Thursday, April 23, 2015

Academic Destiny

I saw this quote on Twitter and got (perhaps irrationally) annoyed:

Does that hold true for academia?

I don't believe so!

I believe that I have reached this stage of my academic studies through my own talent and hard work, along with immense support from academics, friends and families. But ultimately, I steered the course of my future through the choices I made and the hard work I put in. 

Now, academic studies raises the question of subjectivity, which is especially true in a field like humanities which lends itself to multiple interpretations and opinions. But throughout my academic studies, problems of subjectivity in the review process has been substantially negated through a mixture of coursework and anonymous examinations. Subjectivity is never gone, but at least it is reduced.

Yet, the PhD thesis is an unusual beast. While there is oversight by a supervisor (or multiple supervisors), and progress reviews throughout the process, ultimately, in the UK at least, the decision comes down to two people. And of those two, the opinion of the external examiner holds more weight and is often deferred to.

In that instance, the subjective interpretation of a thesis is exacerbated. It may come down to the examiner not liking the approach you took, or just not writing the thesis that they would have! And while the internal examiner should, in theory, be on your side, often it is hard to contradict the opinion of the external.

By this point, my destiny is no longer in my own hands, but in the hands of someone who may fundamentally disagree with me. 

Do examiners remember this? I often wonder how long it takes academics to forget their own PhD experiences and lose some sensitivity to the stress of the process.

And of course, the question of subjectivity extends beyond the PhD into the peer review process for publication, to academic interview panels, etc.

I have been in charge and in control of my academic destiny for the past 10 years, and last July I placed that destiny into the hands of others when I submitted my thesis. 

My destiny is still in their hands and I look forward to getting it back!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Social Media

Over the past year I have used social media more and more for academic and networking purposes than I have for personal use (i.e. keeping in touch with friends and family, etc.). I have found it incredibly rewarding and validating to engage with like-minded people on Twitter and share experiences. This was the foundation idea of this blog which I started to document my life after the doctorate.

Now, recent posts have discussed the stasis I am in at the moment waiting for my major corrections to be approved. In addition, this blog was meant to document my transition into an alternative-academic career. That doesn't start until September this year so as yet I don't have much to say about utilising my PhD skills in a professional environment,

So, while I am in this waiting period I have found myself turning more and more to social media and I have gotten so much out of it!

Firstly, I follow a large number of fellow PhD students and those with a PhD and it has been wonderful to share my experiences with PhDs about to go through the process, and those with a PhD who have been reassuring about the future.

Secondly, through following not just fellow medievalists, but people with expertise in a broad range of historical interests, and the hashtag #Twitterstorians, I have maintained my interest in all things to do with history. This is so important to me right now because I cannot bear to look at my thesis or discuss it until the corrections are approved. Understandably, I don't have much motivation to go to the library until the saga is over! So, Twitter allows me to keep feeling that I am learning new things and keeping up with current research.

Thirdly, as a networking tool I have received helpful advice, translation assistance, and even found a collaborator for a translation project which will hopefully lead to publication. Social media is an amazing opportunity for collaboration in academia and working with others having come from an very isolating humanities PhD.

So, although I have been complaining recently, I want to say thank you to everyone!

Thank you for good wishes!
Thank you for the encouragement!
Thank you for the positive feedback!

Monday, April 20, 2015


In recent election news, Labour have come out to say that if they get into power they would ban unpaid internships over 4 weeks: 

Hallelujah I say!!

I completed my B.A. in the History of Art and Architecture, and graduated with dreams of working in the arts sector within a gallery or museum. Knowing how competitive the arts industry is, I explored internships as an avenue to gain initial experience and to make key contacts

The arts sector is often a who-you-know industry, rather than a meritocracy. When exploring my options from an art history degree, I thought about working for auction houses only to be told by an art buyer that unless I knew someone in the industry I had no shot.

So, I completed two internships to make up for my lack of contacts.

I do not want to name the two organisations but the two internships were for prestigious galleries in Dublin and London, in two different departments. One was full time, 9-5, Monday to Friday, while the London position was three days a week, 9-5.

Both were entirely unpaid.

No travel expenses, no food allowance, nothing!

In Dublin, I accrued costs for weekly train tickets and lunch, while in London I could walk to work, but when you factor in central London food prices, neither internship was actually unpaid.

I paid!

And I was lucky to be in a position to be able to pay, which is inherently unfair to those who don't have that luxury but dream of working in the arts sector.

Internships will never go away, and companies/institutions will continue to exploit eager students trying to stand out from the crowd, and gain experience in an industry when you don't have any ready-made contacts.

However, they must pay for these interns, if not minimum wage than the least they can do is cover travel, food, and other expenses! Furthermore, they have a duty to ensure that interns gain something valuable from the experience, through working on a project, sitting in on meetings, etc. 

Being the coffee-runner is exploitative and unfair!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Major Corrections Update

As many readers of this blog are aware, I have been frustrated by the lack of transparency and communication from academics and department administrators with respect to the process of submitting, reviewing, and approving major corrections post-viva. Well, today I finally heard something from my internal examiner, and unsurprisingly the process is going to take at least another week!

I posted the details of my correspondence on Facebook and received some interesting comments. I do not want to divulge too much of my frustrations for the moment, out of respect for the on-going corrections and my examiners (as difficult as that is right now). Suffice to say, things have taken too long, emails with electronic copies of my thesis have been lost/deleted/ignored, and coordination between the two examiners has taken longer than expected. This should happen next week, but I was not given any sense of when a decision will be made.

This totals a minimum of 2 months of stress and anxiety, which personally I find unacceptable!

Maybe I should have indulged in this product to get a better viva result!

But let's get a little serious.

I am not going to place all the blame on the examiners because I understand that they both have busy schedules in their own right. But departments should have mechanisms in place to ensure that the examiners are reminded to contact a candidate, and that candidates are not left out in the wilderness waiting to hear about their future with no guidance. We as students shouldn't have to fight for departments to do better, but we must do in order to ensure that future students do not experience the same problems and frustrations that I, for example, have personally experienced.

One comment on my Facebook rant (and it was a rant, but a deserved one, trust me!) was that such behaviour would be unacceptable in the private sector. While there is certainly a valid concern about higher education institutions becoming more privatised, I do feel that the management and administration of the higher ed sector could benefit from some of the efficiency and accountability of the private sector. And while some may stress that academics are put under too much pressure due to administrative duties, I would argue that examining a PhD thesis is an academic responsibility. Furthermore, if you choose to award major corrections, you should prepared to support that student since you made that decision! And administrators need to both support and manage academics to a point, to ensure that their responsibilities to students are not neglected amidst teaching duties, research leave, or admin duties.

Another comment stressed that my situation simply would not happen in the US, and for any readers of this blog in the US, I am very envious of you! As my friend wrote: 

"since external examiners are pretty rare, everything is done in-house and everyone is accountable within their department. The U.S. oral defense of the thesis is a bit of a joke since it's a given that you pass - the examiners have to give you the result while you're standing in front of them, and they've all read the thesis already so therefore don't let you stand for the oral unless they have already decided that you pass."

I like that it seems more like a formality, and you can go into the defense confident in the result and that you can start moving forward with your life beyond the doctorate! Now, I get that no system is perfect, but the US system seems to understand more the need for doctoral students to move on after the viva and after the PhD.

As it stands for me, this is how my submission timeframe looks:

  1. July 2014 - Thesis submitted
  2. August 2014 - First contact from examiners setting the viva date
  3. September 2014 - Viva held and major corrections awarded. List of corrections given and I began work on them immediately, although I had 6 months to complete them.
  4. February 2015 - Thesis corrections submitted
  5. April 2015 - First contact from examiners, have not coordinated with each other yet
  6. ????
And that doesn't even count as the end of the saga! Another friend is going through the exact same process as me, and enumerated 3 different scenarios which could happen next:
  1. They read it, they like it, they email saying that they are filling out the paperwork for leave to supplicate.
  2. They read it, they more-or-less like it, and you are given less than a month's worth of corrections.
  3. They read it, they don't like it, you get re-viva'd.
Let's pray for the first one! If it is the second outcome, then I imagine that it could be an entire year from original submission to this drama being over. But if I do have another viva, this time I will take a cue from xkcd:

But all this means is that the future is stagnated for PhD students with major corrections or referrals. I am starting a new job in September and my dreams of graduating by that point are slipping away with every delay that is incurred!

Another friend wrote that my university has had 800 years to get the defense process sorted! Hopefully, it won't take another 800! Well, not if I have any say in the matter!

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Waiting Game

Before I began my PhD I had this notion that it would be a very fluid affair, with me finding a consistent rhythm of research and writing. However, for me, I found the process to be much more of a stop/start affair, and one which required patience.

Although, as anyone who has been following this blog and my Twitter will know, there are certain parts of the PhD process where I find patience immensely trying! See my post on transparency:

I understand that everybody has a difference working process, but I would work in bursts of activity, send drafts off to my supervisor and wait. I could only resume work once I had received feedback - luckily, my supervisor is amazing at returning work to be quickly!

The same goes for each of the examination stages throughout my PhD such as transfer and confirmation of status (or upgrades as they are often referred to). But for each of these stages, there was the comfort of know that feedback would be given and the work could continue!

Of course, I knew the same would apply to the viva process. It is a rare viva which results in absolutely no corrections, so I went in with the knowledge that at the minimum I would have 1 month to make minor corrections, or 6 months to make major corrections. Although the outcome was uncertain going in, at least I knew the options and timelines for work post-viva. Therefore, patience with guidelines and timelines is a patience I can bear!

However, playing the waiting game after submitting my major corrections is severely trying my patience. This is due to the opaqueness of the process and the lack of knowledge about how long it will take the examiners to respond and what further work they may or may not ask me to do. I could endure this waiting game much better were I to know that the examiners had 2 months or 3 months to respond to me. That way, when my email pings I do not immediately freak out and check to see if it is thesis news. (It's not, it's usually an email from Pizza Hut!).

Anyway, I am nearing the 2 month marker for waiting to hear anything from the examiners! I don't necessarily expect to hear the final outcome, but it really would be nice to know that they are working on it!

If anyone has received major corrections, or knows anyone who has got them, I would really appreciate you leaving a comment below about how long the wait was for the approval from the examiners.

Cheers, and let the waiting game continue!

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Publish or Perish

Aside from the dreams of landing an academic position immediately after the doctorate, the other aspiration many doctoral students have is for their thesis to be published as a monograph. I am speaking from a humanities background, and do acknowledge that different fields have differing publishing aspirations such as in science where one may expect to publish multiple articles from the thesis. However, in the changing landscape of the academic publishing business, how feasible is it for students to get their thesis published?

A colleague in humanities directed me to this link which discusses whether supervisors advise students on placing an embargo on their thesis:

This embargo allows students to delay the electronic release of their thesis for a number of years, which helps entice a publisher to accept their thesis, since it is not yet available in any other format. With respect to advice, this is not something that my supervisor has ever mentioned to me, but conversely, it is not something which I have raised with her.

However, I have attended numerous workshops on the issues of publication, both for monographs and journals, which has helped to solidify my post-PhD publication strategy.

Firstly, I agree with publishers who do not want to accept theses which are or may soon be available free online. This may seem counter-intuitive to someone who does want to publish her thesis as a book! I think one of the key things to remember about publishing the thesis as a book is that a publisher wants different things than your supervisor or examiners. Therefore, your thesis probably shouldn't be published verbatim as a book. Extensive revisions to suit the needs of a wider academic audience or the publishers interests should significantly alter the thesis such that there is enough of difference between the book and the thesis.

Secondly, the monograph is not the be-all of academic publishing, and a few well-placed articles stemming from the thesis may have more of an impact than a niche monograph. The same goes as before, the articles will not just be copied and pasted from your thesis (at least, it should not be!); rather, it should be altered and adapted to suit the journal. 

Thirdly, your thesis is not the only publishable output when you reach the end of the doctorate, and showing a variety or range will boost job opportunities where publications are vital! Likely, throughout the course of your PhD there are bits and bobs which you couldn't use in your thesis for one reason or another. Turn it into an article which is divorced from your thesis! You may have a monograph and two articles, but if they are solely based on your thesis you may find yourself pidgeon-holed or accused of not having a range. 

Variety is key for academic publishing, along with a flexibility to adapt your thesis for the needs of publishers and new audiences. Stubbornness and an unwillingness to branch out from the confines of your thesis topic will negatively impact you in the long term.

As an example, here is my (very ambitious) post-PhD publishing strategy:

Published/In Publication Process
  1. Article [loosely based on a thesis chapter] - published
  2. Book chapter [collaborative interdisciplinary chapter based on the text I use in my thesis but not using specific thesis content] - awaiting proofs
Planned Publications
  1. Monograph [loosely based on my thesis, but with substantial changed for a more general readership]
  2. Translation [collaborative English translation of the text I use in my text - possibly incorporated into the monograph]
  3. Article [completely new article on 12th century medieval physiognomy, moving away from my thesis text]
Yes, this is highly ambitious, but the point is of diversity and collaboration. The collaborative book chapter works with archaeologists, zooarchaeologists and archaeobotonists showing an interdisciplinary spirit and revealing the ability to adapt and speak to different academic audiences. And while I do plan on publishing my thesis eventually, I am working with another on a joint translation to boost the prospects of publishing. 

When it comes to publish or perish, we put too much pressure on ourselves to do it all alone - try a collaborative approach! We also can be too stubborn in our appraoch, refusing to change the thesis or branch out from the thesis focus!

Be bold, be collaborative, be interdisciplinary, be flexible, and be realistic!

Remember, very few people will ever read your thesis in the form you submitted it in. Therefore, the more people who can access the original electronic version the better - more dissemination of you and your work. And if you change and adapt your thesis to meet the demands of the academic publishing market, then the issue of embargo should be moot! It will no longer be a thesis you are pitching to a publisher, but a clear academic marketable book targeted to the right publisher!