Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Alex Page's Top 10 (or so) Tips for Doing A PhD

Alex garbing together a gang, Fadi and I  (Melbourne, for TASA2016)

A guest post from Alexander Page on 'doing a Phd'. Alex is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney looking into 
Indigenous community organisations in Western Sydney and their interactions with government. - Mathew. 

The Tips!

     You v The Thesis – it’s up to you to take control of your thesis, it’s a training period and it will be hard, but you’ve got that will power to get here – make sure you maintain it throughout)
     “What’s next?” – a key question to ask yourself at all times. You always need to keep moving forward in the PhD, otherwise you’ll not only feel worse, but you may drown! Ask yourself, “what’s next?” and then “how much can you do in 3.5 years?” – this will keep you moving, no matter how small
     Chip away / The Marathon Mentality – this is not a sprint, it’s a long slug. Chipping away, everyday, whether it be a book, 3 journals, 1000 words or whatever, just make sure you’re moving every single day
     Look for diamonds in everything / collect, don’t hoard – whether it is inside your field, in other areas of study, or through art, music, film, fiction whatever! Steal great ideas from everywhere, get creative, make them yours. Also, is reading all of Foucault totally necessary? Grab the diamonds.
     Recharge and recalibrate – while you might not guess it from my aura, it’s important to take the time to cool down, and let enough fuel build up for the following day. A journal rejection, a tough student, an idea that’s not getting into your brain fast enough – these will all take a toll. Make sure you give yourself the space to recharge and recalibrate when you need (and to let your family and friends know if necessary)
     Exercise, now – I’m not joking. Swimming, walking, jogging, power lifting, whatever. Keep your body moving so you don’t get a sore back, feel stuck, whatever – it’s interesting the way pushing a little thing in one direction a bunch of times will calm you down. It’s simple, and repetitive, and doesn’t require a detailed theory of action behind it (unless you’re a sports physicist, which you’re probably not). Clear the head.
     Healthy diet, lots of water – seems simple, but wait til you’re in 3rd year reaching for the free Tim Tams and wondering why your sugar crashes at 2pm, you losing a day with an impending due date. Be smart about it – the healthy body is not an obstacle, it’s another get recharger in the service of the mind. Also, water is key for all aspects of your health, and will help dilute the inhuman amounts of caffeine you’re about to consume.
     You Will Drown and This Is Good – you will feel overwhelmed at times. In the first year, heaps of my mates have described feeling totally adrift. Drowning. No land in sight. That’s great – that’s immersion. But what you have to do is swim, it doesn’t matter in what direction, but work through it and eventually you’ll hit land. If you accept drowning you won’t move.
     Family (chosen & biological) as vital for rest – your family and friends should get a PhD Program starter pack too – especially your partner if you’re that way inclined. Be as open in communicating about the process as possible, because time with them is invaluable for healing yourself up after a week of reading Foucault for 60 hours up in the theory clouds rather than in the ‘real world’. Your family will ground you and keep you on the path.
     Mental health (diarize, constant reflection; CAPS) – as a person who has had experience with the health of the mental, and the absence thereof, keeping yourself in reflection and check is vital. The PhD will be heavy weight for a few years (the feeling of ‘I haven’t done my homework, I haven’t read/written/listened to enough’ does not leave). Therefore, outputting through a research log/diary, outputting in different ways, and making sure you know the services on offer around you is important. CAPS is free on campus, and they’ve been amazing for myself and heaps of my friends and students – keep them in mind if you think someone could use a hand up and some strategies for dealing with the stress of the PhD.
     Communication with supervisor – be honest, succinct, clear
     Supervisors should be supportive, not competitive/combative – very simple. Supervisor relationships are messy, complex, and varied. The best are supportive, collaborative and hope-filled. However, there are a minority of cases where it can go the other way. The best advice I can give you here is to talk openly with your supervisor, and let people know if it’s not going the way you think it should be going, as early as possible. There is no award for surviving passive aggression.
     Budgeting $ – be smart with your money as best you can – libraries exist, free online PDFs exist, scanning and printing is free here. There’s also a student loan service on campus if you need.
     Write, write, write. Every single day, even 100w is good – get synthesizing early, and marinate those heavy ideas as quickly as you possibly can.
     Plan, plan, plan. What do you want? When? Why?
     File, file, file. What goes where? Why? Your admin is vital here. I can find my student feedback from 2013 in an instant, for example, along with my notes on the work of Giddens from Honours. However, make sure you back-up your material across 5 different sources! (The story of someone’s computer crashing and losing 6 months work is pure heartache I promise you)
     Time and how you use it – management and planning is key here. Break it down from year goals, to a monthly breakdown, into a week-by-week planner, which then gets broken down further into a daily timetable. With this, you can do any of those chapters, interviews, and publications with mental clarity, rather than feeling an immense pressure to do everything all at once all the time.
     Say yes to everything – journal invitations, conference, admin roles, speaking opportunities, collaboration; all of these are great, as long as you’re realistic about fitting them in…
     BUT have a ‘No Committee’ – people you trust that you can explain the opportunity to in a rational way, and then respect them if they say “No, don’t do that, stay on the path”. I cannot overemphasise this, and it leads to my next tip…
     Grab your people, start a gang, get tattoos – This is something I said to one of my best mates, another PhD here, in a moment of total success (they come rarely, so embrace them, trust me). He’d just secured a new teaching role in his second year, and his win felt like my win and vice versa. I highly recommend saying hello, reaching out, and meeting people you can hang out with. All wins are shared, all obstacles are shared, all challenges are discussed and reassessed and all success is glorious. Uglier hues in the tattoo the better.
     Teaching as learning/grounding – if you get the opportunity to do some teaching, I highly recommend you do so. It will not only teach you so much more about your own subject area, but will also remind you as to its importance. The moment a Youth pulls apart something recently in the news with the insight of a fellow PhD is a glorious one, and rejuvenating. Trust me.
     Six days a week / fluctuations in hours – sometimes 60 hours a week will be necessary. Sometimes 3 books need to be read this week. Othertimes you’ll have to mark 120 assignments, teach those 6 tutorials, and somehow hold together a relationship – there are fluctuations in having such a self-centred timetable, make sure you’re allocating your time and keeping on top of it. Weeks can fly by really quickly.
     Ethics application – a fantastic refinement process (can be arduous, but so important to both your participants, and your own research direction and clarity)
     Call/email your heroes – why not? How many times would some of your favourite academics get a lovely ‘thank you for the book’ note? Ten bucks it’s not very often. Give them a call!
     A bad first draft is still a first draft (edit, rather than perfect)
     Get as much feedback as possible (show your work) – send it to those people you are reading a lot of; all they can do is say no! Never be scared to show your work, nothing is every perfect and you’re training.
     Admin are saints – say hello, offer a hand
     Essential apps: Word v Scrivener; Endnote; Evernote; Hourglass; Google Scholar/alerts
     Essential ‘presence’: publish, conferences, online (Researchgate,, ORCID), uni website
FINAL TIP: START TODAY – No time to waste on this project, so maximise your days and get stuck into it. Feel free to email me any questions, see you in the trenches!

By Alexander Page. 

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