Tag Archives: Social Sciences

Am I doing the right thing? Choosing my research question

I am one month into my PhD and as a perfectionist I need to remind myself that doing a PhD is a learning process. I often feel like I should know how to do research already, isn’t that why they accepted me into the program? I had to prove that I was capable of doing research to get in …

I had my first meeting with my supervisors recently and discovered that my research goals were too broad. Now I know that this is common to most PhD students, we get into research because we are passionate about a topic and want to change/understand a topic. My first feeling was that of disappointment, I thought I was on the right track, I thought that I was going to impress my supervisors with my plan and show them how amazing I was… I have to say that my supervisors were not negative about what I had done, and most of the meeting was spent discussing what options I had for methodologies and how to whittle down my research topic and I came away with a plan of how to proceed. So my disappointment was mostly that I had had this belief that my research was going to be the answer to what I believe is an issue that needs to be changed (see Does my PhD have to change the world? on the Thesis Whisperer), and post-meeting I realised that I was only going to be able to research one age group, in one sport, in one location, not for all sports around Australia.

The first thing I did was debrief with a friend who has their PhD, so they know what the process is about. This friend told me that I need to relax and remember that if I’ve gone down the wrong path that it is not wasted time, but that I have learned something; they said that if people “did” research the right way every time that there would be nothing left to research – cancer would already be cured, because the researchers would have chosen the “right” research from the first time.

So after debriefing with my friend, which made me feel better, the next thing I did was head to the library and seek out books on these new methodologies that I was not as knowledgeable about. I plan to read up on methodologies and try talking about my research with as many people as I can to see what I’m most passionate about, what I can achieve in the PhD time, and what is interesting to other people.

I know it is common for new PhD students to struggle to find the right research topic and that my issue is not new, but being the person that I am, I wonder how to try make sure that I am going in the right direction.

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Dealing with my Impostor Syndrome

Impostor MaskTHAT feeling… That horrible feeling that there is only a limited time until people realise that you don’t know what they thought you did, or expect you to… That soon people will uncover that you are not qualified or smart enough to be in the position that you are. As many people have previously identified, often in academia (and life) people feel like impostors in their studies or jobs. I don’t need to talk much about it, as there is so much info out there about the impostor syndrome. See related articles at end of post for more reading.

The impostor syndrome is something that is brought up in PhD training sessions I have attended that have been run by the university and, if you are lucky enough to have someone that you are comfortable enough to share the feeling with when you have it, is discussed between people in academia. We know that lots of people are affected by it, but different people deal with it in different ways.

I know that my personality can at times tend towards the negative and so for me, if not kept in check, the imposter syndrome can cause me to stop working effectively, as I second-guess all my work. For me, the “fake it until you make it – just be confident and soon you will feel confident” mantra just does not work for me. If I don’t feel confident, I don’t know how to pretend to be confident. There are a number of other things that people have discussed in overcoming your impostor syndrome, such as looking at your fears, analysing your success, keeping your sense of humor, and taking risks. For me, these things seem so implausible as options to change how I feel, because of how I feel. I need actions and external cues to help me stay on track.

So I have come up with a few ways of dealing with my impostor syndrome. These are just things that work for me and I would love to hear how other people work through the dark days. Sharing ideas and helping others see they are not alone is one of the aims of my blog, so feel free to leave me a comment, or if you are a bit shy, to email me.

1. Motivational posters – I have done a google search and come up with a few slogans, quotes and images that are motivational for me. I have these surrounding me at work and home; I have them set up on my computer background, my screen saver and around my office space. My favourite ones tend to come from Dr Seuss!

2. Getting feedback from others – Now, often I don’t believe what people say to me, about me, or about my work, but it does make me feel better about myself to have it in front of me when I’m second-guessing my work. The feeling will be dependent on the respect and relationship I have with the person. Just the other day, someone who I see as a mentor and who has done so much for me both professionally and personally in the last year, sent me an email responding to some good news. Her words made me glow. On a day when I wasn’t feeling effective, these words picked me up.
“Well done Holly, I’m so pleased with your professional development and focus towards your academic career”.
I know that having those words and reading them when I am having a bad day in the future will, at the very least, promote renewed effort, if not confidence in my ability to carry on.

3. Avoiding Procrastination and Perfectionism – I am a perfectionist. Mostly, I think this is a positive for my chosen career, however there are times when it can cause crippling lack of progress. Sometimes I can spend hours reading and editing a paragraph, trying to get it perfect. At the other end of the scale, there are times when I will do anything I possibly can to avoid starting something, because I have no confidence that I CAN actually do it. So I put it off until I can find the confidence to start. In both of these instances, I need to be very strict with myself. I do allow myself time to try improve on something, but I am working on drawing a line of when to stop working and ask for help. When I notice that I am procrastinating from working on something, I try to break it down into smaller tasks, so that it is less overwhelming. I have also tried just starting on it, and my confidence grows as I see something appearing.

These are the ways that I deal with my impostor syndrome. Please let me know when you feel it, and how you deal with it when it comes.

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