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.

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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).

frustration

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.

Making friends with your PhD (or at least being on speaking terms)

I thought a good post to start the new year off would be one about getting onto the right side of your PhD – making friends with it, or at least working out how to get along in a civil and amicable way. Being BFs with your PhD is a lofty ideal many do not achieve, but some people really do love their PhDs, and manage to have very firm and happy relationships with them, in spite of bad patches. But how do they do it? And how can those  on the outs with the PhD turn the relationship around?

Starting out

If you think about doing a PhD being like conducting a relationship – bear with me here – you can think about it in stages. The first stage is falling in love, right? Heady, consuming, whirly – you can’t really think about anything else, but it’s exciting and scary and pretty cool. You may feel like you have stumbled onto It – or an It of some kind – and this makes other things in the world brighter and more sensible. Finding a PhD research topic that excites and interests you can be a bit like this – it’s exciting, and it can be scary because of the all the work involved, but it’s pretty cool. Finding a research topic or question that you ‘click’ with and that makes you want to go out and find the answer and do the work is kind of like finding It, and it’s a good feeling.

But, not all relationships start out this way. Not everyone gets into a relationship in a heady whirl of passion and excitement. Some people rationalise their way into relationships, and they stick it out even when it doesn’t quite feel right or exciting or heady, and they do so for many different reasons. If you have talked yourself into doing your PhD, and you don’t like your research topic, or don’t feel particularly stimulated by or interested in the project, it can be really difficult to be friends with it, or love it. And if it starts out with you talking yourself into rather than being swept up by it, staying the course can be tough. Love can grow, though, but that does take time.

The middle bits (where sh*t gets real)

stefan-on-paper-road-bumps

If your relationship has started out well, that initial chemistry and compatibility that drew you together can be transformed into a bond that can sustain you through inevitable struggles and challenges. The middle bits of any relationship are full of ups and downs and real life stuff, and it really helps if you like each other underneath everything else, and can maintain a solid friendship that can hold you on the bad days.

In the case of a PhD, that initial interest in your research topic, and strong desire to find the answer to your questions and make a contribution to your field can indeed sustain you during inevitable rough patches, where research participants drop out, or you can’t get hold of a key paper you have to read, or your supervisor sends tough feedback that takes you back to the ‘drawing board’ for revisions. That initial feeling of excitement at doing this PhD at this point in your life can be transformed into a feeling of being ‘friends’ with your PhD, liking it even when you kind of hate it.

But if you started out talking yourself into a relationship you’re not sure you want to or should be in, and you are still talking yourself into it every day, it’s so much harder to weather the hard days, because they may actually confirm that you’re not in the right place, rather than simply being a bump in a generally good road that needs to be navigated and worked through. Thus with the PhD: if you are doing it because you feel you should, or if you are working on a topic you don’t like, or that someone else chose for you or talked you into, or that you talked yourself into because it would be practical, or easier, but that doesn’t really feel right, it can be really difficult to be friends with your PhD. How do you make yourself sit down and work on something that makes you feel bad about yourself, or that makes you feel like less of a researcher, rather than more? How do you create a civil and even amicable relationship with a project you have to keep convincing yourself to do, even when you are not sure you even want to be doing it?

The end(?)

Unlike good relationships that start out well and weather the tough bits successfully, PhDs do have to end. But, if you choose the right research topic for you and can be friends with your PhD, it can open doors to ongoing, related and eventually new research that you build a career out of. In this way, while the discrete PhD project ends, the research plan it becomes part of keeps evolving. If you have started with a solid platform with the PhD, you know what kinds of research you like and want to do, and what interests you, and you can create or connect with research projects that help you to keep working in these ways. You can learn much from a friendly PhD relationship that can stand you in good stead for ongoing research and writing work in the future. If you have enjoyed your PhD, you may well be sad to see it go, and struggle with the loss, at least initially.

mother-nature-network-heart-book

If, however, your whole relationship has been difficult and fraught with uncertainty and bumps, the end often comes as a relief. And you may well have learned different kinds of lessons – like what kinds of people and relationships you don’t want to be involved with in future. You may be left with a kind of bitter feeling about having wasted some of your life in the wrong place, when you could have been giving your self and time to other things. Even if you struggle through and manage to finish the PhD, a difficult and unfriendly relationship with your doctorate can still leave you, at the end, Dr You, but with a bittersweet sense of having lost as well as gained. You may have a PhD, but no desire to continue researching in this field. You may have struggled so much that you become disillusioned with academia, and an academic career. Or, you may not even finish, and choose to end things before it goes any further.

phd-survivorThere are no easy answers here. I hope that you can all find a way to befriend your research projects – MA or PhD – or at least find a way to feel interested in them enough to keep going. If you are struggling, strength to you. It may help to take a small break, or tweak the direction of a part of your research if you can, to find a way towards a more amicable working relationship. If neither of those are possible, and you just can’t quit, then try a mantra: ‘I will finish this, and I will have gained, even if I have lost too. This will be worth it in the end’. Or, to quote a small blue fish: try to ‘just keep swimming’ and hope the current takes you up and onwards.

 

On celebrating achievements and marking milestones

It was this blog’s 3rd birthday on Monday. I planned to put up this post then, but the day got away from me, and then my son became ill and yesterday was a write-off. So, I am trying to get this out today. All this busy-ness, and missing this milestone has had me thinking about why and when and how we should mark milestones during a PhD or similar process, and celebrate our achievements, both big and small.

happy-birthday-blogMilestones 

There are a few particular milestones during a PhD (or MA) that should be celebrated. There is getting into the programme of your choice – big box tick there. There is having your proposal approved – definitely cause for champagne or a celebratory beverage of choice. Or cake :-). Then there is the uber-milestone of handing in the first full draft and then the copy for examination and then the final meisterwerk to be lodged in the library ahead of graduation.

But there are also smaller milestones along the way that may not be celebrated, or seen as cause for celebration in quite so obvious a way. Here, I am thinking of completing chapter drafts, even before your supervisor tells you this draft is finished for now and you can move on to the next step. I am thinking of writing 500 words in a week where you have a thousand other things to do and time is at a premium and your brain is tired. I am thinking of getting a lovely comment of praise on your writing from a supervisor, or even a critical friend. These are, I would argue, also milestones or significant steps forward in your research journey or process, and thus deserve a form of recognition and celebration as well.

Rewards (and punishment)

When you make time to recognise these steps forward, even if they seem small in comparison to big leaps like proposal approval and finishing a full draft or final thesis, you are saying that you have done something of value. You have written 500 words you are happy with, or you have battled through a difficult patch of life and work and still created a draft of a chapter that you are proud of. Whether or not external recognition from supervisors is forthcoming, you need to be able to see, and reward, your progress. 

greatjobRewards can be big or small, but they need to be meaningful to you. They need to create the impetus for you to push forward to the next reward. My rewards were things like giving myself a weekend off and buying a new book to read, or going out for a coffee and a slice of cake, or giving myself permission to binge on a favourite show for a weekend. These things were small, but they made me feel supported and encouraged. They were my way of saying ‘well done!’ to myself.

I didn’t reward myself during my PhD as much as I think I could have, though. I think, far more, I berated myself for not making enough progress, or writing an even more amazing chapter or 500 words. Instead of consciously rewarding myself, I tended towards punishment. As in ‘you haven’t written enough this week, so no weekend for you!’ This was, as you might imagine, counter-productive, as the more I punished myself, the worse I felt about my PhD and the more I felt resentful of its intrusion into my down time.

So, to celebrate…

I thus want to argue, here, that you need to be celebrating yourself, your writing and your achievements, big and small, throughout your PhD. You need to be your own biggest cheerleader, recognising what to others may seem like a very little step – ONLY 500 words? – as a pretty big step in a slow week full of meetings and sick kids and school events and so on. You need to be celebrating these small but significant milestones (or yardstones if you prefer), rather than punishing yourself for not doing more. If you are a part-time student with a full-time life, the small steps are big, and they keep you pressing on (as long as they are close enough together to create momentum and motivation. minions-celebrating

I now reward myself regularly for what I regard as my writing achievements. But, I have to make the reward the same size as the achievement. If I have finished a paper and sent it to a journal, I can have several episodes of favourite show and cake. If I wrote the introduction of the paper, I can have an evening off and time with my novel. If I make the reward too big, especially if it includes time away from writing and reading, then I tend to struggle to get back into it, and the reward works against me continuing on with the momentum. So, you need to be realistic, and measured, and have your eye on your goals, your timeframes and your levels of energy and motivation as you plan your down time, your rewards and your celebrations. But, celebrate yourself you must! To steal a line from L’Oreal: ‘You’re worth it!’ 

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.

huffingtonpost.co.uk

huffingtonpost.co.uk

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.

lmnop.com.au

lmnop.com.au

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.