Monday, June 5, 2017

PhD: Persistence = Resilience

by The PhD Gremlin Slayer:

I’ve heard it said on multiple occasions that a successful PhD candidate needs 10% intelligence and 90% persistence. Early on in my PhD, when I was in the grips of impostor syndrome, this little saying got me through.

If I could just be tenacious enough, dogged enough, persistent enough, that doctorate would be mine, even if I wasn’t the perfect student. While I’m not quite there yet, I’m hanging on pretty tightly and it’s within my sights.


What does persistence look like in the every day life of a PhD student? What does it actually mean to be persistent? Well, to me, persistence is resilience. And it is the key to slaying those gremlins.
Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of organising a workshop shop on resiliency for PhD students at my university campus. Facilitated by the postgraduate student counsellor, Dominique Kazan, the workshop opened with everyone sharing their worries about the PhD process.
It confirmed to me the need to encourage more sharing and discussion between PhD students about the doctoral process in order to reduce isolation, learn from each other, and find solutions together.
These worries, while too numerous to mention all of them, include that old, trusty goalpost of “being good enough” and meeting expectations, finishing on time, managing burn out, managing supervisors and personal relationships, having the patience to wait for findings/results, dealing with writers block and procrastination, and feeling alone in their worries.

A student can become a resilient researcher, however, by adopting a growth mindset. Such a mindset acknowledges that the student is a lifelong learner, and that every setback or challenge is an opportunity for improvement and further education. In building on this, the workshop dealt with the concept of internal and external locuses of control. When you have a strong internal locus of control, you acknowledge that all you can control is your perception of the event. For instance, the rejection of a paper can be viewed as opportunity to learn and improve rather than a rejection of the usefulness of the research (and therefore your time and ability to be a researcher). 
I’m curious – do you see a setback in an experiment, the rejection of a paper, or the inability to meet a deadline, a condemnation of your ability to “do” the PhD, or do you see it as part of the process of learning? To me, the latter view is a much more mentally peaceful perspective to adopt, as it gives me the space to learn and grow as a researcher. In a way, such a mindset is a practice of self-compassion within the academic context.
Finally, instead of just focusing on all the worries of the PhD process, we also shared what we love about research and the PhD program, and it struck me that, just as many of the worries are universal, so is the love.
As PhD students in Australia, we appreciate the time and flexibility of the program to explore our research area and structure our hours so that it works for our personal lives. We appreciate the opportunity to deeply research a topic, to contribute to knowledge, to learn more about ourselves and how we work and want to contribute to our world. We have become more comfortable with uncertainty (a good sign of resilience), and we have developed emotionally to manage critique and expectations. These are all indicators that we are developing our “resilience muscle” as researchers.
It can take a lot of emotional energy to “persist” in a PhD program when we feel that we are alone in our thoughts of inadequacy. The key takeaway from this workshop, for me, is the need to facilitate peer mentoring to reduce isolation and learn resiliency from each other. In many ways, the PhD process is just as mentally and emotionally challenging as it is intellectually challenging (if not more), yet not enough is done to train PhD students to manage the emotional landscape of research and “persist”.
Resilience takes away the power of the gremlins, yet it’s a muscle that needs to be trained. I think this is an area where universities have a lot of potential for growth and improvement, and I look forward to taking part in this continuing conversation. What are your thoughts?

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