Friday, 17 November 2017
I'm delighted to be teaming up with Times Higher Education to offer a webinar on the process of becoming a PhD Supervisor for the first time. ThePhDBlog.com is crammed full of advice for PhD students and in December will pass its 350,000th download. To celebrate and to offer something to those who have been following the since 2009 this webinar offers a chance to hear the do's and don'ts ... useful for supervisors and students alike. Why not sign up here ... it is on the 15th December 2017. I look forward to seeing you there.
Friday, 27 October 2017
In the modern organisational landscape, universities have stood the test of time yet a quaint perception of tranquillity often colours the expectations of those with limited exposure to the sector. They imagine ivory towers populated with academics so enthralled by the pursuit of new knowledge that they are impervious to pleas from the wider public to avoid corduroy and sandal/sock combinations. Those inside the sector see a different reality where our universities face a dynamic, challenging and globally competitive landscape of rankings and endless measurement. Despite this, universities still tend to describe those tasks that relate to the day to day running of our organisations as “admin” with suitable connotations of Civil Service circa 1950. Vice Chancellors may talk in terms of leadership, Lord Adonis might rail against the growing ranks of “senior management” but early career academics will most likely be invited to take on an admin role. Here’s how to make the best of the opportunity.
See it as an opportunity
As an academic you’ll most likely be aware that someone is responsible for the allocation of your duties each year. These duties are typically categorised under the headings of teaching, research and administration. Whether it is your Head of Department, Subject Leader, Head of Institute or some other title, someone will have to find a “volunteer” to take on a plethora of admin duties such as course leader, year group head, programme director and the like. Outbreaks of rampant volunteering are rare when trying to find colleagues willing to take on such tasks and therein lies the opportunity. The stark reality is that your university needs someone to fulfil these roles in order to function. When it comes to annual review conversations and eventually to promotion, your CV will look infinitely more rounded if it demonstrates that you have the capacity to get things done. Yes, your teaching and research need to be good, but unless they are absolutely stellar you’ll be better placed to advance your career if you can point to some admin experience. That aside, you’ll have marked yourself out from the crowd by the simple act of volunteering.
Clarify what’s expected of you
Admin roles vary in size, shape and complexity. Don’t just say yes without any discussion. Ask what the role entails. Is there a job description? Can you speak to the current incumbent? What would “good” look like? And, how long would you be expected to hold to the role? These questions should form the basis of a constructive discussion with whoever is asking you to take on the role. Done badly this could be heard as a set of ransom demands by your line manager. Done well however, these questions could help shape your own career development. Be open about what you are hoping to achieve from the role and get your colleague(s) to be clear about their expectations. If possible, ask to shadow someone who is doing the role or find a mentor who is regarded as having been a success in the role.
Chronicle your achievements
If you buy the advice that volunteering for admin roles will help you as you move forward in your career, then it follows logically that you should keep records before, during and after your tenure in such roles. Capture some metrics as you come into the role, how many of, how long things take, how people rate the service, etc. The specifics will depend on the role but you and others will have a sense of what the key measures are (if only because you’ll have been regaled with tales of woe that reflect when and where things have gone wrong). Set yourself the task of improving some of these measures and keep notes of what you’ve changed, who you’ve worked with to effect improvements and what evidence there is that you have delivered. In the pre-internet era, one of my first administrative roles was that of Exams Officer. I simplified the process that I inherited because it involved colleagues completing over 20 different forms. My radical innovation was to use a single form that logged who approved what, and when. Hardly ground breaking, but keeping copies of the old and the new forms allowed me to demonstrate the improvement and critically, my role in it. Simply holding a role title won’t be enough come annual review time, promotion panels or interviews. You’ll be asked what you achieved. Better yet, if the performance measures drop off after you demit office, note these too such that you can present an heroic narrative that all was well when you were in charge.
Use the chance to learn how your industry works
Your university will likely have a turnover in excess of some Premier League football teams. In that multi-million pound environment, money doesn’t just appear any more than Gold TEF awards or upper quartile rankings in the Times Higher simply happen. Use your involvement in the day to day running of the organisation to help build your understanding of how your industry works. Admin roles can offer you a first chance to move beyond your own discipline to see how other parts of your own university operate and even how other universities operate. Speak to the people you meet, ask questions of your external examiners, ask your research colleagues how they execute the tasks for which you’ve been given responsibility in their institutions. It may be that you find that you have a talent for organizing. If so, you’ll feel yourself being sucked into that specific sub-set of academic life that leads inexorably toward greater and greater administrative responsibility. Vice Chancellors have to start somewhere after all. You might equally have a complete aversion to anything that takes you away from the academic purity of learning and advancing human knowledge. Even if that is the case, you’ll be better able to interface with those who do run your university if you understand your organisation as an organisation. Even better, take the time to learn the language, syntax and grammar of the administrative conversations that influence your working environment.
Make a difference
Take a moment and realise that whatever the admin role and however low-status it may appear to you or to your colleagues, it is probably central to continued functioning of your university. If you think something is either inefficient or fundamentally wrong with the processes for which you now find yourself responsible, do something about it. Of course, you could shrug your shoulders and bemoan your misfortune for having taken on this particular admin role at this particular time. Ultimately though, universities don’t do things, people do. Don’t expect some faceless “other” whether it is the faculty, the university centre, IT or even senior management to sort everything. Instead, recognise that you might be best placed to make a difference. Yes, your computer systems may still operate on punch cards. Yes, the governance structure may require you to get 7 people to sign off on the most basic decisions. Yes, you wouldn’t tolerate this level of hassle from your bank or insurance provider and you can’t believe there’s still a role for coloured carbon copy paper. But, the more impoverished the starting point, the easier it should be to make things even a little better. Make an active choice to see yourself as an advocate for better processes, systems, decisions, etc. The alternative casts you as bystander and being passive isn’t good for you, your students or ultimately your university.
Sunday, 3 September 2017
Doctoral students are often the opportunity to dip their toes in the world of university teaching. This might be a condition of your funding e.g. when you are a graduate teaching assistant or it could represent a chance to earn a little extra money during your doctorate. Either way, stepping over to the other side of the lecturer/student divide can be a challenge. Here are some pointers for anyone taking their first tutorial. Enjoy.
Tuesday, 2 May 2017
The PhD Blog reached a milestone today having received its 300,000th visitor ... the audience for the blog is drawn from all over the globe and readers go far beyond the boundaries of management research. It started in 2009 as a set of frequently asked questions about PhD study and has offered a resource to PhD students ever since. It is gratifying to see the blog still creating a forum for discussion and feedback on all matters PhD. This week also saw the publication of a the top sources of stress for PhD students in the UK's Times Higher Education which you can find here and summarised in the poster below.
Thanks for your continued interest in the PhD Blog.
Thanks for your continued interest in the PhD Blog.
Saturday, 25 February 2017
Agree everything in advance and capture in a pre-nuptial agreement
Regardless of whether you are working with close friends or people you hardly know, find the time and bravado to broach the difficult issues in advance.
Have a clear division of labour
Agree up front who will do what in the co-authoring team such that everyone is aware that they have something substantive to do.
Know how your co-authors work
Discuss the process that your new co-authors go through as they craft a publishable artefact. That way you’ll know what to expect.
Develop the hide of a Rhinoceros
Opportunities for academics to take offence are legion. If you want a co-authoring relationship to work you’re going to have to get over the idea that all criticism is personal.
Pull your weight
If you are pulling your own weight in your shared endeavours then you will be better able to chastise your co-authors should the need arise.
Remember that editing is a form of writing
Writing the first draft and editing the final one are both forms of writing. Recognise that editing is a critical skill which more than justifies the status of co-author if done well.
Remember your status
All co-authors are equal, but some are more equal than others. Knowing where you are in the hierarchy can help smooth the social process.
Exploit your networks
Who to work with? Think about the people you know, colleagues, supervisors, examiners are a very good place to start, who would like to work with?
(re)evaluate the experience
Take the time to assess the pros and cons of each co-authoring arrangement and act on the conclusions.
Break up gracefully
Not all co-authoring relationships last so, if you have decided to go your separate ways, try to consciously uncouple in a way which doesn’t do lasting damage.
This advice also appeared in the Times Higher Education Supplement.
Friday, 20 January 2017
How, when and for whom does management research create impact?
If you're interested, the visual abstract available here and the abstract is as follows:
This paper introduces the special issue focusing on Impact. We present the four papers in the special issue and synthesise their key themes, including dialogue, reflexivity and praxis. In addition, we expand on understandings of impact by exploring how, when and for whom management research creates impact and we elaborate four ideal types of impact by articulating both the constituencies for whom impact occurs and the forms it might take. We identify temporality as critical to a more nuanced conceptualization of impact and suggest that some forms of impact are performative in nature. We conclude by suggesting that management as a discipline would benefit from widening the range of comparator disciplines to include disciplines such as art, education and nursing where practice, research and scholarship are more overtly interwoven.
Wednesday, 18 January 2017
1. Read beyond your course
Visit the library, browse the shelves and pick something obscure but challenging. Stretching your mind is never a bad thing.
One of the main dangers with a PhD is you have so much reading to do, that you stop reading for pleasure. Try and avoid that happening. We’re not talking pulp fiction here but you could do worse than begin by trying some philosophy (unless that’s what you’re already studying). Your degree is after all called a Doctorate in Philosophy. Some exceptionally bright people have been thinking about the nature of our existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language for some time now. They may even be brighter than your supervisor(s). As a genre, philosophical writing is persuasive; you are reading the opinion of an author trying to convince you of the plausibility or implausibility of their position. You need to think, reflect upon and carefully consider the argument. Think of this as a trip to the theory gym following a New Year’s resolution. In business and management we have become accustomed to practical or technical discourses with a logical, linear presentational form. Theoretical forms of thought are often much harder to read. Don’t skim read but don’t fret if you don’t follow every thought, the authors probably didn’t when they were writing either. Here a five books to have go at: The Republic (Plato); Tao Te Ching (Lao Tsu); Meditations (Marcus Aurelius); Beyond Good and Evil (Friedrich Nietzsche), and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Robert Pirsig). If you are already studying philosophy do something completely different. Learn to bake, sky dive or play an instrument.
2. Don’t hide from your anxiety
The support network in most universities is second to none. Make use of it.
Depending on what report you read or set of statistics you believe, between 25% and 50% (or more) students say that anxiety affects their performance at university at some stage. The same issues affect many academics too. The simple act of acknowledging your anxiety, preferably in the company of a sympathetic listener, will begin to make a difference. The relentless advance of technology has left us “always on” and less able to tolerate ambiguity. Waiting for anything from an inter-library loan to some feedback on your draft chapter can create anticipatory anxiety. Perhaps those who appear relaxed are just better at masking their anxieties. Most people find deadlines stressful. Seek help early and preferably before things are seriously interfering with your ability to function. If you’re worried about the reaction you’ll get console yourself by remembering how much people in the counselling service, student union or elsewhere would love the opportunity to make a positive difference. By being brave enough to reach out to them you’ll end up feeling better and you’ll be keeping them in a job.
Present at conference, lead a workshop in your department, do a guest lecture or even organise a social activity.
Really, just make a start. Self-starting is an essential life skill for PhD students and academics alike. Start doing the things that you had hoped to avoid for as long as humanly possible. Let’s face it sticking your head in the sand only means you’ll have a lot of sand to wash off when you finally come up for air. Whilst there is always a plausible reason to defer until tomorrow something that you would rather avoid, the earlier that you do your first lecture, conference presentation, workshop or interview the less scary the next one will be. The industry which you have joined is characterised by public speaking, public scrutiny of ideas and a general sense in which you’re expected to take the initiative. If you find these things difficult you have probably chosen the wrong industry. In time, you might grow to love such tasks but you might not. They are however, part of the job so volunteering will at least help you develop a coping strategy.
4. Join the Community
Jobs don’t materialise in a vacuum. Get to know other academic and professional services staff.
Being an academic is sometimes described as being a sole trader. You’re out there on your own trying to sell your ideas to a sometimes reluctant or indifferent community of people selling their own ideas. One way of coping with the loneliness and isolation is to join a community. If you look hard enough they’ll be all around you. Staff-student liaison committees, class reps, alumni societies, professional bodies, doctoral symposia, conferences and so forth. Volunteering into such fora will help build your network of professional contacts, accumulate evidence of your organizational abilities and offer networking opportunities. Academia is often a village-like community and knowing the right people in one place can lead to advance notice of opportunities in another. If that all seems a bit nebulous, focus your communitarian tendencies on your publishing activities. Attend research seminars, offer to present working papers, review for relevant conferences and journals. These will all help hone your publishing instincts and publications on your CV will dramatically alter the chances of getting short listed for an academic job.
5. Meet your heroes
There will be titanic figures in the literature. Try to meet them and just accept that they can look smaller in real life.
Most academic disciplines feature a few celebrities. These mythical figures are invited to give keynote addresses and seminars. Find a way to find them but don’t ask them to autograph your tour T Shirt, it will simply embarrass both of you. Getting the chance to hear people speak about the ideas that you’ve digested in written form can often lend new insight and offer clues as to the underpinning thinking and the future direction of travel. Ask them what they’d be focusing their attention on if they were starting out now, then filter out the nostalgic “when I was your age” spin that you might hear. Remember that people and their writing are not necessarily one and the same thing. Some of the most eloquent texts in your field will have been written by people who are more bumbling, confusing and disjointed in spoken form. Equally, the bombast, acerbic humour and comic timing of some academics outweighs their publishing achievements. Not everyone is a polymath so try not to be too harsh if your hero doesn’t seem so heroic in person.
6. Do some teaching
Gain first hand practical experience by applying what you are studying whilst you are still studying it.
Teaching is the lifeblood of every university. It offers you the perfect forum in which to share all this knowledge that you are accumulating. What could be better that a class of unsuspecting undergrads who will hang on your every word, either through their shared love for the subject or because they fear you may have a hand in marking their work. Your family and friends (in the real world) have probably stopped listening to you or even pretending to show an interest in your PhD. Focus your energies on a captive audience of students instead. This, of course, is a double edged sword. You might love or hate it, you might be find it easy or more challenging than you’d imagined. Better to find out early in your career. You might hope to land a full-time academic job when you graduate. Worst case scenario, you’ll gain the knowledge that you don’t really want to dedicate your career to teaching earlier than might otherwise have been the case. Either way, you’ll be accumulating valuable CV collateral which will stand you in good stead once you complete your PhD.
7. Become Multicultural
Speaking a.n.other language helps the cognitive process and is proven to make you smarter/more attractive/richer (delete as appropriate, these may not all be true).
You’d be hard pressed to find a PhD programme that isn’t populated by a diverse mix of nationalities and mother tongues these days. Why not seize the opportunity of some free tutoring whilst you gain your PhD. Opening your mouth to speak in a ‘foreign tongue’ is of course a source of potential humiliation. Expect some shoulder shrugging and occasional outbreaks of sniggering. Get over yourself and get vocal. Speaking a foreign language helps you negotiate meaning in general and improves your thinking system. Your memory will improve, there is some evidence that it can delay the deterioration of your mental faculties. You’ll become more perceptive and your command of your own language tends to improve too as hidden grammatical structures reveal themselves to you. Putting the health benefits to one side, learning the rudiments of another local language will help with ordering drinks, dinner and sorting a taxi home. At least making the effort often counts for a great deal.
8. Stay Healthy
Try and main a work life balance; but don’t kid yourself into thinking you are working when you are not.
A full time PhD is just that, full time. The phrase 9 to 5 is commonly used to describe the working day, even though many of us work more flexible hours than that these days. Even allowing for lunch breaks and annual leave that is somewhere around 1,500 hours per annum. You know what you have to do in the 4,500 hours that your three years comprises (or however long your funding lasts). If you don’t do the work nobody else is going to do it for you and your PhD shouldn’t be considered as a zero hours contract. It is a long hard slog. There will be times when you will feel elated and others when you will bitterly regret the whole undertaking. Resenting your supervisors, enying your peers their seemingly smooth passage to a painless completion and being totally sure you will fail to submit are normal reactions. Rest assured that most people do finish and that the key dynamic is essentially about the hours of graft put in at the coal face. Yes, you will need coping strategies to get through your long dark night of a soul, which might even stretch into your winter of discontent. Resist urges to grow a beard, establish an allotment, learn a martial art, become square dance instructor or whatever whimsy might have fleetingly seemed the best use of your time today. Do you really need to surf social media, check the gossip columns or watch yet more football. Choose one thing as a counterbalance to your PhD studies and become good at it, you have three years after all. Make it something that engages another part of you and doesn’t simply involve sitting, thinking or reading. Anything from archery to yoga and most letters in between will do. Whilst you are at that establish a support network of other PhDs around you. Yes, you are all on an individual quest, but it is nice to have compatriots with whom you can break bread and share stories.
9. Manage your CV
Start cultivating your CV early because editing and re-editing helps. And your online profile counts as part of your CV too.
If you’ve done everything listed in items 1 to 9 above, you will have an incredible amount to put on your CV when you graduate. Sadly, successful CVs aren’t measured in square footage alone. Curate your CV as the public advert for the person you are, or perhaps wish to become. Linkedin matters and many people use it as a form of electronic CV. Twitter, Facebook, Researchgate and various other social media sites are also public domain unless you manage your settings carefully. Think about the public and private versions of your life. Friends might get the more informal, jocular, sarcastic version of you. But perhaps you shouldn’t allow potential employers to have such unrestricted access to your personality. Find and follow others in your chosen field, both firms and individuals. Create social media bios wisely, people evaluate you based upon what they find. The best Twitter bios combine personal information and professional details and have a confident tone; use a link to your LinkedIn profile. Keep your tweets professional. More than one politician has come to regret something tweeted many moons ago and cast up in a less than forgiving light once they have an important new role. Academics aren’t quite so high profile but you get the point. Flippancy should be reserved for a gated community of trusted friends and loved ones.
10. Imagine Life Beyond your Graduation
Allow yourself the luxury of imagining that it has all worked and your PhD has been completed.
At various points your PhD will seem unattainable in the way that the summit of Everest, walking on the moon or becoming a billionaire seem unattainable to most of us. You may be superstitious and not want to jinx the possibility of a successful completion. But, at least once, you should indulge yourself by imagining what life would be like post-PhD. Perhaps the main feature is your graduation day itself with family and friends applauding as you March confidently across the stage to be greeted by the Chancellor or their nominee and handed your scroll. Perhaps it is the idea of a business card, drivers licence or bank card bearing the title Doctor. Maybe it is the idea of correcting a particularly obnoxious customer service operative with a jaunty "It's Dr [surname] actually". Whatever it is that floats your boat, think of it, savour the idea and remind yourself that some people far less talented than you are now called Doctor.