Is PhD Perfectionism Slowing You Down?

board-786119_1280Do you suffer from perfectionism? With the constant pressure to achieve in academia it is no surprise that perfectionism is so prevalent among students. The consequences of perfectionism can be quite debilitating, as a recent study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences reveals a correlation between perfectionism and depression.

While the causes may vary from case-to-case, more often than not, perfectionism stems from a fear of making mistakes. The prospect of making a mistake in and of itself may not be the issue, but more specifically what the mistake might reveal. I’ve noticed this particularly among PhD students and I would argue it has a lot to do with how the PhD process is framed.

When students reach the level of a PhD  – the highest stage in their educational path  –  it can feel like an honour and privilege, but it may at the same time feel quite overwhelming. I often hear doctoral students saying ‘I don’t deserve to be here’ or ‘I’m not good enough to be in my programme.’ In such cases, the weight of the PhD is accompanied with a fear of somehow not being up to the task.

Within this context the prospect of making any mistakes has the capacity to serve as unequivocal proof that we don’t belong where we are or that we aren’t good enough. Determined not to let this happen, many students obsess over every detail of their PhDs and may even find excuses not to share drafts of their work. In this way, perfectionism may temporarily serve us by protecting us from making mistakes, yet it also risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is because perfectionist behaviour inevitably slows us down and therein feeds into the idea that we are not good enough.

Since cultivating a sense of worthiness is not an overnight job, shifting our expectations of the PhD itself may offer the best way to manage perfectionism. With this in mind, there are a few points relating to the PhD that are important to highlight.

1) It Doesn’t Need to be a Masterpiece

Have a look at some of the PhD theses in your university library. You’ll find that they aren’t masterpieces that reinvent the wheel in their respective disciplines. In stark contrast to being overly ambitious, the purpose of a PhD thesis is to answer a single question or problem within a set of clearly defined parameters. In this regard, a PhD thesis tends to open up as many questions as answers and, as such, need not be perfect.

2) You Just Need to Pass

Remember that the PhD examination is a straightforward pass or fail assessment, and all you need to do is obtain a passing mark. Recalling that the thesis will not be graded in the traditional sense may help to alleviate some of the anxiety associated with it.

3) You Will Revise It Anyways

PhD theses are rarely, if ever, published as they are. Typically, students are expected to revise their theses prior to publication. This is the case whether the PhD consists of a larger book-style thesis or a series of separate papers. The likely need for some form of revision or updating may further lessen some of the pressure associated with producing a ‘perfect’ piece of work.

4) Research is Always Evolving

As unsatisfying as it may seem, the truth about academic research is that it’s never really done. By its very nature, academic research is dynamic and continuously evolving. There are aspects of any piece of research that would benefit from being updated, improved, or revised in line with recent developments and new discoveries. This is yet another reason why aiming to produce a perfect PhD may be counterproductive.

As the above points demonstrate, shifting our expectations of the PhD is an important first step in overcoming perfectionism. When we have a more realistic picture of what the PhD entails, we can start to let go of the fear of making mistakes and perhaps even embrace the inevitable imperfections in our work.

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