Penelope Grundle is a life coach, New York Times best-selling author and twice-Editor of Australian Vogue. She is also NUPSA’s resident advice columnist, in accordance with the terms of her Community Service Order (Crimes [Sentencing Procedure] Act 1999).


Hello again, my darlings. Has it been a month already? My goodness: whether you’re writing a thesis in some beige, windowless office or drifting along the Côte d’Azur on the deck of George Clooney’s yacht, the time does fly, doesn’t it?

If only our problems would fly away as well, instead of nesting in our rafters and keeping us awake at night with their incessant cooing. Strange birds they are… How soft and feathery, and how dearly we cherish them, even when they make us so unhappy. But in the end, if we are to realise our dreams, we must let them go. Open every window and release them from our soul, wings outstretched. It is the greatest act of self-love: to unburden oneself of all sadness.

And if all that seems impossible, well, that’s why I’m here, treasures. Show me these troubles, nested deep within you. Let me shoo them away with a broom.




Dear Penny,

I’m an international student about to finish the first year of my PhD. And I’m already over it! I’m bored with my studies, and tired, and I miss my family back home. Do I really have to work for another 2-3 years to complete my degree? Does it always take that long? Or is there some handy shortcut you can give me, just to speed the whole thing up?

Your friend,



Dear Salwa,

I’m so glad you asked me this. Shortcuts are the hallmark of the clever and imaginative, scorned only by tiny minds incapable of finding them. And there is absolutely a shortcut to getting your PhD quickly – almost overnight, in fact, and I’m astonished more students don’t take advantage of it. It’s simple: get yourself an honorary degree.

‘What is an honorary degree?’ you might ask. Well, it’s a degree one is awarded instantly and with absolutely no academic merit whatsoever, simply for being famous. Well… ‘for contributions to a specific field or to society in general’, technically, but don’t let that worry you. Become a reality television star and you’re contributing to the arts. Have an affair with a federal MP and you’re contributing to politics. Burn every pair of daisy dukes you lay eyes on and you’re contributing to society in general.

The only really important part is to be famous, and that’s easy. Start a blog in which you disseminate conspiracy theories and wild, unsubstantiated rumours. (Did you know that vaccines cause lesbianism in rebellious teens?) Start a YouTube channel in which you apply your own makeup, or make fun of people at random. It takes, on average, three to five years to complete a PhD. But internet celebrity? Three to five minutes, if that.

Once you’re famous, you can have as many degrees as you want. Drop the words ‘Oxford University’ in a tweet and they’ll send you one in the mail. Go to an awards show and you’ll find three in a gift bag, rolled up in a ribbon next to a bottle of Gucci Premiere and the keys to a Bentley.

Heed my advice, and you’ll be back to your family in no time (and with a clutch of assorted press in tow – how fun!). As for me, I already have PhDs in Physics, Geo-Engineering, Law, Anthropology and Media Studies, and I’m delighted to say I’ve never attended a single class nor opened a single textbook. Much too busy, darling.




Dear Penny,

I have a family event coming up, and I am dreading the repetition of the inevitable question: “How is your PhD going?” Can you offer me any advice on how to respond to this impossible question while maintaining my sanity?

Yours sincerely,



Dear Frustrated,

First, while it’s understandable to be frustrated, do try to have some sympathy for your family. Many people are familiar with PhDs as a form of elitist currency, but few actually know how a person obtains one; I only found out about the process recently, after I allegedly drove Gina Reinhardt’s Mercedes (well, one of them) through the wall of the National Gallery of Australia, and was forced to perform 114 hours of community service for a postgraduate students’ association.

(The whole thing was blown completely out of proportion, of course. No one was injured – just a Grecian urn and a couple of Brett Whiteleys. I’m sure they’ve barely even noticed they’re gone.)

PhD students – and I’m sure you’ve noticed – are generally a bunch of kooks, all singularly obsessed with some tiny, ultra-specific sliver of esoterica in their field. When people ask you how your PhD is going, it’s probably because they associate you so strongly with your little sliver that they’ve momentarily forgotten you are, in fact, a human being, and capable of discussing other topics as well.

In your reply, then, it’s important to remind them of this. Start with, “Oh, it’s all going very well, Aunt Lucy, but did you know…?” And from there, you can be as creative as you like:

  • “…I’ve joined the women’s boxing circuit?”
  • “…I’ve spent the winter hibernating in the arms of my Romanian lover, Vasile?”
  • “…I’m working as an assassin, killing for money and sport?”
  • “…I’ve joined the Cult of Chernobog, Black-Horned God of Chaos and Despair?”
  • “…I am great with child?”
  • Any combination of the above.

Responding in this way will not only make an ordinarily frustrating exchange lighter and more enjoyable for you all, but will shroud the actual details of your work in a genuine veil of mystery. Let your family imagine just how exotic and interesting your research could be, rather than telling them how dull it really is.

And if you’re concerned at the prospect of lying to your loved ones (however comically), have you considered actually taking up boxing, becoming an assassin, having an affair or joining a cult? I can tell you from experience that they’re all marvelous.



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