1) I’m an imposter
Everyone must think that I shouldn’t be doing a PhD. I am not as bright as everyone else is around here and I’m bound to be found out soon.
In academia, there is always a feeling that someone is going ask you what on earth you think you’re doing and suggest that you should leave to make way for a responsible adult. This feeling is compounded in the PhD years where many students feel they really shouldn’t be here. Imposter Syndrome is often seen as the biggest cause of PhD stress. It is the irrational fear of being “found out” and being seen as “not smart enough” to be undertaking a PhD! Imposter Syndrome is compounded by the self-doubt that comes with being unable to meet self-imposed, high standards and those mythical standards that PhD students often believe others to expect of them. Imposter Syndrome flares up at predictable points, the first few months, the bleak mid-PhD winter and during the writing of a first draft. Remember that others, much less able people than you, have survived to completion
2) I’ve picked the wrong topic
I’ve wasted 6 months on this hopeless topic. I need a new idea if I am to avoid losing my funding and being kicked out soon.
The stress associated with potentially or actually changing your topic is significant. Whether the body of legal requirements you’ve been researching has now been repealed or your wonderfully crafted research question turns out to be totally unsearchable, there are always tempting new topics hovering just beyond reach. Worse, your supervisor may get a new job and has no desire to see you follow them from Cambridge to the University of Far Far Away. The niggling doubt that you’d be better served starting again will compete for your attention with the realisation that you need persistence and patience. Hearing everyone else talk about how well their projects are going merely increases your stress levels. Go and talk to your supervisor. They are there to help and few students find themselves forced to write up for an MPhil without prior warning.
3) I can’t write well enough
My work is not nearly good enough, I can’t critically analyse to save myself and I can’t write for toffee either.
Unless you’re a novelist or screen writer, few people who have taken on a PhD have ever written something of the scale of 80,000 words. By way of calibration a PhD is about the same size as many textbooks. Apart from the sheer number of words, there is usually a nagging doubt about writing quality too. Of course your writing isn’t up to scratch. Why else would it return from a cursory proof read slashed to ribbons by the red ink, comments boxes and track changes that indicate of supervisorial disapproval? On the plus side supervisors get similar short shrift from journal editors and reviewers. If you’ve been writing from the outset of your PhD you’ll have at least three years to work on improving from awful to poor but passable. Bear in mind that your supervisors and examiners may have a further decade or more lead time in developing their writing craft. To pass you need to produce readable, workman-like critique of existing ideas and an account of how your research builds on these. Most PhDs don’t change the world or land you a job as Governor of the Bank of England. Focus on three things. Writing some new material every day, editing material from yesterday or last week most days and finally, addressing the feedback that you are getting.
4) I’ve got my priorities all wrong
This PhD is taking over my life. What about my social life/teaching/publications/allotment/pet hamster/loved ones/a job … delete as appropriate then rank order).
It’s is even worse if you are doing a part time PhD with a full time job. Often the biggest worry for students is whether they are capable of managing a balance between the commitment needed for the PhD and those of full life. Yes, intellectual ability is needed for a PhD, however, equally important are project and time management skills. Be honest and open with both loved ones and supervisor about time pressures. Explain to your nearest and dearest what exactly you are doing, there is more to it than just writing 80,000 words! Also, confide in your supervisor, programme director / administrator there is a panoply of support mechanisms open to you, tap into them. Carving out time away from the PhD and getting over PhD guilt can be difficult, but it’s imperative to maintain sanity and some semblance of a life beyond your thesis.
5) I’m all alone in the wilderness
When they said lonely, I didn’t really understand the Bear Grylls sense of me against the elements armed only with a spoon.
Everyone you speak to seems to be making good progress and you may feel like you are the only one who is falling further and further behind, getting negative feedback, being rejected for conferences, ignored by their supervisor, broken up with their partner, etc. Hanging around with other PhD students can help build a sense of community but it is possible to feel alone in a room full of people. PhDs are by nature less structured than taught programmes. The sensation of being thrown into the deep end with a cheery sink or swim shouted by supervisors, who are safe and dry on the side lines, is very common. In reality, others may simply be better at masking their anxieties. That room full of people in which you feel alone might be a shared PhD study space, a conference or a PhD workshop. Convince yourself that others are having exactly the same experience and reach out to them. A simple conversation is often the best first step.
6) I won’t make the grade
Having survived the transition from high school to university and from first degree to masters, I’ve now reached my academic limits.
Writing something at the mythical “doctoral standard” can seem impossible, especially in light of the constant critique and the evident gaps in your knowledge. You’re experiencing the most significant rite of passage that academia has to offer. There is a massive jump from undergraduate degree, or even a Masters to PhD. If you’re working as hard as you did for your finals you’ll be fine. Read and make copious notes. Write and devour critical feedback. Don’t give up. Your university will supply parachutes it is up to you to use them, they come in all shapes and sizes (welcome receptions, formal workshops, writing clinics, research seminars, etc.) And, in your darker moments, remember that you aren’t trying to win a Nobel prize. A simple pass subject to revisions will do. Your supervisors are there to ensure that you get at least that outcome.
7) I don’t understand how universities work
I haven’t the foggiest about which forms I need and who needs to sign them in order to get things done.
Universities are complex social structures supported, inhibited or defended (depending upon your mood) by even more complex policies and procedures. Students often comment on the frustrations that emerge as they attempt to sort seemingly simple things. From claiming back fieldwork costs to completing the “intention to submit” form that no-one told you about, it can be difficult. Communication failures between academic staff and the support services, between your supervisors and their colleagues or between the university and 3rd parties such as conference organizers or travel agents are not uncommon. Nevertheless, as a PhD student you’ll need to learn to tolerate some of this frictional drag and to figure out how best to mitigate its effect. Sometimes there is a good reason for the seeming inefficiency. Sometimes there isn’t. Either way, step out of your PhD bubble and befriend members of academic support team so that they can put a name to the face of the person they’re dealing with.
8) This is making me ill
Between the physical exhaustion and the stress I don’t think I can keep this up for three years.
PhD life is stressful. Some may sign up for a PhD to avoid national service, a difficult domestic situation or simply to defer joining the world of work for as long as possible. Few however, sign up knowing that they plan to fail. The pressure to pass a mysterious examination over a three year period can be intense. It is no surprise that this pressure manifests itself in the form of health issues at some point. Whether it is exacerbating a pre-existing issue or generating difficulties for the first time, you need to take this seriously. Balancing the basic needs for food, shelter and friendship with the need to write, analyse, collect data, etc. is non-trivial. Expect something to happen at some point during your PhD studies, probably at or around a deadline. Even if you are fine, you never know what might befall a family member. Find something that addresses the need for downtime and balance. Long walks in the countryside, loud thrash metal, meditation, all three combined or something completely different. Find what works for you and put it in your diary as an appointment with yourself to demonstrate that you are committing some time and effort to maintaining a calm and positive disposition.
9) I can’t say this stuff out loud
Whilst it is okay for my supervisors, I know that presenting my research to an audience will not end well.
Taking your working into the public domain can be terrifying. No wonder that actors call it stage fright. That said, part of the assessment requires that you can speak about your research during the viva. Don’t buy the line that it will be alright on the night. Those brilliant stand-up comedians who appear to be improvising tend to have honed their act through extensive rehearsals. Start putting your work out there through conferences, poster presentations, workshops or even a journal paper. Even seasoned academics find such things stressful but it can be rewarding. Learning to deal positively with criticism is difficult but essential. Most academics are decent human beings. In any conference audience there will likely be at least one or two sympathetic souls who will know that it’s your first time, will make allowances and may even make supportive comments. Your supervisors or fellow PhD students might be there too for moral support. The one inescapable truth is that a different kind of thinking occurs when you have to speak rather than write. Listen carefully to what you hear yourself saying.
10) I’ll go to pieces in the viva
I know I won’t cope with the viva and I could blow three years in a few minutes.
The viva is shrouded in mystery and each one is a unique conversation. They do however, share some common features. It is the ‘final exam’ and the examiners are there to establish whether you are capable of acting as an independent researcher. Bear in mind that you have written the exam paper. It runs to tens of thousands of words but the questions you’ll be asked will have to be drawn from the account that you’ve provided of how you did your research. The examiners have a pre-disposition to want you pass, if only because it means less paperwork for all concerned. If your supervisor feels both the thesis and you are ready for examination you really should have nothing to worry about. It isn’t a test of memory and you can bring anything you want into the exam – within reason! Allow the examiners some flavour of what you did during the three years. Be honest about the bits that weren’t quite as planned and be clear about how you’ve accounted for that in your written account. If you can defend sensible decisions on your part, acting under the guidance of your supervisor, you’ll be well on the way to helping the examiners arrive at the decision you want i.e. a pass. And remember that a pass with revisions (either major or minor) is still a pass. Hear the word “pass” and focus on the fact that they’ve specified what else you need to do to improve your work.