Monday, November 30, 2015

How to Write a PhD Literature Review

English: Mathematics formulas () in a PhD thes...
Mathematics formulas in a PhD thesis (Photo: Wikipedia)
1. Pick a topic

It can be as broad as you like, because this is just a starting point. If you are still picking your specific topic for your PhD, that’s fine, but you should at least know roughly what area you want to explore.

2. Find your way in

A quick google scholar search for your subject area could turn up as many as 1 million results. Clearly you can’t read them all, so you need to look for an easy way in. The vast majority of academic papers are written for people already familiar with the subject. They will refer to theories and methodologies assuming that the reader knows what they are. So to start with just any paper at random would be a demoralizing waste of time, as you’ll be overwhelmed by the jargon. Instead, you need something you can understand easily to give yourself a foundation of knowledge to build upon. Textbooks and review articles can be good places to start, though even these can be highly technical. If you can’t find one you can understand easily, then look for a book written for the general, non-academic public. The idea is to gain a quick, broad background knowledge before getting into more specialised technical detail.

3. History, people & ideas

The idea of a literature review is to give some background and context to your own work. You need to show how your research fits into the big picture, relating it to what has been done before. You don’t need to write a comprehensive history of your subject, but it helps if you know roughly how it has developed over time. So as you read a few general introductions to your topic, you’ll start to get an overview of the key ideas and theories, who developed them, and when. Also note any conflicting ideas, any controversy or disagreement in the field, as you’ll need to know this kind of thing. Now you can start to look for specific papers.

4. Find the world-changing literature

Once you know who the world changers were, you can go in search of their papers. You need to make sure you understand these key concepts, as they will help you decipher other papers which built upon these ideas. Sometimes, those world changing papers can be tough to read, but as long as you know roughly what they did and understand the key principle, that’s enough.

5. Get specific

Only once you have a grasp of the key ideas in your field should you get more specific. There may be several angles you can take in your research, and you may have to explore many areas of the literature. So divide your literature search into sections to make it easier to manage. For each section, think of several keywords to try out in different combinations.

6. Filter

Even when you look at highly specialised sub-topics, there may still be thousands upon thousands of papers, so you need to filter them. Here are a few ways to reduce the numbers:
  • Look at the number of citations as an indication of quality
  • Make your keywords more specific
  • Scan the abstract and make a quick decision as to whether it will be relevant or not
Don’t be afraid to reject papers. You can always come back to them later, but you have to start with something manageable.

7. Filter again

You might not be able to read everything in depth immediately. From the papers you selected, give them a ranking A, B, or C.
A = must read, highly relevant, high quality
B = unsure, probably relevant, but not yet sure how
C = probably irrelevant, not what you thought it was when you read the title
If you’ve printed them , put the letter A, B, or C on the front so you can tell quickly when you come back to them (maybe months or years later).

8. Use other people’s bibliographies

Even if you can only find one good quality paper, read the introduction carefully and see who they cite. There may be a few gems there you didn’t find with the search engine. Also see who else has cited that one paper since it was published (this is also a very quick way to update your bibliography if you are coming back to it a year or more later).

9. Get to know the big players

In any research field, no matter how specialised, there will be leading experts or competing research groups. Figure out who they are, and read their work.

10. Make sure your research idea is original

As the saying goes, you can’t prove a negative. How can you prove that nobody else has done what you plan to do, without searching every paper ever published?  Well, it’s worth spending a day or two searching every keyword combination you can think of related to your specific research plan.

11. Write about ideas

When you finally start writing your literature review, focus on ideas and use examples from the literature to illustrate them. Don’t just write about every paper you have found (I call this the telephone-directory approach), as it will be tedious to write and impossible to read. The aim should always be to cite the best and most relevant research, rather than going for sheer quantity.

12. Remember, you aren’t writing a textbook

So you can leave out big chunks. Write about what is relevant to your research.

13. Vary the detail 

When talking about a broad topic, only cite the very, very best papers. You’ll have a lot to choose from , so why choose anything but the best? Then when you get into more specialised sections, you can include a larger number of less well-known papers (but still the highest quality you can find).

14. Don’t cite anything …

Don’t cite anything you haven’t read or don’t understand

15. Get experience

Your perspective on the literature will be quite different once you have done your own research. If you are in your first year, get your literature review done quickly so you can move on with your own work, and don’t let it hold you back. It takes time to figure out what makes a good paper and what makes a bad one, and that comes with experience of carrying out research, talking to other researchers, and just reading more.

Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges


Faculty at the meetings noted that students’ emotional fragility has become a serious problem when it comes to grading. Some said they had grown afraid to give low grades for poor performance, because of the subsequent emotional crises they would have to deal with in their offices.

Many students, they said, now view a C, or sometimes even a B, as failure, and they interpret such “failure” as the end of the world. Faculty also noted an increased tendency for students to blame them (the faculty) for low grades - they weren’t explicit enough in telling the students just what the test would cover or just what would distinguish a good paper from a bad one. They described an increased tendency to see a poor grade as reason to complain rather than as reason to study more, or more effectively.

Much of the discussions had to do with the amount of hand-holding faculty should do versus the degree to which the response should be something like, “Buck up, this is college.” Does the first response simply play into and perpetuate students’ neediness and unwillingness to take responsibility? Does the second response create the possibility of serious emotional breakdown, or, who knows, maybe even suicide?

Two weeks ago, that head of Counseling sent us all a follow-up email, announcing a new set of meetings. His email included this sobering paragraph:
“I have done a considerable amount of reading and research in recent months on the topic of resilience in college students. Our students are no different from what is being reported across the country on the state of late adolescence/early adulthood. There has been an increase in diagnosable mental health problems, but there has also been a decrease in the ability of many young people to manage the everyday bumps in the road of life. Whether we want it or not, these students are bringing their struggles to their teachers and others on campus who deal with students on a day-to-day basis. The lack of resilience is interfering with the academic mission of the University and is thwarting the emotional and personal development of students.”
He also sent us a summary of themes that emerged in the series of meetings, which included the following bullets:
  • Less resilient and needy students have shaped the landscape for faculty in that they are expected to do more hand-holding, lower their academic standards, and not challenge students too much.
  • There is a sense of helplessness among the faculty. Many faculty members expressed their frustration with the current situation. There were few ideas about what we could do as an institution to address the issue.
  • Students are afraid to fail; they do not take risks; they need to be certain about things. For many of them, failure is seen as catastrophic and unacceptable. External measures of success are more important than learning and autonomous development.
  • Faculty, particularly young faculty members, feel pressured to accede to student wishes lest they get low teacher ratings from their students. Students email about trivial things and expect prompt replies.
  • Failure and struggle need to be normalized. Students are very uncomfortable in not being right. They want to re-do papers to undo their earlier mistakes. We have to normalize being wrong and learning from one’s errors.
  • Faculty members, individually and as a group, are conflicted about how much “handholding” they should be doing.
  • Growth is achieved by striking the right balance between support and challenge. We need to reset the balance point. We have become a “helicopter institution.”
Reinforcing the claim that this is a nationwide problem, the Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran an article by Robin Wilson entitled, “An Epidemic of Anguish: Overwhelmed by Demand for Mental-Health Care, Colleges Face Conflicts in Choosing How to Respond" (Aug. 31, 2015).

Colleges and universities have traditionally been centers for higher academic education, where the expectation is that the students are adults, capable of taking care of their own everyday life problems. Increasingly, students and their parents are asking the personnel at such institutions to be substitute parents. There is also the ever-present threat and reality of lawsuits.  When a suicide occurs, or a serious mental breakdown occurs, the institution is often held responsible.

On the basis of her interviews with heads of counseling offices at various colleges and universities, Wilson wrote:
“Families often expect campuses to provide immediate, sophisticated, and sustained mental-health care. After all, most parents are still adjusting to the idea that their children no longer come home every night, and many want colleges to keep an eye on their kids, just as they did. Students, too, want colleges to give them the help they need, when they need it. And they need a lot. Rates of anxiety and depression among American college students have soared in the last decade, and many more students than in the past come to campus already on medication for such illnesses. The number of students with suicidal thoughts has risen as well. Some are dealing with serious issues, such as psychosis, which typically presents itself in young adulthood, just when students are going off to college. Many others, though, are struggling with what campus counselors say are the usual stresses of college life: bad grades, breakups, being on their own for the first time. And they are putting a strain on counseling centers.”
In previous posts (for example, here and here), I have described the dramatic decline, over the past few decades, in children’s opportunities to play, explore, and pursue their own interests away from adults.

Among the consequences, I have argued, are well-documented increases in anxiety and depression, and decreases in the sense of control of their own lives. We have raised a generation of young people who have not been given the opportunity to learn how to solve their own problems. They have not been given the opportunity to get into trouble and find their own way out, to experience failure and realize they can survive it, to be called bad names by others and learn how to respond without adult intervention.

So now, here’s what we have: Young people, 18 years and older, going to college still unable or unwilling to take responsibility for themselves, still feeling that if a problem arises they need an adult to solve it.

Dan Jones, past president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, seems to agree with this assessment. In an interview for the Chronicle article, he said:
“[Students] haven’t developed skills in how to soothe themselves, because their parents have solved all their problems and removed the obstacles. They don’t seem to have as much grit as previous generations.”
In my next post I’ll examine the research evidence suggesting that so-called “helicopter parenting” really is at the core of the problem. But I don’t blame parents, or certainly not just parents.

Parents are in some ways victims of larger forces in society - victims of the continuous exhortations from “experts” about the dangers of letting kids be, victims of the increased power of the school system and the schooling mentality that says kids develop best when carefully guided and supervised by adults, and victims of increased legal and social sanctions for allowing kids into public spaces without adult accompaniment. We have become, unfortunately, a “helicopter society.”

If we want to prepare our kids for college - or for anything else in life! - we have to counter these social forces. We have to give our children the freedom, which children have always enjoyed in the past, to get away from adults so they can practice being adults - that is, practice taking responsibility for themselves.
Basic Books, with permission
Source: Basic Books, with permission

And now, what do you think? 

Have you witnessed in any way the kinds of changes in young adults described here and that seem to be plaguing colleges and universities? How have you, as a parent, negotiated the line between protecting your children and giving them the freedom they need for psychological growth? Do you have any suggestions for college counselors and professors about how to deal with these problems they are struggling with?

I invite you to share your stories, thoughts, and questions in the comments section below. This blog is, among other things, a forum for discussion. As always, I prefer if you post your comments and questions here rather than send them to me by private email. By putting them here, you share with other readers, not just with me. I read all comments and try to respond to all serious questions if I think I have something worth saying. Of course, if you have something to say that applies only to you and me, then send me an email.

See also: Free to Learn (link is external) and alternativestoschool.com (link is external), and  join me on Facebook (link is external).

Facebook image: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Why Australia Needs a New Model for Universities

English: School of Art at the Australian Natio...
School of Art at the ANU in Canberra (Photo: Wikipedia)
by Raewyn Connell, University of Sydney, The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/why-australia-needs-a-new-model-for-universities-43696

Australia is in need of a new model for universities.

That isn’t the impression you get from the delighted students, contented staff and shining buildings pictured on every university website. But that’s a fantasy.

University managers now hire a considerable number of advertising staff to create the pretty picture. Behind the façade are growing signs of trouble. A vital one is the gap between management and staff.

The CEOs, still called vice-chancellors, are paid up to A$1.3 million a year. Their average package in 2014 was 14 times the starting salary of an entry-level academic working full-time.

Surveys of staff show little belief that these highly paid executives are doing a good job. In the 2015 national survey by the National Tertiary Education Union, over two-thirds of the 7,000 university staff who took part in the survey said changes in the workplace have not been handled well.

Managers evidently don’t trust the staff either. There is a growing mass of surveillance and auditing mechanisms, branding requirements and online control systems imposed on the work of university staff, including research.

Fixed course templates make teaching more controlled and conventional. The trend is towards a de-professionalisation of staff, whose freedom to make judgements autonomously is curtailed.
There is a striking reliance on an insecure workforce to do the bread-and-butter teaching.

Managements don’t publicise this - it would undermine the advertising - but the best information is that staff employed on a casual basis, often part-time, now do about 50% of undergraduate teaching.
This has become a secondary labour market in its own right.

With non-academic staff, there has been a trend to outsource trades and services such as maintenance, IT and security, which used to be supplied in-house. There has also been a trend to take support staff away from departments and faculties and centralise them under the direct control of management.

And the students? HECS/HELP debt exceeds A$30 billion across the country, and there is private debt by full-fee-paying students on top of that. In the US, on which our universities are increasingly modelled, total student debt is US$1.08 trillion.

What they have gone for is increasing class sizes and more routinised courses. Students too have been increasingly shut out of university decision-making, except through their dollars as customers.

There is no mystery about how this situation arose. The Dawkins reforms of the late 1980s expanded the university system, but did it on the cheap, following a market-style user-pays logic. Fees have risen massively since then, while the proportion of university budgets coming direct from government collapsed from about 90% to under 45%.

Universities have been profoundly re-defined in neoliberal terms, from being sections of a unified public service to being competing firms in a market.

Universities are not collapsing. Staff commitment continues to make them work, despite worsened conditions. But a crisis of sustainability is building up, as we continue to drift towards a privatised system under the neoliberal cover story that there-is-no-alternative.

What’s the alternative?

University of Berlin: a classic role model? www.shutterstock.com

The history of universities around the world is rich with alternatives, large and small.

Let’s start with the University of Berlin, the model for the modern research university. It came from a German Enlightenment concept of the Bildungsstaat, the educational state, in which supporting cultural and intellectual development was a public responsibility.

Not relevant today? It remains a strong tradition. A year ago, the last of the German Länder abolished university tuition fees. The most successful economy in Europe now has a fee-free national university system.

In the “Flying University” tradition in Poland, intellectuals set up clandestine study programs to keep alive the knowledge not wanted by the authorities - under the Tsars and under the Communists. In the developing world, universities have been centres of reform and social change. Among them are mega-universities like the amazing National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Australia has its own tradition of experiment and invention. The Australian National University in its early days was an adventure in the integration of knowledge in new forms. Newcastle medical school pursued a remarkable rethinking of medical education, to make it socially responsive. The small experimental Free Universities of the 1960s ran student-directed courses.

Many mainstream departments and programs have supported student and staff planning, interactive pedagogies, autonomous research groups and more.

Agenda for change

Australia needs fresh thinking on four basic issues.

Knowledge itself

We have the tools to re-think curriculum and research agendas around the knowledge a more democratic society needs, rather than what a corporate economy needs.

Finance

Australia can afford free higher education and wide-ranging, adventurous research. That requires a public system. It isn’t credible, and won’t be funded, if it mimics corporate profit-making. A public university must be open in its working, socially inclusive and modest in demeanour.

Universities as workplaces

Knowledge is now produced by large workforces; universities should be decent places to work, for all the groups who work here. Universities can be far more democratic than they are; means of shared decision-making are crucial.

Public role

Universities have been places of privilege; only as places of public service will they flourish. A key public service is independent critical thought. Another is educating professionals, which has to be re-thought as neoliberalism undermines old models of professionalism.

Those are directions of change, not a ready-made model.

In making a start, it’s important to know that the grey corporate orthodoxy of fees, competition and control was never, and is not now, the only possibility for higher education.

Raewyn Connell will be discussing the issues raised in this article at the Challenging the Privatised University conference on November 23, 2015.
The Conversation

Raewyn Connell, Professor Emerita (social science), University of Sydney

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

Writing Informative Abstracts for Journal Articles

English: abstract
Abstract (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Patrick Dunleavy, Medium: https://medium.com/advice-and-help-in-authoring-a-phd-or-non-fiction/writing-informative-abstracts-for-journal-articles-9cf929c6bd75#.e2kycwkkp

Be substantive and communicate your key findings

Reading the abstracts for academic journal abstracts can be as frustrating as trying to work out what their titles mean.

In the same way that many PhDers and academics carefully choose useless titles for their papers or chapters, so it is common to find that journal article abstracts actually say little about what the researcher has discovered.

They will often contain a description of an earlier literature or research, perhaps indicating previous difficulties or approaches in the sub-field. Most abstracts also say something about what methods the authors have used here. They normally suggest (sometimes in an oblique fashion) what research question an article tackles.

Often readers are told in an obscure way that the approach used here differs in some respect from previous work, or that the authors have tried to conceptualize an issue or measure some phenomenon differently. To wrap up, the most ambitious authors will sometimes make some form of credit claim about how their analysis has achieved something, or added value in a tricky area.

What rarely gets covered in all this are the actual key findings of the article. Readers are normally left to guess what the researcher’s ‘bottom line’ conclusion or academic ‘value-added’ is, still less what key ‘take-away points’ the author would ideally want readers to remember.

The final conclusions or key arguments made in the article usually remain an enigma, shrouded in delicate veils of obscurity, perhaps hinted at suggestively but discreetly, but never frankly set out. This vagueness comes on top of the well-known general tendency for the predominant message of journal articles to be that the world is resistant to research, many problems are more complex than they look, and consequently more research is needed.

Why are abstracts so uninformative?

There are multiple reasons for this pattern of poor abstract-writing. First, academics (especially early career researchers and PhDers) are often diffident people, obsessed with the provenance of their work at the expense of its substantive content. They want to prove that what they did was legitimate work, far more than to think through what it really means or demonstrate that it was valuable.

Researchers are also often risk averse, convinced that making any explicit or easily decipherable summary claims about what you have found out could easily seem brash and risky to reviewers. Far better to amplify only a little an obscure, or purely formal, or conventional article title , using the abstract to give some more details of the ‘box’ that the work falls into, without actually saying what the results were.

Abstracts also tend to be rather casually written, perhaps at the beginning of writing when authors don’t yet really know what they want to say, or perhaps as a rushed afterthought just before submission to a journal or a conference.

Some academics actually seem to start writing their abstract only after they have begun the online submission process, and so just clutch at a few, random straws to fill up some of the wordspace allotted to them. Others discover that their earlier or conference-vintage abstract is over-long, and so have to edit it down on the spot to fit within the journal’s precise word limit.

Once an abstract exists, authors are also often reluctant to reappraise them, or to ask critically whether they give the best obtainable picture of the work done and the findings achieved. Colleagues reading the paper often skim past the abstract and rarely comment on it. And sadly most reviewers and journal editors also give authors little useful advice about how to improve an abstract that is dull, uninformative, tangential or vague. Journal style sheets are normally silent about the need for abstracts to be carefully written, substantive and informative.

The costs of poor abstracts

Neglecting abstracts has very real costs, however. Typically you have between two and five years for your article to attract the attention of other researchers and to get cited. After that it’s basically burnt toast. And of course, the wheels of academia often turn slow, so that your window of opportunity is eroded at the start too, especially in the humanities and ‘soft’ social sciences.

I have discussed elsewhere how titles are very important for ‘selling’ your paper, for making it interesting enough to potential readers that they go from a snippet view in Google or another research database to looking at the whole abstract. But once that hurdle is past, your abstract is then key in persuading readers to go further, to actually download the paper, with all the extra hassle that may be involved if their library has poor electronic access, or to search out the paper via the library if their university does not already subscribe to the journal.

The abstract powerfully conditions these critical few seconds or minutes you have in front of each potential readers’ eyes. Wasting this key exposure time on describing earlier literature, waffling about your methods, or obscurely or vaguely hinting at what your conclusions are is a kind of academic suicide. The baffled reader moves on none the wiser to the next batch of the 200 ‘possibles’ they will search through that morning.

A checklist for improving abstracts

To counteract these problems it can be useful to have a structured set of questions to ask about your abstract, a list of things that you should include, and some suggestions about how many words to devote to different elements.

1. How long is your abstract in words? At at an early stage it should always be between 175 words (minimum) and 300 words (maximum) depending on the varying practices across disciplines. At a late stage, does it fit in the word limit for your target journal (shown in the journal’s stylesheet)? If not, edit it down so that it does, and count words precisely. Does your abstract have paragraphs? [No more than 2].

2. How much information does the abstract give about the elements below? I also suggest a maximum number of words for each component (assuming a 300 word abstract - reduce these numbers pro rata if your target journal has a lower limit).
  • Other people’s work and the focus of previous research literature? [None, A bit, A lot] Assign no more than 50 words
  • What is distinctive to your own theory position or intellectual approach?[None, A bit, A lot] Assign at least 40 words
  • Your methods or data sources/datasets? [None, A bit, A lot] Assign 40 words minimum to 120 maximum, depending on how methodologically innovative your work is.
  • Your bottom-line findings i.e. what ‘new facts’ have you found? Or what key conclusions you draw? [None, A bit, A lot] Assign as many words as possible within your limit. Be as substantive as possible. Don’t be vague, obscure, formal or conventional. Tell us clearly what you found out, not just what topic box you were studying in
  • The value-added or originality of your work within this field? [None, A bit, A lot] Assign at least 30 words. Make a moderate claim, motivate readers to learn more.
3. Does the abstract systematically follow the sequence of elements given above? [good] Or does it have some other sequence? [bad] Is the progression of ideas clear and connected?

4. How many theme/theory words from the article title recur in the abstract? Does the abstract introduce any new theme/theory words, that are not present in the article title? Do the two sets of words fit closely together? [good] or suggest different emphases? [bad]

5. Style points: How many words are wasted on ‘This article sets out to prove ...’ or ‘Section 2 shows that …’? Get rid of all such ‘blur’ elements. Is the description of your own research in the present tense? [good] or the future tense?[bad]

6. Look carefully at the ‘ordinary language’ words in the title, and in the abstract text. Are they ‘filler’ words only? In which case, are they needed? If not, do they have a clear and precise meaning or implication that you want your title and abstract to express? (Most ordinary language words with substantive content will have multiple meanings).

7. Suppose that you have read on the Web (in a long list of other articles and items) the article title and the first three lines of the abstract. Are they informative? Do they make you want to download the full article? What kind of academics elsewhere will be able to reference this article usefully in their own work, from the information given in the title and abstract alone?

8. Type the whole title (in double quotes “ ”) into Google Scholar and check against the questions below.
  • How many items show up? None [good]. Many [poor].
  • How do most of the other references or items that show up relate to your topic and subject matter? Very close [good]. Close [OK]. Remote [bad]. Completely different topic [very bad]. Wrong discipline [very bad]
  • Does the search show that you are using terms, phrases or acronyms that - Have the same meaning as you are using? [good]. Or have a number of different meanings from your sense? [bad]
9. Now type the three or four most distinctive or memorable title or abstract words separately into the search engine, and check against the same questions.
  • How many items show up? None [bad]. Very few [bad]. Modest number [good] Lots and lots [bad] — it’s an inverted U curve here.
  • How do most of the other references or items that show up relate to your topic and subject matter? Very close [good]. Close [OK]. Remote [bad]. Completely different topic [very bad]. Wrong discipline [very bad]
  • Does the search show that you are using terms, phrases or acronyms that - Have the same meaning as you are using? [good]. - Or have a number of different meanings from your sense? [bad] Article titles need to be less distinctive than books or theses, or chapters in these longer works. It is fine for your title and abstract to have some of the key words used by other authors, but preferably in some distinctive combination with other (ordinary language) words.
10. How does your abstract (and article title) sit within the journal title itself, which often gives readers many clues to what the work is about? Are you wasting words in the abstract explaining things that the journal title already makes clear?

Afterword

This is a menu of suggestions and so it will always need adapting to your particular discipline, topic and circumstances. Pick and choose among the advice here. Use what works but don’t worry about what seems less relevant - just as in a restaurant you don’t eat everything on the menu.

As with all checklists or guidelines, remember too that academia works best when researchers are inventive. Consider, for instance, the article by M.V. Berry and colleagues in the Journal of Physics A: Mathematical and Theoretical (2011) entitled: ‘ Can apparent superluminal neutrino speeds be explained as a quantum weak measurement?’ Their abstract was two words long: ‘Probably not’.


To put these ideas in a wider context, readers at PhD or higher level might find it helpful to read parts of my book: Patrick Dunleavy, ‘Authoring a PhD’ (Palgrave, 2003). See also useful material on the LSE’s Impact blog and on Twitter: @Write4Research.

Monday, November 2, 2015

10 Ways to Make the Most of Your Time as a PhD Student

phd life picture
Photograph: Nathan Flood/GuardianWitness
by Alison Garden, The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2014/nov/25/10-ways-to-make-the-most-of-your-time-as-a-phd-student

As numerous articles on this network have stated, it can be tough doing a PhD: you might not have the best relationship with your supervisor, you might be poor, you might be overworked.

We all know that it’s getting increasingly tough to get a lecturing job or a postdoctoral position.

Here are some tips to make the most of your time as a postgraduate. Being smart about how you approach things is key, especially if you aren’t sure whether you want to stay in academia. The importance of getting published goes without saying, as does the need to focus on your thesis, so here are some other ideas to help you enjoy the opportunities available to PhD students. 

1. Network and get online

I hate the word (Caroline Magennis has written a great piece on this - she’s also on Twitter), but it is important and, if you love your research, it can be fun. It’ll also help with those feelings of isolation. Get on Twitter. There’s loads on there, including engaged researchers in your area, commentators on academia and job postings you might not see otherwise. Obviously the top tweeters will depend on your field, but good places to start are @jobsacuk, @thesiswhisperer, @WetheHumanities, @ANU_RSAT, @ThomsonPat, #ECRchat and #PhDchat on Twitter. Another fantastic resource for PhDs and early career researchers from any subject is Nadine Muller’s blog.

2. Conferences

Now this one is obvious, but it pays to be strategic. There’s no point applying to go to five in one summer (or even worse, in your final year). You won’t get enough of your thesis written and you’ll be stressed all year. Plan to work your way up: start with one or two postgraduate conferences in your first year and work from there. I find it works to balance big, important national and international ones in your subject with small, intimate ones where you’ll present to a room full of experts in your field who will give you better feedback, networking and publishing opportunities. Don’t be afraid to put together a panel. Start with fellow postgraduates. At a later stage, get in touch with researchers who you respect in your field about putting together a panel. They can only say no (and most will be flattered to be asked). Enquire to see if the organisers have any bursaries or travel awards for postgraduates - and if they do, make sure you apply. 

3. If you can, teach and get a Higher Education Academy accreditation for it

Try and get some teaching in your department. If it isn’t offered to PhDs, ask your supervisor if you can shadow them for a few classes. Try and lead one or two tutorials, or give a lecture. You could also ask neighbouring universities if they’re looking for someone to teach (this is a good thing to do towards the end of the PhD when you’re looking for work). Attend training seminars hosted by your university. Try and get HEA accreditation at associate fellow level if you get some teaching experience. 

4. Host a symposium, conference or workshop

It doesn’t have to be a massive, multi-panel, three-day affair. A simple day or half day, hosted with a fellow PhD or early career academic will suffice. You’ll get to meet people who share your passion for your subject and get in touch with academics whose work you really admire. Plus, you’ll probably have to apply for funding and this is excellent in itself (see below). It’ll also give you some handy administrative experience, which seems to keep cropping up on academic job adverts these days. 

5. Apply for funding

Just try first for little pots to host a conference; go on a research trip; develop a skills training workshop; a visiting fellowship at a library. If you want to continue in academia, you’ll have to really perfect your grant writing skills, so you might as well start as soon as you can. Start small, it all adds up. Practice makes perfect. Try your university, any national association for your subject or the research councils. Ask people who you respect to look over your funding applications and reward readers with cake. 

6. Do some outreach work

One of the most enjoyable aspects of my postgraduate study has been the work that I’ve done with our widening participation department and Contact the Elderly. As this blog post suggests, we need to wrestle impact back from the Research Excellence Framework. In England, the very aptly named Brilliant Club do great work. Get in touch with museums, art galleries, schools, cinemas, festivals - they will be so keen to hear from you and there will be a chance to do something creative and rewarding with your research. 

7. Host an event for other postgraduates

While writing is a solitary process, there’s no need to be lonely. Put those funding application skills to practice again and apply for some money to do something for your fellow postgraduates. Run a workshop that allows you to get skills training that is catered to your needs. Take the time to get to know your fellow postgraduates: they will be your peers, your friends, your support network and potential collaborators. 

8. Run a project

Here’s where you can bring everything together: learn how to cultivate your time management skills; translate your research into different spheres; develop blogs and websites; make key contacts inside and outside of academia; work with the public. If you aren’t planning on an academic career or just want to cover your back, honing these sorts of skills is invaluable. 

9. Be interdisciplinary, go to other seminars in your university

Despite specialising in literature, I found it hugely valuable to attend the excellent modern Irish history and diaspora studies seminars at the University of Edinburgh. Interdisciplinary is a trendy buzz word, but venturing outside your subject area gives you new research angles and helps you make other contacts. If you have a gap in your research armour, ask if you can audit an appropriate master’s level course. 

10. Develop a thick skin

The only way to do this is through applying for things and getting rejected. Your PhD is a good time to do this, before the competition for jobs gets truly fierce. Let’s be honest, academia is a tough ride. After all, as Samuel Beckett said: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” 

Alison has recently submitted her PhD at the University of Edinburgh. In 2015 she will be a visiting fellow in American Studies at Northumbria University before taking up a postdoctoral position at University College Dublin funded by the Leverhulme trust - follow her on Twitter @notsecretgarden