fbpx

5 ways to deal with common PhD challenges

Being a PhD candidate isn’t easy. I believe that you can relate to this. Let me assure you – you’re not alone. We all experience similar PhD challenges, ranging from lack of motivation to workaholism.

I’m not saying this to discourage you – don’t get me wrong. Your research can substantially change our understanding of the world we live in or develop innovative solutions that solve the current (and future) challenges we’re facing. Essentially, we’ve got the power to make our world a better place to live!

Regardless of the importance of your research, there’re always distractions and challenges that drain your motivation. And this is fine – as I wrote earlier, it’s not sustainable to succeed all the time.

You need to reduce these as much as you can to drive your research further, develop, prove feasibility and potentially, commercialise new ideas. From my own experience, I’ve realised that there’re several sources of demotivation that can prevent you from reaching your full potential during your PhD.

Here I list the most pressing PhD challenges that may significantly derail your PhD progress. I share my own reflections on how to best avoid these to reach your full potential and stay motivated during PhD. 

PhD Challenge #1: Uncertainty! 

To create solutions to our challenges, we need to go beyond the current state-of-the-art. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have struggled to solve these challenges! Therefore, we’ve got to come up with blue-sky ideas as the current technology or knowledge merely is insufficient or not advanced enough to provide ultimate solutions.

One of the key PhD challenges that PhD researchers need to deal is the uncertainty of exploratory research to push the boundaries of science and develop blue sky ideas that will solve global challenges such as cliamte change, climate emergency, water scarcity, poverty and meet sustainable development goals.
Research is uncertain! Get comfortable with blue sky ideas to enjoy your PhD degree.

Although uncertainty is an inherent part of the research, it’s the main PhD challenge. It’s rather easy to get demotivated when the direction of your research is uncertain. The power of uncertainty is so strong that it can make you question the importance of your work, especially if nobody else tried to do what you’re doing before. But imagine if this led Stephen Hawking to quit! 

Solution: 

Remember that research is by its nature exploratory. This means that it’s OK that you don’t know something or cannot easily explain something of the top of your head. It’s our role as researchers to make sense of new things and groundbreaking phenomena. We work to develop an understanding of the underlying principles and influencing variables and come up with a sensible explanation that we can share with others to raise their knowledge.

Personally, I found it difficult to transition from the “certain” world, in which each piece of information was given in the task and it was sufficient to use equations from the textbook, to the real “uncertain” world.

However, once I understood working with uncertainty is part of the process, I was able to progress with my work much faster. This was because I was OK with making assumptions regarding the systems I worked with. I understood, however, that these assumptions must be well justified!

The sooner you’ll become OK with this part of the PhD process and research in general, I’m sure you’ll see a rapid boost in motivation and productivity. Also, make sure you’ve got a reliable support system that’ll help you get through the tough times!

PhD Challenge #2: Lack of support from or inconsistent supervisory team 

Because of the uncertainty and risks associated with your PhD project, you will be supervised by experienced academics. Their role is not only to make sure you complete your PhD on time and up to a required standard. They should primarily develop you as an independent researcher who’ll be capable of leading projects and developing others.

Lack of support or inconsistent requirements of the supervisory team is one of the main PhD challenges many of us experience in our PhD degrees
Your supervisory team should be there for you and develop you into an independent researcher! It doesn’t mean they’ll solve all your problems… (Source: PhD Comics)

Remember this – the supervisory team is there to help you, not to be yet another PhD challenge. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. One of the main reasons for getting stuck in your project, or even getting fed up with it, is simply lack of supportive work environment, lack of supervision, or inconsistency in the requirements among the members of the supervisory team. 

Solution:

I must admit that my PhD degree was one of the steepest learning curves I experienced in my life. I’m sure you’re experiencing the same!

Any PhD project requires an enormous effort and commitment, and it’s apparent that you need direction and mentoring from senior academics, especially at the very beginning. Unfortunately, it’s quite common that you don’t receive the support you need.

Although we’re usually worried to discuss our PhD challenges directly with our supervisors, it may actually be a good idea to overcome this fear and talk directly with them to explain your needs. In my experience, being able to stand up for yourself, challenge ideas and approaches of others, communicate your needs, and being able to ask for support is essential in academic life.

You’ll achieve the best results if in such discussions you recognise that the PhD degree is supposed to prepare you for the independent research, but you also admit that you need guidance and mentoring to get there. I know this may be out of your comfort zone, but this is how we grow. It’ll be easier next time – I promise! After all, we all need mentors to achieve our best!

If your supervisory team is still not providing enough support, you may draw from the resources available at your university. Discuss your PhD challenges during your progress review meetings, develop a study group at your university or with peers in your research area. Be creative and innovate in your development, and you’ll see your motivation levels will rise, you’ll solve your PhD challenges and enjoy your work! 

PhD Challenge #3: Research challenges and failures 

Regardless of whether your research is experimental or theoretical, it’s certain that you’ll face some obstacles along your journey. That could be anything from lack of sufficient data, through expiry of the software licence to a severe failure of your experimental rig. In any case, these PhD challenges may derail your research plan, especially when they come unexpectedly.

Moreover, once you sort out such obstacles and produce results, you’re very likely to present them in the form of a journal article. If you consider respected journals, your work will most likely be reviewed by other researchers and scientists in your field. This means there’s a chance that you’ll be asked to significantly revise your manuscript before it can be published. Your manuscript may also be rejected from the journal, if a reviewer finds any (not always valid) reason to do so.

As we all know, being rejected is not the best feeling…

Solution:

I remember what I felt when I received comments on my very first paper I submitted to the journal – I was angry, disappointed, and sad. After all, I spent so much time doing my work and drafting the manuscript. It had also gone through several (painful) iterations between myself and the supervisory team before it was submitted to the journal. Yet, the reviewers had even more questions and questioned the novelty of my work.

Looking from the perspective of 40+ papers published in prestigious journals and 70+ reviews as a peer reviewer, I can see now why I shouldn’t feel that way in the first place. Let me explain something I had to understand myself.

PeerReview
A road to getting an academic paper accepted may be long and challenging. It’s important, however, to recognise the value that the peer-review process can bring to your publication (Cartoon by Nick D. Kim, strange-matter.net. Source)

Peer-reviews are there to ensure your science is sound and presented in the way the readers can understand it and its implications. Assuming the reviewers genuinely want to help science and the community, they don’t target your capabilities, your performance or personality in any way. They’re there to help you!

So the best way to approach even a very negative review is…to leave it for a couple of days and then go through the reviewer’s suggestions one by one and use them to improve your work. Remember these are just suggestions and you’ve got right not to agree with them – in such case you need to provide a strong justification for your view.

I know it’s difficult not to take it personally. This is an important PhD challenge! Still, a genuine review aims to help you improve your work and achieve even better impact, not to criticise you as a person or a researcher. Yes, some reviewers can be biased and provide fierce feedback – don’t take it personally. They usually “volunteer” to peer-review your work, may have had a bad day or misunderstood something. In any case, use feedback to improve your work. And please, don’t get down or, even worst, engaged in meaningless fights.   

From my experience, I find it useful to have a couple of experts in my research area to review and “approve” my work. Such reviews will give you confidence in your results and a methodical approach. After all, none of us wants a paper published with errors in methodology or results that may lead to misleading conclusions.

This is because we usually spend hours doing research and drafting our manuscript and we may not spot the errors or omissions. Because we understand the results much better than the reader, who may not have the relevant background or context, we may unconsciously include mental shortcuts in our writing. Peer-reviewers are there to help you solve this PhD challenge and make sure your manuscript is well understood. 

Finally, some of the PhD challenges I indicated above, like equipment failures or papers rejections, are often beyond our control. We can derive the best risk management and control plans, which include comprehensive mitigation approaches – yes, these do help in most of the cases.

But there may be some other instances that may still derail our progress. Because we aren’t always in control of these instances, we need to accept that such failures are an inherent part of academic life.

was once told that being an academic is about managing failures, rather than success. I guess if you accept this, you’ll be more confident and motivated, as the fear of the possibility of failure will go away!  

PhD Challenge #4: Competition 

As in any aspect of our life, we are often competing with other researchers to develop a solution to the same challenge or to perform a similar experiment to demonstrate a breakthrough phenomenon. In my view, there’s nothing more demotivating than your work being scooped and published by another researcher. 

A key PhD challenge is competition that may scoop your research and develop the solutions to the problems you are trying to solve faster
The only way to avoid being scooped is to lead your field and collaborate!

Solution:

There’s no other solution to this PhD challenge than keeping innovating in your research area and staying at the forefront of science. Remember, if you’re leading the way, the others will need to catch up with you, and you’ll be dictating the rules of the game.

In the unfortunate case that someone beats you to demonstrate something, don’t throw your work into the bin! It’s always useful to repeat their experiments or evaluation to verify the results. Once you understand what they did and how they did it, you may come up with ways of doing it more efficiently.

You may also consider the factors they haven’t considered or conduct additional analysis to better understand the phenomena. What’s important is to stay positive and, possibly, engage with your “competitors” to co-create better science! 

PhD Challenge #5: Success of others

This somehow links to PhD Challenge #4 but considers both internal and external connections. Although by nature we’re social creatures and often wish our friends and colleagues the best, their success can fuel negative feelings about our work. This PhD challenge can, therefore, have a negative influence on our confidence and motivation. This can hit you especially when you’re stuck with your research, while your colleagues get multiple papers published, present at prestigious conferences and, regardless of that, they manage to get something out of the life, they travel, go out with friends, set up families. You may start to question if your PhD is worth the effort at all. 

Being envy of others success is another PhD challenge that may strip you off your motivation and derail your project.
It’s important to have clear goals to keep your motivation up!

Solution:

Although the PhD research is highly uncertain, as I discussed in the PhD Challenge #1, it’s good to try to set some personal goals that you want to achieve:

  • think about how many publications would be reasonable in your area and considering the scope of your project; 
  • identify the relevant conferences in your research area and discuss with your supervisory team or mentors; 
  • engage with your colleagues so that they involve you in some of their work, share their tips and best practice and include you in the social activities!

Personally, I didn’t get the last point quite well during my PhD. As a result, my “work-life balance” was mainly “work balance” – it would’ve been quite a lonely road if it hadn’t been for my wonderful wife Magda!

Having strong support from friends and family is a must during the PhD journey. Nevertheless, I was overworked and spent most of my days working on my PhD.

Looking from the perspective, if I managed my work-life balance better, I would’ve planned my research activities smarter. I wouldn’t have lost so much time on corrections and repeat work, having more time for travelling with family and friends to explore the wonderful world we live in!  

A final word…

I hope you’ll find my reflections and thoughts on these PhD challenges useful during your PhD degrees.

I know there’re as many PhD challenges as there are PhD researchers. We’re all different and your journey and struggles may be completely different from mine.

Therefore, I encourage you to share your PhD challenges and share your ways of dealing with them in the comment. Together we can find a solution and help you keep motivated and reach your full potential in your PhD! 

    Like this article?

    Share on facebook
    Share on linkedin
    Share on twitter
    Share on pinterest
    David

    David

    Academic Coach at Motivated Academic, senior lecturer at Cranfield University, UK.

    Leave a comment