It has been over 18 months since I was appointed the Dean of Western Sydney University’s Graduate Research School. It is a job that I really do love.
But is also a job that can be heartbreaking, as I have seen good students drop out – both within my university and from other institutions. Many students come and see me for advice and I have been keeping a collection of tips I have learnt based on successful candidates and outstanding supervisors. So here they are… and in no particular order…
- Build networks: this is not just about networking that opens opportunities, but about building supportive structures around you to help you through all those challenging times. Use your networks to organise writing circles, boot-camps, give each other feedback and a shoulder to lean on when things are stressful.
- Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate: Always look for people to work with – it is more fun, less isolating and you learn new skills! It is also part of building networks and support structures.
- Its more than just research: You can be the best researcher in the world but if what you write sits on a bookshelf somewhere, what is the point? Practice your communication, be a good writer, learn how to translate your research. Increasingly funders ask questions about ‘impact’ and ‘engagement’ – and as such, ‘citations’ play less of a role!
- Accept the fact that you are now an academic: When you begin a higher degree by research (HDR) you are part of the faculty – no longer a student! As such, you should play an active part with your research group, your School and your University. Further, the research culture and reputation of the University will be reflective of you… Consequently, get ready for both the good and bad about academia!
- Take care and enjoy yourself: Seriously folks, but make sure that you eat, sleep, shower, plan breaks and down time, spend time with loved ones and never forget to showers. Put pressure on yourself but never obsess over the university. This is important because academia tends to exploit your passions: so you get into it, volunteer for things and never take are of yourself. This is the fastest route to burn out! So be passionate – but ensure that is measured with a sense of self care.
- Avoid university and interpersonal politics: It is pointless, exhausting and only pursued by those with small minds (no matter how many publications they have) and big egos. Enough said!
- Be polite: Once someone told me that you can judge the worth of a person by the way they treat those around them who are in more junior positions. As a candidate, always appreciate the opportunities you have been given – not everyone gets them So no matter what levels of stress you are under, be polite and always say “thank you.”8
- Start writing… and write everyday: From the very first day, start writing your thesis! This could be a summary of ideas, notes from what you are reading, or how one reading is related to another! Writing is thinking – without writing, you will never get anywhere and make sure you write every day. Put aside 30 minutes and just go for it!
- Do some teaching… and do it well: One of the best things about being a researcher is the opportunity to be an educator. Ensure that you get the opportunity to teach by enrolling in teaching registers as well as undertake any courses available to you. Watch great teachers – audit their classes – become a great educator!
- Learn the difference between criticism and critique… and be generous in your praise: Your work is always a work in progress! Learn to accept critique and learn from it! You should also be willing to critique the work of other – but always do so gently and respectfully. Always praise those you work with as well as those you meet along the way.
- Back up everything: Everyday – both in the cloud and locally. Seriously, despite billions of cheap terabytes people still fail to back up!
- Go to conferences and talk to everybody: From other PhD students to the keynote speakers. Be prepared to explain how your research is relevant to people’s area of interest, be clear and if someone snobs you off, its ok, they are not worth wasting your time with!
- There is more to your future than an academic job: Academic jobs can be hard to find so be prepared for various career options – as well as be prepared for the long way round to academia (if that is your goal).
- Learn how to apply for funding: Today’s academic world requires you to loom for funding. Learning to put together funding submissions is an important skill to develop but be careful not to get caught on the treadmill of writing submission after submission.
- Avoid cynics: There are lots of challenges in academia – but it is still a privilege to be an educator and offers many benefits that most others can only dream of (conference in Europe anyone?)
- Be social media smart: learn how to use it to promote your work. Avoid getting into social media fights and always be polite. Remember, it is another form of communication.
- Be creative and bold: Feel free to create your own opportunities and never be afraid of taking risks.
- Be adaptable and resilient: Things change. Opportunities change. You will face small minds and those who want to ‘keep you in your place’. Adopt to changing situations and be prepared to bounce back
- Publish: Always turn your research into papers or chapters for publication. Some of these you can have multiple versions: strictly academic, popular press or even blogs. So publish where you want but never compromise on quality!
- Research is about changing the world: Research has a social mission – and it is about making the world a better place! Your research should aim to change the world – in its own way – and that how you should think about your work.
- Keep your sense of humour and value the weirdness of those your work with: things never go according to plan! Always look at the best way possible forward. Enjoy the strange people around you – academia seems to attract them.
- And finally, read the Thesis Whisperer – you will never feel alone and lost… Dr Inger Mewburn is one inspiring soul!
Feel free to send more through… I would love to hear from you…
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