The road to PhD success – Tristan Kennedy

Facing several roadblocks along the way, Tristan Kennedy recently completed his PhD with fantastic results and will graduate in September. We asked Tristan to tell us what he thought about the Higher Degree by Research experience:

Tristan, what inspired you to do a PhD in the first place?

I wanted to be an academic. I love teaching and I love research. I had already completed my teaching degree in English and Social Science and had started teaching in South Australian schools. I loved teaching but I knew that I wanted to continue to study and learn. The best way I could see of making that a reality was to become an academic. So, on the advice of friends and colleagues, I enrolled in an honours year in sociology at Flinders. There was no question in my mind at the end of my honours year that being an academic is what I truly wanted to do.

What kind of challenges did you have along the way?

I had many challenges. I don’t know many candidates that got through without challenges. I, like many, experienced the general challenge of being able to manage living expenses. I was a mature age student who needed to work to pay bills and have some semblance of a life outside of study. Even with a Flinders University Research Scholarship, I still needed to work. A couple of years in I converted my candidature to part time and not long after landed a full-time job as a level A academic with the Office of Indigenous Strategy and Engagement. Even though my role as an academic allowed me to incorporate my research and writing into my workload it was quite difficult to find time to get the writing done.

The story of my supervision is one of significant challenges. One afternoon of my first year my initial principal supervisor called me into her office. We sat down and she told me that she had just landed her dream job – overseas. I was happy for her and genuinely still am. However, it meant I had to find a new supervisor relatively quickly. The faculty and my initial principal supervisor helped, and we found someone who shared some interest in my research and could offer the support I needed. For the time being, it was crisis averted.

My initial principal supervisor and I had a strong working relationship and were clear about expectations, regular meetings, deadlines to be met, and importantly we shared the same theoretical and methodological background. My new supervisor had slightly different ways of operating and I was, at the same time, starting to find my own individual interests in research methodologies. We drifted. I focussed on my job as an academic and was in danger of losing track of my writing. I had a misguided sense that, if I just kept working as an academic, I would wake up one day to a finished thesis. That was, of course, not the case.

I didn’t meet regularly with my new supervisor for a number of reasons. In total, I didn’t meet with my principal supervisor more than about three or four times a year. I got the feeling that my supervisor was losing interest and not reading a lot of my work. Then, and on several occasions, they told me to submit my thesis for a Masters exit award. This was damaging. Here I was, working successfully as an academic. I was publishing, co-publishing, presenting at conferences and I was at the stage of my writing that I could see it actually coming together. What would happen to my career if I opted for a Masters as an exit award? Was I really not capable of completing a doctorate?

I continued to drift away from my supervisor. I felt like I was on my own but I also felt like I could self-supervise. I was mostly wrong, though I think I did a fairly good job of keeping my writing going.

Six months before completion I was emailed by my supervisor to tell me that they had landed another academic position overseas and that they would not have time to continue to supervise me. Honestly, I was relieved. I saw this as an opportunity to re-negotiate a new supervision arrangement that would see me over the line. By this time, I had a new job at Macquarie University in Sydney and I had been working hard on a full draft of my thesis.

The last email from my old supervisor told me that Professor Tara Brabazon was interested in my work and would happily take over as principal supervisor. I had watched Tara’s vlogs on Research Higher Degrees regularly. I was excited to get home to Adelaide and plan the completion of my doctorate. The next six months were tough and very fast paced but they were the best six months of my candidature and the time during which I learnt the most about myself as an academic and as a RHD supervisor.

What advice would you give someone who was thinking about doing a PhD?

Choose your supervisor wisely. And manage your supervisor, don’t be afraid to be clear about what you need as a candidate. They might not be able to accommodate everything, but well negotiated and clear expectations are a key element to avoiding ‘drift’. When I sat down to my first meeting with Tara, we both clearly outlined our expectations – the new found structure in my candidature was reassuring.

Stay connected. I was lucky to land a full-time job in academia mid-candidature and I know this is rare. Even without a full-time position, doing sessional teaching, attending seminars and conferences, and socialising with colleagues is super important. I never left a seminar or a social gathering with colleagues without feeling inspired to get on with my research.

Know that a PhD candidature is a test of endurance. Some candidates don’t get to the end but those that do are very likely to pass. This advice was given to me on day one by the faculty RHD coordinator. I reflected on that advice whenever I felt like I wasn’t capable (and when I was advised to apply for an exit award). This advice inspired me, particularly in the later stages of my candidature, to get up every morning and go straight to my desk. One day at a time I wrote each sentence, paragraph, and chapter.

What was the most inspiring aspect of doing a PhD?

The best aspect of a PhD is the community of scholars and scholarship that having (or studying for) a doctorate can open up to you. Four months before I completed my thesis I was at a conference in Melbourne. At this conference I met one of Australia’s most accomplished sociologists whose work provided the theoretical foundations of my research. This professor of sociology was in the audience at my presentation and we ended up talking after the session about my work. Throughout my undergraduate studies I had read a lot of her work and had admired her scholarship. Being towards the end of my candidature and having the opportunity to discuss my work with her was pretty inspirational.

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