When the going gets tough…

Most people seem to think that if you are pursuing a PhD you must be super intelligent. Which they also assume means you must have ample confidence in yourself. It is no use telling them that you suffer from as many insecurities about your talents and capabilities as the next person, because in their opinion if you have set yourself such a huge mountain to climb, you must know you have it in you.

The truth is that I find myself low on self-confidence a lot of the time. And I have come to realise that this feeling is fairly common among PhD students. Apparently we tend to suffer from what is called the ‘impostor syndrome’: The feeling that you are inadequate or incapable despite evidence to the contrary.

My confidence level also has a way of yo-yoing so that at one point I am on top of a mountain, soaring high and marvelling how I have at long last found my true calling, and another time I am down in the dumps, wondering what got into me to take on such a herculean project. I start questioning everything from the validity of my research topic to my thoroughness in doing the literature review to my experience in the academic jungle to the possibility of ever seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. It can be a pretty quick downward tumble from there, luckily for me stopping short of actually calling it quits, but I have heard stories of people who take the exit route.

Over time, I have learnt a few ways to deal with these blows to my confidence:

  • Remember why you started a PhD. Chances are that if you are on this very tough journey, you have thought long and hard about it. You may have also made certain difficult choices in life or career because you wanted this so badly. Had you not put all of yourself into making this happen, you wouldn’t have earned a place at such a prestigious university. If you could get yourself this far, it is only up to you to take yourself further.
  • Think of the last time you felt a rush of confidence. It may have been a small accomplishment or a big one, but if you had reason to feel great about how you were doing then, the reasons are most likely still valid and solid. This low phase will pass soon enough if you focus on doing what you have been doing.
  • Think about how far you have come. You probably remember how daunting everything seemed when you first started, and how you never really expected to make it at almost every step. Not only did you make it, you did remarkably well too, be it acclimatising yourself to the new environment or developing a good relationship with your supervisors or taking all those difficult training modules or digging through tons of literature.
  • Stop comparing yourself with others. You might be tempted to compare yourself with others who started at the same time as you. Very often it will seem like they have a far better hold on what they’re doing while you haven’t the faintest clue. They may have started collecting data or completed writing a conference paper while you’re still putting together a proposal for your upgrade panel. Remember that this is your PhD and your journey… and you are its sole architect. How you approach it and how much time you take to build it depends entirely on what you’re fashioning.
  • Talk to family and friends. Talk to people who believe in you. Knowing that they believe in you more than you do can be motivating (though a bit annoying too because your feelings of inadequacy and incompetency are invalidated). It would also help to have someone with whom you can share your research and progress. Many a time I have found solutions to problems simply by talking to a friend who merely listened to me go on about it.
  • Take mini breaks. When you are really feeling like it, take a few days off all thoughts of research and writing and deadlines and do whatever it is you feel like doing or do nothing if that’s what you feel like. Think of it as some sort of reward for working so hard. I don’t know about you but at the end of that period, I bounce back with more energy and feeling a lot more positive. Quite strangely, I also tend to come up with better ideas almost out of the blue. You know what they say about the subconscious mind being at work…
  • Visualise a wonderful future. The PhD may be your stepping stone to a fulfilling career or it may be an end in itself. Try visualising what it would be like to be at the end of that road, having fulfilled your dream or goal. Imagine how you would feel, how the people in your life would feel, and how much you would like to be there. These bumps along the way are speed breakers but they can’t stop you from getting where you want to be.

Well, these are a few techniques that seem to help me bounce back. What about you? What do you do when the going gets tough?