Tag Archives: PhD

Self-discipline

A PhD is all consuming. Unlike other jobs that you can leave at the office, a PhD takes up residence in your head (and your living room). It goes home with you in the evening. It hangs around on the weekend. It even accompanies you on holiday (if you’re lucky enough to get one). Of the many PhD students I’ve known over the past 5 years, I have only encountered one who successfully maintained a 9-5, 40 hour work week.

So where does that leave the rest of us? Regardless of your work pattern, sometimes we all need a break. In fact, studies have shown that working more than 40 hours per week does not increase productivity in the long run. It can be incredibly difficult with 12 articles still to read and a draft chapter due next week, but you need to learn to discipline yourself and the PhD-monster lurking over your shoulder. I’m still learning, but am getting better.

One aspect of successful self-discipline is actually getting the work done; setting reasonable expectations and following them through. Several weeks ago, I set myself the goal of writing uninterrupted (no talking, checking email, searching the internet or fidgeting with my phone) for at least 30 minutes every day. It turns out that even this modest task is easier said than done. So I bought a kitchen timer – a hot pink one that sits on my desk and reminds me of my writing obligation. Once I set the timer, writing becomes my sole occupation until the ticking stops and the bell signals that I’m allowed to stop. I’m not suggesting that you run out and buy your own kitchen timer, just that you think about how you might manage your working time more effectively and in ways that enhance your productivity without requiring that you enslave yourself to your PhD.

My second tip for successful self-discipline is little rewards. Once you’ve accomplished whatever it was you set out to do, allow yourself a treat. Take a short break, go for a walk or, better still, bake some brownies!

Delicious Fudge Brownies

(Adapted from ‘On Delicious Fudge Brownies’ in The Pirates! In an Adventure with Communists, by Gideon Defoe)

  • 200g dark chocolate
  • 210g butter
  • 40g vegetable oil
  • 5 eggs
  • 400g sugar
  • 50g honey
  • ½ tsp vanilla
  • 125g flour
  • 50g cocoa powder
  • ½ tsp sea salt
  • chopped nuts (optional)

Melt chocolate and butter together in a pan over low heat. Remove from heat and stir in remaining ingredients. Pour into a baking pan lined with parchment paper and bake for approximately 30 minutes or until the centre is set. Leave to cool on a wire rack before cutting.

Collaborative Fieldwork

Having the opportunity to conduct fieldwork is, for me at least, one of the best bits of being a researcher. What’s not to love about travelling to exotic (or even not-so-exotic) locations and meeting interesting people? I also enjoy the serendipity and unpredictability of fieldwork. Despite the best-laid plans, there is no knowing what might happen tomorrow or when your research could take an unexpected turn.

Now that I have completed several trips to ‘the field’, I can see that my own approach to fieldwork has changed considerably. Perhaps this is just indicative of a learning curve that all researchers experience. In any case, I thought that I would raise the idea of collaborative fieldwork for those of you who are preparing to set out for ‘the field’ yourselves.

PhD research is, almost by definition, an individual pursuit. Earning your doctorate will ultimately depend on your ability to demonstrate to the examiners that you have made an original contribution to knowledge. In the social sciences and humanities, this is rarely achieved through group work. I suspect that this has something to do with why our fieldwork is, by and large, an individual activity as well. After all, it is at this stage of the research process when you collect the evidence necessary for making your all-important original contribution.

When I conducted my PhD fieldwork in Madagascar, I intuitively adopted the mindset of a solo investigator. Sure there were plenty of other people involved: research assistants, gatekeepers, participants, community leaders, and local acquaintances. But at the end of the day, the research was mine and I called the shots.

Compare that characterization to the fieldwork that I conducted in Papua New Guinea last month. In this instance, I was conducting research with a colleague from PNG and had brought along an Australian student to work as our RA. The research was also embedded in a longstanding relationship that my colleague has with our host community. So the research was not only mine and ours (the three-person research team), but also theirs (the participants). Coming up with an agenda that suited everyone required negotiation and flexibility. Not everything went to plan. But the three-person research team configuration in particular proved incredibly beneficial.

While my colleague and I facilitated the research activities, our RA documented the process. This meant that I could focus all of my energy on the participants and our interaction without worrying about whether the video cameras were working or trying to simultaneously lead a discussion and take detailed field notes. In the evenings, all three of us would get together to go over the day’s activities; often we recorded these conversations as well. Initially, it was surprising how we had each picked up on quite different details. Sometimes this could be attributed to vantage point, at others language skills. There is no doubt, however, that three heads were better than one.

This experience has made me wonder how much richer my PhD research might have been had I adopted a similar approach in Madagascar. I did arrive in the country on my own, but I could have easily built up the sort of three-person team described above. In fact, simply fostering a more collaborative relationship with my research assistants, rather than using them primarily as translators, might have made a considerable difference. It would have taken some work early on to train someone in documentation skills or set a precedent for discussing the day’s activities before heading our separate ways, but I now suspect that it would have been well worth the effort in the long run.

So, if you are starting to think about your own fieldwork, I would encourage you to consider how you might adopt a collaborative approach. It is still up to you to do the work, collect the evidence you need and write it up in a compelling way. But in the heady chaos of fieldwork, collaboration has strong advantages over going it alone.

Reasons For Starting A PhD

The other day I overheard someone say that he was planning to start a PhD because he thought he’d ‘make a good academic’. Fair enough, I suppose. There are any number of reasons why you might be thinking of (or already) pursuing a PhD, and when I overheard this particular comment I didn’t give it much thought. However, reasons why – or why not – to pursue a PhD became a recurrent theme last week, so I decided it was probably a topic worth writing about.

Good reasons for embarking on this particular brand of marathon could include:

  • You are passionate about your subject area
  • You love research
  • You love writing
  • You are looking for a new challenge
  • You are passionate about your subject area
  • You want to try your hand at fieldwork
  • You want to try your hand at teaching
  • You want to research and write a book

There are, no doubt, many others. But if you’re in the social sciences or humanities, ‘getting a job’ (or, indeed, that you think you might make a good academic) is not one of them.* It’s a bitter pill to swallow. But there it is just the same.

I don’t have any hard data on this, but the circumstantial evidence seems to strongly suggest that universities are producing far more PhD graduates than academic jobs. Meanwhile, tenure track positions are going the way of the British hedgehog: they’re still out there but fewer and farther between. You don’t have to take my word for it. These two articles about the plight of junior academics landed on my desk just this past week:

Meet your new professor: Transient, poorly paid

Thesis Hatement: Getting a literature PhD will turn you into an emotional trainwreck, not a professor 

If you are still determined to have a go at carving out an academic career, there are some things that you can do to improve your chances of landing that first adjunct or postdoc position.

First, seek out early career academics in your field and ask them about their strategy for landing a job. They almost certainly got lucky somewhere along the way, but at least some of that luck will have been the product of a lot of hard work. Also ask them about what they do in a typical week, and how that relates to their career-building strategy. The answers may surprise you.

Second, start taking on additional academic responsibilities. In addition to chipping away at your thesis research, a full time job in itself, consider:

  • Teaching undergraduate courses
  • Giving guest lectures
  • Enrolling in teaching training courses
  • Working as a research assistant
  • Helping senior academics with grant writing and development
  • Presenting at major international conferences
  • Organizing a regional or post-graduate conference
  • Enrolling in advanced methodology or analytical software courses
  • Serving on School or Departmental committees
  • Developing your ideas for your next research project
  • Publishing journal articles

All of these opportunities exist, and pursuing them shows that you are serious about an academic career. Being able to list these accomplishments on your CV will also set you apart from other applicants who focused solely on their thesis for the past however-many years.

That said, gaining this experience will require that you take a risk in putting yourself out there. Not all of your conference abstracts or journal articles will be accepted. Many of the opportunities listed above aren’t advertised, and securing them will require knocking on (perhaps more than) a few doors. Time management skills are also critical. None of this ‘extra’ experience will help you in your quest for an academic job if you don’t actually finish your PhD.

The road to full employment is no less precarious for social science and humanities PhDs looking for work in the private sector. And there is even less advice available. A good place to start, though, is So What Are You Going To Do With That: Finding careers outside academia by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius. Also try finding a mentor outside of the academic bubble who can help you construct a resume that hiring managers might actually read.

There are plenty of good reasons for starting – and finishing – a PhD. Top among them, that we are creative, determined, hard-working, curious people who love research and are passionate about what we do. On one hand a PhD is a remarkable achievement, and on the other it is just another degree. Your PhD probably won’t land you a job. But there are other reasons to still pursue it.

*NOTE: This post primarily applies to people who will be looking for academic jobs in the United States and Europe. My experience of tertiary education systems in other parts of the world is severely limited, but I have heard that there are indeed places where the sector is growing. Your prospects might be better, for instance, if you’re willing to move to Asia.