The vast majority of students begin their PhDs with a very clear idea of what they want to do. In fact, most PhD programmes require applicants to submit a research proposal as part of their application and it is on this basis that a student is offered a place.
Given the vital role of a research proposal in terms of gaining admission into a doctoral programme, it is understandable why students attach great importance to it. The proposal serves as both a road map for students and a guide for executing their research. In reality, however, most doctoral students do not stick to their research proposals. The end result of their PhD can often look quite different when contrasted to what was stated in their original plan. How do we account for the discrepancy between a student’s research proposal and their completed doctorate?
The initial plan we come into a PhD programme with is often an idealized version of what we imagine our research journey to be before we have taken any steps on the path. As soon as we begin to get further into our research, not only do we get a sense of where the project needs to go, we also start to realize how much we don’t know about our topics. Gaps in our initial proposal become evident, new questions emerge, and different avenues of inquiry start to open up. None of these things would have been apparent before starting the PhD and it is really only by getting further into your topic that such things come into view.
In this sense, any departure from your original proposal is a natural part of pursuing a PhD. You may decide of your own accord that your proposal was overly ambitious and requires paring down; that there is a substantial piece missing in your research design; or that an emerging trend needs to be incorporated into your project.
While changing the direction of your PhD project may be your decision, it is still bound to feel a little uncomfortable. This is particularly the case if changing direction will involve discarding any material you have already produced, as it so often does. It can be extremely frustrating to dispense with material that may admittedly no longer fit, but which you nonetheless spent a considerable amount of time on. Unfortunately, no one warns you prior to starting a PhD just how much material you won’t end up using in the final version. It can easily feel as though you’ve wasted your time and created more work for yourself, but it’s important to continue to focus on the bigger picture.
Even with the frustration of discarding material, any changes to the initial idea for your research should still be viewed in a generally positive light. Aside from being a natural part of the PhD journey, changing direction is actually a sign of progress. When you get to the point of determining the most appropriate direction for your research – and are confident enough to change the project accordingly – what it really means is that your expertise and knowledge base are developing.
Try not to despair if you’ve had to significantly alter your project. You are much closer to the finish line than you might think.
The difficulty with progress at the PhD level is that the assessment of whether or not we’ve made any is almost entirely a subjective one. Aside from those relatively infrequent assessments during the course of a PhD, including upgrade panels or transfer vivas, there is very little evaluation of our work. Even the interaction we have with our supervisors and their assessments of our work is limited and irregular at best. The majority of the time, we are left to our own devices, which means that it is up to us to assess our progress on a day-to-day basis.
In the absence of any other obvious yardstick to assess progress, I’ve noticed that the default setting for PhD students is to rely on their overall word count as a supposedly objective measure. If the aim is to write a thesis of 100,000 words, surely the number of words we have produced by the end of the day can be a proxy for whether or not we are on track?
Although your word count may seem like the most obvious and reliable way to measure your progress, there is so much more that goes into producing a thesis than simply writing a set number of words. There are days when you might not write very much, or anything at all, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t making progress. Consider skimming 10 articles and realising only two are relevant to your thesis. This could be a day where you feel like you haven’t progressed at all, but sorting through literature and deciding what will be included in your final bibliography is indeed forward momentum.
Even if we dispense with word count as an indicator of progress, we still need an alternative yardstick to determine that we are on track, or at the very least, a supplementary one. One option would be to utilise a PhD Process Journal in conjunction with, or instead of, relying on word count. The journal could, for instance, include all of the actions short of writing that still bring us closer to completing our thesis. Writing it out may help us to feel forward movement on tasks that may otherwise go unnoticed. It may also give a more realistic picture of our progress than one based on word count alone. The example of going to the library and determining sources to incorporate in our bibliography could be included as an entry.
A further option for assessing progress could be entirely time-focused, as discussed in a previous post. For instance, you might wish to make a note of how many Pomodoro rounds you manage to complete on a given day. Since a Pomodoro round would count as uninterrupted time that you are putting into your thesis, it is a helpful way to keep track of your productivity. It also enables you to put much less emphasis on the task – which in the case of a thesis may seem never-ending – and focus more on the hours that are put into it. A variation of this could be something like the Forest App, which allows you to physically see the progress you are making on the basis of the time invested.
A final way to keep track of your progress without exclusively relying on your word count is to work with an accountability partner. By communicating on a regular basis, you and your accountability partner can mutually support each other in achieving your goals. The idea would be that you have a set meeting to determine your goals and a further check in to evaluate your progress. It might also be an opportunity to discuss any challenges that came up for you and to brainstorm possible solutions to those challenges. Depending on what your needs are, you can check in with your accountability partner daily, weekly or even monthly.
As the above approaches highlight, even when you feel like you aren’t making progress on your PhD, chances are you probably are. While word count provides one possible yardstick for measuring progress, the alternative approaches explored here tend to provide a better reflection of PhD progress. What they allow for is a much more comprehensive account of the work that actually goes into producing a PhD.
When we first embark on the journey towards obtaining a PhD we do so with the best intentions. We envisage a smooth path ahead of us and the key milestones we intend to reach along the way. What we don’t anticipate are the unexpected situations that throw us off course – things that obstruct our path or force us to make a detour.
On average it takes approximately four years to complete a PhD and there is certainly a lot that can happen within that time. We are often different people by the time we come out on the other side. Our personal circumstances may change, our families may endure a crisis, or we could end up experiencing financial hardship. The roadblocks we encounter could also be directly related to our research. Perhaps the topic we had decided to write on is no longer feasible or we’ve run into problems with our supervisor.
Although we can take steps to mitigate certain roadblocks, others are impossible to foresee. The COVID-19 Pandemic is an excellent example of this. No one saw it coming, yet it has had a momentous impact on all higher education institutions. Regular working patterns have been disturbed by the requirement to work from home, field work has been disrupted by travel restrictions, and universities have been forced to shift to a virtual learning environment overnight. No amount of planning or foresight could have prepared us for this crisis. Every student pursuing their PhD can feel the impact of this situation and has had to find ways to adapt.
Whatever type of roadblock we encounter, from a personal crisis to a global pandemic, the consequences from a PhD perspective are almost always the same. Most roadblocks on the PhD path result in delays, which will likely mean requesting an extension or an interruption of studies. In other words, an already lengthy process gets drawn out further.
The prospect of a protracted PhD, irrespective of the reasons that necessitate it, can be a difficult pill for a doctoral student to swallow. In fact, I’ve never come across a PhD student that is content with the amount of time their PhD journey has taken them. Most tend to despair at the length of time that it takes and judge themselves rather harshly for not being able to complete it more swiftly. As such, the notion of requesting additional time is not likely to be greeted with enthusiasm.
Some of the concern with prolonging the PhD derives from a fear that our work may become outdated if we submit it later than planned. Nevertheless, the time-frame is less important than it may at first appear. For instance, if you select any piece of work, there will always be scope for updating, improving, or revising it in line with recent developments. Academic research is, by its very nature, dynamic and continuously evolving – never really ‘done’. It is simply a snapshot at a specific moment in time and, therefore, the time-frame for completing your thesis is likely to be much more flexible than you have come to believe.
A further reason why a delay may not seem appealing stems from the stigma of finishing behind your peers. If you end up taking more time and your peers finish before you, what will it look like? And, more crucially, what will it mean? Although you began your PhD journey with a peer group, it is important to remember that you are each on individual paths. Every project is unique, as is each student’s working patterns and personal circumstances. Any supposed competition between you and your peers is more imagined than real. The bottom line is that whether you submit before or after them makes absolutely no difference at all. The PhD is not a race to the finish line.
Taking more time to finish your thesis as a result of a roadblock is by no means something to be embarrassed about. When you look back at your completed PhD, the fact that you persisted despite challenges is a testament to your dedication and perseverance. Staying the course in the face of roadblocks is something to be proud of and celebrated.
I’ve worked with my fair share of bright, talented and hardworking PhD students over the years. While their backgrounds and projects may have varied considerably, there was one factor that every single one of them had in common – none of them felt they were actually good enough to be doing a PhD! These students were crippled with a form of self-doubt that I believe is very much endemic to completing a doctorate.
A PhD is the highest degree awarded in academia, so it’s no wonder that doctoral students experience a significant level of self-doubt as they embark on this journey. What I found to be quite striking were the range of stories they told me – and most importantly themselves – about how ill-prepared they were for the task ahead.
Whether it was because they had crossed over from another discipline, or perhaps they had switched to the PhD from an entirely different field altogether. Or it could have simply been a consequence of the unfamiliar ground they were treading in their research which made them feel out of their depth. Whatever the circumstances, these students had managed to convince themselves that they didn’t belong in a PhD programme. Their aim was to simply get through and hope no one would take notice of the fact that they didn’t actually belong.
After hearing these stories time and time again, I noticed that what so many students were suffering from is an academic version of the Imposter Syndrome. According to the Harvard Business Review, Imposter Syndrome can be defined as ‘a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success.’[i]The interesting thing about Imposter Syndrome is that it affects people in all walks of life irrespective – or perhaps owing to – their levels of success. In her recently published autobiography, Michelle Obama acknowledged her own struggles with Imposter Syndrome.[ii]
While Imposter Syndrome can affect just about anybody, I believe it has particular purchase in university settings and that PhD students are especially prone. In fact, I have yet to come across a single PhD student who hasn’t experienced some element of ‘Academic Imposter Syndrome’ throughout their PhD journey.
There are several aspects of a PhD that make doctoral students likely candidates for Imposter Syndrome. First and foremost, academia is by its very nature a competitive domain that tends to attract high achievers. A doctoral thesis sets out to make a significant contribution towards the furtherance of knowledge in a specific area, with each student expected to write as an authority on his or her subject. In this sense, a PhD student commences their doctoral journey with something to prove to others and to themselves.
While this can amount to a significant degree of pressure on one’s shoulders, this pressure is compounded by the reality that PhD theses are independent projects. Despite having a supervisor, most doctoral students are offered very little guidance on the process of completing their doctorates, what benchmarks they are required to meet throughout or how to even start.
For many, the voice of the imposter ends up permeating all aspects of the PhD. It facilitates an unwinnable comparison between themselves and others, with the perpetual feeling that everyone else is performing much better. It leads students to question whether or not they will ever be able to finish their projects. And even when the end is in sight, this lingering voice has each student doubt if their work is actually good enough. In short, Academic Imposter Syndrome sucks the joy away from the PhD process and makes the journey of obtaining a doctorate much more exhausting than it needs to be.
To a certain extent I believe we are all afflicted by some version of Imposter Syndrome, but I tend to think of it slightly differently. Rather than perceiving this extreme form of self-doubt in terms of a ‘syndrome’, I prefer to reframe it as a disowned part of myself, a part that I call the Inner Critic. By reframing it in this way, it allows me to take ownership of this part of myself and puts me in a better position to not only work with, but also make peace with it.
The thing that’s so interesting about the Inner Critic is that it does not get any quieter as we achieve more. In fact, the more that we experience success, the louder it tends to get. I found this out the hard way when I finally submitted my thesis. I kept telling myself that I would start to feel confident when I had my PhD, but I actually just felt more insecure as I experienced the pressures of post-PhD life – applying for jobs, trying to publish my first book, giving my first lecture. It was all very new to me and way out of my comfort zone.
Suddenly I had graduated from being a student and was now among peers in a much bigger pond, with seemingly much more at stake. As soon as I came to this realisation, my Inner Critic started to chatter: ‘What makes you think you are good enough to be here?’; ‘Why aren’t you working harder?’; ‘Everyone has published their first book by now’; ‘You won’t have enough funding to extend your post’; ‘You aren’t good enough to be an academic.’
The most common approach to dealing with the ramblings of the Inner Critic is to ignore it. If we don’t engage with these statements they will eventually go away, right? Unfortunately, this is usually not the case. If achieving higher levels of success is not enough to quiet down the Inner Critic, covering our ears and running from it won’t do it either.
From my experience, the best way to turn down the volume on the Inner Critic is to actually listen to what it has to say. This means taking some time to get a bit more acquainted with your Inner Critic. Begin by getting a blank sheet of paper and writing down your responses to the following questions:
What types of things does your Inner Critic tend to say to you? Take a moment to write each of them down.
When does the voice of your Inner Critic get the loudest? Are there certain scenarios that tend to trigger this voice for you?
Does the voice remind you of, or have certain similarities with, anyone else in your life? For instance, a parent, sibling, friend or colleague?
Although the Inner Critic may be the voice of someone else in your life that you’ve internalized, it’s important to take ownership of how this particular voice now resides within you. With that in mind, give your Inner Critic a name – preferably a name that cannot be associated with anyone else you know.
Finally, try drawing a visual representation of your Inner Critic.
Now that you’ve explored your Inner Critic in more depth, it’s important to realize that this voice isn’t going to disappear any time soon. The next time your Inner Critic makes an appearance, try practicing the steps below:
Step 1: Recognise when your Inner Critic is present
This first step is simply about cultivating awareness around the Inner Critic. The best way to determine if your Inner Critic is present is to check in with yourself in terms of how you are feeling. Generally, when we are feeling low or off, it’s usually a reliable indicator that this voice is present.
Step 2: Allow it to speak
As mentioned above, while the tendency is to simply ignore this voice and the discomfort that arises with it, a much more effective technique when it comes to diffusing the power of this voice is to simply listen to it. What does this voice want to say to you? Take a moment and write down what is coming up.
Step 3: Acknowledge the purpose of the inner critic
Why did this voice first develop? For most of us it emerged at a young age as a protective mechanism. It is the part of ourselves that perhaps didn’t feel safe and would therefore talk us out of doing things in order avoid feeling vulnerable. We might therefore imagine the Inner Critic as a younger, more misguided version of ourselves. Viewing the Inner Critic in this way allows us to have compassion for this voice, and ourselves, whenever it surfaces.
By becoming more conscious about the roots of this voice, the Inner Critic will have a lot less power over you.
I have yet to meet a doctoral student who hasn’t at some point struggled with PhD procrastination. When faced with a task as momentous as writing a thesis, almost any other activity can appear more appealing. This makes it very easy to give in to distractions.
Distractions can take several different forms. It could be an administrative task or a chore that feels lighter and is easier to tick off your ‘to-do’ list. For instance, if you’ve reached a challenging juncture in your research, doing the dishes or laundry probably feels like a welcomed escape.
You may also feel distracted by the incessant stream of negative news relating to the coronavirus pandemic. Understandably, the current global situation is making it exceedingly difficult for people to focus on what’s in front of them.
A further set of distractions could involve work related to the PhD. This is the kind of distraction that tricks us into feeling like we are progressing with our work while we simultaneously avoid what we are really meant to be working on.
For example, we might continue to read new literature on our topic when we are really meant to be cracking on with writing. Since PhD students are expected to be experts on their topics, they can easily fool themselves into thinking that this additional reading is essential. Yet, the real reason that so many students put off writing is because it may feel safer to read someone else’s work than to start writing their own.
I must admit that I’ve engaged in all of the above modes of procrastination during my PhD. The moments when I seemed particularly prone to distraction were, ironically, those days that I had the most time available. After blocking out an entire day in the expectation of getting some serious writing done, for whatever reason I would find that I had very little to show for that particular day.
Reflecting on this experience has highlighted to me the importance of managing my time as a way to better manage my tendency to procrastinate. In order to do this, I’ve come to rely upon a tool that enables me to set some parameters around my time.
The first step is to identify a task that you’d like to complete. It could simply be sketching out the next section of your thesis, working on your bibliography, or progressing with your literature review. Next, set a timer for 25 minutes and for this period of time, do nothing but the task you have identified. After 25 minutes take a short break and then get ready to do another 25-minute round. This simple practice is called the Pomodoro Technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo.[i]
Having used this tool quite a lot I can definitely attest that it works. There’s something about breaking tasks down into smaller increments and setting boundaries around your time that helps to manage distractions. I’ve found that once I carve out the time and space to complete a task by using this method, it becomes a lot easier to protect that time from things that might otherwise encroach on it.
So, for instance, if the phone rings while I’m in the middle of a Pomodoro round, I’ll let it go to voicemail; if I feel tempted to go on social media, check my email or refresh my online news page, I’ll simply wait until I’ve reached my 25-minute mark. This technique works just as well for short-term tasks as it does for longer-term projects.
The next time you find yourself procrastinating, give this simple technique a try and you may be surprised by the results.
The journey towards obtaining a PhD is rarely a smooth path. Even under normal circumstances it is not uncommon for students to encounter setbacks. Below is a list of the types of detours a doctoral student may come across:
Having to switch supervisors
Someone else publishing on your topic
Financial difficulties/running out of funding
Having to juggle a job alongside your PhD
Realising your topic is no longer feasible
Having to switch to a different methodology
Recent events or developments that make your topic redundant
Being unable to obtain ethics approval for your research or risk assessment approval for conducting field work
Having to scale down your project
Problems with data collection
Feeling distracted or unmotivated
Falling behind with deadlines
Feeling too busy with side-projects
Physical or mental health challenges
Difficulties with field work
Thesis examiner pulling out at the last minute
Challenges with interview subjects
Loss of a family member or close friend
Failing an upgrade viva
To this list of common detours along the PhD path we can now add one that no one saw coming and that is ‘global pandemic.’
There are a number of ways the Coronavirus has impacted PhD students around the world. Field work has been disrupted by travel restrictions, research funding may be in short supply, and regular working patterns have been disturbed by the requirement to work from home.
The ongoing crisis is also forcing students to rethink their timeframe for completion with many having to make formal requests for extensions in order to accommodate these unique circumstances.
As the full impact of this crisis continues to take hold, more and more students are having to come up with a ‘Plan B’ for their PhDs.
It is one thing to come up with a PhD Plan B, however, and another to fully accept it. When you’ve been forced to reconsider your plans due to external circumstances, resistance to any change in direction is perfectly understandable.
The thing that stands in between constructing an alternate path and learning to accept that path are the expectations we carry around about the PhD. Below are a few points to bear in mind, which I hope will help you begin to accept your change in direction:
It Doesn’t Need to be Your Life’s Work
Given the dedication and time it takes to complete a doctoral thesis, it is not uncommon to feel as though the end result must amount to your life’s work. However, this could not be further from the truth. 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 it answers.
Some Element of Scaling Back is Inevitable
As you get further into your research you’ll realise what is possible and what isn’t within the scope of your project and the time that you have available. This will typically result in some element of downsizing. The ideas that don’t happen to fit within your project can still be incorporated in the ‘areas for further research’ section of your conclusion – which nearly every thesis will have. Highlighting avenues for further research is an important aspect of your project, even if you are simply identifying an area of research for another person to pursue. Alternatively, you can think of the parts you’ve had to scale back on as inspiration for a follow-on/post-doc project.
You Only Need to Pass
Unlike other degrees in academia, the PhD viva is a straightforward pass or fail. While that may sound daunting, the fact is that all you need to do is obtain a passing mark and no amount of going above and beyond the requirements will change that. As the end product will not be graded in the traditional sense, it is worth considering whether you might already have enough material on hand to pass the viva.
You Will End Up Revising It Anyways
Most students feel under pressure to ensure that their thesis is a ‘perfect’ piece of work when the truth is that PhD theses are rarely, if ever, published as they are. For instance, when it comes to publishing, students are often expected to revise their theses prior to submitting it to a journal or an academic publisher. This is the case whether the PhD consists of a larger book-style manuscript or a series of separate papers. The likely need for some form of revision or updating may lessen some of the pressures associated with producing a perfect end product.
Time-Frames Are Less Significant Than You May Think
Perhaps you’ve had to take a break, postpone your fieldwork or interrupt your studies while you wait for the current crisis to pass. In reality, the time-frame in which you choose to work on your thesis is less important than you think and may not have as much bearing as you believe. Any piece of research should be viewed as a general snapshot at a specific moment in time. For instance, take a look at something that was published quite recently (this year or even this month) which you consider to be a strong piece of work. Irrespective of how strong a piece it is, you can probably identify areas in which that piece could be updated,improved, or revised in line with recent developments. By its very nature, academic research is dynamic and continuously evolving – never really ‘done’. As such, the time-frame for completing your research is perhaps more flexible than you may think.
The PhD is a Marathon, Not a Race
Although you began your PhD journey with a group of peers, it is important to remember that you are each on individualised paths. Every project is unique, as is each students’ working patterns, methodology and time scales for submission. In that sense, there is no genuine basis for comparison between you and your peers. Any supposed competition between you and them is more imagined than real. If your project is impacted by the current pandemic and that results in you submitting later than your peers, it makes absolutely no difference at all. The PhD is not a race to the finish line, it’s a marathon. You may run alongside others, but you run for yourself and at your own pace.
Changing Direction Is a Normal Part of the PhD Journey
In order to fully embrace Plan B, it is crucial to let go of your past plans and accept where you are now. Plan A, or the plan we come into a PhD programme with, is often an idealised version of what we imagine our research journey to be before having taken any steps on the path. In that sense, switching plans is quite common, and a significant part of the journey is to realize when such a change of direction is needed. It is when we hold on too tightly to the original idea we had, or are unwilling to change direction, that things become especially challenging. The way forward (Plan B) may not be what you had imagined or hoped for, but it will ultimately lead you to the same end point.
For many students the most dreaded aspect of an academic presentation is not the presentation itself, but the Q&A session that follows it. Q&As are not only unpredictable, they are also impossible to prepare for. We can never be sure what we are going to be asked and by whom. It is no wonder that the prospect of a Q&A session is unsettling for many. In this post I’ll share my top tips for navigating academic Q&As.
Question the Question: My first tip is based on the fact that not all questions in a Q&A session are created equal and in fact, some are downright unfair. If, for example, an audience member goes on a rant for a considerable period of time – as almost always happen at some point during a Q&A – it is worth asking if there is a question in what they have asked or if it was more of a comment. In other words, it’s perfectly reasonable to question the question. So, if you happen to get thrown an incomprehensible monologue, by all means, throw it back to the questioner. By doing so you are inviting them to either reframe their question or retract it.
Ask for Clarity: On a related note, remember that it’s not your job to interpret a poorly phrased question so before you attempt to offer a response, ensure that you have understood the question clearly. If anything is unclear, don’t hesitate to ask the questioner for some clarification. One way to do this would be to restate the question as you have heard it and then ask the questioner to confirm if you have understood correctly. Or you could simply ask the questioner to be clearer in how they’ve formulated their question. It may be, as with the case above, that there isn’t actually a question within their question, in which case, you need not spend any time answering it.
Take Notes: A lot of the anxiety surrounding the Q&A comes from the rapid-fire nature of these sessions. There is rarely time to think and gather our thoughts before we are expected to answer. Like many people, I don’t do particularly well when I feel on the spot and I usually think of my best responses hours after an event has passed rather than on my feet! In order to offset some of this pressure, and buy yourself enough time to think, consider writing down the questions as you are being asked them. This tool can be particularly useful if you want to recall key words or phrases as you respond.
Experiment with Another Format: If you’d like to be more selective in your responses, feel free to alter the format of the Q&A to one that would better suit you. This might involve taking multiple questions from the audience and then being more discerning about which ones you’d like to engage with. This will give you the freedom to focus in on the most relevant questions and consider each one at your own discretion.
Repeat Yourself: Although it may seem redundant to you, it may be worth repeating material from your presentation during the Q&A. The audience will not be as familiar with the material in your presentation. What may seem obvious to you or even repetitive, will not be for them. Going back to the presentation will remind them of what you do, particularly if their questions are slightly off topic (as some are bound to be!) An additional benefit of referring back to your presentation script is that it arms you with a ready-made response. This can only help in building your confidence throughout the Q&A session. As I’ve often found, one confident response leads to another and another, and so on.
A Conversation, Not an Attack: Much of the resistance to Q&A sessions stems from the feeling of being on the spot or under attack. Instead of thinking of it as an attack, try and view it as more of a conversation. You’ve just delivered a presentation on a topic that interests you and now you have an opportunity to further discuss this topic. Approaching it as a conversation opens up the possibility for two-way communication between you and the audience instead of a one-sided attack.
Keep Breathing: It is not uncommon to speed up during both the presentation and the Q&A. However, the faster we go, the more we yield to the fight versus flight stress response mechanism. Our fight versus flight response is governed by our more primitive, reptilian brain – the part of our mind that is concerned with our survival above all else. In such a state, we are unlikely to be able to access the more sophisticated and creative thinking associated with our neo-cortex; yet, this is precisely the part of our brain that we’d like to have access to during the Q&A. To ensure that our reptilian brain doesn’t dominate, it is critical to slow down, especially when we feel stressed. So, before you respond to any questions during a Q&A, pause and take a long, slow, deep breath. This simple action will go a long way towards activating the neo-cortex.
Not Every Q Requires an A: Perhaps our greatest fear during a Q&A is that we will be asked something that we don’t know. The most common approach to this type of scenario is to either pretend we do know or to provide an answer to the question we wish we had been asked. Neither of these approaches feels particularly authentic. What if, however, not every Q required an A? If we assume that were true, we could instead say something along the lines of: ‘I don’t know the answer to that, but it’s a really interesting question. I’ll have to give it some more thought.’ While some may be reluctant to admit that they don’t have all the answers out of fear they might look stupid, in my view it signifies the exact opposite – a person who is confident enough in themselves and in their work to admit that they don’t know everything.
I hope you find some of the above tips useful for your next Q&A session. Feel free to get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org for any comments or further questions.
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.
With PhD projects averaging around 4 or more years to complete, it can be difficult to sustain the motivation that first inspired you to start the project in the first place.
A lack of motivation can show up in many different ways. Whether it’s procrastination, feeling low, getting distracted by other tasks, feeling incapacitated and unable to move forward – it’s often a vicious cycle. When we don’t feel motivated, we end up accomplishing very little and this results in us feeling even less motivated than before! And so, the cycle continues.
Whenever you find your motivation waning, it’s important to be gentle with yourself as you work through this and to know there are steps you can take to move forward.
When it comes to addressing this issue, there are two distinct, yet related levels of motivation: (1) Underlying motivation and (2) day-to-day motivation.
The first level, underlying motivation, is about reconnecting with your passion and excitement – the thing that inspired you to pursue a PhD in the first instance. The second level, day-to-day motivation, concerns the more immediate task of maintaining momentum on a daily basis.
While these two levels of motivation can be viewed as mutually reinforcing, the steps I would recommend for addressing each are slightly different. Moreover, while both levels are equally important, I would suggest concentrating on underlying motivation first. This is because even if we arm ourselves with the best tips relating to daily motivation, these tips can only be a temporary fix if we’ve lost our deeper motivation and can no longer identify why we are doing something.
So how can we begin to reconnect with our underlying motivation? Let’s try the following exercise.
Exercise: Finding Your ‘Why’
Find a quiet space where you can sit comfortably without distractions. Gently take a few deep breaths in and out. When you are ready, start to write down all of the things that are worrying you about your PhD on a few sheets of paper. It could be things like: ‘I’m not working fast enough,’ ‘I’ll never get this done,’ ‘my work isn’t good enough,’ ‘what if I can’t find a job when I finish?’. All of the things that are worrying you about the PhD, just write them down.
Now, I’d like you to roll up each scrap of paper into a ball and throw them into a bin, one by one. Imagine yourself feeling lighter and lighter as you throw each piece of paper away. By going through this process, you are opening up space and quieting that critical voice in your head. If you find that more worried or anxious thoughts are coming to you, continue to repeat this part of the exercise.
Next, when you are ready, I want you to begin to ask yourself the following questions and be as honest with yourself as possible: why do I want to do this? What first inspired me to pursue a PhD? Was it a person I met, a place I visited or a book I read? And why did I choose this particular topic? What excited me about this field and this research topic? What can I do with the PhD that I couldn’t do without it? What doors will the PhD open up for me?
Take a few minutes to reflect on your answers. What has come up for you? Was there anything unexpected or surprising in your answers? Many of the students that have gone through this process are able to find their ‘why’ – that kernel of inspiration or passion that first inspired them to pursue a PhD. The thing that so often gets in our way and blocks us from connecting to that passion are our own thoughts, anxieties and worries. But what if you were able to sit in the place of inspiration more regularly? How would it feel to work on your research more regularly from this place of excitement?
As you go forward, can you identify whether there are things that remind you of your ‘Why’? Something that you can glance at that will automatically enable you to reconnect to why you are doing this. It could be a photo of someone, a book, a painting, an image on your desktop or some other object that that reminds you of your why. If you are able to identify something, perhaps you can keep this item in your work space as a way to tap into your underlying motivation more frequently.
One of the most challenging aspects of completing a PhD is the difficulty of knowing whether you are on track. When you are pursuing a degree that lasts for several years, how do you really know if you are moving forward, particularly when you are working independently? For most students, the default mode for measuring progress is to either compare yourself to others or to add up the number of words you have written.
Although your word count may seem like the most obvious and reliable way to measure progress, there is so much more that goes into completing a thesis than simply producing a set number of words. There are days when you might not write very much, or anything at all, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t making progress.
The setbacks, challenges, and frustrating days when you feel like you are going in circles are, to a certain extent, inevitable and something that every student will experience. In order to keep yourself moving forward, it’s important to allow for the fact that this is all part of the process. Even when you feel like you aren’t progressing, chances are you probably are.
So rather than tracking your progress on the basis of the words you write and how much closer you are to reaching your final word limit, try alternative strategies for tracking progress – like journaling or a time-management tool called the Pomodoro Technique. Another option to track your progress is to find an accountability partner– someone you can regularly check in with as you work towards your goals.
Alternative techniques such as these not only help you to acknowledge the progress you have made, they also serve as an important reminder that the PhD journey does not always follow a straight path.