Saturday, August 9, 2014

Why Good Thesis Supervisors Might Sometimes Make Easy Things Harder

Impression Soleil Plongeant
Impression Soleil Plongeant (Wikipedia)
by Nick Hopwood:

I recently had an experience that made me reflect on an aspect of research supervision (supervision of a PhD, EdD, DCA, or Masters by Research).

Bear with me: I’m going to tell a short story relating to some training I do in freediving, and then I’m going to explain why I think it points to some helpful ideas about supervision and what postgrad students may be experiencing in terms of difficulties, particularly writing.

A lesson in freediving


When I’m not at work, one of the things I love to do most is freediving. Freediving involves holding your breath while being under water. It is an amazing activity that involves physical and mental challenge, discipline and practice. I am often at my most peaceful, focused and contented state when freediving.

A large part of freediving involves depth: taking a big breath and swimming down towards the bottom of the sea. I’ve put a short video on youtube of a dive I did back in 2009 (which went to 17m deep and didn’t last very long - I’ve got better at it since!) to give you a sense of what it involves.


Diving deep presents a number of challenges: you have to learn to relax while on the surface, and stay relaxed when you’re deep down - slowing your heart to conserve energy and oxygen; you have to swim with efficient, hydrodynamic technique and posture (not very well demonstrated on the video!); and you have to learn to resist the urge to breathe and learn which body signals you can ignore or suppress to give you longer under water.

Recently I’ve been going deeper more often - down to 28.4m on one dive. At this stage one thing tends to present a barrier to progress: equalisation.

Equalisation is what you have to do in response to the increased pressure when under water at depth. You have to gently force air into your Eustachian tubes (basically your ears) so the pressure inside matches that in the water outside. It’s a more severe version of what you experience when you’re coming in to land in a plane.

I can equalise my ears using something called Frenzel technique (using your tongue to squeeze air into the right places) pretty easily down to 20m or so. My problem is, when I go deeper than this, I start wasting mental and physical energy trying to equalise using air from my lungs.

There are other options, though, making better use of the residual air left in your mouth, rather than topping up from your lungs. Using what’s already closer to your ears (ie in your mouth) is much more efficient and uses less energy.

So I had a freediving lesson recently in which I was learning this new technique. We never went deeper than 7m the whole time. I was trapping air in the roof of my mouth and concentrating really hard on only using that air to equalise.

What was strange was that 7m dives, which I can do very easily and quite fast if I want, became really quite hard. Equalising became something I was battling with, and I had to focus hard on how to use the muscles around and in my mouth to get that last bit of air into my ears.

Now here’s my point: the fact that what was previously easy (a 7m dive) became hard was exactly the point. The battles I was having were a sign that I was doing precisely the right thing - only using the air in my mouth and not ‘cheating’ my topping up from my lungs.

There were other benefits too: this is something I can practice much more safely because I don’t need to be diving down beyond 20m to keep doing it. Now, if I’m just freediving for fun less than 20m, I can use my old technique no problem. But when I want to go deeper, this new technique is going to be really important.

By making something easy harder, my instructor was helping me develop and learn.

So what does this mean for supervision?

Exactly the same point applies! Good supervisors may, at times, make something that used to be relatively easy or straightforward much harder to do.

It could be presenting complex theoretical ideas or concepts which ‘make a mess’ of something that used to seem quite easy to make sense of. It could be taking your elegant research design to pieces and pointing to all its limitations and the other options. It could be pointing to qualities in academic writing (voice, flow, authority, meta-text, signposting etc), that make both the process and product of writing seem much more complicated and harder to achieve.

So, when you go from being able to churn out 2,000 words in a day to struggling to produce 500 and even then thinking they aren’t that great … that could be a really good sign.

When you keep going round in circles and end up with a sprawling mess of ideas relating to something that used to be nice and neat … that could be a really good sign.

When you find it hard to fix on a design because the consequences of choices are hard to determine and the balancing act in navigating those choices is starting to seriously wobble … that could be a really good sign.

Obviously the end goal is not that our ideas are a mess or that writing feels like torture. But if we are going to get good at working with theory and concepts, design powerful, parsimonious studies, and write about complex ideas and techniques in a clear and persuasive way, then we may have to accept that things are going to get harder for a while.

So, if you’re a student, next time you’re working on stuff between supervisions, and are thinking “Grr! This hasn’t got better since we last met, it’s got worse!”, consider whether your supervisor may be doing something that is tough but productive in the long term.

As a supervisor I would try to share this explicitly with students if this is my purpose. “We’re working on developing a number of features in your writing right now, so it totally expected that it’s going to feel harder, slower, more frustrating for a while. These are all good signs” … or something to that effect.

Which reminds me of something I realise I keep saying to myself and to students I’m working with: “If you’re finding it easy, you’re probably not doing it very well”. While this is a bit crude, the point is that research degrees are supposed to be hard.

The best writers draft and redraft, and start over, and agonise of word choice, sentence structure, paragraph order, what gets in and what doesn’t etc.

My point is not that good supervision makes everything as hard as possible and leaves no room for trying to make things easy. Far from it. But I think there are definitely times in the process when making things harder (with appropriate support, explicitness, and expectation management), a good thing.

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