Have you checked out the rest of The PhD Knowledge Base? It’s home to hundreds more free resources and guides, written especially for PhD students. 

It’s entirely normal to hate your PhD from time to time. The further you travel on the PhD journey, the more you start to resent the thesis. 

That’s natural – spend years working on something, often with little immediate reward, and it natural that you will start to crumble. 

Here we’ve put together a list of 15 things to remind yourself of if you’re started to lose motivation. They’ll remind you of all that’s special about your thesis and, hopefully, inject some enthusiasm back into your relationship with it. 

Hello, Doctor…

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Be able to call yourself Doctor sooner with our five-star rated How to Write A PhD email-course. Learn everything your supervisor should have taught you about planning and completing a PhD.

Now half price. Join hundreds of other students and become a better thesis writer, or your money back. 

 

1. You should work less

 

I find that most people fall into one of two camps.

 

There are those who throw themselves into their work, always chained to their desk and never feeling like they’re on top of things.

 

Then there are those who get easily distracted, putting things off to the last minute and feeling guilty that they’re always a little behind.

 

In both cases the outcome is the same: long hours spent working, with the fatigue and the stress that comes with it.

 

But what about doing less work? What about being more selective with your time, and more selective with what’s on your to do list, such that you didn’t have as much to do at all?

 
Working less means prioritising what you spend your time on, and recognising the tasks that add little or no value to your day.
 
It means spending fewer hours working, but making sure those hours are more focused and that they are free from distractions.
 

It means accepting that your value and output is not measured on the basis of how many hours you put in, or how much work you get done. It’s measured instead on the quality of the work, and on the level of focus you can achieve.

 

So if you find yourself burning the candle at both ends, ask yourself whether what you really need to do is work less.

2. Don’t Push Away Negative Thoughts

 
You don’t need me to tell you that you’ll have negative emotions during your PhD. Not all the time of course, but there will be times when negativity seems to pervade all you do. They’re the days when imposter syndrome rears its head, or when you’re convinced you haven’t got what it takes. They’re the days where none of it seems worth it and where you lose all the momentum you previously had.
 
The tendency is to push these emotions. We tell ourselves that we shouldn’t be feeling this way, or that we must overcome our negative emotions.
 
This can make the problem worse. Often, the root of the problem is still there as you fight to push your negative emotions to one side.
 
A more fruitful tactic is to sit with the emotions. Embrace them rather than fight them, but as you do so ask yourself what they’re telling you. Behind every emotion is a root cause, even if it isn’t immediately obvious. Try to see if you can find yours.
 
When you do so, you shift from fighting the emotion as something you ‘shouldn’t have’, and instead accept it as something that’s in your life, and something that is a natural part of the PhD process that can be dealt with and mitigated.
 
The more you can recognise that your emotions are telling you something, the better able you are to listen. The more you can listen, the better able you’ll be to address the root cause.

3. Remember That Your PhD Is Trying To Drown You

 
Some things are more important than your PhD.
 
What they are will differ from student to student, but we’ll all share a handful of common ones: health, partners, friends, and family come to mind.
 
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that your PhD comes above all else. It doesn’t.
 
If you let it, it will completely dominate your life. Often in horrid, unproductive ways.
 
So that means you need to carefully manage the role that it plays in your life. You need to tune into whether it is taking over and whether it is crowding important things out.
 
Are you neglecting your friends, family, and partner for the sake of the thesis? Are you neglecting your health? Worse still, are you sick and still working?
 
The PhD needs to be part of a balanced life. That isn’t to discount the importance of the thesis; it will inevitably play a major role in your life. Instead, it’s meant to signal to you that it isn’t everything, and there is life outside the thesis.
 
Don’t let it drown you. Find time to prioritise the other important things in your life.

4. Routines Come And Go

 
 

For many, the simplest way of making the PhD journey more manageable is to develop consistent routines. 

For me, that involves going on a morning walk, exercising a few times a week, getting my emails and admin done first thing in the morning, and going to bed at roughly the same time.

But it’s easy to slip out of routines. We may be away from home, or the holiday season may disrupt our daily rhythm.

Whatever it is, we can start to drop the good habits we carefully nurture and start to pick up unhealthy ones – we might start exercising less, eating more processed foods, or staying up late.

When that happens to me, I can quickly start to feel anxious about whatever it is I’m working on. That makes sense; if routines introduce stability into our lives, it’s logical that disrupting those routines can mean we feel ungrounded and out of sorts.

If you can relate this holiday season, go easy on yourself. Like everything in life, this is temporary. As long as you’re conscious of what good routines looks like, and as long as you’re conscious that you’re temporarily departing from them, it won’t be long before you get back into healthy habits once the thing disrupting your routine has passed.

So in short the message today is similar to the message I often repeat: be kind to yourself. A few days or weeks out of routine isn’t a disaster and doesn’t spell the end of your PhD.
 

5. Ask Yourself: Are You Biting Off More Than You Can Chew?

 
Are you biting off more than you can chew? 
 
A very common characteristic of PhD students is to over-estimate the scope of a PhD, and over-estimate the nature of the contribution they are able to make. 
 
I was guilty of this – I came into my PhD with grand ambitions to shake up my discipline and come up with ground-breaking new theories and concepts. 
 
Over time, as you get more familiar with the literature and the nature of what it means to do a PhD, you start to scale back your ambitions and adopt more realistic goals and objectives. 
 
But here’s the thing: this is an ongoing process. You need to be constantly asking yourself if you’re biting off more than you can chew. When you approach a chapter, for example, are you over-estimating how much you are able to write in a day or week? Are you over-estimating how much literature you are able to condense into a literature review? When you design studies, are you over-estimating your capacity as a researcher? 
 
Keeping a constant check on your own capacity is an integral component of a happy and successful PhD journey. Expecting too much of yourself, and setting yourself unrealistic deadlines and goals can mean you constantly find yourself in a space defined by anxiety and terror. You’ll never feel like you’ve got control of your thesis and you’ll always feel like you’re drowning. 
 
Regardless of what stage of the journey you’re at or what you’re currently working on, by keeping check on how manageable your expectations and goals are you’ll be able to step back into a more comfortable zone and feel a greater sense of control over where the thesis is heading. 
 

6. Set Your Intentions

 
You may find yourself struggling for motivation, or wondering where the time goes as you bounce from one week to the next. 
 
Sitting down at the beginning of each week or at the beginning of each day and setting your intentions can make a huge difference.
 
Five minutes is all it takes; you may choose to set yourself a few tasks (write section 1, read that article, and so on), or you may be more emotion-oriented (be kinder to myself, stop procrastinating, or connect with others). 
 
Whatever it is, the simple act of setting intentions can subtly shift your mindset and outlook over the course of a day or a week. 
 
So next time you’re struggling to get up speed, try it and see what effect it has. 
 

7. Embrace The Crappy Drafts

 
Then you likely find writing chapters difficult. Whether or not you’re aware of it, the pressure to achieve perfection can be an impediment to writing anything in the first place. 
 
And then, when you do have something written, you likely criticise it for not being ‘good enough’. 
 
But there are two important things to consider. 
 
The first is this: perfection is elusive. No matter how hard you try, you’re never going to hit 100%. But the thing is that your 70% may well be 100% for those reading your work. You may just be setting the bar too high and expecting too much from yourself. 
 
But for a perfectionist, that still poses challenges. So the second thing to consider is this: you need to learn to embrace the crappy drafts. 
 
Your first draft is going to be crappy. Your second draft is too. That’s kind of the point. 
 
But if you write them expecting them not to be crappy, you’re going to be disappointed and disheartened. That disappointment may even put you off writing a third and a fourth draft. 
 
But if you go into the writing process expecting them to be crappy, you won’t feel demotivated when you re-read them. 
 
See drafts for what they are: drafts. And don’t expect too much of yourself in those early stages of the writing process. 
 

8. Remind Yourself That PhDs Are Hard

 

Finding your PhD hard is kind of the point.

 

Repeat after me: if you’re finding your PhD hard it doesn’t mean you’re a failure, it means you’re doing it right.

 
Life is hard: commitments, bills, family, suffering, loss and day-to-day stresses.
 
Life and doing a PhD is doubly hard.
 
So if you’re finding your PhD hard, remember that what you’re feeling is normal. Doesn’t make it any easier, sure, but it may give you some comfort.
 

9. Keep failing

 
 
 When you tell people you’re doing a PhD, they probably think that what’s required to complete one is a superhuman intellect. 
 
But it’s not. The key attribute to succeeding isn’t brains, or even creativity. You need them, for sure, but they’re not key. 
 
No, the key attribute is being able to deal with failure. It’s being able to show up each day riddled by the plague of defeat and uncertainty and keep putting the hours in, even if you’re not sure you’re on the right track or that what you’re doing will lead anywhere. It’s failing over and over again and each time ending up more committed.
 
In your PhD you’ll fail at lots of things many times. The further you go through the journey the more you’ll fail and the higher the stakes will be. Those who make it to the end are those who can pick themselves up, learn from the hardship and carry on more determined than before. 
 
Keep failing, keep messing up and keep making mistakes, but be kind to yourself while you do so.
 
Keep doing that and you’l be a Doctor in no time. 
 

10. Remember That You’re Never Going To Please Everyone

 
 
There will always be people who disagree with you. There will always be people who can find holes in your argument. There will always be people who think you’re doing things in the wrong way. 
 
That’s the nature of academia. Indeed, this entire industry is built on people critiquing one another’s work (think about how you do so in your own lit review, for example).
 
What this means is that, no matter how hard you try, there will always be things ‘wrong’ with your writing. Your literature review will always be incomplete, your theory framework will always annoy someone somewhere, your methods will no doubt be flawed, and your discussion could have been framed differently. 
 
None of this means you’re a failure. 
 
What’s important to remember is that perfection in this context is elusive. No matter how hard you try, someone will always find a problem. 
 
But rather than feel defeated, see this as empowering. It means that you can stop striving for perfection and instead strive for ‘good enough’. Work in the way you think best – and ensure that way has the proper grounding in the literature – and be prepared to counter any criticisms should they come up in your supervision meetings or viva. 
 
You may agree with the criticism you receive, if so you should admit it and incorporate that criticism into your thesis (for that too is the nature of academia). But you may not, and if you have thought out and justified your decisions within reference to the literature you can stand your ground and argue your corner.
 
It’s your PhD, not theirs, so don’t let them write it for you. 
 

11. You’re Going To Get Criticised

 
 
You are always going to get criticised, whether in your PhD or otherwise.
 
 
There will always be someone who is quick to point out where you are going wrong, irrespective of whether you asked them or not.
 
 
There will always be people who put you down and make you feel small.
 
 
This can really hurt. It can bruise your ego and leave a dent in your confidence.
 
But criticism stings only if you expect perfection from yourself, if you attach yourself to the idea that you are the kind of person who never makes mistakes.
 
Well you are the kind of person who makes mistakes. You’re human. We all get things wrong and we all make bad judgements, even when we try our best to get things right.
 
 
Detach yourself from the idea that you are flawless and perfect and instead embrace your imperfections and expect to get things wrong from time to time. That way, when the criticism comes – and it will, because the world can be a hostile place – you won’t find it so painful.
 

12. Don’t Focus (Too Much) On The Problems

 
Things will go wrong in your PhD all the time.
 
It’s not you, it’s just the way things are.
 
When they do, you’ve got a choice over how you react. Either you can think calmly and rationally about the best way forward or you can panic and become overwhelmed by negative thoughts and emotions.
 
Our inbuilt negativity bias means we often tend towards the latter. But making a conscious effort to react more calmly can have a big impact on the way you relate to your PhD.
 
This isn’t to say you should ignore any problems that crop up, but rather you should ignore the inner critic that is trying to blow the problem out of proportion and which is trying to convince you the problem represents the end of the world or that it is evidence of your idiocy.
 
If you give that critic too much ammunition, you can find yourself panicking about the problem and find it hard to focus on anything else. A panicked response is a poor one, so you’re unlikely to solve the problem when you’re in this state of mind.
 
In reality though, the problem isn’t the end of the world, it is more often than not fixable and problems of any sort are a sign of progress and evolution.
 
So next time you encounter a problem in your PhD, take a deep breath, think calmly about what you can do to mitigate it and set clear boundaries and time limits for your attempts to do so. Then go and do something else.
 

13. You Have To Admit When You’re Wrong

 
We all need help from time to time. 
 
We might really struggle to understand something other people find straightforward, we might have a stupid question, or we might just want someone to hold our hand and tell us it’s all going to be alright. 
 
It might be something emotional or personal that we need help with or something specific to your study or related to the PhD journey. 
 
The problem is that many of us find it difficult to ask for help. It’s somehow seen as an admission of failure; as if we must always glide through life confidently and competently and any deviation away from that is somehow just, well, wrong. 
 
That’s particularly true in academia, where the environment tends to breed an air of arrogance, where one’s status is measured on the basis of your intellect and, thus, your ability to get things right on your own. 
 
But it’s not. There’s no shame to asking for help. There are only benefits. 
 
The truth is, no matter how competent we appear on the outside we all need help, and we all need to ask for it. It may come from your supervisor, your friend, or a family member. It may come from a stranger or maybe even from me. Send me an email if you like. I read every email I get, and if I can’t help, I’ll point you in the direction of someone or somewhere who can. 
 
Wherever you seek help though, you’ll see the immediate benefits it brings and the peace you can get from sharing what’s on your mind.
 

14. Ask Yourself: Am I A Perfectionist?

 

Most of the PhD students I talk to are perfectionists. You probably are too. 

With perfectionism comes a desire to have control over day-to-day life, knowledge of what’s going to happen in the short term, and the certainty that the PhD thesis will be, well, perfect. 

And then along comes coronavirus. 

Your day-to-day life has been disrupted as you work from home and away from you normal routines, you’ve got no way of knowing what will happen in the short or long term, and you may worry that your thesis will be sub-optimal as you step away from fieldwork, labs and supervisors.

The perfectionist in you is panicking, right? 

Perfectionism is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it can fill you with drive, passion, dedication and motivation. It can inspire you to try your hardest and do your best. It’s likely what got you on to your PhD programme in the first place. 

But at the same time, it has a dark side. For as much as it can inspire, it can lead to panic. Anxiety, worry and dread often follow in the footsteps of perfectionism, such that when you lose control over your reality, or when you get things wrong, make mistakes or produce something sub-optimal, you panic. What starts off as a simple mistake can quickly become the end of the world.

Part of the challenge of doing a PhD, and particularly in the current context, is learning to embrace imperfection and recognising that sub-optimal does not necessarily mean failure. Managing perfectionism involves reminding yourself that you’re only human, and that humans face stresses, make mistakes and sometimes struggle to produce their best work. Even the brightest and most competent of people have off days. 

The more you can remind yourself of that, the better equipped you’ll be to deal with what life throws at you and your thesis. 

 

15. Lastly, Remember That It’s Okay Not To Be Productive

 
 
Not every day is going to be a good day. 
 
It’s important to remember this, particularly if you’re a perfectionist. There will be times during your PhD when you lack motivation, are unproductive or feel like you’re slipping behind. 
 
It’s inevitable that you’ll have times like this. What’s important is to recognise that it’s entirely normal to feel like this from time to time and that these feelings are temporary. 
 
Don’t be too hard on yourself if you have a bad day or even a bad week. Just see it as part of the journey. 
 

Your PhD thesis.
All on one page.

Use our free PhD structure template to quickly visualise every element of your thesis. 

%d bloggers like this: