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Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Getting over the Mid-PhD Slump

When I started my doctoral studies in 2009 I was highly motivated, excited and also intimidated by the task ahead. I was also pretty unprepared; I had little real understanding of what a PhD was actually like and what lay ahead. I never took a break from my studies and have been used to an extremely high turnover of work and reward since the age of about 7. I was completely unaware that a ‘mid-PhD slump’ even existed, and was entirely unprepared for one.

In my first year I kept up a high intensity, committing to daily timesheets and allowing myself weekends and evenings off. My mantra was to treat my studies like a ‘9 to 5 job’. The main problem with this philosophy is that unlike normal jobs, doctoral study involves carrying the burden of your own work-rate, conscience and future career twenty four hours a day for a minimum of three years. I saw little reward for my work with few submissions or grades, and the more I learned about my chosen topic, the less confident I felt about the theoretical impact I could make.

As time went on isolation, lack of reward and daily social contact took its toll. Over the summer of 2012, in the midst of Olympics Fever, I was stricken by malaise. I couldn’t concentrate on my work, I felt stressed, unconfident and came to resent having to wake up and face my computer screen. This feeling lasted for a couple of months and was a truly challenging period in both my studies, and my personal life.

I was forced to deal with my own problems. Family and friends tried to support me, but there were some things I had to do to help myself – things I wish I’d known sooner. Eventually I took a break; abstracting myself from work finally allowed me to regain my enthusiasm and generate fresh ideas. Then I tried to find ways to reward myself: I kept records of hours worked and words written as a way of reminding myself of the progress I was making. I sought out regular stimulation through academic seminars, sport and socialising. I also spoke to my supervisors who encouraged me to change my focus.  Most importantly, I opened up about my problems and sought help.

I am now weeks away from the end of my funding, and am closing in upon the final draft. Though I have faced difficulties along the way, I will never regret being given three years to develop my ideas and indulge my passion. Nevertheless, knowing that a lull in my work could happen, and having the knowledge of how to deal with it would have made my life easier; I hope that by sharing my own knowledge I can help others going through a similar experience.

What is a ‘slump’?

Troughs and dips in doctoral study can take a variety of forms. Anyone, no matter how motivated, confident or capable, can suffer them. First of all you need to recognise you are in a rut. Some key indicators:

  •  Lack of motivation
  • Sense of isolation
  • An urge to give up and get a job
  • Inability to get out of bed
  • Distraction and procrastination
  •  Mood swings
  • Writers block or lack of ideas
  • More serious forms: mental health issues such as depression or anxiety (seek out professional support straightaway)

Tips to tackle the slump

1. Take ‘ownership’ of it

You are not the only one to experience this. Actively seek out help, support and advice. Your university provides this, but also talk to friends, family or healthcare professionals. Doing nothing is rarely the answer. 

2. Take a break!

If it’s not happening, don’t force it! The number of PGR students I’ve met who don’t take holidays is frightening. Changes of scenery and breaks will allow you to recover your energy, and help reignite the passion for your work.

3. Talk to trusted family, friends, peers or your supervisor

Many people have been in the same position before; tap into the knowledge which they have, whilst also venting your own frustrations and emotions. 

4. Find ways to motivate and reward yourself

  • Timetables
  • Blogging and social media
  • Publishing reviews/articles
  • Set deadlines
  • Keep word counts

5. Stimulate your brain

Try reading outside of your discipline, watching films, listen to music, exercise, join discussion groups and attend seminars and conferences. Your brain needs looking after and working out. You might find that reading a newspaper will suddenly set you thinking. 

If this advice helps one person through their studies I will be happy. Though it is an immense privilege to be able to study for a doctorate, the three year (or six year part-time) ride can be a massive challenge. Some people are confronted with problems too great and never finish. It is important to arm yourself with the skills and support to be prepared. 

In kinder moments my friends remind me that it takes great resilience to wake up every day and motivate yourself. Remember that in spite of the jokes, your friends will respect your commitment and drive, and you will feel a sense of achievement like no other when you finish. There is light at the end of the tunnel, so stick at it! 


  1. I found this after Googling 'PhD slump'. I'd never heard of one either but it seemed a good description of what I'm feeling. I'm two months past the halfway mark and today I have done literally nothing, just taken naps and procrastinated with YouTube videos and panicked. All of a sudden my project seems simultaneously too big/ambitious and too unimportant for anyone to want to bother with, just more words to add to a pile of words that have already been written in this field. I'm on overseas field research and don't have access to much support (everyone I've tried to talk to today has been busy), my supervisors have been taking ages to reply to emails, and I keep thinking wistfully about the job I left in order to do this (in between panicking about my general ineptitude). It's nice to know that it's a known phenomenon and not just me being rubbish.

  2. I am also experiencing the slump. 2 years have swiftly gone by and I am in the midst of a crisis. I am currently experiencing the same feelings towards my PhD: quitting; isolation, feelings of dejection. It is awful. I have tried to be resourceful but now I feel like so far it has been a massive waste of time. I feel completely lost and can't shake it off.

  3. Oh my... I also googled phd slump recovery and found this blog. I have talked to people who say that what I am suffering is normal... Its so weird to see my symptoms in a list... A good friend said to me yesterday that getting into the field also reignited her passion towards her work. Its wild to me that one of the pieces of this is the "unimportance" and insignificance of our work that we commonly feel. Wow. Sad to know that others go through this but wow, so comforted by the idea that I am actually not alone in my suffering!

  4. I am so happy I found this little article and read the comments. I am having terrible mid-PhD slump and was feeling pretty isolated and maybe even depressed. Not that I want to really experience schadenfreude, it's truly comforting to know that I'm not alone and that this may be an actual "thing." Thank you!

  5. It is very much comforting that I'm not the only one with a terrible mid-PhD slump, and a strong desire to kick anyone who says 'get over it'.

    And it is also reassuing that said slump lasts longer than a couple of days.

  6. Currently feeling one right now. I'm in my fourth year of a Cell/Molec Bio PhD program (Avg 5-7 years). And even though i have questions to answer, experiements to get resume, im just feeling blah about any of it. Always been a motivator, but motivation can only do so much at times. What we need is something to keep us going through the long haul. This article hit it on the head. I know everyone finishes at their own pace, but Im constantly thinking about my other lab mates that seem to be going faster than me. In due time, ill be back to normal I suppose, but goodness, can it come faster! Hah Blessings to all. We got this!

  7. Yes! I've made bread, repotted some plants, looked at twitter for a few hours (!) now gone back to bed with marmite and toast and googled phd slump. Maybe its not depression but this!! this whole summer i've been feeling terribly demotivated and avoidant it's a relief to see these feelings articulated.