Challenges of Freedom and Responsibility

One of the main benefits of researching at post-graduate level is that you have the freedom to follow your passion and interest, studying a subject you have selected. This freedom reflects that fact that you are moving from being someone who consumes knowledge to becoming someone who creates knowledge. This is exciting and potentially fulfilling. It provides you with an opportunity to spend a long time, absorbed in a topic that you find fascinating and important.

However, this freedom can also come with some risks. The lack of an imposed structure can create uncertainty, making it difficult for you to judge what you should be doing, how long you should be working and whether you are making enough progress. This is generally true of all research – research doesn’t happen in a straight line that is easily planned and executed. Inevitably there are unexpected results, unforeseen difficulties and new ideas that completely overhaul what we had planned [1]. 

This can be exacerbated by the structure of PGR study. Depending on your discipline and institution, it is possible that months may pass in between meetings with your supervisor. The lack of day to day guidance can be disconcerting at first – perhaps even scary [2]; [3]. 

Balancing this freedom and responsibility over the course of your degree can be crucial to maintaining good wellbeing and producing good quality research. 

One of the key things to remember is that this is an experience that most PGR students go through. Working out how to make the most of this freedom is something you will get better at over time. Treat this as the normal development of a skill – it is ok not to be able to do it straight away; there is a reason PGR study takes so long and it isn’t just because of how long it takes to collect data. Becoming a PGR student and a competent, confident researcher is a process [4]; [5].

However, all of this will be easier if you deliberately spend time on developing the ability to manage this freedom and evaluating what does and does not work for you. Having a clear planned structure to each day can help but different structures will work for different people (we talk more about this in “The Importance of Planned Structure“).

It can also help to use the resources around you to gauge how you are doing and what can help. Talk to peers and those further ahead in their studies, to see how they’ve managed to make this work successfully (or to be aware of behaviours that won’t help). Be willing to ask your supervisor direct questions and to ask for their opinion.

It might also help to keep a work journal, tracking how you approached work on different days and which approach seemed to be more productive and better for your wellbeing. You may even find that different structures and approaches are better for different tasks.

Accepting the advantages of the freedom to create your own path, and addressing the potential risks, can strengthen you as a researcher, make you feel more in control and help you maintain good wellbeing overall.



Graziano, A. M., & Raulin, M. L. (2014). Research methods : a process of inquiry. Retrieved from


Flynn, S. V., Chasek, C. L., Harper, I. F., Murphy, K. M., & Jorgensen, M. F. (2012). A Qualitative Inquiry of the Counseling Dissertation Process. Counselor Education and Supervision, 51(4), 242–255.


Susan K. Gardner, S. K. (2010). Contrasting the Socialization Experiences of Doctoral Students in High- and Low-Completing Departments: A Qualitative Analysis of Disciplinary Contexts at One Institution. The Journal of Higher Education, 81(1), 61–81.


Dandridge, N. (2000). Student mental wellbeing in higher education. Retrieved from


Turner, G., & McAlpine., L. (2011). “Doctoral Experience as Researcher Preparation: Activities, Passion, Status.” International Journal for Researcher Development, 2(1), 46–60.