Sunday, September 30, 2018

The PhD: Asking Questions

finger-forefinger-gesture-up-3026348 / www_slon_pics / CC0 1.0
Everyone’s been there. You have a burning question to ask at a conference but you can’t think of the right words or the best way to frame it. Maybe anxiety takes over and you start worrying what other people might think of you. This summer, Chengcheng Kang has overcome this anxiety and shares her experiences…
Our PhD journeys include so many interesting events, such as seminars, conferences, workshops and so on. At the beginning, when I thought of a question at these events, I was too afraid to speak and I would just kept it to myself. During any break or tea time I might have built up the courage to go and ask the presenter, but I always felt that I had missed the moment. Turns out these feelings are common, and here is some advice on how to speak out bravely!
This summer I went back to China for a conference and a summer workshop. I was shaking when I asked my question, my heart beat jumped to really high level and part of my brain was blank. Even though I wrote down some of the points I wished to mention, it still came out all jumbled. I started to think about what caused this anxiety and how to solve it. The causes are easier. For me, I cared too much of other peoples’ reactions. What if they don’t think my question is any good? What if they think I am wasting their time? What if they already know the answer?
Based on my own experience presenting my research, I either appreciate any feedback that can contribute to my research or just answer the “easy” question to prove that I am well prepared. When I realised this is how I felt about my own presenting, I guessed that most other researchers probably feel the same when asked a question. So I started not to worry as much about asking questions. Based on my experience, there’s always a small portion of the audience who aren’t even paying attention to the presentation. Then there’ll be some who aren’t familiar with the topic at all, and some who have a level of expertise and will be preparing questions. Even if you think the question may not be “good”enough, ask it! As long as it is valuable to you, then just go for it. Don’t care too much of what others may think about you, it doesn’t matter because your query has been answered that’s what you needed. Plus, it may have been helpful to the speaker. Never underestimate your ability! Time and experience will allow you to be more familiar with the field and able to feel comfortable asking questions soon.
One more thing when you conquer the fear of speaking up: practice more! I only asked one question during the two-day conference but for the following eight day workshop, I think I asked almost one question per lecture in front of around 400 students. All physical reactions would be gone if you master the skill of “don’t be afraid”! I found that after the class some other students came to me to share their thoughts on my question and I made some friends!
To sum up, don’t be afraid of asking questions in front of others. It’s okay to be different, each of our thoughts are unique. Be open-minded, people tend to be very sensitive when they got nervous, but that really doesn’t matter, what should matter is the answer to your question.
Have you ever avoided asking a question a conference? How did you overcome this anxiety? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at, or leave a comment below.
Chengcheng Kang is a PhD candidate from Beijing, China in Group of Information System Management at the Warwick Business School. You may contact her on Twitter at @cckkcc29

Friday, September 28, 2018

Read These 5 Books to Understand Philosophy

If there's one thing that's harder to understand than science, it might just be philosophy. At least science can hang its hat on the real, physical world. Philosophy can seem so slippery, existing in a realm of ideas and arguments and cold, hard logic.
But philosophy's not really so bad, and as a matter of fact, it can really change the way that you look at some of the basic facts about your life. There's more to it than nebulous questions like "What if we're all dreaming?" and "What if the universe is in a jar on a shelf somewhere?" Here are five philosophical disciplines that you should know about — and the books that will get you there.
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Metaphysics is probably the first thing you think of when you think of philosophy. It basically covers any question you have about the nature of Reality with a capital R. Do you think there are two types of reality? That's a metaphysics question. 
So are questions about the nature of change, the nature of causality, and the nature of identity — and questions about whether any of those concepts are actually real in the first place. The thing about metaphysics is that it intersects with actual physics in some unexpected ways, and the more that physicists uncover, the more that metaphysical questions become relevant.
One of the best examples is probably the nature of time. Maybe you feel like time is just a present moment that continually changes. Maybe you think it's like a tape measure creeping ever forward while leaving a trail of the past behind it. Or maybe you think the future and the past are all set in stone, and we just only experience one particular moment at a, well, time. Which of those are true (and it's probably a lot more complicated than any of those suggestions) could have major effects on the study of physics, and vice versa.
The book to read: Check out Adrian Bardon's "A Brief History of the Philosophy of Time" to find out how thinkers from the past perceived time — and how relativity, quantum physics, and other scientific theories changed those thoughts.
There's one particular question in ethics that has been so thoroughly memed, you probably already know all about it: the trolley problem. It goes something like this. 
A runaway trolley is barreling down a track toward five people. The only way they could be saved is if the trolley switched tracks before hitting them — except that track has one person standing on it. You and only you have control of the lever that switches the tracks. When you see the trolley barreling down on the five people, is it your responsibility to pull the lever and make sure only one person is killed instead? If you do, would you have murdered that person? If you don't, would you have murdered the other five?
The book to read: If you're just beginning to study ethics, we recommend "Ethics: A Beginner's Guide" by Peter Cave. Cave covers the hypothetical and not-so-hypothetical moral questions of the ages, running all the way up to modern political thought.
Many major branches of philosophy have a single phrase associated with them that illustrates a central problem in a tongue-in-cheek manner (hey, philosophers have a sense of humor too!). For epistemology, that phrase is "turtles all the way down." Imagine you're an ancient scholar who believes that the world rests on the back of a giant turtle. But what does the turtle rest on, you ask? Easy: another turtle. And another below that, and another below that. It's turtles all the way down.
Epistemology is the study of knowledge and how we know things, and the turtles illustrate one (perhaps shaky) way that human beings justify their beliefs. 
Say you believe something because you have proof, and you believe in that proof because you have more proof of that proof, and so on, and so on. You can't ever hold the entire chain of justification in your head, though — so, at some point, you must be waving your hand and saying there are more turtles down there.
The book to read: To know something, you must be certain of it — the challenge is to find an idea for which certainty has never eroded away. Pick up Chuck Klosterman's "But What If We're Wrong?"  (the cover is designed to make it look like you're reading upside down) and explore the right way to think about the wrong thoughts of the past and present.
Logic might be the most intimidating of all the philosophical disciplines, dense with mathematical symbols and cold, unerring calculations. But if you have a certain type of mind, it might be the only one that appeals to you. 
Logic is probably put to practical use more than any other philosophical tradition, and it can be seen in computer programming, mathematics, and even law. Unlike the other types of philosophy on this list, you won't find a lot of pontificating about different paradigms or worldviews. Instead, you'll just find out the right way to do it — and there's no other way.
The book to read: If you're feeling daunted, why not take your logical medicine with a spoonful of illustrated sugar? "Introducing Logic: A Graphic Guide" by Dan Cryan, Sharron Shatil, and Bill Mayblin explains the practice of logic clearly and with lots of pictures.
Bonus Book: Fiction
In a book that's meant for teens but is really appropriate for anybody, Jostein Gaarder takes the reader on an engaging and mind-bending journey through the history of philosophy in the one-and-only "Sophie's World." 
We aren't going to give away the ending, but the novel follows two teenage girls separated by more than just time and distance, yet inextricably linked in their growing understanding of the borders of reality. It's not science fiction and it's not magic — it really is just rooted in the life-changing power philosophy has to transform the way you see the world.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The PhD: Dealing With Administrative Grief

Image by @rawpixel on Unsplash
Universities are big places, some of them have a lot of students to manage and complex timelines to administer. Most of the time, I hope, the administration of your degree will be invisible to you, but, when things break down, you can find yourself in administrative limbo. 
This happened to Jessica Ritchie, a PhD student at the TC Beirne School of Law at the University of Queensland. Jess sorted out her administrative difficulties, but reflects here on how it happened and what support you need when you find yourself lost in the administative systems. You can find Jessica is on Twitter as @j_ritchie13
One of the most difficult things I’ve had to deal with whilst working on my PhD is managing the expectations of my university. In the end, I realised we were working towards two different goals.
While we both wanted me to complete the PhD, our relationship was more complicated than that. My Graduate School and administration were much more concerned with me getting the PhD done in three years. They had no real understanding or appreciation of the complexities of life, and the interruptions that this can bring to study. Our goals sometimes conflicted. My goal was to finish my PhD, but also be a competitive job applicant at the same time as staying in good health.
During my candidature, I became quite ill and required emergency surgery, after an extended time of going in and out of hospital. I wasn’t aware that I was meant to advise my Graduate School of my situation. My focus was on managing my health while trying to write, not looking up the policies and procedures for the university.
Long story short, not telling the graduate school what happened to me lead to a lot of administrative grief. I wasn’t able to complete the paperwork for a milestone – that had already been completed – because the technical due date was past. This technicality lead to me having to give an additional presentation; taking time away from writing, causing a lot of anxiety, stress and wasted time in meetings.
Going through the process, I felt more like a piece of paper than a human – I was reduced to just my due dates for completed milestones. The Graduate School and administration didn’t care that I was managing my PhD, while also teaching, publishing, supervising students for the pro bono centre, participating in conferences and seminars, and completing an invited overseas visiting scholar position.
To be honest it really soured my feelings towards the university and wanting to be on campus. However, there were four things that helped me through the process:
(1) I have an amazing supervisory team. My primary supervisor could tell that the process was not equitable, that it was upsetting me and took over and dealt with the administrative problems for me.
(2) I have some really close fellow PhD friends that really supported me and also shared their negative experiences with the Graduate School;
(3) I had picked a topic that I was and continue to be passionate about; and
(4) I tried as much as possible to continue to focus on my goals, as that is what is the most important things to me – to finish my PhD – but to also be employable, while managing my physical and psychological wellbeing.
Whilst it is easy to reflect on the experience now and not get upset, it does make me glad I have a supportive supervisory team (and friends). If you ever face a similar situation you will realise how important both things are.
When I was looking at starting my PhD I did a lot of research (transferable skills!) on who I wanted as supervisors. I looked at potential supervisor profiles to see who they had supervised previously. I spoke to some of these students and asked them about my potential supervisors’ pros and cons. Further I looked at potential supervisor’s publications, and whether they collaborated with other researchers and in particular early career researchers.
Finally, I considered how my supervisors would complement each other and how they could help me develop my skills. This made my decision to approach my current supervisors really easy. As a consequence, my primary supervisor was really incredible in helping me and being very generous with his time sorting the problems out (Shout out to Professor Simon Bronitt).
In the end, it all worked out but not without some interruption to my writing process. It did lead to a lot of money being spent at local cafes, as I chose to work there instead of my university for a while. The main thing as always is to keep writing and ignore everything else, as hard as that can be – and now more importantly let me order another coffee.
Thanks for sharing your story Jessica! Do you have a tale of administrative grief to share? How did you end up solving the problem? Love to hear about your experiences in the comments.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Students Riding on Coattails during Group Work? Five Simple Ideas to Try

Image: iStock
The idea for sharing this post came from a session I recently conducted at the annual teaching conference organized by my university. A pedagogical conundrum was raised by a colleague whose enthusiasm and question stayed with me and inspired me to write this post. The question posed by this colleague is relevant to all instructors who have ever used group work to assess their students: How should one deal with the issues that arise when members of a group are not picking up their share of the responsibilities during a group work project?
The benefits of group work are well recognized (e.g.,, as are the reasons students don’t like working in groups (Taylor, 2011). We have all had groups that operated magically, when group members brought out each other’s strengths and helped each member shine; but we have also had groups that failed miserably when members did not get along or did not pull equal weight in completing a group project.
Although much has been written about group work and its benefits and challenges, as well as variables, features, or components that can contribute to positive learning outcomes (Tomcho, & Foels, 2012), issues of implementation seem to pop up every time instructors get together to talk about their teaching challenges. In this post I focus on the persistent challenge of imbalance when not all group members contribute equally. What follows are a few simple ideas you might wish to consider that have worked well for me during years of trial and error in my teaching, as well as insights from my research.

1. Design a group project in which the students work in phases.

For instance, starting with a project idea, then moving to project development, followed by preliminary project outcomes – and requiring students to “check-in” at each phase before delivering the final project. Not only does this help ensure that the groups won’t wait until the final deadline is upon them to work on their project, but it also enables the instructor to touch base with every group and to offer guidance, support, or mediation, if needed, during the process.

2. Develop an element of the project that allows group members to make their own choices.

In my teaching, I usually give students the freedom to choose a topic area that interests them within the scope of the course or that is the most relevant or meaningful to the team members. This decision helps create a sense of ownership and enhances the students’ level of engagement, both of which are crucial for working on large group projects, and especially for those requiring students to carry out the work in phases throughout the term (see, for example, Enghag & Niedder, 2007, on the theoretical basis for student ownership of learning).

3. Within a group project, include a component requiring individual students to submit non-onerous individual work.

For example, the project could include a personal reflection piece (e.g., Huang, 2011a), in which each member individually reflects on the process and product of his or her own portion of the group work. Apart from the pedagogical benefits of learners engaging in individual reflection (Pavlovich, Collins, & Jones, 2009), this task or component will inevitably provide insights about the division-of-labor issue commonly raised by instructors and students alike. Both learners and the instructor can glean a great many insights from those individual reflection pieces, which instructors can take into account when assigning either project or final grades, depending on their individual approach to assessment. This process also enables students to gain greater understanding about what worked well and what could be improved.
One important matter to keep in mind when implementing the reflection component is the need to ensure that we, as instructors, clarify what we mean by “reflection” in order to minimize a potential mismatch between our expectations about reflective learning and our students’ understanding of what it entails. What we’d like our students to do is to engage in critical reflection – that is, thinking that involves different levels of reflection, rather than simply restating or describing what they did, or what I have called “non-transformative” reflection.
The goal is to encourage students to move beyond simply recalling what they did either individually or together within the group and instead to reflect on their personal discoveries about their own learning and the process of working collaboratively (i.e., understanding, analyzing, and evaluating the process and the product of their group efforts), and, importantly, to “verbalize” what they would do differently the next time around (i.e., pointing to the future).
This component is an example of what is called “writing/speaking to learn” (Manchón, 2011). For this task, it’s important that students not be required to follow any formatting or style guidelines. The reflection should be an informal piece of writing, much like a diary entry, and can be in any modality (e.g., writing, audio recording, video clip) that suits the characteristics or preferences of individual students to allow for their individual expression. For some additional simple guidelines about implementing learner reflection, refer to Huang (2011b).

4. Devote a segment (30 minutes or so) during class before all group projects begin to implement two important steps.

Step 1: Get to know each other. The first 10 minutes can be a period for all students to find and meet with the group members they have either been assigned or have self-selected. They should then spend some time exploring each other’s communication styles, which may arise from personal or culture-related differences (Lewis, 2006), to help them better anticipate different communication preferences and approaches to group work. This time can be spent sharing responses to guiding questions or statements, such as “I would describe my communication style/personality as …,” “I tend/prefer to deal with conflict by …,” and “I would appreciate my team members doing/not doing ….” (Huang, 2014). Guiding questions are especially helpful for groups that are culturally and linguistically diverse.
Step 2: Establish group norms. During the next 20 minutes, encourage each group to negotiate its own group norms (derived from Step 1) and ground rules. During this time, members of each team should elucidate, negotiate, and establish roles, responsibilities, and expectations. This process makes explicit the specific contributions and ownership of responsibilities that each team member negotiates and agrees to.
Below is a sample checklist that instructors can modify and use to facilitate this process and help prepare each group project to succeed (Huang, 2014). You can revise the items to suit a project or provide the list as an example for each group to use in creating its own list. The list can also be revisited during each check-point mentioned earlier and adjustments made as needed. Upon completion of the project, instructors can request the checklist(s) to be submitted (but not graded), along with other deliverables that are due.
Group work responsibilities table

5. Prepare students to expect the unexpected.

Rather than directing their every concern to you, students should be encouraged to become problem solvers not only by identifying problems, but also by developing solutions and choosing and evaluating the best ones so as to balance personal learning with the group’s project goals. At the same time, you’ll want to create and maintain a culture of openness that lets your students know you are readily available to provide guidance when groups reach an impasse.
In any group work situation, it is always possible that compatibility issues will arise between or among team members, as well as conflicts or problems with unequal distribution of work. The pre-group-project considerations described above, however, can easily be implemented to help minimize the likelihood that conflicts will develop that could negatively affect learning and outcomes. They may also help instructors and students in dealing with the specific common challenge of students who are not pulling their own weight in group collaborations, while maximizing the benefits of a group project not only in terms of content, but more, if not most, importantly, in learning how to work with others – a valuable life lesson that’s best learned through experience.
Enghag, M., & Niedderer, H. (2008). Two dimensions of student ownership of learning during small-group work in physics.  International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 6(4), 629-653.
Huang, L.-S. (2011a). Language learners as language researchers: The acquisition of English grammar through a corpus-aided discovery learning approach mediated by intra and interpersonal dialogues. In J. Newman, S. Rice, & H. Baayen (Eds.), Corpus-based studies in language documentation, use, and learning (pp. 91-122). Amsterdam: Rodopi Press.
Huang, L.-S. (2011b, Fall). Key concepts and theories in TESL: Learner reflection. TEAL News: The Association of B.C. Teachers of English as an Additional Language, pp. 9-13.
Huang, L.-S. (2014). Lessons learned from team-facilitation in ELT: Strategies for navigating the challenges and making it work.  IATEFL ES(O)L Newsletter, pp. 13-17.
Lewis, R. D. (2006). When cultures collide: Leading across cultures (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
Manchón, R. M. (Ed.). (2011). Learning-to-write and writing-to-learn in an additional language. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Pavlovich, K., Collins, E., Jones, G. (2009). Developing students’ skills in reflective practice: Design and assessment. Journal of Management Education, 33(1), 37-58.
Taylor, A. (2011). Top 10 reasons students dislike working in groups … and why I do it anyway. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 39(2), 219-220.
Tomcho, T. J., & Foels, R. (2012). Meta-analysis of group learning activities: Empirically based teaching recommendations. Teaching of Psychology, 39(3), 159-169.
Dr. Li-Shih Huang, Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics, Department of Linguistics, Learning and Teaching Scholar-in-Residence, Learning and Teaching Centre, University of Victoria, BC, Canada.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

My Questions Now: Preparing a Thesis Conclusion

Conclusions continue to be a challenge for thesis writers, not least because they need to bring together a whole range of ideas and step back from the detail to look at the bigger picture of what all these words and findings mean. This is the moment when examiners are assessing whether the whole text has persuaded them that, yes, this thesis makes an original and significant contribution to knowledge in its field and is therefore worth a PhD. 
Yet, as Trafford, Lesham and Bitzer (2014) point out, a surprising number of theses fail to make a direct statement about the originality of the research and its contribution; in fact, some don’t even have a chapter labelled ‘Conclusion’. While it is still possible to succeed in exhibiting ‘doctorateness’ without fulfilling the standard requirements, my own approach is to make it as easy as possible for readers (here I mean examiners) to identify the elements they are looking for and thus be firmly confident that the thesis meets the established criteria.
Doctoral writers need to be reminded that ‘to conclude’ has several meanings, all of which need to be part of a thesis Conclusion. To conclude means to settle and resolve the issues raised; it means to bring the discussion to a close; and (perhaps most importantly of all), it means to tell us what can be deduced or inferred from the material presented.
As Wisker puts it in The Good Supervisor (2012: 431-2), the Conclusion ought to ‘clarify the effects and the importance of what has been found, what it means, why it matters and what might be done with it’. We have explored thesis conclusions in previous blog posts (here and here). This time I want to add a series of questions that might be used to think through the significance and implications of the research.
Conclusions can be particularly challenging for students working on a thesis by publication, or a thesis in which each chapter reports on a separate experiment, case study or (as in mixed methods research) approach to the central research question. I devised the following series of questions to guide doctoral writers in thinking through the big picture and reaching conclusions about their research.
  • What is the relationship between the various studies? What is the most important idea to come out of Study 1a and out of 1b? And then what is the overall message from all that information and analysis?
  • What did Study 2 then add to our understanding?
  • What did we learn from Study 3 to add to that?
  • Now that we know all of this, what does the world need to know about this topic overall?
  • What is new about this thesis? What do we now know that we didn’t know when you started?
  • Why is it important? And what policy recommendations do you want to make now that you know these new things?
  • What excites you about what you have learnt during this research? What was surprising? What do you care about, and what do you want others to understand now?
A structure for thinking through the issues can be helpful, especially when so many doctoral writers are exhausted when they get to the end of their projects (the requirement to write a confident final sentence to leave resonating in the examiner’s mind might seem like an impossible task!).
Conclusions matter; providing some structure to lift writers out of the detail and into more abstract thinking can make a big difference to the thesis.
Trafford, V., Leshem, S., & Bitzer, E. (2014). Conclusion chapters in doctoral theses: some international findings. Higher Education Review46(3), 52-81.
Wisker, G. (2012). The good supervisor: Supervising postgraduate and undergraduate research for doctoral theses and dissertations. 2nd Ed. Macmillan International Higher Education.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Curious Kids: Why Does English Have So Many Different Spelling Rules?

by Kate BurridgeMonash University, The Conversation:

File 20180624 152140 112kqg9.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

More spelling problems came in when French scribes introduced new spelling conventions — their own of course, and not always helpful. Shutterstock, CC BY

This is an article from Curious Kids, a series for children. The Conversation is asking kids to send in questions they’d like an expert to answer. All questions are welcome – serious, weird or wacky! You might also like the podcast Imagine This, a co-production between ABC KIDS listen and The Conversation, based on Curious Kids.

Why does English have so many different spelling rules? – Melania P, age 12, Strathfield.

English spelling has been evolving for over a thousand years and the muddle we’re in today is the fall-out of many different events that have taken place over this time.

A bad start

It was a rocky beginning for English spelling. Quite simply, the 23-letter Roman alphabet has never been adequate — even Old English (spoken 450-1150) had 35 or so sounds, and our sound system is now even bigger.

More spelling problems came in when French scribes introduced new spelling conventions — their own of course, and not always helpful. Using “c” instead of “s” for words like city was messy because “c” also represented the “k” sound in words like cat.

William Caxton set up the first printing presses. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

And then printing arrived in the 15th century — and with it more mess. William Caxton (who set up the presses in the first place) liked Dutch spellings and so established the “gh” in ghost and ghastly. Some printers were European and they introduced favourite spellings too from their own languages. Not terribly helpful either!

Those pesky silent letters

One of the biggest problems for English spelling has always been changes in pronunciation. Printing helped to stablise the spelling of words, but then some sounds changed their shape, and others even disappeared altogether. Think of those silent letters in words such as walk, through, write, right, sword, know, gnat — these were once pronounced.

If only the printer Caxton had been born a couple of centuries later, or if these sound changes had occurred a couple of centuries earlier, our spelling would be much truer to pronunciation.

And now comes another little wrinkle in this story – there’s a bunch of silent letters that were never actually pronounced. They appeared because of linguistic busybodies who wanted to make the language look more respectable. This caused some serious mess.

Take how we spell the word rhyme. When we swiped the word from French, it had a much more sensible look — rime. But this was changed to rhyme to give it a more classy classical look (like rhythm) – an interesting idea, but hardly helpful for someone trying to spell the word!

The 16th and 17th centuries saw many extra letters introduced in this way. Think of the “b” added to debt to make a link to Latin debitum. Now, the “b” might be justified in the word debit that we stole directly from Latin, but it was the French who gave us dette.
The “b” consonant was a mistake, and now we accuse poor old debt of having lost it through sloppy pronunciation!

Let’s make spelling more sensible

And so it is from this haphazard evolution that we end up with the spelling system we have.

But you know, there are in fact over 80% of words spelled according to regular patterns. So wholesale change is not what we want. However simple improvements could certainly be made without any major upheaval.

We could iron out inconsistencies such as humOUr versus humOrous. To introduce uniform -or spellings would be a painless reform (well, perhaps not painless, since many people are quite attached to the -our in words like humour).

We could also restore earlier spellings like rime and dette, and while we’re at it give psychology and philosophy a sensible look by spelling them sykology and filosofy.

So now, you can see the problem. No matter how silly spellings are, people get attached to them, and new spellings – even sensible ones – never seem to get a foot in the door.

Hello, curious kids! Have you got a question you’d like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to us. You can:
* Email your question to
* Tell us on Twitter by tagging @ConversationEDU with the hashtag #curiouskids, or
* Tell us on Facebook


Please tell us your name, age and which city you live in. You can send an audio recording of your question too, if you want. Send as many questions as you like! We won’t be able to answer every question but we will do our best.The Conversation

Kate Burridge, Professor of Linguistics, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

How to Turn Your PhD Into a Book, Part 1

Image by Sharon McCutheon on Unsplash
Turning your PhD into a book is a mark of success in many disciplines, especially the humanities. Many people pursue this goal immediately upon finishing their PhD as part of an overall academic career strategy. I didn't have to, because I already had a job and I wanted to start building a research reputation in another discipline (and I started blogging).
I feel like a bit of a fraud because I am sort of writing about something I have never done... However, Thom, (the husband of one of my PhD students, Nguyen) pointed out that I have been involved with five published books, with two more in the pipeline. You can thank Thom for convincing me I am experienced enough to give you a useful outline of the academic publishing process, so here we go.
As it turned out, I knew much more than I thought. I couldn't cover everything about academic book publishing in one blog post, so this is part one of three I plan on the topic. I encourage you to write in with more questions. I know many established academics read the blog and I hope some of you will write in with further advice in the comments!
Step one: consider carefully... is it a book, or something else?
First of all, just because doing a book is prestigious CV addition, do you really need to write one? Doing a book is a HUGE time commitment, even if you start with a copy-edited dissertation manuscript. And don't expect to make any money from all this effort; it's a bonus if you do, but if you expect nothing, you won't be disappointed. Don't expect much measurable research impact either. You're likely to end up with an expensive book with a small print run, that won't result in piles of citations.
If you want to get your research out there for people to use, it might make more sense to write a series of blog posts, do a self-published ebook, a documentary film or exhibition. Or just leave the manuscript in your university library where it can be downloaded for free. PhD dissertations are the most downloaded type of document in many university research repositories so ... do nothing. Your work will still have the potential to reach people who are interested.
It's a different matter if you see a non-academic audience for your book. Some disciplines, like history, produce research with commercial potential. I'd encourage anyone who sees this potential to follow it up. A mass market publication has less academic snob value, but trust me: having a book that actually sells enough to give you a hefty royalty cheque is super satisfying!
Step Two: make contact with a potential publisher
Locating an academic publisher is actually a lot simpler than most people think: just look at the spines of the books on yourself and do some Googling. Unlike mass market publishing, where people rely on agents, academic publishing is still a 'cold call' proposition. Have a look on the website for instructions to authors about how to get in touch - and just... do it.
There are 'slightly less cold' approaches, which, I think, increase your chances. One simple (but maybe not obvious) technique is to visit the publishing stand at the next conference you attend and engage the people in the booth in a bit of a chat (it's a good idea to skip a session for this purpose - they will be more willing to talk to you if it's quiet). Don't be shy, they are used to being approached. Generally the person selling books will either have a role as a scout, or be able to call in the person who is there for that purpose. Once they seem willing to talk, ask what kind of works they are interested in publishing. If their general interest seems to align with the work you have in mind, try out a short (I mean two sentence) pitch for your book idea and ask if it sounds interesting. Last year I did this at a conference and got a business card, which I then followed up with an email, very successfully.
Smart publishers are always on the look out for new work, so you might find they approach you. Great! Just make sure it's a real publisher, not a dodgy thesis publishing mill. You can tell if it's a real publisher because they will ask you to write a proper proposal. Anyone who promises to publish your PhD without changes is highly suspect. While some advisors will still tell you not to put your dissertation in the insitution repository, some publishers use this as a place to identify potential books and will approach you. Or, you could start a blog - if you manage to generate enough of a readership to be noticed, they will find you, trust me.
Step Three: sell the idea
The next bit - getting them interested in actually buying your idea- is tricky.
Book publishing, especially academic publishing, is a marginal business. Even boutique academic publishing outfits, who employ three people, are not charities. Publishers are interested in one thing above all others: selling books. It's easy to lose sight of the profit motive when you work in an academic environment, which is essentially a not-for-profit enterprise.
Your mileage may vary, but I always prefer to get the publisher invested in the idea before I go to the trouble of writing a whole proposal. You might get a few knock backs before someone is interested. Doing heaps of work in a proposal template you'll have to change anyway is a waste of time. Write a cover letter to your contact, or the email listed on the site for this purpose, with a short pitch for the book, clearly signalling the intended audience and why you are the best person to write it. If you have already published papers or, better still, blog posts, you can include some circulation numbers to demonstrate people might buy it. For example, here is a short excerpt from the pitch letter I recently wrote to a small, but well known academic publisher:
We cannot keep up with the requests for talks about our research and there is particularly intense interest from the community in the methods. A lot of people are fearful that 'the robots are coming for our social science jobs', but we have a totally different take, which is a 'human in the loop' approach (I wrote about this on the blog a couple of weeks ago: Are the robots coming for our (research) jobs?). I think now would be an ideal time to get something to market and your methods series format is perfect.
My approach here was to leverage the existing interest in our research work to demonstrate there was already a market. Note I use explicit commercial language 'get something to market' to show them I understand the profit motive. I didn't try to tell them the work is intrinsically interesting or important, even though this is my primary motive in writing it. Being an important book doesn't matter if there are not enough people willing to buy it. Of course, academics should publish non-commercial work, but that's why we have journals and conferences.
I now need to convince the publisher that I am the one to get it to market. Having a successful blog is a huge advantage here, but this is a co-authored book. I know the publisher is keen the writing team doesn't fall apart during the writing process. As I understand it, this happens often enough for publishers to be understandably skittish. The best way to prove you can write together is... to already have written together. So I followed with this paragraph to soothe their fears:
... What makes me really confident about the project is it builds on the strengths of our existing collaboration. Hanna could bring her 15 years of experience as a computer scientist working. Will works in science communications and, in addition to being a good writer, is used to working across disciplinary boundaries....
This letter got me an (almost) immediate request to submit a full proposal. The 'almost' is important, which leads me to step four... which will be in part two of this series because I have already reached my (self imposed) word count. Now I'm wondering: are you thinking about publishing your dissertation as a book? What questions are in your mind? Or do you have any experience of the publishing process you would like to share? Love to hear from you in the comments.
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Sunday, September 16, 2018

“Major Revisions”: Dealing with Negative Feedback

by Annabelle Workman, PhD Life:
Rodin's "The Thinker"
Receiving negative feedback for something you’ve poured endless hours into can be absolutely soul crushing. Some people handle this better than others – are you the kind of person who can take it on the chin, accept the response and move on with your day? Or are you the kind of person who spends days or weeks agonising over every word of the feedback, questioning your own abilities as an academic? Read Annabelle Workman’s experience with nasty reviewers…
My heart skipped a beat when I saw the email in my inbox. Subject title: Major Revisions. I didn’t even bother with the pep talk, as intense anticipation to read the reviewer comments overcame me.
In retrospect, I wish I had taken a moment for that pep talk, not that it would have spared me much anguish. My heart was beating fast as I began to read the first reviewer’s comments. “If I understand this poorly written paper correctly…
Any wind left in my sails quickly dissipated. I continued to read the tirade that criticised every aspect of my research, until a short laugh actually burst from my mouth. “I suggest an English language readability edit would be useful…” Could a native English speaker receive any greater affront?!
This was not my first paper, nor the first request for major revisions, but it was certainly my first experience with what I can only describe as unhelpfully critical feedback. My supervisors, all of whom were co-authors, were empathetic and reassured me that we had just chosen the wrong journal.
I tried to convince myself that I was managing to keep the comments in perspective – it was just one reviewer’s thoughts after all. I shared the experience with my PhD peers, in an effort to demonstrate that I was comfortable with the notion of being vulnerable and flawed. My peers all generously provided listening ears, gave sympathetic smiles, laughed and shared their own horror stories, and allowed me to rant for a seemingly endless period of time.
But the truth is, I was far from comfortable with being either vulnerable or flawed. It sounds so melodramatic, but I seemed to enter a period of emotional turbulence that resembled the seven stages of grief. I ran through the emotional gamut: shock, shame, anger, sadness, hopelessness. And in my heart of hearts, I knew why. The comments left an indelible mark because they reaffirmed my greatest fear and further entrenched a deeply held belief: that I wasn’t intelligent enough to be doing a PhD.
I eventually came to realise that the PhD journey is not just one of professional growth and development, but one of personal growth as well. While the reviewer’s behaviour was less than collegial, I understood that most people would be able to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and move on. My intense reaction to those comments indicated that this was actually about me. I had been avoiding the demons of inadequacy for as long as I could remember. Now it was time to dig deep and make a concerted effort to challenge them.
I notified the journal that we wouldn’t be revising and resubmitting the paper. After that, it took me a number of weeks before I could find the tenacity to pick up the paper again and think about revising it. It was as though it had become this filthy, embarrassing piece of rubbish – something that I was eager to personally distance myself from. But the PhD timeline doesn’t afford the luxury of ignoring a paper for an inordinate amount of time. To help me find the mental fortitude to progress the paper, I sent it to a trusted colleague – along with those nasty reviewer comments – and asked them to provide honest but sensitive feedback.
Next, I found myself a great psychologist. These feelings of inadequacy weren’t going anywhere without an intervention. I explored the work of Brené Brown, the renowned shame researcher, and concepts such as distress intolerance.
I’m still a work in progress, but as I get closer to submitting my thesis, I feel more confident that I am enough, and that I will successfully complete my PhD. Ultimately, I believe there are two major distinctions between me and the eminent academics I aspire to be: age and experience. The only way I can achieve those two things is to put one foot in front of the other and to continue to grow – professionally and personally – every day.
Have you had a negative experience with reviewer feedback? What steps did you take next? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at, or leave a comment below.
Annabelle Workman is in her final six months (she hopes!) of a PhD on climate change and health at the University of Melbourne. She is married with two young daughters, loves running, bike riding, going to the park and watching Play School. She is based at the Australian-German Climate and Energy College, and can be contacted at