When Things Suck and You Still Have a PhD To Do: 7 Tips to Get Stuff Done

In this guest post, author Tamsyn shares some realistic, practical, honest advice. Who can’t use some of that once in a while? Check out more of Tamsyn’s writing on her blog.  

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We all have times in our lives when things just suck. When things aren’t going quite as we would have hoped personally, and yet we still have a job to do – we still have to get our PhDs. The pressure of this can become exceedingly clear when personal issues crop up, and it can add to the difficulties we’re facing. Sometimes we can do things to overcome the hard times, other times it’s just a case of making the ride a little gentler. Rather than burying our heads in the sand, which can be oh-so-tempting, there are ways we can make life easier for ourselves. The steps we take and things we do with this goal in mind can enable us to feel supported, and, most importantly, to take the pressure off whilst we find our feet again.

A black and white image of a person carrying a briefcase, leaping across an empty gallery that is decorated in geometric architectural details.

It’s inevitable that during the course of a PhD personal issues will come along, but they don’t have to mean the end of your doctoral pursuit, and, in fact, they could help you find a new way of doing things that will help you in the future. Here are some of the things that help me when things suck.

Stepping Back

It can be incredibly difficult to do this, but sometimes stepping back from your situation (when it’s possible to do so) creates some distance and allows you to see things from a broader perspective. You might feel that you are getting nothing done, but a completed to-do list might actually tell you otherwise. You may just step back and realise that actually, things really are quite difficult at the moment, and you need more support than you had anticipated. The idea with this is to just assess where you are at. It can be painful to acknowledge, but it’s the first step towards making a plan and making things a bit easier for yourself. You might get this perspective by talking through your situation with a friend or trusted colleague, or perhaps you’d like to take a more structured approach.

P.I.E.S: Personal, Intellectual, Emotional, and Social aspects of self-care.

A tool I developed for myself during my sixth form days was the “PIES” approach. Initially, this was an acronym to help me remember different aspects of Health and Social Care for my exams. However I made it more personal. PIES stands for personal, intellectual, emotional, and social. Whenever I tended to lose sight of the shore, I would sit down and see how I felt in each of these areas, highlighting where things were good and noticing where they were not so good. In some instances I was able to see that, socially, I had withdrawn, and perhaps grabbing a cuppa or going to the cinema with a close friend might help. Other times I could see that my concentration was affected and it might help to change my studying technique.

Be gentle with this, it isn’t an exercise to see where you are doing ‘badly’ and then beat yourself up about it. This is an exercise with self-care and support in mind. Rather than chastising yourself, simply notice that you need to bring some sort of support in, and that is ok.

Be Honest

Once you’ve got a good idea of where you are really at, you might need to be honest with people. Telling friends that you’re having a hard time and that you might not be in touch as often is a simple way to relieve the pressure of maintaining a front. It may also allow friends to be there for you and support you. Perhaps speaking to your supervisors and explaining that you have some personal issues at the moment that are making some aspects of your PhD work challenging will help you take the pressure off in terms of deadlines, allowing you some time and mental space to work on whatever is happening personally. Honesty can be hard, it can be embarrassing, and it can also be downright painful. Saying things out loud or writing them down and getting a response from someone can reinforce what is going on for you – and how much it sucks. But, just like stepping back, honesty is a really good step towards getting support.

Be Realistic

Most individuals doing a PhD have arrived there through hard work and commitment. Most of us push ourselves to achieve our absolute best every single day. Aside from the fact that this is probably not possible for most people, it’s going to be even less likely when we are feeling rubbish or we have a lot to deal with in our personal lives. Reassessing our capabilities and when we are likely to hit deadlines or complete tasks can give some breathing space and make us feel less anxious. It can lift the weight off our shoulders.

It’s really hard to drop the perfectionist tendencies and believe our mind when it tells us that “slacking off” (aka taking much-needed space and time to look after ourselves!) will destroy our chances of ever getting a PhD. Is this realistic? No. There is no shame or failure in being realistic about what you are capable of in this current moment. The amount of work you do is not a reflection of you as a person – whether that amount is high or low. It can be hard to believe this and drop the self-judgement. But if it’s going to make life easier for ourselves, doesn’t it make sense to do so?

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A top-down view in black and white of a person working at a desk.

Lower Your Expectations

Off the back of being realistic, you may need to reduce your expectations. Give yourself a bit of extra time for tasks, and know that you might take a bit longer or need an extra half-day off in a difficult week. Often when we lower our expectations and the pressure eases, our productivity can improve without us even realising. When you can feel yourself putting pressure on or forcing yourself to complete something even though you feel terrible and would benefit much more from an early night or an exercise session, step back and try to see where the expectation is coming from. Is it coming from your own beliefs about yourself? Ask yourself what’s the very worst that would happen if you achieved less than you expected? Are your expectations coming from your supervisors? Or perhaps the expectations you perceive them to have? Maybe this calls for that honest chat.

With expectations lowered your mind will feel less pressured, you will have space for yourself and for dealing with your personal issues and these are the sort of conditions that allow for productivity.

Get Support

We all need a bit of extra help and support sometimes. Whether it’s a good friend cheering us on from the sidelines, or a professional once a week, reaching out for support is brave and shows initiative. There is no weakness in knowing that you need some extra help and getting that for yourself, there is strength in it. Speak to your student union, reach out to the health and well-being team within your university, or look for external support. Tell friends how they can support you. Good friends will be more than happy to do this, whether it’s a good hug, some cheerleading, a coffee break or just a listening ear. Knowing that you have this kind of guidance and support on hand can make the world of difference.

Think Ahead

Whilst I fully advocate thinking positively and not jumping to worst case scenarios, I also advocate thinking ahead and coming up with potential contingency plans. This might mean looking at university guidelines about taking a break during your PhD, suspending your studies, moving to part-time, or taking sick leave. You don’t even have to read these documents if you don’t want to, but saving them somewhere just in case can be really useful. When things are feeling terrible you don’t want to be trawling through the back end of the university website to find out what steps you need to take to make things better. Have it ready and on hand when you need it. It’s useful to know where you would stand if you decided to make changes to your format of study. Discuss these points with an advisor at your university, your funding body, or your supervisors. Keep yourself informed so that you can make the best decision for yourself should you need to.

Trust Yourself

You will be okay.

My final point is to trust yourself. You’ve made it this far, and chances are that you’ve probably already experienced times that really suck. Remind yourself that you made it through them before. That you were able to survive – and perhaps even thrive. Trust that you will meet those deadlines even if you take time off to look after yourself. Trust that you can make decisions that are the best for you, your health, and your well-being. Trust that those around you will support you and see how hard you are trying. And trust that you have everything you need within you to get yourself through this period. Things might suck, but they won’t suck forever. You will be okay.

I read a book a few years ago that really inspired my approach to my studies, and alongside someone very special, I was able to change the way I worked. As a result, I improved my productivity and outcomes, without making myself ill in the process. The book is called Thrive, by Arianna Huffington and I highly, highly recommend it to anyone looking to achieve some more balance in their personal and working lives.

Thanks for reading, and I hope that if you are going through a sucky time this post has helped in some way, even if just to reassure you that you are not alone. It helps me to remember that the priority in any situation is myself and my health, no matter what. There is no point in having a PhD if I am not in the best state to enjoy it and appreciate it. And the whole point of doing a PhD was to have fun!

If you know someone having a hard time, maybe you could send them this post, or perhaps talk through some of the points mentioned above. The power of social support can never be questioned. Start a conversation, you never know how much someone might thank you for it.

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Tamsyn blogs at Health Psych Tam. She currently lives in Bath and recently began her PhD in Health Psychology at the University of Bath. When she’s not studying, there’s a fair chance you’ll find her being active outdoors, snuggling up and reading a good book, winding down with some yoga or catching up with friends over some great food. She also loves wild swimming, horse riding, cooking, exploring and self-development.

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