Worst Nightmare Scenario: Failing Your PhD (and How Not To)

Failing your PhD. How does it happen? I have recently been a remote witness of a behind-the-scenes-drama: a PhD candidate who received a rejection from an external examiner. Her supervisors had approved the thesis, but a member of the committee rejected it, rightfully so as far as I can gather, judging from the report that spans over a thirty pages of why the thesis is lacking and needs at least a year’s more work. It is a tragic situation. I can’t think of many things worse, as far as PhDs go.

When I was writing my PhD I never thought I’d fail, but I did always worry about whether my work was ‘good enough’. And I did fear the scenario that perhaps one of the committee members would request a million modifications that would go against my ideas, or would be diametrically opposed to comments of the other professors. As is so often the case when you have a number of academics commenting on your work, especially when you are trying to tame a multi-disciplinary project. Yet failed PhDs (not counting the cases in which people actively quit) are extremely rare.

What I have learnt about PhDs going off the rails:

Universities do not want you to fail your PhD. Supervisors don’t want you to fail your PhD. Committee members don’t want you to fail your PhD.

It isn’t about you. It is about them. (Of course!) It reflects badly on them. It reflects badly on the university. It reflects badly on everyone involved. (Though naturally, they will put most of the burden for failing, if the project does need more work, on you if they can. So very classy!)

Also, it is a hell of a lot of work to prove the thesis isn’t where it should be, and committee members are hesitant to take this route… They have other priorities: their own research, most notably.

Take this to heart. It is not in their interest to make you fail.

“Don’t worry too much about your PhD. If you stick around long enough at one point they’ll give it to you.”

This is something a professor said to me, only half-jokingly, when I was in my second year and still very much wrestling with my subject, trying to wrangle it into submission. I was pretty shocked (I’m a perfectionist!), as well as amused, but over the years I have started to appreciate the truth of what he was saying.

When I returned to Florence for my PhD defence a professor complained to me about the people who received a PhD who absolutely definitely shouldn’t have passed. Yet these theses do tend to pass.

This may be a comforting idea: you will get your title. Your PhD will pass. Even if it isn’t absolutely electrifyingly brilliant from the first right through to the last paragraph. Even if there are obvious flaws (which there will be, there always are, and that is perfectly OK. But that’s a different blog post). Getting into the PhD programme is the bigger hurdle compared to finishing the thesis. You’ve already done the most difficult bit.

The disconcerting message though: your PhD may not be that much of a priority for other people. It may feel like your life work; to them, it is something they may simply want off their desk. Within deadlines, preferably. Without too much work or hassle.

Red flags everywhere!

Even if you are in a state where you just don’t care anymore and just want to finish, don’t sell yourself short. Supervisors should be invested in your work, at least to a degree! You need the dialogue, you need the feedback, you need the input, you need the debate. If you have absent supervisors who are not contributing as a mentor, and you are doing it all alone, you need to find others who will help you.

In one way my situation was similar to the one outlined above is I had no-one actively involved, due to circumstances (one of which was that one of my supervisors passed away, the other that I was finishing my PhD long-distance), and it was entirely disorienting. I didn’t know whether my work met certain standards. It did, but it would’ve been nice if someone would have been there to tell me! When I got appointed a new supervisor for the thesis defence specifically, it all turned around. I loved his comments (I really do believe love is the right word here. I was a bit intellectual-love-starved at the time) questions, and criticism, and although he wasn’t an expert in my field, the discussion helped me so much.

It also made me realise how much I had been missing out. If you don’t have much support and interaction, it has to change. Find your people. The people who will challenge and support you. They are out there. They want to hear from you. Go and find them, or let others help you find them.

The part you are responsible for, of course, is to engage with their criticism and work with their suggestions as appropriate. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this process, defining my own choices. Creating and defending my work. It’s the part you have to do, the intellectual part, and it is (hopefully) the satisfying part. (Especially once it’s done!!)

If you skip this, because you are lazy, fed up or out of time or money, and you have supervisors who are also lazy and busy, and don’t care so much, you may end up in a situation where the external examiner gives the thumbs down. That is if you are lucky/ unlucky enough (strike through as appropriate) for them to care enough to do so.

Do you have absent supervisors, and no idea where you stand? The HappyPhD course tackles the problem of how to re-engage, once you’re in a negative spiral of avoidance and neglect. It can be done! As always, if you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

The Power of the Mind

How do we prevent our inner critic from taking over?
How do we become more resilient in the face of criticism?
How do we not succumb to feeling stuck when the pressure rises?
How do we make it though a rough patch?
How do we allow more joy and curiosity in?

In the academic world the mind skills we develop and refine are our intellectual muscles, our critical capacity. The part that isn’t paid as much, or any attention to, is how to harness the power of the mind more broadly, on how work with our thoughts, and the feelings attached to those thoughts. Not at all linked to solving academic problems, but everything to do with the person who is trying to do so.

I have sometimes wondered what the academic world would look like if these aspects got more attention. Would levels of depression and anxiety be lower? Would drop-out rates in PhD programmes be lower? Would years spent on completing a PhD be lower? Would the number of publications be higher?

My guess is yes – I think it would make a real difference.

As you know my own PhD experience was not exactly completed in ideal circumstances…it was really, really hard. And the one thing I credit for allowing me to finish the thesis, apart from truly wanting to complete the project, was this: new mind skills. This involved learning how to relate to my thoughts differently, no longer completely identifying with thought all of the time, especially when facing difficulties. And also, something I have been rediscovering recently: knowing when to use the rational problem-focused mind to solve problems, and when to try something different.

Something that has helped me was starting to be more aware of thoughts and beliefs, and the emotions they trigger. I like the way Eckhart Tolle approaches it: he calls the conditioned beliefs ‘ego’, and the emotional/ physical component pain-body. (Tolle was a PhD at Cambridge when he had these insights, and decided to go down the spiritual instead of the academic path…in case you’re contemplating a career change!)

Say we’re talking about academic envy: a colleague gets published, yet your paper is rejected. This may set off a cascade of negative thoughts and feelings: academia is a status system, and if we feel we’re losing (ego) we get scared (pain-body) and resentful (pain-body). Especially so if you think your colleague who is ‘winning’ doesn’t especially deserve it!!

Something similar happened when a ‘friend’ of mine got a paper published, using the exact same title as my thesis working title. Despite being close colleagues he had managed to not mention he was working on the exact same topic as I was working on!! That coupled with my own frustration about my work being so slow and absolutely unpublished due to circumstances, and I nearly lost it! (This did end up as an interesting confrontation at a thesis defence where I bumped into him. I lost my Zen that day.)

Academia as a system is stressful – it is up or out. Publish or exit. Get funded or lose out. It is also often unpredictable and unfair. Being good at what you do is a necessary, but by no means a sufficient condition to do well. The uncertainty, the randomness, the stories we tell ourselves about meritocracy, the ways we rationalise our disappointments: it can take its toll.

To deal with the more stressful aspects of academia, meditation can be extremely helpful.

It helps us observe the thoughts we have and take them less personally:

“Ah – apparently I have so much fear about things not working out for me/ about being ‘not good enough’ (hello imposter syndrome!) / etc. Ah, maybe those are just thoughts, just beliefs. Maybe they aren’t true! Maybe I can just let them be, not pay them as much attention, not buy into the drama of it fully. Maybe there is another way to look at it… A more skillful way, a kinder way. A way in which I don’t put myself down. In which I don’t slip into feeling ‘less than’. A way that doesn’t turn any excitement I may feel about my work into fear. Yes…how about tuning back into curiosity instead.”

This isn’t a conscious process, somthing we can impose by will, it is more of an unfolding. A creating space for this to happen by sitting still, and allowing our mind to settle (or not).

And it helps us work through and ‘metabolise’ the intense emotions that come with these thoughts. It helps calm the pain-body. By sitting with it, by feeling the fear, the disappointment, the resentment, whatever it is, it eventually dissolves. And when it dissolves it stops feeding into the negative thought loop. Which means we are no longer stuck. We can move on.

Sometimes it is difficult to access that place by sitting still: we keep going over the same thoughts in our heads, and can’t seem to access the emotions directly. I have found exercise, yoga especially, very helpful in shifting out of negative states. Yoga seems to rearrange things so they make sense again, so you feel more integrated again. It is an active meditation.

Have you tried meditating? I highly recommend the meditations by Bodhipaksa (two of his meditations are part of the HappyPhD Course, the acceptance meditation is my favourite. Though some participants have noted they preferred the mediations I recorded myself), and the short ‘getting present’ and ’metabolising energy’ meditations by Michael Vladeck. I work with these quite a bit. They are really good in terms of getting out of the mind and into the feeling aspect of our life.

If you liked this post, could you share it? I appreciate it. Also: if you missed the first edition of ‘The Nudge’ on shortening your workday, it is now available as a free mini course. Sign up for it below to be treated to five days of encouragement to help shorten your workday but getting as much or more done!

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‘Not everyone should get a PhD’ and other academic productivity fallacies

A few weeks ago I taught a workshop on academic productivity, and how self-care and perhaps counter-intuitive strategies such as shortening your workday may help. The audience were economists: PhD students, as well as a few faculty. Let’s just say it was an interesting experience! The dynamics were completely different compared to the other workshops I have taught, where the atmosphere tends to be relatively open, laid-back and sort of intimate. This time, however, that didn’t happen. Instead, there was a more challenging atmosphere, with more critical questions asked. By the supervisors, not the PhDs, I must add.

The resistance to some of what I was saying made me think: they may have gotten the impression that I was falsely portraying and underestimating what it takes to be a prolific academic in a competitive field. Maybe even worse, that I was pointing people in the wrong direction: that I would be encouraging them to be ‘too soft’ which just doesn’t cut it. The supervisors probably truly believe in the linear model of performance: that working longer hours is better, that pushing yourself is the answer to most productivity questions, that if you’re not tough enough to survive in the competitive world of academia (economics is a tough field indeed) it is too bad and simply means you are not cut out to be an academic, and that ‘self-care’ is too soft to be taken remotely seriously.

The point I was trying to make was the opposite: the ’soft stuff’ is what makes you better able to handle the pressures of academic life. It is what gives you the cutting edge. It is what allows you to perform better. It is in economist’s terms output-maximising. And wellbeing-maximising too. There is no trade-off, which is the beauty of it.

The issue: how to convince hard-nosed ‘more-is-better-you-should-be-tougher-and-push-yourself-harder-relaxation-is-for-weaklings’ economists of the value of such an approach. I don’t know whether I did or can, but I am willing to try as I really feel the paradigm needs to change for academia to become an environment that is less destructive, both in terms of the wellbeing, and in terms of academic productivity lost because people aren’t doing as well as they might, with a little different approach.

So, in a nut-shell what I propose is that the relationship between stress/ pressure/ competition and academic performance isn’t linear. If anything, it follows a concave curve, and at present academics are often situated well beyond the maximum (too much stress, sub-optimal perfromance). Empirical studies support the view that academia is a high-stress (potentially burnout-prone, low-performance) environment (See for example this study where academia is ranked the 6th most stressful profession). From a brain perspective a worsening of academic performance in these circumstances makes sense: chronic stress is just about the brain’s worst enemy, it has a real impact. And sadly the statistics support this analysis: academics suffer disproportionately with mental health problems, an indicator of a highly stressed and sub-optimal performing brain. In this scenario lowering stress levels so your brain has some space to think and actually perform is the best thing you could do for your academic career.

Unfortunately though there is still a survival-of-the-fittest mentality in universities, which considers anything to do with stress relief, especially admitting that it may be beneficial or ‘needed’ a sign of weakness. Push harder is the device, and if you can’t ‘handle it’: tough, academia is not for you. This is Neanderthal reasoning, sorry! It is true that at present the hardier ‘marathon-type’ academics are often the last ones standing, but that’s a result of the current set-up, not how it could be. And it isn’t in any way an optimal situation, either individually or collectively.

These were the main questions/ remarks/ arguments put to me by the supervisors during my talk. I’d thought I’d walk you through them:

1. “Competition is good for academic performance!” (Challenging the idea I put forward that high competition/ high stress results in a worsening of academic performance).

It depends. I’m not really worried about the intellectual challenge of pursuing a PhD contributing to chronic stress and underperformance, it is more about what I tend to refer to as ‘the rest of it’. It is important to understand: (chronic) stress which negatively impacts performance arises primarily not due to high demands or workload, but because those high demands lack matching reward structures. And academia is terrible in this regard. It doesn’t think in terms of process or support or reward, only in terms of output, often defined in a strictly linear way. And this is getting worse. There are many fears and insecurities inherent to the academic process and capability and effort do not necessarily neatly translate into ‘output’ (if only). Getting published sometimes takes years not months. The process can be messy and unpredictable and rife with uncertainty. Nothing new, but this uncertainty, specifically, is a major stressor. A culture in which destructive criticism may be the norm, instead of constructive criticism and support and mentoring and collaboration, as is often the case in more competitive departments, exacerbates the problem.

The point: You don’t want chronic stress to start interfering with people’s ability to work! This is often framed as an individual weakness, and private problem, but I disagree. It’s a collective problem, caused by structural features of academia, and should not be contributed to individual ‘failure’ or ‘weakness’. I’d argue that in the present situation where surveys show that around 37% of PhD students might be considered clinically depressed (44% for economics PhDs!), the vast majority of PhDs are suffering from the detrimental effects of chronic stress. From an academic performance perspective this is a worst case scenario! From a departmental perspective striving for ‘excellence’ it is too! The remedy of pushing people harder in this situation is counterproductive.

2. “Competition in this field will only get more intense, not less intense.” (So you’d better get used to it!)

True. The question is how to adapt and thrive in a competitive environment, and that isn’t necessarily by pushing harder longer. The best analogy I have found here is with the world of professional sports, and the role recovery plays in improving your performance. At some point you cannot train more hours a day, or you will overtrain, and your performance will be worse. Interestingly though, when you focus on improving the rate at which you recover, you can also increase the intensity of the training sessions, and your performance improves. Efficient recovery means performance gains. The exact same applies to research: in a competitive environment you have to couple intense work with intense relaxation. This means having recovery practices in place. Working in intervals, similar to athletes doing interval training, is one way of doing that and will absolutely allow you to shorten your workday with productivity gains. Sounds a bit scary, doing ‘less’, but it works. If you are performing well, it will allow you to find your competitive edge. If you are feeling ‘overtrained’, it will allow you to gradually increase your effective working hours, and allow your brain to recover and perform better.

3. “I don’t believe in this. You should just handle stress when it comes up. Making exercise, meditation, self-care part of your work day just creates more stress.”

May I roll my eyes at this one? If this is your private opinion, fine, but supervisors should hold their tongue. Stress isn’t something that ‘suddenly happens’ (academia is a chronic stress environment, not an acute stress environment) and discouraging people from looking after themselves is simply wrong. I can see why time pressure may make taking time for self-care difficult, especially when you’re stuck in a panicked mind-spin about work, or if you have an overloaded schedule already. But doing so will make a difference. Don’t take my word for it, try it. Work isn’t just about work. It is about creating the right circumstances to perform well, and that deserves some of your time and attention.

And finally my favourite:

4. “Not everyone should get a PhD” (Repeatedly.)

I have no words… I feel I should have spoken up more when a supervisor said this to the researchers during the workshop. Academia is a pressure cooker, and the supervisor says if you can’t stand the heat get out of the pot! How about we acknowledge the fact we are collectively being boiled and find strategies to deal with it, other than letting people figure it out for themselves and struggle in private. People are underperforming, not because they are not capable, but because they are not taught and mentored on how to perform well in a hyper-competitive environment. They are supposed to figure it out on their own, or else. If they feel vulnerable, they should just shut up and go away and push harder and do better. In my opinion this is a foolish stance. It doesn’t create better academics. It creates academics who are afraid they ‘aren’t good enough’ no matter how brilliant and talented they are. It creates a culture of fear and depression. It creates and sustains underperformance. Stress is a constant feature of academia, yet many of the stresses and struggles of academia remain hidden. People keep it to themselves because they are afraid of being seen as weak. Case in point: I heard after the workshop that some PhDs refrained from asking questions because of the supervisors’ presence and critical stance. That is the problem, people. It is to do with not being allowed to be seen as ‘weak’. Nothing to do with intelligence, talent or capability. Or output…

Reminds me of some of the dialogue in PhD the Movie

PhD: Sir, I’ve been meaning to tell you: I’ve been having some problems…
Supervisor: Problems? In academia we don’t use the word ‘problems’. It’s considered a sign of weakness. Call them challenges, issues if you must.
PhD: I have…issues.
Supervisor: Not my problem!

Note: If you’re someone dealing with a supervisor like this, the HappyPhD course does have a module on how to handle difficult supervisors. May come in handy…

I am creating a week of email ‘nudges’ to help shorten your workday and be more productive. Let’s try and implement some of these productivity ideas. (Not quite sure yet when: I said late July before, but I’ve had some delays… New date to be announced.) Do join us! It is free and you can sign up for it here.

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The Lonely Academic

“Engagement predicts wellbeing above and beyond anything else.” A quote from one of Emma Seppälä’s recent articles on work cultures and wellbeing. She is the science director of the Stanford Compassion Center, and if you’re interested in the science of happiness I highly suggest you follow her.

It doesn’t surprise me in the least and it supports what I have experienced myself, and what I now observe in others’ situations. Academia tends to be awfully bad when it comes to engagement. Truly, awfully bad. And I have come to the conclusion it’s one of the worst stressors for researchers, far worse than workload. Most of our problems are not about content, but about connection and feeling valued. And it collectively makes us feel proper miserable.

I thought I’d tell a personal tale to illustrate.

When I fell ill, in 2007, and had to temporarily drop out of the PhD programme (only took me 3,5 years of sick leave!) the experience was quite literally that: of dropping far and hard. And basically no one even taking notice. The fall itself is one thing to come to terms with, and it was hard. But the no one caring was the absolute hardest bit of all.

The Fall

The fall has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The beginning was getting out of the programme. It was settled in a number of emails with my supervisor, the head of department and the grant organisation, and can be summed up as ‘formal’. There were no real problems (unless you count losing your only source of income as a problem), although the grant organisation was a bit fussy about the last month or two I hadn’t been able to work to that date: they wrote me I was ‘lucky I wouldn’t have to pay those two months of grant money back.’ Right. My supervisor and head of department approved my unpaid sick leave, and that was it. I had explained via email about my serious mystery illness. I was no longer in the same country, and even if I had been I was in no way in a position to meet anyone in person to discuss my situation. And that’s the way it stayed… Silent. There was an ‘all my best’ in an email, but that was about it. There were no ‘get well soons’ and there were no inquiries as to how I was doing a few weeks or months down the road. I realise sending cards or flowers is a bit much to ask from academics, but there certainly were none. There was nothing. Oh, yes, the only thing that did happen was that I had to cancel my attendance at a conference, and the panel chair got very cross with me for cancelling. Being sick was not a valid reason to cancel, obviously.

The middle years saw me applying for an extension of my sick leave every six months. They were granted and I was grateful for that. Nobody, including myself, still had any idea why I was so ill. What I found the most difficult to come to terms with, though, was that beyond those few formal emails apparently hardly anyone seemed to have even noticed my absence. I heard from no one. This wasn’t entirely unexpected as I was nearing the fourth year of my PhD programme, a time where people tended to flock to their home country to finish writing their PhD. So the colleagues who were still there probably assumed I had left like so many others, and the colleagues who had indeed already left, were not there to miss me! Maybe no one indeed even noticed at all, because it was a coming and going of people all the time anyway – the flighty life of international academia, and everyone was too focused on their own life, problems, research, career and next steps to register that I had gone missing. I did exchange one or two emails and phone calls with a few academic friends at the beginning, but these communications soon went silent, too. In formal terms the university still supported me. But that was all. Perhaps it is all you can expect, I reasoned. People are busy. And universities are not into hand-holding.

After three and a half years I decided that illness or no illness, I wanted to try and finish my PhD, even if I only had an hour a day to work on it because I was so unwell. I am not exaggerating, I wish I was. Communication with my supervisors had become strained, and I felt more than guilty for my underperformance, even though I knew that seen my circumstances what I was trying to do was rather a superhero pursuit. But I was doing it alone, and no one even had the faintest idea of my situation. Explaining did not seem to help either, it was just too far out to understand I suppose. Or maybe people were too busy to register. My main supervisor was getting impatient, and sent me some curt emails. I was lucky in the sense that my other supervisor, who was no longer at the university, thankfully stepped in to help me. She texted me to say she didn’t know what was going on [behind the scenes], but that those emails were not okay. She sorted it out with him, and I was on my way back into the PhD programme…

Fast forward to the moment I actually managed to finish my chapters. The end game. I sent my newest, latest work to my supervisor, and …crickets… Nothing. It took him more than three months, and a number of reminder emails, to read it and get back to me. He probably thought that if I was taking my time, he might as well do the same! Again that sinking feeling of not mattering, of being air. When I flew to Florence months later to discuss my work, he again had not read my new material. Too busy.  Plus some communication errors on my part which didn’t help. He did get back to me with comments after that though. He finally read my new stuff, though he was surprised to learn of my progress. He thought I had lots more work to do, until he actually took the time to look at what I had done. He was shocked to learn my PhD was nearly finished!Then, that summer, he died. A heart attack. It was a tragedy, though to be honest it didn’t even register as a huge shock, as I had become quite accustomed to worst case scenarios materialising into even worse! It felt like this was what life had become: bad, worse, worst! Can’t really expect anything to turn out well now, can you?!

My co-supervisor was in charge from then on, though she too did not quite manage. When I travelled to meet her in Brussels to discuss my final draft I could not help but get the impression that she had not read it. Skimmed over it, yes. Flicked through it, sure. Read it, properly? I doubt it. She had no comments. She said it was fine and ready for defence. I suspect that when I sent my manuscript to the jury no one had ever read my work in full. It felt like a shot in the dark. When one of the jury members then actually engaged with my work, sent me questions and comments, and had intelligent things to say I cried. He had taken the time to read it. He had taken the time to acknowledge I existed. It still near makes me tear up thinking of it. Someone had made an effort. Someone, somewhere, had noticed me, had read my work! Maybe I still mattered in some small way. Maybe I still belonged.

Along the way a few former colleagues showed up. Facebook friend requests or messages mostly. They too, brought me close to tears. From a perspective in which you have never experienced true and prolonged isolation this may sound excessive. But if you’ve been there you will know: it is easy to be forgotten when you can no longer participate. Out of sight, out of mind. And it is hard. It is so hard.

Reflections

I can’t help but get emotional recalling all this. My experience is rather at the extreme end of the spectrum. It shows how difficult long-distance PhD-writing is, especially when you are dealing with health or other obstacles. But more than a simple and singular tale of woe, I believe my experience shows how academia, at its worst, works. It is all based on loose networks, and much independence. This has its advantages, but it has costs associated with it that largely go unrecognised. I believe the highest cost is that of loneliness, the feeling of ‘being on your own’ and having to fend for yourself. For me it was in putting superhuman efforts in, seen my situation, and not having those efforts acknowledged (though later, much later, when I was in Florence for my defence, the secretary confided that my supervisor had always been very positive about me: “She is very smart, and I am sure she will finish!” He had always stuck up for me in meetings. Oh, if only I had know about even a fraction of that!). To be honest it was an absolute horror the way I was treated, and I wasn’t in a position to defend myself.

But in more subtle ways waiting and disappointment and plugging away by yourself, while not having your effort acknowledged is everywhere in academia. It is there by design, and by circumstance. It is in putting all the lonely hours in. And how many of them there are! It is in the wait when you have submitted an article, and then the rejection. It is in the negative review that shows the reviewer has not made the beginning of an effort to engage with your argument. It is in rejection itself and the feeling of not-mattering period. It is in all the bureaucratic rules and regulations. It is in the arbitrary counting of publications that goes along with getting tenure. It is in the unacknowledged email, because people are too overwhelmed by email to respond. It is in the self-absorption and busyness and absentmindedness of everybody. It is in the juggling a thousand things and projects at once when you are further on in your career. It is in the having to disappoint and being disappointed. It is in disconnection. I have come to believe this is a far greater stressor than deadlines or workload per se. It drains the spirit. Academia is built on criticism and delayed gratification, and for good reasons. But somehow the human architecture, the architecture that says we are social beings with social needs tends to be overlooked. Benign neglect may be benign, but it is still neglect. Some departments are better than others. I can say mine was about the worst.

Remedies

In terms of remedies, Seppälä’s work on positive work cultures gives important insights. She mentions caring for, being interested in, and maintaining responsibility for colleagues as friends. She mentions providing support for one another. She mentions avoiding blame games. She mentions inspiring others, and emphasising the meaningfulness of work that is being done. She mentions treating one another with respect, gratitude, trust and integrity.

Your department may not be quite there yet. But there are things you can do yourself: invest in your colleagues and your peer-network. Engagement matters, and that definitely includes going for cups of coffee. Build relationships. Meet up for lunches or seminars. Co-author. Get in touch and stay in touch. (Maybe even shoot that colleague who is on sick leave an email!) Show you care. I know, very uncynical, but do it. It matters. It also means to keep a keen eye on communication if you are in a long-distance situation. It’s imperative. Skype calls may work. People seeing your face is important. More in general, in the PhD phase: invest in communication with your supervisors on a regular basis. Connect, connect, connect, even if it is against the norm, or feels uncomfortable (no need to become a stalker, but hey, they are allowed to be reminded of your existence!) I wish I had done so more, instead of coping by myself because I didn’t want to impose or be a burden. If you are an early career researcher: invest in your network. Collaborate. Show up for others. If you supervise PhD students, or others: make communication a priority, even if your time is scarce. You get the idea. A little love goes a long way.

If you are feeling really lonely and isolated right now please realise you are not really alone, even if it feels that way. You never are. People do think of you. They do. And in more positive terms than you will likely assume. (Though sometimes they are temporarily being too busy/ too much of a jerk to realise. And if this is structurally the case you may want to think about leaving…) This too is a lesson I have learnt. You matter. You are special and you are worthy. It has nothing to do with outside appearances. And it certainly has nothing to do with how well you are performing or not-performing. When it comes down to it we are never really alone. There is lots of love, always. Sometimes unexpressed, and beneath the surface, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Tap into it. There is a pool of love beyond the hurried email, beyond the rules and the requirements, beyond the surface of things, if we dare to believe in it. It is a very unacademic thing to do, but I highly recommend it.

How do you deal with the loneliness of academia? Any tips? Let me know! If you are in less that great dynamics with your supervisors, as I was, have a look at the HappyPhD course. It has an entire week on supervision. There are tools that can help. As always, if you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

How to Ease Supervision Blues: Three Perspectives

Supervision: too often the stuff of headaches. In the current academic world where research output is valued above all else and academics are stretched and stretched, and sometimes overstretched to meet their multiple obligations, supervision too often becomes an afterthought. Add to that an academic culture in which PhD projects are increasingly squeezed into impossibly linear schedules – with the emphasis again on ‘measurable output’, while academics are not in any way trained on how to coach and supervise, somehow having to figure this out for themselves (and are definitely not all innately able!), accidents happen. No fatalities, mostly, but smooth rides are the exception.

Personal story: When I was writing my PhD supervision was one of my top frustrations, and more specifically the lack of time and effort that went into reading and commenting on my work. This got especially bad when I had to finish long-distance, and was no longer around in the flesh to bug my supervisors. It sometimes took them months to get back to me when I had submitted a chapter, and it was all quite disheartening to say the least. That didn’t stop my supervisor from encouraging me to ‘work hard’ in most every interaction we had, or to in some other way to allude to deadlines or other ‘sticks’ to make me ‘work harder’. In all honesty it drove me nuts, and made me feel insecure and undeserving and it is the exact embodiment and worst outcome of the incentive structure as described above.

If you are caught up in similar frustrating interactions the first thing I’d like to say is this:

It is not personal.
Believe me.
It is not.
It’s simply the outcome of an unfortunate set-up.

Advocating for yourself is too often necessary in supervision relationships, but you’ll be more equipped to do so if you can see that it’s ‘not about you’.
You’ll already be in a much stronger position.

Using the following three perspectives may also help improve the supervision situation.
An exercise. Take your time to do this.

1. What does your supervisor need?

Let’s start from the supervisor’s perspective. Put yourself in his/her shoes. Imagine the glamorous life. Imagine the piles of work, grant applications, emails, rejection letters, admin, departmental meetings, chapters to be edited, flights, conferences and so on and so forth to deal with. Oh, and don’t forget that paper they so want to write but cannot seem to get round to… From this perspective: what does your supervisor want and need in terms of your supervision relationship? Is there any way you could make his or her life easier?

A hint: what professors tend to want is for their supervisees to succeed. They do.
Another thing they want: minimum hassle!
Is there any way you could help the cause?

It starts small, reflecting on your communication: are you sending your papers in on time, showing up on time, not bothering them with things you could sort out on your own, communicating clearly and regularly (but not too regularly), and not being last-minute with requests? (Sorry for this. I am going all head-mistress on you… a bit more to come). If they ask you to do something, do you do it? Are you not hiding?
In short: are you acting professionally? Is there anything you could improve on here?

Put yourself in your supervisors shoes, and try to see with their eyes, hear with their ears.
How does your communication come across?
Are your visible? Reasonable?

What is the state of mind they write that single-sentence email in?
What is the state of their inbox?
See their point of view.

Advanced (optional extra) – Reflect on the role your supervisor would like to have: what are his/her strong points? Maybe it is mainly knowledge or content, and a traditional mentoring role. Perhaps they have an extensive academic network they would like to introduce you to. Are there conferences they are involved in they would like you participate in? Or there may be an opportunity to co-author work. Their style could be formal, or informal…what makes this person tick? Think about it: what would make THEM feel good about their role as supervisor? You know, the proverbial ‘win-win’? How could you both benefit?

If you are thinking: “My supervisor could not care less”, (and this may be the case, though most often it really isn’t, it’s just that they are a bit lost in the supervision thing as are you), imagine what the most hassle-free interaction would look like. Start there.

2. What does your work need?

On to the next bit. This question helps separate the personal from the professional, and it is brilliant at taking the sting out of otherwise painful situations. You may be familiar with them: those where egos clash. Put your work at the centre, and the egos matter a bit less. Clarity, thank god.

So, look at your work, as it stands now.

Get inside of it.

Imagine you are it.

What does it need to get better?
What are the next steps?
What does it need from your supervisor?
(As well as: What does it need from you? You can make a list of that too)
Do parts of your work need feedback? In what way?
If you envision your work as fully finished, which parts are still missing, and which part of that needs your supervisor’s input?
I like the idea of two academics – the junior and the senior – contributing to a joint cause: your work.
Your work is the only diva allowed: what does she need?
Any institutional hurdles you need your supervisor’s help with?

Once you find out: push for it.
Make it happen (err…politely of course).
This is your job.

The difficult thing about supervision relationships is that once burned once or twice it becomes tempting to hide. To disappear, as the echoes of criticism or past conversations still hurt. To disappear because no reaction seems to be forthcoming. To disappear, as your supervisor seems to be uninterested and unresponsive. It helps to remember it’s not about you. It very seldom is. (They’re probably simply crazy busy). The key here is to not make yourself inferior or insignificant (even if your supervisor makes you feel that way).

You are not inferior, and you and your work matter.

Real or perceived failure are SO part and parcel of academia. Communication gone wrong so is too. Unfortunately it does take some effort to not let it get to you. And sometimes you won’t manage.
Top strategy: Get excited about your work, and ask for feedback from there. It is the absolute best place to engage from.
Don’t limit yourself to your supervisor either. If he/ she cannot provide the feedback you need, maybe someone else can.

3. What do you need?

And finally…what do you need? Ask yourself what you personally need.

What would you like?
What do you need?

You cannot change your supervisor (oh, if only!), but there are always ways to improve your supervision relationship. Clear and specific goals and deadlines, jointly agreed on, may help for example (no more vague ‘work hards’!, no more waiting for months for feedback, one hopes). Regular supervision meetings and communication may help (makes everyone a bit more human, real and clued up). Speaking to them in person instead of relying on email may help. Clearing the air on something that is bothering you may help (diplomatically). Or letting go of some grievances in private (rant alert!) may help as well. Maybe you need more feedback, or less. Is there any way this could be discussed and arranged?

Take yourself seriously.
If you feel like you’re being dismissed, don’t add to that by dismissing yourself.

In addition to that: it is so important to take care of yourself. Self-care is no luxury in demanding circumstances, and academia can be pretty brutal. Are there ways to be gentler with yourself with regard to the situation? Are there ways to stop making yourself small, if that is what you are doing? Ways to let off steam if you are particularly pissed off? Ways to enjoy yourself more, brighten it all up a bit? To guilt on yourself less? What do you need?

Play around with these questions. In the answers, look for the intuitive hit or ‘aha’. Mostly you want the process to be effortless, not laboured. Works better that way!

How’s supervision going? Any insights to share from doing the exercise? Let me know in the comments! If you want to take it a step further: there is a whole week on supervision in the HappyPhD Course. Also, as always, if you found this post helpful, could you share it? I appreciate it!

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How to Stay Positive in Academia – Strategy 1 Notice What Is Already There

When you enter the world of academia, you enter the world of critical thought and rejection. It is an art academics are trained in: progress through falsification. At its best it is exhilarating, the challenge of standing your ground amidst criticism, of using it to make your argument shine. At its worst it is deflating, draining you from any enthusiasm you ever felt for your work, and allowing your self-confidence to sink.

Criticism is with you every step of the way. Both externally, when you receive feedback on your work, and internally, when you are in the laborious process of writing your paper and struggling with your inner critic. Over time, it can drag you down.

The question: how to uplift your experience, so criticism can shine by improving your work, and does not drag you down into the realm of self-doubt and feeling defeated?

Unlike the art of criticism itself, which is the professional knife you are taught to sharpen and use without mercy, the skill of using it well, and having it not end up at your own throat scaring you to death, or draining you in the longer term, is not particularly paid attention to.

So. How?

I am not going to utter the words: ‘Be positive’, because I do not believe positivity is something that can be stuck onto an uncomfortable experience, which dealing with criticism mostly is, especially when you are not feeling too sure about your work, or when it is a repeated experience. But I do believe positivity to be the answer. Not so much optimism, although it may play a part, but the goodness that is also present, always, and that we overlook when too caught up in the negativity, hurt and self-defence that often accompany criticism. When we start paying attention, the positive grows and unfolds, and we become resilient.

(May result in using criticism constructively. May even result in laughter and not giving a damn, really, about so-called failure.)

There are many ways to elicit the positive. And I believe the word ‘elicit’ is key. We have to be willing to invite it in, to see it, to appreciate it. And ultimately, to feel it. It cannot be seen by a closed mind, which is frantically running around in defence and justification. We need to open up, first.

Yesterday, I read the line: ‘Would you rather be right or happy?’
Our academic career is built on being right. Our happiness cannot.

And paradoxically, sometimes, we have to let go of being right for the minute, to allow a better, more grounded perception to emerge.
We have to be willing to be open-minded and receptive enough to do so. We feel better. Our mind clears. Our work improves.

I will be sharing a number of strategies on being positive in upcoming blogs.
Today is the first: simply notice.
Drop the argument you are having with yourself, your inner critic, your fears, your supervisor, etc. in your head.

Drop it

Even if only for ten seconds. You can always pick it up later. You don’t have to fight or defend. You don’t have to be right. You will survive without.

Instead, focus on what is right in front of you. What is there to appreciate right now? Forget about your ideas and opinions and ‘shoulds’ for a minute, and shift the focus to what you see, feel, experience.
What is already here, right now?
What is there to like?
What is there to savour?

Start small. You hot steaming cup of tea can be enough. Taste it. Feel the warmth of the mug, heating up your fingers. How does it make you feel? Comforted? Soothed? Does it bring clarity? Does it soften? What is your experience like?

For me, right now: I am enjoying a cup of white tea with jasmine. It’s fragrant, delicate, and luxurious. It’s a tiny pleasure.

(Don’t try this with coffee or tea from a machine. Won’t quite be the same).

Don’t over-intellectualise your experience, simply notice. You don’t have to make yourself feel or experience anything – it doesn’t have to be mind-shattering. Though it may be, in its own way.

These tiny moments of appreciation provide the entry point for a shift in perspective. They help you recalibrate, re-set. They free you from your mind-loops, even if only for a minute. And a minute is all you need. Pay attention, notice and appreciate, and the mind opens up. Happiness wells up. Because that is what it does, when we do not obstruct it. Circumstances become just that: circumstances. Criticism loses its edge, and failure starts feeling less fatal.

Maybe the criticism you received wasn’t that personal after all? Maybe you start seeing how you could address a variety of points and issues raised. Maybe you feel strengthened in the way you originally chose to approach the question, and you don’t need to change a thing. Maybe change is needed. Or maybe you find out none of it matters, and you have been focusing on the wrong thing!

Maybe. Maybe is the beginning of loosening up, of giving up our rigid fixations. It is the beginning of possibility. It is the beginning of feeling excitement for what we are doing. It is the beginning of the next step. It is the beginning.

Try cultivating positivity by taking a short break to enjoy whatever there is to enjoy right now. What did you think? Did you notice a difference? As always, if you liked this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

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How to write a PhD speedily & (almost) painlessly. Strategy 2: Stop doubting yourself

I am writing a series of blog posts condensing the PhD-writing strategies that helped me finish my PhD. I went from being a not-always-effective researcher to finishing my PhD in a couple of hours a day. Read my story here.

Strategy 2. Stop Doubting Yourself

Self-doubt. It’s the devil.

It comes creeping in, seducing you into thinking your work is lousy, you are not moving ahead fast enough, and you will never get anything worth reading written.

It comes at times expected (after having your work criticised by a supervisor, after that presentation that left you deflated, or in the run-up to a deadline) and unfortunately also at times unexpected (as in: when in the shower washing your hair, panic strikes: I know NOTHING about what I am supposed to be an expert in. NOTHING!).

The real problem is not the devil as such.

The problem is we believe its whispers.

And then obsess about it.

And maybe even obsess about being obsessed about it.

We know we shouldn’t feel this way, because we know we are capable, yes?

So why then do I feel this way? Why? There must be something wrong with me.

And so it goes.

Read more »

‘How to write a PhD’ with Andrew Glencross

Recently, I had the chance to talk to Andrew Glencross, currently lecturer in International Relations at the University of Aberdeen, about his PhD experience, and his advice to current PhD students. We were colleagues at the EUI, where he defended his thesis in 2007 (and I took a little longer). He describes himself as an ‘accidental academic’, in the sense that he got into university at the age of 18, and is somehow still there now, going on 34. But when you talk to him, you realise rather quickly that academia has hardly incorporated him by mistake. Schooled at Cambridge and as he calls it ‘socialised in academia’, he knows a thing or two about how academia works. You can read the whole interview here or download the pdf here.

Topics we discussed:

–       Improving focus and productivity by increasing self-awareness

–       Improving productivity by increasing your ‘PhD-awareness’

–       How to deal with criticism and why it’s an essential skill for academics to master

–       How to get the most out of supervision: how to deal with unavailable or critical supervisors

–       How criticism is an integral part of the academic trajectory, and questions you should ask yourself before you choose to pursue that path

Teaser alert:

We also discussed how to reduce the likelihood of being perceived as a ‘tiny fish’ by your supervisor; why academics, unlike novelists (unfortunately) aren’t allowed to have meltdowns; and when is the right time to wear heels and get drunk (or, in Andrew’s case: get drunk – without the heels).

Andrew’s tips for writing a PhD more easily include:

  1. Be aware of your own productivity. When are you productive? When have you stopped being productive, in a given workday or in a given task? Instead of counting hours ask yourself: “What have I done to actually progress?”
  2. Increase your PhD-awareness. Be aware of what constitutes a PhD: its purpose and its constituent parts.
  3. Avoid having a meltdown when you’re criticised. Criticism in academia is abstract, not personal. Be aware of that.
  4. Expose yourself to criticism. Dealing with criticism is a cumulative experience. Build up your resources and experience to develop the self-confidence needed.
  5. Get your expectations right regarding the supervisory relationship: don’t expect a ‘deus ex machina’ solution.
  6. Prepare your supervision meetings in-depth. Draw up a list regarding what you want to talk about prior to the meeting, and be prepared to discuss your work orally in the event your supervisor did not read your work as well as you had hoped (or at all).
  7. Record your supervision meetings, so you have a record of what was said, and you can work with any criticism more constructively and strategically.
  8. If dealing with criticism becomes a problem, don’t let it fester. Persevere and work through it.
  9. Ask yourself whether you’re adept at responding to criticism, before deciding to pursue an academic career. Criticism becomes harder and more discriminating down the road.
  10. Don’t forget to celebrate your academic successes. Celebrate all that you’ve gone through, when you finally see something in print.

Curious to know more? Read the whole interview here or download the pdf here. Liked it? Please share!