Tag Archives: PhD

Contemplating a PhD? Please read this.

My university allows high school students to shadow academic staff for their work experience. I think it’s a great idea. It got me to thinking though, what do they or anyone contemplating entering academia, need to know? Here’s my two cents.

The fundamental thing anyone contemplating academia needs to know is that there are many, many, many more PhD students than there are academic jobs. Stats vary, but only about 40 to 50 percent of the people who complete a PhD will actually get a job in academia. The few who manage to secure a job, almost always have to travel interstate or overseas to do so.

From my own observations, the few who break into academia have this in common:

  1. A lot of first-author publications, usually in high impact journals (essential).
  2. An ‘in’ with a research group – perhaps they did a mini-post-doc during their PhD at another lab or, secured a highly  prestigious scholarship often used to cherry-pick future employees (advantageous)
  3. Teaching experience (advantageous)
  4. Conference presentations, media coverage of one’s research, involvement with research organisations in the field (advantageous)
  5. Industry skills.  Many of the psych PhD’s I know who did manage to get an academic job also had a qualification as a psychologist which gave them an edge, particularly for the more applied type post-docs (possibly advantageous)

The more of these boxes you tick, the greater your odds of success BUT, it is entirely possible that you still will not find work in academia.

It is also very important to remember that not finding work in academia often has very little to do with your capacity to be an academic. With so many brilliant people completing PhDs and so little funding, the supply of PhD graduates is just way too high for the demand. So if you are one of the vast majority who have found a career outside of academia (not by choice) know that you  were just as capable as the people who did get in to the ivory tower.

I’m a big fan of being practical. So, given the odds of academic work are so low, what can you do about it?

  1. Choose a project and team that will help you tick those boxes I mentioned. From day one, develop a clear plan about how you and your team (your supervisor, research higher degree support services, uni career counselors, journal club, partner, family, friends) are going to get you ticking off those boxes. That plan will change, and repeatedly. But as they say, a dream without a plan is just a wish.
  2. Make sure you have a solid, viable, ‘Plan B.’ If you take one thing away from reading this post, please, please let it be this!  This is every bit as essential as point #1. The most obvious Plan B though there may be others, is to have a clear and viable pathway into an industry related to your PhD. How? Make connections, do internships, choose an applied project, do a research project proposed by an organisation involved in that industry and/or, do a double degree that will give you an automatic qualification in industry like I did.

I haven’t written this with the intention to scare you.  What I am hoping is that you might go into the decision-making about whether to do a PhD more informed. These issues are discussed far too infrequently in academia, despite their consequences for incoming PhD students.

Anything else to add? Any stories about breaking into industry, in particular?

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Filed under academic culture, career, Clinical Phd, postgraduate applications, Reflections, Research

Intermission

By the end of my intermission I’ll have been absent from my PhD for 5 months. Five months are a long time to be MIA from your PhD. When I return, I’ll have to get acquainted with my research, get my head round all the changes in my department and at the same time start the last year of my PhD. It’s all a bit daunting.

I think what scares me the most though, is that I’ve decided that I don’t want to go into academia any more. Don’t get me wrong, I love research; the intellectual challenge and the reward of finding out something new, especially when it has practical applications for helping other people. I was always one of those people who was 100% confident from the beginning that I wanted to be an academic. At university I found “my people,” made lifelong friends and had some fantastic opportunities along the way.  However, I’ve come to the gradual realisation that my priorities: family, friends, being healthy, having job security and enjoying the small things in life, are just not compatible with the path to success in academia. For me, it would mean post-doc hopping around the world on minimal pay for years while clocking the inevitable 50-hour (or more) work week in a highly competitive industry with the odds firmly stacked against me ever gaining a permanent job. I have a lot of respect for the people working within academia or aspiring to work in academia, and acknowledge that it is possible to make it all work, but I now know that it’s just not the path for me any more. I don’t regret doing a PhD and fully intend to complete mine, but I don’t plan to apply the skills I have learned within this degree in a traditional academic environment any more.   It has taken a little while, but I’m genuinely okay with this realisation.

I’ve been working on the ‘what next’ for a little while now. It’s still terrifying but not as overwhelming. At the moment, I’m toying with the idea of working as a part-time psychologist and part-time consultant, perhaps to some disorder or disability orientated organisation. Ideally, the consultant role would involve some research, perhaps developing and evaluating therapy programs. Alternatively, I’ll work part-time as a psychologist and part-time in another field drawing upon my media, communication and generic research skills. Who knows? That’s what I’ve got to work out now and that too is daunting. Which doors do I close? How? When? Who I can talk to about this? Who can offer me guidance about my options and how to proceed? And the more immediate question, what does “being a PhD student” look like for me now when the path I’ve been prepared for, is not the path I’m taking? IMG_1907

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Surviving the PhD

I’ve thought about posting again several times over the last few months, but haven’t really known where to begin. This year has been hard, really hard. I’ve had a rough year in my personal life and with my PhD, not a great combination! I’ve finally settled on posting about how to survive the PhD, with the full disclaimer that this sort of thing is often a case of “different strokes for different folks,” and at times this year, surviving the process has been pretty touch and go!

 

 

 Participate in something outside of academia that you enjoy learning to master (bonus points if it has a social component)

  • It doesn’t matter how much you love research or what your skill level is because in academia you will constantly hear what you are doing wrong and rarely about what you are doing right. It’s also true that some aspects of your progress will be outside of your control e.g. your supervisor might be ill while your other supervisor is overseas, perhaps a computer glitch will corrupt your data; including the back-up copies (this happened to me), or recruitment might be painfully slow despite your best efforts.

 

  • Over time, skewed feedback and having continual hurdles to jump, tends to result in second guessing your abilities and even your personal worth, since we invest so much of ourselves into the PhD. This is why I believe it is really important to have something outside of academia that you enjoy learning, and which is less vulnerable to circumstances beyond your control. Personally, I dance and play musical instruments. I can honestly say that without these things, I probably would have given up my PhD a long time ago. When the going gets tough with my PhD these other activities help to remind me that there is life outside my PhD, more to myself than my PhD, and that I am capable of learning and improvement. You might be thinking, I don’t have the time though. This is what I thought for the first 18 months of my PhD, but when I made the time, I also found that I felt so much better and was actually more productive. Trust me, it’s worth it!

Create a support network

  • They say it takes a village to raise a child, I think it’s the same for completing a PhD. Have you ever met someone who is a brilliant agony aunt, full-time thesis draft reviewer, scientist, statistician, career and crisis counsellor, red-tape navigator, fount of institutional knowledge, advocate AND friend that you can let your hair down with, all at the same time? As PhD students, and human beings, we all need a support network and I feel that a big part of doing a PhD is about working out who is in your network and remembering that is okay to seek them out when you need them.  My “village” is another reason I credit to having made it this far! You know you’re very lucky when you have friends that spot you’re going through a rough patch and respond by sending you a care-package, complete with a mix-CD of your favourite songs and inspirational books.

Normalise

  • The only people who truly get what you are going through are other post-grad students. I find it really helpful chatting to masters, PhD and Clinical PhD students as each group gets different aspects that we’re going through. It’s oddly heartening to find that other people have also reached that point in the year where you just want to run away and join the circus! At the same time though, I find it helps to keep in mind that what is working for someone else may not work for you, and it is never a good idea to compare your progress to other students given everyone’s studies, placements, skill sets and other commitments are so diverse.

Subscribe to the bush telegraph

  • I’m not sure how well “bush telegraph” translates across cultures, but what I mean is sharing information so you have a sense of where the land lies and what might be happening next. It’s been great getting to know the other students who I share my supervisor with, both earlier and further on in their PhD than I am, and in the process, to form our own bush telegraph. The little scraps of information we share amongst ourselves about everything from whether our supervisor is in their office, is particularly snowed under that week or, mentioned an upcoming conference in passing, are invaluable.

Expect the worst

  • If you expect the worst, you’ll be as prepared as you can be. This goes for every aspect of your PhD – thesis drafts, ethics approval, recruitment, analyses, writing up and paperwork; it will all take longer than you expect. There’s nothing like discovering a couple of days before your grant is due that in order for it to be sent off, it needs to go through a week-long bureaucratic process as it bounces between various departments. Or, that the department that usually processes your clearances for working with various vulnerable populations have all gone on holiday, so it will now take months instead of a week for those forms to clear. True story.  Generally, I and my fellow PhDs try to get our paperwork sorted out ridiculously early and resort to asking everyone with a pair of ears whether there is some hidden process we might not know about that needs to be followed and then pass this information along.

Embrace the idea that balance is the ideal, but rarely when completing a double degree

  • Particularly for those of us managing clinical work and research, balance is difficult. In the early years everyone spoke about juggling commitments, but that lends itself to the idea of equity. Sometimes doing a Clinical PhD is not about equity but a good old-fashioned tug of war. You might not see your research or clinical work for weeks at a time because one or the other aspect of your degree is demanding your full attention. This tug of war happens no matter how organised, efficient and hard-working you are, and from personal experience, tugging back by putting in extra hours to compensate for the imbalance can be really counterproductive. While there are times when you may need to work more than a 40 hour week, I don’t feel that this is a long-term solution or a healthy “normal”. In sum, the experience of my fellow Clinical PhD students has been that it is okay to switch your focus to one or the other part of your degree and that the balance between them is best left to sort itself out in the end for the most part.

This list is by no means exhaustive, please feel free to chip in your own survival tips.  All the best for surviving YOUR PhD.

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The little black cloud of research ennui has returned

The third year of a Clinical PhD is synonymous with duck feet paddling furiously under the water, juggling balls rolling out of one’s reach and the relationship between student and thesis reflecting that of passing ships in the night. Third year is the year we spend ten months on placement while also trying to juggle research, and for many of us, paid work too.

Objectively, ten months on placement while keeping your thesis inching along might not sound that complicated. Especially when you consider that part of second year required juggling placement, research and a class. So, third year has to be easier because there aren’t any classes, right? Sadly, the third year of my Clinical PhD is living up to its reputation for being exceptionally difficult. I thought it was just me initially and that I was simply “doing third year wrong”, but other people feel the same.

The most sense I can make of why third year seems so much more difficult is that our research is now more demanding. In your third year the most complex studies of a PhD are typically devised, run and analysed and then finally, written up. The stop-start approach that must be taken towards your research due to juggling placement and work  at the same time is therefore a recipe for frustration. You hear that life as an academic is much the same: time pressure and a never-ending to-do list. I hope there is still some scope to engineer your schedule to allow for solid blocks of time to concentrate on your research though (a few hours even?!) even if it is just once a week? I also sincerely hope that the 50 hour work weeks with only a couple of days off each month that I’ve faced for the past six weeks aren’t constant in academia either…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo what is the point of this post? I’m a fan of “keeping it real” when blogging about my PhD journey. So while many parts of doing a PhD are amazing, I also think it’s important to acknowledge that sometimes doing a Clinical PhD is just as difficult as it is rewarding. For the first time I’m finding myself questioning why I am doing this, whether doing a Clinical PhD is really worth the burn out I’m currently experiencing, whether I will be able to submit on time and whether I will be able to find a job that combines research and practice. In the words of the Thesis Whisperer, I’m passing through the “Valley of Shit” and if this resonates with you, I salute you.

 

This post has sat in my drafts folder for over a month. I’d hoped I’d be able to post it with the amendment that I’d gotten out of “the Valley” and things had drastically improved. To be honest, the pace hasn’t improved much and doesn’t look like it drastically will until about Mid-November. There have been a few minor improvements: my placement workload is more manageable and a work commitment will end soon, so I’ll be able to eke back a few hours. I’m also feeling slightly less jaded this week because I was able to work on my thesis properly for the first time in months, but I am still very much burnt out.  In fact, though I’m actually on placement this weekend for a couple of hours, I think I’ll go on strike and actually take the rest of the weekend off!

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So, what do you do?

You’re making small talk with a stranger and then it happens, they ask the dreaded question: “what do you do?” Most people aren’t fazed to be told that you’re a PhD student, as they shouldn’t be. However, while I’ve had mostly positive reactions, there have been some unpleasant exceptions and I’m sure I’m not alone. Have you ever had someone assume you have no practical skills, were a ‘professional student’  or completely unapproachable?

Sometimes your field of research can make things ‘worse’ when explaining what you do. Imagine for example how conversation might screech to a halt when you tell someone you’re doing a PhD and training to become a psychologist. Cue the panicked looks and chirping crickets if the person you’re talking to has a very stereotypical view!!

I wonder whether negative reactions we sometimes encounter about our careers might be our fault. In academia, we tend to promote our ideas but not so much the profession. Like many undergraduates, I’d thought that the role of an academic was to impart knowledge through lectures. It wasn’t until my honours year that I truly appreciated that for many academics, in addition to teaching, research was a huge part of their workload; not to mention supervising postgraduate students, managerial roles, committees  and general admin.

Equally, psychology is sometimes misunderstood – despite what pop culture tells us, I’ve never psycho-analysed anybody, read minds or interpreted dreams! I suppose that for both psychology and academia what we actually do and what people think we do, may not align.

What can we do then to bust the myths? There are various professionals and researchers blogging about what they do and breaking down the mystery and stereotypes. I also wonder whether it might be better to say what we actually do from the outset, rather than labelling ourselves PhD students or psychologists in training. For example, I might say that I work with people, trying to get a better understanding of their challenges, how we can work together to develop skills to overcome them and that throughout this process I’m guided by current understanding which I use to devise and test out new ideas, sharing what I’ve found with others. This explanation seems more informative than “I’m a PhD student and a psychologist in training” and more accurate than some of the stereotypes.

I’d be interested to hear your perspective. Have you ever had a negative reaction from others about your field, being a PhD student or an academic? What do you do about it? How have you seen ‘myth busting’ in practice?

~ Honourable Mentions ~

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The fire-fighting duck

This is me . . .

Ducks

Ducks (Photo credit: Dustin and Jenae)

the proverbial duck paddling frantically under the water but looking serene on the surface. Well, I’m not so sure about the serene part, but there’s definitely a lot of frantic paddling going on.

For the last few weeks I’ve been juggling a placement, coursework, my research and a job as a research assistant (RA). Life hasn’t been this intense since the height of my honours year –  I’m inching towards a 50 hour work week, not to mention the commute! Don’t get me wrong, I’m loving all of it: placement is, quite frankly, amazing; I’m enjoying the context being on placement brings to coursework; I’ve had a streak of achieving milestones and general good news with my research; and, the RA work I’m doing is a lot of fun and good experience. There is truth in what they say though, you can’t do everything at once.

I know I can’t sustain my current frenetic pace over the long haul. The trick will be deciding what things I can scale back on without detriment and following through on this plan. I’ve noticed that I’m edging towards beginning a fire-fighting strategy which isn’t good and what really inspired this post. So to make sure I don’t become the fire-fighting duck, mired in an excess of work,  I think I’ll spend tomorrow morning getting my next study ready to get “out the door.”  Then, I’ll chase up one of my side projects that’s been languishing and also needs to get “out the door” smartly, and finally, batch together and power through all the little short-term tasks I need to do. Tomorrow is going to be a busy and productive day!

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2012 Haiku

January

Honours year’s over

Time to celebrate with friends

And family.

February

Starting my PhD

Meeting the people who will share

A four year journey.

Blue Marathons

March 

Classes mean meeting

New “friends” beginning with W:

WAIS, WISC and WMS-IV.

Two weeks into a Clinical (P)retty (H)uge Deal

Hiding Behind Cushions and Writing Letters

Aliens, Race-walking and Psychological Testing

April

My graduation.

Smiles, sunshine and flying hats,

Four years ’til the next.

Reflections at the End of Term 1

Moving from the General to the Particular

A Day in the Life of… A Clinical PhD Student

May

Research presented

For the faculty and the

PhD cheer squad.

Fragments

A Stapler, a Stapler, My Kingdom for a Stapler!

June

A fledgling idea

A proposal meeting and…

My thesis takes flight.

Writer’s Block: Is it Because of Procrastination, Not Feeling Ready or Something Else?

A Crash Course in Evaluating Diagnostic Tools: Validity

July

Fractures and moon boots

Lifts, lifts and more lifts. Peg leg.

Please just go away!

Bootylicious… Pun Intended

Hitting the Wall

Coming Full Circle: It’s Raining Wizz Fizz

August

I run my study

And for undergrad students

I play the tutor.

I did it!

Through the Eyes of a Clinical PhD Student: Balancing Research and Practice

September

A life of its own

Evading paper, my research

Is caught in a Net.

Through the eyes of a Clinical PhD student: Embracing difference

Serendipity / se – ruhn – dip – i – ti /

October

It’s not quite Inklings,

But ASD research chats

Begin once a month.

November

One chapter’s over

But others are just beginning

Now I’m an RA.

Impostor syndrome

December

Time to celebrate

The year that’s been and the one

That’s just beginning.

Data Analysis: Discrimination Indices vs Chi-Squares and Principal Components vs Factor Analyses

The first year of my PhD in 2012 is full of good memories, here’s hoping the next is too.

Happy New Year!

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