If I were to ask you the number one factor that will determine whether you succeed or fail at your PhD, what do you think it will be?
- Having better time management and procrastinating less?
- Having a better system for dealing with literature?
- Better resources?
- Or just having more time to do what you need to do?
All of these might play a role, but there’s something more fundamental that makes everything else possible.
The importance of mindset
Everything starts in your mind. Your mindset, or your way of thinking about the problems you face is the basis for everything.
The way you approach a problem, the way you react to the challenges and surprises ahead depends entirely on the way you think about it.
A positive psychology makes all the difference in the world. It’s what will help you keep going when you face problems, it will help you stay creative when you need to be at your best, it will help you start the day excited about what you’re going to do and it makes a real difference to your chances of success.
But if you believe that no matter what you do nothing will work, then you aren't very likely to achieve what you are really capable of. You can try all the time management techniques in the world, but if your own psychology is working against you then you'll never make progress.
Fortunately, no matter how stressed you are right now, a positive attitude is something you can practice.There are lots of positive mindsets to take, here's just one to get you going.
The invincibility mindset:
No matter what happens, I will deal with it
Lots of things can go wrong. It’s easy to imagine the worst, and allow that to become a crippling fear.
- What will the examiner say?
- What if I fail?
- What if this goes wrong or that goes wrong?
It’s easy to end up focussing on what might go wrong, but this just eats away at your confidence and stops you doing the things you need to do to succeed. It makes you doubt yourself and your work, and that makes you hesitant with everything you do.
Now of course things can go wrong. But you have to take the view that whatever happens, you will deal with it.
Let’s look at the worst case scenario.
If I fail (at part of the PhD, or the PhD as a whole) then is it the worst thing that can possibly happen? No. I’ll deal with it and move on. Whatever happens I will deal with it. But in the meantime I am going to give this my best shot.
When I did my PhD in experimental physics, my failure rate was probably well over 90%. I let it get to me, and it ate away at my confidence until I reached a point where I was constantly expecting to fail. I saw myself as powerless... out of control. That meant I undermined my own efforts. I was sloppy in my preparation and rushed experiments. It became a self-fulfilling philosophy.
But when I shifted mindset and accepted that things might go wrong, but decided to do things meticulously anyway... my success rate increased and I made faster progress.
Whatever happens, I will deal with it. It cannot hurt me. I am invincible. So I’m just going to do my best.
What if the examiner asks a question I don't know?
When I started writing, I knew that there were holes in my knowledge that the examiner might find. He had invented one of the techniques I had used... he could easily ask me something I didn’t know. Or he could ask me a basic undergraduate physics question involving maths I hadn’t used in 4 or 5 years... that would be embarrassing.
But my view was that If I get asked a question like that, I’ll just be honest. If I don’t know then I don’t know, and if I have to work it out or guess based on what I do know, then that’s what I’ll do.
I couldn’t go back and relearn every bit of physics I had forgotten (or not learned in the first place), and so since I couldn’t do anything about it I decided not to worry about it and get on with it and do my best at what I was doing.
I thought... well I’ve put the work in. The research is competent, I understand its implications and its limitations, but if I fail then I fail. So be it.
It takes the pressure off, and builds your confidence at the same time because it assumes, at a fundamental level, that you have the ability to cope with whatever happens...It gives you a kind of invincibility. Nothing can harm you, because whatever happens, you will deal with it.
One of the big blocks that comes up again and again in my conversations with PhD students is a kind of reluctance to make a clear statement about what they are trying to argue. I think this is because it could be a point the examiner could disagree with... and so instead they write thousands of words circling around the issue.
But there is no avoiding it. You have to state your central premise clearly. So just say it. Take the invincible mindset, and have the courage to say what you think.There is uncertainty in the future, but you have to be willing to take risks in order to move forwards, knowing that you are able to deal with whatever happens.
Writing a thesis is hard, but it’s not THAT hard.
Not like rowing across the Atlantic or climbing Everest, and it’s not like surviving in the wilderness after a plane crash. It’s not even as hard as raising a family.
There is no massive physical effort you have to make, other than sitting and typing. And there’s no real danger either.
The invincible mindset allows you to work without being afraid, and once you remove fear, then you’ll be surprised how many perceived obstacles melt away.