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, M believes that working harder for longer is the answer.
B and M 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.
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