It’s not less of a PhD if you didn’t survive it alone

In the world of postgraduate studies, there is a dominant narrative of struggle, and survival. PhDs and Masters’ degrees are difficult  – they demand that you struggle, often on your own, with ideas, theory, words, data, supervisors and so on. If you are not having a lonely and hard time, you are missing some vital part of Doing a PG degree Properly. I know far too many postgraduate students for whom this narrative is all too true. They struggle with supervisors who are too busy, or absent, and who give the most appalling feedback; they struggle to find peers to work alongside and share their research difficulties, and triumphs, with; they struggle to write, finding themselves blocked for days or weeks on end; they struggle to generate data, build theoretical frameworks, find and build their argument, and so on. Struggle, and loneliness, seem to be the central tropes of the postgraduate experience.

But, what if it doesn’t have to be that way? What if we can all work towards a culture of support in postgraduate studies that changes the narrative? What might this culture look like, and what would it take to create and maintain it in more than just a few, unusual, cases. There are indeed cases of supportive, collegial postgraduate environments: I was part of one at my university, and I am sure that it helped me to finish my degree more quickly, and less unhappily. I know of other programmes, within specific departments, where supervisors and students support one another, share research through presentation and feedback sessions, and meet at intervals for different kinds of ‘thesis support’ sessions and inputs. There is a growing body of research – both in published papers and in blogs – about the forms of postgraduate support that are needed in different contexts and the benefits to students, supervisors, universities and economies. But, these cases don’t yet seem to be the norm, and do not yet represent a systemic understanding of what successful postgraduate study demands of students, and requires of supervisors and universities in terms of formative, collegial support.

The first thing that we need to challenge is the single student to single (or two) supervisor ‘apprenticeship’ model of postgraduate work so common in the social sciences and humanities. In this model, students are often assigned supervisors) by their department or programme, although they do often have the opportunity to approach potential supervisors and choose to work with specific researchers. However, it’s not always easy to find out more about a prospective supervisor beyond their research publications and interests, and their departmental profile. For example, do they give constructive feedback? Are they present in the research process? Are they supportive? (Evonne Miller gives some useful advice on how to find this information here). Thus, many students in difficult supervision spaces, in imbalanced relationships with supervisors who hold all the power and do not necessarily use it for the student’s good. If we challenged this model to enable more instances of team or cohort supervision – students and their supervisors working on smaller projects within a larger overarching project, for example, or working on a range of projects but in a deliberately collective space – then neither students nor supervisors would need to navigate the process alone. Unequal and harmful power dynamics could be challenged, less experienced students and supervisors could be formatively mentored, and both could share with one another research, ideas, writing, advice, and general support.

The second thing that needs to be firmly challenged is the notion of struggle being part and parcel of any worthy postgraduate journey, especially at PhD level. If you are not struggling, you are not doing it right. I struggled with parts of my PhD – theory and data analysis especially. A PhD is not supposed to be easy: it is supposed to challenge you and change you, into a different kind of thinker, researcher, writer, person. But, I strongly object to the idea that this challenge has to be lonely, alienating, frustrating and interminable in order to be worthy. There are different kinds of struggle here: struggle that is productive, supported and results in steps forward in the research process; and struggle that bogs a student down in a mire of self-doubt and writing paralysis. I see too much of the latter in my work with students, often because the student struggling isn’t getting the help they need from peers or supervisor or department, and this is often because the nature of postgraduate study is misunderstood, or misconstrued. I think we need to start sharing more positive narratives around postgraduate study: of productive challenges that are worked through and overcome, of research wins where data generation works out and chapters are approved, of helpful supervision meetings and useful coffee chats with peers. And we need to stop making people who enjoy their PhDs feel like they’ve done something wrong, because it hasn’t been hard enough, or lonely enough.

I have had a few conversations with friends who really did enjoy their PhDs, as I did, and found the struggles hard but productive overall. These friends are all now productive researchers and constructive supervisors, having learned much more from their PhDs than just how to run a successful research project. They have learned how to ask for help, how to use the help they receive to move forward, how to write and read and think in critical ways, how to offer help to others, and how to reflect on and learn from mistakes, missteps and triumphs. This is not to imply that if you have a miserable PhD experience, you will be a miserable, unproductive researcher or supervisor, not at all. But you may feel you have lost parts of yourself along the way, rather than gained, and if you have been part of a poor supervision and research process, you may well find further research, writing, and supervision work more difficult than it could otherwise be. We could change the future of research and supervision work if we change the way we construct, support, and fund postgraduate education within our different contexts, especially in Africa where more young researchers and supervisors are needed.

We need to stop elevating the narrative of the lonely, alienated, struggling survivor above the narrative of the connected, challenged and productive thriver – and we need to create environments around postgraduate students and supervisors that make the latter narrative far more common across higher education.

Managing a relationship with your supervisor/s

If you ask a cross-section of postgraduate students what one of the best (or worst) parts of doing their MA or PhD is, most of them will likely tell you something about their supervisor(s). A supervisor can make or break a postgraduate degree process, and I have to say I have heard too many terrible stories about students being poorly treated, ignored or just inadequately supported by their supervisors. But these stories do make me wonder if there needs to be more thought put into how to choose a supervisor, and then ‘manage’ a relationship with that supervisor to ensure that it works for both of you as effectively as possible.

I have started co-supervising students; I am working with one student in her final year and have just met a new student. I have to say, it’s a lot harder than I thought it would be, emotionally and intellectually. I worry about whether I am giving these students the right kinds of advice, whether I am being too directive or not directive enough, and whether I am helping them effectively to write the best possible thesis they can. Supervision is absolutely a form of pedagogy, and requires a dialogic, constructive relationship between student and supervisor to work really well over the long period of time that the average PhD (or even MA) takes to complete. And the work of building this relationship can be difficult, and must be done on both sides of it.

I concentrate, with the students I am fortunate to work with, on making myself accessible to them, and open to questions, feedback and so on. I try to give comments and feedback within 2 weeks, and mostly have been able to keep to this so far. I think accessibility, openness and timeous feedback are pretty standard expectations to meet, and all of this goes a long way to creating space for that pedagogical relationship to grow. But, I am also following my own supervisor’s example here. She was very accessible, open, warm and gave relatively quick and always useful feedback. I felt very well supported and mentored, and she is now a colleague, and still a mentor, that I am so fortunate to have. I want to be this kind of supervisor. But, even as I try to be all of these things, I still get really busy, and distracted, and I forget things. I still need to be managed by my students. I need to be reminded that I owe them an email, or prodded when they need an answer to a question, a form filled in or a recommendation for funders.

supervision 1

I think there are students who go into the MA or PhD with the expectation that the supervisor/s will set the pace and tone for the project, and will ensure that deadlines are set and met, and so on. Perhaps this is an expectation carried with them from undergraduate study, which is a good deal more structured than postgraduate study, generally speaking. Some supervisors may well be this structured, especially with a shorter MA project, but many are not. PhDs especially are as much about the actual research as they are about learning to become a more self-directed, independent researcher (who can eventually lead research projects and supervise others and so on). Thus, as a PhD student you may well be expected to take responsibility for your own project, and your supervisor may actually wait for you to ask for assistance, or feedback, or for you to check in and let them know how you are doing rather than being ‘on your case’ as such. If you do not, they might follow up periodically and ask how you are doing, but if you stop responding or go underground, a busy supervisor might just assume that you are either fine, or are no longer doing your research. While they perhaps should not just leave you be (especially if you really do need help), they may choose to focus on their other active students and projects, rather than spend more time trying to reach you with no response.

I would imagine students in this position feel neglected, and that’s a horrible place to be. But here’s the thing: you need to consider making the first move if this is where you are. You need to reach out and get in touch and let your supervisor/s know what’s going on with you. Perhaps they will step up and help if you let them know you what you need to get through this rough patch. Hopefully there will indeed be some part of it they can assist with, that is within the realm of their role as your supervisor.

If you have stopped talking to your supervisor/s or sending in pieces of writing for them to read, or stopped talking to peers even, pause here. Why have you stopped? Are you overwhelmed, struggling with reading, unable to write, writing a fair bit but worried it’s all rubbish and therefore don’t want to send it in? Odds are, your supervisor can help if you let them. Rather than waiting for someone, somewhere, to sense your distress and help, take a deep breath and reach out. Your supervisor/s can’t (and perhaps shouldn’t) always be the ones reaching out, setting deadlines, cajoling students into sending writing and so on. As doctoral students, we are expected to actually be able to cajole ourselves into writing and sending it in, and set our own deadlines, and ask for help when we need it. It’s tough, but it is part of the learning of the PhD: learning to be brave, write, ask for feedback, and receive it (even when it’s negative or difficult to hear).


If you are trying to manage your supervisor and they are ignoring or neglecting you, pause here: Are you being fair in your requests? For example, have you sent your supervisor 100 pages and are expecting quick feedback when this is the first piece you have sent them in ages, and needs careful reading? It would be better if you sent smaller chunks of writing, and gave your supervisor at least 2 weeks to get back to you. That way they can manage quick feedback, and give you more constructive assistance as your thinking unfolds. Have you given your supervisor a clear request for feedback? Rather than sending an email that says: ‘here’s my latest draft, thanks’ or some version of that, be more specific (and polite). Ask for particular feedback, and maybe request a face-to-face or online meeting 2 or 3 weeks hence. While it is undeniably necessary for supervisors to be responsive and present, it is also necessary for students to be fair, reasonable and clear in their communications.

If you are one of the unlucky, and probably very unhappy, students who has tried just about everything they can think of, and still cannot effectively manage your supervisor, it may be time to take more drastic steps, like approaching the head of department, or a mediator of some kind in your faculty, to try and resolve the situation. If you cannot, perhaps try to find help in other, more constructive places. As I have said before: it is an unhappy truth that not all supervisors use their power for good. But, even the good ones need some help from their students in learning how to supervise effectively – each student is different, and each supervision relationship unfolds differently and at a different pace. Consider ways in which you can play your part in maintaining and enhancing the two-way relationship with your supervisor/s, tough as that may be. If you have other suggestions for others who are struggling, please share them in the comments.

Setting up, maintaining, mending your support systems

A friend of mine asked me recently how I managed to finish a PhD in three and a bit years, with a full-time job and a full-time homelife. I found it quite hard to answer her, especially given that, in retrospect, my PhD doesn’t seem all that difficult now (kind of like when you have done something really tough, like had a baby or run a marathon or climbed a mountain, and you think: ‘I could do that again, that wasn’t so bad!’ even though it was awful a lot of the time while you were going through it). So, I have thought a lot about this, and I think I finally have an answer.

I finished in the time I did because of the support I had. This support came in different forms, and I have divided it into four main kinds that made a big difference during my candidacy: home, personal, work, and PhD-specific.

I’ll start with home, because this, for me, was really important, and also really tough to manage consistently. I have a lovely husband and two lovely, but young, children who need me rather a lot. I also need to be there for them rather a lot, and like many parents I have organised my time and life around them since they were born, and a lot of who I am as a person is bound up in who I am as their mother. Not being very present or in control of all things parenting, therefore, was not really a viable option for me during my PhD. But, as I found out, it was really, really difficult to be a very full-time parent and partner, a very full-time academic, and a very committed PhD student (and not be very stressed and hysterical all the time). My husband, thankfully, is a very capable parent when I stand back and let him do things his way, instead of my way, and he was willing to put me and my PhD work ahead of his own in order to support me (for at least most of the three years). But, and this is the key, I really struggled to let that be. I struggled to let go of being all things to all of my family, and let him manage the kids and their lives so that I could focus on questions of theory, data, tense, fonts and all of that big and small PhD stuff I needed to focus on. It was only really in my final year, when I just had to finish, that I sort of got enough of the hang of letting go, and could actually focus on me and my work without feeling guilty or torn, or left out of what my husband and kids were getting up to while I was alone at my desk, writing. Support at home is essential, but you also need to let your home support you.

The second area where I needed, and was fortunate enough to receive, support and time was at work. I ran a small unit during my PhD and my time was largely my own to manage. This was very fortunate because I didn’t feel like I was clocking in and out with someone looking over my shoulder and accounting for each minute of my day. I was able to, some weeks, carve out a morning (and even have a day or two here and there at home) to focus on my PhD, having reorganised the rest of my workload around these PhD mornings or days. My close colleagues outside of my unit were encouraging, and in my final year accommodated (at least some of) my answers of ‘no, I can’t do that right now, ask me again next year’ with latitude for the most part. Again, though, a lot of what I received hinged on me asking for what I needed, and being firm, once I got the support, in letting it be. I had to learn to say ‘no’, which I am not very good at, and I had to learn to let people help me, also something I am not good at. I was fortunate – my close colleagues were a great source of kindness and support, which made up for the indifference from other less friendly colleagues and management. But I also had to find ways of asking for support and time and space in ways that did not put people’s backs up, or seem like I was asking for favours I was not due.  I learnt some valuable lessons about standing up for myself, and also about diplomacy, tact and timing.

A further area where I needed excellent support was in PhD-specific spaces of supervision and peer-groups. I was part of a structured PhD programme with an active online listserv and regular contact weeks where we all got together for workshops, lectures, seminars and supervision sessions. This support, along with the excellent supervision I received, took at least a year off my PhD in my opinion, as I had both real support, and also imagined chastisement if I did not make progress. I had, in other words, people who were keeping tabs on me, although completely supportively and kindly, and this accountability translated into me egging myself on because I didn’t want to let any of them down (and by extension let myself down). Reaching out to form a PhD support group where you feel you are not all on your own, and that your progress, struggles, and triumphs matter to others, can be a crucial source of support.

Finally, I had to learn to be my own support. I had to learn to encourage myself, and be warm and kind rather then mean and derogatory, especially when days of doing no PhD work turned into weeks and stagnation rather than progress was the order of things. I had to make time for myself, and tell myself that this time was not indulgent, or taking time away from my kids or work: that it was necessary and important and worth protecting. This was really difficult, all the way through. It still is. However, doing the PhD taught me to be kinder to myself, and to be more supportive of my own research, my own achievements and my own struggles. If I am not on my own side, how can I convince others that it’s a side they should be on too? I am much more of a cheerleader for myself now, giving myself more of the kindness I find easier to give to others.

Support systems are not easy to set up, maintain, and especially to mend if they have fallen apart. They require care, time and emotional energy, and these things are often in short supply during a PhD candidacy. However, without these four different kinds of support, something as long, challenging, often lonely and also triumphant as doing a PhD would be much more difficult than it could or should be.

Getting the feedback you need

Feedback. It’s a prickly issue for writers. We both want it and fear it. It makes us nervous, fearful, tired, annoyed, cheered – sometimes all of these things in one essay/paper/chapter. One of the most helpful things I learned during my PhD was how to ask for feedback – the feedback I needed. This post addresses asking for the feedback you need, even if it isn’t always the feedback you want.

Feedback we need is not always feedback we want, in the sense that often we don’t want to do another tough round of revisions and rewriting and more thinking, because we want to move on to the next thing, or because we are tired, or because the PhD is only one of many things demanding our time and attention. But, more often than not, we need to do this work, and so we need feedback that helps us to achieve this. I am not sure it is possible to always have your needs and wants be the same when it comes to feedback, but the more you go into the scary space of asking for provocative, thoughtful and critical feedback and work with it to have it feed forward into your further writing, reading and thinking, the more you want to get that kind of feedback.

It is so important to work out what kind of feedback you really need and to look for it. PhD students cannot simply wait for the right kinds of feedback to find them, and for supervisors to know what kinds of feedback they are looking for at different points in the process. My supervisor encouraged me to be very directive about what kind of feedback I wanted. I am aware that many supervisors will not do that expressly (or otherwise) but rather than just sending writing and asking broadly what they think, why not suggest to your supervisor when you send them your writing that they focus on specific things, like the coherence of your text, or whether it addresses the research questions, or whether you have read the right kinds of sources for a particular argument you are making. As a new supervisor myself, I think it would be helpful if my student helped me navigate her thinking and writing like this. Supervisors are busy too, and you are often not their only student or task – giving them polite but clear requests for particular kinds of help could well be helpful for them as well as for you.

Asking for specific feedback requires being quite conscious of what you are writing, what you have been thinking about and also struggling with, and what you might need in order to keep moving forward. Making ‘meta-notes’ as you write, either in writing or just in your head, is quite helpful when it comes to then sending that email or having that conversation. These are some of my ‘meta-notes’ on the kinds of feedback I thought I needed on just three stages of my process. This may be helpful if you are battling to put what you need/want from your supervisor into words, and can hopefully help you generate other questions of your own:

Early stages – pre-proposal reading and chunks of writing: ‘Are my research questions valid? Am I addressing them with what I am reading and thinking about? Is this just one PhD or have I got too much here? How could I edit this down if I am trying to do three PhDs in one? What else could/should I be reading?’ 

Proposal writing process: ‘Are my research questions clear, and viable? Is the focus and rationale for this research clear to the reader? Does my proposed conceptual framework hang together and make sense? Does it ‘match’ my research questions. unit of analysis and focus? Is the literature review section where I explain the field I am contributing to well-constructed – can you see the gap my research speaks into? Do my methods seems reasonable; is there a methodology rather than just a list of data and methods of generating it? Are there any glaring errors, like missing references and typos I need to correct?’

Chapter 1 – literature review/conceptual framework: ‘Is this just a collection of things I’ve read or can you hear my voice? How can I make my own stance and voice clearer here? Have I read the field accurately – are there any gaps I need to fill in my reading? Have I explained the way I am using the theory to create a framework for the study clearly – do you see what I am doing and why I have chosen this theoretical framework? Does it connect with my research questions? Are there gaps and where? How would you suggest that I try to address the gaps and revise this chapter?

The worst thing as a writer is sending something to a reader, like a PhD student to a supervisor, and wanting them to really think about your argument and advise you on how to make it stronger or better substantiated, and then getting back a list of typos and grammatical errors you could have corrected yourself just before you are ready to submit the work. It’s frustrating and demoralising, and worse for a student, you can end up stuck and unable to keep writing and thinking as productively as you need to. To get the feedback you need is to see that what you need may be tough to hear, and to act on, but will move you forward if you can engage with it constructively. Seeing feedback in this way will help you to pose the questions to your critical friends and supervisor that ask for particular readings of your work that then result in you receiving more critical, provocative and helpful feedback that really does feed forward into your further writing, reading and thinking.

The feedback you get should be constructive and encouraging even as it critiques, questions and provokes more thinking, and it’s terrible when this is not the case. As I have said before in this blogspace, not all supervisors use their powers for good – many do not perhaps think to put themselves into their students’ shoes, and do not think about what their feedback sounds like, or how useful it is from a student’s perspective. Students getting destructive, unhelpful feedback from their supervisors may need to think about other avenues for getting supplementary help with their writing and thinking, like Chapter Swap online, a PhD writing group or a critical friend or two. There is help out there – but you may have to be brave and resourceful to find it if you are not getting enough of it closer to ‘home’. Good luck!

What happens when you know your study better than your supervisor does?

This is a tricky post for me to write – it feels risky in a way. I know my supervisor reads this blog, and I don’t want to offend her in any way. But I’m going to take this risk (and I think she would probably agree) because this is an issue that I don’t think we talk about enough, and that can be really challenging for PhD students to deal with when it happens. The issue is what happens when you realise, usually towards the end of the PhD process, that you know your work/study/theory better than your supervisor does. How do you navigate that, and deal with it constructively?

I confronted this challenge when I was working with my supervisor through my first full draft, and then some of the further revisions. Reading through my analysis chapters again, I noticed a few serious errors I had made that she had not picked up. Now, this may be because she skimmed some parts of the chapters and missed the errors (and I picked them up so all was well in the end), but that experience made me wonder: did I know better than she did what I was talking about? Had we reached a point where I needed to rely less on her advice and more on my own knowledge of my study and its parts, like the theory and data? I was not the most confident PhD student – I was plagued, really, by neurotic doubts and panic about my ability to produce a great piece of work. So, getting to a point where I had to rely more on me than on her, a scholar I truly respect and admire, was a bit terrifying. What if I was really wrong? But what if she was also wrong, or didn’t see what I saw because I had read more of the theory or seen more of the data than she had and so had a different and more intimate relationship with my study (which, of course, I did)? This was a serious quandary. Largely as a result of my own scaredy-cat, non-confrontational personality it was a real dilemma because I found that I did not know how to actually talk to my supervisor about this. I was scared of offending her, and I was not yet confident enough to really claim my own strengthening sense of my study and what I was writing about.

I don’t think I would have offended her – I recall her saying at a Doc week seminar around the time I started my doctorate that as student-researchers working on our own research we should get to a point where we know more about it than our supervisors do, and that this is a good thing because it means we are becoming more confident and able researchers, thinkers and writers who will eventually be able to supervise others, write books and papers, etc. I remember thinking that this was a really encouraging thing to say to us, because my vicarious experience of supervision, listening to many of the student-tutors I have worked with in the last few years who have been writing their own doctorates, was quite different. In many of these other supervision relationships (and to be fair I only know the tutors’ side of them), the supervisor seemed less than willing to hand over the power in terms of the knowledge and who holds it. Many of the students I have worked with have found working with their supervisors frustrating, largely because their supervisors don’t seem completely willing to allow the student space to take on the role of more confident knower, or the power in the relationship in terms of making decisions about what to write and what not to and how to present the final argument. In these situations, I wonder if the student finishes the doctorate feeling confident enough to go on and publish, present and build on their work.

In converse situations, I have worked with a few PhD students whose supervisors, like mine, actively encouraged them to own their work, and claim that researcher/knower role. These students presented their work-in-progress at conferences before the end of their PhDs, and co-wrote papers with their supervisors during and after the doctorate. They had a very different experience of their PhDs, and have gone on to have quite successful post-PhD careers thus far, largely because (I think) of the enabling and confidence-building supervisory relationships they were part of. They were encouraged to know their studies as well as, or even better than, their supervisors. They became researchers in their own right towards the end of their PhDs especially, and were not just apprentice students in a lower position to the supervisor in an unequal power relationship.

I am not sure that all students can take ownership of their PhD studies and their new roles as researchers and knowers in their field without encouragement and guidance. Those students who need very little supervision and pretty much do the doctorate regardless may well be able to claim these spaces more easily; but those of us who need the guidance and the advice, who need the feedback and support, also need to be told that it’s okay to know more than our supervisors do about our research by the end. We need to be told that it’s okay and even a good thing, because it means we are ready for the next step where we move out of the student-researcher role into the academic researcher role many of us do the PhD for, and where we can begin to share our research through publishing, presenting and building on what we have discovered. It’s a bit scary to realise that your supervisor has missed things you think they should not have. But rather than freaking out, try to realise that you saw those things and corrected them. You know your work that well. This should be an encouraging, exciting stage to reach, rather than a scary, doubt-full one – and I hope your supervisor will agree. I’m sure mine will :-).