...what if I CAN'T?


======= Date Modified 31 Oct 2011 15:13:39 =======
Recently I've had some issues on my PhD which has led my supervisor to question whether I can do a PhD. These issues basically involve depression / anxiety / inability to concentrate and extreme defensiveness. I'm lucky to have a really good supervisor but after some problems in the last week he has asked me to seriously consider whether I am capable of this.

And now I'm thinking... what if I CAN'T? I get all the help in the world for the "personal" problems I have. But, although I'm far from being the only PhD student in my department who has struggled with these issues, I feel as if mine are overwhelming me and I'm moving at a snails' pace to others around me. This is just making me more depressed, and it's getting to the point where I think I need to see the doctor.

I'm only at the start of my second year and I don't want to waste the work I've done. I really like my project. Not only that but I basically have nowhere else to go if I drop out. Quitting has never been on the cards but my sup has mentioned it three or four times in the last week. Today I can't help but wonder if I really can make it? What if I'm really not strong enough?


I had a very similar situation at the same point in my PhD. It now a couple of years on and I am in the process of writing-up and getting publications on my CV. It's taking me a little longer than I would have liked, but the finishing post is in sight at last.

To have got this far suggests you have the strength to get through, there will, however, always be times when you question this.


Seek counselling at your university and get some training in relaxation techniques. The training does take time but you should find it helpful longer term. You CAN do it!!!



There are hardly any students who do not feel doubts at some time.  If you are feeling really down, it might be a good idea to make an appointment with the Doctor.

Do you have a relaxing hobby or sport of any sort that you can take up again for a while so that you are not thinking 24/7 about your studies?

Remember, you have done really well in the past.  You can do so again in the future.


Avatar for DrCorinne

Hi Cornflower,

First of all, be kind to yourself. If you have been going through a difficult period in your life, no wonder that you struggle to concentrate effectively on your PhD. Delta's suggestion is excellent. Counselling might help you, but I guess that part of the problem here is also lack of self-confidence.

We all need to feel that what we are and what we do is appreciated to feed our confidence. Presenting a paper that is well received by the audience, teaching to a class of responsive students, publishing an article, organising a seminar, etc. are all activities that would push you out of your dark corner and help feeding your confidence levels.

I think that by mentioning the "drop out" option your supervisor wanted to give you a kick and see if it sparked a reaction, and it did. You have the ability to get this project completed, but you need to work on your self-esteem and self-confidence first. Don't be ashamed to ask for help if you need it. Everything will start to flow afterwards.


I am in exactly the same position as you, you are not alone! After my experience, my advice would be (1) Go and see the doctor and tell him/her how you feel. It will lighten your load and make others aware of your situation. (2) Look into your University's counselling service. It should be free, and they should have drop in sessions. Counselling is not always for "crazy people", its a good opportunity to talk about all your problems and insecurities with someone who will not judge you. (3) Try to raise your concerns with another academic in your department, this will give you a more objective view and reassurance that you are not the only one to feel like this.

Finally, I know that this is hard, but DON'T compare yourself with other PhD students. All projects are different: what might be easy to you could be difficult to someone else and vice versa. This is your project. You are obviously making progress as you said you don't want to waste the work you have done. If you really like the project, that is half the battle. May I also suggest a short holiday, even a couple of days off where you can take time to relax, but also to reflect on what you have actually achieved. This will also give you a chance to plan your next move, however "slowly" you think you are going.

I wise man once told me it's very easy to get bogged down on the minor details, but you should still keep in mind the overall purpose of the project. "You can't see the wood for the trees" type thing. You are stronger than you think, and you have expended alot of effort to get where you are today. You have overcome hurdles before, so don't give up because your insensitive supervisor has planted a seed of doubt in your mind.


Thanks everyone.

I am actually seeing a counsellor, but so far it has just made me feel more negative and depressed. My supervisor is not insensitive at all and I agree that this may partially be to kick-start me, and maybe partially because of genuine problems with the way I work.

I do not want to quit but I'm wondering if it really is possible to complete a PhD if you have depression? Two more years seems like a long time.


Also, I have done things that I should feel confident about, but the thing is, I don't. Apparently I've actually done quite a lot, but I can't see it. My supervisors aren't actually unhappy with the work I've done (although I am), but more the fact that depression and mood swings make me very difficult to work with.

Avatar for DrCorinne

I think that it is entirely possible to make it, although you know that it probably won't be easy. You know that you are capable of working and achieving good results, so you should really focus on this. In the meantime, you could perhaps consider switching to part-time? or maybe taking a short suspension of studies?

Also, if your supervisor is concerned about your approach to work, could you discuss with him/her what he/she would suggest doing about it? Focus on short-term goals, do not think about 2, 3 etc years ahead. As it has been said, do not look at what other PhD students do. Every person is different and faces different problems in different ways.

Get yourself out of the house/office. Do some not-PhD related activities, go to the gym, do some voluntary work, meet people. You will face your PhD work with different eyes and a different state of mind.

Can you make it? Yes, you can! (up)


======= Date Modified 01 Nov 2011 14:34:16 =======

Interestingly, over the summer I did a huge amount of non-PhD activities and probably got quite a lot of work done. Recently I just feel really tired and drained. I do still follow my interests but I've spent much less time actually doing things. I find it hard to motivate myself, and if I'm completely honest I have a sense of dread about starting anything new right now. I try to spend my weekends doing things just for me, spending time with people I care about and doing the things I enjoy.

I've actually spoken to my supervision team about this in depth. One of my supervisors reminded me that I've set small goals before and failed to achieve them -- I think I was trying to be too prescriptive. What I know is that when I get in this state, maybe all I can achieve in one day is write a few lines of code or a sentence of my literature review, or skim-read a paper and make a few notes in the margin. I suppose depression guidance would say that's enough, but honestly, it wouldn't be enough in the workplace and isn't enough to get a PhD.

I'm not one to think in platitudes, but reading this forum I hear "mountains from molehills" quite frequently. Am I making a big deal over nothing? The more I think about it, the more I can't figure out what's wrong. Except that I'm not doing anything, not achieving anything, and struggling to concentrate. I am certain I don't want to go on anti-depressants! I guess I should go to the gym more often...