How to enjoy doing the doctorate


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Professor Sioux McKenna is Coordinator of the PhD in Higher Education Program in the Centre for Higher Education Research, Teaching and Learning (CHERTL) at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. Here she writes about her recent research into the experiences of doctoral candidates.

By Sioux McKenna

I was chatting recently to a group of PhD scholars who are about midway through their journey. They are all studying part-time alongside full-time employment, family commitments and other responsibilities. All of these scholars saw the PhD as a difficult process that requires an enormous amount of time and energy. But I noticed that the scholars could be roughly categorized into two groups.

There was one group for whom the PhD seemed to be constant burden offering little by way of gratification along the way. These scholars saw the PhD as a boulder they were bound to endlessly push up a steep hill without ever being able to stop and contemplate the view. They could not speak of their PhDs in anything other than negative terms.

While both groups shared the sense that the PhD is complex and challenging, the other group expressed pride in their work and had a strong sense of being part of something important and contributing to something meaningful. They spoke enthusiastically about what the PhD had already offered them in terms of self-development and improved skills.

Now of course it may be that some of these scholars moved between these two groups depending on how they were progressing at the time. But I wondered if there wasn’t a way to spend more time in the ‘enjoyment group’. Four or more years of satisfying and challenging engagement sounds great but the idea of spending all that time feeling grim and despondent is perfectly horrible.

So, as an academic developer and supervisor who wants to make doctoral study a positive experience, I decided to do a bit of sleuthing to figure out what seems to lead to the sense of the doctorate as something enjoyable.

I collected reflections on the PhD journey from 28 doctoral scholars in which they discussed their ways of working, their views of their own doctorates, and their experiences of getting stuck and getting unstuck. While none of the findings are earth shattering, I think there is some pretty good advice within the data on how to do a doctorate and actually enjoy it. This is advice that supervisors and learning advisors would do well to pass onto students.

  1. Be sure that you’re doing it for yourself

There are lots of reasons to do a doctorate: the status, the improved employment opportunities, as a requirement for a position or promotion, to advance a field of study, to answer an important question, to make new knowledge. But it seems that all of those scholars who expressed real enjoyment in their PhD had a strong sense of the doctorate as being part of their own identity development. They were deeply invested in their growing capacity to contribute meaningfully in their disciplinary community. There was also a sense from some of the scholars that the doctorate was their own space. It was the place in their lives where they could make the decisions, where they could be creative and for which they could legitimately fence off time from other responsibilities for their own growth. They framed the PhD as something they did for themselves.

  1. The magic of momentum

Nobody can sustain an enormous PhD workload relentlessly over the duration of the degree. This was especially true for these scholars who squeezed the doctorate into the gaps between work meetings and after getting families fed. But those who enjoyed the PhD all referred to working on the doctorate almost every day. Sometimes the only input that was possible on a given day was an hour spent reading through an article or twenty minutes writing a brief reflection note in a research journal. The key thing seems to be the regularity of the input, even more than the quantity and quality. On the other hand, those that bemoaned the doctorate as a constant liability admitted that weeks often went by without them working on the PhD. But rather than enjoying the respite from the doctorate, all this time was spent under a blanket of guilt. What’s more, when they finally did get to it, they had to spend hours if not days getting back into what it was they had been thinking and writing about.

  1. Celebrate small successes

It seems essential that there are successes along the way in this long project to spur us on. Some scholars spoke of sharing the completion of a chapter with other PhD scholars through a Whatsapp message. Or of writing up a list of milestones and sticking this on the fridge, with their family making them celebratory dinners whenever a milestone is met. Linked to the idea of regular successes was the notion of deadlines. The PhD is a massive project and there are no clear deadlines along the way, making it very possible to put off working on it for days or even weeks. It was evident that some scholars set very clear deadlines for themselves and shared these with supervisors, family members or other scholars. Some also mentioned using external deadlines, such as seminar and conference presentations, as a way of forcing them to engage with a particular aspect of their study by a certain date.

  1. Be kind to yourself

Rather than beating themselves up about poor progress or less than positive feedback from a supervisor, some scholars seem able to keep looking forwards. They constantly expect better of themselves and then they put in the hours necessary to attain these goals. Rather than berating themselves for what they haven’t managed to do, they happily share what they have achieved and what they are working on.

  1. Find a community

One thing was very clear: even though it’s an individual piece of work, the doctorate doesn’t have to be a lonely endeavour. Those who seemed to be most enthusiastic about their doctorates had found fellow travellers and developed ways to regularly engage with them. Sometimes these were virtual friendships online with others researching in the same area and sometimes these were very real coffee and cake groups where scholars shared readings and provided support for each other. It seems that sharing the process increases the chances of enjoyment.

The doctorate is in many ways the biggest academic project people ever take on and one that extends over a number of years. So I think that it’s really important that everyone learns how to enjoy it! If you have any further advice for supervisors, academic developers or doctoral students, please share it with us.

How long is a thesis introduction? Changing thesis structures


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By Cally Guerin

One of the exercises I like to do in doctoral writing workshops is to look at real theses and see how they compare to the generic advice on writing theses. Participants bring along theses that have recently been submitted in their discipline and are regarded by supervisors and examiners as examples of good research and writing. The process is designed partly to encourage PhD students to have a clearer picture in their own minds of the end-product they are working towards, and partly to provide ways of articulating standard structures. Increasingly, I find that the theses students bring along to the workshops don’t quite match the standard advice.

Take the first chapter of a thesis, for example. This is usually labelled as the ‘Introduction’, but what that means can be surprisingly varied in terms of length and what is included. In the past, I’ve worked with a list of components that could (should?) be included in this opening section: background information, rationale for research, scope of project, research questions and aims, maybe something about methodology and/or the theoretical framework, and an outline of chapters. I suspect that most writing advisers and supervisors have similar lists in their heads. But how and where do we actually see these elements appearing in the thesis? For example, where do they sit in relation to the literature review?

The introduction elements might all be covered in a relatively short ‘mini chapter’ of 6-10 pages. This is then followed by a separate, considerably longer chapter that provides a big literature review or detailed examination of the context, background or theory underpinning the project.

Alternatively, the introduction elements might act as a kind of bracketing for the first chapter. The chapter starts by setting out the problem or issue and providing background context, but then moves into a lengthy, detailed examination of the literature. After this, the chapter returns to details of the specific project that will be reported in the thesis, its questions, aims, methods and finally chapter outline. That is, ‘Introduction’ might include a substantial literature review before we know much at all about the specific focus of this particular project.

(Personally, I like the mini-chapter format so that I know up front what this project is about; no need to keep it a mystery for the first 30 pages, in my opinion – as a reader I want to know what I’m in for early in the piece. This use of a short introductory chapter does not appear to be linked to specific disciplines from what I’ve noticed to date, though I’d be interested to hear about others’ impressions of where they see this format.)

When I look at theses that have been passed by examiners as acceptable, the elements listed above are not always obviously on show. Sometimes they are disguised behind other language; sometimes they are simply not present. For example, we usually see the chapter outline, but not always; research questions or aims can be hard to identify; theory and methodology may not be very prominent at all in what is labelled as the ‘Introduction’ chapter. While writing a doctoral thesis has never been a ‘painting by numbers’ exercise, it seems that variations on the basic patterns are more and more common. Maybe these variations have always existed within the broader framework of disciplinary expectations. Perhaps the apparent loosening up of examiners’ expectations is partly related to the changing nature of the PhD, in which the topics and types of PhDs no longer fit neatly into the traditional structures – different kinds of projects demand different forms of writing.

In many ways this is exciting, as it frees up the researcher to find news ways of representing their projects. But there remains the question of how much candidates can or should push the boundaries of the thesis format. While I find myself wanting to encourage risk-taking, the consequences can be devastating in this high-stakes writing. This makes it an important topic to discuss with students so that they make well-informed decisions about how they present their work for examination. My feeling at this stage is that the conventional advice is useful as a reliable guide, but should not be presented as a rulebook. If something else makes sense in a particular context, follow the internal logic of the situation. It is very useful for students to be encouraged to find out for themselves what is the accepted practice in their field, and what emerging practices might work well for their own project.

I’d love to hear about your own experience of these apparent changes. Has the ‘advice’ only ever been a general guideline? Do you find that the conventional advice is still working effectively in your field, or is there a mismatch between the advice and the execution? Are today’s examiners more flexible in their expectations? Do we need to let go of some of the traditional advice when updating the next edition of our ‘how to write a thesis’ manuals? Let us know your thoughts.


So you want people to read your thesis?


The Australian Open Access Support Group (AOASG) has some interesting ideas here to get PhD students thinking about the pros and cons of making their work available to a broader range of readers.

Originally posted on :

 After three, four (… seven) years of hard slog, of course you do. There’s a ‘joke’ around that the 4034671172_7a25b8cb4c_monly people who will ever read your thesis (besides you) will be your supervisor, the examiners and your mum. And she will just *say* she read it.

It should not be this way. The reality is that PhD theses (or dissertations as they are called overseas) contain a huge untapped resource of original research that sits hidden unless it is shared.

It is usually a requirement of graduation that a copy of the thesis is held in the university library and is available for ‘borrowing’ on request. This can be by physically going to the library and requesting to see the printed version, or by requesting a copy through interlibrary loan. I can attest, by looking at the borrowing list on the inner binding of many theses held in the library of…

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Peer review: what’s the fuss?


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By Cally Guerin

We’ve posted a few blogs on this site relating to doctoral candidates giving and receiving peer review in writing groups, and the feedback that supervisors provide on writing. Another kind of peer review that PhD students can receive is that generated by journal reviewers, which raises a different set of concerns from those we’ve discussed elsewhere.

PhD students are often encouraged to publish their research in academic journals, but it can be quite daunting to send work out to an unknown audience who will judge whether it is worthy or unworthy of publication. Everyone has stories about receiving harsh, unfair reviews when they’ve submitted their work to journals. However much we try to tell ourselves and our students that ‘it isn’t personal’, it does feel personal at the time of getting negative responses. As Kate Chanock amusingly points out, the process can feel rather like going through the stages of grief – but in this case, it’s the Seven Stages of Resentment. Of course she is being tongue in cheek, but there is more than a hint of truth in what she says here.

Despite the problems with peer review, it underpins most academic work as the usual process for assessing grant applications through to publishing the results of those grants. It seems to be the best system we can come up with. So what are the problems?

One of the challenges in the system of peer review is the long delays this process can incur. It can be difficult for journal editors to find suitable reviewers willing to take on the work. Not only do many academics these days find themselves confronting ever-increasing workloads in their official jobs, but in most disciplines they are asked to do this extra work for no pay and no recognition by their institution. Editors must rely on the ‘gift economy’ operating in academia, hoping that reviewers will subscribe to the belief that what goes around, comes around – by doing their share of reviewing, someone else will review their own article when they later submit to a journal. Further delays occur when well-meaning reviewers agree to do the work, and then find themselves overwhelmed by other tasks and responsibilities. From an editor’s point of view, very subtle nagging skills are needed to coax this voluntary work out of reviewers; from an author’s point of view, a great deal might be hanging on the outcome of the review.

And when those reviews do finally arrive, how helpful are they? In most areas, the standard practice is blind review – double (where the identities of both author and reviewer are anonymous) or single (where the identity of the reviewer is unknown to the author). In theory this anonymity is sensible, and protects the identities of reviewers so that they can be frank about their assessment of manuscripts without risking damage to their own careers. Unfortunately, this anonymity sometimes allows those reviewers to be vicious in ways that they might consider highly inappropriate if they were to speak openly to the authors.

Whether the reviews turn out to be positive or negative, they are really just two or three people’s points of view – a fourth reviewer may want something else again. It’s perfectly possible to get contradictory reports from different reviewers, suggesting that there is always an element of chance in what ends up getting published. Even with the best intentions of attempting to be objective and constructive, reviewers can submit entirely different reviews of the same piece of research – they may have particular interests, specialised knowledge, or be focused on different aspects of the writing.

There are moves afoot to try to solve at least some of the weaknesses of peer review. One response has been to implement processes of ‘open review’, that is, where the identity of the reviewer is made public and reviews themselves published. While this might encourage more courteous behaviour on the part of the reviewer, the potential risks associated with a junior researcher criticising someone with a big reputation in their field remains. In some disciplines, everyone has a pretty good idea of what projects are being undertaken by other research groups and where the funding went, so that author identity is a matter of informed guesswork if not overtly known; in these situations, open review dispenses with the pretence of author anonymity.

Post-publication review is another model that might be useful. This allows publication of research and then invites anyone who is interested in the topic to review the work. Such an approach fits well with contemporary practices of commenting on social media. While this system might draw some ill-considered reviews and may or may not be anonymous, on the whole it would seem to be a good way of encouraging debate and ongoing conversations in the field.

In an era when research output is endlessly measured and quantified, the work of reviewing that output could perhaps also be measured in order to provide reviewers with more reward for their effort. Publons is one organisation that is trying to make it possible for reviewers to get some credit for the work they put into reviewing; another is the ‘R-index’ suggested by Gero and Cantor. These are both ways of recognising the work of reviewing as having a measurable ‘impact’ and contribution to the development of the discipline and the dissemination of knowledge.

All these concerns are becoming ever more pressing as the move towards open access gains momentum. As the whole landscape of academic publishing is changing, these are important questions for all researchers to consider, and pose major challenges for doctoral candidates, their supervisors and learning advisors supporting them. What’s your experience of peer review? Do you have any solutions to the current problems, or ideas about how the system might be improved? (Which reminds me, I’d better get back to finishing the review that is waiting on my desk…!)

The last word in doctoral writing: mechanics of last sentence rhetoric



By Susan Carter

In a recent writing class, we gathered the last sentences of journal articles that participants thought were really strong, and analysed why they seemed to work so well. This is one group exercise that focuses on the mechanics of language for rhetorical force, something that takes doctoral students into a healthy space as they develop their writing’s style and voice.

Group analysis let us define the rhetorical mechanics of what we liked, and why, so that those in the group could improve final sentences of their own articles. The group included people from STEM and non-STEM disciplines—we were well aware by this stage that there were disciplinary differences in preferences for academic writing style.

I’d reiterated the view that the last sentence of any article, thesis, chapter or bit of formal writing has an important role: farewelling readers in a way that is likable and memorable. Readers should leave an article or chapter convinced of the take home message, and, preferably, impressed enough to want to cite it. It’s the same idea as at any dinner party: both guests and readers need to be made to feel that they are leaving an event that delivered everything they hoped for and that the author-host has maintained trustworthy control right through to the end.

So what did we like as an inter-disciplinary group? Are there general strategies for meeting reader approval?

Short sentences with short words in them were recommended for their power. Rhetorically, they really did have a sense of finality. One last sentence, ‘Nothing else seems to be on offer’ (Young & Muller, 2014), had a gloomy touch of realism, but also shrewdly suggested that the topic needed more research without rolling out that formulaic suggestion: future research needs to be done. We liked the use of a common truism for the final sentence.

In contrast, another last sentence, to an article that looked back at history to precaution what could go wrong if poor decisions affected the future, met with approval for its large Latinate words in juxtaposition to the nostalgia of ‘lost years’: ‘When the definition of those years becomes lost, the public domain becomes obscured, and the constitutional premise of the law degenerates into obfuscation.’ There’s a poetic, almost rapper, rhythm that had appeal.

We were strongly attracted to sentences using well-chosen verbs with connotative power. We liked ‘New ideas about the mind and brain will redraw our knowledge about autism and will ultimately lead to a better understanding of ourselves for its suggestion that knowledge can be drawn, perhaps mapped, especially in relation to something as complex as how the mind works. And we noted the inclusive linking of autism to ‘understanding of ourselves.’ ‘Poised’ and ‘pursued’ drew approval for this last sentence: Patient-centred outcomes research is poised to substantially change how clinical questions are asked, how answers are pursued, and how those answers are used. The contributor of that sentence liked, in her words, ‘the persuasive and goal-directed tone that would have helped some fairly die-hard ‘positivists’ see value in stepping out of their comfort zones!’ We liked the counter-balance between the instability of being ‘poised’ and the massiveness of ‘to substantially change’: a dramatic pivotal moment of consequence makes a good cliff-hanger closure.

The same counterbalance is (perhaps less delicately) expressed in the ‘opportunities’ and ‘challenges’ of the last sentence: ‘These are, in short, the opportunities and challenges of the new’ (Royce, 2015).

Unusual nouns met with approval too: in the following we liked ‘myriads’, and ‘nooks and crannies’: ‘Feminising the economy via the deconstructive move extends this powerful representational politics in a different direction, opening up a myriad of ethical debates in all nooks and crannies of the diverse economy about the kinds of worlds we feminists would like to build’ (Gibson-Graham, 2008, p. 153-155). The hourglass shape of the article, which began with a broad overview of its topic and then narrowed down to the specific research niche, opened out again in this final sentence to return to the broader general context set out in the opening paragraph. There was general approval for ‘murmurs’ and ‘glimpses’ of what another theoretical positioning might allow. We had noted that conclusions were strong when they linked back to the research question or problem, or to the broad issues raised in the opening paragraph.

Our list of last sentence rhetorical strategies to date, then, coming from a fairly small group, includes:

  • Punchy, short, pithy
  • Evocative vocabulary
  • Rhythmic and rap-like
  • Cliff hanger tension
  • Pointing to the future.

Within that group, people from all disciplines were quite pleased to have a clear sense of approaches that they could use in building a firm ending to their articles or chapters. If others tried this group work, we’d welcome comments that add to this list of what makes a strong final sentence!


Tom Joyce, Relying on customary practice when the law says ‘no’: justified, safe or simply ‘no go’ The Australian Library Journal, Volume 64, Issue 2, 2015

Cameron, J. & Gibson-Graham, J. K. (2003) Feminising the Economy: Metaphors, strategies, politics, Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography, 10:2,145-157.

Young, M., & Muller, J. (2014). On the powers of powerful knowledge. In E. Rata and B. Barrett (eds.) Knowledge and the future of the curriculum: International studies in social realism (pp. 41-64). Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave MacMillan.

Royce, T. (2015). Relying on customary practice when the law says ‘no’: Justified, safe or simply ‘no go’? The Australian Library Journal, 64(2), 76-86.


When doctoral students can’t develop their writing skills: What helps?


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By Susan Carter

The question in the title is not rhetorical: this post is keen to receive suggestions from both doctoral students and academics on how to help doctoral students learn to control their academic writing.

Here’s an example: explaining the mechanics of writing proved hard in a recent peer review group with one woman who just didn’t get it. Each meeting, she found others’ writing ‘really good’, while agreeing that the formative feedback on her own writing really improved it. Why couldn’t she learn how to give good feedback from receiving helpful feedback on her own work? Why didn’t this help her learn to self review?

This woman was highly intelligent; as such, she trusted her own evaluation that she simply was never going to become good at academic writing. She had tried other writing support before attending our classes. Her writing hadn’t improved, mostly because the instruction didn’t make sense to her. She was sure that she could never write well enough to be published.

After the class, as facilitators we did a post mortem. Could we have managed this better as teachers? We considered whether it was an advantage or disadvantage that the group was small. It had worked well for the others; one student celebrated that understanding the ‘formula’ for a paragraph had enabled her to write more fluidly and produce clearer writing—she rocketed ahead. Others made break-throughs too. That others seemed to be moving ahead happily probably made it worse for this sharp-witted student who seemed unable to revise her own writing.

I have also heard from supervisors who bemoan the fact that, although they try to explain the notion of logical forward progression, the need for a narrative, and for connections, some students continue to lack a sense of how writing structure affects meaning. As a learning advisor, I spend hundreds of hours with students on the other side of the conversation who find supervisor feedback puzzling. (Difficulty may be often due to communication between two people who interpret things differently.) My own approaches include the following:

  • always give feedback first on content and then on mechanics;
  • praise what works well, dissecting why;
  • compare what is not working to what is (‘you do this well over here’);
  • scaffold support with English language, not too much at once;
  • work with one section and request that the same principle be applied throughout;
  • direct students to other resources, e.g., learning centres, guides, digital resources;
  • keep exemplars that can be used as models;
  • ask students to look for well-written articles and explain why they enjoyed the style;
  • explain with metaphors to make writing revision less emotional, more practical;
  • set up peer review groups.

Usually, this combination, adapted to suit the situation, keeps my research students progressing in their control of writing—and as I work through these approaches with them, I’m often alerted myself to ways I could write more strongly.

Yet, I am aware from the student in my writing class that some very clued up people simply don’t connect to the workings of language in formal academic prose. Are there alternative ways to explain the points about academic writing that would help someone who really has trouble with language mechanics?

If you are a student, or have a student, with a story that goes “Did not get it until…” I would love to hear from you. Stories could be pastiched together for a sequel post: suggestions based on student experience.

Peer review of writing: the mechanics of how


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By Susan Carter

Doctoral peer review of writing seems like wise practice to me. It widens the source of feedback: if students have any dissatisfaction with the way their supervisors review their writing, quite simply, they can supplement that elsewhere. The groups I run are generic, with people bringing writing from any discipline. Groups can be really productive within departments or faculties, or can be, like mine, centrally situated.

Setting up a group recently where there was some initial uncertainty about how to give helpful feedback to colleagues, I set out some criteria. Since no one could think of more to add, we set out with this as guidance:

Watch out for emotions. You will get the most from the session if you are open to critical feedback, but try to gauge how much advice works best for you as an individual. Then as a reviewer take care according to the sensitivity climate. Humans have a tendency to be critical rather than praising: we are trained as researchers to do this. Remember that in this case reviewers must talk about what works well as well as giving constructive feedback for improvement: begin with what works well and why before moving into what could be improved. Ending on a reaffirmation is often recommended too.

Being concrete and specific about what has worked well is important: group talk about exactly what we like gives pointers to improving writing. It has benefits beyond the emotional boost for the writer.

Writers can ask for specific areas to be given thought:

  • Is the structure ok?
  • Are you convinced by the X section?
  • Is the Y section clear?
  • Do I need to explain more about Z?
  • Is this just too simplistic?
  • Is this too obscure and hard to read?
  • Do I sound authoritative in my use of theory?
  • Could you watch for grammar or punctuation problems?
  • Please suggest better words for any of my phrases.

As a reader follow the writer’s direction. You could also look for other stylistic qualities.

  • Are there any times when the tone slips, for example, when language becomes too informal, or too stilted, or too obscure, or too naive?
  • Are there any disjunctive colloquialisms? Any dead clichés? Or any words that you suspect may be problematic (e.g., ‘naturally’ if you are in a constructivist framework where nothing is assumed to be natural)?
  • Is the tension right? Could the prose be tightened: is it too loose with many sentences yielding little of real value? Or is it too tight and dense to be understandable?
  • Is the level of definition and explanation right? Are there any points when you need more explanation? Or are there places where there is too much spelt out so that this detracts from the flow of ideas?
  • Are there repeats at word level or in sentence structure that would be better avoided?
  • Are there any sentences that are too long and complex? If so, suggest a way of splitting giant mutant sentences into more than one.
  • Are there times when emphasis seems inaccurate?
  • Could you add any suggestions at times when ideas seem promising but not fully developed?

In peer review practice, I suggest that while staying aware of the emotional dimension reviewers should offer any suggestions that they believe would be helpful. Whenever a sentence is hard to follow, they should indicate this, and offer a way of clarifying it. It is so helpful when reviewers suggest how to restructure more logically, or find a more precise word, or ask questions that drive the author to see what is missing. The author has the option of rejecting suggestions, but will get something of value: a truthful view of their own work through another reader’s eyes.

That was where my criteria ended. As the group met for review over several sessions, we learned more about the mechanics of peer review.

This semester, several participants commented that it is really helpful getting feedback from someone who is not in their discipline.

A light came on for me when a reviewer said ‘I don’t know how to review this; the topic is so far out of my understanding,’ the biophysicist author helpfully suggested, ‘if you replace this big term with A and this one with B and this one with C, would it make sense to you?’ She’d articulated what I have found for years: if you ignore the content, and follow reading for logical progression, structure and grammar, you can give a great deal of useful feedback to writers without actually understanding the content fully.

In many ways this sort of feedback from someone who doesn’t understand is as important as feedback from insiders who do: the outsider reader is then reading the mechanics of language without being distracted by engagement with the content. Clarity is likely to result from a diligent unknowing reader. Another participant noticed that she really liked what she called experiential comment: times when someone said ‘at this point, I wondered why…’ or ‘here I am feeling that…’ and gave a real sense of the reader and their needs as they move through the writing.

The impetus generated by reviewing writing together is huge. One of the huge benefits of peer review is that it literalises the reader, someone who can slip out of focus if you are writing alone from a writerly perspective. In a writing group, the reader gives formative rather than summative feedback. It’s friendly. There’s sometimes laughter. Yet a lot is achieved too.

Several people in the group had significant breakthroughs with how to structure their work by talking through the difficulty they were having with sympathetic listeners hoping to help. In that group now, some of our time allows for problem talk and feedback. I suspect that in each case it wasn’t so much the feedback that caused the threshold crossing moment, but the act of explaining what was hard led the writer to solve their own problem.





Doctoral writing and career building



By Susan Carter

I attended a talk where two professors gave advice to academics on how to develop their careers. Both began with stories of serendipity when outer influences changed their direction, and both spoke of their own naivety in some early choice making. Much of their helpful advice relates to viewing writing as a significant factor in developing an academic identity that is likely to affect career progression—or non-progression. Here I am summarising the points that were made and reflecting on them in relation to doctoral students and their strategy with writing and publication.

Doctoral students and those supporting them don’t always see writing as a big issue—in a recent questionnaire survey of doctoral supervisors [n226] I conducted, several from STEM disciplines kept insisting that my questions about writing were off track. They felt supervision was about teaching doctoral students how to do the research. The writing was not the issue. Their doctoral students ‘wrote up’ after the research as a sort of mopping up process.

But doctoral writing forms the basis for any academic career, and for any other career as a researcher than entails writing reports. In amongst the emotion of developing as a research writer, it is worthwhile using writing as the driving force to steer the career trajectory.

Both the professors at the talk said that good advice about career decisions was really important to novices. It should be sought from the right people. Some academics are genuinely keen to help and others less so—find those who want to mentor. Some know how things work and others don’t pay much attention to that—ask people who know. Some welcome new comers into their networks and knowledge and others don’t. Students should actively look for people whose advice will be really useful.

Novices are often reluctant to reveal ignorance of what they need to know. They need to ask. The process of building research careers inevitably requires continuously increasing understanding of how everything works. Snippets of advice included:

  • never feel too humble to put yourself forward;
  • you will need to develop strongly in teaching and service, but put your research and its writing first; and
  • focus on writing and publication, and be strategic.

Supervisors should encourage research students to publish. It is sensible for them to collaborate to do so—this gives students the chance to leverage off their supervisors’ higher profile. Probably, despite other pressures, it is worthwhile to take the time to write up conference papers and publish them.

One of these prolific and influential professors had a mandate with research writing: ‘keep it personal; keep it passionate.’ Admittedly the context was within the Education Faculty, yet for many, especially in Social Sciences and Arts/Humanities, that advice works well. A sense of personal ownership of writing and a passion for the research can feed energy into the labour of writing.

Maximising publication value from a research project

These professors recommended developing a sense of continuity, so that research feeds into publication, and publication feeds further publication. If a research project can produce two or three articles instead of just one, then several well-focused articles will be stronger than one overly full and possibly less clear article. When a tangled article draft needs revision, one untangling solution is to split it into two articles.

For example, an erstwhile colleague of mine whose doctoral thesis looked at the globalisation of sumo wrestling drew three conference papers from his chapter on women and sumo: at sports, women’s studies and cultural studies conferences. That one chapter had the potential for three peer reviewed articles. I make the case that the principle of seeking different audiences and angling your findings towards quite different discussions and arguments is helpful. Although self-plagiarism is an anathema, many well-respected academics publish more than one article from the same research project, and, unsurprisingly, the description of methods and framing within literature are pretty much the same. Self-plagiarism isn’t always clear cut. In the overly audited environment of the 21st century, it makes sense to make as much use of your work as you can.

As well as making use of diverse discourses to enable shrewd publication outputs, ensure that over a few years you build a solid “research platform,” an area of expertise in which you can aim for high impact as a recognised expert.

Funding can make it challenging to delineate your research platform—you need to ensure that within funded projects there is a place for you to work in your niche area so that your research portfolio retains cohesion. Look across projects for common themes, so that you can write a more impressive academic biography. While funding is a two-edged sword, aim for prestigious funding and plan ahead to secure it.

My hunch is that academics who think writing is not important maybe haven’t recognised the skills that they have as writers, and need to do so in order to mentor doctoral students into being strong. And I was alerted again to the fact that writing and publication shape most research careers—it’s worth strategising.






Do you wear LaTeX or write with it? A call for writing-related technology contributions



Do you wear LaTeX or write with it? This, and other curly questions are the focus of this post as we send out a call for technology-related contributions.

By Claire Aitchison

I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to keep up with all the new digital technologies. In fact, I feel I’m constantly behind the eight ball – I hear students talk about this or that new writing app, new ways for finding, managing and sharing documents or for disseminating research. For a while, I was a fringe-dweller hearing others talk about these new gadgets; I felt sceptical about their applicability in the doctoral space. Furthermore, I reasoned, I’d be well on my way to a peaceful retirement before I had to get serious about these newfangled things!

But I’ve changed my mind. I now believe ignoring new digital technologies is mum head in the sand illustrationhead-in-sand behaviour. Although I continue to feel like I’m racing to keep up with things, I’ve come to realise there’s a lot to recommend many of these new affordances, and further, I’ve found it can be exhilarating!

And yes, I do think there are many benefits for doctoral supervision and writing, but in order to embrace and exploit such technologies, we need firstly to know about them and their uses.

We’re planning to finish the year focussing on IT and ICT technologies for researchers and we’d like to hear from doctoral writers and supervisors about their experiences with online technologies: the things that help them get their writing-related activities done – and done better.

Please note: This is not a call for marketers or product-spruikers. We believe the best advice comes from users, so let us have your stories about real experiences of online software programs, apps, communication platforms and so on. We are interested in anything from a quick paragraph up to 1,000 words explaining what works for you and what doesn’t.

Possible areas where technology can positively impact doctoral candidature may include, for example:

The exchange, storage and management of documents

In one of my workplaces a group of us were using a Wiki as a central location for parking our research project. We found it easy to use and easy to access – key characteristics for novices. We had a library for relevant papers, other folders for ethics documents, interview protocols, data and so on. Also, Wiki keeps a history of versions, and sends team members an email alert when documents are added or changed. However, I discovered one drawback: because this was an in-house Wiki, when I left the organisation I no longer had access.

Perhaps you and your supervisor create, share and review doctoral writing on Google Docs or Dropbox – why not tell us how, and what features make these formats better than emailing documents to and fro? How valuable have you found Evernote to help manage information and synchronise across different platforms?


Email is fine and it’s hard to imagine it being replaced as an everyday activity, but for quick communication there are more and more options. One university I know has declared Jabber the preferred means of internal communication. It couldn’t be easier to use; but I haven’t noticed a big uptake.

When it comes to technology-mediated meetings and exchange of feedback, do you prefer Skype or Collaborate? As more doctoral supervision and research is undertaken by distance, competence across a variety of communication tools has become essential. Many supervisors have grown used to Skyping meetings, but we’d also like to hear about alternatives.

Maybe you want to tell us why and how you maintain research networks: do you participate in a disciplinary Twitter space, or via a dedicated email list? Maybe you have found Mendeley indispensable for finding, storing and communicating your research? Maybe you blog your research, and if so, what are your experiences? Do you have any advice, tips or tricks you can share?


Some students I work with swear by their time management apps: the Flat Tomato and MLO (MyLifeOrganised) appear to be popular. Perhaps you’ve tried the PhD2Published PhDometer and are willing to share your experiences? More extended versions such as RescueTime and Toggl can track the way you spend your time, but I have no idea really how useful they may be…. If you can tell us, please do so.

Writing Platforms and tools

Having recently begun working with Engineering students I have been introduced to a whole new world of writing platforms and document preparation. If you are a user of LaTeX, Overleaf or Scrivener you might like to tell us why these are better than Word for the work you do.

Perhaps you have found a writing tool such as Writefullapp or Grammarly that help with grammar or expression and you’d like to tell us how it works for you, and alert us to any limitations.

We’d love to hear from you. Our due date for contributions is: August 30th

So send us up to 1,000 words via our email ( or use the comments function on this post for a brief comment.

Graphic: Victoria Rolfe ©

Choosing the examiner: It’s in everyone’s interests to get students involved.



By Claire Aitchison

This post follows on from other recent blogs on the doctoral examination.

In Australia, as in many other countries, doctoral examination is a ‘single blind’ peer review process. This means the examiner will be given the name of the candidate whose work they are examining, while the PhD student will be blind to who their examiners are, until afterwards – if at all. (Examiners are given the option to retain their anonymity even after the outcome and examiner reports have been submitted.) While students may never know the identity of their examiners, and each examiner operates without knowledge of the other(s), the supervisor is intimately involved in examiner selection.

Rules and practices around examination vary, but in most cases it is the supervisor who approaches potential examiners to inquire if they are interested and available to examine a student’s work. Generally in that initial inquiry, the supervisor sends the thesis Abstract and an estimation of when the work may be ready for examination. Once potential examiners are locked in, the Grad School then handles the process. There are strict provisions that neither students nor examiners are to make contact with each other, and breaches may derail the whole process.

But just because a student doesn’t have direct knowledge of their examiners doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be involved in discussions about potential examiners.

Selecting the best examiner is in everyone’s best interests, and that is why many supervisors actively seek input from their students about examiner preferences.

Getting the right examiner

There’s plenty of good information that relates to choosing an examiner. One of the more useful papers in my opinion is by Margaret Kiley who points to the importance of considering the reputation of the examiner, their knowledge of the topic and ‘fit’ with the methodology, their capacity to benefit the candidate’s career, their examination experience, and knowledge of the type of degree (ie professional doctoral, creative practice-led degrees and so on).

Here’s a quick round up of key considerations:

  • Think about the how a potential examiner may be helpful for the student’s future career. For example, if the student has a strong interest in working in a particular country, research centre or institution, an examiner from such a location could be advantageous.
  • There is some research (read that Kiley article for starters) that indicates variation in examiner approaches that may be worth closer attention. For example, consider the benefits and cautions regarding in-country versus international examiners, novice versus experienced examiners, interdisciplinary experts versus disciplinary experts.
  • Identify the strengths of the research and thesis – and play to these.
  • Consider the mix of examiners that will produce the best coverage of key aspects, such as the field, methodology, industry knowledge and thesis type.
  • Apart from these professional components, consider also examiner availability and personality; after all ‘You don’t want a smart Alec’ (Kiley, 2009) for an examiner!

But what can be done with this information?

A four step process for considering examiners

With these insights, it is time to strategise. Here’s one process for how a student might take an active role in the process of choosing an examiner.

  1. Some 3-4 months out from submission, arrange a special supervision meeting to discuss possible examiners.
  1. Prior to the meeting, students should make a list of six to eight possible examiners from most favoured to least – plus any they would not want. Don’t neglect the importance of RULING OUT unsuitable people (maybe someone’s work is admirable, but they have a reputation for being ruthless, or maybe there’s the potential for a conflict of interest). Supervisors should also think about suitable examiners.
  1. At the meeting these ‘lists’ can be the basis for a discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of individuals for the particular thesis and research to be examined. Such discussions can illustrate the issues at stake and demonstrate how the process works, giving students valuable insights into the academic world.
  1. Then it’s time to do some homework in preparation for a follow up meeting.
  • Both student and supervisor(s) should (carefully and appropriately) collect ‘insider’ information on the shortlisted favourites. The academic world is small and well networked. For example, it can be helpful to know if a potential examiner is reliable, if they have a reputation for being pedantic, or if they are married to a major competitor of your research institute!
  • Ask the student to work through their whole thesis recording (rather than guessing) every reference to the potential examiner and their work. This activity creates an empirical account of how often, where, and in what ways, citations have occurred in the document. It’s not that every examiner needs to see themselves cited, however it would be curious to choose an examiner that wasn’t part of the community of scholars referenced in the thesis. Secondly, the student needs to check that they have correctly interpreted/ critiqued/ referenced each of these potential examiners and their work. Ask the student to think about how those who have been referenced will feel when they read what’s been said about them and others (possibly their friends and colleagues).
  1. At the second meeting everyone should have the chance to share their homework and air their views, and hopefully, through discussion, arrive at general agreement on a short list of favourites. In the end, however, it’s important to remember that the choice of examiners is the responsibility of the supervisor(s) – and even then, despite their best efforts, a favourite may be unavailable or unsuitable for one reason or another.

Even where institutional guidelines are strict about the examiner’s identity remaining confidential, these sorts of supervisory practices provide clear benefits. Students are given the chance to critically re-examine their own work from an examiner’s perspective and they learn more about the often occluded practices of the academy. And this kind of approach delivers concrete information to assist supervisors who have the difficult task of finding the best match of examiners to suit their student’s work.

In spite of the fact that the student will leave these discussions still not knowing who their examiners are, they will have learned a lot through engaging in the process – and no doubt will have contributed to the final decision.

You may have approached this process differently – we’d be pleased to hear from you.


Kiley, M. (2009). ‘You don’t want a smart Alec’: Selecting examiners to assess doctoral dissertations. Studies in Higher Education 34 (8) 889 – 903.


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