Dying Every Day: The Psychology of Doing a PhD

Rattattat Rattattat Rattattat … The Vickers machine gun went off on my desk spraying me with a hail of bullets. I scampered for the window to throw myself out onto the balcony before I woke up. Just another night in Vienna …

My heart was pounding and I had difficulty breathing. I must be having a heart attack. “Oh shit, this is it! I can’t die like this.” I paced the room. It was 3 a.m. I had to get out.

I put on my dressing gown over my pajamas and shuffled down the two flights of stairs into the night. I walked down to Cafe Wortner on the corner of the street where there were still a few people left in the cafe. They seemed unconcerned when I walked in in my dressing gown panicking that I might be having a heart attack.

I asked them to call an ambulance. They asked me if I felt a pain on the left side of my body. No, I said, but my heart was pounding and I had shallowness of breath. They told me to try to relax – I probably wasn’t having a heart attack – and just to breathe deeply. I hung around the outside of the cafe in the cold trying to calm myself, but expecting to have a seizure any moment. I was having a panic attack. One of many. At the time, I thought it was just me …. but I later found out that I wasn’t the only one having panic attacks.

Psychology and the role of emotions play a large part in whether someone finishes or drops out of their PhD program so becoming aware of this and learning how to deal with negative emotions is a big part of the PhD process.

50% of students who start their PhD never finish. Why is this? There might be many reasons – a change in life circumstances, falling out with one’s supervisor, funding running out, the offer of a more rewarding job, realizing that you do not want to pursue a career in academia after all. But I think one of the main reasons is the role of negative emotions and self-handicapping.

Students can invest too much of themselves and their identities as individuals into achieving a PhD and in academic achievement in general. One’s self worth becomes too tied to academic achievement and the PhD becomes not a process of learning the craft of research, but a process of self-validation.

People put tremendous pressure on themselves to excel academically which can lead to burnout and stress. I know this, because I’ve done it. Part of growing in maturity as a scholar is I believe an increasing detachment and de-personalization from the work one is doing. One’s identity is no longer completely defined by one’s scholarly work – it is just one part of you.  Psychology plays a big role in PhD study and in the field of academia in general as anyone who has worked in this field for long will tell you!

Because people invest so much of themselves and their identity in achieving a PhD the task’s perceived value dramatically increases in importance. And with this, a fear of failure that can become crippling because it’s not just about getting a PhD it is about you as a person. It’s about your identity.

Perfectionism, procrastination, and avoidance activities creep in because of the neural associations we have made in our brains about the consequences of not achieving this goal. This goes pretty deep into our primal fears. I believe that many people suffer from these fears and which may account for the high levels of stress that PhDs suffer from.

So, how do we get past this neural self-handicapping?

Awareness is the first step. Talking to a psychotherapist or doing mindfulness and meditation can be a great help in becoming aware of our own psychological patterns and in reducing stress. The benefits of these practices have been proven.

The second thing we can do is to get professional and learn to gradually detach ourselves and our own sense of self-worth from the “project” of getting a PhD. This also applies to constructive criticism (by the way) which is essential that we handle not as a criticism of ourselves, but as a prerequisite for becoming better scholars. Negative or belittling criticism is another matter that obviously shouldn’t be tolerated. 

Think of doing the PhD simply as a job or as another project that you are committed to mastering with time and dedication. 

Research is by its nature unpredictable and you are bound to fail in some avenues of your research. But this need not be a bad thing. If one avenue of research leads to a dead end this can inspire you to pursue another angle or hypothesis. Challenge yourself to find a solution. This is when real breakthroughs in your research can happen!

The biggest kick for me in my research is seeing connections that others have overlooked and coming up with new interpretations from the evidence. There is an element of detective work in historical research that I enjoy and often the little details make all the difference! Accept some modicum of failure as an inevitable and requisite part of research and see this as a good thing!

You can also reduce the stress by developing a detailed plan (which you can adapt over time as your research progresses) and by focusing on small incremental steps – on the process of doing the PhD rather than on getting the qualification – and on skills acquisition as a researcher.

Don’t try to do too much, but focus your attention on one section of your PhD at a time. Like going to the gym, start small and then gradually increase the weight. Set yourself daily small wins that build your confidence and help you build momentum. Use your diary to set deadlines, prioritize daily 1 or 2 tasks, and record your wins and setbacks so that you learn what’s working and what you need to change. Let’s look more closely at two common psychological “patterns” that many people face when doing a PhD.       

The Fraud Syndrome

You will probably at some point feel like a fraud. You will catch yourself saying something along the lines of: “How the hell did I end up here?”; “It’s only a matter of time before they find me out”; and “How can I be so dumb?

The good news is that almost everyone has these thoughts. I had them. My PhD friends had them. Professors have them. It’s probably more a symptom of the academic environment and culture than your own neuroses that’s responsible for these feelings.

You have a choice in how you respond to it. You can either succumb to these feelings or resist them by focusing the power of your attention on your positive qualities and the times in your life that you have achieved something important to you. Don’t let these thoughts debilitate you and don’t compare yourself with others.

The Sacrifice Syndrome

You also need to be aware of the sacrifice syndrome. You will meet people who love to self-flagellate themselves by working long hours and generally give everything to their work. They will have no social life, interests out of work, or strong personal relationships. Their work is so all consuming that it consumes their identity because they link their idea of self-worth to their work.

There is all too often this culture of sacrifice in academia – people expect you to work all the time, never take weekends off, and give yourself totally to your work because YOUR work is so important. Don’t get sucked into this mentality. You can achieve more by having a few clearly defined tasks each day – focus on getting results rather than time logged in the office. Get your work done; then get out.

Don’t tolerate people who expect you to sacrifice your health and wellbeing for your work.

Want to better navigate the PhD emotional rollercoaster? Check out my interview with Thesis Whisperer Inger Mewburn.