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Whether the body of legal requirements you’ve been researching has now been repealed or your wonderfully crafted research question turns out to be totally unsearchable, there are always tempting new topics hovering just beyond reach.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