Interview with Inger Mewburn

Inger Mewburn is director of researcher development at the Australian National University. Her 10-year-old blog, The Thesis Whisperer, has amassed more than half a million words of content and 100,000 followers over four social media channels. Her fifth book, Level Up Your Essays, comes out next February.

Where and when were you born?
Tasmania in 1970. My parents didn’t expect twins because it was the 1970s and they didn’t have ultrasound. I was second so I was the unexpected package deal. They didn’t have two names sorted out. They were really into Abba and Sweden. They called me Inger because I had blonde hair.

How has it shaped who you are?
My dad was in Hobart managing a dye house. He was an industrial chemist who transferred into mainframe computer programming. I remember sitting under his desk, playing with the punch cards and making necklaces out of them. I had a PC when I was 11. My friends had never even seen one.

When you became an architect, what did you prefer – doing it or teaching it?
I taught my first class in 1994, about three years before I graduated from my bachelor’s course. They computerised architecture faculties in the early 1990s, as computers were appearing in architects’ offices. Because of that time sitting under my dad’s desk, I wasn’t afraid of computers. They put these things in the lab. They didn’t really know what to do with them, but they let us students loose in there. We formed what I’d now call a community of practice, and they made us teach because they didn’t have anyone else – no one had the skills. After I graduated, I was still going back and teaching at night – computers for the most part, construction and project management and a few other things. I knew how to teach, and I was cheap. I’d come home from work after a whole day of dealing with architects, and I’d be really down. But I’d come home after teaching at night and be really energised. My husband said, “The only time you’re happy is when you come home from teaching, so perhaps you should just do that.”

When you wrote for Times Higher Education in 2017, you likened doctoral graduates to plane crash survivors. Things have become worse with Covid. Will anybody do a PhD?
People just hanging on by the skin of their teeth – we are definitely going to lose a larger proportion of those people than we normally would. But I still think we’re going to see strong enrolments because it’s a job – a shitty job, but a job. Perhaps we’re going to have a more clear-eyed generation of PhD students who are going to take less shit. People take a lot of shit because they are cognisant that supervisors can affect their academic careers. Not that every supervisor’s an arsehole; far from it, but there are enough of them. But people who are not aiming for academic careers are going to demand better. And that, along with a shift towards more millennials, is creating a really interesting context. For most of my career in this space, I’ve seen people accepting levels of bullying, harassment and general neglect that they wouldn’t accept in other walks of life. I see that probably being less the case going forward. That will be an interesting point for the system to think about itself and how it treats people. We are going to see students who are more active, more vocal, more demanding. I’ll be chewing popcorn on the sidelines and cheering, frankly.

What articles and books have particularly influenced you?
Barbara Lovitts, who is a really interesting scholar, wrote a book called Leaving the Ivory Tower. She never finished her PhD. There seems to be a history of people starting PhDs about why people don’t finish, and not finishing themselves. I’ve known at least three people to do that. Another paper that influenced me early on was called “Forged in Fire” [by Carolyn Williams and Alison Lee]. It was about how trauma is carried as a badge of honour in the PhD. Supervisors make this assumption that unless you’re suffering, you’re not really doing the PhD right. The trauma becomes a sort of trophy of the PhD experience. I saw that all around me the whole time I was studying.

Your blog has struck a chord. Why is there such a need for a service like that?
I’m a believer in the PhD. I made the best friends of my life during my PhD. My University of Melbourne buddies are still buddies today. But while I was doing my PhD, I watched a phenomenon that Barbara Lovitts called “pluralistic ignorance”, where you’re feeling a lot of self-doubt – “I can’t do this, I’m not cut out to be here”. You don’t realise that other people around you feel exactly the same way. The pattern then is to leave in silence. I watched it play out in real life. I’d be the one who would ask people: “How are you feeling? What are you up to? How are you going?” I’d provoke these discussions in the tearoom that I think were really helpful. I realised that a blog could fill that hole.

What do you like most about academia?
I love it for its weirdness; for its strange medieval ways that still exist in the modern world. And I love the community. I just love being around smart people all the time.

If you were higher education minister for a day, what would you do?
I’d knock on the door of the minister for defence and say: “Give me half your money and I’ll fix the country.”

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