Michael Leunig
Michael Leunig

By Claire

First thing I need to make really clear, is that I love my PhD. I love what I’m researching and I love the people I am working with. Up until this point, I have been really lucky. My PhD has been a breeze. You hear all the time about people who come to loathe the research they are doing a couple of years in to it. I am not one of those people. I am one of the lucky ones who have coasted through so far. I still enjoy what I am researching and I enjoy coming in to work each day.

That is until now. 

Now, I still love what I am doing – don’t get me wrong, but lately, things have started becoming more of a struggle. It has been that little bit harder trying to convince myself to get out of bed to come in to work to continue tackling the problem I left the night before in a fit of frustration (the fact that it’s freezing cold outside isn’t helping that struggle at all).

My PhD, which up until this point has been a breeze, has started to become a lot more challenging. Unfortunately, the challenges aren’t coming from the research itself, but issues of being a researcher.

I have been writing a journal article for over a year now, and for reasons outside of my control, I still haven’t been able to submit it (or even circulate it to my collaborators). A year ago I was really excited about my paper. Six months ago, I was still excited, but a little frustrated. Now, I am just frustrated.

The material that I am writing up hasn’t changed much, it’s simply my attitude towards it that has. Now, when I think about the paper I sigh and reluctantly open up Word to keep working on it. It’s hard to get excited again about something that has lost its shine.

I am presenting this paper in progress at a conference next week, and I am struggling to find the right things to say to convince people that the work I am doing is worthwhile. It doesn’t help that six months ago, I presented essentially the exact same talk at a different conference. It really brought it home to me how little I had progressed in this area when I went to prepare my talk for next week and realised that I can pretty much just bring out my old talk again. The only thing that has changed is some of the figure formatting.

So what are you supposed to do when things start to become a struggle?

Firstly, I like to start by being thankful for all the wins I have had in my PhD up until this point. I know some people who have struggled through their PhD from the start. I am very lucky that it has taken me two years to start to experience one of those famous “downs” that you hear about all the time.

The other thing that I am finding helpful is to talk about it with the people around me. Sometimes, you just need to whinge and moan about things for a while before you can move on. That’s ok. It’s part of doing a PhD. Whether it’s grabbing a friend for a coffee date, or chatting to your supervisor, or writing a long and whinging blog post, you need to get it all out before you can move forward.

So now that I have cleared a few things off my chest, how do I move forward from here? Well, I think the key is in sharing your work with other people. When you no longer feel enthusiastic about what you’re doing, show it so someone who will be. I recently gave the latest draft of my never ending paper to my supervisor. Although what I received back is covered in edits, I also got some great feedback and assurance that it is good and interesting work that’s worth the slog.

I also am a huge advocate of taking some time off to step back from what you’re doing. Next week I’m off to a conference, and I am really looking forward to taking some time off from sitting at my desk and actually engaging with other scientists. I always seem to come back from conferences pumped up and excited about what I’m doing. It just helps to get some perspective and distance some times. If you don’t have a conference to go to, maybe take a personal day and get a massage, or watch the complete Alien franchise movies back-to-back, whatever you need to do to re-set.

I’d love to hear your suggestions on ways you have pulled yourself out of a rut. After all, we’ve all been there.