This article was submitted by Garry O’Dell, a PhD student from the Faculty of Business and Law.
According to someone’s research, I am not your average PhD candidate: male, part-time, in the 55 – 60 years cohort and in a business school. But, on the plus side, I have English as a first language, I am supposedly less support-seeking and, believe it or not, less prone to procrastination.
Understanding my story relies on some appreciation of where I came from. I graduated from UNSW with an Honours degree in Town Planning in 1981, from a university life where punch cards were used to run an SPSS analysis overnight. PCs, the Internet and Facebook did not exist; journal searches were manual and typing of your thesis cost $1 per page. Subsequently, I worked in local government, followed by a directorship in a large private environmental and planning practice.
My transition to the academic world was triggered by a lengthy discussion with my now supervisor, Professor Kevin Lyons, following a strategic planning workshop for Hunter Wine Country Tourism. Over a coffee, I voiced my concern about the seemingly arbitrary planning for and regulation of festivals and events in the NSW Hunter. Government decision-making appeared to be uncertain, inconsistent and lacked transparency.
Naively, I prepared a proposal for research and struggled with qualitative versus quantitative approaches to finally be accepted into the PhD programme in mid-2012.
The academic world is diverse and interesting. Even though I have worked within and for governments, the range of new jargon within the university world was a mind-numbing experience. ‘Conceptual framework’, ‘self-plagiarism’, ‘hermeneutics’, ‘ontology’ and ‘epistemology’, ‘induction versus deduction’, ‘paradigm’ and ‘reflective practice’ all struggled to find a home in the ever-decreasing brain space.
But to make it easier, there is software and computer access for everything you may need to become a successful student. Despite some early glitches, I am now proficient with MyHub, Blackboard, the Academic Integrity Module, Endnote and NVivo.
My research and my ability to ask questions has introduced me to a variety of interesting scholars from all over the world, who continually amaze me with their focus and endurance such a long way from home. In many instances, as the aged, white male, I am the minority in the group and I am often mistaken for a lecturer!
Writing has not been an easy process. I was told to ‘find your voice’, but this continues to be a difficult process as I morph from a bureaucrat/consultant to a scholar. Government and private consultancies have completely different ways of speaking and writing with references, and peer-reviewed evidence is often lacking. Despite this, my writing is improving in turbo-charged, snack-sized portions. I am now familiar with the Australian Style Manual. The use for citations has improved but one needs to be careful with the many systems.
Even though I try to apply the Seven Secrets of Highly Successful PhD Students, research is still a difficult process. I find the isolation, striving for perfection and fear of failure ongoing issues. Given my life experiences so far, it’s not easy to always be mindful that you approach matters with a tabula rasa (blank canvas), an absence of preconceived ideas.
However, the Three-Minutes Thesis Competition was an interesting and useful exercise to help focus my ideas. In my mind, I botched the first attempt but learnt from the experience and was successful the next time, becoming a finalist. TMT helped me quickly encapsulate my research and present as if giving a layman’s perspective. It was very useful in helping me promote my research.
I believe I have adjusted to new conditions and the university experience, but I still struggle with whether I am scholar or a student, and with a lack of networking opportunities.