Leaving the Valley of Shit

Some years ago now, I wrote about self doubt this way:

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 post was, and remains, insanely popular. It consistently has the most hits per year. People often mention it to me when they meet me for the first time and I have even seen it stuck up on the wall of student offices and kitchens. It’s a deeply humbling and gratifying experience, as a writer, when your words clearly touch many people. In this post a recent graduate, who prefers to remain anonymous, reflects on the experience of leaving the Valley of shit. I think it captures the strange mix of feelings pretty well. I hope you enjoy it and, if you are still in the Valley, find some inspiration and hope.


“Today I got a date with my jury. So. Well. Pretty excited about it”

I announced my impeding PhD thesis defence to a friend with these words. And yet, the feeling was much more complex than just excitement. It was difficult to find the right words to express the intricate mix of fear, excitement, trepidation, and incredulity that I felt.

Most PhD students endure various phases of doubt, during which the prospect of defending seems very remote, and perhaps totally out of reach. Some named these phases “The Valley of Shit“. PhD lore and wisdom has it that all students will cross it sooner or later. It is then time for them to demonstrate their determination in face of hostility. It is supposed to end one day.

But some of us get stuck in it for a long time. Sometimes for so long that we may begin to think that we will never go out of it, that we have managed to fail our PhDs in a very special way.

I certainly thought this.

I stayed in The Valley for a very long time. Most of my PhD, actually. This lead to me considering quitting for a year and half. Even after my supervisors convinced me to finish it, I still wanted to quit academia. In the Valley my appetite for science, my curiosity, and my motivation drowned in the dark stinky water that surrounded me.

But this post is not so much about The Valley, it is about the feelings that I unexpectedly experienced at the end of my PhD, while I was getting out of the Valley. Perhaps these feelings define what it means to leave the Valley. I want to share them in the hope that it may bring a tiny light to some of the lost wanderers.

With my best non-native English speaking awkwardness, I wrote my friend:

“Something great happened in the last month, which I had not expected. I got excited about science again. Cool, eh? I am still plagued with doubts about the future, but I am considering the idea of doing a postdoc again.

More importantly, I am having fun writing up my thesis chapters. I already wrote a first draft of two chapters. Writing the second chapter was challenging, but I actually had fun doing it. This experiment has been a huge heap of stress during the whole of my PhD. There was always something stressing and time consuming in the future: getting the plants, keeping them alive, transplanting them, measuring the thousands of them, analysing the data, writing the paper. It was always a huge daunting task in the future. And now, the worst is suddenly in the past. The analysis is not quite finished, but the preliminary one is solid enough for a PhD dissertation.

 I read some papers, both some very inspiring ones, and some… not so good ones. It motivated me. To be more inspired. To try to do inspiring work. To write better articles than the bad ones.

This was good news. The passion for science, the curiosity, the challenges for the brain, the discovery had been pretty much one of my main personal drivers. I have invested more time into science than in anything else. If I look at the past ten years, I think that these were the most consistent drivers I have had. That is, before the past two years… And losing them left me empty, and lost. Not only because suddenly, it felt as if I had no future, but also because there was nothing else to replace them. Hell, that was not pretty.

 I am not sure what will happen next. But I get pleasure discussing science with people again, and I have fun writing. Actual fun. And I can begin to picture myself interacting with people, collaborating with scientists again.

 More than that, I got the feeling that my brain is working again. That it is clearer than in the past year or two.  

I still have a long way to go about gaining confidence, perhaps it will not be enough to get me to carry on in the field, and I know that it may go down again in one month when I will be exhausted and stressed and everything. But I am enjoying it right now.

I am even going to apply for a post doc.”

A couple of months later, I defended my PhD with honours.

I did not go back in the Valley during the end of the writing, nor during the preparation of the defense, despite the highly stressful moments that I had (accurately) anticipated.

In contrast to many students, writing the thesis was perhaps the part of my PhD that I enjoyed most. After years of struggling, I suddenly had a cerebral and organisational breakthrough. It took time and was occasionally frustrating. Of course, I had to finish analyses on the go (who does not?). But everything was faster because I felt that I could do it (or at least, quitting was not an option anymore), and because it was fun.

It was, all things considered, a much unexpected unfolding of the end of my PhD.

Several fellow students told me that seeing me experiencing motivation again, and managing the end of my PhD much better than the rest of it, gave them hope for their own PhD. And at least one of them experienced a similar relief after going through an ugly Valley of her own.

May our experience bring you a tiny speck of hope.

Editor: How about you? Are you still walking the Valley of Shit, or have you passed through into the sunlit fields beyond? Would love to hear your thoughts and reactions in the comments!

Related posts

The Valley of Shit

The Mountain of Happy

The Swamp of sadness

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20 thoughts on “Leaving the Valley of Shit

  1. lurker says:

    Thesis Whisperer, you said the author wanted to remain anonymous but then mentioned her name in the last paragraph? Just to make sure, maybe you overlooked it, so you can correct it asap.
    Love your blog,
    Best regards

  2. Saya says:

    I was in the shit valley during the first few years of my PhD too. However, I found myself in a even deeper shit valley after I have defended my thesis – writing job applications, grant application, and cover letters are even more panicking than writing up the thesis itself…

  3. Amanda says:

    I am currently trudging through a deep, murky, sticky swamp of shit within this Valley of Shit. Nice to know I’m not alone in this feeling, though. I can’t tell you how many times this quarter alone I’ve contemplated quitting. I’m currently at the QE stage (I’m supposed to have an innovative idea for a dissertation?!) But it feels like all the ideas that I have are recycled or have already been done before. Gah. Hoping to crawl out soon….

    • Erin says:

      I feel you, Amanda.
      Currently in the 13th month of my PhD and struggling to pull together innovative and novel ideas.

  4. Elizabeth says:

    I am still in this valley of sorts even two years after finally graduating, leaving academia and getting an industry job… It took me far too long to finish my thesis so academia is not really an option anymore for me. The PhD destroyed my mental and physical health, I feel like a failure and I am starting to really worry that I will never get out of this depressive hole.

  5. Kirsty says:

    I’ve had the opposite experience. I enjoyed my PhD experience for the most part throughout my first 3 years. I entered the Valley when I got to that point where I was meant to be finished, but still slugging along, full of uncertainty about what the future holds. I’m still trying to fight my way out of it. It’s becoming apparent that the PhD has taken a serious toll on my mental health. It’s really hard to accept when you’ve always been a model student that you’re failing to complete in a timely matter like everyone thought you would, and the never ending questions about when you’re submitting offer a constant reminder that your failing at the last hurdle. It’s nice to hear an account of how someone got out of the valley even if the experience is a bit different. Maybe there’s hope for me too. The Valley of Shit blog has been my all time favourite for many years! Knowing others go through serious downs during the PhD process is immensely beneficial, even if it doesn’t actually help you get out of the Valley!

    • jestique says:

      You are not alone. Same here, but my struggle was not in the time, but in the quality. I expected academics to be amazed by my work, and it was something like this, but not to the extent that I expected.

  6. Aubrey Muswema says:

    Laughing Out Loud (LOL) – Stunning, colorful title since my PhD is about waste, not the semi liquid kind – the solid waste one actually.

    Thank you for a very informative Newsletter – i kind of feel like I am wallowing in it at the moment (presenting my proposal)!!

    Thanks again WordPress.com >>> The Thesis Whisperer 13/03/2018 19:01 >>>

    Thesis Whisperer posted: “Some years ago now, I wrote about self doubt this way: “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 S”

  7. jestique says:

    Sadly, I am also defended in the last month, but somehow, still not left the Valley of Sh*t. Perhaps, it’s happens in other way too.
    Despite I still love researcher option, I don’t want to work in academia, and no big bright plans for the future anymore.

  8. Gio says:

    I am very much in the “middle” of my masters’ report writing, and so very much deep in the valley. And I am not sure I’ll be able to get out. I have many sections partially written, but I don’t feel like I know which way to go to finish them, and I’m having immense trouble motivating myself to finish and not engage in all kinds of avoidance behaviors (like writing blog comments).

    What’s really perverse about my experience of the valley, at least, is that all the things that should be motivating me aren’t working. I know I absolutely must finish this report by the end of the semester; it’s my last chance. I also know that’s only a month away, so it’s not like this isn’t going to end one way or another. But whenever I think about those facts, my mind immediately jumps to the conclusion that if I fail (a real possibility), my life will be over. I’ll have a three-year gap on my resume, no skills, no possibility for recommendations to professional programs elsewhere, and no employability. I know this is not a rational line of thinking, but it’s strong. It makes me feel resentful of academia, but more than that it makes me afraid of my project. I’m afraid that I’ll turn something in, be told its not good enough, run out of time, and then be punished for my failure forever. And that makes the avoidance so much harder to, well, avoid.

  9. Simon Tarr says:

    I’ve been in the Valley of Shit since January, on and off. I have my final annual review coming up next week (at a UK university) where I discuss my progress so far and outline my plan (ha!) for the final 10 months or so.

    Today I started putting together this final annual review document. It contained three papers in various stages of publication, a list of the courses I had attended, the grants I had won etc etc. And I realised, for the first time in 6 months, that I’m definitely more than half way there now. For a brief moment, I saw beyond the valley and out into the Plain of Freedom.

    I’m expecting to reacquaint myself with The Valley as I gather my thesis together but today was a good day – hopefully I’ll spend less time here before March 2019.

  10. Michael says:

    Huff, I stayed in the Valley of Shit for most of my PhD, and surely the last 2 years. And slowly walked out as I was finishing, actually enjoying writing the thesis – this we have in common.
    Then I started travelling and I seem not to be done with it yet. I’m actually scared of going back to academia, though I enjoy looking at it from far away! Nobody prepared me on how many valleys are awaiting through a postdoc and what follows!

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