The vast majority of students begin their PhDs with a very clear idea of what they want to do. In fact, most PhD programmes require applicants to submit a research proposal as part of their application and it is on this basis that a student is offered a place.
Given the vital role of a research proposal in terms of gaining admission into a doctoral programme, it is understandable why students attach great importance to it. The proposal serves as both a road map for students and a guide for executing their research. In reality, however, most doctoral students do not stick to their research proposals. The end result of their PhD can often look quite different when contrasted to what was stated in their original plan. How do we account for the discrepancy between a student’s research proposal and their completed doctorate?
The initial plan we come into a PhD programme with is often an idealized version of what we imagine our research journey to be before we have taken any steps on the path. As soon as we begin to get further into our research, not only do we get a sense of where the project needs to go, we also start to realize how much we don’t know about our topics. Gaps in our initial proposal become evident, new questions emerge, and different avenues of inquiry start to open up. None of these things would have been apparent before starting the PhD and it is really only by getting further into your topic that such things come into view.
In this sense, any departure from your original proposal is a natural part of pursuing a PhD. You may decide of your own accord that your proposal was overly ambitious and requires paring down; that there is a substantial piece missing in your research design; or that an emerging trend needs to be incorporated into your project.
While changing the direction of your PhD project may be your decision, it is still bound to feel a little uncomfortable. This is particularly the case if changing direction will involve discarding any material you have already produced, as it so often does. It can be extremely frustrating to dispense with material that may admittedly no longer fit, but which you nonetheless spent a considerable amount of time on. Unfortunately, no one warns you prior to starting a PhD just how much material you won’t end up using in the final version. It can easily feel as though you’ve wasted your time and created more work for yourself, but it’s important to continue to focus on the bigger picture.
Even with the frustration of discarding material, any changes to the initial idea for your research should still be viewed in a generally positive light. Aside from being a natural part of the PhD journey, changing direction is actually a sign of progress. When you get to the point of determining the most appropriate direction for your research – and are confident enough to change the project accordingly – what it really means is that your expertise and knowledge base are developing.
Try not to despair if you’ve had to significantly alter your project. You are much closer to the finish line than you might think.
The difficulty with progress at the PhD level is that the assessment of whether or not we’ve made any is almost entirely a subjective one. Aside from those relatively infrequent assessments during the course of a PhD, including upgrade panels or transfer vivas, there is very little evaluation of our work. Even the interaction we have with our supervisors and their assessments of our work is limited and irregular at best. The majority of the time, we are left to our own devices, which means that it is up to us to assess our progress on a day-to-day basis.
In the absence of any other obvious yardstick to assess progress, I’ve noticed that the default setting for PhD students is to rely on their overall word count as a supposedly objective measure. If the aim is to write a thesis of 100,000 words, surely the number of words we have produced by the end of the day can be a proxy for whether or not we are on track?
Although your word count may seem like the most obvious and reliable way to measure your progress, there is so much more that goes into producing a thesis than simply writing a set number of words. There are days when you might not write very much, or anything at all, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t making progress. Consider skimming 10 articles and realising only two are relevant to your thesis. This could be a day where you feel like you haven’t progressed at all, but sorting through literature and deciding what will be included in your final bibliography is indeed forward momentum.
Even if we dispense with word count as an indicator of progress, we still need an alternative yardstick to determine that we are on track, or at the very least, a supplementary one. One option would be to utilise a PhD Process Journal in conjunction with, or instead of, relying on word count. The journal could, for instance, include all of the actions short of writing that still bring us closer to completing our thesis. Writing it out may help us to feel forward movement on tasks that may otherwise go unnoticed. It may also give a more realistic picture of our progress than one based on word count alone. The example of going to the library and determining sources to incorporate in our bibliography could be included as an entry.
A further option for assessing progress could be entirely time-focused, as discussed in a previous post. For instance, you might wish to make a note of how many Pomodoro rounds you manage to complete on a given day. Since a Pomodoro round would count as uninterrupted time that you are putting into your thesis, it is a helpful way to keep track of your productivity. It also enables you to put much less emphasis on the task – which in the case of a thesis may seem never-ending – and focus more on the hours that are put into it. A variation of this could be something like the Forest App, which allows you to physically see the progress you are making on the basis of the time invested.
A final way to keep track of your progress without exclusively relying on your word count is to work with an accountability partner. By communicating on a regular basis, you and your accountability partner can mutually support each other in achieving your goals. The idea would be that you have a set meeting to determine your goals and a further check in to evaluate your progress. It might also be an opportunity to discuss any challenges that came up for you and to brainstorm possible solutions to those challenges. Depending on what your needs are, you can check in with your accountability partner daily, weekly or even monthly.
As the above approaches highlight, even when you feel like you aren’t making progress on your PhD, chances are you probably are. While word count provides one possible yardstick for measuring progress, the alternative approaches explored here tend to provide a better reflection of PhD progress. What they allow for is a much more comprehensive account of the work that actually goes into producing a PhD.
Whenever I ask a group of students to identify their number one challenge throughout the PhD, supervisor relationships often come out on top.
Unfortunately, despite the centrality of this relationship to the PhD experience, there is no instruction manual detailing how we should interact with our supervisors, what can be expected from this relationship, or how to handle any prospective disputes that might arise. It is often down to the individuals involved to determine how this important relationship will operate.
Sometimes the relationship works very well and a student is fortunate to end up with a supervisor that is encouraging, attentive and easy to communicate with. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the horror stories involving supervisors that may be anything ranging from unresponsive and absent to outright belligerent.
While it may seem as though attaining a positive supervisor-supervisee relationship is simply a roll of the dice, not everything should be left to chance. There is always scope to improve this relationship irrespective of what stage you are at in the PhD. The key to improving your relationship with your supervisor is to begin with an honest inventory of where things are at.
Step one is to reflect on what is working well. What things do you admire or respect about your supervisor? In what ways is your relationship with your supervisor functioning well? Step two is to consider aspects of the relationship that you’d like to shift. Where are you not receiving the support you require from your supervisor? What would you like to see improve? It could, for instance, be more frequent contact, clearer feedback or joint meetings with your secondary supervisor. Whatever it might be, try and identify specific things that you would like to see shift.
Next comes the part that may be uncomfortable for many students and that is to ask your supervisor for the support that you need. It may seem like an obvious point, but many students don’t feel like they are in a position to ask their supervisors for support. There may be a reluctance to speak up given that your supervisor is more senior. The last thing we want is to create a conflict, further aggravate the relationship, or do anything to tarnish our reputations. It can feel as though there is just too much at stake to speak up and so the default position becomes to accept the situation as it is, irrespective of whether it’s working or not. On closer inspection, however, there are actually plenty more reasons to speak up and ask for support than not.
First, the perception that you may have of the situation with your supervisor may not be evident to them at all. They may see things in a different way or simply have no idea that they have been neglecting to fully support you. The fact is that our supervisors cannot read our minds, so it is up to us to communicate our needs to them. Each of us is responsible for ourselves, so if we aren’t getting the support we need and yet continue to stay quiet, we are equally liable for the shortfalls in the relationship as they are.
Second, although the resistance to speaking up may stem from a fear that it may lead to a conflict, there is no reason to expect that it will. After all, what you are asking for is reasonable. If you frame your request clearly and directly, in a calm manner, and without being accusatory or confrontational, it is simply you speaking up about what your needs are. There is nothing inherently aggressive or conflictual about that.
Finally, while the desire to avoid conflict may seem like a powerful rationale for accepting the status-quo, there is an immense cost to staying quiet, and that is the internal conflict that this will generate within you. To carry on and slog away with your work in the absence of feeling fully supported will undoubtedly taint your experience of the PhD. After all, pursuing a doctorate is not an easy undertaking. It requires dedication and diligence, not to mention a considerable investment of time and money. You owe it to yourself to do everything you can to ensure that you are fully supported throughout this process.
I’ve worked with my fair share of bright, talented and hardworking PhD students over the years. While their backgrounds and projects may have varied considerably, there was one factor that every single one of them had in common – none of them felt they were actually good enough to be doing a PhD! These students were crippled with a form of self-doubt that I believe is very much endemic to completing a doctorate.
A PhD is the highest degree awarded in academia, so it’s no wonder that doctoral students experience a significant level of self-doubt as they embark on this journey. What I found to be quite striking were the range of stories they told me – and most importantly themselves – about how ill-prepared they were for the task ahead.
Whether it was because they had crossed over from another discipline, or perhaps they had switched to the PhD from an entirely different field altogether. Or it could have simply been a consequence of the unfamiliar ground they were treading in their research which made them feel out of their depth. Whatever the circumstances, these students had managed to convince themselves that they didn’t belong in a PhD programme. Their aim was to simply get through and hope no one would take notice of the fact that they didn’t actually belong.
After hearing these stories time and time again, I noticed that what so many students were suffering from is an academic version of the Imposter Syndrome. According to the Harvard Business Review, Imposter Syndrome can be defined as ‘a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success.’[i]The interesting thing about Imposter Syndrome is that it affects people in all walks of life irrespective – or perhaps owing to – their levels of success. In her recently published autobiography, Michelle Obama acknowledged her own struggles with Imposter Syndrome.[ii]
While Imposter Syndrome can affect just about anybody, I believe it has particular purchase in university settings and that PhD students are especially prone. In fact, I have yet to come across a single PhD student who hasn’t experienced some element of ‘Academic Imposter Syndrome’ throughout their PhD journey.
There are several aspects of a PhD that make doctoral students likely candidates for Imposter Syndrome. First and foremost, academia is by its very nature a competitive domain that tends to attract high achievers. A doctoral thesis sets out to make a significant contribution towards the furtherance of knowledge in a specific area, with each student expected to write as an authority on his or her subject. In this sense, a PhD student commences their doctoral journey with something to prove to others and to themselves.
While this can amount to a significant degree of pressure on one’s shoulders, this pressure is compounded by the reality that PhD theses are independent projects. Despite having a supervisor, most doctoral students are offered very little guidance on the process of completing their doctorates, what benchmarks they are required to meet throughout or how to even start.
For many, the voice of the imposter ends up permeating all aspects of the PhD. It facilitates an unwinnable comparison between themselves and others, with the perpetual feeling that everyone else is performing much better. It leads students to question whether or not they will ever be able to finish their projects. And even when the end is in sight, this lingering voice has each student doubt if their work is actually good enough. In short, Academic Imposter Syndrome sucks the joy away from the PhD process and makes the journey of obtaining a doctorate much more exhausting than it needs to be.
To a certain extent I believe we are all afflicted by some version of Imposter Syndrome, but I tend to think of it slightly differently. Rather than perceiving this extreme form of self-doubt in terms of a ‘syndrome’, I prefer to reframe it as a disowned part of myself, a part that I call the Inner Critic. By reframing it in this way, it allows me to take ownership of this part of myself and puts me in a better position to not only work with, but also make peace with it.
The thing that’s so interesting about the Inner Critic is that it does not get any quieter as we achieve more. In fact, the more that we experience success, the louder it tends to get. I found this out the hard way when I finally submitted my thesis. I kept telling myself that I would start to feel confident when I had my PhD, but I actually just felt more insecure as I experienced the pressures of post-PhD life – applying for jobs, trying to publish my first book, giving my first lecture. It was all very new to me and way out of my comfort zone.
Suddenly I had graduated from being a student and was now among peers in a much bigger pond, with seemingly much more at stake. As soon as I came to this realisation, my Inner Critic started to chatter: ‘What makes you think you are good enough to be here?’; ‘Why aren’t you working harder?’; ‘Everyone has published their first book by now’; ‘You won’t have enough funding to extend your post’; ‘You aren’t good enough to be an academic.’
The most common approach to dealing with the ramblings of the Inner Critic is to ignore it. If we don’t engage with these statements they will eventually go away, right? Unfortunately, this is usually not the case. If achieving higher levels of success is not enough to quiet down the Inner Critic, covering our ears and running from it won’t do it either.
From my experience, the best way to turn down the volume on the Inner Critic is to actually listen to what it has to say. This means taking some time to get a bit more acquainted with your Inner Critic. Begin by getting a blank sheet of paper and writing down your responses to the following questions:
What types of things does your Inner Critic tend to say to you? Take a moment to write each of them down.
When does the voice of your Inner Critic get the loudest? Are there certain scenarios that tend to trigger this voice for you?
Does the voice remind you of, or have certain similarities with, anyone else in your life? For instance, a parent, sibling, friend or colleague?
Although the Inner Critic may be the voice of someone else in your life that you’ve internalized, it’s important to take ownership of how this particular voice now resides within you. With that in mind, give your Inner Critic a name – preferably a name that cannot be associated with anyone else you know.
Finally, try drawing a visual representation of your Inner Critic.
Now that you’ve explored your Inner Critic in more depth, it’s important to realize that this voice isn’t going to disappear any time soon. The next time your Inner Critic makes an appearance, try practicing the steps below:
Step 1: Recognise when your Inner Critic is present
This first step is simply about cultivating awareness around the Inner Critic. The best way to determine if your Inner Critic is present is to check in with yourself in terms of how you are feeling. Generally, when we are feeling low or off, it’s usually a reliable indicator that this voice is present.
Step 2: Allow it to speak
As mentioned above, while the tendency is to simply ignore this voice and the discomfort that arises with it, a much more effective technique when it comes to diffusing the power of this voice is to simply listen to it. What does this voice want to say to you? Take a moment and write down what is coming up.
Step 3: Acknowledge the purpose of the inner critic
Why did this voice first develop? For most of us it emerged at a young age as a protective mechanism. It is the part of ourselves that perhaps didn’t feel safe and would therefore talk us out of doing things in order avoid feeling vulnerable. We might therefore imagine the Inner Critic as a younger, more misguided version of ourselves. Viewing the Inner Critic in this way allows us to have compassion for this voice, and ourselves, whenever it surfaces.
By becoming more conscious about the roots of this voice, the Inner Critic will have a lot less power over you.
It goes without saying that this is an extraordinary academic year. On top of the usual challenges associated with pursuing a PhD, today’s doctoral students are having to contend with a host of other challenges including: isolating from their family and friends; being forced to work from home; relying on virtual meetings with supervisors and colleagues; having restrictions placed on their ability to travel; and worrying about the health of loved ones. And as if all of the above weren’t enough, students are having to balance their work alongside an unprecedented level of global uncertainty.
Given these circumstances, there is no question that student wellbeing must be prioritised across all universities this year. On that note, I’d like to share some thoughts on how each of you can maintain your wellbeing during this rather unusual academic year.
When it comes to PhD wellbeing, there are 5 Key Pillars that I see as crucial. These five pillars are (1) Self-Care (2) Daily Routine (3) Detaching from work (4) Support network and (5) Mindset.
I’ll briefly explain these five pillars and then share my top tips for each.
Pillar 1: Self Care
Self-Care involves the things that most of us already know we should be doing to take care of ourselves; yet, these are often the first things to go during stressful periods. It is, after all, in the midst of stress that people tend to neglect exercise, experience difficulty sleeping and eat unhealthily. So how can we maintain self-care practices during this stressful time? Here are a few tips:
Set small, achievable targets for yourself and make it enjoyable – otherwise you won’t do it! For instance, instead of setting a goal of exercising every day for an hour, which sounds great in theory but may not be realistic in practice, try exercising a few times a week or for 10-15 minutes every day. The most important thing is to create a new habit for yourself, which means setting a target that you will stick to.
Go outside at least once a day and get as much natural light as possible – even if it’s just a quick walk around the block. I’m always amazed how much better I feel as soon as I get outside and reconnect to nature.
If you have difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep, try setting a bed-time alarm and adopting a daily wind down routine. The wind down routine could involve stopping work at a certain time, taking a shower or bath, doing some light reading, or perhaps a meditation.
Another very quick and easy tip to regulate your sleep is to maintain the same wake-up time every morning (even on weekends!) After a while you’ll find that you won’t need an alarm clock anymore, as your body will naturally adjust to this wake-up time.
Finally, make healthy eating a priority by setting aside time to plan your meals and upgrading your food choices. By this, I mean finding healthier versions of the foods that you crave. For inspiration and recipe ideas see Liana Werner-Gray’s, The Earth Diet: Your Complete Guide to Living Using the Earth’s Natural Ingredients (Hay House, 2014) and 10-Minute Recipes: Fast Food, Clean Ingredients, Natural Health (Hay House, 2016).
Pillar 2: Daily Routine
Among the challenges of establishing a daily routine this academic year will be the absence of a regular work structure and the fact that you’ll predominantly be working from home. What will be key is finding a way to sustain your motivation and remain productive.
My first tip is to establish some boundaries between your working space and living space. One way to do this is to take a quick walk around your neighbourhood first thing in the morning, as a way to signal to yourself the start of your working day. You can even pretend you are walking to your office or the library.
Try using the Pomodoro Techniquein order to enhance your concentration. There is something about segmenting time into smaller increments that really helps to focus the mind.
Prioritise your daily tasks by setting achievable (and realistic) goals for yourself. See the Eisenhower Matrix for task management guidance
Manage distractions by checking email and social media during designated windows of time. Instead of having a constant influx of notifications throughout your day, be deliberate about when and how long you will look at your email and social media accounts. Two windows of approximately 20-30 minutes each should be sufficient for reading and responding to messages.
Since you are going to be spending a lot of time working from home, try to make the space feel inviting an organized. This may require doing a bit of decluttering, rearranging furniture, bringing in different colours or items that energise you. Even if it’s just a corner of your bedroom that you are working in, small adjustments can make a big difference to how you feel in that space.
If you share your home with others, it’s important to communicate your needs and set boundaries with those around you. For instance, if you have a deadline coming up, let family members, flat mates and partners know so that they can support you and respect your space while you work.
PILLAR 3: Detaching from Work
Detaching from work is something that I found very challenging to do when I was a student. Taking time off felt like a luxury that I couldn’t afford because there was always more work to be done. Eventually, I came to realise that time away from my work is what allowed me to replenish my energy and return to my work feeling even more motivated. Below are a few tips to help you detach from your work with greater ease:
Instead of waiting until the point that you reach burnout or exhaustion, try setting an end to your work day in advance. Commit to this time before you begin your work and stick to it no matter what.
Plan an activity for your time off, otherwise you will likely be tempted to keep on working. It could be a hobby, connecting with a friend or family member, or trying a new recipe for dinner. Whatever it is, have something other than work planned for your time off.
Since you may feel some resistance to taking time off, it’s important to confront that resistance head on by giving yourself permission to take a break. Try using what I refer to as a PhD Process Journal.
Switching off can be a challenge for many students. In order to give our brains some space to recalibrate, it can be helpful adopt a transition activity between our work and our downtime. Exercising or even a brisk walk can be a great way to transition between work and leisure time. Another good transition activity is grocery shopping (online or in person), as it gives our brain another task to focus on as we start to wind down.
Pillar 4: Your Support Network
Finding a way to manage isolation will be particularly important this academic year. I would recommend giving some thought to who will form part of your academic support network and personal support network.
Start by enlisting the support of an accountability partner. This should be someone you can work with on a weekly basis to set your goals, share your progress, discuss challenges that may arise, and mutually motivate one another.
Arrange regular meetings with your supervisor throughout the first term. Even if you don’t have any substantive work to share with them, it’s especially important during this time to check in with them regularly and feel supported.
Set up a virtual work session with a colleague. This can be a great motivator and provide you with some additional moral support during a time of limited in-person interactions.
Schedule ongoing catch-ups with family and friends. It’s important to have things to look forward to every week.
We often think about support in terms of outer support, but it’s also worth using this time to cultivate your inner support system. This may involve integrating some quiet time into your day. You could also use this time to start a meditation practice, which is a great way to connect with yourself.
Pillar 5: Mindset
The fifth and final Pillar, and the one that I would say is the foundation for all of the Pillars, is your mindset. The reason I say this is because there are many different lenses through which you could view the ongoing situation. The time will go faster and be easier to manage depending on the perspective that you adopt.
Take things one day at a time. If taking things one day at a time feels too onerous, try week-to-week.
If you find yourself worrying, try your best to bring yourself back to the present moment. Worry tends to be future-oriented, as it’s based on concerns and fears over what might happen. This means that when we worry, we aren’t really living in the now.
Minimize your news consumption. At the moment, the news is filled with fear and negativity. It’s difficult to feel in a positive mindset after watching the news! This is not to say to avoid the news altogether. It’s important to stay informed, but be mindful about when and how long you watch, read and listen to the news for. For instance, avoid the new before bed or when you are already feeling low.
Adopt a gratitude practice to put things in perspective. We are constantly being told how awful things are, but there is also a lot that is still going right for each of us. Take time to write three things down each day. This is a powerful practice that can really start to shift your mindset.
Use music for an instant boost. Create a playlist of calm or upbeat music and observe how quickly your mood can shift.
Nothing creates a shift in perspective like helping those who are worse off. Reach out to others who may need additional support. Search for volunteer opportunities in your area or create them yourself.
I hope you’ve found these tips useful. For further advice, please feel free to get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org