What to do when you feel like you just can’t do it anymore

There are many struggles you’ll encounter during your PhD experience, two of the major ones being feeling overwhelmed, and feeling completely stuck. Both are things I’ve come up against quite a lot over my 2 and a half years of being a PhD researcher, especially the former due to my depression and anxiety. So, in this two-part blog I thought I’d share my tips for how to deal with both scenarios.

Feeling Overwhelmed

Every PhD researcher has days when they feel like they can’t keep up what they’re doing. It’s such an awful sensation, feeling like you’re being pulled in a hundred different directions, with so much to do that it’s hard to concentrate on one thing without feeling guilty for not doing one of the other million things. Sometimes you feel completely paralysed, unable to carry on at all.


Jack the skeleton, my oftentimes spirit animal

Coping with the stress of a PhD probably induces more of these days than average. I’m by no means an expert at getting through them, but I’ve also realised that I don’t have to be, and neither does anyone else. No one is perfect, and having got this far through my PhD and knowing others at different stages of their own, it constantly amazes me that anyone is able to keep slogging their way through it. Often, I look back on what I’ve achieved and the trials I’ve had to go through to get to where I am now, and I’m amazed that I’ve come so far. These are the things that I’ve learnt along the way.

1. Remember that it’s okay to take time off. While I’m not the best at doing this, especially when I have deadlines looming and a million things to do, ultimately you have to come first. Sometimes, what you need most is to take a day out, for yourself and your sanity, and in fact for your research. I sometimes spend a day sleeping in, watching TV, and spending time with friends (all while shamelessly wearing sweatpants). It’s okay to need a self-care day – in fact, it’s vital. Without you, there is no research, so you have to look after yourself first.

2. Take yourself out of the situation. Maybe, like me, you’ve been holed up in your bedroom or office for hours or even days on end. This claustrophobia in itself can be both isolating and overwhelming, and it’s important to leave your desk/office, and walk away. At the SGSAH, we’re incredibly lucky to be living in one of the most beautiful countries in the world, and it’s worth making the most of that. Sometimes when I feel overwhelmed I’ll go out for a walk on the beach to clear my head and to give myself a break from research. It’s also a great way to get exercise – I’m not a gym person (though I wish I was!), and often my physical health takes a back seat when I’m really busy. But just getting out for a walk in nature can be so beneficial, both mentally and physically.


St Andrews Castle at sunset

3. Know that you’re not alone. It’s so easy to compare yourself to other, seemingly more successful PhD students, but I can guarantee that every researcher has at some point felt utterly overwhelmed. Someone you often feel jealous of, who always seems to be super successful, has probably even felt the same jealousy towards you. At the end of the day though, everyone’s PhD is different, and everyone needs to do different things with their time – just because a fellow researcher has written loads of articles and gone to loads of conferences doesn’t mean that you have to be doing the same. The experience, however, is just as stressful for everyone – and that’s the only thing you should be comparing. In fact, you should share it – you will find that most doctoral candidates will very quickly open up and share their experience with you. I know I’ve spent hours on end with fellow PhDs, discussing the ins and outs of our experiences. Ranting is great therapy, after all. I’ve also found blogging a great way to organise my thoughts and feelings, and take some time out from academic work to see the bigger picture – it’s been very cathartic.

4. Remind yourself why you’re doing this. Maybe you just want to be able to call yourself ‘Dr’, or you have your heart set on an academic career or something else that requires a doctorate. Maybe, like me, you have a cause you’re passionate about which drives you on. Whatever it is, take a step back and think about the end goal – it will spur you on and give you the grit to get through the tough times.

5. Be kind to yourself. Know that it’s okay to feel overwhelmed, and that it’s a normal part of the experience. It’s so easy to feel like a failure because you haven’t got everything done that you wanted to, but often we just expect too much of ourselves. And when we judge ourselves, it’s easy to feel judged by others too, feeling that others must think we’re not working hard enough, or worry what people will think if we take some time out. Remember that you answer to only yourself, that you don’t have to justify yourself and your feelings to anyone else. Everyone is unique, so you have to do what’s best for you – pay attention to yourself and your feelings, and figure out what you need.

Ultimately, all I can do is say what works for me, but I hope that some of these tips will come in handy for fellow PhD students who, like me, sometimes just feel like they can’t keep going. Most importantly, I hope it shows everyone who is struggling, or has struggled, or who will struggle in the future, that they aren’t alone.

If I can say anything, it’s this: you will get through this. Remember what you’ve achieved, and how far you’ve come. Most of all, remember that you are incredible.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Theodore Roosevelt

Make sure to tune in next week to see my advice for the other major trial of PhD research – feeling stuck!

Images kindly provided by David Jones.

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with Lizzie via email at egm9@st-andrews.ac.uk or connect with the blog on Twitter

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