Recently I had coffee with a student who, in the pursuit of an appropriate PhD scholarship, had transferred interstate to take up his research studies at the university. The conversation highlighted one of the emotional elements of undertaking research degrees, and the PhD specifically, the emotional aspects of beginning candidature. This aspect of research degree candidature is a contrast to another emotional aspect which involves the end of the candidature, when conflicting examiner reports can lead the student into an emotional abyss, an issue which has been recently addressed in the thesis whisperer ( http://thesiswhisperer.com/2014/03/05/what-to-do-when-your-thesis-is-rejected-by-the-examiners/ ).
In the international world of higher education, more and more often students are realising that there is a need to relocate both locality and sometimes country. At the outset of their candidature, in addition to all of the usual emotional baggage of starting a new venture, the trans locating student also has to contend with finding accommodation, navigating their way to the university and coming to terms with the new research culture, as well as for the international student, the new culture more generally. While each of these challenges can be adequately met when one is in their home territory, in a new environment the support network with which you have grown up is less accessible.
The student talked with me about having a strong network of friends in his home state and city, and not realising how significant this network was until he became aware of its absence. He was fortunate, he suggested, having a partner who could provide support as he worked through the range of emotions associated with embarking on any new project. For some international students they are required to leave their families and partners in their home country and survive on letters and electronic meetings with them.
I have discussed elsewhere in this blog about the ways in which a research supervisor can support their student with emotional needs. That blog emphasised the importance of not taking on the whole load yourself but of being able to alert students to the range of support services that exist in their campus. (see Recognising and empathising with thesis depression – in the set of blogs related to the supervisory relationship) .
In order to provide those referrals there needs to be firstly some element of noticing that the student is in need of emotional support. Some key indicators might include:
· Noting the student’s attendance at the university and whether or not they are actually coming to the university. Sometimes the emotion can be so debilitating as to prevent a person even coming to their workplace.
· Listening to both their language and their tone of language as they comment on their disposition. An ‘I am ok’ delivered in a flat tone could indicate something completely the opposite.
· Looking at their disposition. Do they walk and move like someone who has a direction they are heading to? Does their physical appearance suggest someone who is confident and excited about their new undertaking?
On a broader horizon there are additional strategies within a realm of supervision/advising that can be adopted to ensure for a research student’s emotional well- being. These can include ‘buddy groups’ where the student is amongst fellow students and can thus discuss their issues in the company of fellow travellers. They can also include social functions in which other conversations can be generated and through these insights provided to the student’s well- being. Those who are well connected to the various coffee outlets available on campus might even be able to solicit free coffees so that well established students can be encouraged to take newer students out for a coffee and a chat without this being too financial a burden. The more opportunities students have to voice their experiences of undertaking a research degree the more chances there are that they will find confidence to voice the emotional dilemmas and find, if not fellow travellers, at least empathic ones.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the broader research culture is to recognise that getting started with a research degree involves a degree of uncertainty and this may result in a range of debilitating emotions. Despite having a dedicated name, and being often referred to by research students, thesis depression is still a relatively un- referred to issue in the higher degree by research literature.