • Laura McKenna is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and a former professor of political science at Ramapo College.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Tenure is Disappearing Much to the Detriment of Higher Education: Schools With a Greater Reliance on Adjuncts Have Lower Graduation and Retention Rates

Image Credit: Fotolia
by , Education Dive:

The number of part-time faculty on college campuses has increased by 70% over the last 40 years. 

In the same time period, the number of full-time tenured positions has dropped 26% and full-time positions on the tenure track have gone down by half, according to data from the American Association of University Professors.

The composition of the faculty on college campuses in the United States has fundamentally changed, and it is affecting institutions, students, and faculty members themselves.

Adrianna Kezar is a professor of higher education at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education and co-director and principal investigator of the Pullias Center for Higher Education’s Delphi Project. The Delphi Project has studied the factors contributing to the current makeup of the professoriate, and has lately worked to develop a vision for new models of faculty hiring that improve student success and build support for improving the work lives of non-tenure track faculty.

Kezar cites a range of negative consequences that have followed the shift away from a tenured faculty workforce. There’s the documented negative impact on graduation rates, first-year retention, likelihood of transfer from a two-year to a four-year college, and student grade point averages. Students who take classes from primarily adjunct faculty have a harder time getting letters of recommendation and finding supporters to pitch them to graduate school programs and employers.

Institutionally, the remaining tenure-track faculty have a heavier service load because there are fewer people to do it. Adjuncts are not paid to handle committee work, participate in campus governance, or take on leadership positions in departments. Their compensation does not include support for curriculum development. Adjuncts who teach at multiple schools and drop in for one course don’t connect the dots between their own curriculum and overarching goals of a department or institution.

And Kezar said virtually every campus in the country has at least one program being entirely taught by adjunct instructors who weren’t there just a couple years before. There is no institutional memory for how to run a program under these circumstances, Kezar says.

The AAUP’s "Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2015-16: Higher Education at a Crossroads" incorporates, for the first time, data about part-time faculty and graduate teaching assistants, who make up more than half of the academic workforce. The AAUP has been speaking out about the declining tenured workforce in its reports and publications for years.

Samuel Dunietz, an AAUP research and policy analyst, said part of the issue with tenure is that people don’t understand it - perhaps not even administrators on college campuses or faculty members themselves. “It’s not a job for life,” Dunietz said. “It essentially ensures due process. This year’s report talks about not just why it exists, but why it’s useful.”

The report cites a working paper by Harvard and Stanford researchers that found measurable declines in student performance at public institutions relying more heavily on adjunct faculty. “Specifically, every 10% increase in part-time faculty positions at public institutions is associated with a 2.65% decline in the institution’s graduation rate, and every 10% increase in full-time non-tenure-track faculty positions is associated with a 2.22% decline,” the AAUP report says.

While the AAUP advocates a return to tenure-track hiring and nothing less, Kezar is more open to alternative models, as long as they include full-time faculty, rather than a reliance on part-timers. Kezar says one under-discussed reason for the shift away from tenure in the first place was a desire for faculty focused exclusively on teaching, rather than splitting time with research.

For tenure to be the best long-term model for modern colleges, it has to be aligned with teaching, Kezar says. More institutions need dedicated teachers than dedicated researchers. Other reasons for the shift, such as financial or enrollment concerns, Kezar finds to be less compelling. Even the wealthiest institutions have increased their reliance on adjunct faculty, choosing to spend their resources elsewhere. And many administrators see this trend continuing.

But The Delphi Project researchers are working to drum up support of for a different path forward. In "The Professoriate Reconsidered," they find more common ground than expected across faculty groups, campus administrators, board members, accreditors, and policymakers. They strongly agree on the need for more full-time faculty, but Kezar believes there isn’t enough pressure on institutions - from boards of trustees and policymakers, especially - to make changes.

As the AAUP suggests, the professoriate is at a crossroads. Which direction it will go is still an open question.

Different Routes to Destination PhD

Image result for PhD
by Sophie C. Lewis:

After rushing between the vet, the dentist and meetings with students, I was delighted to spend yesterday afternoon at an induction for brand spanking new higher degree research students at my university. Such an exciting time!

I was there to talk a little about my route from new PhD student to early career researcher. I also enjoyed hearing the other panel members talk about their perspectives on what makes a successful PhD student. I heard lots about the services available for new students through the statistical consulting and academic skills units, the library and student support networks. Lots of their advice about looking after yourself and seeking help early paralleled my experiences of PhD-ing.

Then it was time for me to have a chat with the Thesiswhisperer about our very different journeys - her PhD transport was a bullet train leading a successful career in architecture to a snappy PhD and a meteoric rise to Associate Professor in just a few years. She learned Swiss-level organisational and time management skills and came out firing in an academic sense.

My career transport was more Melbourne Metro; it was a little longer, led a little lower and involved a lot more directionless bumbling around. I did my PhD in an earth sciences department. My scholarship allowed me 4 years of paid study, so I took 2 days less than 4 years and I squeezed a lot in. I spent 6 months in New York, two conferences in Canada, a trip to Japan and six weeks in Indonesia doing fieldwork. 

The best aspect of my PhD was definitely my cohort of fellow PhD students

I had a challenging PhD. My supervisor and I had irreconcilable differences and I was working in a toxic lab culture. This led to a particularly challenging year that involved a lot of eating ice cream and stress leave and trips to the counsellors and the doctors. But my young PhD colleagues were always there for me to pry the ice-cream out of my hand and put it back in the fridge. My PhD office-mate is my best friend. She still lives around the corner and my girlfriend describes us as sisters.

Other PhD students and postdocs teach you skills, and provide support and encouragement. I always invested a lot of time and energy in other ‘young’ academics during my PhD, at my university and while away at conferences. These are your future colleagues and movers and shakers. Be kind to each other and make your field awesome together. 

The biggest challenge to my PhD was my lack of confidence

I had so many challenges, it’s remarkable I ever graduated. A PhD is always accompanied by life, whether that’s ill health or babies or new partners or family dramas, so I had a bunch of that stuff. I also had a fair share of the challenges of research. I’d get bored with something the moment I started it. As I had also run into some early supervisory problems and couldn’t continue working in the lab I started out in, my PhD was hard and intellectually lonely.

But my biggest challenge was a gripping lack of confidence in myself. I spent the first months of my PhD hiding out in my office scared I’d be found out as a fraud and asked to leave. I lacked the confidence to navigate the break down in relationship with my supervisor. I lacked the confidence to push for this to be resolved. I got there in the end but it took me four years to learn that sometimes you just have to think about what you’d do if you weren’t scared, and then do that anyway. 

The most important skill I learned during my PhD was navigating complex relationships

Academics talk a lot in about hard skills - about honing academic writing, about publishing articles, about conference presentation skills, about an ability to teach. These are hard skills. But the one skill that I use every single day is working with other people. These will be people in other institutions or people in your corridor who you sit on a committee with. They might not like you or you might not like them, or you might just not see things the same way.

You will always have to work with people you don’t mesh with. Being able to tackle these complex relationships is a core academic skill, but the only training you will get for this will be on the job training. Knowing when to push back or when to sit back, when to take offence and when to put your ego away is part of being an academic and I use this everyday. 

If there’s one thing I wish I’d done differently it would be to take ownership of my PhD

I started my PhD as a very young 24 year old. I was as green as can be, with no project or supervisor in mind nor a clear idea of why I was PhD-ing. I bumbled around like a Melbourne train trying to get out of the loop in peak hour. I am proud of the research I did, but I felt like I was bouncing around. A PhD is an incredible investment in yourself and your own development, but you have to own it to get the most out of it. In academia, no one manages your career for you. This is for you to do - it’s part of being active and interested in your professional self.

You don’t have to do a postdoc or be an academic to make the investment in a PhD pay off. There’s many ways to use your PhD skills. It’s ok to make decisions on a whim, it’s ok to have a long term career plans with goals. It’s ok to pick a career in academia and it’s certainly ok to decide that an academic career isn’t right for you. You might have other interest or skills, you might prefer more rapid-fire work, you might like security or living in the one place or you might want 15 kids. My only advice is that you have to carve out your own career and make your own decisions if you want them to be good ones.

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Black Market in Academic Papers – and Why it's Spooking Publishers

English: Open Access logo and text
Open Access logo and text (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Dana Ruggiero, Bath Spa University, The Conversation:

A colleague of mine recently posted a plea on an open forum asking for someone with access to please send her a copy of a journal article.

This colleague works at one of the premier research institutions in the EU which has an annual budget of over €100m, yet she had to ask her connections on Facebook for access to a scholarly article. Her university did not have access to this piece of literature that she needed to complete her research.

This story isn’t unique. Many academics have to seek other means for finding articles rather than pay the minimum US$30 that most publishers charge to access an article.

Instead, a black market of scholarly papers exists that those in the know can access as easily as using a hashtag on Twitter: #ICanHazPDF. This system relies on academics helping each other. I post a request for a paper and in ten minutes a response with an attachment may come back to me. The original tweet is then deleted.

Other disciplines have set up listservs and private sites with similar goals: those in need can ask those with access and online journal articles or books are provided free of charge. “There is a cool network of psychology students who have shared stuff by request for a couple of years, its called the European Federation of Psychology Students' Associations and we were all friends helping friends,” Aart Franken, a recent PhD graduate from Utrecht University in the Netherlands, told me.

Enter Sci-Hub

For the last few years, there has been a new player in town. Sci-Hub, a website developed in 2011 by Alexandra Elbakyan, a researcher from Kazakhstan, is a repository for over 48m papers which continues to grow every day. Elbakyan has been called a modern-day Robin Hood by some.

The publishing company Elsevier is currently suing Sci-Hub and Elbakyan in New York for copyright infringement. After Elsevier won a temporary injunction against the site in January, it reopened with a new domain name. Alicia Wise, Elsevier’s director of universal access, said that for the company: “It’s as if somehow stealing content is justifiable if it’s seen as expensive … It’s not as if you’d walk into a grocery store and feel vindicated about stealing an organic chocolate bar as long as you left the Kit Kat bar on the shelf.”

But Sci-Hub has changed the way that many think of public access. Unlike previous systems, it keeps a copy of the requested paper on its server so that it doesn’t have to go looking for it when someone else asks. Now instead of asking a group of your peers or sending out a hopeful tweet, anyone can go to Sci-Hub and see whether the paper is there. Within 30 seconds the site loads a PDF version of the requested article that Sci-Hub has accessed from Libgen - a search engine for scientific articles and books, which allows free access to otherwise paywalled content - or skimmed from the publisher.

An affordability problem

As an academic who publishes within the traditional journal system, it’s worth looking at the normal scenario of scholarly publishing.
  1. An article is written and submitted to a journal.
  2. That article is accepted after revision and the author is asked to sign away copyright.
  3. The author is given the chance to publish “open access” which requires the author or the university to pay - in the case of Elsevier, between US$500 and US$5,000. Other publishers have similar policies.
  4. If the author cannot afford this fee, or their university refuses to pay it, or the grant that funded the research does not allow payment for publishing, the article is published closed and only those with subscriptions can access it (green open access, or the ability to self-archive the accepted version of the article in an institutional repository, is free of charge either immediately or after an embargo period depending on the publisher).
This last point about affordability is the norm. Not many academics can afford to publish open access with top-tier journals, but for their careers, they can’t afford not to publish in what are known as “high-impact” journals. As Katrin Becker, adjunct professor in computer science and game design at Mount Royal University, in Canada, told me:
Open access that requires authors to ‘buy’ the publication of their articles is wrought with problems, from silencing adjuncts and people without grants, to potentially influencing acceptance based on money rather than the quality of the research.
The difference between academic publishing and other types of creative work is in who owns the rights and who gets paid. Simply put, the author does not get money once the article is published in the journal, the academic editors and peer reviewers are not paid for reviewing these articles. The publisher gives nothing and gets everything.

Opening access. Nomad_Soul/

Academics have the choice where to publish but once the article has been signed over we have no voice in the process - our only choice is to not choose specific publishers.

The pursuit of knowledge

The open access movement has come out of the idea that publicly-funded research should be available to the public. As my colleague Grainne Conole, former professor of education at Bath Spa, told me: “Research is about sharing and discussing our findings with peers, research shouldn’t be locked up in closed systems.”

There are thousands of open access journals but many of them are seen to lack the prestige that universities demand for researchers. We are stuck: academics can’t afford to read their own work but they can’t afford not to publish in these prestigious journals if they want to advance their careers.

Sci-Hub has provided a new path. It doesn’t fix the flawed system of academic publishing, but it does let those without traditional access read the scholarly articles they need to complete their degrees, work on their research projects, and keep up to date with their fields.

As Martin Weller, professor of educational technology at the Open University, told me:
Sci-Hub is a bit like distant thunder at a picnic for publishers. They ignored open access, then tried to discredit it, then tried to make extra money from it - but Sci-Hub may make them actually address the issue.
The Conversation
Dana Ruggiero, Senior Lecturer in Learning Technology, Bath Spa University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

10 Tips for Writing a PhD Thesis: Ingrid Curl Shares Simple Rules for Keeping Your Work Clear and Jargon-Free

Woman writing using laptop computerby Ingrid Curl, Times Higher Education:

Writing up a PhD can often take place in a frenzy of activity in the last few months of your degree study, after years of hard work. But there are some steps that you can take to increase your chances of success.
  • Do not be daunted by the task of “writing up”. Work on the text as your PhD takes shape, remember that all writers need editing, and help yourself by using these basic tips to make life easier. Read what great writers say about how to write before you start, and take their advice to heart. There is no dark art to clear, concise work; it is mostly a result of editing, and editing again. Above all, keep Elmore Leonard’s advice in mind: “If it reads like writing … rewrite it.”
  • Plan the structure of your thesis carefully with your supervisor. Create rough drafts as you go so that you can refine them as you become more focused on the write-up. Much of writing comprises rewriting so be prepared to rework each chapter many times. Even Ernest Hemingway said: “The first draft of everything is shit.”
  • Academic writing does not have to be dry. Inject some flair into your work. Read advice on writing and remember George Orwell’s words in Why I Write: “Never use the passive where you can use the active”; and Mark Twain’s on adjectives: “When you catch an adjective, kill it.” If you prefer, Stephen King said: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
  • Do not write up in chronological order. Work on each chapter while it is fresh in your mind or pertinent to what you are doing at that moment, but come back to it all later and work it up into a consistent, coherent piece, restructuring sections where necessary.
  • Think carefully about your writing. Write your first draft, leave it and then come back to it with a critical eye. Look objectively at the writing and read it closely for style and sense. Look out for common errors such as dangling modifiers, subject-verb disagreement and inconsistency. If you are too involved with the text to be able to take a step back and do this, then ask a friend or colleague to read it with a critical eye. Remember Hemingway’s advice: “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.” Clarity is key.
  • Most universities use a preferred style of references. Make sure you know what this is and stick to it. One of the most common errors in academic writing is to cite papers in the text that do not then appear in the bibliography. All references in your thesis need to be cross-checked with the bibliography before submission. Using a database during your research can save a great deal of time in the writing-up process. Helpful software includes EndNote or Paperpile. Managing your bibliography from day one may seem obsessive but it will save you a great deal of time and stress by the end of the PhD process.
  • Use a house style. Professional publications such as Times Higher Education use a house style guide to ensure consistency in spelling. For example, do not use both -ise spellings and -ize spellings, stick to British spelling and be consistent when referring to organisations or bodies. Because dictionaries vary in their use of hyphenation, use one dictionary and stick to it throughout the writing process. If you consult the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors, you will note the extraordinary number of words with alternative spellings. It can also be a very useful guide to preferred spellings, use of italicisation and foreign phrases.
  • Take care when quoting from other sources. Ensure you note whether the italic emphasis is in the original and take careful notes when you are collecting quotes for your thesis. Transcribe them accurately to save work later and keep original spellings (even if they differ from your chosen style) to ensure fidelity to your source.
  • Think about plagiarism. If you are quoting from works, quote from them accurately and paraphrase where necessary for your argument. This is where careful note-taking and use of references is invaluable and will help you to avoid even inadvertently plagiarising another work.
  • Remember that your thesis is your chance to present your work in the best possible light. Consider your opening paragraphs, entice your reader with your writing and above all be clear about your hypothesis and your conclusion. Append material where it adds value but not where it merely bulks out your work. Consider your reader at all times. This is your chance to showcase your work.
If you stick to these simple rules, your writing will be clear and jargon-free. Above all, take to heart Orwell’s advice: “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”

Ingrid Curl is associate editor of Times Higher Education, and a former PhD student.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Three Qualities of Successful Ph.D. Students: Perseverance, Tenacity and Cogency

English: Graduate student Luis Alvarez is show...
Graduate student Luis Alvarez is shown in 1933 with Arthur Compton, with whom he worked on cosmic ray programs for his Ph.D. thesis at the University of Chicago (Wikipedia)
Every fall, a fresh crop of Ph.D. students arrives. Since I'm actively looking for Ph.D. students, I get the same question a dozen times every year: "How long does it take to get a Ph.D.?" This isn't the right question.
"Ph.D. school takes as long as you want it to," I tell them. There's no speed limit on how fast you can jump through all the hoops. A better question to ask is, "What makes a Ph.D. student successful?"
Having watched Ph.D. students succeed and fail at four universities, I infer that success in graduate school hinges on three qualities: perseverance, tenacity and cogency. If you're in Ph.D. school or you're thinking about it, read on.
What doesn't matter
There's a ruinous misconception that a Ph.D. must be smart. This can't be true. A smart person would know better than to get a Ph.D.
"Smart" qualities like brilliance and quick-thinking are irrelevant in Ph.D. school. Students that have made it through so far on brilliance and quick-thinking alone wash out of Ph.D. programs with nagging predictability. Let there be no doubt: brilliance and quick-thinking are valuable in other pursuits. But, they're neither sufficient nor necessary in science. Certainly, being smart helps. But, it won't get the job done.
Moreover, as anyone going through Ph.D. school can tell you: people of less than first-class intelligence make it across the finish line and leave, Ph.D. in hand. As my advisor used to tell me, "Whenever I felt depressed in grad school - when I worried I wasn't going to finish my Ph.D. - I looked at the people dumber than me finishing theirs, and I would think to myself, if that idiot can get a Ph.D., dammit, so can I."
Since becoming a professor, I finding myself repeating a corollary of this observation, but I replace "getting a Ph.D." with "obtaining grant funding." 
Update: Within a month of writing that last line, I was awarded my first three grants.
To escape with a Ph.D., you must meaningfully extend the boundary of human knowledge. More exactly, you must convince a panel of experts guarding the boundary that you have done so. You can take classes and read papers to figure out where the boundary lies. That's easy. But, when it comes time to actually extend that boundary, you have to get into your bunker and prepare for the onslaught of failure.
A lot of Ph.D. students get depressed when they reach the boundary, because there's no longer a test to cram for or a procedure to follow. This is the point (2-3 years in) where attrition peaks.
Finding a problem to solve is rarely a problem itself. Every field is brimming with open problems. If finding a problem is hard, you're in the wrong field. The real hard part, of course, is solving an open problem. After all, if someone could tell you how to solve it, it wouldn't be open.
To survive this period, you have to be willing to fail from the moment you wake to the moment your head hits the pillow. You must be willing to fail for days on end, for months on end and maybe even for years on end. The skill you accrete during this trauma is the ability to imagine plausible solutions, and to estimate the likelihood that an approach will work.
If you persevere to the end of this phase, your mind will intuit solutions to problems in ways that it didn't and couldn't before. You won't know how your mind does this. (I don't know how mine does it.) It just will.
As you acquire this skill, you'll be launching fledgling papers at peer reviewers, checking to see if others think what you're doing qualifies as research yet. Since acceptance rates at good venues range between 8% and 25%, most or all of your papers will be rejected. You just have to hope that you'll eventually figure out how to get your work published. If you stick with it long enough and work at it hard enough, you will.
For students that excelled as undergraduates, the sudden and constant barrage of rejection and failure is jarring. If you have an ego problem, Ph.D. school will fix it. With a vengeance (some egos seem to recover afterward).
This phase of the Ph.D. demands perseverance - in the face of uncertainty, in the face of rejection and in the face of frustration.
To get a tenure-track professorship after Ph.D. school, you need an additional quality: tenacity. Since there are few tenure-track faculty positions available, there is a fierce (yet civil) competition to get them. In computer science, a competitive faculty candidate will have about 10 publications, and 3-5 of those will be at "selective" or "Tier 1" venues (crudely, less than 33% acceptance rate). A Ph.D. by itself won't even get you a job interview anymore.
There are few good reasons to get a Ph.D. "Because you want to become a professor" might be the only good one. Ironically, there's a good chance you won't realize that you want to be a professor until the end of grad school. So, if you're going to do Ph.D. school at all, do it right, for your own sake.
To become professor, you can't have just one discovery or solve just one open problem. You have to solve several, and get each solution published. As you exit graduate school, an arc connecting your results should emerge, proving to faculties that your research has a profitable path forward.
You will also need to actively, even aggressively, forge relationships with scholars in your field. Researchers in your field need to know who you are and what you're doing. They need to be interested in what you're doing too. None of that is going to happen by itself.
Finally, a good Ph.D. student must have the ability to clearly and forcefully articulate their ideas - in person and in writing. Science is as much an act of persuasion as it is an act of discovery. Once you've made a discovery, you have to persuade experts that you've made a legitimate, meaningful contribution. This is harder to do than it seems. Simply showing experts "the data" isn't going to work (yes, in a perfect world, this would be sufficient).
Instead, you have to spoon-feed the experts. As you write, you have to consciously minimize the amount of time and cognitive pain it takes for them to realize you've made a discovery. 
You may have to go "on tour" and give engaging presentations to get people excited about your research. When you give conference talks, you want them eagerly awaiting the next episode. You will have to write compelling abstracts and introductions that hook the reader and make her feel like investing time in your work. You will have to learn how to balance clarity and precision, so that your ideas come across without either ambiguity or stifling formality.
Generally, grad students don't arrive with the ability to communicate well. This is a skill that they forge in grad school. The sooner acquired, the better. Unfortunately, the only way to get better at writing is to do a lot of it. 10,000 hours is the magical number folks throw around to become an expert at something. You'll never even get close to 10,000 hours of writing by writing papers.

Assuming negligible practice writing for public consumption before graduate school, if you take six years to get through grad school, you can hit 10,000 hours by writing about 5 hours a day (toward the end of a Ph.D., it's not uncommon to break 12 hours of writing in a day).

That's why I recommend that new students start a blog. Even if no one else reads it, start one. You don't even have to write about your research. Practicing the act of writing is all that matters.

Depression and Academia: There’s No Such Thing as Enough

5140847_mlby , Nadine Muller:

I am an early-career academic who struggles with depression and chronic anxiety. My mental illness goes back much further than my involvement in academia, but the two have always been connected, sometimes disablingly so.

At the same time, however, my experience of depression has also been productive and inspiring of my academic work.

I was first diagnosed with depression aged 13. Even at that age, my mental health problems were closely associated with academic achievement: my sense of self-worth bound up with doing well at school and being perceived by others as ‘intelligent’. On various medications, I was unwell and deeply unhappy throughout my teenage years, resulting in the decision to take a year out between GCSEs and A-Levels.

This was a successful strategy: upon my return to school for Sixth Form I found myself flourishing: I was engaged with my studies and achieving well in them; I was making friends; I was articulate and confident. For the first time in my life, I felt like a proper person. Perhaps this new contentment was too much for my unconscious to allow myself; at any rate, it didn’t last long. At the beginning of the following academic year I had a breakdown, and was unable to attend school (or pretty much leave the house) for nearly a year.

Despite a disastrous change in antidepressants, I was able to keep up with my studies enough to sit my A2 exams in the summer, and, astonishingly given the circumstances, I achieved well in them.

Back on the sertraline medication that had worked reasonably well for me since I was 16, I then recovered enough to prepare for starting university at in October. It did not go smoothly. Much of the time it was a nightmare, but I coped. I was lucky enough to make some very supportive friends, and attend a college that takes it pastoral responsibilities very seriously. I managed to stay at university. Over the years, with some dramatic peaks and troughs, bits of therapy, and a pretty high dosage of antidepressants, I slowly started to get better.

Two years ago, when I graduated with my PhD, I thought a lot about my early weeks as a first-year undergraduate student; about how far I had come, and how I would not have managed to achieve this without certain friends and family. I was hugely grateful and enormously proud.


More recently, I have been thinking again about those earlier experiences of depression, tied in with the pressure of the need to achieve academically at school, and my difficulties with life after the doctorate. My postdoctoral experience is the same as that of so many others: I have not yet managed to secure employment in my chosen field, despite having a CV full of publications, teaching experience, various extra research activities, and the good opinion of those who have worked with me.

I knew when I started my PhD that this was how it would be, but I wanted to do it anyway - I needed to do it. I thought and researched and wrote about what I wanted and needed to explore, and when I finished it I told myself that even if nothing came of it career-wise, it was worth doing for its own sake. I still believe that. And I have also been lucky enough to secure enough part-time work in the sector to earn a living through activities that can count as ‘career development’, and give me enough time to continue postdoctoral research independently, and also apply for funding and jobs.


But, two years on, it has taken its toll. Unsuccessful applications, combined with a perceived lack of productivity since my PhD, have resulted in an overall sense of failure. In a highly competitive field, with its discourse of overworked overachievers who need to be doing all the things all the time, I feel deeply inadequate, and this is also tied in with guilt: I feel I have not succeeded at many of the things I’ve attempted because I am not good enough, and not attempted as much as I should have, because I am lazy and cowardly.

This has made me reluctant to engage with the wonderful support and resources now available to ECRs, such as The New Academic, because I end up comparing myself negatively to all those at the same stage as me who have jobs, or are applying for the same posts as me, and should be getting them rather than me because: look at that CV! And all those blog posts, and tweets, and research networks!Looking at the profile pages of other academics is my guaranteed way to induce hyperventilation and nausea.

I have also struggled to develop my own research since finishing my PhD, what with limited time, support, resources and mental energy, and the shame I feel about this has often prevented me from making any progress with the work: fear leads to procrastination, and anxiety to inability to concentrate. Of course, I do not fully acknowledge all of the things I do achieve and the tasks I complete because they are never enough. With depression, and with academia, there is no such thing as enough.


All this coincided with an attempt to come off the antidepressants after nearly 17 years. In April last year I decided that I was well enough to give it a go, and seeing as I was working part time, and feeling reasonably happy and settled, this was as good a time as any. Now I sometimes wonder what on earth was I thinking?, but it was a brave decision, there would never have been a perfect time, and I try not to regret it.

I tapered off the meds very slowly - over the course of 5 months - and hoped that the symptoms I was experiencing were transitory and would pass once my body’s chemistry had adjusted. A few months after coming off the drugs completely I was barely managing to function normally, couldn’t remember the last time I had a day without crying, and accepted that I needed to go back on sertraline.

I had forgotten - it had been so long - the side effects of the first weeks of taking SSRIs, and for a few days I felt about as bad as I had for a decade. Unfortunately this coincided with two day-long seminars of the Learning and Teaching qualification I am currently enrolled on through my learning support work, and two days of presentations and discussion on ‘the nature and purpose of higher education’ was the last thing I needed at that time. Because I felt like higher education was killing me.

What had possessed me, I wondered, someone who has suffered since childhood with a crippling sense of inadequacy and perfectionism, to seek a career which is extremely competitive, demanding, and involves continuous self-scrutiny and laying oneself open to the judgement of others? I decided I’m just not the sort of person who can be an academic and be happy. All that mattered now was that I get through this, and get better.


A few days later, worrying about whether I could not be an academic and be happy, I realised two things. Firstly, that I hadn’t made the wrong choice in going into academia. It was never a choice. It’s just who I am, to read and ask questions and write and teach and argue. The profound grief I feel at not having progressed more with my postdoctoral research, and especially at not having written anything substantial about it, is a different matter from the pain of not having an academic job contract.

The former is about what I find ultimately fulfilling, and yes a great cause of turmoil and doubt, but also of satisfaction and joy. The latter is about economic security, but more than that about ego, and I don’t want my self-worth to be determined by recruitment panels or funding bodies. I decided that I don’t need an academic career following a conventional trajectory, and it may well be that I never get a full-time permanent academic contract. But I do need to research and write and wrestle with ideas, and thus I decided I would do as much of this as I could manage whilst trying to get well.


That was a few months ago, and now, settled on a moderate dose of sertaline, I am starting to feel mentally healthy. I have accepted that I have been ill, and thus it is ok for me not to have managed to work as much as I would have otherwise. I continue to try to accept that whatever one’s mental condition, it is really difficult to maintain the motivation to research independently and look for jobs in an overcrowded field, and that I should value what I have managed to achieve, not berate myself for what I haven’t.

I have also been making progress with my research - slowly, but of course the early stages of a research project are slow, especially when one cannot work on them full-time. I have started writing again (a little): ideas flow more freely and I am more able to concentrate. The chemical changes of being off antidepressants had much more effect than I thought they would, and I am beginning to function normally now. I have also been re-engaging with the research community, something I had lacked the confidence to do for the last year, planning to attend conferences, and last month taking part in the annual retreat of a research group with whom I did my PhD.


The paper I shared on the retreat reflected on the problematic interrelation between theory and personal experience in my research, and I read to the group something I had written in my journal a couple of months previously. In my distress at not having written anything about my research into craft and new materialism, I forced myself to write something - anything - related to it, so I wrote about knitting a complex lace shawl as a way of alleviating anxiety.

Reading this paper at the retreat reminded me that my struggles with depression and anxiety have in many ways been productive for my academic work. The experience of mental illness and patriarchal religion led to the questions that resulted in my doctoral research in feminist theology. Thinking about narratives of mental illness and recovery fed into my discussions of the construction of ‘the personal voice’ in scholarship, as I used an autographic approach in my thesis. And now, after depression and anxiety had stifled my academic work for many months, they were once again beginning to inspire it.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Key to a Successful PhD Thesis? Write in Your Own Voice

Female student in libraryby Cassandra Steer, The Guardian: 

In the last couple of months of completing my law thesis I found myself struggling to put things into the simplest terms.

All the ideas I had been researching and writing about were coming together like the pieces of a puzzle, but I kept wanting to re-explain everything in great detail in every chapter, and sometimes even within a chapter. The word count was growing every day, but my arguments and conclusions weren’t necessarily getting any clearer.

I asked a colleague to look at one chapter in particular for me, and the feedback she gave me was gold: write in your own voice. 

I was writing from fear

There is a tension inherent in writing a PhD. On the one hand, it is an examination of your ability to undertake research independently, and write as an academic. On the other, you have to show you have read all the literature in your field, and can cite the most authoritative scholars. The temptation was to spend a lot of words proving that I knew my stuff, that I could rehearse the arguments of those authoritative scholars.

But in fact I was writing from fear: a fear of needing to back up every claim and argument with the voice of a well-known scholar - or preferably several. If someone had said it before, then it was safe to say it myself. But what I was creating was more like an extensive, impressive research report, rather than a thesis of my own.

The word “thesis” comes from the Greek tithenai, which literally means “to place” or “to position”: my thesis is my position, my point of view, my stance on a certain issue. If I am not able to convey what that is in my writing, then I am no longer writing my own thesis, I am writing the theses of the giants who have gone before me without adding anything to them. 

Confidence is essential

Particularly in fields such as law, the humanities and some of the social sciences, where research is not necessarily a matter of gathering data or conducting experiments, but rather of gathering positions, and conducting thought experiments, it can be harder to make a distinction between our use of existing knowledge and our own original contribution that builds on that knowledge.

Without sufficient research or evidence, the claims and arguments we make may come across as naïve or ill-founded. Yet without the confidence to step out beyond the safety of endless footnotes and the words and voices of big-name scholars, we risk not reaching the level of academic independence that doing a PhD requires of us.

The great challenge in the final phase of a project that has consumed my thinking for the past few years is: how do I find my own voice in all of it? How do I find the academic self-confidence to really give a voice to my own thesis, my own position and stance? And indeed, how did the giants of my field become the authoritative voices that we all cite? By developing their own voice. 

To defend our claims, we have to find our own voice

Somehow translating this to my own academic writing proved to be just as much of a challenge. The moment at which we are asked to defend our thesis in front of a committee of professors, to defend our arguments and claims, is the moment at which we literally must find our voice and express it confidently.

The award of the doctorate degree, and the title Dr, is a symbolic recognition of our full membership in the academic community. In order to rise to that challenge, it is necessary to find your voice in your writing, to formulate your own position, your own thesis, which you are capable of - and confident in - defending.

My colleague had given me the key to a door that opened before me in the last throes of writing and editing. These final weeks have become really enjoyable, even with the pressure of the final deadline getting closer and closer, because I have given myself full permission to articulate my own thesis, my own position, my own voice. And the final result is a manuscript that is truly mine, and a piece I feel worthy of submitting as I ask for admission into the academic community as a fully-fledged, independent member. A member who has a voice of her own. 

Cassandra Steer is a lecturer and PhD candidate at the faculty of law, Universiteit van Amsterdam.

Five New Frameworks That Can Drive Teacher Education Reform

English: A special education teacher assists o...
A teacher assists one of her students (Wikipedia)
by John Fischetti, University of Newcastle, The Conversation:

There have been more than 100 reports critiquing teacher education in Australia since the 1970s. These reports led to new tests and more accountability standards and measures of teacher behaviours.

Today we have a regulated profession that has not changed the content of what is taught as much as developed a tick box compliance process. We need a major revamp of teacher education from the inside out that actually changes the model to provide all children with the education that is right for them.

The implications for schooling, teaching and teacher education

When I was in school in the 1960s and 1970s, teachers had one lesson plan, one textbook, one chalkboard, one pedagogical approach, one style of desk and one discipline strategy for the whole class. My classmates and I were expected to adjust to the teacher and the plan.

“Differentiation” at that time meant that the taller students typically sat in the back of the classroom while those who had trouble seeing the chalkboard were moved closer to the front. Those students caught being “naughty” sat next to the teacher’s desk.

This was assembly-line education. Many of us did quite well. Some of us dropped in. Some of us dropped out. It was understood that if you worked hard after you left school, even if you dropped out, you could anticipate a pretty good job in the mill, the mine or the plant.

Teacher education grew out of these assumptions of “training” for the assembly line in a two dimensional (2D -“sit and git”) education world. But for too long schools have been places young people go to watch their teachers work.

They have relied on a deficit model of learning and teaching. They have emphasised conformity rather than personalisation. And today, in many parts of the world, they still mirror factories while the 3D printer is replacing the assembly line.

Scientists are now aware of at least ten dimensions that we must comprehend in a very dynamic, collaborative, global innovation age.

Although many of us performed well in the 2D model, those who were unable to adapt to it have very little to do today. Many jobs available in the past for those who did not finish school have been outsourced or automated, and more will be in the near future. We cannot afford economically or morally to continue a 2D mentality for schooling.

Five new frameworks to drive the reframing of teacher education 

Current standards across Australia and the world are remarkably the same. They are really organisers of evidence that new teachers and their programs must assemble inside these agreed-upon categories. Unfortunately they are built on and support a model of learning and teaching that is nearly obsolete.

We actually have very little evidence that graduates of teacher education programs use what is taught to them three years into their teaching. This has to change.

In response, academics and educators across Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, South Africa, Canada, the UK and US have devised five new guiding questions or frameworks for teacher education. They help create a global conversation to benchmark teacher education internationally rather than in individual states or nations.

Where do children live?

The context and environment in which children live is paramount to their success as learners in formal school settings. Mostly middle class new teachers often lack deep understandings of culture, family, diversity and community dynamics. The most innovative teacher preparation programs embed direct community and family involvement early into their education.

How and when do children learn?

The work in neuroscience, psychology, indigenous cultures, the arts, technologies, equity, learning differences etc, is all forming a new transdisciplinary area of “learning sciences”.

We have just begun to understand learning and its many forms and contexts in light of new innovations. Most of the new learning from brain research, including the recent knowledge about toxic stress, adolescent development, the importance of physical movement, creativity, and the impact of technologies has not yet made its way to teacher preparation.

What should children know and be able to do as a result of schooling?

In the past 20 years, schools have often been pressured to become testing centres rather than leaning centres. To be successful in the innovation age, young people need exposure to a dynamic curriculum that helps them master traditional literacy and numeracy skills inside of an engaging problem-solving environment that focuses on students finding their passion, developing critical thinking, enables creativity, and fosters their innate curiosity for learning.

Teacher education should go way beyond the syllabus for each country and foster the newest and best thinking about knowing and doing in a global context. Students in Sydney are not only in competition with students in Brisbane and Perth, but also with students in Mumbai, Shanghai and Boston.

Why is equity such a vital component for the common good?

A focus on equity is paramount to overcoming injustice, providing social cohesion, improving living standards and protecting democracy. Most teacher education programs currently isolate equity issues inside of introductory courses rather than wrap learning with equity throughout their program designs.

Most of the pedagogies taught are about “fixing” student deficits rather than building upon the amazing capacity and evolving cognitive capacity of every child.

Who am I as a learning and equity leader?

Who teachers are and how they behave is one of the most underrated competencies of learning to teach. Caring, flexibility, resilience, respecting diversity, overcoming inequities, advocating for children, leadership and positively communicating with colleagues and parents are all as vital as content knowledge and pedagogical prowess.

Many new teachers are strong in content, but the social aspect of their job may not be developed. It is possible for someone to meet the current standards but fail children.

These frameworks might be the grounding across the various standards in states and nations to guide learning and equity and to build a sound way forward with the world’s best experts informing the process.

John Fischetti, Professor/Head of School/Dean of Education School, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.