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Category Archives: GRS Community

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 🙂

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 Dean Cooks a Sausage!!

What:  Dean’s Sausage Sizzle

When: Thursday the 26th February

Where:  Abbey Common

Why:  Fun!

It was a beautiful day for a real kiwi bbq.  The smell of charred snarlers and the sounds of some dodgy tunes filled the air.


Rachel “Break-Your-BBQ” Sproken-Smith, Susan “Onion-Empress” Craig, Sarah “Monster-Sausage-Wrangler” McGregor, and Claire “I’ll-Falafel-You” Gallop put their spatulas on the line for the Graduate Research Community.

the chefs

As a manager, I look to develop my team wherever I can.  Witness the enjoyment on Tina’s face as I teach her how to flip a falafel on the BBQ.*

TIna and Claire

The top ten per cent of theses at Otago are classified as exceptional.  It is a little known fact that in the world of charcuterie there are special classifications for exceptional sausages.  1 in 14 sausages are Monster Sausages and GRS are awestruck in their presence.

salad and an exceptional long sausage

Rachel “Smasher” Spronken-Smith destroys the BBQ with a brutal prod of the tongs. Some gentle probing uncovers the fact that she doesn’t want her husband to know that she can actually barbeque and is prepared to destroy Abbey College’s equipment to avoid the grill at home.

Dean and broken bbq

The queue for food before the riot broke out.  Rachel “Destroyer” Spronken-Smith waggled her tongs at the marauding attendees and soon got them back in line.


It was a lovely event and it was great to see so many people come along.  Thanks to the team at GRS for organising it and for Abbey College for hosting it.

*<As a staff member I pretend to put up with Claire’s nonsense but actually I am thinking about Panda’s handsome and broad shoulders> Tina.

Claire Gallop, 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!

Behind Department Doors: The Bioethics Centre

Today’s post is part of an occasional series of revealing peeks inside the heart of the graduate student’s world; their department.  Sarah McGregor asked Dr Mike King, PhD Coordinator at the Bioethics Centre.


Mike, I see that not only do you and the Bioethics Centre have a significant online presence in the form of your Bioethics Blog and your FacebookTwitter and Google+ pages, but you are also making a splash in the world of university human interest.  Would you like to tell us about that?

More than anything.  Yes, I recently featured in The Otago Bulletin’s Hidden Talents section.

Ah yes, Hidden Talents.  You do realise that being obsessed with pencils isn’t a talent don’t you?  If you made the pencils that might be a talent, but having a bunch of them doesn’t seem very talented.  Nor hidden. Tango, now that’s a talent. Perchance, do you dance?

Ah, no.  Isn’t this interview about the Bioethics Centre?

OK, has anyone famous ever come out of your department?

Maybe not famous in the “famous” sense of famous. In the “academic” sense of famous, Tom Douglas completed a BMedSc(Hons) in Bioethics and has gone on to do great things at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, some of which you can read about in the Otago Magazine.

Another is Nick Fancourt, who completed a BMedSc(Hons) and Masters in Bioethics and Health Law at the Bioethics Centre. Nick was awarded a Fullbright Scholarship and is currently a PhD student at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Lots of other postgraduates have gone on to do great things, too.

Do you have a postgraduate/research liaison person in your department? If so, who are they?

I am the PhD coordinator, and Neil Pickering is the coordinator for other postgraduates. In practice we overlap a lot on dealing with postgrads, since many activities and issues involve the whole cohort, rather than being degree-specific. Neil has a very good understanding of the various options available for postgraduate study. I offer a complimentary pencil with every inquiry.*

As a potential research student, what would be the best way to approach or find a supervisor within your department?

I think the best way is to think hard about what you need in a supervisor to achieve what you want academically. Then read the profile pages of the academic staff in the department, and some of their work, and approach staff to talk to discuss your research idea with them and see who feels like the best fit. It’s a good idea to approach a postgraduate coordinator at the same time, so that they can help with the process. Sometimes there are constraints on supervisor availability and other factors that they can advise on.

What is the postgrad community like within your department? Do you hold social events for postgrads or a special welcome for new students?

The postgrad community is lively and diverse at Bioethics. Since you can take postgraduate bioethics from a range of different undergraduate degrees there are postgrads who have academic backgrounds in philosophy, sociology, medicine, law, science, and more. There is also a great mixture of nationalities among the postgrads.

The postgrads are very keen to hear about and support each other’s work. One of the ways they do this is by holding a weekly Research Forum on Friday mornings after our weekly staff and postgrad student morning tea. After morning tea a postgrad can present some work they’re doing and get help from other postgrads and staff in attendance. We also hold a social event at the start of every year to welcome new postgrads, and the occasional get together during the year, such as when we have postgrads studying at a distance visit the Centre for a residential weekend.

I’m trying to start a Bioethics-Pencil-Fancying-Self-Help-Group, as well, but so far we haven’t had any takers.

We notice that when some students come to submit their PhD they come with an entourage; does your department do anything special for students who complete their PhD or Masters?

It very much depends on the student. One postgrad student I supervised (with Colin Gavaghan from Law) preferred things being low-key, so we had a coffee to celebrate and she graduated in absentia! Nicola Collie, a Masters student I co-supervised (with Gareth Jones) submitted her Masters with an entourage of Bioethics postgrads accompanying her, which you can see on twitter. I am considering offering a complimentary pencil (usually HB/No. 2) with every completion.

Have you noticed postgraduate students change over the years? If so, how?

Well, in my day, everyone tied an onion on their belt, which was the fashion at the time, and we would catch the tram to the exchange for tuppence and still have a halfpenny left to buy a new pair of plimsoles. Now in those days plimsoles were called batts. “Two of your finest halfpenny batts” we’d say and then stroll down the high street in our shiny batts to see if the new season’s yams were at the grocer’s for yam rolling; yam rolling being the national sport of the day. Now yam rolling wasn’t for me, on account of my thumb being double-jointed. Now where was I? Oh yeah: the important thing is that the onion on your belt was yellow in hue…

Has any exceptionally interesting or controversial research ever come out of the department?

I’m sure this is true in any discipline, but all of the research postgrads do is interesting. There is partly selection bias here – one of the chief desiderata for a research project should be that it’s interesting! Bioethics research can be pretty controversial at times, as can any discussion about what’s morally right and wrong. There have been times when people have been offended or disagreed strongly with a piece of research. This can be very constructive if it’s handled well, and means people are engaging with your work and care about what you say. We have a page that lists the research completed by Bioethics postgrads and has links to the work in the OUR Archive, which gives open access to a lot of this really interesting, good, and sometimes controversial, postgraduate research.

If you could replace an on-campus urban myth that would make your life easier, what would it be?

One would be for everyone to know that people handling administration, research, and teaching really do care about the people they deal with and their work. Another would be to dispel the myth that I give away pencils to, like, anybody.

If GRS could grant your department one wish, what would it be?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from The Twilight Zone, it’s that wishes always go awry. So, I would wish for everyone to have the superpower of their choice. There’s no way that could ever go awry.

What is the thing you do best for postgraduate students in your department?

Staff are really friendly and approachable and keen to help students get the most out of their time here. One staff member provides the best pencils on campus.

Bravo for Bra-Vo

Each year GRS staff unleash their crafty talents (and believe me there is a fair bit of it about the place) and take part in the Bra-Vo competition.  I caught up with Katherine van der Vliet the GRS Bra-Vo wrangler to learn more about the event. – Mel Adams


Mel:  First up what is Bra-Vo?

Katherine:  Bra-Vo is a fund raising event to raise money for the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation.  It is organized by Fran Cockerell from Women’s and Children’s Health at the University of Otago.

Mel: Why do you take part?

Katherine: 1 in 5 women will get breast cancer in their lifetime in NZ, so it is important to help raise money towards research and awareness.


Mel: So what is it you actually do when you take part in Bra-Vo?

Katherine: You decorate a “Nana’ bra in the chosen theme and model your creation over your clothes with the other participants at the a morning tea held at Women’s and Children’s Health.

Mel: Over the years there have been many different themes what would be your favorite? (This years was ‘Bling it on’.)

Katherine: Kiwiana was the theme two years ago.  There were a lot of ideas to choose from, each bra was quite different.  They were all extremely funny and very creative.


Mel:  Where do you get your inspiration from for your Bra – Talk us through the process of creating an Awesome Bra-Vo Bra?

Katherine:  I look on the internet and look around me and think about it for a bit, then something usually just pops into my head.

Mel:  I have heard rumors that you have granny bras stashed in the bottom of your desk draw- is this true?

Katherine:  No comment!


Mel:  Do you think people are more likely  to take part in charity event if they events involves some form of creativity instead of just making a donation?

Katherine: I think people get quite enthusiastic about an event that is different, but because it takes a lot of time and effort in the end they find it easier just to make a donation, which is fine because we are all different.

Mel: I have also heard rumors that there should be a GRS Bra-Vo hall of fame established or perhaps an official history of the GRS Bra-Vo experience, do you think this something that should happen?

Katherine:  It would be nice to keep all the bras that have been made and have them on display somewhere.  A lot of time and effort has been put in to them as it’s a shame if they are just discarded or hidden away.

Mel:  Finally if you could have your pick of themes what would be your ideal theme?

Katherine:  Country:  pick a country and decorate the bra to represent the country.  The other participants have to guess what the country is.

GroupThanks Katherine for sharing with us her Bra-Vo experience – I can’t wait until next year’s theme is announced – Bling it on!!!


Claire Gallop, the Ghost of GRS?

Ghost Claire

As part of our series checking out the who’s and what’s of the Graduate Research School I paid my first visit to Claire Gallop – Manager of the School* to ask her the hard, and sometimes not so hard, questions.  Claire talked 91.38% nonsense about her role in the School and the wider University.  Here’s a run-down of our conversation….

Susan Craig, Graduate Research School

1)      Tell me about your role as “Manager of the GRS” – what is it you do?

The job is part Michael Clayton and part Mary Poppins with a spot of Dead Poets Society thrown in.  Thankfully it is rarely The Exorcist.

It’s great work if you can get it.

2)      What’s your favourite aspect of the role?

The bribes.

No!  Of course it’s working with the thesis candidates.  They are a bunch of smart, enthusiastic people and it’s great to be a part of their thesis journey.  I loved running the Insider’s Guide to Doctoral Domination PhD induction programme (which is coming back next year).  It is fantastic to meet the candidates and hopefully be able to help them with issues that they might be struggling with.

I also really enjoy when a candidate comes into the School to submit a PhD – it’s great when they bring their friends and colleagues and really celebrate what is, after all, an incredible achievement.  When I finally submit might I’m going to create chaos the like of which GRS has never seen before!

3)      I can’t help but notice the fabulous collection of Lego in your office and the smattering of Halloween decorations poking out of your cupboards…  would you like to tell me about those?  Rumour has it you have the unofficial title of GRS Halloween Queen…

Not after last night’s truly evil Halloween Quiz run by OUPS; turns out I’m barely a Halloween Lady-in-Waiting.  I reckon they made up half the answers to those questions.  Where was the romance novel section?  Why didn’t they ask for the lyrics of ABBA songs or what PhD Regulation 4 b. is?**

I take back what I said about enjoying working with students.

Ahem, yes, I do have a bit of Lego in my office.  I am slowly building up a village from the Creator Expert series.  I keep it in my office so my kids can’t play with it.


4)      The Man Upstairs much?

<Big Scuffle>


5)      I know from personal experience and enjoyment that you are a fabulous baker Claire.  What’s your favourite thing to bake and why?

Caramel Chip Cookies.  Mmmm  cookies.  They are super yum and super easy.

6)      If you could have ONE wish granted, what would it be?

George Clooney.

7)      You’ve been with the GRS for a few years now, but I’d like to know about your life before the GRS…

Do you mean post- or pre- witness protection?

Well, I was a lecturer in the Bioethics Centre for around five years and I’ve been hanging around the University doing a PhD in Philosophy for quite a while.  Before that I lurked around the Politics Department at Auckland University studying and teaching.  I guess I’m a university groupie.

8)      What is the best piece of advice you would like to share with our graduate research candidates?

Ask questions! Ask lots of them, ask them diplomatically, and ask the right people.   Ask your department about what they do to support you.  Ask the Graduate Research School about the PhD regulations.  Ask your supervisor about how they manage the writing process.

If you are worried about it, ask!  Actually, even if you are not worried about it, ask.  But ultimately this is your thesis so you will have to decide how you choose to respond to the answers you are given.

9)      Your house is a bit of a menagerie, with a collection of giant cats and chickens.  If there was a fire, which would you save first and why??

Oh that’s easy.  It would have to be Monster Truck.  He may be big of body and even bigger of paw, but he is a cat of very little brain.  All the others could get out alive but Monster Truck would walk towards the fire and slap a steak on the couch thinking he was at a barbecue.


10)   And finally, and most importantly, would you rather fight a horse-sized-duck or 100 duck-sized horses?

It’s a little known untrue fact that I’m called the Bruce Lee of GRS so I’m glad you asked me this. I’ve thought about this long and hard and I’m totally going 100 duck-sized-horses. Ducks are dodgy at the best of times and a horse-sized-duck would be lethal.  That vicious bitey bill would be at you.  Also who wants to get slapped by a giant webbed foot?

However, you could easily boot the teeny horses out of the way.  I reckon you could punt them quite far; it would be poetry in motion.***

* The views expressed in this interview do not represent the views of the Graduate Research School nor the University of Otago.  Heck, they barely even represent Claire’s views.

** 4 b. The minimum period of study shall be equivalent to 2.5 full-time years and the maximum period shall be equivalent to 4 full-time years. Exceptions shall be permitted only with approval of the Senate.

*** No horse-sized ducks or duck-sized-horses were harmed in the course of this interview.




The PhD Seesaw

At the Graduate Research School’s recent Networking function I had the pleasure of talking to a PhD candidate, Sim KwongNui, who I discovered was happy to write a post about her experience as a thesis candidate at Otago.  Sim said, ‘but it’s not a bad news story!  I really like my supervisors and I like doing a PhD”.

It’s really easy to focus on the negative; on the hiccups we have along the thesis journey, on the troubles we have with writing or with our supervisors. It is important to acknowledge these issues and to speak openly about our difficulties and to examine possible solutions.

However, it is also important to celebrate our successes and to acknowledge the awesome work and the fantastic collaborations that are happening all the time across the University. No thesis experience should be just a bad news story!

This is Sim KwongNui’s reflection on the role her supervisors play in her study and a chance to celebrate a good news story.

Claire Gallop, Graduate Research School


“PhD study is like a seesaw ride full of ups and downs but I am blessed to say that my PhD study is a well balanced seesaw ride where my three supervisors keep it calm and steady at all times.”



When asked why I pursue my PhD study in the same department at the same university, an answer I always give is “Because I have great supervisors!” Honestly, I do.

Undoubtedly, all my three supervisors are quite different in their ways of carrying out a research project, providing supervision or giving feedback. Here are some examples of their different ways of talking to me in a similar scenario:

Supervisor X: “I hope you are spending the afternoon celebrating reaching this important milestone!”

Supervisor Y: “All good. Just one suggestion.”

Supervisor Z: “You are progressing fine. However, I would suggest that to finish in time you will need to be investing more time in writing.”

It is fascinating to see the differences in my three supervisors’ personalities. Somehow those differences complement each other and balance my PhD seesaw ride nicely. After all, my supervisors are not all the same as individuals so why would they be all the same as supervisors?

I really appreciate my Primary Supervisor’s empathy, motivation, enthusiasm, immense knowledge, and, above all, her untiring assistance and unerring support of all aspects of my PhD study. I will always remember the many times that I go to her and she has never failed to be there for me.

I am also indebted to my talented and highly motivated co-supervisor, for his generous and unequivocal support of my academic pursuits. I could not continue my efforts without his consistent encouragement and enthusiasm.

My sincere gratitude also to my other co-supervisor, for persevering with me as my supervisor from the time I started my Masters study. He has played a vital role in developing my understanding of research and he has provided me with a deep appreciation of this field of study. I attribute the level of my current position in academia to his excellent guidance, effort and patience throughout my research journey.

In short, all of my three supervisors’ encouragement and depth of knowledge, as well as their availability, have been major catalysts for my PhD study. For their contribution and good-natured support, I could not have wished for better or more approachable supervisors.

I understand that many postgraduate students have issues with their supervisors (or vice versa) but I wonder if it is due to the supervisor(s) and/or the student’s misconception of this seesaw ride? The reason a seesaw was made for two parties is that when you go down, there is always someone there to lift you up again.

Undeniably, I am lucky to have three supervisors who not only lift me up but also work as a team to keep my ride safe and stable. Nevertheless, I believe it is a joint effort between the supervisor(s) and the PhD student that makes this seesaw ride a good one – our most difficult task as a working partner is to offer understanding when we don’t really understand.

So, perhaps let’s not allow one bad apple to spoil the rest of the basket: there are always good apples for us to enjoy.

 Sim KwongNui, PhD Candidate, Higher Education Development Centre


2014 Graduate Research Festival Round Up

Congratulations to all the participants of the inaugural Thesis in Three (Pictures!).  This competition was an exploration of the thesis journey through images.

We had 14 participants who turned their thesis into art using tools as diverse as powerpoint and watercolours.  This competition was the brainchild of PhD candidate, Ann Cronin and all those who participated in it, thoroughly enjoyed the experience.  This event rounded off the two week Graduate Research School Graduate Festival.

Bridgette Toy-Cronin’s Thesis Journey (Self-Represented Litigants in the NZ Civil Courts)Cronin 3

Joanne Choi’s How I Feel About My Thesis (Continuous and Simultaneous measurement of Intraoral pH and Temperature)

Joanne Choi 3

Susan Wardell’s Thesis Journey (Living in the Tension; a comparative study of mental health, spirituality and care labour among two communities of youth workers)

Susan Wardell 3

Man, the Otago thesis candidates are talented!

The festival started out with the OUSA Supervisor of the Year awards.  There were around 200 votes for favourite supervisors and Associate Professor Ruth Fitzgerald took out the overall prize.  You can read more about this in the Bulletin.

The next highlight of the festival was the visit from the absolutely fabulous Dr Inger (Thesis Whisperer) Mewburn.  Inger works at ANU and if she does not know something about doctoral education, then it’s not worth knowing.

Inger ran workshops on tragic research mistakes, examinations, and building an online profile.  After working her hard I asked her the even harder questions in a tell-all interview.  Look out for a future post where we will find out if Inger would rather fight a horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses amongst other things.

We held a networking event where we played networking bingo.  Finding who has a Lego village in their office was particularly vexing for the participants (it was me, it was me!).

GRS put on some extra workshops and the new support group for staff writing a thesis, Occupatus, met for the first time.  It was great to meet some folk who are in the same boat I am – juggling work at the University, family, and a thesis can be an exciting ask, to say the least.  Note to self though, staff-students don’t eat nearly as much as student-students!

It is always lovely to celebrate the wonderful work that graduate research candidates are doing and this year was no exception.  It’s important to venture out beyond our own offices and labs and to meet with other thesis candidates, to share war-stories and forge new alliances.

All I ask for when we run the next festival is that my teeth don’t go feral again and my whole fortnight isn’t dominated by mouthageddon!

Claire Gallop, Graduate Research School

Wanting to publish your research? A new course is designed to help you do this!

I’ve written prose that would move you to tears with the elegance of the sentence construction.  My deft choice of words and the profoundness of my arguments can thwart the cleverest of opponents.  The written word is mere putty in my hands; I truly am a literary giant.

Yeah Right.

Ever noticed how wonderful your writing is when it’s still in your head?  My imaginary articles are so beautiful that they should be displayed in a Museum of Rare and Precious Gems.  My real life articles, not so much – sometimes they are barely fit for a House of Horrors.

So how do we turn our horrors into gems?

Academic writing is a skill like another other, and for anyone interested in a career in research, it is an essential skill to develop.  Writing is the life blood of a research career; it’s how we share and challenge our findings and arguments.

No one thinks a violinist got up one morning and could play Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D Minor.  Yet there are all sorts of myths around writing that downplays the hard graft that goes into good prose.

Associate Professor Karen Nairn from the College of Education has a new course that will bust some myths and help build practical writing skills to get publication results.

Claire Gallop, Graduate Research School



EDUC 464: Writing for publication in the Social Sciences is a new postgraduate course for semester 1, 2015, aimed at doctoral, masters and postgraduate students in the Social Sciences (worth 20 points).

Assoc Prof Karen Nairn has designed this one-semester course to take you through the stages of writing a journal article, ready for submission at the end of the course. The course is designed to be practical, with lots of opportunities for writing and receiving feedback. Classes/workshops are scheduled Tuesdays 3-5 and Fridays 10-12 in semester 1.

The best way to maximise the benefits of this course is to have data collected ready for analysis and writing up for a journal article. If you do not have any data but would really like to do this course next year, there is data available from the National Education Monitoring Project, now called the National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement, to write up. Email karen.nairn@otago to discuss this.

Karen has been running writing workshops since 2005, and a fortnightly writing group for colleagues and postgraduate students since 2011. She co-authored an article on demystifying academic writing in 2009. Her latest writing foray is an article about the challenges of collaborative writing, co-authored with 6 other members of the fortnightly writing group, for the journal of Higher Education Research & Development.

Here are the specifics:

EDUC 464 Writing for Publication in the Social Sciences

Each semester                  0.1667 EFTS           OL       20 points

Students will be guided through the process of writing a journal article, reporting their own data, ready for submission by the end of the course.

P       72 300-level points

L       Dunedin

SC     Arts and Music

Note: This paper is primarily intended for graduates in the Social Sciences.

And if you want to check out my writing!

Cameron, J., Nairn, K. & Higgins, J. (2009). Demystifying academic writing: Reflections on emotions, know-how and academic identity. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 33(2), 269-284.

Nairn, K., Cameron, J., Anakin, M.,Juntrasook, A.,Wass, R., Sligo, J.and Morrison, C. (forthcoming).Negotiating the Challenge of Collaborative Writing: Learning from One Writing Group’s Mutiny. Higher Education Research & Development.

Assoc Prof Karen Nairn, College of Education