This post brings together a number of things that I’ve come to see as important for research students. They are based on what I know from research I’ve done, literature I’ve read, experience as a supervisor, and conversations with many students and supervisors at universities around the world.
Constantly looking for your thesis thief
I’ve written a detailed blog post about this. Your thesis thief is the person who has ‘stolen’ your research by doing something really similar already! Regularly looking for this person is a good habit to cultivate as it avoids nasty shocks (believe me, I know how it can feel). It also requires and promotes good scholarly discipline in being able to define what ‘really similar’ would mean: in terms of topic, methodology, context, theory etc…
Ask for help… when you need it
Sounds obvious? Well experience tells us that many students ask for help when they don’t really need it. When I speak with other supervisors, we often chuckle about the number of times students approach us with questions where the answer would be on google (let me google that for you), somewhere in the university web pages, handbook, literature etc. That’s just a kind of minor annoyance / time wasting issue. What’s far more important is that any kind of research learning (master’s dissertation, doctoral thesis) requires the student to learn to help herself or himself. Of course, help-seeking is itself part of being an effective student (see below), but defaulting to dependence on others is the opposite of effective.
Student: Can we have a meeting to talk about coding my data?
Supervisor: What have you read about coding?
Student: Er, not much. Just one paper but it was really confusing.
Supervisor: Who have you talked to about coding? Have you asked any other students who have done it?
Student: No. No-one.
Supervisor: Have you tried some coding on your own data, a few times at least?
Student: No, I wanted you to tell me how to do it right first.
Supervisor: Sorry, no, I don’t think it is a good use of our time to meet. Come back when you’ve explored these other avenues.
I’m not saying this supervisor is doing the right thing, but it’s interesting to think about, isn’t it?
Cultivate, nurture and strategically access a constellation of supportive relationships
No matter how amazing and available your supervisor is (see below), you’re going to need other people to support you through the research journey. Some of these people it is their job to help you – librarians, IT support etc. I found personally that making a special effort with research / postgraduate administrators is a sound investment as they really are the oil and the fuel in the institutional machine. Others might be helping you as a favour, so you need to build a sense of mutuality in the relationship – peers who will help you with endnote, stats etc. Others have long been supportive of you, but now have to support you in this different endeavour, perhaps at a time when you’re less available to them – those providing emotional support, for example. There are others who might never meet you, or even know they’re helping you. I’m thinking here of Thesis Whisperer, Pat Thomson, and others in the amazing and helpful world of #phdchat and similar in the tweet- and blogospheres. Then there are academics in your field – people you meet at conferences and engage in corridor chat or discussions over coffee or dinner; people whose work you are reading whom you might email now and then; people who might be your examiners. So, your constellation will include your supervisor, family, friends, student peers, other academics; maybe dead people (authors of books can be a great source of support), people you never meet, people who don’t even know you exist!
It’s one thing to build this kind of supportive net around your research and your emotional and physical wellbeing. It is another thing altogether to use it effectively. The key is, when things get tricky, diagnosing what the problem really is, what kind of help you need right now, and who is best able to provide that help. Let me give an example from a study I did. A student doing economic history, Lucy, had waited months to get data from a national archive. It arrived by email and she opened up the file only to find huge holes in the data that meant she couldn’t do the study she had hoped to do. What did she do? She went out for a drink with a chemistry PhD student. Why? Because she knew this person well enough to feel ok crying (she needed to cry), but also because she knew chemists fail all the time (it’s true: they spend months trying to get experiments to work). She realised what she needed, right then, was not a solution to the data issue, but someone who could help her cope with the experience of her PhD falling out from under her feet.
Ensure time with your supervisor is as high value as possible
Your supervisor is important, but not all-important. She or he is very likely extremely busy, and in many countries, research supervision is a relatively (or completely) invisible form of work – ie not something that is awarded much time or money in the grand scheme of things. Yes, she or he is committed to supporting you, cares about you, and wants you to complete your study (as quickly as possible, if you don’t mind). But in the pecking order of things that are important and urgent today, reality is you probably don’t come top or even near the top of the list. So, your time with your supervisor is precious. Very precious. So precious that you’d be really, really stupid to waste it.
So what might ‘waste’ supervision time? I’m taking a rather extreme view here, but bear with me. I think anything more than a couple of minutes on something that your supervisor is not either uniquely or best able to help with, is wasteful. Exceptions might include time spent on things she or he needs to know, for example about circumstances outside your study that are affecting your work (though I’m not at all convinced the juicy details in this are warranted). If your time with your supervisor is limited and precious, why waste it talking about things that other people (or indeed just you) could sort out just as effectively?
Now, there are a lot of things that fall under the category of things your supervisor is uniquely or best able to help you with. She or he knows you (in a research capacity sense) and what you are doing better than anyone else (although of course pretty soon in the process you know more about your specific topic than your supervisor). But there are others who know just as much about administrative process, how to find literature, how to work software, how to correct grammar etc.
By implication, there is an onus on the research student to figure out what does indeed fall into this category that makes something an appropriate (ie high-value) use of supervision time. This will change over the course of your study. And there is responsibility on both sides to try to preserve supervision as a high-value-added activity.
Student: Can you show me how to format endnote for APA 6th?
Supervisor: Let me google that for you.
[No further dialogue needed]
Internalise your supervisor(s)
This connects with the previous point, because it can make time with your supervisor high value. After a while, you should be able to anticipate what your supervisor might say about a chapter you’ve sent to her. In which case, write your draft, leave it for a few days, then look at it as if you were your supervisor: what would she say about my structure? Where would she be confused? What would she like? What would she say needs more work, and why? Then re-write the chapter. Then send it in. A sign you’re not doing this is that your supervisor is giving the same kind of feedback each time. For example, you sent in your first findings chapter and your supervisor said you had ‘quotitis’ (hiding behind raw data too much). So when you send in the discussion chapter, check beforehand that the same problem isn’t there too.
Know the early warning signs, monitor yourself (and others) for them, and act accordingly
Most people come off the rails, or are at risk of doing so, at some point during a research thesis or dissertation. Being on the rails means studying productively, effectively, efficiently, while also maintaining physical and emotional wellbeing, and also being the husband, wife, mother, father, son, daughter, sibling, friend etc that you need to be for others around you.
Kearns and colleagues have a checklist of self-sabotaging behaviours that are very common (I have experienced all of them personally, in my time), but often unnoticed or ignored. They are:
- Overcommitting. Attempting a study that is bigger or more complex than it needs to be. Taking on too many other responsibilities, spreading yourself too thinly. Refusing to let go of things that are important in your study, but not crucial. Setting yourself impossible volumes to read etc.
- Busyness. Doing lots of work but none of it actually being productive work (eg spending a morning printing things or downloading things to read, when you should really be reading).
- Perfectionism. A proper academic disease. There is no place for perfectionism in research. Sure we want to avoid sloppiness, and yes we want our writing to reflect the best of what we can do. But that is not perfection. No-one ever wrote a perfect paper, dissertation or thesis. Trying to do so can only be harmful.
- Procrastination. Either putting off thesis work, or putting off the unpleasant and difficult aspects.
- Disorganisation. If you find you’re not getting time to read and write, you’re not as organised as you think you are.
- Not putting in effort. It’s a long, gruelling journey. Our motivation flags. That is normal and natural. But should be spotted and dealt with.
- Choosing performance-debilitating circumstances. Working in unsuitable locations (you think you are productive reading in the coffee shop, or at home with the kids around, but are you? Really?)
There are other early warning signs too. Things like: not wanting to go onto campus because you feel really stressed about your research. Having a knot in your stomach when you see an email from your supervisor. Deferring meetings, not turning up, or just asking for email feedback (ie avoiding direct contact with your supervisor). I’m veering into territory that I’m not at all qualified to write about (eg symptoms and signs of anxiety, depression etc), so I’ll go no further. But you get the point.
Make time to read and write
If you don’t read and write you will not complete your dissertation or thesis. If you spend hours each week doing other things but not reading or writing, sooner or later, you will plateau and stop making any progress. This is a deal-breaker. You simply have to make time to read and write.
Act as if you are fearless
Sending writing you know is not perfect off to your supervisor can be scary. I know. Submitting your thesis or dissertation for examination is even scarier. Being scared is fine. Letting that fear affect your actions is not fine. You have to send your writing off for feedback. You have to submit (abandon is probably a better word) your thesis or dissertation at some point, even though it is not perfect.
Walk the fundamental scholarly tightrope
To be an effective student you have to be confident, assertive and ready to defend your point of view (even if that means disagreeing with people more senior or experienced than you). But you also have to be humble about what you and others know, subject yourself relentlessly and ruthlessly to self critique (asking could it be otherwise, could it be better, could I be wrong?), and be open to change suggested by others. This is one of the tensions that is written into the DNA of academic work and it’s far from easy to know when which aspect is more appropriate. But it is clear, I think, that falling exclusively or even predominantly on one side or the other does not bode well for success.