Transitioning to a PhD: common struggles and how to overcome them

Camille Bou outlines the key struggles she encountered during the first year of her PhD and shares useful insight on how she overcame them

Camille Bou's avatar
15 Dec 2021
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Advice from a doctoral student on overcoming common challenges while studying for your PhD

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This is it – you're enrolled in a world-leading institution, about to embark on an exploratory journey during which you’ll develop expertise in a topic you are passionate about, under the supervision of top faculty in your field. As you excitedly flip through your PhD acceptance package, absorbing all its precious information, the admission high slowly starts to fade, giving way to creeping feelings of anxiety.

How are you going to navigate this upcoming year? Was undertaking a PhD a mistake?

Fear not, friend: it is completely normal to feel nervous about what lies ahead. As I have been in your shoes and dealt with my fair share of first-year hurdles, allow me to share the three things I struggled with most when transitioning into a PhD (and how I overcame them) – my ABCs: adapting to a new way of learning; battling my impostor syndrome; and channelling my ambition.

1. Adapting to a new way of learning

Expect a steep learning curve in learning styles when entering a PhD. Whether you’re joining subsequent to a job or another degree, you will be moving from a structured framework to the highly flexible PhD schedule, the organisation of which will entirely be at your discretion. Group projects will switch to solo study dates with your readings and the blinking cursor of your Word document. While it has its advantages, I certainly felt isolated at times, and it wasn’t always easy holding myself accountable to self-imposed deadlines.

What helped me was reflecting on my patterns of productivity and being proactive in building connections with my cohort and supervisors. My productivity peaked during mornings and evenings, so I consistently blocked out that time for PhD-related work, leaving time for other pursuits in the afternoon (with some flexibility). I created timelines to visualise my deliverables and updated my calendar with reminders. Finally, I used the PhD study space on campus rather than working from home, which broke up my day with a commute and allowed me to connect with my fellow doctoral students.

2. Battling impostor syndrome

A PhD is a scary venture. You’re putting your thoughts out there for the world to wittingly, and sometimes mercilessly, scrutinise and criticise. You will spend hours questioning yourself, reanalysing, rewriting, and may occasionally sacrifice weekends for fear that you are not working hard enough. You may worry that you don’t belong at your institution because you’re operating at human speeds and making human mistakes.

You’ve guessed it: my second-biggest struggle was battling with my impostor syndrome. It got particularly bad in my first year, impacting my self-confidence and PhD progress. Growing tired of negotiating with my brain, and of being my own obstacle to becoming a confident researcher, I decided to get some help. My institution provides one-to-one coaching, which taught me how to notice, acknowledge, and reframe my negative thoughts. Your institution counselling service is likely able to provide similar support. Don’t be afraid or too proud to seek out that support. Sharing my experience with other PhD students, who more often than not shared similar feelings, also made me feel less alone.

3. Channelling ambition

You will enter the PhD programme with all guns blazing: so many research routes to explore, so many ways your project could contribute to your field. Repurposing the words of Darth Sidious: “Good, good! Let the motivation flow through you.” Your enthusiasm and ambition reflect your intellectual curiosity, and will ensure that you leave no stone unturned.

Yet beware of spreading yourself too thin. A PhD is a marathon, not a sprint – you need to nurture that motivation to make it last. Channel your ambition to shape a practical, rigorous project with manageable goals that you’re sure to complete in time. I had to significantly divert my project from its original proposal because I was overambitious about what I could achieve given my funding and time frame. Learning to let go of ideas was difficult and made me doubt the impact my project could have. Discussing this openly with my supervisors helped me, as it provided me with the broader perspective that my PhD would ultimately be one project among many others that I would conduct in my career.

Unfortunately, you can’t always get exactly what you want when it comes to research. Our ambition is not often perfectly matched by the data available, and there isn’t always funding or time to conduct a large-scale data collection. You may need to innovate to achieve the best possible outcome given the resources available. Such are the harsh realities of academia, but also what makes a career in this sector that much more rewarding and satisfying.

A PhD journey is filled with personal, intellectual and professional growth. Throughout it all, remember why you started it and that your contributions do matter.

Camille Bou is a PhD student in the department of health policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).


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