Can a PhD student ask for a little pastoral support...?

(27 Posts)
DamnCommandments Thu 01-Oct-15 16:25:43

I'm writing up. I have to hand in before Christmas. I hate my supervisor's living guts. I have the words on paper, but none of them seem any good any more. I'm living away from my institution (a flight) so I can't go back for help. What would you do? DH is desperate for me to finish and is (unwittingly) piling on the pressure. I know the finished product won't be perfect, doesn't have to be perfect... But I can't seem to move forward. What would you do?

If I get revise and resubmit I don't think I will (resubmit, that is) - so I need to hand in something that passes.

God, PhDs are ridiculous.

BuffytheFeminist Thu 01-Oct-15 18:24:16

Hi Damn. flowers it's a really difficult time.

It's difficult to make any specific suggestions, because I don't know what field you are in. I am in social science.

Some advice that helped me:

1. The best thesis is a finished thesis. It will never be perfect, it just needs to be good enough to meet the standard.

2. Most people who get far enough to submit, get through. Whether that's with minor or major corrections.

3. The key thing is the contribution to knowledge. Can you explain (not here!) what your work contributes to your area? If you can, then this is the most significant criteria for doctoral study met.

Do you have anyone else, ideally a couple of people, who can read it through? Maybe some peers who could look at a chapter each or something, to reassure you that it's actually OK? Because it is very likely to be OK, and you're just going through one of those horrible phases of self doubt that everyone (and everyone does) goes through it. Have some cake and wine. It will be OK in the end.

AndMiffyWentToSleep Thu 01-Oct-15 18:38:33

I agree - as they say, "don't get it right, get it written!"

It will never be perfect. It doesn't actually need to be perfect. But at least from my experience, almost everyone has to revise and resubmit. Doesn't necessarily mean you have to redo your analysis or right loads more. You just need to know what revisions your examiners want you to make and then you make them. And then you're done! They typically give you much more time than you'd actually need to do them - because they know that people have moved onto other things by then. So don't be disheartened if you do get 6 months or more to do revisions - this is normal and doesn't mean it is 6 months' worth of work!

If I were you, I'd write a To Do list with everything that is needed to be done to get it ready for submission. I'd break it down into the smallest tasks you can - because although the list will be long, it feels good to tick things off it! And then you'll be clearer about what still needs to be done.

You have got so far - you can do this!

AndMiffyWentToSleep Thu 01-Oct-15 18:45:55

Oh and another thing - it sounds like you are in the 'dark phase'. I've seen this happen to PhD students time and time again - when it feels like it will never end and you're hating it and can't believe it will ever be over.

BUT the dark phase always comes just before you see the light at the end of the tunnel - so although it feels terrible, it is actually a really good sign that you're nearly there!

FaFoutis Thu 01-Oct-15 18:46:49

At your stage (and loathing my supervisor) I saw a counsellor who helped me a huge amount. She was a student counsellor and worked for the university, I had sessions on the phone too. Does your institution have anything like that?

It is hard to know how well you are doing when your supervisor is shit, I sympathise.

Chrysanthemum5 Thu 01-Oct-15 18:55:42

My supervisor wouldn't read my thesis because I wouldn't go out with him (seriously) so I know where you're coming from with hating your supervisor. I ended up just writing it, and then having corrections - but the vast majority of people do.

My advice would be to set aside time to write, and just write. Once you get the first sentence done it will be easier. If you can't write then draw - draw out your thoughts , look for connections, pull out what you feel is your contribution to the discipline.

Also never write and edit on the same day. Write then leave it and edit it the next day.

If you can afford a proof reader get them to check it for grammar etc so that's one less concern

I know this point seems really dark, but you are almost through the worst - promise smile

DamnCommandments Thu 01-Oct-15 20:49:23

Buffy I'm also in social science. When I'm talking to colleagues I can absolutely make the 'original contribution' case, but I've completely ceased to believe it. I don't think my supervisor believes it either, but since we haven't spoken for six months, I guess that doesn't matter much. I do need to bring it front-and-centre. It's there in each of my three papers, but not so much in the intro. Thank you flowers

AndMiffy I've actually been avoiding writing the To Do list in case it was an Arnold Rimmer style work-avoidance tactic, but I'm wondering if that was a mistake. I have a full draft (minus the conclusion) so how far away can I really be?!

I have a crazy (and also persnicketty) friend who has offered to proof, so that's something to tick off. I need to decide whether to let my supervisor see it before I hand in. Possibly not...

In some ways it's good (solidarity!) to hear from other supervisor-loathers. But it's so clear that the system is bust! Argh! It's been going on so long that I no longer hate him for any particular reason. He told me when he took me on that I would end up hating him, but I had almost no choice but to go with it - and here we are. It suits him to be hated because that's less work. And he warned me, in the style of abusive people everywhere, and I had so little choice that I got involved anyway. Arghhhh again. I keep telling myself to let it go and just write, but every timei find one if his comments I end up back in the pit. Still, one way or another, it has to be in by Christmas. I wonder if the university does have help on offer, as you say Fa. I feel better now than I did in April (when I couldn't open the files without crying), so hopefully I'm getting past the worst...

Chrys, Miffy - I could do corrections, but by 'revise and resubmit' I meant the more serious - 'this is a fail but you can come back and try again' that one of my friends has been faced with.

Thanks, all of you, for understanding.

HarrietVane99 Thu 01-Oct-15 20:59:31

I have a Ph.D. and I'm also a novelist. Every piece of extended writing I've ever done, I've gone through a stage of thinking it's crap. When I re-read it much later, I find myself thinking, actually, this is quite good.

Most people seem to find their supervisors fairly useless. I ignored a lot of what mine said. Most of it wasn't major stuff, I could justify why I'd done what I did, and I reckoned it wasn't him that was going to be examining me on it.

Just push on and get it done. Good luck!

MultiShirker Fri 02-Oct-15 08:38:29

What the others say is excellent advice, and I love the phrase 'the dark phase.' I was very lucky with my 2nd supervisor (my first started to appropriate my work to the extent that others noticed, but it wasn't malicious, just slack).

But my 2nd supervisor I didn't come to "hate" - however, I think most candidates go through the phase of being irritated by their supervisors because they [supervisors] don't get it.

This is NORMAL & to be encouraged because it shows you're getting the kind of independence that is necessary & part of the process of a PhD. After all, when you get the degree (and you will), you are then qualified to supervise your own PhD students.

Doing a PhD is a process. Remember that.

Also, part of the process is learning how to judge your own work, and to get through the "Everything I write is shit." I'm in that place with a book chapter atm, and I know it's a phase of the writing process and I know I have to write through the thick muddy rubbish of my unprocessed ideas, but it's still bloody hard.

I think you could sit with your feeling that you "hate" your supervisor. That's an awfully strong word. What's going on there? Do you maybe want to unpick it a bit here?

Do you have a co-supervisor, or secondary (back up supervisor)? Could you - on the ruse of near-to-submission - ask for their feedback on a chapter? At my place (Humanities department) we have regular 6 monthly progress reviews with the 2nd supervisor involved. (More & more I realise just what good practice is operated in my FAculty). These are useful for both candidate & supervisor, as there's another voice in the mix. Otherwise the supervisory relationship can be quite suffocating - both ways (supervisors aren't emotion-free robots).

Can you get out into your scholarly community? Do you go to seminars & conferences? Does your institution offer thees? Do you go?

Part of the issue might be that you're physically so far away - there's no let up from the difficult regressive cycle of negative emotions, which might not be "real" as in coming fm actual actions of your supervisor, but projecting from your sense of being trapped in the process. And yes, that is common - I feel trapped in my work a lot of the time & I'm an old lag in this game.

Can you find some ways to get air into the process?

MultiShirker Fri 02-Oct-15 08:42:31

Just to say to this:

He told me when he took me on that I would end up hating him

He might be an abusive person, but I also tell my students this - or rather that they should be irritated or annoyed with me at some point, and as Miffy says, this "dark phase" is actually a sign you're nearly there.

So yes, this particular supervisor may be a not-very-nice person, but it is also the situation - the intensity of the candidate's feelings about the work, and the level of difficulty of doing a PhD - it is far more than simply a 3 year extension of a Masters. And sometimes it's a projection by the candidate.

I realise this may not be your situation entirely, but it can be part of it.

BuffytheFeminist Fri 02-Oct-15 09:05:07

I think Multi is very likely to be right, like teenagers go through a phase of thinking their parents are idiots as part of the detachment process. But also, supervisors are just a bunch of humans, and some can be unpleasant bullies.

If your supervisor does deserve the negative feelings you quite obviously have, firstly flowers because it's horrible to be trapped in such a dynamic. And secondly, it's really important that you don't blame yourself for this. They should have a duty of care towards you, and it's completely wrong for them to abuse that, if that's what they are doing.

If you only have three months until submission, and given you're so very nearly there (everything bar conclusion) I think the best thing is just to hold your nerve. This dark phase is totally normal, and once you've submitted you can try and forget that supervisor ever existed, if you want. You'll have your PhD, you will have achieved that and nobody can take it away. It'll be time to move forwards into a new phase.

What I would do now, if I were you, is give yourself a little bit of a break. There's only so much a brain can be flogged to produce before it rebels, and you need to be kind to yourself. Maybe go and do something creative, take some walks, eat well, see friends. Even go away for a few days, if you can. Anything to refresh yourself.

And then, something I wished I had done when I was at the stage you are, is put the thesis to one side, and do viva prep. I prepared a load of questions (I posted them on someone else's PhD thread) by writing about the thesis, rather than writing it. If I'd had the time, I'd probably have gone back and improved the introduction / conclusion following this process, because it really clarified the contribution and originality for me. but I left it until the week before the viva so it was too late

So, maybe doing something like that could be a route out of the doldrums for you?

DamnCommandments Fri 02-Oct-15 14:03:12

Multi it's too strong, really, you're right.

I feel as though he's standing in my way.

This is supervisor number 3 - and I've had four in total. The others left during the churn around the last REF, just as I was returning from maternity. He was kind to take me on, really, but he didn't read my work before he did so, and when he did, he didn't like it. I lost a whole paper in that changeover, which put me a long way behind schedule and I've never recovered the lost time. The churn wasn't his fault; the problems in my first paper were not his fault - but he's the only man still standing.

Outside of our supervisory relationship, he's fun as a lecturer, and the arguments that he starts in seminars can be entertaining as an observer (when he shows up - he's not very collegiate internally). He's bad at negotiating around the university bureaucracy; tight-fisted when it comes to his time; and unpopular with other staff in the department. He's sometimes tactless, and often dismissive of other colleagues' work.

He's not really a hate-figure, though, you're right. I resent the position I'm in, and I heap blame on him, even where that's not warranted. I think it would be easier to reconnect with my scholarship if I were still present in my home institution, attending seminars, meeting colleagues etc.

Got to go and get the kids now (I'm overseas) but you've given me a lot to think about. He's almost completely irrelevant at this stage, but I'm using him as a personification of evil, which I don't think is helping me, particularly.

Thank you.

MultiShirker Sat 03-Oct-15 09:10:28

What you're going through is quite normal, and I'm REALLY glad to read that you're thinking through the situation
He's not really a hate-figure, though, you're right. I resent the position I'm in, and I heap blame on him, even where that's not warranted

From the sounds of it, blame may be partly warranted, but you're both stuck in a shit situation. Apart from the general difficulty of the task, I had a very good PhD experience (except it cost a relationship) and I now supervise around 5-6 candidates at any one time. So I can't help being a Pollyanna about it. And offer a good I hope supervisor's perspective. So there's my bias. But I was worried when you were talking about giving it all up. I recognise that "I want to get this off my desk NOW!" feeling though. IT's crucial to finishing anything actually.

Fucking REF - and I'm one of the people who has to whip my colleagues through it.

It's serendipity: I've been talking this week to my 3rd year candidates who are looking to submit in the next year or so. We've looking at their annual training needs agreement (TNA) and supervisory agreement, and looking at the notion of independence.

My main insight into this is that they need to stop seeking my approval, and even get irritated with me - I've told them this. I've also said I'll be cutting the umbilical cord. And that at PhD level, "independence" means being able to assess your own work. That's a top professional skill I think. So I'm gradually handing over planning to them (I am an obsessive planner of them writing drafts, reviewing progress, and setting supervision appointments). At this point with a PhD student I start not to set the date of the next supervision at the end of the current supervision, and only res[pond when they send me a draft, and then make it very clear that I won't read a draft of a 10,000 word chapter overnight, but that I'll need notice of its arrival, and 2 weeks to review & return it.

I think one student, with their own struggles which I could only look helplessly on, found this quite difficult when I said I needed a month to read the whole thesis before submission. They were against a deadline, and I wasn't hugely accommodating, as I had my own always missed deadlines. I felt a bit mean, but I had told them that I'd need a month. So I think they probably lost a lot of confidence in me at that point ...

Booboostwo Sat 03-Oct-15 09:49:33

I think you need to concentrate on two things:

- be positive. I know it is very difficult to change your mind frame, but you are nearly there. The worst bit is over, you just need the final push. Don't think things like 'I won't revise', almost everyone has to revise and resubmit, it's part of the process and you won't have to do it for a while.

- get some use out of your supervisor. I appreciate you are in a very difficult position. I was going to suggest asking for someone else to take over but if that is not possible try to get 'your moneys worth' out of this guy. Can you arrange specific dates for specific tasks with him? E.g. by date X you will have a first draft of the first half and by date Y he will have comments for you. Is it possible to arrange Skype supervisions? Or can you take a week off and fly to the Uni to reconnect with the whole process, maybe give a paper at a seminar, attend a conference, etc.?

MedSchoolRat Sat 03-Oct-15 10:31:53

Feeling irked on OP's behalf.
Where are the other 2 people on your supervisory panel?
Who is the PGR director (?coordinator)? among your faculty?
What happened to the very first PI who got the RC-other funding for your PhDship, who is accountable for showing the money was spent wisely on you ??

Others on Panel are obliged to help with pragmatics, like giving you comments on drafts, & PGR coordinator should find you some new supervisory panel members if previous fell off a cliff. Unless they actually hari-kari'd due to last Ref, normally they'd stay on your panel even if they moved to another institution, too.

Does your supervisor have a PA who can help with negotiating Uni bureauracy (or the faculty PGR coordinator can do this). Readers and above usually have PAs.

Trick with miserly-with-time-often-absent-colleagues:
Because we use M-Soft Outlook, even the web version, I can drop appts into my colleague's calendars (invitations). First, you view when they seem to have gaps in their diary (possible if same institution), then find a time you can both do, and drop an invitation to a meeting in (via Skype presumably for OP). This forces them into a decision about whether to talk to you. Have clear simple questions to answer or resolve at the meeting (Can send Agenda too if desired).

As for writing... you know to write the Intro last, yes? Get the rest sorted out first, even the conclusions!

There should be a PGR office at Uni level, too, but they may be fairly useless except with major grievances.

BuffytheFeminist Mon 05-Oct-15 10:50:25

How are you doing today Damn?

murmuration Tue 06-Oct-15 15:56:29

Damn - how much more do you have to do? How much input do you actually need from your supervisor? It sounds like at this point you could just finish writing, show it to him as a courtesy, and submit.

Remember, he's not the one you need to convince (assuming you're in a UK-like situation). In order to get a PhD you need to write something adequate to convince two people (your internal and your external) that you have contributed something original to the field. That's it. It does not need to perfect. Or even pretty good. Just adequate. Do make sure to bring your originality to the fore - the one revision I request most often on PhD thesis is for the student to highlight what portions are their original contribution.

Also, supervisor's comments at this stage sometimes aren't that useful. If you're at odds with him, I wouldn't sweat it. My DH delayed handing in his thesis by three months and rewrote a whole bunch based on his supervisor's comments, which also sent us into a morass of punitive fees (which the supervisor promised to fix and then backed out of; although calmer heads prevailed and the majority of it was waived). Turns out his examiners didn't even mention the main comments DH's supervisor wanted addressed, and he passed with typos only - meaning he spent his three months revising before the submission instead of after, as the other things he supervisor wanted fixed could have easily been handled in a revise & resubmit request.

And to add to the message that friction at the end is standard. I remember saying I was going to leave in 4 months with a PhD or without (in US, so balance of power much more in supervisor's hands - she had complete decision about whether I graduated). It was a full year before I was able to look back at that period and see what factors were driving my supervisor's behaviour (and while I still don't think she did right, I can understand it on a human level). After 7 years we considered collaborating again smile

Even with my postdoc, I was ready to leave for most of last year, and did a big dance of joy after writing my final paper with him. (And I will never write a paper with him again; he's lovely and a great mentor, but an absolute nightmare as a co-author.)

DamnCommandments Thu 17-Dec-15 11:19:21

Hello lovely people! I have submitted! Thank you so much for backing me down from the edge. I didn't show it to him in the end - in defiance of university regulations - but luckily he was relaxed about that. I think I may have subconsciously pushed it until the last minute to avoid engaging with him again. (That, and I'm an inveterate deadline-runner.)

Can I be cheeky and ask for more help...? I'm stuck again.

I'm in tears again because my supervisor wants me to keep the same internal examiner that I had at upgrade (from MPhil to Phd - occurs about half way in my institution, but I was a few months late). He has already contacted her. I can't decide whether to ask him to reconsider. We talked about it a while ago and I pushed back and suggested other names, but he's ploughing ahead. Upgrade was awful. My supervision changed at about the point I upgraded (first supervisor relocated and my institution insisted on a change). The new supervisor didn't read my upgrade document before the meeting and my first paper (three papers thesis) took an unexpected battering. In the end, I lost the whole paper. The examiner is a nice person - kind and rigorous. But thinking about it has me in pieces. I enjoyed my PhD up until upgrade (with supervisor one) but it's been like pulling teeth since then. So, here's the question. Am I letting my negative feelings get the better of me again? Should I face the same examiner again? After all, I've ditched the work she didn't like! But I feel as though she didn't really 'get' what I was doing and looking back at her upgrade report, there's a whole slab of advice I didn't take. Any advice from people who've seen it all before? I'm so upset that I'm sure I'm not thinking rationally.

One thing's for sure - I'm not cut out for academia at the moment. I used to breeze through this stuff, but right now I have zero confidence in the face of criticism.

MultishirkingAgain Sat 19-Dec-15 08:19:25

OK, let's deal with this pragmatically.

First of all, I'm sure you have reasons for not taking all the advice at upgrade. One of my students had an internal try to redirect her whole research plan at upgrade. We used that as evidence my student hadn't made it clear enough what she was doing, nor had she protected her back enough in saying what she wasn't doing. So after comi g out of her upgrade very upset, she turned it around, using an apparently negative upgrade experience to help her clarify her central research aims.

Also, the External's leads on PhD exams. So if you have a good and positive External, they will prevail.

Tbe viva is not just a talking shop. It can make it break your result. But the viva is a talking shop in that you have the opportunity to argue your theses. Take it! be confident about your hypotheses, your methods, your arguments, your conclusions.

And I know in my School, sometimes the choice of Internal is constrained by availability, workload, and downright Buggins' turn, as much as exact match of expertise.

DamnCommandments Mon 21-Dec-15 07:42:10

You're right. I've been making the rookie mistake of taking this way too personally. Somewhere along the path I became completely disempowered - time to decide not to be.

MultishirkingAgain Mon 21-Dec-15 08:35:51

I found that I was sort of in awe of doing a PhD. Me, do a phd? I was, or so I thought, a pretty average student, not brilliant, but a grafter.

It was only when I felt almost physically on top of the concept of a PhD that I could finish it and be examined with confidence. I suppose I didn't think I was disempowered as such, but I certainly needed to find my own power.

Mind you, I still tend to think that if I can do a PhD anyone can. Although I have discovered, through supervising others, this is not true. To get to the end, as you have, requires tenacity, hard work, resilience, and expert analytical capacity. Call upon those.

Do you teach? I taught full time throughout my PhD, and found that daily contact with bright undergrads was both stimulating but very reassuring, that I actually was quite good at what I was doing.

Damn I've been in a similarly dark place over the last <counts on fingers> several years. I'm not really in a great place now, in career terms or mentally, but things are getting better.

What I have learned is, that you have to sort of just decide that you and your work is good enough. It helps if there are people about whose opinion you respect who can give positive feedback, but ultimately, you need a sort of base level of OK-ness that comes from you, in order to not be driven to despair.

There are lots of people in academia (in my experience) who won't be that fussed if they dent your confidence. Some do it because they are thoughtless, some mean well but are just missing the mark, and some will measure their own self worth against how much they can put others down. So you need that basic core of yes, OK, this person criticised that paper, or that application was turned down but I am still good at this.

DamnCommandments Tue 22-Dec-15 19:05:14

Thanks you two. Before I did the PhD I felt bullet proof, but I don't think this is the right environment for me any more. Multi I've done some teaching, and quite enjoy it, but I'm away from my institution now, so it's just me. Tbh, that probably really isn't helping. I love attending seminars, and presenting at them. I love doing my research. I like teaching well enough to keep me happy. But I don't think I can abide such a critical environment when I have other options.

Buffy I'm sorry you're suffering. Outside of academia, I've always had some protection from the worst critical offenders thanks to my bosses. And actually, that applies even to the bad ones! Management is the last thing academia thinks it wants, but I wonder whether actually management is coming anyway, and whether it might turn out to be OK. I hope things continue on an upward track for you. flowers

MultishirkingAgain Tue 22-Dec-15 22:46:33

I think where I've been fortunate is that while I take a lot of things personally (a lot) I've rarely if ever taken criticism of my research personally. I resent student criticism of my teaching, I take thAt very personally they're wrong, wrong, wrong! but I always think that peer review of my work, well it's a fair cop. I usually do need to do more or better.

But on the other hand, I don't crave other people's approval for my work. I'm reasonably confident that it's ok.

I think I'm lucky to have this resilience in relation to my research, because it's taken a long time to develop similar resilience in other parts of my life ... And in some areas of my life, I've never developed any sort of confidence or resilience.

MultishirkingAgain Wed 23-Dec-15 09:07:28

Sorry I realise my last post might sound like a boas - it's not. I'm always surprised at how I don't take referee's reports etc personally. But reflecting on it, it's luck, combined with having been defined as a "brain" since I was very little (that has its deep disadvantages in other aspects of life).

I think we all underestimate just how tough & reslilent academics need to be. It's seen as a cushy "non-job" by most people outside the sector, and even within academia, I think we all tend to minimise the competitiveness and stressful effects of the job.

Once I can name this sort of stuff, I do find it shrinks to a proportionate size & space in my brain typical egghead strategy

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