These negative emotions might not sound like a fun focus for you today; we need to acknowledge them, but also consider ways of dealing with them.
Frustration can appear in various forms during the PhD: research does not always run smoothly and the associated writing is also fraught with challenges. While some people love writing and have no problem settling down and getting on with it, for many of us it feels like we spend an enormous amount of time and energy with rather little to show for it. Even if you have done a great deal of writing in the past, the kind of writing required to produce a thesis (whether a monograph or a series of articles) is likely to be considerably different from what you have done previously.
In their paper on ‘Frustrated academic writers’, Sword, Trofimova and Ballard (2018, p855) describe frustration as ‘a deeply contradictory emotion: at once a prompt for energy and a site of resistance; a stimulant and a depressant; a mere field to cross and a bog in which to flounder’. Sound a bit familiar?
ACTIVITY: Sword et al. explore metaphors for frustration. One of my favourites from their list: ‘[Frustration] is an exercise in futility, like … winning a pie-eating contest in which the prize is more pie’ (p862). How would you describe your feelings of frustration related to your studies? Share a sentence in the Comments box starting with ‘Frustration is like….’
Then continue your sentence with a shift of attitude that allows you to turn this into a story of redemption that moves past the frustration. For example, that pie prize could be shared with all the people who cheered me on at the eating contest – I’m off the hook to eat more, and paying attention to the way others support me in achieving my goals.
The point here is that frustration can be contradictory – it can be both blocking and debilitating, and it can also push us into doing something positive about the things we find frustrating.
Giving good feedback on writing is difficult because we are commenting on something that someone has put time and effort into creating, and our identities as successful researchers can be tied up in this expression of ideas. As Anthony Paré (one of my favourite writers on academic writing) puts it in his DoctoralWriting post:
The text is not some sort of disembodied, independent utterance; it’s an extension or expression of the writer. We are what we think, and our texts are the visible trace of our views on the world. Feedback that recommends new ways of expressing something, alternative perspectives on topics, or expanded explanations of theory are not mere surface or cosmetic suggestions; they are invitations to think differently, to look at the world with new eyes. Even copyediting directives are instructions on how to be a particular kind of person: a person who punctuates, formats, spells, cites, and expresses themselves in a certain, approved style.
Supervisors do sometimes understand how students feel about feedback – after all, they have received plenty of feedback on their own work from supervisors, colleagues and via peer review. In this Thesis Whisperer post, an experienced supervisor writes to her student after a progress review presentation:
The professors did their job and put the boot in. I remember seeing that look in the mirror after my own viva. Why does a win in academia always have the sting of defeat? We all have a deep, interior need for approval. But in this game, no-one will ever smile and give you a gold star. Instead you get “feedback”. We’re supposed receive feedback like a gift, but it feels like a rebuke. Few things are more agonising than a thorough dressing down of your work. Bear in mind that academics are never taught properly how to give feedback, which is why it’s such a slippery, contradictory, prickly process. As a PhD student, you’re not taught to receive feedback either, just to nod in acquiescence. Part of becoming a scholar is learning to receive feedback in a way that is constructive for you, not simply to please others.
ACTIVITY: Why do some supervisors give such terrible feedback when they are good writers themselves? What have you found helpful, and what has left you feeling frustrated? Please add your ideas via the Comments at the bottom of this page.
Unlike other written assignments in university coursework, thesis writing is not a one-off event. Previously, most assignments were prepared over a few days or weeks, submitted and feedback received along with a grade. The task was then over and done with. Paré (2011) reminds us that, as an HDR now, the process is much, much longer and drawn out. Draft after draft is drawn up, revised, restructured, revised over again, and so on, and so on. It can seem that, no matter how carefully you respond to a supervisor’s comments, they always want more. This recursive process of writing and rewriting can be very frustrating: it feels like the process is never-ending; there’s really nothing new to work with, only a process of refining the expression of ideas that are now extremely familiar to the author; and it’s hard to understand why the supervisor didn’t just ask for the necessary changes all at the same time (see my blog post for some clues on why supervisors can appear to give contradictory feedback).
It’s completely understandable that thesis writing induces a level of anxiety: after all, this writing is ultimately to be examined and decisions made on whether we are good enough to earn a PhD. The stakes are high and so much of our identity is tied up in this writing and doing it well; succeeding in this task paves the way for formal recognition as a scholar in our chosen field. It can also be helpful to recognise that your feelings about writing are not necessarily only about the writing itself, even if this is the place where you direct your bigger feelings of frustration.
It is very common for HDRs to experience loneliness and isolation during their studies. The conditions of doctoral study with a focus on individual, original research mean that much of the work must be done alone as you develop deep expertise in a very narrow area. For those working in a lab or part of an active research group, this individualism is partially mitigated, but for those in many Humanities and Social Sciences areas there is very little overlap in research projects or even research interests. In more normal times, the flexibility of projects that allow HDRs to work from home can exacerbate the isolation experienced; now that we are all working from home, this is greatly heightened. Studying part time while working can also make it harder to interact with others from your College or Department. Together, these are the conditions in which imposter syndrome flourishes, as we saw yesterday. On top of all that, the ‘pluralistic ignorance’ described by Lovitts (2001) plays into this too: it is very hard to admit that there are problems if it seems that you are the only one experiencing frustration, isolation and loneliness, so it feels better not to mention these difficult emotions.
A PhD is aimed at producing independent, autonomous scholars, but we need to recognise that novice researchers need support to develop that autonomy. It doesn’t happen overnight on enrolling in a research degree. Supervisors can play a key role in providing that support, but not all are skilled in how to do this appropriately in order to meet the needs of individual HDRs.
Styles of supervision
Supervisors will have different styles of supervision that are often based on (or in reaction to) their own experience of being a doctoral candidate. Some are determined to ensure that you get lots of advice and support throughout candidature; others prefer a hands-off approach that leaves you free to do things your own way. Some want to micro-manage each step of your project; others believe that you should be given a free hand to follow your own path. For each of these positions there advantages and disadvantages for PhD candidates.
ACTIVITY: Which style sounds like your supervisors? Do they both/all have the same style, or are they different? Does that mix work for you or complicate your situation? Please add comments below.
Added to all this, you may be new to Canberra, possibly a very long way from home, isolated from the usual support networks of friends and family. I for one would never underestimate the power of homesickness to push us off balance. Building new networks as an HDR might feel like an added burden on an already busy program, but it is an essential part of your growth as a researcher. While we know that the relationship between supervisor and student is crucial to the success of the doctoral project, research into doctoral education is increasingly demonstrating the importance of the support of peers in developing a sense of belonging to the research community (e.g., Elliot et al. 2016; Janta et al. 2014).
In fact, a deeply pleasurable aspect of doctoral studies is the sense of belonging to a community of scholars. But it won’t happen by chance – you’ll need to be proactive even if you feel shy and awkward about approaching your peers. While the ANU campus is closed, it’s even more important to seek out ways to interact with other HDRs. If you are not comfortable about ‘networking’, start with small steps: log onto the Zoom coffee meeting, follow up conversations with short email messages, comment on social media posts. Under normal circumstances you can develop relationships with your peers and university staff by simply being friendly to those around your lab or office, initiating short conversations asking how they are today, how their research is going. Slowly you’ll get to know each other.
ACTIVITY: What can you do to dilute feelings of loneliness in your studies, especially at present when all this must happen online? Is there a writing group or a reading group, a seminar series or some other event you can attend? What is going on in your School/College/University that you can join in with and mix with others facing similarly isolating doctoral work? Please use the Comments to tell us what you plan to do to alleviate feelings of isolation. (Of course, I’m hoping that by engaging with this course you will also feel less alone that you might otherwise.)
Elliot, D.L., Baumfield, V., Reid, K. & Makara, K.A. (2016) Hidden treasure: Successful international doctoral students who found and harnessed the hidden curriculum, Oxford Review of Education, 42:6, 733-748, DOI: 10.1080/03054985.2016.1229664
Gatfield, T. (2005) An Investigation into PhD Supervisory Management Styles: Development of a dynamic conceptual model and its managerial implications, Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 27:3, 311-325, DOI: 10.1080/13600800500283585
Janta, H., Lugosi, P. & Brown. L. (2014) Coping with loneliness: A netnographic study of doctoral students, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 38:4, 553-571, DOI: 10.1080/0309877X.2012.726972
Lovitts, B.E. (2001) Leaving the Ivory Tower: The Causes and Consequences of Departure from Doctoral Study. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Paré A. (2011) Speaking of writing: Supervisory feedback and the dissertation. In: McAlpine L., Amundsen C. (eds) Doctoral Education: Research-Based Strategies for Doctoral Students, Supervisors and Administrators. Springer, Dordrecht. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-94-007-0507-4_4
Sword, H., Trofimova, E., & Ballard, M. (2018). Frustrated academic writers. Higher Education Research & Development, 37:4, 852-867, DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2018.1441811.