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Me(n)tal fatigue

by Aletta Wubben

The silence of concentrated mental effort usually reigns in university corridors but not this time. On passing one of the rooms I heard a red-faced promotor shouting at his PhD: ‘You must understand that it is a matter of importance!’

Sounded like ‘me(n)tal fatigue’ to me. The likelihood is that the promotor in question had been doling out advice that had been ignored, and not for the first time. It happens to many promotors and it only takes an ERC that’s fallen through or a jetlag, to fly off the handle.

I happen to know this professor. He is a kind man, involved with his students. He really isn’t the worst promotor a PhD could have. Of course he understands that shouting at his PhD student is not going to improve things.

‘Me(n)tal fatigue’ is the result of much pushing and shoving without anything to show for it and the situation won’t be improved by going on with it. There’s always a reason why a PhD is not doing what his promotor thinks he should do. Sometimes it’s to do with the subject he’s researching but more often his reasons will be personal. If you want to know what they are you have to start being curious. Just play at being coach and ask some personal questions.

I can hear you now: ‘why should I, I’m not a psychologist’, and of course you would be right. But having an interest in how your PhD is doing doesn’t make you a shrink. Perhaps you will find out your PhD doesn’t think he knows better at all. Maybe there’s something he can’t do. Maybe there’s something he doesn’t know. Perhaps he wants something and is afraid to ask. That, frankly, is much more likely than to assume that he ‘doesn’t understand’ the advice.

PhDs don’t tend to unburden themselves. It’s not really part of the scientific culture. The adage is that ‘real scientists’ can sort themselves out. This means that the underlying problem –  the lack of honesty about problems that stop them from making progress in their research – is not tackled.

Every promotor dreams about independent PhDs. Helping them find their own solutions might just make that dream come true.

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