|Teaching and Learning Forum 2000 [ Proceedings Contents ]
Jabba the Hut: Research students' feelings about doing a thesisIrene Styles
Institute of Education
Centre for Educational Advancement
Curtin University of Technology
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
tunnel (with no light at end)
path (with offshoots)
pot luck dinner
round in circles
pot luck dinner
opening a door
|Effort||moving a rock from cave||site
opening a door
opening a door
round in circles
opening a door
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: Drawings of metaphors expressing feelings about the thesis
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 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.
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).
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.
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".
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.
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 selected||Intensity of adjectives (percentage of 360 degrees)|
|P value (male/female differences)||0.03||0.15||0.14|
|P value (Area differences)||0.08||0.06||0.05|
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
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.
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Salmon, P. (1992). Achieving a PhD - ten students' experience. England: Trentham Books.
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|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|