The PhD slump

The PhD slump

Everyone’s PhD is different and we all go through highs and lows. What I call ‘the PhD slump’ is that period many of us experience where we severely struggle with motivation, focus, belief in ourselves and passion for what we’re doing. Being in this negative phase is tough, and something numerous people I know (as well as myself) have been through.

I’d say it’s most common when students are halfway into their PhD. They start to question “will I have enough data to get this PhD?” and “will I be able to get it all done in the remaining time?”. An unsupportive supervisory team also makes it harder and some may experience the PhD slump due to burnout.

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PhD Comics

I share my experiences and advice on my Instagram account where I strive to give an honest and real feel about the PhD journey. Recently numerous people have reached out to me through social media and in person asking for help with their struggles, so what better time to share some tips…

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My 10 top tips:


1. Acceptance

Accepting you are going through a tough phase weirdly helps to relax into it. It will help you to gain some perspective on your situation. Having this self-awareness enables you to help yourself and find ways to work your way out of it.

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2. Asking for help is a strength, not a weakness

Friends and family are wonderful, but also seek out support from your university. What support systems do they have in place? Is there a mentoring scheme where you can chat to another academic in confidence? Having an outside perspective who understands the academic system can be really useful. If you can speak to your supervisor about your troubles, then great! Having an open and honest conversation can take a big weight off your shoulders.

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3. Focus on each day at a time

Set daily goals. Tick them off one-by-one. This will help you be productive and in turn become more motivated. It’s all about the positive feedback loop! It may take time, and it might be tough, but stick at it.

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4. Do little things you love to stay positive

Balance out those daily tasks with rewards. It makes the working day that little bit easier. Self-care is especially important during this time, so make sure you treat yourself whether that’s with a glass of bubbles, watching your favourite movie or chilling with friends.

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5. Exercise, sleep and eat well

Mental and physical health is so important. Be mindful of the fundamentals in leading a healthy life. Getting enough sleep, exercising regularly and eating the right food helps us to be more positive and productive.

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6. Manage those expectations of yourself

So you’re finding things tough right now? Don’t expect yourself to be able to work like crazy! Don’t even put that pressure on yourself. Understand you, what you feel like each day, what you can realistically get done, and go back to point #3, plan each day to as you feel.

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7. Don’t panic, think logically

Too much work, not enough time? Don’t panic, it’s not constructive! Make a list of your top priorities, your secondary priorities, and the less important ones. Plan when you’ll get the top priorities done and fit the others around them if realistically possible. Remember, a thesis is barely ever a finished story.

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8. Stay accountable

When you’re in a rubbish phase, self-motivation is a lot harder. Let a friend know your work goal that day or week so you are accountable to someone. I recommend setting a weekly meeting with your supervisor(s) so you can discuss your plan and you don’t go off track.

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9. Time out

We all need time off, especially if you are feeling burnt out. Take a break to go on holiday or even a long weekend. Like I said, it’s all about the self-care. It will help you to recuperate, get some energy back and give you that motivation to push out of this PhD slump.

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10. Keep going!

I know this isn’t what people like to hear, but put all of these points into practice and really try to stick at them. Little steps each day make big progress and will really help you to feel much more positive about your PhD and your day-to-day life!

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Exploring Iceland after submitting my upgrade thesis

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Are you in this slump right now? Have you been in it and climbed back out? What tips do you have to go from being negative about your PhD to positive? As always, please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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How to get your focus and motivation back

How to get your focus and motivation back

Welcome to another one of my PhD SOS tips and tricks blog posts. Today’s post is all about how to stay enthusiastic, inspired and focussed. Everyone is guilty of losing focus and as a result feeling demotivated from time-to-time. Doing a PhD can be a long slog. Here in the UK a typical PhD takes 4 years to complete, and over in the US it’s a whopping 6-7 years! It’s no surprise that as PhD students, our levels of passion and determination can go through peaks and troughs. Post-doctoral researchers have a tough time of it too. The need to get the data, to write those papers and to hope a grant will be accepted so you’re not out of a job can become a little stressful to say the least. But it’s not just scientists that have these struggles, any career can have the highs and the lows! We can also feel unmotivated in aspects of our home life, such as training for that half marathon or learning a new language.

So, how can you stay focussed and motivated?

I’m going to ask you some important questions, so stop what you’re doing and have a proper think about your answers to what I’m about to ask. By doing this, you’ll hopefully find that burst of determination!

My top 5 questions from me to you

#1: Why did you choose to do what you’re doing?

When things get stressful or boring, and you lose the motivation to put the work in, it can be very easy to say the words “why am I doing this” or “I’m so fed up” or even “I want to quit”. At times like this you need to ground yourself and remember why you started what you’re working on. There’s clearly good reasons why you’ve chosen this PhD right? Rewind that clock back, why did you make the decision to take on this task? What inspired you to in the first place? Ask yourself these questions and remind yourself of all the positives in why you started what you’re doing. Revisit those feelings and remember your ‘why’.

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#2: What is your destination?

What is your end goal? What do you want to get out of it? These questions will really help you refocus on your aspirations and desires in life, and what makes you have that important sense of accomplishment. I’ve had my fair share of low moments during my PhD and with that came periods of zero focus or motivation. What helped keep me going? Knowing that I will eventually become Dr Jones, that all my years learning about science were not wasted, and it would lead to an exciting career somewhere in science. Imagine the moment when you get to your destination. Think about all the awesome potential it has for you. Imagine how fulfilled, proud and happy you’ll be to know you pushed through the harder times and ticked off that end goal. Thinking about those moments in the future will help motivate you in times of need!

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#3: Can you break the work down into small fun-sized pieces?

The answer is always yes. Little steps at a time. This is so vital to anything you’re lacking focus or motivation in. Completing all the lab work for your PhD or writing the thesis can seem like a mammoth of a task. Breaking the work up into small and easy to manage pieces is fundamental to focus. Check back over onto my “Top 10 tips for surviving a PhD” where I mention how focussing on the small steps can make the mountain that is your goal a much easier climb. This trick allows you to focus on the now. Trust me, the work will suddenly feel a lot more manageable, and you’ll achieve your end goal with much less stress. Make daily and weekly goals to reach those more significant ones.

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#4: What makes you happy?

Feeling unfocussed and demotivated often brings stress. So let’s focus on YOU and YOUR wellbeing. What makes you happy? What de-stresses you? What makes you full of life? This is the bit of advice I like to hear, go and do something fun! Treat yourself! Have ‘you time’. For me I love to CrossFit in the evenings, do some yoga, work on my science communication projects or hang out with friends. It is so important to do the things that make you happy. Yes, you might love your PhD for the most part, but when you do find yourself in a period of very little focus then you need to balance your time with other things that are relaxing and fun. These factors that chill you out will make you happier. In turn you’ll think more clearly, have a more positive attitude, feel more motivated and therefore be more productive. It’s all about that positive feedback loop!

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#5: Who is there to help you?

When you are having those dips in focus and motivation, having a good support network can really help. It’s healthy to get someone else’s wisdom and advice, perhaps they can say something that will empower you and boost your ability to focus. In my top 10 tips blog post I spoke about the importance of a good support network in relation to a PhD. These people could be fellow PhD students, post docs, supervisors, other academics, head of faculty or student services. Friends and family members are always a good place to talk things through with. The internet can also be a good place to seek support, and surprise surprise, I’m going to suggest blogs! You are not going to be the only person who is struggling with focus in the type of task or challenge you have committed yourself to. Search the internet and seek out other people’s advice who you can relate to. As you’re reading this, I hope that I can be one of those people in your support network! One thing I’d say is that to get the best help you need to identify what the issue is. Once you’ve done that, there is a wealth of support out there for you. Don’t struggle alone.

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My bonus tips and tricks!

A serious procrastinator?

How often do you aimlessly scroll through social media, read the celebrity gossip or think you can watch Netflix whilst working? If you are guilty of procrastinating regularly then here are some tips to cut back and concentrate!

  • Set yourself a certain amount of work before allowing yourself to do these things.
  • When you do them put an alarm on (e.g. 10 minutes) so you don’t find an hour has passed!
  • For those serious procrastinators amongst you – consider using blocking websites!

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Take breaks… but manage them!

Having breaks throughout your working day enhances productivity. It gives those hard working brain cells a little rest, and helps keep focussed. My friends and I always have morning tea break at 11am (which I LOVE!), so that helps me to focus and get lots of work done before, which in turn makes me feel great. But remember, manage your breaks! Time flies by when you’re having a cup of coffee and catching up with friends. Schedule in the breaks but have a time in mind for when you’ll start work again.

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Sleep well

Getting optimal sleep is vital for that all important brain power. The optimal amount of sleep varies from person to person but we should be getting 7-9 hours a night.  Getting the right amount of sleep for you will make your whole day so much easier. You’ll wake up ready to start the day. You’ll have a good amount of energy and so your ability to concentrate and focus won’t be as much of a struggle. Good quality sleep also helps with those happiness levels. Having a positive mind set for the day will naturally make you more motivated, focussed and productive.

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Exercise

Take yourself out of that working environment and move around, shake off any stress. Exercise helps to improve concentration, but how?

  • Increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain – better brain performance
  • Stimulates hormones and growth factors – promotes growth of brain cells, slows down age-related decline
  • Hippocampus highly active – improves memory and learning skills
  • Releases serotonin and other endorphins – improves mood and mental health
  • Reduces risk of many diseases – improved overall health

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Celebrate successes

When you achieve a specific goal celebrate! You’ve put in the work, now do something for you. In my last “PhD SOS” blog post titled “The halfway milestone: the transfer thesis” I had a whole section about treats. This tip works for me anyway! When you accomplish your short term daily/weekly goals and your longer term goals, treat yourself. Do something fun. Go for a walk, go out for dinner, take a day trip to the beach, drink cocktails with the girls – whatever floats your boat. Planning these celebrations for when you reach those goals makes it all a lot easier and gives you that focus and motivation.

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So if you were feeling unfocussed and unmotivated before you read this post, I hope my 5 questions helped you to feel more inspired and ready to knuckle down and achieve the awesome things you set out to do. I want this blog post to be a resource for you – if you are having one of those dips in productivity and focus, then read back over this! Ask yourself those 5 questions again, and go back over those tips and tricks.

As always, if you have any other golden nuggets of advice, please comment below as I’d love to hear what you have to share!

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