When you start a PhD, you’re thrown into the deep end. Unlike starting a new job, there’s often no onboarding process to guide you through. You’re lucky if you even receive methods training. If your PhD is anything like mine, you’ll be shown your desk on day one and told to get on with it.
Now, that’s part of the PhD journey; figuring out what you need to be doing and then actually doing it. It requires self-motivated learning and exploration. Over time, by asking the right questions (of yourself and others), you start to build up a picture of what indeed you need to be getting on with.
But there are some things I found out the hard way, and which only really became apparent to me after I finished my PhD and when I started working with and guiding other students in my role here at The PhD Proofreaders. These are the things that no one ever really tells you about doing a PhD.
PhDs are Janus-Faced
On one hand, they can be very solitary endeavours, defined by countless hours spent reading and writing alone, many of which are tinged by feelings of doubt and uncertainty, with the door seemingly always open for imposter syndrome to derail or devalue what’s going well.
On the other hand, they’re communal endeavors. As a PhD student, what you’re feeling and navigating isn’t unique. You’re part of a web, a community, a network; part of something much, much bigger. While every PhD is, by definition, unique, the ups and downs, and the emotions that accompany them, are very much not. The problem is that, too often, it’s easy to forget this. You can think you’re unique in feeling the way you do, in struggling with the things you struggle with, and in feeling the joys and victories that you do.
What’s easier? Doing a PhD while feeling isolated, working in a silo of one, feeling the weight of the world on your shoulders, and feeling just awful because of it. Or, doing a PhD knowing that there are others around you in the same boat? Knowing that there are others out there going through the same ups and downs, feeling the same pains and joys, each managing the unique challenges that come with the PhD journey. Each crossing their fingers and hoping for the best.
No One Else Knows What They’re Doing Either
At least some of the time, and to varying degrees, most (perhaps all?) PhD students feel like impostors. The more convinced we become of our own ineptitude, and the brilliance of others, the less motivated we become to do the work. Why bother, our brain tells us, if it’s never going to be good enough?
Part of the challenge of doing a PhD is learning to manage and ultimately silence this inner impostor.
You might think that the best approach is to remind ourselves of our strengths and talents. But that will only take you so far.
Instead, you should accept those feelings of doubt and remind ourselves how refreshingly normal and unproblematic they are. These thoughts aren’t offering any concrete evidence of our impending failure or evidence that we’ll never have what it takes to reach the lofty heights of wherever it is we’re headed.
Instead, they’re a reflection of the fact that no one really has it all figured out. You may look to those around (and above) you and wonder how they manage to glide through professional life with such ease, but on the inside, they’re likely feeling as confused and unsure as you.
To put it differently, if we feel resigned to the fact that we will always be children in an adults’ world, it can be helpful to remind ourselves that there aren’t really any true adults in the first place. No one has it ‘figured out’, and the door to self-doubt and critique is always open.
There are lots of competent people – including you – doing their best to make good decisions, say the right things, and put things in the right order. But they’re doing so in spite of their own respective incompetences, not because of some explicit brilliance.
So if you’re feeling like an impostor as you try to navigate through the PhD – and let’s not forget the enormity of such a journey – then everyone else around you likely feels like one too.
The PhD is an act, where all the performers are giving it their all, hoping that they don’t fluff their lines.
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You’ll Run Out of Time
I was talking with a friend earlier this week about the progress they were making on their PhD. With a few months to go, they were panicking about whether they would have everything done in time.
Notwithstanding the fact that they’re a brilliant student, and have so much of the PhD puzzle already in place, it did get me thinking.
I remember the feeling well; as the deadline loomed, my fear and panic rose. Would I really get everything done? It didn’t seem possible.
It made me wonder how many others feel the same way. Did most students, nearing the end of the journey, start panicking about whether there was enough time left?
I suspect it’s common to feel this way as the end of the PhD comes into view. It’s natural when you think about it; so many years of your life are leading up to this moment. It’s to be expected that panic sets in.
In reality, I didn’t get it all done in time. Not really. There were so many loose ends with the thesis; some I knew about, others I didn’t. I came up against the deadline and had to submit, even in spite of the incompleteness. And even in spite of that – in spite of what, for many of you, may seem like a living nightmare – everything turned out okay.
There are three points to take away from this. The first is that the thesis will always be unfinished. That’s sort of the point – nothing in life is perfect, not least research. The key is avoiding the perfectionist trap.
The second is that, as you near the end, you need to have faith in all the work you’ve done prior to this point. You haven’t been living under a rock; the final stages of a PhD represent the culmination of years of hard work. Have faith that you’ve already done most of the work, and that all of the decisions you’ve made thus far were made in good faith.
The third is perhaps a more contentious one. Statistically speaking, it’s likely that your examiners will require you to make at least minor corrections (major corrections, in my case). In some ways, writing the corrections was the easiest stage of the PhD. It’s the only time in the whole process where you have someone telling you exactly what needs to change, and where. I found it quite cathartic.
Your PhD will never be really finished, and that’s okay. There’s no magic lightbulb moment where you think, ‘ah-ha! I’ve done it!’. You do your best, you embrace imperfection, and you submit the best you can, having faith that it’s good enough. Seen this way, deadlines are nothing to be scared of. Instead, they’re there to be embraced.
Making Mistakes Doesn’t Make You Stupid
The real skill in the PhD is not the avoidance of mistakes but rather the ability to be kind to ourselves once they’ve happened.
To be human is to make mistakes, and to pretend otherwise is to fall into the perfectionist trap; aiming unrealistically high and chastising yourself when you inevitably fall short.
If we’re not careful, we can expect too much of ourselves and expect the path between where we are now and where we need to be, whether that’s an experiment, a chapter, or an exam, to be traversed flawlessly, without incident.
This is dangerous (and wishful thinking).
Similarly, when we do make mistakes – remember, they’re inevitable – it’s easy to pile on the guilt and be unnecessarily harsh on ourselves. By seeing mistakes as avoidable, it becomes easy to ruminate obsessively about what we could have done differently or how we could have been so foolish. Why didn’t we see it coming? How could we have been so blind?
Thinking like this becomes a form of torture. At best, we’ll conclude that we are a fool undeserving of a PhD. At worst, it’ll drag us down into a dark place from which it’ll be a struggle to recover.
But there is another approach. By seeing mistakes as unavoidable and by adopting a more pragmatic perspective on our own intelligence and agency, we can be more forgiving. Our mistakes no longer reflect our foolishness but rather our humanity.
During your PhD, you operate in conditions of uncertainty, both regarding the outcome of your particular decisions and whether those decisions are even the right ones to be making. You’re steering blind much of the time, and that’s why it becomes inevitable that you’ll make mistakes.
So next time you slip up, be kind to yourself. And give yourself permission to slip up again and again and again.
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This Won’t Last Forever
The overriding feeling for many on their PhD journey is one of discomfort, made worse by the belief that the discomfort will last forever.
If this is you, people around you are able to see what you’re going through for what it is: temporary discomfort in pursuit of your doctorate.
But you can’t, because it’s all new to you. This is your new forever.
Too many people quit their PhDs when they feel like this. Their decision has nothing to do with how well they can tolerate feeling the discomfort, but the mistaken belief that it will never end. Because it seems permanent, it looks unbearable.
It works the other way, too. When things are going well, we can mistakenly think that the good times will last forever. It’s at times like this that we take things for granted, drop the ball, and bring the discomfort back.
However your PhD is going, recognise that your reality is temporary. The good times don’t last, but the bad times don’t either.
Motivation Isn’t Stable
When I start anything, I’m the most enthusiastic person in the world. It’s a thrill, really. I’m bursting with ideas and, crucially, I’m fully motivated.
And then a few weeks go by, and that motivation is nowhere to be seen.
The same was true during my PhD. On day one, I remember how keen I was. Full of beans, ready to tackle the doctorate.
And then fast forward a month or two, and I was starting to question everything.
This was a cycle that repeated itself throughout the PhD. A new year, a new chapter, a new set of data, whatever it was, that sense of newness was motivating. It was a chance to get excited all over again.
And then the newness wore off, the stress kicked back in, and once again I found myself procrastinating.
Can you relate? Do you find your motivation ebbs and flows like this?
The further I went along the PhD journey, the more I started to realize that managing this constant motivated/unmotivated cycle was, in itself, part of the PhD. Learning to ride the waves and deal with the falls was one of the many skills that were necessary to learn to get through to the other side.
And the further I went down the more I realized that in fighting it, in trying to treat motivation as a stable, constant thing, I was creating stress, pressure, and ultimately disappointment and self-critique.
Accepting that motivation isn’t stable, and that it comes in ebbs and flows is empowering. It means you can plan your workload in a more realistic way and start to go easier on yourself when your productivity and enthusiasm naturally decrease.
So next time you find your motivation lacking, remind yourself that it’s normal. We can’t be fully motivated to do everything all the time. Go easy on yourself when you’re in second gear and take full advantage when you’re firing on all cylinders.
You’ll Need to Rewrite Everything
Some of the best advice I got during my PhD was to start writing as early as possible.
But what no one told me was that most of what I wrote would be so off the mark as to render it basically useless. Or that I would end up with notebooks and folders full of crappy drafts. Or that everything would need to be edited at best and rewritten at worst.
I know I’m not alone here. Every student I work with has tons of crappy drafts.
With this in mind, it’s easy to feel like everything you’re putting down on paper is garbage.
But here’s the thing: it’s not garbage. It’s just a draft. And every great piece of writing starts as a draft.
One of the most important things you can do is to write without judgment. Don’t worry about whether it’s perfect or if it’s even making sense. Just get those ideas out of your head and onto paper. You can always go back and edit later. And trust me, you’ll be doing a lot of editing.
It’s also important to remember that writing is a skill, and like any skill, it takes practice to get better. The more you write, the easier it will become, and the better your writing will be. Plus, it is through the act of writing that you work out what it is you actually want to say. Or, put another way, it’s by going down the dead ends that you know which is the right path.
You’re Not Stupid
I spent most of my PhD feeling so confused.
And I spent a good chunk of it feeling just plain stupid. It sounds silly looking back, but I often managed to convince myself I was, in fact, an idiot.
What was worse was that all the while, I thought I was the only one feeling this way. Now, five years on, and having worked with hundreds of students, I realize how common this feeling is.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everyone else knows exactly what they’re doing, while we struggle to keep up. But the truth is, most PhD students go through periods of confusion and self-doubt. And a big chunk also thinks they’re idiots (spoiler: they’re 100% not).
It’s important to remember that feeling confused or uncertain doesn’t mean you’re not cut out for a PhD. It’s a natural part of the learning process. And there are steps you can take to help yourself navigate these difficult feelings.
Firstly, talk to someone. Whether it’s a friend, family member, or your supervisor, it’s important to have a support system in place. Don’t suffer in silence. By reaching out, you’ll surprise yourself how many other people feel the same.
Finally, take advantage of the resources available to you. Your university likely has a range of support services. Make use of them. You can also check in with our free PhD Knowledge Base. This article is a good place to start. Or, if you want some more hands on support, we offer one one one coaching, mock-vivas, skills workshops and language proofreading. We want to be by your side during your PhD.
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