The “Good” PhD Student

B has always been a Good Student, getting A’s all the way since the first day of school. Diligent and organised, B always had perfect attendance, took good notes and started assignments long before they were due. Now doing a PhD, B is frustrated by a lack of progress despite all the carefully constructed plans. Nothing seems to be good enough and now it’s hard to find the motivation or focus to do anything.

M has also always been a Good Student and is also frustrated, but instead of losing motivation has become the model of the busy academic. Sleeping just 4 hours per night, M will sacrifice everything to do what they think their supervisor expects, but, again, nothing seems to be good enough. Despite being exhausted, believes that working harder for longer is the answer.

B and are reacting differently to the stress of a PhD, but the root of their frustration is the same.

Most PhD students have done exceptionally well throughout the course of their education. Starting from a very young age, they have been told they are good because of their academic ability. For a small child, this kind of praise can entangle itself with their self-esteem; only if I do well and get recognition do I have value. This is a deeply unhealthy and unhelpful belief.

So often, students ask me, “what if my supervisor doesn’t like this?” or “what if the examiner wants to see x?”. It is a source of deep anxiety to them, not knowing what to do to get the approval of the teacher.

If you start from a position of seeking approval, you’ll never get it. Your work will be driven by fear and insecurity rather than curiosity. Your work might be adequate, but you’ll never take the risks required to do anything truly interesting.

Stop trying to be a good PhD student

You are enough already. You don’t need a PhD to have value. You’ll feel good for a few weeks, maybe, after you pass your defence, but then what?

Don’t worry about what the examiner wants to see. Focus on what you are most interested in instead.

Be curious. Focus on the problems and questions that arise in your work and see them as puzzles to solve. It’s all just a game and it has no relationship to your value as a person.

See also:
A PhD is not everything
The invincible mindset
How to write a PhD thesis you can defend easily
By darwin Bell from San Francisco, USA – Lolly in the skyUploaded by SunOfErat, CC BY 2.0, Link

How to tame the monkey mind

You need to find a calm, focused state before you can truly work to the best of your ability. This isn’t easy, but it is a trainable skill.

It feels horrible if the effort you put into your work doesn’t produce the outcomes you want, so it seems reasonable to think that a lack of productivity is the source of your stress.

But what if it’s the other way round? What if it’s your mental state that’s affecting your ability to work, and the resulting lack of productivity is just making things worse? If that’s the case, then you need to get your head in the right place before you try to be productive. You need to find a calm, focused state before you can truly work to the best of your ability.

This is easier said than done.

If you’re anything like me, your mind will jump around like a caffeinated monkey after every little thought…

I should finish that blog post on literature reviews… but maybe I’ve got a reply to that email… I wonder if I should set up a new email address… Is Gmail encrypted..? I like the font on this secure email provider’s website, what is that? Let’s change the font on the blog…  actually, maybe I should get rid of all the images and simplify the design to improve load times… I’m hungry… I wonder how you make sourdough bread?

Or maybe you get caught up in worry, the same thought going round and round in your head so much that you can’t sleep.

You can’t expect to be productive if your brain is working this way, so finding a way to calm these distracting thoughts is key.

It’s difficult to control your own brain, but it is a trainable skill. It really is possible to develop a calm state of mind and train yourself to focus.

An exercise

This is just a basic exercise to start with. As with any skill, you have to start with something simple and gradually build from there. The idea is to focus on a simple task and just notice when you get distracted.

  1. Set a timer for 5 minutes
  2. In your head, count backwards from 100 to zero in steps of 2: 100, 98, 96, 94…
  3. If you lose count or get distracted or skip a number, start again from 100
  4. Try to keep the same rhythm as you count. If you hesitate, start again.
  5. Keep trying until you reach zero or the timer runs out

It doesn’t matter if you run out of time: the task itself doesn’t matter because it’s about training yourself to notice and bring your focus back to a specific point when you get distracted.

Thoughts will still arise, but you won’t get carried away by them as they disappear as soon as you notice and reset to 100.

Try it out and let me know how it goes in the comments section below. When I last did this while preparing this post, the closest I got to zero was 28.

There’s more work to be done…

Obviously there’s a lot more we need to do, but I don’t want to overload a blog post with too much. I’ll be posting more on this subject later, and I’ll also be running an online course in September taking these ideas much further. Click below for more details!

How to manage the stress of a PhD, 13th-27th September 2017

See also:
Productivity comes last
PhD stress: don’t ignore the warning signs

How to support someone doing a PhD

Everyone knows that doing a PhD is hard, but it can also be tough for partners, friends and family who want to be supportive but don’t necessarily know how. So here are a few ideas for how to support the PhD student in your life.

Don’t dismiss the problem

If someone’s talking about how stressful they’re finding their PhD, the first instinct is to be reassuring. Don’t worry. Everyone goes through this. Just keep going and it’ll be OK. It’s a well-intentioned sentiment, but instead of being reassuring it can feel dismissive.

Rather than try to convince them that it’s OK really, just try to understand what they’re going through and acknowledge how they feel.

Another way people try to be supportive is by offering a logical sense of perspective. Objectively, we all know that doing a PhD isn’t the worst thing you can go through (there are people in war zones right now who have far worse external circumstances), but the subjective experience is real. You could argue that stress is all in the mind, but in some ways this is worse because your own mind is the one thing you can’t escape.

So, again, instead of arguing that it’s not as bad as it could be, accept that what they’re going through is real.

Ask rather than advise

If you want to help, it makes sense to offer solutions. But sometimes it’s better to ask questions rather than advise.

Even as someone who has spent several years giving PhD advice for a living, when I’m talking to friends doing PhDs I try to resist the temptation to go straight into advice mode. This is because:

  • If you go straight to the solution then you deny them the opportunity to vent their frustration first
  • It takes some time to really understand what’s going on
  • Sometimes it’s better to help people figure it out themselves (Is there anything you think you could do differently? What do you think you should do?)

Of course it’s OK to offer some advice, but don’t rush to do so. Being supportive is as much about just being interested as it is about solving the problem.


PhD stress: don’t ignore the warning signs

Update: What about supporting the non-student partner?

A commenter on my Facebook page responded by asking about how to support the non-student in the relationship. I think it’s important for PhD students to remember that the stress does pass on to other people and that spending all of your energy exclusively on your PhD can be hurtful to those excluded. No matter how demanding work gets, set aside at least some time for your relationships with other people. Investing time for half-hour phone call to a friend or to eat dinner with your family is just as important as investing time in the work. A PhD is not everything!

Reverse Resolutions For The New Year: What Do You Not Want to Change?

This year, instead of making a resolution to change something, try thinking about what you don’t want to change.

Instead of focusing on your frustrations, take some time to think about and appreciate the good things.

Of course you’ll want to achieve things in the next year, and it it’s good to have ambitions, but try to see it as building on what you already have rather than making the change the foundation of your happiness.

“There is nothing you need to do or be or get in order to be happy”
-Srikumar Rao

By Sehsuan at English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5, Link

“I can’t imagine any dignity without a PhD”

“I do not have the imagination to conceive of a life that would have any human dignity for me without [a PhD]. If there is a life after failing I cannot face such a thing for I do not have the kind of inner strength to face it. I can’t even envy those who can be happy without a PhD because to envy them is to wish to trade places with them and they do not have a PhD. Still, I admire the hell out of people who do not need a PhD to feel their definition of themselves is worthwhile.”

I wish I could get across how wrong this is. To judge your entire life’s worth, your entire sense of “human dignity”, on whether or not you get a PhD is horrifying.

From a purely practical point of view, it’s an incredibly poor position to take. If the stakes are set so high then it’s unlikely you’ll be willing to make the mistakes that are necessary to develop your skills, to commit to the decisions necessary to make progress, or to take the risks that are so necessary to do good research,

It also puts you in a seriously vulnerable and exploitable position. I have heard of students who have been kept on PhD programmes purely so they can be used as unpaid labour, even though the supervisors have said to others that they see no chance of successful completion. Then there are the cases of verbal, psychological and sexual abuse that occur in all institutions where there is a dysfunctional power dynamic. These human-shitbag supervisors get away with it because they can exploit students’ fear.

There is no correlation – none – between having or not having a PhD and your value and dignity as a human being.

Apart from anything else, sometimes people fail through no fault of their own. Sometimes they’re in the wrong institution or research group, with the wrong supervisor or working on the wrong project for them. Sometimes it’s impossible to finish due to other circumstances outside of their control (physical or mental health, family circumstances).

And FFS, even if it is your fault (like you just don’t bother doing any work) that doesn’t make you any less of a person.

Many over-estimate the negative consequences of not getting a PhD, but it’s also easy to over-estimate the positive consequences of success.

In the years since I passed my PhD I don’t think it has ever given me a greater sense of self-worth. I don’t think I’ve ever found comfort when stressed or depressed in the thought, “well at least I have a PhD!”

I also don’t think I’ve ever held someone in higher regard because they have one, or lower regard because they don’t. In fact, some of the people I have the least respect for have PhDs, while most of those I respect the most don’t.

Getting a PhD is a fine achievement – and it’s good to take strive for something difficult – but please, I beg you, don’t make it the foundation of your sense of dignity and self-worth.

“and if you can’t see anything beautiful about yourself
get a better mirror
look a little closer
stare a little longer”

  • Shane Koyczan, “To this day
See also

Maintaining a life outside a PhD

Is it possible to maintain a life outside a PhD?

There’s a common assumption that the way to succeed in academia is to sacrifice any semblance of a normal life. And if things aren’t going well, a common response is to work ever longer hours, tipping work and life further and further out of balance.

But I’d say it’s not only possible to maintain a life outside a PhD, it’s necessary.

How I maintained a life outside my PhD

During my PhD, I was also competing at an international level in aikido (a Japanese martial art). One of the reasons I went to Nottingham was that there was an aikido club there practicing my style, meaning I could carry on my training.

In the first year of my PhD I took over coaching the club, so 3 night per week I had to be at the sports center. That responsibility meant that it wasn’t a choice of whether or not to train; I had to be there. When I wasn’t coaching, I was often training elsewhere (often 6 or 7 days per week).

I viewed training as essential and non-negotiable, so I found a way to do it. Sometimes this meant leaving an experiment running in the evening, going to teach a class for two hours, then going back to the lab afterwards to finish the work, even if that meant getting home after midnight.

It might sound awful, but the training kept me sane. As soon as I stepped onto the mat nothing else existed. I never thought about the PhD when I was training; not once in almost 4 years.

Non-negotiable commitments

You don’t have to go to the same extreme I did, but it’s good to have something outside the PhD that you treat as a regular, non-negotiable commitment. It could be a yoga class, a meal with the family, a date night with your partner… It means you have control over at least some small part of your life, no matter how stressful the PhD gets.

So you shouldn’t say to yourself, “I’ll do that if I get enough done today”. Just say, “I’m doing it” and find a way.


See also:

Time to think

A PhD is not everything

PhD impostor syndrome

During my PhD, there were times when I felt I shouldn’t be there. Some of the other students in the research group were ridiculously smart, and while I was struggling to get even the roughest of results, they were publishing article after article and presenting their work at international conferences. Many of them had done their undergraduate degrees at the same university, so their supervisors had known who they were recruiting, but I had moved from Sheffield to Nottingham and always had the slight feeling that I had bluffed my way in and would, eventually, be found out. This is the impostor syndrome, and is a common problem among PhD students.

If you’re working day after day in pursuit of a goal, part of you must believe it’s possible. But the contradiction between the belief and the doubt—the forces pulling in two opposite directions—creates a stress that can stop you working to the best of your ability, which in turn reinforces the doubt.

Because impostor-like feelings are so common, it’s easy to dismiss them as just something that everyone goes through. I don’t think it’s enough to say “everybody goes through this, just believe in yourself, keep going and it will be OK”. I think it’s better to examine the ideas behind the impostor syndrome and how they affect your work, then think about whether there’s a more effective way of approaching it.

Although I present some ideas for dealing with impostor syndrome below, I want to make very clear that persistent feelings of unworthyness (or worthlessness) can be a sign of depression, and it would be deeply irresponsible to pretend that I have a solution to this other than seeking qualified help (speak to your doctor or your university counseling service).


If you feel like you aren’t good enough, how good do you think you should be? At a recent talk I gave in Sheffield, one student said that “to get a PhD means you are the world’s leading expert in your topic.” While that’s a kind of almost true, in that nobody else knows your project like you do, if taken literally it’s a near-impossible expectation to live up to.

It’s healthier, and more accurate, to think of a PhD as a beginner’s qualification. It is during your PhD that you develop basic research skills, which you can then develop further should you continue in academia. Maybe you can become the world’s leading expert in something, but it’s going to take a hell of a lot of work and a hell of a lot longer than your PhD to build that experience and reputation.

Even when you graduate you will still be a relative beginner, so what matters is not how good you are now, but how your skills develop over time.

Ability is not fixed—it is almost always possible to improve upon whatever talents you have, but in order to do so you have to consciously work on the uncomfortable boundaries of your skills. This is only possible if you acknowledge where those limits are.

Impostor syndrome vs beginner mindset

Impostors, by definition, hide their identity. In the context of a PhD, this means hiding any insecurity or weakness in knowledge; avoiding asking the “stupid question”, avoiding mistakes, avoiding risk and avoiding difficulty. It is a state motivated by fear, by the avoidance of a negative outcome, but it actually makes the negative outcome more likely.

Sometimes it’s worth embracing the very thing you fear the most. Rather than avoiding being found out, why not be open about what you don’t know?

If you think of yourself as a beginner, the question is no longer whether you are good enough, but how to get better. If you embrace the beginner mindset by being enthusiastically open about your weaknesses, it frees you to ask questions, to make mistakes and to learn. This is a much more positive outlook.

Really, it’s about identifying problems you can do something about. If you can specify a skill that you need to strengthen, and specific actions to strengthen that skill, this is something you can focus on instead of the vague and destructive sense of unbelonging.

Inflatable decoy tank, used by the US army. By United States Army -, Public Domain,
Inflatable decoy tank, used by the US army. By United States Army, Public Domain,

A PhD is not everything

This is a sample from the book “PhD: an uncommon guide to research, writing & PhD life”.

A PhD is not everything_Page_1

Getting through a PhD takes a level of dedication, determination and resilience only possible if you really want to succeed, and there may be times when you have to do absolutely whatever is necessary to get the work done.

Sometime in my third year, work began on a new, multi-million-pound nanoscience centre attached to the physics building. This was very exciting for the department, but meant that the equipment in my lab kept picking up mechanical vibrations from the construction work. There was no other option but to run the experiments at night.

Working a twelve-hour shift is hard, but it’s even harder when you work in an underground optics lab with black-painted walls, with the constant noise of running vacuum-pumps in the background and nobody to talk to but the vending machine. It wasn’t much fun, but it needed to be done.

So you have to commit, but there is one absolutely crucial caveat; the PhD is not everything. Even if you invest all your energy in the process, you must not invest your entire sense of self-worth in the outcome.

If you fail, it is not the worst thing that can happen, and if you pass, it is not the greatest. There are many challenges, successes and failures in life, of which the PhD is just one.

Failing a PhD is no worse than going through a relationship breakup after several years; unpleasant – certainly – and perhaps for a while it might feel devastating, but it happens all the time and people recover.

It is no worse than an athlete training day after day, year after year, shedding blood and sweat and tears, sacrificing everything to become world champion only to lose in the final. Heart-breaking – maybe – but some dreams just don’t come true, even if you give it your best. It doesn’t mean your life is over, and it doesn’t make you a failure.

There are always other challenges to take on, other things to achieve. They may be hard to imagine if all you can see right now is your PhD, but they are there if you look for them.

Getting a PhD signifies nothing about your value as a person, and it signifies nothing about your intelligence (I have known a fair few feckless academics). Having a PhD does not guarantee you will find a job, and not getting one doesn’t mean you won’t.

The importance of success and the consequences of failure aren’t as great as you might think.

PhD students: When was the last time you took a day off?

If you have to think hard to remember your last day off, you probably need one.

It’s not always easy to take a day off, especially when the pressure is on, but it’s when you feel like you can’t afford to rest that you may need it the most.

When you work beyond the point of fatigue, it affects your ability to think, which in turn makes the work more difficult, which means everything takes longer, which makes it harder to take time off… And so you can get stuck in a horrible cycle of exhaustion.

You cannot time-manage your way out of it. You need rest. You need sleep.

Of course, sometimes you may need to work late nights to get something done, but this is not sustainable in the long term. When you neglect rest, it is a debt you have to pay back. The longer you leave it the higher the price you pay.

When was the last time you took a day off? If you have to think hard to remember, you probably need one.