Career Magazine

How to Thrive as a Research Student. Part 2. Overcoming Self-doubt

By Olgadegtyareva

How to thrive as a research student. Part 2. Overcoming self-doubt(The article is originally published in the Issue 12 of the EuSci – the Edinburgh University Science Magazine)

“What if I’m not good enough?”

“What if my supervisor is not satisfied with my work?”

Often such thoughts of self- doubt can get between you and your PhD project. Your intention to finally make some progress is replaced with anxiety. If, in addition, your results do not reflect the time and effort you invested in your project, this will inevitably have an impact on your motivation and slow you down. Self-doubt has the power to reduce your effectiveness for days or even weeks. You will start to avoid work altogether and lose yourself in procrastination. Sound familiar?

As Paul Coehlo puts it in his novel The Alchemist, “There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.” If your dream is to successfully complete your PhD, you should read on. In this issue, I will teach you some simple tricks and strategies to control your self-doubt. These methods will require some practice, but once you get the hang of them, nothing will be able to stop you. Other students I have worked with to overcome their self-doubt say these techniques have enabled them to resist procrastination, work effectively on their project and make significant progress.

The first step to overcoming self-doubt is to identify the de-motivating thoughts that keep you from continuing your project. These thoughts might sound like, “I will never be able to finish in time” or “I will never get this experiment to work”. Did you identify the thoughts that bring you down? Now tell yourself that these issues are no longer relevant to you. The principle is to outsmart yourself. Pretending for just an hour that this particular issue does not matter to you will give you some relief and the strength to work on your project. You will be able to focus on your work and generate results that can help to build up your confidence again.

Now that you have learned this technique, we can go one step further. We will take your self-doubting thoughts and turn them into positive and empowering ones. Let’s say you think, “My supervisor won’t like my results”. Instead of building your thoughts around your supervisor’s opinion, focus on the experience you will gain from working on the project. Turn the thought around to, “I enjoy working on this project because I learn lots of new things that contribute to my personal growth.”

If you have a discouraging thought like, “I don’t know how I am ever going to finish my PhD”, you can turn it around to, “I am making progress by moving forward one step at a time.” This will encourage you to break your project down into smaller and more manageable tasks. You can then focus on each of them, one at a time.

This method also works for more concrete tasks within your project like starting to write a report or your thesis. “I don’t know enough” might be one of your thoughts. You keep yourself busy with reading more and more articles and browsing the internet for more ‘useful’ information. But you can’t go on like this forever. At some point you need to turn your thought into, “I am going to start writing with what I know now and learn everything I need to know as I move along.”

For now, simply pretend for a while that your sneaky, disempowering thoughts no longer matter to you and simply do your work. Turn your self-doubt into motivating thoughts that will help you to do an hour of uninterrupted work on your project. You might be surprised how effective a bit of self-deception can be.

Related article:

How to thrive as a research student. Part 1. What NOT to do.

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