If you’re like me,* every so often you come across people in your line of work who you really feel like you should despise. Not because they are rotters, but because they are just so thoroughly excellent at their job and in your wildest dreams you could never reach that level of excellence. Not only are these rare beasts professionally stellar, they are hilarious and lovely to boot. Ptchaw!
Dr Inger Mewburn, aka the Thesis Whisperer, is one such person and it was my absolute pleasure to catch up with her when she visited Dunedin last year. Inger presented a number or workshops for us and candidates who attended were gifted wisdom, realistic and helpful advice, and a bunch of laughs.
Inger has an online presence that you should really check out and emulate; this is one time when it is most definitely a good idea to ‘use your eyes and plagiarise’**. Inger is innovative, insightful, engaged and helps thousands of thesis candidates across the world.
Inger’s Blog, The Thesis Whisperer, is known as the go-to resource for research candidates and academics interested in research training. Her work on Twitter is highly regarded and she provides many a moment of sanity for those being swept along by the crazy ride that is the thesis journey. Not so shabby for someone living in the pornography capital of Australia***.
I asked Inger the tough questions and here is a completely unauthorised, mostly true rendition of that conversation.
**Style-wise I mean; for Pete’s sake, do not claim that you are the Director of Research Training at ANU.
*** To be fair, she also lives in the actual capital of Australia and happens to work at an institution that is ranked 25th top University in the world.
Claire Gallop, Graduate Research School
What brought you to Dunedin?
The Graduate Research School! I connected with Claire through Twitter and was invited to come to Dunedin. I’ve been eating, running and working with interesting students. The workshops I’ve been running have been on exams, avoiding research mistakes and employability.
What’s the funniest story you have about an Airedale terrier?
It was a long time ago, let’s move on.
What do you think the main differences between NZ and Australian PhD candidates are?
New Zealanders are very reserved in a workshop situation; you think your jokes fall flat. <Mine do!> It is a little bit more difficult as an educator because the feedback is so much more reserved than in Australia. New Zealand students are also very modest. I was running a writing bootcamp at Victoria and every 5000 words you get a squeezy Lego block to celebrate. In Australia there is a lot of celebration when the students they reached these milestones but in New Zealand the students would mention it quietly and not want any fuss made about it. Being more reserved doesn’t change the fact that they are just as smart and interesting though.
Are there standard hurdles for all/most PhD candidates and if so, what can they do to minimise them?
People don’t recognize where they are up to or that ways of writing a thesis are different to what they did as an undergraduate. You write multiple drafts, not one draft. You make a mess and clean it up. It’s not a good idea to minimise these hurdles; it’s how you become an academic researcher. We learn by doing but we think it’s wrong because it’s different and because it’s not talked about.
If you had limitless resources at your disposal, what support would you like to provide for thesis candidates?
Bootcamp. This weekend we ran one at Victoria. It is a 28 hour weekend programme that I call the Mother-in Law Treatment. When I was writing my thesis I went and stayed with my mother-in-law. I handed her the child, locked myself in a room and she fed me. This is what we do on Bootcamp. We take away all the distractions and care for the students while they write. At this Bootcamp there were 22 people and they wrote 249,000 words between them. The challenge is to write 20,000 words each and we teach a different approach to writing. You learn to make a mess and clean it up. We have academic skills advisors, a yoga coach – we take a very holistic approach. We also change the conversation from bonding over how awful writing is to celebrating our achievements. It is targeted at people who will not finish any other way; people who are over-time and are desperate. <Hey, that’s me!> It works, we’ve had 5 completions that we wouldn’t have otherwise had so it pays for itself several times over. It was developed at Melbourne University by Liam Connell and Peta Freestone and there’s a blogpost about it at the Thesis Whisperer.
What is the one thing you think PhD candidates need but don’t realise they need? Only one?? Most common problem is that they think they are a student still. They are called candidate for a reason. There is lots of baggage that comes with being a student, particularly in their attitude to writing. You need to write multiple drafts. The student attitude to their supervisor is just to trust them but you need to realise they are a colleague and also a competitor – coopertition.
Would you like to fight one horse sized duck or one hundred duck-sized horses?
Hmmm, that’s a tough question. Which poop smells worse, because I’m going to kick the s**t out of them? Duck poop smells worse than horse poop, so I’m going with 100 duck-sized horses.
What’s your favourite sandwich?
The Bánh mì. Mmm, the carrot, chicken, coriander. Crunchy, sweet and sour- so tasty.
Australians like to steal our stuff (Split Enz, Phar Lap, Pavlova) – would you like to take Whaleoil?
Only if you take Andrew Bolt. Perhaps we could put them on an island and they could fight each other?