I Have Too Many Ideas to Fit in my Thesis

The further you get into your PhD project, the more likely it is that your research will spark new ideas. This is a natural and exhilarating aspect of pursuing doctoral research. The more you explore one path, other paths of interest begin to open up. What becomes difficult is trying to incorporate all of these new ideas and areas of interest into a project that is by its very nature limited – not just in terms of the words you have to work with and the time you have available, but also the scope of the project. New ideas can often expand the parameters of the PhD to something that becomes overly ambitious, unmanageable, and far beyond what would be reasonable for a single thesis to accommodate. 

The reality of being unable to incorporate all of your great ideas into the thesis might become a recipe for dissatisfaction with the final product. When this occurs, it is important to find a way to accept that you simply won’t have the space to say and do everything that you find interesting on your topic. Equally, it is important to have a designated space to record whatever insights flood your mind throughout your PhD research.     

My recommendation to help balance this inevitable wave of creativity on the one hand, with the limits of your project on the other, is to invest in an Ideas Journal. An Ideas Journal is a notebook for the sole purpose of storing pieces of inspiration, random thoughts, and creative insights that may be related to your PhD project, but not specifically intended for inclusion in the thesis itself. There are numerous benefits to investing in an Ideas Journal. 

First of all, an Ideas Journal can accommodate anything of interest to you on your topic that doesn’t necessarily fit within the confines of your project. By alleviating the pressure to incorporate everything within your thesis, it can help mitigate the risk of your project going off course. As you utilise the journal, you simultaneously reaffirm the boundaries of your research and in so doing, cultivate the necessary focus to complete your PhD. 

Second, having a record of ideas that are related to your PhD, but not at the core of your project, can easily be fed into the concluding chapter of your thesis under the ‘areas for further research’ section. Highlighting avenues for further research is an important component of a doctoral thesis, as it allows you to highlight where your work is situated within the broader field and to identify what potential avenues for research it opens up. Having some insights into how future research could build on your specific project will also give you something to discuss with your viva examiners.   

Third, it can be a place to brainstorm your plans after the PhD. This can either be some ideas for how you might like to revise your thesis for publication, or alternatively, it could be a few notes which form the basis of a postdoctoral project. Using an Ideas Journal to flesh out prospective post-PhD projects serves as a powerful reminder that there is life beyond your current project. This will go a long way towards helping you escape the type of tunnel vision that is sometimes endemic to the PhD experience.  

Finally, even if you don’t have waves of inspiration or insights that might automatically be included in your Ideas Journal, it may still serve a very useful purpose. As you get further into defining your research question, you’ll likely realize what is possible and what isn’t within the parameters of your PhD project. This will typically result in some element of downsizing. While it can be tough to scale back on your original plans, especially if it involves cutting out earlier material that you’ve spent a lot of time on, having a safe space to store this material can make the task of letting it go much more palatable. 

Whichever way you decide to utilise your Ideas Journal, you’ll find it to be an immensely powerful tool, not simply for maintaining focus and exercising creativity, but also in terms of tapping into that sense of excitement surrounding your broader subject area. This will undoubtedly serve you well, particularly during the long, and sometimes arduous, writing-up phase.  

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Doctoral De-Stress: How to Thrive on Your PhD Journey

The front cover of the Doctoral De-Stress book

I am pleased to announce the release of my new book for PhD students, Doctoral De-Stress: How to Thrive on Your PhD Journey, which is now available for order. 

Book Description: 

‘You’re a PhD student; you’re meant to be stressed out.’

Does this motto sound familiar to you? Have you simply accepted that obtaining a doctorate must be stress-inducing? The process of completing a PhD is a huge investment of time, energy and money. Although it can feel like a long and bumpy road for many students, the truth is that it doesn’t have to be a struggle. 

Doctoral De-Stress: How to Thrive on Your PhD Journey features the top 40 challenges that doctoral students face and tips to overcome them. You will learn how to: 

  • Cultivate a better relationship with your academic supervisor.
  • Work through writer’s block, procrastination and perfectionism.
  • Sustain your motivation throughout the PhD, and reconnect to what inspires you about your research.
  • Overcome presentation anxiety and manage an academic Q&A session with greater confidence.
  • Balance your competing commitments – from job applications and conferences to teaching and publishing.
  • Navigate unexpected challenges that arise during your PhD journey and prepare for your viva.

Order your copy of Doctoral De-Stress today at www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1838181601

The Five Pillars of PhD Wellbeing

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 Technique in 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 info@academease.org  

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Persisting with the PhD: Sustaining Motivation During the Coronavirus

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Are you feeling unmotivated at the moment and perhaps a little distracted by the ongoing global pandemic? It can be challenging to maintain PhD motivation at the best of times, even without a world-wide crisis to contend with. So, it is perfectly understandable if you’ve been struggling to sustain your motivation levels at the present time. In this post I will highlight three steps for maintaining PhD motivation during the coronavirus.

Step 1 is about getting set up and it takes place before you even begin working. Among the most important elements of this step is reconnecting to your ‘Why’– that is, your underlying reasons for pursuing a PhD in the first place. Given that the PhD lasts for several years, it is easy to lose sight of what first inspired you to pursue a doctorate, particularly when the world may now appear very different to when you began. Yet your ‘why’ is precisely what you need to try and hold on to in order to sustain motivation.

Step 2 takes place during your working hours and is primarily about cultivating the necessary focus and concentration to make the most of your working time.

Step 3, often overlooked, but perhaps the most important in terms of sustaining motivation, is detaching after work. This is about carving out non-work time for yourself on a daily basis. This final step has become particularly important in the current climate when people are essentially living in their work space.

The above steps work together in a virtuous cycle. For instance, when we are connected to our deeper level motivation and feeling excited about our work, it’s easier to focus and maintain progress. This in turn enables us to take a proper break, such that when we are ready, we can return to our work feeling re-energised and motivated.

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Here are a few tips relating to each phase of the cycle:

BEFORE | Getting Set Up

  • Find a way to represent your ‘why’ in your work environment
  • Create a collage with inspiring words and images for your desktop
  • List your top distractions and deal with them in advance (whether it’s social media updates, your email notifications, clutter, watching or reading the news, Netflix or your family/flatmates)
  • Find an accountability partner that you can check in with on a daily or weekly basis
  • Do some pre-writing before you start working
  • Establish a daily routine with the same wake up time
  • Get showered and dressed every day even if you aren’t seeing anyone
  • Walk around your block first thing in the morning as though you are walking to your office
  • Identify your incentives and rewards – keep a list of them
  • Prioritise your daily tasks for the following day

***

DURING | Making the Most of Your Working Hours

  • Set an end to your working day in advance and stick to it
  • When establishing your hours remember that less can actually be more
  • Listen to inspiring background music | use a noise app to create an atmosphere
  • Instead of focusing on the long road ahead, focus on the next step in front of you by breaking tasks down into small, manageable pieces – one section at a time, one sentence at a time
  • Take the pressure off by shifting your language around work and your expectations (e.g. sketching, drafting, outline, preliminary).
  • Organise a virtual writing session with one or more peers for mutual motivation
  • Try a modified version of the Pomodoro Technique, especially when feeling stuck
  • Allow for ebbs and flows in productivity

***

AFTER | Detaching from Your Work

  • Draw your work to a close at the time you had planned rather than waiting until you are too exhausted to continue or feeling burnt out
  • Try transition activities to ease your way into downtime (exercising, going for a walk, grocery shopping – online or in person)
  • Find ways to keep track of progress aside from word count (‘PhD Process Journal’/ Pomodoro rounds)
  • Check in with your accountability partner
  • Keep track of your wins
  • Cultivate gratitude for what is going well
  • Volunteer to help someone in your community who has been affected by COVID-19
  • Reward yourself with an item on your list
  • Make time for a new hobby or pastime that you’ve been postponing (learning a language, playing an instrument, drawing, painting, listening to music, reading a novel)
  • Set up a regular video chat with family or friends
  • Maintain the same bedtime | adopt a wind down ritual in the evening to boost your sleep quality
  • Since ideas or thoughts may come to you when you least expect it, have a notebook on hand to make space for these insights and commit to return to them the following day

 

PhD Wellbeing During COVID-19

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The events of the past few weeks have impacted all of our lives in a profound way. Our daily routines have been shaken up and simple things that we used to take for granted have stopped for the time being. What’s worse is that we don’t know how long the current situation will last and when life will go back to normal. Below are a few tips for maintaining your wellbeing during this challenging time.

Cultivate Connections: The PhD experience can be isolating in and of itself, even without the official guidance to practice social-distancing. We may not have access to regular channels of support during this time, but we do have amazing technology at our disposal that can help us feel connected. Starting this week, set up a few virtual coffee dates with family and friends over your preferred technology. Try projecting your laptop onto a TV screen, which will make it feel like your loved ones are sitting in the room with you.

Live in the Now: One of the most daunting aspects of the current crisis is the uncertainty surrounding it. We simply do not know how long it will last. Although this can create a great deal of anxiety, the truth is that we can only live one day at a time anyways. So, try your best to live in the now and focus your attention on what’s immediately in front of you rather than getting caught up with what may or may not come to pass at some future point.

Carve Out Space and Time: Working from home can be tricky for many people, as the lines between work and leisure so easily blur. It can also be a real challenge to motivate yourself in the same space where you would otherwise relax. If you don’t have a separate room to work in, try and designate a particular space in your home that is exclusively for work. Even if it’s just a corner of your bedroom or a table in the living room. Establishing a daily routine will also be immensely beneficial. Have a consistent wake up and bed time to set some parameters around your day.

Limit your Intake of the News: While the media are keeping all of us updated on this fast-moving situation, the way in which the news is presented tends to be extremely alarmist and panic-inducing. Try being selective about how much news you watch and perhaps switch it on at one point in the day instead of exposing yourself to continuous doses of fear and panic throughout the day. It may also be worth replacing your news intake with something more light-hearted, especially things that remind you how to laugh!

Contact Your Supervisor: Apart from maintaining connections with your loved ones, it is also important to connect with your supervisor periodically throughout this time. In particular, it is crucial to discuss the implications of this crisis on your thesis and whether any of your plans, such as field work, might have to be reconsidered. Your supervisor may be able to help you brainstorm a ‘Plan B’ for your research if your original plans are no longer possible.

Stay Active: Depending on how restrictive your circumstances are, there is nothing to stop you from getting fresh air – as long as you continue to follow the official advice and maintain your distance from others if you go outdoors. Try getting out for a walk at least once a day or every other day if that’s more feasible. If that’s not possible, crack open your windows and do some online exercises to stay active.

Embrace the Stillness: Without downplaying the horrendousness of the current situation, there is something remarkable about the stillness of our lives and the world around us at the present time. The usual busyness surrounding PhD life and the many obligations associated with being a PhD student – attending meetings, going to classes, teaching, publishing papers, applying for conferences and preparing job applications, among other things – have all ceased for the time being. Streets have emptied, shops are closed, and everything has gone quiet. While the circumstances that facilitated this are not ones we would ever wish to repeat, the stillness that is on offer may also be seen as a rare opportunity to go within and better connect with ourselves.

If you find yourself struggling and would like some one-to-one coaching, please get in touch with me at info@academease.org

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Presenting With Confidence

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The ability to deliver a presentation with confidence is an important skill for students and academic staff, yet presenting is an activity that many people dread. Since much of the anxiety surrounding presenting is future-oriented, overcoming presentation anxiety will involve taking steps at several stages. In this post I’ll outline a number of tips for alleviating anxiety at each stage.

 The Weeks Leading Up to Your Presentation…

Tackling anxiety surrounding an upcoming presentation will start with taking steps in the weeks preceding the presentation. There are many things you can do to get yourself prepared for the big day and alleviate some of your fears in the process.

  • Make a schedule for preparing | break down the tasks that need to be done so that they are more manageable. For instance, this could involve researching your topic, writing out a script, preparing handouts or power point slides etc.
  • Find ways to get excited about your topic. Excitement is a major antidote to the fear surrounding your presentation
  • Use visual aids (graphs, power point, or a handout) as a way to keep eyes off of you, particularly if you are nervous about being the center of attention.
  • Have a look at the venue and room in advance
  • Arrange for a few friends to attend the presentation if it would make you feel more comfortable to have familiar faces in the audience
  • When you find yourself worrying about the presentation, remember that it’s not happening today

 

The Day Before Your Presentation…

It’s natural to be consumed by thoughts of your impending presentation as the big day draws nearer. The eve of a presentation can be particularly challenging for people, so give the following steps a try.

  • Prepare up to a certain point and then take the rest of the evening off
  • Spend time selecting an outfit that makes you feel your best
  • Do something physical (like going to the gym) to get any nervous energy out of your system
  • See a film to occupy your mind and distract you
  • Remember the presentation is not happening right now – whenever you find yourself worrying, try and replace the worry with an image of yourself feeling comfortable and confident as you present

 

Immediately Before Your Presentation….

On the morning of your presentation, it will be important to spend some time preparing yourself physically and mentally for the day ahead. The action steps below will help keep you calm and centred. 

  • Have a nourishing breakfast and avoid stimulants
  • Get to the venue early, leaving yourself plenty of time
  • Find a quiet space before | focus on your breathing and grounding exercises
  • Listen to inspiring, upbeat music
  • Spend a few minutes shaking nervous energy out of you and doing stretching exercises
  • Keep taking slow, deep breaths to counter any fight or flight symptoms you may experience

 

During Your Presentation…

The action steps you take during your presentation will involve tapping into your excitement for your topic, paying attention to your posture, breathing and consciously slowing down. There are also tips and tricks you can draw upon to break the ice and develop more of a connection to your audience.

  • Recall your excitement for the topic before you begin
  • Stand tall and pay attention to your posture throughout the presentation
  • Keep a bottle of water nearby
  • Connect to your audience (try starting with a question as a way to connect with the audience and feel more at ease)
  • Hold an object (pen or power point clicker) to keep your hands busy
  • Find ways to slow down | take pauses for emphasis | ask rhetorical questions | sip water
  • Consider playing a brief youtube clip to give yourself a break from speaking
  • Take deep breaths throughout to slow down your heart rate.

 

After Your Presentation…

Because negative experiences can breed further anxiety, it is important to continue taking action steps even after your presentation.

  • Challenge yourself to reflect on all of the things that went well
  • Write down a list to build positive momentum
  • Ask yourself in what ways this experience was positive for you? What do you think you did particularly well?
  • Remind yourself that presenting is a skill that can be improved over time. If you find yourself being self-critical, reframe the criticism by writing down anything you’ve learned from the experience and how you might improve during your next presentation

I hope you’ve found these tips helpful. To further build confidence for future presentations, consider enrolling in your local chapter of Toastmasters International.

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Navigating Job Applications

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Applying for jobs in the midst of completing your PhD can feel very overwhelming. Students are frequently told how competitive the job market is. As early as the first year of a PhD, I often hear students starting to worry: ‘what if I don’t find a job?’ When left unchecked, this fear can become all-consuming and start to impede progress on the PhD itself.

My advice to students is to set aside one hour per week and go to a space where they don’t do their regular PhD work, such as a cafe in their neighbourhood. I ask them to bring along a notebook or journal specifically devoted to their job search. During that time and that time alone, they do a broad search of jobs they come across, note them down in the book and keep track of when the application is due. After the hour, I ask them to close their job search journal and leave that space.

Having this time carved out, and conducting their search in a separate space to their normal working environment helps to set some important boundaries. It also allows them to get excited about the prospect of finding a job without inhibiting their work and limits the amount of worried energy that gets expended on this task.

If you are starting to think about applying for jobs, try this technique for the next few weeks and see if it helps make the job search feel more manageable.

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Once you’ve narrowed down a few prospective jobs to apply for, here are a few additional tips to keep in mind.

  • When you find a position that you’d like to apply for, try not to become overly attached to it. The best way to do this is to zoom out and allow yourself to see that there are other possibilities beyond that one job. If you think you need something in order to be happy, it’s a sign you are overly attached to it.

 

  • Give up the mentality of lack and scarcity – the idea that there aren’t enough jobs, publication opportunities or funding to go around. While this mindset is very common in academia, it breeds a lot of anxiety and puts unnecessary pressure on you.

 

  • When you apply for something give it your best shot but remember that you only control 50% of the process. The other 50% is beyond your control, as there may be factors behind the scenes that you aren’t even aware of. All you can do is work on your half of the equation and let go of trying to control the other half.

 

  • Despite the image that most people project of themselves, it takes time to land the ideal job. Even the strongest candidates will encounter their fair share of rejection letters over time. Instead of setting unrealistic expectations for yourself and comparing yourself to others, remind yourself that patience is a virtue when it comes to navigating job applications.

 

  • Getting to the interview stage is a success in its own right and should be celebrated. If you ever feel like you screwed up an interview or an application, remember that this is a learning process. Interview skills are something you can improve, so try and treat it as a learning experience.

 

  • Whatever setbacks you encounter in applying for jobs, these do not need to define you unless you allow them to. If things don’t work out as you hoped in relation to a specific job, remember that there could be something better out there for you.

 

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Beware of the Urge to Compare

compare-643305_1280How often do you compare yourself to those around you? In many ways, the competitive nature of academia encourages us to compare ourselves to others. With our work being constantly assessed and evaluated, measuring our progress in relation to others may start to feel very natural.

While the comparison game may seem to be a useful way for determining how well we are doing, there is also something deeply counterproductive about measuring ourselves in relation to others. This became particularly evident to me when I was completing my PhD.

During the PhD, there was no obvious basis for comparison between me and the students in my cohort. Although we had course work during our first year and yearly upgrade panels, these were not graded. We were all pursuing our own independent research projects over a four-year period, wherein the only requirement was to submit a 100 000 word thesis.

As our main task was to write, the default mode of comparison became how many chapters each of us had produced. I recall being asked several times throughout my PhD by other classmates: ‘how many chapters have you written?’ and feeling bad that it wasn’t enough in comparison to what some of the other students had managed to produce. It started to feed into the feeling that I was constantly behind and not performing as well as my colleagues.

Of course, this chapter counting took no notice of how unique each PhD project was, not to mention the different working patterns of each student, differences in methodology, and the resulting differences in terms of the timescales for completion. Given all of this, counting chapters – and draft chapters in particular – as a measure for comparison was pretty meaningless.

The futility of this metric became even more apparent as the time for submitting the thesis drew nearer. Interestingly, and to my surprise, those who had written the most in the initial stages of the PhD were by no means the first to submit. This really brought home to me how ridiculous the ‘chapter counting’ comparison was.

But my realization also applies to the more general comparisons we tend to draw between ourselves and others. Whether we are using academic benchmarks or another metric for comparison, we will always find people who seem to be doing better than us as well as people who may not be – it all depends on where we focus our attention.

Either way, we’d be much better off not to make the success or failure, progress or lack of progress of others, mean something about ourselves. As you go forward, try and beware of your own urge to compare and ask yourself whether the comparison is actually serving you.

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Managing Your Relationship with Your PhD Supervisor

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The relationship we have with our academic supervisors can make or break the experience of a PhD. So it is no surprise that supervisor relationships are often the number one issue students highlight to me when I ask them to identify their top frustrations with the PhD. There seems to be something in the nature of the supervisor-supervisee relationship that can feel inherently disempowering.

In the years that I’ve worked with PhD students, I’ve heard my fair share of horror stories ranging from unresponsive supervisors to those who micromanage their students or give insulting feedback. But I’ve also heard more promising stories about supervisors who are available, encouraging and completely supportive of their students.

While it may seem as though it’s just the luck of the draw, I wouldn’t leave everything up to chance. There are things you can do to foster a better relationship with your academic supervisor. Below I will share some top tips for enhancing the supervisor-supervisee relationship.

  1. OWN YOUR PROJECT

Many students approach the relationship with their supervisors through the lens of an employer/employee dynamic. In reality, your supervisor should be working for you! Even though your supervisor is more senior than you, this is your project and it is highly likely that you are more of an expert on your specific topic than they are. Supervisors are there to guide you through the process, but at the end of the day, this is your project and it’s up to you to shape it the way that you want.

  1. COMMUNICATE YOUR NEEDS

Whether it’s more frequent contact, clearer feedback, or joint meetings if you have multiple supervisors, don’t hesitate to ask for what you need. While it’s not uncommon to hear students complaining about their supervisors, the truth is that your supervisor can’t read your mind and if something isn’t working well, it’s up to us to communicate what your needs are. This will first involve identifying your needs and then making a clear and direct request to your supervisor.

  1. SET EXPECTATIONS IN ADVANCE

Unfortunately, there is no guidebook on how supervisors and supervisees should interact. It is often down to the individuals involved to determine how this important relationship will function. As with any relationship, we have an opportunity to establish what the expectations are and set out how those expectations are going to be fulfilled. For instance, when it comes to constructing a timetable for completion, you might wish to jointly work on this with your supervisor. In setting out the timetable, you commit to specific dates for submitting individual chapters to your supervisor, while your supervisor commits to specific dates for returning their feedback to you. In this way, you set a mutually workable timetable that establishes what work needs to be done by each person and by what date.

  1. ADMIT WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW

If there is something you don’t understand, don’t shy away from admitting to your supervisor that you are confused or unsure about it. Pursuing research at the doctoral level will necessarily involve probing into unfamiliar territory or even a particular methodology that is brand new for you. You don’t need to have all the answers, so let go of the expectation that you should be an expert on everything that is related to your research area.

  1. DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY

As I mentioned in my previous post, ‘Coping With Academic Criticism’ receiving a lot of negative feedback from a supervisor can feel extremely demoralising. Remember that it’s your supervisor’s job to spot potential holes in your research so try not to take it personally. Of course, it can be challenging not to take negative feedback to heart. What I encourage students to do is to sift through the feedback and ask yourself: ‘will this feedback ultimately strengthen the project?’ If the answer is yes, it may help you to view it more constructively.

  1. ASK FOR CLARITY

It could be that your supervisors’ feedback or comments to you are unclear or contradictory to something else they said to you previously. Not only does this often lead students to feel stuck and uncertain about how to proceed, it can also be incredibly frustrating. Don’t hesitate to ask your supervisor for more clarity. It could be that they have overlooked their previous advice to you or that they need to explain their feedback to you more fully. However awkward it may feel to ask for clarity on something, you’ll save yourself a lot of time in the end by having this conversation.

  1. BROADEN YOUR NETWORK

It is not uncommon to see students becoming overly reliant on their supervisors throughout the PhD – depending on them not only for advice about their thesis, but advice more generally relating to job applications, publishing, teaching, funding opportunities and much more. While it’s great to draw on the experience and wisdom of your supervisor, it’s also important to broaden your circle of support throughout the PhD, beyond the tiny bubble of you and your supervisor. For this reason, I encourage students to make their own contacts and connections throughout the PhD, and to take advantage of opportunities to share their work with others. Expanding your connections in the field will not only enrich your research by exposing you to other viewpoints, it will also put less pressure on the relationship with your supervisor.

  1. REMEMBER THEIR EXPERIENCE IS NOT YOUR EXPERIENCE

Another reason to seek other avenues of support beyond your supervisor is because their experience is not your experience. The world may have changed a lot since they did their PhD and as a consequence, the advice they may be able to offer you about – for instance – job applications, may be quite limited. So graciously accept their advice when it is offered, but don’t treat everything they say as gospel. Talk to others and, above all, follow your own instincts.

 

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