Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Why You Should Go To That Workshop …

  • Should I go?
  • Am I going to learn something that will progress my PhD?
  • Can I afford to leave PhD land for whole 90 minutes?
This post is for you, and everyone who feels guilty about doing “stuff” that apparently has nothing to do with your PhD. Here is the story:

It was a sunny Friday morning in my PhD life, again another week almost over and nothing to show for it. Well, nothing that shows a word account at least. But this week has been different. Tuesday I came back from Canberra where I organised an undergraduate research poster exhibition in … wait for it … Parliament House. Yap. Undergraduates got to present their work to Chief Justice French and MP John Alexander and the likes. Awesome.

I felt inspired. And guilty. How has it contributed to my PhD? Wait for it. I’ll come to that.

Wednesday, first day back to school after a week away from PhD land due to RA work commitments, I discovered I signed up for that How-To-Blog workshop, which sounded sooo much cooler weeks ago when I signed up, because it is a FANTASTIC opportunity for personal and professional development you.just.don’t.miss.

My gut signalled I should be really getting back to my desk. But it was Macquarie’s annual celebration of Learning and Teaching week and as a current staff member of the host centre (and yes, admittedly and occasionally suffering from academic FOMO) I HAD to see what was going on, so I went. I’m glad I did. Because you get to read this.

Because on Thursday, I felt energised, I even forgot about my daily flat white intake, and just scribbled, pencilled, wrote. The undergraduate students inspired me to produce something close to a Nobel Prize worthy type of work. And that blog seminar made me think of ways to communicate my research that I haven’t really considered before.

The week continued.

Thursday afternoon I watched the 3MT contestants at Macquarie battle it out in front of 200 people, some putting on an Oscar ripe performance. I felt intimidated and inspired. A strange mix of feelings which I thought I’d meditate on during my yoga night class, which I prioritised to wine & cheese that day (scandalous, you should ALWAYS wine & cheese for networking). Following the How-to-stay-sane-in-your-PhD speaker I (body)-balance and -combat through my PhD (courtesy of Macquarie Uni gym).

And then it was that sunny Friday morning.

Again weeks ago, I had signed up for that Early Career Researchers Development Day offered by our Faculty, a professional and personal opportunity not to be missed. It had better be AMAZING, I thought, if I was to invest a whole day of my so short PhD life, not producing anything that can be assigned a (publishable) word count. Well, I took notes (which I turned into this blog).

I went, even though I felt poor for time, but more than that I felt I may be intruding. Are PhD students (PhDs) considered Early Career Researchers (ECRs)? I had never heard anyone call PhDs ECRs or vice versa. What if I was not supposed to be there? One last thing about me: apart from occasional FOMO escapades I hate to cancel things last minute and let people down. So I went (and found a few other PhD fellows, ha!).

I’m glad I did. Because this is what I sneaked away from the session, which every PhD candidate should have gone to (well, the ones who are courageously considering a life after PhD in academia anyway).


Because we are expected to become authorised scholars during our PhDs and even develop an identity as an academic or researcher! And if you are not lucky enough to have friends and mentors (not only supervisors) to guide you, you may want to invest your precious time into these workshops. I’ll focus on two sessions here (yes, there was more):
  1. Career Planning, Work-Life Balance, Which Activities to Prioritise, General Advice
Bingo! It’s got PhD students all over. Guess what, PhD candidates are crazy busy, but so are ECRs, established academics, sessional staff, admin people, stay-home mums (probably busiest job ever), single people, even kids! Life’s busy for everyone nowadays. We have s(t)oo many options, s(t)oo many opportunities.

  • Know what you want.
  • Aim high, eg. go for best journals (worst they can do is say no).
  • Meet the Who’s Who in your area of research.
  • Believe in yourself.
  • Don’t say NO to opportunities that sound like “fun” (if you can fit them in).
  • Go for quality publications (but as a PhD student you want some rather than zero publications).
  • Plan ahead, your research and your personal life.
  • Know thy roadmap, know thy milestones. Know thy requirements.
  • You are essentially trained as a professional writer, so write much and often.
  • Be your own supervisor.

No one can tell you what to do, you have to make choices for yourself, the ones that fit your life- and work-style, your circumstances, your outlook on life, your gut feeling.
  1. Collaboration, Mentoring and Supervision
Whaaa? Academics actually do that? I hear rumours, but often see closed doors.

  • Learn to be extrovert for academic purposes.
  • Surround yourself by supportive people.
  • Make friends, connect with others, find your peers.
  • Do not work with people you do not like, trust or feel uncomfortable with
  • Co-authorship is a sign of social skills.
  • Be honest to yourself and others re deadlines, workload, etc.
  • Act ethically and with integrity (be nice, it’s a small world out there)
  • Contact the BIG names and tell them about their research.
  • Get on grant and paper review committees early.
  • Ground rules of collaboration: communication, clarity, honesty.
  • Keep updated online profiles (if you have one or many).
  • Apply for grants with others (you have no idea how many options you have, ask your Research Office).
  • Get a mentor (different from supervisor), preferably 20 years senior than you to help you through the maze of academia, promotion, politics, etc.

Collaboration is like a relationship, it’s a give-and-take, you have to take care of one another.


Own your research, stand by it, it’s your legacy! You are essentially doing good for the society. And by the way, get over your ECR (here PHD) status quickly (and while the take away message may not be all that new and surprising, the inspiration this one day sparked was refreshing). So why am I writing this?

First, because my last week’s experience gave me back my mojo. So I wrote and thought and mind mapped and doctored on my PhD non-stop for two days. And even if it lasts for two days every hour spent away from PhD land last week was worth it. Don’t ignore opportunities that could inspire you to be productive. Choose wisely and commit.

Second, because my PhD research is interested in supportive experiences in doctoral education.I am particularly interested in how social practices improve your PhD experience and help you develop as a researcher. I hope this post is helpful in one or the other.

I encourage you to go to that workshop, unless your child is sick and you really have to spend the afternoon with your mum and jam scones (all perfectly good reasons). Especially if you feel you want to. Be your own professional and personal developer. It’s your (PhD) life. Think what you want to be remembered for. But then again, everyone does it different.

Acknowledgement: Finally I’d like to thank Macquarie University for all the opportunities it continues to give me. I think we actually bonded last week. We’ve been getting along for almost 5 years now, but now I feel we got to the next stage of our relationship, we’re best mates now.

University of Sussex PhD Students Demand Back Pay for ‘Unpaid Teaching’

Group of people shouting at boss
Source: Rex
by Jack Grove, Times Higher Education:

Doctoral students who were required to deliver up to 50 hours a year of unpaid teaching are demanding reimbursement for their labour.

Some 20 PhD students at the University of Sussex’s department of life sciences say they are owed back pay of £1,100 each for hours worked under a previous contract, in which they were asked to teach undergraduates for free as a condition of their PhD funding.

Their demand comes after Sussex refunded all research council-funded PhD students for any teaching done since February 2014 after it was discovered it was illegal to force them to teach for free. However, those funded by Sussex itself have been told they will not receive any back pay, despite a change of contracts which allows PhD students to choose to teach, and be paid, if they wish.

“Changing the contract is a great development and it shows the university is listening, but we feel we are deserving of the back pay received by externally funded PhD students,” said Annie MacPherson, a life sciences PhD candidate who is leading the campaign.

“Sussex has expressed a desire for equality between school-funded and research council-funded students and this is an important part of this,” added Ms MacPherson, who addressed Fighting Against Casualisation in Education's annual conference in London last month.

While the issue of back pay for unpaid teaching relates to just over 20 PhD students in life sciences, Ms MacPherson believes more than 100 PhD students across the entire university could be entitled to money. Many thousands of school-funded PhD students across the sector could also be affected by the issue of unpaid teaching as a requirement of funding, she added.

“This could have huge implications because if this type of contract is commonplace - and we’ve been told it is - then many PhD students may feel able to challenge exploitative contracts,” she said. “This is a really grey area of employment that universities have massively benefited from over the years,” she added.

A Sussex spokesman said those PhD students who were formerly on graduate training assistant contracts had agreed a teaching commitment of a maximum of 50 contact hours in exchange for a scholarship package worth around £25,000 a year.

“This was a contractual arrangement entered into by both parties and is common across the sector,” he said, and therefore “no back pay is due” as the contract was agreed by both parties. However, PhD students who teach have from this year been transferred to a grant system that has no teaching requirement.

Payment to research council-funded PhD students has been made to reflect changes in the rules by Research Councils UK, which now bars a teaching requirement as a condition of receiving a scholarship, Sussex's spokesman added.

Teaching opportunities for PhD students “provide our undergraduates with access to some of the brightest young researchers on campus, and our keen research students with both income and good development opportunities for future academic careers”, the spokesman said.