Getting Unstuck, Without the Struggle

I was invited to dinner with an old professor last week. When I introduced myself and said I worked with PhD students he said: ‘Ah, how useful! Every PhD student gets stuck, that’s what I have always told my students. It’s normal. A PhD is an endeavor where you will get stuck, and there is no one who will be able to solve your problem. You know more about your subject matter than anyone else. You have to do it yourself, it is a test of character. Dead ends, and walking into walls are part of the process.’

dinnerHe’s right: Struggle is part of the process, it’s part of the deal.

I’m always trying to figure out ways of lessening the struggle though (and if your supervisor is worth his/ her salt they will do the same). Because intellectual struggle is one thing, and truly necessary and inevitable when you’re in this trade, but you don’t want the struggle to start spilling over into how you feel about yourself and your work in a perpetual self-reinforcing negative cycle, ending up truly, properly stuck.

I have found that to allow the stuckness to lessen its grip, we need to change our relationship with it.
We need to stop staring at the problem endlessly, exhausting ourselves in the process.
To untangle the tangle, we have to do some active untangling as well as allowing the untangling to happen.
We need to do some things differently, to break the loop.

This tends to be what happens: We are having a few difficult days which turn into difficult weeks, maybe even difficult months. Research is slow, and slowing, our mood slowly dropping, and we get more emotional about even small setbacks. Now, at one point we properly enter the zone of maladaptive coping strategies and we start seriously worrying, or procrastinating, or pushing ourselves to stay on even longer at work because maybe that way we will get things done.  It’s not happening, and even if we do have a good day we leave worrying because we need to ‘catch up’ for work hours lost in the past weeks or months, and in view of deadlines rapidly approaching. At this point we are scaring ourselves into performing, we feel we need to push harder, somehow get our adrenalin going to cope, maybe we feel we need an absolute miracle to get us out of the pit.

The interesting bit about this scenario is that our energy is now for the most part spent worrying and obsessing about our work instead of on the act of research itself. I have used a pie chart in my HappyPhD workshop named the work/worry ratio. I can confidently say that for the early stretches of my PhD for me the work/worry ratio was 20/80. Not good.

There are practical steps that can take you from worrying and feeling stuck, to getting back into a more pleasant work groove, and one key element is to allow the untangling to happen. We need to take a step back, re-assess what is working and what isn’t, do what we can and chill out about the rest. That last part is important.

Some ways to get started in undoing the I’m stuck-panic loop:

1. Time (and momentum)

Once I knew what exactly my PhD was about, once my question and methods section became more defined, everything became easier, and sped up. I realise this is probably not very helpful if you’re in the beginning stages of the PhD, but it does get better when you gain clarity. You need a direction to be able to move forward (truth!), and especially in the beginning the work is finding that direction. It can be difficult and demoralising, and slow. If this is the case for you, the trick is, as our professor mentioned to not worry too much about it. It’s normal. Part of the game and the process. Shrug your shoulders. I would add to that: it’s important to find tools to keep momentum. One way may be to shorten your work sessions, and ask yourself at the beginning of each session what you want to work on and what you want to accomplish during that particular session. When you lack direction that’s one way of reintroducing it. Bit by bit, one work session at a time.

2. Change the worry habit

When I fell ill, I had no more energy for worrying. We all know worry is futile, but I realised then, that worry is worse. It is harmful, and seriously drains our energy. We can get away with it, that’s why we do it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t harmful all the same. Why was I so invested in worrying? I concluded that it’s one of the stategies that allows us to feel safe. A bit silly, and a bit twisted, and absolutely counter-productive, but at least we’re thinking about work, that must count for something? Errr… Changing this habit means being aware of our worrying, and choosing to shift our attention away from it by either doing something constructive about what we’re worried about (work), or by doing something enjoyable utterly unrelated to our worries (not work – not implying though that work can’t be enjoyable), or by doing absolutely nothing at all (yes, that’s allowed). That’s all. Oh yes, and not be a perfectionist about the ‘not worrying’ bit either – give ourselves a bit of a break!

3. A basic work routine

Set up a work routine, and do LESS than you think you should be aiming for. The more stuck you are, the more you feel you need to speed up, SLOW DOWN instead. Ignore what fear is telling you and break the panicked ‘I need to work 12 hours a day and it’s not happening’ loop. Schedule one focused work session a day, or two, then be pleased with yourself once you are done, and give yourself the rest of the day off (also from worrying!).  The doing the work and the not worrying part are equally important here. Now, when that goes well for a couple of days, add an extra work session, see how it goes. Keep your focus equally on working and relaxing. Over the course of a couple of weeks, you should be able to build a sustainable work schedule. One metaphor might be that of being stuck in the mud. It’s unwise to go into high gear to try to get out: you will only dig yourself in further in the process. You need to have the courage (and sense) to go right back to first gear and get yourself out of there slooooowly. It’s the fastest way.

4. Keep it light

Often, what we need is momentum, and momentum is quick. Flashes of insight are quick too. What if work could be ‘quick’ and playful instead of heavy and problematic and looming over us? Can we allow ourselves to ‘play’ a bit more, to have some fun with what we’re doing? This light and playful energy gets us out of the pit. Yet we often don’t allow ourselves to enjoy what we’re doing, because we’re too focused on all the ways we’re not doing enough, it is going wrong, all the ways we are stuck, and the situation is impossible. We take our problems and our work very seriously. Forget it. Drop it. Just for one work session at a time, can we forget about how stuck we are? Can we keep it light?

5. Trust the process

It’s supposed to feel slow, difficult and frustrating! Can you become okay with that? What if you don’t have to worry about being behind, what if you don’t have to worry it’s all so slow? What if you do what you can do, whatever that is that day and be content with the messiness of the process? I used to have a yoga teacher who always repeated: “learning to be comfortable in an uncomfortable situation: that’s yoga.” If that’s the definition of yoga, academia is a yogic pursuit! Find comfort in the discomfort. Keep going, one day at a time, and trust it will pay off in the end. When I realised, deeply, that I didn’t have to do anything, except what I was doing, it was a massive relief. Let go. It’s going to be OK. (And the more we let go, the less energy we put into the negative loops, the smoother the process is going to be).

Entertain these thoughts:

Maybe the hole you feel you’re in isn’t that deep… Maybe you aren’t that stuck…Maybe all you need is the courage to do less, in a structured way, with as much playfulness as you can muster. Forget worry and obsession. Let’s do it differently. Focus on your work only when you choose to. Have a life outside work. Worry less. Allow the knots to untangle.

Do you worry about your PhD? Let me know what helps you when you’re feeling stuck… If you’d like a structured way out of worry and stuckness: take a look at the HappyPhD course. It will walk you through the process step by step. As always, if you enjoyed this post could you like or share it? I appreciate it!

Choosing the Right Supervisor

One factor I underestimated when I started my PhD was supervision. I was thrilled about getting into a PhD programme, in Florence no less, and supervision seemed a matter of secondary importance. Oh, how wrong I was. The way I look at it now is that supervision is the single most important thing to get ‘right’ to have a positive PhD experience, and to set you up for further success down the line. A supervisor is a pivotal player, far more than a mentor or supervisor will have been during your earlier studies. It may be difficult to predict how supervision will pan out though, because no matter how ‘perfect’ the circumstances, supervising (as well as being supervised) is more challenging than generally acknowledged (good article in the Guardian on this here), and it is undervalued also. There generally are few incentives to put supervision at the top of the list of priorities.

In my own case my first supervisor had a bit of an anger problem, and bullied his PhDs. He had been recommended to me by a former professor of mine so to say I was surprised puts it mildly. Apparently he is better behaved with colleagues or superiors than with his PhDs! I was incredibly grateful to be able to switch supervisors after the first year. But even then things weren’t smooth sailing: my new supervisors were much better, but one was overloaded with work (he had 12 or so PhDs to supervise? I don’t recall the exact number, but there were too many) and the other was not specialised in my field. Come to think of it neither of them were exactly specialised in my field! Partly because my ‘field’ didn’t exist: I subscribed to an interdisciplinary pick and mix approach, which was highly original, but did not exactly fit with what anyone else was doing. It was a major hassle.

I was recalling these tales during one of my coaching calls. I’m working with someone who would like to do doctoral research and we were discussing the best strategy of where and how to apply.

With regard to applying to different departments I mentioned two important initial factors to consider when deciding to approach a potential supervisor:

1. Field/ Topic (Is the person an expert in your topic? Can you learn from him/ her? Does he/she belong to an academic ‘school’, research group or network you’d like to be part of)

and

2. Method (Do you have a similar inclination when it comes to methodological issues? Don’t underestimate this one. Academia is all about method.)

Other factors to consider are:

3. Availability (You don’t want to find yourself a few years in with a supervisor who only scans your work and barely answers your emails.)

and

4. Personality (Do you like them? Not entirely unimportant.)

When I went into academia I thought I would enter the land of the free thinkers, the open-minded and the curious. I thought details of field and topic and method were important but not prohibitive.

I was underestimating the degree of specialisation of doctoral research.

Academia is a hyper-specialised place, where people spend years creating their niche in a field. And once they have done so, they will prefer to supervise PhDs who want to do similar work to what they are doing, which makes sense from the angle of capability as well as convenience…oh, and I hadn’t yet mentioned ego matters: people get attached to their way of doing things and supervision may be a pain, a real pain, when your and their views, on something like methodology clash.

‘That’s rather pointing out the obvious,’ my client said, ‘but very helpful to look at it that way.’

Yes, it is. People do well when an actual mentor relationship can be established, and this isn’t as obvious as it may seem! But having research interests and approaches aligned  is a promising start.

Before you embark on a PhD: read your prospective supervisor’s work. This is one of the best ways to get a feel of whether you would be a good match in terms of content. The same still applies when you are already working on your PhD. The better you understand your supervisor’s work, the easier supervision will likely be, as you’ll understand where he or she is coming from. (This is good advice for thesis defences too: read or at least scan the work of the people on your committee: you’ll find valuable hints as to questions.)

If you’re like me and you’re stubborn and want to do things your way, that’s also a possibility, but make sure you find someone to supervise you who will be open to that more creative approach to avoid setting yourself up for having an even more difficult time than you probably will have. And be prepared, because you will be on your own. You can do it, of course you can do it, but it has its drawbacks, and you will only to a far lesser degree be able to learn from your supervisor.

Another idea is to talk to a person’s current PhDs. Does this particular supervisor invest time and energy in his PhDs? It may be a delicate question, but it’s an important one, and answers whether positive or negative or mixed, will be invaluable in making up your mind on deciding which supervisor to work with.

Did you choose your supervisor/ department wisely? If so, you have my admiration. There is a week on supervision in the HappyPhD course which will help with choosing a supervisor, and aims to ease supervision trouble if you’re struggling. It’s not at all uncommon. If you found this post of help, could you share it? I appreciate it!

Why Academic Kindness Matters

Last week I came across two articles commenting on academic wellbeing. The first was a piece on how feeling supported, encouraged and engaged at college affected levels of engagement and wellbeing at work, afterwards, based on a study by Gallup-Purdue; the second was a piece in the Guardian on how the stressors of academic life had impacted academics struggling with mental health problems. The commonality? The research underlying both articles show that feeling valued matters.

The topic interests me as it touches on one of the core concepts that I teach, both in my online course, and when I teach seminars. It is that (academic) wellbeing is not simply the function of the demands placed on an individual, and how he or she copes; but as the function of the demands and the rewards in place. In terms of rewards, the most important tends to be ‘feeling valued’. In short: when we feel our efforts aren’t rewarded and our work and presence isn’t valued or even noticed we become stressed out, and our performance suffers. However, if we do feel supported and rewarded we are much more likely to rise to the challenge of whatever is thrown at us. We become resilient. (If you’re interested in the literature on this start with Siegrist (1996))

You might balk at the psycho-babble and the pseudo-science that, let’s be honest, often goes with managerial talk of ‘optimal performance’. But if you look at the data, and, into your heart, you will find some truth in this reciprocal model. In the Guardian survey, it’s true that ‘heavy workload’ comes out on top as major stressor (mentioned by 51% of respondents), but the two runners-up are ‘lack of support (44%)’ and ‘isolation (43%)’. These issues are major, and I believe they deserve more attention than they currently do. Academics are human. Easy to forget at times.

Click for the findings in full of the Guardian’s mental health survey

But so are students. The study by Gallup which looks at links between college experience and being engaged at work and experiencing high well-being afterwards, suggests that student interaction with engaged and encouraging professors is key (just skipping over the issue of direction of causality here – let’s assume that professors indeed encourage students to develop their thinking, and themselves, leading to higher job and life satisfaction later, not that more engaged people in general are more likely to find mentors who inspired them). Professors who ‘made me excited about learning,’ ‘cared about me as a person,’ or ‘encouraged my hopes and dreams’ are important figures in a person’s life.

Screenshot 2014-05-19 14.21.28

Click for the full Gallup – Purdue Index report

I know that for me personally, this has been very true, and I can find many examples that illustrate the links between feeling valued and challenged, and performance. When I was a student I was very lucky to have mentors, who helped me shape not only my thinking, but also my attitude. I have talked about Gordon Smith, my tutor at the LSE, before (I never stop when I start talking about Gordon!), but he really was fantastic. He was terrifying enough to frighten me into engaging in seminars – he barked at me during our first meeting: ‘I expect you to come to my office weekly, and report on your contribution to the academic debate at the LSE. If you decide to keep your mouth shut in class, I will get very angry.’ So yes, he ‘encouraged’ me. He was also offensive enough to make me cross, which resulted in some very sharply written essays he was more than pleased with, and when he was done offending me, there would always be an unexpected compliment thrown in, which would mostly be suitably politically incorrect, and would flatter and entertain me immensely. When I was worried about failing my exams he would exclaim things like: ‘Amber, I don’t worry about you, and neither should you!’ Thank you, Gordon. Other mentors (Stefan Collignon comes to mind) have been tremendously important in shaping how I think about the world (he also encouraged me to ‘develop my originality’. Immensely grateful for that), or simply by being absolutely terrific at what they do and showing me a new way to think, period (Simon Hix).

On the other side of the uplifting experience of having a mentor who challenges and supports you, there are the anti-mentors who put you down. The difference can be down to personality – I know some of Gordon’s students did not appreciate his style, and I remember comforting a crying friend whom he had told to ‘stop floating around, or get married and have children.’ (I told you he was politically incorrect! I appreciated it, but I can see why others wouldn’t). But style aside, some things should never be said, to anyone. Too many people have told me of PhD supervisors telling them they were too stupid to be in academia. Personally, I have been told in a seminar setting by my supervisor at the time, that he ‘doubted I was capable of producing a single coherent rational argument’. It would have been funny, if it wouldn’t have been for the anger and disdain behind the words. For some time, I almost believed him, and it affected me. I knew my work was in a bit of a chaotic phase, which is probably the understatement of the century, but I also knew I was at least somewhat capable. I started doubting that. I have heard from others who have had to endure much, much worse from the same person. PhDs should not be torturous never-ending projects, but they became exactly that in the absence of decent supervision.

The bottom line is that, in academia, maybe even more so than in other work environments, the quality of social interaction in general, and of supervision relationships in particular, can make or break you. So how go about creating an academic environment that is challenging, encouraging and supportive? An environment that truly supports the academics working there, and the students they teach?

I’ll give it a shot. To start it’s important to be aware of how the way academia and academic work are set up may impact our wellbeing, and how we can devise strategies to best cope with these pressures. Such strategies range from the very practical, such as setting up our workday in a way that allows us to do your work most efficiently, to the profoundly spiritual, in the sense that work becomes almost effortless when we are more connected to why we do it in the first place. These are strategies at the individual level, but their effects will spill over into the organisation we work in as a whole. I also believe it is important we are sometimes reminded of how valuable we are, and can be (and in some cases could be), to others. That we affect others, positively or negatively. That we matter. I believe it makes a difference.

This is touchy-feely territory which is incredibly challenging to approach in any organisation, let alone in the cerebral, insular world of academia. Which self-respecting academic doesn’t roll their eyes at ‘motivational’ or ‘team-building’ activities? I know I do. How many hollow phrases and pointless activities can we endure in one lifetime anyway? Trying to picture someone like Gordon, the ultimate difficult academic, in ‘motivational’ activities, is enough to cause a laughing fit. I sometimes wonder whether these things can be orchestrated, at all. At the same time, of course, I am someone who goes to universities to speak about these topics, and from what I’ve heard people leave inspired (So please, yes: hire me. Warning: surges in productivity, wellbeing and self-reflection will ensue). I have found my audiences to be more open and receptive to what I have to say than I had expected. Which, in turn, may not be surprising seen the fact that academics struggle with exactly these issues, as articles such as the Guardian article quoted above underline. *facepalm*

Screenshot 2014-05-19 18.56.45

Mostly, I believe in an inside-out approach. It’s why I like Twitter initiatives such as #ScholarSunday and @AcademicKindness so much. Simply academics showing a bit of appreciation and sharing small, important, moments of kindness. This whole business of feeling valued, and creating a supportive environment, is about being genuine. So, keep your sarcasm, keep your wit. Be difficult, if you are. But be kind. It’s appreciated. And it matters.

Siegrist, J. (1996). Adverse health effects of high-effort/low-reward conditions. Journal of occupational health psychology, 1(1), 27.

My Mentor’s PhD Advice

Having the right mentor to turn to can make all the difference when you’re writing a PhD. The person I turned to most, even if only in my mind, was without a doubt Gordon Smith. I met Gordon when I was studying for a MSc. in European Politics and Policy at the LSE – he was my tutor, and what a terrifying tutor he was! He enjoyed causing a bit of a stir, and he liked to ‘keep me on my toes’ as he called it. But even though I was petrified every time I stepped into his tiny office, as I knew I would probably be told off for something or be otherwise insulted, shocked or startled, I came to enjoy our encounters immensely.

Gordon is now roaming the Elysian Fields, so I couldn’t ask him for his PhD advice firsthand. Instead, I compiled some of the advice he gave me when he was my tutor at the LSE, as it could be applied to writing a PhD.

His top 4 tips (according to me):

Write for the right reason

Gordon had an unlikely academic career, and only took up a lectureship at the LSE at the age of 45, after mostly working outside of academia. He told me how he started writing his first book, I believe it was a text on West German politics, on the train on his commute to work. “One day,” he told me, “I just started. I knew I had to write the book. So I took out pen and paper and I started writing. I remember it like it was yesterday.” That conversation always stuck with me, as I struggled finding my own PhD topic (something I naturally got yelled at for when he visited Florence: “Amber, you have to do something. I have to shake you up. You have got to stop faffing about!”)  I was also reminded of it whenever I was stressing for a deadline, instead of writing because I felt compelled to write. The lesson Gordon taught me is to write what you need to write. Because the work needs to be written. Nobody is forcing you to write a PhD. Write the right thesis for the right reasons.

Don’t let your canoe sink

It’s easy to get lost in the sea of scholarship, and I see some PhD students close to drown in the piles of papers they think they need to read. When I was finishing my PhD my energy levels were so low that I could not add many new papers to my repertoire. At the time, I was worried about it, as I thought my work might not be as current as it should be. The opposite turned out to be the case – I was forced to focus on the most important arguments already out there, and it markedly clarified my thinking. In the end, the couple of important new papers weren’t difficult to incorporate. It reminded me of a meeting with Gordon in which he warned against over studying, during exam time at the LSE. “Some people need the books,” he said, “but I think you don’t. You know enough. You’re smart enough. All you need to do is think. In your mind, that’s where it’s all happening. Think!” He continued: “Imagine you’re on a deserted island. No, even better, you’re in a canoe. And you’re only allowed to take one article for each topic with you. If you take more on board, your canoe will sink. Now read these articles and think about what the author is telling you. Reflect on it. Get inside the article you’ve chosen.” How many articles have you got in your canoe? Don’t let it sink.

Remember not to spend all your time in the library

One of the things Gordon had no patience for was procrastination. He used to tell me again and again, when I was confronted with yet another essay to write: “You have to get these things done! Get it over with!” And more than once he told me: “Remember not to spend all your time in the library.” At the LSE, the dominant paradigm was one of study till you drop. It’s a misguided paradigm of more is more, and one I see dominates many PhD student’s lives. According to this paradigm your productivity is measured by the hours spent on your PhD, not by the actual outcome of your efforts. I understand – it is notoriously difficult to measure your output in many phases of PhD research, and it’s so easy to trick yourself into thinking that you are doing a good job, if you at least put maximum hours in. But at best it’s a paradigm that makes you spend too much time in the library, at worst it’s a paradigm that is destructive for your productivity, alongside your sanity. Resist temptation. Instead, focus and get your work done. (If you are interested in learning how to do this: it’s what my online course is all about).

Don’t bore us too much

In my 2003 diary I jotted down:

‘Gordon and I agree on writing.  He tells me: “Be inspired. You have to be on a whirl. Make it crisp. Make it sharp. Put your pen on paper, get excited and write like you’ve never written before. Just let it happen.”

Though perhaps not on all of it: “If all else fails, don’t worry. Have a drink. A straight shot of vodka should loosen you up.”’

Gordon never quite approved of my choice of topics. He could not comprehend why anyone in his right mind would want to write on the EU in general, and on its policy processes in particular. (By now, I see his point. I have switched to studying ‘real politics’ Gordon. Not to worry.) At one particular meeting he told me I was “such an EU maniac”, and dismissed my proposed dissertation titles as “EU mumbo jumbo”. At the end of the meeting, on my way out, he grumbled: “Oh, well, write whatever you want to write.” Then, as I was about to close the door behind me he added: “Just don’t bore me too much!” I tried very hard not to. And I still do.

Do you have a mentor who inspires and encourages you? Tell me in the comments!