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.
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!
Say ‘stress’. What comes up for you?
For most people ‘stress’, means: ‘I have too much to do’ or ‘I am so stressed I want to pull my hair out!’
I want to look at it a little differently. I want to look at stress as a demand you place on yourself, or is placed on you. That’s neutral. It depends on what exactly the stressor is, and how you react to it whether it’s a positive or negative.
To make it more specific: let’s say your stressor is a deadline. We all know how deadlines have a knack for kicking us into gear, for pushing us to achieve, and for actually making us finish projects. The fight-or-flight response quite literally gives us a jolt. That may actually be a good thing!
I was chatting to one of the HappyPhD course participants some time ago, and he mentioned he never understood the importance of stress when it comes to performance until he read a book I recommended: ‘The art of full engagement’ by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. They use a physiological approach to performance, one I also apply in the HappyPhD course, which focuses on managing your energy instead of managing your time. Utilising stress and stressors to improve your focus is an important part of that. The approach they – and I – recommend is to work in intervals, in sprints. Challenge yourself, stress and stretch yourself, then relax.
If you’ve ever worked in a highly competitive environment – and if you’re writing a PhD you probably have – you know what that feels like: the adrenalin pumping, the thrill of a challenge. For me personally the best (and worst) memories of stress were when I was studying at the LSE. The workload was gruelling, and the standards set high. I loved it. Well, and hated it in equal measure! But what it definitely did was make me achieve.
Building that type of experience – the thrill, the buzz of it – into your workday is a good idea, and it is so gratifying. Most importantly forget about high achieving for hours on end. It doesn’t work like that: work really intensely for half an hour, or an hour, an hour and a half at the most, at a time. That’s what works. Take longer than that and you lose momentum. It becomes a steady-state affair, a marathon even. Buzz lost.
If you use stress and stressors in this way, stress becomes a positive experience. It will help you get where you want to go. It will help you achieve what you want to achieve.
Stress turns bad when there is no off-switch. If we push ourselves relentlessly with no significant breaks we suffer, and our word count does too! The same physiological response to a challenge which is so beneficial in the short run has negative consequences in the long run: once stress hormones run rampant in our systems for long enough they tear us down. I’m not being metaphoric. There is ample evidence of the stress reaction over time having a negative impact on pretty much every bodily system, and that includes your brain. You’re asking why you’re underperforming when you’re feeling ‘stressed’? That’s why.
Now stress is never simply about work, it is about our lives outside work as well, and it is about how we handle all the stressors we encounter. Sometimes it feels like there IS no off-switch. And that is why it’s so important to cultivate the off-switch in ourselves. For me, yoga, meditation, taking time off, regular routines, do the trick. Where is your off-switch? How could you cultivate it? Take some time to ponder.
Stress can turn ugly when it gets us spinning our wheels to such a degree that we feel we need to push harder, and harder, yet we are no longer effective. We start to worry, overthink, we react emotionally in situations because we are strung out, life seems to be pitted against us. We lose touch with the saner parts of ourselves. We are in overdrive. It is the fight-or-flight response gone mad. If you are feeling like this: take a few steps back. Take a proper break, a few days at least, maybe longer depending on how you feel, until you regain your sense of perspective.
So many academics I know have had to take time off work at some point because work/life stress got the better of them. Nobody talks about this much, but it is very common. Self-care goes a long way in preventing more serious stress-related health problems. Be kind to yourself, and prevent burning out. Relax, take care, do what you need to do to get back in touch.
How are your stress-levels? Healthy exhilaration or are you chronically strung out? What are your favourite ways to relax and undo the fight-or-flight response? Let me know! If you’re interested in setting up some work and self-care routines for an exhilarated, definitely not-strung-out academic life take a look at the HappyPhD course. It will help. As always, if you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!
There has been a bit of an online storm because of an awfully bad advice column in which a post-doc who was getting fed up with her supervisor ogling her chest was basically told that sexual attraction is part of life, and ogling is not legally considered sexual harassment. Ergo, she had no choice really but put up with it. Good luck, honey.
As you might expect the interwebs exploded, and Science careers took the advice column down, offering a politically correct statement instead. I would have far preferred them offering a new advice column with actual advice on this thorny issue! I can see why they didn’t: it is thorny indeed, with power and dependency issues involved, as well as bringing up the topic of sexuality…eeeeek!
So, I am going to give it a go.
What to do when your supervisor’s eyes keep wandering:
Scenario 1. The supervisor in question knows he shouldn’t be looking at your boobs, but somehow he can’t help himself. He is probably in denial, or maybe he thinks he can get away with it.
Suggestions to deal with it:
The death-stare, the subtle ahem: Catch his eye while (or, you know, right after) he is looking at your chest, or scrape your throat. Any subtle hint to get his attention to let him know he is caught in the act! A well-placed ahem is probably more than enough to scare and embarrass him into never ever looking anywhere below your chin ever again!
‘Would you stop staring at my chest? I can’t concentrate on my work!’ If that fails, you could bring up the subject in a straight, no-nonsense manner. Perhaps try to be a bit more diplomatic than my suggestion, but bottom line: his behaviour is unprofessional, and you have every right to make him aware of it. Be matter-of-fact. Let him know his behaviour is making you uncomfortable. More likely than not, problem solved.
The email: Write him an email confronting him with his behaviour. If his reply is disrespectful/ ignores your boundaries once again you could forward the exchange to the head of department or dean.
There are cases when approaching the matter is more problematic. If you find yourself in a more hostile situation, I am so sorry:
Scenario 2. The supervisor in question is well aware of what he is doing, but doesn’t care, as he knows you are in the weaker position. To top it off you may work in an organisation that doesn’t care so much about your rights and well-being.
If you are in this position you need to be clear about what you want to achieve, and be strategic about how to do so. To start you’ll need to ask yourself whether you want to continue working with him, at all. Being victimised by your supervisor can’t be the basis of a healthy professional relationship. There are still too many stories of this type, and my personal opinion is that life is too short. Get out. Being in an abusive relationship of any type isn’t worth your time. That, and, from a career perspective: it is incredibly important to build an academic network, and your supervisor is a key figure in facilitating access. Is he helping you with this, or is he too busy looking at your cleavage? If there is another supervisor/ network/ department/ group to join, definitely consider it.
If you do decide you want to continue to work with him, I see three options:
1. Get his boss/ head of department or the dean/ ombudsman involved: Authority and empathy, those are the two key variables you should consider. Who is officially in charge of keeping him in line, and who will indeed help you? The question of who to confide in can be a tricky one. University politics…it shouldn’t be something you have to worry about, but unfortunately in sensitive situations and in less sympathetic environments it is! Find out who has authority over your supervisor, and ask yourself whether you’d be comfortable talking to them. Trust your gut here. If for whatever reason it doesn’t feel right to confide, don’t. Having an authority figure talk to him may help. Some people become surprisingly sensitive once their immediate boss has had a word, especially if they are in a struggle for promotion. Also make sure you document, document, document. See the ’email’ advice above. Having evidence in writing gives you a much stronger case.
2. Confront him: As above – ask him matter-of-factly to stop looking at your chest. This is a gamble. He may not be too pleased, in which case the question of whether you can and are willing to continue to work with him becomes acute. On the other hand, you may actually get the respect you deserve. A confrontational style, standing up for yourself, can be helpful to address bullies. Hit back and you may startle him into behaving.
3. Ignore it: Keep your chin up, ignore his behaviour and focus on work. (What the original commentary advised, basically.) This may be worth it, especially if you are already far into your PhD/ project, have little hope the department will support you and are sure you want to finish it in the current setting.
Advising people to go see the dean actually makes me chuckle a very sad chuckle – when I was sexually assaulted during my PhD it was by someone who later became the dean at his institution. In what was supposed to be a meeting to discuss my work he cornered and forcibly kissed me, and it was the scariest situation precisely because it was so unexpected. That evening I asked someone for advice on what to do and I was advised to ‘better forget about it as quickly as possible.’ Right. I disregarded that, and wrote him an email demanding an apology by phone. He called, with a bunch of feeble and pathetic excuses (‘You are an attractive woman’, ‘I am not very good with women,’ ‘I am from the countryside’) although in the end he apologised, repeatedly. Somehow he must have sensed I wouldn’t let him off the hook, despite him being a poor country lad! I left it at that.
Sometimes, now, I think I should have called his boss, to make him accountable not only for what happened between us, as two individuals, but also for abuse in the workplace. I didn’t, because I was upset, scared of him, didn’t know anyone in his organisation, and didn’t expect to see any immediate good coming from it. Too much hassle! With power, fear and taboo involved, I wanted to move on as quickly as possible. Sadly, that is precisely why the perps get away with it. (Not saying that to imply guilt, only as an observation.)
If you find yourself in such a situation: please take care to select the right people to confide in and talk to. The most important thing is that you are heard and taken seriously, and that your complaint is addressed in such a way it doesn’t burden you further. That said, if you are working with a regular guy who cannot keep his eyes off your bosom, scrape your throat a couple of times and let your eyes shoot daggers. Should do the trick.
Have you had to deal with unwanted sexual attention at work? What happened? How did you deal with it? Did you deal with it privately (like I did) or did you get anyone else in the organisation involved? How did it turn out? It would be good to share experiences. As always, if you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!
At this time of year, time seems to speed up. The summer is in sight, as are too rapidly approaching PhD deadlines. When we start getting panicky about things it helps to step back and ask what might make a difference. A difference to how we work, how we write, how we get things done, how we feel. What might help us accomplish our goals?
I have become a big fan of habits, and have learnt how to build them purposefully and gradually. The gradual bit I am still not too keen on, but as I have found out with much trial and error, it is the only way that works. You can’t go cold turkey into a massive habit overhaul: after an initial enthusiastic burst of ‘good behaviour’ it won’t stick, it’ll be overwhelming and you’ll end up feeling like you’ve failed. It’s a shame this. It would be nice if creating positive habits was as easy as writing them out on a list and implementing like a maniac. Instead, I have found there are three main keys to habit change, and it is best to implement one habit at a time.
The first key is to pick the right habit (for you). Which habit will make the most of a difference? This is your ‘What’.
There are always a million things we could do ‘better’, and as we are probably all perfectionists here, I won’t need to explain the concept. Yet instead of driving ourselves crazy over details, why not ask yourself: what would make a real difference with regard to what you’re trying to achieve? One thing. One. Yes, we are prioritising. (Does the idea of picking only one change make you nervous? Why not simply allow yourself a sigh of relief? One thing is enough. You can always add something later on).
Let’s say you are trying to meet a deadline and your word count is not progressing as you might like.
Some suggestions to consider:
- Rest and sleep – will make you that more clear-headed/ ready for work/ less freaked out. (Recommended if you feel you are indeed on the edge of freaking out/ if it all feels like it’s too much)
- Working in intervals – this makes such a difference. It will allow you to be far more productive, while not wearing you out. (Recommended if work load is an issue)
- Creating a writing habit – write first, before you do anything else. Or at any time of the day you are sure to do it. Habit number one of the prolific academic (True!)
- Stopping on time – often the days seem endless, and our focus fizzles out. Create a deadline in your day, every day. Stick to it, and work hard to meet it. Then stop. Well done. It’s so simple. (Recommended if you are low on energy yet need to write more than you can seem to manage.)
- Working offline – single-tasking. It works, by forcing you to focus and think and write, though be prepared to miss your favourite distractions! (Recommended for all social media junkies/ distraction addicts/ if you have a can’t see the wood for the trees problem)
- Exercise – Just 20-30 minutes three times a week will lower your stress levels, while making you feel more alert and clear-headed (Recommended if you are feeling sluggish or down, and have a difficult time getting going)
- Starting a meditation routine – Increase focus, decrease stress, feel better. (Recommended for centering, overwhelmed, and when in a state of discontent or unable to tap into your intuition)
- Going easy on the coffee/ carbs/ booze – If you’re rollercoastering through your days, using coffee as an upper, alcohol as a downer, sugar as a pacifyer: you may need a break (Recommended if your brain is rollercoastering with you.)
Add any of you own. Now ask yourself: which of these changes might help me the most? Which one appeals? Ask yourself what would it feel like to have that change in place? Feel good? Yes or No? Would it solve some of the problems you are up against? Once your rational mind (sounds sensible) and your feeling mind (feels good) agree: that’s the habit you are looking for.
The second key is to make sure your new habit is compelling. If you want to do it, you are much more likely to do it. This is your ‘Why’.
Changing your habits can be a bit of a challenge. To make new habits stick, and decrease the chances of getting annoyed with yourself for not being able to do such a ‘simple’ task, ask yourself why you would like to make that change. What is the bigger picture? Now, don’t stop at ‘I would like to finish this paper by the end of next week, therefore I need to be more focused at work, therefore I am going to work for two hours on my paper every day, before I do anything else.’
Ask yourself what it feels like to accomplish that. Ask yourself how it would feel right after you have put your two early morning hours in. Ask yourself how it would feel to do that on a regular basis. Now ask yourself how it would feel to meet the deadline.
Picture yourself. Right there, at your computer. Finished manuscript in hand. The date, the time. You are well on time. You are done.
How does it feel?
Immerse yourself in this feeling.
That feeling will keep your habit in place. Anchor into it. Use it. Use it whenever you feel you can’t be bothered.
If your habit doesn’t feel good for whatever reason it’s not the right habit to change. Pick something else. Pick something that you will actually do. What moves you? Pick that one.
The third key is to keep going, and you’ll increase the odds of that happening significantly if you prepare for those moments that might challenge your new habit. This is your ‘when’.
Trigger moments: those moments when we ‘want’ to stick to our new habit, yet we cave in…because it’s not quite a habit yet. You’re ready to start your early morning write, yet email beckons, or coffee beckons, or a chat with your colleague beckons, or (God forbid) an email from a colleague for a coffee, now, beckons. Now you’re outnumbered!! Can’t help it! Off for coffee.
Know your triggers. Once again imagine yourself in the situation: what is going to come up? What will seem more important, or more fun, or just plain easier? Could you plan for any of that? Be prepared…to say no. To do things differently. If you’re having trouble, go back to your why – the feeling of it. It will help you stand firm, and it will help you do what you ultimately want to do.
Which habit would you like to change or implement? Let me know! If you are looking for a system of academic habit change – have a look at the HappyPhD course. It has good reviews. As always, if you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!
Are you in between?
At work, but not working?
At home, but not relaxing?
In bed, but not sleeping?
Drifting off into worry about whether your chapter, or paper, or outline will be finished in time, while the clock ticks and your cursor blinks?
Drifting off into ‘will this ever be good enough’ and ‘what am I doing’?
Drifting off into randomness, into plans and to-do’s, and overwhelm?
Drifting off into conversations in your mind?
Do you procrastinate?
Do you wonder where the day went, and why you didn’t get done what you wanted to do?
Feel guilty about it?
The art of focus is an art you’ll need to master if you want to break the loop. If you want to break out of being torn and overwhelmed and distracted and not getting anything done. The answer is as simple as it is difficult to do at times: pay attention. Pay attention to what you are doing and see whether it is indeed what you would like to be doing. If not? Now is the moment to get back into the groove, and back on track. Yes. Now. Break out of the loop.
This, in a nut-shell, is the ‘secret’ of being effective at anything really, including being a prolific academic: paying attention.
A tool that helps immensely in doing this, in creating more mental control, as well as control over what you actually do in a day, is meditation. It is brain training. Or mind training. You practice your paying attention muscles and it does pay off. It will become increasingly effortless to stay on track: the track you choose. You gain control. So worth the investment, so worth the effort.
I started meditating by taking an 8-week mindfulness based stress-reduction course, a system based on the work of Jon Kabat – Zinn. That was back in 2008, quite some time ago! I was excited to start, until I found out it was actually quite hard: it was so much about unlearning to overthink. And think, and think, and think is what my mind so loves to do! Thinking about meditation, dreaming of its wonderful effects came a lot easier to me than actually sitting on the pillow and paying attention – which is all meditation really is – without adding all the layers of thought. Thought was entertainment. Stories, fantasies, worries, you name it I am addicted! And now I had to learn to drop it.
And it is all the mental buzz we need to drop. I know now, for a fact, that solutions to anything – from intellectual puzzles to personal problems – do not come from thought, as in actively thinking or ‘obsessing’. They often arise from a different space – one where I feel calm and grounded and content. That space, where peace and joy arise, where you find a different perspective, a perspective that is so much kinder and so much more fun, instead of the continuous reaching and pushing for answers, that space can be accessed through meditation. Yet we need to sit with our chaos for long enough to allow the dust to settle, and the cobwebs to untangle themselves.
In the mindfulness course I took, they used the metaphor of a lake with muddy water. By simply sitting and being, the mud would sink and settle, the water would clear. Overthinking muddles the lake, while paying attention and letting go of the storylines in our head allows it to calm and beautify.
This has been very much my experience. About six weeks into the course – six weeks of chaos on my meditation pillow – I noticed that when a particularly distressing thought came up during the day (was dealing with freaky scary health/ money stuff) I could just let it be. Didn’t cause me to panic, didn’t cause me distress. Not as much distress anyway: the thought came up and I noticed myself thinking: “I am not going to entertain this particular train of thought today. I just can’t be bothered to think all those stressful thoughts. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt, now please let me sit with the sun on my face with a cup of tea, unworried, thank you!” And instead of shaking me, the stressful thought just came and went. The lake was clear.
Did it stay like that? No! The mind is a muddy lake, at least mine is, and I expect yours to be too. But we can learn how to move out of chaos quicker. That is my experience. You still get into it, but you have tools to get yourself out of it. To calm the waters.
I still meditate, though a little more free-flowing than in the early years. I have become quite proficient at moving into calmer, and more loving, states of being, on the meditation pillow. It really does turn the joy up, and the worry down. Applying the same techniques in daily life is an ongoing practice.
What about you? Do you meditate? Would love to hear what it does for you. If you’d like to learn how to meditate: creating a meditation practice is an important part of the HappyPhD Course. It has meditations by Bodhipaksa, as well as my own. The HappyPhD meditations I designed specifically for the PhD life of us Overthinkers Anonymous. They help you switch off, after a day of thinking (no more obsessing about the PhD!), as well as shift towards a more joyful, sparkly way of being, when you are worried). As always, if you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!
Are you there yet?
Is the paper you want to write finished, are your deadlines met?
Your data crunched, your analyses lucid, your argument convincing?
Are you on top of things?
What about your publication record? How many top publications can we count?
Oh – is it too early to think about publications?
It is never too early to think about publications.
You need publications.
What about the rest of your cv? Are you ticking the boxes, doing enough?
Are you. Doing. Enough?
Academia, at its worst, is a machine that runs on numbers. In an attempt to quantify the unquantifyable, academic performance is reduced to publications and citations, to deadlines met and funding secured. And you’re supposed to tag along. That is, if you want to keep your position, keep moving forward and upwards. If not: out.
It becomes a state of mind: the pushing, the reaching, the grasping, the scrambling.
We have to Get There
‘There’ is a fiction. It’s always just past the horizon. We know so, of course. We know that when this paper or chapter is done there will be a next one to write. One deadline down, many more to go. It’s a merry-go-round, we know! Yet maybe we will feel more secure, even a little, with the next milestone reached… Life will be better, easier, less stressful with the deadline behind us, the achievement achieved.
That is how we think. That is how we work.
With our eyes on the prize – the next one. Always the next one.
Going a little crazy in the process.
It always surprises me how short the moments of triumph, of satisfaction, are. Even the grand prizes, the actual publications (which you will get, somewhere down the road), the promotions, and the grants awarded. They satisfy…for about five minutes. Then once more our eyes are on the future, hurtling forwards, feeling like we have not yet done enough.
As I write this, students in Amsterdam are occupying the Maagdenhuis to protest against what they call the neoliberalisation of higher education, their main focus on democratisation and ‘de-financialisation’. One of their demands is a shift from a quantitative, output-based financial model towards qualitative forms of evaluation. It is a rebellion against the status quo. Against the bureaucratic machine. Against all the counting.
I say we couple the rebellion against the system, with an internal rebellion. A rebellion against the mind-set of ‘never-there-never-good-enough’. The ‘never-enough’ mind-set the machine cultivates. The mind-set we believe in. Does it do us any good, the kicking ourselves ahead? Does it really make us productive, or does it simply make us stressed and unhappy? Would anything change if we stopped engaging with these thoughts that bring us down, that convince us we should be better than we are? What if we stopped entertaining them every chance we get?
I am not discounting the challenges of academic life. Unfortunately, some of the pressures are real. But it’s precisely because they are real that we need to use our energy towards doing our work, and living our lives. It is too easy to get caught up in worries, to let it sap all the joy. No more, I say. No more.
What if we challenge the assumption that the prize will be delivered…tomorrow…once we’ve worked hard enough…once we are deserving?
What if the prize has been delivered already…what if our work is exactly where it should be…and what if we are already there?
Because we are.
Set your goals, but then –
Trust in an unfolding.
Where you are, right now, is far enough.
It is the only place to be.
You are going to meet the deadline.
You are going to publish, and publish well.
Your PhD/ chapter/ paper will be finished and written and published and read. It will.
Dwell in that space, of being already there.
How wonderful it is, without the stress.
How wonderful to enjoy the process.
All you have to do is your work for today.
The one next step. It’s the only and most important step there is.
It is enough.
I try to actively cultivate an attitude of being ‘already there’, of taking the more desperate edge off. In fact it’s a whole different way of seeing things, of being. Being much more open to what is already there – it is sweet. (And it may even make you excited about the work you are doing.) Can you relate? Do you take the time to enjoy what is already there? Let me know! If you’d like to cultivate such a mind-set, have a look at the HappyPhD course. It will help you become more present, more content. As always, if you enjoyed this post, please share. I appreciate it!
Many of the struggles of PhD life pertain to invisible, imaginary pianos that might fall from the sky: feeling like you’re behind, writing struggles, fear of criticism, of not meeting a deadline…the list goes on. Most pianos don’t fall. And if they do, you find out they are quite innocent cute little pianos you are well equipped to handle, after all.
Sometimes we are not so lucky, and a real whopping big piano drops right on top of us. (That’s some of us. Count your lucky stars if you cannot relate!) These type of pianos tend to drop so fast there’s no fear involved. That’s the irony, or it seems to be. The truly awful stuff: it just happens. And then you have to deal and cope, whether you like it or not.
A while ago a PhD candidate got in touch with me. He had to suddenly deal with a disability: an illness for which he was effectively treated, but the treatment had had side-effects. Side-effects that directly, and likely permanently affect his mental energy, sometimes his mental clarity. On the outside no-one seems to notice. He looks the same. But he can no longer perform the way he did before. What to do now? How to finish his PhD? How to communicate about his situation?
The tragedy of dealing with massive pianos, especially if they are invisible ones, is the loneliness. You drop out of the mainstream, your experience no longer shared. There are no guidelines, there is no handbook. It’s just you and the piano. And the question of how to get it to shift an inch, so you can get it to hurt a bit less, and work with it or around it, and somehow get on with your life.
Universities often offer little support. You may have to deal with additional complications: sometimes systems are so rigid they do not allow for pianos at all! Great. Just what you need.
So, how to cope? How to deal? Can it be done elegantly?
I have quite a bit of experience with massive pianos and how to deal – if you’ve been reading for a while you know I finished my PhD while struggling with an illness that left me with very little energy and more worries and issues than I want to even think about!! In the process I learned quite a bit about being effective despite circumstances.
A tip of the iceberg:
1. Love your boundaries
If I could say only one thing, it would be this: love and respect your boundaries as much as you can. A piano, whether an illness or something else, will force you to re-examine what you can and cannot do. It is incredibly hard to come to terms with the constraints imposed. You did not choose this, you do not want it, yet it is there. Acknowledge the piano. Dare look at the reality of the situation. Dare find out what the new situation means. I say dare, because it takes courage. If you are clear half the battle is won. Boundaries keep you safe, and provide possibility. They show you what is possible, right here, right now. Find out what might be possible, find out how you could work within your new boundaries. Don’t fight them, even though it’s tempting, I know.
2. With courage comes heart
Appreciate yourself for all that you are, do, and deal with. It’s pretty incredible! And it is enough, even if you can’t do what you used to do, for now. A sense of self-appreciation is your most valuable ally in the midst of your world falling apart (hopefully not completely!). Not only will it help you muster the strength to go on with your life, in pieces or not, it will significantly affect how others treat you. If you respect yourself, others are more likely to respect you and your circumstances (and if they don’t, it’s not as much of a problem). You set the tone by how you approach yourself. I suggest you do so with fierce appreciation.
3. Communicate your needs
Asking for help is the most difficult thing in the world! If you are anything like me you want to be independent, self-reliant and eh…capable, without extra provisions or extra care. No special treatment please! Yet asking for help, asking for support becomes vital once you have serious life-changing stuff going on.
Work-wise: if your situation is preventing you from working at a pace you were used to and is expected of you, temporarily or permanently, let your supervisor/ anyone else involved know. You don’t have to go into great detail about your circumstances, but you must, MUST, communicate about your new situation as it pertains to what you can and can no longer do. You may have the tendency to underplay the huge changes in your life. You may want to deny the piano. In fact, you may succeed for a while, as most pianos are invisible to other people, including supervisors! That is until they can no longer be denied, which at that point will be certain to cause you a great deal of extra stress and grief. Not good.
It’s a much better idea to be as pragmatic as you can in dealing with your situation. Stick up for yourself. It’s important. Depending on your circumstances make strategic decisions as to how much information to share at work, and whether/ who/ how to ask for help. Some environments are friendlier than others, and some people have people skills while others do not! But regardless, and I want to emphasize this: let others help if they can. People (supervisors are people) are often more than willing to do so. They may even help bend some rules. Ask yourself what you need first. Be specific. Then ask. You deserve all the help you can get.
From my personal experience: when I was finishing my PhD I had to do so in a PhD environment where there were NO arrangements for disability (Ouch, how I hate that word!). The only option was to take unpaid sick leave, and they didn’t seem to be too generous with that either. Yet I needed time, and lots of it. Every six months, for the three years that I did not work at all, I applied for an extension, and I ended up being the person with the longest sick leave in the history of the Institute! This wasn’t without stress, and to be honest in the end I thought they would drop me. They didn’t. Now I know my supervisor did quite a bit of lobbying on my behalf behind the scenes, even though he too was getting impatient. I believe he/ they would have given up on me if I had not communicated about my circumstances, as painful as it was. These situations can make you feel as if you’re battling a machine. I am glad I kept making my case, best as I could, and kept asking for what I needed (more time) without being apologetic about it. It paid off.
4. Don’t underestimate yourself
There is a silver lining to massive pianos: the imaginary pianos start to matter less. These aren’t words of comfort really: I am sure we would all rather deal with imaginary pianos than real ones! But it’s true: crisis can create momentum. There is no time to obsess over writer’s block etc. when you have real problems going on. The sky has already fallen, so no need to obsess about it happening! Might as well skip writer’s block altogether and get to work! When fear starts to matter less, when the PhD becomes less important in the scheme of things: that is when the pace picks up. In addition, constraints can force us to become more effective in the way we work. It is quite remarkable what we are capable of when we have to, when we are forced to do more with less energy/ less time at our disposal. If we used to specialize in making life difficult for ourselves, we no longer do. There is a real piano to deal with now – it is enough.
If you are dealing with a piano right now – an illness, a disability, death in the family maybe – just know I am rooting for you. May the tide turn soon, may you feel better, may all be easier for you in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, hang tight. You can do this. You will get through it. You will find a way. You will.
If you have questions for me about this topic, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. Talk to me. Leave a comment below, or send me a message or tweet. As always, if you enjoyed this post, please share it. I appreciate it!
Feeling insecure is part of the PhD process, but it’s not the part people tend to prefer to talk about. If you have ever tried asking your peers about how they feel about their PhD, and where it stands, you’ve probably encountered one of three responses: 1. an over-exuberant exclamation of how well everything is going and how fascinating their research is (if American – and they may well be American if this is their response type – add to that that they went to the gym at 6 am this morning, before their massively productive research sessions, which all happened when you were mostly busy hitting the snooze button) 2. deathly silence. 3. head banging against the wall: “Don’t ask me about my PhD!”
What I have come to realise is that these responses share a theme: feeling insecure is most always masked, and you will be surprised at what these various masks may hide. It is never what you think!
Don’t be tricked into thinking that you are the only one who feels insecure about your work. You are not. Everybody feels insecure. Sure, some people feel more insecure than others, and the intensity of this dreaded feeling may fluctuate depending on where your project stands, but take this to heart:
Everybody feels the question marks.
It is part of the PhD process.
The PhD combines two challenging pursuits: that of becoming an academic, and learning the tricks of the professional trade; and that of attempting to add an ounce of original knowledge to existing scholarship. To achieve the latter, you have to be proficient at the former. Which takes time, yet in your PhD time schedule the two are conflated. So from the start you feel you should be ‘already there’. Except you’re not. And except it isn’t clear where ‘there’ is exactly. How to know when you have arrived? Becoming a scholar isn’t a linear process, nor a fixed destination.
And that is not even taking into account the insecurity-producing nature of creative work, in general. How to trust that something good will come out of your efforts? How to know whether your work will measure up? Related, and worse: how to know whether YOU measure up? Because it’s you, ultimately who has to produce this thing called a PhD. Isn’t it?
Once you start doubting not only your work, but also yourself, you enter dangerous territory. Best keep out, if you want to keep your limbs and preserve your sanity.
So, what to do instead?
First, and foremost, I repeat: know that feeling insecure goes with the territory of writing a PhD. Not feeling insecure is the exception, and in my experience so far, and I have asked many people (in private, and preferably after the PhD had been completed), feeling insecure is the norm. So far I have encountered one person (one!) who honestly could not relate whatsoever to the shaky feeling working on a PhD produces at times. Statistically he is an outlier, or if you want: he is the exception that proves the rule.
Don’t be fooled by people’s apparent confidence, and this is especially true in more competitive environments. I still find myself taken by surprise sometimes, when people tell me about their insecurities, and I really shouldn’t be, as it has been one of the more common topics I talk about and help people with!
Just last week a PhD candidate made an offhand comment during a coaching session on how the section on feeling insecure in the HappyPhD Course had helped her. For a second I was surprised, as in the coaching calls we had focused mainly on the more practical side of things: the workday, productivity, etc. She never mentioned feeling insecure, and she certainly didn’t make an insecure impression. Quite the opposite. Oh, but of course! Fooled by the mask situation: the inner and the outer, never the same. And momentarily forgotten about the to-some-degree-anxiety-producing nature of the PhD, which is universal. ‘I have become more relaxed about it,’ she told me. ‘Just knowing that it is normal has taken the pressure off.’
That’s the first tip: If you are feeling worried and insecure about your PhD, don’t worry. So is everybody else. It’s normal and only to be expected. It’s nothing that needs ‘fixing’. (Note: If you are not feeling even a hint of insecurity, you may be an extra-terrestrial. Or have megalomaniac tendencies. Just so you know.)
The second tip is to make sure you create a firm boundary between yourself and your work, when thinking about it. Reduce your worries to ‘how can I best perform this piece of research/ find the answer to this question/ run this analysis/ improve my methodology’, instead of obsessing about ‘can I do this/ what if I’m not capable/ Oh my god this is never going to work out/ I am probably not cut out for this/I am a failure/ my PhD is doomed’. You are capable. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt here, and focus on the factual work that you can improve on instead (PS You don’t need improving on. You are already pretty magnificent.)
The same goes for worrying about how your work will be received. It’s only natural to do so to a certain extent, but for the love of mercy try to stick to the factual, and keep away from the more existential questions. The fact you were selected to do a PhD means you are most likely capable of producing one, so try and keep your obsessing over your capability and worth to a minimum. Keep narrowing your questions down to answerable, figure-out-able or at the very minimum non-personal concerns.
Naturally, it may be possible that persistent fierce insecurity points towards a larger question: that of whether you want to be writing a PhD in the first place. If the answer to that question is: ‘yes, I want to be writing a PhD’, the remaining existential concerns are often not much more than smoke, distraction and illusion. Leave them be. (If the answer is no or undecided, read: should I quit my PhD?)
Oh, and a final tip: Don’t ask people how they are getting on with their PhD when you bump into them in the hallway. There is no such thing as an innocent question in the hallway! And if you really want to know, all you have to do to never know the answer is to ask questions in the hallway! (Well, you might catch a person off-guard, and they may blurt things they didn’t intend to share, but they may not talk to you ever again!) If you must, try again in a more intimate setting. The answer will likely be more satisfying.
Do you ever feel insecure about your PhD (if I may ask)? If so, thank goodness, you are normal. Well, that is, as normal as you are comfortable being. Tell me all about it in the comments. Oh, and if you liked this post, could you share it? As always, I appreciate it!
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.
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.
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!
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.