The Power of the Mind

How do we prevent our inner critic from taking over?
How do we become more resilient in the face of criticism?
How do we not succumb to feeling stuck when the pressure rises?
How do we make it though a rough patch?
How do we allow more joy and curiosity in?

In the academic world the mind skills we develop and refine are our intellectual muscles, our critical capacity. The part that isn’t paid as much, or any attention to, is how to harness the power of the mind more broadly, on how work with our thoughts, and the feelings attached to those thoughts. Not at all linked to solving academic problems, but everything to do with the person who is trying to do so.

I have sometimes wondered what the academic world would look like if these aspects got more attention. Would levels of depression and anxiety be lower? Would drop-out rates in PhD programmes be lower? Would years spent on completing a PhD be lower? Would the number of publications be higher?

My guess is yes – I think it would make a real difference.

As you know my own PhD experience was not exactly completed in ideal circumstances…it was really, really hard. And the one thing I credit for allowing me to finish the thesis, apart from truly wanting to complete the project, was this: new mind skills. This involved learning how to relate to my thoughts differently, no longer completely identifying with thought all of the time, especially when facing difficulties. And also, something I have been rediscovering recently: knowing when to use the rational problem-focused mind to solve problems, and when to try something different.

Something that has helped me was starting to be more aware of thoughts and beliefs, and the emotions they trigger. I like the way Eckhart Tolle approaches it: he calls the conditioned beliefs ‘ego’, and the emotional/ physical component pain-body. (Tolle was a PhD at Cambridge when he had these insights, and decided to go down the spiritual instead of the academic path…in case you’re contemplating a career change!)

Say we’re talking about academic envy: a colleague gets published, yet your paper is rejected. This may set off a cascade of negative thoughts and feelings: academia is a status system, and if we feel we’re losing (ego) we get scared (pain-body) and resentful (pain-body). Especially so if you think your colleague who is ‘winning’ doesn’t especially deserve it!!

Something similar happened when a ‘friend’ of mine got a paper published, using the exact same title as my thesis working title. Despite being close colleagues he had managed to not mention he was working on the exact same topic as I was working on!! That coupled with my own frustration about my work being so slow and absolutely unpublished due to circumstances, and I nearly lost it! (This did end up as an interesting confrontation at a thesis defence where I bumped into him. I lost my Zen that day.)

Academia as a system is stressful – it is up or out. Publish or exit. Get funded or lose out. It is also often unpredictable and unfair. Being good at what you do is a necessary, but by no means a sufficient condition to do well. The uncertainty, the randomness, the stories we tell ourselves about meritocracy, the ways we rationalise our disappointments: it can take its toll.

To deal with the more stressful aspects of academia, meditation can be extremely helpful.

It helps us observe the thoughts we have and take them less personally:

“Ah – apparently I have so much fear about things not working out for me/ about being ‘not good enough’ (hello imposter syndrome!) / etc. Ah, maybe those are just thoughts, just beliefs. Maybe they aren’t true! Maybe I can just let them be, not pay them as much attention, not buy into the drama of it fully. Maybe there is another way to look at it… A more skillful way, a kinder way. A way in which I don’t put myself down. In which I don’t slip into feeling ‘less than’. A way that doesn’t turn any excitement I may feel about my work into fear. Yes…how about tuning back into curiosity instead.”

This isn’t a conscious process, somthing we can impose by will, it is more of an unfolding. A creating space for this to happen by sitting still, and allowing our mind to settle (or not).

And it helps us work through and ‘metabolise’ the intense emotions that come with these thoughts. It helps calm the pain-body. By sitting with it, by feeling the fear, the disappointment, the resentment, whatever it is, it eventually dissolves. And when it dissolves it stops feeding into the negative thought loop. Which means we are no longer stuck. We can move on.

Sometimes it is difficult to access that place by sitting still: we keep going over the same thoughts in our heads, and can’t seem to access the emotions directly. I have found exercise, yoga especially, very helpful in shifting out of negative states. Yoga seems to rearrange things so they make sense again, so you feel more integrated again. It is an active meditation.

Have you tried meditating? I highly recommend the meditations by Bodhipaksa (two of his meditations are part of the HappyPhD Course, the acceptance meditation is my favourite. Though some participants have noted they preferred the mediations I recorded myself), and the short ‘getting present’ and ’metabolising energy’ meditations by Michael Vladeck. I work with these quite a bit. They are really good in terms of getting out of the mind and into the feeling aspect of our life.

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Are You Hiding Behind the Literature?

Are you hiding behind the literature?

It’s tempting, you know. Making academic work all about what others have done. And true, learning about what others have done is one of the core activities in doing your own research. Yet do not forget, your research has a reason to exist in its own right. It must do. Why else bother? And why else would anyone seek your work out?

It’s so tempting to swing between feeling like you have to design some grand theory that explains everything, to somehow integrate all the literature in a way that makes sense; and feeling like you are utterly failing at that, and worse: your own contribution to the debate is meagre, shameful even. Hardly noticable and not worth noticing.

Listen. Your contribution doesn’t have to be of epic proportions to be of value. (Let’s forget about the heroic PhD fantasy). But it needs to be communicated, it needs to be heard. Yes. It needs to come out of hiding. The most important step in academic writing is finding out what that contribution is. What is the argument you are trying to make? That’s what we want to know. How your argument relates to the literature is always secondary. No matter how much more erudite/ profound/ advanced/ impressive that literature is.

I know that many PhDs are asked to write a literature review. I believe this only makes sense up to a point. A literature review needs an angle. It needs a question driving it. That question is what it’s all about. It is the only thing that ensures focus. Without it you are guarantueed to be lost. And your readers will be equally lost.

Finding that question, and finding the answer.

That’s what your PhD is about.

That is it.

Yes, it takes time. Clarity takes time.

It helps to, from some point onwards, start reading less and thinking more.

Focusing in, instead of overloading yourself with more angles, more data, more everything. Because there is already so much of everything.

I’m not saying do not read. You need to be informed of what is out there.

There is always a balance between learning more, and adding to your knowledge that way, and knowing when you are losing yourself in dead ends.

You could picture it as a play. Your play.

Some articles will take centre stage. They are your lead figures, your main characters. They have a lot of lines and you need to know them inside out. The lead figures are the real performers. They carry the weight, hold the space. They are what makes your argument shine, the star sing.

Find out which articles, which scholars, which schools of thought, are at the centre of your research. Learn every little thing about them. This is essential knowledge.

Then, there are couple of less important characters, and loads of extras. They are needed to beef it up, so to speak. Yes, they have their role, and they may have a few words to say here and there. But they aren’t central to the plot development. They are peripheral. It only makes sense to treat them as such. Why waste your precious time on learning absolutely everything there is to know about the extra (no offence)? It will confuse your focus.

What I am saying is read strategically. Ask yourself whether what you have just read/ are about to read is necessary to contribute to your work, or whether you are only losing yourself, distracting yourself. Read accordingly. Don’t waste your time.

Because there’s an even more insiduous way the literature may be hampering your progress: you may be using it as a tool of procrastination. A way to gloss over the fact that you ‘don’t feel quite ready’ to start writing.

If you’re reading for security – Maybe reading this next paper will make you feel more on top of things! – be brave. Put down the article. (Like you’d put down the drug.)

Ask yourself what your work needs, to move forward. (I am serious. Ask.) Then do that thing.

Think, organise your thoughts, create something. You may need to read. Maybe.

But quite likely you’ll need to jump in and write something instead.

If you’re struggling with your academic writing (maybe it’s not happening?) have a look at my free e-book Finding Your Academic Voice. If you liked this post, as always, could you share it? 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.


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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How to write a PhD speedily & (almost) painlessly. Strategy 2: Stop doubting yourself

I am writing a series of blog posts condensing the PhD-writing strategies that helped me finish my PhD. I went from being a not-always-effective researcher to finishing my PhD in a couple of hours a day. Read my story here.

Strategy 2. Stop Doubting Yourself

Self-doubt. It’s the devil.

It comes creeping in, seducing you into thinking your work is lousy, you are not moving ahead fast enough, and you will never get anything worth reading written.

It comes at times expected (after having your work criticised by a supervisor, after that presentation that left you deflated, or in the run-up to a deadline) and unfortunately also at times unexpected (as in: when in the shower washing your hair, panic strikes: I know NOTHING about what I am supposed to be an expert in. NOTHING!).

The real problem is not the devil as such.

The problem is we believe its whispers.

And then obsess about it.

And maybe even obsess about being obsessed about it.

We know we shouldn’t feel this way, because we know we are capable, yes?

So why then do I feel this way? Why? There must be something wrong with me.

And so it goes.

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