Category Archives: Wellbeing and living

By Hazel Jones



For Christmas last year my daughter Amy gave me a journal, with my initials HJ embossed in gold, on the front. Nothing too special with that you might say, but it is the story behind those two initials that make this a very special present, and to me at least, some wonderful metaphors for life as a PhD student.



Amy, a student at ANU, has her home base in Wollongong while we as her parents live in Toowoomba, and Christmas in 2016 was spent in Hobart with my side of our family. Amy purchased the said journal at a store in Canberra on her last day there before heading, very briefly, to Wollongong and then on to Hobart. She then decided to personalise the gift by having my initials embossed on the front and headed off to a jewellers who told her it would be ready for pick-up later that afternoon.

On her return she was told, sorry it isn’t ready, you will have to come back tomorrow. This really threw Amy into a bit of a panic, and travel plans for whole family into disarray, as she had to get to Wollongong and then meet up with the rest of family for our road trip south.

Multiple online conversations later (hubby and I were on the last day of a cruise so not contactable by phone) it was decided that Amy would head to Wollongong, and return to Canberra the following day after a brief rendezvous with the whole family. So rather than travelling in convoy, Amy and brother headed to Canberra, while rest of family headed to relatives in Table Top (just outside Albury) where we were staying for the night. On arrival at the jewellers Amy was told sorry we still haven’t done this – please come back in 2 hours! So it was off to the movies for them.

Eventually present was received and they caught up with us and a very pleasant holiday was had by all. At this stage all I knew was that there was a present for someone in the family that could only be picked up in Canberra and nothing about the nature or significance of the present – that all emerged on Christmas morning.

So what does all of this have to do with researching and writing for a PhD, you ask. On a practical note that journal is now becoming a record of my reflections on my PhD journey and will be my personal account of all the highs and lows. The metaphors though are also worth considering

  • The power or perseverance: Amy could have chosen to just take the journal back from the jewellers that first day and given it to me without those two initials. By persevering she turned something simple and “off the shelf” into something special and meaningful.
  • The important things take time: what could/should have been a simple 5 minute task actually took much, much longer.
  • Look below the surface for the really interesting stories – anyone seeing that journal over the coming years will see the cover only – it is only by digging deeper that the full story will emerge – and surely that is what every PhD journey is really all about
  • We need to be adaptable – we all have to rely on others during our journey, be this participants, supervisors, data providers etc etc and not always will their priorities and time frames, match ours. As researchers we need to understand and RESPECT this and remember that without them our research would not be happening. Have a contingency plan, bash your head against a wall for a minute if needed, but then focus on the big picture.
  • Personalising the stories: the effort taken will bring many rewards
  • The importance of family: (plus friends, colleagues, networks) – they will support you in so many ways through your journey, and sometimes you won’t realise the importance of a simple gesture until much later – Remember to acknowledge and thank them
  • Two letters on a page are the start of something big (this one came from my wonderful husband Greg, who has completed his PhD journey and is now helping others on theirs). When you are staring at a blank page and have a mental melt-down (which happens to all of us) just start with too letters.

I hope everyone can take something from this personal story of mine to help on your journey.

(Happy Journeys from Hazel Jones)

PS: Post is written with full support from Amy

On Choosing Colleagues

By Ruth Wagstaff

There appears to be a lot of advice about how to choose the right supervisors, the right
research topic, and the right research questions. But, I think it is time to talk about choosing the
right colleagues. Colleagues are those PhD candidates who extend the hand of friendship and make suggestions about who to contact when.

During the week, it struck me just how important colleagues are. Some have become close
friends who I hope to keep in contact with until the day I die. Even though not all colleagues are
close friends, I respect each colleague equally because each one has contributed something critical to my life. Collectively, they are the reason that I continue to persevere with research.

And … it is likely many of them do not know how important they are. They are important
because they share the same study space, they say hello, make me laugh, share a bar of chocolate, or offer to make a hot drink when they make one their own. They do these things without thinking, but, by doing these things they remind me of how interconnected we are.

This interconnection is essential because study, especially at the level we have reached, can
be very isolating. This isolation can be overcome through interconnection with others. The most
important interconnection occurs through supervisors and colleagues. Supervisors provide links to our futures and colleagues provide links with our present. Colleagues link us with the present because they are in the unique position of understanding and supporting us in the day-to-day struggles, triumphs, and joys. It is the day-to-day support that separates them from supervisors.

Supervisors do not have the capacity for day-to-day support, but it is our colleagues who do.
I am blessed with incredible colleagues. They listen to my to my concerns, put up with my
jokes, and cheer me on when I lose hope. Some of these colleagues work in the same lab as me, but others do not. Not all have the privilege of their own study space at uni so connection is through Facebook, phone calls, or other colleagues. They study full-time or part-time, come from different faculties and schools, and are at different stages of their PhD. These differences make each colleague incredible, inspirational, and important.

I chose to undertake my PhD at USQ. I took the first steps in securing my supervisors, but I
did not choose my colleagues. They chose me, and I have chosen to accept their support. I am
honoured that they have chosen to reach out and included me in their day-to-day lives.

My hope is that I support them as well as they have supported me.

Change of Direction

By Madeleine Arber

I am well into the second year of my three-year PhD investigating the effect of chemo-brain on breast cancer patients and survivors in terms of cognition, self-control, and quality of life. Well, I was until I had to make the difficult decision to terminate the project.

Unfortunately, the injuries inflicted (i.e. forming the relationships needed in order to submit an ethical form outside of the university) were not compatible with life (i.e. submitting the dissertation on time).

As much as I loved researching my project and wanted to continue, I would not have been able to keep my head above water financially beyond the third year should I have continued. This was a difficult decision to make, as there is a certain grief comes with having to let go of two years’ worth of hard work.

It is difficult to describe to people outside of the research world what undertaking a PhD is like. It is perhaps even more challenging to try to express to family and friends the complexity in making the decision to end your project. They will see it as a large quantity of time lost on something that did not get off the ground.

For me, however, this was not just about two years of work. There is a relationship between the student and the project. This is something that takes up most of your waking hours (and sometimes some of your sleeping ones). It surrounds you and your thoughts and develops alongside you over time (like a fine cheese). Your project becomes a part of you.

My project somewhat defined who I was as a person. I was the individual introduced at friend’s parties as the PhD student studying… [insert old project here]. It was a fun little fact about me that served as a talking point.

The end-of-project realisation was not something I recognised suddenly, but rather a slow, painful, and stressful decision I eventually came to understand. The project was a dead horse I had been attempting to revive for months because I was in denial. It was the worst break-up I have experienced so far.

Sadly, I did not get to wallow in my own sadness for long (i.e. eat ice cream for breakfast in the bathtub – delicious and not so nutritious!). I have to rebuild Rome from the ground up with a deadline in sight. Fortunately, my supervisory team had a back-up plan that would allow me to submit a dissertation on time.

Nevertheless, even with a back-up plan in place, taking on a new project still has redirected me back to a beginning of sorts. I feel slightly unsteady on my new feet (i.e. project) and I have lost the ‘elevator talk’ skill (the ability to explain your project within the time frame of an elevator’s ride) and babble endlessly; but I have a direction.

I am not quite out of the water yet… but I will submit, more or less, on time. I have hope that the work I started was not for nothing, and that another student may complete it at an appropriate time.

I wanted to share my story for anyone else out there who may be going something similar.

Confirmation of Candidature – Marcia’s Story

By Ruth Wagstaff

This is the story of someone’s confirmation. Let’s keep this person anonymous and call her Marcia. Marcia loved the topic that she settled on. She read far and wide. She talked about it with anyone who would listen. She found scholarships to apply so that she had to write for different audiences. She would write literature reviews to help consolidate and refine the research question. Her supervisors were happy with her progress and they mostly enjoyed supervision because she was constantly finding new questions. However, her supervisor’s joy was tempered by Marcia’s inability to choose the measures and methodology.

Marcia announced to her supervisor that she wanted an early confirmation. The supervisor nodded in agreement, no doubt hoping it would force Marcia to make decisions that she alone could make about measures and methodology. The associate supervisor simply went along with the decision because he trusted in Marcia’s ability to get things done. Her supervisor nominated the panel and to Marcia’s surprise they all accepted.

About 3 weeks before the proposal was due to be submitted to the panel, Marcia polished her proposal. Polishing the proposal had three effects on Marcia. The first is that just has her principle supervisor had predicted, she was forced to make decisions about methodology and measures. This was a very good outcome. Another effect was that polishing provided an opportunity to tighten the conceptual work. Another good outcome. But less a desirable effect was the realisation that the project could go very pear shaped, and even worse, that she did not have the skills and knowledge to do complete the project successfully. Her feet went cold but hands became sweaty. Sleeping became a little difficult. She became irritable. Marcia had visions of the panel laughing at her and cutting her down into bite size pieces. Marcia had gone from a confident and carefree soul to one shackled by poor confidence, imposter syndrome, and anxiety.

Supervision was no longer something Marcia looked forward to but her supervisor was wise and very experienced. Not only had he seen it all before, but experienced similar emotions during the confirmation of his Ph.D. candidature several decades earlier. In his usual calm voice, the supervisor asked Marcia what she was most afraid of.

Marcia’s reply was honest. She said, “I feel academically very vulnerable – even when doing a practice presentation for you here in your office. There is no reason for me to feel like this because you do not bite, and you do not want to tear me apart. I have worked on this proposal solidly for 12 months. It is mixed with my blood, sweat, and tears, and comes from my inner soul.”

The supervisor nodded in agreement, waited a moment, and said in a slow deliberate tone, “Yes, but the panel and I only want you to succeed. We are on your side.”
As he spoke, Marcia reflected on the stories of the candidates who were left in tears. Through the haze of Marcia thoughts, her supervisor’s voice took centre stage again.

“If you knew the answers to this research, it would not be Ph.D. worthy,’” he continued. “You have done the work required. Relax in your ability to get this done. You are not alone on this journey.”

As alone as Marcia felt, the evidence was that she was not alone. Her closest friends were Ph.D. colleagues and were always there. She knew her supervisors were walking with her, mentoring, and guiding her. The panel was walking with her by taking time out of their busy day to read the proposal, listen to the presentation, and make comments to help her. The panel did not have to do this but chose to. Marcia was definitely not alone.

The day of the confirmation presentation came and went. Marcia may have felt as if she was carrying the world on her shoulders, but as she heard her voice begin the oral presentation, her concerns lifted. Her PhD friends were there. Her supervisors were there. The panel were listening attentively. Extra staff were there to support her as well. There is still work ahead but her project is Ph.D. worthy. Marcia is now a confirmed candidate: she has crossed a bridge and is about to embark on a new phase of her PhD journey.

Confirmation of Candidature Couplets

By Debbie Mulligan

Congratulations! Today is your day

You’re off to great places, you’re off and away! (Seuss, Dr.; 1990)


Finally! How hard can it be

It’s about time and IT’S ALL ABOUT ME! (Mulligan, Dr.; 2030)


I’ve sweated and practised and sweated some more

If all else fails I’ve got cartoons galore


And a dvd with old men on bikes

I just hope it starts when it’s s’posed to- Yikes


I know, I’ll win them over with chocolate called Roses

And just for good luck, I’ll throw in some poses


The panel walks in and they all take a seat

I feel like they are the diners and I’m the cooked meat


Oh well, here we go, it’s now or never

Now is the moment to show them I’m clever


I deliver my speech and sit down with a sigh

Really Deborah, sit up straight, this is no time to cry


“I notice on page 10 you’ve used the word which…”

It’s then that I develop an unforeseen twitch


“Errrrrrrr, ummmmmm,” I mutter, stalling for time

How can they look at me like it’s such a big crime


No one told me this would be the longest hour of the day

My desperate thoughts start rambling and my mind starts to stray


I look around the room and my supervisor is nodding

Willing me onwards as my words just keep plodding


“The end,” says the chairman and graciously smiles

“The end,” says my battered psyche like it’s run 1000 miles


Thank heavens it’s over, I’m home on my bed

I’ve taken some Panadol for my poor aching head


Some chocolate and red wine are on the agenda

This could be the beginning of a very long bender………….


And then the next day my peers gather round for a report

I feel blessed and I’m grateful for all their support


This doctoral road is tricky, fraught with bends and dead ends

But it’s made just that bit easier with my new found friends.




Waiting, waiting, waiting …

By Fiona Russo

This year, I have waited.  A lot.

I have waited for acceptance into the program, for the provision of a dataset we’re trying to acquire (for which we are jumping through some crazy hoops including a full ethics application!), for a rare text to come in, for the outcome of a scholarship (unsuccessful) and then a fellowship (undetermined) application, for feedback from my supervisory team, for publication peer reviews, for ethical approvals, for Confirmation – it can seem like a series of never ending waiting rooms with no doctor in sight (pun intended).

I’ve been ticking along with the mindset that this is all just administrative, and therefore outside of my control.  I’m on someone else’s timeline, one task in their long list of things to do.  Next year, I tell myself, I’ll be Confirmed and ready to start my studies.  Next year, it’ll all be down to me.  I can set the pace, and things will naturally pick up.  Perhaps it’s the optimist in me, but I’m really excited to ‘just get down to business’.

I can hear the dissonant cries of my HDR colleagues from here – and I know how naïve that sounds.  My second- and third-year peers are still waiting.  They’re waiting for recruitment of participants, buy-in from partners, allocation of resources, feedback from supervisors, peer reviews, texts, and so many other things.

When we submit writing to our supervisors, it’s difficult to decide how many changes we should be making before their feedback is received.  When we submit papers for publication, should we just forget about them entirely or keep updating references and making editorial changes in the intervening weeks (or more likely months)?  When is it better to reluctantly admit that our target for recruitment is unachievable and alter the study rather than wait for more respondents and risk the timeline?

There’s a strange dichotomy in pursuing a PhD.  On the one hand, it’s a very solitary, self-guided journey.  On the other, we find ourselves often at the mercy of other stakeholders and their rules and timelines.  This can interrupt the flow of output in a dramatic fashion, and I certainly find this myself.  I am a time-poor mother of four, the eldest graduating this year and the youngest entering a Special School prep year in 2017.  My energy is frenetic because I have strictly allotted ‘work times’ that have to be productive. As the old adage says, ‘if you want a job done quickly, ask a busy person’.

My question to other HDR students is this:  how do you manage these ‘waiting periods’?  Is it just a matter of having multiple tasks on the go at any given time so that when one hits the proverbial brakes you can just concentrate doubly on the other?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Wishing you all unimpeded progress into the holiday season and beyond!

Oh dear, my world has just crashed, why not attempt a PhD?

By Peter Burling

A relative latecomer to the world of successful academic pursuits, I began my second assault
on the world of study at the very young age of 50. There were two forces contributing to this
decision. The first was the a dislike of the quality of employment I had secured when returning to the workforce after fifteen years of house-husbanding. The world had advanced a little in those 15 years, I needed new skills.

The second was a hangover from my youth, a desire to once and for all establish the truth or
otherwise of those vocational guidance words, “You can do anything you want”. These words I did feel were a cop-out used on anyone with an IQ above 90, helping the guidance officer avoid having to actually do something for you. But that was my schooling, now I was once again inflicting the books and exam timetables upon myself, as I set out to see how far I could go.

So my journey stepped through the Bachelors, a Graduate Diploma and then into a Masters
as I sought to quench the rekindled desire for knowledge. Yes, across this period usable skills also accrued rapidly, many of which, as a volunteer network administrator for a school, went into immediate use. There were also many real life learning events as I accrued the full deck of results bar one. I fell one mark short of the elusive high distinction.

In 2006, I began a second and concurrent journey when my wife of 29 years (partner for 31)
was handed the diagnoses of breast cancer. So now to my burgeoning academic career and status as a weird hours part-time worker were added the roles of number 1 supporter, cheer quad leader and sometimes carer. For nine months we floundered, struggled but made it through the obstacle course of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. It did have some highs, as we were both able to spend the 6 weeks of radiation therapy in Sydney. As the effects of chemo wore off, it allowed us to explore events such as sculpture by the sea.

In 2013 as I finalised my Masters submission, I was thrown the challenge of extending parts
of my Masters research into a PhD. So I organised a supervisor and went into discussions on how to attack the research and even what we would actually cover. This development stage was also able to include my wife as she had by this stage retired. Then in September 2013 someone cut the cable ties that held my life together.

The first notice was the diagnoses of breast cancer secondaries in the bones. No time frame,
just a certainty of the final outcome. Not long after this was the release of restructure plans for my department with staff reductions. This rolled into possible, probable and finally definite loss of my planned supervisor. This news sparked a series of meetings with associated departments in an attempt to continue the idea of chasing one of those floppy hats that prevail around doctoral achievement. This unfortunately ended with a simple statement from my then university, that they simply were not interested, I should try elsewhere.

So in March 2014, in the middle of corresponding with 13 Universities around Australia,
New Zealand and Singapore, I graduated as a Master of Computer Science. Standing by my side
was my very proud wife, currently mid-stream in a chemotherapy set. The correspondence turned into a positive response from USQ which then blossomed into the much needed supervisor, and finally at the end of July enrolment, just after the start of Semester 2. This was initially off campus, but it was enrolment and while my wife did not expect to see me finish, she had seen me start. We also made plans to come up from Tamworth, where I was living at that point, in September to meet the team and to see the Japanese gardens. Those plans shattered on August 20th.

So began the whirlpool of grief, anger, self doubt, pressure of commitment to my late wife
that I would give it a go, and of course the worst of all loneliness. Some forms of cancer tend to
erode things like relationships slowly. So you man up and do what has to be done. But then you
realise that you have lost it all, but over a period of time, rather than instantly. So in the end I pulled out of that first semester, took the next one off and then restarted.

So after 2 years I have sold out in Tamworth, moved to Toowoomba, encompassed the highs and lows of a new developing relationship, and am now studying on campus. Where will it all go? I am not sure, but there is one certainty, no matter what the final result, it will have been a journey of self learning.

First in the family

By Ruth Wagstaff

As I paid the deposit for my youngest son’s grade 12 formal dinner last week, it dawned on me that in seven months time my youngest starts university.  This has personal significance for me, because my nuclear family (ex-husband, our children, and I) are the first complete nuclear on either side to have attended university.  And yes…not only was I the first to go to grade 12 and go to uni, but I am the first to have completed graduate diplomas, and to have undertaken a PhD.  I have never spoken to my sisters or father about the historical nature of my education in the family, and am not sure that it is appropriate.

I have no doubt that my sisters and father (there are no brothers, and my mother died when I was in my mid-20s) are happy that I have found my niche in the world.  Each of us have carved our own special place in the world, and we enjoy entering each other’s world from time to time.  We are not a close family, but we stay in contact.  We connect where share common views, but differences are rarely discussed.  One of those differences is our level of education, and attitudes toward education.

I have wanted to attend university since I was 10 years old.  Rather than doing traditional girl subjects: typing, shorthand, bookkeeping, and home economics, I  took academic subjects that would open up almost every university course available: the high level maths, science, and music.    However, rather than go to university I did my nursing training at the local hospital (I was one of the last hospital trained registered nurses).  I began university when I was 27 years old.  This decision was no surprise to my sisters as they considered me to be the family brains and different from them.

Going to university changed the dynamics between my sisters and me in subtle ways. It drew us in closer because I became comfortable with myself.  I found the university experience intoxicating and liberating.  It is also kept us apart because the world of university was very different from what their worlds.  They could never understand the highs and lows of higher education.  They could never understand the concept of 15 weeks intense focus and long holidays. They certainly were aware of,  but were unable to appreciate, the intensity of psychology honours year.  And I am of the opinion that it is unreasonable to expect them to understand the emotional and academic journey of a PhD.

One of my sisters was of the opinion that I was a miss-know-it-all.  That was, and is, far from the truth.  University has shown me how much I do not know, how many unanswered questions there are.  I learnt to deal with the miss-know-it-all comments.  I know that she still feels intimidated by the educational journey my children and I have taken, because she justifies her children’s and own choices with, “Whatever makes you happy”.   I agree with her, and move the conversation to another topic.   When it comes down to it, keeping doors open is more important than continuing a conversation that I know will lead to misunderstanding.  It is okay to agree to not agree.