Today we’ll look at boredom and passion. You can use both of these emotions to push your work forward and get where you want to be in your studies.
When you start out on the PhD journey, it’s hard to imagine that you’ll encounter boredom along the path. But many HDRs go through periods of feeling bored, and this can happen for a range of reasons. At the outset, there’s so much to do: refining the research proposal; thinking through your research design and how you will tackle the project; preparing an ethics application; learning a new university system; getting to know new colleagues; collecting data and seeing the patterns of information emerge; discovering the argument behind the mass of information gathered.
Then after a while, all the excitement about these new challenges begins to wane. You start to realise just how big the task is going to be and how difficult and monotonous some of the work will be. A setback or two in the way of an experiment not delivering the data you’d anticipated, minimal response to your survey or participant recruitment, lack of access to materials you’d counted on—and suddenly your research energy can plummet. Repeated revisions to manuscripts are boring, especially when there’s nothing new to learn or say; despite your best efforts to please your supervisors, they keep returning the same piece of writing with yet another set of instructions about how to improve it. Research can feel like an endless journey with no progress and no end in sight.
ACTIVITY: Make a list of everything you do today, and everything you’ve done this week—what you’ve read, emails sent, meetings, experiments performed, words written. This will help you see just how much you’ve achieved today/this week. It can be a good exercise to do this on a regular basis (even colour code time blocks in your diary/calendar according to categories of activities) so you can see where the time goes. On the one hand, this will demonstrate that you have actually been working and getting things done—there’s a reason you are so tired at the end of the day! On the other hand, it may help you identify where time is disappearing in unproductive ways too (this can be helpful at the moment without many of our usual routines in place—time seems to have become strangely elastic in the work-from-home life).
Boredom is sometimes a way of expressing the feeling of being stuck, when your learning seems to come to a standstill. Meyer and Land (2003) identified moments in disciplinary learning that are ‘thresholds concepts’—key understandings that, once grasped, promote new ways of seeing and understanding. On the way to that new learning, though, it is necessary to pass through a period of confusion or incomprehension that puts us into a liminal state of unknowing. Until you get your head around the new concept, it’s impossible to move on in that field. Getting stuck like this is common when entering a new field or moving further into a complex field.
Threshold concepts are:
|Essential to mastery of the subject||Without understanding this concept, it’s impossible to move on further in the field.|
|Bounded||They serve a specific and limited purpose, and may mark the boundaries between disciplines and ways of thinking.|
|Integrative||They expose previously hidden inter-relationships between ideas.|
|Discursive||They enhance and extend the language, so that mastery of the discourse allows new thinking to occur.|
|Irreversible||They are very hard to forget or unlearn.|
|Troublesome||They can hold learners in a liminal space while they are getting their heads around what can often be rather counter-intuitive ideas; they can also rely on ‘tacit knowledge’ that is simply assumed by those in the know and therefore doesn’t require explanation to newcomers.|
|Liminal||They can force learners to feel stuck while standing on the threshold, suspended between knowing and unknowing as they grapple with the concept.|
|Transformative||Once you get it, you get it, and it’s very had to go back; this is when you start thinking like a professional in the field.|
The irreversible and transformative nature of threshold concepts can cause problems in supervision: supervisors who have learnt these concepts may find it very difficult to understand why a novice researcher doesn’t get it yet.
Have a look at this website to see the threshold concepts that have been identified in your own discipline.
Threshold concepts and getting stuck in a liminal state can also impact on your ability to be interested in the work. A number of scholars have identified threshold concepts in doctoral studies. For example, Margaret Kiley (2009) makes a case for the idea of the research degree as a written argument backed up by rigorously gathered evidence is a significant threshold concept; she shows how ‘theory’ can also be another problematic threshold, as is the concept of a ‘framework’ for the research.
I think that the concept of ‘authorial voice’ in writing is a threshold concept for doctoral candidates, too (Guerin & Green 2012, pp197-198). In doctoral writing, it is necessary to take up a persona in which you are writing to the discipline at large, not just to the supervisor or lecturer who will grade your papers. This shift in perspective about one’s relation to the readership and consequent modulation of voice can take time to acquire, but once you’ve got it, you can’t go back to the student voice. I recommend practising by joining a writing group that reads and critiques members’ writing; this can help to focus attention on how writing is received by its audience, so that writing becomes a social performance of reciprocal communication. The appropriate voice can also be learnt through the processes of writing for publication; submitting work to journals for peer review reveals how that work will be read and interpreted by the disciplinary community, in turn highlighting the importance of having something worth saying in a voice the disciplinary community will be interested in hearing from.
If you find yourself spending more and more time doing some of the following tell-tale activities, it may be because you are feeling bored with your research:
- An increasing interest in non-thesis tasks
- Sudden and/or repeated attempts to change topic or resistance to settling on a plan of writing
- Increasing absences
- Asking for extra or other duties or training
- Spending more time helping others than doing your own research
Some strategies for dealing with boredom include:
- Do something else. If reading is boring, try writing. Or try changing locations—the ‘Shut up and write’ phenomenon shows that many people find it easier to focus in a noisy environment like a cafe than in the silence of an office or library. The online Zoom versions run by Researcher Development are a good way to recreate this from home.
- Change the daily routine—switch around the order in which work is done. Try to put other activities in the day, such as exercise or social catch ups (online at present).
- Recognise that we are often bad at ‘affective forecasting’—that is, predicting how we will feel in the future. Thinking about a task as boring before you start it can make boredom worse, or lead to work avoidance behaviours to try to avoid boredom altogether.
Obviously, not all of these are available to us right now! I keep the full list here for future reference—eventually we’ll be able to get out and about again.
ACTIVITY: Have you tried any of these antidotes to boredom? Or have you found some other ways of helping yourself stay on task? Please share your thoughts and suggestions via the Comments—your insights are likely to help all of us get through the tricky patches of boredom! This is especially important at the moment when we all have fewer options for taking the boredom out of the day.
The motivations to undertake a research degree are many and varied. They can include: encouragement from family and friends to take up doctoral studies; intrinsic interest in the field of study and identification as the kind of person who can contribute to knowledge in the discipline; inspiration by lecturers, who sometimes actively encouraged students to continue their studies; positive undergraduate experiences of authentic research; and a desire for career advancement (Guerin, et al., 2015). These are all powerful reasons to embark on a PhD, but perhaps the most sustaining is the intrinsic interest in the topic. Identifying the significance and value of your work—which is essential for making a claim to its value when you are presenting the thesis for examination—can also remind you why you want to continue with this work during tough times. Focusing on what you care about, bringing your personal values to your academic objectivity, brings your writing to life and gives you a reason to persist. Your passion for the topic is the hook you can use sustain your energy for the topic; it can remind you why you believe the work is worth doing and attaching your reputation to. Where are you willing to hang your coat and say: ‘This is my field and my work, and I believe it’s worth doing’?
ACTIVITY: There was a reason you embarked on this research degree with this particular focus for your project. What was it that got you hooked on this idea? Tell us what fascinates you about the project and why you want to commit 3 years of your life to working on it. (And, by the way, that hook can be a very useful starting point for preparing a Three Minute Thesis presentation…)
Being passionate about your research work is probably essential for doing it well and sustaining interest despite boredom, but how does passion develop?
We are often told (especially in western countries) to ‘live the dream that is you’ and encouraged to follow our passions towards a dream job. In his book So good they can’t ignore you, Newport argues precisely the opposite. Newport’s study of people who are passionate about their work reveals a much messier picture and, more often than not, people end up being passionate about jobs that have nothing to do with their pre-existing passions. Newport demonstrates that starting with values and interests is enough; then, the more skilled you become at doing that job, the more you will come to enjoy your work.
If passion follows skill, it doesn’t do it by accident. Newport argues that highly skilled individuals grow their love for the work through deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is a way of consistently stretching outside of your comfort zone. Having the courage to push yourself in this way might feel scary at first, but may well lead you into new, unknown and exciting territory too.
When the challenges of boredom and other distractions set in, Skakni’s (2018, p204) study reports that persistence is motivated by
- a sense of duty
- enjoyment of intellectual work
- efforts and time already invested in doctoral studies
It’s more than just passion that keeps HDRs going, but that enjoyment of intellectual work can be a strong motivator for completion. Finding your satisfaction in the work can be a powerful force for persistence in the face of the emotional challenges of doctoral study.
Guerin, C., Jayatilaka, A. and Ranasinghe, D. 2015. Why start a higher degree by research? An exploratory factor analysis of motivations to undertake doctoral studies. Higher Education Research & Development,34(1), 89-104. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2014.934663
Kiley, M. (2009). Identifying threshold concepts and proposing strategies to support doctoral candidates. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 46(3), 293-304. https://doi.org/10.1080/14703290903069001
Meyer, J., & Land, R. (2003). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: linkages to ways of thinking and practising within the disciplines. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh.
Newport, C. (2012/2016). So good they can’t ignore you: When skills trump passion in the quest for work you love. London: Hachette UK.
Skakni, I. (2018) Reasons, motives and motivations for completing a PhD: a typology of doctoral studies as a quest, Studies in Graduate and Postdoctoral Education, 9(2), 197-212. https://doi.org/10.1108/SGPE-D-18-00004.