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

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6 thoughts on “The “Good” PhD Student

  1. This is just great advice for life in general! As a highly creative person this is a nice reminder I read. Thanks!

    • Let me frame it another way; if you don’t feel like you are enough without the PhD, getting it won’t help. You’ll just seek another source of validation.

      Do it for the challenge. Work for it, strive for it and take pride in it. But don’t do it because you think it will make you happy or give you a sense of self-esteem. It won’t.

  2. I accept the quotation you have set “if I do well, I have value” rather than a mere acquisition of PhD. For me also acquiring PhD is to feel good and getting psychological satisfaction and not to be economically prosperous. But still i belief psychological strength leads to economic well being
    In general, You don’t need a PhD to have value but hardworking is enough to acquire it with out overstress

    • I don’t think hard work is enough. I have seen many, many students working themselves into the ground, but doing the wrong things.

      Hard work is required, but it has to be smart, too.

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