The finish line

This is a guest post by Geof Hill, who trains supervisors and coaches research students. Here Geof offers advice for supervisors and students in the last stages of candidature.

It’s exciting when the individual parts of the dissertation start to come together to produce a coherent argument. But seeing the argument in its fullness also sets the groundwork for self doubt in the student. They ask themselves ‘Is this really worthy? Is the work making a sufficient contribution?’

Recently I was really taken aback by one of my student’s feelings of  ‘impostorhood‘[1] as he approached the finish line. This is his way of describing the doubts about his dissertation and whether it was worthy of being a PhD. What would the examiners think when they read his work? Would they think it was good enough?!

I don’t remember this feeling from my own doctoral candidature; I think I was overcome with the frustration of continually finding more and more spelling and citation errors. It was hard for me to relate to the fears being expressed by my student.

First I tried to encourage him with what I thought were consoling thoughts: examiners don’t set out to fail a dissertation. On the contrary, many examiners believe that the fact that a dissertation has got as far as completion is a demonstration of determination and ability. Next I tried to bolster his confidence by identifying what I saw as the hallmarks of his investigation; what I thought others would recognise as his contributions to knowledge.

I had read the dissertation from start to finish and pointed out the areas that needed correction. Sometimes I had highlighted places where he needed to add more explicit statements – to explain to the reader what the particular sections of the dissertation were trying to do. I did not intend reading and re reading it over and over again. I was worried that each time I reread it, I was becoming less and less objective. My familiarity with the work helped it to make sense for me.

Despite my reassurance it was not all plain sailing!  I may have even said: “Which part of ‘this is ready’ don’t you understand?” I guess what we settled on was a form of mutual patience. I realised what we needed was an outsider to read it – to see what they made of it as a ‘critical friend’.

So we hunted around and found an obliging colleague who agreed to be that objective reader. I had been a reader for my colleague’s doctoral student some months earlier, so this was a form of payback. This reinforced for my student the value of building up a network of interested colleagues. This network is an important part of the research process: you will always need to have colleagues read your work. The  new reader gave us both the assurance that we had not been lulled into a false sense of reason. He reassured us that not only was the quality of the dissertation there, but that it was easily recognised by an independent third party.

As a supervisor, you can build up quite a deep relationship with your student. You see them in their highs and lows. Despite this I think you can still be taken by surprise with some of the strong mood changes that are associated with the final months of candidature.

I tried to maintain a more positive buoyancy rather than impatient curtness – however many times I heard my student’s doubts. In hindsight I guess I was falling back on my effective parenting skills. There are certain parallels between parenting and supervising which some supervisors may not have thought about. One of these is the ability to listen without judgment. I developed this special kind of listening skill when my five year old went through a stage of continually wanted reassurance from me[2]. Regardless of how many times he expressed his fears, I heard them as if it were a first time.

The approach taken with a student falls short of unconditional love, because there are clearly signs of a good dissertation, but the level of patient listening and repetition of positive messages, necessary to put their fears to rest, are perhaps the same.

Eventually the dissertation was printed and packaged off to the examiners and this gave way to a whole new horizon of emotional roller coasting of wishing, and waiting, and hoping and praying! (apologies to Burt Baccarach)

[1] Yates and Chandler (1998) have suggested that the idea of impostorhood  began with he work of American clinical psychologist Dr Pauline Clance (Clance & Imes, 1978)

[2] Effective Parenting suggests that when a young child expresses uncertainty or anxiety about a situation, rather than tell them not to worry you reflect what you are hearing from them and this acknowledges that you have recognised that they are anxious.

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