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Learning and emotion

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One would imagine that undertaking a higher degree is a purely rational intellectual task unencumbered by emotion. Research indicates that this is far from the reality.

For many students the research higher degree experience is fraught with emotion as students report fluctuating feelings such as excitement and elation to trauma and frustration. The creative nature of higher degree research as well as its meaningful, developmental, personally fulfilling, transformative quality represents an encounter well beyond the attainment of a degree. It reaches beyond cognitive growth and encompasses the whole individual. The research process therefore may have an emotional component, unrelated to other life situations.

Stages and emotions

The stages of the thesis process and the accompanying emotions are not the same for all students. Students may pass through a range of fluctuating emotions during the doctoral journey to academic independence. Enthusiasm and excitement are often associated with the early phase of candidature. Stress, anxiety, helplessness, or frustration may be experienced at other times. Some negative emotions may be associated with the ill-defined status, uncertainty regarding the quality of the student, their work and the outcome of the degree process, as well as the loneliness and isolation of being a research student, particularly in Humanities and Social Sciences. It can therefore be difficult for some students to keep motivated and keep seeing the value in the research. Research may not always work out as planned, experiments may fail, equipment may break down. Throughout candidature we have to build our own resources and become resilient in the face of difficulty.

Though the issues that generate emotional responses in students may vary according to time, place, age and stage, emotionality appears to be a frequent part of the experience.

Some emotional reactions reported by PhD students:

Sometimes I feel like I'm flying high as a kite and other times I'm low as a tack!
Wow yes it was so exciting, the discovery was the most exciting thing I have done in my life! I could not believe how exhilarated I felt
Most people have some trauma.the notion that I am saying something that other people haven't said before and that its important, other that just repeating what other people have said or systematising what other people have said .. to take on the notion that I have something to say and its mine.
And very often I found myself sliding between feelings of competence that I can get this done and incompetence, that I'm not quite up to it. And it's like a rite of passage. It is like you have to go into the fire and only after that can you emerge on the other side saying, yes I have put it together, I have this confidence and you change as a person in this process.
I've been shocked, absolutely overwhelmed by the emotional content that has arisen for me in the process of writing the PhD".
It has been a profound emotional journey for me. A lot of fragmentation and anxiety

Emotions and supervision

The relationship with your supervisor can be a source of stress. There may be difficulties in the interaction. You may feel that your supervisor is too controlling and gives you too many directives, or you may feel that your supervisor provides you with insufficient validation, feedback or guidance. You may experience neglect by your supervisor or the difficulty of a personality conflict.

It is really important to focus on communicating clearly with your supervisor. Explain your needs, your goals, your uncertainty, your doubts and ensure that you are given adequate and clear feedback on your work. You may even like to request some validation to affirm that you are on the path to success. Ask directly for affirmation of what elements in your work are worthwhile. Taking these simple steps can alleviate negative emotions, guide your supervisor in how best to assist you and help you progress more efficiently and happily.

How to manage negative emotions

  • Don't let negative emotions impede your progress!
  • Just being aware of some of the potential emotional reactions that may emerge during candidature can help you prepare and buffer yourself.
  • Use your personal strengths, knowledge and maturity to become resilient and draw on support from your peers and supervisor/s. There are also formalised support structures available to candidates within the university.
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