Working solo

My work is not me

By Alison Williams


It is sometimes difficult for us to take criticism of our work. We are so bound up in it that the work somehow becomes us, and critique of the work feels like a personal attack.  This is damaging in two main ways:

  • If I feel attacked when my work is critiqued, then my confidence is likely to go down. I feel that it is not just the work that is inadequate, it is me.
  • If I can’t stand outside my work then it is more difficult to make changes and improvements.

This recipe is for people who come out of a meeting with a supervisor feeling completely devastated and stupid, and forgetting that they are in the top 1% of the world’s thinkers. Its aim is to help you detach yourself from your work so that even if the work is going badly, your confidence and self-esteem are not irreparably damaged.



  • One piece of blank paper
  • One glass with a little water in it
  • One jug with lots of water in it
  • One totally discouraged PhD student
  • One puzzled but co-operative supervisor


  1. The PhD student writes their thesis title on the paper and puts it on the table between them and their supervisor.
  2. The student then puts the glass on top of the paper.
  3. Next, either the student or the supervisor says ‘What is needed to fill the glass?’ i.e. what is needed to improve the research work?
  4. The student and supervisor answer in the form of ‘We could fill the glass by…’ for example:

‘….looking into the literature for X’;

‘….adjusting the method we are using by doing X and Y’;

‘….adding a further testing phase’.

  1. At each suggestion, the person who made it pours a little water into the glass. The game is to see if the glass can be filled by the end of the supervision session.  If it’s full before the end of the meeting, then that’s enough work to do on the research project until the next time.

Cook’s tips

If you have an allergic reaction to the idea because of a total sense-of-humour failure, here’s what to do:

For the student: If you’ve got to the stage where anything will tip you into tears or bluster, get someone to tell you a couple of dreadful jokes before you go into your supervision session.

For the supervisor: If you’ve got to the stage where anything will tip you into cynicism or bluster, get someone to tell you a couple of dreadful jokes before you go into the supervision session.

Swap jokes at the start of the session.


If you have a supervisor who you suspect won’t play, give them a copy of this recipe before the supervision session so that they have time to get used to the idea. Tell them that it is important to you that they play along without cynicism.

BITE: Recipes for Remarkable Research is available in paperback, hardback and as Open Access from:

Sense Publishers: Paperback | Hardcover | Free Open Access
Amazon: Paperback | Hardcover
Barnes & Noble: Paperback | Hardcover

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