Dissertation Diaries: Lessons in Academic Humility
by Oliver Holmes
My fourth year thesis was an investigation of spirituality in psychology and its correlates with psychological well-being. In many ways, my PhD dissertation is an expansion of this topic, being an investigation of worldview beliefs more broadly (spirituality, naturalism, and agnosticism), their cognitive predictors, and their potential well-being outcomes. Since there was a thematic overlap between these two projects, I was quite confident in my level of knowledge at the outset of my PhD. I felt as if I was ahead of the curve. This meant that I was especially shocked during my first meeting with research supervisors, when one of them interrupted my enthusiastic description of plans for the next three years.
“I’m going to stop you right there,” he said, “Because I have absolutely no idea what in the world you’re talking about.”
Obviously, the meeting turned out to be quite a harrowing experience. Don’t get me wrong, both supervisors were constructive and encouraging. What I learned in that encounter was that there is an enormous difference between having ideas about your project, and being able to communicate them well. I had crashing flashbulb memories of excited rants I had delivered to friends during my fourth year thesis, wondering whether any of them had at any point known what in the world I had been talking about. I learned that I needed to get a lot better at communication, fast.
That same day I had a separate meeting with a professor about the logistical plans for my project. The meeting was about as successful as the first – I was constructively and encouragingly informed that the statistical basis for my fourth year thesis was unconvincing, and was asked a few strategic questions that undermined most of the knowledge I thought I had about quantitative research methods in general. Seeing my expression grow more and more dismayed, the professor explained that the learning curve during a PhD was pitched to an angle far steeper than anything in fourth year, that the quality of work in a PhD dissertation was incomparable to a fourth year thesis, and that I had to take responsibility for educating myself at a faster pace than in any undergraduate year.
Needless to say, the whole day was quite confronting. However, I am extremely grateful that I was given these grounding lessons at the very outset of my PhD. They encouraged me to spend time reflecting and discussing the process as a whole. Consequently, I was given two pieces of important advice that have carried me through the larger part of my dissertation. While they might seem like common sense, they were things I needed to be told out loud in order to really be put into use.
Write more, read less. If you’re doing a PhD, you’re going to do a lot of reading – try and write at least an equal amount. Obviously, the sooner you seriously sit down and start fleshing out your dissertation, the sooner that monumental document will start to appear. It can often be more useful to clarify your own understanding, rather than experience intellectual constipation from a hundred articles that approach the same topic in slightly different ways. But even more importantly, as I learned in that initial meeting, communication is one of the most important skills of an academic. Many people can read articles and have interesting ideas; it’s the ability to deliver complex ideas in simple terms that make academics stand out. Eventually you need to be able to explain your entire dissertation in three simple sentences, which are much harder to provide than a long-winded rant. Really, the only way to develop communication skills is practice.
Be a trainee. A PhD is an indicator that you are a qualified academic. So it can be tempting to consider the degree as a chance to prove that I am already qualified for that title. In reality it is a chance for me to become qualified, through a series of (sometimes painful) trials and tribulations that will change who I am. On the surface this might seem obvious, but what wasn’t as obvious to me was that it makes harrowing experiences not only OK but basically inevitable. Like training for a black belt, a PhD is not easy and it’s not supposed to be. Once I accepted this, I stopped being embarrassed for not knowing as much as professors did, and I stopped holding myself up to impossible standards. I let myself become a playful learner, which encouraged me to write a lot more and ask for help when I wanted it.
Ultimately, what was most important for me was to cultivate a vision for the kind of abilities I hoped to have at the conclusion of the ordeal, and to recognise that it would be a considerable effort to develop them. I still allow myself to gush to friends about my project (sometimes repaying them with beer or coffee), but I focus on the fact that I get clearer in my explanations every time. I still get frustrated when I need to edit passages of my writing into non-existence, but I know that it is all part of the process. I still enjoy the weeks where I feel ahead of the curve, but I also try to cheerfully anticipate the next severe and inescapable lesson in academic humility.