What should I do? Desperate!


I last posted after a very traumatic viva after which I was given 12 months to do corrections. This came as a surprise to my supervisors who both expected a pass. Here I am after 6 months and am hardly any further forward. One problem has been the lack of supervisory support, but I also sweated blood and tears over a revised chapter only to be told my writing has regressed and basically it was rubbish. Now I'm at the end of my tether. New ways of re-writing the same material are eluding me. I keep being told it doesn't quite have the required depth, although my other chps do and I cannot see what I am doing that is different. I am petrified of failing. I gave up a professional career (no, I can't go back to it) to finish the PhD with the hope of getting an academic job - and I'm not all that young - so I basically staked everything on it and now I'm so scared that I will fail and all that work and money will have been for nothing. If I fail I don't think I could even leave the house again or face anyone. But I'm getting nowhere. Can anyone suggest anything? Where can I get some new support, as I think my supervisors feel they've done their bit pre-viva and I'm getting nothing from them?


Quote From barbarah:

If I fail I don't think I could even leave the house again or face anyone.

I completely understand why you would feel like this - but I also think that this comment shows you are putting yourself under too much pressure.
If you decide before you begin to write that failure = the end of your meaningful existence then you automatically create a barrier that is incredibly difficult to surmount.
So, hard as it is, I think the first step you could take would be attempting to forge a different view of the situation. Don't deny your feelings - but also don't focus entirely on the negative things you feel about yourself and your work. Recognise that doing a PhD is according to one measure incredibly difficult (not many people do it with good reason) and, looked at another way, not so scary (it is evidence of learning, not evidence of having attained academic perfection; it is the beginning of being a professional researcher, not the culmination). Pay attention to other things in your life that give you satisfaction. Take time over these and show yourself that your life is not entirely composed of a Phd.
The other thing about putting pressure on yourself is that it makes it more difficult to hear any criticism - you catastrophise and see things as hopeless when it might not be all that bad.
The second thing is to address this issue with your supervisors. They may themselves be feeling a bit disheartened - perhaps they look back and feel they gave you the wrong kind of support in the past? However, it is emphatically (financially and professionally, never mind morally!) in their interest and your institution's interest that you complete your corrections successfully. Here's what I would do if I were you:
(1) Write down (if you haven't already) a list of exactly what you need to do. i.e. write out what your examiners have asked of you relating it clearly to work you already have; write down a plan for making these corrections (e.g. "to address this point I need to re-read Derrida's essay on 'x' and find further support elsewhere for point 'y'"); write down what the process will be when you have completed the corrections (e.g. in December I will resubmit the thesis to my supervisors/examiners - whatever it is you need to do).
(2) If you think that it would help to clarify things with your sups you could send these lists to them with an email which says 'This is what I understand I need to do. Please confirm that you are happy with this plan'.
(3) Seek out writing help from the university. Again, it's in their interests for you to finish, so email academic support people/postgraduate training people and find out if there is someone who can read through your work with you and help to tighten things up.
(4) Ask someone in the department who is not your supervisor or is another student to read through a small extract of your work as a favour and give you some tips.
(5) Ask your sups to set some specific meeting times to discuss your corrections. If they don't respond, talk to your mentor/head of department/postgraduate admin person/student union postgrad rep. Cast your net far and wide for help! Your sups have not done their bit until you are through the process as a whole - it's probably written into their contract that they shouldn't give you "significant supervision time" or something like that at this point but that does not mean you are not entitled to meetings about corrections where they give you clear advice and guidance.
(6) Talk to anyone and everyone involved in student welfare - you need a support network around you right now.
Hope things get better.


Hello Barbarah,

I've heard some stories about people who took a break from the PhD because they couldn't get the writing part done. When these people started to do other things, it became easier for them to write the paper. Maybe because the pressure/expectation to succeed/anxiety about one's pride were all reduced (I don't know exactly why, but for some, it worked).

I'm not saying you should take a break/quit the PhD, I'm suggesting that maybe if you stopped thinking about the pressure for a while (and not care about failing and losing face), you'll get the focus you need to write up. I know it's easier said than done, but I think you deserve the help to hear as many opinions/suggestions as possible.

You're gonna make it!

Avatar for Pjlu

Barbarah, which chapter is it that 'needs more depth'? Can you be more specific? i know you are talking about the 'writing regression' but this is really vague-do you think your examiners were talking about the content of your chapter, the interpretation-links back to the theory-or more the organisation and actual technical aspects of the writing.

You may well be able to get some support from people here with your writing if they know more about it.

(PS-writing regression comment sounds like some stupid academic generality that is basically a throw-away line from a busy academic-and is meaningless-sort of like the common teacher report comment-'could try harder'-true for about 75% of the high school population!!. Just move on from that bit emotionally if you can).


Hi everyone
Thanks so much for the supportive replies, I am really very grateful.
Re. the problem chapter, this is what happened:
Pre-viva, I tried several times to write an overview/introductory chapter of my chosen field of children's literature. My supervisor kept saying it wasn't quite working, although the three case study chapters were fine.
So in the end we cut it down to a Preface plus the case studies, which my supervisor thought worked well.
But the examiners said it was too perfunctory and basically said I should go back and try to write this overview chp as an introduction, which needs to trace the history of this genre. It needs to include the usual literature review and methodology. I've tried several different approaches and can't seem to get the "depth" right (my supervisor says) - only I've read other similar chaps from other PhDs and I can't see what is different. I think this is because I'm panicking and can't see the woods for the trees, but no one seems to be able to explain it to me. At the last attempt I tried so hard and when it came back as still not good enough I spent days in tears - more out of bewilderment than anything else. I am beginning to wonder if I am just not bright enough. But then I think: before the viva everyone thought I would pass - two supervisors and my peers who did the mock-viva. It felt like I was 'nearly there.' Now I feel like I will never get there.
I will try to get some wellbeing support as suggested but I don't know whether a break is allowed at this stage - I was given 12 months for the revisions, of which 6 months have already gone.
Does anyone know?
Thanks again.



I've just re-read the post where there amy be some support available for the writing - seriously? How do I go about this? I would do anything for this!!


Hi Barbara, in my Uni there is a Student Learning Service for both undergraduate and postgraduate students, with dedicated academic staff in both fields science and humanities. They help students with issues such as academic writing, critical thinking and thesis writing, etc. Is there anything like this in your uni? It worth looking for it.

Also, is your internal examiner available to discuss in detail what you should do, and above all, how you should do it? Ideally supervisors should do that, but that's very theoretical (I know for personal experience!), and some of them just take any opportunity to do as less as possible.



Barbara, the last thing you need to worry about is your ability :)

As for ways of getting help, well, perhaps you could email the chapters with your Introduction one to some of the experienced users here and they could send you their feedback. I'm just an undergrad, but may be I could help...

The point is solve the problem. Don't fret it (up)

Avatar for Pjlu

Hi Barbarah,

The suggestion re- student services sounds really good. Given what you've said about your introductory chapter, I can see why you are unsure. Look, I've not written a doctoral thesis-just a Masters but I had an introductory chapter that had an overview and introduction to the field-which was like a small lit review-then the actual lit review was a second very substantial chapter that followed the first one. Methods chapter followed that. But the intro had a 'background to the research that outlined major authors in the field and the key issues and questions, pointing out the gaps in the field and then a bit of why I had selected my 'qualititative methodology-, etc.

Whereas lit review chapter was basically an indepth review of the policy background for around 40 years (very tedious). Each citation or author group (as in Jones & Jones, 2006; Owers, 1998) had to be integrated into the review in a way that made it clear how they shed light on and supported my overall argument and the research questions. I wrote the review before the case studies and then had to majorly reshape both intro and lit review after I had completed my cases and methods chapter over a few months.

But you are doing a theoretical study or critical study aren't you-not an empirical qualitative one.
So some things would be different-but the lit review part would be similar. Are your supervisors happy with the number of authors-or the quantity of research you have read? Is it just actually getting a synthesis of all the literature that is the problem? (Saying 'just'-don't mean it as 'just' it is bloody hard-meaning instead 'specifically', synthesising all of the background research into a coherent text that convinces the reader that your cases provide a unique insight or perspective into a current issue, problem or question.

I don't think Ive been particularly helpful so I will sign off now-hope things improve after a short break and perhaps some support from the student centre or student mentor. Take care of yourself and hang in there-personally though, don't feel bad about getting further support from supervisors-governments hand over huge amounts of money to universities every time a doctoral or research student gets through...it is part of their job.


Given what you've said about the problem chapter...
I haven't finished writing my thesis yet but here's what I'm doing at the beginning regarding the things you've mentioned. NB - I'm doing lit phd as well and I think there is much more flexibility in structure than is the case with science phds.
In my (substantial) introduction I am going to review the literature on main author whom I'm studying. There isn't much of it (this person isn't very well known) and much of what there is is of a survey/biographical nature. I'm building on this work but doing something quite different so I will bring it in at later points in the thesis but I don't need to spend a whole chapter on it. Also in my introduction I will be outlining the broad field of the theory using which I am going to approach this author's work. This is to show I know that the theory is a big area with lots of different perspectives in it. I'll show I'm aware of how and when this theory emerged and how it's developed.
In my first chapter - my lit review/methodology, I focus in depth on the specific people from within the broad theoretical field that I want to make my main discussion partners. I show that I know their work and the secondary lit surrounding it and I flag up those things about their work which I want to take forward into the rest of the thesis and apply to the work of my particular author case study.
Then the rest of my thesis brings together these voices from the literary theory with the works of my author (hopefully!) to create some interesting and original thought.
From the advice I've had it's all about honing in (whilst nonetheless avoiding saying anything too banal and broad-brush stroke, e.g. 'Heart disease is a serious problem', 'Lots of people have thought books are worth studying'.)
So a Phd lit review on... lost socks... (!) might go like this:
(1) How long lost socks have been a problem (the invention of socks, washing machines etc) (competent ref-ing existing studies)
(2) The multiple existing responses to lost socks (emotional impact; physical impact; impact on sock design and washing machine design; lost socks as a literary metaphor, etc.) (competent ref-ing existing studies)
(3) This thesis focuses in particular on the interaction between individual emotional responses to sock loss and the development of cultural expressions - especially poetry - as a way of contextualizing this loss. The key voices in this debate are: Smith, Jones, etc. (really strong engagement with these studies)
(4) Building a methodology for discussing sock loss using the work of Smith, Jones, et al. - more precisely: what this thesis will seek to do; what questions will be answered; what resources will be brought to bear; what's missing from Smith and Jones that I will bring in from my own case studies and from Thompson's work on shoe loss... etc.
Is this any help? As I say, I haven't finished yet and other forumites should please correct me if they don't think this is the right approach.
The other thing I would suggest is reading as many other theses' lit reviews/methodologies as you can. I know you've looked at some but it can't hurt to look at more. British library ethos + google search for university e-theses should turn up loads of relevant comparisons.


======= Date Modified 06 Sep 2011 11:36:12 =======


A couple of tips that may work so as to get the panic out of the way and also to get yourself unstuck from what you've written
1. Imagine that the work is someone else's and that you are being asked to critique it.
2. Speak it out and record your voice. Then start writing up.
3. The main questions you need to answer are:
a. Why is this question important?
b. What have others answered already on this question and so what is the gap I am going to address?
c. How am I going to go about it.
Hope this helps. I am still in the lit part of my Phd, but these are tips I give to some students I supervise.


Thanks so much again for the supportive replies. In fact the issue is not so much with the examiners now, it's my supervisor who keeps saying "not enough depth." I honestly try and try to get enough depth, I have umpteen books on how to write critically and I have tried following the 'format' of why is this critical work important/relevant etc, but nothing's working. Part of the problem may be that the academic part of a Creative Writing PhD is only 30,000 words and this problem introductory chp can only be around 18,000 words max.
I did take a break over the Easter weekend but now I am panicking!
Does anyone know, if you are given 12 months for revisions, whether it's possible to extend that period? I daren't ask my supervisor at this stage as I'm certain she will tell me try try to get it done, and then I may hand in a lot of rubbish.
Also - and I know this is a huge ask - anyone who supervises PhDs willing to take a look at a chunk of my writing? And be honest? I know this is a bit of a cheek as we all have so much work on. I fear my peers at my own university will be too nice, or that is my experience in the past. Would be massively grateful if anyone says yes to this plea.