academic cohort, Academic relevance, Academic Study, Academic success, creative writing, parenting and study, Time management

Lessons from my doctorate

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The only thing sweeter than attaining your doctorate is the academic success of your children – especially if they have grown up in the shadow of your higher education study.

Admit it, if you are a mother, there is always that nagging voice somewhere – yours or some critic – that says ‘intense focus and study at the expense of much of everything else in your life will be bad for your young children.’

Rubbish.

Low expectations, complacency and laziness are limiting. Constantly pushing your boundaries and challenging your comfort zone, on the other hand, teach children not to be limited in their aspirations while at the same time reinforcing that anything worth achieving takes hard work, and sacrifice.

If you are completing your doctorate and fretting about your children taking a back seat, don’t worry. The mum up late studying, turning down social invitations, spending holidays at the computer or university library may be absent from her children’s lives in some ways, but she is abundantly present in ways which matter in the long term.

I can tell you first hand that far from harm my children, my back to back MA and PhD while my two sons were young gave them the gift of knowing success demands:

Perseverance, commitment, focus, determination, time management, and deferred gratification.

I never volunteered to help out at their school, I refused to play the game of keeping up domestic appearances, and I rarely even went to school social events. You know what? I speak from experience here – I was raised by a mother who studied, and I have friends who completed their doctorates while their children were young. We are here to tell you the world will not end, nor will social structures collapse, if you do not help out at your child’s school or socialise with the other mothers.

The school, and your children, can do without your input. Leave that to the mothers with nothing else to do.

Sounds harsh, but let’s face it, volunteering at the school, when your time could be better spent elsewhere – like on your own work – is often a matter of ego. You want to feel wanted. Does the bake sale really need your input? Do the other mothers really need to be organised like a pact of sheep to socialise at some cafe to bond every term?

And yes, note I say ‘mothers’. Even in the 21st century, no father frets he isn’t spending time helping out at the school or having coffee mornings with the other dads.

I understand that my views don’t make me popular. But they do produce results.

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The past 12 months in my household have been a demanding ones, with my eldest son completing his final year at school.And although it has been three years exactly since I graduated with my PhD, he still sees me work long into the night on my creative and academic writing, after a day of commercial writing in communications. He knows what it takes to achieve your goals.

And I have to say – he took note. We celebrated last month when his terrific exam results netted him a place in a prestigious university course and put him on track for the architecture career he aspires to.

Unlike many other teenagers, he wasn’t out at parties, he was at his desk. No pain – no gain. If there is one thing I have taught him over the years it is the success that comes from deferred gratification.

At his 18th birthday celebration, just before his last exams, he thanked me for being both supportive and a role model and showing me how it is done. It was so lovely to hear him say that, and I have been thinking since then how ‘doctoral mothers’ bring our particular focus to parenting.

As inevitably we do sessional teaching while studying, we are familiar with the university system, have friends who are also studying or working in universities, and are articulate advocates for our children as they navigate the next step in their education.

We are also networking, analysing, searching out information and generating new knowledge from our research. I am not the least surprised that the mothers I know who have pursued doctoral studies after an established career have all produced children who are similarly ambitious and engaged with their own learning.

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My son is going to university next month open to the possibilities and privileges of tertiary education – having his mind expanded and horizons broadened. The divergent and convergent thinking that one acquires are fundamental to succeeding as knowledge workers in the 21st century, and he is ready for the journey.

Next blog post I will continue on this theme, exploring lifelong learning – are you ever ‘too old’ to study?

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academic cohort, Academic job market, Academic relevance, Beyond the PhD, doctoral skills

Beyond the PhD: Careers Outside Academia

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I recently spoke at a PhD & Beyond panel at RMIT. The aim was the give current doctoral students an idea of careers post completion and outside academia. I was the ‘newbie’ – freshly minted 18 months prior, and sitting alongside such distinguished alumni as nanotechnologist Dr Amanda Barnard, the recipient of the prestigious 2014 Feynman Prize for Nanotechnology (Theory).

Not only is Amanda the first Australian in the Prize’s 22-year history to win the award, she’s also the first woman, and it was no surprise to discover she completed her PhD in 17 months. She’s a high achiever, and she has achieved a great deal. Let’s just say that by the time I got up to speak, I was feeling a tad anxious.

Sure I had my PhD and completed it full time, on time, while working full time in another job – and with two children. But what did I have to tell people anyway? As a single mother I am not pursuing illustrious post doc placements overseas, and while I have a publication record that is hardly shabby, I found my current job in strategic communications when I started the doctorate, not post doctorate.

I was eagerly taking notes from the panel because the speakers had such good advice. The intention of the evening was to enable the current HDR candidates to hear from those who have gone before them and the pathways they have taken since finishing their PhD. There is a growing awareness in universities of the need to prepare doctoral candidates for the fact that the journey post PhD is one that is very different from previous generations.

While perhaps 60 % of higher education graduates find their way into an academic career of sorts, that still leaves 40 % who need a new way of looking at their future post completion. You either think that any career outside academia is second best, or change your mind set. There are interesting, high level positions that need the skills you have. The key is finding them, marketing yourself and letting go of the ‘holy grail’ of a lecturing role. I even wonder how many people actually like teaching anyway. Certainly, the best way to learn how to teach isn’t by doing a PhD. My first degree was a Bachelor of Education, and I went straight into a career in journalism after I graduated. However, I never regretted the B.Ed, and knowing how to teach and plan a curriculum. I may not have taught in schools, but I was education editor at a daily newspaper, and I worked as a sessional lecturer while doing the PhD.

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On one hand, we are told there is a PhD employment crisis. The PhD is too narrow, too theoretical and graduates have challenges finding work. On the other hand, the knowledge economy is hungry for highly skilled workers who can thrive in the modern labor market. So what are the post graduation tips and outcomes?

I have been busy interviewing graduates about their pathways and advice, and will publish these in 100 Days to the Doctorate in the blogs ahead. What comes through is that there are no clear pathways, but there are opportunities. A PhD provides you with excellent skills and networks, but to make the most of this in the new economy, you need to be able to understand how to apply these to the market place.

Not finding an academic job doesn’t mean you or your doctoral study have been a failure. It means you need to look elsewhere. Outside a system that says no and into one that will embrace your skills. The conversation about whether universities should be taking on so many doctoral students is one I cannot imagine will be had. Students = money, after all, so the next best thing is that universities add essential work placement training and entrepreneurial skills along with research study courses.

I do not for a moment think my PhD was a waste of time because I do not have an academic job. Life in academia is far from perfect, after all. I know of many people in varying academic disciplines who have gladly chucked in their lecturing roles (‘it’s just teaching anyway’) to find something more creative, lucrative and fulfilling – and less stressful. And of course, the lament of those in the ‘bottom rung’ of academia, as eloquently reported by The Guardian’s “Academics Anonymous” blog is a thankless job with “low pay (relative to peers in industry), the short fixed-term contracts, the expectation that you constantly move universities and countries with no guarantee of a permanent position”.

While I have kept the same day job for the past six years, my research and writing has been – and continues to be – informed by my academic study. I have honed my research and analytical skills, and undertaking a large writing and research project doesn’t phase me. With academic articles and citations to my credit, I am also making a name for myself in a range of interdisciplinary areas beyond creative writing. It’s important to understand what you stand for, what your brand means, and your unique point of difference in a crowded market place. And these are skills you need to start honing while undertaking your doctorate.

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Certainly, that was the case with the panellists on the Beyond the PhD panel. The five alumni (including myself) from diverse fields spoke about what career paths we took since graduating. What students wanted to hear was; how did we get our current job, what kinds of jobs were we looking at, were we at any stage seeking an academic career? And any career advice we would have liked to have heard when we were first starting out.

The speakers; Dr Amanda Barnard; Dr Patrick Clifton; Dr Erjiang (Frank) Fu and Dr Jeff Fang and myself are currently all in full time employment in jobs that were not in the academic field, but that all utilise skills we gained from our academic study.

Despite having 160 peer reviewed journal articles to her credit and a stunning list of attainments, Dr Amanda Barnard’s current position as a CSIRO Office of the Chief Executive (OCE) Science Leader and the head of the Virtual Nanoscience Laboratory at the CSIRO involves just 20 % research and 80% of ‘the other stuff’ she told the audience. “Research is now the cherry on the cake for me,” she said. Sound familiar to anyone trying to squeeze research into a post doc career?

Amanda Barnard’s tips are based on her own experience travel early – because other career demands get in the way later on. Get out early and meet those people and make those collaborations – those contacts stay with you. Be generous with your research – you gain more than you lose by sharing. And for anyone who thinks scientists can forget branding and hide behind their research – she advises that people who can write well and present well do really, really well. Again, being able to effectively communicate what you do is critical.

Dr Patrick Clifton works as a Research and Football Projects Analyst at the Australian Football League. Patrick looked at management consulting and marketing jobs after his doctorate, but his passion for sports lead him to search out sports administration jobs. His advice: How do you leverage your core strengths and unique skill set from doing a PhD? Don’t underestimate the analytical skills gained from a PhD, and remember when trying to find work, the advertised job market is only 10 – 20 % of the job market. The more people you can speak to about breaking into non academic fields, the better. And finally, don’t ask for a job – ask people for advice, and describe your background to them.

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Dr Frank Fu is a Senior Environmental IT Specialist Climate and Water Division Australian Bureau of Meteorology. He started his talk by challenging us to ask why we decided to do a PhD in the first place. A good point, as we all have different reasons. However, as Dr Fu reminded us “you don’t have to be an academic to achieve life’s purpose.” He realised his PhD had skilled him up as an excellent researcher and problem solver – and he took those skills out of the academic environment and into another area. So, how do you achieve this? Again, the advice is to talk to people about your desired career.

Dr Jeff Fang has recently become the Senior Research Officer (Performance Auditor) at the Department of the Legislative Assembly, Victoria Parliament, where his responsibilities include leading, managing and mentoring a group of research staff on various inquires within the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee. Jeff said he always wanted to ‘make a difference’, and did his PhD because he wanted to advance his knowledge and skills.

Like many doctoral graduates globally, despite having tutored, lectured, published papers, and everything else to get a foothold in academia, it was not meant to be. “I never got the opportunity to be a lecturer – so I look at the strengths I got from my PhD, which were writing, research, analysis and problem solving, and applied those skills to other jobs,” he said.

Jeff’s advice is to show that you can transfer your skills and knowledge gained in the doctorate into industry. Show that you can write and view your PhD as project management.

“Try to lead or coordinate a small group when you are doing a PhD – this way you show you have management skills and are capable of managing a small group.

“You need to increase your presentation and communication skills and you can do this by participating in the Three Minute Thesis Competition, for instance. And try to establish good relationships with your supervisors, as these people will be your best allies for a reference check when you go for jobs.”

Finally, Jeff warned not to ‘show off your intelligence’ when going for a job after your graduate. A PhD can be intimidating for many people and he suggested emphasising instead what you have learnt through the PhD journey that can add value to the position.

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All great advice. So what did I have to add?

My journey was different from the rest of the panel. I already had a career in journalism before I started the doctorate, and I arrived at the PhD at the same time in my life as I was juggling the need to work full time with raising two children. The doctoral study had to fit into that mix, especially after the first semester when I was offered a scholarship that meant I didn’t have to pay fees, but wasn’t going to get a living allowance. Catch 22 – I had to do the PhD full time in order to get the fee support.

That meant I had to keep my day job in order to support my children. What made that possible for me was the fact that I was working and studying at the same university, so I was across the road from my supervisor and next door to the library. I could use my lunch breaks meeting my supervisor or going to the library or helpful sessions provided on research and publishing by the School of Graduate Research.

I didn’t undertake this mammoth task to be superwoman, but because there were financial benefits to not paying fees, and because I was super efficient with my time and advanced with my research. My core strengths – apart from being a highly skilled and efficient writer and communicator – are being able to quickly synthesise new information, make links and generate new ideas; and being incredibly focused and driven. That served me well as a communications strategist and doctoral student.

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When the going got tough and I sat in my supervisor’s office crying and wondering if I should get an extension, she told me “what makes you think your life will be easier in six months time?” Tough talk, but true. She added “you are so far ahead of everyone else doing it easy, I have no doubt you can finish ahead of them, despite your circumstances.” I am ever thankful for her belief in my abilities, and compassion when I needed it. And yes, the tough talk as well. Sometimes you need someone to say ‘suck it in, sister’.

So – I had convenient geographical location of work and study within the same university, academic and pastoral support from my supervisor and the university’s School of Graduate Research and family support with my children. I put in two to three hours of study, research and writing every night on top of my paid work and parenting commitments, and spent the weekends studying. I had no social life, I let the housework go and paid no attention to my health (and I paid for all these things after completion, believe me). It was all about kids, work, study. However, my role in the university art gallery kept me involved in a fascinating mix of cultural activities, with an enviable array of top Australian and international artists and curators. My job is varied, creative and interesting. It’s not like I was sitting in an office writing tedious reports all day. 

Since December 2013 when I graduated, I have been picking up the pieces, getting my health, house and life back into shape – and at the same time trying to establish some sort of ad hoc non academic research and writing career.   

Though we have diverse backgrounds and fields, everyone on the panel was equally savvy about making best use of what was available to them. We all played to our core strengths and didn’t squander a second of the time we spent doing our doctorates. Patrick Clifton has bountiful people skills, and made connections in areas he was keen to work, always keeping his passions in mind when finding a career that merged sport with his analytical skills. Both Jeff Fang and Frank Fu were able to take a lateral and strategic view of their doctoral skills and apply them to areas outside academia, while Amanda Barnard completed her PhD in theoretical condensed matter physics in just 17 months because she was offered a job a year into her research and she was strongly motivated to finish.

A common thread was that in each of our different areas, and with our different strengths, we each instinctively looked for and seized the opportunities that were in front of us. None of these had “opportunity’ glowing in flashing lights and with arrows pointing to them, but they were there.

A tip from the world of marketing – no matter what you are studying, take some time to do a SWOT analysis of your own Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats when thinking of positioning yourself in a career post doctorate. Write up a possible list of people in fields you’d like to work in and approach them for advice, and offer something back. When it comes to networking, ask not what others can do for you, but what you can do for them. You are a newbie, after all, they have the runs on the board. Even if it is buying them coffee, do something to show your gratitude for the time they have taken to help you.

academic cohort, Academic conferences, academic courage, Academic rituals, blogging, Creative Writing PhD, fear of failure

Conference papers: the pleasure & pain of presenting your academic research

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It’s that time of the year again – conference time. Sure, it’s exciting to be presenting new work at two overseas conferences, but that also means facing the lengthy plane flight to the other side of the world. And, oh, that other thing – actually writing the papers. 

Yes – presenting your academic research is a fine line between pleasure and pain. As Chrissy Amphlett from the Divinyls sang; “you got me once, you can do it again”. To my mind, the iconic 1985 song Pleasure and Pain is a soundtrack for how I feel right now. Certainly Amphlett’s signature air thumping rage and frustration in the middle of this video feel all too familiar. Who hasn’t experienced it when trying to prod a paper into shape?

I have realised that this annual experience of writing conference papers and getting up in front of your cohort to present is a sort of Groundhog Day for academics. No matter how many times you have done it, the thrill and the chill are the same. But though it feels like we are in the same place again – I have a appear to write! I have a plane to catch! I have to stand up in front of everyone and appear credible! – we are not reliving the same experience…because we are different each time.

Many universities are moving heavily in the direction of journal papers rather than conference presentations, which is certainly cheaper in so many ways, and ruthlessly time efficient. It also rules out that pesky human factor. You don’t get to make connections with people, you don’t get to hear about other people’s research, and you really don’t get to network.

Conferences, done well, are about being exposed to new ideas and getting valuable feedback for yours. They are about linking into a global academic community that no amount of emailing and skyping and journal submissions can do. But – they are also about pleasure and pain. They are about standing up in front of an audience in a way that quietly submitting to a journal is not.

It’s a thrill to be accepted into the conference. It’s a terrifying to stand in front of everyone and talk about new research. It’s exhausting and agonising and oh, so demanding on top of everything else to actually do the work in the first place.

Because writers are life’s great procrastinators. Journalists are worse. We can’t move except when there is a deadline. So, it should come as no surprise that despite carefully plotting my papers, diligently organsing all aspects of my solo trip to Europe for three weeks (including alternative arrangements for the care and feeding of my children and pets), I still find myself faced with the prospect of all nighters as I grimly write the words. Time for another coffee.

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But first – before writing – some research (or is that procrastination?) Sometimes Australia seems very far away. Not just in terms of the cost and time to get to Europe for the conferences, but in strange ways such as deciding I needed – absolutely had to get – Francois Ozon’s movie Ricky on DVD, as research for a paper I am presenting next week on monstrous motherhood and human animal hybridity.

The synopsis to Ozon’s film “Is the baby who has wings an angel or a monster?” sent shivers of joy up my spine. Oh – come on – I HAD to watch this movie! A baby born with wings! A mother working with noxious chemicals in a factory….not folklore, but a strange merging of science and speculation.

Film still from Francois Ozon's movie 'Ricky' http://www.rickylefilm.com/
Film still from Francois Ozon’s movie ‘Ricky’
http://www.rickylefilm.com/

Problem – the only copy I could get sent to Melbourne at a reasonable cost (Sorry Ozon, but I am loathe to pay $85 for the DVD from Amazon!) came via an eBay seller – in Thailand. And so I watched Ozon’s wonderful French film dubbed in Thai with English subtitles. It’s like eating French food with microwave plastic melted into the top layer – every mouthful is unpalatable, but underneath it sort of tastes like it could be somewhat authentic.

I wouldn’t call it a peak cinema experience, but it is a terrific movie for my research, and I tried to avoid hearing the dubbed Thai by keeping the sound low and focusing on the narrative and visuals – film really is a silent medium, after all. Still, my desire to use the movie and the unfortunate way I had to go about watching it in Melbourne seemed to me a fit metaphor for the relentless pursuit of knowledge – we do it at whatever cost, no matter how unpleasant some parts may be, because we really believe in the final benefits. So – this is where I will be very shortly:

Motherhood and Culture International and Interdisciplinary Conference

15-17 June 2015 Iontas Building, Maynooth University, Co. Kildare, Ireland

Key Note Speakers: Professor Nancy Chodorow (University of California, Berkeley and Harvard Medical School/Cambridge Health Alliance) Professor Andrea O’Reilly (York University, Toronto and Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement (MIRCI))

After the conference in Dublin, I am off to London to the 2015 Great Writing Conference, 18th Anniversary Conference, where I will present a paper on the issues most doctoral students face with the Creative Writing PhD – the exegesis and the creative project and the tension between the two. My way ‘out’ of the problem was to blog about my research, which is a little like what I am doing now – blogging about writing a paper for the conference, rather than writing it.

Now, some – many – would call that procrastination. But they are not writers. Writers of course count vacuuming instead of writing as part of the ‘process’. In fact, I am sure someone has written a PhD in Creative Writing looking at domestic activities and procrastination as apart of the creative process. And if not, I am sure someone will.

I have written many blogs on the similarities between parenting, pregnancy and childbirth and the creative process and the doctoral journey. It occurs to me that the pain of conference presentation is like childbirth – one forgets the reality of the pain until the first contractions are felt. And so it is with conferences.

Getting in the ‘conference way’ is fun – sending off abstracts in the dead of night on a whim – but there comes a time and it’s usually many, many months away (sometimes even 9 months away) when you have to deliver the goods. The discipline needed to produce the goods when you have so many other deadlines, let alone all the travel to arrange to even get to the conference, is akin to being handcuffed to your computer.

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Because unlike a baby, a conference paper doesn’t just gestate itself while you are doing other things. You have to sit down and do the work, the thinking work, and that’s the painful part. Yes, it will be great when you have finished the paper, and you are on the plane and at the conference.

In the meantime, you have to push that baby out. Write the paper. I have been presenting at conferences since I was in my first year of my Master of Arts. And let me tell you – it always hurts at this point. I am always regretting my decision to pitch an abstract. I always say I won’t do it again – I’ll take a holiday and sit by the pool and ready trashy novels like everyone else (instead of well, writing them…) or maybe I tell myself, I’ll just stay in Melbourne, sit in my study and submit to journals. I never learn.

Or, should I say – I always learn that I learn so much connecting with others in my field, and I always forge such great networks and learn from other people’s papers, that I am here again, at my desk, wanting to plunge that fork into my eye as I write the paper. But why? When I am excited by the research. I mean, how many people get to talk to others about flying babies, and be taken seriously? Who wouldn’t love my job? Yes, welcome to the world of writing.

Film still from Francois Ozon movie Ricky. http://www.rickylefilm.com/
Film still from Francois Ozon movie Ricky.
http://www.rickylefilm.com/

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the only thing worse than doing a conference paper is not doing one.

academic cohort, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, peer support, Writing strategies, writing workshops

The Creative Writing PhD: Why Group Support Really Matters

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Just as doctoral study is a mostly solitary activity, so too is writing. But that doesn’t mean you have to go solo. In fact, relying on the comfort of others is one of the things that stops you chucking the whole thing in, especially if you are doing a creative writing doctorate. Trust me on this.

An analogy I like to use is how doctoral study – and post doctoral life – is like motherhood. Desperately lonely in the early days. For someone used to the relentless pace of corporate life or the engagement and demands of academia, being on your own with a baby is a special kind of hell. The only way to survive is to reach out to others in the same boat. No new mother is an island.

Writing groups are like mother’s groups. Initially, it’s clinging to each other like no one else knows your pain. Then – once some confidence sets in, it’s the same bravado and bragging – whose manuscript is having good growth spurts, whose creative ideas are flowing like mother’s milk, whose manuscript got accepted into a prestigious literary agency, not just the local one around the corner.

And then, as you get to know your fellow writers, after a few workshops of thrashing out the manuscript, the truth starts to leak out like a sodden nappy.

Your characters won’t behave. Your narrative arc refuses to comply with your demands. You spent weeks – months – agreeing to the writing changes everyone suggested and then your new mentor, like a rigid maternal health care nurse, demands you start all over again because if you continue the way you are going, you’ll end up with a fat and bloated child, unfit for public consumption.

Just as it takes time to properly bond with women with whom you probably have nothing more in common with than cracked nipples and sleepless nights, so too does it take time to bond with the people in your writing group.

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I know – I am in two writing groups, simultaneously working on two different novels, and I met both groups of these fabulous writers through a writing masterclass. I started this about nine months before handing in my doctorate, when I realized I really, really needed some extra help with my novel.

I was so focused was on academic research that the creative part of my PhD was languishing. The familiar panic – I can’t do this!!! – flooded in. Writing is a mind game, a confidence trick, a will to commit to the page those ferocious ideas swirling around in your mind. You have to believe you can do it, and then you have to have the methodology to see you through. It’s no good running on instinct alone. Instinct will not get you through the tough times any more than it will get you through the hiccups in parenting.

New mothers – and seasoned mothers up against those developmental milestones – turn to experts, parenting books and blogs for advice on everything from lactation to their teenagers learning to drive (I put my hand up here as mother of a 16 year old); so why should writers be immune to structured advice?

Harder for some to accept is the need for extra help in the doctoral journey. But I am proud to say that my masterclass cohort – and the spin off writing group that meets monthly, and another that meets every six weeks – really saved my sanity and ensured I was able to complete my doctorate on time – and keep writing in the postdoc phase. Maybe your university has great writing groups for doctoral students. Maybe not. And even if they have writing groups, maybe they just don’t work too well.

Let’s face it, we don’t get along with everyone, which is why when we do click with someone – when that magic of shared connection is apparent – it’s worth celebrating. If you meet writers at an event, or masterclass or workshop and that magic happens, do everything in your power to hold onto that cohort.

 

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My tips for a good writing workshop are to choose people on a similar trajectory and level of expertise to you. It’s no good meeting up with people who are starting out on the journey if you are a mid career writer. You may not have published a book yet, but if you have been working professionally in the writing sphere for years and have had a play produced, a book of poems, short stories and the like, then you are not going to be on equal footing with someone who has ‘always wanted to write’ and is now only dipping their tentative toe in the water.

The two writing groups I am with feature professional writers with a work ethic to match my ferocious appetite. And we are all parents. With the upcoming school holidays, I knew I found a soul mate when comparing notes with another writer in my group. Are we going to sit on a beach in Bali? I think not. We are both teaching workshops AND plotting how much uninterrupted writing we can get done in two weeks.

It’s sweet indeed to have a group of people who are familiar with the trials of not just the effort and skill needed to write 80,000 words of a novel, but then rewrite, submit, get knocked back, search for an agent, look for a publisher, pitch, pitch and pitch again. Writing a book takes longer than people think. Years longer. It’s hard for those not in the game to appreciate the demanding nature of the business, the roller coaster ride of finding inspiration, crafting characters and dialogue, finessing plot devices and crafting structure – hell, even coming up with a catchy book title is a major effort that can demand group input.

 

In fact, a glistening jar of homemade blueberry jam slid across the table at my writing group today, as a reward to a writer who had come up with a catchy title for another’s manuscript. As it happens, the writer in need of a title travels two hours from country Victoria, where she lives on a blueberry farm – to come to Melbourne to participate in the writing group.

Yes, writing groups can be time consuming, and in order to earn your place at the table, you have to be prepared to commit to other people’s work, put in the time to read their submissions, and really make constructive comments on what they have done. There is no place for those who don’t pull their weight. We are all very busy professional writers, and we come together to really push our work forward.

But – there is also camaraderie, the exchange of ideas, and like in a mother’s group, there is time for laughter and tears, for celebration and sighs, in the ebb and flow of the highs and lows of the writing life.

We break bread as well, and bond. One group meets over sushi and wine, in the evening, once a month, in a writer’s apartment overlooking the city lights. The other meets every six weeks in The Wheeler Centre in the heart of the city of Melbourne, and we go out for lunch after our intensive two hour session.

Like everything, practice makes perfect, and building on our stories – both imaginary, and from our lives, is a process that takes time. But while we do veer into personal territory on occasions, what we mostly talk about as we take a break from analyzing our writing is – our writing lives. The trials of the writing life. We talk about the inspiration and desires for our novels. Just like a mother’s group, we speculate and fantasize about our literary prodigy’s futures. This is an important part of the process. Creative visualization – imagining a future – is essential to making that future happen. Be it with real children or your creative offspring.

Yes, writing is a solitary business, the writer and the page. But just because you work alone, doesn’t mean you have to travel alone. Having a team with you – and seeing what they are going through as well – gives you confidence. I’ve heard that envy kicks in as well – if one gets a book deal it spurs the others to push themselves out there, and try as well.

And just like a mother’s group, no matter how easy it might be for some to naturally birth a manuscript, life and the publishing industry has a way of levelling the playing field. Just as your low birth weight baby may be the high achieving kid at school, so too might the manuscript you have struggled with over the years turn into the star that wins a literary prize, or a commercial best seller. Or – it might just turn out to be the book that is published, while the writer who won a prize might find their manuscript languishes on a literary agent’s table.

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No matter where you are on the journey of the creative writing doctorate, I urge you to find or form a writing group. Whatever you seek, it won’t be found with your academic supervisor – that’s like relying on your midwife to stay with you from pregnancy until your child finishes high school.

Get peer support. Get a writing group. Then you can keep writing – and carry on.  

academic cohort, Academic conferences, CliFi, conferences, Early Career Reseacher, networking

How to survive academic conference season

 

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I am not the only one to emerge from the intensive academic conference ‘silly season’ wishing I’d never submit another abstract again, yet with my head brimming full of ideas and the warm glow of nascent global friendships an email away.

Back six or eight months ago, when I first saw the call for papers, the reality of the workload and time juggle (not to mention travel) that is conference participation seemed a distant problem.

Conferences are jammed into the European summer (June-July) and teaching breaks, but I reside on the other end of the world, and so many people I met at both conferences in Australia said the same thing: jetlag, exhaustion and time poor. It takes time and money to get across the globe and add onto that presenting…not easy.

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Mind you, if you live in Melbourne, June-July is bitter cold and the thought of a conference in somewhere warm is very appealing. However, I have deluded myself more than once into imagining Oxford is warm in July…and turned up for a conference only to be confronted with worse weather than back home (in winter). So I spend the first day or so scurrying around looking for warm clothes as locals assured me they ‘had their summer already’ and it was a very nice – week, which I alas missed. I realised that when you are Australian, you do not go to Europe for the nice summer weather.

After several trips overseas in the past few years for conferences, I was happy to stay closer to home; a conference in Canberra and then one in Melbourne – at RMIT no less – so I really was within my geographical comfort zone!

In fact, at the Motherhood, Feminisms and the Future conference held at RMIT University, when asked, “where are you from” I would reply, “here – right here”. There is something about being on home ground that is very convenient, but then again, the camaraderie that results from everyone being together in a foreign location has its own benefits.

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With conferences there are lots of different hurdles and expectations. First, you have to find out what is available and in what area you might like to present. When I was a doctoral student, this seemed very hard to decode. Was it laziness or pure obstruction or the assumption that you ‘just knew’ where to find out about conferences that resulted in those in academia never (and I mean NEVER) passing on useful information such as where to find CFP or what the heck CFP meant in the first place?

I always tell my students that the Call For Papers is where to look, which websites to go to, and how to find out about conference alerts. I am very grateful for the one confident and well published professor who did the same for me. Then it’s a matter of working out strategically where you’ll get the most bang for your buck (literally, if travelling). Again, most academics seem useless at mentoring students in this regard.  And so we stumble on, learning by trial and error.

Ditto the much overlooked topic of how to submit an abstract that will get you noticed. I actually had an academic say to me “no wonder your abstracts are accepted, they have sexy titles, snappy writing and play into the key areas the conference organisers want to promote.” This said with a snide sneer and derision. And I am thinking – “getting noticed and getting your abstract accepted – isn’t that a good thing?”

I have presented at many different types of conferences – interdisciplinary, literary, ecocritical, feminism, bioethical, animal studies – what I have discovered is that, in the humanities at least, there are many ways of spinning your topic so that you can present a different version of your broad research area to a different audience.

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This I think is not a bad thing, because if we are to use our research in a wide context, to a wide audience and speak to our research as public intellectuals post PhD, then testing out across different disciplines while forming those ideas is certainly a help.

My doctoral research has taken me to conferences where I have presented papers on topics such as animal experimentation, bestiality, geography and monstrosity and post apocalyptic dystopia…and I can feel the pull of cannibalism calling to me (in a speculative fictional context of course!) I am so very excited by cannibalism right now and how it is being explored in Cli-Fi.

Ecocriticism (and Cli-Fi) is one of my academic passions – and the opportunity to put together a panel for the recent Affective Habitus conference (the subject of my last blog post) was too good to pass up. However, a few weeks later, the Motherhood and Feminisms conference at RMIT was also a perfect fit, providing me with an opportunity to present a paper on a book I co-wrote with Dr Caroline van de Pol on high risk pregnancy. I published Handle With Care as a Masters student, and am soon to relaunch it as an ebook, aimed at midwifery students. So the timing was perfect.

handle with care at conference

What I hadn’t anticipated was my level of exhaustion. I thought that with the PhD now completed, I would have so much more time, so back to back conferences would be a breeze. In fact, I did three back to back international conferences as a doctoral student, which makes me wonder how on earth I found the energy. Much like a woman who looks back on surviving raising triplets, I shake my head in amazement. I also wonder what’s wrong with me now that I am drained by my recent conference adventures.

I am not the only one – so many people at the Motherhood conference were on their third conference in a row, having crammed as much in as possible. First, if you are from Australia (or New Zealand) it’s a long way to go to head to Europe or America to present a paper so you might as well do two – or three conferences. It’s more time and cost effective. Also, if you are a full time academic or sessional, then you’ll need to cram everything into the break in the teaching semesters.

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I have often written that doing a doctorate is like having a baby. I now think that the conference circus is like maternity as well. How else can I explain that as soon as I finished writing this blog, and vowed never to subject myself to another conference again and instead just ‘concentrate on my writing’ (as if the two are somehow unconnected…) than I discover two conferences in Sydney that have grabbed my attention. One is the Independent Publishers Conference (again, right up my areas of interest) and the other the Gothic Spaces: Boundaries, Mergence, Liminalities conference…both in Sydney, both on at good times for me in the exhibition cycle of the university gallery where I work.

It’s like wanting another baby again…except without the lifelong commitment and childcare issues that go with it.  Dammit! How can I pass up weaving an abstract around ‘Hybridity and trangression’? I mean – this is the stuff of my doctorate. This is what I spent years studying. This is what I dream about.

I have come to realise that once you step through the door marked ‘doctorate’ there is no turning back. Some people get excited by cheap airfares to Bali, others by a shoe sale; for me, it’s those dead/alive dichotomies that do it every time.

As for my exhaustion? My energy levels and enthusiasm? It appears that I didn’t need to give up on conferences – I just needed a good night’s sleep.

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Conference tips from a conference junkie

Remember – if you have beginner nerves, the more conferences you do, the easier it is to present your work in front of everyone:

  • Sign up for conference alerts in as many of the areas as you have an interest. Sometimes you won’t feel like trawling for a conference, and that’s when a CFP that pops in your inbox that ignite that spark of interest all over again
  • Audiences are forgiving when you are starting out
  • It is worth the time, money and effort because you will gradually make a name for yourself among the people who will be your academic peers
  • Conferences are about dipping your research toes in the big pool of water that is the latest global thinking on a discipline
  • A good keynote speaker can give your research ideas a jet propelled push into a new direction or confirm you are on the right path
  • You’ll meet interesting people who literally speak your research language
  • Conversations over conference dinners can open up new ideas and directions for you
  • Be generous with your knowledge and helpful and understanding to others. Academic karma is real
  • Don’t eat from the vegetarian/vegan/gluten free platter unless you have specified such food options or someone who won’t or can’t eat certain foods will go without.
  • A conference paper is about 20 minutes so your word limit should be under 3000 words…time yourself!
  • Don’t send your audience to sleep. A conference presentation is a performance. An animation, a taster. It’s not a book chapter.
  • Take along business cards. Get on twitter and have your twitter handle up on your powerpoint.
  • Attend everything, participate, ask questions, say thanks, be appreciative of the organisers, be generous with your comments and praise to others, be nice. Enjoy yourself. Embrace whatever the conference location has to offer.
  • Be open to every conversation, even if it is ‘off topic’. I received an intensive session on a future book that was on the back burner – all because I sat opposite a fascinating lecturer whose area is contemporary German literature. When she said ‘take down these names, read these people – take notes!’ I realised the reason you go to a conference dinner is exactly this. Sometimes, virtual reality just doesn’t cut it. And serendipity is all. I felt the stars align that night, and as a writer and researcher felt incredibly grateful for such an encounter.
  • Last tip – a conference is not just about you presenting your research. It is about sharing, networking, establishing collaborations and global friendships. Be generous with everything you have to offer – and be kind. Otherwise, why bother getting together at all?