PhD Grief

A couple of weekends ago I found myself helping Thesis Whisperer Jnr, aged nine and a half, with his first real ‘essay’ for school.

I was been looking forward to this moment because, to be frank, I’ve been pretty useless as a homework helper. I have long since forgotten all my long division and have only the vaguest grip on biology. Since I supervise PhD students for a living I was calmly confident that I could be a primary school writing tutor in my sleep.

Boy was I wrong.

It took us nearly 6 hours to write around 500 words and by the end of it we were screaming at each other. Mr Thesis Whisperer even had to step in and break up the fight with some stern words (“Listen to your mother son – she has a PhD”).

We fought because we had fundamentally opposing positions on how writing should be done. Thesis Whisperer Jnr objected strongly to changing anything once it was written. While he wanted to get the job done as quickly as possible, I wanted to linger over the details. For me the first draft is just a starting point for further work. This episode made me think about how difficult it is to learn how to be edited (and that primary school teachers have a much harder job than I do!).

I have come to view the big red editing pen as a tool of kindness. For this reason I am equally brutal with the red pen when I am asked to edit other people’s work. Thesis Whisperer Jnr could not cope with this approach and he is not alone. People often react with shock to my editing style; perhaps because I am generally mild mannered in person and my vicious red pen seems out of character.

I understand how they feel. While I mostly enjoy the process of editing my own work, I still find it painful at times. Losing words you have carefully crafted hurts and I still have trouble accepting uncomplimentary peer reviews. Although I recognise the value of letting other people into my work, at some primitive level I just resent being criticised. But I have learned to swallow my pride and accept it (or at least fake a good natured acceptance, while continuing to seethe inside).

There is a strong emotional side to writing and I think Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s 5 stage model of grief is a good way to think about it. Kubler Ross interviewed people who were dealing with a terminal illness in order to better understand the (Western) culture around death. Her five stages of grief describes the process of dealing with death and dying: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and finally, Acceptance. These feelings are not necessarily sequential – it doesn’t always follow that you will get to acceptance straight after depression. This is especially true when you apply this concept to writing; you may jump around these feelings, or even be in two states at the same time.

Denial is a trap that is easy to fall into. It can be emotionally easier to stay in Denial about the quality of our writing rather than work to improve it. Part of this is a fear of criticism, which can manifest in resistance to showing your work to others before it is ‘perfect’. Writing is part of the way we express ourselves; criticism of our writing ability is often taken to be criticism about our thinking ability.

Anger is a common emotion to this perceived criticism of the self. Facing up to feelings of failure or inadequacy is confronting, especially when we are adults. Sometimes Anger is directed at ourselves because, in retrospect, writing those lost words seems like a waste of time. Occasionally the Anger is directed at others, like the anonymous peer reviewer, or your supervisor.

It can be particularly galling to be asked to take something out of your thesis which the supervisor suggested should be there in the first place. When you are Angry it is easy to see this kind of supervisor behaviour as capricious. It takes an effort of will to put yourself in their place and realise that they can’t always predict if something is a good idea until they see it on paper.

When the Anger cools off we may slip into Bargaining in the vain hope of avoiding making changes. Sometimes supervision meetings can turn into unproductive bargaining sessions, especially when student and supervisor disagree. My PhD supervisor realised early on that a chapter I had planned was just not going to be feasible and told me so. It took me a year or so to accept this and I wasted meeting time trying to convince him that he was wrong.

In my experience the idea of losing words is often more Depressing than the reality. When I have bitten the bullet and done a good hard edit I usually feel a sense of accomplishment, but contemplating that task can induce lethargy and procrastination. This is where you just have to harden up and, as Stephen King once said:

“… kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings”

Ultimately I think we need to work towards inhabiting Kubler Ross’s final stage – Acceptance. Acceptance is when you stop caring about your writer’s ego as much and can be more open to suggested changes. When you have managed to internalise this state of mind you can critically evaluate any suggestions for improvement on their own merit, not merely react to them emotionally.

So next time I have to help Thesis Whisperer with an essay I am going to try to have more patience. At 40 I am still striving to conquer the feelings aroused by the editing process and I suspect that it might take me a lifetime to do it with grace.

How about you – have you suffered any of these feelings? Are there any strategies you would like to share?

Related posts

5 ways to Kill Your Darlings

PhD Detachment

27 thoughts on “PhD Grief

  1. ginger megs says:

    O, what a timely blog to read!

    I’m struggling with the umpteenth draft of a paper, and it’s quite disheartening when my supervisor uses her stern-commenting-pen (not a correcting-pen) to say that, yes, I have sent her a well-crafted, beautifully phrased chapter BUT it’s not what she wanted. I hate having to delete my lovely words, and it really does feel like I’m supposed to “kill my darlings”.

    I don’t really murder them – I put them in another folder where I know they will be safe until i need them again. and more often than not they do fit into another paper, and that way I can get on with the writing at hand, and not fret over what I’ve had to chop out.

  2. Aoife says:

    “I just resent being criticised. But I have learned to swallow my pride and accept it (or at least fake a good natured acceptance, while continuing to seethe inside).”

    This rings so true!

    I found it very frustrating, and at times upsetting, in the beginning of my PhD when all the focus seemed to be on what needed to change or be improved, rather than what worked and why. It gave me a very negative view of my own writing and knocked the confidence a bit. But, when I got used to my supervisor’s approach (and perhaps over time getting used to constructive criticism) I tried not to become so invested the drafts, taking more of a ‘just get it done, get the feedback’ approach. I read somewhere else that this detachment from the writing process is something which a lot of PhD students gradually evolve and for me its been very useful to step back and look at the bigger picture.

    Great post, thanks!

    • ingermewburn says:

      Yes it can be a shock! Detachment is not an easy state to get to unfortunately. I think you just have to stay with the feelings sometimes and work through them.

  3. Lynne Kelly says:

    Stephen King nails it – but how to do it? My thesis is currently at 145,000 words. That’s a lot of darlings need killing. 4 out of 13 chapters are ready for the final edit – my supervisor is happy with them. So 50,000 words or more have to be chopped from the rest. I have the best supervisor and co-supervisor on the planet. Their advice has been superb. Doesn’t mean I’ve always followed it, though. They have been telling me to stop reading and stop suffocating my thesis with supporting examples, but there is the constant fear that whatever I leave out will be exactly what the examiner thinks is essential. That’s one of the problems with doing an interdisciplinary topic – too many disciplines to make sure I show that I have dealt with all the foundation material in each of the disciplines. That would take more than 500,000 words!

    But 3 years later, I am still obsessed by the topic and think about it constantly. Here’s hoping those darlings get an outing post doc somehow!

    • ingermewburn says:

      It’s good to hear you are enjoying the topic so much 🙂 Fear of examiners can really get in the way of producing a good piece of work. Of course they might find things which are ‘missing’ – but this doesn’t mean you fail. If your thesis is cogent and well argued then any examiner changes will likely be suggestions, rather than commands.

      50, 000 is a lot to lose! If you have a look at my ‘5 ways to kill your darlings’ post you will see one of the suggestions is ‘bypass surgery’. Sometimes it’s easier to take out whole chapters than to do a line by line edit. Also – consider that publishing your ideas does not finish with the thesis, you need to leave something for the sequel!

  4. Ben says:

    Great post and great comments! I totally identify, but more than acceptance, I relish the red pen now (call me sadistic). It’s easy to cope because they are actually telling you exactly what they want and it’s easy to take action. Given a choice between starting from scratch and modifying something with the red pen as a guide – I’ll go for the red pen every time.

    I can’t believe other people have a maybe later folder – thought that was just me!

    I haven’t read your “5 ways to kill your darlings” yet but by the sounds of your comment, bypass surgery is often the easiest option. Line by line is very painstaking and its difficult to make effective changes and keep it natural – Best to put it in the “maybe later” folder and start again.

    Great post 🙂

  5. meljlewis says:

    Thanks for the post/expression – parallel universes. The pleasure and the pain. Expert in one field (learning and teaching in higher education) yet it just does not seem to translate to home, kids and school. Too much emotional attachment? Taking on the teach rather than facilitate role? Frustrated by the seemingly superficial tasks set for the kids? Boundaries between parent and academic blur when working with your kids work despite an overarching willingness and joy to think and feel i have the capabilities to benefit their learning journey (HA!). I stay out of it mostly and let the totally unbiased father help them ‘get the work done’ and let their teachers do the rest. I pop in a few stimulating and curiosity-raising questions at times, help them meet deadlines, ensure we have the appropriate resources and maintain some oversight. Good Luck!

    • ingermewburn says:

      your ‘managerial’ approach is appealing. I think I should stop ‘helping’ – we will either end up hating it, or an unhealthy dependence will develop. Of course, he got a great mark!

      • meljlewis says:

        not the ‘role’ i thought i would have to take and not my best ‘hat’. i’d rather be the critical friend but mix that with mother and it just smacks of the enemy for a child (my experience). however the managerial approach does enable 3 kids with 3 very different temperaments and motivations attending 3 very different schools to appear engaged and pick up some skills along the way. congrats on the good mark. wish someone could ‘manage’ me and my learning journey…….cheers.

  6. Dominique Gracia says:

    Absolutely true of my own responses re: editing, but also so reminiscent of trying to assist my younger brother through some of his exams, particularly the humanities ones!

  7. Anonymous says:

    I am older student, former consultant and author and I have to say I took the first set of ‘no-holds-barred-‘ commentary on my writing quite hard. A supposedly thicker skin from more experience off-set by years of people being relatively polite to me … Now, as only 2nd year PhD student, I do appreciate (in theory at least) that this relatively muscular, no-b/s environment is a fantastic form of challenge, I think that kindness is too big a word for it. The first big set of red pennings frightened the bejesus out of me and cataplexed my writing efforts for some time. I think supervisors should tread carefully with their red feet till students have found their voices.

    • ingermewburn says:

      I should have been clearer – I don’t necessarily advocate the big red pen for all PhD students – I only deploy it when asked to my opinion. I think you are right about ‘voice’, at least in relation to supervision. I think getting in and editing too early in the process can be counter productive. I have no qualms about red penning colleagues who ask me to read something. I would rather hear criticisms from a friend myself, but the student supervisor relationship has to be treated with more care.

  8. Bilby says:

    The development of computer based word processors makes denial less of a problem.
    It is much easier to accept that a couple of paragraphs need reworking when, it does not require retyping the whole page.

  9. Juna says:

    This is hilarious and timely. Really puts into prospective the struggles I am having with my son and his writing! As well as the editing I had to do with my conference articles. For the latter, I now try (not always successful) to keep telling myself that ‘the thinking is harder than the doing’!

  10. Mel says:

    Hah! I was cranky at my supervisor for editing my writing the first time we met for a review, not because I mind my writing being edited, but because I thought it meant that she didn’t think I knew enough to get a professional editor when I was ready to submit for a milestone review.

    “Of *course* I’m professional enough to get a pro editor on the work. What is she doing editing my grammar? That’s what my pro editor will do, later. Why can’t she just focus on the theory?”, was my thinking.

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