Day 5 Emotions and the PhD: Love

This is our last post for the Emotions and the PhD Pomodoro Break mini-course. I want to leave you with a sense of what can sustain you through the emotional rollercoaster of doctoral studies.


There’s the passion you feel for your particular topic that we explored yesterday, and then there’s the love you have for your broader discipline. This is the motivation that attracted you to the general field, sometimes way back in high school, or perhaps something new you found when you started undergrad studies, or even something that has grown on you during your years in the workforce. Love for your discipline involves a deep and abiding commitment to its central concerns and to the continual evolution of its core principles and ways of thinking.

Scholarship into doctoral education has identified a central purpose of the PhD as producing ‘stewards’ of the disciplines—scholars ‘in the fullest sense of the term—someone who can imaginatively generate new knowledge, critically conserve valuable and useful ideas, and responsibly transform those understandings through writing, teaching, and application’ (Golde & Walker 2006). Love for the discipline includes respecting this broader scholarly agenda, contributing to this writing, teaching and application, caring for and nurturing its development.

Research by the Carnegie Foundation (Golde 2006) expands on the concept of stewardship as

a set of roles and skills, as well as a set of principles. The former ensures competence and the latter provides the moral compass. A Ph.D.-holder should be capable of generating new knowledge and defending knowledge claims against challenges and criticism; of conserving the most important ideas and findings that are a legacy of past and current work; and of transforming knowledge that has been generated and conserved by teaching well to a variety of audiences, including those outside formal classrooms. … [The PhD] signifies that the recipient is able to ask interesting and important questions, formulate appropriate strategies for investigating these questions, conduct investigations with a high degree of competence, analyze and evaluate the results of the investigations, and communicate the results to others to advance the field. Conservation implies understanding of the history and fundamental ideas of the discipline, but recognizes that disciplinary stewards are aware of the shoulders on which they stand and must judge which ideas are worth keeping and which have outlived their usefulness, examining how their disciplines fit into the larger intellectual landscape. Transformation speaks of the importance of representing and communicating ideas effectively, and encompasses teaching in the broadest sense of the word. It also suggests that stewards must understand other disciplines, the differences between disciplinary views of the world, and how to appreciate and communicate across traditional boundaries. The label ‘steward’ also conveys a role that transcends accomplishments and skills; it has an ethical and moral dimension.

If it all sounds like a big ask, remember that you aren’t expected to be fully formed stewards of your discipline right from the outset, regardless of how much you love your field. Stewardship is something that develops over time as you learn more and more about your discipline and start to feel more confident that you know your stuff.

Love of the discipline overlaps with our positive feelings about colleagues working in the discipline, those who share our deep fascination for the field. Lee (2018) describes the ideal form of these relationships: ‘It is altruistic, benevolent and demonstrates goodwill. It emphasises friendship, wisdom in managing boundaries, agreeing expectations and preventing conflict’ (p880). This vision of our local and worldwide community of like-minded scholars can provide a sustaining reminder of the importance of building connections with peers on this long journey.

In thinking about love in the context of doctoral work, I was reminded of two papers that have this word in the title: one by Aitchison et al. (2012) ‘Tough love and tears’: Learning doctoral writing in the sciences; and another by Guerin, Green & Bastalich (2011) Big love: Managing a team of research supervisors (pp138-153). Both articles explore the intensity and complexity of relationships between PhD candidates, supervisors and research peers. They prompt us to recognise the emotional impact of undertaking a doctoral degree.

Photo by Vlad Bagacian on Unsplash

Part of what makes the doctoral journey so challenging is the transformation into a new identity as a researcher and scholar. In their study ‘Mapping the emotional journey of the doctoral “hero”’, Batty et al. (2019) explore the challenges and breakthroughs required for the identity transformation that takes place during PhD studies. They identify the emotional challenges of facing high stakes, fear, anxiety, expectations, stress and confidence, and also the enjoyment experienced by candidates and the resilience they build along the way. The study also describes the moments and agents of breakthrough that include letting go (of ideas, research questions/focus, independence), engaging with peer networks, building research culture, reflecting as a researcher, and ownership of the work and the experience. There are moments when this sense of ‘feeling like a researcher’ becomes clear to us (Mantai 2017). These revelations can appear in response to formal and informal activities such as the publication of research outputs, talking with peers about research, and doing the activities of research such as collecting and analysing data. Importantly, much of this validation of the new identity comes from the external recognition of peers and disciplinary colleagues, and is a ‘melding of personal, social, informal, and formal learning’ (Mantai 2017, p646).

ACTIVITY: What moments have you had where you ‘felt like a researcher’? Tell us about the moment that has lead to your sense of this new identity forming. I know that a key moment for me was when I had swipe-access to the building where I had my office—instead of being a student locked out after hours, I now felt like an insider with the special privileges that entailed.


So, in the course of this week, our Pomodoro Breaks have taken us on a journey through confidence and the imposter syndrome; the frustrations of understanding feedback and the loneliness of working on a highly individualised project; the fears associated with performing at an appropriate level; the curiosity that drives creativity but also procrastination; the boredom that can set in mid-candidature; passion for projects that have an important contribution to make; and finally to love for the discipline more broadly.

All of this takes courage and persistence if HDRs are to weather the storms of emotion that can be whipped up by the system of doctoral education itself. I hope that by understanding why you might experience these feelings that you will also be better able to manage them—accept that you are not the only HDR to feel like this. Most HDRs will experience these emotions at some point and often they are caused directly by the process of doing research within competitive, hierarchical institutions. Remember that it’s not necessarily you; it can be the system that is generating these emotions.

Are there other feelings that have dominated periods of your candidature that we haven’t covered? It’s useful for me to hear about these emotions so I can better understand what’s going on for HDRs (especially under our current situation of working remotely from home) and find helpful strategies that can be shared with our community.

FINAL ACTIVITY: What are you doing this weekend to look after yourself? Mental health and physical wellbeing are central to managing the rollercoaster journey of transformation called ‘doctoral studies’. I’d love to hear your strategies for making sure you are ready to face next week’s doctoral challenges.

My plan is to get the spring bulbs planted this weekend and to do a bit of pruning. Now the autumn rain has come, it’s time to get the garden ready for the next season. I’ve also promised myself to get the whole house clean and tidy before the end of the Anzac long weekend—but I might just have another cup of coffee and a few extra chapters of my current novel before I start on that (I’m not that keen on cleaning but am an expert procrastinator!). Then again, I could watch a few replays of old Aussie rules football matches to avoid the housework a bit longer…

I’ll leave you with a warm embrace to help you cope with the challenges and emotions of the rest of your doctoral journey. Remember that you can email me to make a time for a Zoom cuppa and a chat—my job is to help smooth your journey through the doctorate.



Aitchison, C., Catterall, J., Ross, P. I., & Burgin, S. (2012). ‘Tough love and tears’: Learning doctoral writing in the sciences. Higher Education Research & Development, 31(4), 435–447. 10.1080/07294360.2011.559195

Batty, C., Ellison, E., Owens, A., & Brien, D. (2019). Mapping the emotional journey of the doctoral ‘hero’: Challenges faced and breakthroughs made by creative arts and humanities candidates. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1177/1474022219844986.

Golde, C. M., & Walker, G. E. (Eds.). (2006). Envisioning the future of doctoral education: Preparing stewards of the discipline-Carnegie essays on the doctorate. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Guerin, C., Green, I., & Bastalich, W. (2011). Big love: Managing a team of research supervisors. In A. Lee & V. Mallan (Eds.), Connecting the local, regional and international in doctoral education (pp. 138–153). Serdang, Malaysia: Universiti Putra Malaysia Publishers.

Lee, A. (2018). How can we develop supervisors for the modern doctorate?, Studies in Higher Education, 43(5), 878-890, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2018.1438116

Mantai, L. (2017) Feeling like a researcher: experiences of early doctoral students in Australia, Studies in Higher Education, 42:4, 636-650, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2015.1067603.




  1. I completely resonate with the swipe-access moment of feeling like researcher! That, and using the kitchen amenities in the building made me feel like I was “in the club” with the university’s researchers. Presenting at my first conference and discussing possibilities for my first paper have also made me feel like I have “made it.”

    This week’s self-care activities will include baking, gardening, working on my jigsaw puzzle and reading (for pleasure, not work!) Thank you for your support throughout this course and for the course itself – it certainly is making me feel more self-reflective and resilient! Have a nice weekend Cally 🙂

    1. Ah, yes! Being allowed to use the kitchen facilities really makes you feel at home 🙂
      Participating in conferences is such an important part of showing us we are researchers. I’ve been watching the discussions about how this can be done online while we are unable to travel. One idea that looks promising is having Zoom rooms where people can replicate the small groups chatting during tea breaks. I regard these interactions as one of the most valuable aspects of conferences, even for those of us who are not great at ‘networking’ and small talk – finding a way to have those incidental conversations is key.
      I’m so pleased to hear that you are feeling more resilient after this self reflection, Katherine! That is exactly what I hoped for with this course. Enjoy a peaceful weekend 🙂

  2. I definitely agree that the 24/7 building access makes you feel like an actual researcher – having an office made me feel this way as well! Since moving into a PhD I think you’re also included in more decision-making, so for me helping to decide what we cover in our lab group also makes me feel like a researcher (vs a student). I’m sure presenting at a conference and having a paper accepted would add to this too, so that’s something for me to look forward to!

    In terms of self-care this weekend, I’m catching up with some friends via FaceTime and spending time with family. I’ll probably bake, go for a few walks, horse-ride, and take care of my house plants too. (I also have marking to do, but I enjoy it!)

    Thank you so much for this course Cally – I definitely feel more prepared for all of the different emotions that I’ll experience during my PhD!

    1. Yes – good point about being involved in the decision-making. It’s only at this stage that most of us get to see the inside workings of universities.
      Enjoy what sounds like a lovely weekend, with a balance of people and exercise and simply being 🙂 A proper break from study leaves you much more refreshed than trying to do a little of each all the time, and then feeling like you haven’t done anything fully. Have fun!

  3. I agree with all the points above! I also felt I’d made it when my supervisor introduced me to the “stars” of my discipline , especially when they seemed genuinely interested in my project…and me! I still get quite “star struck” meeting the people behind the names (et al) that I have long read in academic papers.

    My self care this weekend is to facetime some friends, go for a hike and picnic with my family and paint a rickety cardboard cubby my toddler.

    Thanks Cally for guiding us through the rollercoaster of PhD emotions (I couldn’t think of others), sharing interesting insights, useful resources and wrapping it all up so nicely!

    1. Hi Emma – it really is exciting to meet in person the scholars who have influenced your work! Fantastic that you’ve had that opportunity to feel part of the research community.
      Hope your weekend has been fun. The cubby house sounds like a fabulous project 🙂 And thank you for your enthusiastic response to our mini-course!

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