Based on conversations I’ve had with PGR and ECR colleagues, a PhD ‘slump’ is a very common experience. It typically occurs between the middle of second year and the start of third year, and is notorious for causing distress, difficulties with writing, and problems with productivity more broadly. This post is designed to give reassurance and some practical advice on how to manage the slump, and even how to dig yourself out of it.
In May of this year, I had my PhD confirmation, or second year ‘upgrade’. The months that followed were some of the hardest I have ever experienced. They were harder than overcoming bouts of depression in my MA year. They were harder than the first few weeks of my PhD, when I struggled to grapple with the enormity of my research topic. They were even harder than the months leading up to spinal surgery that I had four years ago. I cannot remember a time when I had felt as drained, hopeless, and despairing as I had in my second year slump.
The appraisers in my confirmation and my supervisor had been incredibly positive, yet that did not directly translate into a positive frame of mind or a positive working attitude. In spite of my passion for my PhD topic and all that surrounds it, I found myself totally lacking in motivation and energy. I felt like everything I had worked on thus far was completely worthless, and that there was no way it was ever going to become a whole thesis. In the first week, I attributed these feelings to tiredness following my confirmation. However, the days continued to drag, I continued to get out of bed later and later each day (despite being a habitually early riser), and I believed that the rest of my PhD was completely unachievable.
In carrying this crushing belief around with me on a daily basis, I couldn’t write. Any morsels that I did manage to write were immediately relegated to the ‘Spare Parts’ file on my laptop. I kept comparing my unproductive state to my previous hyper-productivity – something that Dr George Gosling has written about on his blog. While this was problematic in the immediate term due to deadlines (that PGRs and academics are all too aware of), it was also highly distressing. Like many others, my sense of self-worth is intimately bound up in my PhD, my research, and my writing. As such, the state of my writing usually reflects my physical and mental state. In addition, when I can’t write, I become even more distressed. It’s a vicious cycle.
Until meeting Dr Mark Benson at this year’s Social History Society Conference at Keele University in June, I did not have a phrase or point of reference for this experience. Mark asked me what year of my PhD I was in, to which I answered that I was in my second year. He immediately fired back with ‘Ah, so you’re experiencing the second year slump?’. I had not realised that what I was experiencing was so common, or that it actually had a name.
It has more than a name. In fact, when I asked academics how they would describe this experience in one word or phrase, a whole range of emotional associations were attached to this phrase. Words like ‘inertia’, ‘paralysis’, and ‘despair’ were given on Twitter. Those who replied elaborated on these words, explaining how it affected them and their work. Here are a few select examples:
Dr Katherine Rawling: ‘It felt like I didn’t write anything for ages – I couldn’t find the words. I wish I’d just kept writing, writing anything, no matter what the quality…’
Natalie Mullen: ‘It felt like the combination of decreased motivation and increased workload – lots of procrastination and burying my head in the sand. I wish I’d taken a proper break to reignite motivation rather than bashing my head against the wall every day trying to “power through”’.
Dr Hannah Elizabeth Kershaw: ‘Purgatory. As imagined by Pullman with swathes of dead (thoughts) in grey scale & harpies zipping about the place yelling about deadlines. The only reassuring thought was that it happens to everyone and does go away.’
Dr George Gosling: ‘My late second-year/early third-year slump, or really total collapse, was probably what people in many other lines of work would recognise as “burn out”.’
After pondering over this, I think there are many reasons why this might occur.
A few ideas:
– Post-confirmation or upgrade, you have a realistic idea of how much you have left to do. Even if the comments you have received are positive, the rest of your PhD is no longer an endless stretch of abstract time. You are fully aware of the flaws in your work, and that you have a limited amount of time to address them.
– Working for long stretches of time without taking time off. Many of us try to ‘power through’, with a smattering of half-hearted days off here and there. However, there’s a huge difference between procrastination and an inability to work. Sometimes you need to force yourself to write with strict, disciplined structures, but sometimes you just need to stop.
– The realities of the job market. As you enter your second and third year, you are no longer a ‘first-year’ – you can no longer distance yourself from the icy winds of the academic job market. When this is combined with deadlines and end-of-PhD-stress, it can be a lot to juggle on a daily basis.
– Academic structures and how they affect mental health. This has been written about extensively; for more on this, see the work of Laura Sefton and Dr Catherine Oakley.
In late August, I had a bit of breakthrough, and my PhD started to feel more feasible again. Although this feeling does eventually go away, and difficult structures continue to exist within academia, there were a few things that made a real difference to my daily life during this period.
Some practical suggestions:
– Exercise, but in particular, exercise that requires intense concentration and coordination. I upped my practice of yoga to five days a week, instead of one day a week. I mixed home yoga practice (Yoga with Adriene on Youtube is a great way of doing yoga for free), with yoga practice at a studio in Lancaster. The practice of yoga requires deep concentration – particularly due to the way in which yoga poses necessitate balance. In these classes, you can’t be thinking about the structure of your thesis, or you’ll probably fall over. I added to this by using meditation apps like Headspace (Calm is also a good option) – which you can try for free.
– Take time off, and take it seriously. Turn off your mobile phone (if you can), do not check your emails, do not go on Twitter (if you use it for work, it’s work!), and even store your laptop somewhere (I often give it to my mother for safe keeping). Be committed to your time off.
– Find something that is personally comforting to you and integrate it into your daily routine. For me, this was a mixture of the Great British Bake Off and Gilmore Girls.
– Find a kind routine that works for you in this period. I adopted the Swedish Six-Hour Working Day. This involved being strict about the time that I woke up, as I know that I work better in the mornings, but I finished my days between 3 and 4pm. While you are technically working for fewer hours, it is far more productive and far less drawn out at a time when you’re struggling. This doesn’t work for everyone, and does involve less time checking social media, but in this crisis period it worked well for me.
– Try ‘snack writing’. Snack writing encourages you to write for between 45 minutes and 2 hours a day. When you’re deep in the PhD slump, this is far more realistic. For more on this, see Hugh Kearns and Maria Gardiner.
– Talk to other PhD students and ask them to read your work. I asked my good friend and PGR colleague, Natalie Mullen, to read a section of my work that I was convinced was utterly bin-worthy. She provided some much-needed perspective and made me realise that all my work needed was some tiny adjustments.
– Contact your supervisor. Being honest about the difficulties you are experiencing can be very reassuring. When I finally told my primary supervisor about the difficulties I was having over summer, he was very understanding, and could immediately relate to what I was experiencing.
In short, be kind to yourself. This experience is far more common than you realise.
1+3 PhD Candidate, Lancaster University
Co-founder of the North West Medical Humanities PG Network