How to survive your PhD – a free course


A year and a half ago, ANU gave me a chance to make a MOOC.

For those of you in the know, a MOOC stands for ‘massive open online course’. ANU has partnered with EdX, a MOOC delivery platform, so that thousands of people have the chance to participate in ANU courses from around the world, for free.

The process of bidding to run a MOOC at ANU is by competitive tender, so I was surprised when I was given special funding to do one. It was an honour to be singled out and ‘jump the queue’ so to speak.

It showed that ANU management had pleasing faith in my abilities…


Should they really have so much faith?

In less than an hour I had convinced myself that ANU management had made a big mistake. Sure, I had run a successful blog for 5 years – and authored a few online courses – but this was different. I’d never done anything on this scale before. It was sure to be a miserable failure.

It felt like I’d been asked to organise a massive party. What if no one enrolled? Not only would I fail, but EVERYONE IN THE WORLD WOULD SEE ME FAIL. The whole world would discover what I had known, secretly, for a long time… I am only pretending to be clever and interesting.

I am not as good as everyone seems to think I am.

I’ve seen this pattern of thinking, which is called ‘imposter syndrome’, in PhD students many times, but it took me a surprisingly long time to recognise it in me. After (metaphorically) smacking myself upside the head a few times, I applied the imposter syndrome cure I always recommend to others. I decided to suspend judgment. Just get on with it and worry about if it was any good later.

So I tried to write down ideas – any ideas, bad ideas, stupid ideas…

\"golf\"I worked on ideas for nearly a year, but made frustratingly slow progress. I had what golfers call ‘The Yips’ – a sudden and unexplained lack of ability, just when I needed it most. As the Yips dragged on, and on, the fear started to set in. Everything I wrote seemed dumb, boring, pointless.

ANU got a bit worried about me for real at this point, and a couple of people were assigned to help.

Talking with generous, open-minded colleagues was just what I needed. Katie and Chris listened to my account of my troubles and encouraged me to see these as the themes for the MOOC. We worked together to re-orientate the MOOC around the effects of emotions on research student performance and eventually (after much debate) called it How to survive your PhD.

The title makes it sound like it’s just for students. While it certainly aimed at you, we think it can be so much more than a normal course that teaches you stuff. We imagined How to survive your PhD as a node in a huge global conversation, where students and supervisors could, together, work to understand the emotional problems that can get in the way of good research progress, find and share new strategies for coping.

We have designed it so that this conversation can spill into other spaces – social media and campus coffee shops; supervisors offices and classrooms. And since we have a massive, global, free platform, why confine it to the university? We thought mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and partners might want to join in the conversation too. Many of these people are heavily invested in the success of their loved ones. So we decided to write in plain language to make it accessible to anyone who is genuinely interested in helping PhD students survive and thrive.

As I worked with Kevin Ryland to develop the course content, backed with research sourced from a wide range of literature on emotions, the very problems I had been experiencing started to become modules.

The module on Confidence is all about the imposter syndrome. Why it happens, who tends to suffer from it most and how to combat it. I then wrote about Frustration, particularly why writing is frustrating. Students report that supervisors often give bad feedback – why does this happen when supervisors  are themselves expert writers?

My experience of the Yips became a module on Fear. Why do we sometimes fear writing? How can we get over our fear and write anyway? Many people I know are afraid of presenting their research in public – yet can teach a huge class without any problems. What’s all that about?

A module on Confusion was next, which proved to be quite confusing to write. I found myself looking at my own emotional responses in a different way. I did a lot extraneous, perhaps unnecessary, reading. This experience became a module on Curiosity. Curiosity is important to researchers, but it can also be a problem because it’s hard to shut it down once it gets going.

By this time I was nearly half way through the MOOC, but the enormity of the writing and thinking task was getting to me. Hours of writing paralysis at my desk meant I had to I spent many weekends working while my family went out and enjoyed the Canberra sunshine.

I listened to a lot of James Blunt. I ate badly and let my exercise routine slip. I re-experienced Thesis Prison – the feeling of the world going on around you while you are stuck in a room – writing, writing, writing.

This experience eventually was incorporated in the module on Loneliness. Many research students have strong family connections and lots of friends – yet can still feel very alone. Why is the sense of intellectual isolation so intense and so common? Is it just a part of the process, or something we foster deliberately? Is there really anything that others can do to help?

I was grinding through the writing work by now, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, which (perversely) made me start to lose interest. My heightened attention to my emotional state caused me to critically reflect on my work problems. I love problems. I love researching them and thinking of solutions. But when I have solved the problem, even if just in my mind I’m over it. The next bit, the actual doing, is boring!

Ah – boredom! Of course!

I junked a module on courage and put Boredom in its place. It turned out to be the most enjoyable of all the modules to write. I researched what boredom is and why it happens. I found a whole lot of research on boredom which was anything but boring. I wanted to end on a high note, so I scoped out a module on Love.

Then I got stuck again.

Luckily by this time I had enlisted a trusty team of moderators to help me run the MOOC. Steph, Marg, Anna, Jonathon and Kat are all PhD students and so are in touch with the emotions I was exploring on a daily basis. They started to contribute ideas and review the content. We still haven’t finished the last module on Love, but it’s shaping up to be very interesting!

So, are you interested? ‘How to Survive your PhD’ runs for 10 weeks, but it’s designed to be lightweight and easy to manage and should take you no more than an hour a week. We’ll be extending the conversation onto social media so you can participate in a number of different ways.

Research students and supervisors are the main audience and will get the most benefit, but I can imagine that family members and partners, who no doubt have a keen interest in supporting you to finish your research degree, might want to join up too. I’ll be in there chatting with you everyday, along with my team of trusty moderators.

You can sign up for ‘How to survive your PhD’ here.

Or you can watch a video trailer here.

Filming the MOOC was very confronting, and a story in its own right, but here’s a trailer to give you a taste of the content look and feel.

Crucially, unlike other offerings in this space, ANU has made this course completely free. I know that other MOOCs have grown campus communities around them – I’d love it if we could do that with this MOOC too. So why not grab a friend or two and convince them to enrol? It would be a good excuse to grab a coffee once a week and have a chat.

If anyone is a research developer and interested in running it in a formal way, please feel free to email me if you need advice or ideas.

As you can tell from the above, this MOOC extremely hard to write and put it together. I complained about it to everyone who would listen (thanks Twitter!) but I’m glad I did it. I’m especially glad I had the able assistance of a team of people including Kevin Ryland, Katharina Fruend, Nguyen Bui, Chris Blackall and Crystal McLaughlin and top level tactical support from the ANU online team leader Richard Robinson and DVC Marnie Warnes-Harrington. I’m so lucky to have a team of able moderators in Steph, Marg, Anna, Jonathon and Kat. Special thanks to Nigel Palmer who played the role of critical friend so well.

I do hope you’ll think about coming to my MOOC party – and that some of you will invite your parents and partners. I think it will be fun! If you have any questions about the course and how it will run, please feel free to put them in the comments.