The Valley of Shit

I have a friend, let’s call him Dave, who is doing his PhD at the moment.

I admire Dave for several reasons. Although he is a full time academic with a young family, Dave talks about his PhD as just one job among many. Rather than moan about not having enough time, Dave looks for creative time management solutions. Despite the numerous demands on him, Dave is a generous colleague. He willingly listens to my work problems over coffee and always has an interesting suggestion or two. His resolute cheerfulness and ‘can do’ attitude is an antidote to the culture of complaint which seems, at times, to pervade academia.

I was therefore surprised when, for no apparent reason, Dave started talking negatively about his PhD and his ability to finish on time. All of a sudden he seemed to lose confidence in himself, his topic and the quality of the work he had done.

Dave is not the only person who seems to be experiencing these feelings lately. I have another friend, let’s call him Andrew.

Andrew is doing his PhD at a prestigious university and has been given an equally prestigious scholarship. Like Dave, Andrew approaches his PhD as another job, applying the many time management skills he had learned in his previous career. He has turned out an impressive number of papers, much to the delight of his supervisors.

Again I was shocked when Andrew emailed me to say he was going to quit. He claimed everything he did was no good and it took a number of intense phone calls to convince him to carry on.

Both these students were trapped in a phase PhD study I have started to call “The Valley of Shit”.

The Valley of Shit is that period of your PhD, however brief, when you lose perspective and therefore confidence and belief in yourself. There are a few signs you are entering into the Valley of Shit. You can start to think your whole project is misconceived or that you do not have the ability to do it justice. Or you might seriously question if what you have done is good enough and start feeling like everything you have discovered is obvious, boring and unimportant. As you walk deeper into the Valley of Shit it becomes more and more difficult to work and you start seriously entertaining thoughts of quitting.

I call this state of mind the Valley of Shit because you need to remember you are merely passing through it, not stuck there forever. Valleys lead to somewhere else - if you can but walk for long enough. Unfortunately the Valley of Shit can feel endless because you are surrounded by towering walls of brown stuff which block your view of the beautiful landscape beyond.

The Valley of Shit is a terrible place to be because, well, not to put too fine a point on it – it smells. No one else can (or really wants to) be down there, walking with you. You have the Valley of Shit all to yourself. This is why, no matter how many reassuring things people say, it can be hard to believe that the Valley of Shit actually does have an end. In fact, sometimes those reassuring words can only make the Valley of Shit more oppressive.

The problem with being a PhD student is you are likely to have been a star student all your life. Your family, friends and colleagues know this about you. Their confidence in you is real – and well founded. While rationally you know they are right, their optimism and soothing ‘you can do it’ mantras can start to feel like extra pressure rather than encouragement.

I feel like I have spent more than my fair share of time in the Valley of Shit. I was Thesis Whisperering while I was doing my PhD – so you can imagine the pressure I felt to succeed. An inability to deliver a good thesis, on time, would be a sign of my professional incompetence on so many levels. The Valley of Shit would start to rise up around me whenever I starting second guessing myself. The internal monologue went something like this:

“My supervisor, friends and family say I can do it – but how do they really KNOW? What if I disappoint all these people who have such faith in me? What will they think of me then?”

Happily, all my fears were groundless. My friends, teachers and family were right: I did have it in me. But boy – the smell of all those days walking in the Valley of Shit stay with you.

So I don’t want to offer you any empty words of comfort. The only advice I have is: just have to keep walking. By which I mean just keep writing, doing experiments, analysis or whatever – even if you don’t believe there is any point to it. Remember that you are probably not the right person to judge the value of your project or your competence right now.

Try not to get angry at people who try to cheer you on; they are only trying to help. Although you are alone in the Valley of Shit there is no need to be lonely – find a fellow traveller or two and have a good whinge if that helps. But beware of indulging in this kind of ‘troubles talk’ too much lest you start to feel like a victim.

Maybe try to laugh at it just a little.

You may be one of the lucky ones who only experience the Valley of Shit once in your PhD, or you might be unlucky and find yourself there repeatedly, as I did. I can completely understand those people who give up before they reach the end of the Valley of Shit – but I think it’s a pity. Eventually it has to end because the university wont let you do your PhD forever. Even if you never do walk out the other side, one day you will just hand the thing in and hope for the best.

Cold comfort perhaps? What do you think? Are you walking in the Valley of Shit right now? What helps you to cope? We’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Related posts

Are you getting in the way of your PhD?

PhD paralysis


196 thoughts on “The Valley of Shit

  1. What a great analogy. Far more hopeful and accurate compared to what me and fellow postgrads currently refer to as ‘the pit of despair’. I much prefer and will now adopt the phrase ‘valley of shit’. Really enjoyed this post; very informative and personal without being overly sentimental or at all patronising. Thanks.

  2. I have been there. I defended with highest honors a few weeks ago, but *many* times I remember thinking, “This just won’t work – what’s the point? It would be better for my husband and daughter if I just stopped this self-indulgent, pointless exercise.” What kept me going was the amount of time, energy, and money that everyone *else* had invested in this project, and the message that I would be sending to daughter.

    My advice is, focus on the reasons to keep going, whatever they may be. If you really ought to withdraw, then that will become obvious and will be a decision that brings peace. I used to start to cry when I thought about leaving the program – that was a big hint, in retrospect!

    BTW, my committee members think my work has enormous significance – one used the phrase ‘service to the nation.’ You are not always the best judge of your work!

  3. I’ve been calling this particular trek though the VoS the ‘third year slump.’ I think I prefer Valley of Shit, I think I’m just about emerging from it at the moment and am working up the enthusiasm to wash all that shit off.

    I found that, while just plugging on with work has been really useful, recognising that you’re in a bad place and taking a couple days or even a week off to do fun things or lazy things really helped me to get a breath of fresh air and be able to continue that work.

  4. I’m a part time PhD student, but my day job is being a university chaplain and from my 15 or so years of walking with students, I can attest to the fact that Inger is right – almost everyone gets to a point at least once when they just want to give up because it all seems worthless. And almost all of them come out the other end and go on to submit and pass. Talking about it with someone definitely helps.

  5. We call this the second year blues. This is based on a three year PhD, so it comes at that time when you realise there is very little time left and you just haven’t achieved enough. Or so you think.

  6. An apt name to describe the enormity of the heart and stomach wrenching feelings of doubt and total despair that I have experienced . My supporters and loved ones politely acknowledge my feelings, but go ho hum we have been through this experience with you before. Admittedly they have but this provides no comfort. Even though my supporters and loved ones have recently or about to finished their degrees their eyes glaze over and convey the unspoken message that this conversation is so boring.

    I have found the best remedy when feeling like this is to get under a hot shower and say to yourself why am I am doing this, I don’t need this pain. Then when I step out of the shower I tell myself “yes I don’t need the pain or the agony, but I want it the end result”.

    I have found that when I am in the ‘valley of shit’ I either have listened to my supervisor and been inadvertently lead into the valley of shit or I have ignored my supervisor’s suggestion and ended up in it.

    The best part about the valley of shit (if there is one) is that if you are completely honest with yourself and you really want to get to the end of your PhD, you will just accept that this is just another agonizing steps along the way in achieving your ultimate goal.

    Ultimately the V of S gives us an ‘extraordinarily good reason’ to have a really good boo – hoo – hoo and move on.

  7. Ive been walking, nay, stumbling in that valley for almost two years now. I thought it would last 6 months or so, but because of various personal problems such as poor time management skills and a big breakup, my main supervisor taking leave for a year, teaching for the first time, and having serious problems with my topic, it has dragged on. I’m starting to come out of it but I don’t think it will really end until I submit. It’s really got me thinking that I don’t want to pursue my 12-year-long dream of becoming an academic. I have never wanted to quit because I feel that would be the biggest disgrace of all, but I am perilously close to being kicked out of the University. Hopefully I’ll get by.

  8. Although I have experienced some of things discussed within this blog post, I don’t feel as emotive about it as either the author or the people that have subsequently commented. Granted, I haven’t finished my PhD (I’m in my final year and, hopefully, due to finish on time) but the overarching view I have is that the positives massively outweigh the negatives. Whilst blog posts like this are undoubtably useful in helping people in a similar situation relate, I think there’s a very real risk of deterring undergraduates from pursuing a career in academia if we overlook the good points of a PhD. I recently wrote a post highlighting the major drawbacks of postgraduate study, but I ended it with mentioning the tangible benefits http://room1077.wordpress.com/2012/05/07/whats-it-like-being-a-phd-student/

    Maybe we can be a bit more optimisitic?

    • Trevor, I get what you’re saying, but I think that anyone who was to read even a few the posts on this blog would pick up the benefits of postgraduate study. Having the occasional post that also talks about the (possible) down sides is realistic, not pessimistic and I think that anyone who is put off by the notion that postgraduate study is not all fun probably wouldn’t get to the other end, anyway. Having read your post, I also need to say that here in Australia a PhD scholarship is only just barely enough for a single person to live on assuming s/he gets some teaching and marking along the way, and there are quite a lot of us who are not being paid to do it at all. Not so cushy. But yes, amazing and really worthwhile. :-)

      • That’s fair. I wasn’t aware of the funding situation in Australia; sounds like a bad deal. In the UK the majority of PhD’s are funded, but I have a friend who’s self-financed and I have no idea how he manages to work 06:00-14:00 in a warehouse then come into the office to do his academic studies. An unenviable position.

        It’s curious – I shared the blog post with some of my colleagues and nearly all of them could relate to it. I’ve clearly been fortunate to thus far avoid these problems.

      • Thanks Judy :-)

        I believe in cautious optimism Trevor. I don’t believe this post is pessimistic at all. I point out that it’s a Valley, not a pit. There are always out of a Valley.

        I talk about the ‘downsides’ of PhD study regularly, not to discourage, but to emphasize that these feelings are common. The idea behind this is to help people recognise and name the feelings when they happen. A funny name like “The Valley of Shit” is more likely to ‘stick’ and also might make people laugh a little (a sense of humour is, in my opinion, vital).

        Someone who doesn’t recognise the Valley of Shit as a normal phase, which most people experience to some extent or other, is in danger of misinterpreting these feelings as a personal failing, not a part of the process. If you think the feelings are personal failings, you might quit when there is no need to. Applying a little ‘grit’, moving on and ignoring the feelings as much as you are able is the only solution I have to offer.

        Hence my key message: when you find yourself in the Valley of shit, just keep walking.

  9. Wow.. Thank you! Now I can get back to coding my data… :-) Seriously though, when you talk about walking it alone, there is one thing worse… When you have someone walking above you on the fertile crescent who doesn’t understand what’s going on down below. My Significant other often wonders why I spend so much time working with my data, only to tell her that I need more time!

    To anyone in the Valley with me, I’m the amorphous blob about two meters away…

  10. oh yes… i have been there… and i’m still getting out of it. The worst feeling was the loss of control…all theses hours of work you have put in your Phd and then realising you cant manage… i did what you said… i just keept working even that i felt its not leading to anything… and got help from the outside. someone to talk to my Supervisor to explain him how i feel and that i need re-encouragement. And guess what? it worked… sometimes you just don’t see how close you are to the finish line… .i’m trotting along and i know one day i will pass the line.. maybe in 3 months maybe in 4… but i will get there!

  11. me too…..When I read this, I feel that it expresses what I am going through right now! My data collection does not go as I planned to………………and I lost my control for a while……I felt that I should stick with my plan…..but one thing I learnt is that sometime you can not follow your ‘beloved’ plan…….sometimes things happen and you should think of Plan B.
    But still I think I am wandering in the ‘Valley of shit’ (I like this term, it is really expressive), and hopefully I could cross it in 5 months from now!!!

    I agree with the previous post, when you start walking in this valley, you should speak to your supervisor and friends. They really support me and help me to think rationally.

    Thank you for this post, it is really helpful for PhD student.

  12. I couldn’t agree more with this post. I am walking in the valley of shit! I am right in the middle of it. It is great to look at it in this way, all valleys have an end. I am a hiker and I have experienced this many times, walking and walking for long distances and then there is a way out! Thanks!

    http://eflteachereducation.wordpress.com

  13. Thanks for the apt analogy – a valley having an exit route. My valley of shit began after October last year when in February this year I realised I was not seeing my supervisor enough (once in 6 months). I was wading through the valley of shit all by myself, depressed and very negative about my work. Even my significant other was worried. Now that I have taken control of this situation by requesting more meetings with my supervisor, I feel I am out of the valley and forging the end road. A great article!

  14. I’m in my first year (of a three-year UK PhD), and I definitely am in The Valley of Shit at the moment. It started after Christmas in America where I saw my closest friends for the first time since graduation in 2009. I began questioning *everything* when the homesickness really set in and I had to start actually writing this past January: Is this worth it? Am I really doing the right thing? Am I capable of it? Is this any good? Why does everyone think I can do this? What if I can’t? I’m climbing out of the Valley, but it’s a slow ascend. Thanks for posting and assuring me that I’m not alone and that this is not just me.

  15. ah yes, been there, walked that, bought the ski poles to help. This really fit well with my experiences as the ‘man alone’ academic within a defunded institution – the valleys of shit were not only phd process but political. Sometimes the shit was so deep I stopped giving one myself – no need to add to it. Ironically, I am a week from handing in my final editing run prior to publication and I am right back in the valley. Who’d have thought that this would be such a constant feature on map?

  16. This is possibly the most “Real” description of doing a PhD I have ever read. I was nodding in total agreement of your description the whole way through. No matter how many posts I read of “we’re all going through the same thing even though you feel you are the only one”, I still feel like I am the only one going through “this”. My due date is end June this year after going PT and 6 mth LOA with a 2 month extension – now I have been told I won’t have enough results to submit in June. Stuck in the Valley of Shit for who knows how much longer. All I know is I will not be graduating this year, I will not be finished this year and everyone will STILL be asking me, “so when will you be finished?” FOREVER. Now, my supervisor wants to bring a second PhD student onto my project (I have been the only one working on it for the past 5.5 years *holds back gasp*), and I am TERRIFIED that he will get better results and in less time than I have. The Valley is long and my legs are too short to walk through it fast. I’m going to be here for a while.

    Wow, I just read that back to edit and it sounds sad and pathetic. Thanks for sharing.

    • hang in there…. don’t think about others… that’s freaking you out… just do your share… and hey people ask me all the time when i will finish… i mostly say ” difficult to say” or be honest and say” wrong question”…. it help me… and guess what… people stooped asking!

  17. I love this post. I particularly like your comment about people being oppressively optimistic. I had not put form to my feelings about that before you so nicely said it for me. There are other major geographical features to be avoided on the topology of thesis completion in addition to a prolonged stay in the Valley of Shit. I think its possible to travel into it via the culvert of procrastination and end up in the dead end of self sabotage. I also think that to some extent it is mitigated although somehow made worse by standing on the cliff edge of the ultimate deadline and contemplating a hard landing on the rocky floor of failure. Lets face it. PhD theses, no matter how dry, are really about who you are. In some way they are all autobiographies. So the self doubt is not just about performance but about identity.

  18. I think it helps to remember that the work you are doing is a means to an end. Take the pressure of yourself a bit. This doesn’t have to be the greatest PhD ever written. It WON’T change the world. ‘No one will die’ is the phrase I often tell myself. And then just keep going. Perhaps after a nice warm bath and a night of crappy TV :-)

  19. Another great article, thank you! Judging by the volume and content of comments, we have all been there and can relate to the Valley of Shit. I think of the PhD in a similar way, drawing on that metaphor about “pushing shit up hill with a forked stick.”

    Some hills are steeper than others, sometimes it’s important to realise that you can’t push all of it uphill and have to decide what to leave along the way. And some days you just need to stop and look at the view, the bigger picture – if nothing else, to realise how far you’ve travelled.

  20. I was a couple of weeks ago so far down in that valley of shit but I seem to have climbed out a bit. Took some time had a massage and saw a healer seems to have helped. Confidence has always being an issue for me i wasnt good at school, failed year 12 ……took to academic life in my 40’s now here I am at 53 doing this to myself but I live by ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ and that is why I am doing a PhD no other reason. Once I decided to run a marathon I had never ran in my life but 9 months later I did it and when I got to the 33km point my hip gave me hell but I never gave up and I made it. Thats why I am going to keep on going..

  21. I climbed out of the valley of shit last year after suspending for 3 months in May-July to take up a temporary job in Venice (about 2.5 FT years into my PhD). My supervisors banned me from opening a document or doing anything related to my PhD during that time, and I’m so glad they did because it cleared me of guilt. When I returned I had a bit more perspective, a little more self-confidence and I guess what you could call a ‘foothold’ out of the shit valley. It took me a few months after recommencing to get near the top of the mountain (although I still had shit all over my shoes – are you ever truly confident?), but I’m now at the editing stage of my doctorate – a place that I never thought I’d be late 2011/ first half of 2012. I’m pretty sure the only reason why I continued during the shit faze was to save face, and gee I’m glad my pride got in the way of quitting.

  22. The Valley of Shit reminds me of the scene in the Shawshank Redemption where the main character has to wade through the sewers to reach freedom in the Caribbean.

    I imagine that when things get tough, and also ask me what better use of my time than to try to contribute -even the smallest bit – to humankind and the advancement of knowledge.

  23. Thanks for this. I’m right in the middle of it. I feel like taking up a leave of absence like Lucy but it feels like I’m failing in all aspects if I did. But thanks for this – somewhat a comfort that I’m not alone or going wacko.

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  25. Great post Inge. I don’t find it negative, rather very validating to find out that it’s not just you who has had that feeling. I spoke to you on Twitter about how I blogged on a PhD being a mountain to climb, but that were false crests where you thought you were at the top, but there was more to come. I think more than one of those false crests had a VoS before the next ascent (you know you’ve made it when you have an acronym coined!).

    The analogy also conjures up two other thoughts for me:
    1. The charge of the light brigade – into the valley of death rode the 600. I think that with the #phdchat peeps and others I have found through your blog, that it isn’t always a solo trudge through the valley, but a united charge. Minus the futility and death… OK maybe that doesn’t work.

    2. Your picture also made me think of the Road Runner and how he keeps dodging Wile E Cayote and all his varied and persistent traps.

    Maybe Mel Blanc trumps Tennyson this time!

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  27. Defiantly find my self here at the moment – great analogy. was told if not been through this then not lived a PhD which was interesting. I can’t wait climb out the other side and finish.

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  29. This is a great blog post, thank you so much. I am currently in the ‘valley of shit’ and though not thinking of quitting (not consciously anyway) I am finding procrastination an apparent new hobby, and thus getting further and further “behind” in my timeline.

    The parts that I relate and recognize the most were when you discussed friends and family who try and say something motivating and it just feels like more pressure, and you honestly sometimes just WANT someone to say, wow “you must really be stuck in a valley of shit, I bet that sucks!” and that’s what this blog did for me! My favourite line was, “Try not to get angry at people who try to cheer you on; they are only trying to help” because I do get frustrated sometimes when family KEEPS asking, I swear everyday, “how’s the writing going?”, “How’s the thesis going” and you just want to freak out and say, “the same as f-ing yesterday, it’s NOT, so let it be”…LOL

    Thank you for reminding us that we are in it ‘alone’, and that there is a way out and that those around us are really there to help….great blog.

  30. Here’s another thing – if you’ve been in the valley too long and you’ve tried many things and none of them are working and you’ve taken a break but you feel sick at the thought of re-entering the Valley and when you do re-enter it’s as bad or worse than you remember – it’s not a crime, nor is it shameful, to just not complete your PhD. You can (and maybe you should) walk away. And if anyone thinks less of you for doing that, their opinion is worth exactly what you paid for it – nothing.

  31. I went through this towards the end of last year when I’d heard a couple of home truths from my supervisor and descended into a bit of a hole. It was a very thin valley of shit with no apparent exit! I refocused my entire thesis, cutting out plans to look at other things and ditching most of my first chapter. Somehow I made it through my upgrade earlier this year by throwing everything I had at the PhD. New perspective and new enthusiasm – but I really had to drag myself out of the smelly stuff to get there!

  32. I think I need more help because I am crying while reading all the comments. Don’t know if they are tears of relieve or desperation…or maybe I am just going crazy :-(

    • Oh Elsie, this makes me so sad!!! I don’t feel like I can offer many words of comfort, or maybe I don’t need to. We’re not alone – it’s all crap no matter which discipline you are in. Just take a breath, go and have a coffee and finish up early today. It’s Friday, yay!!!! Meanwhile…my supervisor came up to me before asking for results – I gave him a sheepish “next week?”. Looks like I need to enjoy my weekend before next week now! I hope you can do the same. Big hugs.

      • Thanks Natalie. I will work towards walking out of the valley…just need to take baby steps. Reading this article is a baby step forwards, many thanks to “Dave”. Have a great weekend :-)

      • Elsie-I can relate….but as the post says just keep walking. The valley of shit will end eventually. I keep telling myself that. And since it’s Friday, a glass of wine won’t kill me either. :)

    • Oh dear!

      Don’t suffer alone. If you need more help, somewhere in your institution there should be a counselling service. I have been known to take students by the hand and march them into the waiting room. Rmit’s service does amazing work helping people to cope and to be more assertive. I wish I had visited myself. It may have made the trudge through the valley of shit more tolerable. Hang in there!

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  35. Great article! What happens if your committee says you’ve failed your thesis/dissertation/viva and may not re-defend? Are you d–ned to the VOS for eternity? What do you tell prospective employers if the committee decides “Do not pass Go?” and you’ve been in grad school for many years?

  36. LE, This is a terrible situation. It highlights a problem that is not with you, but with the system you’re enrolled in. There is no way in the world you should have been allowed to continue for so long down what is essentially a blind alley. It is completely unfair to be told this after (presumably) years of working with your committee, and your institution has a responsibility to you, especially if you have been paying fees all this time.

    Do you have a Dean of Grad students, a Head of Department, or other person you can talk to? Is there a student advocacy body at your institution? Good luck; I can’t even imagine how this feels.

    • Dare I say it? Such a situation is ripe for legal action.

      In my institution if a PhD student is not capable of reaching the required standard, for whatever reason, there are processes to identify the problem and attempt remediation. If that doesn’t work, there are dignified exit avenues. If your institution doesn’t have these, it should. I back up MH’s suggestion to explore your options with those in charge of research education. And – best of luck. No one should have to suffer through that.

      • I completely agree with you Inger. Sadly, I think that there is such a culture of ‘shame’ around leaving your PhD before completing that people just can’t bear the thought of legal action. They’re complet4ly wrung out by the whole experience. And that’s just wrong, on so many levels. Life is long, and it is just awful that this one bad experience can have so many implications (social, employment) for someone’s future.

    • Thanks M-H and Inger! I have talked to ombudsman, grad dean’s office, and department chair (who is on my committee). A lot of strange (political) events have occurred at my uni in the last couple of years. Doesn’t seem like there’s much recourse for grad students who have fallen out of favor. I’m fairly certain that the strain on my mental/physical health and my family’s is not worth the journey through the VOS. That being said, the journey through the valley may be worthwhile for the majority of people who decide to embark on it. I wish fellow travelers the best.

  37. Thank you so much for writing this, I thought I was on my own with the feelings and doubts I am having. Time to put my figurative hiking boots on and exit this valley before I really find myself on a downhill slope!

  38. Actually, it is a rather reassuring thought: ‘one day you will just hand the thing in and hope for the best.’ – it means you do not have to write the best ever PhD. :)

  39. Thank you for this article – I’ve been going through a period of really low motivation and confidence! It’s reassuring to know that I’m not the only one with these feelings, and that they will pass!!! :)

  40. The Valley of Shit, also known as PhD dip. Many go through it but not all survive it. I just wrote a post on how writing a science blog saved my PhD.
    In my case what worked was to open up to others and share my problems. Others being colleagues, a psychologist, and the world via a blog.
    All this helped me to realize it is a common phase for most PhD students. I also understood some of the rules of the game, which reduced my frustration.
    Writing a science blog I gave advice to other PhD students, which turned into advising myself.

    All together contributed to me staying in the PhD. I think this resilience is what future job givers appreciate from PhDs.

    Cheers,
    Julio

  41. Thank you, thank you. I am a repeat tourist in the VoS, and this trip had seemed insurmountable until I read your post. I’m close to what *I* think may be submission, but thanks to vague and indifferent feedback am questioning the value and purpose of everything I have done. It’s a huge comfort to know that others feel similarly (though I hate to think of anyone feeling this way). In dealing with my gnashing of teeth, my sister recently responsed to my rhetorical ‘What’s the point? Why did I bother?’ with a simple statement of ‘because you had to’. As everyone here knows, sometimes it’s really difficult to articulate the instrinsic drive for doctoral study (in addition to full time work) and the magnitude of emotions that surround it. At the moment I have no confidence or sense of strength in my research, but reading this post and your heartwarming reflections give me hope.

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  45. Thanks for the V of S analogy – it is entirely apt. Like others on here, I no longer have any faith in my ability to write something coherent and interesting, and wish I had never started this self-inflicted hell.
    I’m in the editing phase of my thesis, and going through the endless process of trying to incorporate my supervisors (x2) ‘helpful’ comments on what I need to add in. (Another 3 sources for each footnote that add nothing to my argument, but show that I know how to play the game; advice about ‘putting myself in’ more, and then telling me that when I do I need to provide backup from others; repeatedly asking me to keep referring back to my argument, when it is on every single frigging page.)
    At the same time, my mother has cancer, my teenage kids are failing at school when they should be doing better, the house is a tip, we’re really struggling financially, my husband is under heaps of his own work stress, having had his own health scare, and will be working overseas for 3 months soon – in every direction I just see walls of the Valley and no light at the end of it.

    I am so sick of this – and my child-free, linear-thinking, conscientious supervisors, who can’t seem to see that I’m drowning here.

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  48. Uh, and how does it exactly improve after you do a PhD? Postdocs look like just as bored as me (i.e. PhD student in the valley of shit).

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  50. Misery loves company ? I’m also one of the people who are in the deep of this, the so-called, Valley of Shit. At least, I’ve been here (in VoS) around 3 months or so..It’s getting worse lately. I can’t even have a nice sleep.

    I hope by acknowledging that I have this problem, I can find my way out…although the thought of quitting my PhD is so damn tempting right now.

    Anyway thanks for the nice article, at the very least I can define what I’m feeling right now

    • Oh I can identify so strongly with this! I’m on T-minus 6 months right now, and convinced I’m going to fail outright, despite having consistently published/presented all throughout…

  51. Pingback: You’re no fun anymore….. | For the love of science….

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  55. Just keep going! Just keep going! I read in this webpage, Just keep going! My family and friends tell me (well the ones who are not fed up with me already). Wouldn’t it be healthy to actually contemplate the possibilty of giving up if you have been miserable for months, tried most of the resources and cannot see yourself ending the ting?

  56. Pingback: Should you quit your PhD? « The Thesis Whisperer

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  59. Pingback: The Mountain of Happy « The Thesis Whisperer

  60. Pingback: Triage for the Burned-Out Dissertator « Writing Rx

  61. Pingback: Day 12 – Taking stock | nilsbraad

  62. Pingback: ‘I’m a PhD student…..Get me out of here!’ « Emma's blog

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  64. A week ago I was ready to shred print-outs, delete files and crawl away to brush up my Arabic, Hebrew and Indonesian. (My field is Ancient Greek, my thesis topic is apostrophe of characters in the Iliad). Or slink back to the corporate world of good money and jewellery+shoe therapy. Then I got some positive feedback on my final draft, and the sun came out again. Why do we do this to ourselves? Because life is no dress rehearsal, it’s the real thing. (I am doing an M.Phil. For those who don’t know, that’s two years’ research + 60,000 thesis here.)

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  66. Yep working on my Masters thesis at in Ozzie uni and this does sound familiar. In my case bit more pronounced than others possibly as no one at the uni has much understanding of what I’m doing or much interest in it so I’m pretty much on my own.

    • Yes, familiar with that. (Just finishing my PhD under similar circumstances – also Oz university. ) Get used to working and thinking on your own. It confers some benefits. Eventually you do need to check your view against others, but building up a solid defense first is worth it. Don’t forget there are communities of interest outside your university. You could always do a “thesis whisperer” and blog your research interests.

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  72. Pingback: And so it begins … « Big Whorls, Little Whorls

  73. Pingback: Doctoral despair: what to pack for the bear hunt « 100 days to the doctorate

  74. Reblogged this on followmyphd and commented:
    I spent a lot of time walking in some lovely valleys in the past but the Valley of Shit definitely resonates with me at the moment. And it’s reminded me I need to laugh at myself and get some perspective.
    Great post.

  75. Pingback: BBC Oxford & viva | Clamorous Voice

  76. I’ve been walking through the valley of shit so long, since the end of year 1, that it now smells of roses ;-) now onto my last 6 months. Bring it!

  77. Pingback: reader question on academia: tips for getting through grad school? » Simply Bike

  78. Pingback: The different stages of the writing process | Research Degree Voodoo

  79. Pingback: Debating quitting my phd aka Walking in the Valley of Shit | thehungryotter

  80. I too am experiencing this, not with PHD studies, but my own post grad studies that im loosing faith in my ability to pass and complete. Ive passed 3 of the 4 exams, and working on my final exam but ive got less than zero confidence. Intellectually i know i can pass and cope with the workload and difficulty, but emotionally in walking in the “Valley” and i dont see an out yet. Maybe i must give it a break fro a month, and start over, my exam is in September. Its a terrible feeling to be stuck emotionally and cant see a way out.Im studying for the CIA ( Certified Internal Auditor ) qualification.

  81. What you have described here is exactly how I felt throughout so much of my PhD. Got good publications. Colleagues saying how great i was but i just felt more and more dissatisfied with everything i did. I fell deep into the valley of shit during my second year but never managed to climb out of it. Even after I finished. Is academia just not for me?

  82. Pingback: Restructuring | Andy's PhD Blog

  83. Pingback: Leaving my phd: Catalytic events and announcing my decision | thehungryotter

  84. I needed to read this today. Thank you so much for writing this post. I have to just switch off and focus on finishing my thesis as well as experiments to address reviewer comments for a manuscript, and hope both the thesis and manuscript get accepted. I hate how I let grad school affect my self confidence.

  85. Pingback: LJ Villanueva's Research Blog » I wanna be like Neil, or why I was crazy enough to get into grad school

  86. I’m in this at the moment, but don’t underestimate the power of being in the Valley of Shit and its destructive qualities.

    I don’t agree that just “walking on” is the best advice- start seeing your uni counsellor, get some help, tell your supervisors and try to step back – I’ve seen people ‘struggle on’ for years only to destroy their health and social lives- when really they should have withdrawn earlier.
    I’m currently in this valley- crying randomly at uni, struggling to concentrate, avoiding my supervisors like the plague – its not a good place.

    • Absolutely – if you are suffering depression seeking help is the best thing to do. Some people, however, just need to know the feeling is pretty common and not a sign their work is terrible.

  87. Pick a simple task that you will complete… A small success is a good morale booster. Then you will leap out of the valley!

  88. Pingback: Writing up a DPhil: things which help | Clamorous Voice

  89. Pingback: Starting to write the thesis! | brushtalking

  90. Amazing! I have identified with few pieces of writing to such an extent as this. I’ve just handed in my thesis and I was in the Valley of Shit for quite a while.

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  93. I left I comment on May 30, 2013. I come bearing good news! My manuscript has been accepted and I submitted my PhD thesis yesterday. The Valley of Shit is definitely behind me, although I won’t believe I’m fully out of the woods until I pass the thesis examination and oral defense. Thanks for writing an inspiring blog post!

  94. Ah, just read this topic. And this is perfectly matched with what I’m experienced so far, in my case I’m much more like “Dave” guy: lost my confidence in myself, my topic and my work quality and wonder endless time if I can finish it on time. The more I continue working, the more difficult and depress I feel. And this is maybe the 4th time I encounter “The Valley of Shit” in my PhD. Oh my. Everytime I out of one of the valley of shit, It will take another 1 or 2 months to encounter another one! I have to say that, I have a countless time to just wondering how incapable I am and this would lead me to end up nowhere. I just feel disgrace about myself and what I’m doing now, worrying that my PhD would be finished negatively. I still have one year left, but right now, I’m in the other valley of shit: Stuck, depress, lost confidence and freezed progress. It is really, really cost me much energy and stamina to endure myself that everything is fine, but then nothing really progresses or matter. I just have a very very little hope that this will end up positively, all I have left is my little courage and some of murmur like “Don’t give up, success is for the one who is very, very patience”. Ooh

    • Hi Blue Man,
      I’m slowly starting to come out of the feelings you describe- things that helped me (but took a few weeks to kick in)
      – seeing the uni counsellor fortnightly
      – exercising (2-3 times/week at the gym)
      – taking 1 hour to myself to sit and enjoy a cappucino whilst doing something productive but not stressful re: PhD (e.g. reading something I wanted to read, summarising an article)
      – take a break from supervision and the “endless rush” to produce and complete
      -saying ‘no’ to opportunities, that made me a bit sadder but overall has made my life more manageable
      – telling my supervisors how I was feeling and coming up with a small time tasks I could complete that might give me a boost (i.e. finish that damn draft article)
      – taking a real holiday for a week (no uni, no emails, no social media, no phone – lots of swimming and good eating)

      I hope you get through it

      • Hi S.
        Thank you for your advices.
        Although my current works show some spark of hope, I still feel depressed and uncapability. I even think about giving up and pursue some job in industry, but I still feel that it’s not looks like giving up will make my life better, so although there are several offered jobs that I’m able to work, I just ignore them and turn back to my PhD to produce something.

        My future is still uncertain, as right now I have no significant contribution to the academic/research project. In the next conference and a few months later will show what I can really do as I have to have talks and presentations more frequent. The feeling of uncapability and depressing is still haunting me since I have to do many things but still have restricted knowledge to deal with, although I acknowledge that all the PhD students will have to face with this. I’ll proceed by taking small steps one after another, make sure that they all fine before continue.

        I only have 1 year left, so let’s hope that I can determine my PhD fate, or even my future life this time. I’ll take any advice that I can learn from.

  95. Thanks. I am currently in the valley of shit. I have been questioning so much about myself and my research project. I am so glad to read this and knowing that there should be a way out of this valley of shit. Will try to be strong

  96. Today, I went to the beach front with my children.
    I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She put the shell to her ear and screamed.
    There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear.
    She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is totally off topic but I had to tell
    someone!

  97. Pingback: If I could give one piece of advice (part 2) « Ellen C. Spaeth

  98. I almost never create remarks, but i did a few searching and wound
    up here The Valley of Shit | The Thesis Whisperer.
    And I actually do have some questions for you if you usually
    do not mind. Is it just me or does it look like some of these
    comments appear as if they are written by brain
    dead individuals? :-P And, if you are posting on other places,
    I would like to keep up with everything fresh you have to post.

    Could you list of all of your public pages like your Facebook
    page, twitter feed, or linkedin profile?

  99. First off I want to say excellent blog! I had a quick question that I’d like to ask
    if you do not mind. I was curious to know how you center yourself and clear your thoughts
    prior to writing. I’ve had a hard time clearing my mind in getting my thoughts out.
    I truly do enjoy writing but it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are wasted
    simply just trying to figure out how to begin. Any ideas or hints?
    Kudos!

  100. I am experiencing the same even I have a much worse story respect those you have listed here, I have been mistreated and called with very offensive words despite I did well on my PhD during my lab work I developed qualitative and quantitative amount of data, my data was used to obtain other grants and I develop the amount of 4 potential publications but so far I have seen only one and I had to pressurise the university in order to have it, I passed my viva that has lasted 4 and half hours but not surprisingly failed my thesis due to the awful support receive from my supervisor. I went through the complaint procedures and now I am waiting to hear from the office for independent adjudicator. Overall a disgusting experience I was provided with faulty software made by other students without to be tested first. It has been all rubbish!!!!

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  103. Pingback: Soundtrack for Hard Time PhD Blues | BINARYTHIS

  104. This completely summarized my feelings this year from May to July when I found out my plasmids contained an artefact affecting the readout of my assay. Turns out our lab was using the faulty plasmid for 3.5 years and that nobody knew about this even my PI who originally cloned the gene. Six months of hard work later we found out something useful about this artefact. At the time, however, I have to bin 9 months’ worth of work done the drain and I had no clear direction aka being the valley of shit…

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  106. Pingback: The Valley of Shit vs. the Pit of Despair (and why it’s important to know the difference) | oncirculation

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  110. I read this with interest but some pretty overwhelming fears. My fear is that some people find themselves in a valley (ie the VOS), lose their direction, run out of essential supplies, get dehydrated and hence confused, get themselves more and more lost due to said confusion and end up dying in that damn Valley – sometimes before anyone even notices they were missing. Lately I am more and more convinced that this may be my fate.
    I admit that my personal VOS has been significantly deepened by circumstances far beyond my control (I had already ventured into the valley when my young, fit, charming, brilliant, inspired friend and supervisor suddenly died late last year) and that the likelihood that anyone will not have noticed I am missing by the time of my passing (this supposed outspoken hardass has become someone that no longer wears make up, brushes own hair or gets out of the car within an hour of arriving at work has taken to wandering hallways aimlessly and not arriving at work until lunchtime – peeps are definitely noticing!) but I still fear the ultimate outcome may be the same. And so my question to the void of cyberspace is: WHAT HAPPENS TO PHD STUDENTS WHO EXPIRE IN THE VALLEY OF SHIT?

    • S, that’s really rough–hugs to you! I hope that you’ve been able to speak to a counselor and to other members of your department about this situation. If not, you should definitely do so. That’s not something to deal with alone.

      And be kind to yourself. You are in a tough situation and it’s understandable that you are having difficulties.

    • …and a very practical level, if you are not getting the academic support that you need at your current university, you might consider transferring.

  111. Pingback: For Those Considering Academia… | The Mosquito

  112. Pingback: Suffering under the pressure to achieve: The biggest taboo of all? | PhDaily

  113. Pingback: Why do people quit the PhD? | The Thesis Whisperer

  114. Pingback: Ghosts of PhD Past | Just words …

  115. My sister sent me this in the hope that I will understand what she is going through, as I have never done a Ph.D or gone to uni.
    One thing that came to mind as I enjoyed reading this article is something that helps me when I am in my own ‘Valley of Shit’ is that there are so many people out there in war torn and poverty stricken places around this world that would absolutelty love to study and go to school and learn safely in comfort [even if it is full of temporary shit]! We are so lucky to be able to study and although it seems these days that when someone says this kind of stuff eyes role and mouths sigh…I find if you really think about it it is true. Gratitude can do wonders for a students persepective as they walk through Shit Valley!

    • It’s a common error to assume that complainants are ungrateful. Warriors get dirty … and tired … and weary in spirit … precisely because they have a full and generous heart: FULL of LIFE! And life GROWS in the ground of gratitude and NOTHING else!

      To life!

  116. One of the great things about the internet is discovering an article like this. Finding that someone, that person out there who can put into words what you’re going through better than yourself. Before I would have felt alone and blamed myself. In my case the valley has come very near the end of the project and I am still in the process of exiting. While I was in the valley I built a whole flower garden, got drunk a lot, hated the beautiful flowers that emerged, put all my research skills into obsessing about current events like the Ukraine situation, lectured friends and family about said situation, didn’t pay my bills, and a long etc. A thousand thanks to the writer and to all those who have responded. And remember, if you have the balls to take on a PHD you have the balls to finish it.

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  124. I am in my VoS for a year now.It is also my last year of PhD. I had 6 months break in between due to having second baby, than an extension of 6 months. So it is now 5 years since I’ve started. I have 2.5 months since the deadline and I have 7 (!!!) pages written so far….I still miss some of my data (collecting them will take 3-4 days but I can’t force myself), so my last chapter is non existent. I feel so down now, paralysed by fear and guilt…I’m afraid I will drown in shit and get burred forever in this valley…..

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  130. “Hellllooooo helllllooooo hellllooooo” I’ve fallen in this valley and I can’t get out! My director is kokopelli twisting me further into the depths of despair playing a flute of wishful thinking only to leave me again alone, lost, and cold. I keep walking…..My wonder husband who finished his 3 yrs ago tells me it is normal to feel this way….I refuse to listen, the wind in this valley is too loud to hear anything other than the cries of seld doubt.
    This blog helped me sleep last night after feeling reassured that all these feelings are normal.
    Everything written here about the valley of shit is true. Every time I see a way out it tunnels into another valley. But, hopefully, I submit next week (I’ve been saying this for six weeks now). Lately I’ve been repeating a methaphor I like to call “A PhD is a burning house”. In the burning house is a baby called “your future as an academic”. If you don’t care about saving the baby, don’t go in a burning freakin house. I have a very good friend who just started her Ph.D because “she wants the experience”. It is a burning house. It is HOT, you are probably going to get burned and you may not come out alive! All that just to say you been in a burning house? Trust me, if you manage to save the baby, you not going to feel like a hero. Maybe you will, but right now, I m in the valley of shit burning house, so don’t listen to me :).

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  134. Pingback: All I learned about Social Science Research Writing, I learned from Blogging. | Denvycom

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