More advice on advice


I’ve been blogging since June 2010 – nearly nine years as I write this post. I started the blog, in part, because I wanted an online resource I could send to students. I’d been working as a research educator for about four years at that time and noticed PhD students asked me the same questions over and over: how do I start my discussion section?What is theory? What’s the best way to take notes? How do you write so fast? How do I put publications in my PhD?.

I thought it would take six months to write everything down. Happily I was wrong and I still find the blog a stimulating, creative space to share my research and teaching.

I’m fortunate that many people have taken up the invitation to write for me: this is important for a number of reasons. Through listening to stories we all get smarter. Other people have valuable perspectives and experiences to share and I am grateful they see the Whisperer as a vehicle. If you’re a long time reader you might notice I have a rhythm to the blog. You get a post a week: one week it will be a community member the next week it will be me. By only posting on alternate weeks, I weave my voice into the voices of others. There’s no doubt this makes the blog more interesting – and more sustainable for me (if I had to write 1000 words every week I think I would have given up long ago!).

I get about two or three story pitches a week and, over time, I have developed a rubric for whether I accept a community member post or not. I rarely reject a post, but I do sometimes ask people to change their post before publication and sometimes I edit heavily. The most common reason I ask for a revise and resubmit is when people send me a fairly similar version of ‘lessonsI learned from doing a PhD’. Without realising it, when they reflect on the PhD process, students say the same kinds of thing. This similarity is easy to explain: we all work within a system and this puts similar pressures on each one of us. It’s not surprising advice for dealing with the system tends to converge around the same kind of topics: choosing good supervisors; being organised; qualities of persistence and resilience; keeping to a writing schedule; learning to fail; staying healthy and so on.

I never reject the ‘lessons learned’ story pitches out of hand – usually there is something new and interesting to say because every person has a unique journey through the PhD. If can find this angle in the first draft I suggest the person rewrites it with their unique angle front and centre. It might be that they did a PhD by publication, or that they studied at a distance, were coping with a chronic illness or conditionhad lots of kidsor were a minority in their department (I wish I had more of this last type – hint hint!). Most people are happy to do this rewrite, realising how useful it will be to others facing similar circumstances to share their very specific tips. These posts don’t speak to everyone and often don’t get many hits initially. However, over time they become the ‘go to’ post for people who google this specific circumstance. I like the idea that they stay on the blog as

Sometimes I am sent ‘lessons learned’ posts that people have already published the post on their own blog. They kindly ask if I will republish, but I usually refuse. I try to work by the spirit of generosity: it’s better to promote their blog through social media than be greedy and use their content on mine. Recently I agreed to do this for yet another post and started to think about how to make this sharing practice have more impact. With that in mind, I asked on Twitter for people to share with me advice posts they have written on their own blog. I got quite a number of them and expect that more will appear in the comments to this post.

Below is the beginning of a guide to other PhD student advice posts I have been sent so far. I consider all these posts to offer ‘generic advice’ – not because they are bad or boring, but because they share good, common sense advice that is applicable to most people doing a PhD. I had a fun afternoon reading all of them: there are some excellent tips and observations in here, which I imagine will be useful to anyone starting – or trying to finish.

I will add more posts to the list over time – possibly as a section on my Community page. I’m still interested in publishing more unique accounts and perspectives , so if you have one, please send it in!