Hit a low point. Advice needed.


======= Date Modified 28 Oct 2011 02:11:15 =======
Hi All,

A couple of months back I felt happy with PhD life. I thought I had a clear idea of my research topic and a logical chapter structure. To be honest, things had perhaps been going too well. I'd graduated with a first on my undergrad degree, went straight into an MA with a full studentship, graduated with distinction, then went straight into a funded PhD in the same department. I've grown used to affirmation; though perhaps encouragement is more common in higher education than in the real world (at least in my experience). I'm not stating any of this to suggest my university record is in any way impressive (and in reality I'd imagine comparable with the great majority of contributors to this forum). Rather, of late, I've started to question whether my academic qualifications are genuinely representative of my abilities.

The last month has been an unmitigated disaster. One of my thesis chapters was ripped apart by peers, while I received rejection letters regarding two different journal submissions in the last week. This perfect storm of negative feedback has really shaken my confidence. I also need to rework the abovementioned chapter within a short window and at present I'm unsure how to resolve the problems with it. In other words, what's become apparent is that I may slog my guts out for the next two years and end up with an MPhil or no qualification whatsoever. If the kind of feedback I've received of late is comparable to what I can expect in a viva, I'm genuinely scared. The fact that I've worked morning, noon and night throughout the summer and seem to have produced nothing of merit has left me at a really low ebb. I've spent the last few days contemplating why I'm doing something that's making me feel so awful.

What's worse, any thoughts I have of leaving are accompanied by a tremendous sense of guilt: the university and its staff have really invested in me, I'm tremendously grateful, and really don't want to let anyone down. Am I making mountains out of molehills? How many others have hit points where they think I genuinely can't hack this any more? I've no objection to constructive feedback, but when everything you've done for the last six months has essentially been trashed, it hardly feels like you're onto a winner. All thoughts or advice are welcome.


Hi Nick1

I too was a 'wunderkind' at my university & sailed through with 1st hons (skipped ma) got fully funded PhD - I didn't run into academic adversity in the PhD, but I began to question whether having everything from my (mid-rate) university was going to be the best career-move, plus, I think I was just burnt out.

I ended up leaving about 12 months into the degree & was away fro 5 years doing something totally different. I have re-entered now & am much happier at a different university and with working/self-funding for the first ha;f of the degree anyway - although I may take a year of to finish.

I think everyone's PhD journey is very different & although it may be time for you to consider whether this is what you really want for the next few years, it may just be a rough couple of weeks that will prove to be a turning point in your research. My advice would be not to rush to any type of action but to see this period through for a while - talk to your sup if you can, perhaps a campus counsellor and take a step back from your work & really allow yourself to assess what you want to do.

Good luck.


My advice would be to take some time away from thinking about the problems you face with re-working things. Sitting staring at in and constantly thinking about it will only make you more stressed and won't help. If you can destress a little it will help you think more clearly about the things you need to address. If you have good feedback this can help enormously in addressing the problems you face, and once you get around them your work will probably be better for it.

I've published about 10 papers now and almost everyone has initially come back from the journal with a 'rejection'. The language the editors use is often very abrupt and matter of fact, unless the referee's problem is with the whole basis of your work there are usually ways around this, and the correspondence between yourself and the referee(s)/editor(s) is often just a negotiation which is all part of the 'game'. Think unemotionally about your work and their comments and then start to address them. The same is true of your thesis chapter, having other peoples input gives you a wider perspective and new ideas, and while it may be frustrating at the moment it will hopefully help your work in the long term, also once you know how to deal with these sort of questions and how to defend your position this will help you hugely in your viva, as you will know the kinds of things to expect.


Thanks for the comments.

I'd love nothing more than to award myself a break for reflection, but I've been given a very tight window to revise my thesis chapter by supervisors (though at least I can put the journal submissions to one side for now). I presume, if you've published 10 papers, that you completed your PhD some time ago (that's hugely impressive if you're still a PhD student). As a journal editor myself I appreciate that reviewers comments are often rather blunt, but they're usually finessed by editors before forwarding to the author. I'm left wondering what was omitted, since some of the comments could have been phrased more diplomatically.

I also appreciate that I should view all feedback as useful (and indeed endeavour to), though the fact that everything I've produced in the last six months has been received so negatively has felt like a punch to the gut. Perhaps it's just a case of getting my head down and trying to move forward rather than wallowing in self pity. Another day, another challenge...


Hey Nick! Sorry to hear you're feeling rubbish. The whole PhD system is different compared to how we've been assessed through uni etc, and it can take some time to get used to it. Like you, I sailed through my exams with a first then a distinction (like many on here), yet a PhD is a different ball game. It's hard to deal with the fact that so much depends on a couple of reviewers, whether it's a grant application or a journal article etc etc. I know I've been asked to review a few papers (during my PhD, which I passed a couple of months ago) that I haven't really felt qualified enough to do, and then I imagine other people in the same situation commenting on mine and it's frustrating. But if you persist and attend to any suggestions that seem useful, you'll most likely get there with the publications in the end. Nearly all of my publications have been revise and resubmits, but all of them got into the original journal in the end (some were re-reviewed and some accepted without re-review). It is hard to have your work judged in that way, but it part and parcel of academia :( So I wouldn't attach too much significance to the journal rejections, most people start out getting lots of them, and it doesn't mean that you're not good enough. Even world-reknowned profs still get them. If it's the crisis confidence that's geting you down, then I would stick with it. If it's the whole process in general then maybe you need to think about whether it's what you want to do. Best wishes, hope you're feeling better about things soon. KB


I honestly think you are overreacting simply because this is the first time you've really had anything other than affirmation. I can't think of anyone I know who hasn't had points of complete self-doubt. Actually no I can think of someone who had no self-doubt but he did go on to fail simply because he ignored all criticism of his work as beneath him. So I think you are having an understandable reaction to disappointment but taking it harder than you need to.
When you are hit with a barrage of criticism, it can be extemely hard to separate out constructive from destructive criticism and most of us will hear the bad comments and scoot over the positive bits. Have you got a friend who was present who could perhaps help you put it in perspective a bit - i.e. remind you that person x who trashed everything hates your theoretical approach and so can be ignored but that person y made a helpful suggestion?
Definitely put the journal rejections to one side for a couple of weeks and then reread the reviewers' comments - once the disappointment is less sharp then you can start to see what comments were helpful and which basically just said I hate your approach on principle (particularly in social sciences reviewers can be appallingly subjective and sometimes really unfair). If you're in the humanities / social sciences then if you're trying decent journals most responses are going to be flat out rejections (never compare yourself with scientists by the way - publishing in a non-science field is a whole different ball game), so don't beat yourself up about it. When you've got the chapter out of the way, show them to your supervisor and get some advice on where you might try next and what changes you could make. Seriously this is normal.
With the chapter, given the deadline, could you afford to put it aside and give yourself the weekend off? A couple of days away from it can sometimes really help you to start seeing the wood from the trees. Your peers are probably going to be your worst critics - sometimes PhD students can get so obsessive about the theory or method they use, that they can't see merit in anything else. Your supervisors will pick examiners who are not hostile to your approach so honestly a viva is unlikely to be that bad. Very few people will get through a PhD without hitting at least one nightmare chapter that you can't seem to get right. Sometimes the best way is to leave it and start on something else and return a few months later. This might be worth suggesting to your supervisor if you can't see a way forward at the moment. Most of all talk to your supervisor - they've been through this too. Academic life is all about being rejected for journals, grants, jobs, getting unfair teaching evaluations etc - they will understand and hopefully be helpful.

Avatar for DrCorinne

Hi Nick1,

You don't mention at what stage you are - year 1 or 2? And in what area you are researching - humanities, social sciences? That can make quite a difference!

Is it the first draft of your chapter? Have you gone through annual research assessment interviews yet? I don't think that anyone can expect to write something that is not object of criticism.

I went against all the published literature in my subject area, particularly against what my external examiner had published, but I provided compelling evidence that my idea was correct and for this very reason I got my PhD.

It is important that you realise that:

1) your peers might be wrong
2) You can learn to defend your thesis (e.g. what evidence do you have to support your theory x?)
3)  Even if they are right you can use their criticism to improve your thesis
4) You cannot expect to have a fully developed project in year 1 or at the beginning of year 2. Even in the course of your "writing up" year things can develop further, or take an unexpected direction.

I know that we build our self-confidence also on the basis of what other people think about us and what we do, but it is a healthy exercise to detach from
other people's opinions and focus on how to improve our work.


Thanks for all the words of support.

Sorry, I should have mentioned that I'm at the start of my second year, full time, in a Humanities subject.

It's probably the rapid succession of negative feedback that has left me reeling. Before I'd had a chance to process one batch of criticism I was hit by another, then another, like a combination of punches. Aside from that, I'd put in so much work of late that I was probably suffering burnout to some degree. If you're feeling a little drained it's perhaps not the best time to objectively evaluate criticism. I think I'll attend to various administrative duties today, which of course are less taxing, allow myself a weekend away from the thesis, and press on thereafter.


I think that sounds like a great idea, a bit of time away from it always helps I feel. I am in Yr 3 p/t in humanities too and at times I feel completly lost and could not explain what I am doing or why, and I think it is due to overload.
With regards to feedback we will always focus on the negative tones and messages and that is where a break I think could also help. When you go back to it with fresh eyes you might spot some suggestions (rather than criticisms) etc.
I have new trick where I colour code the negative and positive comments, with the colours related to change this/make alterations/some changes needed/update etc. It helps me to see it's not as negative as I first read it to be.
Enjoy your short break :-)