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.
For 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?