This guest post is by Jess Drake who is doing her PhD in soil science at the Australian National University. In this post Jess offers some advice for the next time your supervisor says “Just do it”.

At some point on our thesis journey, we get comments from our supervisors like:

“I know you will work it out”;
“Why are you bugging me with this?”, or even:
“Just keep going. You will get it.”

These comments are often at a critical point where you really need some help, and they can seem somewhat unthoughtful.

I remember the sense of dread that came over me the first time I had a supervisor say “Just do it”. I felt like a bird being pushed out of the nest, forced to fly and fend for myself. I started asking myself “Now what am I supposed to do? I can’t do this by myself! I just have no idea! Why don’t they care? And why aren’t they listening to me?” It took me awhile to realise that when a supervisor says this, they are actually being positive and helpful. In fact, that jump out of the nest could actually be a major step in your research life…

Chirping baby birds

The relationship between students and supervisors is almost like a flock of hungry baby birds chirping wildly at their parent. Students are always crying for attention. Supervisors are flat out feeding them with information. But supervisors are very busy people; juggling students, courses, research and administration. Comments like these from a very busy supervisor may simply be due to the lack of time to help a student with a fairly difficult problem. Try to ask them again, via email or at an arranged meeting or when they have more time. If you still get the same response… then…

Perhaps you have become an adolescent and you can almost fly on your own.

We often forget that our supervisors don’t spend all day doing the same thing as us. Maybe your supervisor needs more time to think about the problem? Maybe they aren’t entirely sure how they can help?

Try explaining the issue in a different way. Take them to the lab and show them. Write it down. Talk through the problem with them. Use diagrams. And – most of all – be patient. Spending some time on communicating your thoughts is helpful for your supervisor and to yourself. Once you have it right the insight can be used for your thesis, papers and presentations.

Perhaps it is time to leave the nest?

Still asking for help and not getting fed? Your supervisor may be gently letting you know that they can no longer help you with that part of your research. They have realised that you are capable, smart and possibly surpassed their technical knowledge on the subject. They want you to leave the nest and fly on your own. Now, you are the person who can answer the question.

Living alone and in a flock

Terrified, shocked and doubtful are some of the emotions we can feel when we get pushed out of the nest. All of a sudden have to fend for ourselves. But our supervisor has been carefully nurturing us and making sure we have all the tools to survive in the research wilderness. And when we don’t, there is a flock of other researchers we can ask.

So when you are faced with eviction from the nest and problems you feel like you can’t solve ask yourself: ‘how important is it for me to know this thing to finish my thesis?’ – Can I write a thesis without it? Can I alter my thesis question? Has this problem become a new question? Try writing a mini-research proposal where treat the problem like another research question. Give yourself a set amount of time (2 weeks, 1 month…) to try and answer the question. If you can’t, try another tactic.

Contact experts in the field and ask them for advice – it may seem scary, but I have only ever heard of 100% positive replies to students who were asking for help. Being part of the broader scholarly dialogue, sans supervisor, means learning to seize at any opportunity to get your work peer-reviewed. If you don’t feel up to submitting a journal article or conference paper, ask post-docs, other academics, friends and experts to review your work. This also opens up avenues of collaboration and job opportunities.

Finally, don’t be afraid to make a decision – even if it is wrong, you can still write about it in your thesis!

So don’t be afraid, worried, angry or depressed when you hear ‘Just do it’. It may be that you know more than you think, that you are ready to go it alone and it is time to be your own researcher.

(Many thanks to Helen King for her thoughts about this post)

Related Posts:

The ‘it’s time talk

Most students aren’t supervised by elephants…

5 ways to make your supervisor happy

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