The Research Rollercoaster

More than 70% of people who start a part-time PhD give up before they are finished. Take a moment to think about that little stat-70% that’s two thirds! Now think about the fact that those who don’t finish have still done a significant chunk of work and made serious sacrifices to get the point where they said; “So far and no further!” So why do they give up?

Common reasons for quitting include: waning motivation, loneliness, support and supervision issues and problems with ‘write-up’. These are just a few of the reasons in a long list and interestingly, a lack of academic ability or intelligence is not a common reason for abandoning the process. So again, you may be asking, why do people abandon their thesis?

Mostly, because it is incredibly emotionally taxing; academic research is a perseverance and resilience game. It isn’t the brightest ones who successfully complete academic research projects; it’s the ones who can persevere and keep at it until the very last full stop…of the final draft.

So why is it such a nightmare?

  1.  It’s lonely: This is your project. Nobody cares about it quite like you do. You have to drive it and defend it. If you’re doing it part-time and you’re not based on campus, it’s even lonelier.
  1. It means putting yourself out there: Your research is something you believe in and have worked hard to design or create and represent in your writing.  Scrutiny and criticism, albeit necessary, is tough on the ego. And no matter how much you know it’s not personal, it feels personal.
  1. It’s frustrating: No matter how well you prepare, there will be snags and setbacks.
  1. It’s long: You’re looking at a minimum of two years of your life and when things are tough…that feels like a very long time.
  1. You have to re-work stuff over and over and over: You will write draft after draft and just when you think you’re good to go, you or your supervisor will decide that it needs another review.

What can you do to control the ride?

So now you can see that your emotional resources or emotional intelligence will be particularly important to this process and a healthy sense of self-awareness is paramount.  Know who you are and know your limitations so that you can work within them or improve them to optimise your emotional resources. A helpful exercise is to review similar experiences which you have had and consider how you coped during those times. What worked for you and what didn’t? This will give you a good reference point for assessing your current emotional intelligence and resources.

One of the most well-known and popular writers in the field of emotional intelligence is Daniel Goleman and he explains that the two key aspects of Emotional Intelligence (EI) are: The effective awareness, control and management of one’s own emotions, and those of other people. He says that EI requires an understanding of yourself, your goals, intentions, responses, behaviour and an understanding of others, and their feelings.

 Assess your emotional resources

Assessing your current level of emotional intelligence will give you a good idea of where to start working to increase your emotional reserves. It will also help you to identify why you react to certain scenarios in the way that you do.

If you are working with a therapist or coach, you can ask them to help you assess your emotional intelligence. If not, there are numerous self-assessment tools available which will give you an idea of your strengths and limitations. Find one that is validated or do a few so that you get a good sense of your current resources and what you can do to improve them. The objective is to get a baseline from which to start working, not to castigate yourself because your emotional intelligence isn’t what you think it should be.

 Strengthen priority emotional resources 

Once you have mapped your emotional resources, identify priority areas on which you would like to work. There is a great deal of material available regarding emotional intelligence. Contrary to what you may believe; there are a number of ways to grow and improve your emotional intelligence if you are open to it. Some options include: to work on it on your own with the aid of good written material, or together with a coach or therapist or in a workshop, webinar or course format. Do some research (ha!) and decide what is going to work best for you.

Create an emotional support network

Your emotional support network includes your friends and family, your academic and work colleagues, your supervisor and any other support systems that you may have in place such as social groups, church groups, your healthcare team, etc.

In order to strengthen this network you need to prepare them or inform them of what you’ve taken on and the implications so that they know how to provide appropriate support. It is very easy to hide and isolate yourself when you’re having a tough time and it helps if the people who care about you know what’s going on so that they can reach out to you and so that they don’t get offended if you avoid them.

You amy also consider finding a professional coach or therapist to support you. Not only will this kind of professional supportive relationship provide a safe and objective space for you to evaluate where you’re at emotionally, but it will be beneficial in many other areas of your post-grad process going forward. Having a regular time and space to address how you’re doing means that you don’t have to reach out when things get to be a bit much.

For more information about how to mange the post-grad research emotional rollercoaster keep a look out for my ebook – De-Stress your Dissertation: A Mindful Approach to Mediating the Emotional Rigours of Post-Grad Research



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