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Higher Degrees : Are they really worth it?

Before launching into this post I just want to give a bit of a disclaimer and state that I do believe that higher degrees are worth completing. It is just a matter of figuring out whether you are getting it for the right reasons. I have had reason to question whether my degree is worth it. It is, it just needs some tweaking and perhaps a change to something more practical like Masters rather than PhD. I also want to mention that I have had nothing but support and help from my supervisors and other HDR staff alike and without them I would have been in a much worse predicament…

Over the last month or so I have been doing a lot of thinking. How is that any different to the large amounts of thinking I do normally? It’s been about my degree. I have never had reason to question any parts of my education. I knew that I wanted to get into university, I worked hard all through high school to get there. Keep in mind I hated high school. Hate is a strong word but my schools years were pretty horrible and I was glad to be out of there!

So I got into the course and university I wanted and again I worked super hard and missed out on a social life to get into the honours degree and then into PhD. I even had 6 week plans for every assignment so I had them prepared early. To be fair though I didn’t miss out on everything. I managed my time well and was able to continue with part-time work and go on exchange overseas to Portland, OR.  When I finally got accepted to do PhD I relaxed a little. I had finally got to where I wanted to go and now I could really focus on research and enjoying spending time in archives. Well, my little dream went astray within 18 months. I had the project worked out, the literature review and introduction drafts written, successfully completed my colloquium, gone on several research trips: many to Melbourne but one very exciting trip to Canberra…I, and my supervisors, thought everything was going well until after several trips to the National Archives came up with nothing. I thought that if I kept going I would eventually find some hidden gem of information. I genuinely thought that it was me who was the problem. Perhaps my research skills weren’t up to scratch, perhaps I was using the wrong key words, perhaps I should speak to more members of staff at the National Archives. This eventually went on until I was asked to attend a ‘consultation.’ This sent me into panic mode plus! I was worried they were going to kick me out or something equally as dramatic. Thankfully nothing of the sort happened and the ‘consultation’ was a review to see why there had been problems with the progress of the thesis. A plan of action was put in place, a new supervisor was assigned to the panel and so the process began again. The only problem? The new topic still lacked information. Another slight revision of the topic still led to a lack of archival information. Now, I’m in my third year, time is ticking on with both my scholarship and candidature. I was getting worried that the scholarship would come to an end and I would be left without any form of income.

With the help of my partner, who has been in a similar place with his research, I decided to take a leaf out of his book and start looking for work. NOW! I’m just hoping I’m successful in one of my applications. I discussed this with my supervisors who were coming to the same conclusions and liked my plan of finding work, intermitting for six months then reviewing where the thesis is at, whether I want to continue with Masters or PhD or if I want to continue at all. What my supervisors reiterated to me is that no matter what decision I make I have not wasted my time as a PhD candidate. I have learned valuable skills, participated in many projects and improved my writing and research skills. If nothing else I have still got my honours degree which is a help in the workforce. This is also true for my partner as without the years of lab experience he had as a HDR student he would not have got the position he is currently employed in.

I think higher degrees are important, but I also am thankful that my university has the flexibility to change depending on the candidate. I’m not locked into PhD, I can complete Masters if I choose. Without this experience I would not have realised that academia really isn’t for me at this point in my life. Maybe down the track but not right now. I’m feeling that at this point in my life I’m a little behind others my age because of the years spent studying, but at the same time I’m a little ahead. At the end of the day I just want to be employed in a job that I enjoy and feel like I’m contributing something to the world. Now to find a job!

Just to add a few words regarding my own postgrad experience. My experience has been a little different to Sarah’s. I never hated high school, I didn’t love it exactly – I guess I felt a little indifferent to high school, I went, I did the work then I came home and did the homework. I worked hard enough to get into the course I wanted to but I definitely could have put more effort into chemistry. I worked hard throughout my undergrad but let’s say I was a different student to Sarah. I didn’t work on assignments a month or more before they were due, usually a two or three weeks (3 was the definite maximum) but sometimes it was only the week before. When I finished my undergrad I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, I knew I didn’t want to just go out and get any job – I wanted to do something with history but I didn’t want to do an honours year. I didn’t feel IT about any of the subjects I had taken. I really like the World War units but just not enough to write a thesis. I fell into a Grad Dip of Museum Studies and found I really liked the idea of museum work, and just museums in general. So in 2009 I began my Master of Cultural Heritage course.

Up until now it has been great, in 2010 I interned in Washington, D.C. and then in July this year began my thesis unit. I’ve had the opposite problem to Sarah, I’ve found so much information it has been difficult at times to get through. I have to agree with Sarah, though I’m not doing a HDR, higher degrees and postgrad study is well worth it, even before you finish. I have had my own moments of wondering if my thesis, and my Masters was worth the trouble. In August, I hit a road bump. I found out that I may not have been able to get the primary documents I needed from the museum in D.C. My choice was to revise my thesis focus or attempt to hire a researcher to get the documents I needed. I had to think very hard about what I wanted, was I going to revise my focus, change from what I had really wanted to do for the last 18 months and start almost from square one. Or was I going to risk my project by trying to hire a researcher, taking the chance that the researcher may not get the relevant information and essentially be back at square one anyway? Add to that, I didn’t have all that long to decide what to do. I spoke with my supervisor, my family and friends and I decided I would risk hiring a researcher. I was lucky, I found a great researcher, sent him a three page guideline for the information I wanted, emailed my contacts at the museum and organised for the researcher to go in, and he sent me exactly the material I needed. Sometimes you have to go out on a limb, take the risk and let it fall where it may. But the one thing you should always do, is really think about what is right for you. What do you want out of it and if it is working for you. There is no sense in doing something if it makes you unhappy.

Supervisors: Friend or Freakin’ Scary?

Those of you who have completed a thesis of any kind will know that the relationship with your supervisor is often imperative to successful completion. Disagreements with supervisors (especially principal supervisors) can cause great difficulties, the same with supervisors who can’t always give you the attention you need.

Over the course of my two post graduate degrees I have had the same principal supervisor and despite the fact he has always been busy, and is even busier now, he has always made a huge effort to make sure that he can meet with me. Throughout the course I have also had several other supervisors who have come and gone but David has always been there. He has also imparted wonderful pearls of wisdom. My personal favourite is ‘you can’t edit a blank page’. That one definitely stuck with me! No matter how well you get along with your supervisor there will be times when you get a bit nervous about meetings. Have I done enough work? What if they don’t like my work?…or in my case, what do you do when you have done absolutely nothing? These are the sort of topics that Liss and I plan to cover in this post – how to tackle the supervisor meeting.

Even though I have been meeting with my supervisor for well over 3 years I still get that twinge of anxiety when we meet. While that is much less when I feel I have done a good job with my work, it’s always there. That probably has more to do with my perfectionist attitude than anything else! While meeting is always that little bit scary, especially if you’re a bit awestruck by your supervisor, in my experience it is best to completely honest. If you’re struggling let them know, if you can’t find sources, let them know. It’s in their best interest as well as your own for you to successfully complete your degree. That was something I was not aware of until recently, and as a result my thesis has suffered. For students like myself who have had personal dramas impact substantially on their progress; along with the difficulties, in my case of locating archival sources; it was nice to know even the uni is there to help. It’s in their best interest for you to finish. Everyone is in your corner, encouraging you. That’s something helpful to remember and something I wish I had know a lot earlier than two and a half years into my PhD. Uni staff are also very supportive if you are having issues with supervison. While I work well with my supervisor, not everybody does. It is at that point that changing supervisors may be an option. If you don’t like the direction they are sending you or the type of thesis they want you to write, and they are not open for discussion, or you feel you can’t discuss it with them, it is time to talk to someone. Even if a change in supervisor isn’t in order, perhaps an additional supervisor might be required. Changes in supervisor, or supervisory panel in my case, occur often. Students move, supervisors move…in my case I had two associate supervisors leave in the space of a couple of months and another associate supervisor had to be found. It has worked out well, I get on famously with my new associate supervisor and my thesis has now found a new direction and momentum and even though I still get that twinge of anxiety, I believe that no one will quite understand what you are going through except for your supervisor. They had to write theses at some point and every battle you face is one they most likely came up against themselves.

I thought I would finish up my waffling by sharing some blog and Twitter accounts of relevance. There are plenty of Twitter accounts and blogs by PhD students and their experiences (I’m one of them!) and they are definitely worth readin, but these are aimed at postgraduate students to help them with their thesis and life after graduating:

Literature Review HQ: Blog and Twitter
Thesis Whisperer: Twitter and Blog The section You and Your Supervisor is particularly relevant
Professor Is In: Twitter and Blog

A nice account to end on, not quite the same as the ones above but it is a nice site to check out – Gradness Madness: Blog and Twitter – Sarah

Unlike Sarah I am extremely new to working with a supervisor, I’ve had my supervisor since the end of 2009 but have only just begun my thesis. That first meeting can be nerve-racking, luckily for me I had worked out my area of interest when I was first put on to my supervisor, I then proceeded to sit on that topic for almost a year, not thinking overly much on any actual plans or ideas. Sarah is right when she writes that supervisors can be a source of great help – mine helped me in deciding on where to undertake my internship and we weren’t even meeting or working on my thesis yet! My supervisor, Andrea, helped me to use my internship as a source for my future thesis and I ended up interning at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

I’m in my final semester (yay!) of my Master of Cultural Heritage (Honours) and as an Honours course that means my final semester is a minor thesis. That ‘minor’ is a source of great relief, it means – unlike Sarah – I do not have a mammoth dissertation to write, Only 15 000 words. It may sound like a lot but believe me it isn’t. My first meeting was three weeks ago and even though I knew my topic I was nervous as all hell, wondering if I was going to be able to manage to explain what I am interested in or even why. If you have a good supervisor they will put you at ease, luckily mine is wonderful. As Sarah said, if you have issues or problems, tell them – they’re not there to make it difficult for you, they are there to help. Of course this is true with anything really, if you’re having difficulties or issues whether it’s at work or home it is usually best to lay it out. Nobody wants to be continually worried or feel like they are in it alone. Prior to my second meeting I was probably worse than the previous. I had been given tasks to do, I had been fine with my efforts until I got to uni, then all I could think of was “Oh shit, it was crap. Why did I send that? I’m so stupid why am I doing this”, as she was reading through it the first “good” was like a breath of relief. The great thing I’ve realised is that they don’t expect you to get it perfect, at least not right away :-). I have another meeting coming up in a week, so far I’m feeling good – probably because I have a better understanding of what I’m doing. I think the important thing is to try not to become overwhelmed – it isn’t easy – but if you focus on the task at hand (always keeping the big picture in mind) it’s easier to work through than “oh shit I have to write 15000 words by October”.

I think the main things to remember for a supervisor’s meeting or the tasks set during one are:

  1. Breathe
  2. Don’t focus on the end game – worrying about how big the thesis or topic is and what happens after simply don’t help
  3. Break it down into manageable tasks and set dates to be done by
  4. Tell your supervisor if you’re having difficulties and let them know if you don’t understand what they mean or what they are asking you to do
  5. Don’t try to be perfect, just do your best (on that note Liss, I remember being told that your thesis doesn’t have to be perfect. You’re only writing a thesis not a Nobel Prize winning piece. – Sarah)

I guess as long as you have a supervisor who is working with you, to get the best out of you, then they are a friend but that doesn’t stop them from being freaking scary!

Procrastination…worst superpower ever

I had to giggle at my boyfriend, Adam, the other day. I was bemoaning the procrastination I seem to find myself doing quite a lot lately. Somehow we got onto the topic of superpowers (don’t ask my why!) but Adam always thought he would be ‘Proactive man’ as he gets things done and his arch-nemesis would be ‘The Procrastinator’. I figured I would make an excellent Procrastinator, though I would not be a good super villain as I would never get anything done…except whiling away the hours on the interwebs. It was from this conversation that I began to have a good think about procrastination. Why do I procrastinate so much? The cartoon to the left does explain a lot, but what can I do to combat this superpower of mine and turn into Proactive man…or in this case Proactive woman.

What steps can be taken? There are a plethora of websites, advice from supervisors, family and in my case psychologists. In the process of other personal issues procrastination has been something that has been brought up many times. I thought I would list some of the things that have helped me and that I am in the process of implementing.

Enthusiasm: becoming enthusiastic about your work. I found that when my thesis wasn’t going well prior to a topic change I felt very little enthusiasm about research or writing. Writing chapters is much more enjoyable when you are making headway with research instead of coming home disappointed every time. If you enjoy what task you are undertaking (or try to find positive aspects within it) the task will not seem quite so difficult.

Perfectionism:  I still have trouble with this one. I am a perfectionist and I have trouble writing something that isn’t perfect, let alone sending it to my supervisor. This one isn’t easy to overcome but I have to set realistic expectations for myself. That includes making reasonable time lines and making the effort to write something, even if it is something small. All of those lucky people who have survived PhD tell me that writing something, anything, is the first step. Some even suggested just typing someone’s work to get into the swing of writing again. One sentence written is a sentence less, and it can always be changed. As my supervisor says you can’t edit a blank page.

Accountability: This is something I have tried to avoid (it prevents procrastination you see) but I am trying to work on. Getting other people involved and being accountable to them can help motivate. For example I have trouble with getting up. I get my boyfriend to wake me. Trouble staying at uni? I’ve started a time sheet where I decide whether my work that day warrants a reward. I am a fan of tea so a few days work means I can head up to Leaf Tea in Geelong and get a delicious new tea to have at uni. This is where meetings with supervisors every week can also be of benefit.

Planning: Having a to-do list each day I find to be greatly beneficial. Every task done means crossing something off. When everything has been done it is a great feeling knowing you have accomplished something for the day. Just remember to keep the list to a reasonable level! Trying to get more done than possible makes the task seem to overwhelming, then you’re back to square one. In terms of thesis writing I had a lecturer who got through their PhD by writing at least 100 words per day on her thesis. Not 100 words of notes, but parts of chapters. It worked for her, it might not work for others but it is an idea to get started!

Little steps, rewards: As mentioned about rewards can be helpful. Rewarding little steps makes a difference. One cannot combat procrastination overnight but rewarding good behaviours and habits helps.

Keep in mind: procrastination can’t be fixed overnight. It is a hard habit to break and relapses occur. Just remember, little steps and rewards can go a long way to helping turn you from The Procrastinator to Proactive Man! – Sarah

Okay, my turn. So I think there may be two Proscrastinator super-villains in that world. In short, That cartoon is my life right now. I’m supposed to be doing research and the initial stages of writing for my thesis. What have I been doing instead? Reading, which really, is the story of my life. Most times when I am supposed to be doing something, I’m reading instead. Now there are other factors involved aside from my procrastination, but they are a whole other blog post. When did I first notice my powers of procrastination? High school. Alas my need to read overtook my desire to do work as soon as I received it, usually. Don’t get me wrong, of course there were times when I did my work straight away, it just wasn’t the norm. Let me just say, I always did the work, always. But come on, in high school, the procrastination power doesn’t really do much damage. Now at university? That can cause some issues. Such as a book you really need for an assignment being out for the next month…and your assignment is due in a week. Uh oh, I found that databases were, in these cases, the saviours of a procrastinator. Hundreds upon hundreds of articles, some of which are relevant, just there in your computer!

Now I know this is not the best way to conduct yourself as a university student, you should be working diligently weeks or even months in advance to ensure your assignment will be the best it can be, but sometimes, you just want to read a book. Or listen to music, or watch a movie, or a tv show or… you get the picture. Here I must point out that I maintained a pretty good WAM (Weighted Average Mark) and never received lower than a Credit but never below a Distinction in my major sequence units. So I haven’t done too badly. I have found however that personally, I do better under pressure. I have no idea why but for some reason I can only write a week or two before it is due. Of course, in most cases I’ve already done the ground work: read the books, read the articles, the study guide or reader but I must be honest and say that quite a number of times I have not until the week, maybe two, before it is due. (Note: this will NOT be happening with my thesis, I started research on that a year ago; 2000 words I don’t mind doing in a week, but not 15000!). Sometimes the odds just seem insurmountable, when I’m not just being lazy but actually a little concerned about the sheer scope of something I procrastinate by writing up plans. It may seem like you’re not doing a thing but then you look at it and think “Hey! I know what to do” or “Okay, what to say in my intro”. I usually write my conclusion first because then I know what I’m aiming for. If all you are doing though is writing plans, you’re in trouble.

Sarah gave some pretty good pointers up there, it does help to set goals. Let me discuss my experience in terms of Sarah’s points. Enthusiasm: luckily I have not had any problems with being interested in my topic. Unlike Sarah there is a lot written on my area (Holocaust memorialisation), and I’ve had no setbacks with my thesis that have left me feeling uninterested or just unsure (luckily!). However what Sarah has said is true, as long as you’re interested it should be easy enough to overcome your motivational issues, unless the task is housekeeping. I find music blaring helps me vacuum, or clean in general.

I’m not exactly a perfectionist, I start out wanting everything to be perfect but I usually finish not even being bothered doing a final edit! Though usually I do so as I go, I tend to work by doing a section at a time and editing as I finish each one. Then I slap it all together, print it off and hand it in. Haha, okay I don’t just slap it together but I have on occasion not read through at the end. I don’t really mind so much if it’s not perfect, luckily for me. Though that’s an issue in and of itself, note: do edit as you work so that at least you’ve been reading it and give it at the very least a once over after you’ve finished.

Accountability is an issue of mine also, though I haven’t done much about it. I actually try to make myself accountable to Sarah (I hear a chorus of oh noes, and idiots, I know!), yes not quite the right person (sorry Sarah) as she has a habit of helping find excuses for procrastinating. But now I have my supervisor. I may not be in great shape as far as accountability goes but I am the planning queen. I can plan like you wouldn’t believe, every assignment begins with a plan, every car trip begins with a plan (well in this sense, I ALWAYS Google maps the place I’m going, I hate not knowing where it is!). In assignments I make plans for the whole thing, the introduction, each paragraph and the conclusion. These plans become drafts which become my final assignments. So I concur, planning is essential. I do however have problems sticking to word limits, my last 2500 word assignment was 3500 words.

I do think you have to think carefully about your rewards. I cannot be rewarded with a book or even a chapter. I will read it. All of it. Sometimes I reward myself with a bookmark or a cup of tea. I have issues with willpower when it comes to reading so I cannot use it as a reward :(.

Procrastination can be fun but at the end of the day you are left with more work than if you’d bitten the bullet, sorted your shit out and done some work. So I have to agree with Sarah, procrastination is the worst superpower ever.

-Liss

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