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March 21, 2013

Get in Touch with Aunty Rex!

Aunty Rex recently got an email from a distraught student (the email was signed "loser") whose submission deadline was fast approaching, but had not completed analysis of data, and literally has "zero-word' for the thesis. He/she also seemed to have reached the maximum allowance for extensions, and sought to know if there was still "hope to earn the reward--PhD title--after years of struggle".

Aunty Rex thinks this is such a delicate issue, and doesn't suppose it would be too helpful to deal with on the PhD Life Blog. At least, not until she can ask you a few questions and get more details on the situation. Aunty Rex would really like to respond privately - so please if you sent in this query, kindly get in touch with us via the email address, researchexchange@warwick.ac.uk.

You never know, things may not be as bad as it seems at the moment, and there just might be a way out. Aunty Rex and the Research Exchange are here for support - and if it is support we can't give directly, we know the exact door to walk you through hand-in-hand.

Know this for sure, you are not alone - so please get in touch with us.


June 13, 2012

Dear Aunt Rex – Should I stay or should I go? by Aunt Rex


Dear Aunt Rex,

I’m a third-year PhD student, and as submission looms ever closer, I’m finding the thought of the academic career for which I have been training less and less appealing.

My problem seems like a really silly one, but the truth is that I’m scared that I don’t want what I thought I wanted.Nine to Five

I look at my colleagues, established lecturers in my department, and the pressure they are under, the juggling of priorities and the individualism and competitiveness, and I can feel myself physically shrink. I feel alienated from academic culture. I have increasingly little tolerance for academese and jargon – sometimes I just want to jump out of my seat and scream at people to just say what they mean. I feel like everyone around me is their research, and defines themselves through their academic position, and basically lives to work. I just don’t feel like that at all. I feel passionate about lots of things, but my research is just one of them.

And, as I watch my peers, whom I respect and love, tackle admirably the quest of the early career researcher and that difficult period between the viva and that elusive first full-time lectureship, I just picture myself being crushed and worn down by the insecurity and stress – all for something that I’m not even sure would make me happy.

What’s weird is that I enjoy all the elements of academic life – I get such a buzz from teaching, and I love the research process and seeing the results. I don’t even mind the admin so much! But I increasingly feel like I don’t ‘fit’ here, and that academia isn’t the warm, stable, flexible career I once thought it might be.

I’m also thinking about starting a family, but the status of PhD students and the uncertain prospects of the early career research stage has made me feel like my life has yet to begin. I can’t see any kind of stability in the near future – maternity leave isn’t really an option if you don’t have a 'proper' job to speak of.

So here I am: racing towards my submission date, frantically trying to publish, publish, publish, so that I can make a name for myself, sat secretly dreaming of job security, full-time hours in the office, a structured career path, a guaranteed income, and being able to leave it all at my desk at the end of the day.

I don’t know how to tell those around me – my peers, my mum and dad, my supervisor! I’m worried that people will think I’m a failure, a quitter and that I’ve wasted three years of my life.

I’m so confused about my future, and I just don’t know who to turn to. What should I do? Please help me, Aunt Rex!

SecretNineToFiver

________________________________________________

Dear SecretNineToFiver,

You have my full sympathy – Aunt Rex herself knows what a tricky time the transition from submission to ‘first job’ can be. PhD students, Aunt Rex would imagine, present a particular challenge to careers advisors – after all, some of us are surely only here because we have been dodging the question of ‘what are you going to do with your life?’ since we were 15. (Aunt Rex, however, has always known her true calling was to help out research students in need of guidance. It’s a vocation.)

The first thing to remember, dear Secret, is that you are not alone. In fact, 60% of individuals with a PhD go on to work outside academia. And, for the large majority, this is through choice, not because they weren’t good enough to make the cut, or they ‘gave up’ on the thing that they wanted. Academia can be ‘exhausting’, ‘horrifying’ and 'cutthroat', to use just a few phrases Aunt Rex has overheard in the past few months.

In fact, studies have recently been published that demonstrate this very trend – as students progress in the PhD (perhaps as they start to get a glimpse of what academic life really holds), academia as a career becomes less appealing. A recent survey of science PhDs in a top US research universityfound that as students progressed towards the end of their research degrees, the proposition of a faculty research post became increasingly less desirable.

This seems to hold particularly true of women in academia, as this recent report from a longitudinal study of chemisty PhDs in the UK uncovered. By their final year of study, just 12% of women expressed an interest in a career in academic research. As the analysis in The Guardian points out,

This is not the number of PhD students who in fact do go to academia; it's the number who want to. 88% of the women don't even want academic careers, nor do 79% of the men!

Women were more likely than men to see academic careers as all-consuming, solitary and as unnecessarily competitive. The successful female role models available to them were often childless. All these factors and more seemed to make academia an unappealing prospect for these women.

So there are lots of reasons why an academic career might not be for you, and you absolutely need not feel like a ‘failure’ for wanting to jump ship. If it feels like ‘giving up’, then this might not be the right move for you, but if you actively want a shift in direction there is absolutely no call for any shame.

Rather than having ‘wasted three years’, your PhD and the skills you have learnt during it will be a tremendous benefit in both the application/interview process and in any career that you take up after. You’ve just spent the last 3 years independently managing a large-scale project, delivered on time. You’ve attended conferences, speaking publicly about your work and networking with a wide variety of people. You’ve arranged meetings, seminars and/or conferences yourself, managing people and budgets. You might have participated in impact/engagement activities and been involved in translating complex research to different audiences. You’ve taught. And all of this before Aunt Rex even starts to think about the raft of other, non-academic involvements of many of you PhD students.

Employers are hungry for people with these high-level skills. However, the expected career trajectories and advice for different subjects can play a large part in students’ familiarity with the thirst for PhDs in non-academic job markets. Within the sciences, transitions to industry, commercial operations and NGOs are a little more established and expected, and humanities students may have had little information or insight into the opportunities available to them – but they are definitely out there. The alt-academy website, although US-biased, is a great starting place for ideas and stories of working 'off the beaten tenure track': http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/alt-ac/

Finally, SecretNineToFiver, Aunt Rex must urge you not to be afraid to talk about your feelings, fears and dreams to the people around you – both those inside and outside the academy. They will know all the pressures that you’re under, and will empathise with the reasons that you want out. Who knows, they may even feel the same way! Aunt Rex will always remember her colleague, who took up a job in an NGO after finishing his PhD, and was terribly anxious about his parents’ reaction. Expecting disappointment, my colleague was shocked by his mother’s massive sense of relief on hearing the news:

I was worried that you’d led yourself down a path that wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. I think this will be a real turning point for you.

After agony aunts, mums know best. Remember, this is a scary and confusing time, but it is an exciting one, too.

Aunt Rex is handing over to you now, PhDLifers! What is your advice for our SecretNineToFiver? Have you already made the switch to a non-academic role? Are you 100% sure that academia is the career for you? Or have you perhaps found yourself in the same position as Secret?

You can ask Aunt Rex a question here.


August 18, 2011

Dear Aunt Rex: I'm writing a proposal

Aunt Rex,

I am a prospective PhD student and would like some advice about how to write a winning proposal. I have already contacted my potential supervisor with my topic of interest and he has given me the go-ahead to write the proposal. Any tips you could give or possibly a link that would help? I intend to join next year (2012). I need to give it my best because I am sourcing for funding.


- Thank you.


Dear Prospective,

The best of luck to you! Having a supervisor on board and a topic you know you want to write about is a great place to be at, so that's half the battle won already. Funding is tight, as you know, but there's a great deal you can do to make sure your application stands the best possible chance of succeeding. Here are Aunt Rex's top five tips:

1) BE SPECIFIC

When you're writing a proposal before you've started your research, you're unlikely to know exactly what direction your studies will take you in. As most people will be in this situation, you can give yourself the edge by being as specific as possible. Outline your field of interest and the major works that have prompted your proposal. Show that you're up to date, and that you've got questions you can begin working on immediately. Then leave space for the project to take its own shape, but outline your hopes and ambitions for the finished product.

2) KNOW YOUR FUNDING BODIES

Warwick has several sources of postgraduate funding - see http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/academicoffice/gsp/scholarship/apply/. There are also research councils and subject-specific funding bodies. Your department will have a member of staff allocated to support research funding bids, so find out who they are and talk to them. Make sure you read the website of the funding body carefully. They will usually have a list of tips and recommendations, and will explain the format that a funding proposal should take. Make sure you're doing what they ask for, as incomplete applications won't usually get a reading.

3) SELL YOURSELF

Talk about your achievements, your strengths and your interests. Funding bodies want to give money to someone who is reliable and intelligent, so emphasise your ability to get the work done within a reasonable amount of time. The Graduate School has a useful list of tips. Show your readers why you're exceptional. It goes without saying, too, that your spelling and grammar should be perfect. Don't give your readers any reason to disapprove.

4) SELL YOUR PROJECT

The Research Exchange has a number of articles on talking about your research, which you can find here. Be ambitious with it - it's important and revolutionary, so say so! Do some basic literature searches (see the guides) and identify the gaps, then talk about how important these gaps are to fill. If you've already identified a supervisor, then make sure you're aware of their interests too, as these may help you shape the initial areas you're interested in investigating

5) THINK ABOUT IMPACT

For better or worse, many funding bodies are all about "impact" at the moment. This won't apply to every doctoral project, but if yours has an aspect that will benefit a wider community, emphasise this in your proposal. Perhaps it will result in a performance, or contribute to a non-scholarly book? Maybe it feeds into hot socio-political issues, or has direct implications for the development of a new technology. Show why your research matters. "Interdisciplinarity" is also important to many research bodies. Again, if your project touches on a number of disciplines, emphasise this.

Finally, good luck! Don't be disheartened if funding doesn't come up first time round. Many PhD students are successful in getting funding once their project is underway, and there are always additional pots to apply for. Once your supervisor has agreed to take on the project, too, he or she may be able to help you look for further support.


July 28, 2011

Dear Aunt Rex: I'm stuck with my writing…

Dear Aunt Rex,

I feel like I'm not getting anywhere with my thesis at the moment. I put in long hours for 6 or 7 days a week, but still everyone seems to be finishing faster than me. I sit down to write and don't get anywhere. My current deadline passed 3 weeks ago, and I'm still not finished with this chapter!

This is starting to really sap my motivation. I'm in my third year and it's looking like it's going to take me the whole of the extra year to finish. I'm so fed up, Aunt Rex.

- Can't finish

Dear Can't,

You are playing what I like to call 'the masochism game'. Many PhD students play it with themselves at some point. This game consists of one or more of the following:

  • Working nonstop for hours and hours every day
  • Never allowing yourself to take a break
  • Feeling like you're falling further and further behind
  • Feeling like you can never do enough to make your thesis as good as you want it to be
  • Wanting to get it all done as soon as possible, but feeling like the end only gets further and further away
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Lack of motivation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feelings of self-loathing related to academic work
  • Physical problems or pain related to sitting/typing/looking at a computer screen too much

Think of the masochism game as a spider web of negative self-talk: it catches you once, but the more you struggle against it the more caught you get in its vicious trap of pain and misery. You can't win this game. Trust Aunt Rex; she has tried.

self flagellation

But you CAN stop playing. A fire with no fuel will eventually die; stop allowing your behaviour to be ruled by these negative thoughts and feelings. Disengage from the fight and re-think your strategy.

The first thing you need to do is to take a few days off. Do whatever you need to do to feel like you're completely away from your thesis. Get out of town. Breathe some fresh air. Hang out with friends who won't talk about work.

When you get back, don't sit down and start working on your thesis immediately. Instead, have a 'strategy meeting' with yourself. Think about the following questions:

What time of day do I work best? Then plan your work days so that you are focused on work, without distractions like Facebook, for a good two hours per day at those times. Treat these times as important: they are your best chance to achieve something that day.

Outside of your 'best time', you can work on less intensive tasks like editing, and you should be sure to take a few hours per day off completely to deal with other aspects of life like grocery shopping and exercise. Being away from your desk for rest is just as important as being there to work.

What are the most important issues my thesis (or chapter) should be focusing on? There will always be more sources, themes and avenues that you 'should' research if you had infinite time. But you don't: you have a year. So prioritise and get down to the meat of the argument, and don't waste your energy worrying about what you could do 'if only'.

How will I reward myself when I complete a major goal, such as a chapter draft? If you don't allow yourself to enjoy an achievement, it's all too easy to turn an achievement into a failure: you only pay attention to how late/imperfect/whatever it was, and then even finishing it only makes you beat yourself up more for all the things you couldn't accomplish. Give yourself a concrete reward for any goal achieved and allow yourself to enjoy it, no matter how imperfect it was.

What is a realistic completion schedule for my current task? Say you were to set a task for a small child: reaching the cookie jar on the counter, for example. Don't give her any tools, such as a footstool; just insist that she be able to reach it. You would be setting her up for failure, along with crying, tantrums, and years of therapy once she hits adulthood. In time she will grow and be able to reach the cookie jar easily; but for now it is beyond her ability and failing to respect her current limits will only lead to a sense of failure and inadequacy.

If you always or frequently miss the deadlines you set for yourself (or with your supervisor), then you are doing the same thing! Instead, think of being able to work quickly as a longer-term goal; if you give yourself time and work on acquiring the appropriate tools, you will slowly grow until you are finally able to write a chapter in a month (or whatever). Give yourself some breathing space to learn how to do this.

The emotional energy you spend on beating yourself up is often considerable; it's energy that you need for other things (like doing the darn work!). If you try, you will slowly find ways to cut back on the browbeating and direct this energy elsewhere.

-Aunt Rex

You can ask Aunt Rex a question here.


June 05, 2011

Dear Aunt Rex: Help, I'm going abroad!

Dear Aunt Rex...I am going abroad for 6 months as part of my PhD. I've sorted all the obvious but do you have any advice about watching out for the less obvious? Ciao!

Dear intrepid researcher,

How exciting! 6 whole months in another country! Supacool.

Woman with suitcase

Georgina Collins has written some excellent advice on researching abroad here, here and here. She's great on covering all those 'basic' practical considerations so have a look - you never know if there's something you might have overlooked!

You don't say where you're going, whether you speak the language there, or whether you'll be in a university setting or doing field work. However, one universal piece of advice that Aunt Rex would give to any student going abroad in any circumstances is to get involved in local life while you're there. What in heaven's name is the point of going to the far corners of the earth if you're only going to keep to yourself (or to a familiar group) and spend all your time trying to re-create a pitiable replica of home for yourself?

This sounds so obvious, yet Aunt Rex has known far too many people who do these very things! So get out there, meet people, try the food, learn the language if you don't already speak it, leave yourself enough time (and money) to do some 'for fun' travelling.

Food and beverages are an especially important point. Food in different countries - even other European countries - can be very different from what you're used to, and this can be disorienting and off-putting at first. However, try to stay committed to finding local options that you like rather than pining away for home food, as this will help you keep a positive mindset. And whatever you do, don't complain about your host culture's food habits - it certainly won't make you any friends, and at worst people could find it offensive.

It's a good idea to keep negative thoughts to yourself in general actually - whether it's about food or housing arrangements or approaches to managing time. There almost certainly will be stuff you find annoying or weird - this is totally to be expected. When you find something in your personal situation particularly uncomfortable then it's ok to try and change it, but do so politely. Don't get angry or rant about how much better your home country is, either to the person you are dealing with or to others - it can make you come across as spoiled, chauvinistic or just plain disagreeable.

When socialising with folks from your hosting country, accept invitations whenever you can - even if it sounds scary. You won't make friends if you don't show up to things. Also, try to talk about something other than home. Find common ground rather than harping on differences.

You are very likely to experience homesickness at some point, especially if you've never been away for that long before. This is normal. Just remember that the best way to get over it (short of leaving) is to get MORE involved in local life, to find ways to feel more connected to where you are - not withdraw into yourself or Skype your girlfriend at home five times a day to complain.

Aunt Rex supposes that these are all common-sense ideas, yet we've all seen so many travellers and visiting students who don't follow these very basic rules to having a good time, getting along with people and generally not being miserable. Tsk tsk, says Aunt Rex.

Have a great trip, intrepid researcher! Remember that you can write to your dear old Auntie from abroad too :)

-Aunt Rex

You can ask Aunt Rex a question here.


May 06, 2011

Dear Aunt Rex: I'm terrified of public speaking

Dear Aunt Rex,

I'm a second-year PhD student in the humanities but I've never done any conferences. I hate the idea so much. It's not just the public speaking but also the 'networking' or whatever you're supposed to be doing. Everyone says conferences are an essential part of being an academic but is there any way around it?

-Not a networker

Dear Not,

Conferences are maybe not as essential in the humanities as they are in, say, maths, but they're still important and I would encourage you to find a way to do them. They're an important way to stay on top of the latest developments in your field, publicise your own work and meet potential collaborators.

Finding a way to do them will mean, first and foremost, finding a way to NOT hate them! You might consider taking one of the public speaking workshops offered by the Research Student Skills Programme. This can help build your confidence about being in front of people.

If you have a conference paper already written and would like some practice, the Research Exchange Advisers offer a service where you can book time with one of them to deliver your paper and receive constructive feedback. Email ResearchExchange@warwick.ac.uk.

As to networking, my advice is not to think of it as 'networking' at all - this word has become so overwrought with images of slimy, insincere hand-shaking. Think of it instead as interacting with other people who have similar interests and expertise to you, whom you just happen not to have met yet. Talk business with people you sit with at lunch - discuss the things you've heard at the conference, for example. Introduce yourself to people whose papers you liked, and tell them why. Have useful conversations - don't just 'network'. The Research Student Skills Programme (link above) also has occasional Networking workshops and this can help as well.

Remember: being successful at conferences doesn't have to mean gritting your teeth and doing something you hate - it means figuring out what you hate the most about it and finding ways to adapt your experience so that you enjoy it more.

Good luck!

You can ask Aunt Rex a question here.


April 18, 2011

Dear Aunt Rex. The self–funded PhD: is it worth it?


Dear Aunt Rex,

I just found out that I got a fees-only grant to do a PhD. I had promised myself that I would only do a PhD if it was fully funded, so I have no idea what to do. I've always wanted to do a PhD but I don't want to take on more debt. Help!

-Unsure

Dear Unsure,

Oh boy, this is the million-pound question, isn't it? Only you can really know what's right for you, but here are some issues to consider.

First of all, have you talked to the head of postgraduate admissions in your department? Sometimes departments just need that extra push to find funding for you from somewhere. Make it clear how keenly you want it, but tell them honestly that you're just not sure if you can do it without full funding. They may have a rabbit up their sleeve.

If that fails, keep this in mind: lots of people do self-funded or partially-funded PhDs. It is more risky from a financial standpoint: some might say that if it doesn't lead to a research job then it is a 'bad investment'. However, there is more to life than finances. Many people find PhDs to be wonderfully rewarding experiences, taking their lives in whole new directions - even if this doesn't happen to be the traditional academic path.

On the other hand, a lot of people (perhaps especially in arts/humanities subjects) seem to see doing a PhD as some kind of deep artistic self-expression, worth sacrificing everything for. This is not true either. Even great artists have to eat. Practical considerations are not 'dirty'. The key, really, is trying to find a healthy balance between desires and reality.

Another way to put this is: do you want it bad enough to work harder and give up more than other people have to?

Because that's what you'll have to do. There are ways to avoid going into debt: Consider taking a part-time job (and then living relatively frugally), for example, or working as a residential tutor to get free rent. Aunt Rex works answering your questions for two days per week, and works on her PhD the rest of the time. Sometimes it is frustrating to see colleagues enjoying more free time and more money, but it's ultimately worth it.

Good luck! Just remember: this is a big decision but it is not life-and-death. Either way, there is room for talented people in this great big world and you will find your place.

-Aunt Rex

You can ask Aunt Rex a question here.


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