One particularly nasty myth about the successful PhD

Tired, Lotte looks down at her notes and then up again to the full version at her computer screen. For the past four days she has been completely submerged in writing this chapter. Her hair is a mess, she slept little and she has not been outside for two days. She has always worked this way, but as she approaches the end of her PhD, the pressure to deliver and perform rises.

Her supervisor is worried that her thesis will not be finished on time. Is something wrong with her writing process perhaps? After all, writing extensive drafts that never end up in the final version is a waste of time and effort. She worries that this inefficiency leads to suboptimal results, and that she will ultimately fail to live up to her supervisors’ standards.

Lotte has always been independent and successful in her research so far. But she begins to doubt if she is a good PhD student at all. She is about to lose her confidence in the project, while her supervisors do not suspect this at all. She does not dare to talk about this with her supervisors, even if their working relationship has always been okay. She feels it is important that her image of independent ability and personal excellence remains intact.

Like most PhD candidates, and like many supervisors Lotte subconsciously believes that real talents manage on their own. The general assumption is that talented early career researchers will be able to get through the PhD without much trouble, and secondly, that excellent researchers are never insecure.

For many early career researchers, projecting an image of independence, natural ability, ease and confidence seems vital. Asking for help implies not being able to do it yourself. This equals failure to living up to sometimes implicitly assumed expectations and presupposed standards of academic excellence. So you do not confide your insecurity and struggles to your supervisors. Often, issues like this are allowed to continue to exist and even grow until the final stages of the PhD, when it is practically too late to do anything about them.


Real talents go at it alone: a dangerous and costly myth

It is a dangerous myth, because it lets people hide behind false images of ease and success and because it prevents them from seeking help when they could benefit from it. How many talented PhDs drop out or are delayed unnecessarily due to feeling insecure and unsupported? We do not know, because we do not talk about this topic openly in universities. If you feel not sure whether you excel as is expected from a talented, promising early career researcher, how smart is it really to pretend that you are confident and not find support?

It is also a costly myth:

  • for society, because PhD theses risk serious delay or fall short of the quality they could have had
  • for supervisors, who await unpleasant surprises in the final stages of a PhD project, when issues with confidence become obstacles that really block completion of the project. This leads to demands on their time and support that they feel unable to meet
  • for PhD candidates, who feel miserable, insecure, incompetent in the exact phase where it matters most to be able to use and show their talents in full as they need to complete the PhD and transition into their next job.


How to learn how to swim

Let us stop pretending that real talents learn how to swim on their own. Doing away with this delusive image of success and confidence makes academia much more humane and fertile. There is no shame in seeking guidance for the part of personal growth that is involved in the PhD process, besides scientific growth and training.

  If you are an early career researcher struggling like Lotte, do not sit and wait hoping for better times. If you do not find a senior researcher who you can safely discuss your worries with, look for a confidentiality person at your university or find someone independent to talk to, discuss strategies with. Go get the help you need. Go get swimming lessons!

Lotte in the example above is one of the smarter and more proactive PhDs. She faced her worries and secretly looked for help to overcome her self doubt. She realized she did not have to write by the book to deliver fine articles and be a good researcher. She did not yet confide her supervisors about finding external, professional help, but she was able to finish and turn in a nearly completed thesis.

  If you are a supervisor, director or manager of a graduate school / research institute:

  • talk openly about anxiety and vulnerability with your early career researchers. Emphasize how facing these struggles and seeking help is the smart thing to do. You did not learn how to swim overnight without instructions back in the day!
  • in your grant proposals, reserve funding for training and support that your early career researchers can use at their discrete disposal
  • make sure there are confidential support structures and trusted mentoring persons at the institute or university. These should be truly independent from scientific supervision and easily accessible to early career researchers at the university
  • know some independent counselors outside your organization to refer people to.



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