Perfectionism and the PhD: the dread of completion

I don’t know if it’s just my intense perfectionism, but I have a real fear of finishing things, signing off, and saying I’m done. I’ve always been terrible at doing so, handing in essays right on the deadline during my undergrad. Once or twice, I even edited an essay within an inch of its life the morning it was due. During my Master’s degree, it got to the point where I had to set myself a separate deadline for the day before the actual deadline, to make sure I wasn’t still editing on the day of handing in.

You’d think that the ultimate goal of finishing my PhD and the relief of my thesis finally being written would be great motivation, but I’m experiencing the same feeling now as I get towards the end of my PhD. At the moment, I’m writing the final big chunk of my thesis – a chapter about Beowulf. In some ways, I left the worst ’til last, as the work involved in researching this poem is enormous because the field is just so big. In other ways, it’s a relief to be putting off completing the final chapter, because when I do, that’s when I have to start editing, filling in the gaps (of which I’m sure there are many), making my chapters coalesce into a coherent whole, and thinking about handing in the full thesis.


I’ve always struggled with perfectionism – it’s one of the main symptoms of my OCD. In some ways it’s a great thing, because it means I’m thorough about everything I do. For me, it’s also a great way to counterbalance my depression and anxiety – my drive to succeed and perfect everything that I do keeps me going on days when I’m struggling. But along with the upsides of perfectionism comes a crippling fear of letting things go. I’ve developed a general rule throughout higher education: if I can’t bear to look at it anymore, it’s time for an essay (or whatever it is) to be handed in. I get the feeling that handing in my thesis is going to take a lot more willpower though… And when is it even time to let go of your thesis anyway? I don’t think many, if any people who complete their thesis are truly ready to let it go.

One of my main problems is thinking that I can keep on making my work better through continuous editing. But the truth is (and this is something I often have to remind myself of), at some point editing is going to make it worse, rather than better. Once you’ve got the content how it needs to be, that’s when you need to start thinking about wrapping it up. If you start questioning every little word and rephrasing every sentence, you’ll become bogged down in a sea of self-doubt, and face thousands of re-writes. Yes, fixing typos and references matter, but when you’re at the point of just arbitrarily changing words (which I often find myself doing), it doesn’t really matter. You’re not going to pass or fail your PhD on whether you rewrote every word. Editing often seems to be driven more out of panic that your work isn’t good enough, rather than an actual need to make changes to it.


As I write this, I’m half-convincing myself that this is true. I know that once I start getting towards finishing, my inner critic is going to start telling me that I need to edit, edit, edit. The red pen will start coming out as I circle, cross out, add in. As everyone knows, your inner critic is your harshest. But at some point, that red pen isn’t going to make things better. You have to trust that you’ve done the very best that you can, find the courage to tell your inner critic that they’re wrong, and have faith in your own words.

Images kindly provided by David Jones.

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