About halfway through my own PhD I had an email typed out to my supervisor telling her that I was giving up. I had had enough. I couldn’t deal with the uncertainty, or the stress, or the creeping mental health problems that had developed.
But I didn’t send it. I deleted the email and went back to the daily grind.
And I’m glad I did, because two years later I was walking into my graduation with tears in my eyes.
I vowed that from that day on that I would help other students and try and make their life easier and less stressful than mine had been.
So, in this post I want to give you 39 mindfulness nuggets for you to think about, be mindful of and incorporate into your daily life. They’ll help you to feel better about yourself, about your thesis and about your future. Most importantly, they’ll help show you that you aren’t alone and that the feelings you have are completely normal.
There has been an increasing amount of attention paid in recent years to the role that mindfulness can play in the lives of PhD students. A study of PhD students in the US found that 84% of those who experienced depression or anxiety failed to draw on university support services. It is increasingly being recognised that mindfulness can be used as a way of helping PhD students manage their stress on their own.
These tips are designed to make you think and reflect on your own experience. These tips are varied, and cover both the practical and emotional sides of doing a PhD. Some contain quotes, some contain experience from my own thesis, some talk about tried-and-tested techniques to boost your mood. Read them in any order you wish, but take time to think about them and see if they relate to your thesis. At the end of each nugget is the nugget: pay attention to it and be mindful in that moment.
1. Remember that everyone is an imposter
You almost certainly have times where you feel like an imposter. That’s normal.
An interesting way to deal with this is to reframe your thinking. Consider the following quote, and then ask yourself whether, in fact, everyone is an imposter:
“Some years ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And I felt that at any moment they would realise that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things.
On my second or third night there, I was standing at the back of the hall while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, ‘I just look at all these people, and I think, What the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.’
And I said, ‘Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.’ And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did.”
Be mindful of whether everyone around you feels like an imposter too.
2. Know that your forever is temporary
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.
Be mindful of the following question: are you treating your current reality as though it lasts forever?
3. Recognise the three ‘yous’
There are three ‘yous’ in control of your PhD.
There is present you. That’s you, here and now. The one making decisions, reading this post and hustling today. Then there’s past you. The one who made decisions yesterday. Then there’s future you. The one who’ll be left to make decisions, reap the rewards and pick up the pieces tomorrow.
If you feel like you have no motivation, or that you’re stuck in a rut, think back to these three yous. You’re working hard today to make life easier for future you. You’re doing future you a favour.
But it’s retrospective too. When you’re having a great day and things are working out, you have to look back and thank past you for putting in the hours and making life that little bit easier for present you.
The moral here is that your present-day PhD happiness depends on the marriage of these three yous.
Be mindful of whether you have recognised and befriended your past and future self. Are you thankful for your past self when you reap rewards? Do you do favours for your future self?
4. Thinking of quitting? Remember that your PhD is meant to be hard.
As I said in the introduction, I decided about half way through my PhD that I was going to quit. I’d had enough of the sleepless nights, the stress, the constant doubt, and the feeling that I didn’t quite belong.
I had made my mind up. It was going to email my advisor and throw in the towel.
My mother was never strict with me when I was growing up, but when I told her that I was quitting, she shouted at me in a tone that I’d never heard before and, for the first time in my life, she said that I was forbidden.
She said to me, “This PhD is the hardest thing you’ll ever do, but that’s the point. It’s meant to be hard and you’re not allowed to quit.”
I listened to her, reluctantly, and decided to stay. For her sake. I didn’t agree with her, but she forbid me from quitting. What could I do?
I’m glad I did. I successfully defended my thesis two years later. It was the hardest two years of my life, but I came out stronger and more resilient than I ever thought possible.
Stick with your PhD. It won’t be easy, but that’s the point.
Be mindful of the fact that it’s meant to be hard.
5. Admit your shortcomings
When you’re writing your thesis, you need to admit its limitations, discuss things that didn’t quite go to plan and tell the reader what you would improve if you could go around again.
This goes against our instinct; we get so caught up in making the thesis perfect that we forget that it just needs to be good enough. The PhD is likely the first time you have conducted a piece of research on this scale and with this significance. Consider this: if you were building a piece of furniture for the first time, it’d be a steep learning curve, and you’d make mistakes.
Your examiner knows that your study will have limitations. That means they’re looking for you to acknowledge and discuss them. Doing so shows a level of academic maturity that they want to see.
If you don’t accept your limitations, the examiner is left wondering whether you understand where the thesis could be improved and, therefore, whether you fully understand your own research.
Be mindful of whether you are honest enough to admit what isn’t quite right, and have accepted that PhD-perfection is an impossible dream.
6. Remind yourself that you’re not an idiot
You read a paragraph. Then read it again. And again.
You can’t understand it. There must be something wrong with you, right?
When you struggle to understand what you’re reading, remind yourself that it’s probably the writer’s fault, not yours.
Did you ever stop to think that maybe, just maybe, you’ve had to read it over and over again because it’s terribly written?
Be mindful of the fact that it’s probably them, not you.
7. Remember: it’s a PhD, not a Nobel prize
When we start our PhDs, we have ambitions to change our discipline or, if you’re feeling particularly brave, to change the world. We want to redefine our field or make a game-changing contribution.
Then, as time goes on, we have to deal with the fact that we lack the time, skill and resources to be able to fulfil such lofty ambitions. Or, as we read more, we start to see that such aspirations and goals have already been achieved by those with far more experience than us.
Then we start to realise that the nature of the PhD is to be super-specialist and make a small contribution. We start our PhD programme with a broad viewpoint, but over time we zoom in and in until we are investigating something far more modest and specialist than we ever dreamed of. We quickly disregard our initial, lofty ambitions.
That’s the nature of the PhD, and it’s not something to get anxious about. Your PhD isn’t the place to redefine your field; it’s the place for you to develop the skills necessary so that you can start your academic career. The Nobel prizes come later.
If you’re worried about whether your study is ambitious enough, read ‘It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize’, a seminal paper that investigates the purpose of a PhD from the examiner’s perspective.
Be mindful of whether you are trying to do too much in your PhD.
8. Half way through, you’ll arrive at Shit Valley
The hardest phase of the entire PhD comes around halfway through. You start to lose focus on why you’re even there, and question every decision you made. Nothing seems to be working, your findings seem to be obvious, and you wonder whether you’re willing or able to complete.
Welcome to Shit Valley. Every PhD student reaches this stage at one time or another. Not sure if you’re there yet? There’s a quick question to find out: are you surrounded by shit every direction you turn? Yes? Welcome.
It’s a lonely, unforgiving place. You’re far from the start of the PhD, but you’re also a long way from completion. There’s no joy in anything, and nothing seems right. You start to feel the pressure build, but the optimism disappear. The reality of what you’re taking on hits home, and the pressure to submit starts to loom.
No matter how hard it is to navigate through Shit Valley – and it is hard, really hard – remember that you’re only there temporarily. Keep wading through, and you’ll get out the other end. Have faith in your ability and intellect, and find ways to inject sunshine back into your life.
Be mindful of whether you’re in Shit Valley and what you can do to get out of it.
9. Don’t drown in the detail
When we do our PhDs, we tend to drown in the detail.
The more we read, the more we think, and the more we think, the more confused we become.
Then, when we come across a problem, we can’t work out the solution. Our work comes to a standstill, and our anxiety levels increase.
Often, the answer to these kinds of problems is staring us in the face, but we’re so smothered by the detail we can’t see where to go.
If this is you, try explaining your problem to an academic or PhD student who knows nothing about your particular subject. They’ll strip your research down to its core and, precisely because they haven’t drowned like you have, force you to take a step back, strip away all the detail and maybe, just maybe, see the solution.
Be mindful of whether you are drowning in the detail.
10. Embrace your own stupidity
Even the smartest people in the room feel stupid when they start their PhD programmes. It may be happening to you right now. You may be struggling to understand something and have reached the conclusion that you’re just plain stupid.
You’re right. You are.
It’s no reflection on you. PhDs are designed to make us feel stupid. That’s kind of the point of them.
When we join PhD programmes, we undergo an enormous intellectual shift from learning what other people have already discovered to making our own discoveries. If we understand stupidity in terms of being ignorant about something, and not having a solution to a particular problem, then we can quickly see why feeling stupid is actually the norm. Our PhDs are built around research problems, and until we solve them and until we have made and uncovered our own discoveries, we are, by definition, stupid. What’s more, no one else can cure our stupidity; they’re our research problems, and it’s up to us to answer them.
So, we need to learn to be ‘productively stupid’. Rather than worrying about our own abilities, we need to learn how to be comfortable with getting things wrong, making wrong turns, messing up experiments and stumbling towards the PhD finishing line. Why? Because PhDs are simply an exercise in conquering our own stupidity.
Be mindful of whether you have embraced your own stupidity.
11. Savour the excitement of being a PhD student
Because PhDs are so stressful and because they can be so lonely, we are predisposed to seeing them negatively. I was guilty as anyone of this when I was writing my thesis.
So, to inject some positivity, let me share the thing I got most excited about when I was a PhD student: being at the forefront of knowledge.
As PhD students, you’re immersing yourself in a subject to such an extent that you become an authority in it. Then, you push the frontiers of knowledge in that subject.
It’s a magical thing.
It’s very empowering to know that we’re asking and answering questions that have never been asked before and to know that we sit at the frontiers of human knowledge. Because of our hard work, we will know more than we did before.
Isn’t that mind-blowing?
Be mindful of whether you have actually appreciated the significance and magic of what you are doing.
12. When times get tough, visualise your own graduation
If you think to yourself, ‘I can’t possibly do this anymore’, you may find it useful to imagine your own graduation.
Do it right now. Spend ten seconds visualising your own graduation.
Picture the gown, the formalities, the proud friends and family watching from the wings. Picture the room it’ll be in, and the nerves you’ll have.
Now picture the enormous sense of achievement you’re going to have as you walk down the aisle to pick up your certificate, as they refer to you as Doctor and you finally complete the most challenging journey of your life.
Feels good, right?
Before you know it, it’ll be happening for real and it’s going to feel better than you can imagine. Keep putting the hours in, try and take a rest this weekend and you’ll be there in no time.
Be mindful of how proud you will be at your graduation.
13. Recognise that you’re stronger than you realise
Every day I talk to dozens of PhD students.
Yet, every day, I’m staggered at the resilience and perseverance that each and every one has.
And you’re no different.
The situation you find yourself in can often seem intolerable. In fact, if you were going to design an environment that breeds anxiety, doubt, and stress, it would look like a PhD program.
You’re learning fiendishly tricky skills, and you’re doing so at the very highest level.
We perhaps appreciated that when we first started, but after a while, the sparkle begins to wear off, primarily because you become so used to it.
But you need to remind yourself daily that you’re doing great things. You’re aiming for the pinnacle of academic achievement by pushing the frontiers of knowledge and answering questions that have never been asked.
Sure, your contribution will likely be small, but that’s not the point.
Sure, you may be struggling, but nevertheless, here you are; showing up each day and every day.
In the face of great adversity, you power through. Somehow, you find a way to deal with the doubt, silence the uncertainty and have faith in your decision.
That takes guts, and that makes you the strongest person I know.
Never forget that.
Be mindful of how strong, determined and dedicated you are.
14. Understand that there’s no issue with asking for help
It’s true that 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, 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 in a cafe, 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 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.
Be mindful of whether you need to reach out for help.
15. Never forget: people don’t care about you, they care about themselves
When you’re asking for help, there’s an important tip you should know.
People don’t care about you. They only care about themselves.
So, when you are approaching someone and asking them to do something for you, frame it in terms of how it will help them.
Don’t ask people to fill out your survey, rather tell them what’s in it for them (fill this survey out to become part of an influential study and change the way we understand about X, for example). Or, tell your teaching manager what you’d bring to the course (hire me, because I never complain and you’ll have a bunch more free time to spend on Facebook while you’re pretending to work).
Whatever it is, don’t focus on yourself.
Be mindful of whether you are focusing on yourself too much when asking others for help, advice or input.
16. Embrace imperfection and incompleteness
We tend to think: ‘If only I solve this problem, everything will be okay’ or that things are bad because of X, Y and Z, and that all that’s needed in the pursuit of happiness is to solve specific, objective problems.
But life doesn’t work like that, and nor does your PhD.
Sure, solving those problems is important, but just as quickly as you solve them, new problems will rear their heads. Then, new ones. And new ones.
But all the while, you’ll be thinking, ‘I just need to solve this problem and I’ll be happy/less-stressed/in control/whatever’, whereas all you are doing is treading water. You’re failing to see that your PhD is an exercise in dealing with problems. They never stop, and their form and frequency is uncertain. You won’t ever overcome them all.
Instead, embrace them. Embrace the fact that things will never be complete, and that happiness isn’t as easy as solving problem X, Y and Z.
Happiness and contentment with your PhD is lived, not planned. You find it in the every day, in the coping strategies you have to confront the problems, and in the small joys you may be overlooking.
Be mindful of whether you are seeking out an impossible perfection.
Your PhD thesis.
All on one page.
Use our free PhD structure template to quickly visualise every element of your thesis.
17. Step away from the thesis!
Have you ever wondered what life would be like if you weren’t married to your thesis?
Step away from your thesis for an afternoon. Go and do something that has nothing to do with your PhD. Don’t even think about it. Heck, leave something half finished!
I can hear the terror and anxiety rising from all the way over here.
Stopping your momentum seems like the most terrifying thing imaginable, right? The list of excuses for why stepping away will never work is long, and seemingly immense.
But diminishing returns is a very real thing. The harder we work, and the more invested we get, and the longer and further we push ourselves, the less efficient we become.
Then throw in the natural stresses and strains of a PhD journey, and you’ve got a toxic combination.
Trust me – when I did my PhD, I burnt out so hard it took me a year to recover. Why? Because I married my thesis and never stepped away.
Be mindful of the last time you completely switched off and stepped away from your thesis.
18. Understand that your problems are common ones
I thought I’d share with you the most common things I see that hold people back. I do so for two reasons. One, so you can assess your own writing. Two – and more importantly – so you can see that you aren’t alone in some of the struggles.
To struggle is to be human. This list is testament to that.
In no particular order:
1. Not being descriptive enough
2. Being too descriptive
3. Not being critical, particularly when discussing literature
4. Not getting to the point early, or, rather, building up to a point too slowly
5. Getting lost in authors and failing to exert your own academic voice
6. Not introducing the thesis and chapters properly by failing to tell the reader exactly what is to come
7. Using overly complex words
8. Falling into the trap of pompous academic writing
9. Not making your contribution clear in the opening pages
10. Not being bold in your claims, particularly in the discussion/conclusion
11. Not using theory properly
12. Repeating yourself
13. Saying you’ll do one thing, then doing another
14. Not staying on point
Do you recognise some of these in your own writing? If so, good; that means you’re human. Don’t worry about them, it doesn’t mean you’re a failure. But, if you can, try and focus on improving them and you can make your thesis is ever better.
Be mindful of how many of these you recognise in your own writing.
19. Remind yourself that you have a lot going for you
Now I want to share with you the most common positive characteristics I find when I interact with PhD students, whether as a proofreader, on the writing course, or as a one-on-one PhD coach.
Without fail, every PhD student has
5. Insane problem solving skills (if the PhD is anything, it’s one big problem, right?)
7. Ridiculously good project management skills
8. A competence and level of intellectual expertise that continues to stun me, even after years of doing this
You may read that and think ‘that’s not me’. In my experience, it is. You just can’t see it, because the PhD has a way of focusing our attention on the negative.
So, no matter what is happening in your PhD right now, or how anxious you are about what will happen when you finish (and, despite what you think, you will finish), remember all the amazing things that have bought you here and the amazing skills you are developing in the course of all this stress and hard work.
Be mindful of all your fantastic, positive traits.
20. Pay attention to your mental health
PhDs are hard work. That’s not news to you.
Nor may it be news to you that, when faced with hard work, we have a tendency to work and work and work.
In some respects, that’s good (you need to put the hours in if you’re going to be successful), but you need to watch out that you’re not using the work itself as a crutch.
PhDs are breeding grounds for mental ill-health, typically manifesting in anxieties and a sense of being an imposter. When faced with those challenges, we may see work as the solution. But, working harder and longer can be a way of avoiding the underlying problem.
Be mindful of your own mental health.
21. Remember, you can write!
Some of you reading this don’t know what to do when your PhD ends.
Maybe some of you had your heart set on an academic career, only to find they are no jobs in your field. Some of you may be doing a PhD to buy time until something else comes along. Some of you may not have any idea what to do next.
Regardless of what you do, remember what your PhD is teaching you. It isn’t just about your subject area and the technical expertise you’re picking up. It’s about the project management skills, the ability to work under pressure, the ability to manage your own time, to condense vast quantities of information and manage complex, fluid projects. It’s about your ability to stick with things and push the frontiers of knowledge, and question everything. Importantly, its the ability to write and convey meaning.
So, whatever you choose to do, don’t think that your PhD was a waste of time. Wherever it takes you, and however much your job is related to it, the skills it embodies you with will be with your forever, and no-one can take them away from you.
Be mindful of the transferrable skills you have developed and continue to develop as a doctoral student.
Be mindful that you have many marketable skills.
22. Don’t let the PhD take over
PhDs have a tendency to take over our lives.
We live, eat, breathe and, in my case at least, dream them. They become our entire existence.
What that means is that, when there is a problem, we can struggle for air.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Learning some time management skills is a useful skill that you can learn in the long run. In the short run, be kind to yourself and give yourself more time to complete tasks, wherever possible. Allow buffers from the off days, or to accommodate the inevitable delays.
And learn to say no, especially when people ask you to work for free.
In some respects, the PhD has to take over your life, but that doesn’t mean it has to be unmanageable.
Be mindful of whether you have a good work-life balance.
23. Don’t want to write?
“There are two of you: the one who wants to write and the one who doesn’t. The one who wants to write had better keep tricking the one who doesn’t.”
Be mindful of whether you are motivated to write.
24. Don’t do it alone
PhDs necessarily require you to spend long periods of time alone, whether reading, writing, or conducting research.
But, connection is where we add value.
When people with different skills, needs and opinions come together, it is possible for them to produce something that is bigger than the sum of their parts.
So, spend your time alone, but also connect with others. Whether they’re colleagues, friends, peers, or mentors, they all have a lot to offer you.
Be mindful of the people you have around you. Also be mindful of whether you have the right people around you.
25. Recognise when you’re not getting the right support
I frequently ask the PhD students I interact with, “Are you getting the support you need in your PhD from your institution and supervisors?”
Almost overwhelmingly, people say either no, or that they weren’t getting enough.
So, if you’re one of those who aren’t getting the right support, let me talk bluntly.
You have two choices:
You can either complain about it, or seek out the support from elsewhere.
You might sign up for a writing course, find a mentor, read blogs, find online support forums or groups, or reach out to your student peers. You might read books on the PhD journey, or even seek out new supervisors entirely.
As hard as it is to appreciate, the support won’t find you. You need to go and find it yourself.
Be mindful of whether you are waiting for support that will never come.
26. 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. You’re human, and humans make mistakes. Show yourself loving kindness, and see the mistakes as part of your ongoing development as a scholar and PhD student.
Be mindful of whether you are being too hard on yourself.
27. Know that you’re the only person who can change things
When your PhD gets the better of you (which it will), you need to remember that the only person who can change your reality is you.
It’s a hard reality to accept.
But it’s the truth. You get out what you put in, so when you find yourself on the floor and your PhD is getting you down, you need to fight hard to get yourself back up again. Find the opportunities, put the hours in, and do the work you need to.
Be mindful of whether you are putting responsibility for your own happiness in the hands of other people.
28. Remind yourself that it’ll all be worth it, even the bad times
Recently I read a quote that reminded me of how I now reflect on my own PhD.
‘Every moment of one’s existence, one is either growing into more, or retreating into less’
It reminded me because the PhD was so incredibly tough, but looking back at it now, I can see that, even in those darkest moments, everything had a purpose. Every mistake, every joyous moment, every hard day and every great one, it was all an exercise in either building resilience or chipping away at the thesis until it was finished.
In the end it was worth it.
And yours will be too.
Be mindful of this quote, particularly when times are hard.
29. Recognise that you’ll be a different person on the day you finish your PhD than you were on the day you started
When you finish your PhD, you won’t be the same person you were when you started.
It’s important as you go through your PhD journey to reflect on how you are changing – for better or for worse – and build up a personal narrative that you can use to trace your evolution as a human and a scholar.
The PhD will grind you down, sure, but in such grinding comes resilience. Your PhD will bring you moments of pure joy, and in those moments comes humility and passion.
Build up your personal narrative, and reflect on who you are becoming.
Be mindful of how you have changed as time goes on. Also be mindful of how you have changed even since you woke up this morning.
30. Ask yourself when the last time you took a break from your thesis was…
If you’re not careful, the PhD can consume you. Like a virus consuming a host, the PhD can take over every aspect of your life.
When I was doing mine, I ended up living and breathing (and even dreaming about) my thesis. It was the only thing I ever thought about or focused on.
Don’t become me!
It’s important to take a conscious break from your thesis, and to nurture and cultivate hobbies that aren’t academic. They may seem like a waste of time, but they’re good for the soul and are a chance to recharge the batteries. Time away from thinking about your thesis is time well spent; it’ll re-energise you for when you return to it.
So ask yourself: when was the last time you took a break from your thesis? When was the last time you didn’t focus on emails, writing deadlines, worries about what goes where, submission anxiety or any of the million other thesis-thoughts swirling around your brain? When was the last time you switched off?
If the answer surprised you, it’s time to take a break.
Be mindful of having a life outside of your PhD
31. Write like you’re already a Doctor
During your undergraduate and master’s study you typically spent much of your academic life paraphrasing and repurposing the work of others. That’s because you were working within the confines of existing knowledge.
During a PhD, though, it’s your job to push the limits of knowledge. That means that, at some stage, you’re going to have to start flexing your academic muscles by speaking with authority.
Speaking with authority means speaking in a way that reflects the expert you are and the expertise you have. It means disagreeing with established practices, or showing better ways of working. It means challenging conventional wisdom and saying why your way works better.
However it manifests itself, speaking with authority is sometimes hard. It takes a special kind of bravery to speak with the kind of voice that has for you, up until now, been the purview of the academics you read in papers and book chapters. Well, you’re one of those academics now and you have every right to make the same claims and speak with the same authority.
Be mindful of whether your voice is heard and you are speaking with authority.
32. Acknowledge that not everything you produce will be good
Often we expect ourselves to be at our best 100% of the time. We may put that pressure on ourselves, or we may feel pressured from the environment in which we find ourselves.
But such expectations are unrealistic. We’re human and we make mistakes. We have our off-days, and we have days when what we produce is just, well, rubbish.
What isn’t fine is being harsh on yourself when you don’t reach the standard you feel pressured by. You should embrace the off-days, and recognise them as part of the PhD-journey. .
Be mindful of your own imperfections.
33. Be comfortable with no longer being top of the class
Up until you started your PhD, chances are you were near the top of the class. Maybe you weren’t right at the top, but you were almost certainly in the top half, most likely in the top few percent.
And you stayed near the top of the class for a long time, maybe even from high school all the way through to your Master’s programme.
You stayed there so long, in fact, that you got used to being one of the smartest people in the room. It may have even become part of your identity.
Then you started your PhD programme, and suddenly you were surrounded by people who were way smarter than you (whether final year PhDs, or tenured professors). Not only that, you were working alongside these people, making comparison unavoidable.
In one stroke, your ‘smartest person in the room’ identity was being shattered.
If you are anything like me, you don’t know how to deal with that. The natural thing to do is to start to question your own intelligence and convince yourself that you’re stupid or, even worse, that you’re an imposter.
But be gentle on yourself. You’re as worthy as anyone else to be there, and the people you’re comparing yourself too have a head-start on you.
You’re smart, you’re worthy, and you’re going to be okay.
Be mindful of how much more experience many of the people you interact with daily have.
34. Stop aiming for perfection. Settle for ‘good enough’
As with everything else in life, your PhD will never be perfect. Yet still we cling onto unrealistic expectations that if only we work a little harder, read a little more or spend a few more hours in the library or lab, we’ll achieve that elusive perfection.
Life just doesn’t work like that. We all have flaws and things that will never, by definition, be perfect. And your thesis is one of them. There will be things wrong with it, things that could be done better, or things that didn’t go to plan. That’s absolutely fine and you should stop seeking to change that.
The key to being a mature academic is admitting your flaws by owning up to your limitations and wearing them proudly. To do otherwise is to be dishonest, both to yourself and to your discipline.
Be mindful of what it means to be ‘good enough’
35. Check in with yourself regularly
We can get so bogged down and overwhelmed by our PhD workloads that it is easy to lose touch with ourselves. So, as we come to the end of the week I have a simple but powerful question for you:
How are you feeling right now?
It’s important to regularly check in with yourself and ask yourself this question. It’s a great way of bringing your attention back to the present moment and keeping in touch with what’s going on emotionally. The longer we spent worrying about things, or thinking about our PhDs, the more likely it is that we forget to check in with ourselves.
By asking this simple question, you’ll be able to better understand your emotions and start to recognise when things aren’t quite right.
Be mindful of the last time you checked in with yourself.
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36. Take it seriously, but don’t take it personally
Academia is fuelled by critique. When we write, present or publish something, we are opening ourselves up to feedback and critique from others.
It can be hard to deal with that, so here’s some advice I take on board whenever I present myself and my work to the public:
Take feedback and critique seriously, but don’t take it personally.
You can’t be a successful academic if you do both.
Be mindful of how you process and handle feedback. Do you take it personally?
37. Recognise that things are worth fighting for
PhDs aren’t easy. That’s not news to you.
But an implication of that is that, to succeed in yours, you need to fight. Hard.
You need to fight to understand, to write, or even to battle your own demons as you navigate the PhD journey.
And fight you must, because your PhD will try its hardest to destroy you. It’ll require every ounce of your resilience and stamina if you are to succeed.
And for those times that you think you can’t handle it anymore, remind yourself that the best things in life are worth fighting for.
Be mindful of how much you want to get your PhD and how much it is worth fighting for.
38. Make a list of all the things you are doing right
If you’re anything like I was during my PhD, you go through the day fighting fires and in a near-constant state of panic.
That’s because I was focusing on all the things I was doing wrong and all the things that weren’t going to plan. I spent no time recognising all the things that were going right.
Then I started keeping a simple journal. Each night I would list three things that I was grateful for, or which had gone well that day. It may not sound like much, but just spending a minute or two each day reminding myself of positives was a welcome break from the panic and stress.
So if you’re struggling to stay positive, I encourage you to do the same. Spend some time tonight listing three things that you were grateful for today. Then spend a moment really savouring the joy you felt from those things.
Be mindful of all your positive traits and all the things you are doing right.
39. Worry about the things you can control, and stop worrying about the things you can’t
There are many things in life that are out of our control. Yet it is often those things that we worry about endlessly.
Your PhD is likely no different. There are many aspects of it that you can’t control, yet you still find yourself losing sleep trying to control the uncontrollable. Rumination settles in, becoming your best friend, as you ponder the uncertainty that plagues the future.
But there are elements of your PhD that you can control. You can control how much writing you do, for example, or how many articles you read, how many edits you make to your interview schedules or experiments, or myriad other things.
A way to achieving a healthy balance between making sure things get done and having a healthy workflow is to recognise the difference between those things you can control and those you can’t.
Then you consciously focus your attention – and your anxieties – on the controllable. Push that which you can’t control to one side.
Over time, you will achieve greater ownership over your thesis, your research and, I hope, your life.
Be mindful of whether you are trying to control the uncontrollable.
These mindfulness exercises will help you realise that your feelings and stresses aren’t unique. Spend some time each day really thinking about what it means to be a PhD student, and try to separate yourself from the stresses and strains that come with being a doctoral student. Bookmark this page and refer back to some of the mindfulness exercises.
Even one or two minutes each day truly being mindful can help to alleviate your stress.
You’re doing great, and everything is going to be alright.
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