Surviving the PhD in an Age of Uncertainty


I’ve entered my third year of doctoral studies and looking back, I’ve learnt many lessons both pleasant and painful. In this post, I’d like to reflect on what has been important to me in ‘surviving’ but also at times ‘thriving’ in a journey beset by uncertainty.

Uncertainty lurks in all corners of doctoral study, including the research itself such as grappling with theory and data collection and analysis, as well as the supervision relationships. There’s also uncertainty in what comes after – what kind of career will my PhD lead to. There’s no way to avoid uncertainty, but there is a phrase my supervisor introduced to me at our very first supervision meeting that may help manage it – ‘ambiguity tolerance’.

When I first heard it, my first reaction was to shake my head. I didn’t give up a job and travel all the way here to deal with ambiguity. I came here to do research – unambiguous research! Looking back at my naive response,  I can now say that a good measure of ‘ambiguity tolerance’ will get you through uncertainty. If you’re willing to accept that answers don’t always come immediately and may change along the way, uncertainty doesn’t have to turn you into a train wreck.

I’ll frame my reflection about being (in)tolerant about ambiguity along three points: i) research, ii) relationships, and iii) results.

Research

Research is a long and intensive search for answers do I absolutely do not recommend flying solo. Sure, the PhD is about being independently developing new ideas and forming critical thought, but being independent doesn’t mean not using resources and resources include other humans, more specifically, mentors. These are not your supervisors but people who are able to help you make sense of your research.

Recent graduates help you see that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Research groups that meet regularly help create a space for intellectual (and social) development. It think one of the most valuable mentors a PhD student can have are those whom the PhD student aspires to become – the academics or professionals in your chosen field. In my experience, they are all around you but challenging to connect with, especially when you’re a cultural/professional outsider. But they’re valuable enough for me to keep trying, even if it’s a brief coffee chat, or several failed attempts before we sit down face to face.

While establishing real life connections with mentors can be hard work without any assurance of success, connecting with virtual mentors, thankfully, is within your control and full of certainty! By virtual mentors, I’m referring to those whose work is about demystifying the PhD process. My top virtual mentors are (in no particular order) Inger Mewburn aka Thesis Whisperer who regularly blogs (and does research on) PhD issues, Pat Thomson who offers nuggets of golden advice on writing, and the ThinkWell team of Hugh Kearns and Maria Gardiner whose advice on achieving and maintaining high performance is spot on.

Relationships

Supervision relationships for me are really about changing identities over the course of dong the PhD. At the beginning, I believed I was an apprentice learning from the master, expect that it wasn’t clear to me how I was supposed to learn from the master. I simply felt thrown about by the waves of insecurity and feelings of being inadequate. After confirmation of the research proposal, however, I felt that I had finally earned the right to research and became a lot more confident. I was still ‘learning on the job’ and made mistakes along the way, but I saw myself at the steering wheel most of the time. Although my supervision relationships never really took on the apprenticeship model I had hoped for at the beginning, I feel that I’ve thrived in other ways. I had become more tolerant of ambiguity and allowed the ‘unknowns’ to drive me towards searching for clarity – one bit at a time.

Results

Now as I’m working on analysis and figuring out the meaning of it all, while being mindful of deadlines, I’m feeling I should be less tolerant of ambiguity. Yet, there’s still no escaping the process of discovery – one that takes time and patience. For example, the three weeks I had planned on analysing a data set eventually took double the time – and double the agony. I remember feeling that I needed to come up with an answer by the end of the day, but each end of the day seemed murkier than the previous one. But allowing the process of discovery to take its course – as well as stepping back from it to let the mind rest – was what yielded results.

Apart from the results of my research, I’m also concerned about what kind of person I’m becoming as a result of being intensively involved in research. Is life and its periods of illness and mood swings affecting my PhD, or is the PhD affecting my life? This is one thing I don’t want to be ambiguous about – I am not my PhD; it mustn’t end up controlling my emotions and self-image.

A quotation from C.S. Lewis sets me thinking about who I am beyond the PhD: “To what will you look for help if you will not look to that which is stronger than yourself?” It reminds me that achieving a PhD is not the be all and end all of my life. That I – and my research – is really not the most important thing. That an all-powerful God is the one who gives me purpose and the ability to fulfill that purpose – ambiguous to me for now – but will surely be revealed in His time. I can only truly be ambiguity tolerant if I can trust in an unambiguous God.

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Relationships in research

lightbulb

I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about interviews. I’m preparing to recruit research participants and the entry point into their lives is the interview. But setting aside the interview for a moment, my biggest challenge is to even get research participants. I know who I want, but will they want me?

The process of gaining entry into people’s lives appear to be quite matter of fact in so many reports. It could be a case where the researcher has an existing relationship with participants, e.g. classroom teacher, or has approached relevant gatekeepers, or has simply cast a net out and caught some fish. Yet whether it is a case of familiarity or looking for total strangers, any research involving human beings surely deals with having some kind of relationship with them – establishing one, maintaining it, and towards the end of the research, perhaps ending it or leaving it to wear off its novelty.

Even approaching gatekeepers is a matter of managing relationships. This is the stage I’m at. I find myself consciously courteous, watching for signals of disinterest. No one owes me my research participants, I tell myself as I carefully explain what I want to do and hope that they smile, nod, and say a few words. Perhaps be interested in my research? Offer me encouragement? Give me tips on how to approach their students?

Some of these gatekeepers are warm, some cold. Some appear genuinely supportive, others are managing my presence. Again, who am I to make demands? Who am I? Someone who needs them more than they need me. And this, too, will be the case with my participants.

In the earlier stage of planning the research and submitting the ethics application, my supervisors and I agreed that the incentive for students to take part in my research was the opportunity to be able to talk to someone and reflect on their learning. And now I’m thinking about why they would want to talk to me. Who am I? A friendly face who wants to chat? Someone who shares the colour of their skin? Someone who will shower her attention on them?

I will find out in the course of the next few weeks whether any student will respond to my call for participants. Perhaps they will be curious and come and talk to me. Perhaps they will be amused but turn away. I don’t need too many, ten will be nice, but I will need to earnestly seek them out till I find them.

I can’t really predict what these research relationships will be like. I feel a great responsibility towards my participants – not wanting to exploit them but eager to dig into their experiences. Relationships, especially new ones, are really made up of the moments and encounters that take place. I hope these moments and encounters hold some value for my participants. I’m not sure what, and I’d like to find out. If they let me.