So near, yet so far
To PhD students and supervisors everywhere – it may be a very tough road, but help is at hand. Prey silence please… for the thesis whisperer
I am the director of research training at the Australian National University and run the Thesis Whisperer blog, a trusted online source of advice for PhD students.
Blogs tend to be such short-lived affairs, so although it’s only been going for eight years, it’s more like 80 in blog years. I’ve seen a lot, and could bore for Australia on so many, many things… but the brief for this article was easy: “the pitfalls, your own experience of dealing with the issues that you see on the Thesis Whisperer blog, things supervisors might like to consider.”
Where do I even start? Perhaps best to stick to a topic close to the heart of most academic supervisors: helping your students finish their PhD.
As you can imagine, in my line of work I meet many students close to the end of their PhD. In fact, we run a program specifically for these people called ‘Thesis Bootcamp’, which was originally developed by Liam Connell and Peta Freestone. Thesis Bootcamp is an intensive writing retreat where we teach productive writing skills and create a protected environment for people struggling to commit to writing. You can think about it as a health spa for tired thesis writers who need a boost in motivation and some new coping strategies.
We teach advanced writing productivity at thesis Bootcamp, including many of the techniques I write about in my recent book “How to be an Academic”. Such is the demand for thesis Bootcamp, I can’t keep up, so I am collaborating on another book called “Your academic writing trouble: why it happens and how to fix it”. Judging by the number of people who have already signed up to our book news mailing list, we have hit a nerve with thesis writers.
The write way forward
The Thesis Bootcamp program has been surprisingly successful at helping late stage thesis writers. Everyone who attends our thesis Bootcamp program at ANU writes at least 5000 words over a single weekend; some even write up to 25,000 words. Our research on the program outcomes so far shows that Bootcamp also helps people stay engaged with their PhD. We have managed to increase retention by over 25%. The program seems to hold the potential for solving late stage PhD drop out, but we have yet to see a commensurate rise in completions. Our program helps people hang in there, but we’re not sure how many of those people will eventually finish.
The problem is: there is much more to that final bit of the PhD than the writing. They say it is darkest before the dawn. Anyone who has completed a PhD will testify to how intense those last couple of months can be. I’ve met many students at Bootcamp who are so agonisingly close to completion, but seriously considering chucking it all in and had many hours of intense discussion to help people find the way forward. To be clear, I’m no fan of the ‘finish at all costs’ school. Quitting the PhD is sometimes the best choice a student can make for their own health and sanity. Toughing it out can have long term negative consequences. However, close to the end, the reasons to quit do not usually outweigh the reasons to stay.
Apart from fatigue and, let’s face it, a strong element of boredom, it’s the work itself that’s usually the problem at this late stage. The seemingly endless ‘polishing’ needed to bring a thesis up to standard tends to reveal every flaw in the work. With time running out, working on these flaws can be deeply unsettling, especially for the usually high achieving PhD cohort. Many PhD students have amazing attention to detail and high standards. This is different to what is often termed ‘perfectionism’. I’m not sure I believe in perfectionism – I prefer to call it anxiety.
When you see a student in a sudden of crisis of confidence, try to resist rushing to a diagnosis of perfectionism; in my view this is akin to blaming the victim. All of us are anxious at the end of the long PhD journey - including you. I’ve met far more ‘perfectionistic’ supervisors than students.
What’s a supervisor to do? I think it starts with a few hard questions to yourself: Are you the one suffering from perfectionism/anxiety? Are you being a cheer squad as well as a critical friend? Are you handing the water bottle to the exhausted person at the end of a marathon, or are you standing on the sidelines, criticising?
Inger Mewburn is Associate Professor and Director of the Research Training Office at The Australian National University