Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Enriching the PhD experience

After several years of hard work, I have just been awarded my PhD and look forward to “walking the stage” in December. My research topic was patient monitoring in anaesthesia with head-mounted displays – one that turned out to be fascinating, challenging, and amazingly rewarding.

When I first started, however, I had thought that the process would be relatively unexciting – enrol, work on your own for a few years, submit, and graduate – but soon discovered that Australian programs are actually remarkably flexible. In fact, your advisers and the university are often willing to help you “enrich” your education.

Enrichment involves participating in activities that, while not strictly necessary for completing your PhD, provide complementary educational experiences that help you become a better scientist. These activities include the summer schools, theses-by-publication, and science communication activities recently described on this blog, plus many more.

If you’re a big picture type of person who likes to take on challenges, then you’ll probably enjoy working on interdisciplinary research projects. For my thesis, I brought a background in software engineering to a team of psychologists, doctors, nurses, and biomedical engineers, and investigated fundamental problems (such as inattentional blindness with HMDs) in the exciting and dynamic environment of operating rooms.

Collaborations are the foundation of academic research; take a look at any journal article and you’ll probably find several co-authors. You can work with your fellow students on side projects (in addition to your PhD), and even expand your professional networks through collaborations. Hosting academic visitors in your lab and going on academic tours is a great way to find future collaborations and job opportunities. The global academic “family” that develops throughout your career is one of the greatest perks of academia.

Other opportunities for travel include internships and fellowships. Internships give you the opportunity to apply the research skills that you learn during the PhD to practical problems in industry. Research fellowships, on the other hand, let you collaborate with internationally renowned researchers and may be part of prestigious scholarship programs such as the Rhodes and Fulbright.

The gap between the academic and corporate worlds can be dramatic at times, but research commercialisation bridges that gap for the benefit of both. Your hard work and expertise helps the wider community, while industry provides funding and support to enhance or continue your research. It also happens to be a great way to supplement your scholarship and travel funds.

Beyond work-related activities, the flexibility of PhD programs also lets you cultivate hobbies that might otherwise be impractical or too expensive if you work in a typical corporate environment. I enjoyed surfing California’s world-class waves during an internship and went snowboarding in the 500+ inches of annual snowfall while on a fellowship in Utah… almost for free!

Enrichment activities are a great way to learn new skills, build up your CV, and enjoy the PhD journey. While there are many potential opportunities available for every student, you’ll have to take the initiative to find the right ones for you.

Dave Liu

PS: I’ll be giving a more detailed talk to HFES-UQ members about my own enrichment experiences in the near future. If you’re a prospective or current PhD student and would be interested in attending, feel free to contact me at naskies@acm.org

Friday, October 22, 2010

The final stages: An account of thesis submission and review

My PhD thesis was compiled one rushed November. I plonked together some papers with a linking page between each and wrote my introduction and discussion sections. “Don’t spend too long on it – only three people are ever going to read it”, intoned my advisor. “Keep it simple, don’t waffle on. Your papers are what count.”

Waffle I did. This was my Magnum Opus, was it not? As far as theses go it was still on the short side, but not as succinct as it could have been.

It was submitted in December. I knew it wasn’t the most carefully pruned piece of writing in history, but I was proud of my achievements. Now a move overseas. The thesis was gratefully out of mind.

It took until the end of May to receive my reviews. One assessor liked it, thought it could have been more fleshed-out, but was happy with it overall. The other assessor, a preeminent scientist in my field (assessed 50 theses, supervised 23)… hated it. Dismay. Some choice quotes from the review include:

“It wanders, it addresses important points then slides into other things. It’s a mess.”

“In conclusion, the thesis is poorly organized and self-contradictory.”


Perhaps arrogantly, this was not what I had been expecting. The positives noted were for “a substantial body of innovative experiments… that lead to provocative results”. However, upon reading the assessor’s comments, it became clear that his reading was… less than complete. He pointed out that I had not done an important control experiment, rendering some of my main conclusions invalid. However, I had indeed done this very experiment. More broadly, it seemed like this assessor had missed the central point of what I was trying to say. He saw contradictions where I did not, and seemed to miss paragraphs of my discussion where (I feel) his concerns were addressed.

The lesson I’ve learned from all this is that, just as for journal articles, it is important for a thesis to be clear and concise. Don’t feel that your introduction and general discussion must provide some great new insight, or be an epic work of deep scholarship. Summarising what you did and saying what you think it means is sufficient (even if this feels on the short side).

It also helps to consider who your markers will be, and what academic system the likely markers work in. One of my assessors (the first) was Australian – hence the feeling towards a longer thesis and “more evidence of traditional scholarship”. The second assessor worked in the US. I am told that my 103-page thesis (including preambles, but with 26 of those pages formatted as two-column journal articles) is a little on the long side for a US audience – perhaps this is why it was only skimmed?

That said, don’t worry too much about the actual thesis write-up: if the chapters are all manuscripts (hopefully submitted / accepted), you can’t go far wrong. It’s worth noting here that even though the second reviewer believed I’d missed a crucial control experiment, his recommendation was still “pass with minor revisions”. At the end of the day, my thesis passed, and three people have read it (well, some at least). Focus on turning out a couple of manuscripts during your candidature and the actual thesis becomes a formality.

Tom Wallis

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Reply to the Zero Sum Game: Should PhD students tutor?

This post was written by Stefanie Becker.

In a recent blog (Zero Sum Game) James asked whether it’s a good idea to tutor during your PhD. Let’s assume that you need to earn some money: Is tutoring the best option? Tutoring is highly paid, and you’ll gain some teaching experience, so you may think that tutoring is the thing to do, especially if you want to apply for a university job later.

Weeell, I must say I disagree: Actually, in my view, tutoring is advisable if you’re NOT striving for a university job. However, if you want to take on a job that promotes your university career, the smartest thing is to get the money in by being a research assistant (RA), and in particular, an RA to a productive researcher. The reason is that the researcher may include you as co-author on his papers if you're doing a good job. And, let's not be mistaken about that, PAPERS ARE EVERYTHING.

If you want to stay at a university, you'll need a strong publication record. Even when you want to be a lecturer, there will be many applications for each lecturer position, and the applicant with the most publications will get the job. Of course, there is some weighting, with first-author publications being rated much higher than co-author publications, publications in peer-reviewed journals being regarded more highly than book chapters, etc., and there will be considerations about the field in which you've published, and possibly, the methods you've used in the past, etc., but the most decisive selection criterion for a university job is "number of publications".

Teaching experience may matter at some later stage in the decision processes of universities, but long long long before that, the university will ask (1) whether you are able to produce high-quality research on your own (hint: always publishing with the same senior person may work against you), (2) whether you are able to attract funding, (3) whether your expertise matches with the department, (4) whether you are easy to work with, and only THEN may somebody ask, "Oh and by the way, what courses have you taught in the past?" General teaching experience may not even count for much, but experience with a specific course may get you some points -- but note that it is VERY improbable that this will make a difference in the selection process, because usually, the differences in the other, more decisive, criteria will already determine the rank of each applicant. If you do need teaching experience, it’s likely that experience from teaching one course or being tutor once is sufficient to fulfill the criteria – so you just need to tutor for a single semester.

If you want to teach (for reasons outlined in the full essay), then my advice would be: Start tutoring when you've got your publication record up to where you want it to be. Warning: If you want to go to Harvard, you should go for 7 or even 8 publications and no less than 4 first-author papers; if you’re targeting one of the top-universities in Australia, you may get in there with significantly less, but to be on the safe side, go for at least 5 publications (3 of which should be first-author publications). You may always get in with less, but if you want to make sure... Well, the competition is fierce and growing fiercer every year. As impossible as the numbers above may sound, the people you’re going to compete with have these numbers of publications, or even more. Check out other PhD students in your field of work! I am always amazed at the achievement levels of current PhD students, and I am always happy that I am not competing with the "new generation", but with a slightly lazier bunch. :-)

On the other hand, there is really no reason to cling to universities or research institutions. Your PhD certificate is like a magic door opener to positions that you have never even dreamed of. With a PhD in Psychology, you are eligible for several high positions in well-known and prestigious organizations and companies. You can be a project manager at Siemens and earn in excess of $90,000 per year instead of the $60,000 the university will pay you. You could be working in quality management and control, consulting, or have a high position in administration; you could be an editor or freelancing journalist for a scientific or not-so-scientific journal -- the possibilities are endless.

So, the good news is: Once you've got your PhD, you've proven yourself to be suitable for almost any job that requires brains. The skills you have acquired during your PhD – making yourself familiar with a new research field and its methods, making logical inferences, deriving or making predictions, testing of a hypothesis, taking a critical stance towards the work of peers and your own, writing research reports, working in a team, dividing tasks among multiple people, and so on and so forth – all these are typical managerial tasks and skills, which are required at various different stages in all large organizations. And, non-university employers will NOT base their decisions about employing you on your publication record. So, if you can conceive of a life outside university, there is no reason to avoid tutoring during your PhD -- unless it keeps you from working in the company or environment you're interested in.

If you can’t imagine doing anything else but hanging around university: Check out some cool companies, write them an email and tell them that you’re going to have a PhD in 2 years, and you’d like to do some voluntary work at a companies’ robotic department, or developing sky cars and jet-packs... because you know? with the PhD, the sky is no limit! ;-)


Editor's note: Are you a postgrad or academic? What do you think about Stef's post? If you'd like to write a reply, please contact Will Harrison.