PG Blog

Reflection on my PhD experience- Harry Rolf

18 Sep 17


After 8 years or 4.75 years effective full time I have graduated from my PhD at UTAS. This is a short summary of my experience – written to share some courage, and offer advice for anyone else struggling with their PhD.

I started out as an optimistic full time student, but 1.5 years in I had to change my research focus (due to complications with supervision, funding and research data), I changed supervisors and went part-time so that I could work (in many different jobs). I never received a scholarship, had no research funding and only minimum resources to support my research.

My research went from studying the formation of communities online to studying the mobile phone’s role in the acculturation experience of international students staying in Tasmania. I wrote a new research plan which was presented at the International Conference on Communities and Technology doctoral consortium in 2011 to validate the change in direction [download paper].

During the last 8 years (officially) my progress was reviewed 8 times, I had 38 official supervisor meetings and met 22 milestones outlined in an ongoing candidature management plan. I had my candidature extended 4 times, and i used 0 days of leave.

The most common comment from my team after a meeting was ‘discussions with Harry included major concerns re the lack of tangible outputs’, this was the entry for my final meeting in April 2016.

Yet in June 2016 I submitted, and after review by some very prominent academics I received an A and B (minor corrections). Most importantly I needed to send it off to a professional editor to check my grammar and referencing. Editing takes a lot of time…

Since i started i have worked with many PhD students who have found themselves in much worse circumstances than me, but it’s rare for students to share their stories. The kinds of issues are similar, financial, supervision, administration, resources, social isolation, research skills, the challenge of writing, and project management. For me life got in the way a lot as my supervisors put it.

I think that I was able to persist for a few reasons:

  • I learnt who to ask for help & made asking for help a habit,
  • I used criticism constructively,
  • I learned my university’s rules and procedures for graduate research,
  • I took time to defend my ideas & decisions, and
  • I made time for friends and family despite the competing pressure of the PhD.

My supervisors were very important, but the relationship is complex. Having people who know the university’s rules, that were fair and who pushed me was critical. But these requirements will be different for every person. I don’t believe that the best researcher makes the best supervisor.

I can’t emphasise enough how important student associations were. I got involved early in my PhD, and they turned out to be an invaluable source of support. At the very least they are full of people who are probably going through the same issues as you. They help you learn the universities rules and processes, and give you opportunities to improve them.

Access to support was critical.  Some people and organisations which i followed were:

  • Hugh Kearns – Author of The Imposter Syndrome and other resources for managing a PhD.
  • The Thesis Whisperer – a blog newspaper dedicated to the topic of doing a thesis, edited by Dr Inger Mewburn.
  • The Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations – an organisation which advocates for the needs and interests of postgraduate students in Australia.
  • The Australian Council of Graduate Research – they write national policy used by universities to set resources and standards for graduate research.

Throughout all of it managing my own expectations was probably my most significant challenge. Don’t expect that your results will be significant or your experience straight forward. Don’t let these expectations stop you from completing your PhD.

(I want to acknowledge my supervisors, and reviewers – thank you).