Navigating the murky waters of the Mid-PhD Slump

The mid-PhD slump. That is where I’m at. 1,329 days ago I started this part-time PhD; on paper it’s been 3,800 hours – and I still have approximately 3,400 to go….sigh…..The slump itself is eloquently described in this post by Sophie Arthur I read a recently.

There’s probably a number of potential reasons for my particular slump. Other PhD colleagues that started around the same time as me (full time) are submitting or in their final stages. Some who started after me are now over-taking me and will be submitting earlier than me. And while I have a plan ahead of what still needs to be done, there seems to be SO MUCH that still needs to be done that it’s daunting. (As captured perfectly by Game of Academics)

But the main source of my mid-PhD slump is that I’m still feeling confused (and therefore stupid) and I thought the feeling of confusion would go away by now.

Good news is that I’m no longer confused by the things that initially made me confused – I’ve moved onto bigger and better concepts and issues to occupy my confusion. It’s as if I’m wading into a river and just as I start getting clearer picture of the riverbed I’m standing on, through a deeper understanding of a relevant concept or knowledge in my field, when I take the next step there is a sudden drop and I find myself in deeper, but the riverbed is now murky and everything becomes hard to see.

In any other job that I’ve had there is a season when you first begin where everything is new and daunting (systems, protocols, job description etc). But then you start to feel competent and that ongoing confusion subsides. This academic research business is different.

What’s funny though is that after I realised this feeling of confusion (including making mistakes, and feeling like I don’t really know what I’m doing) was at the root of my discontent in my mid-Phd slump, I started to see evidence EVERYWHERE that confusion / uncertainty / failure were actually a very normal part of research –

On the back of a stranger’s hoodie:

Last Monday morning I arrived on campus by my usual bus (running late…. as usual) and as I stepped off the bus and started walking towards my building, the stranger only 2 metres in front of me (also walking towards my building) had on a hoodie with this quote on the back:

“If we knew what we were doing it would not be called research, would it?” – Albert Einstein

Even sparked up a conversation with the stranger about how it was the perfect Monday morning motivation.

Academic twitter:

I love following @Shawpsych (even if his morning coffee memes hit my feed in the evenings on the other side of the world!). This week he shared not only Bohr’s famous quote, but his only admission of mistakes.

In articles:

The Conversation also featured a great post about embracing confusion as a sign that you are actually engaging in learning.

Even last night I was reminded (thanks to Alexander Etz ) of this excellent article on the importance of stupidity in scientific research. It’s so refreshing in its honesty:

“The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries.” – Martin A. Schwartz

So this feeling is here to stay, research is going to continue to make me feel stupid and confused.

What can I do about that?

Well, as Jenny Rohn suggests I’m going to remind myself I’m good enough. (As an aside – I really would love to see a Scientist Mother Nobel prize awarded, that’d be awesome.)

While I might not understand something yet, history has shown that I can learn. The concepts I’m struggling with today will seem simple when I look back with the hindsight of understanding. And if the science greats of the past (and present) all admit to feeling like they weren’t/aren’t sure what they were doing, then at least I’m in good company.



And when I’m feeling like I’ve just stepped in a little deeper into that river of knowledge, I’m going to take the time to adjust to the deeper water, knowing that there are great treasures on the riverbed I’m currently standing on – I just need to wait for the water to settle and clear up a little.


*** Just as an appendix to this post. Seems I’m not the only one identifying the PhD as murky water. Here’s a fantastic post by Anitra Nottingham that uses the Swamp of Sadness in The Never-ending Story as an analogy. Anyone who grew up in the 1980’s will definitely appreciate this!


4 thoughts on “Navigating the murky waters of the Mid-PhD Slump

  1. Thank you, firstly, for reading my post! I feel your pain but after publishing my post I received lots of supportive messages from other PhD students and postdocs who had been through it and come out the other side! So it made me feel better knowing that it happens to most people and it does get better!! My slump is still ongoing but I feel so much better for sharing. I hope you find your light at the end of the tunnel soon 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your post! It really helped clarify my own thinking and got me reflecting on why I’m feeling the way that I am. So grateful for other PhD students who can appreciate what we are going through (as often those outside of academia don’t really understand). But I feel much better for sharing too. Thanks for reading & for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Totally understand. I was there and now feel as though I am on a steep slide on which I can’t get off! Recently I heard some wise words from Tara Brabazon which helped me to come to terms with my perfectionist self. This will not be my best work….it’s my first. PhD survival mantra is: aim for the door – not the stars!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good mantra! Yes, I’m sure our theses will be good enough 🙂 Don’t know if you are the type that likes steep slides but hang on, and try to enjoy the ride, as you slide into the home stretch!! The best is yet to come 🙂


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