A PhD Slump

March 11, 2021

It’s been some time since I last wrote a blog post. While I’ve been plenty busy throughout this past year, I’ve also felt somewhat unmotivated and even lacking confidence to write a blog post. Over the past couple of months, I have suffered from imposter syndrome, been stressed about a never-ending to do list, and have felt somewhat disappointed with my research progress. I often had stress dreams where I would literally dream about my Python code and wake up anxious. There were a couple of weeks where this feeling was all consuming and I started to feel a little helpless with everything I wanted to accomplish in the next couple of years. I was in a PhD slump. Before I started writing this, I googled PhD slump to see if that was a real thing, and it totally is. In fact, a PhD slump is pretty ordinary. Actually, a third year PhD slump is even more common and the more I read, the more I started to feel accepting of it. Articles from The Chronicle of Higher Education, Johns Hopkins University, and Science Magazine all describe how the third year of a PhD program is the most difficult. Required coursework is typically completed, comprehensive exams are over, and students transition to focus full time on their independent dissertation research – an arduous task. Multiply that feeling by three for each research chapter and it’s no surprise that students experience a sense of despair and a lack of motivation during this time.

I would consider myself to have a slightly type A personality – characterized by a constant feeling of working against the clock and a strong sense of competitiveness. I can also be pretty impatient. To put it simply, I like making lists and crossing things off. And it was bothering me that I hadn’t crossed anything substantial off my list in months. I wanted to attack my dissertation by starting with Chapter 1 – read, conduct research, write, submit. And then proceed to the next chapter. But that’s not exactly how a PhD goes. Well, I guess it can but usually, PhD research is more dynamic – it can have disruptions, changes, long gaps, bursts of productivity; but in the end it all comes together into a complete dissertation. In the beginning of 2020, I was continuing research on what I thought would be the first chapter of my PhD dissertation. I was hoping to make progress and even submit it for publication in a scientific journal by the end of the year. I also planned to take my PhD comprehensive exams in the summer. Then, COVID happened and I decided to push back my exams until the Fall. During this time, I was also invited to submit a manuscript to a special issue in a journal, which focused on a topic that was well aligned with my research interests. So, I took a hiatus from the initial research I was working on in order focus on a new project to submit to this special issue. I was also taking a class, studying (and passing) my PhD comps, and writing a NASA grant proposal during this time. Not to mention, I had responsibilities as the UMCES Graduate Student Council Chair and Co-chair for Horn Point Lab’s Society for Women in Marine Science chapter. Not prepared to submit, I asked the journal editors if they could grant me a submission extension. I was fortunate that they agreed but felt discouraged that I had to ask. I was in a dispirited slump with too much on my plate. I sometimes felt like I wasn’t working hard enough or putting in enough time. And Twitter didn’t help. While I usually really enjoy connecting with scientists across the world via Twitter, I had to take a break because seeing everyone else’s accomplishments gave me unnecessary anxiety.

My advisor called this time an inflection point in my PhD program and encouraged me to walk before I run. He explained how it’s important to take the necessary time to read, fully comprehend, and formulate questions about the research because really, you only need to learn something once. Take the time now during a PhD to really learn and soak in the research so you don’t need to worry about learning it later in your career. And this can (and probably should) take a long time, which is okay because when else in your life are you going to have this much time with few other responsibilities to just learn?

If you can relate to this, my advice is 1) Accept it, it’s very normal to feel this way in a graduate program, 2) Take things day by day by accomplishing smaller things on your to-do list in order to finally cross off a big item, and 3) Try not to compare yourself to others since everyone works at different paces and in different ways. Here are some additional tips to get out of a slump:

  1. Treat your PhD as if it were a full time job. Set regular work hours such as 8am to 5pm, with breaks of course. And unless you have a pressing deadline, take the weekends off. Having time off is important for productivity and staying sane.
  2. Join a writing group. I don’t take advantage of this as much as I should, but perhaps I will when I am involved in the writing stages of my dissertation. A writing group or writing partner can help with accountability. I have attended several writing group sessions and think it is an effective way to focus while sharing experiences or techniques with other students.
  3. Try not to put so much pressure on yourself. A PhD is not a competition nor a race. It is an individual opportunity to become an expert in something you enjoy learning about. You will have plenty of pressures with classes, program requirements, proposal and journal deadlines. Like the author of the Science Magazine article said, you have control over the effort you put forth. Regularly check in with yourself and ask, “Am I doing my best?” If the answer is yes, then be proud. If the answer is no, then a little extra pressure might not hurt. 😉
  4. Voice your concerns. If you are struggling, let your advisor or someone from your lab know. Talking it out and coming up with a solid plan forward can be a huge help. Also, talking to other students who might feel the same way will most likely ease some sense of anxiety and make you feel less alone. I’m also a huge proponent for therapy – sometimes talking to someone outside your institution can help with feelings of anxiety or depression.

If you are in a slump, hang in there, it won’t last forever. Stay focused and you will soon have a breakthrough and gain enough motivation and confidence to carry you through your graduate program. One day you will be able to reflect back with a sense of pride knowing that you got through it and achieved your degree.