How to survive a ‘mid PhD crisis’

This post is by James Donald, a PhD student in Organisational Behaviour at the ANU. His research explores the impacts of mindfulness on stress and resilience in the workplace. James is an experienced facilitator and mindfulness trainer, and regularly leads mindfulness and well-being workshops in the community, public and private sectors. His training company is Mindfulness Works.

Have you had your “mid-PhD crisis” yet? Maybe you’ve had a few of them?! I think I just had mine.

I spent the whole of 2013 running three experimental studies (I’m doing a PhD in organisational behaviour) only to find – along with some odd results – that the issue I thought I’d been researching (defensiveness) was actually not what I was researching!! Twelve months of slogging your guts out – for nothing?? And 12 months is ONE THIRD of your PhD funding! Am I really cut out for this??

These kinds of thoughts may be familiar to you. They certainly are to me.

file3161255705800It turns out that the things we tell ourselves following a set-back explain a lot. When faced with a major set-back (or, more often, one that isn’t such a drama, but feels like a major drama at the time), the mindset we hold is really strong indicator of how we respond.

Carol Dweck at Columbia University pioneered the idea of ‘mindsets’ (known more technically as ‘self-theories’). Through dozens of experimental studies, her research group found that people generally fall into two camps. In one camp are people with a ‘fixed’ mindset; in the other are those with a ‘growth’ mindset.

Although a person’s mindset can change, most people tend to default to one – and stay there. Your mindset relates to basic characteristics that can be changed with effort, such as your intelligence, personality, physical abilities and even creative skills. But obviously not things like height (with all the ‘growth’ mindset in the world, it’s going to be pretty difficult to shift that!).

Here are some statements used in lots of studies that can help identify what mindset you hold regarding your intelligence:

1 2 3 4 5 6
Strongly Disagree Disagree Mostly Disagree Mostly Agree Agree Strongly Agree


  1. You have a certain amount of intelligence, and you can’t really do much to change it.
1 2 3 4 5 6
  1. Your intelligence is something about you that you can’t change very much.
1 2 3 4 5 6
  1. You can learn new things, but you can’t really change your basic intelligence.
1 2 3 4 5 6

How did you go?

If your average score was 3.0 or lower, you fall into the growth mindset camp; if it was 4.0 or higher you’re in the fixed mindset camp. If you’re between 3.0 and 4.0, you’re somewhere in the middle. The really cool (or perhaps disturbing!) thing is that our basic mindsets predict some pretty important things in life.

First up, mindsets predict how we respond to set-backs. If you have a fixed mindset, a failure is a catastrophe. It is (perhaps further!) confirmation of your sub-standard intelligence. And since you can’t change your basic attributes, you’re in trouble! How do you respond? The answer, based on dozens of studies, is by doing whatever it takes to bury the problem: deny it; hide it away; lie about it; compare yourself to worse-off others; or invent arguments for why it wasn’t a failing after-all.

This then leads onto another well-researched problem: people with a fixed mindset learn less. Several studies have shown that academic outcomes are worse among students with a fixed mindset than those with a growth one. And this makes perfect sense: why would I invest time in something that I cannot change (eg, my intelligence)? And of course, the opposite is true for a growth mindset: your so-called failings are not failings at all. They are opportunities to learn and grow. You make the best of a tricky situation and take what you can from it.

These effects apply to kids as much as adults. In one study, 5th grade students who were praised for their intelligence (ie, primed with a fixed mindset) cared more about being seen to perform well than they did about learning, relative to children praised for effort (ie, primed with a growth mindset). And following failure at school, the children praised for their intelligence showed less task persistence, less task enjoyment and worse task performance than children praised for effort.

The bottom line is that the basic beliefs we carry around (ie, our mindsets) shape the attitudes we bring to the world, and this in turn effects how we respond to difficulty. But the good news is that we can change our mindsets. It just takes some self-awareness and effort. So the next time we face a PhD set-back (or indeed any set-back), we’d do well to consider what mindset we’re adopting.

Thomas Edison, one of history’s most prolific innovators, reflected on his work, saying, “None of my inventions came by accident. I see a worthwhile need to be met and I make trial after trial until it comes. What it boils down to is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration” (Newton, 1987, p. 24). Over his life, Edison developed 3000 theories about how to create a functional electric light, and only two worked!! (Keefe, 2013).

That may be the very last thing you want to hear right now! But common sense and scientific research shows that the mindsets we bring to our work matter much more than we might think.

Related posts

PhD Detachment

PhD Grief



13 thoughts on “How to survive a ‘mid PhD crisis’

  1. Gillian Elliot says:

    Your post couldn’t be more timely for me as I had a major meltdown (for me) yesterday on this very thing!

    I will calm down, take a deep breath, reflect and move on – thank you!


  2. Beth Dumont says:

    Hi James
    Good theory re mindsets BUT there is one question left unanswered – how do you USE your intelligence? On your scale I fall into the fixed mindset group, and while I have had several setbacks in my academic career so far (due, I must add – entirely to misconduct by an academic who could not deal with their issues and held me accountable for showing them a side of themselves they did not appreciate seeing OR challenging a ‘pet’ theory), I have NOT seen them as unmitigated disasters or failures. If anything such setbacks have made me more determined to pursue the pathway I have chosen – I just look for alternative routes to get me there.
    Something to think about maybe?

  3. sunkita says:

    “Only to find.. that the issue I thought I’d been researching was actually not what I was researching!!” – I feel you, been there (a couple of times!), and good luck with it – Uri Alon would call it “the cloud”, fertile territory for exciting discoveries and new directions. As well as Dr Alon’s awesome TED talk, I really enjoyed Babara Arrowsmith Young’s book, “The woman who changed her brain”. Barbara’s account of overcoming severe learning disability to achieve at a high level is an inspiration to me when I feel hesitant about whether I have the intellectual capacity to take on a PhD.

  4. Meli says:

    James, you’ve mentioned some interesting points about this topic. I feel its an important one and I see so many people struggle with it –both colleagues and students. However, I didn’t feel like any advice was given in regards to changing a mindset. It’s mentioned it’s possible to change a mindset through ‘self-awareness and effort.’ This is quiet vague in my opinion and I would have liked to see this elaborated on further. For this reason, I would love to see some of the studies that were mentioned cited throughout just for reference. I wouldn’t know where to begin searching for such a topic. Again, great job raising this topic! Thanks!

  5. Anon says:

    I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy this post. To me, this suggestion of “just change your mindset and think positive!” is like telling someone with depression to “just cheer up and think positive!”. I can see why people say it, but it is not really very helpful and feels slightly patronising. I feel more like a failure from reading this, because now not only has my project gone wrong, but I have the wrong mindset to deal with it. Not only is my research bad, but it’s my fault for not seeing it as an opportunity to learn and grow. Actually, it reminds me slightly of this, although obviously the context is different:
    I’m fairly sure this isn’t what was intended. But, I think you need to acknowledge that sometimes, it is ok to feel blue because your research has gone wrong, and it is ok to feel like it’s a catastrophe, and it is ok to feel like you want to give up. You can take some space to feel that way, and you don’t have to feel bad for feeling bad.

  6. pins & ashes says:

    Reblogged this on pins & ashes and commented:
    The bottom line is that the basic beliefs we carry around (ie, our mindsets) shape the attitudes we bring to the world, and this in turn effects how we respond to difficulty. But the good news is that we can change our mindsets.

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