Why good supervisors might sometimes make easy things harder

I recently had an experience that made me reflect on an aspect of research supervision (supervision of a PhD, EdD, DCA, or Masters by Research).

Bear with me: I’m going to tell a short story relating to some training I do in freediving, and then I’m going to explain why I think it points to some helpful ideas about supervision and what postgrad students may be experiencing in terms of difficulties, particularly writing.

A lesson in freediving

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When I’m not at work, one of the things I love to do most is freediving. Freediving involves holding your breath while being under water. It is an amazing activity that involves physical and mental challenge, discipline and practice. I am often at my most peaceful, focused and contented state when freediving. A large part of freediving involves depth: taking a big breath and swimming down towards the bottom of the sea. I’ve put a short video on youtube of a dive I did recently to give you a sense of what it involves.

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Diving deep presents a number of challenges: you have to learn to relax while on the surface, and stay relaxed when you’re deep down – slowing your heart to conserve energy and oxygen; you have to swim with efficient, hydrodynamic technique and posture (not very well demonstrated on the video!); and you have to learn to resist the urge to breathe and learn which body signals you can ignore or suppress to give you longer under water.

Recently I’ve been going deeper more often – down to 28.4m on one dive. At this stage one thing tends to present a barrier to progress: equalisation. Equalisation is what you have to do in response to the increased pressure when under water at depth. You have to gently force air into your Eustachian tubes (basically your ears) so the pressure inside matches that in the water outside. It’s a more severe version of what you experience when you’re coming in to land in a plane.

I can equalise my ears using something called Frenzel technique (using your tongue to squeeze air into the right places) pretty easily down to 20m or so. My problem is, when I go deeper than this, I start wasting mental and physical energy trying to equalise using air from my lungs. There are other options, though, making better use of the residual air left in your mouth, rather than topping up from your lungs. Using what’s already closer to your ears (ie in your mouth) is much more efficient and uses less energy.

So I had a freediving lesson recently in which I was learning this new technique. We never went deeper than 7m the whole time. I was trapping air in the roof of my mouth and concentrating really hard on only using that air to equalise. What was strange was that 7m dives, which I can do very easily and quite fast if I want, became really quite hard. Equalising became something I was battling with, and I had to focus hard on how to use the muscles around and in my mouth to get that last bit of air into my ears.

Now here’s my point: the fact that what was previously easy (a 7m dive) became hard was exactly the point. The battles I was having were a sign that I was doing precisely the right thing – only using the air in my mouth and not ‘cheating’ my topping up from my lungs. There were other benefits too: this is something I can practice much more safely because I don’t need to be diving down beyond 20m to keep doing it. Now, if I’m just freediving for fun less than 20m, I can use my old technique no problem. But when I want to go deeper, this new technique is going to be really important.

By making something easy harder, my instructor was helping me develop and learn.

So what does this mean about supervision?

Exactly the same point applies! Good supervisors may, at times, make something that used to be relatively easy or straightforward much harder to do. It could be presenting complex theoretical ideas or concepts which ‘make a mess’ of something that used to seem quite easy to make sense of. It could be taking your elegant research design to pieces and pointing to all its limitations and the other options. It could be pointing to qualities in academic writing (voice, flow, authority, meta-text, signposting etc), that make both the process and product of writing seem much more complicated and harder to achieve. So, when you go from being able to churn out 2,000 words in a day to struggling to produce 500 and even then thinking they aren’t that great… that could be a really good sign. When you keep going round in circles and end up with a sprawling mess of ideas relating to something that used to be nice and neat… that could be a really good sign. When you find it hard to fix on a design because the consequences of choices are hard to determine and the balancing act in navigating those choices is starting to seriously wobble… that could be a really good sign.

Obviously the end goal is not that our ideas are a mess or that writing feels like torture. But if we are going to get good at working with theory and concepts, design powerful, parsimonious studies, and write about complex ideas and techniques in a clear and persuasive way, then we may have to accept that things are going to get harder for a while.

So, if you’re a student, next time you’re working on stuff between supervisions, and are thinking “Grr! This hasn’t got better since we last met, it’s got worse!”, consider whether your supervisor may be doing something that is tough but productive in the long term.

As a supervisor I would try to share this explicitly with students if this is my purpose. “We’re working on developing a number of features in your writing right now, so it totally expected that it’s going to feel harder, slower, more frustrating for a while. These are all good signs”… or something to that effect.

Which reminds me of something I realise I keep saying to myself and to students I’m working with: “If you’re finding it easy, you’re probably not doing it very well”. While this is a bit crude, the point is that research degrees are supposed to be hard. The best writers draft and redraft, and start over, and agonise of word choice, sentence structure, paragraph order, what gets in and what doesn’t etc.

My point is not that good supervision makes everything as hard as possible and leaves no room for trying to make things easy. Far from it. But I think there are definitely times in the process when making things harder (with appropriate support, explicitness, and expectation management), a good thing.
STOP PRESS: UPDATE

At the time of writing this initially, my depth diving was limited by equalising, and I was taught a few techniques to practice in shallow water. These made equalising harder, as I explained above… however I can now report that it has all paid off! I recently managed a dive to -42m – over 12m deeper than my previous personal best (which was limited by equalising problems). So it really did work… and here is the video to prove it (the bit talking about ‘constant Frenzel’ is where I apply what I learned in shallow water)

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11 thoughts on “Why good supervisors might sometimes make easy things harder

  1. jpschimel

    Thanks. This was a really nice illustration of an important idea: part of learning to master any topic is unlearning the simple rules that we usually start with–these may get you started, but won’t take you to mastery: they won’t get you past 20 m!

    In “Writing Science” I noted that “part of all advanced training is unlearning the simplifications you were taught in introductory classes. Those classes build simple schemas to get you started in the field, but to advance you must move beyond them. Electrons don’t orbit around the nucleus like planets around the sun, single genes don’t necessarily code for single proteins, and paragraphs don’t necessarily have a Topic Sentence-Development structure.”

    Unlearning and relearning means that rather than getting easier, things sometimes will get harder. And then apparently easier, as going to 25 m becomes as easy as going to 15 m once was. And then you hit a new limit….

    Josh Schimel

    Reply
    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Hi Josh

      Thanks so much for your response. I’m delighted you found the post made sense… and indeed I experienced similar ‘unlearning’ re electrons myself while at school!

      Reply
  2. Steve Jones

    I really enjoyed reading this blog post. I begin my doctoral studies in October, and feel encouraged by the challenge this will present, but especially through the potential of the unlearning – relearning process. I guess the whole process is akin to pruning a plant, given the goals of further growth and deadwood removal.

    It’s process which I have also begun to experience during my supervised MSc dissertation, and sure it got tough, but as time goes on, it gets easier and the quality of my work has drastically improved too. I expect at PhD level this is going to get harder still, but as said, the challenge this will present beckons me.

    Reply
    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Dear Steve

      Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you found the post useful and that it connected with your experience. Moreover, I think it’s awesome how you drew on Josh’s unlearning idea and added your own metaphor of pruning plants! You’ll see from lots of my posts, I really like a good metaphor!

      Nick

      Reply
  3. wildeyedvireo

    Excellent story and great point! Actually I think this idea of “making things harder” on purpose extends to more than supervision. Like you point out, this can apply to writing, or experimenting with new methods, or trying just about anything that pushes our boundaries and helps us grow. I try to remember that if I’m uncomfortable, it’s a good thing: it means I’m working at my edges. That it’s important not to balk and back down but keep working through it. I think it’s great that you remind your students that this is not only a natural part of the research process, but that embracing discomfort is a key to personal and professional growth. I know I could certainly use that reminder at times!

    Reply
    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Hi

      Thanks for your comment, Wiledeyedvireo 🙂

      I like the idea of ‘working at my edges’ – makes me think about Vygotsky’s idea of zone of proximal development… Maybe a blog post for later!

      Reply
  4. Amina

    I love your use of stories to make a point, very effective. Also love the point you make here and how you communicate it to your students. I came to realise this aspect of the PhD process perhaps towards the end of my second year of PhD and began to appreciate the skills of the supervisory process….I spent my first year really questioning myself and wondering if I could even do this. Now I’ve come to the place where I’ve accepted that it is supposed to be hard. Self doubts still creep in every now and then but not as often. What I got from this today is a reminder to keep things in perspective when you are amidst experiencing the hard part of the process and not letting the self defeating thoughts come in. Since this morning I’ve been struggling to even put a sentence together and now I’m thinking …that could be a really good sign. And I know it is – like said in the previous comment -‘it means I’m working at my edges’ – I love that thought.

    Reply
    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Thanks Amina! I’m delighted that it is making sense… we all harbour self doubts (academic impostor syndrome) – the thing is not to let them get the better of us… without going the other way and thinking what we do effortlessly is brilliant by default…

      Reply
  5. Breda O'hara-Davies

    Thank you so much for this! A lot of it really resonates right now as I am battling chronic procrastination and self-doubt. Just hearing that it could be ‘normal’ to feel that the paltry 500 words produced are rubbish helps in a strange way!:)

    Reply

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