“I have bad days where I lose my confidence or am really unfocused and just tell myself that my paper will never be finished. Have you got any advice on what to do on those days?”
Everybody ever who has written a PhD has been there. Those days where you doubt everything you have done, and everything you will ever do. Those days where it feels you should have done everything differently from the start, and now your work is too late to ‘save’. Those days where you know you will never finish your PhD on time, or even ever. Your PhD has become project doom.
It sounds dramatic because it feels dramatic, and that can be confusing it itself. Why/ when/ how has a project like your PhD become such a big deal??
Keeping things in perspective can be really difficult at times.
Five tips on how to handle such days:
1. Know this is par for the course
Perhaps you’ve noticed there is an entire genre of PhD ‘humour’ about PhD underconfidence and feeling like a complete failure. I am sure a psychologist/ sociologist/ anthropologist will at one point write a dissertation about what these jokes say about academic culture. It does point towards a simple truth about PhD life: it will probably make you feel bad at times, hopefully not too often.
It is absolutely crucial to realise that these feelings have nothing to do with your capability, or your work, or you personally. If you are feeling you are not performing as well as you should, take heart. Nothing personal about these feelings, simply academic work being difficult and impossibly slow, and the academic context making things even harder.
Simply having an awareness of this not being a personal issue (though it feels highly personal!) is the first step to these negative thoughts and feelings loosening their grip.
2. Know thyself
Apparently Socrates spoke these words, and who knows what exactly he meant?! In the context of PhD research one very handy way of knowing yourself involves identifying your stressful thought patterns. Not to banish or solve them, but to simply recognise them. These thoughts are often the same ones: ‘I am never going to finish on time’, ‘I can’t do this’, ‘I am a failure’, ‘everyone else is smarter than me’, ‘what if they find out I am not cut out for this’, ‘I should have done it all differently’…
Maybe you can’t identify the underlying negative thoughts (don’t worry, you don’t have to over-analyse this…), but you certainly realise you are feeling stressed or helpless or overwhelmed!
Once you notice these thoughts or feelings crop up, it is a sign not to take them all too seriously, in the sense of not completely buying into them. Perhaps they aren’t true! Quite likely they aren’t true!
You don’t have to convince yourself of this, or anything, but these thoughts and feelings can be an opening to ‘do something different’.
3. Break the stress loop
Next step: it helps to have strategies in place to break the stress loop negative thoughts and feelings put you in. There are so many ways to do this. One way is to do things that make you feel good. Not in a ‘I will do this to make these thoughts go away’- way, because that is probably not going to happen and that’s okay. More in a: ‘oh, I am stuck in this state, and it is a completely normal part of the PhD process, but it does mean it is probably a good time to keep an eye on the bigger picture’-way.
What do you enjoy doing? Can you fit some of these things into your day?
In the long run it also helps to have an exercise and/ or meditation practice in place. These activities help break the stress loop. Exercise metabolises stress hormones, meditation helps calm the nervous system. This isn’t a fix, but it can help.
4. Low hanging fruit
On these days, go for quick wins workwise. Are there simple tasks you could finish? Look for easy ways to get some things done, and be really pleased with yourself for getting them done! No accomplishment is too small. Every step counts. Do what comes easily. Do practical, tangible things. Finish stuff.
Think small steps, and give yourself a pat on the back.
If you feel you cannot get anything done at all, give yourself a break, and be kind with yourself.
5. This too shall pass
The final step is to realise that this too shall pass. You won’t always feel this way. And maybe it is alright to feel this way sometimes (though be alert if things get too bad, or this happens too frequently, of course: seek support if you need it. This isn’t an endorsement of feeling low all the time. Only a reminder that bad days are often simply that: bad days. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. Tomorrow is a new day. Give yourself a break.)
You can do this. And a couple of bad days doesn’t mean a thing, only that writing a PhD is hard… There will be better days and better weeks to come.
How do you handle bad days? Any tips or tricks you use? The Stress-Free PhD Programme will help you lower PhD stress, and keep PhD slumps to a minimum. Stay up to date with new blog posts (and get access to my free resources):