Building ‘researcher resilience’

In my other work life, when I am not being a writer at home with my cats and endless cups of tea, I run workshops with academic lecturers and students, mostly focused on academic writing and research. Recently, I spent a productive day with an academic department at my former university helping them think about improving postgraduate supervision and scholarship in their growing Honours, MA and PhD programme. One of the most interesting points that kept coming up was the need to help their students develop a kind of ‘researcher resilience’. In this post I’d like to flesh out what this kind of resilience could mean, and how you could build it in your own research or supervision spaces.

What does it mean to be resilient?

Resilience is generally defined as having the ability to recover from or overcome misfortunes or struggles. Essentially, life or work or relationships will knock us down, and our ability to get back up ad keep moving forward, hopefully reflecting and on learning from the experiences that have knocked us, is resilience.

One of the issues the supervisors and lecturers I worked with recently commented several times that their students don’t have sufficient ability to recover from struggles in their research and writing, and when they are knocked down, they struggle to get up and keep moving forward. This obviously impacts on their supervisory relationships, as well as on their attitude towards their research and writing, and their ability to keep making progress towards completion. Developing researcher resilience is thus important to being a successful postgraduate student, and researcher.

Researcher resilience

If resilience in general is the ability to get up after being knocked down, metaphorically speaking, and keep going, then what is resilience in research? I would suggest, based on my own studies and research career thus far, and what my peers have shared with me, that it is the ability to manage disappointment and unexpected hurdles and keep making progress, encouraging and bolstering yourself along the way. These disappointments and hurdles may be many, but the ones that seem particularly significant to the supervisors I have been working with are: dealing with difficult and challenging feedback; finding relevant literature and resources; and grappling with complexity in research.

thewritingcampus.comFeedback:  I have written here and here about working with feedback. This is a tricky issue for writers, especially for writers who are postgraduate students anxious about doing well, pleasing supervisors and examiners, and earning their degree. It is often taken for granted that students, particularly at postgraduate level, will know how to decipher, make sense of, and then act on the feedback they are given. But, more often than not, students struggle to understand what their supervisor wants, either because of a lack of confidence, opaque and confusing feedback, too little feedback, or a combination of these and perhaps other factors. Feedback needs to be mediated to students, to enable them to learn how to make sense of it, claim ownership of it, and respond in ways that enable them to move forward with insight, and with increased confidence.

Too often feedback flattens students with feelings of inadequacy, shame and fear of failure. Learning to manage these feelings so that you can respond emotionally to feedback, but work through those responses to an intellectual response through further writing, research and revisions – this is what students need to learn how to do. While supervisors can learn how to write and speak their feedback more effectively, clearly and supportively, students also need to realise that everyone gets feedback that hurts, and demands more work, and that this is part of the writing process that they need to learn to manage more productively over time.

Finding resources: Another key issue raised, especially for ‘younger’ postgraduate students working on Masters degrees or very new to the PhD, was a lack of resilience around resource gathering. This referred to literature on their chosen research problem, as well as participants for empirical studies, archival materials, and other relevant research-related resources needed to make progress.

It isn’t always easy to find published research on your chosen research topic, especially if you are working in a smaller niche area, or in a new area where you are among only a few people doing your particular kind of research. However, it is pretty much never true that there are no relevant papers, articles, blogposts, newspaper articles, or published research of a credible kind on your research. With the internet growing bigger by the day, and more and more resources available to us, we need to be careful about what we choose to cite, and how credible our sources are, but we also have far more information and knowledge to access and learn from than ever before. Be creative: use reference lists written by authors of texts that are helpful. Contact corresponding authors of papers that you have found useful and introduce yourself politely. Briefly explain your research, and ask them if they can suggest useful reading to you. Get to know your librarian and enlist his or her help. Ask your supervisor to suggest key reading material if you get stuck. Play with your search terms and keep track of which ones yield better results. Go past page 3 of Google Scholar.

If you are struggling to find participants for an empirical qualitative study, or to respond to a survey, or to assist physically with your research, don’t give up. You need to be pragmatic. There is often a wishlist of research participants, and a real-world list. Sometimes you can be fortunate enough to have these lists match. Often, though, people will be busy, or on sabbatical, or traveling, or just won’t respond to your emails, requests and pleas. Draw on your networks, your peers’ networks and supervisors’ networks (if you can), and be practical. Try to start with participants who will respond and will be able to give you relevant data. Ask them to suggest other people to talk to – use different forms of purposive sampling or snowball sampling to select other participants. There is always a plan to be made; you may have to make 15 phone calls, or send several emails before you get a response, but you need to keep going.

Grappling with complexity: Finally, supervisors mentioned students’ need to become more resilient about grappling with complexity, and becoming okay with not knowing and being confused or a bit lost. Struggle is part of the journey, but too much struggle can be paralysing. So this is a challenge for supervisors and students alike. The reality is that no MA or PhD or journal article or book can answer every question, and there are so many ways of addressing research problems that there will always be someone who disagrees with you, or offers critique of your work.

The problems most of us research are complex, and multi-layered, and we often only work with a small slice of a problem and a possible solution or answer. But don’t mistake small slices for superficiality. Often, somewhat paradoxically, we need great depth of insight into our research problem to make it simple, accessible and knowable by our audience. Pushing away the papers that offer different angles, refusing to read the work of those with an opposing point of view – this doesn’t make your research simpler. It makes it less likely to have anticipated challenges and able to respond to these. As a mentor once said to me: you can’t pretend those who disagree aren’t out there; you need to engage with them and persuade them that your argument is stronger than theirs. This is perhaps the toughest area in which to build researcher resilience, but it’s the most important.

At the end of the day, to push through the rough patches, disappointments, lost data, absent supervisors and other myriad issues that can scupper even the most well-planned projects, researchers need to build resilience. This can be facilitated by supervision that makes visible students’ hurdles and struggles and makes space to talk about and deal with them productively. But it also is up to students to create and manage support systems that can bolster them as they progress, and to consciously work on becoming more research-resilient over time.


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