Teaching and Learning Forum 2000 [ Proceedings Contents ]

Jabba the Hut: Research students' feelings about doing a thesis

Irene Styles
Institute of Education
Murdoch University
and

Alex Radloff
Centre for Educational Advancement
Curtin University of Technology
    A major concern of university administrations in regard to postgraduate research is the completion rates of doctoral students. Based on the literature on self regulation of learning, one of the crucial factors in determining whether these rates are satisfactory or not is how students feel about their postgraduate work. Such feelings or emotions impinge on students' motivation, their willingness to persevere and to work consistently to complete their theses in minimum time. Anecdotal reports in the literature and from personal discussion with students suggest that the process of accomplishing this successfully is one that rests almost entirely with how a student feels about his/her thesis: whether s/he feel it is worthwhile and interesting, and whether, despite the anxieties, uncertainties and obstacles, his/her work on the thesis has enough emotional rewards for the student to wish to continue a life of researcher.

    This paper reports the findings from an investigation into how students feel about their theses using a combination of qualitative and quantitative methodologies. Student representations of their theses can be characterised by six main themes - Uncertainty, Anticipation, Effort, Menace, Creativity and Orderliness. Feelings about the thesis, although ambivalent, were predominantly positive. Implications for practice are given and the vital role supervisors can play in supporting students and enhancing positive emotive feelings, is discussed.

Teaching and Learning Forum 2000 Home Page

Introduction

The literature on self regulation of learning indicates that affect plays a fundamental role in effective learning. Affect impinges on students' motivations and goals for learning, how they feel about the process and outcomes of their learning, and themselves as learners. However, the feelings of students at postgraduate level have been largely neglected, although some anecdotal accounts exist (Elphinstone & Schweitzer, 1998; Salmon, 1992). But negative feelings can so affect a student that s/he drops out, avoids undertaking research, or advises others not to do so. This impacts negatively on universities' reputation and completion rates. According to Glatthorn (1998), some estimates indicate only 40% of doctoral students finish their studies. He says, "Although dropping out is often caused by financial and work related factors, the emotional stresses involved in completing the dissertation undoubtedly play am important role (Glatthorn, 1998, pp. 210).

A doctoral thesis is the most challenging, arduous task any person in academia is likely to undertake throughout his/her career. Researchers have described the degree of commitment needed to complete it (Cryer, 1996; Elphinstone & Schweitzer, 1998; Salmon, 1992). Elphinstone & Schwietzer (1998, p. 53) say many students "have negative feelings and thoughts" due to feeling they cannot or will not finish. Students report "burnout", being disorganised, frustrated, stressed, lonely, overloaded, or obsessed with their work (Cryer, 1996). These feelings ebb and flow at different stages of the thesis (Glatthorn, 1998).

Much of the literature on issues in doctoral studies centres on cognitive and managerial aspects, while affective aspects remain relatively under-researched. This study investigated the nature and intensity of postgraduates' feelings about their theses and what this might mean for progress in their studies, their well-being, and the supervisory process. Findings are discussed in terms of the implications for supervisory practices.

Methodology

We invited 20 doctoral students from two universities in Perth in two major areas (Sciences (N=14) and Humanities (N=6)), to participate in focus groups aimed at eliciting affective responses in regard to their theses. Participants were at different stages of their studies and either part or full time. Participation was voluntary - resulting in a confounding of two explanatory variables, Gender and Area of Study. All Science participants were male and all but one Humanities participants were female.

Firstly, to assess how participants regarded their theses, we asked participants to write or draw their response/s to the question, "What metaphors come to mind when you think of your thesis? Lubar & Getz (1997, p228) have said, "When we study the idea of ensembles of metaphors, we are bringing out the interplay of the organisation of knowledge with the organisation of affect". People use metaphors to explain emotional states because they are accessible and compact and may convey intense emotions (vividness) (Fainsilber & Ortony, 1987; Ortony, 1975). Thus we expected that metaphors could encapsulate many emotional elements, providing insight into how our participants felt

Secondly, participants were given a list of positive and negative adjectives that describe feelings. The list was modified from Radloff and de la Harpe's modification of Zuckerman's Affect Adjective Checklist (Radloff & de la Harpe, 1999; Zuckerman, 1960). Participants were asked to select those adjectives which described how they felt about their theses. They were then asked to choose colours (from a range of 8) for each of the selected adjectives, and colour in different sized segments of a blank circle, representing the extent to which they felt each emotion.

Lastly, participants were asked to discuss their metaphors and to add anything they wished.

Analysis

Responses were analysed as follows:

Activity 1: metaphors
Metaphors (written or drawn) were analysed according to major themes which the researchers considered were embodied in the metaphors. The validity of these interpretations was checked by asking 11 independent respondents what each metaphor might mean in terms of the major themes and any other themes they thought were present. Four of the eleven respondents were participants in the focus groups.

Activity 2: Adjective Checklist and Colour wheel
The number of adjectives chosen was recorded, and the intensity for each adjective (segment sizes (in degrees), as a percentage of 360 degrees). These data (separated into positive and negative adjectives) were analysed for Gender or Area of Study differences - because of the confounding of the variables, interpretations may hold for one or both.

The results and interpretation of the data are presented in the next section.

Results

Metaphors

Twenty-one metaphors generated by 14 focus group participants (6 were not able to generate metaphors) were categorised according to six themes which emerged from the data - Uncertainty, Anticipation, Effort, Menace, Creativity/growth and Orderliness. Metaphors and themes are presented in Table 1, which shows frequency of endorsement of themes within metaphors by the 11 "validity checking" respondents. Table 1 also shows the number of metaphors suggested by participants in Science and Humanities, and the total number of metaphors representing each theme. Metaphors were accepted as embodying a theme if endorsed by at least 40% (4) of the 11 respondents.

Participants generated a range of metaphors. As predicted by the literature, all metaphors were endorsed as containing elements of more than one theme.

Table 1: Frequencies of themes and their related metaphors for whole group and areas of study

Frequencies of endorsement of themes within metaphors Number of metaphors
(at least 40% endorsement)
Theme 10-118-96-75-4 Sci
(n=12)
Hum
(n=9)
Total
(n=21)
Uncertainty mist/fog
tunnel (with no light at end)
path (with offshoots)
maze
billboard
junk drawer
pot luck dinner
site
clouds
round in circles
runaway train
black hole
moving target
journey
10515
Anticipation
Excitement
maze
jigsaw
journey
rock
pot luck dinner
site
billboard
opening a door
recipe
mist
clouds
junk drawer
path
perpetual motion
8614
Effort moving a rock from cave site
perpetual motion
billboard
journey
opening a door
tunnel
jigsaw
recipe
opening a door
round in circles
6612
Menace
Helplessness
wolf
train

Jabba
black hole
tunnel mist 347
Creation
Growth
construction
site
jigsaw
journey recipe
opening a door
perpetual motion
path
437
Orderliness
recipe jigsaw
202

Figure 1 shows examples of metaphors drawn by participants. Based on data in Table 1 and Figure 1, each of the themes is discussed below in terms of feelings about the thesis.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Drawings of metaphors expressing feelings about the thesis

Uncertainty
Uncertainty is reflected in most of the metaphors. For example, the billboard with no pathway to it indicates the participant has some idea of what the result might be but does not know how to get there. Brown, McDowell and Race (1995) mention many aspects of uncertainty such as self efficacy (can I do it?), whether the topic is worthwhile, and what to do next. Moreover, things often do not go as planned: Blaxter, Hughes and Tight (1996) list twenty things that can go wrong, including running out of time, refusal of access to subjects, and losing references. But the uncertainty seems at a deeper level - research is inherently uncertain.

Anticipation
Anticipation is present in a number of the metaphors such as the journey and the construction site. Anticipation may exist in terms of an end to effort, an outcome, and excitement about what may be discovered. It is probably the main contributor to positive feelings about research.

Effort
The effort a thesis takes is represented in metaphors such as rolling a stone from the mouth of a cave, and the marathon. The idea of intensive effort is mentioned by Denicolo and Pope (1994).

Menace
A sense of threat or not being in control is reflected in metaphors such as the runaway train and the wolf in sheep's clothing. Similarly, the megamaze contains elements of uncertainty, menace, and effort. In Figure 1, the thesis (the maze) towers over the tiny human who is uncertain about where to go, and the prize - the completed thesis - can just be seen in the distance. In the case of Jabba the Hut, as the participant elaborated, the creature is greedy and insatiable, self centred, unpredictable, and dangerous. The participant is a slave to such a creature: no matter how much effort is expended, it is never enough, and, in fact, the participant him/herself may never be satisfied.

Creation, growth
The sense of being creative is present in the vision of opening doors for others to pass through or constructing a building. Many researchers refer to the creative possibilities in PhD studies. For example, Elphinstone and Schweitzer (1998, p. 32) say "For many students, starting a research degree marks the beginning of a new sense of academic freedom, with potential for personal creativity and reflection".

Orderliness
Finally, the organisation necessary in the process of research is suggested by a few metaphors such as a recipe or jigsaw puzzle - generated by Science participants.

The metaphors suggest that participants tend to perceive their thesis as having a life of its own over which they have limited control. Exerting some control was seen by some participants as essential to their survival and the completion of their research. "Tidy your desk!", exhorts one participant, while others advise, "Make lists of where everything is on your computer", and "Don't let the work get out of hand".

Indications are that Anticipation/excitement is present in metaphors chosen by both Areas/Genders to the same extent. The themes of Uncertainty and Orderliness tend to be represented to a greater extent in metaphors generated by Male/Science than by Female/Humanities participants, whereas Effort, Menace and Creativity/Growth tend to be present to a greater extent in metaphors generated by Female/Humanities than by Male/Science participants.

Adjective Checklist and Colour Wheel

The range and intensity of emotional responses to the Adjective Checklist and Colour Wheel are presented in Table 2. The mean number of adjectives selected by participants was 6.47 (sd 1.60) with a range of 4 to 10. Female participants selected significantly more adjectives than did the male participants (8.00 and 5.93, respectively, p = .03). There was no difference between Areas (means were 6.00 and 7.29 for Science and Humanities, respectively, p=0.08). Positive and negative adjectives were selected by all participants. There were more positive than negative emotions expressed, and intensity (that is, size of circle segments) was greater for positive than for negative emotions (63.84% and 35.32% respectively, p = .01). There were no gender or area differences in terms of intensity or valence but there was a tendency for female participants to express more positive emotions ( 73.60% compared with 60.36%) and for male participants to express stronger negative emotions (38.79% compared with 25.60%). Table 3 shows adjectives ranked for intensity from most to least intense.

Table 2: Mean number of emotions selected and mean intensities of positive and negative emotions with standard deviations (in brackets) and associated p values for Gender and Area differences

Mean number of adjectives selectedIntensity of adjectives (percentage of 360 degrees)
positivenegative
Males 5.93
(1.21)
60.36
(27.58)
38.79
(25.97)
Females 8.00
(1.87)
73.60
(21.31)
25.60
(20.74)
Total 6.47
(1.60)
63.84
(25.50)
35.32
(24.20)
P value (male/female differences) 0.030.150.14

Science 6.00
(1.28)
56.92
(27.26)
42.08
(25.46)
Humanities 7.29
(1.98)
75.71
(20.89)
23.71
(20.43)
P value (Area differences) 0.080.060.05

Table 3: Mean intensities of emotions (as a percentage of 360 degrees) by gender and area and associated standard deviations (in brackets) and p values

Adjective MeansP
value
MeansP
value
Male
N=15
Female
N=5
TotalHum
N=6
Sci
N=14
Happy3.93
(7.82)
3.60
(8.05)
3.84
(7.45)
0.47 2.57
(6.80)
4.58
(8.31)
0.29
Excited16.43
(9.27)
11.20
(4.60)
15.05
(8.28)
0.06 14.00
(6.51)
15.67
(9.71)
0.33
Calm4.93
(13.49)
5.20
(7.66)
5.00
(11.70)
0.48 3.71
(6.75)
5.75
(14.49)
0.34
Inspired7.29
(8.60)
4.77
(7.29)
9.16
(8.07)
0.02 16.57
(5.65)
4.83
(6.31)
0.00
Challenged17.64
(16.09)
22.60
(6.88)
18.95
(13.85)
0.18 18.86
(8.63)
19.00
(17.05)
0.49
Organised8.57
(12.50)
11.40
(9.40)
9.32
(11.27)
0.31 14.14
(15.09)
6.50
(8.47)
0.13
Proud1.57
(3.34)
3.00
(3.32)
1.95
(3.22)
0.22 2.14
(3.08)
1.83
(3.56)
0.42
Attached0.00
(0.00)
2.20
(4.92)
0.58
(2.46)
0.19 1.57
(4.16)
0.00
(0.00)
0.18
Miserable1.29
(2.89)
2.20
(4.92)
1.53
(3.31)
0.36 1.57
(4.16)
1.50
(3.09)
0.48
Angry0.21
(0.80)
1.00
(2.24)
0.42
(1.27)
0.24 0.71
(1.89)
0.25
(0.87)
0.28
Regretful1.50
(5.61)
2.20
(4.92)
1.68
(5.17)
0.40 1.57
(4.16)
1.75
(6.06)
0.47
Impatient5.00
(13.50)
1.00
(2.24)
3.95
(11.35)
0.15 2.57
(4.96)
4.75
(14.39)
0.32
Overloaded7.14
(13.70)
6.00
(9.97)
6.84
(12.23)
0.42 8.29
(9.05)
6.00
(14.55)
0.34
Dislike0.57
(2.14)
0.00
(0.00)
0.42
(1.79)
0.17 0.00
(0.00)
0.67
(2.31)
0.17
Weary4.18
(6.30)
1.60
(3.58)
4.82
(6.43)
0.28 4.71
(7.20)
4.88
(6.57)
0.48
Anxious8.54
(13.56)
1.60
(3.58)
6.71
(11.74)
0.05 1.14
(3.02)
9.96
(14.20)
0.03
Uncertain9.50
(12.03)
10.40
(15.34)
9.74
(12.20)
0.45 9.14
(13.17)
10.08
(12.72)
0.44
Shamed0.00
(0.00)
0.00
(0.00)
0.00
(0.00)
- 0.00
(0.00)
0.00
(0.00)
-

Participants showed ambivalent feelings about their thesis although positive dominated. Participants expressed a range of emotions indicating the complexity of affect associated with postgraduate study. Male and female participants endorsed being challenged, excited and uncertain, but female participants tended to be more inspired and less anxious than male participants.

Implications for supervisory practices

It seems important for both students and supervisors to regard postgraduate research as a process of self regulated learning involving living with uncertainty and dealing with inevitable emotional fluctuations. These findings imply To help attain the above, staff development, student workshops, and support groups for students and staff need to go beyond concerns with practical, administration and conceptual matters to include affective concerns.

References

Blaxter, L., Hughes, C. & Tight, M. (1996). How to research. Buckingham, England: Open University Press.

Brown, S, McDowell, L., & Race, P. (1995). 50 tips for research students. London: Kogan Page.

Cryer, P. (1996). The research student's guide to success. Buckingham, England: Open University Press.

Denicolo, P. & Pope, M. (1994). The postgraduate's journey - an interplay of roles. In O. Zuber-Skerritt & Y. Ryan. (Eds), Quality in postgraduate education. London: Kogan Page.

Elphinstone. L., & Schweitzer, R. (1998). How to get research degree. Australia: Allen and Unwin.

Fainsilber, L. & Ortony, A. (1987). Metaphorical uses of language in the expression of emotions. Metaphor and Symbolic Activity, 2(4), 239-250.

Glatthorn, A. (1998). Writing the winning dissertation. California: Sage.

Lubart, T. I. & Getz, I. (1997). Emotion, metaphor and the creative process. Creativity Research Journal, 10(4), 285-301.

Ortony, A. (1975). Why metaphors are necessary and not just nice. Educational theory, 25, 45-53.

Radloff, A. & de la Harpe, B. (1999). Informed teachers and learners: The importance of assessing the characteristics needed for lifelong learning. Paper presented at HERDSA Conference, Melbourne, July.

Salmon, P. (1992). Achieving a PhD - ten students' experience. England: Trentham Books.

Zuckerman, M. (1960). The development of an affect adjective checklist for the measurement of anxiety. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 24, 457-462.

Please cite as: Styles, I. and Radloff, A. (2000). Jabba the Hut: Research students' feelings about doing a thesis. In A. Herrmann and M.M. Kulski (Eds), Flexible Futures in Tertiary Teaching. Proceedings of the 9th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 2-4 February 2000. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2000/styles.html


[ TL Forum 2000 Proceedings Contents ] [ TL Forums Index ]
HTML: Roger Atkinson, Teaching and Learning Centre, Murdoch University [rjatkinson@bigpond.com]
This URL: http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2000/styles.html
Last revision: 20 Feb 2002. Curtin University of Technology
Previous URL 18 Dec 1999 to 20 Feb 2002 http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/confs/tlf/tlf2000/styles.html