THAT meeting

This post was written by Jonathan Downie, a PhD student, conference interpreter, public speaker and translator based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He co-edits LifeinLINCS the unofficial blog of the Department of Languages and Intercultural Studies at Heriot-Watt University. He is married with one child and another on the way. His newest blog Rock Your Talk aims to help people keep on improving in their public speaking.

toddler chairFor me, THAT meeting happened about six months into my PhD. I was sitting there in my senior supervisor’s office, trying not to let it show that things were not good at all. My senior supervisor who is very perceptive (usually) noticed immediately.

“You’re not happy with your thesis topic, are you?”

That one question would lead to a very long and very draining meeting, followed a month later by yet another long, draining meeting. In fact, at the second meeting, I started feeling that maybe I wasn’t cut out for this PhD thing after all. I didn’t feel like I was progressing. I couldn’t get settled on a method. I felt like I was having trouble articulating my ideas and everyone else in my field seemed to be much better at this research thing than I was.

Hence, why I use the label “THAT meeting.”

THAT meeting is the one where it seems like you and your supervisor don’t see eye-to-eye. THAT meeting is the one where you feel like you will never complete. THAT meeting is the one where you realise that either your topic is not as fun as it looked or that answering your research question will be a lot harder than it looked.

THAT meeting is not fun. Sadly, in many cases, THAT meeting is very necessary.

Now, before I go any further, I need to draw a distinction between THAT meeting and THAT PhD and THAT supervisor. While it is pretty normal to have one or two of THAT meeting during your PhD, if your entire research life is full of them or if they are pushing you towards unhealthy behaviours or sustained mental issues, get help now. Also, if your supervisor turns every meeting for a long period into THAT meeting, they are probably THAT supervisor and you need to get help. Whatever you do, do not continue under an environment where absolutely every meeting leaves you in panic or despair.

That said, I still reckon that having THAT meeting once in a while is a healthy and normal part of the PhD process. Having watched two intakes of PhD students, it seems like there is a fairly common pattern where people enter the PhD with blissful optimism, blunder along for a few months, start making what looks like progress and then suddenly, out of nowhere, walk slap bang into THAT meeting.

Why is this? Well, the first reason is that PhD supervision seems to be this tricky balancing act between nurturing the PhD student and teaching them to be able to do research on their own. It’s similar to the dynamic that I have with my one year old son. I love him and care for him and protect him, but I have to allow him to fall down occasionally or he would never manage to sit, crawl or (as he is working towards now) to stand on his own feet. On the other hand, we have made sure that, when he does fall, he hits something soft so he doesn’t do himself serious damage.

THAT meeting, believe it or not, is your cushioned place to fall. It is highly likely that during your PhD, you will make some real mistakes. It would be a poor supervisor who never gave you enough space to make them. It would be an even worse supervisor who never let you know that they were actually mistakes.

If my senior supervisor never made me confront the fact that I was wandering away from Thesis Topic #1, I would have blundered on trying to eke a thesis out of a topic I was losing interest in (not a good idea). If both my supervisors hadn’t critiqued my early attempts at finding a method for topic #2, the job to do that would have fallen on a conference audience (ouch), journal reviewers (double ouch) or my viva committee (don’t even go there!).

In short, I needed THAT meeting, sore as both occasions were, to point me in the right direction. I needed to learn for myself why topic #1 wasn’t sustainable and why my choice of method wouldn’t work but I needed to do it in an environment where any falls were temporary and my ego would only take a minor bruising, even though it felt more like a major injury at the time.

Sad to say, we will all make mistakes in our PhDs. Without THAT meeting, we might never see them until it is too late. What about you? When was your THAT meeting? How did it help you?

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15 thoughts on “THAT meeting

  1. I had THAT meeting in the first semester of My PhD. The result: I was much happier and more motivated for the long haul. I am grateful for THAT meeting and for my supportive supervisor! (Thanks for posting this.)

  2. Hooyeah, THAT meeting. My first one also happened in my first year. The issue wasn’t the topic, it was my research design. I’d started out with a vague but really interesting and creative idea that got lost somewhere as I was writing my ethics application. What eventually went forward to ethics was, well, quite bland in comparison. I was actually trucking along okay until I was writing some more detail in preparation to start field work and I was outlining initial sample critieria to discuss with my supervisors. Cue THAT meeting! The feedback I got was totally at odds with the kind of study I wanted to do (at an epistemological and methodological level), and the meeting left me feeling like I’d been hit by a run-away train.

    At least I have been around the block enough times to recognise what I had done was use a less fitting resource to my design rather than me being useless at this research thing. Since then I’ve completely redesigned (with full support from my supervisors) and had my design modifications approved by the ethics committee. It’s been one of those situations where I’m glad to have a bit of wider experience under my belt before I came back to academic research. I know I would have reacted quite differently when I was younger. Yes, I’m anticipating it won’t be the last one but I know I can get through them now and that useful things can come out of them!

  3. Thank-you for posting! I think you’ve started to help us feel like having THAT meeting is part of the PhD process. This is so important to talk about, especially in a competitive environment it really doesn’t get much air time.
    My first time happened in similar circumstances to yours, compounded by personal life drama as life does go on when doing a PhD. It was a total surprise. The second one happened when I was due to start writing the rest of my thesis. This time I was expecting something, and had already started getting myself together after a journey through ‘the valley of shit’. I see now that my supervisors were giving me a gracious exit if I wanted one. Like in any relationship, they wanted to make sure I had the same level of commitment they had. Great supervisors will never bring up THAT meeting or any of your mistakes unless they’re THAT supervisor. Probably the biggest thing I’ve learnt from my PhD (besides my topic) is to be resilient to ego bruising, politic-ing and not to take things personally.

  4. Well, my PhD starts in a month and I hope I won’t have need of THAT meeting…but reading this has made me feel a bit more comfortable about it should it come round

  5. I am in retrospect so thankful for THAT meeting. I had done my colloquium, there it had been raised that i might be attempting too much, but I was in denial and argued all was good. Another 6 months down the track realising the ethics application was going to be ridiculously complex with multiple sites and multiple groups of people, THAT meeting occurred. I was incapable of making a sound choice having invested such opposition previously to culling the scope. THAT meeting kept my sane. Was a hard one at the time, but was timely. I was stuck. In choosing one topic out of the three i had intended and I would have chosen unwisely had it not been for that meeting. I had gotten so unhappy with the breadth at that time i would have chosen the convenient option. I remain glad that my supervisor allowed me the time to discover for myself that the scope was too big. I am also glad that in our discussion he was direct in prompted me away from the convenient option to the one that was unique, sexy, ‘the cure for cancer’ that no one else could do, and where ‘new knowledge’ could be found and which stand the test of time for sustaining my interest.

  6. I had THAT meeting today. But it was worse than THAT meeting – it was like being dumped. By my supervisor. Because he didn’t have faith in me completing. (And neither do I, really). I am moving on to another supervisor at another university. On the rebound…

  7. Thanks for the post! I had THAT meeting a couple of months ago. I felt like I was sailing smoothly- I had a few small worries, but pushed them aside in denial thinking all would be fine. Then BAM!- THAT meeting happened. I was devastated. In retrospect, it was for the best, and changed things for the better! It also taught me a few things- to be more straightforward, and make sure I’m on the same page as my supervisor. I also agree with the above comments- don’t take things personally.

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  9. Thanks for the post, so normalizing. I had “that meeting” a few weeks ago when my primary supervisor (who is awesome and usually on top of things) when she told me that I did not have time for a longitudinal study. I then asked her point blank how I could answer my research question (an evaluation of a psychosocial intervention) without a follow up data collection. She told me that I couldn’t and had assumed that I already had figured that out, she suggested a much smaller question (about access) which I had always pictured a part of my dissertation (like an aside) but not the Whole thing….I was so disappointed, I felt that maybe it wasn’t useful nor cutting edge enough and somewhat boring. Thankfully I was honest about my feelings and my associate advisor (very experienced in the area of my topic and very accomplished as well) to help me understand the relevance of even this small question, even though it wasn’t as big as my original question. That helped and I went with their advice. I am so grateful a few weeks later and I am feeling 1) relieved that I have less extensive field work and headaches to deal with 2) excited by my topic 3) creative because I have had to further my own ideas and thinking in this area in a new direction….I wouldn’t have gotten that feedback and would still be conflicted in my head if I hadn’t let it all hang out….(thankfully I have supervisors that are supportive enough of me that I feel like I can do that once in awhile…)

  10. Thanks for this post and the qualifiers about ‘that meeting’ vs ‘that supervisor’. i had six months where every encounter i had with my supervisors was ‘that meeting’, which frankly made my life highly stressful. I have since changed supervisors within the university, and have renewed enthusiasm for my PhD, a positive outlook on life, and am really looking forward to finishing my PhD =)

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  12. Hey JKerry, here’s a follow-up to last night’s chat RE: your 800 neubmr. Look at phone.com. They will give you a virtual neubmr and let you port that to a real neubmr. If you sign up, I get a $1 commission.

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