GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Posts Tagged ‘Ph.D.’

Who do you think you are?

In Sarah's Posts on 2012/11/08 at 03:19
Sarah Emily Duff, writing from Stellenbosch, South Africa.


When I graduated in March last year, I expected to enjoy the pomp of the ceremony, the sumptuous and faintly ridiculous robes and hat of formal academic dress, and the joy of receiving my doctoral degree with my parents in the audience.

And I did enjoy all of this, but what surprised me was my pleasure at being able to call myself Dr Duff. I have a title which is absolutely gender neutral, and it reflects the decade’s worth of hard work which went into my university education. But I never expected to insist that others use my title, and I still feel slightly odd calling myself Dr Duff.

During my Ph.D. studies, I taught at two universities in London. At both of these institutions, academic staff and students were on first-name terms. This came as something of a surprise to me. I had completed my undergraduate and MA degrees at – what was then – a conservative and largely Afrikaans university in South Africa. There, nearly all students addressed staff by their titles, with only doctoral candidates – possibly – calling their supervisors by their first names.

When I lectured and tutored in South Africa, I was always Ms. Duff, which amused me considering that I was only a few years older than my students. But while working in Britain, everyone – from the most senior Professor to the very newest first year – was called by his or her first name. I really liked this. Not only did it make tutorials and seminars less formal, but I felt less intimidated by my colleagues. I hope that my students found me more approachable too.

Admittedly, the two universities which employed me are both fairly unusual: one has a very high proportion of mature, part-time students, and the other is a small institution which focuses exclusively on the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Partly as a result of this, I taught students who were particularly receptive to more egalitarian and less hierarchical learning environments.

Crucially, my students understood that even though they could call me by my first name, they still had to respect my authority in the classroom, as well as my expertise on the subjects I was teaching.

Yet since returning to my old university in South Africa, I have, increasingly, begun to insist that students call me by my title. This is largely because it remains the norm at the university for all academic staff to be called by their titles, even if it is a considerably more liberal place than it was when I left it six years ago. I do, though, have two other, equally significant, reasons for insisting on being Dr Duff, rather than Sarah.

The first is connected to the fact that many undergraduates do not seem to understand the role and purpose of the university. When I commented to a group of final-year undergraduates that my main role at the university is to produce research, they were shocked. They believed that I was primarily a teacher. This accounts, I think, for many students’ confusion and, occasionally, anger when I am not always in my office, or when I cannot to assist them with administrative or computing snarl-ups.

At the beginning of every course, I make a point of explaining to students my research interests and qualifications. As petty as it may seem, insisting that academic staff are called by their proper titles is one way of demonstrating to students how university systems work: that in South Africa, Britain, Australia, and elsewhere, the title ‘Professor’ is bestowed only on those academics deemed to be exceptionally talented by their peers. Even if they intend to leave university after three years, undergraduates are part of this academic system, and should understand where they stand in relation to other members of academia.

Secondly, I insist upon being called ‘Dr’ because students consistently assume that my male colleagues are better qualified than I am. Students are quick to promote all my male colleagues to the rank of Professor, while I and other women are usually called ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’. Male colleagues have little trouble keeping order in class, and their expertise is never questioned.

In this environment, I use my rank to impress upon students that am equally – if not better – qualified than many male lecturers, and am as deserving of their respect and good behaviour in lectures.

When I began my Ph.D. degree five years ago, I had very little idea of how much these two letters before my name would come to mean.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

When your books are not enough

In Ana's Posts on 2012/10/09 at 06:40
Ana Dinescu, writing from Berlin, Germany. 

Let’s say that you have spent almost 20 years of your life learning and reading and writing and now it is about time to finally be on your own, outside the university gates. Your parents are proud of you, your neighbors and friends are envious of your achievements, even though you might have no idea what you want to say in your Ph.D. paper and know even less about how the Ph.D. graduate succeeds at buying his or her clothing and daily food. On various occasions, I am asked what the medical domain is that I am covering as long as I am a doctor. Then, I should answer embarrassed that I am not ‘that kind of doctor’ and that my doctoral knowledge won’t save any life at all.

You can consider yourself happy and proud of your work, but the hurry to enter the real world will diminish the enthusiasm a bit. This could be only the beginning of the new journey into a world where regardless of your impressive knowledge, you will need to pay bills, manage your online bank account and download your books ordered on the Internet onto your Kindle.

Very often, the financial pressure – mostly when you need to pay your loans – is what drives many Ph.D.s to go in the world of working at an age when you do not have much time to acquire new skills at the same pace as when you are 20 or 25. The expectations of the market are high, and if you want to have at least a survival salary you should get ready for disappointments.

Any highly educated graduate uses a computer regularly and even has a basic knowledge of social networks, but being able to use various Microsoft Word applications and editing software will help to improve the skills of a Ph.D. candidate for an editorial job, for instance. Learning how to write academic prose might be part of the basic schedule of any university, but it is more than desirable to cope with various writing styles and concision. It is true that a rich vocabulary denotes a high IQ, but it is not always the case to use long and complicated sentences when you are requested to write a grant application, a book, or an application for a scholarship.

Last but not least, a Ph.D. should have her own social network with people with whom she doesn’t necessarily need to share a discussion about phenomenology, but should, instead, be able to get some ideas about how the world outside the university looks, and to understand the basics of social, economic and political life.

I am convinced that I am exaggerating to a certain extent and there are more and more Ph.D. graduates have a deep knowledge of  social life, despite the high level of specialization of their studies. What is important, in my opinion, is that both worlds meet and exchange experiences. It is never enough to read books and publish regularly, but it is even more relevant to be able to share your experiences and knowledge and make change happen. I apologize for not being able to save lives, but at least I hope that my knowledge could help add a drop of better understanding.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

The Graduate School Pep Talk from the Chair

In Ponderings of a Peregrine Pinoy Professor on 2012/10/02 at 03:03

Rosalie Arcala Hall, writing from Iloilo, Philippines

In my 20 months as Division chair, I have seen the departure of several male junior colleagues for graduate school in Manila and abroad. It may sound like no big deal, but to any young man few years out of college or who hasn’t lived abroad previously, starting graduate school far from one’s comfort zone is daunting. Like any mother hen, I did the usual “let’s have a serious talk about your academic career” and “what the University expects from you” routine with each one of them. A walk through choices of graduate school and programs, housing, fellowship applications, return service obligations, University clearance — this process takes a lot of time before they can finally board the plane and begin the next 2-4 years away from the demands of teaching.

I also take time to celebrate this important transition from a teacher to a student. Like I had been toasted and feted with gifts of winter clothes, shawls and Philippine native accessories when I left for the US in 1996, I want my soon-to-depart colleagues to feel that I am as proud and hopeful of their success. The scarf, hat and gloves essential for cold weather upon landing; a set of flannel sheets; a chapter or the entire Lonely Planet to inspire travel; some coins or singles for when they get hungry in between airport transfers. Along with these, I drum up the following tidbits of wisdom and advice, which I hope they will take to heart:

1. Keep your eyes on the prize.

Getting the degree is the end and be all of this journey. There are plenty of distractions in the form of additional courses, internships and “rackets” (moonlighting) that may provide ready cash or added skill. But at the end of the day, the faster you can finish the degree the better, so you can go back to and really start your career.

2. Your dissertation is not your magnum opus.

Statistically, fewer than half of students who start Ph.D. programs graduate, and fewer still complete their dissertation after gaining an ABD status. This is a valuable piece of advice given to me by Professor Chris Bosso at Northeastern, which I repeat like a mantra to my young colleagues. Toil on and get it done.

3. Socialize and build friendships.

A scholarly life is not spent in solitude at the library. Make friends, go out for drinks or coffee, finagle an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner or Labor Day weekend barbecue, have your meals with somebody, go on a road trip and to school-sponsored activities. Aside from a diploma, earn memories of this important phase because this is the only “end stage student experience” (if in a Ph.D. program) you’re ever going to get.

4. If program has optional foreign language courses, take them.

While English remains uncontested as scholarly language, speaking another language helps in strengthening one’s specialist training. Spanish, Bahasa, Japanese or Chinese– these are handy for any specialist building a career in the region.

5. Your written English and your undergraduate/graduate training is not as good as you think.

It is both humbling and a liberating experience to have somebody critique your work for what it is. It pays to take criticism constructively and grow from it. This may require some serious brain re-wiring, but you’ll appreciate it down the road when you write your 200-page dissertation or tome.

6. Immerse yourself in the culture of the place. Don’t be the snob foreigner or the homesick nationalist

It’s normal to long for the fish sinigang using batuan (sour soup) but the clam chowder is equally interesting to the palate. Join a parade, watch the fireworks, attend a folk concert, visit the local museum, try the food at the local hangout. Every locality, no matter its demographics is a place of interest. You will be happier and more well-adjusted if you learn to appreciate what your host community has to offer.

7. Save money, but don’t give up the opportunity to travel.

Being in graduate school is synonymous with poverty. There are plenty of innovative ways to stretch your budget without necessarily living on a perpetual diet of canned goods and cheap fast food. If you are abroad, treat it as likely the only chance you’ll ever have (given the difficulties of applying for a visa). Ponder about which places/cities you want to see; plot how to get there the cheapest way during school holidays; team up with friends for road trips together. Travel enriches.

With misty eyes, I send them off. But not with a last minute reminder to send progress reports and copies of grades. And a postcard to adorn the Division bulletin board.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Life After Ph.D.: How to retain capacity in academia

In Anamaria's Posts on 2012/07/04 at 07:58

Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, writing from Lund, Sweden.

We have recently learned that many women choose to leave academia after getting their doctoral degree, and women are not the only ones deciding against a career in higher education. Especially in the hard sciences, many researchers prefer to work in their respective industries or in special research institutes. More money, a shorter path between the project stage and the practical implementation, and more effective administration are some of the reasons why this is the case.

Universities are concerned with this flight of research and teaching capacity, and rightfully so. If the most talented and driven scholars choose to move outside the academia, then the universities will no longer fulfill their goal to be at the forefront of the production of new knowledge. Besides the loss of prestige and regress in scientific results, universities would then be at risk of losing important financial support both from companies and donors.

In order to increase the capacity to retain scholars with a record of excellence in academia, and in particular those that have benefited from the support of the universities during their Ph.D., universities need to develop special programs aimed at junior scholars. Lund University (LU), the place where I work, is one of the schools where such a program has been developed.

Under the name luPOD (abbreviation for Lund University Post-Doctoral course), the university designed a one year program destined to increase the marketable skills of the junior scholars working at LU. (It is interesting that luPOD is born out of another, earlier, initiative targeting the group of junior women scholars. Since then LU decided that not only women but all researchers at the beginning of their careers are in need of support and expanded the program to include both genders).

  • Mentorship
  • Some of the strategies used during luPOD are familiar matter to University of Venus readers . One of them is mentorship (discussed also here), where junior and senior scholars are paired with the help of a database constructed on the basis of recommendations and of previous experience. One can choose a mentor from one’s own discipline if one judges that it is the academic research that needs more support. Or one could choose a mentor from the administrative side of university life, or from one with high pedagogical skills or another with a good record of attracting external funding. No matter what, the mentors are there to help, guide, and inspire the more junior scholars.
  • Networking
  • Another strategy is to create networks both horizontally and vertically (and here the University of Venus Networking Challenge comes easily to mind as a similar attempt). Vertically, through the mentorship initiative, younger and more senior higher education professionals get in touch and learn to know each other. The more experienced scholars roll the ball further by inviting their mentees to relevant reunions and conferences where they are likely to meet like-minded people. Horizontally, each luPOD group has one year of joint work and meetings at least once a month (including two overnight stays) to build connections with each other. In the future, when these young scholars will step up in the hierarchy, they will have each other’s support and perhaps would continue to “give forward”.
  • Improved skills
  • Thirdly, the luPOD participants will be improving their pedagogical skills through special workshops. They will also benefit from career advice on how to present themselves and their research in a more convincing fashion, how to write better grant applications, and how to start their own businesses. Not everyone will be interested in all of the things above, but the hope is that everyone will find at least something of relevance to their own career.

Since I myself have started luPOD this year (the first get-to-know-each-other meeting took place in May) I will have the chance to report from the field, so to speak, about the transposition of these goals into practice. For now, the least that can be said is that I am very glad this initiative exists and that, on paper, it bids well for the future.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.

Doing a Ph.D.: A process of becoming and belonging?

In Guest Blogger on 2012/06/15 at 05:50

Guest blogger, Laura Graham-Matheson, writing from York in the U.K.

Since I started my Ph.D., almost a year and a half ago, I’ve often wondered what a “Ph.D.” really is, what it actually means.

When I started, someone told me that a Ph.D. is simply a degree in becoming a researcher.  Later, one of my supervisors described it as like writing a really long application to join the academy.  In their paper about ‘how to’ textbooks on Ph.D. writing, Kamler and Thomson call the Ph.D. a process of “both becoming and belonging” (Kamler and Thomson 2008: 508).  To me it seems that this is true – during the process of undertaking a Ph.D. you are both learning how to do research, and learning how to be part of the academy (as well as, perhaps, learning about your academic self in relation to your non-academic self – doing a Ph.D. is a journey full of ups and downs and highs and lows, and one you must, in the end, take alone).  But this seems to raise interesting questions about what it is to be a researcher – and a Ph.D. researcher at that.

One of the criteria of a successful Ph.D. thesis is that it be rigorously researched and original.  In undertaking a Ph.D. there is an expectation that candidates will conform to the established conventions of the field, the discipline, and the academy while at the same time produce original work that moves the field forward.  Ph.D. students are therefore faced with the combined and perhaps even contradictory challenges of being both original and conforming at the same time.

By accepting an institution’s offer of a place as a Ph.D. student you have agreed to participate in the conventions of the Ph.D. process under the rules and regulations of the academy. But what if some of those conventions go against your emerging values and beliefs as a new researcher?  How do you find a balance between those ideals and your identity as a budding academic, both a part of and a product of the academy?

For me, I have come to feel a tension between these forces of becoming and belonging, because they seem to pull me in different directions.  The values that are emerging for me as significant in my newly-formed researcher identity are sometimes quite significantly at odds with those conventions long-ago established in the academy – gradually, I have come to question the usually accepted norms of social science research.

For instance, why should the researcher keep an objective distance from the participants, and indeed how can they if, as often in Ph.D. research, the topic is something they care deeply about?  If they are open and honest and clearly state their position at the outset, does lack of objectivity necessarily make the research any less rigorous?

Also, what about the voices of both the author-researcher and the participants in the research?  A number of authors have criticised the “traditional” stance of research in which the researcher’s voice and views are more powerful than that of the participants.  Fine (1992), for example, describes this stance, as ‘ventriloquy’.  But there is also the question of the researcher’s voice and the question-mark over the use of “I” in academic texts.  Richardson (1997: 15) calls the ‘single, unambiguous voice’ of much research ‘a major pretension of science’.  Why shouldn’t the personal voice of the author be heard in a text – does it necessarily make the writing less “academic”?

My evolving identity as a researcher has been heavily influenced, and greatly inspired, by the writing of people who have “done things differently” (see, for example, Kouritzin et al’s 2009 book, which led the way for me): people who have sought new ways to conduct and write research, who acknowledge the value of indigenous, non-Western and alternative ways of knowing, and who have found creative and imaginative ways to have a deeper understanding of the world.  But not all of these approaches and ways of knowing are in synch with the traditions of the academy.

So, I wonder, how far can a Ph.D. student go to challenge the conventions of the academy in order to be true to her/himself, whilst still adhering to the regulations that they have agreed to?

Laura Graham-Matheson is a Ph.D. Candidate at York St John University in York in the U.K. She can be reached at



Fine, M. (ed) (1992) Disruptive Voices: The possibilities of feminist research Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press

Kamler, B. & Thomson, P. (2008) ‘The Failure of Dissertation Advice Books: Toward Alternative Pedagogies for Doctoral Writing’ Educational Researcher 37: 8, pp507-514

Kouritzin, S. G., Piquemal, N. A. C. and Norman, R. (eds) (2009) Qualitative Research: Challenging the orthodoxies in standard academic discourse(s) New York, NY: Routledge

Richardson, L. (1997) Fields of Play: Constructing an Academic Life New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed