By Susan Carter

Some doctoral students find their study overwhelming for more reasons that all the usual ones. Sure, they face the same challenges as others do: the study is vast; there is so much to read and to write; and almost inevitably difficulties occur with the research itself—it’s hard to find participants, experiments don’t work, or data fails to make sense. But beyond all this, some students find that their research topic winds so intensely into other people’s lives it involves something of a meltdown. How can such crises be handled?

I’ve written about this briefly in a study of how gender affects women doctoral candidates. We found the obvious: that motherhood and inequitable family responsibilities mean women students can find that they are always feeling guilty anxiety. In a child-focused environment, they feel they are bad mothers because they cannot focus only on their child or children, and in an output focused academic world, they find they are bad doctoral students who struggle to meet deadlines. See too Claire Aitchison’s post on mother guilt, which provoked a long trail of empathetic lament. Mothers who are doctoral students can be isolated, working harder than most candidates but feeling that they are seen as always inadequate in every sphere. Our study found that stepping into the role of expert over the doctorate’s transition sometimes disrupted gender-stereotypical roles and meant partners became disturbed by when their doctoral mate became an authority figure. Specifically we also found that women with an abuse history can find that stepping into the limelight as an expert feels uncomfortable when keeping below the radar was an engrained survival technique developed over many years. A wealth of emotional personal stories sat behind that article and they do too in the comments on Claire’s mother guilt post. Sometimes research and life collide.

And I know from experience in doctoral consultation how, at some stage in a doctorate investigating through interviews, the researcher can find that she is immersed in the experience that she is capturing. That commitment to the data can make it troublesome to stick within the genre requirements of the doctoral thesis. ‘Findings’ and ‘Discussion’ seem terms belonging to positivist objectivity, inappropriate for many investigations of hard lived experience. In Structuring Your Research Thesis, Jacqui Kidd described how she interspersed her participants’ stories between her thesis chapters because she found them so moving (2002: page 2). They needed a space. Their voices needed to be brought right in.

I was reminded of emotional intensities that alter the researcher’s relationship with their new knowledge when I came to a flash of insight in Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million. Equipped with photos from his grandparents, he has a sudden realisation that he was insensitive when he showed them to old distant relatives who knew people in the photos. He writes:

I was confronted with the awful discrepancy between what certain images and stories meant for me…for whom…[they] could never be more than ‘fiercely moving’ (in the way that you say a book or a film is ‘moving’) and what they meant for the people I was talking to, for whom the images and stories were, really, their lives. (224-225)

Lately the gulch between research and lived reality has been opening conspicuously for me. The stories that we hear before we get ethics approval may speak so much more tellingly than those we gather after approval. The stricture of academic prose, with its scholarly apparatus, its epistemological compliance, its bank of literature, seems too sturdy a structure to handle the raw reality of lives being studied.

It seems to me that where participants’ emotions and privacy are at stake, there’s always a responsibility to protect them. On the two occasions when I decided not to publish the most interesting data, I did not seek permission because I felt that just asking for it would cause pain. Care of participants doesn’t end once an ethics committee gives consent for it, in my view. Participants have given something of themselves and as patrons and enablers, they need respect. Sometimes researchers ought to simply accept the limitations of mutual commitment. Is it a good idea to state that some data is not presented to preserve participants’ well-being? As an examiner, would you question a doctorate that made such a statement but then factored the missing data into the discussion? ‘The comments that I have not reported suggest that the problem can become more extreme than the findings here show…’ — would social scientists be respectful of such an approach, or is it better to simply accept the limitations of ethical research?

I’m writing, though, to see if others have other recommendations. And there is also the issue of the researcher’s crisis. We can start working on a topic and only half-way through realise that we are not going to be the same person when we finish a study because it has taught truths we didn’t seek and would prefer not to know. Please use the comment function if you can share experience or suggestions.


Carter, S., Kelly, F. and Brailsford, I. (2012). Structuring Your Research Thesis. Houndsmills UK: Palgrave MacMillan.

Carter, S., Blumenstein, M., & Cook, C. M. (2013). Different for women? The challenges of doctoral study. Teaching in Higher Education. 18(4), 339-351.