How to survive a PhD: 22 tips from the Dean of Graduate Studies

It has been over 18 months since I was appointed the Dean of Western Sydney University’s Graduate Research School. It is a job that I really do love.

But is also a job that can be heartbreaking, as I have seen good students drop out – both within my university and from other institutions. Many students come and see me for advice and I have been keeping a collection of tips I have learnt based on successful candidates and outstanding supervisors. So here they are… and in no particular order…

  1. Build networks: this is not just about networking that opens opportunities, but about building supportive structures around you to help you through all those challenging times. Use your networks to organise writing circles, boot-camps, give each other feedback and a shoulder to lean on when things are stressful.
  2. Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate: Always look for people to work with – it is more fun, less isolating and you learn new skills! It is also part of building networks and support structures.
  3. Its more than just research: You can be the best researcher in the world but if what you write sits on a bookshelf somewhere, what is the point? Practice your communication, be a good writer, learn how to translate your research. Increasingly funders ask questions about ‘impact’ and ‘engagement’ – and as such, ‘citations’ play less of a role!
  4. Accept the fact that you are now an academic: When you begin a higher degree by research (HDR) you are part of the faculty – no longer a student! As such, you should play an active part with your research group, your School and your University. Further, the research culture and reputation of the University will be reflective of you… Consequently, get ready for both the good and bad about academia!
  5. Take care and enjoy yourself: Seriously folks, but make sure that you eat, sleep, shower, plan breaks and down time, spend time with loved ones and never forget to showers. Put pressure on yourself but never obsess over the university. This is important because academia tends to exploit your passions: so you get into it, volunteer for things and never take are of yourself. This is the fastest route to burn out! So be passionate – but ensure that is measured with a sense of self care.
  6. Avoid university and interpersonal politics: It is pointless, exhausting and only pursued by those with small minds (no matter how many publications they have) and big egos. Enough said! Continue reading
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Racists like us: Reflecting on my own writing…

Lecturing about race and racism is one of the most challenging lectures I do. This is because I do not simply talk about these issues in theory, but discuss how they play out in our everyday lives: including how I wrestle with my own prejudices.

I have always tried to confront my own inner thoughts and feelings. As part of this, I co-wrote a paper about my own prejudices in 2008 titled ‘Racists Like Us…‘. It was a difficult paper to write and at the time I received a number of abusive emails – and once during a presentation a couple of people walked out.

The argument of the paper is that we all carry prejudices – particularly when we find ourselves in privileged positions – and these are learnt as we progress through life. The instincts we develop are there and we should be brave enough to admit it: for only we are willing to admit these can we confront them.

I had almost forgotten I had written this paper until someone retweeted it stating that it remains relevant almost 10 years later particularly in the current political context. I just re-read it and though there are parts that still make me feel uncomfortable, I really do think it is worthy of discussion.

I am a supporter of the Race Discrimination Act and have argued here that we should protect Section 18C – something I have discussed in a Sociologic podcast. But this does not mean we cannot have difficult and complex conversations – at home, with friends, in the classroom and in the media. These need to remain respectful and we need to remain cognisant of the fact that the feelings of others should always be acknowledged and protected as best as we can.

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Education Blog: How educators are failing and how we can respond

unknownBrexit, the election of Donald Trump, the re-emergence of One Nation, refusal to accept human induced climate change and the failure of other evidence based policy initiatives such as needs-based school funding and health care. As we see this occurring, Prof. Andrew J. Hoffman from the University of Michigan wars that educators are losing relevance in our society and we must move to stop it.

In the many keynotes and public lectures I have given, I often emphasise the transformational power of education. But the issues identified above highlight how we, as educators, continue to fail in our ability to confront complex social, cultural, environmental and political issues.

In other words, we lose debates to slogans.

If education is about confronting ignorance, challenging power with truth and ensuring people are making informed decisions – both in formal politics and in their personal lives – we are simply failing.

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Education Blog: Graduate Attributes for 2017 and beyond

2016-04-14-08-53-52Over the last few days I have been reflecting on the need to review the graduates attributes that are at the centre of the Citizen Scholar program that I have been developing with colleagues over the last few years. The question is whether universities have the ability to continue to evolve at the pace required to ensure the needs of our students and society is met.

It was with this in mind that I came to read a speech by Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, at the TEQSA conference titled Red Tape or Gift Wrap: Regulation for exceptional tertiary institutions. I must say I am a big fan of the Chief Scientist and very much like listening to what he has to say.

In the speech, Dr Finkel reminds us that regulation should not be something we should fear, but if established correctly, can set an environment of engagement, collaboration as well as competition.

It all sounds straightforward but as someone involved in implementing some of the TEQSA requirements, it is always easy to simply look at regulation as a burden.

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Meaning and Anxiety: a reflection of Lee Hong’s work


file-22-11-16-12-25-02This week I had the pleasure of launching an exhibition of the work of Lee Hong. Lee is an Australian-Chinese artists who studied at the Central Academy of Art in Beijing. I find Lee’s art incredibly insightful. Below is the calatlogue essay I wrote.


According to Existential philosophers such as Soren Kierkegaard, we as individuals are responsible for creating a life with meaning. In a world that is absurd, unfair, irrational and often meaningless, it is one reason that we live with a sense of ongoing anxiety.

We have to traverse a complex world and are constantly confronted with decisions that may lead us into a charmed life or one of toil.

Kierkegaard describes this sensation in the following way: “Standing on a cliff, a sense of disorientation and confusion cloud you. Not only are you afraid of falling, you also fear succumbing to the impulse of throwing yourself off. Nothing is holding you back. Dread, anxiety and anguish rise to the surface.”

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The contribution of Indonesian Islam to Western Civilisation

file-4-11-16-13-22-03This week I delivered the opening keynote at the annual conference of universities that are overseen by the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MoRA) in Indonesia.

Though not an expert in Islamic Studies or religion, I was asked to attend to speak about the role of universities in the contemporary world – with a specific focus on the universities in the MoRA network.

It was an amazing experience and one that I was humbled to be part of. Below is a copy of my keynote presentation…



I want to begin my short presentation with a simple statement: the contribution of Indonesian Islam to Western Civilisation has never been more important. In fact, my argument is that the world is at a crossroad – arriving here by hawks that see religion as a way of manufacturing – and I emphasise this word ‘manufacturing’ – a clash of civilisations for political gain.

As the world stands at this crossroad, Indonesian Islam has the opportunity to heal the rupture between the East and the West – to build bridges that others have attempted to break down.

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Uni Graduations and… well, Pauline Hanson…


Last week Western Sydney University had its September graduations. It is always an important event for those graduating, their families and also the university – something that it true for all universities.

It is an event that the University takes seriously – and is always well attended by senior management and staff…

But last week was particularly special…

After walking on to the stage, the first part of any graduations ceremony is the national anthem. Whenever I take part in singing the national anthem, I always take a moment to reflect on the hopes of our nation: thinking to myself, ‘what would Australia look like at its best?’

It was a strange day because the night before, Senator Pauline Hanson had delivered her second maiden speech. You know the one  – and there is no link required… it does not need any more hits on youtube.

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Mutualism: Chinese Contemporary Ink Wash Painting Exhibition

IMG_3557Recently I was asked to curate an exhibition of Ink Wash Paintings at the Chinese Culture Centre. The work was launched in August 2016.

As the curator, I also wrote the essay titled Mutualism: a connection across worlds which I have reproduced below.

The exhibition, focussing on ink, reminded me how artists are connected across time and space by their method, tools and style.

I hope you enjoy the essay:

Mutualism: a connection across worlds

Mutualism is the way two organisms from different species come to exist in a relationship. In this relationship, there is a type of balance as each separate organism benefits in the actions, activities and engagement of the other. It is not just cooperation but moves beyond this – it is a symbiotic relationship in which these organisms thrive from the others actions.

 We can contrast this with a competitive environment where the actions of one group of organisms undermines, diminishes, weakens or even kills off another species.

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Sociologic #4: The 2016 fed election & Pauline Hanson

cover170x170It is hard to imagine that a few months have already passed since the federal election.

One of the reasons that it feels so recent is that it was only just decided. In fact, the  Senate puzzle was only sorted over the last week.

There are many talking points that emerge from the election – key amongst them being the re-rise of Pauline Hanson and her ‘One Nation’ Party.

For those of us who see the future of Australia as diverse, integrated, progressive and enlightened, the re-emergence of One Nation is concerning. Pauline Hanson has shown herself as an opportunist who is revisiting hateful rhetoric: moving from ‘Asians’ – the source of her fear-mongering 20 years ago – to ‘Muslims’ – the target of her campaigning today.

The absurdity of her statements cannot be over emphasised.

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Moral licensing: insights into personal justifications…

Sourced from the world wide web

Sourced from the world wide web


I am not sure if you have heard of the concept of ‘moral licensing’.

It is a fascinating concept and refers to the idea that if you do something positive – such as voting for the first black president of the United States, or go to the gym first thing in the morning, or march for reconciliation or the rights of refugees – then you may well be more likely to be able to justify immoral behaviour. As a consequence, you then more likely to make immoral choices! (See Business Insider for an interesting discussion.)

This is the focus of a podcast by one of my favourite authors, Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell has written some outstanding books including my personal favourite, Outliers. (If you have not read Outliers, it is seriously a must read.)

In his new podcast Revisionist History, Gladwell goes back and reinterprets “something from the past: an event, a person, an idea. Something overlooked. Something misunderstood.”

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