If you’re like me,* every so often you come across people in your line of work who you really feel like you should despise. Not because they are rotters, but because they are just so thoroughly excellent at their job and in your wildest dreams you could never reach that level of excellence. Not only are these rare beasts professionally stellar, they are hilarious and lovely to boot. Ptchaw!
Dr Inger Mewburn, aka the Thesis Whisperer, is one such person and it was my absolute pleasure to catch up with her when she visited Dunedin last year. Inger presented a number or workshops for us and candidates who attended were gifted wisdom, realistic and helpful advice, and a bunch of laughs.
Inger has an online presence that you should really check out and emulate; this is one time when it is most definitely a good idea to ‘use your eyes and plagiarise’**. Inger is innovative, insightful, engaged and helps thousands of thesis candidates across the world.
Inger’s Blog, The Thesis Whisperer, is known as the go-to resource for research candidates and academics interested in research training. Her work on Twitter is highly regarded and she provides many a moment of sanity for those being swept along by the crazy ride that is the thesis journey. Not so shabby for someone living in the pornography capital of Australia***.
I asked Inger the tough questions and here is a completely unauthorised, mostly true rendition of that conversation.
**Style-wise I mean; for Pete’s sake, do not claim that you are the Director of Research Training at ANU.
*** To be fair, she also lives in the actual capital of Australia and happens to work at an institution that is ranked 25th top University in the world.
Claire Gallop, Graduate Research School
What brought you to Dunedin?
The Graduate Research School! I connected with Claire through Twitter and was invited to come to Dunedin. I’ve been eating, running and working with interesting students. The workshops I’ve been running have been on exams, avoiding research mistakes and employability.
What’s the funniest story you have about an Airedale terrier?
It was a long time ago, let’s move on.
What do you think the main differences between NZ and Australian PhD candidates are?
New Zealanders are very reserved in a workshop situation; you think your jokes fall flat. <Mine do!> It is a little bit more difficult as an educator because the feedback is so much more reserved than in Australia. New Zealand students are also very modest. I was running a writing bootcamp at Victoria and every 5000 words you get a squeezy Lego block to celebrate. In Australia there is a lot of celebration when the students they reached these milestones but in New Zealand the students would mention it quietly and not want any fuss made about it. Being more reserved doesn’t change the fact that they are just as smart and interesting though.
Are there standard hurdles for all/most PhD candidates and if so, what can they do to minimise them?
People don’t recognize where they are up to or that ways of writing a thesis are different to what they did as an undergraduate. You write multiple drafts, not one draft. You make a mess and clean it up. It’s not a good idea to minimise these hurdles; it’s how you become an academic researcher. We learn by doing but we think it’s wrong because it’s different and because it’s not talked about.
If you had limitless resources at your disposal, what support would you like to provide for thesis candidates?
Bootcamp. This weekend we ran one at Victoria. It is a 28 hour weekend programme that I call the Mother-in Law Treatment. When I was writing my thesis I went and stayed with my mother-in-law. I handed her the child, locked myself in a room and she fed me. This is what we do on Bootcamp. We take away all the distractions and care for the students while they write. At this Bootcamp there were 22 people and they wrote 249,000 words between them. The challenge is to write 20,000 words each and we teach a different approach to writing. You learn to make a mess and clean it up. We have academic skills advisors, a yoga coach – we take a very holistic approach. We also change the conversation from bonding over how awful writing is to celebrating our achievements. It is targeted at people who will not finish any other way; people who are over-time and are desperate. <Hey, that’s me!> It works, we’ve had 5 completions that we wouldn’t have otherwise had so it pays for itself several times over. It was developed at Melbourne University by Liam Connell and Peta Freestone and there’s a blogpost about it at the Thesis Whisperer.
What is the one thing you think PhD candidates need but don’t realise they need? Only one?? Most common problem is that they think they are a student still. They are called candidate for a reason. There is lots of baggage that comes with being a student, particularly in their attitude to writing. You need to write multiple drafts. The student attitude to their supervisor is just to trust them but you need to realise they are a colleague and also a competitor – coopertition.
Would you like to fight one horse sized duck or one hundred duck-sized horses?
Hmmm, that’s a tough question. Which poop smells worse, because I’m going to kick the s**t out of them? Duck poop smells worse than horse poop, so I’m going with 100 duck-sized horses.
What’s your favourite sandwich?
The Bánh mì. Mmm, the carrot, chicken, coriander. Crunchy, sweet and sour- so tasty.
Australians like to steal our stuff (Split Enz, Phar Lap, Pavlova) – would you like to take Whaleoil?
Only if you take Andrew Bolt. Perhaps we could put them on an island and they could fight each other?
When Mike King (Dr, not Comedian) is not researching animal ethics or boring people about pencils, he’s the PhD coordinator at the Bioethics Centre. He took some time to muse about creativity, chairs, and the hard slog of research.
Claire Gallop, Graduate Research School
Research is a very creative process, although it often doesn’t seem it. You’re sitting at your desk, or in the lab, poring over the dense and complex writing of others, or over your data, or over a piece of equipment, trying to understand what’s in front of you. Doing this analysis you are usually making use of ideas and work of others: theories, statistical tests, machines, methods. It can often seem like you’re merely treading in someone’s footprints, not plotting a bold new path.
If it feels like you’re treading in someone’s footprints, especially in the first years of your research, I think you’re doing it right. But your feelings are a bit misleading. You’re not treading in someone’s footprints, it’s more like putting on someone’s shoes, and walking in them for a while. Your supervisors are there to help you choose the right shoes, and to help point you in the right direction, but the walking is up to you, and as you start to feel comfortable in the shoes, you will find interesting things to look at and will start to direct yourself over to them on the way.
Charles and Ray Eames were a husband and wife couple who were responsible for some of the best design work of the late-middle 20th century. Above is a very cool lounge chair you might recognise, and here is a video clip that shows the relative size of things in the universe. Both are highly creative and the product of immense skill. Yet one of their mottos was:
“Innovate as a last resort. More horrors are done in the name of innovation than any other.”
What Charles and Ray Eames did was to take a simple thing – the lounge chair – and adjusted it to make it a bit better for sitting in, using cheap, existing materials. Or take a simple idea – that things get smaller the further you are away from them – and use it to present a huge amount of scientific information in a beautiful and simple way. Both are hailed as huge contributions to their craft.
By making use of existing ideas (sometimes they’ve existed for a looong time) and taking them a little step further than the last person did, or putting them together with other ideas, and adjusting them carefully to suit the new terrain that research reveals and traverses, you’re doing something very creative. You’re creating knowledge. To quote the Otago PhD Regulations, this will be a “significant contribution to knowledge in the particular field”.
Dr Mike King, Bioethics Centre
Science gets up in Claire Gallop’s grill and she shares the fall out and the lessons.
The last science controversy I was involved in was when I refused to go on the 7th Form (Year 13) Biology Camp on the grounds that I didn’t like the outdoors. Since then I have managed to avoid the difficulties inherent in the sciences by staying indoors, working alone and sticking to non-problematic subjects like politics and philosophy.
My recent science scandal crept up on me, but in hindsight was entirely predictable. It’s been Science Fair time. Or, as it perhaps should be known, take a newly minted teen (NMT) add a science project and watch the family chaos ensue time.
The first issue arose when the NMT decided to do a project with a friend. Coordination problems and disputes over who was going to do the glory experiments meant that collaboration was dissolved in less than ideal circumstances.
These issues paled in comparison to the real difficulties that emerged. Chief among the problems were intellectual property disputes, legitimate authorship and inequitable commercialisation. Given that the mother-child collaboration is not so easily dissolved, these issues have required resolutions focused on mediation and compromise (mostly by me).
A tame academic (Dr X) came up with the idea for the experiment. After considerable negotiation, and the school teacher giving the project the nod, it was deemed acceptable to the NMT.
After consultation between Dr X and me, the hypothesis was honed and the method was devised. The NMT demanded I bought the necessary materials. I then bought the materials. The other half (OH) then built the testing apparatus.
After some energetic negotiation, the NMT performed the necessary experiments. Some further even more vigorous, and ultimately unsuccessful, negotiation took place and I found myself writing the project up. The NMT cast an editorial eye over the work and indicated where I needed to make corrections; the outcome of that interaction is probably best forgotten.
Nevertheless, something was produced and OH got to work on sticking the work on to the Science Fair board. The NMT did some excellent work on decorating the board including the addition of the author’s name (“you forgot to put my name on! How could you???”).
With promises of a cut of any prize money that was won (a cut that instantly got reduced the moment it looked like real money was going to change hands) my brush with science came to an end.
The whole process left me thinking about some of the conflicts I have seen between students and supervisors. Issues around legitimate role in the project; was I the PI because I’d fronted with the cash? Was Dr X the PI because he came up with the idea? Was the NMT the PI because, let’s face it, the rest of us were simply acting as research assistants? Even when it is clear who the PI actually is, disgruntlement can occur when people reflect on their actual levels of involvement as opposed to what they were expecting to happen.
Add a publication to the mix and real issues arise if people perceive they have received inadequate recognition for their contribution. Mid-way through the Science Fair project was not the time to work out the division of labour, authorship order or royalties. By that time, we were all sure of our entitlements in the project and were less able to view the issues with an impartial eye.
All of these things speak to the need to establish guidelines before work begins. We are all hopeful at the beginning of any project that things will pan out without any need to give any real attention to tricky matters of who does what and what that means for how the project will go.
Relying on shared understanding of expectations and norms rarely works out well. Conflicts may occur and without any recognition of rules to deal with them, small niggles can escalate and bitterness and anxiety can easily develop. A lot of energy gets absorbed resolving issues that feel dreadful but were initially quite manageable.
A Student-Supervisor Agreement and an honest assessment of expectations at the beginning of any thesis journey will not rule out conflict, but a willingness to engage with the possibility that the ride won’t always be rainbows and unicorns certainly helps to set the right tone for a productive collaboration between student and supervisor.
And what did I learn from all this? Well I’ve started drafting a Supervisor-Student agreement for next year when Science Fair comes around again. I’ve also learned to have a bit more faith in group projects. When it came time for the NMT to explain and defend the topic, I was slightly concerned; beyond effective project management, what on earth had they actually learned? I was pleasantly surprised to discover that they had a clear overview of the methods, results, and conclusions of the project. Moreover, there was a new found enthusiasm for and confidence about science.
Who knew? It seems Science does have a few things to teach the Humanities after all.
Claire Gallop, Graduate Research School