By Susan Carter, with thanks to Peter Arthur, UBC

One of the most important things learned when writing a doctoral thesis is the kind of self-knowledge that enables self-management. That skill alone makes the doctoral experience worthwhile, even when the journey is arduous and frustrating. A recent seminar by Peter Arthur on undergraduate metacognitive skills development prompted me to write this post on how metacognitive awareness can be applied to doctoral writing.

Peter had a series of questions for undergraduate students to prompt them to see the metacognitive expectations of a set assignment or in examination preparation. It seemed to me that his line of enquiry, which included drawing on Carol Dweck’s (2008) growth versus fixed mindsets, could be adapted for the purposes of doctoral writing.

For each section of the thesis, the author might first plan according to the following questions:

  • What are all the things this section needs to cover?
  • What is my time frame—when is the final deadline, and what small-stakes deadlines lie between now and then?
  • What skills are needed for this section; do I already have them; where might I get help if not?
  • What are the major steps in practice for completing this section (so including reading, data analysis etc.)
  • Draw an outline of the writing needed, thinking about how long each segment will be.
  • What is most frustrating or challenging about this section?

Many doctoral writers are more used to organising their own time than undergraduate students, and yet a reminder of a project manager approach can make it a more manageable task. To become self-directed learners, students must learn to

  • assess the demands of the task,
  • evaluate their own knowledge and skills,
  • plan their approach,
  • monitor their progress and
  • adjust their strategies as needed, and
  • reflect on/evaluate their strategies upon completion to determine improvement for next time.

That reflection or evaluation helps learners to understand themselves, and to grow more capable at wringing the best out of themselves.

Peter’s exam preparation questions dig to an even deeper level, I think. He begins with ‘test yourself’. Often with academic writing, it is helpful to trial ways of articulating complex ideas. Thesis writers may need to say things in simple language before applying theoretical jargon, and could occasionally try a few versions to decide which style and voice works best to make their work accessible. Despite discipline epistemologies about passive verbs and author presence, clarity matters and the development of personal voice in writing can consciously involve playing with style.

Peter advises learners to consciously plan for learning time-spacing, i.e., pacing doctoral work between reading and writing, writing new drafts and revising, talking to peers, and – importantly – exercising to revive brain cells is also about strategic spacing. In many ways, Peter’s ‘spacing learning’ essentially prompts self-understanding.

I groan when doctoral students seem to trudge through the degree in angst, self-doubt and depression. Such gloom may be symptomatic of what psychologist Dweck (2008) describes as a fixed mindset, the belief that basic abilities, intelligence, and talents, are fixed inherent traits. If you think your intelligence is fixed, then when doctoral writing is really hard, as it is at time for most of us, you might feel that there is no hope of improving and it is all really impossible. It is not unusual for doctoral students to get trapped in the mire of the imposter syndrome (Turman, 2001) and maybe this is due to feeling fixed in ability rather than about to grow through learning.

In what Dweck calls a growth mindset, students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. Doctoral students could be asked to think of when they achieved success in something that sat outside their comfort zone and that required sheer perseverance. What do they think happened to their brain during this learning? It may be reassuring that the brain grows just as muscles do for those who pump iron routinely. What seems hard is transformed into a surmountable problem by undertaking a metacognitive analysis of why it is a problem, how it can be solved and which networks or individuals can help. Deliberately moving into a growth mindset means taking control of the problem, the project and of the self.

Recognising that the strategies of metacognition are empowering might enable some to step out of the doldrums. This is ‘skills development’ in self-knowledge and self-development, and my hope would be, skills leading to the ability to trust and like yourself.


Dweck, C. (2008). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine.

Turman, P. D. (2001). “I’m fooling them all:” The examination of the imposter phenomenon in the undergraduate instructor assistant experience. Journal of Graduate Teaching Assistant Development, 8(3), 123-131.