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Survived PhD

Emotional encounters of the PhD kind

by Professor Tricia Vilkinas

A PhD survivor
We have all seen the T-shirts – “I survived my PhD”. Research into the perceptions and motivations of PhD students has found that completing a PhD thesis is something they describe almost as much an emotional journey as an intellectual one.
It starts with their reasons for choosing to do a research degree. Often the dominant motivation is personal with secondary drivers being the need to learn, for their career or wanting to do research.
Certain qualities are needed to do a research degree and the main ones are emotional in nature – perseverance, courage, resilience and passion. Naturally it is vital to have strong research skills but often it is the passion that drives the PhD candidate.
Students’ satisfaction with their research journey and the likelihood of successful completion is linked to the quality of supervision they receive. Research shows and it is not surprising, that students want some equivalent verve from their supervisors. They want supervisors who are risk takers and at the same time reliable, and high on the agenda is that the supervisors have faith in their students. They also need to have a facilitative approach and research capability.
What students do not want is a supervisor who determines the topic or does not have time to meet with them.
Describing the research journey, the students perceived many hurdles including the need to learn the language of academia, interruptions to data collection, and the difficulty in choosing an appropriate methodology. But again they noted that many of their key struggles were emotional in nature – fear of failure, self-doubt and guilt.

The journey itself was seen as having both positive and negative aspects where the latter were dominant and emotive such as experiencing stress, being disillusioned, frustrated and uncertain. There were also personal costs both in terms of time and money. The positive aspects, less tangibly, were about positive feelings.
So what do students perceive to be the benefits of the PhD research journey? They cite two main ones – personal development and development as a researcher.

The research also showed, for successful completion of the PhD and a reduction in the stress associated with doing the thesis, students needed support and survival strategies. Students need to access strong support from family, colleagues, friends and networks. They need to feel part of a cohort and some students formed learning groups as a ‘safe forum for constructive criticism and learning’. Also important for survival were self management techniques such as balance in their lives, exercise, and knowing their own strengths and limitations.The research shows that it is essential that students learn the research process, develop techniques to save time, keep the literature up-to-date, write regularly, select the appropriate supervisor, organise information, control home life, keep a diary, develop project management skills and carefully define their project.

While there are a number of strategies it is important that each student finds the one that’s best for them. The research journey differs for each student.But one of the most interesting findings is that students need to be aware of the reasons why they have undertaken their research journey and to understand that along the way some of the hurdles they will face will be of an emotional nature and are therefore more difficult to conquer than straight practical problems.To successfully complete their PhD students need to prepare and develop a number of survival strategies. The top three strategies are seeking the support of others, developing self management techniques that work for them and learning the research process. They also need a supervisor who is aware of their specific needs and is able to support and develop them.

As experienced by most students the research journey has positive and negative aspects but because emotions can easily dominate perceptions, and because there are very real costs associated with PhD research, many have a sharper experience and recollection of the negative aspects of the PhD.
But they also continue to complete their research successfully and come out of it as better researchers and personally more resilient.

The comments above are based on a study which has been published in a book titled The Thesis Journey: Tales of personal triumph edited by Tricia Vilkinas with chapters written by several of her doctoral students. The book is published by Pearson Education and will cost about $35.

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