There are a great deal of resources and infrastructure in QUT Creative Industries Faculty dedicated to Higher Degree Research (HDR) support and to enable a communal approach to learning experiences. Points of interconnectivity such as research training events, library resource training, informal gatherings and Shut Up and Write Sessions are offered as self-development and ways to step beyond a discipline specific community but sometimes you need to call in the experts. In this case Inger Mewburn, The Thesis Whisperer.
A/Prof Mewburn is currently the Director of Research Training at Australian National University however most postgraduates would be familiar with Inger’s work via the Thesis Whisperer blog; a resource which provides articles and open discussion on a range of postgraduate concerns from writing, structure, supervision, time management, post-doctoral career, examination and beyond. Whilst the blog is an often-cited resource for many in the higher degree cohort, Inger visited QUT Creative Industries recently to work hands-on with HDR students in a writing workshop as well as present an open lecture on life beyond academia.
In what was tagged “a workshop for people who are really good at writing, but want to be amazing”, Inger focused on some of the most common writing issues, tackling who our audience is (hint: your reader is not who you think it is, so make sure you never make any assumptions of on their part), the vagueness of “this” and “that” (do a ‘Find’ on your writing to see how many times you ambiguously use “this”), using “rhemes and themes” to create a smooth flowing academic text, and putting a voice of authority in your writing. Practical sessions saw the group analysing and discussing a section of their own work, with Inger guiding and giving personalised suggestions to each of the group.
Inger offered these valuable applied exercises as well as some take home messages for the group. Firstly, the verbs we use indicate our feelings about a subject so make a cheat sheet of verbs which reflect your feelings and make sure to refer to it when writing. Showing us a picture of Professor McGonagall from Harry Potter, Inger stressed that references were like magic spells – they are powerful but sometimes they can misfire so use them wisely to support your argument. Finally, she urged us to eliminate the waffle (and try using parataxis to coordinate rather than subordinate conjunctions). However, the topic which generated the most discussion was about sentences being structured to form an Uneven U – paragraphs starting with less general statements down to concrete statements then back to abstract more generalised statements, which when plotted on a graph look like an uneven U (read about it more here). This had the room dissecting their paragraphs and coming up with all forms of rollercoaster like graphs to work on.
Inger says her workshops are in high demand, although her audience is very gendered. “Women are knocking it out of the park, making opportunities and taking them up”, she notes, saying that HDRs don’t lack opportunities, however only women seem to take them up in any numbers. This is reflected across her social media engagement with women making up over 65% of her Facebook and blog audience. She suggests all students should form writing groups, leaning on each other and sharing knowledge bases because not everyone has the same struggles and this can be a critical way for students to connect and form networks.
The public lecture in the afternoon saw a divergence away from the matters around writing to the issues faced post-graduation. “Beyond Plan B” opened a dialogue about graduate opportunities outside of academia, noting that over 50% of research graduates do exit on the completion of their degree. Whilst the demand for highly skilled workers is increasing, the skills needed were more ‘ancillary’ skills such as communication, budgeting and teamwork in order to be competitive within industry driven employment. Her recommendations were to visit Careers centres, access as many courses as you can whilst you are enrolled and make sure to get experience early through internship, shadowing or other work experience.
The Thesis Whisperer blog provides regular post from Inger and guests of topics key to the research student experience and beyond as well as her many authored books (such as “How to be an academic” and “How to fix your academic writing trouble”).