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Posted on 2 Dec '19

5 Common PhD Fears & How to Overcome Them

Worried about stepping up to PhD study? Or concerned that you'll come unstuck during your doctorate? Gaia Cantelli offers some advice for turning PhD fears into productive opportunities.

Just like any major undertaking, completing a PhD is a long and difficult path. It is filled with wonderful moments that make it all worthwhile – as well as lots of opportunities to encounter fears and doubts.

Succeeding with your PhD means spotting these anxieties and knowing how to tackle them when they occur. That may not be as difficult as you think.

Here are a few of the most common fears that hunt PhD students and how to overcome them.

#1 'This mess is never going to turn into a doctoral thesis'

I can guarantee you, every PhD thesis has, at some stage, looked like an incoherent pile of scribbled notes and inconsistent data.

Some of that material will become part of your final thesis. Some of it won’t, but it’s still an important part of the process.

The old 80/20 rule suggests that 80% of your most important data and results are going to come together in around 20% of the time available. That may seem strange, but it’s not necessarily far off. After all, part of the PhD process involves learning how to do research. And not every experiment or source works out first time.

This principle leaves the remaining 80% of your time to produce 20% of the data and much, much useless nonsense that seemed like a great idea when you first thought of it.

So, when you find yourself on a Wednesday afternoon taking stock of what you have and what you see is an unapologetic disaster – don’t despair, everybody else has been in your shoes at some point.

Solution: write a thesis plan

What do you do when it feels like your PhD is never going to come together? Trust yourself. It’s all going to be all right. You made it this far and you will certainly make it to the end.

If self-belief isn’t enough and you need more practical help, try making a thesis plan. You can actually do this at any point in your PhD journey.

The trick is to organise your thoughts (and work in progress) into what you would like your thesis to look like. Ask your supervisor or your friends for help if you’re not sure how to go about this or would like some feedback – most people would be thrilled to help!

Writing a thesis plan will help you visualise how the work you have already done actually fits into the grand scheme of things. What’s more, it will help you prepare an action plan to tackle what you have left!

#2 'I am never going to be able to do [insert skill]'

No matter what field of work you’re in, you are going to have to develop (or upgrade) a variety of skills during your PhD.

This could involve mastering clinical techniques in the laboratory, getting to grips with a new coding language or improving your research techniques in the library or archive.

Doing these at PhD level will be a challenge, whatever your previous experience. Better yet, they’ll usually be flawlessly demonstrated to you by a senior researcher who has been practicing these techniques for a decade and looks like they could get through the practical component of your PhD before breakfast.

It is only natural, then, that you’ll get the dooming feeling that you are never, ever, never going to be able to master the skill (or skills) in question.

Solution: practice makes perfect

Ask anyone who excels in any field, from medicine to ballet, and they will tell you: those who do well are not those who have the most talent, but those who work the hardest and never, ever give up.

So practice.

Ask for help and grab every opportunity for further practice that presents itself. Don’t be afraid to seem too keen: there is no such thing as being too keen when you are a PhD student.

In fact, graduate school and doctoral research are all about being unapologetically excited about what you do!

You will find that after a few weeks of practicing single-mindedly you’ll start to get the hang of things. And before you know it – you’ll be teaching that very skill to a terrified-looking first-year PhD student.

#3 'I am not as good as the other PhD students in my group'

Making friends with your fellow students is one of the best things about studying a PhD.

At the same time, the other side of the coin is that you are subject to constant comparison with others – even if that comparison only takes place in your own mind.

Some of your friends might seem like they are sailing through their PhDs, gracefully collecting perfectly-coherent data while dedicating themselves to their perfectly-manicured lives. It’s therefore more than natural to feel as though you are not doing as well, that you are being left behind and simply aren’t good enough to hang out in their company. Or share their laboratory.

Solution: learn from your peers

First of all, remember that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.

Your friend who seems to be collecting endless amounts of data might be struggling to find a direction for his project and a way to apply those results.

Your friend who seems to know exactly what she’s doing and where she’s going and how to get there might have doubts about the overall direction for her project.

Those same friends are almost certainly somehow envious of something you’re doing and worrying that they don’t match up.

This is called ‘imposter syndrome’ or ‘fraud syndrome’ (see below). It’s a common problem for PhD students and it’s important to get past it.

But what if some of your friends are better than you at some parts of PhD work? That’s fine. You’re probably better than them at other things. So, don’t be jealous, and learn from them!

How do they do it? Do they work harder? Do they have a really great way of organising themselves? Do they spend more time reading the literature in your field? Do they go to all the seminars offered by your department or do they think they are a waste of time?

#4 'I am a total fraud'

Fraud syndrome - or imposter syndrome - is the plight of the intellectually minded. You’ve probably experienced it, to some degree, from the moment you first stepped into a university lecture.

Well, here’s the good news: you’re always going to have it. But there’s a reason for that.

As you perform cutting-edge work at the very forefront of your field you’ll be working in prestigious institutions amongst famous professors. As a result, you’ll always be tempted to feel inferior by comparison. But you aren’t.

Solution: power through it

The best way I have found to overcome fraud syndrome is to power through it. If you find yourself dwelling on how exciting your work is and how prestigious your workplace is, stop. Don’t think about it.

If you must think about it, talk about it as much as you can with your fellow students. I promise you, they feel the same.

Talking to others who share your predicament will make you feel better: after all, the university might have made a colossal mistake letting you in, but they can’t have made a mistake with all of the students in your group.

Of course they haven’t. You got onto this PhD. You’re a real PhD student. So focus on your PhD.

#5 My supervisor hates me

Your relationship with your supervisor is one of the most important and delicate parts of your PhD. No matter how great you thought they were when you started, you are inevitably going to disagree from time to time.

Sometimes these episodes become more frequent and close together. This is a normal part of the process of scholarly discussion, but it can invite paranoia if you’re new to academic research.

You might start worrying that your supervisor can’t stand you, or thinks you are a waste of space.

Alternatively, your supervisor might seem to vanish in a cloud of academic commitments and never appear to have any time for you – prompting you to wonder if they do hate you and are avoiding your project.

Solution: recognise the value of constructive criticism

First of all, chances are very good that your supervisor doesn’t hate you.

They might disagree with you about part of your project, or your approach to it.

They might also be busy, stressed out or under a lot of pressure from funding bodies or the department – after all, supervisors are human beings too!

If your supervisor does seem irritated, there might be something to learn from that. Do you show them projects when it’s too late for them to give you any input? Do you ignore what they tell you?

And if it is the case that they don’t like part of your work, why don’t they like it? A good supervisor will offer useful constructive criticism. Learning to take it on board is an important part of working with them.

These are all things you can use to become a better PhD student and will benefit your work in the long run!

Editor's note: This blog was first published on 22/03/2017. We've checked and updated it for current readers.

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Last Updated: 02 December 2019