A regular dose of PhD motivation

Each week we send out a short, motivational email to over 4,000 students. You can find an archive below, but if you’d like to get yours delivered straight to your inbox click here.

Your struggle is real, but not unique

Over the years I’ve worked with hundreds of PhD students from around the world and, whilst they all have their own perspectives and pain points, it’s surprising how many students struggle with the same things.

Procrastinating? 

Often, we have a tendency to approach big tasks as one distinct piece of work.

Lonely?

PhDs are inherently isolating places, even at the best of times. 

Parkinson’s law

Work expands to fill the available time, which is why you may work more effectively with strict deadlines in the PhD.

Emotions and intellect

Navigating the PhD journey is as much an emotional challenge as it is an intellectual one. 

Your PhD is a monster

Never assume that everything will go to plan in your PhD. You’ll make mistakes all the time – and that’s fine.

Juggling multiple balls

You can’t be 100% productive and effective all of the time during your PhD. Savour good days, go easy on yourself on bad ones.

Pat yourself on the back

It’s important to reflect on how much you’ve grown and how many hurdles you’ve overcome on your PhD journey.

Shared struggle

If there’s one thing I can guarantee it’s that the stress and anxiety you’re feeling is shared by others.

Times are a’changing

As the seasons change, take stock of how far you’ve come in your PhD and the challenges you’ve overcome.

You’re going to mess up all the time

Most PhD students I interact with are, to lesser or greater extents, perfectionists. With that comes an innate fear of making mistakes, and a sense of panic when they actually do.

PhDs are messy

My point is this: research is messy and it doesn’t progress in a linear fashion. You’ll go round and round in circles and you’ll make mistakes. You’ll have to go back, start over and cover old ground. 

Gardening

Finding balance and routine in your PhD isn’t a one-time thing.

Graduation?

I want you to spend ten seconds visualising your own graduation. Do it right now. 

How to map read

‘Knowing the literature’ is a bit of a misnomer. It does not mean ‘know everything’.

Speech!

Why do you need to face the apparently quaint, medieval ritual of talking at length for hours AFTER several people have spent days reading your work on screen or in print? Does this have to be the way of it? 

Your inner critic hates you

For many of us, our biggest critic is not our worst enemy. It’s ourselves. Without realising it, we can be incredibly unkind to ourselves, even for the most minor infraction.

A narrative of wrongness

If you’re not careful, you can come up with all sorts of reasons why you’re failing and all sorts of things that aren’t quite right.

Your PhD will be a distant memory

Right now your PhD is taking up a big chunk of your life. For some of you, it might be your entire life. For others, it sits alongside other priorities, responsibilities and interests.

Your PhD is breathtakingly beautiful.

I came across a quote about the ups-and-downs of life that I wanted to share it with you. I’ve copied it at the end of this email, but I’ve taken the liberty of changing the word ‘life’ to ‘ your PhD’

Another year, another lockdown.

Another year, another lockdown (for those in the UK at least), and yet more time away from campus, teaching, labs and all the support and tools you need to complete your PhD.

Resolutions? Think small.

If you’re like me, you start a new year with a sense of excitement and wonder. A new year for me is an opportunity to keep doing what you’ve been doing well, stop what you’ve been doing badly and start to do things you’ve never done before.

Just do it.

We’ve all got things on our to-do lists that we’re putting off. We push them further down the list, pretending that, if only we keep doing so, they’ll magically disappear.

Why is a PhD like a jigsaw puzzle?

When you first start, you’ve got a pile of pieces in front of you and you haven’t got any idea what goes where. The thought that you’ll end up with a finished puzzle seems almost impossible.

Lonely, isolated place

At the best of times, PhDs can be lonely, isolated places. During a pandemic, when you’re away from your peers, labs, fieldwork or supervisors, that isolation can become more acute.

A fresh start

If you find yourself going down a dead end, sometimes it’s best to turn around, retrace your steps and start afresh. 

Craft Joy

When you look hard enough, there can be joy in everything you do. But you have to actively notice and appreciate it. 

Do the deep work. 

There will be times in your PhD when it makes sense to do the deep work. Take those opportunities when you can.

There’s no rush

There are a lot of moving parts in a PhD. A lot of things to consider, plan, execute and respond to. 

No two PhDs are the same

No two PhDs are the same. Depending on which way you look at it, that can be both terrifying and exciting. 

It pays to be lazy

We can’t all be productive all of the time. We can try to maximise our productive time, but we mustn’t forget the importance of doing absolutely nothing. 

Suffering in silence?

If you’re anything like I was, and if you’re anything like the PhD students I interact with on a day to day basis, you can often find yourself in a bit of a muddle during your PhD. 

There is no destination.

There is no point where you’re going to ‘get there’, no magic place where everything is where you want it to be and you’ve arrived in some paradise of bliss and happiness. 

It’s your project 

Your PhD advisers and supervisors have your best interest at heart, but there will be times where you don’t agree with their advice. It’s your project, not their, so it’s fine to (respectfully) disagree. 

Work Less

You don’t have to work every hour under the sun to complete a PhD. Be more selective. Work less but focusing intently and cutting tasks that add no value. 

It’s normal to be anxious

If you were to represent a PhD as an emotion, it would likely be anxiety.  PhDs can be hotbeds for it. They’re necessarily hard, they’re full of uncertainty, they’re plagued by competition and imposter syndrome, and they have high stakes. 

Is everything perfect? 

Things will never be perfect. There’s no magic moment where everything in your PhD is perfect, fixed, exactly where you want it. There will always be things wrong, and there will always be things that are imperfect. 

Is everyone else submitting before you? 

It’s easy in your PhD to look at others and compare your own expertise, study and progress. A particular challenge occurs when those in your cohort reach major milestones before you or, worse still, submit before you. 

Reader advice on juggling the PhD

In yesterday’s email I spoke to those who were juggling a PhD alongside other responsibilities (childcare, employment, and so on). I shared a tip that one of the readers shared, and invited others to share their advice on how to keep momentum up in the PhD when it is one of multiple balls to juggle. 

Is your PhD your baby? 

Completing a PhD is much like nursing a child. It can sap all of your energy, eat into your time, and it can crowd out any other responsibilities, hobbies or interests you may have had. Completing a PhD is tough, and it can be incredibly isolating; worth it in the long run, but hard at the time. 

How do you start your day? 

Either you can wake up and start to think of all the stresses and strains that the PhD is trying to throw at you that day, or you can wake up and immediately focus on the positives, on all the things that are going right, that you’re excited about, or that you’re grateful for. 

Your PhD may be a bit crap

Your PhD is going to be rough around the edges. There will even be bits of it that are a bit crap. And that’s okay. 

Negative emotions can be a spur to action

If you’re stressed, it’s a sign that you need to slow down. If you’re tired, it’s a sign that you need to rest. If you’re overwhelmed, it’s a sign that you need to reprioritise, say no, and delegate. 

You’re already successful

Sure, milestones are important and there are tangible, quantifiable outcomes that you’ll reach as you strive to be more successful, but there is no magic ‘end point’ at which you suddenly become successful. 

Do you have unrealistic assumptions about the world?

If you cling on to the idea that every day is going to be a good one, you’re going to spend a lot of the time disappointed. If you cling on to the idea that you’ll always be at peak performance, you’re going to spend a lot of time angry with yourself.

The merits of deep focus

Ever wear your to-do list like a badge of honour? I do. And I don’t think I’m the only one. 

What’s your plan for the future?

We want to plan for the future, but life doesn’t always work that way. Instead, you have to have faith that you’re headed the right way.

It’s meant to be difficult

If a PhD was easy, everyone would have one. When you find things tough it can be easy to lose sight of the bigger picture or, worse still, start blaming yourself or labelling yourself stupid

Take time for yourself

What do you get if you mix over-working, worry and poor self-care? At best, you’ll end up frustrated, stressed and grouchy. At worse, you’ll have an emotional breakdown.In either case, it’s important to understand what both prevention and cure looks like.

No one really knows what they’re doing

When I was a child I used to look at the adults around me in awe of how together their lives seemed. They were so, well, grown up. Adulting looked like serious business, but also something that could be learnt and mastered. There must, so I thought, be a day when you have a grip on everything.

Are you working too much>

When we’re up against deadlines we can think that the only solution is to work as much as possible. This is particularly the case in academia, where working late in the library or lab can sometimes be seen as a badge of honour. 

Recognise when you’re overloading yourself 

There will be times during your PhD when you’re busier than normal. For me it was always during marking season – you’ve got the usual PhD jobs that still need doing, plus a pile of scripts to mark on a deadline. You may have different stressors competing for your time, but you’ll likely recognise the same feeling of stress, overwhelm and anxiety. 

Life is not a process of self-improvement 

It’s all too easy to fall in to the trouble of thinking “if only X, then Y”. 

For example, ‘if only I was able to get to the lab, I’d be able to finish this chapter’, or ‘if only I could finish this chapter, I’d be able to relax’, or ‘if I work late, then I’ll get everything done’.

The thesis you submit won’t look like the one you designed

Your research will take you in directions that are hard to predict. New questions emerge, new insights lead to hunches, and pre-conceived ideas turn out to be false.That’s just how research work.The thing is, we go into our PhDs with research proposals that map out the entire project in one elegant plan.If you’re anything like I was when I was doing my PhD, you get anxious about the fact that you research is deviating from this original research proposal.

It’s on the hard days that you grow

As much as I am a strong advocate for working within your limits and being kind to yourself, there are inevitably going to be days when you’re feeling awful but you nevertheless have to show up and get the job done.Whether you’re teaching, marking, writing or researching, everyone has days where they have no energy, where they would rather be in bed or where the inner critic seems to have found its loudest voice yet. 

Everything is always a work in progress

We tend to thrive when there is certainty in what we do, when we know what it takes to complete a task and know when it is we’ve actually done so. It’s no surprise then that the PhD can fill us with so much anxiety, as it’s full of so much uncertainty.

Work smarter, not harder

There’s a common belief in academic circles in general and PhD circles in particular that the key to success and reaching milestones is working as much as possible. This fetishisation of over-work and struggle is destructive, not just because it can breed unhealthy expectations about what is required to achieve goals, but also because it is largely ineffective. 

Prioritise yourself

If you’re not careful, you PhD will take over your life. It may have already done so. Gradually it can crowd out every other aspect of your life as it commands more and more of your time and energy.This is fuelled in part by a misconception that the PhD needs to be your number one priority. It doesn’t. A key lesson that many students learn the hard way is that prioritising the PhD above all else is counterproductive. It often leads to burnout and fatigue, and the quality and quantity of your work can suffer as a result.

Kiss the frog

I can’t imagine too many people would be excited if one of the things on their to do list was to kiss a frog. Most people would put it off for as long as possible, hoping it would disappear but all the while worrying about having to do it. Whereas in fact, they’d be better off kissing the frog straight away. That way, the worst is over and it’s plain sailing for the rest of the day. 

You’ll have to borrow and steal

‘I can’t find a theory that’s relevant’I hear this all the time. A common misconception amongst PhD students is that there always exists a magical, off the shelf theory or framework that will be perfectly tailored to your research questions, aims and objectives. Because of this misconception, students panic when they can’t find one. That isn’t to say that they don’t exist – they do, but rarely. 

You’re not alone

PhDs are often lonely, isolated places. There’s the more obvious isolation – the hours spent in the library or lab working in silence, or the time spent at your desk writing your thesis. But there’s the more subtle isolation – the feeling of disconnect you have from non-PhD friends and families who, however hard they try, will never be able to understand what you’re going through. 

Remind yourself of the destination

We all have days we’d rather forget. The days where our mood isn’t great, or where the weather sucks, or where things just never seem to work out. Those days may sometimes turn into weeks. We may even have entire dark months. One thing I found useful during the dark times of my PhD (everyone has them) is this: remember where you’re headed. 

There are some weeks where months happen

Months will go by during your PhD where time seems to stand still. Progress will be slow, you’ll lack enthusiasm and you’ll struggle to get anywhere. They’re months that could be condensed into weeks. Then you’ll get weeks where months happen. The weeks where you move mountains, fire on all cylinders and where you do more work than you realised possible. Pay attention to when these weeks appear. This is the time where your PhD jumps forward. 

You’re not nuts if you want to quit.

Yesterday I came across a fantastic blog post from The Thesis Whisperer that I think you should read. It focuses on students who want to quit their PhDs. It’s titled ‘How Not To Be An Academic Asshole During Covid’ and it raises important points about PhD struggle and the decision to leave academia and leave the PhD journey.

What’s the hardest thing about doing a PhD?

PhDs are hard. That’s just common sense.In fact, it feels odd to even be saying it. Of course they’re hard. They’re just about the hardest thing you could ever set out to do (remind yourself of that next time you think you’re an idiot).

Overwhelmed? Break things down…

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed during your PhD. You’ve got an enormous job on your hands and often the path through isn’t entirely clear. It’s natural for that to feel too much from time to time.

It’s okay to be confused

During your PhD there are probably times when you’re confused, you don’t understand things you feel you ought to, or when you just struggle to keep up.It’s during these times that we can be most self-critical. We often attach ourselves to the idea that we ought to always understand everything, or that we should never struggle. In other words, we often expect perfection from ourselves.But in doing so you fail to remember that a PhD is an apprenticeship.

Reflect on your own unique qualities

It’s all too easy to compare ourselves to other people and then feel bad about all the things we aren’t good at or aren’t achieving.But how often do you reflect on your own qualities? How often do you take a step back and remind yourself of all the things you’re good at?

It’s your project, not theirs

If you’re lucky, there will be people around you advising your on your PhD journey.Most often it’s your supervisors. They’re generally a great resource and can offer a wealth of experience and knowledge upon which you can draw. Often, they’ll be offering you advice and guidance that they think is in your best interest. But, from time to time, they’ll get it wrong.

What’s the most powerful word in your vocabulary?

Say no more often! You may often feel like you have to say yes to everything, whether that’s working more, doing so for less money, taking on more responsibilities, attending social engagements, covering for other people or generally doing things you wouldn’t have otherwise done.You might feel like you’d be letting people down or that people would think you were lazy or selfish if you said no.

Set your intentions

Do you ever get to Friday and wonder where the week went?It happens to me all the time.One useful tip I’ve learnt over the years is to start Monday by setting your intentions for the week to come.

Smile and enjoy the journey

Today, in my little corner of the world, the weather is unusually great. It’s on days like this that I find it easier to take life and work less seriously and celebrate the small, simple pleasures.Regardless of whether it’s sunny or rainy where you are, make sure you take time out every now and again to drop your guard, treat everything less seriously, forget about your problems and remind yourself of how far you’ve come.

When things go wrong, don’t panic

In your PhD you’re going to encounter lots of problems. Things will always go wrong and you’ll always come up against unexpected outcomes. If you’re anything like me, you may let problems become overwhelming. What typically happens is this: I come across a problem that needs fixing. Gradually I work myself up more and more until what started as a little problem with little consequences has morphed into the end of the world. Then, I drop everything I am doing, go into panic mode and try and fix it. When I have to delegate the problem to someone else, or when the outcome is out of my hands, I find myself panicking even more and getting impatient. 

You’ll have down days

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.

Your mental health has to come first

The PhD is an ideal environment for mental health problems to fester. There’s the ever present imposter syndrome, the financial pressures you face, the uncertainty over the academic job market, constant pressure to publish and the isolation that comes from long hours of reading and writing.No wonder anxiety and depression in graduate students is worsening.

How have you coped during coronavirus?

In today’s post rather than offer advice or motivation I want to instead ask you a question. As more and more of us come out of lockdown, it is a good time to reflect on how we are feeling, how we have coped and what we have been through. I want to take a poll of how PhD students from around the world have found the experience. 

Help!!!

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.

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. 

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.

Slow and steady won the race

When we’re doing our PhDs we can often look at professors or others further along in their studies with a sense of awe and wonder, wishing we too could have the intellect and capabilities they do. We look at our own progress and see it as abysmally slow, desperately wishing that we could write more, be doing more interesting research or have more esteemed publications. 

How are you feeling right now?

These last few weeks have been stressful, even for those of us who have coped quite well.So today’s message is this:How are you feeling right now?

You’ll never 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).

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.

Know when to move on….

Your PhD is a performance with many acts. Don’t get stuck on one scene.Writing a PhD isn’t a linear process, but we often treat it like it is. We often think, ‘when I finish writing the literature review I can move on to the theory framework and only when I’ve written the theory can I move on to methods, and so on…’The danger of working in this way is that you can get stuck. You can spend so long trying to make one chapter ‘perfect’ in the mistaken belief that you can’t progress until you have done so that you fail to progress in your thesis.

Be sceptical of those who boast

There is no one quite like you. Your PhD isn’t like anyone else’s, you work in ways that suit your unique temperament and you have your own challenges to deal with. This is part of the reason why you shouldn’t compare progress in your PhD (or life in general) with that of others. They’re different to you. 

Recognise your own brilliance

Spend a moment right now reminding yourself that life is not about how inventive or creative you are, but about noticing what you’re already a part of. Reflect on the incredible journey you’re on and on all of your positive attributes. If you struggle to think of any, think harder – they’re there, I promise you.A PhD is a cruel, unforgiving exercise. Don’t let it colour your worldview such that you stop noticing the incredible gifts you have and the incredible trajectory you are on.

What is it you are trying to say?

A common complaint I hear from PhD students is that they find it hard to structure chapters and to ensure that their writing flows.Can you relate?If you struggle to find the thread in your chapters or your thesis as a whole, here’s some advice: think hard about the key argument you are trying to make in each chapter/the thesis. Then, don’t over-complicate things.

It will all be worth it in the end…

It may not feel like it sometimes, but one day you’ll be done with your PhD and it will all be worth it.All the hard work, the uncertainty, the perseverance, the never quite knowing. It’ll all come to fruition and you’ll look back on it all in years to come with a sense of wonder and awe.

You can be dedicated and struggling

You can be passionate about your PhD and dedicated to your research but still struggle with productivity and struggle to stay motivated. You’ll have days where you procrastinate or where you question the path you’re on, but that doesn’t mean your passion or dedication has disappeared. It’s just harder to access, that’s all. 

Keep steady on your path

During your PhD, you’ll have days where nothing seems to make sense.You may question why you’re doing your PhD at all, or you may look towards the future with anxiety and doubt as you wonder whether you’ll ever be ‘good enough’ or whether you’ll ever ‘make it’.You’ll have days where you wonder how the hell you got here and where you go next.

Some Things Are Worth Fighting For.

What are you fighting for?Underpinning every PhD (and PhD student) is a personal struggle. Something worth fighting for.On the dark days where nothing seems to be going right or you can’t escape the PhD-blues, it is helpful to remind yourself what this fight is, and of why you’re here and why you decided to start your PhD in the first place.

It’s okay to take days off…

It’s okay to take days off.It’s okay not to be productive every day.Having less productive days doesn’t mean you’re failing or that you won’t succeed.

There’s more than one way to do a PhD

It’s hard not to compare yourself to others. We do it all the time, often with disastrous results.Never is that more true than during your PhD. We all know that PhDs are lonely, frustrating places, but it is precisely because of that hostile environment that we seek solace in comparing our progress to that of others. It’s a way of seeking out reassurance and finding out whether we’re doing our PhDs in the ‘right’ way or whether we’re as far along in the PhD journey as we’re ‘supposed to be’.

The danger of should

What ‘should’ you be doing, feeling, thinking or achieving right now?The short answer is nothing.The more realistic, longer answer is that your mind is probably awash with ‘shoulds’. You may feel like you ‘should’ be further along in your thesis, or you ‘should’ be more esteemed, richer, more loved, or a myriad other things that we convince ourselves we need for a full and complete life.

This mental health awareness week: let it go

If you were to describe what it’s like living with your brain, you’ll probably describe a scene with an internal dialogue, perhaps an internal critic, and a seemingly never ending stream of emotions, worries, thoughts, dreams, hopes, fears and anxieties.This inner-working is part of being human, but often PhD students find that the negative dimensions of their mind – the inner critic, the self-doubt, the fear of failure, the perfectionism – dominate proceedings.

What’s your inner voice telling you?

I bet you’ve got really good at convincing yourself you’re an imposter/not good enough/going to get found out/a terrible writer/and so on?Well, that’s your inner voice doings it’s best to undermine your capabilities.For some, their inner voice is on their side and sings in harmony. If that’s you, you can stop reading.

When was the last time you failed?

You’re going to fail over and over again. You’ll get things wrong, you’ll say the wrong thing, you’ll act against good judgement, and you’ll behave in ways that you’ll be ashamed of. That’s just all part of being human.

Remind yourself of what you can and can’t control

As we enter a new stage of lockdown life, new uncertainties and realities present themselves. You may find yourself once again worrying about what this new world and new normal means for your life in general and PhD in particular.This is a useful time to remind yourself of the distinction between things you can control and things you can’t.

Keep going

Some parts of the world are coming out of lockdown, whereas others have a little way to go yet.Either situation may feel stressful. In both cases, the way you approach your PhD is likely to be different. You may have days where even the smallest thing seems overwhelming.

Enthusiasm can make up for inexperience

There will always be things you don’t know and as you first set out on the PhD journey you’ll suffer from a lack of experience and expertise. But the more enthusiastic you are, the easier it will be to navigate this inexperience. Remain enthusiastic in your reading and learning. If you don’t know something, find someone who does and ask them. If you’re confused, tell someone. Keep an eye out for opportunities to polish your research skills and sign up for them when they come along. Say yes to new responsibilities where possible and never let your inner critic tell you you’re not good/smart/competent enough.

If you’re not stumbling occasionally, you’re just coasting

It’s when you push yourself, go outside your comfort zone or try something new that you make mistakes and stumble. That’s no bad thing. It’s part of the learning process, and the very fact you’re making mistakes is a sign of progress and a sign that you’re pushing the limits of your capabilities. It is at this stage that you grow.

Separate creation from improvement

We’ve all had moments where we can’t seem to write enough and, as we put words on the page, we label them terrible, delete them and end up back where we started.This to-and-fro of writing and editing is a serious impediment to productivity. You can’t do both at the same time, as they are two distinct activities that require different skills. If you try to write and edit concurrently, you’ll do both ineffectively.A far more effective way to overcome writing hurdles is to separate the process of writing and editing.

Don’t be so hard on yourself

PhDs never, ever, ever go to plan. You’ll make mistakes all the time. You’ll realise six months down the road that you messed something up, or went down the wrong path. But don’t be so harsh on yourself.

Welcome to Shit Valley

At some stage every PhD student ends up in Shit Valley. You normally find yourself here around half way through the PhD journey. You’ll know you’ve arrived when everything you can see around you looks like it’s covered in shit.

How loud is your internal critic today?

How loud is your inner-critic today? We all have days when our internal dialogue gets us down. We may have objective stressors – missed deadlines, personal problems and so on – or we may be fearful or worried about imaginary or unknown threats and suffer from a general sense of anxiety or unease. Underlying it all is an internal voice, one that sometimes seems hell-bent on convincing you you’re worthless, incapable, inadequate or otherwise flawed.

Perfectionist? Learn to embrace the good enough mindset…

Perfectionism is hard work. It makes life challenging, because no matter how hard you try or how well you do, it’s never good enough. If you’re a perfectionist, you’ll recognise the guilt, anxiety and stress that can accompany everyday life, particularly when things aren’t going to plan. In the context of coronavirus and self-isolation, you may feel under more pressure than ever to get things right every time.

Working with tiny texts

One of the biggest challenges you’ll face when writing your thesis is staying on message and making sure that your writing is punchy, coherent and flows logically. When you’re writing such long chapters it’s easy to get lost in the detail and go on tangents. What started out with good intentions may end up going astray as you veer of message and your argument gets diluted.

Are you 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.

What have you found the hardest about self-isolating during your PhD?

Whether you like it or not, this coronavirus-enforced lockdown will change you. Have you stopped to think about how? Have you used your thinking time to ponder where your PhD is taking you, what you’re going to do after you complete it, or what values and priorities drive you? Will you be the same person and academic when we come out of this crisis? Will you have the same motivations? 

Invite to April’s Twitter Q&A

This is your opportunity to get free advice on any aspect of the PhD writing process. Not sure how to structuring your thesis? Not sure what the differences is between a lit review and theory framework? Want tips on how to write more convincingly? This is your chance to get expert help.

Take some time to pat yourself on the back

This Easter weekend take some time to congratulate yourself and give yourself the credit you deserve for making the most of extraordinary circumstances. Sure, it’s been tough, things are different and no doubt progress has been slower, but that’s fine.

You are not lazy

You’re not lazy or unmotivated.Also, you’re not failing and there’s nothing wrong with you. Sure, your productivity might have gone down these last few weeks and you might be struggling to find your usual spark. You may even find previously easy tasks difficult, or that your momentum is slowing. And you know what? That’s fine and it’s normal.

There’s no right way to do a PhD

There’s no magical path down which you can travel or map that will guide you towards the right direction and away from the dead-ends. There’s no rule-book precisely detailing what decision to take and when. Instead, you have to pave your own path.

What you’re doing is supposed to be hard

Less than 2% of the population has a PhD. That’s because they’re hard. But pause to reflect on why they’re hard. You’re adding to a field. You’re creating new knowledge and pushing the boundaries of what we know. That’s never easy. 

As the dust begins to settle, look within

As we get used to the practicalities of this new reality, we start to find our groove and get into a new routine. Sure, we don’t always get it right, but we’re adapting and it’s starting to feel more manageable. This is slowly becoming the new normal. And it’s an ideal time for emotional work.

During coronavirus, cut yourself some slack

Your new routine won’t look like your old one, so stop comparing them. Instead, accept that it will take you a while to find your new routine and that it will look very different.

Snippets of advice for self-isolating PhD students

One of the participants over in the the virtual PhD co-working community shared an article today that talks specifically to academics facing the reality of self-isolation and lockdown. I want to share it with you.

Focus on things you can control

In life in general, but particularly during times of crisis and national emergency, there are many things outside our circle of influence that we have little control over.  Yet still we worry about them. We worry about things that may or may not happen, or things that we have no say or control over anyway. We often worry about future uncertainty outside our realm of control too. 

How is coronavirus affecting your PhD? Anonymously share your experience

We’re asking PhD students like you from around the world a simple question: How has coronavirus affected your PhD and how have you adapted? We’ve created a dedicated webpage for people to share their accounts. In a short paragraph, students are sharing their unique experiences and providing a rich, detailed account of what effect coronavirus is having.

Worrying about coronavirus is like sitting in a rocking chair

Worrying can be like sitting in a rocking chair; it can give you something to do, but it doesn’t mean really get you anywhere. As best you can, use this time as a gift. Take this rare opportunity to savour the quiet, enjoy the slower pace and use isolation to your advance. Communities are improved when the people in them are creative, focused and inspired, rather than anxious, worried and overwhelmed.

As the dust begins to settle…

As time goes on, this new reality becomes your new normal. You’ll get used to the new routine, the new limitations and the new dynamics that you encounter. You may even start to see positives that come out of your new work and social life. Not every day will be easy, but not every day will be hard either. Each day will get easier, and each day will present new opportunities for growth and development. As the dust settles on this strange new world, we’ll all start to grow the resilience necessary to deal with it.

What can Winnie the Pooh teach us about coronavirus?

Know that I’ll be here to provide resources and support on the practicalities of completing a PhD at this time. I’ll be sharing more details on Monday about what I’ll be doing to help you as you self-isolate, stay away from university and manage your PhD. I’ll be offering a range of services, including free guides on The PhD Knowledge Base, lists of useful resources/links, Q&As about working from home, and special one-on-one sessions for those struggling and for those who now have limited supervision and need extra guidance. More about this on Monday.

Take some time to cultivate calm

With the current spread of coronavirus, it’s never been easier to feel a sense of panic and anxiety about so many facets of everyday life, not just those related to our PhD. Coronavirus is undoubtedly serious, and one would do well to think carefully about your own responsibility to protect yourself and those around. But it’s also important to find a moment of calm and to step away from the 24-hour news cycle. As a PhD student, you’re under near-constant stress and pressure anyway. If you’re not careful, the stress of coronavirus may be too much to handle. Try to limit the amount of news you consume and remember that you have a choice over how you respond. Be mindful of when you’re straying from legitimate concern to irrational panic. Most importantly of all, take some time each day to self-soothe.

Catastrophizing will get you nowhere

If you’re a perfectionist and have anxiety about the quality of your PhD, you may recognize your own tendency to catastrophize particular outcomes and to over-react to things that happen in your day-to-day PhD journey. Things go wrong – that’s just the nature of a PhD and being a human – but catastrophizing can make them seem far worse than they actually are.

There are no stupid questions

I get a lot of emails every day from people looking for advice on structuring or writing their PhD. And often they’re accompanied by the same statement: ‘I’m sorry if this is a stupid question, but…’

On the importance of resilience and adaptability

Your PhD will throw up challenges and problems, if not now then in the future, and your success as a PhD student is down in part to how well you can adapt and how resilient you are to those changes.

Self-love and self-compassion in your PhD

One of the best skills you can learn during your PhD is how to be more loving to yourself. But another useful – and related – skill is to develop self-compassion. If you can nail these two skills, you’ll be much better prepared not just to navigate your PhD, but to handle the stresses and strains of life more generally. 

Lonely? Be a friend.

We all feel lonely from time to time, but you may find that as you get further into your PhD your feelings of loneliness increase. Whilst difficult, it’s normal. It’s you that has to carry around the weight and anxiety that accompany your PhD, and it’s you who has to constantly find a way over what seem like insurmountable hurdles, problems and sticking points. Coupled with that, you often have to spend long hours working alone.

The iceberg illusion

In life, people’s successes and achievements are only the things people see above the surface. What other people don’t see is what lies beneath the surface. You don’t see their persistence, failures, disappointments, hard work, good habits and dedication.

Prioritise your to-do-list

When you approach your PhD in day-to-day life, it helps to spend a few minutes at the beginning of the day looking at your to-do list (or making one, if you haven’t already) and asking yourself what things on it are important and urgent, not important and not urgent, or just plain trivial.

See the bigger picture in your PhD

It often helps to take a bigger picture and to reflect on your performance over a longer time frame. Perhaps you could do this by tracking your weekly progress, or even setting monthly targets and goals. Assessing yourself daily is a false economy, because part of being human and part of being a PhD student is having up and down days. Our circumstances, mood, health, energy, motivation and drive all fluctuate day by day. If we track our mood on this micro level, we can be overly critical of ourselves when we aren’t so productive.

The seasons are changing

As the seasons begin to change, take some time to reflect on where you’ve come from and where you’re headed in your PhD.

Where’s the year going?

It’s almost the end of February. You’re probably wondering where the year has gone. It feels like Christmas was only yesterday. But rather than get down about how time is slipping away, use this opportunity to check in with your own progress. Conduct a mini PhD check-up.

There’s always a silver lining

“However stressful and down your PhD makes you, there will always be a positive or two upon which to focus. There’s always something that is going right or making you feel good, no matter how bleak the outlok is otherwise.”

PhD self-care can be transformative

Self-care can be transformative.

It’s the product of an inward, self-aware attitude to your day to day life, in which you recognise what’s not good for you and introduce things that are.

The most powerful word in your arsenal as a PhD student is ‘no’

Saying yes to everyone and everything ends badly. You burn out, give up too much of your free time, overwhelm yourself and, ultimately, end up getting a reputation for being always available. That’s not a great position to be in. Saying no won’t be the end of the world, and it won’t tarnish your reputation. It’s an act of kindness to yourself and a way of respecting your own boundaries.

What do pillows and PhD stress have in common?

Mindfulness is the key to managing PhD stress. It can mean the difference between responding calmly to problems and letting them ruin your day. But it’s an art and it takes practice.

What’s your experience of loneliness?

In yesterday’s daily dose of PhD motivation, I talked about my experience of PhD-loneliness. I received an incredible response from people sharing their own stories. It got me thinking. I wonder how many people have similar experiences?

It can be lonely at the top

Completing a PhD is no small feat. It requires brains, guts and cunning. But it can be lonely at the top. Large numbers of students struggle with anxiety, depression and stress. Above all, many feel lonely.

Explore Other PhD Knowledge Base Collections

Eight collections of free resources to help you along the PhD journey
literature review theory framework PhD

Mastering your theory and literature review chapters

In this collection of resources, we’ll explain all you need to know about planning and writing an effective literature review.
plan PhD chapters

How to structure and write every chapter of the PhD

In this collection, we’ll walk you through each chapter of your thesis. You’ll learn what goes where and how it fits together.
PhD motivation

How to stay motivated and productive

In these resources, we discuss the emotional challenges of doing a PhD, and offer tips to help you stay engaged and motivated.
PhD writing fluency

Techniques to improve your writing and fluency

Writing’s not that easy. Here you’ll learn simple techniques to write more effectively and convincingly.
PhD mental health

Advice on maintaining good mental health

PhDs can be lonely, isolated places. These resources will be useful if your PhD impacts upon your overall wellbeing.
ESL PhD students

Resources designed for non-native English speakers

Writing a PhD when English isn’t your first language can throw up unique challenges. Here you’ll learn how to overcome them.
How to write a literature review

Explore our back-catalogue of motivational advice

Each day we send out a short, motivational email to over 4,000 students. Here you can sign up and access the archive.
PhD writing template

A free one-page PhD structure template

Using this free PhD writing template, you can quickly visualise every element of your thesis.

This is not a normal blog subscription

Each day we send a short, thought-provoking email that will make you think differently about what it means to be a PhD student. They’re designed to be read in thirty seconds and thought about all day.