Thursday, 6 June 2013

PhD basics: academic journals and presenting your thesis

In the lead up to my research trip I've been attending a couple of seminars for post-grad students at my uni. Here is a brief overview I've some of the tips I've picked up.

Submitting to academic journals

Last Friday's seminar was titled Where to publish and what to consider, which focused on the whys and wherefores of getting published in academic journals. As a creative-practice led student who is not considering a career in academia, I'm more interested in having books published and proudly on display in bookshops (both bricks and mortar and virtual). However, I have had one journal article published and would like to have another under my belt before my PhD is done.

For those, like me, who don't have an academic career at the top of their list, the best piece of advice I took from that seminar was to spend plenty of time reading the journal you're considering submitting to. This sounds obvious, but it's something I didn't do when writing an article (which was rejected) that I based on a conference presentation I gave. I thought if the conference paper was accepted then my paper based on the conference paper would also be accepted. Wrong! In hindsight, if I'd taken more time to read the journal, and read articles by the journal's editor, I would have seen that we were never going to see eye to eye on the ideas I was putting forward. Still, it was a learning experience, albeit a frustrating one at times.

The PhD examination process

This morning's seminar was on the PhD exam process, which took students step-by-step through all the processes our university requires to get to that fabulous wearing-a-floppy-hat-on-stage moment. Most universities will follow slightly different processes. However, I think the following points can be useful for all higher degree students.

1. Your abstract is crucial.
Some examiners, when reading through a PhD submission, may start by reading the abstract, the introduction and the conclusion to get an idea of the flow of your argument. If your abstract clearly and succinctly outlines the flow of your argument, you're going to give your examiner a good first impression.

2. Your final seminar presentation must show breadth and depth.
At my university PhD students have 45 minutes to present the key points from their thesis. That's not a lot of time to highlight 80-100,000 words of hard work created over 3 or more years. But the key is not to just summarise the main points, which will show breadth, but also to choose some highlights where you can also demonstrate depth.

3. Know the opening lines of your presentation off by heart.
You'll probably be the most nervous at the start of your presentation. Knowing the opening lines of your presentation off by heart will help you ease into the process, and overcome that initial attack of 'big moment' nerves.

After your presentation

There is one BIG question that has been haunting me almost from the start of my PhD: what happens if an examiner or audience member asks you a question about your thesis that you don't understand?

This morning's presenter, a veteran who has delivered hundreds if not thousands of presentations throughout her academic career, gave the following advice:

1. What is your research 'boundary'? Is the question about something you probably should know, or is about something that is really outside your thesis/area of expertise. If it is outside your area of research, say so.

2. If the question is about something you think you should know, ask the questioner to repeat the question. This will give you a little time to play around with it in your mind, and consider a response.

3. Your supervisor isn't allowed to answer the question for you but if you're really struggling they may be able to prompt you along the lines of "remember when you did such and such...", which may be enough to get you started on an answer.

4. If you probably should know the answer to it but you don't, be honest. Tell the panel that it is something you haven't thought about. They may grumble a little, but then the moment will be over and you can move on.

If you try to answer it without know what you're talking about you might just dig yourself into a deeper hole, making it much harder to move on.

Attend seminars and build confidence

Seminars are filled with valuable advice from people who have been there and done it before you. I find that with each seminar I attend, I am building up my knowledge and confidence in how the PhD process works, and how I can maximise my success. So my final piece of advice is, if seminars are on offer at your university, make sure you take the time to attend. It should be well worth it.