scientist with pipette

#84: Four indicators that you should change how you work on your PhD

Is your PhD work not running quite as smoothly as you wish? It may be down to one or more unproductive habits or attitudes you have unknowingly adopted. Here, we’ll describe how a lack of focus, lack of initiative, loss of control, or lack of progress can torpedo your PhD success. Good news: It’s always possible to change your habits, and we’ll suggest how to get back on track.

We are in contact with many PhD candidates in our courses and related activities. And over time, we’ve learned about their typical struggles and problems. Today, we want to highlight 4 particular working habits and attitudes that we sometimes observe in our participants. None of these is helpful for obtaining a PhD degree. Rather, they are a pain in the neck, and can spoil the pleasure of being a PhD student, all while delimiting timely completion of your project. 

The good thing, however, is that there’s a remedy for each one. And, once you’ve discovered for yourself that you are in fact suffering from one or more bad habits, it’s always possible to change your behaviour or mindset and put yourself in a better position to joyfully complete your PhD degree. 

If you want to hear more about how to influence your chances for a timely and successful PhD completion, sign up for our nextfree webinar for PhD candidates

1. Lack of focus

Your PhD days pass by one after the other. You work ‘intuitively’ or ‘randomly’ on activities that seem relevant right now. You don’t have a clear sense of what is important or what you should work on first. You may feel uncertain whether what you’re doing has high priority, and you doubt whether what you’re doing is leading you to the PhD degree at all. You may also spend a disproportionate amount of time on activities that distract you from working on your PhD because they seem more fun or more exciting, like volunteering to organise graduate school events, helping to write the report to the funding agency for your project team, or explaining the lab protocols to the new interns. These fringe-activities give you a sense of purpose and meaning that you don’t get from working on your PhD project. 

The problem is …

With this habit, you are losing time fast, because you are not putting your PhD work center stage. You’re not focussing on the most relevant activities that will ultimately lead to PhD dissertation completion. Due to your lack of focus, and not prioritizing what is most important, you may do a lot of additional work that only makes a marginal contribution to your PhD. Lack of focus results in dissatisfaction and uncertainty. 

It can help you to …

  • Get a systematic overview of all your current and future tasks, e.g. by working with a task list.
  • Check out our blog post #72: 1000 things to do – no clue where to start
  • Once you’ve accumulated your tasks, try to batch them by those that are more important and those that are less important. Important as in what will help you produce your PhD thesis. 
  • Start thinking about how you can structure your workdays in a meaningful way. E.g. decide in the morning what your priorities for the day are, and in which order you are going to work on them.

2. Lack of initiative

You have a general attitude that you should wait for your supervisor, PI, group leader, or boss to give you input and direction for your PhD project. You believe that as a PhD candidate, you should follow their directions and the plans they set out for you, and this will (more or less automatically) result in you getting the PhD certificate at the end of your 3-4 year contract. 

Maybe you are still at the beginning of your PhD and you’re stuck in the mindset that helped you get your undergraduate or Master’s degree. Or, you work in a more hierarchical scientific setting, and that makes you think that you should do what you are told by those of higher rank. Or you are simply impressed by the scientific achievements and expertise of your supervisors, and you believe that they must know better than you what leads to successful PhD completion – the novice and PhD candidate with little expertise. Don’t get us wrong – of course you should listen to the advice of your supervisors during your PhD. But there is a fundamental difference between a PhD candidate who has ideas, plans, strategies, and is curious to try things out for themselves, and one who is more or less sitting and waiting to be told what to do out of the false belief that this is the way it should be. 

The Problem is …

Whatever made you adopt that belief, it won’t help you conquer your PhD. The PhD is a research training or education, at the end of which you’ll be an independent researcher. You have to grow into that person, and become that researcher who’s able to make their own decisions. Being stuck in a teacher-pupil mindset won’t help you get there, and is a misunderstanding of your role as a researcher in training, aka, a PhD candidate. 

It can help you to …

  • Become aware of your role and responsibility as a PhD candidate, and re-frame your own behaviour in that regard. Try and see yourself as the project leader of your PhD project. You are the leader – own it!
  • Become aware of situations when you are inclined to hold back, or are not making your own decisions, and think about how you can approach these situations differently. 
  • Take on and accept the responsibility that comes with being a PhD candidate. Ultimately, you are the person who is responsible for your PhD success. 
  • Develop your own ideas, and then discuss with your supervisors and ask how you might improve or what you could do better. 
  • Knowing that you are the project leader should also give you the courage and freedom to make decisions related to your project regarding the direction that you want it to take. 

3. Loss of control 

Does your PhD feel like a rollercoaster ride? Is it as if you were put on a track in a high-speed cart, turning left, right, rushing you up and down so that your head is spinning? This can occur when you are confronted with many requests at the same time while working in a fast-paced environment, and because you are part of a bigger project, you are tempted with a lot of opportunities or asked to join various activities at the same time. In short: you are perpetually steered by external forces, like the ideas of supervisors, other team members, or project partners, and there always seem to be multiple steps ahead of you, so you are merely bound to react. 

The Problem is …

You are stuck always reacting, and you never take control of your PhD project, or set your own agenda. Feeling out of control is stressful and exhausting. Instead of being in command of your project and proud of your achievements, you merely try to fulfil the requests that pop up around you. 

It can help you to …

  • First, get clarity on your PhD project and how you envision it unfolding in the long run. Then see how this can fit into the framework in which you work. You need a clear idea for your project, but you can remain open and flexible for opportunities that can enhance it. 
  • But you need to have an idea first, you need to know what constitutes your project, and then you can place it in the larger context, not the other way round. Trying to make a PhD out of the various activities popping up around you and bringing it under one umbrella might turn out to be mission impossible. 
  • Having a crystal clear idea of your aims in your PhD project is a crucial first step. This will enable you to decide which opportunities or activities make sense to incorporate, and which are outside of what you aim for.
  • Work out a project plan and share it not only with your thesis advisors, but with other colleagues or team members around you so they also know what you’re aiming for and can get a better idea how to cooperate with you in a meaningful way. Check out our blogpost #47: Plan your project – save your PhD! for instant help with your PhD planning.
  • Did you know that in our course ‘PhD Success Lab’, we take participants through all the steps of sharpening their project goals and setting up an agile project plan until hand-in date? If you want to hear more, sign up to our free webinar for PhD candidates 

4. Lack of progress

Are you dutifully showing up at the institute (or at the desk in your home-office) every single day and putting in more than the necessary hours? You’ve probably also only taken a few days off, and not taken much of your holidays. But the seemingly high workload is in contrast to the slow progress with your PhD. In other words, you invest a lot of time, but you don’t move ahead adequately. You may not be able to achieve the milestones that you set for yourself, or that others are expecting you to reach. You think you still don’t know enough and keep digging into the literature, you can’t get the draft of your first paper written, you’re stuck in an endless loop of analysing data, you have difficulties making sense of your results, or part of your experiments take way longer than expected – there are many reasons for slow progress. If you are afraid of being delayed with PhD submission, see blogpost #60: Are you delayed with your PhD?

The Problem is, that …

You may be overworked and exhausted from all the effort you put into your project, and disappointed with your achievements so far. In this situation, many PhD candidates are also low in motivation and doubt if they will ever get through their project and get the degree. You lack confidence, and this robs you of the energy you would need to push past your difficulties. But one thing is for sure – ploughing on as usual won’t help. You really need to change the way you work on your PhD. 

It can help you to …

  • Take a step back from the daily rut and reflect on your project. Try and find out what is causing your trouble. You’re probably so into the thick of it that you can’t find out how to get back on track and move ahead. 
  • Consider if you might be working on the wrong tasks (those that do not help you progress) or if you are doing much more than you would need to do (overcompensating is also widespread among PhD candidates), or if you are procrastinating.
  • Drill down specifically on what is important for you to achieve in your project in the end. What did you set out to do, and how far have you come with that? How does that correspond to what you are currently doing?. If your plans have changed, adjust your project plan and move on. 
  • Think about the final output of your PhD. What are you going to hand in to the faculty? What will constitute the dissertation, and what will move you across the finish line? See our blogpost #73 What’s needed to finish your PhD? for further details. 
  • Once you have defined that, ask yourself what you need to do to achieve exactly that. E.g. if your major output will be three published papers – what should you do to produce these three papers?
  • If you feel overworked, have a look at our blogpost #71: How to get a private life and a PhD

Whatever your problem, there is a solution!

Do any of the above mentioned problems sound quite familiar to you? Don’t despair! Figuring out what your problem is is the first step towards finding a solution. Whether it’s lack of focus, lack of initiative, loss of control, or a lack of progress, once you are aware of it, it is not massively difficult to change your habits and move your PhD back on track. If necessary, pick up some new skills that will help you to shed unhelpful beliefs or get rid of habits that torpedo your own success! 

If you are curious about how we can help you get on and stay on the right track towards PhD success, sign up for our free webinar for PhD candidates 

Further resources:

More information

Do you want to successfully complete your PhD? If so, please sign up to receive our free guides.

Photo by National Cancer Institute on

© 2021 Tress Academic