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The emotional life of PhD students and the role of the supervisor

The emotional life of PhD students and the role of the supervisor

I have recently started the 'How to Survive your PhD' MOOC organised by @ThesisWhisperer. You can read about my success (or lack thereof) in previous MOOCs here. However this MOOC seemed different to me somehow, more practical and useful for my everyday life. It focuses on what I often hear referred to as 'the emotional journey of the PhD'.

The Problem with 'Emotional Journeys'

Now I'm not really one for describing things as 'emotional journeys', I'm a bit too uptight and "stiff upper lip" for that one! But I have definitely noticed in speaking to other PhD students that there seems to be a common set of emotions or experiences that many of us encounter as we progress through a research degree. This is the question the first module on the course deals with: 'Are there common emotions in research study?'.

PhD Emotions

Having conducted some research into PhD emotions on Twitter, the Thesis Whisperer blog came up with a set of the 'Top 5 #phdemotions' shared by researchers across the world. These included the usual suspect of 'imposter syndrome' but also a few I thought were pretty idiosyncratic such as the 'misplaced smugness after photocopying or downloading loads of stuff but not actually reading it'. (It's good to know I'm not the only one...)

So the first module introduced us to these five common emotions, some of which I recognise already and some of which I feel may come later in the PhD (I haven't yet quite felt "elation when you realise you know more than your supervisor about your topic and you feel brave enough to argue about it").

Finishing your PhD

A great deal of research has been done into completion rates for PhDs, which can be as low as 50% in some subjects! Many of the reasons for this were captured (particularly in below-the-line comments) on this Thesis Whisperer post about whether you should quit your PhD back in 2012.

Now I have to say that the thought of quitting my PhD has never really entered my head, though I have had moments of 'imposter syndrome' where I haven't felt quite smart enough to be doing a PhD (the question: 'Who am I to think that I could possibly do a PhD?' gets bounced around on a fairly regular basis!) So what's the difference between someone who finishes the PhD and someone who decides it's no longer worth it?

There seem to be multiple and complex reasons for not finishing the PhD, some of which are covered in the ThesisWhisperer post above, but I wonder if it eventually comes down to how much of a support system you have?

Support Networks

I'm very lucky in that I have an incredibly understanding and supportive boyfriend (who also works in a high-demand job so understands when I'm occasionally glued to my laptop in the evenings or weekends). I also have a great team of supervisors whom I get on well with and feel I can really open up to about any worries or concerns, and a good group of friends, both PhD students (whom I can vent to) and non-PhD students (who keep things in perspective for me!).

The Supervisor/Supervisee Relationship

This week's module concludes with a brief look at the role of your supervisor in the PhD and the 'emotional work' they put in to the supervisor/supervisee relationship, drawing from research by Hochschild in 1983.

However, a lot of the emphasis seems to be placed on the supervisor here and I'm not so sure about that. I think they do have a responsibility to be a caring, compassionate and honest mentor but a relationship is always a two-way thing. I think the PhD student also has a responsibility to be open and honest with their supervisor and to make that relationship work for them. But maybe that's an easy thing for me to say, having never experienced a 'bad supervisor'!

At each meeting, both of my supervisors always ask me how I am in a genuine and open way which makes me feel comfortable in coming forward with any worries or doubts as soon as they crop up. This is enough for me to feel supported and secure in my research environment but I wonder if I didn't have that relationship whether I would struggle more?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this- what keeps you motivated in your PhD? How do you handle the common emotions associated with PhD study?

Further Reading

Hochschild, A. R. (2003). The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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