Are you demoralised by your PhD?

This post is by Samantha Fitch, a PhD Student at School of Population Health at the University of Auckland

Screen Shot 2016-01-03 at 4.08.54 pmAs I approach the 3-year mark, I’m the worst person to talk to if you want to do a PhD. I heard an undergraduate student say how she “just loved research”. I replied – “I felt that way too… when I was an undergrad”. Something had changed. I’m no longer that same excited undergrad – who reads academic articles in her spare time, just because.

I felt like I’d lost myself.

I read all of the lists that you can find on the web about things to do or avoid in a PhD. You know, the one’s titled something like “10 easy ways to get a PhD”, “things you should know before starting a PhD” or “29 unique ways to screw up your PhD”. Okay, I’m kidding about that last one, but it sure felt like I’d done a lot of things wrong as I read through those sort of posts.

I was never good at being at my desk from 9 till 5, I wrote when I felt like it, I had a beautiful system to keep track of articles… for about 9 months. I felt like a hamster on a wheel – doing work, but getting nowhere. My supervisors said I was doing well, but didn’t believe them. Why couldn’t I find that internal validation that people talked about? Why didn’t I think I was good enough? If this was imposter syndrome – how the heck was I going to get over it?

Recently, I learned that I need positive reinforcement. I needed external validation of some description. However, in the PhD process I no longer received the same positive reinforcement that I did as an undergraduate. While I received feedback on work, it wasn’t quite the same. Throughout undergrad, I completed assignment after assignment – I enjoyed learning, but getting my grade was the cherry on top. I felt good. I felt validated. I felt more confident about myself and my abilities because of the comments and grades I received. It is not that I need validation for every little thing, or that I only pursue those things which come with extrinsic motivators or rewards. But at some level, this is what my brain needed.

Little did I realise – I had been finding this reinforcement and validation elsewhere. I went to the gym every day. The four walls at CrossfitNZ helped me find physical and mental toughness. I didn’t feel so bad about an average writing day when I had just achieved a new personal record (PR) with my squat, snatch, or press. I thought I could “get through” my research as long as I could get my fix in the gym. I got strong enough to do rope climbs and push ups. I can flip tyres and carry a yoke with 155 kg on it. Unfortunately, instead of being positive for my PhD, at some point it became a way to escape.

This semester, I took on three postgraduate courses on top of my own research. Many people thought I was crazy. It was not great timing either – I’d been feeling anxious about my research without any extra commitments, and little did I know that we’d move house part way through the semester. In total, I had 27 pieces of assessment to complete. I honestly thought the semester might kill me.

Getting back into the habit of writing assignments was tough. It was another thing to hate about my PhD. I was anxious about the marks I’d get, even though it wouldn’t really matter. I got them done. One by one, as I received feedback on my work, feelings of accomplishment and pride, came rushing in. I was looking forward to reading articles and books to complete the tasks I was set. After the first few, I knew I could do the rest. That’s when I realised what I’d been missing – I needed those grades – as a form of validation.

That validation helped me. It made me realise that I’d been doing okay. It created the environment I needed to make some serious breakthroughs. I’d realised how I worked best. I am genuinely perplexed by the way my workflow has changed in response to this assignment work. I’ve rediscovered how rewarding I find writing. Especially, if I have good coffee while I’m writing. I’ve also discovered that I need noise to write (like a bustling café, or music playing).

For nearly 3 years, I’ve been berating myself for not having enough intrinsic motivation. I’ve felt like I couldn’t live up to my own expectations about what a PhD would be. Now, I realise those things are all okay. Everyone experiences the PhD process differently, and so my feelings and my needs are valid.

This year, I’ve learned that sometimes breakthroughs are unexpected. Sometimes they are the result of consistent, dedicated work. Sometimes, they occur because we get told that we can. I’m not saying that every PhD student should take a course part way through their PhD like I have. But I do think there is a place for feeling validated, for feeling like you’re doing a great job. I needed my PRs in the gym, and I needed feedback on assignments. If you’re feeling a bit lacklustre about your motivation or your progress –ask yourself what you need.

Related posts

Why does feedback hurt sometimes?

Managing conflicting feedback on your thesis

Giving feedback on student drafts



25 thoughts on “Are you demoralised by your PhD?

  1. Sheryl J. Lieb, Ph.D. says:

    As a fairly recent Ph.D. (2015), I am certainly able to relate to the need for feedback to fuel motivation for getting through the research/writing process. At the same time, this post taps into another aspect of the academic journey that, I believe, inherently contributes to sinking motivation and feelings of diminished self-worth; that is, the loss of community and connection that emerges after one has completed coursework and become a candidate. Feedback from another (or from numerous others; for example, in seminar-style courses) connotes some aspect of relationship that nurtures the grad student—not just academically, but personally as a recognized and validated human being and peer. Now, in my role as an academic editor and dissertation writing consultant, I see this phenomenon repeatedly among the clients with whom I work. They are no longer involved in regular class meetings (feedback, grades, human relationships) and, quite frequently, I hear the client saying that she or he needs more than what a chair is able to provide. Please note that this is not a critique of the chairperson. Again, it is about this fundamental change in the Ph.D. journey that renders the student more isolated from the academic community through lack of presence to and with others (I am speaking in generalities here, so I will not bring distance learning into this comment as that issue opens up a broader discussion regarding the nature of embodied relationships vs. virtual relationships in academia — an issue unto itself). I know how isolating research and writing can be. I have experienced it, and I continue to do experience it when I am working with an editing project. With both writing and editing as my primary work, my day to day relationship is with my laptop! Therefore, I adore face to face consultations with students because they bring the relationship aspect back to the work. So, to finish here, I agree that active coursework and the grading that comes with it are clearly motivational components of academic endeavors. I am simply offering a philosophical slant (not a new one, of course!) through which we might explore the issue of academic relationships and how they sustain us when we feel connected to our peers and professors within our academic communities; how the waning of these relationships and the lack of presence to one another in the physical setting contribute to a sense of isolation and loneliness when the coursework ends. Finally, I would caution people about the ironic sense of loss and loneliness that comes with the achievement of the degree; that is, when you don’t have a position awaiting you after graduation. For me, the grief was palpable, but this is another story.

  2. sussexresearchhive says:

    Hi, I thought your post was really useful as it spoke to many people with the same issues.
    I have reposted it in our blog, giving you full credit of course since I think it can be useful for many of our readers. Thanks!

  3. Air says:

    Thanks both–useful thoughts on the value of validation for motivation and the (potentially ongoing) problem of isolation. Although I wonder if, on the validation front, coursework feedback might be more meaningful to those who are recent graduates, rather than those who’ve come back to study after a career. The problem is the same though: in the work environment, for me at least, there were people around to validate both my contribution and my abilities. Moving alone to a new city, having little money (but financial responsibilities) and a project no one within the university seems to care about has proved far more challenging than I thought. Even though I know the industry I’m studying is interested in my findings, research bodies interested in my methodology, and I, personally, remain interested my topic, I continue to struggle with motivation which has profoundly effected my mood. So I guess my contribution here is to say to readers that if you feel your motivation issue has gone beyond the need for validation and community, and if you’re slipping, talk to someone before you don’t have a choice and, for example, start hearing things that aren’t there because your brain can’t think of any other way to get your attention: you might feel alone but you’re not–and needing/wanting validation is valid.

    (And Thesis Whisperer: it would be great to have someone’s story about completing a PhD with a mental health condidition other than depression and the problems associated with workload management, medications and stigma, or perceived stigma, within the academic environment where it’s all about your brain working properly and, in terms of your subsequent employment potential, your reputuation.)

  4. Anonymous says:

    I agree that external validation is just as important as internal validation. You have been reactive in finding it elsewhere. Good on you!

  5. dianestrode says:

    There are workarounds to substitute for the support and encouragement of good grades, nice comments, and classmate support. Firstly, have a supervisor that says positive things to you (even though you might suspect they are a bit faked at times), submitting your work to a conference or journal and getting it accepted with reviewers feedback (even negative feedback can bring out your fighting spirit), giving talks to practitioners about your research (they can be very supportive) and finally, make an effort to connect with a group of PhD students who you can talk to about your work (topic, method, issues, supervisors problems, all the other problems). These things all help. You need to focus on getting support from people because gym equipment is generally pretty uncommunicative or sounds like a robot when it does say nice supportive things. I understand that item 1 above is just dumb luck (some supervisors tend to be positive and others negative, and you can’t do much to change that. There is also something called the mid-PhD slump (it happens in undergrad degrees too) and you could be suffering from that.
    I hope you finish successfully. Then you will need to watch out for the post-PhD slump. And that is a big one. Good luck.

  6. Elizabeth Martin says:

    Thanks for this post, it certainly resonates with me. I am in the final few months (hopefully!) of my PhD and it has been an incredibly tough journey. My research is in a difficult area, I am doing a qualitative study with older women who are/have been victims of domestic abuse. Not only that but during the course of my PhD I have had some very serious health issues. I was so excited at the start of my work, I believed then that what I was doing was going to make a difference, and that I was going to get the women’s voices heard. Now I am so very tired, both physically and emotionally, and I have been tempted to just quit, and walk away. The only thing keeping me going at the moment is the promise that I made to the women who came forward to help me with my research – they spoke to me because they wanted to help other women in the same situation and I can’t let them down. A PhD is not a test of intelligence, it is a test of endurance, and it is only those who have been through the process that can fully understand just how difficult it can be to reach the finishing line.

  7. Anonymous says:

    it’s not “sometimes”. as a rule, breakthroughs ARE result of long hours of work and constant questioning.

  8. E says:

    This really resonated with me – I am just the same in terms of needing that validation in terms of grades on assignments to keep me going. It can backfire a bit, though, when the grades haven’t been as good as I’d hoped! I’m a mature student, and even though it’s been a while since I did my undergrad I still crave this kind of feedback, so I’m not sure it is to do with how recent a graduate you are.

  9. Karin says:

    Thanks for sharing your story. I can relate. More than twenty years ago I did a master’s degree by research. At the start I was excited by my topic, by mid-way I was losing interest, and by the end I just wanted to submit the damn thesis! I don’t regret doing the degree – if only to prove I could – but it put me off even attempting a PhD. GOOD LUCK to you and hang in there …

  10. Shifa says:

    I have found something worthwhile in all of the comments posted in response to this blogpost. What resonated most with me was Samantha’s paragraph about gym training. As someone who has a full-time job, writing a thesis and trying to drop 10 kgs, the most I can manage is 50 minutes gym time thrice a week, and even that’s a push. As someone who labors over every sentence I pen, I’m often demoralized by my supervisor’s indifference to my academic prose.
    Now I’m inspired to find similar “physical and mental toughness”.

  11. Prabin Shakya says:

    Its really a good and an encouraging post. Your reflection is what we are facing now as a PhD fellow. I often get confuse whether the decision fro doing PhD was good or whether I can finish this. Everyday in the process is in fact a confusion and tension, during which it is good to have this type of encouragement from the seniors.

  12. Nokeefe says:

    I feel like this has been written about me…and I have a suspicious feeling I’m not the only one. I started my Phd last year as a combined Masters/PhD (Phd – clinical psychology) and I feel like perhaps I was in a state of shock when I realised just how much I had relied on the structure provided in Undergrad and Masters compared to the void of no structure in the PhD component of my work. No real deadlines, no marks, no external support to my internal motivation – I fell into a vast black whole of PhD panic and became overwhelmed and in doing so, did nothing. I have only started to bring myself out of it now, once I got the guts to own up to it to my supervisor and now whatever block was stopping me from even preparing my confirmation papers has lifted. I can’t get the last 12 months back, but I can take it day by day and chip away at it. Baby steps.

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  14. Natalya O'Keefe says:

    This is THE MOST relatable thing i have ever read. I constantly feel like Lisa Simpson yelling “Look at me! Grade me! Evaluate and rank me! I’m good, good, good and oh so smart!”
    The legitimately shocking realisation that i need the structure and particularly the positive reinforcement of undergrad and honours…and Masters for that matter, came as a very rude epiphany! And it came almost 2 years in. The whole time i just thought i wasn’t cut out for the PhD life

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