Struggling with thesis...


Hi all, I'm a long time lurker and first time poster, so nice to meet you all!

I'm feeling guilty posting this since other students have more problems than I, but I'm struggling with the writeup phase of the thesis. I feel like I've let down both of my supervisors who have been good to me, and feel overwhelmed with the reading/referencing, analysis and writing (wanted to submit in June, but now looking like start of October).

I've thought about quitting or stepping down to an MPhil as I'm questioning seriously whether the PhD is for me, despite being in the program for 3 1/2 years. It seems more poignant as most of my friends have passed and yet I look at their theses and despair at the level of quality to be reached, as I'm convinced that my data is insufficient/ not rigorous enough, so feel like i'm going to be exposed as a fraud and wasted everyone's time/resources being here.

I'm not sure whether to keep going, or leave the program and risk disappointing everybody - just that the all consuming nature of the writing and feeling like everything's been left to the last minute is dragging me down. Trying to split it into manageable chunks and reserving time to recharge doesn't seem to be working either, as it seems to be more procrastinating than work.

Is this feeling of being trapped normal, at this stage, or am I just dramatising and should just keep going?



In my first year, so I'm not quite there yet. For what it's worth, from what I've read in PhD messages boards across the web, yours isn't an uncommon experience. You do have to plod on. I think the first step is not to freak out and go on an emotional downward spiral. You need to take a step back, breathe, and actually follow through on those good plans that you're making!

Also, have a look at the posts at

Start with this one:

The advice offered may or may not be helpful, but I find reading about how others overcame their PhD "wall" is inspirational and therapeutic. :)

All the best!


Hi echo,

I am also writing -up at the moment, hoping to submit something like a first draft in September.

I 've been increasingly feeling inadequate, lost confidence in my self, feel everything I write is idiotic and even a 5-year old would analyse my data better than me. My confidence is so low that it affects my progress, and I am doing everything else I can instead of writing. I have so much work that I need to start screaming. My supervisor asks me what kind of support I need, but I have received all the support anyone would ever need in their lives.

Oof, feel good writing down all these thoughts. Still there is a rational part in my empty head, and screams "shut up, sit down and just do the work". And this is the only advice I can give you.

I 've come to the conclusion that even if everything is perfect and goes according to plan, you will still get bruised and hurt by the experience to some extend.


Thanks both for your replies :) They're both enlightening.

@Ultimax Thanks for the pointers on the 3 month thesis - I've had a look on there before, though it might be more prudent to look deeper at the advice. It's therapeutic to read about other people's struggles and how they overcame their battles, I agree - just that sometimes it's hard to relate to them, since they sound like genuine struggles. With me, it feels like it's all made up and just excuses for doing a lacklustre job on the PhD, coupled to not making the most of the experiences on the PhD (and therefore feeling like a failure).

@DrJeckyll Heh, that's the sort of thing I'm trying to say, though it keeps being drowned out by the other voices - maybe it needs a megaphone or something! What would help would be to find the motivation for the project again, where is it hiding..?

I second the part about being bruised - it's been a hell of a journey, physically, mentally and emotionally, though that's not denying it's been an eye opening period of growth and self exploration. The biggest battle has been my social anxiety and meeting with my second (and more critical) supervisor which I'm embarrassed to say is still going on...!


hi echo_85,
I also went through a difficult write-up phase. Try not to worry :-)
do you have much left to do? If there is not too much left, how bout sticking with it and carrying on--head for that phd.

alternatively going to MPhil is also not a bad idea...but if you can push yourself....a bit more.....then go for it :-)

the forum is a great place to share--I joined in 2007--because of the people here who replied my first post, I was motivated to apply for a phd--I also had some help from people who helped me get articles I couldn't access----people are wonderful here.

and to end with--
the World War 2 slogan---

keep calm....and carry on :-) ??

love satchi


Hello Echo,

I think a PhD is part an external competition, but largely also an internal one. You can be your own worst enemy because of the expectations you may have of yourself. There's a whole body of literature on the threat of perfectionism. Perhaps it's that - for whatever reasons (environment, personality, history?) you may have simply set the bar too high that you'll never be good enough, hence how you feel?

To the threat of perfectionism I'd add the curse of hindsight. The PhD is a journey into the unknown, and it's impossible to plan a perfect itinerary. Yet as you pass milestones, you look back and think you could have done things so differently. Of course you could have if you could look into the future (which you obviously can't)! That's the curse of hindsight.

A PhD is also an opportunity to grow personally, as well as intellectually. I tend to be quite dependent on the judgement of others. My personal challenge is to be more comfortable in my own skin. Am also trying to, as they say, grow a pair, develop thicker skin and give the finger to those whose opinions (sometimes my own inner voice actually) are unfair and should therefore not matter.

That said, if you do think you're really slacking and that's getting you down, then it has to be fixed. I guess you need to do as objective an assessment of your situation - are you being too hard on yourself, or do you need help with project management (ie. getting stuff done)?

Try to get your hands on a copy of this book. I found it immensely helpful in sorting myself out, and preventing me from being the obstacle to getting on with the PhD. It's excellent because it helps you overcome self-doubt, as well as gives you a practical plan on how to get stuff done.

All the best! As they say, the best PhD is a completed, not a perfect, one. Don't be too hard on yourself!


I just finished writing recently and have gone through some bad phases. The things which worked for me were to have a timeline of what I wanted to do so e.g. if I estimated I needed 3 days to write a chapter I would put 1 week in the schedule and worked back from the planned submission (give a month for each supervisor at least). This allowed me to be less stressed about having to write and I found it easier to write. Then I could write when I am really up to it and not feel guilty if I take a couple of days off (e.g. I had my family visit or something).

When I was really struggling with writing I found this page to be very very helpful:

Then I could just use sentences from the page and fill in the blanks with what my thesis is about. This made me feel better about the quality of my writing and also helped me get started with analysing data etc.

Also try and get some ppl to go through your thesis. My thesis was very interdisciplinary so I got friends from the different areas to read different sections. That way they had a max of 10 pages each to read. My mum was also nice enough to read my thesis...she does not know anything about my field of research but her English is better than mine so she checked my grammar etc.

But all I wish is good luck :)


I'm not quite at the proper writing-up stage as I'm still planning and running experiments. But, I'm trying to write as I go so those links look really awesome. Thanks alice and ultimax!

One thing that I have found that really helps me to overcome procrastination is to use the pomodoro technique thing. The way that I do it is to work for 25 minutes and then have a 5 minute break. It's pretty simple, but knowing that you only have to focus for 25 minutes really helps me to get writing/doing something.

Also, with this technique, I allow myself to have 1 "unproductive" session per topic, per day. So, say I'm working on analysis some data. If I've had one unproductive session that's okay. But, if the next one feels like it's not very productive then I move onto the next item on the to-do list. There are some days when my brain just isn't tuned to analyse data! Rather than stress out about the fact that I should be analysing the data but I'm not, and procrastinating more, I've moved onto something else which needed to be done as well. I find it helps me to keep going.

Good luck with the writing. It may not seem it when you're doubting yourself, but the end really is in sight now.

And don't feel you've let your supervisors down. Barely anyone I know actually submits according to the schedule they originally proposed. You're supervisors will be used to it. You haven't let anyone down by taking an extra few months.