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.

“Teach me how to be original!”

This is one of the most common issues that I have encountered with university students, both in my work as an academic, and as a private tutor. It is also, on the face of it, one of the most difficult ones to solve. However, I’m going to suggest that it isn’t as hard as you might think.

If you look at the marking criteria for your course, there are probably references to original or independent thought. Typically, at least in the British educational system, this is emphasised more at university level than at school or sixth form college, where you often need to say particular things to show that you have met the criteria to get marks.

This emphasis on independence and originality can be intimidating to some students, especially the less self-confident ones: very clever people have been thinking about these ideas for millennia, so how can I, a random person who has been thinking about this for all of three weeks,be expected to say something new?

Nothing new under the sun (or near as dammit)

First of all, take a deep breath and relax. You don’t need to come up with a totally novel approach that nobody has ever thought of before. Many well-respected academics go through their entire careers without saying anything completely novel or revolutionary, and some of the most famous philosophers are great recyclers, adapting older ideas to address problems in different ways. You would be hard-pressed to find a single thought in Sartre that someone else hasn’t said elsewhere, although he does say it in his own unique way (more on that later).


I can’t generalise across all philosophy and philosophy-related degree courses, but most marking criteria only mention originality in their descriptions of the absolute top grades (even then, you can often reach those grades if you do well in the other criteria, without ticking the originality box).

What tends to be emphasised more throughout the spectrum of grades is independence. Originality means that you have said a new thing, or said something in a new way. Independence means that you have autonomously gone beyond the material that was mentioned in class and thought about it yourself. You can show a degree of independence by describing, summarising, and structuring your explanations and arguments in a different way from the one that was presented in lectures. It means that you don’t simply regurgitate material, but process it and synthesise it yourself.

Originality: an anecdote

Still, it would be sort of satisfying to tick that ‘originality’ box, wouldn’t it?

There’s no straightforward method that will allow you to nail this every time (if there were, it wouldn’t really be originality) but I can give a little advice.

First of all, a little story:

When I was an undergraduate student at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, I found myself stuck for a long time on mid- to high 2.1 grades. For people unaccustomed to the British system, this is roughly in the range between an A- and a B. It’s perfectly respectable, in fact it’s pretty damn good, but it is still frustrating if you want to get an A or A+. I (mostly) did all the reading, I was keen in class, I put time an effort into my essays, but they always seemed to lack that spark.

When I took a philosophy of language course, I found it utterly bamboozling. It wasn’t that I didn’t follow the arguments about rule-following and scepticism about meaning, it was more that I didn’t understand how anything hung on it, how it connected to other ideas in mind and metaphysics, or what it would mean for the world if meaning scepticism was true. I had no idea about the status or significance of any of the entities or relations that I was studying. I could join it together, but it felt a little like trying to build Lego houses in zero gravity.

When essay time came around, I read in the syllabus that “intellectual risk will be rewarded”. This was a very nice touch from Patrick Greenough, the module leader for this course, and it prompted a minor miracle for me.

I felt like this gave me permission to approach things in a way that would help me to address this weird vertigo that the subject induced in me. After checking with Patrick to make sure I wasn’t doing something totally off-track, I took Kripke’s meaning scepticism, something that I thought I didn’t understand at all, and compared it to moral scepticism, something that I thought (perhaps mistakenly) that I had a fairly firm grip on. I placed the two side by side, and looked at them analogously, where the two kinds of scepticism had similar arguments in their support, and where there were major differences between them. In a spirit of open-minded puzzlement, I joined these dots, hoping that whatever I could grasp in ethics might give me something of a foothold in philosophy of language.

I was very nervous when I submitted this essay, since I felt that it had opened up even more puzzles than it had attempted to solve. However, when the results came back, I was astonished to find that the essay had been awarded nineteen points on a twenty-point marking scale: a full grade boundary higher than anything I had written before, and close to the maximum that I could have been awarded. In a bizarre twist, it was my nervousness and lack of confidence in the subject that allowed me to write something genuinely original.

After this, I felt much more confident with trying things out and experimenting with new ideas. I eventually graduated with a first class degree, and went on to take a masters and a PhD.

What can we learn from this?

So that was very nice for me, but how can it help you?

  • Sit with your confusions and discomfort.

Before this essay, when I hadn’t fully understood an issue, I would either avoid writing about it, or try to gloss over the bit that I didn’t get. On this occasion I was forced to face up to my confusion and dive into the bits that confused me. It is very easy to think that whenever we feel that we don’t quite grasp something, it is a problem with us and our understanding, but often, when something doesn’t quite seem to gel with you, it’s because you have the germ of an argument against it, or you intuitively approach the issue from a different, perhaps novel, angle. Interrogate yourself: what is it that you don’t understand? What makes you feel resistant to a topic or argument? Why does something bore you? Sometimes when we listen to our feelings about this, rather than gritting our teeth and hammering out the stock answer that we think that we are supposed to give, we end up saying something very interesting.

  • Find analogies and examples – this means reading, and having a life outside of your studies!

You can show a great deal of independence, and often originality too, by making analogies and comparisons, and giving examples. These may be other theories and arguments from different areas of your subject (as it was here) but it can also be from other areas of your life. Maybe you’re studying rule-following arguments, and you’re also a football fanatic. Can you think of any interesting examples where the rules had nothing to say, or it was unclear how they should be interpreted? Are there any good analogies or examples from literature that you love, or from your favourite movies? If you cultivate a rich and interesting life beyond your academic studies, it will be good for your mental health, and also provide you with a much better store of material to draw on in your writing.

This, provided you can form a useful analogy or example that illustrates an idea, is enough to show a good degree of independent thought, but maybe you can go further than that: what would we say about your analogous case, whether it is in philosophy or in something else? Can what we would say about that example be transposed back onto the philosophical issue that your essay is tackling?

  • Take (calculated) risks

If you are unsure whether to write an essay-by-numbers that is basically correct, or something more original that might be wrong, it is often better to take the risk. This is not always the case, but it is true more often than you might think. You can always check with your tutor or lecturer to make sure you’re not on completely the wrong track. If you’re nervous about this, try it out in essays that don’t count towards your final degree, or which only count for a very small percentage. This can help you to work out what level of risk is right for you.

  • Talk to your tutors, lecturers, and fellow students

If you have an idea that you’re unsure about, talk it through with people who can give you advice or different perspectives. A tutor or lecturer can help you see if it works, how you might develop it, and whether anything similar has been said on the subject (don’t be put off if it has, this is still independent thought if you have got to it independently!) Friends and fellow students might have their own take, or offer you other examples and analogies. It is OK to use their thoughts, provided that you can make them your own (if you pursue postgraduate study or an academic career, it is good form to acknowledge their ideas, and there’s nothing wrong with starting that now if you like – stick a nice ‘thank you’ to them in a footnote).

This is not exhaustive – there are a lot of ways of showing independence and originality. The main thing to remember is that it isn’t as scary as you might think, and if you can sit with your discomfort, you might come to realise that what is lacking is not so much original ideas, as the confidence to express and develop them. This confidence is something that you can work on and develop, although it may take time. For now, please take this blog post as permission to try things out and see where it takes you!

Dealing with the blank page: how to write philosophy (and probably other stuff) when you really don’t feel like it

I was going to start by saying that everybody gets this. Actually though, some people don’t seem to get this. I know a small number of people come to writing with a beautifully worked-out idea, calmly open a blank Word document, and just write. As the well-turned prose flows from their fingers, they smile calmly to themselves as the thought is perfectly transferred from their mind to the page.

I am not one of those people, and most people aren’t.

Instead, you may have a vague idea of what you want to write about, a fully-formed idea that doesn’t easily translate to the linear format of an essay or article, or maybe just an essay question with a looming deadline.

The thought of starting can be so unsettling that you do almost anything to avoid it: your house gets sparklingly clean, your email inbox empty, awkward bits of admin complete. When you do start, knowing where or how to start feels impossible. You type out a title, write a sentence, delete it, write another sentence, and so on.

If you are at all like me, the degree of this issue fluctuates. Getting started is always hard, but there are times when I can get past those issues, and other times when it feels like attempting to pass solid metal through a meat grinder.

Here are a few things that help me with the more difficult times:

  • Make yourself a rule that anything that goes on the page counts as writing. So do any handwritten notes or plans that you make in order to get your ideas out.
  • Brainstorm on paper: just write down anything you can think of that is at all relevant to the topic. Once you have those written down in front of you, you have something that you can select bits from, and try to arrange into some kind of rough structure.
  • Write section headings in your document: if you aren’t feeling up to composing sentences today, just try to think about what you need to do in order to give a good answer to the question (whether it’s an essay question, or a question that you have posed to yourself). Turn each stage of this into a section heading. These section headings can be really boring at this stage: you can always change them to something a bit jazzier later on. If all that you have at the end of the day is a title and a series of section headings, you have already made a lot of progress. Show some self-belief and save this document as your article or essay.
  • On that note, if you just have a topic, not a question, set yourself a question. Giving yourself a definite question to answer helps you to think more clearly about what an answer would involve.
  • Collect relevant quotations and stick them at the end of your document. You can delete any that you don’t end up using. Other people’s writing doesn’t count as doing your own writing when it comes to issues around plagiarism, but it does when it means using properly attributed quotations to get the ball rolling.
  • If you have section headings and quotations, but still don’t feel like writing sentences, move your quotations so that they are under the relevant section headings.
  • Once you have section headings, and quotations under each heading, think about whether a reader would be able to see how they connect to each other. What do you need to say to make it a coherent whole? Where do you need quotations to illustrate something else? Which points are left out or unclear? What else belongs under this section heading? This can just be instructions to yourself rather than actual content. I usually use square brackets for this, e.g. [say something here about why Iris Murdoch thinks that love is connected to accurate perception]
  • By the end of this, you should have a broad structure, an idea of the method for answering the question, and a set of little instructions to yourself for little tasks that you need to complete. This means that your job is immediately less daunting. Instead of “Write something about contemporary virtue theory and psychotherapy” (what I’m attempting to do right now) you have a long list of little tasks: “[describe Plato’s cave], [explain how the cave is an analogy for philosophy – seeing things accurately], [say why this is a theme in psychotherapy too], [explain reality principle in Freud], [talk about discounting in transactional analysis], etc.
  • An advantage of this approach is that if you get called away from writing by other stuff (your job, kids, teaching, etc.) returning to it is a little easier. You don’t need to spend a lot of time retracing your steps and trying to remember where you were going.
  • You might not have instructions for the whole thing. Sometimes you need to get writing before you know quite where it will go. If you’re feeling that way, start doing what the stuff in square brackets tells you to do, and use your quotations to guide you.
  • If you get stuck, this might be because you’ve reached a tricky point. Maybe you suddenly see that there’s a question that you need to answer in order to move forward. Write this question down. Go away and think about it over a cup of tea if you need to.
  • If you’re stuck on one bit, move on to another section. Don’t worry that you’re leaving something incomplete. It often seems less intimidating when it’s a little gap in a more complete work, and what you say further down the line might help you see why you were stuck earlier.
  • Many general guides for overcoming writer’s block suggest simply free-associating and writing down anything that occurs to you. This can sometimes be helpful for philosophy, but some people find that it doesn’t help them move to something more structured or rigorous. Experiment with this and see where it gets you. You might want to try thinking from a totally different angle: what images pop into your head when you’re reading this philosophical work? What does Plato’s cave smell like? What else do you think Spinoza was doing that day? These things probably won’t help you get closer to an answer to your question, and will (in the case of traditional philosophy) probably end up being deleted, but what they can do is help you to get unblocked. Imaginative exercises involving your senses and emotions can get you into a place where the dry ideas that you are tackling feel more alive – they have context, history, and importance for life. Sometimes thinking like this can even help you to see a problem from a new angle.

These are just a few ideas, and you can find plenty of other advice on academic writing here and elsewhere, but I hope some of them might be helpful. Try to remember that even the greatest minds in history have been stuck from time to time, and don’t feel too discouraged.