Have you ever had that moment at a BBQ or social function where a relative or friend says: “Wow – you’re so smart. I could never do a PhD!” I don’t know about you, but the internal dialogue that would inevitably start up in my head would go something like this:

“Yes. I AM smart. It’s about bloody time Uncle Tim noticed that.

But hang on a second Inger. Are you as smart as John – the  one studying Malaysian history using Foucault? He  gave a great presentation the other day didn’t he? He’s only been doing his PhD for half a year. I have to graduate next year and I clearly haven’t read as much as him – or understood it as well.


Calm down woman. You know you can write really, really well. Everything will be ooh-kay. Breathe.

But maybe writing well is not enough? Maybe the examiners will see through my act? They’ll notice that I don’t really get the post structuralists. Oh God!

I need another sausage”

If we are to believe the management and self empowerment literature, how we think about the world determines our actions in it. Limiting self beliefs like this can stop you from achieving your goals (in my case it explains why I gained 17kgs while studying!).

Obviously I finished my PhD despite these limiting self beliefs and most people do; you can talk yourself out of them if you try. The more damaging Limiting Beliefs are the ones which lie ‘out there’ – by which I mean in academic circles and in popular culture. Because they don’t seem to be coming from inside you, it’s easier to trapped into believing they are true.

Here are five beliefs about the PhD which I encounter time and time again in my work. Are any of these lurking in your head?

1) Only the smartest people finish their PhD

One of my favourite TV shows is The Big Bang Theory which features three PhD graduates as main characters. Most of the humour comes from the premise that, although the boys are super smart and endearingly quirky, they don’t have much common sense. Shows like this reinforce the myth that people with PhDs are so intelligent that they are somehow alien from the rest of us mortals.

Sadly we only have to look around our own faculties and departments to know this isn’t true. Success in academia depends on more than ‘smarts’. Sometimes it is as basic as being in the right place at the right time or managing your professional networks well. I have seen highly intelligent people fall by the wayside because they got sick of the slog and were smart enough to realise they could make gazillions outside of academia.

2) I’ve always been a great student. PhD? No problem!

Success in undergraduate study does not guarantee success in research degree study. A lot of people refuse to believe me when I make this grand statement in workshops, but it’s true: people have actually studied what makes some grad students succeed and others fail . They have come to the conclusion that a complex mix of social and psychological factors are at play.

If you think about it, success in undergraduate study usually comes from following rules and passing exams, which don’t teach you to be creative or innovative – or develop your emotional maturity. The upside is that you have probably acquired these skills elsewhere: in your professional working life, from hobbies, from parenting and so on. People who come to a PhD later in life often benefit hugely from this ‘other’ knowledge.

3) My supervisor is the foremost expert in his field. I can’t lose!

How do I say this and not get sued? Just because someone is at the top of their field does not mean they are a great supervisor. If someone is at the top of their field they are probably going to be too busy to spend heaps of time reading your work – or soothing your fears. I’ve even heard of supervisors (not in my institution) who have deliberately delayed their students’ studies in order to get more results out of them.

The good thing about being in academia is that there are many ways to access the knowledge of these ‘stars’ without having to be in their orbit. You can read their papers, meet them at conferences or email them questions. If you are lucky they might peer review one of your journal papers. Stars are great examiners because if they like your work they can really help your career. So don’t worry if your supervisor is not a star. Do worry if they are inexperienced – but that’s a topic for another time!

4) Writing a dissertation is just like writing a book – yes?


A thesis is a peculiar kind of document which is meant to demonstrate your scholarly competence, not to entertain. Popular non fiction draws the reader into another world; it doesn’t spend time convincing the reader how smart the author is. Pick up any popular science or history book and you will see the difference immediately. Gone are the brackets containing references. Gone are phrases like “The literature suggests…”. Even academic books are an unhelpful frame of reference; it’s rare for an academic book to contain a whole chapter dedicated to methodology for example.

Besides, thinking you have to produce the definitive tome on some subject or other is daunting. Better writing models for your thesis can be found by reading journal papers in your area. By all means write a book – but later, when you can put (PhD) after your name on the cover.

5) I’ve never heard of anyone failing their PhD, therefore it can’t happen.

I’m not sure about the US, but you can fail your PhD in Australia and the UK. It only happens to about 1% of people so it’s unlikely to happen to you (especially if you are the kind of student who bothers to read The Thesis Whisperer!). However, despite the fact that failing is unlikely, about 5% of people have to do major revisions and be re-examined. This can mean up to a year of extra study with all the hassle and pain that suggests.

Can you think of more beliefs about the PhD which we might be carrying as ‘excess baggage’?

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