Are you getting in the way of your PhD?

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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30 thoughts on “Are you getting in the way of your PhD?

  1. Macgirvler says:

    LOL, your comment box made me laugh, I’ve grabbed many a sausage myself, reading my PhD-writing friends fb posts about theory and method and analysis, all the while thinking ‘I need to wiki that, I have no idea what they are talking about… OMG! That’s in my thesis!”.

    Ironically however I don’t think I’m smart. Well, I’m not a idiot, but I don’t think I’m PhD smart in the manner described above. I just figure that getting finished means persevering, and that’s what I’m good at. And my supervisors don’t have a clue about my field (which is REALLY disconcerting) and I’m in intellectual Siberia as my university is a joke, so as for finishing…. well, your guess is as good as mine. My mum always called me a plodder – to me that’s what the P in PhD stands for. Which makes a lot of sense as most of the people I know took years and years to complete. How well all this is going to stand me, I have no idea. As long as it keeps me out of the 1% fail and 5% substantial revisions, I’ll be happy. Someone thinking I’m smart as a result would just be a bonus!

    • Melanie Chilianis says:

      Macgirvler, yes, why is it that a supervisor not being a star in your field feels so disconcerting? For me, this is a real source of anxiety. I guess the situation, ideally, helps us to be confident in positing our concepts and research independently early on, not from under the wing of a ‘master’. I am concerned, though, that when I or my work do meet someone who has a clue about my areas of research, I’ll fall short.

      • ingermewburn says:

        If it helps I was in this situation myself.

        I wanted to study gesture in architecture studios but my supervisor was an architectural historian. He encouraged me to find other readers and reach out for help from the rest of the university. I joined a discussion group in another faculty where people were working the theory I planned to use, but I never found anyone working on gesture to hang out with. All I had on research method for gesture was ‘book learning’. We send the thesis to two examiners in the gesture field to see if I had ‘got it right’ …. this was really anxiety provoking because my supervisor had no idea if it would pass. In the end both examiners commented positively on my writing about method and theory – in fact they implied I over did it, probably because I was so anxious about it!

        I was careful to include a ‘researcher construction’ section and tell them I was an architect and had picked up this method myself. I think they cut me some slack on this front and valued the practitioner insight I was able to bring to the topic. Subsequently I have presented the work to ‘real’ gesture people. One told me that my findings were interesting, but strange and that I would never have been ‘allowed to do it that way’ in a conventional laboratory.

      • Macgirvler says:

        glad I’m not the only one. I’m close to completion and I keep thinking, eventually someone is going to say something else to me other than ‘yip, doing great, keep on keeping on’ (no joke). Then again, maybe I do know my stuff (hmmmmm). Good luck Melanie! I hope we both turn out to be masters of our own domains!

    • ISomehowTalkedMyWayIntoThis says:

      Hmmm… Macgirvler….. are we PhD twins from a different dimension?! That is EXACTLY my experience (just started 3rd yr)… except that I’m pretty sure my work is pure rubbish. Ha.

  2. Lucy says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s gained 17kg trying to do a PhD. Thanks for the article – it’s come at a time where I’m in a mega slump (apparently it’s an official phenomenon at the 3 year point). I will try visualising myself graduating in a stupid looking hat. I’m sick of people being impressed by my doing a phd, especially as I’m also scared that the assessors/uni will suddenly ‘see through me’.

  3. TokenLefty says:

    Inger wrote: “Success in undergraduate study does not guarantee success in research degree study.” Ah, but if that were true, why do universities select students (and award scholarships) on the basis of undergraduate success?

  4. sarahlouq says:

    Having just finished mine, well just i suppose is a comparative term, I had my viva last November but considering id been plowing away at the thing for years it doesnt seem very long, i can relate to this.

    Many of my friends have done or are doing PhD’s and one of my best friends finished just before me. he is very conceptual and likes long Foucaultedian discussions about power and space whereas i am more your nuts and bolts girl, this is whats happening where and why and this is why its important you know this. He talks in language i take ions to fathom. His PhD supervisor was my external examiner so by the time i went to my exam i was terrified i was going to get ripped apart as i had no idea about some vague aspect of economic anthropology i’d never heard of. In the end my viva was nothing like that and both examiners really enjoyed my work and and the approach i had taken, i passed with very minor corrections.

    Thus never compare yourself to another PhD student, hard but pointless, we are all important in our own way and we are all making contributions to knowledge and thats the key concern.

  5. eleanor says:

    @ TokenLefty. Universities award scholarships (for the most part) on honours success and I think that is a reasonable assessment criteria. I applied to a Uni that was reputed to take people based on professional expertise rather than undergraduate success but they still made me go and do honours (15 years after my undergrad degree). I think I’d be drowning under a welter of data and papers now if it weren’t for that year of research training.

  6. Lynne Kelly says:

    I worry endlessly that I can’t read it all and whatever I don’t read will be what the examiners say I absolutely should have included. My bibliography just grows and grows and in the bibliography of every paper and book is another dozen or so that I simply MUST read.How do I stop reading (my supervisor says I have done more than enough) and just accept that there are limits? How do I know for sure? I want to read them all!

  7. Anthea says:

    I’d say, having had my PhD for a while, that it’s not a good idea to compare yourself to other people. It’s a totally pointless exercise since we’re all different. The key thing is to just to continue, be honest to yourself and realise that you’re doing the PhD for you and no-one else. You’ll end up being a specialist in your niche ..and be valued for that by your colleauges.

    • Lynne Kelly says:

      Thank you, Anthea. Comments like this and those above are very reassuring. I find myself dripping withself-doubt after seminar papers which I can’t even understand the topic. Yet i am constantly being assured by my wonderful supervisors and colleagues that what I am doing is great. Inger’s got this one right. We create problems in our own heads.

  8. Shari Walsh says:

    There is a phenomenon called the “imposter syndrome” in which people doubt their abilities and believe that they will be found out to be a fake. Interestingly, research has shown it is highly prevalent among women, in particular, women in academia!! Side effects include anxiety and strategies to relieve anxiety such as eating etc. The way to overcome it is to recognise little achievements along the way, record and celebrate them. That way confidence is built slowly over time and an understanding that you are worthy and able to finish the PhD and be called an expert in your field slowly dawns.

  9. Reile says:

    When I was a second-year PhD student (I’m a fourth-year now, recovering from a burn-out because of… well basically all the bad thoughts mentioned above), I met an enthousiast new PhD student and we got to talking. She was explaining all of her plans to me and I agreed and nodded and smiled, while on the inside my internal dialogue was killing me.
    But then I met her again a year after, and then she told me: “Well, before starting my PhD I thought: “I’m going to write an awesome, perfect thesis!”. 8 months in, I thought: “Gosh I’ll be happy if I ever finish.” and now all I think of is: “I hope I don’t totally lose my mind, however I get out of this…”

    I love this quote, because I reminds me of the relativity of doing this whole PhD thing. I just try to have fun and enjoy the process (I used to love to read and write) and not worry too much about the outcome. 🙂

    This blog is awesome! Feeling like I’m not the only one is soooo comforting. And amongst you are a lot of students who finished their PhD, so there is still hope for me. 🙂 I can do this!

    • ingermewburn says:

      I’m so glad – that is what we are here for 🙂 I like that quote from your fellow student too – I have spent the last 4 weeks speaking to new PhD students so it resonates!

  10. ale says:

    this is very cool article, thanku very much. May i ask one question? I am doing post graduation (PG) and how to make it successfully within 4 months ? I am doing of my interest and yes i have some help of a good and experienced faculty. But will it be worth? and how this knowledge can be helpful in future if i choose to do faculty position? and how it will be benefited if i choose to do job in some field oriented company? Well i am an electrical student and very much interested to deal with alternative/renewable energy resources…. Any suggestions is welcome.

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