Do you need to be completely independent to get a PhD?
While working on your PhD, this is the most dangerous myth of all.
Besides holding you back from graduating, it can affect your health, relationships and self-confidence.
Everyone thought Marie would be the first in the cohort to graduate – but she ended up being last.
After eight painful years, Marie finally defended her PhD thesis.
In the process of trying to be “independent”, Marie burnt out physically, mentally and emotionally.
Marie was at the top of the class during her graduate course-work.
She chose a promising PhD project and a brilliant thesis supervisor.
Like most students, however, Marie ran into obstacles a few months after starting her project.
Marie had been so used to being the “smart one” that she was too embarrassed to ask her supervisor for help
She struggled on her own, and was able to pull together enough data for her committee meetings.
In her fifth year, Marie realized that her data was irreproducible.
Too ashamed of herself, Marie “hid” from her supervisor for several months, and wanted to drop out.
When she finally gathered the courage to speak to her, she was relieved at how supportive she was.
Marie’s supervisor was disappointed that she hadn’t approached her earlier, but helped her choose a new PhD project.
I share Marie’s story to show that research is teamwork, and you are not expected to do everything on your own.
How do you approach your PhD supervisor for a difficult conversation?
It takes courage to admit your “mistakes”, especially when you are discussing your work with your PhD supervisor.
However, when you realize that you are asking for help to “solve a problem together” the conversation becomes less intimidating.
In fact, most problem-solving conversations can be broken down into just a few steps.
I teach the “3-Step Assertiveness Method” in the Finish Your Thesis Program, which has helped students like Marie finish their thesis after almost dropping out.
The relationship you have with your PhD supervisor is one of the most important factors that influence your experience in graduate school.
If you don’t get along with your supervisor, it will be difficult to get their approval to graduate, even if your research goes well.
Conversely, if you have a good relationship with your supervisor, you can “salvage” a project that didn’t turn out as expected (assuming your supervisor has the necessary expertise).
The good news is that you can improve a “strained relationship” with your PhD supervisor – which is much easier than expecting your supervisor to change!
Creating a productive professional relationship with your PhD supervisor is your responsibility
It is your PhD after all!
While your supervisor is there to advise you, it is your project that you are working on.
Taking responsibility for the relationship (instead of blaming the other person), is the first step towards solving a problem together.
It is true that some PhD supervisors are difficult (which is why the Finish Your Thesis Program includes “How to resolve conflicts with difficult people”), but that doesn’t mean that you cannot work with them effectively.
Once you recognize that you have a “working relationship” with your supervisor, you can focus on how to move your thesis forward instead of trying to impress them.
The same thing can be said about anyone else you work with: collaborators, peers, support staff, and administrators.
Unless they are your friends (or family members), your primary aim needs to be to “work with them effectively.”
If you are on friendly terms, that’s an added benefit, which makes the work more enjoyable.
But, if that’s not possible due to personality differences, recognize that you can still work together very effectively.
There is another important lesson to be learned from Marie’s story: striving for your PhD does not mean that you need to be super-human.
Once you see your PhD supervisor as a human being, it’s easier to approach them despite past conflicts.
Your PhD supervisor used to be a grad student, just like you, and they got to where they are because they had the courage to ask for the support of their mentors, peers, and collaborators.
In next week’s article, I will show you the #1 factor that distinguishes students who finish their PhDs quickly from those who feel stuck for years.