Day 2 Emotions and the PhD: Frustration and Loneliness

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

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?

Photo by Dilyara Garifullina on Unsplash

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.

 

 Feedback

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.

LONELINESS

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.)

REFERENCES

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.

14 Comments

  1. Frustration is like having a splinter under your nail but the tweezers are missing. However, your visit to your neighbour to borrow tweezers results in much appreciated sympathy and a nice catch-up with tea.

    I’ve always found two things helpful in terms of feedback – making sure there at least some “positives” which demonstrate that the supervisor is on the lookout for things you have worked hard on/improved, and practical suggestions for improvement, not just vague indications that this section/that heading/that footnote needs “work”.

    Both of my current supervisors use a contractual style. I feel really supported, but also engaged with the project. They are happy to hear my feedback and work with me, but always have ideas for readings, meetings, tasks etc.

    I have been very lucky to be involved with lots of on-line communication which makes me still feel a part of a community of scholars! Tutorials for courses, Researcher Development courses and a weekly faculty catch-up have all made me feel connected to ANU while working from home

    1. I love that image of the splinter, Katherine! Can feel it as I type!! And the scene of a cuppa with your neighbour is a lovely resolution of that frustration – especially as it’s an unexpected, unplanned moment of connection and pleasure.
      Sounds like you are getting some useful supervision in terms of helpful feedback and motivation to keep working. Do you think this is a matter of chance, or did you actively ‘teach’ them what you need from them? I’m interested in how we communicate with supervisors to help them understand what works.

      1. I don’t feel that I “taught” them as such – I have been very lucky to have a fantastic primary supervisor, who has been recognised by previous students and the university as being highly skilled, both through word of mouth praise and awards. I did, however, facilitate active discussion around expectations of attitude, workload, communication etc which has set a good basis for our ongoing working relationships.

  2. Frustration is when you get asked to say what frustration is but you can’t think of anything and that makes you frustrated…
    🙂

    Then I remember that I have time and space to set my problem aside, and come up with a plan to solve the problem. Writing it down and breaking it into steps helps me. So instead I can plan to search the web for analogies that other people have used and see if one fits how I feel, or triggers my own ideas 🙂

    1. I don’t always find it easy to think in these terms either, Catherine! But I do like your problem-solving approach – looks to me like you are good at dealing with frustration and not letting it stop you thinking and working 🙂

      1. On the topic of feedback…
        Some supervisors probably give negative feedback as they are only thinking in terms of what needs to be fixed rather than what is good about a piece. Some may be unwilling to acknowledge that your work is sophisticated as you are a junior. For most though they probably just don’t think about in terms of ‘how’ to give feedback – the feedback is more important than the way it is dressed.
        I really struggle with receiving negative feedback and usually have to leave that piece of work aside for a few days before I can deal with it again. Not really the best approach!

        1. I think there are plenty of HDRs who can find blunt criticism very hard to take when they’ve worked so hard on a particular piece of work. Leaving it aside for a few days is a good way to give yourself a bit of space. Do you also get to talk to the supervisors and clarify what they are getting at? Do they realise that bluntness can also be hurtful? When you are trying to provide feedback in a hurry with limited time to spend on it, it is possible to forget what it’s like for the person receiving those comments.

  3. For me, frustration is like trying to move forward whilst running on a hamster wheel – there’s a lot of effort, but not much progress. However, it’s always possible to step off, regroup, and start moving forward! (As an aside, I thought of this before reading the Sword et al. paper and then realised that they had something similar!)

    In terms of feedback, I’ve been really lucky to have always received a nice balance of positives, as well as areas to work on. My primary supervisor, who was also my Honours supervisor, tends to phrase criticisms as areas to develop or re-frame, which really makes it seem less personal and makes it easier to absorb.

    As I’m relatively new to my PhD, I’m still getting to know my associate supervisors, however, my primary supervisor and I have a contractual relationship, which I enjoy because it allows enough freedom for me to ‘own’ my project, but also the support needed to make it feel more manageable. Even though we have regular meetings, a lot of my feedback is in written form, which I find really helpful as I can read it in advance and then discuss it with my supervisor.

    I’m also really fortunate to be involved with tutoring, a lab group with other researchers in my area, and trainings like this, so I think that all helps to make working from home easier!

    1. It can make such a difference to our ability to hear feedback if it is presented as development rather than as something the writer has got wrong. The strategy of providing written feedback so you can digest the ideas and then follow up with a verbal discussion is very good practice – I like to hear that this is your experience!

  4. Frustration is when I go down the road my supervisors sent me after careful discussions, and then a month of hard work/writing and a month of waiting later I’m told by them, ‘But why? You went down the wrong road. You should have taken that other road. Start again.’ – while they look at me with big innocent eyes. (The other road is often one I talked about a year ago and was told that it’s a wrong one too.)

    The most frustrating in these situations is that they don’t acknowledge it that the direction was their recommendation in the first place and I feel like I’m told off for doing something wrong, while I’m just doing what they tell me to do. This makes me lose trust both in my supervisors and ‘the process’. The resources on feedback was useful to understand how supervisors’ sometimes need to see something written to know that it is not working.

    Luckily I don’t experience loneliness as an issue. It is mainly because in the last 3 years I have developed good connections with fellow PhD students and other academics, and it is easy to reach out for a chat. I’m sharing my isolation with my partner who doesn’t work at the moment, so having him around to vent or explain new ideas is really useful, and especially when I’m frustrated or upset about my writing he is very good at calming me down and persuading me to not to send out angry emails – or at least reads them to make the language more diplomatic…

    1. Hi Dori – I can see why you would feel frustrated in this situation! Do you have a way of keeping a record about decisions made in meetings? Some people find it useful to record the conversation on their phone so that they can check on details later to confirm they understood what was decided (and having a record helps in later discussions) – but make sure everyone knows it’s being recorded, of course!
      Also, it can be very helpful to send a follow-up email soon after you have supervision meetings with a summary of what happened, especially with action items. Firstly, this gives you a record of what you understood to be the decision; secondly, supervisors can sometimes identify potential problems of either understanding OR (and maybe more importantly) what seemed like a good idea at the time but looks wrong when written down in the cold light of day. It might help to change direction sooner and thus curtail the frustrating experience of doing lots of work that is then dumped. Tricky, I know.
      But what a blessing to have other good people around you when dealing with these kinds of frustrations!

  5. Frustration is when you cant sleep before a big event, say your TPR talk. The later it gets the more agitated you get that you haven’t fallen asleep and you are worried you will be too tired to perform the next day. BUT if you stop worrying, get up, write down some thoughts, do some stretches you might find the inspiration that brings an extra spark to your presentation that you wouldn’t otherwise have had. The night after your talk, you sleep like a baby and have lots of energy to deal with the feedback you receive 😀

    The worst feedback I’ve received during my PhD so far is that my writing style is “annoying”. I could see where they were coming from but it was overly personal and didn’t indicate how I could improve. I like written feedback that I can then talk through. The further along I get the less I mind blunt comments and am learning not to take them to heart (even if like Catherine it takes me a couple of days to muster the strength get back to the work).

    I’m lucky that my supervisor has a contractual style of feedback and really appreciate how time-consuming this must be for them!

    As a distance student, I’m enjoying all the new and varied ways of connecting online and have been able to join moreHDR workshops, online coffees and seminars than ever before! My first year on campus was full and varied, my fieldwork year was really collaborative but I expect the writing phase might get lonely and plan to keep up the networks and activities from my first 2 years to stave off isolation..

    1. I completely understand that frustration of being unable to sleep before a big event! And your solution of getting up and doing something else is such a good way of dealing with the frustration – plus looking forward to the excellent sleep that awaits on the other side. One of the most interesting reads about sleep that I’ve come across is Matthew Walker’s ‘Why Sleep Matters’, and he recommends that we ought to get up after 20 minutes of lying in bed awake and unable to get to sleep (though I usually leave it an hour in the overly optimistic hope that I’ll drop off…).
      Many supervisors find it difficult to talk about writing and to identify what’s needed to improve it – it’s definitely a very specific skill set that is also quite different from being able to produce good writing (and then, everyone’s idea of ‘good’ is a bit different too!). That’s why writing teachers (like those in Academic Skills and in Researcher Development) are useful specialists in the research world. Make the most of those services that are free while you are a PhD candidate 🙂

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