Career advice: how to overcome the six most common PhD worries

Kevin O'Gorman and Robert MacIntosh explain how to beat some of the typical anxieties associated with a doctoral degree

April 27, 2017
Worried man wiping forehead
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I’m not as bright as everyone else

"Impostor 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.

Compounded by the self-doubt that comes with being unable to meet mythical standards that PhD students often believe others expect of them, it 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.

I’ve picked the wrong topic

Whether the body of legal requirements you’ve been researching has now been repealed or your wonderfully crafted research question turns out to be totally unsearchable, there are always tempting new topics hovering just beyond reach.

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.

I can’t write for toffee

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 – about the same length 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 proofread slashed to ribbons by the red ink, comments boxes and track changes that indicate supervisorial disapproval?

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.

To pass you need to produce a readable, workmanlike critique of existing ideas and an account of how your research builds on these. Most PhDs don’t change the world, so 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 receive.

I’m all alone in the wilderness

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 or ignored by their supervisor. Hanging around with other PhD students can help to build a sense of community, but it is possible to feel alone in a room full of people.

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.


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I won’t make the grade

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 an undergraduate degree, or even a master's, to a PhD, but 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, and they come in all shapes and sizes (welcome receptions, formal workshops, writing clinics, research seminars, and so on). In your darker moments, remember that you aren’t trying to win a Nobel prize – a simple pass subject to revisions will do.

I can’t say this stuff out loud

Taking your working into the public domain can be terrifying, but part of the assessment requires that you can speak about your research during the viva. 

Don’t buy the line that it will be all right 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 or workshops. A different kind of thinking occurs when you have to speak rather than write, so listen carefully to what you hear yourself saying.

In the viva, if your supervisor feels both the thesis and you are ready for examination, you really should have nothing to worry about.

Robert MacIntosh is head of the School of Social Sciences at Heriot-Watt University, where Kevin O’Gorman is professor of management and business history and director of internationalisation. Both regularly write about academic life on the Heriot-Watt blogs It’s Not You, It’s Your Data and thePhDblog.com.

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Reader's comments (16)

Hi there..I wonder if you could give some advice on studying again after having a break. How to get started again...where to start....!
If you really haven't studied for a long time then one of the biggest changes is likely to be the extent to which the inter-web has changed what it means to study. In the context of PhD level study, the existence of (a) journal databases and (b) systematic literature reviews have radically altered what is possible and what is seen as good practice. The trusty photocopier and highlighter pen have been relegated to history for all but those of us who struggle to abandon that way of working. Find yourself a fellow student who is a digital native and ask them not "what" they study but "how" they study. Good luck
Do I need to have a Masters to go straight to a PhD, or will a 1st undergraduate degree be enough?
It varies from one institution and programme to the next ... there are examples of UG straight to PhD but the trend is definitely heading towards a masters as the more common pathway. The research councils tend to want evidence of masters level research training and will either (a) check that you have it or (b) fund it as part of a research award.
Hi, I've just finished a Bachelors degree, and found the dissertation really tough. Writing about the same topic for weeks on end was very frustrating, often I got too caught up in the little things and related topics to focus on my work as a whole. Is this common also when working on a PhD thesis? If so, what would you say is the best way around it? Thanks
If you found the UG version tough then a PhD might not be for you ... it is the same dynamic only bigger and slower! The best way around it is to choose a topic that genuinely fascinates you but even this doesn't stop most PhD students being very keen to move on from their thesis topic as they approach the end of their doctorate. It is rite of passage and the up side is that very few people do more than one PhD.
This article was really helpful! I was wondering if you had any advice on how to ensure your topic is broad enough to be PhD worthy? I have heard of some students being downgraded to an Mphil at major review but i am not sure if this is because of the topic chosen or the quality of work? Thanks.
It almost certainly won't be about the topic ... a PhD offers a contribution to knowledge and with a bit of work (and support from your supervisors) you can make a PhD style contribution in innumerable ways. The topic is therefore much less of a challenge that the standard of the literature review (which establishes what we already know), the methods (which establish a sensible basis on which to explore the topic), the analysis (which offers a robust account of what you've found) and the theorizing (which sets out what you're saying that is new). Angels on a pinhead come to mind in terms of carving a PhD out of a very small topic but a well executed thesis can do just that. The opposite is not true however ... i.e. that you can be sloppy in your work because you've settled on such an amazing topic.
Thanks for the article, very useful indeed. Regarding the viva rehearsal: what would you say are the key ingredients for a good mock viva?
taking the exercise seriously enough to carve out the time and to treat it as a genuine rehearsal. It isn't just larking about with your mates ... it is serious question followed by serious attempt at an answer with a wrapper of some thoughtful reflection on what worked/didn't work in that answer. Usually socially uncomfortable in the way that singing in front of your aunts and uncles but there is no substitute for hearing yourself speak the answers and realising that they need sharpened up.
Thanks for this, could have used it a few years ago! I really agree with the point of being able to 'say it out loud'. Working out what you're trying to achieve with your PhD through conversation is very helpful. It is painful at times, but I recommend finding a trusted member of faculty in your department and asking them to play devil's advocate. They don't even need to know your work, in fact sometimes it's more helpful if they don't because you need to be able to explain it even more concisely and clearly.
An excellent read. I've even made note of some of your suggestions and put them on my wall to remind me every day that there is hope of getting through it.
Really interesting article and some great advice! What would you say are the most important things that PhD students in hindsight often wish they knew or did before starting their thesis?
There are a few things that tend to come up ... immediately post-PhD people often say they wish they had been thinking more clearly about the publications that could flow from their thesis than the thesis / viva itself. After a longer period, many senior academics reflect back and wish they had known how much of a luxury it was to be working exclusively on one thing ... this usually happens in a short gap between spinning multiple plates!
Great article. I started a PhD and got it through Research Degrees Board, but eventually realised it was going nowhere. I'm still sad I withdrew. Currently working on my second Masters degree and I really do hope to go back and do my PhD one day. This time, I won't suffer in silence for years on end!
This analysis seems interesting to me, I believe that our willingness to perform the tasks entrusted by our teachers must always prevail and we must always have confidence in ourselves. If you want to know more about the topic you can enter http://www.ups.edu.ec/web/guest/canal-ups where you could find more information related to the topic http://www.ups.edu.ec/

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