Why PhD Candidates Need to Take a Break!

It’s good from time to time to stop and think where you are.
This is even more true if you don’t feel absolutely on top of your work. You may think everything is under control but you could still be anxious about time passing, or you could feel snowed under. You could be stuck at some point. Even worse, you could feel unmotivated and fed up with everything. Before you can do something about it, you need to pinpoint the major source of frustration.

In our work with students, we have found the following simple questions helpful. They focus the thinking and force us to explore the situation:

Where am I now in the process of doing a PhD?

This question encourages you to articulate the main issue or area you are concentrating on at the moment. For example, you could say that you are reassessing your work and the proposed timetable, or that you are finishing the first draft.

What is going well?

This forces you to acknowledge that good things are nevertheless happening. For example, you admit to yourself that experiments are now going quite well, although it’s taken a long time to get to this stage.

What presents problems or concerns?

A specific answer to this allows you to stop being unhappy about everything and to identify areas for which you can start looking for solutions. For example, you may be behind schedule, have difficulty accessing the sample you need, be facing funding cuts, or be having trouble writing the thesis in English.

What did I do well in my previous work that got me to this point or through a difficult PhD stage?

This makes you focus on your strengths and previous strategies that have worked for you. For example, you may have persisted until you found a real gap in previous research that has given your work more meaning, or you may have identified and become proficient in a skill which was essential to complete that part of your study.

Can I build on this, or do I need new skills or a different approach?

This question makes you survey the things you’re good at to see if they could be put to use now and gives you confidence to tackle new areas. For example, you may need to acknowledge that you draw on characteristics such as your determination, or on some aspect of previous research experience. Or you could decide that you need to extend your analytical approach to encourage a wider vision or a greater depth.

Have I become stuck at one stage? What keeps me there? What do I need to do to move on?

These questions get you to admit if you’re stuck in a groove, and need some kind of specific action to get out of it and to move to something else. For example, you may realise you need to specify what your research design is, or that you need to go and talk to someone about what you’re doing, or that you’re re-writing and re-writing without improvement.

After this, you could end up with an action plan:

  • you will know what you need to do;
  • you can then decide how you are going to do this;
  • what other resources or skills you need;

and what is the most important next step.


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