(Imposter hood) Working with completion doubts

As a supervisor, you build up quite a relationship with your student.

You see them in their highs and lows – the lows when they are struggling with the rigor of dissertation writing and the highs at times such as a success in a first conference presentation.

Despite what comes to be quite a close relationship, I think that you can still be taken by surprise with some of the strong mood changes that are associated with the final months of candidature.

It can be quite exciting when all the individual parts of the writing of a dissertation start to come together to produce a coherent argument, but seeing the argument in its fullness also sets the groundwork for a particular level of self doubt in the student. They ask themselves ‘Is this really worthy? Is the work making a sufficient contribution?’

I don’t so much remember this from my own doctoral candidature as I think I was more overcome with frustration with continually finding more and more spelling and citation errors, but recently as I have been working with one of my students I was really taken back by what he described as impostorhood(1) . This is his way of describing the doubts about whether his dissertation is worthy of being a PhD; his doubts about what his examiners will think when they read his work? His uncertainty whether examiners will rate it good enough!

I firstly tried to encourage him with what I thought were consoling thoughts that the examiners don’t set out to fail a dissertation. On the contrary, many examiners believe that because a dissertation has actually got to completion, then this is a demonstration of determination.

Next I tried to bolster his confidence by identifying what I saw as the hallmarks of his investigation and what I thought others would recognise as his contributions to knowledge.

That’s not to say that these moments in the candidature were all plain sailing! I may have even said “Which part of ‘this is ready’ don’t you understand?”

I guess what we settled on was a form of patience. I made it quite clear that having read the dissertation from start to finish and having pointed out what I thought were areas that needed correction or more explicit statements of what the particular sections of the dissertation were trying to do, I did not intend reading and re reading it over and over again. I was also worried that each time I reread it, I was becoming less and less objective and so my familiarity with the work helped it to make sense for me. What was really needed was an outsider to see what they really made of it. We hunted around and found an obliging colleague who agreed to be that objective reader. In a way this was a payback for when I had been an obliging reader for my colleague’s doctoral student some months earlier. This reinforced for my student that building up a network of interested colleagues is an important part of the research process as you will always find a need to have colleagues read your work. This at least gave us both the assurance that we had not been lulled into a false sense of reason and not only was the quality of the dissertation there, but that it was easily recognised by an independent third party.

I also tried to maintain a more positive buoyancy rather than impatient curtness, however many times I heard my student’s doubts. In hindsight I guess I could have fallen back on my effective parenting (2)  skills that I had learnt when my five year old continually wanted reassurance from me . Regardless of how many times they expressed their fears I heard it as if it were a first time. In a way there are similar parallels. It falls short of unconditional love, because there are clearly signs of a good dissertation, but the level of patience and repetition are perhaps the same. Eventually the dissertation was printed and packaged off to the examiners and this gave way to a whole new horizon of emotional roller coaster of wishing and waiting and hoping and praying! (apologies to Burt Baccarach)

(1) Yates and Chandler (1998) have suggested that the idea of  impostorhood  began with the work of American clinical psychologist Dr Pauline Clance (Clance & Imes, 1978)

(2) Effective Parenting suggests that when a young child expresses uncertainty or anxiety about a situation, rather than tell them not to worry you reflect what you are hearing from them and this acknowledges that you have recognised that they are anxious.


About the (research) supervisor's friend

I work at a university helping university academics who are supervising research students. I am a research supervisor myself and also work as a research coach for people undertaking their research I was originally in a Management Faculty and when I completed my doctoral studies on 'doing a doctorate' I started working with research supervisors to help them improve their practice.
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