Logic vs Emotion in Academia

I’m not supposed to talk about emotion.


I’m a physicist, I’m male, and I’m English, which pretty much means I’m supposed to be like this man…

I should be logical. Detached. Follow the steps to a solution and be done with it.

And you’re not supposed to be emotional during a PhD. You have to be detached from the data… like a machine working your way through day after day.

There is one small problem with this approach though… it will ruin your life.

Logic vs Emotion in your PhD

OK, so you need logical, rational thought and you need logical processes and procedures to get the work done.

But there is no denying that emotion plays a huge role in a PhD, as it does in life generally, and it massively affects your ability to do the rational work you need to do.

I’m sure you know some PhD students getting close to submission whose entire demeanor has changed. Maybe they are irritable and get angry quickly. Maybe they are panicking or unable to concentrate. Maybe they are losing sleep and sinking into an exhausted physical and emotional wreck.

At best, they will just fight through and eventually submit after a torturous final push, but at worst it can affect their relationships with others and their physical health.

If this is the case, logical approaches won’t work because emotion drives your behaviour far more strongly than logic does.


Procrastination is a prime example. You might know exactly what you need to do and how to do it. It might be easy, and there might be no logical reason why you can’t do it.  You probably even want to do it, but still you just can’t.

This is usually because there is an emotional brick wall in the way. What else can it be, if there is no logical reason?

But when it happens, we tend to try to rationalise our way out by setting deadlines, making timetables, setting timers, but then if these don’t work (and who can honestly say that they always do?) then it just leads to frustration which makes the whole situation worse.


There so many time-management techniques, it’s hard to know which ones to use.

In fact they ALL work… for about 2 days until more deeply engrained habits return.

Time management cannot work without first addressing the blocks to full engagement with the work which are deeply rooted in your emotional subconscious.

Is this you?

If you are doing a PhD, you probably did very well in school, near the top of the class year after year from the age of 5.

You were probably told you were good as a result… Given the gold star or the certificate for achievement… Maybe placed in a different class with the other good pupils.

Your parents were probably proud of you and your A+ results.  But it probably also put a weight of expectation on you.

If this was your experience of academia from the age of 5 until starting your PhD, then there will be a deeply rooted correlation between your academic success and your sense of self-worth.

The shock of the PhD

A PhD is not the same as school or university. It is a fundamentally different thing, and requires different skills.

So the success you had earlier is no guarantee of success in your PhD, and many PhD students struggle.

Acknowledging conflict, anxiety and vulnerability

This struggle, if it goes on long enough, can turn into a deep sense of anxiety which cannot be shifted just by working harder.scream

It is founded on a conflict between the way you view yourself (intelligent, talented, good) and the way the world appears to be (no matter how hard I work nothing goes my way, I’m not as good as other students, I am not good enough, I am going to fail).

So the conflict is between your high expectation of yourself, and the vulnerability that comes with the possibility of failure for the first time in your life

If you acknowledge this conflict, anxiety and vulnerability, then you can do something about it.

Trusting in your own ability

It is scary to acknowledge your own vulnerability, but denying it will not make it go away.

If you acknowledge the possibility of failure and trust in your ability to cope with it, then your expectation of yourself is in the ability to cope rather than having to succeed at all costs. There is no longer a conflict.

If you block it and deny it and blame the circumstances around you it will only grow. This is what most academics do.

The frantic academic

It’s a tragedy that it is considered normal for an academic to be frantically over-worked. It is a greater tragedy that we see this as the route to success.

You will hear academics talk about stress as if it is a badge of honour… “you think you have it bad… I worked 80 hours last week and had to finish 2 grant proposals and a conference abstract in less than a day… and I had to pick the kids up from school before coming back to the office…”

There is something wrong if this is the way your life ends up, and it is not a working model you should aspire to.

Full engagement

You can never fully engage with the work if you cover vulnerability with mere busyness and hard work.

The question should not be, “how hard am I working”. The question should be, “how engaged am I with the work?”

Ask yourself what you would do if you had no fear, then try to work out what you are afraid of and what you would do if that happened.

Trusting in your ability to cope allows you to fully engage in the work without hesitation. Then if you add time management and hard work on top of a calm emotional state, you will be literally unstoppable.

Emotion and Logic

emotion and logic
It is not a question of logic vs emotion. The two are not separate, and you cannot function effectively with just one or the other.

It’s like having two wheels on a cart; you need both in balance in order to go in a straight line.

Are you trusting only in logic?



  1. Tim says

    “trust in your ability to cope”
    Great advice, but only the tip of the iceberg for anyone like me. What does “cope” mean when you have no plan B, your wife’s been supporting you for years but now is missing the chance to be home with your children because you can’t find a job academic or not? What does “cope” mean when you are burned out–tire of giving and getting nothing back from people who admire your academic pursuit and intelligence, and sympathize with your position, but have no help to give? What does “cope” mean when you’d just assume not keep up with friends and family because of the inevitable questions about your progress on degree or employment?

    • James Hayton says

      if you quit today, what would you do? It sounds like you feel trapped in your situation, but there are always options. Coping means doing whatever it takes, first to survive and look after your basic needs, then to live a good life. You are not trapped. You have choices, but sometimes they are hard to see.

  2. nor says

    Thank you, for the past 2 years I feel like the loneliest person in the world. I am so thankful to find this page. Your writings helps me to reevaluate myself…

  3. yanping says

    uh…so happy to found this page.It looks like telling most part of my story,or every PhD ‘s story.
    “True success is not in the number of hours you put in to get a publication, or in the number of publications you have, but in how much you enjoy your work, whether you feel you are doing something of value, and how you cope with the fact that life is no longer going your way. ”
    I want to say that first thing is you should know where to go then works hard…

  4. Cherry says

    “True success is not in the number of hours you put in to get a publication, or in the number of publications you have, but in how much you enjoy your work, whether you feel you are doing something of value, and how you cope with the fact that life is no longer going your way”
    If this is the definition of success, I can truly say that I am rather successful. Through my Ph. D and lengthy postdocs, I have been thrilled everyday about my work, despite of countless failed experiments. It is the process that makes me feel alive and I see tremendous value of my work. I also made some significant discoveries. But, but, with very few publications, I am losing the privilege to do the thing I love most: academic research…When the need of survival clashes with the need of intellectual curiosity, we have got a problem.

  5. Anuj Mankad says

    I just wanted to say, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” for stating what should be obvious but never is until you have been through it. I especially appreciate the simple and straightforward way you state the situation. I hope every prospective graduate student and current graduate student reads this, and soon. As someone who has been through grad school and two post-docs, I wish I had read this when I was in my 2nd year of grad school. True success is not in the number of hours you put in to get a publication, or in the number of publications you have, but in how much you enjoy your work, whether you feel you are doing something of value, and how you cope with the fact that life is no longer going your way. I was told before going into grad school that experiments fail 90% of the time, but I thought this was a career average, not a daily average. I have learned that your experiments WILL fail, the important thing is to try to figure out why they failed (which is easier if you first design your experiment with more than enough controls and keep good notes, but still really hard most times anyway). I have been one of those researchers ready to pull my hair out and thinking “I’m not as good as others, I am not good enough, I am going to fail”. Now, after reading this, and after talking to some wise friends in research, I realize that this is false, false, and true, respectively, just as it is with everyone else. I guess it is not whether you fail that matters, but what you do when you fail. Once again, thank you.

  6. julie says

    I think it’s really important to acknowledge underlying emotions in the PhD process and your blog is great for helping recognise these issues. Tho I’d also say, when doing a qualitative and/or creative PhD the emotions are sometimes included (to an extent) in the writing too, so logic isn’t always the be all and end all in the PhD process… but I think a balance of both is important. In terms of success etc, the model of ‘work hard and demonstrate how stressful life is’, is definitely not a healthy approach (to life or academic work!), and I agree that idea of academia needs to change. I think it’s also important to change the unhealthy presumption that says ‘the more stressful something is the more real it is’. You’re addressing some great topics here doing this.Thanks for a really useful and engagin blog. Also, I think it’s really interesting looking at the academic pattern etc. My academic pattern was … attentive bright student with success from age 5 – 13, disinterested student age 14- 17, creative artist student engaged in practical-creative-academic work in undergrad degree… then in my forties… discovered a new interest in academic work and a combination of academic and creative.

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