Bonus post: How to get through your PhD without going insane

I watched an excellent youtube video over the weekend about how to survive your thesis, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. How to get through your PhD without going insane by James Hayton, creator of the website ‘James Hayton PhD (formerly The Three Month Thesis) and author of PhD: An uncommon guide to research, writing and PhD life both of which I probably need to look into at some point.

It’s likely been one of the most useful things to help me adjust my conception of what a PhD really is, and how on earth I can get through it. I’ve summarised its key points here, because they’re exceptionally helpful and reading them will be quicker than watching the 50 minute talk plus Q&A – although I thoroughly recommend that you do if you have the time.

Hayton opens with his conclusion just in case people’s coffee wears off before he gets to the end: Just because a PhD is difficult and it takes hard work, it doesn’t mean that it has to be stressful or painful.

  • There’s already a lot of advice out there, but the standard advice is: make to-do lists, set targets and deadlines, write good notes, write as you go so you don’t have to do it all at the end, don’t be too perfectionist – However, whilst this is good advice, none of it actually makes it easy or stress-free, so there’s something missing.
  • You’ve got to know how the system works – a PhD is the highest academic qualification you can get, so the people that do PhDs tend to be the people that have excelled at every other level of the education system. There’s a problem with viewing the PhD as the top of the education hierarchy, because at all other levels there’s still the same basic system in place – a syllabus, set targets, the same material given to everybody, and the same exam at the end – everyone experiences the same thing and it depends on the work you put in.
  • At PhD level, the rules change. It is a fundamentally different thing, it’s not like a degree but a bit harder. There’s no syllabus, no one telling you what to do – the skills you need to succeed at PhD are not the same skills that you needed to succeed at undergrad and masters level.
  • A more accurate way to describe the PhD is as the entrance qualification to the world of professional academia. It’s designed to test whether you are capable of undertaking research at a professional level.
  • If you stop thinking about it as the top of the education system and start thinking of it as the bottom of the professional academic system then you understand that you’re a beginner of that system, and therefore there’s less pressure on you because you know that you need to learn new skills before you can succeed in the new environment. You’re not supposed to know everything already, you’re a newbie.
  • What do you need to succeed in professional academia? Publish or perish – the aim is to produce something publishable – it’s the basic level that you’re aiming for. That’s why there’s a Viva – it mirrors the peer review model – you have to be able to convince someone from outside of the value of your work.
  • What’s publishable? An original contribution to knowledge, but that’s not enough. In order to be able to convince others in your field of the value of your work, they will judge it by the standards set by your field – it’s no longer a case of competing against the others in your class, it’s competing against researchers all around the world – and it depends on the field what the standard will be – if you’re in a brand new field where everything is new, then any contribution is going to be valuable, but, if you’re in a well-established field then the standard you have to reach may need to be higher because a lot of it’s already been done. The standard is set by the field, it’s not set by your university or your supervisor.
  • You need to know your field before you can make a contribution to it – to give it context, to help you find the niche – hence, a butt load of research is needed before you can start writing.
  • Great research comes from how you deal with the unexpected – if you stick to your to-do list you might miss something important that comes along – it’s good to be flexible, but focussed.
  • Targets and deadlines are a good place to start because they give you direction – but there’s two outcomes, you can succeed or you can fail – what do you do when you fail? Set new deadlines? Or fire up your curiosity about why you’ve failed? If your sole focus on the outcome, then that limits where you can have an effect– the problem directly in front of you is the only thing that you can solve. You can’t stick to a rigid plan, there’s always going to be something that happens that disrupts you. The defining factor for success is not how well you plan, it’s what you do when things aren’t going to plan.
  • A PhD is not intrinsically stressful. It’s not the situation that’s stressful by nature, it’s your reaction to it. You have the power to change that reaction – you don’t just have to accept stress – see it as a signal that something isn’t right. Your capacity for concentration of conscious effort is limited. When you need to work at your full mental capacity the slightest distraction can drastically reduce your ability.
  • External motivation – if they’re struggling people tend to add some other form of motivation – but this only adds to what you’re thinking about and therefore reduces the capacity to deal with the main problem – “I’ll give you a million pounds if…” – then you’re thinking about what you need to do, you’re thinking about the money, and you’re worried about the consequences if you mess it up (you won’t get the money, and you won’t have achieved the thing). If you’re worried about the final outcome of your PhD that’s going to occupy some of your conscious thought and it leaves you less to apply to the actual work.
  • A PhD isn’t one single difficult task, it’s multiple tasks added together. If you’re worrying about the endgame, if you’re concerned about failing your PhD, that’s going to take up some of your conscious thought and it leaves you less to apply to the actual work. If you have twenty tasks that you know you need to do, and you start getting stressed and think that you’re going to fail your PhD and if that happens then your future is over [we’ve all had that thought], that will take up your mental reserve. Added to that, the lack of time, having to do everything right and everything now, will leave you with divided attention and reduced ability and you’ll be in a situation where even the easy things become difficult – then you start thinking ‘why can’t I do this? I’m not good enough’ and it starts a vicious cycle.
  • What most people think is that they just have to work harder – if I’m not succeeding then I need to put in more hours. But that leaves you tired and your ability decreases. There’s a difference between putting in all of the hours you can and wholly engaging with something to your full capacity – which you can only do if you let go of the fear. So what you actually need to do is slow down – which is hard, but effective – you need to take time to think. As an academic, your ability to think is the most important thing you have, so you need to give yourself the time, energy and space to do so.
  • The PhD ingredients for stress: high difficulty, divided attention (several tasks at once), and the consequences (no one wants to fail).
  • How to attack these: Difficulty – reduce the scale of the task, break it down into steps – you might not know the entire solution but you can see if you solve one small thing and move another step closer. Divided attention – prioritise and focus on one thing at a time. Consequences – understand that failing might not be the worst thing that can happen, you’ll survive – relax and apply yourself to the work.
  • Some stress is useful. The only way to improve ability is to push slightly beyond your ability – do this consistently, and gradually your skill level will improve [Like the plank challenge].
  • Writing = content, structure, words.
  • A lot of people focus on the words, setting daily word counts – but if you focus on the words, then the danger is you’ll neglect the content. If your research is good, then you can edit the words later.
  • Your voice – you thesis is your expression of the way you think about your research and the way you think about yourself in relation to your work.
  • At previous levels, the purpose of your writing was to impress the teacher – offering it up to the expert to gain approval. If you think of yourself as a professional academic, you’re not offering your work up, it’s a more equal relationship – peer review. You’re not writing for the approval of the supervisor – you don’t need to focus on impressing them, you need to focus on the quality of the work and not trying to prove how much you’ve read.
  • You have to write as an academic to other academics. You are the authority in your own work. Your aim is to impart something useful.
  • Write your defence into your thesis – they’ll be looking for weaknesses, your defence starts in your writing. If you know there’s a weakness in your work, don’t ignore it, acknowledge them – it may be argued that… however, because of these reasons… is why I’m doing it this way. Shows that you’ve had a critical level of thought.
  • Hayton got to a point where he decided he was going to quit, but thought he’d just do this one last experiment just for the hell of it – he stopped caring about if he’d fail because he was going to quit anyway, but then without the stress and pressure of potential failure, he got into it. You might not be the very best in your field, but you’re the best in your tiny bit of knowledge and you decide what content you put in your thesis and that’s the only stuff yo need to defend.
  • In conclusion: Just because a PhD is hard and it takes hard work, that doesn’t mean that it should be stressful or painful – you should see stress as a signal that something is not right and you should do something about it.
  • Success or failure in a PhD is not a measure of who you are, it’s not a measure of your value in life. If you fail your PhD, it’s not the worst thing that can happen – tell yourself, whatever the outcome of the PhD, success or failure, I will deal with it, I trust in my own ability that I will be ok, but right now I’m just going to focus on doing this one thing and I’m going to do it to the best of my ability.


  • People try and set themselves really strict timetables, but then if you get up late, you’re already behind, you’ve already failed – don’t set everything in stone, but try and have a general consistent routine. Start the day with something simple that you can succeed at, get it done and then dive in to the more complicated things. At the end of the day have a close-down ritual, create space between yourself and work – tidy up your desk, write down thoughts, plan for next day with a couple of easy things to start off with.
  • Rather than focussing on word count, focus on the idea you’re trying to communicate, then look up references and then concentrate on the words afterwards.
  • Any time management technique will work for three days, but then old habits sneak back in – you need to work out the foundations of where you’re going wrong, or what best works for you.
  • If you’ve gone through the education system with the teacher telling you you’re good because you’ve got good marks then that validation becomes a part of your self-worth. But it’s completely different at PhD and that creates a deep anxiety that isn’t normally addressed or acknowledged. You need to think about the way you feel about the work, and concentrate on that.
  • Not everything you try has to go into your thesis, and you need the confidence to try things not knowing how they’re going to work out and that your sense of well-being doesn’t rely on those immediate results.
  • You need to acknowledge if you’re struggling. Think about what you can and will do if you fail, and then take small steps to avoid it.
  • It’s not about adding motivation, it’s about removing the blocks that are there. The PhD is motivation enough. If the fear of failure is a block, then work out what’s the worst that can happen?
  • Effort vs. engagement. You can put as much time and effort in to something, but it won’t help if you’re not letting yourself engage fully because you’re being held back by fear or stress.

I think the very main point that struck me from this talk was the idea that the PhD isn’t the top qualification, it’s the entry test. Of course you’re out of your depth, you’re only just starting out! You still need arm bands before you can swim in the Olympics.

I hope this comes in as handy for you as it did for me. I really would recommend watching the video, he uses lots of scenarios and metaphors to better illustrate his points, but realistically I couldn’t be arsed to type an entire transcript with them all in.

13 thoughts on “Bonus post: How to get through your PhD without going insane

  1. Carpe diem – as Emily Dickinson said, “Forever is made of nows.” Personally, I am better at procrastination. I reckon I could represent my country in major competition (if I wasn’t too busy procrastinating – obvs)

    Liked by 1 person

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