Three skills I’m glad I had before starting a PhD

When I was in primary school, I wanted to be an actor and a lawyer – I held some unusual vision that I would be both of these things in some kind of Zoolander slashie division of the industry. In hindsight, I think it’s just that I only understood the job of a lawyer through what I saw on television. Maybe I thought all lawyers were actors(?). That might need some unpacking…

The obsession with television was perhaps more important. As a queer kid in a conservative regional town, television was a window to a world beyond what I knew. And maybe that’s why I wanted to be an actor, because I saw these people playing out lives I wanted to be part of.

When it came time to decide what I wanted to do with my future, I didn’t have the passion for law my six-year-old self may have hoped for, nor the talent or drive to be an actor. However, that obsession with television remained.

Everyone has their own journey to success and their own vision of what success will look like. For me, it was more circuitous than many of my peers. There was a moment in my bachelors degree where I was researching the influence that television has on culture for an essay and just wanting to know more – I thought I could make a career of this, somehow. I didn’t have the institutional or social capital to even begin to navigate what that would look like. And so, the idea sat in the back of my mind.

Here’s the thing, I know plenty of people that completed their bachelors, honours and then went straight into a PhD, and thrived. But I’m not that person, and I think it’s okay to talk about that.

The best thing I did was spend more than 10 years in the workforce before starting a PhD

My bachelor and master degrees were earned while working full-time, and then I spent my subsequent career working on everything from internal culture change communications to major advertising campaigns.

The subject-matter of my work matters less than the lessons I learned along the way.

Here are three skills I’m pleased I developed before I started my PhD.

1. Project management

It might seem obvious, but a three-year PhD research project requires project management skills. I mean, most jobs require project management skills.

Do you do the roster at work to ensure there are enough people on to cover the work required? Have you volunteered to organise a fundraising morning tea? It’s all project management.

Get familiar with what works for you for planning and allocating tasks. I like GANTT charts because I like being able to visually see how different tasks relate to each other and when I will have a lot of things coming together at the same time.

2. Managing up

This is possibly a loaded term, and some managers don’t like it because they see it as a slight on their management skills. For me ‘managing up’ means caring about your manager or the decision-maker and making their job easy. It is an approach I try to take with my supervisors.

‘Managing up’ is anticipating the questions, a decision-maker might have and thinking about how they work. There are some simple ways to do this:

  • Wherever possible (and make this the rule with clear reasons for exceptions) agree ahead of time on what you need from a manager and when – good project management is about having a plan and executing it.
  • Proactively communicate delays to expected timelines.
  • Email subjects should tell a manager exactly what the email will require of them so they can organise their priorities, for example: “For action by [DATE and TIME]: review draft website content.”
  • Give managers time to do things or an explanation of why there’s no time – if every approval is urgent, it often means there a break in the system – help them see where things are falling down.
  • Provide context – seriously – seeing an email that says ‘For review’ with an attachment is infuriating. It doesn’t take much to write two-or-three dot points with the context, remind the person reviewing the document about how this is addressing a request they made – they’ve probably forgotten, because we’re all busy.

3. Writing an write an email for action

I feel like I’ll be starting something, but so many poorly written emails have crossed my desktop!

People generally don’t know how to write a clear and succinct email for action. If you’re approaching someone to participate in an interview in your research, the instinct is to start with a long explanation of why it’s important.

And then we minimise our requests: ‘I’m just hoping you could’, ‘If it’s not too much bother’, ‘I’m just following up’!

Delete ‘just’ from your email vocabulary, now!

Here’s a quick template on how to write an effective email for action

Subject[For action/information/approval] by [date and time]: [Subject] OR [Invitation to participate]: [Interview topic]
OpeningDear [Name],

Clearly and directly explain the purpose of the email in one short sentence, if they stop reading here, they need to be able to know exactly what you want. – even if the answer is ‘no’.
ContextExplain the background in a few sentences, anticipate questions the receiver may have.

Use dot points if required.
What happens next?What are the next steps? Again a few short sentences.
Contact details and sign-offProvide contact details for any questions and a polite sign-off.

I realise these will be seen as pretty obvious to some, but not to everyone.

As I’ve chatted to students and friends who are interested in a career in academia, these are the skills that often aren’t priorities. But they are skills that will make your PhD journey a little smoother.

University culture shock

I dropped out of uni twice before making it stick the third time. I once shared this in a conversation at a networking event – I can’t remember how we got there – and a man about 10 years my senior, who had gone to Scotch College (proudly declared earlier in the conversation) spent the next 20 minutes preaching the importance of discipline.

The others – like me, all recent graduates at this event to make connections – nodded along earnestly. So I asked, ‘How much was your rent while you were at uni?’ He dismissed me and continued, ‘No hold on,’ I interrupted, ‘I worked full time through all of those attempts at university and I made it here today, I don’t lack discipline.’

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t that articulate, I just like to remember it that way. And it didn’t have some profound effect. The group found a way to close ranks and cut me out and I left the event, still holding the full stack of business cards that I was encouraged to bring.

I didn’t grow up wealthy. Importantly, I also didn’t grow up poor. There was never a day in my childhood that I missed a meal. And while there were many times where I didn’t have something I wanted, I always had everything I needed. This is a position of privilege. I want to acknowledge this position and contextualise the subsequent discussion with the fact I started with more than many others do.

When you grow up in the country it feels like the world is designed to hold you back.

Regional and rural employment opportunities are limited. Regional and rural education opportunities are limited. Every year thousands of Year 12 graduates make the move to a major metropolitan centre to attend a university with the opportunities they want to pursue. And when you get there, you will be surrounded by people just like my older friend at the networking event who went to school in the city and are living rent free in their childhood home. They might have jobs for ‘spending money’, but ultimately this is an extension of their childhood experience, to provide a soft transition into adulthood.

I didn’t fit in during my first two attempts at university study. This probably had something to do with my maturity as a 19-and-then-20-year-old (my age at each attempt) and the pressure I put on myself to fit in. But I was also told that people thought I was a snob because I didn’t go to lunch with them (I couldn’t afford it), I didn’t go out drinking with them (I was at work and I couldn’t afford it) and I didn’t hang out with them in downtime between lectures and tutorials (I was in the library using a computer as I couldn’t afford internet access to work on assignments from home).

It wasn’t until my third attempt that I finally stuck the landing. I enrolled in an online degree through Griffith University (working full time meant internet access was available). Suddenly, I was just like everyone else. There were a lot of people who grew up in the country, lots who were still there. All of us were working full time and I would argue we demonstrated great discipline. I’m so grateful to that online degree program and wouldn’t be where I am today without it.

One of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic is a new understanding and world of thinking about how we work. I know many people who are making the move to the country (many are moving ‘back’ to the country) because the shift means we don’t have to give up our city-centric career to move out of the city – we can all work from home.

I think the influx of new people into regional and rural Australia is going to be a good thing on many fronts. Many of these areas will see service industries reinvigorated. Many will welcome new industries and new ways to grow their economy.

While COVID-19 is changing the way we work, it’s not creating the same level of conversation about the way we study. Universities are delivering online because they have to, and the conversation is consistently about returning to campus. But maybe there’s an opportunity for the sector to be more inclusive and accessible. Not just to those in rural and regional Australia, but to all those who don’t fit the mould of the classic university student.

We have to make sure the higher education system responds, as well. Greater investment is needed in developing degrees to be delivered online – which is different to delivering in person. And, more degree options need to be offered at regional universities.

The demand will be there, because it was already there when I was finishing Year 12 – but will the supply be there to meet it?

The interview and academia

Image of a podcast microphone
Photo by Gene Jeter on Unsplash

I’m no stranger to conducting an interview – I feel like it comes with the territory of working in communications. Even though I’m not a journalist, I’ve been interviewing people all through my career.

There’s the obvious opportunities I’ve had to work with very talented videographers and editors, interviewing people to tell their story to add to advertising campaigns. But something that surprised me was how much interviewing was required for good internal leadership comms. Getting to sit down and interview a leader, then write a message from them using their answers creates effective and inspiring content. Often they say ‘I never would have thought to say it like that!’ and you play the recording back to show them it’s exactly how they said it.

All this to say that I understand how powerful an interview can be. It unearths and empowers people who don’t see themselves as great communicators.

My worlds are colliding at the moment. I’m teaching a group of excited first years all about the interview and sending them out into the world to capture interesting stories and practice their skills. And at the same time I’m delving into uncharted territory (for me, at least) of the semi-structured interview for academic research.

I’ve always looked at the importance of helping someone tell their story as a communications tool, relating to persuasive communications and emotional connection. And now I’m beginning to see the power of the interview as data.

Like all data, there are limitations. We have to interrogate the structures in which someone exists and the potential for that to limit their answers. This isn’t new to me, but perhaps the limitations will be more obvious and impactful as I delve into this different form of the discipline.

One thing I didn’t expect – perhaps naively – is how thankful I feel for putting off my PhD study until this point in my life.

There were many moments where I seriously considered the opportunity to pursue research. And something always held me back (mostly a lack of money).

Now I see that the time I spent building my career also built these skills. I don’t know how I would even start to approach this without that experience.

Why am I doing a PhD?

The most consistent advice I received when I set out to apply for a PhD was ‘Don’t do it!’

It stood out to me that successful academics, all of whom completed a PhD and are now working in various capacities in academia were so quick to discourage someone from pursuing the same path. And honestly, it got my back up a bit – it felt like gatekeeping from a sector that had been designed to keep someone like me out (not wealthy, grew up in regional Australia, not from an academic family – my dad being a first in family to get an undergraduate qualification and many of my siblings not having the opportunity to move to a city where university study was possible).

There were a few very encouraging people who helped me decipher and demystify the research degree.

As I persisted the discussion shifted: ‘Why do you want to do a PhD?’

It’s a good question. I’m under no illusion that I’ve made an easy career decision. I’ve left a successful communications career, where I was getting every opportunity I could have hoped for to take a big step down and into a new field. Add to that, I’m moving into arts and humanities education and research, a discipline that is under consistent and increasing pressure due to government funding cuts and universities that are suffering from a lack of support through the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

So why am I studying a PhD.

There’s not just one reason and it’s impossible to say that one reason is more of a driving force than another. Instead, I’m outlining three reasons that I come back to consistently when I need motivation.


First up, passion. It seems pretty obvious, but I’m passionate about my own queer identity and how it is represented in media of all forms.

The world is changing and we are seeing LGBTIQ+ representation hit our screens in new and abundant ways. This is exciting – and I still get excited when I find a new show that provides another queer character for me to see, understand, connect with, critique, discuss with friends, challenge, celebrate – the list goes on.

When you get past the initial cry of ‘Don’t do it!’ from those already holding this form of cultural capital things quickly shift to the importance of passion. Even a few months in I have felt the loss of constant contact with colleagues and peers, to what is a lonely process of research. Passion has been something to hold on to when I’m frustrated or overwhelmed.

My passion has already been a driving force and I can see it will play a crucial role as I get deeper into the research process.

Making a difference

Second, any queer person will likely be able to tell you about a time when they were young and saw someone that resembled themselves on screen.

I know I’m not alone in sitting up late at night with the TV on the lowest possible volume and one finger hovering over the channel change button on the remote while I watched Queer As Folk on SBS. We can critique the monocultural and stereotyped representations – and we should. But as a terrified queer teen in a unwelcoming country town, I was able to recognise something of myself in the characters on screen for the first time.

This is why I think my research can make a difference. Because television has a relationship with, and influence within culture. In academia theorists such as John Fiske, Stuart Hall and Tom O’Regan have written extensively on this topic.

I want to continue delving into this for LGBTIQ+ people and help identify and empower representation on our screens. I believe I can do this through research.

Continue teaching and teaching more

Third, I’ve been so lucky to get to teach media studies, screen studies and communications through Swinburne Online Learning since 2017.

It has been an awesome component of my mix of work, while I’ve developed myself as a communications professional. Similar to students in the units I teach, I completed both my degrees online. As someone who’s supported themselves since they were 17, an online degree was the best option for me.

At first this started out as a way of giving something back. I understand what it’s like to study online and I could bring that understanding and my professional experience to give others a great online learning experience. What I found is that teaching is hugely rewarding. I love finding new and creative ways to help students engage with and understand concepts they’ll need for their future careers.

I want teaching to be a bigger part of my career. And I want to be able to contribute to the system in a way that will open it up to more people like me. A PhD will help me to make teaching a bigger part of my career and will be essential to being part of the solution.

I don’t know what the next three years will hold, but I’ll endeavour to share my journey whenever I get the chance.

And I hope that if an aspiring PhD candidate contacts me years down the track, that my response won’t be ‘Don’t do it!’ Though perhaps it will be about passion.