Say Goodbye to Burnout: 6 Tricks

It seems to be a natural law that when you get whacked over the head by something, difficulties increase exponentially rather than linearly.
As one PhD commented in a conversation we had: “It requires strength when you least have it.”
It does.
It forces you to become smarter than you were, to do things more cleverly.
(Some people call this the ‘gift’ or the ‘lesson’. I don’t know about that, but I do know there are few alternatives).
Sometimes there is a trick, a new way of thinking about things, of doing things, that makes all the difference.
Not a short-cut so much (we wish), but a way that makes more sense.

One trick I have learnt is how to regenerate and rebuild when facing burnout. Well, there are a few tricks to it, really.

The problem: when you are burnt out and exhausted, near collapse or post-collapse, and cannot keep going, it isn’t uncommon to feel you need to go faster to have the slightest chance of ‘catching up’, of staying in the game, of getting back on top. Of surviving even. It can seem existential. It is a cruel trap: no energy to keep going; yet perceived scary future repercussions if you don’t. That’s what it looks and feels like.

Trick 1. It isn’t real
The first thing you need to realise is that fight-or-flight is the ESSENCE of burnout. All problems feel more pressing and unsurmountable. All feels lost. It isn’t. Once your energy, or some of it, returns, problems shrink and become manageable. It is your state of being that comes first, that always comes first. Problems are relative and secondary.

Trick 2. Don’t speed up. Slow down. SLOW down.
The only way out: You’ve got to stop spinning your wheels. You’ve got to stop running when you can no longer run. You have to go against all your natural instincts here. When you are burning out, you are in a near panic state.  Your nervous system says: Run! Yet you cannot outrun this beast. It is a phantom, and the harder you run, the more exhausted you get, and the more likely you’ll end up defeated. Instead: stop, rest, go gently and watch the beast shrink and ultimately dissolve. It isn’t real. It will undo itself, if you insist on peace instead of panic. Let your mind find its centre. That is where all good ideas come from. You will be much more effective, and you won’t have to expend all that energy.

“But the problem is REAL. It’s not a phantom – I have a deadline to meet and it is going to be a close call. Once I meet the deadline I can relax. I will relax. I promise! It will be so good. But not right now, not quite yet.”

Trick 3. Never relax in the future. Do it now.
Deadlines seldom mean as much as we think they do. Thinking our worries will resolve once we get ‘there’, on the other side of the deadline, is one of our mind’s favourite deceptions. It is the fight-or-flight state in action, all over again. The truth: there is nothing special on the other side of the deadline. All you have is now, this moment, this minute, this day at the most. That’s it. That’s all of it, ever. You will never relax ‘then’, and you don’t need to relax ‘then’. You need to do it now. As in, today.

“That is all very high-minded, but if I let go now, if I don’t make it happen now, it is not going to happen! And it will stress me out further. It will stress me out so much I am afraid I will break.”

Trick 4. Do what you can. But not more. Save some energy for tomorrow.
The idea isn’t to come to a complete standstill (although it may feel even slower than that). The idea is to do what you can do WELL WITHIN your limits. What that means will change with time, and day to day. (That’s the beauty and the curse of it). Be in tune with yourself. Once you start feeling panicked, overwhelmed or overly tired you have gone too far. Learn to recognise the warning signs and stop well before. Keep it small. Keep it doable. The goal, if you need one, is to do LESS not more. Try to shift your thinking towards rewarding yourself for doing less. Overthrowing the old ‘I need to do more’ mindset is the accomplishment.

“But will this work? I mean, really?”

Trick 5. Suspend judgment. But assess your progress.
Yes this works. And it works because getting and staying out of fight-or-flight is what does it. It is where you need to be for sustained academic performance (and it feels good too). If you consistently do a little less than what your panic mind is trying to shame you into doing, if you consistently make sure you do not use up all your energy, but instead save up, if you consistently make yourself feel good for looking after yourself exceptionally well instead of burning yourself out: your energy will increase, your focus will increase, your sense of well-being will increase, your self-esteem will increase and yes, in time your output will increase. It’s the vicious circle turned virtuous. It will gain momentum. I promise, even if it feels so slow while you’re doing it, this is the direct route. It can feel scary too. It goes against instinct and habit. Don’t be too intimidated by these fears. You can undo much of it by keeping things very simple: if you have done your work but not overextended yourself (whatever that may mean for you right now) you are doing it right, and you can be very pleased. Over time you’ll see that it does indeed work. It does.

“I keep overextending myself. Can’t help it!”

Trick 6. Don’t we all! No worries. Try again tomorrow. Or better: try right now.
What would get you out of fight-or-flight right now? What feels right? Do that small thing. Take that small step. (Think doing less, not more, as ever…)

Are you struggling with fatigue or burnout? What do you think of this approach? Let me know in the comments. Also: the HappyPhD contest is still open. The course is an anti-fight-or-flight system for academics. If you’d like to win it, please do enter the giveaway! As always, if you found this post helpful could you share it? I appreciate it!

How to Ease Supervision Blues: Three Perspectives

Supervision: too often the stuff of headaches. In the current academic world where research output is valued above all else and academics are stretched and stretched, and sometimes overstretched to meet their multiple obligations, supervision too often becomes an afterthought. Add to that an academic culture in which PhD projects are increasingly squeezed into impossibly linear schedules – with the emphasis again on ‘measurable output’, while academics are not in any way trained on how to coach and supervise, somehow having to figure this out for themselves (and are definitely not all innately able!), accidents happen. No fatalities, mostly, but smooth rides are the exception.

Personal story: When I was writing my PhD supervision was one of my top frustrations, and more specifically the lack of time and effort that went into reading and commenting on my work. This got especially bad when I had to finish long-distance, and was no longer around in the flesh to bug my supervisors. It sometimes took them months to get back to me when I had submitted a chapter, and it was all quite disheartening to say the least. That didn’t stop my supervisor from encouraging me to ‘work hard’ in most every interaction we had, or to in some other way to allude to deadlines or other ‘sticks’ to make me ‘work harder’. In all honesty it drove me nuts, and made me feel insecure and undeserving and it is the exact embodiment and worst outcome of the incentive structure as described above.

If you are caught up in similar frustrating interactions the first thing I’d like to say is this:

It is not personal.
Believe me.
It is not.
It’s simply the outcome of an unfortunate set-up.

Advocating for yourself is too often necessary in supervision relationships, but you’ll be more equipped to do so if you can see that it’s ‘not about you’.
You’ll already be in a much stronger position.

Using the following three perspectives may also help improve the supervision situation.
An exercise. Take your time to do this.

1. What does your supervisor need?

Let’s start from the supervisor’s perspective. Put yourself in his/her shoes. Imagine the glamorous life. Imagine the piles of work, grant applications, emails, rejection letters, admin, departmental meetings, chapters to be edited, flights, conferences and so on and so forth to deal with. Oh, and don’t forget that paper they so want to write but cannot seem to get round to… From this perspective: what does your supervisor want and need in terms of your supervision relationship? Is there any way you could make his or her life easier?

A hint: what professors tend to want is for their supervisees to succeed. They do.
Another thing they want: minimum hassle!
Is there any way you could help the cause?

It starts small, reflecting on your communication: are you sending your papers in on time, showing up on time, not bothering them with things you could sort out on your own, communicating clearly and regularly (but not too regularly), and not being last-minute with requests? (Sorry for this. I am going all head-mistress on you… a bit more to come). If they ask you to do something, do you do it? Are you not hiding?
In short: are you acting professionally? Is there anything you could improve on here?

Put yourself in your supervisors shoes, and try to see with their eyes, hear with their ears.
How does your communication come across?
Are your visible? Reasonable?

What is the state of mind they write that single-sentence email in?
What is the state of their inbox?
See their point of view.

Advanced (optional extra) – Reflect on the role your supervisor would like to have: what are his/her strong points? Maybe it is mainly knowledge or content, and a traditional mentoring role. Perhaps they have an extensive academic network they would like to introduce you to. Are there conferences they are involved in they would like you participate in? Or there may be an opportunity to co-author work. Their style could be formal, or informal…what makes this person tick? Think about it: what would make THEM feel good about their role as supervisor? You know, the proverbial ‘win-win’? How could you both benefit?

If you are thinking: “My supervisor could not care less”, (and this may be the case, though most often it really isn’t, it’s just that they are a bit lost in the supervision thing as are you), imagine what the most hassle-free interaction would look like. Start there.

2. What does your work need?

On to the next bit. This question helps separate the personal from the professional, and it is brilliant at taking the sting out of otherwise painful situations. You may be familiar with them: those where egos clash. Put your work at the centre, and the egos matter a bit less. Clarity, thank god.

So, look at your work, as it stands now.

Get inside of it.

Imagine you are it.

What does it need to get better?
What are the next steps?
What does it need from your supervisor?
(As well as: What does it need from you? You can make a list of that too)
Do parts of your work need feedback? In what way?
If you envision your work as fully finished, which parts are still missing, and which part of that needs your supervisor’s input?
I like the idea of two academics – the junior and the senior – contributing to a joint cause: your work.
Your work is the only diva allowed: what does she need?
Any institutional hurdles you need your supervisor’s help with?

Once you find out: push for it.
Make it happen (err…politely of course).
This is your job.

The difficult thing about supervision relationships is that once burned once or twice it becomes tempting to hide. To disappear, as the echoes of criticism or past conversations still hurt. To disappear because no reaction seems to be forthcoming. To disappear, as your supervisor seems to be uninterested and unresponsive. It helps to remember it’s not about you. It very seldom is. (They’re probably simply crazy busy). The key here is to not make yourself inferior or insignificant (even if your supervisor makes you feel that way).

You are not inferior, and you and your work matter.

Real or perceived failure are SO part and parcel of academia. Communication gone wrong so is too. Unfortunately it does take some effort to not let it get to you. And sometimes you won’t manage.
Top strategy: Get excited about your work, and ask for feedback from there. It is the absolute best place to engage from.
Don’t limit yourself to your supervisor either. If he/ she cannot provide the feedback you need, maybe someone else can.

3. What do you need?

And finally…what do you need? Ask yourself what you personally need.

What would you like?
What do you need?

You cannot change your supervisor (oh, if only!), but there are always ways to improve your supervision relationship. Clear and specific goals and deadlines, jointly agreed on, may help for example (no more vague ‘work hards’!, no more waiting for months for feedback, one hopes). Regular supervision meetings and communication may help (makes everyone a bit more human, real and clued up). Speaking to them in person instead of relying on email may help. Clearing the air on something that is bothering you may help (diplomatically). Or letting go of some grievances in private (rant alert!) may help as well. Maybe you need more feedback, or less. Is there any way this could be discussed and arranged?

Take yourself seriously.
If you feel like you’re being dismissed, don’t add to that by dismissing yourself.

In addition to that: it is so important to take care of yourself. Self-care is no luxury in demanding circumstances, and academia can be pretty brutal. Are there ways to be gentler with yourself with regard to the situation? Are there ways to stop making yourself small, if that is what you are doing? Ways to let off steam if you are particularly pissed off? Ways to enjoy yourself more, brighten it all up a bit? To guilt on yourself less? What do you need?

Play around with these questions. In the answers, look for the intuitive hit or ‘aha’. Mostly you want the process to be effortless, not laboured. Works better that way!

How’s supervision going? Any insights to share from doing the exercise? Let me know in the comments! If you want to take it a step further: there is a whole week on supervision in the HappyPhD Course. Also, as always, if you found this post helpful, could you share it? I appreciate it!

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Help, My Supervisor Keeps Looking Down My Top!

There has been a bit of an online storm because of an awfully bad advice column in which a post-doc who was getting fed up with her supervisor ogling her chest was basically told that sexual attraction is part of life, and ogling is not legally considered sexual harassment. Ergo, she had no choice really but put up with it. Good luck, honey.

As you might expect the interwebs exploded, and Science careers took the advice column down, offering a politically correct statement instead. I would have far preferred them offering a new advice column with actual advice on this thorny issue! I can see why they didn’t: it is thorny indeed, with power and dependency issues involved, as well as bringing up the topic of sexuality…eeeeek!

So, I am going to give it a go.

What to do when your supervisor’s eyes keep wandering:

Scenario 1. The supervisor in question knows he shouldn’t be looking at your boobs, but somehow he can’t help himself. He is probably in denial, or maybe he thinks he can get away with it.

Suggestions to deal with it:

The death-stare, the subtle ahem: Catch his eye while (or, you know, right after) he is looking at your chest, or scrape your throat. Any subtle hint to get his attention to let him know he is caught in the act! A well-placed ahem is probably more than enough to scare and embarrass him into never ever looking anywhere below your chin ever again!

‘Would you stop staring at my chest? I can’t concentrate on my work!’ If that fails, you could bring up the subject in a straight, no-nonsense manner. Perhaps try to be a bit more diplomatic than my suggestion, but bottom line: his behaviour is unprofessional, and you have every right to make him aware of it. Be matter-of-fact. Let him know his behaviour is making you uncomfortable. More likely than not, problem solved.

The email: Write him an email confronting him with his behaviour. If his reply is disrespectful/ ignores your boundaries once again you could forward the exchange to the head of department or dean.

There are cases when approaching the matter is more problematic. If you find yourself in a more hostile situation, I am so sorry:

Scenario 2. The supervisor in question is well aware of what he is doing, but doesn’t care, as he knows you are in the weaker position. To top it off you may work in an organisation that doesn’t care so much about your rights and well-being.

If you are in this position you need to be clear about what you want to achieve, and be strategic about how to do so. To start you’ll need to ask yourself whether you want to continue working with him, at all. Being victimised by your supervisor can’t be the basis of a healthy professional relationship. There are still too many stories of this type, and my personal opinion is that life is too short. Get out. Being in an abusive relationship of any type isn’t worth your time. That, and, from a career perspective: it is incredibly important to build an academic network, and your supervisor is a key figure in facilitating access. Is he helping you with this, or is he too busy looking at your cleavage? If there is another supervisor/ network/ department/ group to join, definitely consider it.

If you do decide you want to continue to work with him, I see three options:

1. Get his boss/ head of department or the dean/ ombudsman involved: Authority and empathy, those are the two key variables you should consider. Who is officially in charge of keeping him in line, and who will indeed help you? The question of who to confide in can be a tricky one. University politics…it shouldn’t be something you have to worry about, but unfortunately in sensitive situations and in less sympathetic environments it is! Find out who has authority over your supervisor, and ask yourself whether you’d be comfortable talking to them. Trust your gut here. If for whatever reason it doesn’t feel right to confide, don’t. Having an authority figure talk to him may help. Some people become surprisingly sensitive once their immediate boss has had a word, especially if they are in a struggle for promotion. Also make sure you document, document, document. See the ’email’ advice above. Having evidence in writing gives you a much stronger case.

2. Confront him: As above – ask him matter-of-factly to stop looking at your chest. This is a gamble. He may not be too pleased, in which case the question of whether you can and are willing to continue to work with him becomes acute. On the other hand, you may actually get the respect you deserve. A confrontational style, standing up for yourself, can be helpful to address bullies. Hit back and you may startle him into behaving.

3. Ignore it: Keep your chin up, ignore his behaviour and focus on work. (What the original commentary advised, basically.) This may be worth it, especially if you are already far into your PhD/ project, have little hope the department will support you and are sure you want to finish it in the current setting.

Advising people to go see the dean actually makes me chuckle a very sad chuckle – when I was sexually assaulted during my PhD it was by someone who later became the dean at his institution. In what was supposed to be a meeting to discuss my work he cornered and forcibly kissed me, and it was the scariest situation precisely because it was so unexpected. That evening I asked someone for advice on what to do and I was advised to ‘better forget about it as quickly as possible.’ Right. I disregarded that, and wrote him an email demanding an apology by phone. He called, with a bunch of feeble and pathetic excuses (‘You are an attractive woman’, ‘I am not very good with women,’ ‘I am from the countryside’) although in the end he apologised, repeatedly. Somehow he must have sensed I wouldn’t let him off the hook, despite him being a poor country lad! I left it at that.

Sometimes, now, I think I should have called his boss, to make him accountable not only for what happened between us, as two individuals, but also for abuse in the workplace. I didn’t, because I was upset, scared of him, didn’t know anyone in his organisation, and didn’t expect to see any immediate good coming from it. Too much hassle! With power, fear and taboo involved, I wanted to move on as quickly as possible. Sadly, that is precisely why the perps get away with it. (Not saying that to imply guilt, only as an observation.)

If you find yourself in such a situation: please take care to select the right people to confide in and talk to. The most important thing is that you are heard and taken seriously, and that your complaint is addressed in such a way it doesn’t burden you further. That said, if you are working with a regular guy who cannot keep his eyes off your bosom, scrape your throat a couple of times and let your eyes shoot daggers. Should do the trick.

Have you had to deal with unwanted sexual attention at work? What happened? How did you deal with it? Did you deal with it privately (like I did) or did you get anyone else in the organisation involved? How did it turn out? It would be good to share experiences. As always, if you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

The Art of Focus

Are you in between?
At work, but not working?
At home, but not relaxing?
In bed, but not sleeping?

Drifting off into worry about whether your chapter, or paper, or outline will be finished in time, while the clock ticks and your cursor blinks?
Drifting off into ‘will this ever be good enough’ and ‘what am I doing’?
Drifting off into randomness, into plans and to-do’s, and overwhelm?
Drifting off into conversations in your mind?
Drifting off…

Do you procrastinate?
Worry?
Obsess?
Much?
Do you wonder where the day went, and why you didn’t get done what you wanted to do?
Feel guilty about it?

The art of focus is an art you’ll need to master if you want to break the loop. If you want to break out of being torn and overwhelmed and distracted and not getting anything done. The answer is as simple as it is difficult to do at times: pay attention. Pay attention to what you are doing and see whether it is indeed what you would like to be doing. If not? Now is the moment to get back into the groove, and back on track. Yes. Now. Break out of the loop.

This, in a nut-shell, is the ‘secret’ of being effective at anything really, including being a prolific academic: paying attention.

A tool that helps immensely in doing this, in creating more mental control, as well as control over what you actually do in a day, is meditation. It is brain training. Or mind training. You practice your paying attention muscles and it does pay off. It will become increasingly effortless to stay on track: the track you choose. You gain control. So worth the investment, so worth the effort.

I started meditating by taking an 8-week mindfulness based stress-reduction course, a system based on the work of Jon Kabat – Zinn. That was back in 2008, quite some time ago! I was excited to start, until I found out it was actually quite hard: it was so much about unlearning to overthink. And think, and think, and think is what my mind so loves to do! Thinking about meditation, dreaming of its wonderful effects came a lot easier to me than actually sitting on the pillow and paying attention – which is all meditation really is – without adding all the layers of thought. Thought was entertainment. Stories, fantasies, worries, you name it I am addicted! And now I had to learn to drop it.

And it is all the mental buzz we need to drop. I know now, for a fact, that solutions to anything – from intellectual puzzles to personal problems – do not come from thought, as in actively thinking or ‘obsessing’. They often arise from a different space – one where I feel calm and grounded and content. That space, where peace and joy arise, where you find a different perspective, a perspective that is so much kinder and so much more fun, instead of the continuous reaching and pushing for answers, that space can be accessed through meditation. Yet we need to sit with our chaos for long enough to allow the dust to settle, and the cobwebs to untangle themselves.

In the mindfulness course I took, they used the metaphor of a lake with muddy water. By simply sitting and being, the mud would sink and settle, the water would clear. Overthinking muddles the lake, while paying attention and letting go of the storylines in our head allows it to calm and beautify.

This has been very much my experience. About six weeks into the course – six weeks of chaos on my meditation pillow – I noticed that when a particularly distressing thought came up during the day (was dealing with freaky scary health/ money stuff) I could just let it be. Didn’t cause me to panic, didn’t cause me distress. Not as much distress anyway: the thought came up and I noticed myself thinking: “I am not going to entertain this particular train of thought today. I just can’t be bothered to think all those stressful thoughts. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt, now please let me sit with the sun on my face with a cup of tea, unworried, thank you!” And instead of shaking me, the stressful thought just came and went. The lake was clear.

Did it stay like that? No! The mind is a muddy lake, at least mine is, and I expect yours to be too. But we can learn how to move out of chaos quicker. That is my experience. You still get into it, but you have tools to get yourself out of it. To calm the waters.

I still meditate, though a little more free-flowing than in the early years. I have become quite proficient at moving into calmer, and more loving, states of being, on the meditation pillow. It really does turn the joy up, and the worry down. Applying the same techniques in daily life is an ongoing practice.

What about you? Do you meditate? Would love to hear what it does for you. If you’d like to learn how to meditate: creating a meditation practice is an important part of the HappyPhD Course. It has meditations by Bodhipaksa, as well as my own. The HappyPhD meditations I designed specifically for the PhD life of us Overthinkers Anonymous. They help you switch off, after a day of thinking (no more obsessing about the PhD!), as well as shift towards a more joyful, sparkly way of being, when you are worried). As always, if you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

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Never There, Never Good Enough: How to Escape the Academic Rat Race

Are you there yet?
Is the paper you want to write finished, are your deadlines met?
Your data crunched, your analyses lucid, your argument convincing?
Are you on top of things?
What about your publication record? How many top publications can we count?
Oh – is it too early to think about publications?
It is never too early to think about publications.
You need publications.
What about the rest of your cv? Are you ticking the boxes, doing enough?

Are you. Doing. Enough?

Academia, at its worst, is a machine that runs on numbers. In an attempt to quantify the unquantifyable, academic performance is reduced to publications and citations, to deadlines met and funding secured. And you’re supposed to tag along. That is, if you want to keep your position, keep moving forward and upwards. If not: out.

It becomes a state of mind: the pushing, the reaching, the grasping, the scrambling.
We have to Get There

‘There’ is a fiction. It’s always just past the horizon. We know so, of course. We know that when this paper or chapter is done there will be a next one to write. One deadline down, many more to go. It’s a merry-go-round, we know! Yet maybe we will feel more secure, even a little, with the next milestone reached… Life will be better, easier, less stressful with the deadline behind us, the achievement achieved.

That is how we think. That is how we work.
With our eyes on the prize – the next one. Always the next one.
Going a little crazy in the process.

It always surprises me how short the moments of triumph, of satisfaction, are. Even the grand prizes, the actual publications (which you will get, somewhere down the road), the promotions, and the grants awarded. They satisfy…for about five minutes. Then once more our eyes are on the future, hurtling forwards, feeling like we have not yet done enough.

As I write this, students in Amsterdam are occupying the Maagdenhuis to protest against what they call the neoliberalisation of higher education, their main focus on democratisation and ‘de-financialisation’. One of their demands is a shift from a quantitative, output-based financial model towards qualitative forms of evaluation. It is a rebellion against the status quo. Against the bureaucratic machine. Against all the counting.

I say we couple the rebellion against the system, with an internal rebellion. A rebellion against the mind-set of ‘never-there-never-good-enough’. The ‘never-enough’ mind-set the machine cultivates. The mind-set we believe in. Does it do us any good, the kicking ourselves ahead? Does it really make us productive, or does it simply make us stressed and unhappy? Would anything change if we stopped engaging with these thoughts that bring us down, that convince us we should be better than we are? What if we stopped entertaining them every chance we get?

I am not discounting the challenges of academic life. Unfortunately, some of the pressures are real. But it’s precisely because they are real that we need to use our energy towards doing our work, and living our lives. It is too easy to get caught up in worries, to let it sap all the joy. No more, I say. No more.

What if we challenge the assumption that the prize will be delivered…tomorrow…once we’ve worked hard enough…once we are deserving?

What if the prize has been delivered already…what if our work is exactly where it should be…and what if we are already there?

Because we are.

Set your goals, but then –
Trust in an unfolding.
Where you are, right now, is far enough.
It is the only place to be.
You are going to meet the deadline.
You are going to publish, and publish well.
Your PhD/ chapter/ paper will be finished and written and published and read. It will.
Dwell in that space, of being already there.
How wonderful it is, without the stress.
How wonderful to enjoy the process.
All you have to do is your work for today.
The one next step. It’s the only and most important step there is.
It is enough.

I try to actively cultivate an attitude of being ‘already there’, of taking the more desperate edge off. In fact it’s a whole different way of seeing things, of being. Being much more open to what is already there – it is sweet. (And it may even make you excited about the work you are doing.) Can you relate? Do you take the time to enjoy what is already there? Let me know! If you’d like to cultivate such a mind-set, have a look at the HappyPhD course. It will help you become more present, more content. As always, if you enjoyed this post, please share. I appreciate it!

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‘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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Overcoming Fear When Writing: Be Inspired

They say: “Feel the fear and do it anyway.”
I would add to that: “Let your inspiration carry you.”

One way of tuning into your inspiration is to be inspired by others.

Who are the scholars you admire?
Which papers are the ones you’d like to have written?
Which argument is so compelling it makes you go: ah!
Or, which papers annoy you to no end?

You are looking for the emotional response here. And the intellectual challenge.
Combined, they will lead to compelling work. Yours.

Collect these papers and books, and voices and arguments, and tune into them before you start writing.
Don’t overdo it, you don’t want to drown in other people’s voices.
Just read enough to gain momentum. To move past the voice of fear.

When I was finishing my PhD and was struggling with a particularly difficult chapter, I had one of my supervisor’s books within an arms-length reach, always.
He was a terrific writer, very gifted. He was also a very intuitive scholar.
These qualities lined up with my own, and often simply reading one of his paragraphs would be enough for me to want to write my next page. Yes, his work was that inspiring.

For me, personally, the feeling-tone is most important. I need to get writing, above all. The content is secondary, it always seems to follow. And when I write from a place of being inspired, I don’t need to worry about it. Or so I have learnt. It simply happens. At times I have used novels I was reading in the same way. Just a sentence or two could be enough to override the fear and just start putting my own words on the page. Creativity turned on.

There are other, more practical, ways of using the literature when you are stuck. Other scholars can show you the way when it comes to method, when it comes to structure, when it comes to making an argument. They can show you what has already been said and done, and where to look for references or evidence to help build your argument.

They can show you, above all, that whatever you are trying to do CAN BE DONE.
Writing that paper can be done.
Writing that chapter can be done.
Other scholars can show you how. The nuts and bolts of it.

Again, there were a couple of relatively technical papers that I referred to when I was finishing my PhD, and uncertain about some aspects of my methodology. How, exactly did my beta-brain sisters and brothers in the same field tackle these questions? How did they make their argument, how did they run their analyses, what were their exact disclaimers? What was ‘enough’ to make a compelling argument? Reading their papers narrowed it down for me. It gave me answers and made it all so much more doable.

Use the literature to help lift you above fear, by inspiring you into a writing spree, or help it move you beyond fear by grounding you into the small practical steps that make up an argument, and a paper. Allow yourself to soar & allow yourself to build methodically.

Have you used the literature to overcome fear when writing? Tell me how in the comments. I have much more on this, in my e-book, which you can download for free. Oh, and if you liked this article – could you share it? Thanks!

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Overcoming Fear when Writing: How to Make Writing a Habit

Maybe I should have titled this post: overcoming fear when not writing. Because that’s the reality of it. We don’t start, because of resistance (fear); we don’t focus or concentrate fully, because it’s difficult and it feels like we’re failing (fear), and we don’t stop after a good couple of hours work, because we fear we have not yet done enough (fear!). So yes, FEAR. It’s a nuisance. And it’s the kind of nuisance that tries to hide it’s there behind distractions and diversions. It’s also the kind of nuisance that will make you feel completely incompetent. When fear and resistance and procrastination rule your workdays it becomes close to impossible to feel good about yourself.

So. That’s the problem. Now the solution. There are many, but today I want to talk about making writing a habit. It’s simple and it’s effective.

At the moment, fear may be your habit, and it’s time to change that.
Changing the habit of fear into the habit of ignoring fear and just starting.
Changing the habit of fear into the habit of ignoring fear and just keeping going.
Once you manage, your workdays will shorten, and you will have gotten more done.

There’s the tricky moment when you are about to get started on the argument, on the analysis, or the paragraph, and you are full of good intentions and hope and drive…and then, half a second before you take the plunge and get to work, you stall. There may be mild resistance (leafing through the piles of papers you are using), moderate resistance (checking email or Facebook) or fierce resistance (oh, what the hell, nothing is going to happen anyway today, best go out for a coffee with…).

You need to minimise these moments, and the way to do it is by moving faster than fear can catch up with you. You have to start without reservations, without hesitations, just START. This becomes infinitely easier when it’s a habit.

It may sound impossible, but it’s not that difficult. Okay, truth be told, in the beginning it may well be difficult, but that’s because habit-building takes a bit of time. Once a habit is a habit, it is well, a habit! Simply starting can become your habit. And it will do so if you consciously choose to not give in to resistance and fear one day at a time, one writing or work session at a time.

Take the leap and skip the fear.

Just do it. There is nothing more to it.

Then why is it so hard? If all we have to do is simply start, why aren’t we doing it?

The problem is with awareness. Fear and resistance catch us unaware, and we get distracted and tune out, because fear and resistance is not a comfortable place to be. It just ‘happens’. We feel we have nothing to do with it (that is until a couple of hours later when the self-loathing sets in).

When fear shows up, when our negative thoughts show up, when our favourite distractions beckon, we need to be aware.
We need to know what’s happening.
We need to smell it coming before it arrives, so we are prepared.
And once it does arrive, because arrive it will, we need to be fierce in saying no.
We need to take control.

No I am not going to be distracted.
No I am not going to give into negative self-talk.
No I am not going to waste another minute of my time on tangoing with resistance.
Just NO.

I am no longer interested
I have unsubscribed
I have moved on

And then you move on
Back to the page
Back to work

To not let fear and resistance catch you unaware I highly recommend starting a meditation practice. Ten minutes a day to start. It’s enough. When you learn to meditate you learn to consciously focus your awareness. It is mind training. It means you become more aware of the thought patterns and behaviours that are thwarting you, and it also means you will gain control over how you react when they show up. It may sound a bit mysterious (and the truth is, it’s not yet known how exactly meditation works in the brain. Neuro-scientists are doing their very best to find out), but it works. If you keep practicing you will be trained in catching distractions on time; that is before they take over. You will gain control over your impulses. Never a bad thing.

Looking for guidance to make writing a habit? I will help you, personally, if you like. It is one element of the HappyPhD Online Course, which will give you all the resources you need to do so successfully.

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