The Accelerated Completion program: Helping researchers plan their way toward the finish line!

The Semester Two 2019 ACP crew at the finish of the program
The Semester Two 2019 ACP crew at the finish of the program 

There’s no way to put it without understatement: finishing a PhD is just hard yakka.

At the start of our degrees we often see a vast expanse of time ahead, and the day-to-day of a research degree often feels different as we pick up and spin all the plates and learn all the things!

After years of dedication and careful work, the end sometimes creeps up on us. The end stages of a doctorate are often some of the richest intellectually (if not always financially!). For many of us, the end is a time of crystallisation where the small parts of our research begin to add up to a bigger picture. So, the end is not only an exciting time for a doctoral project, it is also an exciting time for the doctoral researcher, as we observe ourselves stepping over the threshold from novice to expert knower.

This special time is also one where we have an opportunity to learn more about ourselves, and who we need to be for ourselves in order to finish significant projects, like a PhD.

The RED team recognises that the end of a doctorate can be a tricky time for graduate researchers.

In response we have created a special program, the Accelerated Completion Program (ACP), for doctoral researchers who are in the final 6 months of their PhDs. It is offered twice a year, once a semester. You can see more about the ACP program here. The current program is based on a pilot designed by Drs Kelly Farrell and Jeanette Fyffe. Broadly, the program covers topics like planning, writing productivity, self-sabotage and how to reconnect with motivations for the project.

While there are often consistent themes, the ACP program is re-designed each iteration in response to the cohort of participating researchers. When they sign up, researchers share what their challenges are, and the facilitators respond by designing workshops that aim to meet these challenges.

The program runs for around 8 weeks, and comprises three workshops, weekly accountability coaching with an academic from the Graduate Research School, and online and physical resources that we share throughout the program. The program allows researchers to focus on their unique and individual projects by helping with project planning and one-to-one coaching, as well as learning from a wider group of La Trobe researchers who are all in the final stages.

We have just wrapped up our final ACP for the year, so we thought we’d invite some alums of the program to share their reflections on what they got out of it!

Sarah Houseman (2019 participant, S2)

It feels very unacademic to have become a proselytizer, but I cannot contain my enthusiasm and appreciation for the ACP. Facilitated by the outstanding RED unit, this unique programme meets a very real need for PhD students to get to the end of their endeavour with good to great levels of self-esteem, mental and physical health. The Semester 2, 2019 ACP was facilitated by Drs Jeanette Fyffe and Jamie Burford. Their honesty, clarity and understanding of the technical, theoretical and emotional aspects of our task was received by our cohort as a grounding and nurturing lifeline. Does this sound too dramatic?

Getting to the end of a PhD is a Herculean intellectual effort, requiring concentration and consistent application. Supervisors and critical academic friends are vital for developing one's writing and research skills. Their guidance helps each candidate create a strong and original contribution to their field. They pull us out of intriguing, but unnecessary, theoretical rabbit burrows. A PhD also requires robust self-confidence and self-awareness. We need the ability to develop self-care practices to calm the anxiety that emerges when milestones loom, or when things just don’t come together, or when the outside world interferes with the emotional challenges of life that can’t be avoided. Finding support for these challenges can be tough, no doubt leading candidates to drop out because it is just too hard.

The ACP's different style of coaching really met us as participants in our final stage of writing: time to self-reflect, identify those clever procrastinations, those undermining sabotaging behaviours and thought patterns. It is an opportunity to develop more honest plans and goals, supported in practice by regular progress reviews with a mentor, and to be in a room of peers where we were all grappling with the same torturous stuff no matter which discipline we were in. It was a major relief to realise it is not my ‘problem’ but part of the psychological process of completing a very big and hard task. Phew! I have now planned to the end of this project. This is a very energising and motivating feeling.

Thank you, Jeanette, Jamie, and the generous mentors who contributed their time and wisdom.

Michelle Cimoli (2019 participant, S2)

“Doing a PhD is hard, really hard”, as Jeanette and Jamie said. This simple acknowledgement provided a turning point for me to understand that my PhD is as much about self-management as it is about creation of knowledge.

The ACP helped me unmask the demons of self-sabotage and to make a seismic shift in my attitude and study habits. Through the perfectly-paced workshops and individual coaching sessions, I began to recognise the impact that the negative inner voice had on my attitude and my capacity to get stuff done. By setting myself rewards for completing tasks, and celebrating milestones and achievements, my outlook changed. My ability and the energy I had to solve issues affecting my time and project management also changed.

I learned to recognise “the wriggle” - that moment when I try and wriggle out of doing something, put it off, do something else instead. My coach helped me come up with my “anti-wriggle” strategy which involved sharing my DAILY plan of what I plan to do and what I get done. This has been about making myself accountable. It’s about the 'C' word: COMMITMENT.

The ACP has been a bit like renewing my vows to my PhD. Me and this PhD are in this together. I’m enthusiastic and hopeful of our future. It helped remind me that people believe in us. People are cheering us on. People can see the value in what we’re doing and the contribution we’re going to make.

Jess Ison (2019 Participant, S1) 

The best thing about the ACP is realising you aren’t alone. Sure, you might hate your thesis and you might be aware that the audience it has is more limited than you initially imagined. And, sure, you might not get the job you hoped of at the beginning of your degree, and you may have become a self-doubting mess. But finding out that so many others on the final stretch of their theses feel exactly the same gives a strange sort of comfort. You might have read the many studies that discuss how one third of PhD students suffer from poor mental health, but you have been alone for many years, thinking it is really just you. Being in a supportive and caring environment over a series of weeks, really creates an entirely new outlook on yourself, work and goals.

Further, if everyone else—from Podiatry to Economics and Gender Studies to Biology—feels crushing imposter syndrome, there is a possibility that you do deserve to be doing a PhD. In the ACP, you also discuss the skill-set you have acquired from all that teaching, researching, talking, presenting, lab work, field work and so on, which gives you some hope that once you complete your thesis you might have options beyond the present. Everyone seems generally interested in your thesis, even if they have no idea what you are on about, which helps you to remember that your work has merit and is important. And, look, if none of this turns out, the cake was pretty good.

Jade Tan (2019 Participant, S1)

I entered the ACP on a recommendation from a colleague, to ensure that I completed my PhD on time (a rare occurrence in the PhD world!). The program was not what I anticipated - in a good way! Jamie and Jeanette provided a VERY warm and welcoming environment. The program really gave me the opportunity to reflect on how much “real time” I was able to dedicate to my PhD on a week-to-week basis (distractions easily set in during the PhD journey), set some realistic and achievable goals, clarify the ‘pre-PhD submission requirements’, and share my experiences (highs and lows) with fellow PhD students (the struggle is real, people!).

The weekly support I obtained from a specially matched mentor from the RED team facilitated an external perspective on my PhD journey, which I found very insightful and useful. In addition, the mentor-mentee relationship kept me accountable to an external party, providing me with the final boost of motivation I needed to complete my PhD.

I am now in the last few months of completing the write-up of my thesis, with the aim to submit in December 2019, four years from my start point (an on-time submission, woo hoo!). The ACP was such a supportive and positive experience that I urge anyone struggling to find that last ounce of motivation to sign up. You’re not alone on this PhD journey and learning to share the load is half the battle!


So, there you have it, the thoughts from some of our ACP alums!

If you are coming up toward the end of your doctoral degree and would like a bit of help with how to plan, get motivated and learn more about how you work under pressure, please sign up.

We’ll be running the next program in Semester 1, 2020!