How’s the PhD? Don’t ask…

If you haven’t had this conversation yet, sooner or later you will…

“So how’s the PhD going?

“Don’t ask…”

People mean well when they ask. But…

  • After yet another long day it’s the last thing you want to talk about
  • Whoever’s asking probably hasn’t been through it, so they don’t know what it’s like
  • Advice like, “oh it’s normal to be stressed at this stage“, really isn’t helpful

But how IS your PhD going?

How you feel vs what you tell your supervisor

You’re no doubt used to writing progress updates for your supervisor, giving short talks, writing interim reports… but it’s vital to pause every so often and asses your progress for yourself.

What tends to happen is you’ll tell your supervisor that everything is fine (because you want to keep them happy), but inside you’re a tangled mess of stress and missed deadlines.

The reality probably lies somewhere between what you’re feeling (not always the most reliable guide to how well you’re doing) and what you tell your supervisor (which will always be optimistic).

The difference between the two can put you under massive strain. A PhD is hard enough without that extra burden!

When was the last time you stopped and made an objective assessment of your progress, for your own benefit?

The importance of self-assessment

To finish your thesis, you’ve got to make decisions about what to do.

At a basic level, that means:

  • you have to know what you have that you can use for your final thesis, and
  • you have to think about what more you need so you can set targets

Or looking at it another way, divide up your PhD into milestones achieved, then for everything in progress set yourself milestones to aim for.

If your project is complicated, this might take a while. But it’s an essential first step in taking control of the process.

It’s good to do this on a regular basis, because you need the feedback to help you make decisions about what to do next.

But if even taking stock of your progress seems difficult, then here’s what you must do…

Talk to someone

Even if you aren’t massively stressed, it’s useful to have someone you can talk to openly and honestly about your progress (someone you don’t have to impress).

But if you are massively stressed, worried about failure, struggling to cope and hate when people ask how it’s going, then it’s essential to talk to somebody, because the longer you carry the stress, the worse it will get.

You can set up your own mastermind group, or talk one to one. It doesn’t matter, as long as you have someone you trust to talk to. It’s up to you to make this happen!


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  1. says

    I wish your coaching had been around when I was doing my PhD! I think your point about self assessment is spot on. Between what you say to your supervisor, and how you feel when you are trying (and failing) to sleep it can be easy to lose your grip on reality. Add to this that much of your thesis writing will be done in solitude and you could be in for a rough time. Self assessment is a good way of looking at facts to let you know where you really stand.

    I think whatever self assessment you have it should be regular to take into account work you have done and the reduction in time you have left. I used to meet up with a friend who was also writing up every couple of weeks. This tended to be an informal gripe about how difficult life was but it served two very important purposes. 1. It allowed us both to vent some frustration and realise that we weren’t alone and 2. It allowed us to informally assess and report our progress.

    This was incredibly useful, in hindsight I would maybe have done this a bit more formally, maybe in a mastermind group or with tuition from someone like yourself. In reality though, any self assessment is infinitely better than none.

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