Thesis of PHD
A year and a half ago, ANU gave me a chance to make a MOOC.
For those of you in the know, a MOOC stands for ‘massive open online course’. ANU has partnered with EdX, a MOOC delivery platform, so that thousands of people have the chance to participate in ANU courses from around the world, for free.
The process of bidding to run a MOOC at ANU is by competitive tender, so I was surprised when I was given special funding to do one. It was an honour to be singled out and ‘jump the queue’ so to speak.
It showed that ANU management had pleasing faith in my abilities…
Should they really have so much faith?
In less than an hour I had convinced myself that ANU management had made a big mistake. Sure, I had run a successful blog for 5 years – and authored a few online courses – but this was different. I’d never done anything on this scale before. It was sure to be a miserable failure.
It felt like I’d been asked to organise a massive party. What if no one enrolled? Not only would I fail, but EVERYONE IN THE WORLD WOULD SEE ME FAIL. The whole world would discover what I had known, secretly, for a long time… I am only pretending to be clever and interesting.
I am not as good as everyone seems to think I am.
I’ve seen this pattern of thinking, which is called ‘imposter syndrome’, in PhD students many times, but it took me a surprisingly long time to recognise it in me. After (metaphorically) smacking myself upside the head a few times, I applied the imposter syndrome cure I always recommend to others. I decided to suspend judgment. Just get on with it and worry about if it was any good later.
So I tried to write down ideas – any ideas, bad ideas, stupid ideas…
I worked on ideas for nearly a year, but made frustratingly slow progress. I had what golfers call ‘The Yips’ – a sudden and unexplained lack of ability, just when I needed it most. As the Yips dragged on, and on, the fear started to set in. Everything I wrote seemed dumb, boring, pointless.
ANU got a bit worried about me for real at this point, and a couple of people were assigned to help.
Talking with generous, open-minded colleagues was just what I needed. Katie and Chris listened to my account of my troubles and encouraged me to see these as the themes for the MOOC. We worked together to re-orientate the MOOC around the effects of emotions on research student performance and eventually (after much debate) called it How to survive your PhD.
The title makes it sound like it’s just for students. While it certainly aimed at you, we think it can be so much more than a normal course that teaches you stuff. We imagined as a node in a huge global conversation, where students and supervisors could, together, work to understand the emotional problems that can get in the way of good research progress, find and share new strategies for coping.
We have designed it so that this conversation can spill into other spaces – social media and campus coffee shops; supervisors offices and classrooms. And since we have a massive, global, free platform, why confine it to the university? We thought mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and partners might want to join in the conversation too. Many of these people are heavily invested in the success of their loved ones. So we decided to write in plain language to make it accessible to anyone who is genuinely interested in helping PhD students survive and thrive.
As I worked with Kevin Ryland to develop the course content, backed with research sourced from a wide range of literature on emotions, the very problems I had been experiencing started to become modules.
The module on Confidence is all about the imposter syndrome. Why it happens, who tends to suffer from it most and how to combat it. I then wrote about Frustration, particularly why writing is frustrating. Students report that supervisors often give bad feedback – why does this happen when supervisors are themselves expert writers?