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.
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.
You’ve reached a significant milestone and submitted your thesis, but now there is one final hurdle awaiting you – the viva. So much of the viva seems to be shrouded in mystery. Many students walk into it not quite knowing what to expect or how the process works. This can make the entire exercise even more nerve-racking. In this post I’ll highlight a few steps to help prepare for the viva, but I want to start off by demystifying the viva process itself.
Approaching the examination as a defence of your work not only puts you into fight-versus-flight mode as you prepare, the feeling of being under attack may also inhibit your performance. Instead of approaching your viva in a fear-based way, my advice is to reframe it as more of a conversation about your project. This will help release some of the pressure surrounding the viva and allow you to tap into what first inspired you about your research area.
A conversation does not have to be unpleasant or uncomfortable and in fact, it can even be enjoyable. It is also a more accurate description of what the viva actually entails. In contrast to an academic presentation, where you would typically give a brief summary of your work, you won’t be expected to give an overview of your research. When you show up to the viva, it is assumed that your examiners will have thoroughly read your work and will jump straight into the discussion.
In the UK there are typically two examiners at each viva. One tends to be drawn from within the student’s home department whereas the second is an external person from another academic institution. You will have some choice in selecting your examiners as you near completion. Your supervisor may have some ideas for appropriate examiners, but you can also suggest individuals if you already have some in mind. As a rule, supervisors don’t usually attend their students’ vivas, and on the rare occasions that they do, they are expected to refrain from speaking throughout.
One of the most difficult things to predict is how long your viva will last. The truth is that the length of a viva really varies – some are as short as an hour whereas others are several hours long. It’s also difficult to attribute any meaning to the length of time, as it’s not always the case that a very long viva is indicative of any problems with the thesis. It could be that the examiners are genuinely interested in the topic and have a lot to discuss with the student. Equally, we can’t assume anything if the viva is relatively short.
The results of the viva tend to be announced to a student on the day. Whatever the outcome, the examiners will follow-up by compiling their comments in a report. The report will provide an overview of the viva and the result, along with any corrections you have been requested to make.
Perhaps what makes the viva process so mysterious is that each student’s experience tends to vary significantly. It really comes down to the individuals involved and how they interact with your work. It is precisely because of this variance that you should take others’ experiences with a pinch of salt. No two people will have an entirely similar viva. Despite whatever stories you hear from others about their viva, it’s best to remember that your experience will be your own.
How can I prepare for it?
The uncertainty surrounding the viva process can often leave students stumped over how to prepare. Although it’s impossible to predict how things will go on the day or what the examiners’ assessment of your thesis will be, there are a number of things you can do to put yourself in the best position possible. Below are the main steps I would recommend in advance of your viva:
Read through your thesis to refresh your memory. In particular, you want to make a note of – and be able to speak about – the following items: your central argument; the contribution your work makes; how your research fits within the literature; an explanation of your methodology; and finally, any avenues for future research that your project opens up.
Get to know your examiners. It’s important to know the individuals you will be dealing with on the day, so do a bit of background research that goes beyond scanning their bios. Who are they and how are they likely to view your work given their particular perspective and background?
Try and brainstorm some possible questions you may be asked and practice answering them. Although you won’t be able to anticipate everything in advance, it will give you some practice in fielding questions.
Are there any gaps in your research? Try to think about what some of the potential limitations of your research are. Could you reframe these limitations as avenues for further research?
Arrange for a mock viva with your supervisor or another colleague. Try to do this at least a week or two weeks before the viva to give you enough time to prepare and reflect on how it went.
As mentioned above, reframing the viva as a conversation instead of a defence will allow you to show up differently on the day. It will influence how you carry yourself, how you respond to questions and, ultimately, how much you are able to get out of the experience. The conversation is there to improve the project and ultimately help you – so there’s no need to feel under attack.
Dress for the occasion. Rather than picking something standard from your wardrobe for the day, spend some time selecting an outfit. Not only will dressing for the occasion help you exude confidence, it will convey a sense of professionalism to your examiners. If it isn’t feasible for you to buy a new outfit, little flourishes can also go a long way towards boosting your confidence.
As strange as it may sound, try and get excited about the viva. In other words don’t lose sight of what you find exciting and enjoyable about the project. Tapping into your excitement is one of the best antidotes to fear and anxiety. Given that you dedicated so much of your time to working on your PhD, the opportunity to have colleagues engage with your work is actually something to look forward to and to be excited about.
When we first embark on the journey towards obtaining a PhD we do so with the best intentions. We envisage a smooth path ahead of us and the key milestones we intend to reach along the way. What we don’t anticipate are the unexpected situations that throw us off course – things that obstruct our path or force us to make a detour.
On average it takes approximately four years to complete a PhD and there is certainly a lot that can happen within that time. We are often different people by the time we come out on the other side. Our personal circumstances may change, our families may endure a crisis, or we could end up experiencing financial hardship. The roadblocks we encounter could also be directly related to our research. Perhaps the topic we had decided to write on is no longer feasible or we’ve run into problems with our supervisor.
Although we can take steps to mitigate certain roadblocks, others are impossible to foresee. The COVID-19 Pandemic is an excellent example of this. No one saw it coming, yet it has had a momentous impact on all higher education institutions. Regular working patterns have been disturbed by the requirement to work from home, field work has been disrupted by travel restrictions, and universities have been forced to shift to a virtual learning environment overnight. No amount of planning or foresight could have prepared us for this crisis. Every student pursuing their PhD can feel the impact of this situation and has had to find ways to adapt.
Whatever type of roadblock we encounter, from a personal crisis to a global pandemic, the consequences from a PhD perspective are almost always the same. Most roadblocks on the PhD path result in delays, which will likely mean requesting an extension or an interruption of studies. In other words, an already lengthy process gets drawn out further.
The prospect of a protracted PhD, irrespective of the reasons that necessitate it, can be a difficult pill for a doctoral student to swallow. In fact, I’ve never come across a PhD student that is content with the amount of time their PhD journey has taken them. Most tend to despair at the length of time that it takes and judge themselves rather harshly for not being able to complete it more swiftly. As such, the notion of requesting additional time is not likely to be greeted with enthusiasm.
Some of the concern with prolonging the PhD derives from a fear that our work may become outdated if we submit it later than planned. Nevertheless, the time-frame is less important than it may at first appear. For instance, if you select any piece of work, there will always be scope for updating, improving, or revising it in line with recent developments. Academic research is, by its very nature, dynamic and continuously evolving – never really ‘done’. It is simply a snapshot at a specific moment in time and, therefore, the time-frame for completing your thesis is likely to be much more flexible than you have come to believe.
A further reason why a delay may not seem appealing stems from the stigma of finishing behind your peers. If you end up taking more time and your peers finish before you, what will it look like? And, more crucially, what will it mean? Although you began your PhD journey with a peer group, it is important to remember that you are each on individual paths. Every project is unique, as is each student’s working patterns and personal circumstances. Any supposed competition between you and your peers is more imagined than real. The bottom line is that whether you submit before or after them makes absolutely no difference at all. The PhD is not a race to the finish line.
Taking more time to finish your thesis as a result of a roadblock is by no means something to be embarrassed about. When you look back at your completed PhD, the fact that you persisted despite challenges is a testament to your dedication and perseverance. Staying the course in the face of roadblocks is something to be proud of and celebrated.
‘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.
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.