i've screwed my PhD up


ugh. i'm not sure anyone can really give me any advice on this - i mostly need to vent to people who can appreciate my position - but if you have some helpful words, i'd love to hear them.

i've just started the third year of my full-time PhD. for most of my first year, my supervisor was on maternity leave. during her absence, we were in touch by e-mail and i got on with a few experiments and everything was generally ok. however, as i was busy testing, i didn't get around to writing my literature review. so, at the end of my first year, my supervisor advised me to take the 'quiet' time over the summer to get it done.

needless to say, i didn't. my second year flew by in a whirl of experiments, conferences and a lab visit abroad. still no literature review. by this point, it's almost a running joke between my supervisor and i - she asks about it, i laugh and say, "it's in the pipeline" or "i keep fiddling about with it" or something similar and she nods and we talk about something else.

so, here we are now, at the start of the third year of my PhD and i still have no literature review. worse still, even though i have time to write something right now, i simply cannot get my thoughts together. i feel like i know my topic area pretty well but i just can't get it across on paper. i think part of this stems from the fact that my stupid brain knows, on some level, that this is probably the most important piece of writing i'll ever do and everytime i try to get started, what i'm writing seems so trivial, so useless, so undeserving of the start of the biggest piece of work of my life.

also, i'm sort of terrified i'll miss out something that's crucially important in the literature so i seem to spend forever reading and reading and reading but never writing. i know that you're never going to write a perfectly worded, all-encompassing review on your first draft but my brain just doesn't seem to want to let me get started on even a rough draft upon which i'd be able to build.

lastly, i'm at the stage where my supervisor is starting to press me for written work. don't get me wrong - she's been really understanding with my working methods (or lack thereof) but i think she's now starting to feel the urgency, too. i've given her one complete chapter draft and the method/results/discussions for 3 others but it's really the literature review that's stressing me out right now. the day will come, very soon, where she gives me an ultimatum and i'm not going to have anything to show other than a bunch of rough ideas.

so, that's about the size of it. apologies for the long post but i just needed to get this off my chest. i haven't slept properly for the last few weeks because i can't stop worrying. it seems such a silly thing to screw up your PhD over - not being able to survey the existing literature - but i just cannot get on and do it. at the moment, i feel so disconnected from my work and i just can't see how i'm gonna finish this thing.


Hi there

You need to stop thinking about this as the biggest, most important piece of writing you'll ever do - with that pressure, no wonder you've not been able to produce the lit review!! This is just another chapter. And just putting it off and putting it off will make you feel bad too.

But you do need to start. Just think about it as reviewing one article - that's all. Have you done the lit search yet and found the articles? If you haven't, start doing this. Now this isn't hard, and it's not writing, so that's OK. Once you've found a few articles, just read one. Is there someone in your field you who find really inspirational? Start with their work first. Just read the article, then make a few notes. That's all. And like I've said to others, then read another one, then another and keep making notes. Don't worry about the flow, the gaps, the missing bits or anything else, just write. I'm drafting a chapter at the moment, and it's full of bits in bold that I need to get back to, bullet points, half paragraphs, odd questions to follow up, and that's fine. Each day it gets a little longer and then I'll start smoothing it out. So don't worry what your writing looks like.

As one academic told me, 'not everything you write will be beautiful". That's almost become my mantra.

And obviously you can write, since you've done other chapters, so just write a little bit for the lit review, then keep going. I also enjoyed doing the lit review - if you like your subject, then this will be intrinsically interesting.

But try not to feel guilty, just make a start, and do a bit each day. Good luck! And come back to here and let us knw how you're getting on.


Hi, first of all I think you need to breath. You have been working on this for two years of your life.

Someone some where has complete faith in you, that is why your in the position you are now. And you got the chance to do a PhD. You have it in you. I know you can do it. I myself have been looking for a PhD for 3 years. You need understand that you are one of the very lucky ones.

Just formulate your thoughts. Your panicking. Go out have a great day, listen to some music. Just get away from it for a few hours. Then get your creative flow going- do a sort of mind map, what you have done, outcomes you created, the ideas that resulted because of the outcomes you have attained - look at work that supports your ideas (already published if any) - ones that don't. Formulate, determine an outcome, write what you have been doing day in day out - that is second nature to you now.

You have the knowledge its in your mind set. Just apply it to paper. You really need sit down and find your self. And the courage to do this. You have the ability. Otherwise you wouldn't be where you are right now.

I know you can do it.


Jean Bolker's Write Your Dissertation in 15 mins a day is very good on this. As is Writing your Dissertation by a Scottish woman whose name escapes me. The Bolker one touches on the psychology of this stuff, which imo is what your post talks about too.


The general consensus seems to be: don't freak out! As long as you are aware of the literature, then that's something. Just see it as something else that needs doing. It's not as if you haven't been reading in the first two years, and just because it's not written down with a heading CHAPTER, doesn't mean it's not there.

So, have a square of chocolate and don't berate yourself anymore!


I remember when I first was about to start my literature review, it did seem very daunting at first but if you just take it one step at a time and focus on small sections it isn't too bad. What I did was subdivide the literature review into topics and then review a few articles/chapters in each section, breaking up the chapter using subheadings. Looking at other theses to see how they structured their lit reviews really helped too.

You seem to have made really good progress with the rest of your PhD so try not to worry too much over the lit review - I know from experience that when I'm like this it's really hard to get writing. Just try to make a start and I'm sure that the words will soon start to build and you'll then feel more confident in your writing. :-)