Most people seem to think that if you are pursuing a PhD you must be super intelligent. Which they also assume means you must have ample confidence in yourself. It is no use telling them that you suffer from as many insecurities about your talents and capabilities as the next person, because in their opinion if you have set yourself such a huge mountain to climb, you must know you have it in you.
The truth is that I find myself low on self-confidence a lot of the time. And I have come to realise that this feeling is fairly common among PhD students. Apparently we tend to suffer from what is called the ‘impostor syndrome’: The feeling that you are inadequate or incapable despite evidence to the contrary.
My confidence level also has a way of yo-yoing so that at one point I am on top of a mountain, soaring high and marvelling how I have at long last found my true calling, and another time I am down in the dumps, wondering what got into me to take on such a herculean project. I start questioning everything from the validity of my research topic to my thoroughness in doing the literature review to my experience in the academic jungle to the possibility of ever seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. It can be a pretty quick downward tumble from there, luckily for me stopping short of actually calling it quits, but I have heard stories of people who take the exit route.
Over time, I have learnt a few ways to deal with these blows to my confidence:
- Remember why you started a PhD. Chances are that if you are on this very tough journey, you have thought long and hard about it. You may have also made certain difficult choices in life or career because you wanted this so badly. Had you not put all of yourself into making this happen, you wouldn’t have earned a place at such a prestigious university. If you could get yourself this far, it is only up to you to take yourself further.
- Think of the last time you felt a rush of confidence. It may have been a small accomplishment or a big one, but if you had reason to feel great about how you were doing then, the reasons are most likely still valid and solid. This low phase will pass soon enough if you focus on doing what you have been doing.
- Think about how far you have come. You probably remember how daunting everything seemed when you first started, and how you never really expected to make it at almost every step. Not only did you make it, you did remarkably well too, be it acclimatising yourself to the new environment or developing a good relationship with your supervisors or taking all those difficult training modules or digging through tons of literature.
- Stop comparing yourself with others. You might be tempted to compare yourself with others who started at the same time as you. Very often it will seem like they have a far better hold on what they’re doing while you haven’t the faintest clue. They may have started collecting data or completed writing a conference paper while you’re still putting together a proposal for your upgrade panel. Remember that this is your PhD and your journey… and you are its sole architect. How you approach it and how much time you take to build it depends entirely on what you’re fashioning.
- Talk to family and friends. Talk to people who believe in you. Knowing that they believe in you more than you do can be motivating (though a bit annoying too because your feelings of inadequacy and incompetency are invalidated). It would also help to have someone with whom you can share your research and progress. Many a time I have found solutions to problems simply by talking to a friend who merely listened to me go on about it.
- Take mini breaks. When you are really feeling like it, take a few days off all thoughts of research and writing and deadlines and do whatever it is you feel like doing or do nothing if that’s what you feel like. Think of it as some sort of reward for working so hard. I don’t know about you but at the end of that period, I bounce back with more energy and feeling a lot more positive. Quite strangely, I also tend to come up with better ideas almost out of the blue. You know what they say about the subconscious mind being at work…
- Visualise a wonderful future. The PhD may be your stepping stone to a fulfilling career or it may be an end in itself. Try visualising what it would be like to be at the end of that road, having fulfilled your dream or goal. Imagine how you would feel, how the people in your life would feel, and how much you would like to be there. These bumps along the way are speed breakers but they can’t stop you from getting where you want to be.
Well, these are a few techniques that seem to help me bounce back. What about you? What do you do when the going gets tough?
One of the aspects of my PhD that I particularly enjoy is having the opportunity to teach undergraduates. Most PhD students have the chance to teach although it is dependent on your department and supervisors. Some people have to undertake some teaching and/or marking activities as part of their studentship. I have an ESRC studentship so I don’t actually have to teach. However, I have always wanted to gain teaching experience. Prior to teaching you have to attend a 1 day ‘Introduction to Teaching’ workshop run by the University. There is then the opportunity to continue with the training and complete the Supporting Learning Programme (SLP).
As you teach modules within your department, you tend to know the theory. I am fortunate that I teach on Supply Chain and Operations Management modules which compliment my research and vice versa. I find that there are numerous benefits of teaching. Firstly it is very rewarding to educate others- even after an hour you can see the difference! Plus it is really good for improving your own understanding of the theory! I also find that it improves your interpersonal skills and ability to think on your feet. This could be for example when students ask you questions or you may need to adapt the session to improve engagement- it is amazing how some coloured pens and flipchart paper can help to get everyone involved! I have seven years work experience, most recently as a Senior Merchandise Manager at global sourcing company Li & Fung, based in Istanbul so I find this influences my teaching style. I often give examples from my industry experience and I find that the students respond well to this as it makes the theory come to life.
I actually enjoy presenting but it is normal to find it daunting standing in front of a class of students. I think teaching is actually good preparation for presenting at academic conferences both in terms of speaking in front of an audience and answering questions. The students are usually given a case study with questions for the seminar so that we are able to build on the key principles that are introduced during the lectures and develop their analytical skills. I teach first year students through to fourth year. My class sizes vary from around 15 to 30-if there are over 15 students then there are two tutors. Normally one of you takes the lead and you then both help the students if they’re working on an activity. This is an interesting dynamic and you can learn from each other.
I completed the SLP programme in my second year which I think was perfect timing. I had already taught for one year which meant I was up to speed with the course content and could spend more time focussing and analysing the delivery. The SLP programme involves attending workshops, peer observations, reading, student feedback and writing a portfolio of teaching tasks and activities. It really is a learning process and enhances your teaching ability. It is also means that you meet other PhD students from across the University. Once successfully completed you are awarded the status of “Associate fellow” of The Higher Education Academy (HEA). Many institutions find teaching experience advantageous and are making accredited status a requirement when recruiting for lecturing posts.
Overall, I have found teaching a positive experience. It is also a nice change during my working week and this helps me focus more on my research. I would certainly recommend both teaching and the SLP!
Hi I’m Amy and I’m in the second year of my PhD in Management Science. I’m going to be sharing some of my experiences of life at Lancaster!
LUMS encourages PhD students to go to international academic conferences to present their research to others within the field. I love travelling so I am so pleased that we have the chance to do this! Last year in the first year of my PhD, I presented at the EurOMA Sustainability Forum in Barcelona, Spain and the EurOMA conference in Neuchatel, Switzerland.
I have recently returned from 10 days in Norway for the EurOMA 2016 conference. I went with two other students in my department so it was nice to get out of the office together! The conference took place in Trondheim and brings together leading academics in the Operations Management field. I spent the first two days of the conference at the Doctoral seminar. This is an opportunity for PhD students to present and discuss their research to other students and established researchers. This was my second doctoral seminar having attended the first in Switzerland last year. It was therefore really good to see the friends I made last year and I made some new friends. I also presented my research in the main conference. The conference was made up of numerous streams and you move around listening to different presentations depending on your interest. It is really motivating to learn about other people’s research which also challenges your own thinking. It also provides the opportunity to network with leading academics in your area- often the ones you cite in your work!
It’s not all hard work though! Meeting people is one of the best parts of the conference especially other students and we socialised every evening! The food was also amazing! I have made some great friends that I know I will always keep in touch with- we are still all swapping photos and reminiscing about the fun we had!
The conference arranged a number of social activities which ranged from an amazing concert in the beautiful local cathedral to the main conference dinner. The highlight was definitely watching sunset after midnight at the sky bar! This was shortly followed by sunrise as it never properly gets dark at this time of year!
On the last day of the conference there is always the opportunity to go on a factory tour at a leading local business. This year there was the added bonus of an afternoon sightseeing in Røros a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
After a week of hard work and socialising we decide to have a few days sightseeing in Oslo on our way back home where we saw Munch’s renowned ‘The Scream’ painting and did some island hopping in the Oslo Fjord!
Conferences are a fantastic experience, I have had the chance to develop research contacts with both fellow students as well as senior academics within the field. I received invaluable feedback that will help me further develop my research. I have also been able to explore Norway and created some memorable experiences.
I took the photo in Trondheim- the same view was captured and used on the cover of the conference promotional material. I always make sure I get my own version at each conference I attend! We also have a tradition that we buy a postcard from each conference location we present at to display in our office!