Saturday, September 19, 2020

Introductions and conclusions: How much the same and how different?

by Susan Carter, Doctoral Writing SIG:

Image: University of Melbourne (Youtube)

 and conclusions bookend or mirror each other. But they also differ from each other in significant ways. Doctoral writers need to be aware of the generic expectations of introductions and conclusions.

Recently, I was in a workshop with academic writers revising their introductions and conclusion. We were working on identifying strong rhetorical moves in these two significant sections, talking about what sort of moves, syntax, and word choice equated with persuasive beginnings and endings. The idea was that once we itemised what was strong, we could all improve the style and power of our own drafts.

I was drawing on the advice that I give doctoral thesis writers along the lines of ‘The introduction and conclusion sections of the thesis serve a bookend function and ensure that the reader understands the scope of the thesis and what it contributes. The first and last places are the most important and writers need to consider what they should achieve, what they should signal, and what work they can be made to do.’

Readers expect the covert convention that the introduction will be broad, general and contextual so that fine detail here will seem disjunctive. It is common to note an hourglass shape to the thesis, where a wide scope introductory framework narrows to the specific topic and focus, and then widens again in the conclusion.

I recommend consulting Paltridge and Starfield’s (2007)  ‘typical moves’ that introductions make. These are broadly establishing the context, showing the gap and describing how the research will fill the gap (Paltridge and Starfield 2007 break these sections down further, suggesting that some moves are obligatory. It is well worth reading this book).

Then, the conclusion should leave the reader with a clear sense of what has been achieved: namely, that the aims identified in the introduction have been achieved and that a unique and important contribution to scholarship has been made. A conclusion often recalls specific points to emphasise what has been achieved. Generic conventions for emphasising the value of the original contribution become important to writers: the conclusion is where the examiner leaves the thesis.

In this workshop, though, we noticed the tense of these two sections. I’d never thought about tense before as it relates to introductions and conclusion. I’m pondering on the fact that tense signals the direction of gaze and focus: very simplistically I think of a speaker as looking backwards (with past tense use), sideways (with the present) and ahead (with the future).

Frequently the tense in the introduction was past or present perfect to describe the context, often describing what the problem was that prompted a need for research, and what was already known or tried as a solution. Introductions then shifted to the present tense for what the current project does, how it does it, and in which specific niche. The present tense describes how the gap in knowledge or understanding is filled by this project.

The conclusion may use the present simple tense in stating the original contribution, saying again what the thesis does and what it argues. The conclusion may reiterate how the different parts of the thesis work together in the elaboration of a convincing argument, or how the various elements in the research process have contributed to the achievement of certain results.

Often, though, the conclusion looks to the future as well, projecting how the findings may direct changes in practice, or how they raise further questions that offer promise. Limitations of the project are often framed as possible future research.

For many authors, the conclusion satisfyingly establishes a better understanding of something they are passionate about, as when social scientists show the wastage caused by inequity; scientists, the changes to natural patterns that suggest humans need to change their habits; or educationalists, shortfalls in practice that can be improved.

The idea that came from the recent class is this: The generic conventions of verb tenses in introductions and conclusions comply with the narrative logic that each research project is one part of a bigger, ongoing story. Every research project is based on past understanding. And it is appropriate that in the conclusion, the author looks to the future, and to what will follow.

Perhaps the situation is not so cut and dried as to be about simply about tense, although one writing exercise is to watch for tense in thesis section examples. It is more about gaze-direction, poise and tone. These relate to the social nature of every thesis or journal article, in entering a discussion that other people have already begun.

Do you also workshop how to review introductions and conclusions together as a set? Any other thoughts?


Paltridge, B. & Starfield, S. (2007). Thesis and dissertation writing in a second language: A handbook for supervisors. London: Routledge.

Monday, September 14, 2020

New learning economy challenges unis to be part of reshaping lifelong education

by Martin Betts and Michael Rosemann, The Conversation:

Image: The Conversation

The new learning economy is creating opportunities for universities to move on from the current focus on cutting costs, downsizing and job losses. Many universities appear stuck in a downward spiral, but now may be the time to offset this with new initiatives. Growth in the need for ongoing learning creates these opportunities.

Current education providers, as well as new entrants, have the chance to replicate the business models and innovative practices of Spotify, YouTube, Uber, Airbnb and other disruptors of other sectors. For example, we can envisage a platform provider brokering crowd-sourced production of education content. The resourcing of expertise from the higher education sector would provide access to new, scaleable and more widely available forms of academic content.

Significant disruption is imminent. We believe those with ambition will thrive in the emerging new learning economy. They will not only disrupt, but also generate new forms of demand and supply for education.

Old assumptions overturned

The education market has been stable for generations. This stability has relied on three assumptions.

First, knowledge gained through upfront education equips people to master the immediate and ongoing needs of work. As a basis of lifelong competence, the knowledge gained by novice professionals is expected to be sufficient for career entry and beyond.

Second, as we gain experience in our career, we only occasionally require new learning. Experience builds incrementally and continuously on upfront knowledge over time, leading to ever-increasing competence.

Third, there is no need for learning consciousness. In other words, the individual does not need to know how much they know, what else to learn, or how to unlearn.

These assumptions have driven government policy, student demand, employer practices and university business models. With changes to the future of work and digital disruption, these assumptions can now be seen as creating three systemic learning disorders:

  1. the rate of innovation and knowledge development has accelerated, so our knowledge is out of date sooner

  2. experience gained through repetitive work and professional practice is of less value in a world of changing practices and new requirements

  3. our competence is something about which we have less consciousness or literacy – we increasingly don’t know what we don’t know, and not knowing how to learn and unlearn matters even more.

The 3 learning disorders explained

We illustrate these disorders in the three charts below. These plot the way knowledge, experience and competence develop over lifetimes, and the impacts of the emerging learning disorders.

The first chart uses a simplistic model of learning development consistent with the seminal work on self-efficacy in education of Caprara et al. The underlying idea is that competence is a combination of knowledge gained from learning and experience gained from working.

The traditional model of learning: knowledge and experience combine to form competence. Author provided

However, competence is not sufficient. Similar to our understanding of physical well-being (for example, is my blood pressure OK?) or financial well-being (will I have enough super?), we need consciousness about our competence. We suggest this is the basis of educational well-being. The pursuit of this goal gives rise to the new learning economy.

The first disorder, the knowledge disorder, shown in the chart below, captures the fact that the knowledge gained from formalised learning now decays more quickly. This happens due to faster rates of innovation and knowledge development within the periods that learning had been designed to serve.

The knowledge disorder: knowledge is decaying more quickly. Author provided

The rate at which knowledge grows and develops has overtaken our intention to create novice professionals with knowledge lasting a lifetime. One-off degrees that testify to a certain qualification at a certain point in time are no longer sufficient. The world requires educational well-being as much as it requires a healthy and prosperous population.

The third chart shows how the value of experiences we gain in the workplace has changed. No longer does cumulative experience lead to increasing competence. Experiences of old ways of doing things are becoming hindrances to ongoing competence in disrupted environments.

The experience disorder: experience can become unhelpful. Author provided

As a result, experience might matter less. Even worse, it could become counter-productive when unlearning established practices becomes increasingly difficult. In some situations, current knowledge has become more important than past knowledge with added experience.

We can see the impacts of this experience disorder in recent years. Large organisations have let “experienced” staff go, then hired new graduates with contemporary knowledge. NAB was criticised for doing this.

How should education respond to these changes?

We predict we will see on-demand, tailored and customised learning on new platforms. These may be ubiquitous and scaleable programs of what are being called micro-credentials. Google’s “career certificates” are one recent example.

We foresee a need to support continuously improving workplace experience through partnerships between educational well-being providers, maybe universities, and providers and receivers of workplace experiences, employers and employees. We see opportunities for new, platform-based, lifelong experience-management services.

The consciousness disorder arises from us being unaware of how change undermines competence. As US secretary of state, Donald Rumsfeld famously coined the term “unknown unknowns” in highlighting the danger in dealing with complex, fast-changing situations. In such a world, competence becomes more fragile, but we are not aware of it, which makes us vulnerable to disruption.

When Donald Rumsfeld spoke about ‘unknown unknowns’ he wasn’t talking about education, but the concept has emerged as a key issue for the sector.

We can foresee new services to help identify unconscious incompetence. Maybe automated online “health checks” of educational well-being will be made available to alumni. This service could be aligned with personalised access to new knowledge to address gaps.

We believe that responding to these three disorders, in these sorts of ways, provides a blueprint for a new learning economy. This learning economy is global and will scale up to satisfy the demands of citizens who are no longer served by our current model of education.

This evolution of education will not only present new directions for established education providers, but also attract new competitors. They might range from ed-tech start-ups with niche services, to others that see the global learning economy as a high-growth opportunity. Google is unlikely to be the last new challenger to the traditional university model.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

The PhD: Article publication, grant applications, promotion requests, and dealing with rejection

by Pat Thomson, Patter:

This is a guest post from Dan Cleather. Dan is a strength coach, educator, scientist and anarchist. His latest book,  “Subvert! A philosophical guide for the 21st century scientist”, was published in May.

Being an academic requires a thick skin. Very thick. Part of the job is dealing with a constant stream of rejections – on journal articles, grant applications, speaker applications, promotion requests … Rejection is always disappointing. However, over time we grow to understand that rejections often have little to do with the quality of the work. This helps us to protect our self-esteem – at least most of the time.

Experience is an important teacher in developing your thick skin. Once you have shepherded a few papers through a series of rejections and then ultimately into print, you can have confidence that your work is good, and put rejections down to editorial considerations or the vagaries of the peer review process.

But what if you are a student or an early career researcher? In this case you don’t have this experience, and each rejection can badly rock your self-confidence. I believe that rejections are a key factor in the growth of imposter syndrome in academia.

When one of my students first submits their work to an academic journal I always walk a weird tightrope in giving encouragement and managing expectations. On the one hand, I want to tell the student how good their work is. On the other, I need to prepare them for the fact that rejection is a very possible, and often likely, outcome. This post is the blog form of that conversation.

1. Appreciate The Statistics (Listen To The Horror Stories)

It is normal for excellent articles to get rejected. Some of the reasons for this are described later in this post. Everyone will have their own horror stories. Mine is that the first article from my PhD was rejected from 5 journals before I managed to get it accepted. It now has 41 citations.

It is also normal (but not right) for the peer review process to be a long, frustrating and unpredictable affair. One of the best students I ever worked with had to wait for 2 years to get her  first article into print – it broke my heart, as the work was fantastic. One of my favourite articles took 16 months to get through peer review (at the same journal), and despite the fact that I think it is some of my best work it never gets cited.

Applying for grants is even worse. The process is highly competitive, and so a lot of good proposals don’t get funded. The image here is a summary of my own grant applications over the last 10 years. Weeks of work went into each of these failed applications. It is a story with a happy ending, but this is only because of a recent success.

The take home message here is that, in academia, everyone gets rejected, all the time. When you are starting out you need to fight hard to believe this. Rejections are always disappointing, but at least if you appreciate the statistics you can reassure yourself that they are normal. 

2. Understand Editorial Considerations

A key part of an editor’s role is to ensure that the content in their journal is of interest to their readers. Often, if you experience a desk rejection – that is your work is rejected without being sent out for review – it is because the editor has decided that your article is not appropriate for their journal, or they have other articles that they think their readers will find more interesting. Again, it needs to be emphasised that this has nothing to do with the quality of the work – you are unlikely to get an article about lung disease into a cardiac journal, no matter how good it is. Of course, you might disagree with the editor – you probably sent the article to the journal because you wanted to reach that specific audience. However, it is up to the editor to steer the direction of a journal – ultimately the articles published in a journal will largely reflect the editor’s tastes. If they don’t favour your work it is important to bear in mind that this is just one person’s opinion.

Another part of an editor’s role is to act as custodian of the journal’s status. Many editors will be interested in the impact factor of their journal – i.e. how many times the articles in the journal are cited by external sources. This is a pretty awful way of judging a journal’s quality, but unfortunately is part of the current academic environment. For this reason, some editors will also reject articles that they don’t think will garner lots of citations. Again, just because an article doesn’t get cited does not mean it is not a good piece of work. Similarly, it is pretty difficult to predict this (even if you wanted to), and editors get it wrong all the time. Of the articles I have been involved with,  the most highly cited one with 59 citations, was rejected from at least two journals (as I remember) before it was accepted.

The point here is that the quality of the work is only one of a number of competing factors that are used in decision making – and sometimes not even the most important one. Many excellent articles are rejected (rightly or wrongly) based upon the editor’s prerogative. Often, success is predicated on getting your work in front of the right person, someone who knows enough about it to appreciate its importance.

3. Be Critical Of The Peer Review Process

Peer review is a notoriously fickle process, and it is helpful to a have a healthy scepticism as to its efficacy. However, many academics don’t, viewing peer review as a sacred cow that protects the integrity of the academic literature. This is demonstrably false – there are plenty of high profile examples that show that peer review often doesn’t even detect cases of academic misconduct.

There is evidence that supports the contention that peer review is a fickle process. For instance, one study showed that the rate of agreement between reviewers at the Journal of General Internal Medicine was little better than would be produced by chance. Similar findings have been found in the peer review of grant applications (e.g. in Australia and the  US). Every reasonably experienced academic will be able to relate examples of conflicting peer reviews that they have received.

What is the point of peer review if it is such a random process? Well, in many cases, peer review will improve the quality of an article, and it does provide some (imperfect) form of quality control. However, from the point of view of this blog post, you should recognise that a positive or negative recommendation is to some degree a matter of chance, and that you shouldn’t invest too much of your self-esteem in an academic flip of the coin.

4. Recognise Reviewer 2

Reviewer 2 is the person who sticks their hand up at the end of a presentation and asks the presenter why they didn’t do the study in an entirely different way.

Peer review is supposed to be a critical evaluation of your work. Ironically, sometimes peer reviewers are horribly uncritical. In particular, when performing a peer review, you should judge the article on its own merits – not list a plethora of alternative things that could have been done.

Peer reviewers are human too. You are often dealing with competitors, who have their own egos, and may have conflicting ideas as to how research should be done. If it seems to you that a reviewer is being unreasonable, then they probably are – and that sucks. It may even result in a rejection. To protect your self-esteem you need to recognise when your work is being rejected by Reviewer 2, and again, not take it is a reflection of your ability.

5. Back Yourself

Peer review is a process that will tend to reward work that conforms with the status quo, but that will tend to penalise potentially transformative research that breaks the mould. Peer review processes that improve the overall standard of research also result in more exceptional work being rejected, and papers that challenge the status quo undergo more changes during peer review. This is possibly best illustrated by the number of Nobel prize winning studies that were initially  rejected for publication.

Of course, if you receive a rejection you should consider the feedback carefully and try to learn from it. However, rejections should not make you feel that your ideas don’t have merit. The history of science is one of new ideas replacing old ones. Yes, we should expose our ideas to outside tests, and we should have the intellectual honesty to properly weigh up counter-arguments and consider that we might be wrong. However, if we believe that our ideas stand up to these tests, we need to have the confidence to back ourselves.

Where does this all leave us?

There is no doubt that rejection sucks. However, it is part and parcel of academic life. It is important that you are critical of the evaluative processes that are a part of academia, and that you don’t buy into them too fully. Celebrate the successes, but don’t pay too much attention to the rejections.

Monday, August 31, 2020

4 out of 5 international students are still in Australia – how we treat them will have consequences

by Angela Lehmann and Aasha Sriram, The Conversation:

COVID-19 has not stopped international education. As of August 24, 524,000 international students were living among us in Australian cities and communities. They represent 78% of all student visa holders, according to data the Department of Home Affairs provided to us.

These students are potential ambassadors for Australia and our institutions. They could help shape our country’s reputation as a safe and welcoming destination in the post-pandemic world – but only if we look after them.

Pie chart and table showing numbers of international students in Australia and offshore
Data as of August 24 2020 provided by Department of Home AffairsAuthor provided

The numbers of students now in Australia vary across sectors. Currently, 73% of our international higher education students and 78% of postgraduate research students are here. The vast majority — 78% — of our international secondary school students are still here too.

The percentage is even higher for vocational education and training (VET): 91% of the sector’s international students are here, 159,233 in all.

Non-award programs (shorter courses that don’t lead to a degree or diploma) and English language programs (ELICOS) have the largest percentages of students now offshore.

Table showing numbers and percentages of student visa holders still in Australia
Data provided by Department of Home Affairs at authors' requestAuthor provided

The experiences these large numbers of students are having now will have a direct impact on their decisions and patterns of mobility once borders reopen.

However, institutions and government agencies continue to focus on outward-looking approaches to recovery, such as offshore recruitment and delivery, negotiating pilot safety corridors, and scenario planning for the reopening of borders. The onshore response to international education risks being severely neglected.

Students are comparing countries’ responses

International students in Australian cities and communities are of course talking about their situation. They are using social media, creating blogs and interacting constantly with families and friends back home and around the world.

During the pandemic, this peer-to-peer form of marketing is heightened in its global reach. Our students are constantly comparing their lives with students in both their home countries and Australia’s major competitor destinations.

As a result, the crisis of international student social support is the subject of global comparisons. Students and their families are weighing up what they are going through “here” compared to what others are going through “there”.

A life transformed in Melbourne

Arya is a full-time postgraduate student from India who is staying in Melbourne. We spoke with Arya as a part of a series of interviews with international students during COVID-19.

Her dream of studying in Australia was made possible through a combination of a student loan, borrowing from family, and savings after working for two years as a journalist. Prior to COVID-19, she relied on part-time jobs to support herself. This income was essential to her financial survival in Melbourne.

The first lockdown meant she lost both her jobs — one in hospitality and one at her university. As these sectors are struggling in this crisis, her prospect of finding a new job is bleak.

Arya is not eligible for federal government support such as  JobSeeker. But she might be able to get Victorian government support, including a voucher to buy groceries and a one-off payment of A$1,100. She can also apply for a modest grant from her university to cover some bills.

She has struggled to pay rent, but the moratorium on evictions has prevented her from becoming homeless. Her university and local community groups in Melbourne have also provided food hampers.

Arya’s goal was to study in Australia at a world-class institution and solidify her status within the upwardly mobile middle classes in India. Her life has been transformed into a struggle to eat, pay rent and avoid homelessness while keeping her grades up. Arya observes:

It is becoming more than an education. The question is shifting to how students live and survive in a global city midst a pandemic.

It’s even harder in the US

Arya is in contact with friends and fellow Indian students studying overseas. While her situation in Melbourne is dire, her friends in the US are struggling every day. Arya introduced us to Dhanya.

Dhanya, who moved to New York in 2017 to study, says she is struggling “despite doing everything right”. After recently graduating and finding a job, Dhanya lost her H1B sponsored visa for skilled workers as a result of the Trump administration’s recent freeze on visas. “The US government has not considered that we can’t get home,” Dhanya says.

She reports that she and many of her friends in similar situations have been told they can choose to work as unpaid interns.

US President Donald Trump sitting at desk in White House
President Donald Trump has frozen visas permitting foreign students to work in the United States. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters/AAP

Many American states enacted a patchwork of temporary eviction moratoriums and the federal government issued a partial ban on evictions. These moratoriums have now largely expired, forcing students to rely on the discretion of landlords. As a non-citizen, Dhanya cannot receive unemployment benefits or a stimulus cheque.

Dhanya is unaware of any non-monetary support from her university or the government for international students. There are no free meal plans, grocery vouchers, or community-based food schemes.

Despite our Melbourne-based student living with the daily anxiety about her finances, she is comparing her experience relatively positively to her friends in the US.

Some countries are enhancing reputations

Students are paying attention to countries that are including international students and temporary migrants in their social policy response to COVID-19. Arya says:

The way countries handle this now is definitely going to impact how students see your country as a destination in the future.

Arya and her friends are keeping a keen eye on European destinations such as Germany and Sweden. They have also been impressed by Canada’s timely support for international students during this crisis.

It is not enough for Australia to rely on other nations doing badly on social welfare and support. We need to do more than aim to receive a comparatively “good” score on poverty, exploitation and vulnerability based on others doing worse.

Australia urgently needs to actively reshape international education market perceptions by demonstrating that we offer not only world-class education, but also world-class student support. And that starts with helping the cohort of more than half-a-million international students who currently call Australia home.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

The PhD: Personalising your revision practice

by Rachael Cayley, Explorations of Style:


One of my favourite bits of revision advice is that writers should learn about their own writing habits. To revise your writing effectively, you should know what words or phrases you overuse or what rules you tend to misunderstand. Bringing to bear your accumulated understanding of your own writing habits will definitely improve your revision process. While working on my book manuscript this summer, I encountered a situation that deepened my appreciation for efficacy of this type of self-knowledge.

As I was struggling through the middle section of the book, I realized that the structure really wasn't working. I had tried out many different things and had ended up equally unhappy with all my attempts. With the help of many reverse outlines (and the incisive advice of a good friend), I realized that I was indecisively flip-flopping between two different structural arrangements:

  1. Having three separate chapters of writing principles, followed by a single chapter of revision strategies
  2. Dividing up the revision strategies and interspersing them throughout the three chapters of writing principles

This type of structural choice probably seems pretty familiar; most of us have had the experience of confronting such a choice in our academic writing. To take a simple example, let's say you've got eighteen participants, each of whom was asked six interview questions. Should you give each participant's answers to all six questions before going on to the next participant? Or should you give all eighteen participants' answers to question one before going on to give all the answers to question two, and so on. The best answer to such structural questions will always be determined by context. Do you want to reflect on the implications of the totality of each participant's responses? Or do you want to draw connections between the varied responses of different participants to each question? Given whatever it is that you're trying to accomplish with your writing, one of these options is surely preferable for your eventual reader. The problem can be, however, that you might genuinely not know what your reader needs in this instance. I was definitely trying to meet the needs of my future reader, but that commitment alone didn't solve my problem: I was still able to make a sound case for either approach.

I eventually came to a resolution by reflecting more deeply on my own tendencies as an academic writer. I often—without even knowing that I'm doing so—shy away from being concrete. My readers have long told me that my academic writing would benefit from more detail, more elaborations, more examples. Recognizing that I generally err on the side of offering concepts without concrete application, I decided that the right solution was probably the one where I pushed myself to be more concrete. Rather than asking my reader to work through three chapters of writing principles before giving them a strategies chapter, I would make each chapter a blend of principles and strategies. Carving up a chapter and integrating its parts into three other existing chapters wasn't easy, but I'm provisionally happy with the results. 

What makes my experience potentially relevant for others is the general notion that self-knowledge can help with decision making in academic writing. When you are confronting a structural dilemma, try thinking about the needs of the reader. If that intervention doesn't magically clear everything up, try reflecting on the ways in which you may typically struggle to meet the needs of the reader. This strategy is helpful because it forces you to think about how your inclinations may not reliably serve the needs of your reader. Different writers will obviously have different writerly inclinations. I revel in creating systematic principles without sufficient attention to concrete applications; others may excel at detailed explication but may be stingy when to it comes to the higher order unification of their ideas. General revision principles—like understanding the needs of your reader—are great, but your revision practices also need to be grounded in a deepening grasp of your persistent habits. Overcoming the gap between how we tend to express ourselves and how the reader wants the material to be expressed is the goal of all revision. We can each give that process a boost by personalizing our revision practices with a growing awareness of what we do well when we write and where we consistently fall short. 


This post is the fifth in a series of book reflections posts. As I go through the writing process, I'm pausing to talk about my progress and my thoughts on the writing process itself. The progress reports are really just for me: I’m using the public nature of the blog to keep me accountable. The actual point of these posts will be to reflect on what I’m learning about writing and how these insights connect to the topics covered here on the blog.

Status Update: In the spirit of public transparency about my book writing process, I’m going to conclude each of these book reflections posts with a status update. Needless to say, the complexity of life over the past five months has made writing extra challenging. I have now finished my provisional revision of Parts One and Two, which puts me on schedule, at least according to the revised schedule I created in June. That means that I'll try to write Chapter Seven in August (somewhat realistic) and Chapter Eight in September–October (less realistic) and Chapter Nine in November (who knows what will be going on by then!). But by the end of year, I should have a full draft ready for extensive revision.