PhD guilt and shame

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about making time to write. This week I had a conversation with a friend and fellow PhD traveler that inspired me to write a follow-on post about what to do when you feel you can’t make time to write. What do you do when you have neither physical hours or headspace enough to read, think and write? How do you deal with the almost inevitable feelings of shame, guilt and panic that threaten to derail you?

My fellow PhD travelers are part-time students with full-time lives. Many have children and partners, all have jobs that demand a lot of their headspace and time. The field I am in, higher education studies, sees many PhD students coming into their studies part-time while working full-time as lecturers or managers. If you are lecturing, you are teaching, marking scripts, attending meetings, supervising students, planning curricula, evaluating your courses, plodding away at endless admin related to all of this, and you’re probably doing other bits and pieces that are part and parcel of university life. If you’re in management I would imagine that there are many meetings, many policies and documents to engage with and read and discuss, and probably also people to manage and more endless, plodding admin work. So, chances are, if you are this kind of PhD student – the kind with a pretty busy job and life outside of work, that PhD time is already limited, and feelings of panic, despair, guilt and shame are probably just below the surface most of the time. This was certainly true for me.

These feelings, while they may well be a very real part of many PhD students’ journey, are dangerous though, because getting swallowed by them can really paralyse you and your progress towards your completed thesis. But how to avoid these feelings? I’m not sure you can. If your PhD is not the only thing you have on your plate (and whose reality is this, really?), chances you you will feel one or more of these feelings at one or more points during your PhD. So, perhaps the question is how to manage these feelings so that you don’t become paralysed and derailed.

Putting in place and drawing on your support systems is an obvious answer, I think. For some this may be a doctoral writing group with people in your university, or in your department. These kinds of groups can offer a space for support, and also for feelings of struggle, shame and paralysis to be shared and not swept under the proverbial rug. Sharing these feelings with colleagues who may be going through something similar often helps. At the very least, you are assured that it is not just you; at the most they may have helpful advice for you. If you have a supportive supervisor, as I was fortunate enough to have, sharing some of your present struggle with them may help too. Even if your supervisor is not as supportive as your peers and colleagues are, letting them know what’s going on with you in a way that makes you feel less exposed and more likely to get support (and you will have to work this way out for yourself) is a good idea. Keeping the person (or people) tasked with guiding you through your PhD in the dark is probably not a great strategy, and their requests for progress reports and writing in the absence of understanding that you’re in a difficult place can make you feel more guilty and desperate.

Another strategy I tried when I just could not make or find time for my PhD, which was sometimes for a few weeks at a time, was to keep scribbling in my personal research journal, even if it was just to take 5 minutes to write ‘awful week – hectic at work, so many deadlines. Just not getting anything done. Feel desperate’. Acknowledging my feelings and struggles, even to myself, made them less overwhelming somehow. It wasn’t all just in my head – by writing it down I could just accept that this was my reality at that time, and put my head down and try to get the other hectic things done so I could try and make time to work on my PhD. I think there is a lot to be said for verbalising (even in writing) a feeling or issue, and getting it out of your head, even to yourself. Journalling can be a very helpful tool during your PhD.

I think my last piece of advice to my struggling friend and to all PhD students in this place right now is to stop saying mean things to yourself about how little progress you are making and how unlikely it is that you will finish on time and how terrible a PhD student you are being right now. This will only feed those negative emotions and will probably also make you feel resentful of your PhD and the demands it will make on your time until it is finished. If you resent it, you are then less likely to want to go back and immerse yourself in it. So, STOP. Get a piece of paper or your own research journal and a pen out. Write: ‘Dear (your name), I know you are having a rough time right now, and time for writing is scarce. I know your head is full of other things. BUT, you can do this. You are a productive person. You work hard. You will finish me. Just take a deep breath, put your head down and get these other things done, and then make that time to get back to me again. All will be well. Love, your PhD’. Write something kind and encouraging. Then make a realistic list of the other things you have to do. With a red pen, list the things that are urgent, like exams that have to be marked or a report that must be in on a certain date. With a green pen, list the things that could be delegated (yes, delegated) or could wait until later on. Then, make that time for your PhD. It is there, although it seems buried deep beneath these other demands. Perhaps part of letting go of guilt and shame is also just letting go of having to be the one who does it all, and embracing being the one who can and does say no to things that can be done later or by someone else.


7 thoughts on “PhD guilt and shame

  1. Philippa says:

    It’ s wonderful to read such a very real account of the vagaries of time – and self- management while doing a PhD. I add the comment of a non- academic but ‘high-functioning’ friend: If you take time off, or decide to pursue other matters, do so uncompromisingly. Don’t dip into work in the slightest way (like tidying your papers etc), and don’t feel guilty about losing research time. This relief will help with the constant struggle to prioritize your research.

  2. Karin says:

    What an inspiring blog… I wish I had started reading this last year when I started on my own PhD/full-time Higher Ed employee/guilty-single-mother journey! And you are so right, Sherran – it’s not about physical ‘time’ (although heaven alone knows where to even find that!) – it’s about head-space time (which doesn’t happen in an hour here and there!). I am so going to enjoy reading this blog when I am at the relevant stages!

  3. TenureTracked says:

    Although I’ve always been extremely career-focused, I had about four years as a new mom and a young post-doc when I did not produce any research articles. I was too tired and frazzled. I missed academia though and found a way to include some writing into my days by writing a couple of popular books. (Collaborative projects with friends in similar life situations – sharing the workload and deadlines kept them manageable.) I found that my sleep-deprived, multitasking mind was not sharp enough for the precise analytical thinking needed in research articles, but writing nonfiction for a lay audience was much easier and possible in short bursts of time.

    I have quite few PhD students now who are young mothers and I’ve explained them that their family leave is a full time job and I do not expect them to get on with their theses. I couldn’t do it, so I won’t expect them to do it either. When they return back to work, they will catch up quickly.

    • sherranclarence says:

      Thanks for your comment. I certainly have found, even though my kids are a little older now than when I started my PhD, that motherhood takes up a lot of my energy and headspace, and my job does too. Both of these full-time roles can ‘blunt’ my brain a bit, and doing the sharper analytical work is then tougher. Finding ways to stay in touch with this kind of work (reading and writing) does help to make it less hard to get back into it once you’ve been out of it for a while.

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