Author: Alan Taman

If you ask the right questions, you get the right answers. You might not have expected them or particularly wanted to hear them, but if you ask right you get right. That’s one of the universal truths about a PhD, about every PhD. All unique, all individual, but all governed by that principle – among others. A truth, however you may find it.

It is also true, we now know, when it comes to finding out what you want from what we offer,  and more importantly how we can best change to give you more. The PhD Proofreaders is five years old now. It has found its feet, and now we know that what we’re doing works, we’re looking to build on that so that we can serve more students, more effectively, more of the time, building on our mission to make your lives easier than ours were.

So, early in the Summer of 2023, we invited those on our e-mail list and wider network to take part in a research study that we commissioned, and which was led by myself, Alan Taman. We wanted to understand how relevant the services and products we offer here are, and how good a job they had done for those who had used them.

But that was just the start of it –  we knew there was more. So we asked the same people about the emotional connection and sense of belonging we did or didn’t offer. We also asked them what they thought about our name (and whether we should change it). And we asked if there was anything we could do better.

The answers we got were not only insightful and almost wholly positive, they pointed strongly to what students value, what they want to get from us, and how we can do a better job. And – the core of the PhD journey – it told us something as to why.

Being the academics we are, we wanted to do things properly. So let’s talk for a moment about the methods. Clearly we needed to start with some quantitative data – how many used our services, how many supported a name change, some demographic details if people were willing to give it (and most were, thank you). That sort of thing.

But when it comes to gauging a sense of belonging or emotional connection, well that’s narrative and that meant we needed qualitative data.

That’s why we went down the mixed-methods route. First, a survey, with almost 180 valid responses. In itself encouraging. Of those, close to 40 agreed to a semi-structured follow up interviews, and close to 20 went ahead. Again, encouraging.

But what did people say?  You can click here to look at the full report to get a better idea, but here are the headlines:

  • About twice as many came forward to offer their views who were not using our services as those who did. This is remarkable. Nearly all the comments were positive.
  • How we helped people ranged from simple practical tips (largely from our free PhD Knowledge Base) through to full-blown support (through proofreading or coaching), and through our PhD Masterclasses, particularly those on writing and practising for the viva.
  • But what came out very strongly was that we offer a sense of emotional support, which most respondents described as far more than simple practical help.
  • Most respondents supported our changing our name to ‘The PhD People’, which better reflects the range of services we offer. We’re no longer just a proofreading company, so the old name just doesn’t fit. There were a few caveats though about avoiding sounding ‘imprecise’ or ‘unprofessional’ in doing so.
  • This deeper motive felt by many in approaching us was manifest during the interviews.  A sense of identity and loyalty was a strong theme – people wanted to belong to something greater in their journey.
  • This was compounded by the next strong theme, a sense of emotional engagement and support. To sum that up, ‘I’m in the same boat as everybody else and I’m not alone –  and there is help here’ covers it. Superficially though: different people experienced that sense in different ways and at different times in their PhD – same boat, many decks, and you never, ever get to be an idle passenger!  You are working your passage, standing your watch. Again. And again. Hearing about others going through that meant people felt they were not alone. They were not imposters. They were not doomed to fail. That came out repeatedly. We hear you.

A core reason for commissioning this research is to feed into our plans for the coming months. Now that we have found our feet, we want to optimise what we already have, and to fill in gaps where our support is lacking so that we can offer more effective support and connection to even more of you. 

With that goal in mind, we’re about to embark on a big programme of reform and redesign.

That starts with a re-brand. We’ve outgrown our name, and the people we spoke to agree. It’s time then for a refresh. In the coming months, The PhD Proofreaders will become The PhD People, with a new visual and brand identity to go along with it.

But we want to stress that, at our core, we’ll offer the same kind of support and the same (free and paid for) services you have come to know and love: writing guides, workshopscoaching, mock-vivas, proofreading, online courses, and so on.

But we’ll be refining and redesigning every touch point so that we can offer more of what people like, more conveniently, and more of the time.

This piece of research is integral to that, as it will give us greater confidence that we’re designing and building the right things.

So what does that look like?

Well, behind the scenes we’re hiring a bigger team, and we’re building better systems and technologies so that we can better know our audience and stay more connected you in a more targeted way. The goal is to close the distance within the audience; not just between you and us, but between each of you too. You’re all in the same boat, and we want to show you what the rest of the boat looks like. 

On the front end, we’re refining the services and resources we already offer by doubling down on what works and casting off what doesn’t.

That starts with scaling up our workshops. We’re busy booking more Masterclasses and Writing Retreats, and we’ll soon introduce new formats, time-zones, and presenters. Above all, we’re thinking more strategically about how we can build the most relevant programme that speaks to people at every stage of the PhD journey.

We’ve also commissioned a brand new custom-built website, which we’re aiming to launch in October. This will have a much more logical and more intuitive functionality that better allows you to find free and paid-for resources that speak to your pain points, and which we hope will become a companion in your PhD journey. Over the years our website has become a rich resource, but it’s clunky, the architecture is poor, and much of the good stuff is buried. We’re bringing it all out into the open, and allowing you to find what you need more easily. 

But we’re also adding to what’s already there by building many more free and paid-for resources and downloads (such as new templates, writing guides, digital downloads, and so on).

And, later in the year, we’ll be launching a number of brand new online courses, all of which will speak to the core themes that underpin the PhD journey (both positive and negative), and which allow you to draw insight and inspiration from our wide network of academics and practitioners. 

All of these changes will be directed at a simple goal: to offer practical support in the most accessible way so that you can better navigate the PhD journey, and in doing so to foster the sense of community and emotional connection that we now know so many value so dearly.

Using our five years of experience, the rich data from this research, and the thousands of conversations and interactions we’ve had with students like you, we’ll continue to create the kind of digital space we ourselves would have wanted and which we know so many of you do: one that doesn’t just give you the answers you need as you navigate the PhD, but one that offers you a sense of identity and emotional connection.

Thank you to the respondents and participants who gave us the answers. We are enormously grateful. We’ll be keeping you all fully in the loop over the coming months, so you know exactly what’s going on. 

p.s. You can read the full research report by clicking here, or if you want to satisfy the inner-geek you can click here to read the (anonymised) survey data in its raw form. 

About the author: 

Alan Taman has a background in publishing, journalism and communications, specialising in health and the NHS. He lives in Birmingham, UK. His PhD looks at perceptions to solutions for health inequalities in the UK, in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic.