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5 Things Your Supervisor Won’t Tell You (That Will Help You Finish Your Thesis On Time)

Posted by Capstone College on 10 December 2018

Between 2010 and 2016, 437,030 domestic and international students enrolled in postgraduate research programs in Australian public universities. In the same period, only 65,101 completed their degree. That’s a startling figure.

As it turns out, whether or not you complete your thesis has little to do your intelligence level.

Instead, the success rate hinges on the amount and type of support you receive as a student.

A great supervisor, supportive university, financial backing, and peer companionship greatly increase your chances of completion.

And the most important thing you need to successfully complete your thesis is the academic skills to organise, research and write your thesis.

Even if you do have a great supervisor, they won’t necessarily all the types of support that are available to you in today’s university environment.

Many supervisors have worked in academia for decades, and while they may be experts in their field, they are a long way removed from the realities of student life. If they’ve been there a long time, they may not even realise the ways in which postgraduate study has become more difficult.

Funding cuts to higher education, a casualised academic workforce, and a crowded market for academics all mean that today’s postgraduate students are under more pressure than any previous generation.

You can’t rely on your supervisor to tell you the things that might mean the difference between completion and failure. As a postgraduate student, it’s important for you to seek out help for yourself whenever possible. And not just a bit of assistance, but all the help you need to succeed.

To give you a head start, here are five things that supervisors and universities regularly fail to tell their students (and how being aware of them can help you as a postgraduate student).

BONUS: The REAL Thesis Checklist

We developed the Real Thesis Checklist to include everything left out by the universities—the really important bits you need to know in order to succeed. This must-have detailed checklist takes you from the beginning to the end of your Honours, master’s or PhD thesis journey.

Make sure you know EVERY STEP you have to take to complete your thesis, on time and stress free!

1: There’s more money out there for students than you think

The more funding you can get while you’re studying, the better.

Students who are able to support their studies entirely from scholarship and grant monies aren’t trying to juggle outside work along with their postgraduate commitments and are less likely to become overextended.

Students who don’t have university funding, or only get a small amount, are more likely to need to take on significant work outside the university, and because of work commitments, many of them will choose to study part time.

One study conducted at the University of Otago in New Zealand on the factors that affected PhD completions for the 2000–2012 cohorts found that completion was more likely among full-time students and those holding three-year scholarships. This holds true for both postgraduate and undergraduate students.

You also need to consider the outside costs involved in getting your degree. In today’s postgraduate environment, students increasingly find that there are huge gaps between the costs of their research and the funding available from their department.

During my first PhD, all the primary sources I needed for my thesis were in Spain, and, naturally, in Spanish. To access those sources, I had to travel to Spain for eight weeks, where I took intensive language lessons (to supplement the year I had spent studying Spanish in Australia beforehand). The cost was $10,000, and even by cobbling together two grants totalling $3,500, I still had to fund $6,500 out of my own pocket.

Students may also encounter expenses for things like:

  • field and research trips
  • materials and equipment for scientific experiments
  • specialised software packages and data analytics.

With ample funding, you can help cover these costs, so you can undertake more extensive research, be more thorough and produce better quality findings.

One of the most valuable things you can do for your chances of success, then, is to secure as much funding as possible. You might be surprised at what’s out there.

Grants and Scholarships

Your university may tell you about university scholarships, but they’re less likely to know about the huge range of grants and scholarships available from various research bodies and charities. Many universities won’t list external scholarships on their websites, so if you’re relying on them for information, you will most likely miss out.

While we can’t offer you an exhaustive list of the scholarships and grants out there, we can certainly get you started. Here are just a few options to explore.

The Barbara Hale Fellowship

Offered by the Australian Federation of Graduate Women, the Barbara Hale Fellowship is worth $7,000 and is awarded to two second and subsequent year female students every year.

The Max Day Environmental Science Fellowship Award

This annual award from the Australian Academy of Science pays up to $20,000 per awardee towards the costs of travel, courses, or research experience. Applicants must be in their first or second year, with research projects in the biological sciences with an ecological focus.

The Rosemary Richards Award

Available to female financial members of the Australian Education Union, this award is valued at up to $10,000 per year for research or study experiences.

The Elite Editing Thesis Write up Scholarship

This annual scholarship offers up to $6,000 to one postgraduate student per year to give them a period of 12 weeks in which to concentrate on writing their thesis. I established this scholarship myself when I was the owner of this business, from 2007 to 2014.

The Capstone Editing Grants & Scholarships Program

This extensive program currently consists of nine different scholarships and grants, covering almost every type of student and academic, with more being added every year.

Crowdfunding

Government-backed funding in all categories has remained static or decreased over the past 15 years. International and industry funding has grown by comparison but can’t make up the shortfall in light of the huge increase in enrolled postgraduate students.

(Source: Universities Australia Snapshot 2017)

If you’re still struggling to find funding through traditional avenues, it’s worth thinking outside the box. Crowdfunding is one approach that’s increasingly being used to fund research. One Australian researcher, Jonathan O’Donnell, is so intrigued by this phenomenon that he’s doing his own PhD on it. His research shows that most research crowdfunding campaigns in Australia are raising between $6,000 and $8,000.

Some students do even better. In the US, atmospheric scientist Maria Zatko raised US$12,000 through experiment.com to undertake research critical to her PhD. Martin Pfeiffer, a PhD student in anthropology, is backed to the tune of US$1,468 per month via Patreon.

Your research discipline may make some platforms more suitable than others for your needs, as some exist only for particular areas of study.

Before selecting a crowdfunding platform, you’ll also need to decide whether you’re seeking a lump sum in funding, or ongoing micropayments.

Here are the five most popular crowdfunding options for Australian and New Zealander postgraduate students:

  • Experiment — This science-based platform connects scientists with crowdfunders to help close the gap for promising research project.
  • Australian Cultural Fund — If you’re working in the arts, the ACF offers a fundraising platform to help. It’s managed by Creative Partnerships Australia, and unlike some platforms, it’s not all-or-nothing, meaning that artists keep the funding offered even if they don’t reach their goal.
  • Patreon — Patreon offers ongoing small payments to researchers and other creators, usually in return for ‘behind the scenes’ updates on progress.
  • Pozible — Crowdfunding for passion projects, including a wide range of research projects.
  • Kickstarter — The ‘grandfather’ of crowdfunding platforms, Kickstarter has a long history of helping researchers raise money.

2: You’re allowed to seek out expert help

Even if you’ve secured an attentive and knowledgeable supervisor, they shouldn’t be your sole source of information. Seeking support from other people will also be helpful.

Look for mentors outside the university, and even outside your technical field, if you feel their knowledge has some overlap with your goals in other ways.

You might find that someone at a different institution or even a retired or emeritus professor from your own university can add significant value to your research.

Contacting experts and mentors is perfectly permissible within the bounds of your postgraduate degree. It’s helpful because:

  • You’ll get expert insight and advice that goes beyond your supervisors’ knowledge and their feedback on your ideas and arguments.
  • Expert mentors open you up to perspectives you may not have considered, strengthening the arguments in your thesis.
  • Other specialists can offer you access to resources you may not otherwise be able to use.
  • They can be valuable connections for the future, providing you maintain the relationship.

In fact, one 2015 survey of graduate students enrolled in computing programs found that those with a mentor reported significantly higher levels of self-efficacy: belief in their ability to plan and execute steps to success.

Source: Computing Research News

Many students feel anxious about contacting experts and asking for help. It’s understandable to feel a little intimidated, but please don’t! As long as you’re respectful of their time, most people are happy to help and can end up adding a surprising amount of value to your research.

Ask an expert in your field if they’ll share some wisdom with you, and don’t be afraid to approach the most prominent person. If a particular book is integral to your research, but you still have some questions, get in touch with the author and ask if they’d be willing to answer them for you.

When I was completing my first PhD in history, a librarian introduced me to Paul Sharkey, an author and translator who ended up becoming my most valuable mentor and advisor.

I contacted Paul to plan my research trip to Spain, where I was going to look for resources about the British women who had volunteered for combat roles in the Spanish Civil War. Paul was so interested in my project that he ended up providing more support than I ever could have imagined, even reading over my thesis drafts. He was integral to my success as a postgraduate student.

So keep your eyes open for opportunities, especially in terms of mentors! You never know how you will come across them.


3: You have the right to change supervisors

Some supervisory relationships don’t last—and that’s okay.

Whether you’ve chosen your own supervisor, or accepted the one recommended by your university, you might find that your supervisor doesn’t have the expertise you need, that they’re less available than you anticipated, or that your communication styles are incompatible.

You may find that the supervisor who was perfect for you at the beginning of your degree may no longer be the right fit.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: typically, in the first year of your studies, your supervisor knows more about your project than you do and should guide you accordingly. In the second, you’re on par. And in the third or final year, you become the expert.

Most of the time, the relationship evolves as your knowledge does, but sometimes it does not.

Your research may take you down a path you didn’t anticipate and expose different gaps in your knowledge that your supervisor can’t fill. Their commitments might change. No matter how much due diligence you do at the outset, sometimes your relationship with your supervisor can’t last the distance.

Whatever the reason, it’s important to know that you’re not stuck with an incompatible supervisor.

Changing supervisors isn’t always easy. Many institutions discourage it for fear it will interrupt the continuity of advice during your candidature, but you do have the right to change if that’s the right decision for you. You may need to be a strong advocate for your own needs, but you should prevail.

Be aware that changing supervisors too often will have consequences. Not only do you risk losing focus, as each supervisor brings their own opinions on how you should approach the question, but you risk gaining a reputation for difficulty. It’s always best to try to repair the relationship before moving on.


4: Check that you’re getting the resources you’re entitled to

As a postgraduate student, you are entitled to use a wider range of university resources than you had access to as an undergraduate. Your supervisor may not know of all of them, or won’t think to tell you, so get in touch with your Office of Graduate Research and see what’s available to you.

Resources typically include things like:

  • office space with access to a computer and free software packages
  • laboratory and/or workshop space, if you’re in a field that requires it
  • being able to borrow more library books for a longer period of time (including access to specialist library collections)
  • access to staff or postgrad break room and washroom facilities. Having a place to enjoy a cup of coffee in peace can be an invaluable help for the overworked postgraduate student!

Support isn’t limited to the physical resources provided by your university, either. Many universities offer initiatives designed to help students with their own unhelpful habits.

Those might include ‘Shut up and Write’ sessions, where students are encouraged to meet up for shared writing sprints, the ‘Three Minute Thesis’ competition, which cultivates students’ presentation and research communication skills, or even a three-day writing boot camp.

If your institution doesn’t offer initiatives like these and you feel you might benefit from them, look elsewhere.

The rise of online support systems and resources for postgraduate students means that there’s bound to be something out there for you. Capstone College’s signature course, Your Thesis Accepted, is one such resource.


5: Keep an eye on your mental health

Loneliness among PhD students is one of the reasons many postgraduate students end up failing to complete. PhD and other postgraduate students are more likely to be depressed or develop another mental health issues than the population as a whole, with one recent study putting the number at a third of all candidates and another putting it as high as 47%.

(Source: London School of Economics and Political Science using data from survey of Australian PhD students: Higher Education Research & Development)

While universities are making moves towards training supervisors to recognise signs of mental distress, supervisors are not—and never will be—trained counsellors. And PhD students, who are typically high achievers, are often reluctant to admit they’re struggling.

If you’re feeling the pressure, don’t wait until your supervisor asks you if something’s wrong. Seek out the support of peers, who’ll understand what you’re going through.

In today’s online environment, it’s easier than ever to seek out support. Forums like The Thesis Whisperer help lonely PhD students share their fears and triumphs and organise get togethers with local peers. The Cooperative Research Centre for Mental Health in Melbourne also facilitates meet ups.

If you have a mentor, confide in them what you’re feeling: they’re likely to have gone through it themselves or know others who have, and can be immensely helpful. Don’t be afraid to ask for extra help from family, either. Most people are happy to help if they know you need it.

Peer support is immensely helpful when you’re going through a tough time, but sometimes you need the help of experts. If you think you might be suffering from anxiety or depression, try this checklist from Beyond Blue. You can take the results to your GP and ask for a referral to a counsellor or therapist. Your university will also have counsellors on campus who are familiar with the mental health challenges of students.

Forewarned is Forearmed!

The challenges that postgraduate students face are greater than ever before, and our institutions simply haven’t kept up. While more and more universities are starting to recognise that students need emotional and tangible support as well as academic supervision, they’re unable to meet the needs of the huge number of students currently enrolled.

But while your supervisor may not have been able to give you any of the advice I’ve given you here, you have it now. Help and support is available to you, you just have to empower yourself to seek it out!

If you’re embarking on a postgraduate degree, I recommend seeking out as many resources as you can. Forewarned is forearmed, and shoring up your skills and knowledge can only help you in the battle ahead.


Bibliography

Barry, K.M; Woods, M; Warnecke, E; Stirling, C and Martin, A. 2018. ‘Psychological Health of doctoral candidates, study-related challenges and perceived performance’, Journal of Higher Education Research and Development, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07294360.2018.1425979?journalCode=cher20

Bednall, Timothy. 2018. The Conversation, ‘PhD completion: an evidence-based guide for students, supervisors and universities’, https://theconversation.com/phd-completion-an-evidence-based-guide-for-students-supervisors-and-universities-99650

Brabazon, Tara. 2013, Times Higher Education. ’10 truths a PhD Supervisor will never tell you’, https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/10-truths-a-phd-supervisor-will-never-tell-you/2005513.article

Brown, Paige. 2013, EMBO Reports. ‘Loneliness at the bench: is the PhD experience as emotionally taxing as it is mentally challenging?’, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3642375/

Harrington, Karra. 2018. Nature. ‘Harness the power of groups to beat the PhD Blues’, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-05589-w

Lightfoot, Liz. 2014, The Guardian. ‘How to find your funding for a PhD’, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/jan/16/postgraduate-courses-find-your-funding

O’Donnell, Jonathan. 2017. ‘Patronage as a research crowdfunding model’, https://theresearchwhisperer.wordpress.com/2017/08/15/patreon/

Rodwell, John and Neumann, Ruth. 2007. Macquarie University, ‘Predicting Timely Doctoral Completions: An Institutional Case Study of 2000-2005 Doctoral Graduates’, http://www.aair.org.au/app/webroot/media/pdf/AAIR%20Fora/Forum2007/Rodwell.pdf

Panger, Galen. 2014, The Graduate Assembly, University of California. ‘Graduate Student Happiness & Well-Being Report 2014’,   http://ga.berkeley.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/wellbeingreport_2014.pdf

Spronken-Smith, Rachel. 2017. University of Otago, ‘Factors contributing to high PhD completion rates: a case study in a research-intensive university in New Zealand’, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02602938.2017.1298717

Tamer, Burcin. 2016. ‘Graduate students without versus with a mentor report lower levels of self-efficacy’, https://cra.org/crn/2016/09/graduate-students-without-versus-mentor-report-lower-self-efficacy/

Walker, Jennifer. 2015, Quartz. ‘There’s an awful cost to getting a PhD that no one talks about’, https://qz.com/547641/theres-an-awful-cost-to-getting-a-phd-that-no-one-talks-about/

BONUS: The REAL Thesis Checklist

We developed the Real Thesis Checklist to include everything left out by the universities—the really important bits you need to know in order to succeed. This must-have detailed checklist takes you from the beginning to the end of your Honours, master’s or PhD thesis journey.

Make sure you know EVERY STEP you have to take to complete your thesis, on time and stress free!

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BONUS: The REAL Thesis Checklist

We developed the Real Thesis Checklist to include everything left out by the universities—the really important bits you need to know in order to succeed. This must-have detailed checklist takes you from the beginning to the end of your Honours, master’s or PhD thesis journey.

Make sure you know EVERY STEP you have to take to complete your thesis, on time and stress free!