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Category Archives: Doctoral

Mama PhD

PhD Mama

Since it is Mother’s Day tomorrow (don’t forget to give your dear old Mum a call) we thought it would be interesting to ask one of our PhD Candidates (Penelope Harriet Doris Candy-D’Ate*) what life is like for someone who is raising both small children and a PhD. Penelope could have just answered “busy” but instead she took time out of her hectic schedule to share some insight into the lives of those of us juggling thesis writing with carer responsibilities.

*Yep, you guessed it; not her real name.

Many people look horrified when I tell them I’m mothering two pre-schoolers and doing a PhD. My GP even seemed to think it was equivalent to concussion. When I went to see him after a car accident he wrote in my notes: “Hit glass with her head. Has felt dazed and tired, but also has 2 little children and is doing a PhD.”

While the decision to start a PhD with an 18 month old in tow and another bun in the oven, may look like the symptom of a head injury to some, to me it seemed like a great time to undertake a task I’d long hoped to do. The benefits of unlimited sick leave, elastic deadlines and the opportunity to work in pyjamas, should not be underestimated. There is also the fact that I was awake for about 20 hours every day during the first two years of my candidature, so I had plenty of time to contemplate my research. Admittedly somewhat deranged contemplation at times, but plenty of middle of the night thinking time. It is also cute watching the kids try and figure out what I do. My four year is drawing her own thesis (publication forthcoming), and has concluded from her survey of two grown-ups that boys go to work and girls go to noon-a-versity.

Fieldwork and attending conferences is complicated with a family’s needs to think of and that has presented some challenges but none of them insurmountable. The biggest challenge has been adjusting from my previous style of working non-stop when deadlines approach. I find it tough having to stop work when the childcare hours run out, when in my previous life I would have just kept going until I was finished. That may of course have resulted in total insanity given, as everyone says, the PhD is a marathon, not a race, so it is quite possible this is actually a plus. It just doesn’t feel like that sometimes. With the help of Brian Johnston, Otago’s coach extraordinaire, I’ve adjusted to this new way of working and learned much healthier work habits. (I’d still love to be able to hunker down in the library for hours on end though – old habits die-hard).

What has been key for me is that when I started my PhD my mother was in need of a job, and with my scholarship funding, I was in a position to give her a job looking after my babies. This has been a win-win-win and has enabled me to get through the PhD at a pace that would not have been possible without her. I’m very, very lucky to have that support and I know a lot of mothers who have it much tougher doing daycare runs, and having no childcare when the kids are sick. So happy Mother’s day to all the mum’s out there doing the Mama PhD juggle, and a special thank you this mother’s day to my mother for making it a lot easier for me.

P. H. D. Candy-D’Ate

Musing on the purpose and practice of doing a PhD

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.  

musing from the deanWhy 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. RAchjelFortunately 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

The Wonderful World of Workshops


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 🙂

The ABCs of Libraries

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.

By Ricardo from Manchester, UK (Manchester Central Library, March 2010) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

CC BY Deborah Fitchett

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.

Hocken Snapshop (10th Jul 2012). Central Library Periodicals Stack 2nd floor. In Website Hocken Snapshop. Retrieved 8th Apr 2015 11:39

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


  1. What is a card catalogue?
  2. OPAC (Online Public Access Catalogue)
  3. CVA is now online
  4. The irony is not lost on me
  5. L’Année philologique is now online, the Lexicon iconographicum mythologiae classicae (LIMC) is not. Ha.
  6. Microform
  7. There are no dumb questions
  8. I did teach my builder how to use Pinterest … he loves it

Sarah Gallagher, Health Sciences Library



There are a number of scholarship programmes which help students and academic staff from Otago head over the big pond too far off countries to study. One of these programmes is the DAAD scheme. DAAD stands for German Academic Exchange Service and they offer a number of excellent scholarships to help students and staff at any point in their academic career study abroad. Anna Bauer is the NZ rep for DAAD and is coming to visit us at Otago shortly. Before she arrives I thought it would be good to learn more about DAAD so that if you attend the information session you have excellent questions to ask Anna.

Mel Adams, Graduate Research School

Mel: Hi Anna, thanks for taking part in the GRS Blog. My first question is can you tell us more about the DAAD scholarship scheme and what it offers Otago students, particularly those who are studying at post grad level?

Anna: Hi Mel, thank you for hosting me again this year, it’s always a pleasure to come to U Otago, you’ve got a wonderful town here and very well organised university. For postgrads, the DAAD are offering several different things. Students embarking on a 2 year master’s degree can apply for support to spend either one year of their master’s in Germany, or do the entire degree in Germany and receive EUR 750 per month for the duration of their stay as well as a travel grant. Doctoral students enrolled in a PhD programme here at Otago can apply to spend a portion of their research time in Germany in order to gather data or collaborate and learn from researchers over there for anything between 1 and 10 months, receiving a monthly stipend of EUR 750-1,000 as well as a travel grant. The doctoral support is also open to people who’ve just entered their postdoctoral phase, a time when many don’t have a job yet, but are keen to continue research, which will often lead to a job for them.

Mel: How did you get involved with the DAAD scholarship scheme?

Anna: I’d known about the DAAD from early on during my undergrad days. The Service is very well known at German tertiary institutions, and actually, it’s the largest of its kind in the world, giving out well over a 100,000 scholarships per year at present. When I neared the end of my PhD phase, there was a call for applications, and I applied for the DAAD liaison position in New Zealand.

Mel: How do students apply for a DAAD scholarship?

Anna: Nearly all applications are handled online these days, of course. Prospective applicants should go to DAAD scholarship website and take it from there. It’s always good to check things out early to make sure you know your way around the DAAD application portal, and to be able to submit your application ahead of the deadline, so you don’t get stressed. In order to make sure no application is lost, it’s still required at present to send in two print-outs of your application by post. For most programmes, the print-outs are sent to the German Embassy in Wellington.

Mel: Why do you think it is a good idea to spend time at another institute while doing postgrad study?

Anna: It sounds a bit clichéd probably, but it’s basically about broadening your mind. Being educated in one place means that you’re exposed to the ideas there, but even if it’s a vibrant place research-wise, it’s sometimes difficult to think outside the box that is particular to that place. Going to a different place means you’re entering a different box, and that opens up new paths, new ways of going about things, and you’re then able to use these for your research. I studied at three different universities and then worked at a fourth during my time as a student, and I think it’s taught me as much about thinking in different ways as my studies themselves.

Mel: You are a lecturer at the Uni of Auckland, what do you think is the main difference between studying in New Zealand and Germany?

Anna: The main difference at this point, I’d say is that students in Germany don’t have to worry about tuition fees, because there are none at the over 100 public universities, no matter whether you’re a national or an international student. Apart from that, experiences are pretty similar on the whole, I’ve found. A sizeable number of unis are in located in smaller towns and dominate that town much like U Otago features hugely in Dunedin as a town. On top of that, many unis are also quite international, and you meet people from all over the world, something that is made very easy also by the fact that most students in Germany flat with other students, it’s a bit of a rite-of-passage really.

Mel: Finally, Would you like to fight one horse-sized duck or one hundred duck-sized horses?

Anna: Hahah! I think I’d go with the duck-sized horses. Being nearly 1.80m tall, I’m fairly sure I’d be able to outrun them if our fighting goes pear-shaped at my end of the arena.

Anna is visiting us on Wednesday the 20th of May from 12 to 1pm in Quad 2 if you want to learn more about the DAAD Scholarship programme.

When Mel went for a wander and came up with a theory

Autum and flowers

It’s March folks, and officially autumn and after such a spectacular summer I have started to notice that it is getting a bit cooler. Recently on a wander home from work the other day I started thinking how the different seasons of the year are similar to different seasons one experiences when undertaking a PhD or Master’s. I wanted to explore this idea further so I caught up with Brian Johnston our Personal Performance Coach to see if there was any truth to a wandering admin staff member’s theory.

Mel Adams, Graduate Research School

Mel: So the reason for this interview was I was wondering if the seasons in the year reflect the different seasons one may experience when doing a PhD or Master’s? Is it the case that there is a summer period when things are going really well, winter season you find it is hard and you are less productive? Do you think there is any truth to this wandering admin staff member’s theory or as an admin staff member I should stick to pushing paper around my desk? <Never! Says Claire>

Brian: I think you should stick to pushing paper around your desk! No, only kidding J. I think there is a lot to be said about your theory but I’ll try and keep it brief. In many ways the season’s parallel the PhD and the Master’s candidates experience. There are periods when the sun shines, it not only rains, but it pours and there’s calm before the storm!

Four seasons of BrianMel: As there is merit to a wandering admin staff member’s theory, how would you describe the different seasons of a PhD? For example what would summer be in the PhD/Master’s journey?

Brian: The summer can be an exciting time. When the sun is shining, we have blue skies and all is calm, we may feel a sense of optimism and all is well with the world. We smile more, feel more energised and more open to others and opportunities. When all’s going well with our postgraduate studies, we can experience a similar sense of optimism and excitement and be open to new learning and new ideas.

Spring can be a time for new beginnings. The doom and gloom of winter is gone and we can emerge into lighter days and nights. We have a “spring in our step” (pun intended), the buds are appearing on the trees and bushes and there’s new growth. This is the time of new born lambs (aw!) and for many a time for change and creativity. Again this mirror’s some postgraduates’ study experience.

There can be “dark” times during the Master’s/PhD experience and it seems there will never be “light at the end of the tunnel”. But then things begin to change and there can be a sense and experiencing of “new growth”. Progress may be slow but a new spring dawn brings lighter days and a feeling of renewal or reconnection with their thesis.

Mel: Do you think it is important to have a ‘winter’ period?

Brian: I don’t know if I think it’s important but I think it is almost inescapable. It has been said that in order to experience the light we need to experience the dark. In order to experience joy, we need to experience despair. I am not sure I agree with that.

In my work with postgraduates we consider the academic rigour and stamina each student needs to run the marathon of the PhD. It cannot be a sprint to the end. To succeed and “cross the finish line” requires perseverance and the ability to push through even when the “path of least resistance” would be to give up. Undertaking postgraduate study challenges many students’ resilience and tests their character strengths. Winter can have a similar affect for many of us. Often it would be easier to stay in bed, conserve our energy and avoid facing the day ahead. It requires effort, energy and determination to motivate ourselves during the cold, harsh Dunedin winters, but remember spring will arrive and we can embrace the day with new energy.

Winter ght

Mel: Do you have advice for students on how to capitalise on each season? For example, should you you acknowledge that you are in a winter period but develop means of making the most of it?

Brian: I’ve probably answered this question in part above. However I would add that I truly believe that the seasons can affect our moods, energy levels and our abilities to work at our optimal best. And yet many employers expect their employees (and that includes postgraduate students) to work to their capacity all year round! My advice is to do the best we can, when we can. Develop a holistic approach to our life ensuring we listen to our body – eat well, sleep well and pace ourselves throughout the year.

Mel: What happens if things are going well personally (summer) but not academically (it’s winter) or vice versa? How do you cope with this? (wear a raincoat with sunnies???)

Brian: This has been a great summer in Dunedin. Lots of days for the sunnies! Oh if only this were the norm! Again I think it’s all about getting the right balance. Hopefully each of us can make the most of our “summers” (believe it or not, some people work best in the winter!), springs, autumns AND winters.

Build up the academic and personal “stamina” needed to run the postgraduate marathon. Keep your eye on the finishing line and visualise the enormous sense of satisfaction and achievement you will feel once you cross the finishing line.


Mel: How can you deal with worries about winter periods in your PhD/Master’s during summer periods?

Brian: Accept that “worries”, winter and summer days are a natural process of postgraduate study. We all have down days and we all have up days. Hopefully the ‘summer” days well outweigh the winter days. Once again, pay attention to creating a life/study balance. Develop the strategies you need to keep healthy, positive and don’t overdo it. Take regular breaks, eat well, exercise – even in the cold winter days and build up your resilience to “weather all storms”. Seek support from family, friends and fellow students – “A problem shared is a problem halved.

If you are keen to catch up with Brian for a one to one session to help with motivation and your studies you can book an appointment.  Contact details on his webpage.

The media and you – moving beyond no comment


i WANNA bE WORLD FAMOUSData scandals, intellectual property theft, research misconduct, harmful experiments and holding the world record for time to completion are all examples of the kinds of things graduate students don’t want media attention for.  But what should you want media attention for? 

I always start my thesis workshops on what a master’s or PhD is not.  It’s not a ticket to the New York Best Seller List and no one is going to make a block-buster movie out of it with you as the lead.  Having said that, if your plans for media saturation aren’t quite so grand, then it is important to think about how much media exposure you want your research to have and how you will handle a reporter who gets wind or your cool research project.

Fiona Clarkson is the Postgraduate Marketing and Communications Coordinator at the University.  She says has been a journalist and communications professional for over 20 years but I say she looks way too young and this can’t possibly be true. Either way we are lucky enough to have her sharing her wisdom on why it is a good idea to have a media presence.

The question of whether you should try and attract “mainstream” media attention for your research can be a perplexing one.

It’s journal articles and the like that really add value to your career, right? And everyone knows the media just beat everything up, and/or get things wrong, don’t they?

Besides which, nerve-wracking much? What if I’m misquoted? What if I sound like a dork?

Well here’s one reason: imagine you and another freshly minted PhD are interviewing for a post-doc role. And you both have wonderful theses. And you’re both awesome people. And one of you has newspaper articles giving your research publicity – with the potential to bring ongoing public attention to your work. In the modern funding environment, a public profile is a good thing.

Here’s another more philanthropic reason: I’ve not met a PhD candidate yet for whom the chance to add to the body of knowledge isn’t one of their raison d’être. But how much real value are you adding with a stunning thesis that is shelved only in a library? Let’s spread the joy and the knowledge.

Or what about purely practical reasons? Need survey participants and short on funding? Media attention to your project can reach further than any advertisement.

With careful preparation and thought, talking to the media needn’t be a scary proposition.

Yes, news in today’s modern world does seem to hinge on a catchy headline and a bit of conflict. But knowing that and preparing accordingly, with facts and figures and consideration to what a journalist needs (not just what you want), can have fantastic results. And avoid potential dork-ery.

Check out part two of this series for how to attract media attention and prep for an interview.

Fiona Clarkson,  Postgraduate Marketing and Communications Coordinator

Relativity applies to physics, not ethics (A. Einstein)

Ever heard of New Zealand’s very own “Unfortunate Experiment”? Or perhaps you’ve heard of the Cartwright Inquiry that resulted from the horrors of this so-called ‘treatment’? If not – imagine being really sick and finding out that your doctor hasn’t been treating you properly – on purpose! For more info, go googling! That, my friends, illustrates just one example as to why ethical practice is so very important.


Having dabbled in a bit of research in my student days, and sat in on a few Ethics Committee meetings during my time here as a Uni staff member, I thought I had a fair idea of what ‘ethics in research’ was all about. However a while ago I went to check out the ‘Navigating your Ethics Committee’ workshop, run by GRS. It was here that I realised there was a whole lot I hadn’t considered, and it reiterated, for me anyway, why we should be taking this stuff really seriously, and not just ticking a few boxes on a form!

The bottom line is that as researchers, you have knowledge that others don’t. This can be a risky business. Some research, by nature, involves a certain level of deception; the omission or distortion of information, for example, the placebo effect. It is this type of research that will often produce the most effective results, but can also hold the greatest risk to both participants and the researcher.

This is where our multiple University Human Ethics Committees come into play – to help identify and minimise these risks. We have the UO Human Ethics Committee, and the UO Health Ethics Committee. Made up of academics/researchers, members of outside organisations and lay people, if you’re doing research that involves human participants, you should be submitting an application to one of these committees. These intelligent and worldly people identify and assess any biases in your research; potential harm to both participants and the researcher (physical or emotional); raise issues perhaps not yet considered by the researcher; and overall try to add value to your research. To quote Gary Witte, Manager of Academic Committees and Secretary to the University’s HECs, “the Ethics Committee endeavours to trend away from compliance to a culture of conscience”.

Basically, they’re not trying to ruin your fun or pick your research design to pieces out of spite because they missed their morning coffee – they are there to help broaden your mind as to the wider implications of your research; and most importantly, to protect you as the researcher, the generous people participating in your research, and the University, from anything going terribly wrong.

The workshop itself was engaging. Presenters, Gary Witte, and Dr Mike King from the Department of Bioethics, welcomed discussion, questions, and offered some helpful tips to get you started with your ethics proposals…

  1. Provide too much information in your ethics application – a common reason applications are turned back is due to lack of info;
  2. Consent processes need to be ‘bullet-proof’ and appropriate to the audience (i.e. in a consent form for a six year old, use big font, not big words!);
  3. Be clear as to the inclusion and exclusion criteria of your research participants;
  4. Be aware of overused groups (e.g. Pregnant women in Dunedin – there are only so many at any one time, and may get sick of you all hounding them while they are trying to grow another human);
  5. Gifts should not be an ‘inappropriate inducement’ ($500 for filling in a questionnaire is a little over the top);
  6. Develop a ‘Plan B’ in case ‘Plan A’ falls short; and lastly…
  7. OWN your ethics application. Get all up in that grill, and the Committee won’t grill you! (Wow, that was somewhere between a terrible pun and a bad dad joke – eek!).

Check out our webpage and try and head along to the next ethics workshop – it really is worth a look:

Be sure to visit the Human Ethics Committee webpage too for the nitty gritty of ethics applications:

There is also a really handy brochure available from Academic Committees (located on the ground floor of the Clocktower Building, G23); and the team’s contact details can be found on their webpage (link above).

Side note:  while the focus of this piece is about human ethics, we also need to think seriously about the ethical treatment of our furry friends when using them in our research. Often more so, as there aren’t nearly enough species with opposable thumbs who can sign those consent forms… so please visit the University’s Animal Ethics webpage for more info about doing research with these guys:

Sarah McGregor, Graduate Research School

Love is in the Air!

Vday blog2

The University of Otago is not just a great place to do a doctorate, it also is the place to find true love.  To celebrate Valentine’s Day and all thing lovely and lovey,the awesome Mel Adams hunted out Daniel Wee (PhD candidate in Philosophy) and Saemyi Chung (PhD candidate in Social and Community Work) to discuss juggling love and a PhD.

First up, how did you meet?

Daniel: At Abbey College–she arrived as a new resident and sat at my table during dinner.

Saemyi: I arrived at Abbey College and the senior college assistant introduced me to Daniel because there were no residents left at the dining room. He was lucky!

How do you find balancing PhD study and life as a married couple?

Daniel: We’re doing fine. The important thing is to organise your time well and take breaks!                                   

Saemyi: We are doing well. Since we stay at Abbey that means that we don’t need to prepare meals and clean our rooms!

If Abbey College was burning down which will you save – your PhD research or your beloved? 

Daniel: Saemyi, but thank goodness for Dropbox!

Saemyi: Of course you know my answer, Daniel!

Photo for Valentines interviewAny tips for couples who are about to start a PhD?

Daniel: Try and have a rough budget planned together, and try to subsidise costs through sharing.

Saemyi: They should learn to respect each other’s discipline, and share housework.

Do you find it helps having a spouse who is also studying a PhD?

Daniel: Definitely. It helps to have someone going through similar challenges to talk share experiences with.

Saemyi: Of course. We can understand each other very well, particularly with regards to meeting deadlines!

When did you get married?  Did you have a big wedding?

Daniel and Saemyi: We got married in June of last year. I guess it was a fairly large ceremony, about 300 people attended. It was held at Saemyi’s church in Seoul, Korea.

Did you take your theses on your honeymoon?

Daniel: My supervisor suggested it, saying you never know when inspiration or an idea might hit you! But I think I left it at the back of my mind until we got back to Dunedin.

Saemyi: Of course not! My supervisor said they got married when they were doing their own PhD and knew that it would be best for me to enjoy my honeymoon.

If your spouse was an animal what would they be?

Daniel: Saemyi likes nature and walking in the botanic garden, so I think a bird would fit her.

Saemyi: A dolphin, because he’s quite clever and likes salmon.

If your thesis was an animal what would it be?

Daniel: I guess it would be a circus animal, something that needs constant care and training—maybe a circus elephant?

Saemyi: A cheetah would be nice—reaching its target without making any mistakes!

Who is due to submit their thesis first?

Daniel: I am, by about ten months before Saemyi .

Saemyi: He is ten months ahead of me, but you know what, anything can happen before the end!

And do you have plans to celebrate the first thesis submission or will you have a joint celebration when you both submit?

Daniel: We’ll probably have a small celebration when I submit, and then a bigger one once Saemyi submits hers.

Saemyi: Thank you Daniel, I agree!

So you’re thinking of a PhD?

PhD application pic

Just finished some postgrad study and craving more research to sink your teeth into? Like the ring of ‘Doctor’ before your name, but a drop of blood makes you queasy? Then a PhD might be just right for you!

The Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) programme is the University’s highest level supervised research degree. We currently have over 1300 doctoral candidates studying at Otago, from both around New Zealand and overseas. Here are a few tips on how to get started with a PhD application.

Pre-requisite step:  You need to have put in some hard yards before applying – here’s the nitty gritty:

Every candidate must be a university graduate and produce evidence of ability to undertake research in the area of proposed study. Such evidence shall include:

i.  a Bachelor’s degree with first or upper second class Honours or equivalent (including a research component, e.g. a dissertation or a thesis); or

ii.  a Master’s degree (including an appropriate research component, e.g. a dissertation or a thesis); or

iii.  appropriate research experience (e.g. publications in academic journals, books, etc).

Got it? Cool – that will lead you nicely onto step one…

Step one: Find a supervisor!

Someone needs to be there with you on your research journey, to guide you, advise you, and support you; maybe even to provide you with coffee, chocolate, office space with a comfy chair conducive to napping in…

But in all seriousness, approaching a department and finding a supervisor with the right expertise, and that is able to supervise you, is the first necessary step. Keep in mind that this person will be your ‘colleague’ – we get regular feedback from completed PhD candidates that choosing the right supervisor off the bat is a crucial aspect of the PhD journey.

Step Two: The application process [Sidenote – you can totally apply at any time of the year – woo!]

a) If you’re a domestic student (‘Domestic’ includes Aussies; and international students who have previously studied at the Uni of Otago):

You will complete an online application form through eVision. You can access this from our website:

After filling out the form, you will need to upload to eVision a research proposal, current CV, any academic transcripts for tertiary study undertaken outside of the University of Otago (we can get the Otago ones ourselves), and a Scholarship Application form – if you are applying for a University of Otago Doctoral Scholarship.

eVision then sends us your submitted application, and provided all the necessary documents are there, we will forward it on to your nominated department for them to complete their sections. Once it’s returned to us, we process it and flick it on to the meeting of the Graduate Research Committee to determine your fate… dun dun dunnnnn!

Check out this sweet flow chart for more detail:

b) If you’re an international student (new to the Uni of Otago):

Once you’ve found that supervisor, contact the International Office (, and they will work through the application process with you. Once they’ve done their bit, they send your application to us and as above, it goes to the GRC meeting for consideration.

Check out this just-as-cool flow chart for more detail:

Step Three: The outcome

Technically you don’t need to do anything until we contact you – but bear with us, your application will be processed as quickly as possible. Sometimes we need to follow up on a few things, but rest assured, we’ll contact you as soon as we can with an outcome!

Other stuff:

Here are some helpful links to our website, where you can get more information on the process, and access other handy tidbits:

General PhD Information:

More info on applying for the PhD:

The Doctoral Office is located in the Graduate Research School, on the Ground Floor of the Clocktower Building. If you have any questions, please feel free to email us at: