Reflection on my PhD experience

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

Rolf H.G. (2017). Placing ICT in acculturation: a mixed methods study of mobile phones in the everyday life of the international student. PhD thesis, University of Tasmania.

I started out as an optimistic full time student, studying the formation of communities online from the perspective of a computer scientist interested in complex systems and network science. However, 1.5 years in i had run into complications with supervision, funding and access to research data. I was also unsuccessful in attaining a scholarship and so had to change my enrolment status tot part-time in order to work.

It wasn’t an ideal situation to be in, but stubbornly rather than giving up i set about seeking a new supervision team. In doing so i contacted and discussed my research, interests and experience with a wide range of experts in fields such as Human Geography, Human Mobility, Media and Communications and  Social Sciences. At the same time i became involved in student advocacy and found work with the Tasmanian University Union (TUU) and the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA).

This process helped reshape my PhD which developed in to understanding the mobile phone’s role in the acculturation experience of international students staying in Tasmania. I wrote a new research plan and to validate the change in direction presented it at the International Conference on Communities and Technology doctoral consortium in 2011 [download paper].

During the course of this project my progress was reviewed by the university 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 supervisory 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 my manuscript, and after review by some very respected 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 my PhD 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 to name a few.

For me life got in the way a lot as my supervisors put it, but 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,
  • I was able to balance the demands of work and study, and
  • I made time for friends and family despite the competing pressure of the PhD.

My supervisors were very important, but the relationship was complex. Having people who know the university’s rules, that were fair and who pushed me was critical. I also can’t emphasise enough how important the student associations that i worked for 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:

Throughout all of it i think that managing my own expectations was probably my most significant challenge. Don’t expect that your results will be significant or your direction clear. Don’t let these expectations and the sense of uncertainty stop you from completing your PhD.

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