Are You Feeling Overwhelmed By Your PhD Work?

When faced with a seemingly endless amount of work to do and very little time to do it in, the thing that first inspired us to pursue a PhD may not be enough to keep us going. Feeling overwhelmed can make it difficult to know where (or even how) to start.

The roots of overwhelm often lie in an unexpected place and that is our external environment. While it may not always be obvious, our external environment is often a reflection of how we are feeling – such that a chaotic environment may reveal feeling scattered, stressed, and unfocused. In fact, recent research has begun to draw links between a person’s physical environment and their sense of wellbeing. 

According to a study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, people with cluttered homes and unfinished projects had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol and were reportedly more fatigued and depressed.[i]The study highlights why it can be difficult to think, let alone live, in a space that is disorganised. Similarly, another investigation has examined the relationship between clutter in the home and our sense of happiness and found that ‘clutter had a negative impact on… subjective wellbeing.’[ii]

So, if you are looking for a quick remedy to feeling overwhelmed, it may be worth reflecting on your surroundings. How organised is your work space? Is your desk tidy or filled with clutter? How inviting is your space and how do you tend to feel when you are in it? How often do you tidy and clean your space? Feelings of overwhelm can also be brought on by electronic disarray – for instance, disorganised files on your computer or emails in your inbox. Perhaps some dedicated decluttering time would help make your external environment feel more inviting. 

In conjunction with our external environment, it is also important to examine our internal environment – that is, our thoughts in relation to the PhD. It is understandable if the thought of producing 100,000 words feels overwhelming. It is undoubtedly overwhelming. Yet, the truth is that no one producing a thesis actually writes 100,000 words all at once. They write incrementally – one section at a time, one sentence at a time, one word a time. The more we fixate on the final word count, the more overwhelming it starts to feel and, in turn, the harder it becomes to motivate ourselves. 

Instead of focusing on the long road ahead, just look to the next step immediately in front of you. In practice, this will involve breaking larger tasks down into smaller, manageable and – most of all – achievable goals. Before you begin a task, write down all the component parts associated with that task and what you consider to be achievable for the day ahead. If something still feels overwhelming, it’s usually an indication that the task could be broken down further.  

Establishing a system of incentives and rewards can further support your motivation levels and help to alleviate feelings of overwhelm. Start by keeping a list of things that you can reward yourself with as you attain your goals. They don’t necessarily need to be big or fancy items – small and inexpensive items are actually ideal for a rewards list. It could be things like: seeing a film, treating yourself to a nice meal, going to a museum or a concert, having your favourite ice cream or a bar of chocolate, or watching something you enjoy on Netflix. These are things you might do anyways, but when you consciously utilise them as a way to reward yourself, they tend to take on a new meaning. 

By rewarding yourself regularly in this way, you not only give yourself additional motivation to complete a task, you also practice better self-care. Whereas many students slip into the paradigm of beating themselves up in relation to their work, rewarding yourself regularly will remind you to be gentle with yourself. This can make the entire PhD experience a lot more enjoyable. The headway you make towards achieving your goal – however big or small the step may seem – represents progress. Not only are these steps important to acknowledge, they are worth celebrating in their own right. 


[i]Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi, The Unbearable Heaviness of Clutter’ New York Times,3 January 2019, available at www.nytimes.com/2019/01/03/well/mind/clutter-stress-procrastination-psychology.html(accessed 16 August 2020). 
[ii]Catherine A Roster et.al., ‘The dark side of home: Assessing possession “clutter” on subjective wellbeing’ Journal of Environmental Psychology, 46 (2016): 32-41.  

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Do You Feel Supported by Your PhD Supervisor?

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.   

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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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Coping With Academic Criticism

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Compliments can be hard to come by in the academic arena. This is particularly the case for PhD students. Criticism can come from a variety of differently places – your supervisor, colleagues, or other faculty members in your department.

Endless criticism can feel exhausting and become a major de-motivator. It can also be difficult not to take the criticism personally, particularly if you are used to excelling academically, as many doctoral students are. In this post I want to address how to cope with academic criticism throughout your PhD.

The first thing is to simply realize that the criticism of your project is normal and even to be expected. While you may have grown accustomed to receiving compliments on your work, it’s important to appreciate that the PhD is an entirely different ballgame and by its very nature, subject to a higher level of scrutiny. So as strange as it may sound, it is actually an indication of the more demanding level you are working at.

Since a higher amount of criticism is to be expected during the PhD, it’s also important to understand that it’s meant to help you. It may feel awful in the moment, but whenever I ask a student I’m coaching to reflect on the criticism they receive, they almost always acknowledge that it will make their project better in the long-term. The key question to ask yourself is – is this criticism constructive? If the answer is yes, try viewing the criticism as an opportunity to enhance or improve your project.

When the criticism isn’t particularly constructive or delivered in a respectful manner, it usually says more about the person delivering the criticism than you. Part of navigating the criticism surrounding your work is to decide which criticisms you want to take on board and which ones to disregard. It’s all part of taking ownership of your project.

If you are feeling weighed down by the volume of criticism you have received and are starting to seriously question the value of your project, don’t hesitate to request more balanced feedback. This may be something along the lines of: ‘thanks for your helpful feedback. I now have a sense of what the gaps are and what can be improved. To make sure I’m on the right track, it would be great to hear what aspects of the project you think are promising.’ People don’t always realize how their feedback is coming across, so there’s nothing to lose by asking for what you need.

The next point is to remember that the PhD is what you are doing and not who you are. With that in mind, try your best not to overidentify with your research or with the criticisms you receive of it. This can be challenging, as our projects are often deeply personal to us, but at the end of the day, the criticism of your work isn’t an attack on you or a reflection of your worth.

Finally, rather than seeking approval externally, remember that the main person who really needs to buy into your project is not your supervisor, your colleagues or anyone else – it’s you! What you think matters more than anything else. So instead of waiting to hear that you are doing ok, start to give yourself the validation you are seeking by keeping track of what aspects of the project you find valuable. Begin writing them down and come back to this list whenever you need a boost.

In my next post I’ll address a related topic of how to manage your relationship with your supervisor.

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