Dealing with a PhD crisis

This post is adapted from something that I wrote on Facebook over a decade ago, and also left as a physical document in the Postgraduate study room, when I was freshly out of my own PhD. It is a little dated, and I don’t necessarily agree with all of it anymore, but a lot of people have told me that they found it useful, so I thought it was worth resharing here.

There will be a point during your PhD when you lose motivation completely.  In fact most of us have many of those times.  You haven’t done any work for days, maybe even weeks or months, you don’t see how it is possibly ever going to get finished, and the only option seems to be to drop the whole damn thing and find something else to do.  I am writing this for when you find yourself in this situation.  If it applies to you, keep reading.

Let it out

First of all, get it out of your system a little.  Grab a tissue and sob like a small child, kick an inanimate object (as an ethicist I am afraid I cannot condone kicking the cat, but perhaps if an inanimate object won’t cut it, you can find a consenting adult to thump with a cushion).  Perhaps if you are one of those strange people who finds exercise soothing, you could go for a run or a gym session (try playing some shitty 1980s high energy power ballad in the background so you can pretend you’re in a montage sequence – that’s always fun).  You may feel like you don’t have the time to do all this, but trust me, it might well gain you time in the long run.  When you’ve done whatever it is, come back to this and read on.

Assemble your resources

Right, now to read the rest of this in the correct frame of mind, you will need some vital equipment.  This can vary according to your personal taste.  One thing that does the job for me is a cup of tea, but coffee, chocolate, wine, spirits, cigarettes, pies or hard drugs (only kidding?) might do just as well. If any of them fail to work on their own, try a combination.  If that doesn’t work, try all of them at once.  If you don’t eat junk food, smoke, or drink caffeine or alcohol, that may be why you have found yourself in this situation in the first place.  Consider developing some bad habits.  You can do rehab after your viva. [this is one of the parts I no longer endorse!]

The first thing is that everyone finds themselves here.  When I say everyone, I mean everyone – except scary people who complete their PhDs in two years, but we don’t talk to them.  Most of us have taken around four or five years to get done (yeah, we don’t talk about that very often) [N.B. This applies to UK PhDs – elsewhere it often standardly takes much longer] and a good bit of that time has been spent frozen with PhD terror, crying into a pillow, or procrastinating with hours of Facebook, computer games or porn.  Look at everyone with the title ‘Dr’ before their name – if you have a behaviour pattern that makes you feel inadequate, there is a good chance that they have done it at some time or other.  It comes with the territory.  So now you know our terrible secrets.

The real bombshell

Of course, all of these are a precursor to the most terrible secret of all.  Prepare yourself for this: we all think we’re rubbish.  Some of us only think this occasionally, some of us think it all the time, but most of us think it most of the time.  We might think back to when we’ve been to a research seminar, or some conference, and they are full of brilliant clever people who seem to know the subject inside out, and we don’t feel like we know it at all.  You were probably among the brighter people at school, and perhaps among the brightest of your peers at undergraduate level, but people in this environment seem to be operating on some kind of higher plane.  Maybe you had the balls and resourcefulness to bluff it earlier on, but these guys really know their stuff, and they are going to find you out.

It may come as some comfort that my father, a retired professor, well known and respected in his field and with several books to his name, has admitted to feeling like this.  OK, so it’s an alarming thing that it never completely goes away, but lots of the brilliant clever people at those conferences and seminars feel exactly the way that you do.  That is no guarantee that you are brilliant and clever of course, but the way that you feel is no reason to suppose that you are not.  In fact, take it as some encouragement.  Philosophy is hard – very hard.  If you feel as though you understand something well, it probably means either that you’re missing the really hard (and really significant) bit of it, or that it’s time to move on and read new stuff until it gets hard again.  The fact that you are struggling means that you are working at the right level – good job.

The procrastination trap

But you might not feel that this is relevant.  If you haven’t picked up a book in five weeks, you almost certainly feel that it is not (if you have held a book recently enough that the previous paragraph applies to you – again, good job).  But the problem often isn’t so much understanding the work, it’s doing it in the first place.  You go to bed frustrated with your lack of resolve, and determined to put more effort in tomorrow, but every day the same strange thing happens – or doesn’t.  You turn on the computer, and rather than looking at that article or writing that chapter, your fingers involuntarily stray over the mouse and you end up doing the ‘Which Sex and the City character are you?’ quiz [I told you this was dated], or looking at tat on ebay.  Maybe you don’t even get as far as the computer, perhaps you sit in your dressing gown watching trash on TV, or reading a novel.  I have even gone to the extremes of doing housework as an avoidance activity.

Why do we do this?  I think everyone has their own answer, but for me it comes down to fear.  All that tricky stuff that you don’t really feel that you can achieve might just go away if you stick your fingers in your ears and go ‘lalalalala’.  OK, it won’t really go away, but as long as I’m not thinking about it, I don’t have to think about it (the first rule of tautology club is the first rule of tautology club -( XKCD)).

Making lists

The approach to this is to make it seem less scary.  As the most disorganised person in the world, I hate to admit it, but the best strategy here is to make lists.  Start with the whole big terrifying monster – what are the tasks ahead that are daunting you?  Perhaps all you can think here is ‘THEEEESIIIIIIS!!!!’  Grit your teeth and write them/it down, together with the date you need to get them done by.  OK, so that was bad, but it wasn’t as bad as you imagined.  Now think about how you can divide it up.  Split the thesis into chapters, and chapters into sections [N.B. See my other post The Fern Model of Writing for more help with this].

If you don’t know what the chapters or sections are yet, think about what you will need to do to figure that out.  Set little periods of time aside to read one article, one chapter, or to make plans (don’t make any of these longer than a few hours).  Include on your list the people you need to speak to, both to help you figure out ideas and to restore your sanity.  Make time to talk to them and stick it into the plan.

Also set aside time for yourself free from the PhD.  Believe me, all those activities you do to put off working are so much more delicious when you can do them guilt-free within your schedule.  The main thing though is that once you stop looking at the PhD stress as a huge tangled mass of stuff, and split it up into little tasks, you can work your way through them and feel good about ticking them off.  Remember those bad habits I suggested you cultivate?  Think of them as rewards for getting something out of the way.

What next?

So you’ve made your list, and this is probably already a bit of a weight off your mind.  Another thing to make sure that you do is talk to people.  There are a lot of people in your department or institution who are either at the stage you are at now, or will have been through it at some point.  These people can be a great source of moral support, as well as helping out with ideas and suggestions about your work.  They will not think that you are stupid or lazy or inadequate.  At least if they do, the good ones will indulge it because they think they are also stupid, lazy and inadequate.

It is very easy to hide from everyone when things are not going so well.  There is an almost animal instinct to cower behind the bushes so that we are safe from attackers.  This is the start of a self-perpetuating cycle, because there is nobody there to break those awful patterns of thought.  Try working in a postgrad room in your institution [pandemics permitting], and making regular opportunities to talk to people casually.  Returning to the vices (a recurring theme that you will have noticed) I used to find smoking particularly handy for this.  If you do not want to give yourself lung cancer, try meeting someone for coffee every day, even if it’s only for twenty minutes.

Discussing your work – and your life

On a larger and longer term scale, conferences (and postgraduate seminars) can do the same thing.  They give you a good chance to meet like-minded freaks, as well as providing that work deadline that can give us a badly needed boot up the backside.  They may seem daunting, but it is amazing how supportive people can be the moment you start tentatively mentioning your worries about your work.  Eidos, the postgraduate philosophy society at Durham, gave me a bit of a road to Damascus experience towards the start of my second year.  In the pub after the talk, when asked how my PhD was going, I offered a weak smile and a shrug of despair.  The reaction that greeted me was ‘Oh God, me too, I haven’t done any decent work in ages!’, then everyone started piling in with similar stories, together with useful tips about how to deal with these situations.  I left the pub feeling a great deal happier, although the beer may also have helped.  The experience has stayed with me ever since, and helped with some of the worst crises.

The weird time-warp of the last stages

Of course, there is a stage when none of this will help, and this is the last few weeks or months of the writing up stage.  I think I will save that for another time, because it deserves a piece all of its own, but this is the time where we all become very strange, stop eating properly, work stupid hours and turn into staring-eyed, wild haired hermits who live off coffee and packets of biscuits.  I remember, two days before handing it in, thinking ‘I don’t want to do this anymore, what would happen if I packed it in now?’  At this stage, almost everyone loses their grip on time and reality a little, and the important thing to remember is that in the bizarre parallel universe that postgraduates inhabit, that is absolutely OK.

Last Thoughts

The final thing you have to remember is that a PhD is at least as much of a psychological challenge as it is an intellectual one.  You’ve written essays before, and this is basically just one really long essay, and the main secret to getting it done is no feat of academic brilliance, it is not dropping out. Believe it or not, the rest of it will come, and there will be that day where your biggest stress is worrying if they will bind the damn thing correctly (for your information, they got mine wrong).

If you are a rationalist, you may not like me saying this, but you have to take the completion thing as an article of faith.  It may not look like there is any way that it will ever get done, but provided you are able to hang in there, it will.  It has happened to thousands of us thousands of times before.  Every PhD holder is just as crap*, and we got there in the end.

Dr Liz McKinnell, survivor

*Something that the original piece didn’t adequately take into account is that some people do drop out and do other things. I was obsessively narrowly focused on an academic career at this point in my life, but I have come to learn that there is a great deal to life other than academia, and although there is a lot of shame attached to leaving, for some people it makes them a great deal happier. More on that at another date.