6 Ways to Sabotage your PhD | FindAPhD.com
Posted on 13 Dec '18

6 Ways to Sabotage your PhD

Completing a PhD is like no other academic, professional or life experience out there. It’s commonly thought of as a test of intelligence, but in reality it’s more a challenge of your grit and determination. And that’s why around 30% of PhD students never complete their degree.

Although the most common step to fail at is the thesis-writing stage, the stresses and trials of a PhD can have an impact at any time. These can be avoided or overcome, but poor research behaviour and habits make this all the more difficult.

Here are six ways to sabotage your PhD (and how to avoid them!).

1. Lost confidence

Nothing’s working, you can’t seem to get good results and research done, your supervisor is disappointed, and everyone else appears to be doing fine. It’s starting to feel like you’re just not good enough to do a PhD.

This is compounded by the fact that, in your education so far, you are normally successful. No longer feeling like you’re top-of-class, it seems as though you should be held back a year. Maybe you should just give up. . .

How to get over it

Don’t give up, and don’t worry – this is imposter syndrome. Most PhD students go through this at some point – you are not alone!

It’s normal to feel like you’re failing when the going gets tough. Or that you’ve somehow slipped through a crack in the system and shouldn’t really be doing a PhD. But, it’s important to remember that you are not the problem. Resilience, originality and a bit of luck are all that’s needed to get through.

You may fall into this pit of despair many times but bear in mind that it is always only temporary. Try and embrace failure – it’s a sign that you’ve found a problem that needs solving, not that you are a problem.

2. Disorganisation

You probably know that a PhD involves independent, self-taught study. But, that also means everything needs to be managed by you. And bad management is the easiest way to mess up your doctorate.

This means not setting sensible aims and objectives. Without a clear end-goal, it’s difficult to know the steps you need to take to complete your PhD.

You might also be disorganised in your priorities. A lack of prioritisation, or putting too much effort into less important things, is another way to sabotage your PhD. If you’re too busy with other things, or over-commit to other projects, it can mean your research suffers.

How to get over it

Set SMART (specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, time-bound) aims and objectives early on, and make sure you regularly refer to them and update them.

Document your work as you go along, and make sure everything is organised. This will definitely help when it comes to finding previous research or results.

Remember what your priorities really are (your PhD research, your thesis, and your viva examination). This isn’t to say you shouldn’t do other things – in fact, you definitely should. But keep in mind that you only have a finite amount of time to complete your PhD – you might need to say no to some things.

3. Procrastination

Hello, darkness, my old friend.

You’ll do anything to avoid doing the thing you need to do. Check your phone, go on social media, tumble down the internet rabbit-hole (or read this blog!).

You’re distracted, you put off stuff until last moment (especially the urgent / important stuff). And before you know it, you’re running out of time and the work you cobble together isn’t as good as it could and should be.

How to get over it

Eat the frog*.

Just roll up your sleeves and get it done. Turn off any distractions (sounds, notifications, internet etc.) and get yourself into an appropriate working area. And be honest with yourself about listening to music – is it really helping you concentrate, or are you spending more time skipping tracks and getting distracted?

Getting those daunting tasks done feels so much more rewarding than procrastinating. It can even be enjoyable to feel you’re accomplishing something. You just have to get yourself into a productive headspace and workspace.

*I’m not being weird, Google it

4. Perfectionism

Although PhD research can be very precise and meticulous, you can take it too far. Everything needs repeating, or redrafting, or rereading.

This can also mean trying to fit the entirety of existence, nature and / or civilisation into your thesis (just in case you were wondering, this is impossible).

The result is nothing being finished, nothing being submitted, and not fulfilling your potential.

How to get over it

Sometimes, it’s necessary to realise that nothing can ever be truly perfect. And that’s the nature of PhD research – when you scratch at the surface of the unknown, there’s bound to be a bit of mess here and there.

Your PhD isn’t meant to be your magnum opus – it’s the beginning of your research career and there’ll be plenty of time to add to what you’ve done in the future. You don’t have to include everything under the sun, or make it a flawless masterpiece (trust me, an academic can find a flaw in anything).

Sometimes you just need to draw a line under something and call it a day. As long as what you’ve done is of high enough quality, and you’re proud of what you’ve achieved, that should be enough.

5. Lack of motivation / effort

Some days, it can seem that the PhD isn’t really that important. You might not really require it for your future job, or it feels like it’s not worth the high effort it demands.

This happens often during the ‘second year blues’ – you’ve lost the initial enthusiasm and the day-to-day grind is getting too much. This can go hand-in-hand with a loss of confidence.

How to get over it

This may be a legitimate feeling, but in most cases, you just need to rediscover your motivation.

Remember the reason you wanted to do a PhD in the first place and think about what you will have achieved when it’s all done. Taking it one step at a time and finding the tasks you enjoy are important for getting you back into the swing of things.

Also, you can talk to your supervisor about these feelings. They’ve probably been through something similar and might find a way to reinvigorate your work. And if you need to, you could take a short break – you may come back with a fresh approach that gets you going again.

6. Chaos

Nothing can sabotage a PhD better than a big dash of chaos.

Maybe you’re having money troubles, or a difficult personal situation, or a breakdown of relationships, or you’re living in an unsuitable location. . . or a million other things that could hit you like a bolt from the blue.

These problems often exacerbate the other issues you may encounter on your PhD journey, and can send you into a downward spiral.

How to get over it

Sometimes, chaos is a part of life and there’s nothing you can do to avoid it. That’s understandable, and you shouldn’t feel any guilt for it. Keep communicating with your supervisor, and your friends and family, to try and organise your life and your PhD accordingly. Plus, it’s important to look after your wellbeing and mental health – seek help when you need it.

However, sometimes chaos is self-inflicted. Avoid putting yourself in circumstances or situations that break up the organisation and commitment needed for PhD research. This includes not having a suitable work space, working erratic hours, and just generally over-doing it.

If it’s broken – fix it

All of these things are ways to sabotage your PhD, and you should try to avoid them on your path to PhD success.

But, don’t despair if you are displaying signs of self-sabotaging behaviour – there is very little that cannot be repaired with a little re-evaluation, communication, and action.




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Last Updated: 13 December 2018