How I did it: Q&A with PhD graduate Merryn Sherwood

How I did it: Q&A with PhD graduate Merryn Sherwood

What’s the secret to not only surviving but thriving in your postgraduate study?

Merryn Sherwood is a former sports journalist, who recently finished her PhD at La Trobe where she examined how public relations roles in sport organisations influence the news.

Now a La Trobe journalism lecturer and sports journalism major coordinator, Merryn shares her tips and advice for making the most of postgraduate study.

You’ve worked in the industry as a sports journalist and at international events like the Vancouver Olympics, Delhi Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games in China. What led you to pursue further studies?

After working at those international events in 2010, we came back to Australia, my partner got a job in Melbourne, and I thought ‘okay, well now might be a good time for me to go back to university’.

I emailed one of my old professors from Canberra, where I got my first degree, and he suggested I contact Matthew Nicholson, an Associate Professor at La Trobe. I sat in his office and he asked me if I wanted to be an academic. I said ‘sure’. At that stage I hadn’t quite realised what I was getting myself into.

Matt suggested I do my Honours so I could be eligible for a scholarship. I finished my Honours year, I did well enough to get a score that got me into the PhD and also got me a scholarship. Then I embarked on the craziness of the PhD.

What was it about working in academia that interested you?

I absolutely loved working as a journalist, I love sport, love media, but personally was a little bit tired of doing the same thing every day.

What I really like about academic jobs is you get to mentor and teach, you get to do the research side of it and you’re encouraged to be engaged with the industry so you get to keep your hand in it too. So, it’s the diversity in academic jobs that I find interesting.

Merryn Sherwood at the Asia Games

Previously you’ve written about how viewing your PhD as a ‘trade certificate’ to get where you want to be really helped you during your studies. Can you tell us a little more about this approach?

When you tell people you’re doing a PhD, they’re like ‘oh my god, you’re so smart ’. Everyone talks it up as this really hard thing to do. There is a level of difficulty, but I also think it’s just one of those things you have to tick off to pursue an academic career. It’s just a different kind of qualification and framing it like this makes it seem less terrifying.

My experience was also made easier by the fact I had a scholarship. The scholarship isn’t that much. I taught during semester and I did a little bit of work here and there, but the scholarship meant I could take three months over summer, for example, to just do the PhD, so that did help.

How much did extra-curricular activities, like teaching and working in the industry, help in getting you where you wanted to be – to become a La Trobe lecturer?

It depends on what discipline you’re in. For the role I have now, there’s a big emphasis on teaching, researching and being aware of university processes. If I hadn’t done those activities throughout my PhD, I would have been really unprepared for the actual job.

Whenever I told my supervisor ‘I think I might do this as well’ he was like, ‘well, it doesn’t stop once you get the job’. He really prepared me for teaching as well. I was lucky that there were opportunities to teach throughout my PhD. I think that’s a really valuable thing for PhD students to do if they can.

What other tips do you have for postgrads?

One tip I have is that you want to [schedule in] thinking times and gaps. Being able to send off a draft and have two months before you have to look at it again is actually really useful because you can distance yourself from it.

You also need to not take feedback personally – otherwise I think that would really destroy you. Learning to detach yourself from the feedback can really help, which comes back to treating it as a trade certificate because it immediately takes away some of the personal aspects of it.

How did you find the social side?

My Honours year was kind of horrible because I’d just moved to Melbourne and I didn’t really know that many people here and I didn’t know anyone at La Trobe. Most of the people in the class had gone straight from their degree into Honours, so I was five years older than everyone else.

By the time I started my PhD, I really wanted to make sure I started to know people. I was lucky there were a few other people doing sports PhDs at the same time, so I started to hang out with them.

I also went to all the RED events and regularly participated in Shut Up and Write. That was so great, because it doesn’t matter what discipline you’re in, these people are going through the same experience.

I also went to conferences, which was really great for meeting other people in the field. PhD students usually get access to some sort of discretionary funds outside of your scholarship to use on whatever you want. Most people use them to go to conferences, and I went to a conference in New York, which was just a horrible place to go (jokes). Conferences are so much fun, you learn a lot and make really good contacts.

The more contacts you can get the better, because there are so many jobs these days that aren’t advertised or go internally.

I’m currently looking at forming cross-disciplinary research teams with people in the department I did my PhD with, but also people from Shut Up and Write. So, going to all those events and making contacts and meeting people has actually been really valuable.

For one, it reminds you that you aren’t alone. And two, it has helped me get a job and further develop my research in this job.

Interested in postgraduate studies? Keep in touch with us.

Pictured: (top) Merryn Sherwood with her PhD supervisors Professor Tim Marjoribanks and Associate Professor Matthew Nicholson. (middle) Merryn at the Asian Games in China.