Publishing and thesis-ing: finding the courage of your convictions

Lovely husband and I have been talking lately about a group of new research students he is working with. He observed yesterday that part of their struggle with writing up their research projects is that they lack confidence in their claims. This got me thinking about making arguments in academic writing, and putting ideas out into the world. A great deal of the advice out there has to do with how to do this, and why we do this – craft persuasive, well-written, well-substantiated arguments. But, in this little post, I want to reflect a bit on a less written-about aspect of publishing writing, whether in paper or thesis form: finding the ‘courage of your convictions’, and being confident enough to stand by these. 

A friend and colleague who works with postgraduate students has a lovely saying: she says that a big part of writing at postgraduate level and beyond is being brave enough to ‘put your hands on your hips’ and make your claims with that level of conviction. This is a lot easier than it sounds. With a group of writers I worked with late last year – postgraduate and postdoctoral scholars writing journal articles for the first time – the issue of confidence came up in one of our sessions on argumentation. One of the scholars commented that it’s hard to know if you are saying the right kinds of things, and if people will agree with you. He added that writing at this level feels risky, and scary. I am sure this feeling of fear, and trepidation, is familiar to any of you who have had to write for a supervisor, or peer reviewer, or lecturer who will judge your work. You know that, pretty much always, some aspect of your work will need revision, further work. You(r writing) will be found wanting, to a greater or lesser degree.

I try to see this as just my writing that needs work, but the truth is, my writing is always personal. And critique of my writing is personal, and it feels like it is me who has not measured up. After all, those papers contain my thoughts, my convictions, my take on what is interesting and important to my field. And when a reviewer says ‘nope, not quite there yet’ – even nicely with constructive suggestions for improvement – it hits my confidence. I lose some of the courage of my convictions, my hands slide off my hips and I wonder: ‘how did I get this wrong’?

My initial reaction, because I am me, is always to go to the extreme: they hated it, it was a terrible paper, no one likes my ideas, I should not be an academic. Then after a day or two I calm down. I moderate this mean voice in my head, and see that, actually, the reviewers did not hate the paper, and they don’t think my ideas are rubbish. Mainly, the reviews I have received thus far, even the most negative ones, have pointed out positive aspects of my work, and have given me food for thought and revision.

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But getting back up again takes a while, especially when the reviews seem mean, and ask for a lot of extra work in getting the paper on track. It’s hard to keep those hands on my hips, and believe that my argument is valid, and interesting to others, and necessary to have in print. It’s too easy to just give up, shelve the paper, and wallow in the sense that my ideas are boring (and, of course, that I am too).

I think, therefore, that a significant part of writing for publication, or writing a thesis at postgraduate level, has to include confidence-building. Supervisors and reviewers need to be aware of this in their feedback, and focus on phrasing feedback in ways that indicates clearly the need for revision and further work without breaking the writer’s confidence so much that any further work feels impossible. Writing courses need to include discussions that recognise, openly, how difficult writing at this level can be: not just technically, but emotionally and psychologically.

Putting yourself on paper – which is what every argument is – and putting that part of yourself out into the world for others to read, critique and argue with takes courage. If you are new to publishing, or have a shaky supervision situation where you don’t get useful or encouraging feedback very often, it is even harder to be brave. And more than that, to believe that you have something worthwhile to say, that other researchers and readers in your field will want to know about.

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BUT: you do have something worthwhile to say. You(r efforts) are valuable. Finding, and holding, the courage of your convictions is not always easy. But, it is worth the effort.

On sexism in academia

When I started this blog in 2013, my primary audience was working women in academia, balancing work, PhD study and the demands of family life. I am so honoured to have a  wider readership now, and in so many different countries and academic spaces, but as a woman in academia, a mum and wife, a researcher, and a feminist, one of my chief concerns is still helping women, like me broadly speaking, to navigate at least some aspects of their personal, professional and PhD lives as they traverse these spaces.

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I have been thinking a great deal lately about sexism in academia, and all the big and small ways it makes itself felt. I had an encounter, recently, where a senior colleague who works at the university at which my husband still works (and where I used to work) asked me to apply for a post advertised in his faculty. But, rather than approach me (and he does know me well enough to do that), he sent me a message via my husband to tell me about it. My husband replied that it would be better to approach me directly, but did come home and tell me about it. Not only was this, for me, unprofessional; it was sexist. I was pretty angry about it.

I would not, I am very sure, have been given a message to pass on to my husband, unless it was to ‘say hello’ or ‘give regards’. Before you think I’m being overly sensitive, this is underscored by several other messages male colleagues have asked my husband to pass on to me over the years, including when I still worked at the university. And a former line manager meeting me for the first time, in a job interview, with the greeting ‘So you’re the other half of [my husband’s name]’. No, dude. I’m the whole me. And that same line manager dressing me down in front of peers and colleagues in a high level meeting for not being at my desk when he stopped by the day before, because I was on family leave taking care of a sick child and trying to work from home. And then proceeding to tell us all about a male professor who works 7am to 11pm, 6 days a week, and publishes prolifically, and is the epitome of academic success and worth (and has no children, partner, ageing parents, pets … or life, it seems). Ho hum. Taken together, all of these events can have the effect of making you feel smaller, less self-confident and less able to take up the same amount of space as your male colleagues can.

So, sexism is alive and well in my lived experiences of academia, and in those of many other women around the world. A recent piece in The Conversation reported on research that shows that women get less funding than men in the biomedical sciences, and tend to apply for smaller grants; a further piece in University World News reports that women are under-represented in senior academic positions across European universities, and elsewhere, such as in South Africa, the same is certainly true. Most of the research I have read speaks a great deal about how to change all of this; far fewer stories celebrate significant changes happening, although we are taking steps forward, particularly in the social sciences.

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What interests me, personally, is what role I can play in celebrating my own and other women’s achievements in academic spaces, and in amplifying women’s voices, and research. What can any of us do? Here are a few of my initial thoughts:

  1. Amplify one another’s voices: Have you ever been in a meeting where 3 women will make the same basic point and the male chairperson will only really hear the point when a male colleague echoes it? I have. A lot of women I know have. So, one thing we can do practically is to amplify one another’s voices, using a fantastic tool women staffers working in the White House during Obama’s presidency put into practice: amplification. Essentially, how it works is that if one woman makes a point that is not heard or noted, another woman in the meeting will repeat it, giving her colleague the credit for suggesting it. If it is still not heard, a third woman will speak up, crediting the first two, and so on until the people in the meeting have no choice but to hear the point, and credit the woman who made it.
  2. Stop being so bloody modest: The male researchers and academics I know have no problem talking up their research, and promoting their achievements: grants won, books published, papers cited many times for being amazing, etc. No problem. But, and I am pretty sure this is not just me, I am less comfortable doing this. Women are taught to be modest, and not to be too brash, or self-congratulatory or in-your-face – it’s unladylike and makes other people [men, mainly] uncomfortable. The trouble with this learned behaviour, though, is that many women can also become squirmy when other women ‘brag’ on social media, or in person, about their papers published, or grants won or laudable achievements. We have to stop this, and start not only being less modest about our own achievements, but also add this to the amplification. ‘Did you hear about J’s grant – her stem cell research is really groundbreaking!’ Have you read C’s paper on a critical history of women resistance fighters in Africa? It’s really fantastic! Your students should read it too.’ And so on. We need to be our own, and each other’s, cheerleaders.
  3. Create and sustain supportive spaces: I am always encouraged, inspired and energised by meeting with other women colleagues and peers, spending time talking about our research, our lives, our writing and so on. I feel surrounded by people like me in the sense that they get where I am coming from, and what I struggle with, often without me even needing to put it all into words. We so often, in academia, feel alone. We feel we are the only ones not coping with PhD and home and work, or not writing papers, or not doing Impressive Research, or not winning grants, or not being Good Enough. We are SO not alone, and reminding ourselves of this, and learning from one another as we support and cheer on one another, is a really good idea. We need to be creating and sustaining supportive spaces and cultures in academia – formal and informal – so that we can give ourselves and one another this emotional and intellectual sustenance and support.

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It is  galling that we still have to read so many stories of women in academia struggling to reach the seniority of their male counterparts, struggling to balance the demands of childcare with those of research, teaching and administration – often without sufficient support from their university – and struggling to make their voices heard above the still-male-dominated din. But, we do, because sexism in academia (and in society) is alive and well. But, it can be fought – it is being fought, and gains are being made. To keep the momentum moving forward we  can all be doing our part where possible, amplifying, listening to, supporting, and learning from one another. We’re worth it.

It’s not less of a PhD if you didn’t survive it alone

In the world of postgraduate studies, there is a dominant narrative of struggle, and survival. PhDs and Masters’ degrees are difficult  – they demand that you struggle, often on your own, with ideas, theory, words, data, supervisors and so on. If you are not having a lonely and hard time, you are missing some vital part of Doing a PG degree Properly. I know far too many postgraduate students for whom this narrative is all too true. They struggle with supervisors who are too busy, or absent, and who give the most appalling feedback; they struggle to find peers to work alongside and share their research difficulties, and triumphs, with; they struggle to write, finding themselves blocked for days or weeks on end; they struggle to generate data, build theoretical frameworks, find and build their argument, and so on. Struggle, and loneliness, seem to be the central tropes of the postgraduate experience.

But, what if it doesn’t have to be that way? What if we can all work towards a culture of support in postgraduate studies that changes the narrative? What might this culture look like, and what would it take to create and maintain it in more than just a few, unusual, cases. There are indeed cases of supportive, collegial postgraduate environments: I was part of one at my university, and I am sure that it helped me to finish my degree more quickly, and less unhappily. I know of other programmes, within specific departments, where supervisors and students support one another, share research through presentation and feedback sessions, and meet at intervals for different kinds of ‘thesis support’ sessions and inputs. There is a growing body of research – both in published papers and in blogs – about the forms of postgraduate support that are needed in different contexts and the benefits to students, supervisors, universities and economies. But, these cases don’t yet seem to be the norm, and do not yet represent a systemic understanding of what successful postgraduate study demands of students, and requires of supervisors and universities in terms of formative, collegial support.

The first thing that we need to challenge is the single student to single (or two) supervisor ‘apprenticeship’ model of postgraduate work so common in the social sciences and humanities. In this model, students are often assigned supervisors) by their department or programme, although they do often have the opportunity to approach potential supervisors and choose to work with specific researchers. However, it’s not always easy to find out more about a prospective supervisor beyond their research publications and interests, and their departmental profile. For example, do they give constructive feedback? Are they present in the research process? Are they supportive? (Evonne Miller gives some useful advice on how to find this information here). Thus, many students in difficult supervision spaces, in imbalanced relationships with supervisors who hold all the power and do not necessarily use it for the student’s good. If we challenged this model to enable more instances of team or cohort supervision – students and their supervisors working on smaller projects within a larger overarching project, for example, or working on a range of projects but in a deliberately collective space – then neither students nor supervisors would need to navigate the process alone. Unequal and harmful power dynamics could be challenged, less experienced students and supervisors could be formatively mentored, and both could share with one another research, ideas, writing, advice, and general support.

The second thing that needs to be firmly challenged is the notion of struggle being part and parcel of any worthy postgraduate journey, especially at PhD level. If you are not struggling, you are not doing it right. I struggled with parts of my PhD – theory and data analysis especially. A PhD is not supposed to be easy: it is supposed to challenge you and change you, into a different kind of thinker, researcher, writer, person. But, I strongly object to the idea that this challenge has to be lonely, alienating, frustrating and interminable in order to be worthy. There are different kinds of struggle here: struggle that is productive, supported and results in steps forward in the research process; and struggle that bogs a student down in a mire of self-doubt and writing paralysis. I see too much of the latter in my work with students, often because the student struggling isn’t getting the help they need from peers or supervisor or department, and this is often because the nature of postgraduate study is misunderstood, or misconstrued. I think we need to start sharing more positive narratives around postgraduate study: of productive challenges that are worked through and overcome, of research wins where data generation works out and chapters are approved, of helpful supervision meetings and useful coffee chats with peers. And we need to stop making people who enjoy their PhDs feel like they’ve done something wrong, because it hasn’t been hard enough, or lonely enough.

I have had a few conversations with friends who really did enjoy their PhDs, as I did, and found the struggles hard but productive overall. These friends are all now productive researchers and constructive supervisors, having learned much more from their PhDs than just how to run a successful research project. They have learned how to ask for help, how to use the help they receive to move forward, how to write and read and think in critical ways, how to offer help to others, and how to reflect on and learn from mistakes, missteps and triumphs. This is not to imply that if you have a miserable PhD experience, you will be a miserable, unproductive researcher or supervisor, not at all. But you may feel you have lost parts of yourself along the way, rather than gained, and if you have been part of a poor supervision and research process, you may well find further research, writing, and supervision work more difficult than it could otherwise be. We could change the future of research and supervision work if we change the way we construct, support, and fund postgraduate education within our different contexts, especially in Africa where more young researchers and supervisors are needed.

We need to stop elevating the narrative of the lonely, alienated, struggling survivor above the narrative of the connected, challenged and productive thriver – and we need to create environments around postgraduate students and supervisors that make the latter narrative far more common across higher education.

Managing a relationship with your supervisor/s

If you ask a cross-section of postgraduate students what one of the best (or worst) parts of doing their MA or PhD is, most of them will likely tell you something about their supervisor(s). A supervisor can make or break a postgraduate degree process, and I have to say I have heard too many terrible stories about students being poorly treated, ignored or just inadequately supported by their supervisors. But these stories do make me wonder if there needs to be more thought put into how to choose a supervisor, and then ‘manage’ a relationship with that supervisor to ensure that it works for both of you as effectively as possible.

I have started co-supervising students; I am working with one student in her final year and have just met a new student. I have to say, it’s a lot harder than I thought it would be, emotionally and intellectually. I worry about whether I am giving these students the right kinds of advice, whether I am being too directive or not directive enough, and whether I am helping them effectively to write the best possible thesis they can. Supervision is absolutely a form of pedagogy, and requires a dialogic, constructive relationship between student and supervisor to work really well over the long period of time that the average PhD (or even MA) takes to complete. And the work of building this relationship can be difficult, and must be done on both sides of it.

I concentrate, with the students I am fortunate to work with, on making myself accessible to them, and open to questions, feedback and so on. I try to give comments and feedback within 2 weeks, and mostly have been able to keep to this so far. I think accessibility, openness and timeous feedback are pretty standard expectations to meet, and all of this goes a long way to creating space for that pedagogical relationship to grow. But, I am also following my own supervisor’s example here. She was very accessible, open, warm and gave relatively quick and always useful feedback. I felt very well supported and mentored, and she is now a colleague, and still a mentor, that I am so fortunate to have. I want to be this kind of supervisor. But, even as I try to be all of these things, I still get really busy, and distracted, and I forget things. I still need to be managed by my students. I need to be reminded that I owe them an email, or prodded when they need an answer to a question, a form filled in or a recommendation for funders.

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I think there are students who go into the MA or PhD with the expectation that the supervisor/s will set the pace and tone for the project, and will ensure that deadlines are set and met, and so on. Perhaps this is an expectation carried with them from undergraduate study, which is a good deal more structured than postgraduate study, generally speaking. Some supervisors may well be this structured, especially with a shorter MA project, but many are not. PhDs especially are as much about the actual research as they are about learning to become a more self-directed, independent researcher (who can eventually lead research projects and supervise others and so on). Thus, as a PhD student you may well be expected to take responsibility for your own project, and your supervisor may actually wait for you to ask for assistance, or feedback, or for you to check in and let them know how you are doing rather than being ‘on your case’ as such. If you do not, they might follow up periodically and ask how you are doing, but if you stop responding or go underground, a busy supervisor might just assume that you are either fine, or are no longer doing your research. While they perhaps should not just leave you be (especially if you really do need help), they may choose to focus on their other active students and projects, rather than spend more time trying to reach you with no response.

I would imagine students in this position feel neglected, and that’s a horrible place to be. But here’s the thing: you need to consider making the first move if this is where you are. You need to reach out and get in touch and let your supervisor/s know what’s going on with you. Perhaps they will step up and help if you let them know you what you need to get through this rough patch. Hopefully there will indeed be some part of it they can assist with, that is within the realm of their role as your supervisor.

If you have stopped talking to your supervisor/s or sending in pieces of writing for them to read, or stopped talking to peers even, pause here. Why have you stopped? Are you overwhelmed, struggling with reading, unable to write, writing a fair bit but worried it’s all rubbish and therefore don’t want to send it in? Odds are, your supervisor can help if you let them. Rather than waiting for someone, somewhere, to sense your distress and help, take a deep breath and reach out. Your supervisor/s can’t (and perhaps shouldn’t) always be the ones reaching out, setting deadlines, cajoling students into sending writing and so on. As doctoral students, we are expected to actually be able to cajole ourselves into writing and sending it in, and set our own deadlines, and ask for help when we need it. It’s tough, but it is part of the learning of the PhD: learning to be brave, write, ask for feedback, and receive it (even when it’s negative or difficult to hear).

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If you are trying to manage your supervisor and they are ignoring or neglecting you, pause here: Are you being fair in your requests? For example, have you sent your supervisor 100 pages and are expecting quick feedback when this is the first piece you have sent them in ages, and needs careful reading? It would be better if you sent smaller chunks of writing, and gave your supervisor at least 2 weeks to get back to you. That way they can manage quick feedback, and give you more constructive assistance as your thinking unfolds. Have you given your supervisor a clear request for feedback? Rather than sending an email that says: ‘here’s my latest draft, thanks’ or some version of that, be more specific (and polite). Ask for particular feedback, and maybe request a face-to-face or online meeting 2 or 3 weeks hence. While it is undeniably necessary for supervisors to be responsive and present, it is also necessary for students to be fair, reasonable and clear in their communications.

If you are one of the unlucky, and probably very unhappy, students who has tried just about everything they can think of, and still cannot effectively manage your supervisor, it may be time to take more drastic steps, like approaching the head of department, or a mediator of some kind in your faculty, to try and resolve the situation. If you cannot, perhaps try to find help in other, more constructive places. As I have said before: it is an unhappy truth that not all supervisors use their power for good. But, even the good ones need some help from their students in learning how to supervise effectively – each student is different, and each supervision relationship unfolds differently and at a different pace. Consider ways in which you can play your part in maintaining and enhancing the two-way relationship with your supervisor/s, tough as that may be. If you have other suggestions for others who are struggling, please share them in the comments.

Making friends with your PhD (or at least being on speaking terms)

I thought a good post to start the new year off would be one about getting onto the right side of your PhD – making friends with it, or at least working out how to get along in a civil and amicable way. Being BFs with your PhD is a lofty ideal many do not achieve, but some people really do love their PhDs, and manage to have very firm and happy relationships with them, in spite of bad patches. But how do they do it? And how can those  on the outs with the PhD turn the relationship around?

Starting out

If you think about doing a PhD being like conducting a relationship – bear with me here – you can think about it in stages. The first stage is falling in love, right? Heady, consuming, whirly – you can’t really think about anything else, but it’s exciting and scary and pretty cool. You may feel like you have stumbled onto It – or an It of some kind – and this makes other things in the world brighter and more sensible. Finding a PhD research topic that excites and interests you can be a bit like this – it’s exciting, and it can be scary because of the all the work involved, but it’s pretty cool. Finding a research topic or question that you ‘click’ with and that makes you want to go out and find the answer and do the work is kind of like finding It, and it’s a good feeling.

But, not all relationships start out this way. Not everyone gets into a relationship in a heady whirl of passion and excitement. Some people rationalise their way into relationships, and they stick it out even when it doesn’t quite feel right or exciting or heady, and they do so for many different reasons. If you have talked yourself into doing your PhD, and you don’t like your research topic, or don’t feel particularly stimulated by or interested in the project, it can be really difficult to be friends with it, or love it. And if it starts out with you talking yourself into rather than being swept up by it, staying the course can be tough. Love can grow, though, but that does take time.

The middle bits (where sh*t gets real)

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If your relationship has started out well, that initial chemistry and compatibility that drew you together can be transformed into a bond that can sustain you through inevitable struggles and challenges. The middle bits of any relationship are full of ups and downs and real life stuff, and it really helps if you like each other underneath everything else, and can maintain a solid friendship that can hold you on the bad days.

In the case of a PhD, that initial interest in your research topic, and strong desire to find the answer to your questions and make a contribution to your field can indeed sustain you during inevitable rough patches, where research participants drop out, or you can’t get hold of a key paper you have to read, or your supervisor sends tough feedback that takes you back to the ‘drawing board’ for revisions. That initial feeling of excitement at doing this PhD at this point in your life can be transformed into a feeling of being ‘friends’ with your PhD, liking it even when you kind of hate it.

But if you started out talking yourself into a relationship you’re not sure you want to or should be in, and you are still talking yourself into it every day, it’s so much harder to weather the hard days, because they may actually confirm that you’re not in the right place, rather than simply being a bump in a generally good road that needs to be navigated and worked through. Thus with the PhD: if you are doing it because you feel you should, or if you are working on a topic you don’t like, or that someone else chose for you or talked you into, or that you talked yourself into because it would be practical, or easier, but that doesn’t really feel right, it can be really difficult to be friends with your PhD. How do you make yourself sit down and work on something that makes you feel bad about yourself, or that makes you feel like less of a researcher, rather than more? How do you create a civil and even amicable relationship with a project you have to keep convincing yourself to do, even when you are not sure you even want to be doing it?

The end(?)

Unlike good relationships that start out well and weather the tough bits successfully, PhDs do have to end. But, if you choose the right research topic for you and can be friends with your PhD, it can open doors to ongoing, related and eventually new research that you build a career out of. In this way, while the discrete PhD project ends, the research plan it becomes part of keeps evolving. If you have started with a solid platform with the PhD, you know what kinds of research you like and want to do, and what interests you, and you can create or connect with research projects that help you to keep working in these ways. You can learn much from a friendly PhD relationship that can stand you in good stead for ongoing research and writing work in the future. If you have enjoyed your PhD, you may well be sad to see it go, and struggle with the loss, at least initially.

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If, however, your whole relationship has been difficult and fraught with uncertainty and bumps, the end often comes as a relief. And you may well have learned different kinds of lessons – like what kinds of people and relationships you don’t want to be involved with in future. You may be left with a kind of bitter feeling about having wasted some of your life in the wrong place, when you could have been giving your self and time to other things. Even if you struggle through and manage to finish the PhD, a difficult and unfriendly relationship with your doctorate can still leave you, at the end, Dr You, but with a bittersweet sense of having lost as well as gained. You may have a PhD, but no desire to continue researching in this field. You may have struggled so much that you become disillusioned with academia, and an academic career. Or, you may not even finish, and choose to end things before it goes any further.

phd-survivorThere are no easy answers here. I hope that you can all find a way to befriend your research projects – MA or PhD – or at least find a way to feel interested in them enough to keep going. If you are struggling, strength to you. It may help to take a small break, or tweak the direction of a part of your research if you can, to find a way towards a more amicable working relationship. If neither of those are possible, and you just can’t quit, then try a mantra: ‘I will finish this, and I will have gained, even if I have lost too. This will be worth it in the end’. Or, to quote a small blue fish: try to ‘just keep swimming’ and hope the current takes you up and onwards.