‘Feeling Insecure Is Part of the PhD Process’ & How to Minimise Feeling Insecure Obsession

Feeling insecure is part of the PhD process, but it’s not the part people tend to prefer to talk about. If you have ever tried asking your peers about how they feel about their PhD, and where it stands, you’ve probably encountered one of three responses: 1. an over-exuberant exclamation of how well everything is going and how fascinating their research is (if American – and they may well be American if this is their response type – add to that that they went to the gym at 6 am this morning, before their massively productive research sessions, which all happened when you were mostly busy hitting the snooze button) 2. deathly silence. 3. head banging against the wall: “Don’t ask me about my PhD!”

What I have come to realise is that these responses share a theme: feeling insecure is most always masked, and you will be surprised at what these various masks may hide. It is never what you think!

Don’t be tricked into thinking that you are the only one who feels insecure about your work. You are not. Everybody feels insecure. Sure, some people feel more insecure than others, and the intensity of this dreaded feeling may fluctuate depending on where your project stands, but take this to heart:

Everybody feels the question marks.

Everybody.

It is part of the PhD process.

The PhD combines two challenging pursuits: that of becoming an academic, and learning the tricks of the professional trade; and that of attempting to add an ounce of original knowledge to existing scholarship. To achieve the latter, you have to be proficient at the former. Which takes time, yet in your PhD time schedule the two are conflated. So from the start you feel you should be ‘already there’. Except you’re not. And except it isn’t clear where ‘there’ is exactly. How to know when you have arrived? Becoming a scholar isn’t a linear process, nor a fixed destination.

And that is not even taking into account the insecurity-producing nature of creative work, in general. How to trust that something good will come out of your efforts? How to know whether your work will measure up? Related, and worse: how to know whether YOU measure up? Because it’s you, ultimately who has to produce this thing called a PhD. Isn’t it?

Once you start doubting not only your work, but also yourself, you enter dangerous territory. Best keep out, if you want to keep your limbs and preserve your sanity.

So, what to do instead?

First, and foremost, I repeat: know that feeling insecure goes with the territory of writing a PhD. Not feeling insecure is the exception, and in my experience so far, and I have asked many people (in private, and preferably after the PhD had been completed), feeling insecure is the norm. So far I have encountered one person (one!) who honestly could not relate whatsoever to the shaky feeling working on a PhD produces at times. Statistically he is an outlier, or if you want: he is the exception that proves the rule.

Don’t be fooled by people’s apparent confidence, and this is especially true in more competitive environments. I still find myself taken by surprise sometimes, when people tell me about their insecurities, and I really shouldn’t be, as it has been one of the more common topics I talk about and help people with!

Just last week a PhD candidate made an offhand comment during a coaching session on how the section on feeling insecure in the HappyPhD Course had helped her. For a second I was surprised, as in the coaching calls we had focused mainly on the more practical side of things: the workday, productivity, etc. She never mentioned feeling insecure, and she certainly didn’t make an insecure impression. Quite the opposite. Oh, but of course! Fooled by the mask situation: the inner and the outer, never the same. And momentarily forgotten about the to-some-degree-anxiety-producing nature of the PhD, which is universal. ‘I have become more relaxed about it,’ she told me. ‘Just knowing that it is normal has taken the pressure off.’

That’s the first tip: If you are feeling worried and insecure about your PhD, don’t worry. So is everybody else. It’s normal and only to be expected. It’s nothing that needs ‘fixing’. (Note: If you are not feeling even a hint of insecurity, you may be an extra-terrestrial. Or have megalomaniac tendencies. Just so you know.)

The second tip is to make sure you create a firm boundary between yourself and your work, when thinking about it. Reduce your worries to ‘how can I best perform this piece of research/ find the answer to this question/ run this analysis/ improve my methodology’, instead of obsessing about ‘can I do this/ what if I’m not capable/ Oh my god this is never going to work out/ I am probably not cut out for this/I am a failure/ my PhD is doomed’. You are capable. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt here, and focus on the factual work that you can improve on instead (PS You don’t need improving on. You are already pretty magnificent.)

The same goes for worrying about how your work will be received. It’s only natural to do so to a certain extent, but for the love of mercy try to stick to the factual, and keep away from the more existential questions. The fact you were selected to do a PhD means you are most likely capable of producing one, so try and keep your obsessing over your capability and worth to a minimum. Keep narrowing your questions down to answerable, figure-out-able or at the very minimum non-personal concerns.

Naturally, it may be possible that persistent fierce insecurity points towards a larger question: that of whether you want to be writing a PhD in the first place. If the answer to that question is: ‘yes, I want to be writing a PhD’, the remaining existential concerns are often not much more than smoke, distraction and illusion. Leave them be. (If the answer is no or undecided, read: should I quit my PhD?)

Oh, and a final tip: Don’t ask people how they are getting on with their PhD when you bump into them in the hallway. There is no such thing as an innocent question in the hallway! And if you really want to know, all you have to do to never know the answer is to ask questions in the hallway! (Well, you might catch a person off-guard, and they may blurt things they didn’t intend to share, but they may not talk to you ever again!) If you must, try again in a more intimate setting. The answer will likely be more satisfying.

Do you ever feel insecure about your PhD (if I may ask)? If so, thank goodness, you are normal. Well, that is, as normal as you are comfortable being. Tell me all about it in the comments. Oh, and if you liked this post, could you share it? As always, I appreciate it!

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2 Responses to “‘Feeling Insecure Is Part of the PhD Process’ & How to Minimise Feeling Insecure Obsession”

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  1. Cee says:

    Thank you for this timely reminder! Like most everyone, I do feel insecure sometimes. A lot of it – for me – is to do with the fact that I’m still early on the process and started halfway through the academic year. Because no-one else started when I did, it makes me feel as if everyone else knows what they’re doing. (Which is nonsense, I know!) Another thing is the fact that I’m doing my PhD part-time, by choice. Everyone I have told has been either shocked, surprised, or outright skeptical. Makes you wonder why they’re all reacting in similar ways…

    Luckily for me, the insecurity/anxiety tends to be fleeting for me. And, I think your second tip is spot-on. It’s very easy to see yourself as synonymous with your research. And it makes it very easy to see yourself as a failure when your research isn’t going well.

    • Amber Davis says:

      Thanks for your comment Cee! Truly helpful to know we’re not the only one.

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