By Ruth Wagstaff
This is the story of someone’s confirmation. Let’s keep this person anonymous and call her Marcia. Marcia loved the topic that she settled on. She read far and wide. She talked about it with anyone who would listen. She found scholarships to apply so that she had to write for different audiences. She would write literature reviews to help consolidate and refine the research question. Her supervisors were happy with her progress and they mostly enjoyed supervision because she was constantly finding new questions. However, her supervisor’s joy was tempered by Marcia’s inability to choose the measures and methodology.
Marcia announced to her supervisor that she wanted an early confirmation. The supervisor nodded in agreement, no doubt hoping it would force Marcia to make decisions that she alone could make about measures and methodology. The associate supervisor simply went along with the decision because he trusted in Marcia’s ability to get things done. Her supervisor nominated the panel and to Marcia’s surprise they all accepted.
About 3 weeks before the proposal was due to be submitted to the panel, Marcia polished her proposal. Polishing the proposal had three effects on Marcia. The first is that just has her principle supervisor had predicted, she was forced to make decisions about methodology and measures. This was a very good outcome. Another effect was that polishing provided an opportunity to tighten the conceptual work. Another good outcome. But less a desirable effect was the realisation that the project could go very pear shaped, and even worse, that she did not have the skills and knowledge to do complete the project successfully. Her feet went cold but hands became sweaty. Sleeping became a little difficult. She became irritable. Marcia had visions of the panel laughing at her and cutting her down into bite size pieces. Marcia had gone from a confident and carefree soul to one shackled by poor confidence, imposter syndrome, and anxiety.
Supervision was no longer something Marcia looked forward to but her supervisor was wise and very experienced. Not only had he seen it all before, but experienced similar emotions during the confirmation of his Ph.D. candidature several decades earlier. In his usual calm voice, the supervisor asked Marcia what she was most afraid of.
Marcia’s reply was honest. She said, “I feel academically very vulnerable – even when doing a practice presentation for you here in your office. There is no reason for me to feel like this because you do not bite, and you do not want to tear me apart. I have worked on this proposal solidly for 12 months. It is mixed with my blood, sweat, and tears, and comes from my inner soul.”
The supervisor nodded in agreement, waited a moment, and said in a slow deliberate tone, “Yes, but the panel and I only want you to succeed. We are on your side.”
As he spoke, Marcia reflected on the stories of the candidates who were left in tears. Through the haze of Marcia thoughts, her supervisor’s voice took centre stage again.
“If you knew the answers to this research, it would not be Ph.D. worthy,’” he continued. “You have done the work required. Relax in your ability to get this done. You are not alone on this journey.”
As alone as Marcia felt, the evidence was that she was not alone. Her closest friends were Ph.D. colleagues and were always there. She knew her supervisors were walking with her, mentoring, and guiding her. The panel was walking with her by taking time out of their busy day to read the proposal, listen to the presentation, and make comments to help her. The panel did not have to do this but chose to. Marcia was definitely not alone.
The day of the confirmation presentation came and went. Marcia may have felt as if she was carrying the world on her shoulders, but as she heard her voice begin the oral presentation, her concerns lifted. Her PhD friends were there. Her supervisors were there. The panel were listening attentively. Extra staff were there to support her as well. There is still work ahead but her project is Ph.D. worthy. Marcia is now a confirmed candidate: she has crossed a bridge and is about to embark on a new phase of her PhD journey.