Stefan Knapen

PhD-student – Co-assistent

How to tame your PhD – Inger Mewburn

I read the book “How to Tame Your PhD” by Inger Mewburn. Here are my notes and thoughts.

How to tame your PhD – Inger Mewburn

How to tame your PhD

Read: October 2015
Amazon page for more details and reviews.

This is a great book to read for PhD students. I loved the practical tips. As it is written by a blogger and mostly the best articles from the blog curated it reads pretty easy. The only problem I found with the book is that the writer is a PhD in Architecture. That is something completely different compared to doing a PhD in the medical/biology field.

All these notes are directly from the book, cursive texts are my thoughts.

My notes

I like to think about the problems caused by our talents as our own personal Dark Side.

On becoming a critical thinker: One of the things I like to do with my students is to give them a series of standard critical thinking questions adapted from Browne and Keeleys’ “Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking”:

  • What is the argument about and what is being claimed?
  • What are the reasons given to support the conclusion? Is the reasoning flawed in anyway?
  • What kind of evidence is being presented (i.e. intuition, appeals to authority, observation, case studies, research studies, analogies etc) and how good is it?
  • What other explanations might be plausible than that offered?
  • Is the conclusion provided the most reasonable? Can you identify alternatives?

Keeping these questions in mind while reading a scientific article can definitely be a help to look critically at the article.

Understanding that your writing can never be flawless can be strangely liberating. Disagreement and debate is the live blood of academia. There is no way you can be immune to criticism; all you can do is accept it and move on.

There is no such thing as ‘the best’ thesis – only good and bad ones.

A thesis is a peculiar kind of document; one which is meant to demonstrate your scholarly competence, not to entertain.

By all means write a book – but later, when you can put (PhD) after your name on the cover.

How do you know when you have the One Topic? Here’s how I knew:

  • I found there was substantial work in the area already
  • I thought it was fascinating
  • Other people said “wow – what a great topic” when I told them
  • It had clear limits

One book I particularly like is William Clark’s “Academic charisma and the origins of the research University”. It’s an excellent book, but odd and self-consciously post-modern and therefore hard to read. Note to self: Read this book when I am on the verge of getting my PhD

Clark’s argument is that back in the day (around 500 years ago) if you wanted to be a Doctor (in a Western Europe context) all you had to do was know everything.

A thesis text is like an avatar. It ‘stands in’ for your scholarly self and ‘speaks’ your knowledge and capability as a scholar to the reader / examiner when you aren’t there.

Think about the examiner in the act of reading your text – they may come across something they think is wrong or something they disagree with. They may well wonder aloud why you haven’t done something, or said something. They may want to ask you if you understand some nuance or other. But unless you have thought of this possibility beforehand – and put it in the text – there will be no answer. You are only a ghostly presence in your text avatar. It has to speak for you.

So if you find yourself being pressed under the dead hand of the thesis genre remember that the summary judgment of your thesis by the examiner will be made on how well your thesis ‘sings the song’ of the content within it.

“It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize: how experienced examiners assess research theses” by Gerry Mullins and Margaret Kiley. A good paper to read while writing the Thesis

Some people can be nervous about sending their thesis to the world’s expert in *blah*, but they are exactly the sort of people you should be aiming for.

Any questions you raise in the introduction should be answered in the conclusion.

In thesis land the LBD is a simple, but competent run through of the major authors with a thread of an argument running through the whole. The argument should be connected to why you are bothering to do the study.

It’s hard to see the mistakes in your own work on the 700th read.

“Creativity is an import export business”.

Administrators and academics in my university constantly complain that it’s hard to convince PhD students to attend lunchtime seminars put on by other researchers. But really important to attend, as discussion about your work is a very important part of the “Import/Export Ideas Business”. Discussing your work is the best way to get it more clear in your head and to make the work better.

The literature review is the thesis component that gives you the most scope to demonstrate your mad skills of scholarly warfare.

My favourite book on PhD writing: “Helping doctoral students to write” A book to look into some time.

As I see it, there are two basic techniques for developing a literature review from a given set of references. You must work at forming critical judgment on the literature by reading it, at the same time as you work on finding patterns in the mess of information.

Fashions will have come and gone; ideas will have grown and died.

Many treat doing a thesis like a project which has to be ‘managed’, not a difficult and troublesome learning process.

Research degree learning involves encountering and changing some deeply habitual ways of operating and thinking.

A good way to move forward is to ask yourself: “Is there anything I need to unlearn?”

They say the worst students make the best teachers because they really know what it is like to struggle.

Although I am a big fan of productivity literature and the tools it describes, they don’t necessarily hold all the answers to finishing your thesis in a timely fashion. You should take any of what I say next about productivity with a grain of salt. Try these techniques and see if they work for you, but don’t beat yourself up if they don’t work all the time.

In the book “They say / I say: the moves that matter in persuasive writing” Graff and Birkenstein argue that critical thinking and writing can be aided by using writing ‘skeletons’; sentences which set up a standard piece of argumentation. Another book to look into some time when I am in a more writing stage.

One reason that writing is such a good thinking tool is that it encourages us to think in a linear fashion, one word in front of the other. By writing sentences and building paragraphs we express ideas and chain them together into a coherent argument. Once our ideas are in writing we can reflect on them and add the evidence, definitions, side arguments and all the other embellishments that give our arguments weight and heft.

Too much editing at the initial drafting stage is, more often than not, the enemy of Done.

One of my favourite whiteboard tricks is the ‘clustering’ or ‘spider’ diagram.

This diagramming method enables me to find relations between the ideas and the authors that I am reading – great for lit reviews. Each of the bubbles might simply translate to a subheading in your thesis or paper. By keeping one idea in the centre and forcing yourself to stick to only three ideas the next bubble layer down you impose a hierarchy on your thoughts. You can work through ideas for structure quickly in this way, perhaps taking a photo of each one before you rub it out so you have a record.

I stopped using it in preference for Scrivener – a word processor that works in quite a different way.

One of the things that he told me was not to worry too much about how stupid your ideas look the first time you put them on paper.

“Doing a thesis is like mucking out a stable”. His point was that you have to tackle it one wheelbarrow load of shit at a time.

Writing new stuff should be almost the first thing you do when you sit down to your desk.

Thinking happens during writing.

One of the things the examiners Mullins and Kiley interviewed said was that they want to learn something new from reading your thesis.

“… procrastinators are self-handicappers: rather than risk failure, they prefer to create conditions that make success impossible.”

To my mind this explanation makes perfect sense. My ‘want to get published in an A* self’ will always be at a disadvantage compared those selves who have more intrinsically interesting – and easy to satisfy – desires. The trick then is to think of what kind of bargain I can make with my ‘want to have coffee’ self that will enable me to open those files…

In his superb book “Writing for social scientists” (which should be renamed “Writing for everyone”). Another book I may pick up sometime.

“Perfect is the enemy of Done”.

On keeping your work short: Go through your text and put a number against each paragraph: 1, 2 and 3. Keep all the 1’s, throw out all the 3s and try to cut the 2’s in half.

‘On writing well: the classic guide to writing non fiction.’ Well, I guess another book to look into. The only book I actually already picked up and is waiting on my Kindle right now. In other words, sometime in the future it will be on my list of books.

Two examples of fuzz words are “also” and “very”.

Phrases like “in a sense”, “a bit”, “sort of” have no place in theses.

Remember: you might be stubborn rather than right.

My thoughts

It’s a good book for PhD students. If you are not a PhD student, this book might not be for you. It requires a little context from the reader to understand the problems (and why would you even read a book about something you are not doing..). I like the practicality of the book, it writes a lot about the writing proces, dealing with supervisors and especially dealing with reviewers. I like that.

What it does not cover is the problems you can encounter in your life as a PhD student. So no content on work/life balance, problems with experiments or how you build your academic curriculum vitae. So although the title is “How to tame your PhD”, I think it is more “How to tame your PhD thesis”.


Check it out on Amazon and check out Inger’s blog The Thesis Whisperer.