Aug 10

Surviving Your PhD Journey – Part 1

Today’s guest blog post is part 1 of 2, and comes from our Director, Larry Westfall.


“Tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I’ll understand.”

– – Chinese Proverb

I’ve worked in management for many years and have experienced my share of change. Through this experience I’ve found a common mantra that “change is inevitable” or “change is constant.” And through it all, there’s a reluctance or inability to cope with it.

So what is it about change that seems so disconcerting to us? While there is something comfortable about the familiar, I find that I am uncomfortable with this notion that we resist change because it’s something new. I would offer that it’s often not the new future destination of the change we are most concerned about, but rather the journey in how to get there. I recall a family vacation in mid-1960, driving cross-country from Indiana to California in a Chevy sedan. My father had planned the trip down to the tenth of a mile; no unnecessary stops; no unwarranted bathroom breaks; no sightseeing along the way; driving into the night and departing early in the morning. He was focused on the destination…to get to the end. The journey, to him, was almost non-evident.

Not dissimilar to a trip across the US, the journey for the Ph.D. student can seem just as daunting and fraught with change, transition and unforeseen detours along the way. So how is it that you are supposed to survive and hopefully thrive along this Ph.D. journey?

The Elements of Change

To help us navigate change and transitions, we need to know what the journey involves. The path between the present and the future is rarely described with the same level of certainty as the end result, leaving us with a growing sense of fear regarding what lies ahead. Change is an emotional event growing from the cognitive appraisal of the situation. These emotions predict how receptive we will be towards change and how much resistance will be encountered to the effort.

In the 1970’s, work by Beckhard and Gleicher led to a formula that describes how organizational change occurs and how we might go about reducing resistance to change. What if we used this same model to affect positive personal change in the PhD journey?

The model says Change occurs when Dissatisfaction x Vision x First Steps > Resistance to Change (D x V x F > R). Using this model to affect positive personal change in your PhD journey, you need to get to ‘one common brain’ and ‘one common, compelling heart’ around these elements: Dissatisfaction with where you are right now (D), times Vision common and compelling about what you aspire to be in the future (V), times agreement on the effective actions and First Steps you can be doing to move in the direction of the vision (F), where the result of this equation has to be larger than any Resistance to change (R). The key to the equation is that if any element is zero, the product will be zero, and you won’t be able to overcome resistance to change. We each resist personal change if we do not have an ennobling vision of what we could be, or if we can’t think of any actions that we believe will make a difference. The magic however, is when the three elements in the equation do indeed overcome resistance. When all three are in place – D, V, and F – you will see things differently and understand what you can do differently to make positive progress along your journey. You will know this ‘magic’ has been unleashed when:

  • You are discovering yourself and your passions more fully
  • You are aligning your hopes and desires with a vision of the future
  • You are feeling valued and heard
  • You are taking increased risks and responsibility
  • You are getting increasingly excited about new possibilities
  • You are experiencing a profound sense of belonging
  • You feel proud of being part of something larger than yourself
  • You let go of old paradigms and embrace ‘new ways’ of doing things

Check out part 2 when it posts on Thursday, August 17th.