“The Seven Secrets of Doctoral Success” (Also relevant to MPhil and Honours students!)

Based on research by Hugh Kearns and Maria Gardiner of Flinders University, the seven secrets of doctoral success are:

1. Confidence that “you can do it”

If doing coursework can be likened to walking down the worn pathways of well-mapped terrain, doing research can be likened to exploring an unchartered wilderness on foot. As such, researchers are bound to have the occasional setback, come across unexpected obstacles, and find that they’ve been approaching a problem in an unproductive way (Einstein, for example, tried several different approaches to developing his General Theory of Relativity over a number of years before he finally resolved all problems and came up with a satisfactory theory). Things rarely proceed as smoothly and as logically as research articles suggest they have done. Knowing these things, one can more accurately see problems and setbacks as “just things that happen when doing research” rather than as indications that you are deficient as a researcher. Knowing that “getting finished” is perhaps even more about “perseverance” than it is about “inspiration”, can help one stay positive during the tough times. (And in fact, “inspiration” often comes as a result of “perseverance”: that is, it is in trying things out, talking to people, doing more reading and so on, that ideas for new things to try can arise.)

2. Being realistic on the quality of the PhD. (It doesn’t have to be Nobel Prize winning stuff!)

One thing that can lead to poor completion is the development of a feeling that your work just isn’t groundbreaking enough to warrant a PhD. It’s important to realise that much research is incremental (the development of the Gardasil vaccine for the prevention of cervical cancer in women took around 20 years after all) and very little is truly revolutionary. It’s also possible, though, to develop an overinflated view of the significance of one’s work, so in both cases it’s important to get qualified, independent views on the quality of your work.

3. Saying “no” to distractions

The relative freedom and flexibility of PhD research allows time for some students to get involved in other things like volunteer work. Some of this volunteer work is quite important (several other people might depend on it being done for example), so it is easy to start letting this other work fill up more and more time so that you feel like you are being useful and productive (particularly if things aren’t going well on the PhD). This leads some students to be busy, busy, busy, yet not make much progress on their PhD. If you find yourself in this situation, recognise that it’s a form of avoidance and that you’re using it as an excuse for not dealing with the difficulties of your research or thesis writing.

Prevention is better than cure, so keep a cap on other demands on your time and develop rules for yourself about when you deal with volunteer work. (Cf. the old social rule of not imbibing alcohol before noon which helped people avoid developing a drinking problem.)

If you find other distractions, like playing computer games or your guitar, becoming a problem, then you might find it better to avoid the distractions by finding somewhere else to study/work than resolving to be more self-disciplined. See also the section on defeating self-sabotaging behaviour.

4. Keeping office hours

One of the biggest challenges research students face is how to handle the large amount of unstructured time they are faced with and the huge distances to any real deadlines. Novelists face the same problems, and research on successful novelists has found that most deal with this by treating their writing as being like a regular job with regular hours. In that way, they develop a habit of working regularly on their novel whether they feel inspired to or not. (Note that while inspirations can come while you are in the shower, on the toilet, or in bed at 3 am, they also often only come after you have actively started working on something or as a result of coming across something in your reading or conversations with someone.)

Of course, even if you do have a habit of keeping office hours, some days can be quite tedious and it can be hard to maintain motivation across a whole day. Some thoughts on dealing with this are covered in the time management section.

5. Writing up as you go along, showing your work and meeting short term deadlines

Doing these things help because they:

  • give you a sense of progress because you have a tangible product to point to.
  • help you develop the academic writing skills you will need to write a thesis. (Leaving writing to the end leads to a lot of stress because beginners are much slower at doing things than those who have had lots of practice.)
  • lessens how much redoing of things is needed because your rough notes have become incomprehensible to you.
  • forces you to get your thinking clear and precise, thus helping you to spot gaps, flaws and assumptions in your thinking.

6. Maintaining a close relationship with a supervisor

Having someone else show interest in your work can help with motivation. If you have developed a close relationship with a supervisor and things do start to go awry, then it will be easier (though not necessarily “easy”) to talk to them about it than will be the case if you hardly ever speak to your supervisor.

7. Seeking help when needed

PhD students tend to be very bright, competent, self-motivated and self-sufficient types of people not used to having to ask anyone’s help for their academic work. Consequently, some might find it rather embarrassing to have to ask for help during their research studies, and think that doing so will lead others to question their competence. However, it’s important to realise that no-one knows, or can know, everything and that collaborative research, particularly in the sciences, is the norm rather than the exception. In fact, even Einstein needed to ask his friend Marcel Grossmann for help when developing his General Theory of Relativity since he didn’t know the maths he needed to develop his theory! And studies of less successful and more successful scientists at Bell Labs in the US found that one key difference was that more successful scientists developed networks that they could draw on to help them with their work. So by all means strive to be independent, but also learn how to seek and obtain the help you need.

Other reasons for reluctance to seek feedback include:

  • Concern about imposing on the supervisor
    Yes, many supervisors are extremely busy people, but the university is getting government funding to support your training as a researcher, so asking for a reasonable amount of feedback and support is, well, reasonable.
  • Absence of supervisor
    Some supervisors travel to many conferences or may disappear for a semester on study leave. Most keep in contact with their students during this time by email, but email is limited so it’s important to have other sources of support arranged for such absences.
  • Doubts and insecurity about the quality of your own work
    You’re a novice researcher and writer of scholarly papers, so there’s bound to be room for improvement. Remember that even elite sportspersons can benefit from coaching, and great actors can improve their performance through quality directing and you are no different. So try to see all feedback as being like coaching aimed at improving your performance. But …
  • Worthless feedback or feedback given insensitively
    This can lead to a reluctance to seek further feedback either because you see it as a waste of time or because you find it damaging to your self-confidence. If the feedback is “worthless”, then it is up to you to be clearer about the sorts of feedback you are after or seek other places you might get that feedback. (For example, some academics are not good at teaching others how to write well because their knowledge is tacit rather than explicit, so if this is the case, then possibly seeing a Learning Adviser at Student Services might be more helpful.)

    If the feedback is given insensitively, then seeing a Counsellor at Student Services might help you learn how to deal with that or develop assertive communication skills which can help you to ask for feedback to be more sensitively delivered.
  • Protecting yourself
    “If I don’t complete any work, no-one can tell me it’s no good.” Thinking of this sort lies behind some forms of procrastination. Psychologists have found that many successful people suffer from the so-called “imposter syndrome”. That is, sufferers feel that people’s high regard for them is undeserved and that sooner or later people are going to find out that they are an imposter – that is, that they are not as good as everyone thinks they are. Such thinking might result from the fact that we only tend to see finished products – a polished dance routine or piece of writing for example – rarely do we see the enormous struggle that went into producing such a polished product. So, try not to see critical feedback as an indication that either you or your work is no good, but rather as “coaching” aimed at helping you improve something which is in fact quite difficult to do well.