hand reaching out for help

#55: 7 signs you need help with your PhD

Are you behind schedule or stuck with your PhD? Do you feel overwhelmed and mentally drained? Do you feel unsupported by your supervisors or are you experiencing trouble with dissertation writing? All of these are clear signs that you need help with your PhD in order to complete it successfully.  

We have often experienced that PhDs struggle. It’s not like it’s a sporadic issue; most PhD candidates have problems, and there are only a few who get through their PhD without ruffled feathers. Of course, undertaking a PhD is not meant to be easy – you’re tasked with discovering new knowledge and contributing to the advancement of science. Intellectually, as well as regarding to your scientific skills and academic performance, it is a highly demanding undertaking! But did you know that the majority of PhD students is unable to complete on time and finishes with a big delay? And, even more serious, that depending on country, university, graduate programme and discipline there are drop-out rates of more than a third of the PhD students (Council of Graduate Schools 2008, HEFCE 2007, Högskoleverket, Statistiska Centralbyrån 2011, NIFU 2012, Schoot et al. 2013, European Science Foundation 2017, Rooij, E et al. 2019, TU Delft 2019). 

Experiencing minor struggles once in a while is normal – and with these, you often can find a way out yourself. However, there are some clear signs that indicate it is crucial that you reach out for help, because if these problems persist it might be very difficult (or even unlikely) that you are able to complete your PhD.

The earlier you spot the signs of struggle, the better. This is why in this blog post, we list 7 clear indicators that you need help with your PhD and you need to change the way you are currently working. 

We have worked with thousands of PhD students and advised them how to overcome their problems and complete successfully for more than a decade now. In the conversations with them, the same issues come up again and again. This means that we can spot the warning signs that something is wrong already from the distance. To give you the benefit of our experience, we point out ‘typical warning signs’ for each of the seven issues mentioned below.

 And there is one thing that often surprises us. Many don’t seem to realise that you don’t have to suffer endlessly to complete a PhD degree. There is a smarter way to get through this. So if you realise that any of the signs we describe below might apply to you,

  1. take our test and 
  2. sign up to our next free Webinar, where we will present further strategies to change the way you work.

You need help with your PhD if …

1. You are behind schedule

Being afraid that you won’t be able to finish is a common struggle for PhD candidates who are in a more advanced stage of their PhD studies. You normally set up an initial plan for how to execute the research of your PhD at the start, and then you try and follow up on that. You’ve also got a fixed time period in which you are funded or when your contract or appointment will terminate. 

Typical warning signs: So you know, according to your plan, how far you should be with your project. But you have realised that you are lagging behind. Initially, there might just be a slight worry about your lack of progress, but this intensifies as you lose more time until you think that you might not make it to the finish line on time anymore. 

How it feels for you: You are pressured and desperate, and you don’t know how to move on or catch up. You’re anxious about how your future will look once you run out of funding, and you are afraid that in the worst case you won’t be able to complete your PhD at all. These constant worries affect your ability to work on your project and drive you nuts!

2. You are stuck with your project

In a PhD study, there are often many ways how to achieve your goals or answer your research questions. You know that there are different options, but you’re confused about which path would be the best choice. 

Typical warning signs: You’ve no clear idea and no clear plan right now for how to move on with your PhD project and get it successfully across the finish line. As a result, you probably work on several ideas or experiments simultaneously, without knowing which ones will work out. You try this and that; you hop from one experiment to the next without digging deep enough. You ponder options for how to move forward, but you are unable to make a decision for yourself. You lack clear goals and an actionable plan for the remaining time of your PhD. 

How it feels for you: You feel lost and sometimes desperate.  It’s as if you are going around in circles. You are nervous and under pressure, because you know that time moves fast and you’re not moving forward. 

It certainly does not have to be this way – sign up to our next free Webinar 

3. You are overwhelmed by your daily tasks 

During a PhD process you have considerable freedom to decide what to work on and how to structure your own time. But there are also a multitude of demands that are being placed on you. There are requests from supervisors and colleagues, a wealth of tasks to be organised for your own research, and often teaching duties or supervision on top of that (not to mention your own coursework). 

Typical warning signs: You are losing perspective of the tasks you have to tackle and you have no clue where to start. You try to do everything at once and you often work intensely and with high personal input. You don’t know what your most important tasks are so you can’t prioritise accordingly. You are steered by the requests and demands of others, rather than setting your own agenda. At the end of a day or week, you often feel dissatisfied with how much you have achieved. You have no system in place to organise your tasks, decide what is important and what is not, or structure your work days efficiently. 

How it feels for you: You are overwhelmed and sometimes lost. You are working all the time, but without making significant progress. 

4. You have anxieties and doubts

Working in a highly competitive, demanding, and stressful scientific environment takes a toll on many PhD students (Hasgall 2018, Hnatkova 2019, Nature 2019, Levecque et al. 2017, Scott & Takarangi 2019). As part of your PhD education, your work is also subject to a high degree of scrutiny and criticism from those around you. Not everyone is equally equipped to tackle this.

Typical warning signs: A sign that something is wrong is if you have constant and lasting worries about your PhD project. For example, you might be anxious about individual parts of your research; your results; whether your findings will be relevant; upcoming presentations in front of colleagues; or conversations with your supervisor or other staff members. 

You may also experience serious and ongoing doubts about yourself and your project. You question your capability to deliver results and your abilities as a scholar. In your view, your project is not nearly as good as the PhD projects of the other candidates around you, and you’re afraid you’re not ‘good’ enough to finish. It takes you a lot of energy to work on tasks for your PhD and you’re not looking forward to doing so. 

How it feels for you: You are mentally drained and exhausted. Your work days feel difficult and cumbersome, and your worries are spilling over into your spare time and taking the joy out of your life.

5. You have trouble with thesis or paper writing

A big part of achieving a PhD degree comes down to writing the dissertation in which you present your original research findings. Many PhD students experience difficulties with writing in general, and in particular with producing peer-reviewed papers and chapters of the dissertation. 

Typical warning signs:

  • You have postponed writing your dissertation until late in your PhD and now it’s difficult to get it finished in the remaining time, so you are under massive pressure.
  • You can’t find time to write, or you are postponing writing tasks. You only start to write when under pressure – such as upcoming deadlines or requests from supervisor.
  • You experience problems when you try to start writing – finding yourself staring at a blank page on your screen.
  • You are not satisfied with how much you write or the quality of what you write.  
  • You hate writing. 

How it feels for you: Writing your dissertation is an uphill struggle. Every writing session is like crossing the desert on bare soles – painful every step of the way. 

Why don’t you reach out for help and we can show you a smarter way to write your dissertation – join our upcoming free Webinar

6. You feel unsupported by your supervisor 

The relationship between supervisor and PhD student is a crucial one and has influence on the quality of the PhD (Max Planck PhD-net 2018). We know that many PhD students experience problems with their supervisors sooner or later in their process ( blog post no. 10: Good PhD-supervision: What you can expect). 

Typical warning signs: A sign that something is wrong is if you don’t meet your supervisor regularly so that they can follow up on your progress and support you in a meaningful way. You may also not get input on your ideas or feedback on how to progress with your work. When supervisory meetings take place, these are not well organised and the conversation is all over the place. You have problems getting your message across to your supervisor or you’re not comfortable speaking about problems openly. The feedback you receive on your work is unclear or superficial, leaving you without clear direction on how to move forward. Your supervisor may also sporadically change the direction of your research or come up with ad-hoc requests. 

How it feels for you: unsupported and subject to the changing moods and ideas of your supervisor. You are uncertain regarding the quality of your work, future requests, and when and how you will be able to complete your PhD. 

7. You experienced major interruptions in your PhD project

Every PhD project comes with a certain amount of risk and uncertainty. Despite good planning, there are individual activities in your research that can go wrong, and sometimes unforeseeable events happen, which make it necessary to fundamentally alter the planned path of a PhD. While this has always been the case, with the COVID-19 pandemic it has become a struggle for many PhD students. As a consequence of lockdown, travel restrictions etc., many PhD students can’t carry out their research as originally planned. To give you some examples:

You may have experienced failed experiments or measurements, loss of data, or break-down of equipment. You have not been able to obtain permission to sample data at the location you wanted to or did not get ethical clearance to undertake experiments. Field-campaigns or expeditions were cancelled or larger research initiatives (of which your PhD is a part of) were put on hold. 

As a result, you are set-back in time and under pressure now to finish with the remaining time & resources. In the worst case you’re back to square one with your research and you have to start all over again. In any event, you need a considerable re-orientation of your project, and major changes in your plan.

How it feels for you: You are desperate and uncertain about how to go on. You frantically need to figure out how to move on and complete your PhD successfully.

What if any of the above applies to you?

If you think that any of the above warning signs apply to you, please do take action! It does not help to carry on with ‘business as usual’. You have to change your strategy to save your PhD!  

  1. Take our test to get a clearer picture how serious your struggles are. 
  2. Join our free Webinar. We will give you more insights into how to move the problems with your PhD out of the way, so you can complete it successfully. Sign up now and we’ll inform you about the date and time of the next event.

Reaching out for help is smart and professional! We have helped thousands of PhD students move forward when faced with the exact problems we described above. We have specific strategies that you can transfer and implement for your own PhD project. End the struggle with your PhD! 



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