Resilience in the face of adversity

I was listening recently to the cafe owner where I take my Saturday morning coffee, and his experiences of his house flooding during the Brisbane floods. I was impressed with his resilience that, despite this set back, he not only made decisions about how to move forward, but more importantly, was able to make decisions about which decisions were better left until a later time. At no time in my conversations with him did he lose his positive outlook on the world. His actions embodied for me what I have often heard amidst these floods and cyclones, that it is not the adversity that you are dealt but the ways in which you choose to respond to these traumas, that singles out the resilient.

These incidents made me think about the number of times in a research degree candidature where things don’t go exactly how you intended. The ways in which you respond to these set backs are important lessons in the ability to make it through to the end of candidature as well as the experience of resilience which will count in your stead solving problems well beyond your graduation from the degree.

One major set back I recall from my own doctoral experience was when my computer and my back up disc were both stolen from my hotel room while I was on a business trip. I had taken both the computer and the back up disc with me as I thought that the nights spent in the hotel would provide ample time for me to update references in the master file and transfer them to the back up. I was fortunate that just prior to the trip I had given my supervisor a printed copy of the whole research proposal, as I was a few weeks short of presenting my initial proposal presentation. This choice, once I had recovered from the initial violation of a burglary in my room, enabled me to retype the research proposal in time for the forthcoming deadline. I also learnt the lesson not to carry both items together! At the time it was traumatic. Over time I learnt the lesson that I can problem solve!

Another major candidature trauma, and one through which many research students will be required to survive, was receiving critical feedback from one of my three examiners which suggested quite major rewriting to my dissertation. I was fortunate that two other examiners both had only minor changes, but I was still obliged to address the concerns of all three examiners.

Some of the critical examiner’s comments were able to be changed with minimal fuss. I changed them as I could not see the worth in challenging them. Other criticisms went to what I saw as the heart of my dissertation and I negotiated with my supervisor, who was entrusted to sign off on all the appropriate changes, that rather than simply make changes, I could in the body of my text debate the issue, recognise the critical examiners opinion and position myself differently. This was in keeping with the notion within academic writing that there are many possible interpretations of some issues. The lifelong lesson I learned was that there are some battles to fight and some to knuckle under!

In the current contexts of the need to publish during candidature and the grading of different journals, a research supervisor may well be caught in the dilemma of whether they encourage their student to publish in the high end journals and risk rejection, or to encourage publication in more attainable journals at the lower end of the publication scale. With the first case comes the need for resilience in the face of rejection. Recognising that while an article may not have been accepted, that the experience and the opportunity to obtain feedback were valuable.

The oral defence is another well documented moment of trauma within research degree candidature. Higher degree literature often paints a bleak picture about this particular moment in the candidature and imbues the event with power displays – often from the examining panel. This can also be a moment of resilience when you have the opportunity to defend your thesis against all challengers and to demonstrate your command of your dissertation.

One of the things that I remember in that particular event was feeling quite confident when someone in the audience asked what appeared to be a tricky question. I remember thinking ‘good! I have a chance to show how much I know about my topic’. That resilience and being able to answer the unexpected question came as a result of the long hours my supervisors had invested in me helping me to be confident about speaking about my dissertation. Each time I had to rewrite sections of my draft dissertation I became more confident of my argument and my familiarity with the literature. Now having spent some years looking at research supervision I would think that two specific communication skills that can help to build that resilience for the oral defence are:

a) Reflective listening – responding to the question in a way to both affirm you have heard the question and clarify that you have understood the question. This response buys time while you consider what will be your answer.

b) Assertive responses – being able to speak from your own point of view while at the same time not suggesting that another’s point of view is incorrect. Often this is called an ‘I’ message and it is more than starting the sentence with the word ‘I’. It involves a way of responding to someone who is in conflict with you without a need to put them down in order for you to survive.

The challenge for the research supervisor is how to develop this resilience in a research student. Here are some suggestions.

  1. Provide opportunities for the research student to defend their research in a range of audiences, starting with more friendly audiences as the student builds up the vocabulary to comment on and defend their work.
  2. Create opportunities in the supervision sessions for the student to talk through their rationale and thus hear themselves defend their work.
  3. Adopt a strengths based (Norman, 2000) approach with your research student helping them to name and develop their strengths along with their weaknesses.
  4. Present the research process as problematic rather than straight forward. Often when we read investigators research process, it appears that everything went according to plan, where my belief is that research rarely goes according to plan and the skill of being a researcher is being able to address the problems as they arise. Research is continuous problem solving. Having the student see the process as problematic, builds up the ability to problem solve and resilience to these challenges.

Norman, Elain (2000) Resiliency Enhancement, Putting the Strengths Perspective into Social Work practice. Colombia University Press, New York: USA

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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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