10 terrible thoughts you will have during your PhD
.. and why you will be fine anyway
By Stine Øyna
Last week our department welcomed a total of 19 new PhD students into our program in International Business. As a third-year candidate I was asked to give a talk about PhD life, and ideally offer some advice on how to get through it (i.e. how to survive). Preparing the presentation led me to reflect on the previous two years, and the result is a list of terrible thoughts I have had (..and in all honesty, am still having from time to time) since starting the PhD. Since it is Sunday (which means I am too tired to work, but still feel bad about not working) I thought I would write it up as a blog post, hoping to reach a few more fresh or aspiring candidates. Please note, the objective is not to scare you away from taking a PhD, but rather to let you know that you are not alone and/or going crazy.
- “When will I find my grand idea?”
Let me answer this one here and now: You will NEVER find the ‘grand’ idea. Mainly because as a fresh PhD, you wouldn’t know a grand idea if it walked up and presented itself to you. We are just not equipped to recognize them yet. So, stop looking, start working. As long as you finish your PhD you will most likely do decent+ work. Your world changing research will most likely not be from you PhD. PhD is training. It is learning how to become a researcher. Your world changing stuff will come later. I am not saying this to make you believe that doing a PhD is easy. My point is that until you decide on what to do, you will not start actually doing it. And if you don’t start you will never finish. Decide on your topic before you start the program. Your RQ/paper outline might take a while but decide on your topic so that at least your reading, and course papers become helpful and relevant. Only when you read and work with the literature, you will be able to see what actually remains to be done, and how you can make a contribution.
- “What did I actually do today?”
Or if I am being totally honest, “What did I actually do this year?”. Even though I have spent countless hours in the office since I started the PhD, I often have problems explaining what I have actually spent these hours doing. I attribute this to the nature of our work. We read literature, we design our studies, we collect data, we analyze this data, and we write the paper (never in the neat, linear way presented here, but that’s another topic). In other words, only a fragment of the process actually involves tangible output (e.g. words on a page). I often find this to be both demotivating and frustrating. However, reading, and the other initial steps of research, is maybe the most important part, and spending enough time on this is crucial in order to achieve a good result.
- “I want to punch [enter annoying colleague’s name] in the face…”
A lot of the work we do requires deep concentration and uninterrupted focus. In other words, you need to enter a state of “flow” (i.e. complete immersion into the activity) in order to progress. Research shows that in order to achieve flow, you need to resist the brain’s urge to do other stuff (e.g. visit social media, get a cup of coffee or stare out the window) for about 15 minutes. When you enter flow, you are more resilient towards disturbance, and you are better able to get difficult tasks done. However, if you are unable to resist small breaks during the first 15 minutes, the timer re-sets (meaning that it will take at least 15 more minutes until you achieve flow). The 15-minute limit is of course also prolonged by interruptions made by others, and for some reason it is just a thousand times more annoying when others are the cause of disturbance. So, if you, like me, share your office with other colleagues, you are bound to experience this particular thought from time to time.
- “I know I read something about that .. I just don’t remember where I read it, when I read it, or exactly what I read.”
This statement also applies to things you vaguely remember people telling you, and the result is often an hour or more which you spend desperately searching through articles, word documents, and old post-its. The lesson: establish a good system for taking notes and do it early. Three reasons for why this is important: First, throughout the entire PhD (and especially through the first year(s) of course work) you are bombarded with information. Your brain is constantly overloaded, and it is normally quite the achievement to even know what day it is. Consequently, it is impossible to take it all in as you go along. Second, your knowledge and thus your absorptive capacity keeps evolving, and your understanding of the same piece of information might thus be very different when you get to your second year. Third, you might not apply some of what you learn in the first year until the second or third year.
- “When will they realize they made a mistake letting me into the program?”
Other varieties of this though is “When will they realize I am not as smart as they think I am”, or “My colleagues are so much better than me”. First of all, this is known as the imposter syndrome. Look it up and relate (Another side note: When I presented this to the new PhDs, the program head voiced that even he, being a highly recognized professor, has these thoughts from time to time). Second of all, we all have our strengths and weaknesses, but for some fucked up reason, we have a tendency to appreciate other’s strengths more than we appreciate our own. I find this one important to emphasize, because the fact that other people (which I highly admire and consider very competent) have these same thoughts, makes me realize that since they are obviously wrong, I might be wrong too.
The workload will sometimes make you scream, either out load or inside your head. Actually, I think the key to remain sane throughout your PhD is a) to establish some strategies on how to manage a large workload, but also b) to learn how to manage your own anxiety related to such workload. I handle the latter through planning. Planning makes a seemingly unmanageable workload seem manageable, and seeing the necessary work spread over the days in my calendar makes me see that I will be able to finish everything before my deadline, and hence anxiety is reduced.
- “Nobody understands me”
At least if you come from a family without other university graduates, you will relate to this one. When people ask my brother what I am doing, his standard answer is “I don’t know”. He has given up on understanding it a long time ago. My grandmother tells people I had to go back to school because I couldn’t get a job (I actually left a good job to start my PhD, but that seems to have slipped her mind). Since most normal people are familiarized with neither the PhD process, nor the actual research process, you might have a hard time getting understanding for your PhD life. Consequently, it is of utmost importance to team up with someone that gets it, i.e. your colleagues. Make the investment it takes to become friendly with your colleagues. Be supportive when they need it, and they will most likely be the same for you. Why? First of all, it is a lot more fun coming to work if you have friends there. Second of all, when times are tough, you will need it (trust me). I believe that it takes a certain type of person to pursue a PhD, and you might thus find that although your demographics differ, your psychographics unite you with your colleagues.
- “I suck”.
Academia is largely based on critique. While constructive criticism has potential to greatly improve your work, the criticism is not always constructive, and even if it is you might not always be able to perceive it as such. Thus, I find it important to tell people that YOU are NOT your work. Your paper is sub-par? It does not mean that you are sub-par. Your English is not good enough? It does not mean that you are not good enough. Your presentation sucked? It does not mean that you suck (Side note: When my boyfriend read this point he called me a hypocrite. I admit, this is not an easy thought to avoid).
- “Am I dying?”
Ok, maybe I’m being dramatic, but here follows an actual list of symptoms I experienced during my first year: Sleep problems, chronic headache, breathing troubles, chest pressure, weight fluctuations, sight impairment, neck/back/shoulder pains, tendinitis, depressive moods. Who thought sitting in an office would be so hard on the body and mind? Well, it is, and given that we work with our brain, it is hard to avoid these issues affecting the work. My experience is that if you don’t make the effort to take care of yourself you suffer, and hence both your quality and productivity suffer. So, make sure to take time off (most important!), exercise (at least a short walk every day), take vacation where you don’t bring printed articles and your laptop with you, and eat well.
- “If only my supervisor would [enter problem you think your supervisor should fix for you]”
Self-serving bias is us humans’ tendency to ascribe success to our own abilities, and failure to external factors. During your PhD, this ‘external factor’ will often be your supervisor. All your difficulties would be avoided if your supervisor could just be bothered to read your work more thoroughly, introduce you to more people, allow more creativity, or simply be less of an asshole (this is of course a ridiculous assumption, but for some reason we tend to make it anyway). News flash 1: Supervisors are also people. With their own set of strengths and special skills, but like the rest of us, also with a number of weaknesses and shortcomings. News flash 2: The PhD is YOUR project, which means that YOU are responsible for the difficulties that emerge. I also firmly believe that the more of these difficulties you handle, without the help of your supervisor, the better of a researcher you eventually become.
Finally, I also think that if you can manage these terrible thoughts and limit their negative impact through taking control over them, you will be better able to enjoy the PhD. After all, you have the luxury of going deep into a topic you are passionate about. You get paid (at least in some universities) to travel the world for data collection and/or conferences. You get a large degree of freedom to manage your days the way you like them best. In other words: The PhD process is pretty awesome.
Stine Øyna is Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship at the School of Business and Law of University of Agder, Norway. Her research is focused on born globals / international new ventures, internationalizing SMEs and women in entrepreneurship. She teaches entrepreneurship in the Bachelor and Masters level. Follow her research on ResearchGate and Google Scholar.
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