The Professor Kate Douglas Session
In this Session, we talk to Professor Kate Douglas about why she probably would not do the same research question now that she is a parent, about how unique PhDs contribute to whole systems of knowledge, and about the raft of valuable skills you gain whilst undertaking a PhD, such as project management, critical thinking, and how to accept feedback for what it is.
Teaching is the thing that brings me most joy in my job. Don’t get me wrong, I love research, and while teaching has many challenges, somehow I still come out of it feeling happy. Young people today, you know, there is a lot going on and I think it is just a really interesting thing to observe.
Listen to the Interview with Professor Kate Douglas
Q&A with Professor Kate Douglas…
What is the title of your PhD: Contesting Childhood: Auto/biography, Memory and Trauma.
Where did you complete your PhD (College/Faculty/School/University): School of English, Media Studies and Art History, The University of Queensland
What year did you graduate: 2003
What undergraduate degree/s have you completed: Bachelor of Social Work; Bachelor of Arts (Hons)
Any honours or masters: First class Hons (English)
What is your job title, today: Professor of English
Interview with Dr. Kate Douglas
Steph: Kate Douglas is a Professor in the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at Flinders University. She is the author of “Contesting, Childhood Autobiography, Trauma and Memory” and co-author of “Life Narratives and Youth Culture Representation, Agency, and Participation“. She is the co-editor of Research Methodologies for Auto-biography Studies of Teaching Lives, Contemporary Pedagogies of Life, Narratives of Trauma Tales, Auto Biographies of Childhood and Youth and Trauma Techs. Kate is the head of the steering committee for the International Auto/Biography Associations, Asia Pacific chapter. A very well published, speaker today. Thank you very much for joining us.
Kate: Thank you, Steph.
Tamara: So, Kate, what we’re going to start with is just to get an understanding of what your role is today and what your normal day looks like. Maybe not Covid life but that normal day to day.
Kate: Yeah, I was going to say it’s very different postcode, but than pre. I’ve been working at Flinders for 16 years and I think my day has changed a lot during that time. It used to be, I guess, a lot of focus on teaching some research, tiny bit of admin. Now my job is a lot of admin, a lot of research, and a little bit less teaching than I would like to be doing to be honest, because I really do enjoy it. I think the further you kind of accelerate with your career, we spend a lot of time sitting behind your computer, answering emails, reading policy documents, attending to funding applications, sitting on committees, responding to minutes, responding to agenda items, attending meetings, and somewhere in there, a bit of teaching, maybe a couple of days a week, I teach and, so that’s lectures and tutorials. The most enjoyable part of my job easily because it’s that kind of human interaction. It’s probably the one thing that you get the most, immediate kind of feedback from and research is incredibly enjoyable. I like that as well because, nice combination of alone time in your office and nice combination of hanging out with friends who are research collaborators and, talking about research and formulating plans to do things.
Steph: So you have a balanced role.
Kate: I have a balanced role. Yeah.
Steph: Not always terribly well balanced, but a balanced role.
Kate: Yeah. The balance does shift at different times of the year. So for example, we’ve just finished teaching. We just finished semester one. That was, quite a journey this semester. Probably instantly we get a little, we get a gap between teaching and marking. Instantly kind of the admin, becomes a bit more intense and the research may be just, maybe you can have a week of accelerating a project or something, then it’s back to marking. Probably July will be an intensive research period.
Steph: So that’s where you are now. We’ll go back in time to when this, your journey for education started. We’re going back to teenage years,
Kate: Try and remember.
Steph: Just thinking about the decisions that you made before you went to University. In your family, did your parents go to university?
Kate: No, no, they did not. My parents were migrants from the UK, and my parents. Working class background mum was a stay at home mum. My dad had various jobs, but it was interesting because he came out, to work in textiles. He worked, came out to work in textiles, from the North of England. It was a particular kind of, period of kind of Australian migration, right, where you get these, skilled workers from the UK. And so that’s what he did. So, grew up in a kind of large country town in New South Wales, went to school, was good at school. I have one sister who I’ll tell you about her, cause that’s kind of relevant to my journey. Yeah, were the first people in our family to go to university and we were both kind of on that path early. I think probably driven by my mother who was very much, I didn’t get to, I didn’t do that stuff.
Kate: Here’s a chance to kind of do that socially mobile thing where working-class people become, upwardly mobile. Right. It was also fortunate enough to have University close by, which was the University of Newcastle in New South Wales, big shout out to that fantastic University, which I think, made me grow up and really think about what I wanted to believe in, which was, the exact things that I believe now and the values that I have now. Yeah, my sister went to University first and I think that helped me a lot.
Tamara: Did she get to Newcastle as well?
Kate: She did. She studied psychology. She is now Professor in Psychology at the University of Kent in Canterbury in the UK.
Steph: So you guys went hard with the academics.
Kate: We did say first in family, to go to university and both Professors.
Steph: Well done.
Kate: Yeah. I was, I think that she kind of laid a path for me to think that was possible in some ways I think I became, because weren’t, we’re only two years apart and I think she was wavering on the whole idea of becoming an academic and as she became interested, I became interested because that wasn’t kind of my pathway. When I started university, I started in a Bachelor of Social Work.
Steph: Did you know that’s what you wanted to do.
Kate: At the time it was because I figured there was no such thing, and I heard there was no such thing as an unemployed Social Worker. I still had that in mind, that kind of employment thing. I think this is, still what we see today about people being very concerned about where the jobs are, right. When you started out. Yeah. Even in, at the end of school, but also going you’re contemplating university. It is that sense of why would you do that? Don’t, all those graduates are unemployed, blah. I thought Social Work I’ll do that. I was the youngest person in my degree, it was mostly mature aged students. I was like 18. I just look at these, really clever older people and go, I’m so dumb. I don’t know anything. What do you mean? Like what’s left wing what’s right-wing what’s any of this stuff. I didn’t really understand any of it.
Kate: They helped me grow up, which was really good. I was really good at English in high school, but I hated it by the end. Cause I did so much. In New South Wales you had the option of like doing, an extra kind of unit of English. So.
Steph: Surely there’s nothing like too much of a good thing.
Kate: Yeah. There was the time. I got to a point in my University studies and my Social Work studies where I was like, nah, wouldn’t it be good if I was doing English. I did English as an elective and then worked out, someone explained to me that I could, pick up a BA and do a combined degree. So I did that. I did combined degree Bachelor’s Social Work, Bachelor of Honours. I went, Oh, I could do on like, sorry, Bachelor of Social Work, Bachelor of arts. I went, Oh, I could do Honours. I went, Oh, I could do a PhD. That’s when I started looking into the PhD thing. I, and my sister had already started one. She has at the ANU. So I knew two things were possible. A scholarship was possible, which would mean I could pay for it. And that I could go somewhere else, like other than Newcastle and spread my wings a bit. That’s when I started looking into the PhD programs and found that the university of Queensland, which is also a very wonderful institution. Fantastic. I loved my time there. I had a sense, there were a few people there I could have worked with, which I think was important at the time. The culture and the kind of general strengths of their English department fitted with what I wanted to do, which was, I think I want to do something around, I wanna do something about working class writers initially, or something to do with multiculturalism or post-colonial literature. That’s kind of why I went there and then I ended up doing something completely different.
Steph: Did you go boom, boom, boom. High school, university, honours, PhD?
Kate: I did. I did. I think that the only advantage of that now, as I look backwards to all the burnout that I now feel, is that, you get to fast track when you’re young, cause all that energy and time like, that’s right. Whereas people who do PhDs or undergraduate degrees or anything study when they’ve got, families it’s so much harder. I got it all out the way before I had a family, which was really good. That was a big thing now.
Tamara: Did you were going to do a PhD when you were finishing your honours or did you like or was there ever a point where you thought, no I am going to be a social worker?
Kate: Yeah no, I did. I stayed, still think that I would probably be a Social Worker, strangely. It’s funny because all of my interests now I think still relate back to that interest of in Social Work and social justice and the kinds of literatures and things that I read about and my interest in trauma, my interest in childhood, and some of the work that I’m doing now, which has a lot more kind of hands-on literary study stuff. No, I think I got to the point where I thought a PhD was just something that I could do because there was funding, but maybe I would never be an academic. I had that Social Work degree to fall back on and I went, well, I could do, I can do this PhD.
Kate: Yeah, towards the end of honours, I went up to Queensland and did two of my honours coursework topics is cross-institutional studies at UQ just to suss it out and see, but I liked it. I really did. There’s always a deeper narrative to why you go inter-state as well. You know, there’s always potential romance. Let’s not go there, but Brisbane. Yeah. Yeah. So yeah. University of Queensland in St Lucia, which is a suburb in the burbs of Brisbane, really beautiful campus. So, yeah, I think I’ve got to that point where when I could do a PhD and if I get the first class honours, I’ll get scholarship and I’ll be on, when you think back, then you think the scholarships getting me rich and you are because you’re not paying a mortgage and children.
Kate: I was really happy when I started, but like I said, I started thinking about, I started with different supervisors and the one I ended up with, because she just got a job and I was told when I was going there that this person was coming to the University, she got a job there. And name is Professor Gillian Whitlock. She is one of the finest academics Australia has ever produced. She’s coming to, and you can work with her. Like she’s, she’ll have space for you to work with her if you’re interested. That’s when I was like her big thing, she was she’d done all sorts of really interesting things that I was like, deeply engaged in around race and feminism and post-colonialism, but she was just moving into this autobiography studies. I wondered, I started to read up a bit more on that and I went, Oh, this is really interesting, like nonfiction, what could be more interesting? And so I met Gillian and she tells a great story, like, at conference dinners and stuff with me that, I was, so she had a great idea of a project for me.
Kate: I was like, no, I don’t want to do that lot. I want to do this one on childhood. And she was like, okay. And she still tells that story. Like when I met up with her in Madrid last year. She’s, she still tells that story about, I’m glad you stuck to your guns on that. Cause look what you now on the project that you have, and you’ve stuck to this research interest. So it’s interesting. Cause in humanities is a lot more kind of movement. Like I think in the sciences, et cetera, this, you get on a project and that’s it. Whereas in humanities, you still got space to kind of convince as long as it’s in their kind of area of interest, you’ve still got the possibility of convincing them. Yeah. That your project is going to be good. Yeah.
Steph: What was your PhD project actually about what was the research question you were answering?
Kate: It was, I think it was around the kind of back in the mid-nineties, early 2000s, many scholars refer to this thing as the autobiography boom or the memoir boom.
Kate: This idea that all of a sudden books that might’ve been kind of, I guess, released as fiction, like thinly veiled autobiographies were fiction because fiction was the thing that’s selling and also people then wouldn’t get in trouble if they misrepresent something. Cause it’s only a novel, you can’t hold me to the truth where there was lots of, and lots of people from kind of marginal cultural groups; working class people, women, people of colour, like all sorts of different kinds of interests and stories were getting told that hadn’t been told before. They were talking about, all of a sudden spaces were becoming available for people to tell stories about their lives and stories that weren’t pleasant to hear necessarily. I kinda got on board with that idea and started doing like, so a literary analysis. I got to basically read a lot, a whole lot of books, a whole lot of memoirs about people representing their traumatic childhoods.
Kate: So I read some really… You know, little Kate had no children of my own at that point, reading about, the horrible stuff happening to children and their childhoods. It would usually be they’d grown up and they’d written their narrative and the narratives would be, like I said, mostly published memoirs, but also kind of occupying other different spaces like increasingly… Now we can see these narratives in all sorts of different cultural spaces. I thought about, ethical, legal questions of telling these stories. I guess my research question was something along the lines of, how do, kind of contemporary authors tell stories about childhood, in ways that have become kind of acceptable and circulating like, acceptable to circulate, I guess, because every narrative needs a reader, right? And so they’re not going to get read unless people are kind of interested and these narratives in some way. So the interest can be problematic, right? Because it’s like, Ooh, salacious story of someone’s miserable life or other people are like, Oh, I really want to witness and acknowledge that this stuff happens.
Kate: That, people who talk about their, back in the fifties and sixties, life was great, and these narratives are counter-narratives. I also read some stolen generations narratives and some forgotten children narratives. It was all that kind of, thinking about the ways in which memoir rewrites history or asked us to think differently about Australia’s past. In that instance, I did a lot of Australian texts, so yeah, it was really interesting. I really enjoyed it
Tamara: Sounds amazing.
Steph: And you wrote a book.
Kate: I did. The contesting childhood, is that’s my PhD. Yeah.
Steph: You had your thesis and you published thesis as it was, or did it require a lot more work?
Kate: A lot of work. I had to write an extra chapter and I had to like edit the other chapters down to probably cut by a couple of thousand words each. So yeah, that was the process.
Kate: I mean, I pretty much didn’t contemplate doing that till I got a job and I had time and, someone to kind of, even, I think I wrote all my first study leave, to be honest, I didn’t even get onto it then because I was just so busy with the job and like starting an academic job is just really hard work and really time consuming and research suffers all the time. Let’s face it.
Tamara: But did you ever get an opportunity to meet any of the authors that you were.
Kate: I did. I’m trying to think. I’m trying to think. I think I spoke to a couple of them on the phone and I think I met a couple of writer’s festivals, which was very interesting.
Tamara: How long did you take to complete your thesis?
Kate: Tamara, well,
Steph: This is a really horrible question and everyone’s very embarrassed.
Kate: I have the opposite problem. It sounds like, I completed my PhD in three and a half years. I completed, I pretty much had completed it in three and a half years, but then I got a one-year teaching contract. I was just doing, I dotting and T crossing. I think I stretched it out about three years, eight months. Yeah. It’s pretty quick. Yeah. I just had that, I had knew I had that time and I, because I had to like build a topic and teach for a year. I just, it slowed towards the end, but yeah, my progress was, I didn’t have any problems. Like it was still talking about this morning. Someone was like, my PhD story is like my childbirth story. I had no problems. Yeah. It was a slow, it was a slow start because I did change my topic.
Kate: When I say slow start, it was just that kind of transition to working with a new supervisor. It took a long time for us to kind of, I think, work each other out. Like she’s one of the dearest people to me and my whole life now, like my other colleague who she was also, this is kind of a strange kind of coincidence that I have a colleague at Flinders who also were supervised by her or University of Queensland. We worked together and we collaborate together. And we call her mama Jillian. That’s how close we are to her. And you know, we get really excited. She visits us a lot here and come, like we asked her to come here, she’ll come here and spend time with us. In the beginning, I think it’s hard to kind of work out that relationship. You have to kind of, you can be friends later, but in the first instance you’ve got to kind of,
Steph: It’s a working relationship
Kate: Yeah, and you’ve got to kind of establish a set of expectations and push for things and they’re gonna push you and you’ve gotta push them for the kind of feedback that you want. So it’s complicated.
Tamara: There must be, there must have been challenges around the content of what you were reading that must’ve been, how did you keep going or how did like finish one book and then pick up another one? Like knowing that a lot of the stories were so traumatic, tragic, and that’s an actual person and they are telling their real-life story.
Kate: Like yeah. It’s like a tale of two different versions of the self, right. Because I think I could do it then and I couldn’t do it now. I think I could do it then because I hadn’t experienced being a parent. I hadn’t, I was, I certainly was invested in the stories and really interested in them, but I was able to detach and think of myself as a researcher doing literature, and that was fine at the time. I think getting that balance, I did a lot of teaching. I did a lot of research assistant work, during that time. I think just having that kind of balance was really good, to not just have to sit there and only do that. I’ve watched PhD students at my university, just do their PhDs. Right. Not much else in life, and I always think, Oh, I hope that works out for you.
Kate: Really. I really feel like it’s to immerse oneself too much in a PhD is pretty scary experience because you just then live it and breathe it and feel that the pressures and stresses to make this your unique contribution or whatever it is that you’re doing. I think it’s really good to have other things going on intellectually as well as socially and emotionally, like intellectually just have other things that distract you.
Steph: What about exciting things that happened during your PhD journey?
Kate: Lots of exciting things happened, Steph. I think because I had a really, I had a cause that, again, I’m just raving about my excellent supervisor, but we had a really good research culture at University of Queensland. Like it’s probably the best University in Australia for what I did easily, the best, what am I talking about. And, so you got those kinds of professional opportunities that were probably not as available at other universities, starting with the scholarship.
Kate: We had prizes, like you publish an article, you can put yourself in for a prize. We would have, like a casual teaching prize. I got a scholarship to do a grad cert in education. So I could have that. And that was good. Cause that got me out of doing it when I got to Flinders. Any of the courses they recommended we had to do for professional development. I got to go to conferences. I went to Toronto for a conference. I went to Auckland for a conference. I went to London for a conference. Yeah. I mean, I had some really great opportunities. I think it was because I was picking up those bits of money along the way, like little bits of extra money, like I said, prizes and things like that. And research assistant work. I remember taking my associate supervisors books back to the library for her.
Kate: That was the most menial of the things that I did. Photocopying all that kind of stuff, but I was always thinking, let’s be good, cause this is good travel money. I was very focused on, I was very focused on the travel. I love the travel. I love that. I love presenting. I was good. Cause my PhD supervisor was often there at these conferences and she’d they offer you some level of protection, which I can now see myself doing with my students, which is really nice.
Tamara: It gives you confidence to go out and do that because part of being an academic is being able to present at conferences.
Steph: And to promote yourself
Kate: Yeah. I mean, it’s a big thing now. I look at the differences now because now it’s like social media promotion. Like I see my two really fantastic PhD students who work quite closely together and keep each other accountable for this stuff.
But they’re very good with that. They’ve done library talks like during the candidature. They’ve got good social media stuff going on, like Instagram, Twitter, they just really kind of engaged. One of them just did a conversation article. It’s just, they just get it a bit, I think in terms of that, the importance of that professionalization, I think I was really the first generation who kind of got that, the pressure to do that. Whereas I think before it was, yeah, just do your PhD
Steph: It’s not enough to just immerse yourself in one part yes.
Kate: In the book and, rub your temple and do those things like it’s just, we don’t, we just, that’s just not the culture anymore. Like that’s kind of good and bad…
Steph: You get a very well rounded PhD completers now. All the pressure to do all that extra things as well as produce a PhD. Yeah. You obviously had a lot of opportunity to share your work during your PhD. In addition to having that book, you also had a platform to speak. This is always, it’s a big question, but why is your research important and how does that influence the wider world?
Kate: I’m a, I’m a big believer in, the fact that all different disciplines, like I look at the, what’s great about a is you have all these different disciplines and that, and the minute they have a conversation, which is very rarely like cross-disciplinary conversations, you realize how much you have to learn from each other. You can only see this kind of in a microcosm and you look at like primary school education, when you see these teachers who have this generic knowledge that they can bring in and get the students to do something because they understand humanities, they understand math, they understand science, right. I can bring all that together and how our children to really learn. All of a sudden we become these little specialized people or in this case I know about this thing. I think the only way you’ll see the value in your research is the moment you communicate it to other people, allow it to kind of, I guess, mix in with other kinds of disciplinary knowledge is on the same thing. Like so for example, like I read interdisciplinary research on the child, right. That would be the thing that I’m most interested in the moments you’ve got sociologists, you’ve got lawyers working in childhood area, doctors, all different kinds of doctors, all different kinds of welfare workers, whatever, and educators, and then academics in all different kinds of disciplines. I was thinking that, the kind of observations that I make about how people represent childhood, publicly or how children, what I’m most interested in moment has had children tell stories, true stories about their own lives, in kind of private and public spaces. I think that people don’t always think about the relationship to that, between that and their mental health, their physical health, all of those kinds of things that I think until you start on picking it up and saying, we all have this knowledge, that kind of adds up to something together.
Kate: You won’t see the value in what you do. You’ll just think that you’re in some kind of little bubble. Yeah. It’s interesting.
Tamara: People. Yeah. They’re in their little silo that they don’t actually have all the answers even though sometimes they think they do.
Kate: Yeah. Well we’re all part of this knowledge system, and I think that’s really exciting. Like more exciting than just I found something by myself and only five people in the world. I mean, this was an academic model that used to be thinking of only seven people could read this and understand it, and I think, if you’re in certain fields, like I, that I won’t names, there’s probably still lots of schools who want to be like that. It’s just not going to wash. This is not, you’re not going to get it. You’re not going to start a career in academia with that in that space. Maybe there’s people at the top who were on their way out with that. Super, super famous people who work at Oxford or Harvard or something, but that’s about it. It’s going out sadly.
Tamara: From your, experience has being as a PhD student and as a supervisor, what is the, how would you describe the life of a PhD student?
Kate: Good question, Tamara. I think it’s very different now than it was. I mean, like I said, I think I was on the cusp of that, you know, you must professionalize, you must see the PhD as just part of a system of skills and knowledge that you need to come out of this degree with. Like whereas, this is a thesis, right? A thesis is just, this is a piece of research. Right. Whereas now I think that thesis is just part of this system, a PhD system, which requires, a whole lot of other elements to come together. Like I did, like I said, I did all those things in some ways that this, teaching and RA work and conferences, but I think it helps my PhD students now, but, I think they all accept that the job market, if you articulate and I think you should, like, I always say my PhD students articulate to me, if you want to be an academic and I’ll do everything I can to help you.
Kate: The only thing we cannot control is, is there a job going to be advertised. I always refer to because I can certainly get you to, I was referred to as to the front of the line. Right. That was my preoccupation because there were hardly any jobs when I graduated. This was 16 years ago. I just focused on that, getting to the front of the line. I had a PhD student who got a really great job, a couple of years ago. I’ve said the same to her, it’s a front of the line. She did, and we just focused on, in a sense, it’s a bit like a skills checklist or a tick box, but even the university does that now with they have an online system where the students are supposed to fill all those things in like yeah. Fill them, and attribute time to professional development and attribute time to, all the things that you think it can make you job ready. Future ready
Steph: Yeah, so when that job does arise. You are competitive.
Kate: Yeah. I guess the good news is, and all of that is if that job doesn’t come and another job does you are going to be in a good position to articulate what they refer to us transferable skills. The idea is, but I can do all of those things and they might look at a job ad and go, Oh, I can do all of those things. Of course I can just got to just turn them around.
Steph: Yeah. I, and it all sounds very buzzy to call it transferable skills, but the reality is that they are helpful to be able to know how to explain what you can do. Yep.
Kate: Yeah. The big one is project management, I basically manage a project that may be involved, ethics clearance, doing interviews, working with, different kinds of, kind of discourse, in terms of information, how do you access it? Let alone obvious stuff around research skills and writing skills and communication skills. Yeah. Yeah. I think that project management, I think if you can articulate what that actually is, you’re going to be in really good shape for something.
Steph: You work in academia, but you could have translated those skills to a job outside of academia. Yeah. Can you imagine what that would look like? Like did you ever consider leaving the university sphere and finding a job outside of university?
Kate: Yes. Often. We had a restructure a couple of years ago and it left a lot of us feeling very vulnerable. I think at the sector, with stuff that’s happened with COVID, like a lot of universities are, articulating, very specific monetary losses, like university New South Wales articulate $250 million. Flinders has articulated a much lower number. Still being very clear that this is going to result in job cuts. It was like, across all levels, they always say that just to make sure no one’s feeling comfortable or at least make the most vulnerable feel more protected. Yeah. Yeah. So, and so when we had the restructure, even this is before Covid, I mean, it was a really traumatic time, I think for lots of people working at Flinders and other universities have been through much the same. You were, it was the first time you think you are doing this job, that’s just going to keep on keeping on that.
Kate: That you’re making a contribution, they’re going home, you’re feeling good. That was like, that was the first time I really faced up to the fact that I wasn’t gonna turn my toes up in academia. Right. It was funny, the hardest bit for me was that I still have, 20 plus years of working. Right. It’s like, that’s a long time, with responsibilities, I have three children. It’s just, it’s that stuff that you just think, okay, I have to be pragmatic right now. And I did. I sat there for a long time and I looked at, job ads and stuff like that. Your obvious thing is, moved to another university. There’s practically no jobs move, make kind of a cross movement towards some kind of, management or administrative job. That does not spark joy for me personally, the thought of that, it’s just not really me. Like I’m just much more of a, I’m a people person.
Kate: I just can’t really imagine ever being that person who occupies that space no matter how much it pays. I really spent a lot of time thinking about what was the closest thing to what I did. I came up with, being a teacher. Yeah. Yeah. I think I might always say that if I had my time over, maybe I would have done this or maybe I would have been a primary school teacher. I don’t dunno what primary school, I just really wanted to do primary school. I thought that’s just not practical cause that’s too much like too much retraining. I thought I’ll just, I would just be a high school English teacher. And I actually started a master’s degree. I have a fallback, which is,
Steph: Would you have considered teaching if you hadn’t done tutoring and lecturing during your PhD?
Kate: I think I probably would have. I think anybody who really likes, working with people and ideas and doesn’t mind a lot of reading and studying and all those kinds of things would always consider teaching. I think teaching is just such a wonderful thing. Like I think it’s the thing that does bring me the most joy in my job. I love my research too. Don’t get me wrong. Teaching has so many challenges associated with it so many, but somehow I always still come out of it feeling kind of happy. Yeah.
Steph: You’ve made a difference.
Kate: Yeah. They’re not bad, young people today. I’ve just, there’s a lot going on. It’s kind of really interesting to observe. I think,
Steph: I wouldn’t want to be a teenager now.
Kate: No, I wouldn’t either. That’s the one thing I have really learned being a teacher and having teenagers. Yeah. Lots of conversations about that between Tamara: and I…. It’s, you know, it’s I don’t know.
Kate: Yeah. I mean, I think often maybe the other thing I was gonna say is, I don’t think, I could, you were saying about what you were asking before about what’s the point of your research? What’s the value of it, taking it back into your teaching as a huge value, you’re like, you literally walk out of your office and walk into a classroom and then you sharing your ideas and the things that matter to you and the things that you’ve noticed. You want to see if the students are interested too, and they will because you are, right? That’s, to me a really simple way we share our research. Yeah. The other way too, like, you come out of your teaching, you’ve explored a few ideas of the students, all of a sudden ending alarm bells. Let’s do the office riding again, just because they just opened, they’ve opened up different pathways of thinking different angles, giving you a prod, and that’s great.
Tamara: Would you given your hindsight and all the years that have passed, would you do your PhD again?
Kate: Yes. Yeah definitely. I loved it. I enjoyed it. I think if you can, you have to have multiple reasons for doing it. And I would say this to mine. If your reason is to be an academic, some people get to be academics. Why not? Why not strive for that? If that’s what you want you, I wouldn’t say, Oh, I would be, encourage to have open eyes about it because it really is hard. It’s hard to kind of keep you get up in the morning and you’ve just got, it’s like pushing your body to the limits, pushing your brain to limits the same thing. Right. It’s hard work. And, and I think I’ve learnt a lot by observing, I think a draw a lot more on your communities to get your support in the way that you’re going to get it at the university. For example, like get, make friends with people who are doing PhDs. But I would definitely do it again. I would do it again, even if I knew that the outcome wasn’t an academic job, because I think it’s an amazing thing to have. I’m one of those people that really like studying,
Tamara: I enjoy studying too. I think t if I had a didn’t, maybe it didn’t have a seven year old….
Kate: I can’t imagine. I cannot imagine. I liked to still find out like, just even just answering emails and getting disturbed, just hard enough, let alone trying to produce this big thing. Right.
Steph: When you were doing your PhD, you had a plan for a pathway into academia. That was,
Kate: Yeah, definitely. Yeah. I definitely thought it was, I believed it was possible, all the way through.
Steph: You managed to pick up a teaching role while you were still. Yeah.
Kate: Yeah. So that made a big difference too. I had a big-name international scholar behind me who wrote me a beautiful reference and those kinds of things. Also knew the people, like when I fronted up at Flinders, she knew these people was just like, Oh, they’re like, you’re one of Jillian’s. And I’m like, yeah. That, that meant something and it still does. Unfortunately fortunately, unfortunately, have we haven’t even looked at it. Yeah, I think I had all the boxes ticked, so I hadn’t, you know, I was walking into a job, a level B position at Flinders that I met all the criteria for. You know what, like the criteria now, it’s probably harder than it was 16 years ago, because they do say things like success in grants. It’s like, no, one’s going to have that. There’s people been knocking around for like seven years with a PhD who might apply for that job and they’re going to have that experience.
Kate: Right. You don’t know who you competing against when you apply for a job. I mean, I got really lucky because there’s an element of luck. Right job, right time. Like, I had literally just done my revisions on my PhD and the job was advertised and I interviewed for it and I started in January. This was like submission, July, revisions, October, a job interview November starting in January. Yeah. That never happened.
Steph: Knowing everything about PhDs, what would you say a PhD is?
Kate: I think it’s just a great opportunity to pursue research at its highest level you will do. If people walk into any kind of job, they’ll be asked to work on projects. Those projects might be quite small, or, middle-sized or whatever, but with this PhD, you got the big thing, right. You get to make it whatever you want to make it, as long as it fits that, original contribution to knowledge, which is the expectation. It is, it’s probably the biggest project that an individual will ever do. Out in the workforce you’ll do something, you’ll have about five people on a project that might be at the same size. It’s a real opportunity to kind of just develop a skill in that big project management that you’ll never get that opportunity if you don’t do a PhD and you never stretch your brain in a way that, a PhD will be,
Tamara: And also to learn how to do, like, be able to pivot and make changes and be resilient.
Kate: Oh accepting feedback. This is the other thing, like it’s a really hard thing. I think people go through life and all of a sudden they get into this space where they have to accept feedback and they don’t know how to do it. But if you’ve been a PhD student, you had all your darlings killed right.
Kate: You wrote this whole chapter. It was like, Oh, I think this is great. You supervise is like, it’s not working. What do you mean? In science, it’s whole studies that get thrown out. Like it just didn’t work. Or just, in humanities, social sciences, just, a line of argument is just not persuasive or not working out.
Steph: It was one of the more defining moments of my PhD was I submitted a chapter that was 60 pages, which was never going, but I naively thought every word is valuable. What I got back was 15 pages. I was like, Oh, an entire avenue for research has been cut. On hindsight, I could see it wasn’t useful. As a PhD, I was very precious about what I wrote.
Tamara: You just have to learn how to pick yourself up and go. Right. Okay. Super valuable, but move on.
Kate: Also trust that person, if you’re working with someone, there is a trust because I’ve seen people push back against supervisors and go, I think they’re wrong. It’s like, well, I don’t know. Maybe ask your associate supervisor to have a look if you want to. Get another opinion if you want to, but it’s tough because it’s such a skill and it’s so valuable just to sit there while someone tells you what’s wrong with something you have done. Very valuable.
Tamara: You’ve already talked about what is necessary for a person to be able to undertake a PhD. What if somebody was asking you, what advice do you give somebody who’s about to graduate from their undergraduate degree and who might be contemplating some kind of postgraduate course. What do you say to them about if they’re asking you?
Kate: Yeah, this is my reality very often. Right. And it’s interesting. Cause I do have this conversation with colleagues and we’ve had a conversation recently about how to let people down gently because there’s some people that’s just like, we can see it’s not going to happen. We’ve worked out some little, speeches the way that we’re going to make. They usually relate to, having a bit of a think about whether or not now’s the right time, based on the fact that, like you kind of asked them to ask questions about, what kinds of feedback have you been?
Kate: Cause sometimes it’s your own honours student or you were an undergraduate who you’ve met, what kinds of feedback have you received? Do you think that, you’re all of a sudden going to be able to make that leap based on the fact you’ve got these kinds of problems with your writing at the moment, or in constructing arguments or meeting deadlines or whatever it is. I think you kind of have to ask them those questions about, do you think these things add up to that? If it doesn’t, then let’s wait for a bit. Others, the ones who, so I think the, maybe the hardest ones are the ones in the middle that you think maybe
Steph: Do you give them that chance, even though, they might be dedicating three years and there’s not…
Kate: It’s not always clear cut you go, please come along and do it. Right. And then the others, no way. The other ones that are a bit like, the grey zone and they may be doing they’re maybe not getting high distinctions often enough, or they got a 2A honours and you think, well, they could, if they really work hard and you did, that’s the bit you don’t know because you haven’t really seeing them work hard. You’ve seen them work hard maybe for a year. You’re not really sure where that’s going to translate that PhD. Yeah. I guess it’s just then asking you a lot of questions around. Do you think, what do you think about this stuff? And also the other issue that increasingly is a concern for us is students, mental health. It’s really exciting at the beginning when you start a PhD, and the, and you’re walking around, yeah, I’m a PhD student, this is great. All the good stuff is there at the front and all the potential and all the possibility.
Kate: Yet it breaks down if it breaks down reasonably quickly, in terms of you get some feedback that’s pretty horrific or other PhD students like they’re moving quicker or you get sick or whatever it is that happens, you don’t get accepted to a conference or someone’s mean to you at a conference. All this, something happens that kind of burst your bubble. I do worry, I do worry about how robust a person is and where they can do it. So I’m always second guessing that stuff. You can’t really talk to students about that. That’s a decision for them to make, but I’ve seen students fall apart too often for me not to think about how I can address that. I’m just not sure. I’m not really sure. Cause it’s super common.
Tamara: What about, so as a mum of teenagers, the kids that are leaving school now, or making decisions about their senior school subjects and the pressures to make decisions about what happens next, what do you say to them?
Kate: Yeah. I feel like I’ve had these conversations a lot lately and I feel like Covid has thrown us all a new curve ball, right. Because now we’ve seen for the first time who was still working and who wasn’t when a pandemic hit and who was especially, working, having to work ridiculously hard or whatever the thing is. I don’t know, I had that conversation with my teenagers and I think I’ve had that conversation, with any school leaver about, you’ve got to find that balance between again, what sparks joy, what the kind of thing that you’re going to feel excited and passionate about going forward. Also I think you should be, people should be pragmatic about the future and think about good work, right? We all want to do good work and our possible contribution that we’re going to make to the world is important. That will make us feel good about ourselves.
Kate: I don’t mean to sound too reductive when I say that, but I do think it’s important to start thinking about that early. My oldest works at McDonald’s and she’s made a particularly important contribution during this pandemic, lots of working hours and lots of dealing with all sorts of interesting people, but had to just keep working, and it’s just interesting to see, how we might reflect on that. Yeah, I think both of my teenagers are really looking pragmatically, now. I think they’ll still enjoy the choices that they’ve made. One wants to be a nurse and one wants to join the forces. I do think this, these decisions are now, like, I’m pretty happy about them. I feel secure about these choices, because you just don’t, you do want to send people into a certain world and degrees are, complex in terms of your relationship to them and what they’re going to give you in the end, in terms of, you might put in a certain amount, you want to get back what you’ve put in.
Steph: Have you ever been led to do this reflection on your PhD?
Kate: No, not really. That’s really interesting.
Steph: Do where your PhD thesis is? Where it is? Could you locate it in your house?
Kate: It’s in my office. Yeah.
Steph: Does it get much of a showing these days?
Kate: I do sometimes get out and show up, cause now they don’t exist in hard copy. They’re all electronic now.
Tamara: I have a softback version of it. I really have to get it bound
Kate: I mean, it’s going to keep, cause they will exist in that they look like they will look the same, in the way they print it and stuff. Yeah, they’re all it the same size. Same. Yeah. They all look like you can choose the colour
Tamara: Someone came in with one yesterday. It was tiny, thin. It was like, wow. I have never seen that thesis that small
Kate: Some are printed on every second page, it’s on a printed like back in, I noticed that on something that I went, why is it so big? I was like, Oh, it’s a printer. I was like, okay. Yeah. It’s a nice artefact to have because I mean, I’ve got like a few because I had copies of the ones this is back in the day. Yeah. I’m thinking probably wouldn’t have those now I’ll have to wait until it becomes a book. The most exciting thing for me was when my, one of my PhD students got her book published and I got a copy of that. That was really cool. I still get a thrill about getting in acknowledgements and stuff like that, of other it’s like, I like it. Cause the people do tend to like let you know, or sometimes it comes as a surprise when you get the book and that’s really cool. That’s nice, it’s a nice thing to have and I think it kind of exists as an artefact of my office, I, like I said, and I have a little shelf of them.
Tamara: We’ve got, I’ve got one more question before the final question and that is, would you write your own memoir?
Kate: I have been doing some writing. Like I’ve been writing, I wrote a story. I should send it to you, actually. I heard a story about, so the stories I want to write always relate to travel. I wrote a little travel story, which is like a travel memoir, but it was about, a family holiday in the Northern Territory and watching your kids, like being hyper aware of the fact that your kids are growing up before your eyes. Right. So that was one. All right. I feel like I will write not my memoir because I just, I don’t know. I think the fragments are so much more interesting observation the whole, and so moments from life will be what I wrote.
Kate: I’ve only written short stuff because creative writing is really hard. Academic writing any day of the week is fine. But creative writing. I remember saying to one of my colleagues, who’s a creative writer. I was like, Oh, this is so hard. It just takes up so much time and concentration and she just laughed. Yeah, I definitely, I was working on something when everything fell apart, I was almost finished another story, which was about this particular, Piazza in Florence. Again, a moment with my family that we spent there. I didn’t, I haven’t finished it because I’m just really struggling to find that I can’t, there’s not, this has been no quiet space in my house. There’s never I’ve I have not been home alone for months. I know, I know that you can’t want to be home alone. I can’t really get to my home office, but certainly don’t want to go on campus.
Steph: So last question, is myths about PhDs. So, there are myths about PhDs and about academic life. Can you pick one to put a pin in it and say that isn’t true.
Kate: Yeah, I’ve got a good, I’ve got, I only some skim read these questions. Right. That was the one that I went right on. I’ve got one, that the academics don’t work hard. Right. They go to conferences, it’s like holiday, swanning around with their flexible workloads. It’s funny because a couple of colleagues, and I decided to quantify our working hours last year. We got a real shock because it was sense of, if only to have a job with the regular working hours, because the flexibility, results in highly, I mean, it’s either exploitative or self-exploitative and you do, and you find yourself like, Oh, I could, I’ve just got some time. I’ll just do that. I just, I feel like, I would like to see fewer academics who are workaholics because I think that’s the problem. Not, not swanning around like, Oh, look at you.
Kate: When I post photos of myself at conferences, of course, I’m not gonna put a photo of me. I do now, but isn’t me presenting papers is what I put on Facebook. I’m like, this is the reality. Because like the rest of the time, of course, you’re going to put a picture of you at a monument seeing something beautiful. Oh, look at you working again. Yeah. I just got a bit tired of those comments. I know they aren’t personal and mean, but I did get tired of them.
Tamara: Cause you got to jump on an international flight and most mums can go, Oh, this is my like three hours of having no children, but now you’re like typing away…
Kate: Yeah. I was just like, this is uninterrupted work time. How exciting. And then i’d reward myself with a half an hour episode of some TV show that I’ve been what busting to watch for three years. It’s just like, it just it’s, troubles me because I don’t think it’s healthy for people to then internalize that those feelings. I think I was doing that and I was, and it was making me work harder. It’s like, I’ll prove to you guys that I’m not swanning. I’ll work and work. I think I have developed a lot of unhealthy behaviors as a result of that stereotype.
Steph: Well we are out of time, so. Excellent. Thank you so much. That was a very interesting, PhD journey to lead us through.