Anna*, a first-year PhD student, is close to tears — her face, large on my screen, expresses apprehension and despair. She tells me her research question has changed beyond recognition; she’s read a lot, but her ideas are muddled; her plans for fieldwork are in tatters. She is grappling with almost unbearable uncertainty, and my heart contracts in sympathy.
Effects of the pandemic
But let’s try to unravel her despair. Anna’s uncertainty has several components. The pandemic has caused an existential questioning that touches most of us. She has the additional problem that it’s scuppered her fieldwork. As for many Humanities students, Anna’s project is practice-driven, but she has no access to a studio and her proposed exhibition venue is closed with no date for reopening.
There’s also a personal component to her angst. Anna, like many researchers, has a precarious financial and domestic situation. Her grant has been extended for six months, but it probably won’t be enough; she moved in with her partner during the first lockdown and they are living and working in cramped conditions. She can’t see her family (who live abroad) and she’s not sure when that will change. Our consultation is not a therapy session – we are here to discuss her work – but acknowledging that this is an extraordinarily difficult time is an essential starting point. Her distress is understandable.
So now we move on to the uncertainty inherent in the creative process. The first year of a PhD is often a time of chaos and confusion. Imposter syndrome is rife among researchers paddling in the messy shallows of the literature in their field. After the initial high of greedy-gobble reading comes the low of realising that things are more complicated than you thought. Anna laughs with relief when I tell her the mantra I give to all first-year doctoral students: I don’t know what I’m doing. But that’s OK!
Uncertainty is normal
Feeling overwhelmed and uncertain at the outset of a large-scale project is a normal, and essential, part of the creative process. It’s also deeply uncomfortable. We crave assurance and strive to achieve it as quickly as possible. But I reassure Anna that the longer she can sit with not knowing, exploring ideas with an open mind, the more focused her research will be, and the smoother her path towards her final goal.
Daring to wait
It takes courage to resist the call of conviction, especially if it comes from a supervisor, but rushing into a draft can simply be a way of avoiding thinking. Learning Sciences professor Guy Claxton describes uncertainty as ‘the seedbed in which ideas germinate’. He suggests that ‘to tap into leisurely ways of knowing, one must dare to wait.’
So, having given yourself permission not to know, what next? We discuss how Anna might make space, literally and metaphorically, to explore the teeming mass of ideas in her head. I prompt her to describe her process of note-making. She highlights text in different colours, so we explore how she might refine and extend this technique, for example, by associating each colour with a specific theme. I also suggest documenting her immediate response to what she reads, answering the question ‘How does this relate to my argument?’
Investing time in developing organising strategies that work for you brings order and makes the uncertainty more bearable. Anna also likes the idea of putting sticky notes on the wall and moving them around. ‘It’ll help me see if the new question works for the argument,’ she says. Simple strategies like mind maps drawn by hand on large sheets of paper, 3D models in Lego, and computer programmes like Tinderbox and Airtable can free the mind, help you see connections, and understand the bigger picture. Anna seems more confident at the end of our session — mostly, she tells me, because I’ve validated her uncertainty.
Defining your research
I also work with groups of doctoral students preparing for PhD milestones. Defining their research precisely to meet university requirements is often a big source of anxiety for first-year PhD researchers. In a recent Year 1 writing retreat (with my RLF Consultant Fellow colleague Katie Grant), we led students through a series of activities to approach this in gentle stages.
First, we gave them a template to define their field of enquiry. Then we provided freewriting prompts to encourage relaxed, stream-of-consciousness thinking. They wrote for two minutes, without stopping, to answer each of these questions:
• What excites you about your project?
• What question are you really asking?
• What theories and ideas are most relevant?
The researchers then used their freewriting to draft a 300-word summary of their project to share with another participant.
Exploring their research question in a supportive environment helps early-stage researchers to manage the uncertainty of their topic and experiment with different ways of defining the research question. They need to know that bafflement signals real engagement with their project and that confusion is inherent in creativity. Doubt stimulates curiosity and prepares the ground for new ideas.
* ‘Anna’ is a composite of several PhD researchers