The PhD Proofreaders

15 things to remember if you’ve started to hate your PhD

Jun 1, 2021

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Have you checked out the rest of  The PhD Knowledge Base ? It’s home to hundreds more free resources and guides, written especially for PhD students. 

It’s entirely normal to hate your PhD from time to time. The further you travel on the PhD journey, the more you start to resent the thesis. 

That’s natural – spend years working on something, often with little immediate reward, and it natural that you will start to crumble. 

Here we’ve put together a list of 15 things to remind yourself of if you’re started to lose motivation. They’ll remind you of all that’s special about your thesis and, hopefully, inject some enthusiasm back into your relationship with it. 

Interested in group workshops, cohort-courses and a free PhD learning & support community? 

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The team behind The PhD Proofreaders have launched The PhD People, a free learning and community platform for PhD students. Connect, share and learn with other students, and boost your skills with cohort-based workshops and courses.

1. you should work less.

I find that most people fall into one of two camps.

There are those who throw themselves into their work, always chained to their desk and never feeling like they’re on top of things.

Then there are those who get easily distracted, putting things off to the last minute and feeling guilty that they’re always a little behind.

In both cases the outcome is the same: long hours spent working, with the fatigue and the stress that comes with it.

But what about doing less work? What about being more selective with your time, and more selective with what’s on your to do list, such that you didn’t have as much to do at all?

It means accepting that your value and output is not measured on the basis of how many hours you put in, or how much work you get done. It’s measured instead on the quality of the work, and on the level of focus you can achieve.

So if you find yourself burning the candle at both ends, ask yourself whether what you really need to do is work less.

2. Don’t Push Away Negative Thoughts

3. remember that your phd is trying to drown you, 4. routines come and go.

For many, the simplest way of making the PhD journey more manageable is to develop consistent routines. 

For me, that involves going on a morning walk, exercising a few times a week, getting my emails and admin done first thing in the morning, and going to bed at roughly the same time.

But it’s easy to slip out of routines. We may be away from home, or the holiday season may disrupt our daily rhythm.

Whatever it is, we can start to drop the good habits we carefully nurture and start to pick up unhealthy ones – we might start exercising less, eating more processed foods, or staying up late.

When that happens to me, I can quickly start to feel anxious about whatever it is I’m working on. That makes sense; if routines introduce stability into our lives, it’s logical that disrupting those routines can mean we feel ungrounded and out of sorts.

If you can relate this holiday season, go easy on yourself. Like everything in life, this is temporary. As long as you’re conscious of what good routines looks like, and as long as you’re conscious that you’re temporarily departing from them, it won’t be long before you get back into healthy habits once the thing disrupting your routine has passed.

5. Ask Yourself: Are You Biting Off More Than You Can Chew?

6. set your intentions, 7. embrace the crappy drafts, 8. remind yourself that phds are hard.

Finding your PhD hard is kind of the point.

Repeat after me: if you’re finding your PhD hard it doesn’t mean you’re a failure, it means you’re doing it right.

9. Keep failing

10. remember that you’re never going to please everyone, 11. you’re going to get criticised, 12. don’t focus (too much) on the problems, 13. you have to admit when you’re wrong, 14. ask yourself: am i a perfectionist.

Most of the PhD students I talk to are perfectionists. You probably are too. 

With perfectionism comes a desire to have control over day-to-day life, knowledge of what’s going to happen in the short term, and the certainty that the PhD thesis will be, well, perfect. 

And then along comes coronavirus. 

Your day-to-day life has been disrupted as you work from home and away from you normal routines, you’ve got no way of knowing what will happen in the short or long term, and you may worry that your thesis will be sub-optimal as you step away from fieldwork, labs and supervisors.

The perfectionist in you is panicking, right? 

Perfectionism is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it can fill you with drive, passion, dedication and motivation. It can inspire you to try your hardest and do your best. It’s likely what got you on to your PhD programme in the first place. 

But at the same time, it has a dark side. For as much as it can inspire, it can lead to panic. Anxiety, worry and dread often follow in the footsteps of perfectionism, such that when you lose control over your reality, or when you get things wrong, make mistakes or produce something sub-optimal, you panic. What starts off as a simple mistake can quickly become the end of the world.

Part of the challenge of doing a PhD, and particularly in the current context, is learning to embrace imperfection and recognising that sub-optimal does not necessarily mean failure. Managing perfectionism involves reminding yourself that you’re only human, and that humans face stresses, make mistakes and sometimes struggle to produce their best work. Even the brightest and most competent of people have off days. 

The more you can remind yourself of that, the better equipped you’ll be to deal with what life throws at you and your thesis. 

15. Lastly, Remember That It’s Okay Not To Be Productive

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Your PhD thesis. All on one page.

Use our free PhD structure template to quickly visualise every element of your thesis. 

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Thanks for the encouragement and all… but, I keep failing, and I understand it is a process. But because of my failures I’m about to be fired from my PhD. 🙁 It is hard, yes. I keep messing up and failing, yes. I’m getting fired, yes.

Dr. Max Lempriere

Thanks for the kind words. I hope things work out for you.

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‘I don’t think there’s anything darker than doing a PhD’

Seven-day weeks, 10-hour days, isolation and uncertainty: it’s little wonder so many phd students risk developing mental health problems.

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There are rising concerns for the well-being of PhD students generally with studies showing many are at risk of developing mental health problems. Photo: iStock

Sorcha Pollak's face

Earlier this year Oliver Rosten finally got his academic paper published in a scientific journal following a series of rejections.

There was nothing wrong with his findings regarding conformal algebra. Instead, publishers had a problem with what was written in the paper’s acknowledgements.

In the opening line, Rosten dedicated his paper to the memory of his Irish friend Francis Dolan, who took his own life in 2011 following years struggling with severe depression.

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Aidan Jones worries that too many students are embaring on PhD without fully considering the demands. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Rosten wrote: “I am firmly of the conviction that the psychological brutality of the post-doctoral system played a strong underlying role in Francis’s death.

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“I would like to take this opportunity, should anyone be listening, to urge those within academic roles of leadership to do far more to protect members of the community suffering from mental health problems, particularly during the most vulnerable stages of their careers.”

Like many postdoctoral researchers who rely on short-term contracts for employment, Dolan regularly moved abroad for research positions.

"Both he and I had a succession of moving every couple of years," Rosten told The Irish Times .

“When this happens, particularly for people with mental health issues, your local support network evaporates.

“Francis suffered from depression. I think it was manic depression. He had times of profound creativity and then, on the flip side, there were periods when he found it very hard to work. When I got the email that he had died I was devastated.”

Caoimhe, another former PhD student, says the four years she spent on her PhD were among the most difficult of her life.

“It’s the most extreme situation of your life in a working environment. You can’t sleep because you’re so stressed and people get panic attacks. If you’re emotionally unstable or vulnerable, it’s not a good idea.”

Caoimhe, who requested that her surname not be published, says the lack of guidance and support from her PhD supervisor made it almost impossible to stay positive.

“I always had to set my own deadlines. Not all supervisors are the same, some are very supportive. But from my experience there’s a lot of them who are lazy because there’s no accountability.”

“Were the four years of my PhD worthwhile? I still can’t answer that. It’s the best resilience training you could ever have and it really sets me apart in the workplace. But I don’t think there’s anything darker than doing a PhD.”

There are rising concerns for the wellbeing of PhD students generally. A study carried out in Belgium earlier this year found about one-third of PhD students were at risk of having or developing a psychiatric disorder.

More than half of respondents had experienced at least two symptoms of poor mental health, including feeling under constant strain, being unhappy and depressed, losing sleep because of worry and not being able to overcome difficulties or enjoy day-to-day activities.

The study noted a “lack of inspirational leadership” from supervisors, academic budget cuts, short-term contracts and bleak career prospects were all linked to PhD students’ psychological health.

It recommended that universities facilitate the management of a work-life balance, help supervisors adopt leadership styles and offer students “clear and full information on job expectations and career prospects”.

These concerns come against a backdrop of rising numbers of students involved in PhD research in Ireland.

While State policies have seen enrolments balloon from just over 5,000 in 2006/2007 to more than 8,200 in 2015/16, to date there has been little focus on the supports available to students.

Louise Dolphin, whose PhD research focused on youth depression, says an inspirational supervisor is key in offsetting any mental health risks.

Dolphin says the support from her supervisor made the experience “a real treasure”.

“Having her as a rock I always felt safe. I always felt the level of study we designed was doable in the time frame.”

Dolphin says most students who are unhappy with their supervisor do not know where to turn for advice.

“There’s no obvious line of complaint and you don’t know how to access HR in the university.

“That’s maybe why people internalise their problems. You’re in an academic bubble and you may have been a student all your life.”

Oversubscribed mental health services in universities make it even more difficult for PhD students to access support during their research, says Dolphin.

Martin Rogan, CEO of Mental Health Ireland, says people carrying out PhD and postdoctoral research must ensure they make time for their personal relationships.

“People around us stimulate us and challenge our own negative self-thought. We naturally encourage each other on a daily basis.

“Young people are putting huge efforts into contributing to the knowledge economy, but the question is: are they sufficiently supported?

“Their relationships with family, friends and partners are often parked while people put so much work into academia.”

Rogan also warns of the high level of pressure felt by students who begin to regret undertaking such a large body of work.

“You’re competing with yourself and putting yourself out there. It can become very competitive and you see colleagues making submissions and moving forward. It’s quite a frightening phenomenon.”

Oliver Rosten says the first step in supporting mental health at a post-doctoral level must be the introduction of more robust contracts. He also says academic mentors should receive basic mental health training.

“We also need members of staff at institutions whose role is to support the postdoctoral community. The postdoctoral system has a habit of just chewing people in and spitting them out.”

He stands by his decision to include the mention of his friend and colleague in the acknowledgments of his scientific paper.

“Morally I couldn’t withdraw it... it was dedicated to Francis and it would have felt like a betrayal to remove that statement.”

“As a scientist rather an artist my creative expression is through scientific papers. For me that was the most meaningful medium to honour his memory.”

* If you are struggling with mental health problems, contact the Samaritans on 116 123

My PhD experience: ‘It can be very daunting to face into this massive body of work’

The first time someone asked Aidan Jones if he felt lonely writing his PhD, he was surprised by the question.

“I said ‘no, there are a lot of people in the office’. But then I thought about it and realised it was lonely,” he says.

“While we did support each other, no one was researching the same thing so no one had the same problems or obstacles as you.”

When Jones graduated from his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering in 2010, jobs for engineers had evaporated. After opting to study for a PhD, he enjoyed the first few years or research. Soon, the pressure began to mount.

“It can be very daunting to face into this massive body of work and you don’t know exactly what you have to get done. For most PhD students, it’s the first time in your life you’re solely responsible for your work.”

Watching his friends earn decent salaries was also frustrating for the PhD candidate, as were well-intentioned jibes about not doing a “real” job.

Jones admits there were many times when he considered walking away from research. By the end of the four years, he felt worn out.

“I never felt low, but I was drained. The last eight months I was working seven days a week but you can’t sustain that for too long because you will burn out.”

Jones worries that too many students are now jumping into PhD research without fully considering the length of the process.

“Everybody does a degree now and nearly everyone does a masters. And then they do a PhD because that’s what’s next. I think it’s a bit wasteful everyone going into a long academia-induced coma. I don’t think people realise what’s involved.”

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The Savvy Scientist

The Savvy Scientist

Experiences of a London PhD student and beyond

PhD Burnout: Managing Energy, Stress, Anxiety & Your Mental Health

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PhDs are renowned for being stressful and when you add a global pandemic into the mix it’s no surprise that many students are struggling with their mental health. Unfortunately this can often lead to PhD fatigue which may eventually lead to burnout.

In this post we’ll explore what academic burnout is and how it comes about, then discuss some tips I picked up for managing mental health during my own PhD.

Please note that I am by no means an expert in this area. I’ve worked in seven different labs before, during and after my PhD so I have a fair idea of research stress but even so, I don’t have all the answers.

If you’re feeling burnt out or depressed and finding the pressure too much, please reach out to friends and family or give the Samaritans a call to talk things through.

Note – This post, and its follow on about maintaining PhD motivation were inspired by a reader who asked for recommendations on dealing with PhD fatigue. I love hearing from all of you, so if you have any ideas for topics which you, or others, could find useful please do let me know either in the comments section below or by getting in contact . Or just pop me a message to say hi. 🙂

This post is part of my PhD mindset series, you can check out the full series below:

  • PhD Burnout: Managing Energy, Stress, Anxiety & Your Mental Health (this part!)
  • PhD Motivation: How to Stay Driven From Cover Letter to Completion
  • How to Stop Procrastinating and Start Studying

What is PhD Burnout?

Whenever I’ve gone anywhere near social media relating to PhDs I see overwhelmed PhD students who are some combination of overwhelmed, de-energised or depressed.

Specifically I often see Americans talking about the importance of talking through their PhD difficulties with a therapist, which I find a little alarming. It’s great to seek help but even better to avoid the need in the first place.

Sadly, none of this is unusual. As this survey shows, depression is common for PhD students and of note: at higher levels than for working professionals.

All of these feelings can be connected to academic burnout.

The World Health Organisation classifies burnout as a syndrome with symptoms of:

– Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; – Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; – Reduced professional efficacy. Symptoms of burnout as classified by the WHO. Source .

This often leads to students falling completely out of love with the topic they decided to spend years of their life researching!

The pandemic has added extra pressures and constraints which can make it even more difficult to have a well balanced and positive PhD experience. Therefore it is more important than ever to take care of yourself, so that not only can you continue to make progress in your project but also ensure you stay healthy.

What are the Stages of Burnout?

Psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North developed a 12 stage model of burnout. The following graphic by The Present Psychologist does a great job at conveying each of these.

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I don’t know about you, but I can personally identify with several of the stages and it’s scary to see how they can potentially lead down a path to complete mental and physical burnout. I also think it’s interesting that neglecting needs (stage 3) happens so early on. If you check in with yourself regularly you can hopefully halt your burnout journey at that point.

PhDs can be tough but burnout isn’t an inevitability. Here are a few suggestions for how you can look after your mental health and avoid academic burnout.

Overcoming PhD Burnout

Manage your energy levels, maintaining energy levels day to day.

  • Eat well and eat regularly. Try to avoid nutritionless high sugar foods which can play havoc with your energy levels. Instead aim for low GI food . Maybe I’m just getting old but I really do recommend eating some fruit and veg. My favourite book of 2021, How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reduce Disease , is well worth a read. Not a fan of veggies? Either disguise them or at least eat some fruit such as apples and bananas. Sliced apple with some peanut butter is a delicious and nutritious low GI snack. Check out my series of posts on cooking nutritious meals on a budget.
  • Get enough sleep. It doesn’t take PhD-level research to realise that you need to rest properly if you want to avoid becoming exhausted! How much sleep someone needs to feel well-rested varies person to person, so I won’t prescribe that you get a specific amount, but 6-9 hours is the range typically recommended. Personally, I take getting enough sleep very seriously and try to get a minimum of 8 hours.

A side note on caffeine consumption: Do PhD students need caffeine to survive?

In a word, no!

Although a culture of caffeine consumption goes hand in hand with intense work, PhD students certainly don’t need caffeine to survive. How do I know? I didn’t have any at all during my own PhD. In fact, I wrote a whole post about it .

By all means consume as much caffeine as you want, just know that it doesn’t have to be a prerequisite for successfully completing a PhD.

Maintaining energy throughout your whole PhD

  • Pace yourself. As I mention later in the post I strongly recommend treating your PhD like a normal full-time job. This means only working 40 hours per week, Monday to Friday. Doing so could help realign your stress, anxiety and depression levels with comparatively less-depressed professional workers . There will of course be times when this isn’t possible and you’ll need to work longer hours to make a certain deadline. But working long hours should not be the norm. It’s good to try and balance the workload as best you can across the whole of your PhD. For instance, I often encourage people to start writing papers earlier than they think as these can later become chapters in your thesis. It’s things like this that can help you avoid excess stress in your final year.
  • Take time off to recharge. All work and no play makes for an exhausted PhD student! Make the most of opportunities to get involved with extracurricular activities (often at a discount!). I wrote a whole post about making the most of opportunities during your PhD . PhD students should have time for a social life, again I’ve written about that . Also give yourself permission to take time-off day to day for self care, whether that’s to go for a walk in nature, meet friends or binge-watch a show on Netflix. Even within a single working day I often find I’m far more efficient when I break up my work into chunks and allow myself to take time off in-between. This is also a good way to avoid procrastination!

Reduce Stress and Anxiety

During your PhD there will inevitably be times of stress. Your experiments may not be going as planned, deadlines may be coming up fast or you may find yourself pushed too far outside of your comfort zone. But if you manage your response well you’ll hopefully be able to avoid PhD burnout. I’ll say it again: stress does not need to lead to burnout!

Everyone is unique in terms of what works for them so I’d recommend writing down a list of what you find helpful when you feel stressed, anxious or sad and then you can refer to it when you next experience that feeling.

I’ve created a mental health reminders print-out to refer to when times get tough. It’s available now in the resources library (subscribe for free to get the password!).

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Below are a few general suggestions to avoid PhD burnout which work for me and you may find helpful.

  • Exercise. When you’re feeling down it can be tough to motivate yourself to go and exercise but I always feel much better for it afterwards. When we exercise it helps our body to adapt at dealing with stress, so getting into a good habit can work wonders for both your mental and physical health. Why not see if your uni has any unusual sports or activities you could try? I tried scuba diving and surfing while at Imperial! But remember, exercise doesn’t need to be difficult. It could just involve going for a walk around the block at lunch or taking the stairs rather than the lift.
  • Cook / Bake. I appreciate that for many people cooking can be anything but relaxing, so if you don’t enjoy the pressure of cooking an actual meal perhaps give baking a go. Personally I really enjoy putting a podcast on and making food. Pinterest and Youtube can be great visual places to find new recipes.
  • Let your mind relax. Switching off is a skill and I’ve found meditation a great way to help clear my mind. It’s amazing how noticeably different I can feel afterwards, having not previously been aware of how many thoughts were buzzing around! Yoga can also be another good way to relax and be present in the moment. My partner and I have been working our way through 30 Days of Yoga with Adriene on Youtube and I’d recommend it as a good way to ease yourself in. As well as being great for your mind, yoga also ticks the box for exercise!
  • Read a book. I’ve previously written about the benefits of reading fiction * and I still believe it’s one of the best ways to relax. Reading allows you to immerse yourself in a different world and it’s a great way to entertain yourself during a commute.

* Wondering how I got something published in Science ? Read my guide here .

Talk It Through

  • Meet with your supervisor. Don’t suffer in silence, if you’re finding yourself struggling or burned out raise this with your supervisor and they should be able to work with you to find ways to reduce the pressure. This may involve you taking some time off, delegating some of your workload, suggesting an alternative course of action or signposting you to services your university offers.

Also remember that facing PhD-related challenges can be common. I wrote a whole post about mine in case you want to cheer yourself up! We can’t control everything we encounter, but we can control our response.

A free self-care checklist is also now available in the resources library , providing ideas to stay healthy and avoid PhD burnout.

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Top Tips for Avoiding PhD Burnout

On top of everything we’ve covered in the sections above, here are a few overarching tips which I think could help you to avoid PhD burnout:

  • Work sensible hours . You shouldn’t feel under pressure from your supervisor or anyone else to be pulling crazy hours on a regular basis. Even if you adore your project it isn’t healthy to be forfeiting other aspects of your life such as food, sleep and friends. As a starting point I suggest treating your PhD as a 9-5 job. About a year into my PhD I shared how many hours I was working .
  • Reduce your use of social media. If you feel like social media could be having a negative impact on your mental health, why not try having a break from it?
  • Do things outside of your PhD . Bonus points if this includes spending time outdoors, getting exercise or spending time with friends. Basically, make sure the PhD isn’t the only thing occupying both your mental and physical ife.
  • Regularly check in on how you’re feeling. If you wait until you’re truly burnt out before seeking help, it is likely to take you a long time to recover and you may even feel that dropping out is your only option. While that can be a completely valid choice I would strongly suggest to check in with yourself on a regular basis and speak to someone early on (be that your supervisor, or a friend or family member) if you find yourself struggling.

I really hope that this post has been useful for you. Nothing is more important than your mental health and PhD burnout can really disrupt that. If you’ve got any comments or suggestions which you think other PhD scholars could find useful please feel free to share them in the comments section below.

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  1. I hate my PhD but I still want to finish it just got the sake ...

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  3. I absolutely hate my PhD and I don't understand the purpose of it

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    These concerns come against a backdrop of rising numbers of students involved in PhD research in Ireland. While State policies have seen enrolments balloon from just over 5,000 in 2006/2007 to ...

  8. Fifth year of my PhD and I hate my project. What should I do?

    The project needed you to take this time off. Go back to your thesis with a fresh attitude (not feeling guilty or late). If you are experiencing the same feelings and still thinking about quitting. List the cool research or engineering ideas you would rather do instead of working on that project you hate.

  9. This lab asked depressed Ph.D. students what's hardest—and ...

    When a 2018 study revealed that Ph.D. students suffer from depression at rates far higher than the general population, it sparked a landslide of concern about graduate student mental health, with some calling it a mental health crisis.The study highlighted a need to understand what aspects of graduate school affect depression, says Katelyn Cooper, an assistant professor at Arizona State ...

  10. phd

    18. If your advisor says you should quit after the current quarter, it likely means that if you do not quit, the advisor will stop advising you. That means any funding that comes from your advisor will be lost. It is likely that your options are to find a new advisor or to find a job elsewhere. Share.

  11. I got my first hate comment and I'm weirdly proud of it.

    I feel like really bad fics just get ignored and no one bothers with hate comments. If your story is good, then readers sometimes get jealous or want to seem witty by going against the masses by criticizing something everyone else likes. In a strange way, hate comments or rude critiques are actually quite the compliment!

  12. PhD Burnout: Managing Energy, Stress, Anxiety & Your Mental Health

    Sadly, none of this is unusual. As this survey shows, depression is common for PhD students and of note: at higher levels than for working professionals. All of these feelings can be connected to academic burnout. The World Health Organisation classifies burnout as a syndrome with symptoms of: - Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;

  13. It's OK to push back on your Ph.D. adviser

    Danielle Robinson was elated. A fifth-year Ph.D. student at the time, she had just found out that she had been selected for a 10-month Mozilla Fellowship, where she would be able to work on issues related to open-source science publishing. It was just the sort of opportunity she was looking for as she considered her post-Ph.D. career direction.

  14. How to cope with a problematic PhD supervisor

    Problem 1: A lack of contact. The first common problem is simply a lack of contact. This is especially common if you're doing a PhD remotely and you're entirely dependent on email for communication. Sometimes this isn't entirely the supervisor's fault. Often I speak to students who say they emailed the supervisor three months ago but ...