The state of mind dilemma

How many times have you heard that doing a PhD is hard? That people end up depressed? That they quit because of isolation, mental health issues, life changes, or something else. That the PhD student is a tortured figure, working hard and feeling like they’re getting nowhere, struggling with imposter syndrome, suffering under the current lack of job opportunities, with no money, and despairing about their future? Because basically that seems to be the only narrative that I hear about doing a PhD.

I see a lot of advice out there for new PhD students that addresses ways of dealing with the above things, and that’s great… but I feel that it also leads to an expectation of the PhD process being all doom and gloom. This just doesn’t agree with my experience. I don’t mean to say that it isn’t hard. It is hard. I struggle with it a lot, and lots of things have gone wrong, and have caused me difficulty emotionally, mentally, and so on.

But I am happy.

Being at university again, being at a level where I can really engage with my interests, has just been the best decision I have made. I get to talk to world-famous scholars and discuss my ideas with them. I have people that actually care about my opinion on issues. I learn about new research, and new applications for research all the time. All the while, I am developing something that I feel passionate about, and I am keen to share with the world.

I have bad days. My research hasn’t been going well lately, and I’ve frankly been avoiding it in favour of the journal article and the other things. I’ve been struggling with motivation – even just for reading; and I have no idea how to develop a plan for all the other publications and things that I need to do to develop a career.

When I talk to others about my research though – especially when it’s other students – I always feel that I have to answer about all the bad things that are happening. As if being happy is a taboo way to be when you’re doing a PhD. I feel like the thing to do is to show your battle scars, talk about how much you’re struggling, and how much you’ve sacrificed to be in this position. Talk about how busy you are and so on. There’s an element there that I really don’t like – that because you’re struggling so much, and still showing up, you’re better. The better PhD student. I hate that.

From talking to other students, there are so many different requirements for being a PhD student across disciplines, and also across people. For me, I have found that engaging with the university community, getting involved in professional development, attending lecture series, and socialising with other students has been the best way for me to be doing a PhD. I go to as many conferences as I can. For other students though, I can see how this wouldn’t work. I love to be busy.

I love to have lots of things on, even though I complain about it incessantly. With that statement, I realise that I am stating something contrary to the things I was saying before. But the problem to me is not that people do it, it’s that I feel obligated to do it around others. I want to talk about the positive things too sometimes. But I feel like my successes are taboo, and my struggles are the only things that matter.

I have so many things going on. I feel overwhelmed at times. I am very unsure about my ability to do these things. I have never had a conference paper rejected. I have run workshops for teachers. I have great conversations with people. I have worked out some really tough problems with my research design. I’ve made a number of great friends. I feel like my work is well below standard. I feel like I am so far behind where I need to be.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Perpetually Busy

Like all students, I am perpetually busy. It does seem to me though, that sometimes this comes in all-consuming waves. The rest of this month just seems to be so jam-packed with things, that I don’t quite know where to begin.


So here’s a list of all the things that I’ve got going on right now.

  1. Marking – final marking for the semester needs to be completed as soon as possible.
  2. Preparing for workshops – There’s still a few materials that need to be pulled together before I can definitely do these, and I need to find time to do that.
  3. Writing – I have to work on a chapter of my thesis, and a chapter of my resource, this is already late.
  4. Journal article – I need to get the next round of edits done, and then the next one, so that I can submit by the end of November.
  5. Travel – I am heading to Melbourne for a week, back for a week, and then back to Melbourne again for the rest of this month & the beginning of December.
  6. Application – I am applying for the Educational Fellowship Scheme, which needs editing, reviews and so on, for submission by the 30th November.
  7. Training – I need to complete the teacher training course I am doing as soon as I can. I have 4 modules left to do, each one about 2 hours, plus writing reflections for all 10, which will take me probably an hour each. So 18 hours of work.
  8. Other projects – At home I am working on a big project that has nothing to do with my PhD, but has to be finished by the 16th.

Because there is so much going on, in addition to the day-to-day stuff, I am feeling a little insane, with my brain constantly in overdrive. Hopefully I can get some of these massive things ticked off my list soon.

Whenever I get into a situation like this, I work really hard to make sure that I don’t neglect the other aspects of my life. To me, during this time it is even more important to meet up for coffees, and stay in touch with people. I try to find time to exercise when I can – even if it’s not what I’d normally do (in this case, I don’t have the energy to go for my usual runs, so I’ve been trying to walk more instead). And I try to eat reasonably, although I don’t stress about it if I can’t manage it.

I know this is often the position of a PhD student. I don’t think that this makes this situation any better for me or for anyone else. But I am glad that I don’t have to feel like this all the time.

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Participation Problems

An unresolved problem…

So there are always a whole number of things that can go wrong while doing research. While you can plan for many of them – and have back-up plans for most of them, sometimes things are more difficult than anticipated.

In this particular case, I am having trouble finding participants.

I have two stages to my research – 1) is an online survey, that takes about 20 minutes to complete; 2) is a workshop series for feedback on the tool and resource I am developing.

I have been looking for 80 participants to take the survey, and around 30 participants for the workshops (these will be broken into about 6 workshops of 5 people each). I don’t feel like I’ve been asking for much, but after 3 months, I have only half the number of people who have taken the survey, and no one able to participate in the workshops.

I think there are a couple of reasons for this:

  1. The survey is too long. I had some trouble early on with people not completing the full survey, and only completing the first page. I then made sure that everything was on the same page, and this has increased the completion rate. However, it makes the survey look a lot longer and this, I think is a problem for my target group.
  2. I haven’t been promoting the surveys enough. I did my first round of promotions through the peak bodies and associations, as well as through individual institutions and individual contacts that I already had. Since then though (in August), I have not done any follow ups.
  3. I was too vague about dates and places for workshops. I tried to get participants to elect when they were available to attend the workshops, but I think I had too many options, and they couldn’t tell how much time they would need, or when.
  4. Then I was too rushed about getting responses. I didn’t think about the fact that they were on holidays and needed time to respond. So I got nothing, except withdrawals.

Next steps:

  1. I am emailing the associations and institutions that I have already contacted, and will try to set up workshops through them. This will require a slight restructure of the workshops, but nothing too significant (not enough to require resubmitting ethics).
  2. I will keep the survey open so that people can continue completing the survey – it will be promoted alongside the workshops and hopefully that way will pick up some more respondents. I do have enough to be moving forward with, I just want to gather more perspectives on the questions before I write everything up.

So that is how I am dealing with this road bump. This has been bugging me for a long time, and although it seems like a small thing, I really wasn’t sure what the best approach was. I’m not certain that this will work, but at least I am moving forward again.

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Networking opportunities

Phew. What a day. And a week. There’s no rest for the wicked. 

This week I’ve been madly working on that journal article again (sent to supervisor for new edits!), working on an application for the Educational Fellowship Scheme (draft done today), marking, doing university teaching courses (four hours today!) and trying to work out what to do about my stalled research. 

The last one is a problem for another time. Perhaps a time when I actually have some sort of solution, or a number of possible solutions and not just a cacophony of complaints. 

What I really wanted to mention was, how good the opportunities I’ve had for professional development have been for networking in a really interesting way. Today I was having a conversation with someone who, while I had talked to them and done courses with them before, we hadn’t really talked about things off topic. Today we were chatting away and discovered that we had done the same masters degree at the same university, only a year apart. It was really great to compare notes on the course, and things that have changed since she did it. More importantly though, we can talk about our research areas from interesting perspectives, but with a shared background knowledge. I often find that people have an opinion on language teaching, but don’t necessarily understand (or have an interest in) the type of teaching I’m looking at. I have people in my field that I speak to – which is great to discuss theories and practicalities, I have people outside the field that I speak to – which is great as a sounding board, and a great way to expand my understanding of the world. It is much much rarer though to find someone who is outside the field, but shares the same background knowledge. 

In short: go to events and courses. Even if you don’t learn what you wanted to (I actually love this course though), you never know who you might meet. 

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Career Doctor

Last Wednesday (26 October), I attended the Career Doctor/PhD to Present conference/workshop day. As usual, the parallel sessions meant that I couldn’t attend everything, but what I did get to go to was really interesting.

Session 1 – Research Fellowships (Dr Douglas Robinson)

“You can be excellent, and still unfunded”

This was a really useful message for me, because naturally, I have a tendency to feel like I have to succeed at everything. His key messages for getting a Research Fellowship were:

  1. Start thinking early. The process usually takes 9 months to a year after submission, and then you won’t start immediately. The planning and writing process can take a long time too, so don’t plan to do it at the last minute.
  2. Read the fine print. There’s a lot of different meanings for ‘fellow’ and ‘fellowship’, so make sure you know what you’re applying for. You also need to check that you meet the criteria for application.
  3. Fellowships are about you. Most fellowships are about developing you as a researcher and future leader than your research design. Write your application accordingly.
  4. Network, network, network. The more people you know, the more ideas you generate, the more things you can get involved in, the more likely you are to get a fellowship.
  5. Failure is part of the process. The more iterations of applications that you write, the better the application will get each time. Take the feedback on board, and develop from it, rather than feeling like you’ve failed.

Session 2 – I’m done with academia (what else can I do?) (Dr Inger Mewburn) – a.k.a. What do non-academic employers want?

“Leaving academia is the new normal”

This was a really interesting session on finding jobs outside of academia that use the skills you have gained in a PhD. It also covered the types of skills you will want to develop for a job in or out of academia.

A quick summary of skills that the private sector, and the academic sector feel that PhD graduates are missing:

Private sector:

  1. Engagement, influence and impact
    1. Engagement and impact
    2. Communication and dissemination
    3. Working with others (Particularly team work. Often PhD graduates don’t have much experience working with people other than their supervisor.)
  2. Personal effectiveness
    1. Professional career development (having a development plan)
    2. Self-management (time management, and self-motivation)
    3. Personal qualities

The academic sector thought they lacked sills in research management of multiple projects, and finance, funding and resources as well as the ones listed above.

Session 3 – Writing and pitching for The Conversation

Basically, if you are an academic, you should do this

This session got me really excited about writing for The Conversation. It seems really worthwhile, and I’m already passionate about sharing my research with the world, so this looks like a great opportunity.

The pitch: Write no more than 100 words that basically says “here’s what I want to write about, and here’s why it matters”.

  • Try to say what your story is in one sentence.
  • Don’t write the article first.
  • See what’s already been read.
  • Write within your area of expertise.
  • Pay attention to the news and pitch articles when something relevant is happening (or you have new findings).

She was able to find a story in everyone’s research, including the pure mathematician. So don’t be afraid to pitch.

All in all, it was an amazing day, and I feel like I have a whole lot of ideas of where I can go, and what I can do next.

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The first 18 months

This is a quick post that will summarise what I have been doing for the first 18 months of my PhD. I started in February 2015, and have been following (as closely as possible) the recommended structure as set out by my College at my University.

In the first semester of my candidature, I did two courses – it is compulsory to do a minimum of four in your first 18 months. One was a general one aimed at teaching us how to research and write research papers. I didn’t particularly enjoy this one, as I had already completed a Masters degree with a thesis the previous year. It did allow me to solidify some of the plans that I had proposed in my application, but apart from that not much got done there. The second course was a reading one aimed at getting a good start on a literature review. This one was good as it gave me a chance to read outside of my immediate discipline and enter some of the other areas that my PhD will/does need.

I also completed my annual plan, which is the first of the (seemingly endless) milestones I need to complete. This is just a report on what you plan to do for the next 12 months, and whether there are things that might stop you from completing them.

In the first two weeks of my candidature I submitted my first conference abstract for a conference in November of that year. (It was later accepted, and presented yay!).

In September I completed a Thesis Proposal Review (TPR). This is done in my School as a public presentation, that your panel attends. After the presentation, you submit a document of about 8000 words, and your panel decides whether you can continue as a PhD student, whether you should drop back to a Masters degree, or if research is not for you. This is also the main chance to make changes to what you proposed. It doesn’t set anything in stone though. I did mine very early – usually they are done between 9 -12 months after starting.

During this time, semester two was happening and I was doing the other two courses. One was a sort of masterclass for my field, and was very very useful. The other was the second reading one. I managed to get almost all of the assessment done before the mid semester break.

Then I ran away on holiday. I spent 2 months overseas. Phew.

When I came back, I had to catch up on a number of things (like that left over assessment), but especially getting that conference presentation done. The presentation went really well, and I didn’t panic and pass out. Yes, this was my first presentation. Around this time (November) I submitted two more abstracts for a conference overseas.

And then everything kind of fell to pieces. I lost my grandmother, lost my job, and had to move house all around the same time. We had a lot of family dramas then too, which all moved focus from studies. Basically I avoided doing anything at all until the end of January.

In February I began tutoring. That was an adventure and a half. It was really interesting, but again took focus away from study. I started a course on the Principles of Tutoring and Demonstrating around this time too, which took a few weeks to complete. I also had to do another annual plan then.

I had intended to have my ethics application finished in December, but this didn’t happen. And then in February I had the chance to apply for an amazing course in the US on research methods, this delayed my application further as I wanted the benefit of that training before I tried to get approval for what I was planning.

May was the two presentations overseas, and June was the research methods course, so most of the first half of this year was taken up by teaching and travel. This semester I have been teaching as well, but I am more comfortable with it, and have more structure to the course as a whole.

In July I submitted the ethics application, which was immediately approved after their monthly meeting (I was as shocked as you are). Thankfully I pretty much had the first stage of my research (a survey) ready to go, so after testing it a couple of times I got it released at the beginning of August.

In August I competed in the 3 Minute Thesis competition (I came 3rd) and then attended the bootcamp which allowed me to draft some journal articles that I had been planning on writing for a long time. I now have two journal articles drafted, as well as something that could become another journal article, or a thesis chapter. It’s the first of these that I have been working on in the Journal Article post.

In September again I completed the next major milestone – the Mid Term Review (MTR). I did this as a presentation to my panel, and a document outlining where I was up to. Most other people do this as a public presentation like the TPR.

I’ve been trying to move on the the next stage of my research, but am having trouble recruiting participants. This will need some thought before I can do much else – and will probably be the subject of an entirely new post.

I think that’s all of what I’ve achieved for the first 18 months, as far as the PhD goes in any case. I’m not happy with my progress – but what student ever is. My supervisors tell me that I’m on track and doing well, so I’ll take their advice and try and feel happy about where I am.


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PhDs, Academia, and Social Media

So apparently I’m a millennial.

There’s so many definitions of exactly what a millennial is at the moment, that sometimes it’s hard to tell. If I’m not technically in the age group, then I’m close enough to count.

One of the side effects of being a millennial is that I am a constant presence on social media. I have two Twitter accounts (barely maintained), Pinterest, Facebook (personal and a research page), Instagram, Snapchat (unused), LinkedIn, Path, Foursquare, and so many other sites that have additional social media aspects. Plus this blog now, and an official website. Some of those things are based entirely on a web presence for my research/professional life. Most are not. Most of them I am incessantly checking on, every day – some because I enjoy it, sometimes because people contact me through them, and sometimes because I’m procrastinating and just wasting time. The last one I’m not so proud of. In general though, I find that I don’t actually generate much original content. I’m mostly focussed around reposting things that I think others will find interesting, and talking directly to people. The exception to this is on Instagram – which is easy for me because I’m a very visual person.

However, as a (super) early career researcher, I’m finding the world of social media an entirely different beast. Twitter seems to be the general platform of choice, with and LinkedIn also factored in. I’m also noticing the high level of content that people are posting, as well as the different ways in which people are posting it (that’s the linguist in me kicking in). There’s an interesting distinction between the types of things that one posts on Instagram and how you tag them to how it’s done on Twitter. I know that I’m overanalysing things a bit too much, but I do think and notice them.

In short, I’m trying to maintain 15+ social media profiles, with different ways of presenting content all at the same time. I’m trying to work on my thesis, plus papers, plus conference presentations, plus teaching, and keep some sort of social life going, as well. And it is hard. Working out what on earth will interest people and is actually worth sharing is one thing, working out the balance between oversharing and not being active enough is entirely another.

The other side of content is also image. Who is the person that I present to all these different platforms. Personal, academic, professional, while they are all similar and share traits, each of them have a different set of expectations and values on attributes. Keeping them straight isn’t a chore for me (thankfully), but remembering that the same post will be perceived slightly differently is.

My age group means that social media is an integral part of my life. The era we are in means that it’s an essential part of my academic life too, and the field that I am in (and my goals for my research) make it a necessary professional tool. However, juggling them all can be absolutely exhausting, even if I’m pretty good at it to begin with. It’s another thing on a growing daily to do list, and it’s a significant addition of time to my day.

But without it, I am unlikely to achieve the goals I have for my research, and unlikely to make the friendships and connections that I am already seeing start to form.

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