Are you demoralised by your PhD?



As I approach the 3-year mark, I’m the worst person to talk to if you want to do a PhD. I heard an undergraduate student say how she “just loved research”. I replied – “I felt that way too… when I was an undergrad”. Something had changed. I’m no longer that same excited undergrad – who reads academic articles in her spare time, just because.

I felt like I’d lost myself.

I read all of the lists that you can find on the web about things to do or avoid in a PhD. You know, the one’s titled something like “10 easy ways to get a PhD”, “things you should know before starting a PhD” or “29 unique ways to screw up your PhD”. Okay, I’m kidding about that last one, but it sure felt like I’d done a lot of things wrong as I read through those sort of posts.

I was never good at being at my desk from 9 till 5, I wrote when I felt like it, I had a beautiful system to keep track of articles… for about 9 months. I felt like a hamster on a wheel – doing work, but getting nowhere. My supervisors said I was doing well, but didn’t believe them. Why couldn’t I find that internal validation that people talked about? Why didn’t I think I was good enough? If this was imposter syndrome – how the heck was I going to get over it?

Recently, I learned that I need positive reinforcement. I needed external validation of some description. However, in the PhD process I no longer received the same positive reinforcement that I did as an undergraduate. While I received feedback on work, it wasn’t quite the same. Throughout undergrad, I completed assignment after assignment – I enjoyed learning, but getting my grade was the cherry on top. I felt good. I felt validated. I felt more confident about myself and my abilities because of the comments and grades I received. It is not that I need validation for every little thing, or that I only pursue those things which come with extrinsic motivators or rewards. But at some level, this is what my brain needed.

Little did I realise – I had been finding this reinforcement and validation elsewhere. I went to the gym every day. The four walls at CrossfitNZ helped me find physical and mental toughness. I didn’t feel so bad about an average writing day when I had just achieved a new personal record (PR) with my squat, snatch, or press. I thought I could “get through” my research as long as I could get my fix in the gym. I got strong enough to do rope climbs and push ups. I can flip tyres and carry a yoke with 155 kg on it. Unfortunately, instead of being positive for my PhD, at some point it became a way to escape.

This semester, I took on three postgraduate courses on top of my own research. Many people thought I was crazy. It was not great timing either – I’d been feeling anxious about my research without any extra commitments, and little did I know that we’d move house part way through the semester. In total, I had 27 pieces of assessment to complete. I honestly thought the semester might kill me.

Getting back into the habit of writing assignments was tough. It was another thing to hate about my PhD. I was anxious about the marks I’d get, even though it wouldn’t really matter. I got them done. One by one, as I received feedback on my work, feelings of accomplishment and pride, came rushing in. I was looking forward to reading articles and books to complete the tasks I was set. After the first few, I knew I could do the rest. That’s when I realised what I’d been missing – I needed those grades – as a form of validation.

That validation helped me. It made me realise that I’d been doing okay. It created the environment I needed to make some serious breakthroughs. I’d realised how I worked best. I am genuinely perplexed by the way my workflow has changed in response to this assignment work. I’ve rediscovered how rewarding I find writing. Especially, if I have good coffee while I’m writing. I’ve also discovered that I need noise to write (like a bustling café, or music playing).

For nearly 3 years, I’ve been berating myself for not having enough intrinsic motivation. I’ve felt like I couldn’t live up to my own expectations about what a PhD would be. Now, I realise those things are all okay. Everyone experiences the PhD process differently, and so my feelings and my needs are valid.

This year, I’ve learned that sometimes breakthroughs are unexpected. Sometimes they are the result of consistent, dedicated work. Sometimes, they occur because we get told that we can. I’m not saying that every PhD student should take a course part way through their PhD like I have. But I do think there is a place for feeling validated, for feeling like you’re doing a great job. I needed my PRs in the gym, and I needed feedback on assignments. If you’re feeling a bit lacklustre about your motivation or your progress –ask yourself what you need.

Author Bio: Samantha Fitch is a PhD Student at School of Population Health at the University of Auckland