We often think about intelligence, talent, or maybe even a bit of luck as the keys to academic success. But recently a presenter’s words at the SGSAH summer school struck and stuck with me.
The workshop she was running was on prioritizing after the PhD. The workshop was honest and yet optimistic, filled with helpful practical things, but what stuck was the advice she recounted: “the key to success in academia is persistence. The people that get careers in academia are often those who keep applying and keep trying.” I found the concept of persistence comforting. My first thought was: “all I have to do is be stubborn? I can do that!” Granted I realise there’s a whole lot more to it, but I also began to realise that these virtues apply to more than just the post PhD period and that I can begin to develop that very necessary virtue now and possibly improve my own wellbeing in the process.
As I’ve thought about those words, I’ve realised how applicable they are to my current PhD experience. While many of you have told me how helpful my posts have been (feedback that I’m incredibly grateful for) I’m not always particularly good at following my own advice. Don’t get me wrong when I do it does work, and I stand by the theory, but my practice at times… well let’s just say it leaves something to be desired. But my realisation is that it takes persistence and an understanding that these habits won’t just magically take at that flip of a switch. It takes waking up each morning, especially after an unproductive day, and setting to work again, not only on your PhD, but the necessary habits to complete it.
The good news is the difficulty of the PhD process and the required persistence is that it’s developing perseverance or what psychologists and HR professionals have begun referring to as resilience, and it’s quickly becoming a CV tick box (Masten & Reed, 2002). Resilience is the ability to deal with stress, obstacles, and bounce back from trauma well. It’s the ability to get denied that funding or have your paper rejected and still have the motivation to try again. However, it’s also important to remember that perseverance or resilience isn’t banging your head against a wall or working yourself to death. Materials that are too rigid are brittle and break, resilience is more about taking the time to recover and then bouncing back. Granted this may not be the best analogy because perseverance/ resilience is a habit, like all virtues, developed through consistent choices, hence my preference to the old virtue over the new term. Well that and I think it comes from studying the humanities.
I think that even though surviving a PhD thus far is proof that you possess resilience, with the difficulties of the process and the uncertainty of the world, developing it further isn’t a bad idea. Luckily the first step to developing resilience is an easy one: recognising it. In part when you realise that what you’re doing -whether it’s sitting down to your work after a bad day or week, or it’s brushing up that paper and resubmitting it – you’re creating a habit that develops the virtue of perseverance. It also helps to be realistic about the obstacle and the effort it will take to overcome it. Being unrealistic will only leave you feeling more defeated when you don’t succeed in the allotted time.
Furthermore, resilience doesn’t exist in isolation, it’s a part of what psychologists call psychological capital. Along with resilience this, includes hope, self-efficacy, and optimism (Luthans, Youssef, & Avolio, 2007). They’re all narrowly defined by the discipline, but think goal oriented, confident in your abilities and capacities, and a worldview that sees the future as an opportunity and current difficulties as temporary, specific, and circumstantial. When developed together these have synergistic quality. For instance, the hope that you’ll achieve your goal of completing your PhD, helps motivate you to keep trying. However, I think generally PhD candidates struggle with self-efficacy and slightly less generally optimism, or at least I do.
I think self-efficacy is particularly difficult for PhD candidates because it is exactly what the imposter syndrome erodes. I’ve written quite a bit about the imposter syndrome as have others, which might be helpful to revisit. But here are a few helpful ways to build your sense of self-efficacy or confidence. One is by looking back at your past achievements. You successfully finished two degrees and were accepted into a PhD programme, which makes you rather intelligent and accomplished. Another way is to look at other people and realise if they can do it so can you. I think this also helps with developing optimism, people do finish their PhD and find a post doc or job in academia. I think an important part of this optimism though is being realistic and planning well. Working on these two as well as hope, telling yourself you will achieve your goal of a PhD, will also help build your resilience and your overall wellbeing.
I think this idea of resilience and perseverance when coupled with the other 3 aspects of psychological capital can be incredibly helpful when viewed in the right light with the right goal. I think often positive psychology is used to keep human beings producing in inhumane conditions. But I think these are helpful tools for protecting and developing your own wellbeing. I think perseverance is the key out of the 4 though. It’s the one that will help you to keep trying to improve yourself and whatever you do. So, keep being persistent and recognise that while you’re gaining knowledge during your PhD, you’re also developing a resilient character, which I believe will stand you in good stead no matter where life takes you.
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