The Paradox of Climbing the PhD Hill: Lowering Your Expectations

There is always a fear when doing academic work that you are not up to the job. That your work isn’t ‘good enough’, that you’re not clever enough, perhaps, to deliver what it takes.

But what if you don’t need to be ‘brilliant’? What if it is more about stamina, persevering, sitting with the difficult questions, and keeping at it, pushing your work forward, keeping going one step at a time? What if it is more akin to climbing a hill (let’s not call it a mountain, it’s only a hill and it is absolutely doable, though sometimes it may feel like a mountain) one step at a time, rather than chastising yourself for not being able to magically teleport yourself to the top.

Spoiler alert: there’s no magic involved. It is all about plodding along, and you will get there. That is, providing you keep going, putting one foot in front of the other.

Keeping it small, but keeping going, is the very untheatrical, very practical, and the absolute best way of proceeding. What is the next step? Do it. Then ask yourself again: what is the next step? And the next one. Do not let yourself be derailed by more existential questions of capability. You are capable. If you feel you may not be (hello imposter syndrome!) know it is part of the trail. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong.

High standards are good and needed in an academic context, but only for the end result. Give yourself permission to have a learning curve in the meantime. Give yourself permission to make mistakes, give yourself permission to not get it right. Give yourself permission to fail, to say or write something that turns out to be dead wrong. (So hard!!)

Give permission for your work to be heavily criticised. It’s okay. It is not personal. It will give you input, ideas to work on. Ideas that will take shape over time. Allow yourself the time to make decisions on what to keep and what to discard. Be okay with the uncertainty of it. It is awfully hard, but it becomes easier once you see how entertaining uncertainty and imperfection helps your work unfold.

Allow your PhD to be a process. That’s a really good idea: because it is a process, whether you like it or not. (And we don’t like it. Because maybe it means we’re not ‘up to it’ if we are not ‘there’ yet. Nooo! Not true. You’re not supposed to be at there yet. But you will get there. You will.)

Very often we don’t even realise our day-to-day standards are excessively high. This is especially true for people who have been always been high-achievers. They are used to achievements coming relatively easily. Writing a PhD is not like that. You rarely get it right the first, second or third draft of a chapter or paper. The process is always slower than you would like. There are always more questions than answers. And there are always flaws, apparent to you or to your supervisor or other readers, who will not hesitate to point them out. It’s never perfect, and your work is never finished.

Expecting perfection is trying to do the impossible. Expecting struggle and failure (however depressing this may sound), and being ok with that is a better strategy. Every ‘failure’ allows you to learn and to move your work ahead. If you get comfortable with failure, you will be in a better place to keep moving forward.

The wrong way of being a perfectionist is to have excessively high standards for yourself and your writing every step of the way. If you do this, you are going to be disappointed in yourself every single day of writing your PhD. Let’s not, OK? It’s difficult enough…

The right way of being a perfectionist is to have excessively high standards for the finished piece of work only. It means you keep going, re-thinking and revising, until you have reached a high standard of work one small step at a time. You have climbed the hill.

To not be fazed by failure, struggle, and mistakes it helps to recognise that they are normal and to be expected. It has nothing to do with your capabilities. Nothing. If you really get this, and start to see it as part of the process rather than weakness to be overcome, thinking and writing will become easier.

In sum: The paradox of climbing the PhD hill is that high quality of work can only be achieved by lowering your expectations and standards (in the short run!). By accepting the messiness of the process, and by not allowing it to trick you into thinking there is something wrong with you, or your work.

How are you feeling about climbing the PhD hill? Are you progressing steadily? Feeling stuck? Have you considered lowering your expectations to cope? Maybe you can manage an hour of work if a whole day of work feels overwhelming. And if that is too much, maybe you can manage 15 minutes? Perhaps you can write a messy paragraph, instead of a ‘perfect’ one. All progress is progress. As always, if you liked this post, share it? I appreciate it!

HappyPhD Course: Changes Ahead (and 50% off)

I got a message from someone on LinkedIn congratulating me on my 5 year work anniversary: it is apparently five years since I sat down and typed those first words that would develop into the HappyPhD course! Now, five years on, it is time for an update: I will soon be taking the course offline to make space for a new version. When I wrote the course I did it straight from the heart: I had only recently finished my own PhD and all my experiences were fresh. I put every story that might be of help into the course. […]

Read more »

Less is More: Why Working Shorter Hours Is a Better Idea

I have just finished ‘The Slow Professor’ by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber. It reflects on time pressure and stress in academia, and on how academic life has sped up to such a degree that quality of research, teaching and life suffers. (It was a present from prof. Hein de Haas – do check out our ‘How to Write a PhD’ interview with his tips on productivity and self-care). At one point in the book my jaw dropped: it is the chapter on time management, where a number of books and approaches to the academic schedule are discussed. This part […]

Read more »

Your Thesis Defence: Prepare to Defend!

I like the expression ‘thesis defence’ as it captures exactly what a PhD viva is about: you are defending your work. You are not just presenting, you are defending. Like a sword fight. (A friendly one, mostly.) I attended a thesis defence last week, and it reminded me of the first thesis defence I ever went to. My supervisor had advised me to go; my colleague’s work had been very well received, and he considered her thesis a must-read. Much to his chagrin, the defence didn’t go so well. Not because she didn’t know what she was talking about, quite […]

Read more »

How Many Top Publications Do You Have? or The Curse of Performance Metrics

“I don’t really believe in citations myself. I don’t really count citations. I don’t value anybody’s work by the number of citations they have. I think it’s a mistake.” A quote by Nobel Prize winner James Heckman, uttered at an unusual panel at the 2017 American Economic Association meeting. It was titled ‘Publishing and promotion in Economics: The curse of the top five’, a reference to the top five journals dominating the Economics field. One of the anecdotes told was about graduate students endlessly deferring their ‘entry to the job market’ until they were sure of a top five publication. […]

Read more »

Life (real life) is not like that

“Your basic worry is, of course, your PhD proposal. I wonder if you have made some progress in the meanwhile. Your trouble may be that you try too hard (‘do something really groundbreaking, brilliant and fascinating’). Life (real life) is not like that. However, no matter the topic you settle on, it will develop into something interesting once you get into it. You can’t expect life as a PhD to be a bed of roses…” Quoted from a letter my LSE mentor Gordon Smith sent me in 2005 (back when we still wrote letters!). During this time I was writing […]

Read more »

How Are You Unwilling to Support Yourself? (And a story about Trump)

How are you unwilling to support yourself? Answering this question (and changing my habits accordingly) was fundamental in getting my PhD process (and much else) to a better place. The question popped up in one of my feeds: it was a timely reminder. Sometimes I feel academics wear their unwillingness to support themselves as a badge of honour: how much we endure, the long hours we work, how stressed we are, seems to somehow reinforce the idea of how ‘tough’ academia is, and how ‘tough’ we are if we can ‘handle it’. It is a little like the starving artist […]

Read more »

Worst Nightmare Scenario: Failing Your PhD (and How Not To)

Failing your PhD. How does it happen? I have recently been a remote witness of a behind-the-scenes-drama: a PhD candidate who received a rejection from an external examiner. Her supervisors had approved the thesis, but a member of the committee rejected it, rightfully so as far as I can gather, judging from the report that spans over a thirty pages of why the thesis is lacking and needs at least a year’s more work. It is a tragic situation. I can’t think of many things worse, as far as PhDs go. When I was writing my PhD I never thought […]

Read more »

Happy New Year!

Let’s start the new year right. Together. If you sign up for the HappyPhD course before January 14th, I will give the self-study course to one of your friends or colleagues as a gift. If you’re feeling generous, if you like the idea of taking the course together (or if this will allow you to take the course moneywise) this is your chance. Make 2017 your best PhD year yet! Sign yourself up here, and I will contact you to arrange the gift. All my very best wishes for the New Year, Let’s open the champagne! Amber

Read more »

‘How to write a PhD’ with Hein De Haas

Hein de Haas is Professor of Sociology at the University of Amsterdam, and the former director of the International Migration Institute at the University of Oxford. He is also a friend of mine. Almost two years ago, when I was staying in California for two months and he flew in for a conference, we sat down at Saul’s deli in Berkeley for lunch. Over chicken soup with matzo balls and latkes with apple sauce (so good!), we talked about academic writing. ‘We should do an interview!’ I said. ‘Would you?’ He would. Fast forward to present: last week we finally […]

Read more »