There’s one thing that is often missing from guides and books written on how to do a PhD: the human dimension. Often they fail to fully appreciate the person behind the PhD, the person who struggles and worries and wonders what it is all about. This article is for you. In it, I draw on my experience as a PhD coach, thesis proofreader and academic to outline 80 things I wish I knew when I was doing my PhD.
A lot of this I had to work out the hard way, and I know from my conversations with PhD students that many of you struggle with the same issues. Often, the difference between unnecessary worry and successfully muddling through is having someone on your side who can tell you that what you’re feeling is normal and reassure you with good, practical advice that speaks to the core of you. That is the goal of this article.
Each of the eighty pieces of advice below refers to things that I only wish I was told earlier. Some may be common sense to you, whereas others may be eye-opening. You can read them in any order you wish and refer back to them for inspiration and motivation when you’re having a bad day. I encourage you to bookmark this page for that very reason. I also encourage you to share this post with your friends on social media. You can find shortcuts to do that at the bottom of the post.
However you approach these tips, know that you’re on a tough, relentless journey. You’re learning as you go and you won’t always get it right. Try to have faith in your abilities and be aware of your inner critic becoming too powerful. Most importantly of all, have fun.
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Each week we send a short, thought-provoking email that will make you think differently about what it means to be a PhD student. It is designed to be read in thirty seconds and thought about all day.
1. You’re never going to please everyone
There will always be people who disagree with you. There will always be people who can find holes in your argument. There will always be people who think you’re doing things in the wrong way.
That’s the nature of academia. Indeed, this entire industry is built on people critiquing one another’s work. What this means is that, no matter how hard you try, there will always be things ‘wrong’ with your writing. Your literature review will always be incomplete, your theory framework will always annoy someone somewhere, your methods will no doubt be flawed, and your discussion could have been framed differently.
What’s important to remember is that perfection in this context is elusive. No matter how hard you try, someone will always find a problem.
But rather than feel defeated, see this as empowering. It means that you can stop striving for perfection and instead strive for ‘good enough’. Work in the way you think best – and ensure that way has the proper grounding in the literature – and be prepared to counter any criticisms should they come up in your supervision meetings or viva.
2. To succeed, you need to embrace failure
When you tell people you’re doing a PhD, they probably think that what’s required to complete one is a superhuman intellect.
But it’s not. The key attribute to succeeding isn’t brains or even creativity. You need them, for sure, but they’re not key.
No, the key attribute is being able to deal with failure. It’s being able to show up each day riddled by the plague of defeat and uncertainty and keep putting the hours in, even if you’re not sure you’re on the right track or that what you’re doing will lead anywhere. It’s failing over and over again and each time ending up more committed.
In your PhD you’ll fail at lots of things many times. The further you go through the journey the more you’ll fail and the higher the stakes will be. Those who make it to the end are those who can pick themselves up, learn from the hardship and carry on more determined than before.
Keep failing, keep messing up and keep making mistakes, but be kind to yourself while you do so.
Keep doing that and you’ll be a Doctor in no time.
3. You need to know when to move on
Your PhD is a performance with many acts. It’s important not to get stuck in one scene.
Writing a PhD isn’t a linear process, but I often treated it like it is. I often thought, ‘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.
The PhD writing process isn’t linear. Parts of the literature review or theory framework chapters, for example, may only become clear to you when you’ve written your conclusion, but for as long as you treat it linearly, you cause an unnecessary headache.
What’s the solution? It’s easy: write as much as you can of a chapter or section before moving on, but if you find yourself struggling with a particular line of argument or to make something fit, leave it and come back it later once you’ve worked on other parts of the thesis.
You’ll likely find that everything becomes clear at a later stage when you’ve ironed out details in other chapters. Make the problem your secondary concern and move on to other parts of the thesis. You’ll find things just ‘click’ into place.
Draft chapters are just that: they’re drafts. Accept that a draft is unfinished and only needs to be ‘good enough’. Move on to another section and chapter and make a note to come back and revisit the sticking points at a later date. You’ll be amazed at how simple the problem seems when you do.
4. Be sceptical of boasters
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.
I say it’s part of the reason because there’s also something more sinister to consider. In this age of social media one-upmanship, your feed may be awash with those boasting of how easy they find their PhD, how great their experiments are going, or how they submitted early, got that prestigious job, had three papers published and raised kids.
Don’t believe any of it.
Whether deliberately or otherwise, people tend to avoid sharing their failures and setbacks. What looks like progress and success on the glossy social-media outside is likely cloaked in struggle, failure and personal challenges. The trouble is, those never get shared. Then, to the outside, their PhD looks far more straightforward than yours could ever hope to be. The result? Anxiety and worry about not being ‘good enough’.
Your challenges and struggles are real, valid and understandable. Don’t focus on what others are doing. Question whether their boasts are true, and look inward at your own progress. Understand that social media has the power to misrepresent reality and that it isn’t a good means through which to assess your own capabilities.
Then you can keep doing things your way, irrespective of others.
5. Recognise your own brilliance
We often give ourselves too little credit for all the good we do. We often spend so much time looking forward – to where we’re heading or think we ought to go – that we forget to look back and take stock of how much progress we’ve already made. We often get so wrapped up in our perfectionism that we fail to acknowledge everything that is working or everything that is perfect about our imperfections.
We spend so much time surrounded by intellectual and professional over-achievers that we convince ourselves we’re not ‘good enough’ or haven’t got what it takes.
And over time we’ve learnt to talk to ourselves in a negative tone that we would never dream of using with a friend or loved one.
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.
6. Really think about what it is you are trying to say
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.
Broadly speaking, the term thesis itself means ‘a statement or theory that is put forward as a premise to be maintained or proved’, so it stands to reason that your PhD thesis as a whole exists to elaborate upon one or a small number of central points. Its job is to make the case for something, whether a new theory, new insight and new methods.
Looking at individual chapters, they all have a specific job to do: the methods is there to show how you conducted your study, your theory framework is there to show the hypotheses/concepts that informed it, and so on.
In other words, in each chapter, there will be a central, core argument or point you want to get across (e.g. the lit review: there’s a gap in the literature; the methods: this is what the study looked like, and so on). Sure, you’ll have lots of smaller arguments that you’ll be developing in each chapter, but they’ll all be nested in a key, central argument.
So when you next struggle to find the thread in your writing, sit and think: what one key point am I trying to make in this chapter?
Once you answer that question, you can structure the rest of the chapter around developing and backing up that point.
Your PhD Thesis.
On one page.
7. Know that you’ll get there eventually
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.
This is true regardless of whether you complete your PhD or whether you decide to leave it in pursuit of other endeavours. All we can do in life is try our best and do so with the best intentions and best information we have available at the time.
If we do that, then whatever happens in weeks, months and years to come is the natural course of things, and you can look back at your former self and think: “I tried my best”. With that attitude, everything will be worth it because you’ll end up exactly where you need to be.
Failure is a horrible word and comes in varying degrees. We may succeed in our PhDs, but we may fail to do so in the way we had hoped. We may fail our PhDs entirely. We may fail to live up to any number of the expectations and demands we place upon ourselves, even when we are, to outsiders, very much succeeding.
But whatever your failure remember that it is often through defeat that the greatest accomplishment stems. It’s when you’re tested and when you’re forced to retreat that the real magic happens, even if it may not feel like it at the time.
8. You can be both 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.
Struggle is a part of life, not least during a PhD. It comes and goes like waves on the surface of the sea. But underneath the waves, the sea remains more steady.
Your passion and dedication are steady in the same way. Like the waves, your procrastination and struggles will pass in time, creating space for calmer and more focused moments.
Be patient and…
9. 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’.
It’s on days like these that you may begin to think about dropping out.
On these days, lean into your discomfort and have faith that you’re exactly where you need to be and doing exactly what you need to do. Remind yourself that, although your anxious mind is fearful of the future, you’re on the right path. Having that faith in your direction can help you to keep on going in spite of the doubt and anxiety.
Keep muddling through even when you don’t want to, but do so knowing that in calmer, less anxious times you put yourself on this path with all the best intentions. Have faith that those intentions will get you where you need to go.
Keep your head down, keep turning up and you’ll eventually see sunnier days.
10. Some things are worth fighting for
Underpinning every PhD (and PhD student) is a personal struggle. Something worth fighting for.
On the cold, 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.
You see, you may not like to admit it, but every PhD student is fighting for something, whether that’s to prove something to yourself, to placate the perfectionist in you, to make your parents proud or to show everyone who ever told you that you can’t (that last one was my fight).
Whatever it is, reflecting back on this bigger cause can give you the little boost you need when you’re about to jack it all in.
It can show you that the PhD is worth fighting for, no matter how tough things get.
11. 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.
Learn to embrace unproductive days as a necessary part of the PhD journey. We all have ups and downs and we must learn to both recognise them and work around them. Don’t try to fight yourself when you’re unmotivated; be kind and self-soothing instead. The world will keep on spinning if you stop writing for a day.
12. There’s more than one way to write 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’.
But each PhD is unique. Beyond the obvious differences in discipline and subject material, there is a unique personal story behind every PhD and within every PhD student. You are doing a PhD for different reasons than others in your department, and you’re facing different circumstances and challenges. What’s more, you work in different ways, have different priorities and may wish to take a different route to achieve the same goal and reach the same destination.
So all these differences – in subject material, personal motivations and challenges, and ways of working – all mean that there is no one ‘right’ way to do a PhD. Everyone is going to be working in their own unique way.
This means that comparing your progress to that of other PhD students is futile. You’re unique, and so is your particular PhD journey. You may be at a different stage of the journey to a colleague, but that doesn’t mean you’re doing it ‘wrong’. Learn to have faith in your workflow and recognise that as long as you do your best and work in a way that is true to your motivations and personality, you’re doing everything just the way you’re supposed to.
13. Should is a dangerous word
What ‘should’ you be doing, feeling, thinking of 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 myriad other things that we convince ourselves we need for a full and complete life.
Let’s take the PhD journey as an example. You may feel like you should have a better study, or better data, or that you should be as successful as your non-PhD friends. You should be writing, you should be procrastinating less, you should be better. Should, should, should….
We can become attached to what we should be doing. So much so that we are never satisfied with what we have.
That’s because this notion of what we should be doing, thinking, feeling, and so on, is an illusion. Everyone’s sense of should differs, as it is a product of their internal wiring, upbringing, life experience and environment. Put somewhat simply, depending on where and how you grew up, you will have a particular brand of should.
By becoming attached to this notion of ‘should’, we limit our ability to enjoy what’s happening right now. Practice letting go of this attachment. This is hard, and something that requires practice, but it essentially revolves around the idea of noticing when your mind is convincing you of what you should be doing or feeling and focusing the mind instead on the present moment, on your current reality.
The more you do this, the more you’ll realise that you’re attached to illusions about an imaginary future and the more you’ll start to realise all the wonderful, beautiful things you’ve got going on right now.
14. Don’t become attached
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.
It can feel like a real burden. A struggle even, as you navigate your PhD carrying the weight of internal mental struggle.
Spend a moment now to pause. Breathe in deeply and think – really think – about how you are feeling in this moment. What’s on your mind? Are you worried about anything? Is that worry serving you or are you serving it? Can you drop the worry and focus instead more mindfully on the present moment?
15. What’s your inner-voice saying?
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 doing its best to undermine your capabilities.
For some, their inner voice is on their side and sings in harmony. For others, the inner voice can take over and start to rule their life. It can get really good at convincing you you’re not up to the job of completing your PhD.
Stop all activity for a moment. Be still. Notice what your inner voice is saying. Do you hear anything? Is it telling you you should be writing? Is it worrying about what’s going to happen tomorrow, next week, next year? Listen carefully.
Check in regularly with yourself and ask yourself what that inner voice is telling you. Listen for your self-critical inner voice that tells you that you are inferior to anyone else. Listen for your inner judgments; listen to your inner voice of defeat that tells you that you are incapable of succeeding.
Gaining awareness of what that voice is saying is revolutionary.
16. Know it’s okay to fail
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.
Instead of seeking and craving perfection (and then being disappointed when you don’t achieve it), learn to embrace your fallibility. Try your best not to fail, but expect to do so from time to time and be kind to yourself when you actually do.
If that seems like a terrifying prospect, then consider this. Think back to a time in your life when you actually did fail. Picture it vividly, recalling how you may have felt immediately afterwards. Now ask yourself what you learnt from that mistake and what positives it may have had in the longer run. When seen in this way, failures don’t seem as terrifying as they first did and oftentimes are an opportunity for growth.
When you next fail at something – however big or small – remind yourself that to do so is to be human and that it is through our failures that we learn, grow and develop.
17. Understand that you can’t control everything
This is a useful time to remind yourself of the distinction between things you can control and things you can’t. All through life, there are things you can’t control – the job market, university bureaucracy, and so on, but there have also been things you can control.
There is little point worrying about all the things outside of your control.
Keep focusing on what you can control. Try to put everything outside of your control to one side.
18. 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.
What you lack in experience you can more than make up for in enthusiasm.
19. Realise that nobody really knows what they’re doing
Next time you wonder whether you’ve got what it takes to finish your PhD, or you think that you’re an imposter that’s about to get found out as a bumbling idiot, remember that no one else really knows what they’re doing.
There’s an all too prevalent assumption that as adults we should have everything worked out and that we should know exactly what we’re doing and where we’re heading. But no one really does. At best, we’re making it up as we go along (particularly if we’re at the start of our studies/careers) whilst bumbling from one decision to the next. All the while, we’re hoping we don’t mess up.
Over time, as you bumble from decision to decision in your PhD, you’ll start to realise that this muddling through approach works well. You’ll stop assuming that you should know it all or be good at it all. You’ll stop trying for perfection and start accepting that you’ll make mistakes.
You’ll start to settle for uncertainty. And you’ll start to be satisfied with good enough.
So bumble away and make it up as you go along. That’s how all this works.
20. You’ve got to fall over occasionally
If you’re not falling over and stumbling from time to time it means 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.
So next time you struggle with something in your PhD or you find a new part of the PhD journey hard, remind yourself that you wouldn’t have made any mistakes at all if you were just coasting through. Instead, you’re pushing yourself and you’re growing as a result. Your mistakes are a testament to that. Embrace them.
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21. 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.
So while you write that first draft, do so free of judgement. Just focus on getting words on the page. Only once you have a draft in front of you do you go back and start judging and editing.
Freeing these two tasks will mean one thing: you’ll write more words, more quickly and more competently.
22. Don’t be so damn 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.
23. You’ll have to navigate Shit Valley
At some stage, every PhD student ends up in Shit Valley.
You normally find yourself here around halfway through the PhD journey. You’ll know you’ve arrived when everything you can see around you looks like it’s covered in shit.
You’re knee-deep in the data, you still don’t really know what’s going on and your levels of self-doubt are sky-high. In front of you is a mountain of hard work – also covered in shit, incidentally – and behind you is a wake of unproductive drafts, wasted time and lots and lots of confusion. Nothing in your day to day life gives you joy any more and there doesn’t seem to be a way out, no matter how hard you look. Because you’re halfway through your thesis when you get to Shit Valley, you’re about as far away from an exit point as you can be.
Shit Valley isn’t a nice place to be and nothing anyone tells you will make it any easier. It’s shit after all. Your workload is immense, you’re still figuring out what goes where, and you’ve got no motivation to do any of it.
But do it you must, because the only way out is to keep on journeying though. Have faith that you will – eventually – get out of the valley and that, when you do, your workload will be more manageable, you’ll start to know what you’re doing, you’ll have more motivation and you’ll wonder what all the fuss was about.
Keep ploughing on through, try not to look at all the shit around you and know that one day you’ll find the exit.
24. Settle for good enough
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.
You may feel that you have to meet every deadline, exercise as much as you do normally, eat healthily and be as productive as you are in normal life.
But the pressure is self-imposed and doesn’t reflect reality. There’s no such thing as perfect, and by striving for it you’re working towards something that is unattainable. If you keep doing that, you’ll never be satisfied and will always be stressed.
That’s why this is a perfect time to embrace being satisfied with ‘good enough’. Cut yourself some slack, stop expecting so much from yourself and recognise that to be human is to make mistakes.
You won’t always be productive, you won’t always eat healthily and you won’t meet every deadline. And that’s good enough.
25. Work 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 off message and your argument gets diluted.
A really effective way of avoiding this is to write a short introductory paragraph that summarises the key points and arguments that the rest of the text will develop. Someone should be able to understand broadly what your chapter is about just from reading one of these introductory statements.
They don’t have to be long. Typically they only need to include two or three sentences. Their job is to summarise the argument and present the top level, headline detail. ‘This chapter will argue….’ or ‘The purpose of this chapter is to…’, and so on.
They have a number of benefits.
First, they force you to stop and think about what exactly you’re arguing. By stripping away all the bloat and being confined to just a couple of sentences, you’re forced to crystallise your thinking.
Second, they make the reader’s life easier by priming them for what is about to come. With these introductory statements, you’ve told them what the point of the chapter is in the first paragraph. Because they know where you’re heading, they can more easily follow along as you get there.
Third, they help you structure the rest of the text because they serve as super-condensed chapter outlines.
So next time you find yourself struggling to get your point across, try and write this kind of two or three sentence summary. You’ll be surprised by the effect it has.
26. Learn whether or not you’re a perfectionist
Most of the PhD students I talk to are perfectionists. Are you?
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.
But your day to day life can easily become disrupted, as happened with coronavirus. Suddenly, you’ve got no way of knowing what will happen in the short or long term, and you may worry that your thesis will be sub-optimal as you step away from fieldwork, labs and supervisors.
The perfectionist in you is panicking, right?
Perfectionism is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can fill you with drive, passion, dedication and motivation. It can inspire you to try your hardest and do your best. It’s likely what got you on to your PhD programme in the first place.
But at the same time, it has a dark side. For as much as it can inspire, it can lead to panic. Anxiety, worry and dread often follow in the footsteps of perfectionism, such that when you lose control over your reality, or when you get things wrong, make mistakes or produce something sub-optimal, you panic. What starts off as a simple mistake can quickly become the end of the world.
Part of the challenge of doing a PhD is learning to embrace imperfection and recognising that sub-optimal does not necessarily mean failure. Managing perfectionism involves reminding yourself that you’re only human and that humans face stresses, make mistakes and sometimes struggle to produce their best work. Even the brightest and most competent of people have off days.
The more you can remind yourself of that, the better equipped you’ll be to deal with what life throws at you and your thesis.
27. Remember that PhDs are meant 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.
Anyone can learn what other people have already discovered. Anyone can regurgitate information. That’s easy.
What isn’t easy is bringing new knowledge into the world.
What’s even harder is doing it in this current time of crisis, facing considerable adversity.
You’re smarter, more capable and more gifted than you may give yourself credit for. Keep showing up, cut yourself some slack and remind yourself how capable you really are.
28. See worrying for what it is: pointless
Our brains have a negativity bias built into them that’s hard to control at the best of times.
Sometimes, it seems that the only thing we can do is worry.
But worrying can be like sitting in a rocking chair; it can give you something to do, but it doesn’t really get you anywhere.
29. Appreciate that 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…’
But there is no such thing as a stupid question.
If you don’t know the answer to something and you ask someone that does, that makes it a valid question. If someone tells you you’ve asked a stupid question that’s their problem, not yours.
So next time you’re scratching your head wondering what goes where in your PhD, don’t be afraid to ask people more knowledgable than you. That might be your supervisor, a colleague or me.
30. Show yourself some compassion
One of the best skills you can learn during your PhD is how to be more loving to yourself.
Self-love is the art of showing yourself the same kind of love and support you show to friends, partners and families. It means being a friend to yourself and doing things that nurture and strengthen you.
This might be something as simple as treating yourself to a slice of cake to celebrate a good day, or developing a workout routine to improve your physical and mental health.
Whatever it looks like, over time you’ll build up greater resilience to handle what the PhD has to throw at you.
But another useful – and related – skill is to develop self-compassion. Self-compassion is the art of going easy on yourself and not giving yourself such a hard time when things don’t go to plan. It involves you being kinder to yourself when you get things wrong, reminding yourself that you’re trying your hardest and that you’re only human.
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.
31. 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.
As loneliness starts to creep in, we can instinctively expect other people to reach out to us, message us, invite us to things and be there for us. When they don’t, we feel even more lonely.
But instead of waiting, be proactive. Be a friend to others. Initiate the messages, send the invites and organise the events. Be there for those around you who may be dealing with struggles of their own.
Not only will you feel more connected, but you’ll be a good friend to others.
if you want more advice on PhD loneliness, you can read a new guide I’ve written by clicking here.
32. The iceberg illusion
It’s easy to compare yourself to others. It’s easy to look at your PhD colleagues and wonder why you aren’t as competent, far advanced or as confident as they are.
I’ve talked before about the dangers of comparing your insides to other people’s outside, but I want to expand on that.
The reason it’s so fruitless if because of the iceberg illusion. With an iceberg, what you see above the surface of the water is only a fraction of the total mass. Beneath the surface is a far greater volume, but it’s hidden from view.
And 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.
In other words, people might look great on the outside, but you don’t see all the effort, hard work and failings that go on behind the scenes.
Bear that in mind next time you find yourself comparing yourself to others.
33. Prioritise your workflow
We often spend too much time worrying about and focusing on the trivial things and not enough time on focusing on the important things.
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.
In other words, work out the things on your list that you absolutely have to focus on and the things on there that can either be forgotten about entirely (because they’re trivial) or can wait for another day (because they’re not urgent or important).
Working in this way gives you some wiggle room if you don’t manage to get things done because it shows you what you can quickly cull from today’s list. Importantly though, you make sure that the most important and urgent things get done first.
34. Focus on the bigger picture
You wake up, you’re late, you miss your bus and before you know it you’ve got to your desk and it’s nearly lunchtime. You think to yourself ‘today’s such a bad day’. You then start to stress about the amount of work you’ve missed, how behind you’re going to be, and how late you will have to stay to catch up.
You feel bad about the impact this will have on your performance and progress.
But it’s just one day.
In your life and your PhD, you may tend to judge your performance on a micro level and be constantly gauging whether you’re doing well or badly, or doing the right or wrong thing.
But it often helps to take a look at the 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.
By focusing on the macro perspective, you can accommodate the bad days and accept them as part of the natural progress of a PhD.
35. Remember that there is always a silver lining
You’re going to have dark days. You’re probably going to have a few dark weeks. And you may even have the odd dark month.
Whichever state you find yourself in, 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 outlook is otherwise.
The trick – and this is one that gets easier as you progress through your PhD – is to be mindful enough that you can spot those few glimmers of positivity and focus on them more than you focus on the negative.
The more you can hone that skill, the easier it will be to deal with the dark times.
36. You’re probably to blame
When things go wrong with our PhDs, we can often try to look outside of ourselves to find someone to blame.
If we get negative feedback during a supervision, we can blame the supervisor for not reading our work properly or failing to understand what we are saying.
Or, if we miss a deadline or feel overwhelmed, we can blame outsiders for excessive workloads.
While other people may have played a role in whatever misfortune you find yourself experiencing, often we also forget to look at the role we have played. We spend so long looking for fault in others we forget to ask ourselves what we could have done differently.
Doing so not only allows you to more realistically work out what went wrong, but it also allows you to see what you can learn and how you can behave differently in the future.
37. When you write, ask yourself ‘so what?’
I read a lot of PhDs and I coach a lot of PhD students.
When I do, I find myself asking one question over and over again: ‘so what?’
When you are writing about, say, particular design decisions, or a specific theoretical concept, ask yourself ‘so what?’
That way, you go beyond merely discussing a particular phenomenon, method, or whatever, and instead tell the reader why such a discussion is important and why it is relevant in the context of your thesis.
That’s because, in your thesis, everything should be rooted in your research questions, research aims and research objectives. By asking ‘so what’ you are showing what those roots look like and, in doing so, being explicit about why a particular discussion is worth having and telling the reader why they should care you are having it.
For example, if you are talking about a particular method, by asking ‘so what’ you tell the reader why that method is appropriate given your questions/aims/objectives, what benefits or drawbacks it will bring, and how it will bolster your study.
If you fail to ask ‘so what’, you’re just describing a method and the reader is left wondering – you guessed it – ‘so what’?
38. Build self-care into your PhD journey
Self-care can be transformative.
It’s the product of an inwardness, a self-aware attitude to your day to day life, in which you recognise what’s not good for you and introduce things that are.
It may be as simple as starting a gratitude journal, taking ten minutes each day to meditate, allocating time away from screens, or connecting with a loved one.
Or, it may be more drastic. It may involve distancing yourself from toxic people in your life, avoiding food or drink binges, or perhaps – most drastically – changing PhD supervisors.
Whatever it is, self-care becomes self-reinforcing. The more you take time out to care for your well-being, the better able you are to handle what your PhD throws at you. Then, the better able you are to navigate the PhD, the better able you are to exercise self-care.
I’m talking from experience (albeit bad experience). I exercised very little self-care during my PhD. I drank too much, I had poor routines, I didn’t look inwards and ask myself what is and isn’t making me feel good, and I generally took poor care of myself. The result was an incredible amount of stress, self-loathing and difficulty.
It is only in my post-PhD life that I have discovered the transformative power of self-care. To find out more about self-care in particular and mental good health in general, I can highly recommend the Tiny Buddha blog. It’s completely free and is an incredible resource for those looking at taking better care of their mental wellbeing.
39. Learn the power of saying no
When I was doing my PhD, there was one word I didn’t know the meaning of: ‘no’.
Can you do more teaching this semester Max? Yes, sure.
Can you mark this extra pile of papers over the weekend? Of course.
Can you work for free, it’ll be good for your CV? Sure! Where do I sign up?
Three things motivated me, a fear of not getting a job at the end of my PhD, satisfying the perfectionist in me by being the best version of a PhD student I could, and fear of getting a reputation as lazy.
But what was driving it all was trying to please everyone, at the expense of my wellbeing.
Are you the same? Do you find it hard to say no?
Ask yourself why. Is it because you’re also a people pleaser?
Whatever motivates it, you need to watch out. 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.
So next time someone asks you to do something and, deep down, you don’t really want to, don’t be afraid to say no.
40. Imagine you are holding a stack of pillows
I want you to imagine you’re holding a small red pillow. If I were to ask you to pick a pen up off the floor without dropping the pillow, you’d be able to do it. Sure, it’d be a bit cumbersome, but you’d manage.
Now imagine that I added one blue pillow on top of your red pillow. Picking that pen up is getting a bit more difficult now, isn’t it? Gradually, I add one blue pillow after another. As I do, you start to disappear behind a tower of pillows.
Picking that pen up without dropping the pillows is now impossible.
Now imagine that the red pillow represents a problem you’re having with your PhD. Perhaps it’s a problem with an experiment, or an issue you’re having planning a chapter. Whatever it is, it’s an objective issue you’re currently having.
And much like the pen and the red pillow, even though you’ve got that problem on your mind, you can still go about your day to day life largely unencumbered.
But the blue pillows represent our brain’s capacity to worry, stress, ruminate, catastrophise and do all the other things it does to turn a small problem into a nightmare.
Over time you start to add blue pillows. You start to worry about whether you’re an imposter, or the perfectionist in you starts to convince you you’re a failure. You start to worry about whether you’re going to complete or even why you bothered to start in the first place.
Much like with the blue pillows, as you add these problems one by one, you start to feel their weight and you can’t perform basic functions. You notice you’re crippled with stress, anxiety or worry.
But you have a choice. Sure, the problem – the red pillow – is real so you can’t really change that. But you can change how you respond and you can choose not to add the blue pillows. Catch yourself when you’re adding those pillows and stop yourself doing it.
That’s the art of mindfulness. It’s the art of choosing how you respond to the world around you and it’s a great way to manage common PhD stresses and anxieties.
Practising mindfulness in this way sounds straightforward, but it’s an art and it takes practice. A good place to start is a guide I’ve recently published that talks about the science of mindfulness for PhD students.
41. Learn to deal with criticism
If there’s one thing that perfectionists can’t handle it is criticism.
Ring a bell?
It does for me.
But sometimes I get a bad one when someone isn’t happy.
Now, the rational part of my brain tells me that I tried my hardest and that one negative review out of hundreds isn’t the end of the world, however disappointing.
But the perfectionist side tells me that my business is doomed. The imposter syndrome kicks in; ‘they’ve found me out!’ it screams. I panic, think about that one review all day and give it far more space and energy that it deserves.
And you may be the same when it comes to your PhD. Most of the PhD students I interact with tend to have perfectionist tendencies — some more than others.
When you get feedback on your work, or when you are at conferences or other public speaking events, you sometimes have the same response to negativity. It can feel like the end of the world, and it can feel like your entire PhD-journey is in vain.
Sometimes this can be a good thing. Your worry and attention to detail can mean that you fix problems faster than most and that you’re more careful to avoid them in the first place.
But it can also be detrimental. Much like me giving too must space and energy to that one review, you may find that negative feedback and critique can become more significant than it actually is.
Step one in overcoming this is recognising if and when it’s happening. Ask yourself if you’re putting too much focus on critique. Once you’ve begun to foster greater awareness, you can start to shift your perspective from one of ‘I’m doomed’ to one of ‘okay, what can I learn from this?’
Above all though, recognise your humanity and give yourself a break. We all make mistakes.
42. Your thesis is a cruel mistress
As a PhD-student, you may find your partner (or friends, if you’re single) are coming second to your thesis.
That’s because you may feel that what it takes to be successful is to marry your thesis.
You then feel like you have to devote your entire life to it, pushing away other things that are important for a balanced life (like, say, friends, partners or hobbies).
But instead of marrying your thesis, treat it like a cruel mistress. See it as this part of your life that is doing its best to ruin you and to make your life as difficult as possible but that, because it’s just a mistress, you can keep it on the periphery as an addendum to an otherwise balanced, fulfilled life.
What does that mean in practice? It means showing up when you have to and letting it do its best to ruin you. But – and this is the crucial bit – it also means stepping away from it regularly, having clear PhD/life boundaries, not taking things too personally, and realising that your PhD is just one part of your life, not all of it.
43. Remember it’s 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. I was incredibly lonely during my PhD. I felt as though my problems and stresses were unique and that I was the only student in my cohort to be feeling them. That meant I put on a mask of competence.
So much so that my peers couldn’t tell that, underneath that mask, I was crumbling.
And the longer I wore that mask, the less connected I felt from my peers and the more I felt as though I was living a lie.
Are you the same? Do you have a mask? Are you suffering in silence?
What I found most liberating – and what cured my loneliness – was making myself vulnerable and sharing my challenges, frustrations and pain points with my PhD-peers. I opened up, talked about things we’d never really talked about and shared my inner thoughts, doubts and worries.
And the response amazed me.
Almost every one of my PhD colleagues shared similar stories of self-doubt and anxiety. They shared stories that sounded remarkably similar to mine. This led to strong bonds among us. We started to sympathise with one another more and look out for one another. In short, it fostered a shared identity and a stronger sense of community.
So, if you’re suffering behind your mask, speak out and share your struggles. The response may surprise you.
44. Take time off
We can kid ourselves and pretend every day is going to be a good one, or that we’re going to wake up with a spring in our step.
But life doesn’t work like that, and your PhD definitely doesn’t work like that.
Seemingly at random and without any apparent cause, you’re going to have days where you feel rubbish, or you don’t want to get out of bed. You’ll wake up with no confidence, or crippled with self-doubt, left wondering what the point of it all is, or why you even started a PhD in the first place.
It’s at times like this that you need to embrace the power of taking a day off.
You’re a human being as well as a PhD student, and you too deserve sick days. Use them.
If you teach, find cover. If you work in a lab, let your supervisor know you’re sick. If you have a chapter to finish, it’ll still be there when you come back.
Remember, just because you haven’t got physical symptoms doesn’t mean you don’t need some you-time, or to curl up on the sofa in front of the TV.
The benefits will be great. By recognising your low mood, recharging your batteries and taking time out to care for your own wellbeing you can avoid bigger problems in the long run and come back to your PhD the next day in a more positive frame of mind.
The alternative is that you fight through, fail to recognise that part of being human is having off-days, and then create bigger problems as you find your performance lacking and your stress levels rising.
Remember: Be a friend to yourself, particularly when the outlook is cloudy.
45. Recognise the power of incubation
There’s a special kind of fear that comes from starting the writing process and staring at a blank screen. The start of every chapter, proposal, abstract or paper can be filled with dread.
Do you find yourself lost for words when you first set out writing something? Or perhaps you know what you want to say, but aren’t sure how you’re going to arrive at that destination
With everything you write, you will have an objective or series of objectives in mind. In a chapter, for example, it’s the main argument you want to get across and the various sub-sections you use to build and validate that argument.
But getting your ideas and sub-sections in order (or even working out what they are in the first place) is tough.
So I use this one tip. When you’ve got that blank screen in front of you, your first job should be to sketch down your rough ideas. Create the skeleton plan for the chapter, proposal, or whatever else you’re writing. It’ll be rough around the edges; that’s fine.
Then the next step is to put the text to one side and do something else. Something completely different, ideally. Let me explain.
During my PhD, there were several moments when I was sitting in front of my computer writing that I found myself stuck. I couldn’t wrestle the ideas and concepts into the right order. Defeated, I’d turn off my computer and got on with my life. It was often during those non-writing moments that things would make sense. Something would ‘click’. When I wasn’t even thinking about it.
And that’s the point. It may not feel like it, but all the while you’re doing things other than writing, you’re incubating those early ideas you jotted down on paper. You’re processing them, relating them to what you already know and drawing on your experience, to the extent that the next time you sit down to write you’ll find the words flow much more easily.
Try it today. If you’re lost for words, sketch some rough ideas down on paper and then step away. Incubate those ideas and see if your writing doesn’t flow more easily next time you’re in the mood to write.
46. Realise that life is unfair
‘Life’s so unfair.’
If you ever find yourself saying that to yourself, ask yourself whether you are doing so because you assume that life should be fair, or because you think it will be fair if only x, y or z changed.
The truth is that life is unfair. The same is true of your PhD.
Things won’t go to plan, good work will get overlooked, more competent people will get promoted, and you will be treated unfairly.
It’s not right, nor is it rational, but it’s reality.
It’s plain unfair.
If you go through your PhD program assuming that life is fair, you will be disappointed as you confront the environment around you.
I don’t intend to be defeatist. Instead, by shifting your assumption about the world and your program – and thus assuming that it is, in fact, unfair – you better prepare yourself for those instances in which things don’t go to plan, or you do get treated badly.
The alternative is kidding yourself that things should go right and then getting thrown off balance when they inevitably don’t.
Building up this resilience is key to deflecting a lot of the irrational, nonsensical behaviours and outcomes you encounter on your PhD-journey. Without it, you’ll be disheartened.
47. Try a done list
When you look at your to-do list, how do you feel?
Anxious? Overwhelmed? Exhausted?
That’s because to-do lists are just a long list of things you haven’t yet done.
No doubt yours contains things that you don’t particularly want to do, or that you’re going to put off until you eventually admit defeat and get rid of them altogether.
But have you ever heard of a done list?
A done list is a way of tracking what you’ve already achieved rather than things you’ve yet to do.
Whilst a to-do list can be helpful in structuring your workflow, a done list is more rewarding. To-do lists can overwhelm, whereas done lists inspire.
That’s because the only things that matter are the things you actually do.
So if your to-do list is scaring you, also keep track of all your accomplished tasks on a done list.
You may find that it inspires you and offers a sense of reward for a hard day’s work.
48. Stop trying to improve things
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 are 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.
Focus on these, and your problems may start to look less problematic.
49. Embrace your flaws and imperfections
What is it you are hoping to achieve by letting that inner-critic run free and focus on all the things you’ve done wrong?
It’s as if, by viewing the imperfections in our persona and our work so negatively, we’re striving towards some ideal-type in which we never make mistakes and always produce work of the highest quality.
Part of that comes from the environment we’re in: our days can often be surrounded by excellence, by highly polished journal articles and well-honed lectures, and by accomplished professors drawing on all their skills and experience.
We’re left somewhere in the wake wondering where we went wrong.
But the academic world, given the value it places on excellence and expertise, often tends to overlook a simple human trait: we’re fallible and imperfect, and part of the joy of being human – or at least being a content human – is to embrace our imperfections rather than constantly try and fix them.
Now, this doesn’t mean you should stop seeking to improve, or that you should fail to address shortcomings in your own work. But it does mean that you should take other people off of their pedestals. You should recognise that humans fail, and they often do so spectacularly. It also means that just because someone on the outside looks fantastic, infallible, and seemingly untouchable, doesn’t mean that they aren’t hiding their own humanity.
Celebrate yours. Celebrate all the times you messed up, the times that taught you what you know and bought you where you are today. Embrace the things you don’t yet know and the things you wished you knew. Grab them, and hold on to them, for perfection, even if it were to exist, is a boring utopia.
Your PhD thesis.
All on one page.
Use our free PhD structure template to quickly visualise every element of your thesis.
50. You can’t assess the quality of your own work
Have you ever looked at something you’ve written and thought to yourself, ‘How am I ever going to graduate? What I’ve written is awful’?
We all have.
It’s human nature (at least amongst PhD students, it seems) to be critical of our own work. The perfectionist in you is never quite satisfied, no matter how much improvement you make.
But next time you find your inner critic telling you that what you’re doing isn’t up to standard, remember this: you’re the worst person to critique your work.
You’re too invested in it, to the extent that it clouds your ability to see all the positives. Plus, you know the writing and argumentation better than anyone. You know exactly what it is you are trying to say, and if the text on the page doesn’t match up you’re going to be critical of it, even though – chances are – what you’ve written is already solid.
Read through your work and be critical of it, sure, but recognise that you’re not an objective judge.
51. You’re the only one who has heard it all
When you’re writing your thesis, you have to remember that you know more about your research and your study than your reader does. You know all the detail, all the quirks and you know how the thesis ends.
When the reader opens your thesis, they don’t know any of this.
Yet sometimes when we write we forget that. We write as if the reader is as knowledgeable as we are, and in the process, we confuse them.
So whenever you’re writing, remember that disconnect between what you already know and what the ready is yet to know. Write clearly, signpost and guide the reader on the journey you want to take them.
52. Remember what you’re a part of
When you started your PhD, you did so with a sense of wonder. But somehow the wonder of it wasn’t enough, and you stopped wondering and started to wonder about yourself.
We start our PhDs with such noble intentions, driven by an urge to explore and uncover.
Yet as we progress, we start to make everything so messy; we don’t keep it simple. We get so bogged down in the minor details, worrying unnecessarily about our own competence or what we’re doing with our lives, or overthinking the mechanics of our PhDs, that life as a PhD student becomes so in-ordinarily complicated.
You’ll only be a PhD student once. Your moment to be a part of this community happens only briefly. The challenge is not to show how inventive you are, or how colourful your PhD can be, but rather to see how much you can enjoy it, how much you can notice and relish what you are part of.
That way, you’ll get to the end of it having had a great time.
53. Focus on what you do have, not on what you don’t
I want you to stop and ask yourself whether you spend more time focusing on what you haven’t done and not enough time focusing on what you have.
When we’re feeling frustrated at our progress, or when we’re convinced that we’re not up to the job, it’s easy to look at others and see the apparent ease with which they navigate the literature or the speed with which they produce chapters or the number of publications they already have.
We do so and instinctively look at our own work, telling ourselves, ‘If only I do these things, or have these things, or complete these things, I will finally be happy with my PhD and won’t be so stressed’.
But this is a form of torture. Not only is it a needless form of suffering, but it is built on a fundamental misunderstanding about what actually makes us happy and what makes us content with the progress we are making in our PhDs.
Contentment in your PhD comes not from what you haven’t done, or what you haven’t produced, but instead from what you have.
It’s the small things that matter: the hurdles you overcame to get here; the brilliant feedback on that chapter; the chance to work with that brilliant professor; getting 100 words down on paper when all you wanted to do was sleep; heck, even just turning up is an achievement sometimes.
So our problem when we are feeling stressed, unfulfilled or lacking in sufficient progress is not one of means or outcomes, but of perspective. We spend so long looking at what we lack, and not enough time at the achievements and pleasures that are already under our belt.
Give yourself time to appreciate these things and you may find that some of your PhD-stress lifts off your shoulders.
54. Your PhD is unique. Just like everyone else’s
We’re social creatures, which means we take comfort in situating ourselves in relation to others.
Most of the time, this isn’t a problem, and can actually give us a good indication of what to do, when to do it and how to do it.
But when it comes to your PhD, comparing yourself to others can be misleading.
There are two traps students often fall into:
1. They may compare their progress to that of their peers.
2. They may look to the papers, research and studies of others and think to themselves ‘why doesn’t my research look/sound/work like theirs’?
If you’re guilty of any of these, you’re overlooking the fact that PhDs are all unique.
Students progress at different rates because of the nature of their study and the nature of their skillset.
And your research may not read or be structured like that of someone you look up to, largely because your research is different and you write and structure your work in your own way.
Learn and draw inspiration from others, sure, but recognise that every PhD and every PhD student is unique. You all work and progress in different ways, and although you’ll go about it differently, you’ll all eventually end up at the same destination.
55. 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.
56. Make sure your goals are small and manageable
It is important to plan for the future and have goals in your PhD.
But there is an important thing to point out:
They need to be realistic and manageable.
If you’re anything like I was when I was sitting in your position, I would set lofty, ambitious goals that would, in effect, require me to work at 100% for 100% of the time.
I quickly failed.
Over the years, both during the PhD and in my career afterwards, I have learnt the importance of setting more realistic, manageable goals. Doing so is an act of kindness because the only person you’re kidding (and letting down) by setting lofty goals is yourself. By making them more realistic, not only do you avoid piling on unnecessary stress, but you increase your chances of actually meeting them.
There’s no shame in it either. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and your next chapter won’t be either. It will take as long as it takes. Understand your limits, be kind on yourself, accept your fallibility and have faith that small steps in the right direction will get you where you need to go.
57. Notice when you’re worrying unnecessarily
When I was doing my PhD it seemed as though most of my time was taken up with constantly over-thinking things.
So much so, that I used to spend hours trying to solve unsolvable problems, plan and predict the future of my PhD, or try and make sense of every minute detail of my PhD research and thesis.
It’s likely that you do the same.
That’s because we often assume that, so long as we think hard enough, we will crack what it is we are worrying about.
But that isn’t true. Sure, there is a space for creative problem solving, but ruminating – going over and over the same things in your head – is unproductive and, to be frank, a waste of time. It can distract you from the present, can raise your anxiety levels and can foster an unhealthy relationship with your thesis.
Try and catch yourself when you find yourself ruminating and ask yourself whether you’ve strayed across the boundary from healthy problem solving to unhealthy rumination. If you have, consciously divert your attention and step away from the thought process.
58. Your PhD will always be there
Your PhD, at least until you graduate, is a never-ended pit of tasks, worry and things to do.
No matter how much you work, no matter how much you think or write, or how much you worry, the PhD will always be there. It’ll always be there to occupy more of your time or mental and emotional capacity, and no matter how much you invest in it, it’ll demand more. It’s as though it is never satisfied.
This may sound apocalyptic, but instead, I want to use this observation to make an important point, one that’s relevant throughout your PhD journey: you need to delineate PhD time and your time. You need to be clear when the times are that you think, work and worry on or about your thesis, and when the times are that you focus on hobbies, self-care or other non-PhD things.
If you don’t, you run the risk of being consumed by your thesis as it seeks to take more and more from you.
59. One day you’ll overtake your supervisor
All throughout your undergraduate and master’s programmes, you were very much the student and your professors and lecturers were there as the experts, teaching you what they know.
And when you start your PhD, your supervisor is more of an expert in your field than you are. It’s their job to help you navigate along the PhD journey and get to grips with the literature and state of the art.
In other words, they’re there to teach you because they know more about the field than you do.
But there comes a time in every PhD where you become an expert, where you become so plugged into the literature and the data that you know more about your topic and area of study than your supervisor. Sure, it may only be within the niche of your PhD topic, but it’s important to recognise when this switchover takes place.
That’s because it has important implications for the supervisor-student relationship. Before this point, their opinion and input have more power and you would be wise to listen to their advice. But as you reach and go beyond this point, you can begin to exert your own academic muscles and start to recognise where their advice may be inappropriate or misplaced, given what you know and they don’t.
Inevitably, you become the expert and it becomes your job to act and talk like one.
That’s the point of a PhD, right?
60. Having crap writing is better than no writing
In my free time, I like to go running.
I remember when I first started, I used to be harsh on myself because I was slow and was being overtaken by people much fitter than me.
But my perception changed when I got one piece of advice:
“You might not be the fastest, but you’re overtaking everyone sitting on the couch”.
And it’s the same when it comes to writing your PhD.
You may not have a finished draft yet, and you may not be happy with what you’ve written. Heck, you may only have ten words on the page.
But having some words on the page is better than having no words on the page.
Don’t be too harsh on yourself if you haven’t made the progress you aimed for, or you still have a lot of writing to do.
Instead, congratulate yourself on the writing you have done, not the writing you haven’t.
61. Nothing you read is irrelevant
I remember from my own PhD that I would often ask myself what the relevance was of a particular article or book chapter, particularly in the early years. I would read and wonder where it fitted into the grander PhD-picture.
One day a professor gave me a great piece of advice:
“Nothing you read is irrelevant. One day, maybe years down the line, you’ll remember that article or book and it’ll play an important role in ways you can’t yet imagine”.
And they were right.
In the later stages of my PhD, I found myself remembering back to articles and chapters that I had previously written off as irrelevant and realising that they could be useful.
So keep reading, make detailed notes when you do so, and don’t worry too much if you can’t work out how everything fits. That’ll all come later.
62. Sometimes you’ve just got to suck it up
Being irritated about progress in your PhD is a choice.
Your PhD won’t always go to plan, you will get things wrong and you will have sleepless nights about whether you’re on the right track.
That’s just how PhDs work.
Now, you can either let that eat you up and irritate you, or you can choose to recognise it as part of the PhD-journey and try not to take it to personally.
In other words, you can choose to not let your PhD irritate you.
63. You need to learn from your mistakes
We won’t get things right all of the time. The world just doesn’t work like that.
We’re going to mess up. A lot.
That’s just part of being human and part of being a PhD student.
Sometimes those mistakes are innocent and have little effect on our lives or our PhDs, but sometimes they are more serious and can have a lasting impact and can take a long time to rectify.
But in either case, you can use the mistake as an opportunity to ask yourself a really powerful, effective question, one that can allow you to harness a negative experience and try – as much as possible – to turn it into a positive one.
The question is: what can I learn from this mistake?
64. There’s no right answer
The hardest thing I found when I was doing my PhD was that there’s no right or wrong way of doing one.
Sure, there are guides, templates and books you can read, but ultimately each PhD is different and each PhD students works in different ways.
So instead of a right or a wrong way, there’s just your way.
Now that’s all well and good, but the really terrifying part of it is that we often we don’t know whether our way of doing things is effective until years down the line when we face our examiners at the viva.
This requires incredible trust in your own abilities and faith that the decisions you make today – and the decisions you made yesterday – are made in good faith and reflect the fact that you are trying the best you can.
Believe in yourselves, form design, writing and research decisions on the basis of logical thought processes, keep putting in the effort and you’ll get there in the end.
65. The PhD journey isn’t linear
When you speak to your supervisor or read books or guides on conducting PhD research, you are often made to think that the research process is linear.
This makes people panic because if your research doesn’t fit into neat little linear boxes there is a tendency to think that you’re doing something wrong.
Which is nonsense, because the research process is never linear.
Instead, it’s a mess. Sure, there are various stages involved in a PhD (e.g. planning, writing, researching, and so on), but you’ll find yourself moving back and forward between different stages – even stages that are seemingly far apart – all the time.
In my PhD, for example, I redefined my research objective and problem slightly after I had collected data. I even made small changes to my research question as I was writing up.
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.
And you know what? That’s fine; that’s just the way research works.
66. It’s okay to take a break
During my PhD, I totally burnt out.
I had too much going on for me professionally and emotionally. I crumbled and found I could barely function day to day.
Riddled with anxiety and crushed by the weight of the world, I spoke to my supervisor. To my surprise, they were completely understanding and supported my decision to take a short break from my PhD to give myself time to recharge.
When I came back, I was more energised than ever and made up for the lost time. If I had stayed without a break, my productivity would have reached zero. By taking a break, I mitigated that and got back up to 100%. It was in my interests to drop everything and step away from the PhD.
The people who are overseeing your PhD are human; they’ve been where you are and know the stress you’re under. By honest with them if you’re struggling and know that it’s okay – and often preferable – to take a break if you’re struggling to stay afloat.
67. Your PhD doesn’t define you
The PhD journey can take over your life. The deadlines, supervision meetings, fieldwork, writing up and the extra-curricular anxiety and worry can, if you’re not careful, start to define and encompass your entire life.
Sure, your PhD is important, but it doesn’t and shouldn’t fully define your life. You are more than your thesis and you have more to offer the world and yourself right now.
Tap into the things you do (or did) outside of your thesis that you enjoy (you may need to learn time management skills in order to carve out the time to do this), start to see yourself as a human first and PhD student second and start learning that there is more to life than your PhD thesis.
Why? Because it means that when your PhD gets tough and starts to put pressure on you (which it will, for sure), it won’t make your entire life stressful and difficult, just one part of a holistic, more balanced existence.
68. Your PhD needs to tell a story
Your PhD thesis is a story and as a thesis writer, you’re a storyteller.
This has two implications.
First, your thesis will have a distinct beginning, middle and end. Your beginning is the introduction, lit review, theory framework and the methods chapter. It’s where you set the scene, introduce the characters and signpost the plot. The middle is your empirical work. This is where you get down to business and flesh out that plot. The end is your discussion chapter and conclusion. It’s where you tie everything together, complete the story (by answering the research questions) and set up the sequel (with questions for further research).
Second, you have to think like a storyteller. Guide the reader through your story. You may know how it ends, but the reader won’t so don’t assume they do. Make everything really clear, don’t confuse them by failing to properly introduce plotlines (concepts, ideas, theories, and so on) and guide them gently. Hold their hand almost Importantly, write with confidence! You’re the expert; don’t be afraid to speak like one.
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69. Savour the joy of simply being
There’s always something to complain about or something not quite going to plan. There’s always room for improvement or things we’d do differently next time around. Always. That will never change.
But there’s also so much joy to be had from simply being and from recognising – and being fully aware of the fact – that you’re sat where you are, that you’re a PhD scholar and that you’re part of something far, far bigger than yourself. There’s always joy to be found, no matter how bleak the outlook.
You’ll always, once you dig deep enough, find that the very fact that you’re alive, reading this and doing something as wonderful, challenging and (ultimately) rewarding as a PhD is something worth celebrating. Whilst at the surface there may be pain, if you scratch deep you’ll find joy.
70. Let a stranger read your work
Yesterday I held a coaching session with someone who had been stuck on a particular problem for a long while. It was causing them stress and anxiety, but over the course of an hour, they could see a light at the end of the tunnel and a way to solve their problems.
Don’t worry, this isn’t an advert. Instead, I want to share with you the insight I had during and after the call. I realised that what helped in this situation was that they had someone independent of the research take a look through their work and offer their thoughts.
There’s so much value in having a stranger offer their input.
That’s because we’re too invested in our own work to be able to think clearly. We fixate on the wrong things, we create problems where none exist and, because our vision is blurred, we can’t see solutions even when they’re staring us right in the face.
But when you hand over your problem to a stranger, they don’t have the same investment. They are looking at things from an impartial perspective and don’t have the same prejudices and pre-convictions. That means they can see much more clearly what’s broken and, importantly, how to fix it.
So my advice to you today is this: if you’re stuck on something and you can find a solution, talk to someone independent of your research. Ideally, that would be a fellow academic or anyone else who understands the research process. The point is, you should ask for support from someone who has no investment in your project but has the skills necessary to offer solutions. Even just talking through your issue for a few minutes could help.
You will likely find that even a quick chat about your problem with this person can save you days or even weeks of headache and unnecessary worry.
71. Savour the good days and be kind to yourself on the bad ones
Not every day is going to be a good day. Sure, some will be brilliant. You’ll get everything done, you’ll find your flow, things will just ‘happen’.
But others will suck. You’ll be in a down mood, or your experiments fail. Whatever it is, you’ll have days you just want to forget.
Before I’ve talked about the danger of expecting every day to be a good one and the power in embracing the imperfection of life.
Today the advice is this: because life is imperfect, really savour the good days. See them as a treat, something that doesn’t happen often and something that should be truly appreciated. Remind yourself how lucky you are, savour the moment and be grateful for the experience.
But, on the flip side, be kind on yourself when you have a bad day. Remind yourself that not every day can be good and that what won’t help things is letting your internal critic get the better of you.
Savour the good days, be kind to yourself on the bad ones.
72. Realise that routines are safe
Routines feel safe. They’re predictable, we can plan around them, we can plan for them and we know that, so long as we keep doing our thing, we’ll get everything done that we need to.
But sometimes you’ll be away from your routine. You might be at a conference or home for the holidays. You may be out of the country or forced away from the familiarity of day to day, for whatever reason.
It is at these times that we realise just how comforting routine can be. We notice the lack of structure, the lack of familiarity or the difficulty with which we accomplish tasks that we previously found easy as we struggle to get in the zone. We might struggle to concentrate, or to focus, or to even find a place appropriate for work.
But you must power on through. You must prioritise what’s important and, however hard, get on with it. Carve out time, however unfamiliar. Routines are safe, sure, but that doesn’t mean that a lack of routine is dangerous for your workflow; you just need to be more creative and lower your expectations for how productive you can be.
Find the time, prioritise the important stuff and go easy on yourself. That way, you’ll get the stuff done that matters, even when you’re feeling unstable and insecure.
73. Some days you’ll want to do nothing
A byproduct of our modern-day obsession with efficiency, maximisation and optimisation is an underlying guilt if we ourselves fail to operate according to such principles.
For many of us – myself included – there is a tendency to feel as though down-time, or time spent doing something that isn’t work- or PhD-related, is in some way a ‘waste’ of time.
But to think like this is to assume that efficiency and productivity are what we should be achieving all of the time when in fact we’re only human and we will always have our off-days.
If we walk around thinking it’s possible to always be on the ball, we’re going to be disappointed and feel like we’re failing when the inevitable happens and we do have off days, aren’t on our A-game, or we spend the afternoon napping when we should be working (any guesses how I spent yesterday afternoon?).
Instead, shift your mindset to begin to embrace the moments when you’re not at your peak. Start to see them as a natural part of being a fallible human. Look at the longer-term picture, and track your productivity and efficiency, say, on a weekly basis, rather than hour by hour or day by day. Start to recognise when you’re exhausted or when your heart’s not in it and embrace it; use it as a chance to leave your desk and step away from the thesis.
To do so will start to liberate you from the internal critic within you who may be trying to attack you for having personal time and who may be creating unrealistic expectations that you’ll never be able to achieve.
74. Take the first step
Elsewhere in this post, I talked about the importance of having a plan in place for the top-level, structural detail before you start getting bogged down with tasks. Without knowing the structure of, say, a chapter, it is hard to assign and then execute tasks in a way that is efficient and productive.
But that doesn’t mean that you need to know all the detail. It doesn’t mean you need to know, say, exactly how the entire chapter is structured before you can start writing.
Instead, you need to know enough detail to be able to take the first step. Enough to get the first word on paper, or conduct the first experiment. Plans are fluid and they’re necessarily incomplete.
So if you’re struggling to see the end-point, just do all you can to be able to take that first step.
75. You won’t keep up with everyone else
There’s a tendency amongst all of us – PhD students or not – to compare ourselves with those around us.
This is particularly true when we’re working on our theses. We can look to those around us and feel like we’re alarmingly behind, or worryingly ahead of where everyone else is.
Some of those you look at and compare yourself too may have done their fieldwork, or may have even written draft chapters in their first year. Or it may be you who is ahead, now worrying that you’ve been working too quickly.
The truth is, everyone works at different speeds, either because of their own skills and preferences or because of the type of project or methodology they are engaging with.
Those using grounded theory, for example, may get their fieldwork finished surprisingly early. What’s more, just because someone has written a draft chapter in their first year, that doesn’t mean that it’s any good and won’t need substantial revisions later on.
So my advice to you is to focus on your thesis and try to avoid measuring your progress relative to others. Work with your supervisory team and listen to their advice.
Plus, reflect on whether you’re working slowly or quickly not in terms of other people, but in terms of your own skills or aptitudes. Are you getting bored and struggling to fill the days? Probably time to work a bit harder. Do you feel exhausted and stressed? It’s best to slow down, in that case.
76. Understand the difference between tasks and projects
Your PhD is one big project and each of the chapters is one smaller project.
All involve countless smaller tasks.
But trying to work on tasks when you haven’t clearly defined and outlined the nature of the higher-order project can mean that you waste time, wander aimlessly and have to perform u-turns.
Work out the top-level detail – the chapter plans, the aims and objectives, the research questions, and the epistemology or ontology, for example – before you start to work on the lower-level tasks. That way, you’ll save time, work more efficiently, and have a better sense of direction.
77. Set intentions
You may find yourself struggling for motivation, or wondering where the time goes as you bounce from one week to the next.
Sitting down at the beginning of each week and even at the beginning of each day and setting your intentions can make a huge difference.
Five minutes is all it takes; you may choose to set yourself a few tasks (e.g. write section 1, read that article, and so on), or you may be more emotion-oriented (e.g. be kinder to myself, stop procrastinating, or connect with others).
Whatever it is, the simple act of setting intentions can subtly shift your mindset and outlook over the course of a day or a week.
So next time you’re struggling to get up speed, try it and see what effect it has.
78. Remember that, if a PhD was easy, everyone would have one
If a PhD was easy, more people would have one.
The truth is that they’re hard. They always have been and they always will be. And yours will get no easier.
This has two implications.
First, you need to accept that the only route to a successful thesis is putting the hours in, knuckling down and getting on with the job.
Two, you also need to accept that, although things don’t get any easier, you do get better at managing that difficulty. You build up new skillsets and develop intellectual and emotional resilience that means that the days do start to get easier, even if the workload doesn’t.
79. Being shot out of a cannon doesn’t work
In the course of your PhD, you’re going to have moments where you swing wildly and hit the target right on point. The home runs, if you will.
You’ll see them in others, and you’ll see how we all celebrate them: the blockbuster papers, the dream job offers, the passes with no corrections.
They’re appealing, but they’re not worth chasing. You can’t plan for them, and you certainly can’t build a strategy out of them.
However, you can build a strategy out of slow, steady perseverance, out of showing up each day and putting in the hours. Taking one step at a time will get you where you need to go more predictably and precisely than being shot out of a cannon.
Don’t plan for the home runs, but embrace them when they come.
80. Your finished thesis won’t look like the one you first 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, I got anxious about the fact that my research was deviating from this original research proposal, especially as I had funding awarded for it.
I was worried that the thesis I submitted would look very little like the research I had proposed.
I had no need to be. That’s how research works, and it’s entirely natural for the finished text to be different.
We can’t predict the future, so a proposal is somewhat of a hunch or a guess about what you think may happen over the next three, four, five years or longer. Then, when we start the research proper and enter the field, we face reality and see how things really are.
What’s more, when we plan our research, we often have lofty ambitions about revolutionising our field. Then, as time goes on, we develop a sense of pragmatism and realism such that our project becomes much more specialised.
Seen in that light, it’s entirely understandable that the project evolves over time.
So if you’re one of those worrying about deviating from your proposal, try not to. That’s because, providing it’s based on a sound reading of the data and literature, such deviation is an entirely normal part of the research process.
Wrapping up: You can forge your own path
Every PhD is different and, more importantly, every PhD student has their own way of doing things.
So, if some of the tips and techniques I suggest don’t resonate, or you can’t see how to apply them to your context or your way of thinking, that’s fine. That’s just a reflection of your unique qualities.
There will be some things you read that make complete sense, but others that you find harder to wrap your head around. Again, that’s fine.
But what that implies is a need for ongoing critical reflection of how you do things and how you can best manage your PhD. It means taking advice and tips you read – whether from this post, The PhD Knowledge Base or elsewhere – and asking whether and how they fit into your PhD-life.
It also means you need to gain a thorough understanding of how you work (and how you don’t) so you know how you can best manage your PhD and what resources are the most useful in helping you do so. However you do it, have faith in your ability and keep turning up. Over time, you’ll end up exactly where you need to be.
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