Professor Rachel Spronken-Smith is the Dean of the Graduate Research School. When she is not running the School, delivering support to thesis candidates or rolling around in the $21 million Scholarships’ budget, she is supervising students and researching about higher education. <Phew, I’m exhausted just listing her tasks!> Rachel has untold wisdom about the thesis experience and we nabbed her from her busy role to share some of that with you.
Why are you doing a PhD? An easy question – right? It is one that could be answered in a variety of ways. For some it is an opportunity to investigate something they are passionate about – to further knowledge and develop intellectual thinking. Other candidates might see a PhD in terms of credentialism, opening up better jobs and higher salaries. Some may wish to become an academic and of course the PhD is the entry level qualification for most academic jobs.
So take a few minutes to think – why are you doing this?
Once you have identified your main motivation, my next question for you is – how can you make the most of your doctoral study? Your answer will likely depend on your motivation for doing a PhD. For example, if your PhD is seen as purely an intellectual pursuit, you may be content to focus solely on your research. However, it would be wise to stretch that intellect by engaging in departmental and university seminars and lectures. If you are seeking a particular career beyond your PhD, then what is that career? What are the skills you will need? How can you foster these skills during doctoral study? If, for example, you think you would like to be an academic, then during your doctoral study you should be seeking opportunities to learn about:
- Teaching and also practice teaching – seek professional development opportunities on lecturing and course planning for example, and offer to do guest lectures or become a tutor or demonstrator during your doctoral study
- Publishing – try publishing some of your doctoral research and perhaps consider writing a publication-based thesis that includes publications as chapters or as appendices
- Writing research grants – offer to assist academics or shadow one through the process
- Administration – volunteer to be a student representative on departmental or university committees.
But academia is not for everyone, and indeed the job market is very tight. Fortunately doctoral graduates are in demand in a range of careers including government, non-governmental organisations, and business. Depending on your interests you may need to seek professional development opportunities to help secure such jobs. For example, if interested in business, then look for internship opportunities and professional development courses on entrepreneurship, project management and financial skills. For government positions, you are likely going to need excellent communication skills and the ability to write in a range of genres. So again, be proactive and seek opportunities to develop your communication skills. Some skills – such as networking – are important no matter what career choice you make, and you should ensure you try to develop this skill and attend events where you can practice (remembering that most people are not born networkers and feel very uncomfortable at such events).
I worry when I see PhD candidates buried in their offices or labs and not taking the time to engage in the opportunities offered by their universities. Doing a PhD is a privileged time, but I do understand that candidates are often under a great deal of financial pressure to complete in a timely manner. Thus I think there is a risk is that you can focus too much on your study and ignore the activities being provided to support your journey and your professional development. So my plea to you is to think about why you are doing a PhD and what you hope to do once you graduate. As you focus on this endpoint, consider how you might develop the skills to best equip you on this future path and then be proactive and seek opportunities to develop these skills.
Professor Rachel Spronken-Smith, Dean, Graduate Research School
In case you didn’t know it yet, the Graduate Research School offers a whole host of glorious workshops and events for graduate research candidates to utilise and enjoy throughout their time here. These are varied in topic and presented by a number of experienced academics and Otago staff, who aim to engage with and inspire with their wealth of knowledge and genuine interest in helping you along the way. Among the heap of sessions run by GRS, the Student Learning Centre and HEDC; here are just a few snippets!
Presented by our pretty great GRS Dean, Professor Rachel Spronken-Smith, Doctoral candidates are treated to stage-based workshops: for those in the early stages of their study (Embarking on your Doctoral Journey), for those mid-way through their study (Keep Calm and Carry on), and for those hitting crunch time in the final stages of writing up (Hitting the Home Stretch).
Our very own GRS Manager, Claire Gallop, runs the ‘Insider’s Guide to Doctoral Domination’, which is a series of 6 x 1 hour workshops (next round starting in May!) aimed at helping you successfully negotiate your way through doctoral study. Claire also gleefully presents the ‘Mastering Your Thesis’ workshop, designed to offer Masters candidates some handy tips and advice on conquering their theses.
I asked a couple of our current students their thoughts on any workshops they’ve attended so far and received awesome responses! One PhD candidate gave us an insightful rundown of her experiences:
“Both workshops [The Insider’s Guide to Doctoral Domination and Keep Calm and Carry On] were well run, jam-packed with useful bits of information and a friendly environment to raise questions and talk to others experiencing similar research challenges/successes!
… The Insider’s Guide ran over the course of a couple of weeks, and this was a great amount of time for getting to know the other people in the workshop, which helped me feel like I was not ‘alone’ in this research adventure. It also gave me space to ask some of those broader questions (“where is the best coffee shop on campus?”) that you feel like your supervisor wouldn’t have time to answer, or you might feel stupid asking!
The Keep Calm workshop also creates a comfortable space for asking questions, breaking into smaller groups and offering really helpful advice. One of the nice things about attending the Keep Calm workshop at the thesis halfway mark, was actually recognising and reconnecting with some of the students who had attended Insider’s Guide a year or so earlier! I also thought both workshops were really helpful for helping you make the transition from Masters to PhD research. Both Claire and Rachel were great at putting things in perspective and providing practical solutions to counter all fears! The very blunt statement that this is “just a PhD”, was probably the most constructive, practical, keep-your-feet-on-the-ground-and-stop-the-panic advice I took away from these workshops.
My personal recommendation would be to attend both of these workshops. They help make connections with other PhD students, across a variety of disciplines and allow you to see, not only is there life beyond the four walls of your office, but your experience is not unique, and sharing this with others is quite therapeutic!”.
Ashraf Alam, a recently inducted PhD candidate echoed this response: “I believe all those workshops were useful. As a Masters student, I was mostly benefited from the ‘Mastering Your Thesis’ workshop. I’d be happy if I could really tell Claire Gallop, how grateful to her I am! I’d suggest all Masters thesis students to attend this particular workshop within the first month of beginning their research”. He indicated that the most important pieces of advice he received was to publish, and to get in touch with the subject librarian, stating that this was “… an invaluable asset that Otago has”.
When it comes to networking, Ashraf said that he appreciated receiving “… advice about managing the relationship among different stakeholders (supervisors, librarians, departmental faculties, peers, etc). It is not easy in a multicultural environment where general expectations are very diverse (much more than what you can imagine) among individuals”.
Current PhD candidate, Keely Blanch, shared her thoughts on the ‘Networking’ workshop run by Rachel: “Networking is one of those things you know you ‘should’ do, a necessity even if it seems at times to be a painful stilted way to meet people at conferences. Being half way through my PhD I gamely signed up and dragged myself off to Rachel’s seminar. Rachel offers some good reasons on why networking is good for your career – finding mentors, creating a network of people who can help you find out about job opportunities, creating new friendships and so on. Many opportunities to network can evolve naturally from chance meetings and so interactions are less ‘forced’. Other meetings, such as those at conferences where you know no one, are more difficult. Rachel took us through a series of exercises designed to let us practice meeting and chatting with complete strangers. Sure the conversations can seem a bit awkward when you first start, but once that ‘commonality’ is identified things seem to truck along more smoothly. You may ask what a short seminar on your own campus can offer, but in one afternoon I met postgrads from other departments (which means familiar faces to chat to at other functions), and I connected with someone who also blogs about their postgrad journey. I may have headed there with trepidation, but the afternoon was enjoyable and worthwhile”.
Feeling motivated to attend?! (Heck, even I am!) Head to the website and sign up!
Thanks for tuning in 🙂
I nabbed Subject Librarian, Sarah Gallagher, also known as @sarahlibrarina, at a moment of vulnerability and twisted her arm into writing a post for us. I always say that librarians are super helpful. In fact, if the University was the animal kingdom and librarians were an animal, verily they would be the African Giant Pouched Rat. So, stop what you are doing, read this post and then book in to a workshop or a one-on-one today!
Back in the mid 90s when I was a postgrad student, library resources and services were quite different. Firstly, there was no Library website. The University of Otago Library was transitioning from card catalogues (1) to a computerised system that could be searched on an OPAC (2). This revolutionised searching but didn’t provide any access to items in full text.
I did love the catalogue cards but you could only search by author, title or subject. The cards were variously old; the card softened to touch like thick linen. New cards were hard and would pierce you under the fingernail in the soft bit given a chance.
There were very few online citation databases then; they were on a CD which had to be borrowed from the desk, and then loaded each time onto a precious public computer which had to be booked in 30 min time slots. There weren’t many of those computers either. This technology didn’t provide the full text either, it only provided citations. The leap from citation databases to full text or linked data hadn’t happened yet. The transition from citation to the object was manual.
So, like other library users, I did a lot of traipsing around the library for material: from reference section to book shelves to the murky journal collections upstairs; checking citations, chasing leads on foot like a gumshoe detective.
I spent a lot of time sitting in isles pouring over contents pages and indices or leaving through individual works page by page; it was filthy work. Paper is dirty; dot matrix print outs of indexes of journal articles are inky. The Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum had scores of volumes tied up with tapes and full of loose image plates. I opened, visually scanned and retied every. single. one. (3)
I didn’t make much use of librarians. I found them a wee bit scary (4).
When I did ask for help I didn’t get a lot (the service provided was very different then) and my topic was pretty esoteric. There were a few hard copy indices I could use (5) (LP, LIMC), but that was it. I really felt alone and I didn’t really know what to ask, or, besides my supervisor and other postgrads in my Department, WHO to ask for advice.
Most of my research was done reading indices and following footnotes. I also made excellent use of the interloan service, often having to request theses from overseas on microfilm (6).
I wrote everything on paper and meticulously inscribed all my references on index cards that I stored in Cussons soap boxes. I had many of these boxes and my backpack was heavy. I had no laptop, there was no Google, I had no online reference management software. In present day library terms, it was still a very analogue world. I developed a dent in one of my fingers from all the writing.
Reflecting back, I think part of the reason I didn’t seek assistance was that I felt I should already know it all; after all, I was a postgrad’ and I’d already been on campus for 4 years and I was an avid library user. So I struggled on in silence not knowing if I was using the all the resources available to me in the best way I could and was too embarrassed to ask.
I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and neither do you. No one does. <I do!!!>
Here’s a story to illustrate my point.
I’ve just finished building a house and the learning curve has been massive. The house has had a 3 year gestation (not dissimilar to a PhD timeframe) and there have been rules, regulations, new language, methods and terminology to understand and lots of decisions and choices that only I can make. There have been relationships to manage too; designers, builders, council, suppliers and tradesmen.
My builders have been my navigators. They’ve helped me understand a dwang from a bearer, what patterning is and why it matters, why I need bracing here, scribers and flashing, there. This time I’ve not been scared to ask. I am the one who has to live with it and it’s costing a lot of money. The builders are on my side, they’re part my team and they don’t made me feel stupid for asking ‘dumb questions’ (7). They’ve been kind, informative and have been largely supportive if my creative ideas or have respectfully explained why it won’t work. They have a level of service and professional practice, which they embody. They are proud of their work, so I know I can rely on them to give me sound advice. Building is their job. Librarianing is mine (8).
The University’s Library’s Liaison Service has a very different practice to our reference librarians of last century. We individually welcome all new PhD students and invite you to catch up with your Subject Librarian at your convenience. We also run postgraduate workshops several times a year; there are some coming up next week – you can register online.
We can teach you how to develop search strategies and how search effectively and efficiently using some pretty smart tools that we spend $mils on. We can teach you to use software like Endnote so you don’t have to create inline citations and bibliographies by hand.
Make use of us. We’re always available by appointment to spend time with you, and we really do care about you and your project. We know that this is a massive commitment of time, funds and often access to your nearest and dearest. We’ve been there too.
We know you don’t know what your don’t know and so we can anticipate some of the questions you may have. We’ve got your back; let us help you make this the best damn thesis you can.
Yvonne Craig as Batgirl, by ABC Television (eBay item photo front photo back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
- What is a card catalogue? http://www.wisegeek.org/what-is-a-card-catalog.htm
- OPAC (Online Public Access Catalogue) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Online_public_access_catalog
- CVA is now online http://www.cvaonline.org/cva/
- The irony is not lost on me http://librarianavengers.org/worship-2/
- L’Année philologique is now online, the Lexicon iconographicum mythologiae classicae (LIMC) is not. Ha.
- Microform http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microform
- There are no dumb questions
- I did teach my builder how to use Pinterest … he loves it
Sarah Gallagher, Health Sciences Library