Every PhD thesis is unique. And so is every PhD student.
Over the years I’ve worked with hundreds of PhD students from around the world and, whilst they all have their own perspectives and pain points, it’s surprising how many students struggle with the same things.
If I were to divide those struggles into two halves I’d broadly say that students struggle with both the practical and logistical challenges of structuring the thesis and individual chapters, and also the emotional and wellbeing challenges that come from simply being a PhD student.
Even within this broad delineation, there are surprising commonalities. When it comes to the practical, logistical challenges, the vast majority of the work we do here as thesis coaches revolves around clearing up confusion around the purpose and structure of the lit review and theoretical framework.
And when it comes to wellbeing, we see the same pain points all the time: feelings of inadequacy, imposter syndrome, procrastination, poor supervision, and a sense of overwhelm or confusion.
Yet what is always startling to me is how common it is for students I work with to feel like their struggles are unique.
I certainly did when I was in your shoes. I struggled with all of the things I’ve listed above but didn’t verbalise that struggle to my peers.
Over time I began to internalise the idea that there was something wrong with me, or that I wasn’t up to the task of completing the PhD. ‘Surely I should be able to understand this stuff, right?’
It’s only now, years later, that I realise how common these struggles are. That doesn’t discount the seriousness of them – your feelings are real and do have an impact – but it should show you that there’s nothing wrong with you.
The only thing ‘wrong’ is that a PhD is an incredibly stressful, difficult endeavour, and it’s inevitable that you’re going to be confused and find things tough.
Remember, if a PhD were easy, more people would have one.
So what can you take from this? First, realise that what you’re feeling is normal. Second, you’re not alone in feeling it. Third, talk about it. The more you talk to your peers – and overcome any sense of vulnerability attached with doing so – the more you’ll realise how others around you share similar pain points. Beyond being cathartic, this will give you more space to talk and share your feelings with others.
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