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Days of Our PhD

Like sand through the hour glass....

Like sand through the hour glass….

(Oliver & Schneider, 2005)
There are a number of issues to think about when embarking on a PhD. Obviously, one must consider a topic, find a willing supervisor (or two), stumble across a scholarship, and learn the negotiation skills necessary to deal with the Graduate Centre. However, these tasks are all irrelevant when compared to the more important issues, such as – finding out about your leave entitlements, pay dates, and locating the nearest water closet, which is often bigger than your closet-like office. The aim of this piece is to review 12 issues (and self-inflicted dramas) we experienced in the first 12-months of candidature.

First Class Frauds
Obviously YOU weren’t supposed to get that First Class Honours grade. Someone in Administration, or maybe IT, has made a heinous mistake and now you must live up to this lie…you are no First Class Honours Graduate – you are a First Class Fraud! How long you maintain this front, will come down to your sheer determination – and when this looks to be failing, use the thesaurus before sending any email correspondence. Fraudulent feelings are often exacerbated by members of the general public, not just friends or extended family, who ask random questions such as: Are you on holidays at the moment? When are your exams? What will you be or do when you finish? So what do you do….like… during the day???????? Do they check? All of these external influences will lead you to doubt many things, and not necessarily just your PhD candidature. However, there is a universal, quick fix, miracle cure for uncertainty about anything in life. This was discovered by the authors early in their PhD lives, and can be explained with one short phrase….When in doubt- Google! (Oliver& Schneider, 2005)

Flooding
It is likely during your candidature you will face a disaster of some kind usually at a crucial time. Some will face the death of a friend or family member, others a personal injury. For the fortunate candidate your disaster won’t be this serious. It may simply be a construction mishap as a result of the North Terrace revamp, leading to the flooding of the building i.e. your new office!!! This is not the psychological technique employed to cure phobias. This is flooding complete with water and mud! Let this be a timely reminder to always back up any files you are working on.

Searching for Significance
With natural/unnatural disasters behind you, it is time to commence your quest for academic excellence. But, first you must address the fundamental search for significance. Not the statistical significance for which we sought in our data during Honours, but the kind of significance that answers questions such as: Why am I here?
Where is this leading? Is my project worth while? What IS my project?? How will I do it? I’ve never even spoken 100,000 words let alone written them!!! Eventually the voices in your head posing these questions will fade to a dull humming, which could actually turn out to be the boiler room adjoining your office.

Justifying your research/candidature/scholarship
When you have finally convinced yourself of your project and its merits, it is time to formally convince others. This time, your candidature and scholarship depends on it!!!! There are 3 hoops to jump through. Firstly the Research Proposal; this is your bungee cord- it keeps you in the PhD rat race.

Six months into your candidature a Minor Review of Progress turns up, stuffed into your pigeon hole. This is where you draw attention to any disasters/incidents that have impacted on your progress. For example, you had to bring SCUBA gear to Uni to access your office for two weeks, and a gas mask to combat the smell of rotting carpet.
Following this, at twelve months, there is a Major Review of Progress. Ironically, the Major Review of Progress is quite minor, while the Minor Review of Progress is quite major. Never ask questions re: this fact….

To assist you in the review process and to legitimize your candidature, there are a number of avenues available to you. Namely –professional development courses. Ever wanted to brush up on Microsoft Word, or learn how to use Templates and Master documents? Maybe you recoil at the thought of public speaking? Well, look no further than your local Graduate Centre. Be sure to collect the personalized certificate at the end of the session to decorate your office with, and more importantly to add meat to your Review Sandwich.

The Annual review
The Annual Review is another necessary evil. Much like the Minor/Major Reviews, this formality allows you to reflect on the time you have wasted, or used productively- whichever the case may be, and the milestones you have reached and set yourself. It is common for feelings of inadequacy to again creep in here, and you will be sure that your progress will be seen as unsatisfactory. We again kindly remind you to keep breathing, and ask that you use the Annual Review to the best of your ability. Us it as a personal review process, to gauge progress and acknowledge your achievements.

Room for Improvement
You need to seriously consider the exorcism of the spirit of the last [un]successful candidate to inhabit your office. To achieve this, apart from plastering personal development course certificates all over your office walls, you need to add that personal touch. This may comprise photos, postcards, or maybe poster sale bargains. In addition, you will need to scour the corridors for abandoned furniture. Preferably this furniture will be circa 1970’s and bright orange, or perhaps lime or mustard. This will undoubtedly turn your room from clinical/sterile to warm/fuzzy, and hopefully this will equal academic excellence!

Time warp – a warp of time…..
Ever wanted a bomb shelter to play in as a child? The wait is over! Welcome to Level 1 and 2 of the Hughes Building! You are 2 levels below ground, with the weight of 5 levels of academia literally on your shoulders. This is home to most of the School’s rising stars aka the PhD students. Skinner would be proud of the maze of corridors and the consistency of light and dark cycles, air flow, temperature, and humidity. While this stable environment is conducive to productivity, it often leaves you out of touch with the real world. For all you know the weather may have come in, troops from some foreign place may be raiding the Uni Bar, the Fringe could be in full swing, and you would never know. Often you enter the building, sun is shining, birds singing, only to surface and find that it is dark, cold, stormy and desolate. You start to wonder “how long was I in there for????” To further confuse your sense of reality, the time displayed on the computers throughout the School contributes to a five-minute time warp. You only realize this time warp exists when you are five minutes early everywhere you go.

Academics Anonymous Sessions- The Structured Program
For the first semester of your candidature you will be admitted to compulsory Academics Anonymous (AA) sessions. This is part of the Core Component which every candidate is expected to complete. However, it is far more than just a formality. It forms the core of your academic existence. Here you will learn about the properties of a successful PhD tenure BUT in return you must divulge your deepest, darkest research issues. You will be stripped of your dignity in front of your peers…well, perhaps this is a slight exaggeration, but you will certainly address your research shortcomings in AA.

Unstructured Program
In addition to the compulsory sessions offered by the school, you will soon find that there is opportunity to add another entry to your diary. This is the Unstructured program where you weekly meet with other PhD students to thoroughly discuss your week’s research issues, goals, highlights. These groups are generally made up of friends with similar research interests. Some conscientious groups maintain a written record of their meetings in order to track their progress. Other questionable groups do not keep records of their meetings and host them in unorthodox venues- heard of Noodle Monday or Pizza Friday? Neither have their supervisors.

Early Lunch Spells Disaster
Ever felt that time is dragging on? There’s a fair chance that if you have eaten your lunch by 9am it’s not going to be a productive day. Snacking is a great way to procrastinate, so be cognizant of the fact that those hunger pangs could in fact be procrastination pangs. Snack safe, and avoid filling that second drawer with junk food.

Writing your PhD Thesis in 15 coffee breaks a day
Coffee break is to academic as water is to fish; essential for survival and functioning. For a fish functioning is purely physiological but for a PhD candidate, functioning is entirely psychological. The benefit of a coffee break is not in the actual drinking but in the procrastination it provides. Many a PhD student has been brought back from the brink of despair by the promise of a hot chocolate/coffee. Hot drinks of any kind will provide the same solace. The Role of your Soup-ervisor in this case has a dual meaning. While your academic advisor is obviously important, they will never be able to comfort you in the same way as a colleague with a Continental cup-o-soup in hand.

PhD by pub-inundation
While many think it is necessary to compose a dissertation in order to be awarded a PhD, others know that it is possible to be awarded a PhD by Pub-inundation. The foundation of this pathway to success is based on the monthly Departmental drinks. Here you will rub shoulders with those who have made it- PhD survivors! Present will be other wide-eyed, slightly Vitamin D-deprived PhD students, who are nervously trying to act casual in the company of their superiors. Survival tips here include, firstly, monitoring your alcohol intake- no one wants to see a spontaneous karaoke performance of ‘I will survive’. Secondly, chose your spot wisely, sitting between the Postgraduate Coordinator and the head of School is intimidating for anyone in there first 6 months of candidature. Rest assured over time you will discover that they are in fact human and not stupidity detecting machines out to bust you..

We have discussed just a few of the important concerns one will be faced with in the first 12 months of a PhD candidature in the School of Psychology. Initially this time is daunting but you will naturally outgrow this. However some will take time, effort and perseverance- but after all, what else is a PhD about?