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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Failing Forward

There is one simple test you can take to see whether you are fit to be an academic. It’s the first entry requirement, if you will. And it’s only one simple question. The answer will determine whether you will whither or thrive, do or die.

Here it comes:

Are you OK with feeling like a failure for the rest of your life?

If the answer is yes, you may proceed down the academic path, if the answer is no, you may have to reconsider.

I recently read an article on what successful academics in their early career have in common, and the first point was to ‘refuse to feel like a failure’.

I could not disagree more.

If an academic doesn’t get to feel like a failure, who does? In fact, failure is the essence of an academic’s career, some may even argue the very essence of his existence. Failure is everywhere in academia, from the criticism that defines the academic model (you fail, your argument fails, your paper fails!), the daily grappling with all the question marks and the unknowns, to the system that will sit on your papers for many months before spitting out a rejection.

Feel like a failure you will, and you must.

But work with failure, and with being and feeling like a failure, and you may get very far. Academic superstardom may be within reach.

So how does one go about being a complete, utter, and very successful failure?

Two words: strategy and celebration.

To be strategic with failure, it helps to expect it.

Expect it every step of the way.
You are going to get it wrong.
Your work is going to be criticised and rejected.
Again. And again. And again. And again.
And again.
This is normal.
It’s the way academic work works,
the way an argument progresses,
the missing bits, the falling apart, the crossfire.
This is it. It’s what it is supposed to look like.
The coming together goes mostly unnoticed, but it happens in between.
It’s a little like the writing between the lines:
it’s there, just difficult to see or decipher at times.
Trust it is happening anyway.

Most importantly, know that your feeling of failure is not personal. Of course it feels that way. How could it not feel that way? But it’s good to know, at least, that this is not about you. It’s not about your capability. And it’s certainly not about your worth.

It’s just academic work as usual. Sometimes it helps to realise.

What also helps is to be intent on using failure to your advantage. Feel the ugly duckling feeling, but don’t let it drag you into inertia. Ask yourself what the feeling of failure is about, and use it as fuel.

Example: maybe you feel like a complete failure
(Why on earth am I trying to write a PhD anyway?),
because your work got criticised.
Sort out the useful commentary from the non-useful.
Use your best judgment, and know that YOU are ultimately the one who decides on whether criticism is justified, and whether it means you need to re-address an aspect (or many aspects) of your work, or whether you should stick to your guns and do it the way you initially saw fit.
You are the authority here. You call the shots.
Naturally, don’t be stupid about it – if criticism is valuable, use it. USE it.
Take action on it, move forward.
Make decisions.
Or, if you can’t right now, make the decision to let that particular knot be a knot for now.
It will get addressed at some point. It will sort itself out. Taking charge helps.

To deal with the feelings that go along with failure, learn to not take it too seriously.
So you feel like a failure. So what? Really. It doesn’t matter.
Don’t get too wrapped up in your own perfected personal version of how much you suck.
You’re wonderful, you know. You really are.
Failure just happens to be part of your job. It’s not part of you.

To counter some of the suckies, celebrate your failures. Yes, celebrate them.
Every failure means you are doing something right. Every failure means progress.
Your work may progress quite unnoticed, because you are so focused on everything that is wrong with your work, it becomes difficult to notice what you got right!
Try to see both. Academia is about failing forward.
Learn to view it that way, and it becomes easier.

I also suggest celebrating every tiny thing that deserves celebration.
Celebrate every small success, in whatever from it comes.
Celebrate the paragraph you wrote.
Celebrate the paper you read.
Celebrate the chapter finished, or the regression analysis done.
Whilst you’re at it, don’t forget to celebrate the smile from the stranger on the street, or the dog wagging its tail, or that text message that made you crack up.
Celebrate the kiss and the embrace.
Celebrate the rain and the clouds and the bottle of wine in your fridge.
Celebrate your favourite tea in your favourite mug.
Celebrate the colour of the aubergine (OK, OK – I know – I am pushing it here, but I do and I have! I celebrate every grape on the fruit bowl).

I used to scoff at people who would talk about appreciating and celebrating the small stuff. What fun is small stuff? I thought. I want my life to be big and bold and bright and adventurous. Not really into the small stuff. Now I realise the small stuff IS the big stuff.
It can blow your mind, the beauty of it.

Think big, be bold, celebrate.
The magic is at your fingertips.
Right now. Failure and all.

I have become pretty good at failing forward. It’s a skill I teach. Let me show you how: take a look at the HappyPhD Online Course

Should I quit my PhD?

Last week an old friend and PhD colleague popped up on facebook. In fact I hadn’t spoken to him in eight years, since the moment he decided to quit his PhD. I remember going for a coffee together, him rather pensively stirring his sugar into his espresso, and telling me that was it – he was leaving. “One year of writing a PhD, and I haven’t been this depressed in my entire life,” he said. He also told me his professor was trying to persuade him to stay: his work appeared to be promising (and he was the kind of professor who likely saw being depressed and miserable as an integral part of academic life, and nothing to be overly concerned about).

I remember that coffee chat well, and I also remember being impressed with his decision to leave. In my mind it was a courageous decision: to not stay ‘just because’, but to actively quit because staying was simply not the right thing to do.

There are so many reasons to keep plodding along:

    1. Not wanting to ‘fail’, in your own eyes or the eyes of others
    2. Not wanting to give up the ‘certainty’ of a miserable PhD life in favour of a potentially equally miserable life outside of academia (and thus failing twice!)
    3. Not wanting to give up on something that sounds good, even though it may not feel good (again failure!)
    4. Not having to be confronted with your general cluelessness about life in general (failing full stop)

So, yes, basically just avoiding failure.

You realise of course, that I am not talking about my friend here. I am talking about myself. I thought he was courageous for leaving. Maybe I should have done the same.

I mentioned I would be giving a talk at our university in a month’s time. “You should come along,” I said. “I can tell them how to write a PhD without going nuts, and you could tell them about how to leave before you do!”

If you are doubting whether this whole PhD business is (still) right for you, consider the following:

1. Only pursue a PhD for the right reasons. In my mind, there are basically two, the first being the most important:
A. Writing a PhD is something you intrinsically want to do.
B. A career in academia is a career you are seriously considering pursuing.
(There is one exception: in some career paths – I am thinking about medicine- you are expected to write a PhD at one stage. In that case you just have to suck it up and do it, whether you like it or not).

2. If you are not enjoying doing your research, and are miserable a lot of the time nobody is stopping you from quitting. I am not talking about the bumps in the road that anyone writing a PhD has to face at some point. I am talking about semi-permanent PhD blues. There is nothing wrong with deciding that finishing your PhD is not something you are going to do. In fact, it might be a very good decision.

3. The only one who judges you harshly for the decision to quit your PhD is you! My friend thought I considered him a loser for quitting, and to be honest it broke my heart to hear him say that (my heart breaks easily). Of course I did not think anything of the sort. It is courageous to take bold decisions that are right for you. Conversely, it is cowardly to not take decisions you should take, because it goes against the conventions of what constitutes ‘success’ and ‘failure’.

4. Really, forget about ‘success’ and ‘failure’ and what it’s supposed to look like. You will never figure it out, anyway. (Or, if you do, email me and explain it to me – I need educating).

Are you contemplating quitting your PhD? Tell me in the comments!