Doing a PhD is one of the toughest tests anyone can face in academic life – here’s how to cope with some of the challenges
- Guardian Professional, Tuesday 25 March 2014 14.38 GMT
Doing a PhD has always been seen as a long and lonely business since the early 19th century when the idea of the postgraduate researchdoctorate was first formally recognised at Humboldt University, Germany. It is probably the toughest test anyone can face in academic life. In the past, there was a very low completion rate of PhDs throughout the world. This meant a lot of wasted time, money, much personal heartache andpsychological distress.
Since 2000, particularly in the UK, USA and Australia, there has been anincrease in skills training, support and stricter guidelines of good practice to support PhD students through their research.
There are patterns, such as that science students mostly complete quicker and in higher numbers than social science, arts and humanities research students. Factors helping to contribute to this include less isolation, greater levels of team work (although that brings its own problems), more involvement with supervisors and more of a regulated work ethos, with a requirement to attend daily laboratory sessions.
Arts, social sciences and humanities students can have a more isolated and less structured experience. This means they have to be far more self-regulated and motivated, but also more resilient to the inevitable disappointments and confusion of exploring what can feel like an overwhelming area of research.
Good supervisors can help advise their students but can’t teach them like undergraduates. It is odd that students are selected for PhDs usually on the basis that they are good at passing exams, while doctoral research requires a completely different set of educational and psychological skills. Many PhD students find this very difficult, as long periods of isolated study (or paralysed procrastination) can induce obsessive rumination. It is inevitable that some students will focus on all the negative aspects of their work and experience, which can create the conditions for depressive and anxious symptoms.
The percentage of students accessing the counselling service at Oxford is approximately 7.5%. This is within the normal range of access at UK universities and by no means the highest figure of students accessing counselling services.
What is different at Oxford (and other research-focused universities such as Cambridge, Imperial and LSE) is that there is a much higher proportion of students doing doctoral research compared with most universities. Out of the 22,000 students at Oxford, approximately 42% are postgraduates, either doing taught masters or doctoral research. 42% of all students accessing the counselling service are postgraduates, giving an exactly proportionate representation.
Typical challenges PhD students face – and how to cope with them
Being a perfectionist is setting oneself an impossible standard to achieve. If you are always trying to do an impossible task it can be demoralising, demotivating and ultimately could cause depression. A PhD thesis is something realistic to achieve; it doesn’t have to win the Nobel Prize. It can be excellent but will never be perfect.
Perfectionism can feel like a friend who you think is encouraging you but is actually the enemy within, the perfectionist bully inside your head, undermining all your achievements. If you are an absolute perfectionist you will always feel disappointed in yourself, others and your experience of life.
There are lots of traps that can catch you out and turn you from a normal functioning procrastinator to being a paralysed one. Research students often have the misguided idea that they work best through motivation alone. This does not get you through the many years of academic hard slog when the work is not going well. This is why it is important to have work and life structure, treating your PhD like a job with set working hours and targets on a short, medium and long term basis.
Having a good work and life structure can help alleviate the pervasive anxiety of an internal nagging voice saying you should be working.Break down your work into manageable tasks rather than constantly feeling overwhelmed by the enormousness of your research. Make sure you have your priorities right. It is easy to become distracted by many other things, not just Facebook but things that seem to be work such as being a departmental student rep, teaching, helping with others’ research and various welfare and peer support roles to name but a few. All of these are important but not the main task for a doctoral researcher.
Doing a PhD can put pressure on all our sensitive spots. For many people, there is a fear of being a fraud, or in psychological speak the “imposter syndrome”. This often stops PhD students from being honest with themselves and others when they are finding their research a struggle. It is important to have honest and supportive relationships with other researchers to provide valuable encouragement and reality checking. Raise concerns and get support from your supervisor, your department or support services rather than wait until things get into a crisis. Inez von Weitershausen gave helpful advice in her blog, especially about choosing what works best for each different PhD student.
You also need to actively engage in the support that is offered. There is much support for PhD students, but it will not be able to take away all the fears, confusion, hard graft and sometimes feelings of despair that virtually all PhD students go through from time to time.
Unfortunately this is one of the hidden and necessary parts of learning to become an independent academic researcher. Building up the resilience and skills to cope with the uncertainty of researching a new area of academic knowledge is a great strength for all future academics, researchers and very useful for life in general.
It is important not to deny that there are many and varied difficulties and problems in doing a PhD, however, the risk is to make over-simplified explanations or causes. This can lead to a blame culture which in the end can be unhelpful and harmful to finding real support.
Alan Percy is head of counselling at the University of Oxford and spokesperson for BACP UC (British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy Universities and Colleges).