Problem & Solution
Often the life of a PhD is idealized. People think that a PhD is a period in which people have the freedom and flexibility to work on whatever they want, whenever they want. This is to some extent true. Often there is not a daily set of “business hours” that PhD’s work, and many chose research topics they are passionate about and enjoy working on. Generally, they have more flexibility in their days than a typical 9-5 job. However, this freedom and flexibility comes with a lot of its own problems. Many PhDs struggle with issues like self-care, getting started on writing, and adapting to a more free-form style of work. These problems can at times seem overwhelming, but there are ways to approach them.
If you are thinking about starting a PhD or are in a PhD program yourself, you may struggle with a multitude of issues. Doing a PhD is not simply continuing to attend school, it is committing to a lifestyle that has pros and cons. The benefits of the seemingly high amount of freedom and lose structure mask the incredible amount of work a PhD requires, and many don’t consider the commitments outside of the PhD work, such as TAships, RAships, and public outreach, which are both integral to the PhD process and also very time consuming. As in many other situations, if you are feeling overwhelmed by your PhD, don’t worry: You are not alone. Many PhDs struggle with the PhD lifestyle issues covered below, and there are many solutions to these problems. This post contains a list of common PhD lifestyle problems and solutions that is in no way exhaustive. PhDs are multifaceted and come with many challenges. However, this list is just to get you started on some of the larger or more common PhD lifestyle problems.
(Full disclosure, I asked a fellow PhD to write this post based on the following video, and based on her own experience while completing her PhD. I could not have wrote this better myself):
PhD Lifestyle Problem 1: Not Knowing Where to Begin
While many PhD programs in North America have some kind of structure to them especially in the first one to two years (see this previous post on how long it takes to complete a PhD), much of the PhD process is free form and depends on the direction of your research. This in and of itself can seem overwhelming. Many PhDs struggle with simply beginning their project (See this post on choosing your research topics). They did well on their coursework and got through their comps, but now it is time to actually write the dissertation. Suddenly the research question and proposal which seemed so simple, seems vastly complicated. There is so much reading and research to do, and PhDs can get stuck in a cycle of reading and researching without ever writing anything often because they don’t feel they know enough to write.
Doing proper research is of course important, but at some point you need to actually start writing your own results. Sometimes this inability to begin or feeling like you don’t know where to begin is caused by PhDs not feeling like they are an expert in their particular area. They have spent their time in their bachelors and masters mostly working with other people’s research. They may have done some of their own research, but it was on a much smaller project. During a PhD students transition from largely working with the ideas of others to making their own contribution to their fields. They become the experts they had previously studied. This can be a difficult transition, particularly if like many PhDs you suffer from Impostor Syndrome (See the previous post on the impostor syndrome in academia and dealing with self-doubt). However, know that you have what it takes and your ideas are worth pursuing.
Solution To Not Knowing Where To Begin A PhD
The best way to get started is to just sit down and start actually writing. It can seem scary, and overwhelming, but the only way to deal with this problem is to face it head on. Set some time aside everyday to just write about what you have been researching. If you find you are not disciplined enough to do this every day it is a good idea to find or form a writing group. Writing groups keep their members accountable to each other and promote working towards goals (Here is a deep dive into building an online writing group for academics that we are trying to do). Another way to face the problem head on is by attending workshops at your university’s writing center. Many libraries have programs like thesis boot camps to kick start the writing process. Just start writing anything and everything. Remember a first draft is not supposed to be presentable or perfect, it is just to get you going. Once you get into writing, it starts to flow more naturally.
PhD Lifestyle Problem 2: Not Knowing the Boundaries
The flip side of not knowing where to begin is not knowing the boundaries of your PhD work. The flexibility of the PhD is awesome sometimes. You can have whole days where you have no commitments, and can work on your own research all day. Not having to be in an office from 9-5 does offer a lot of freedom, but it also sometimes leads to erratic work hours and working all the time. One of the problems of a PhD and academia more broadly is the general feeling that you need to constantly work to keep up and be the best. The parameters around success in academia is a bit vague so it can lead to PhDs feeling like they need to work around the clock to stay ahead or just keep up.
Solution To Not Having Boundaries: Create Them!
In addition to producing research, PhDs face a lot of demands on their time. Very few PhDs solely focus on their research project. They often have TA and RAships, part-time jobs, public outreach, etc. The best way to deal with the multiple often competing demands is to make personal boundaries and stick to them. These boundaries are rules that work for you and allow you to do your best work, and not get burnt out (see self-care below). They will differ depending on your personal needs. Boundaries can seem a little arbitrary, because they are, but boundaries are necessary for keeping yourself well-balanced during a PhD. Nobody sets your boundaries for you – you do. For instance, I found that when left to my own devices I naturally wake up around 7:30 and a good morning routine get me to campus about 9:30. I also found that I do not work well after 8 PM. My work gets sloppy and disorganized as I get increasingly tired. Knowing these parameters meant that I could set better working hours for myself, and I found that instead of pushing myself to work all the time, I did better and more efficient work in shorter periods of time. Here are a few tips I have found particularly helpful for setting boundaries during my PhD to avoid burn out and increase productivity.
Email is one of the biggest killers of productivity (Stoller-Lindsey, 2017). Other people work at different hours, and you sometimes work with people from all time-zones around the world. You will get emails at every hour of the day. Many people keep their email open all day and answer emails as they come in. This switches your focus from your task to email fairly often and limits your productivity. There are many approaches to this problem, but one of the best solutions to this is to set aside specific times, maybe three times a day, to check and answer email. Keep it closed the rest of the day. Despite what the modern world has conditioned us to think there are very few things that come through our emails that require absolutely immediate attention, and a delay in answer of an hour or two won’t hurt anyone.
Breaks: Take breaks during the day.
It seems like a really simple thing, but a lot of us forget to do it. Schedule the breaks so that you don’t forget, use an alarm or the Pomodoro Technique (Cummings, 2019). Just take a 5 or 10 minute break every now and then to get up and move around. It is not only healthier for you to move throughout the day, but it also helps when you are stuck on a piece of writing, or clears your head during seemingly endless marking. You can also pick up a FitBit, which gives you notifications to move if you tend to forget.
Days off: Take rest days.
With all the demands of a PhD it can seem impossible sometimes to schedule some down time, but remember you don’t need to work all the time. If you can’t take the full weekend, try to schedule at least one day off a week. Like breaks this downtime will recharge your mental batteries, and also give you some of that elusive work-life balance.
PhD Lifestyle Problem 3: The Emotional Toll
A PhD can be generally emotionally draining for a number of reasons, but one of the big ones is that academia seems to be subject to much more constant feedback than other jobs. You will get feedback on any written assignments, exams, chapter drafts, conference papers, student reviews of your teaching, articles, and your thesis. Sometimes the feedback is great and you feel good about yourself and your work, other times the feedback can be bad, and in some cases, harsh. When the feedback is negative it can take an emotional toll, and leave you feeling badly about yourself. There are ways to give constructive feedback which leaves the receiver looking at their work and knowing they can improve it, but sometimes negative feedback can be downright mean and deflating.
Solution To The Emotional Toll: Ignore and Filter
It has become a bit of a joke in academic circles to refer to these types of harsh negative feedback or reviews as being from the dreaded “Reviewer 2.” It seems for some reason Reviewer 2 on academic journal articles is unnecessarily harsh and sometimes personally attacks the author. If you google Reviewer 2 there are some pretty funny memes and Facebook groups about it. While there are some moves to stop this type of overtly and unnecessarily harsh feedback, do be aware that you will be subject to negative feedback (whether constructive or not) and learn to prepare for it. Getting negative feedback is never fun, but try to focus on the parts that are helpful. The feedback is usually meant to help you improve rather than to tear down. Focus in on those comments that will make your work better, and try to let go of the ones that are just harsh for the sake of being harsh. If the feedback is really bothering you, leave it alone for a while and go do something that makes you happy. Focusing in on the negative isn’t going to make anything better, so leave it for a while and come back to it later. Try not to take it too personally, and look at it as a chance to improve your work.
PhD Lifestyle Problem 4: Getting Through the Work
There’s no getting around it, a PhD is a lot of work. Getting through all the work requires time, dedication, perseverance, and fortitude. Some times of year are busier than others. For instance, if you have a TAship, midterms and finals will be your busiest time of year. In addition to any other work and research you may be doing, you also have to get through a mountain of papers and essays. During these times in particular it will seem like you are not getting any of your own research done, and that is actually true. There are not enough hours in the day during these busy times to keep up the same level or output of research and get through all the marking, student meetings, and other commitments.
Solution To Being Overwhelmed With Work
These periods can seem very overwhelming, but it is best to remember that you are not alone. Everyone else is also suffering through these periods too. No professor teaching a full course load is getting a lot of research done in this period either. Unfortunately there is not much to be done about this. You just have to get through it, you can lean on others for support, but ultimately the work is your responsibility. Prioritize the tasks that need to be done and get through them as efficiently as possible so you can return to your other work. A lot of getting through the work depends on finding a schedule that fits you, and sticking with it.
PhD Lifestyle Problem 5: Neglecting Self-Care
In all the researching, marking, meetings, and other commitments, it is sometimes easy to forget about our own needs and to neglect some self-care. During the last six months of my PhD, I was finishing up my dissertation, teaching two classes, working on the editing staff of an academic journal, and searching for a full time job. I was so busy I often worked seven days a week, and neglected to take care of myself. I was not exercising regularly, I was not maintaining a healthy diet, and I was not sleeping well. In short, I wasn’t doing a lot of the everyday things that keep humans healthy. About 2 weeks before my final submission I was hit pretty hard with a respiratory infection that may not have been nearly as crippling if I had kept up my health. The illness made it very difficult to complete my final submission on time, and the continuance of work during it likely lead to a longer recovery time. I recovered eventually (just in time for my defense), but I realized that I really was not caring for myself the way I had earlier in my PhD. The lack of self-care and illness directly impacted my performance and final output.
Solution To Neglecting Self-Care
This is a common problem. If you are not taking care of yourself you cannot perform to your highest level. You risk all sorts of negative side-effects, such as illness, burn out, stress related problems, etc. These side-effects, in addition to simply not being good for you, affect your overall performance, you can’t do your work if you are unwell. So when setting your work boundaries, don’t forget to set out your personal boundaries too. Make sure you are setting aside time every day for family needs and your personal needs. A physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy you will perform better in the research arena. Do what you need to do to keep yourself healthy and balanced, whether that is just implementing a good morning and evening routine or taking some time everyday day to dedicate to some physical activity to lessen your stress. During my PhD, I picked up running and kickboxing. I found that intense physical activity cleared my mind and focused me more during the day, which in turn led to a better output. Your self-care may be different and you may prefer an artistic or creative outlet, or meditation. Do something every day that makes you smile and keep up your personal well-being.
A PhD can be difficult and it is way more than just a research project. It can be a time of great academic and personal freedom, but it can also be a time of intense challenge. There is a whole lifestyle that comes along with the academic career that has its own limitations and quirks. Know that you are not alone in facing these challenges and that you are smart and resourceful and will get through them.
This is part of the r3ciprocity project where the goal is to help PhDs excel and do well. It started out by wanting to pay the favor forward to others who are interested in doing a PhD. You can check out more blog articles that might be helpful:
- Which is easier: The GMAT or GRE, or does it matter?
- Why create the r3ciprocity software?
- How to become a professor?
You might also want to watch this video on problems encountered during research – it might resonate with you. 🙂
Nina Stoller-Lindsey, “Stop Obsessing Over Email, and Your Productivity could Soar,” Forbes, April 26, 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/learnvest/2017/04/26/stop-obsessing-over-email-and-your-productivity-could-soar/– #63a7e6affd8f.
Tucker Cummings, “The Pomodoro Technique: Is It Right for You to Boost Productivity?” May 22, 2019, https://www.lifehack.org/articles/productivity/the-pomodoro-technique-is-it-right-for-you.html.