I'm back... and struggling with my introduction chapter and a loss of confidence.


Hello everyone, I've been away from the forum for a little while, had a rather stressful few months but hopefully 2012 will bring some good luck. At the end of last term my PhD wasn't going terribly well, I usually get on well with my supervisors but there was a situation where I accidentally received an email from one of my supervisors (about myself), which was only intended to be sent to my other supervisor. It wasn't nice as it was informally written and quite critical about a piece of writing I'd submitted, as apparently it wasn't up to my usual standard. They apologized to me and I accepted that of course, and moved on from it. But it didn't end things very nicely as the last supervision was a little awkward.

I'm now writing my introduction chapter which is due next week. They have set a limit of only 2000 words, and suggested that it should introduce the area of study and state why it is important, then give a theoretical overview, then discuss the methodology, then give a brief chapter-by-chapter summary. I'm finding it quite difficult as I have lost confidence (not that I had much in the first place) since my last submission, and I'm scared of submitting something terrible again. For various reasons I was quite unwell at the end of last term and I was feeling quite burnt out, I did give myself a little break over Christmas as I think I needed it.

I was wondering whether anyone else had been in a similar situation (loss of confidence, esp. with writing), and how they got out of it. Any advice for writing a decent introduction chapter will also be greatly appreciated!

Natassia x


Sorry to hear about the email incidence, and health issues! I hope you're feeling better after the break. Is there someone you trust who could read your draft and give feedback? Even if it's a friend who is not in your academic field, he or she could check for clarity and organization. Perhaps you could find an affordable proofreader who can check details such as where you need to add footnotes or clarify terms. You obviously don't have problems with grammar and syntax - it's just that a manuscript of this size and scope is a little overwhelming. That's why another pair of eyes would help. Good luck!

Avatar for DrCorinne

Hello Natassia,

I think that everyone battle with self-confidence at some stage in their PhDs, and I was no exception.

I understand your feelings about that e-mail message that you accidentally received, and believe me, these things happen all the time at school and at work, although we might not always be aware of them. Ideally, we would deal with straightforward people, who speak openly and clearly, but the reality is that we often deal with double-faced individuals.

One very unpleasant episode happened to me during the writing-up period, and in spite of all the apologies my confidence was badly shaken. I think that what helped me most was that I was really confident about my findings, and also I had a strong will to prove him - and all the people around that he manage to poison with his blether - wrong (which I did).

So, I would suggest you not to focus on your supervisors, but on your thesis, and what you can do with it. If I managed, so can you!

My introduction was 5000 words, and I covered: 1) History; 2) Historiography and Review of Literature; 3) Methodology, Aims and Research Questions; 4) Thesis outline.

I was in the Humanities, so the nature and length of what you cover may be substantially different in your field. 

You know your material better than anyone else, so it's just matter of presenting it in the best possible way. Also, if they are unhappy with what you have written so far, they should give you a detailed list of any areas that need to be improved and how to do it.

Best of luck with your writing up!



======= Date Modified 03 Jan 2012 15:21:29 =======
Just a few things you said I'd like to pick up on...

I usually get on well with my supervisors

Good! That puts you in a good position generally. Now, have you spoken to either of them about your loss of confidence? Did they give you feedback on the last piece of work so you know what to improve? If not, then talk to them - make the most of the positive relationship you have with them rather than stewing in silence. If you want to get over the awkward phase then it's probably better to be open.

it was ... quite critical about a piece of writing I'd submitted

Main thing to remember is that the email criticised the writing, not you. Of course, that's not nice to hear, but the important thing is to not internalise the criticism and take it personally. That's the sort of thing that knocks one's confidence. Was any detail given then or subsequently as to how it could be improved? Take on board any constructive feedback.

it wasn't up to my usual standard

Ergo, you are entirely capable of a usual standard which is higher than that of the piece of work they were discussing. Take that as a compliment to your previous work, and as reassurance that you are a capable student. Consider whether or not you agree with their assessment. If you know that previous work was better, what was better about it? What did you do differently? Think about how to get back into the groove of 'your usual standard'.

I know that this isn't the nicest thing to have experienced, but perhaps your confidence would be boosted if you re-framed what happened and make sure that you take any positive feedback on offer, rather than beating yourself up for having been a bit below par after a difficult few months.

Aside from that, talk to other students. If your uni has PGR courses in writing, consider whether any of them may be helpful to you. Interacting with other students and finding that some anxieties are common can be a good way of reassuring yourself you're not too far off track, and you might get some handy advice from people on campus.



I am really sorry about all the problems you have had.

I have has some experience of similar problems to do with writing and confidence.
I will tell you my story in the hope it might help with what your own problems.

I have always had my own unique style of writing ( some see it as informal) and have always had difficultly with feedback from academics . I Was told at the age of 14 that i wouldn't get anywhere in my life because i couldn't write. This flattened my confidence but i then became defiant that i wanted to prove everyone wrong.

I was dignosied with a unusual type of dyslexia ( i was a phonetic speller and didn't understand structure-to put in simply) when i was 16, mid way through my GCSE's. The school i was at were not equipped to deal with my difficulties, so i learnt to deal with it myself. Grabbed the bull by the horns, so to speak.

I passed my exams including English Language and Literature. Something no one expected me to do.  So when i started my undergrad, i went about my studies the same way as i had done before. However what i found was while most lecturers were open to different styles of writing and supported me with the way i wrote essays etc as longs as the spellings were correct, content was good etc.

Not all were happy to help.

In my third year i did a 3000 word essay for a lecturer that was "Old School" -Basically he failed me and while telling me the results ripped me to shreds.  I was completely shocked, disgusted and emotional.

I knew that essay writing was never my strong point but he was so blunt about it. i started to feel completely lost.

So what did i do to make it better- ignored him. I did what i needed to pass his class. Used the facilities in uni to attend writing classes and then started writing. I picked a subject i loved then started writing, i did the same research and structured it the same. When i re-read, i saw some flaws which i worked on, past it on to my friend she saw some flaws,  i worked on them.

What i realised is there are going be people in the world that i am going to meet that will think that the way i write is wrong. That's fine. As far as i am concerned everyone has there own styles and there is no specific way of doing anything.

So i got a 2:1 in my undergrad, a Pass in my masters and i am now doing a PhD. I think i have proved to anyone and myself that i can write.

My advice too you is keep going, you deserve to be where you are and doing what you do. Take on constructive criticism and ignore people who don't have the understanding to help you. Enjoy what you write and the way you write, in years to come you will want to look back and say " This is mine, i wrote that." If you think that what you have written is OK and with a little re-drafting can be good. Be proud of it. If your not happy about that's fine change it. Its your writing.

And do take breaks, don't let your work consume you.

I am really sorry that this is so long. After starting, i couldn't stop. ( one of my weaknesses)  LOL

I hope some of this helps.


Sorry to hear about your experiences... I think everyone struggles with this in some aspect, as academic writing is very different from other kinds of writing, and people do not always explain clearly to you what is needed... somehow you are supposed to muddle through and have it sort itself. That does not work well, and there are a lot of guides out there to help you not only with the writing process, but in how to receive criticism about your writing.

Remember-- you are not your writing. Try to find ways to not take it personally when criticism is made.... easier said than done I know, but its important to develop a thick skin when receiving comments on your writing. Given how subjective much of that feedback is ( and yes, it is very subjective!!!) ( how many people have had their supervisor contradict previous comments... just to show you how very very subjective the feedback you get is!) its important to read comments with a pinch of salt.

When my friends/colleagues ask me to review and comment on work, I warn them I do not sugar coat remarks, I will give honest feedback -- I work hard to be constructive in comments, but am told I can be counted on for a seemingly objective eye and frank comments. These people know that the comments are not about anything but the writing-- not a reflection on the person's friendship. moral worth, professional ability, etc. It is helpful to get fully frank feedback from people as you write no matter what stage of your career you are in-- but people are sometimes hestitant to give it. I take the position that I would rather get skewered before submission to a journal and fix it, then to be rejected and skewered then. As well, it is important to take what works for you in the comments and disregard the rest. I always preface any comments I make with this--remembering again, its all soooooooooooooooooo subjective.

The best writing guide out there-- for both process and content and editing--- is Writing in Plain English by Bryan Garner. You can get used copies cheap on Amazon for like five pounds. It is written for legal writing, but it works in any kind of discipline, or profession. Its easy to use, its straightforward, and improves your entire writing style and content and format immediately. I recommend it to my students, my professional and academic colleagues-- everyone says it has helped them, and it gets rave reviews. You won't go wrong for five pounds even if you don't think it works for you--but I am pretty confident it will be helpful.


Hi, thank you all for replying, I'll try to respond to everything.

My supervisors are very good with giving detailed and fair feedback, and it appears to be consistent. They generally agree with each other as well which is helpful. I do tend to agree with everything they say for those reasons, and because I trust them to know what is right. I don't want to cause any sort of comflict with them and so I'm just going with what they say, at this stage anyway.

Dalmation - I have some very good friends and colleagues who are happy to read my work for me, I often send them drafts before I submit anything, although I didn't have time to do this with the last piece. I think that it definitely helps when they do look at my work, although they don't always pick up on things my supervisors would it is nice to have someone say that it is readable.

Corinne - I am in the social sciences so I think my introduction chapter will be of a similar length to yours, I think my supervisors are only asking for 2000 words initially so that it will encourage me to be more disciplined with my writing, as this is one of my weaknesses. It is rather difficult to write the introduction before collecting any data (have only started my literature review up until now), but I think this will still help me.

Jane - I haven't spoken to them about this loss of confidence as it has been the Christmas holidays, and I have only recently realised this for myself to be honest. I don't think I'll speak to them until my supervision next Thursday (and them only if it is relevant), as I don't want to appear as if I am bearing a grudge about the email incident, when they have apologised profusely about it already. I am not that type of person and I don't want them to think I am just making excuses for a poor performance.

Thank you for your inspiring story Tigger - good luck with your research! I have learnt something about confidence from reading that, but I think it takes a stronger person than myself to selectively ignore feedback. Sounds like it has worked for you though!

Olivia - I will have a look out for that book. The main problem with my writing that my supervisors comment on is that it is a bit jumpy and moves between areas in a way that is too quick for the reader, so I need to write in more detail. They said before that they are pleased that I have the confidence to do that, but I told them that it was probably more due to a lack of confidence, they seemed surprised at this and told me I should have more confidence, as they had confidence in me. They have said that I need to be more disciplined with my writing, which is why I think they're giving me shorter word limits. Overall they say that I have improved a lot, but obviously there is still a way to go. It is a little disheartening because during my BA and MSc my writing was always complimented and there were rarely any criticisms made of it, so I suppose I thought I was ok, although I knew that the PhD would be a big jump in terms of the expectations of my writing.

Thanks again for the replies,



======= Date Modified 09 Jan 2012 09:26:54 =======
Hi Natassia

Welcome back; I had noticed you had gone AWOL.

The others all give sound advice so I am not going to replicate what they have said but just wanted to say that a chronic lack of confidence sounds all too familiar to me at the moment. Feedback is difficult to get and difficult not to take it personally. I used to genuinely feel nervous when I had chapters emailed back to me. Also at times what was said and what was written down were not the same! Often though, once I had digested what was written it made sense, and yes as Olivia said, a lot of it was subjective and I disagreed with some of it although most of it was spot on!!

I am in the social sciences as well and although my intro is longer than 2000 words, the structure you outlined is pretty much what I have. Writing to a tight word count is a skill and it's easier to expand 2000 words to cut 15000 down. I got Legal writing in plain english on Olivia's recommendation. It is good and makes you feel "right, I can do this". A lot of it is up on Google books.

That being said, for me, the greatest help with reading was looking at other theses and seeing just how varied writing styles are. My supervisor and I didn't really agree on our different styles but agreed to differ!

Best of luck getting your intro chapter done by next week.

Avatar for Pjlu

Hi Natassia, your most recent response reads as if you really have dealt well with this particular issue and have sorted it out as much as you can (with respect to how you feel and what you will do).

I thought I would just add that sometimes I find, even when I have dealt with a situation and have sorted it out in my own head, it takes a little while for the hurt, anger, or whatever the feeling is, to completely go away. This doesn't mean that I haven't resolved it, just that the feeling takes the time that it takes to go and I just have to wait it out. It does go and in the meantime, I have usually tried to follow a sane course of action that (which while it acknowledges the feeling) ensures that I am doing everything I can to move past it and move on appropriately. I was thinking that this seems to be the stage you might be in at present.

Good luck with the chapter 1 writing-you would be much further on than me in your PhD at present, I began mid October and am part-time but my supervisor also likes to have me present things as if they were further on than they are (in my head), and it seems a bit difficult at times. I am sure though that you will do well and the next meeting will be fine.


Quote From Natassia:

Olivia - I will have a look out for that book. The main problem with my writing that my supervisors comment on is that it is a bit jumpy and moves between areas in a way that is too quick for the reader, so I need to write in more detail. They said before that they are pleased that I have the confidence to do that, but I told them that it was probably more due to a lack of confidence, they seemed surprised at this and told me I should have more confidence, as they had confidence in me. They have said that I need to be more disciplined with my writing, which is why I think they're giving me shorter word limits. Overall they say that I have improved a lot, but obviously there is still a way to go. It is a little disheartening because during my BA and MSc my writing was always complimented and there were rarely any criticisms made of it, so I suppose I thought I was ok, although I knew that the PhD would be a big jump in terms of the expectations of my writing.


When I started back to post-grad work after a long long time out of education and a long long time in my profession, I was upset to have my writing criticised. I was always told I was a "good writer" and it was upsetting to think I was not... as well as the criticism being given without any suggestions on what would take my writing to a good and acceptable style and level.

I was lucky enough to go to a writing workshop put on by Garner and then bought his book. It turned my academic writing around and I was fortunate enough to get a distinction in my masters that I was working on! Styles in academic writing change, just like clothing styles--what was cool in the 1980s in clothes and writing style is not now--and what is OK now will no doubt look dated in 20-30 years. Styles and preferences in academic writing come and go. Partly its a challenge to sort out what is current NOW--which seems to be short sentences, among other things, and Garner helps you to get to grips with sentences that average 20 words...

That kind of writing is not my natural style--I cope with it by knowing I will have to do lots of rounds of editing when I work-- and its just part of the process. I write first in my own natural way ( the madman phase of writing) and then edit edit edit. You will find what works for you!



Some while back, I had a serious loss of confidence over the thesis, due to negative comments. I don't really want to go into the details here, but it was a difficult time, not helped by my own tendency to beat myself up over not having a thicker skin. Actually, I now realise that such losses of confidence are not uncommon, even among mature students.

What helped was that I still felt passionate about my subject. Even when I couldn't face writing the thesis, I carried on with research. Then I started creating appendices for the thesis. These appendices didn't require any particular writing skills, so were not part of the negative feelings I had around the text of the thesis itself. Perhaps creating these appendices were a form of productive procrastination to avoid dealing with the rest of the thesis - but having organised material for them was hugely helpful when I finally managed to get back to writing the thesis proper.

Presenting conference papers helped too - I presented to a couple of postgraduate conferences, they were both positive experiences, and confidence-boosters.

As a previous poster has said, feedback can be subjective. But it took time and experience for me to sort out the helpful comments that would improve the thesis from those that were more a matter of personal opinion. And I can still have the odd wobble that maybe what I think is just an opinion may be a matter of great importance to the external examiner!

Avatar for DrCorinne

Yes, I recognise myself in what you say, Iseult.

I would also like to add that,  the case of Natassia has highlighted a slightly different aspect as well. Having being in a similar situation to her' s, my feeling was more about the fact that my supervisor felt the it was fine to criticize my work with people other than myself. I thought that it wasn't very correct, especially as it was related to a first draft of half of the chapters of my thesis.

I have always being fine with taking constructive criticism and comments on board, but any the above should be discussed with the students in the first place and not behind their shoulders. This is not correct. No matter how right these comments are.


I think the last post points out something important that is very little mentioned .. which is the right and wrong way for supervisors to deliver the supervision. Supervision should be confidence enhancing, not destroying, and if it does destroy confidence, the supervisor is not doing their job right. Yes, the supervisor must offer constructive critical commentary, but there is a skilled and an unskilled way to do this. Unskilled ways hurt student motivation, confidence and ultimately, PhD completion. If a supervisor does not know how to deliver their supervision competently, it is not competent supervision... and not the fault of the student for having too thin of a skin or whatever....

Supervisors should have excellent communication skills in order to be able to deliver adequate supervision. Well, IMO.

Unfortunately the strictures of academia do not lend themselves to students asking for better feedback, or to improve communication. Academia is hierarchical, with people little accountable to others for their work or how they deliver it. Academia is treated as some kind of exalted club, where if you get a job, you are now a privileged member. Upon my academic appointment I got some emails from people that said, "ooh welcome to the academy..."

eyes rolling


Its not some special club-- its about delivering teaching and information competently, being responsive and aware of student needs, communicating effectively, etc....

But given the way the entire structure is set up, nothing is likely to change. Those inside the "academy" are pretty darn happy with it the way it is.


Hi, have delayed replying on this thread because something happened to the page and I can't see the whole page as the advert on the right-hand side cuts it short, so I haven't been able to read the replies properly! But I get the gist of them, so thank you again.

I think I'm lucky in that my supervisors are consistently good at giving detailed and fair feedback which makes sense, so I have no problems there. A friend/colleague who recently passed his PhD with no corrections (!) sent me his thesis so I could have a look at his intro and that helped a lot, even though his was 3000 words more than they've given me this time and it looked like a masterpiece I'd never be capable of producing. I'm nearly finished and have until Tuesday so feeling ok about it now, hopefully my supervisors will be satisfied this time.

Pjlu - you're right about those feelings taking a while to really go away. If I'm feeling brave when I have my supervision I might bring it up with them.



======= Date Modified 09 Jan 2012 09:24:45 =======
Hi Natassia,
The problem with the message display happens when a website address or other text without spaces in one of the
messages runs longer than can fit on a single line. If you select and copy the text from the messages into
Word you can read them properly but you need to make sure you only select the text and not the whole cell
or it pastes as a very narrow column.

Good luck with your intro, I haven't started mine yet and I'm not looking forward to it.