By Rachel Wilson-Lowe |

I have always been extremely competitive, from skidding on the asphalt to gain a run at kickball, to striving to make the top 5% of my extremely competitive high school so I could get a special gold rope at graduation.  This trait has gotten me to where I am today, starting a PhD in a topic I am so passionate about, and I should be immensely thankful for it.  And yet, now being thrust into a world where everyone seems to be infinitely more experienced, smarter, and more knowledgeable than me, I suddenly feel totally inadequate. I am currently in the first year of pursuing my PhD and have recently started treatment for anxiety. Since beginning treatment, I have come to realise that several of the positive personality traits that have served me well in academia, and the characteristics that are making the adjustment to PhD life so hard for me, are simply two sides of the same coin. After talking with some of my fellow students, I recognise that I am not the only one who is struggling to feel sure of themselves in the PhD process.

Part of the difficulty of adjusting to PhD life is that fact that we are all at such different stages in the process.  In all my previous experiences starting a higher education program, my cohort and I were all starting together, feeling equally out of sorts and nervous.  But in starting a PhD, we are all of a sudden comparing ourselves to people several years ahead of us in the journey.  When all of their projects sound so amazing and fleshed out, it can be difficult to remember that we are just beginning and we aren’t expected to be there yet. Not to mention everyone comes from such different career trajectories that it can be futile to compare CVs.  Setting a bar for comparison can be useful; it can give us something to strive for, a goal for to reach. But in a PhD program, comparing yourself to others can be a recipe for self-doubt and leave us scrambling.

students working

After graduating high school, I made the move from my home in the United States to Scotland, and have lived here ever since.  Skipping across the pond at the young age of 18, was just one of the more extreme examples of my desire for independence.  In theory, starting a PhD should be a natural adjustment for those of us who manage our learning autonomously, and yet the belief that we should be working on our own can be a curse.  Exactly how independent are we expected to be? Despite the feeling that a PhD can be an island on which we are alone, there are plenty of resources to make the process easier.  We have access to librarians for better search strategies, training courses to expand our skill set, and a host of more senior academics to pick their brains about our topic.  But to benefit from these resources, we must ask for help. For some of us that can feel like admitting failure, that the trust our supervisors placed in us when taking us on as students was misplaced.  We can go into the PhD process thinking we are well suited to be completely self-sufficient, and the realisation that we are not can shatter our sometimes-fragile academic egos.

Perhaps this all has to do with imposter syndrome: the feeling that you don’t deserve to be here and the fear that at some point your colleagues will realise that you’re a fraud. All of my fellow PhD students have expressed this sentiment in one way or another.  For many of us, pursuing a PhD represents the pinnacle of higher education that we have been working towards throughout our studies.  But now that we’ve arrived, we ask ourselves, “Should we be here?”.  Despite possessing traits like ambition, dedication, and an independent sense of self, all of which make for an ideal PhD candidate, we feel that we aren’t enough. And so we double down. If we can only be the best versions of ourselves at all times, competing against our imagined adversaries on our own, requiring no help from anyone, then no one will doubt that we belong.

Shelves of old harback books

I cannot pretend that I have all, if any, of the answers. I am still anxious and self-conscious about my work and my abilities, but here are a couple things that I have found to help when in the midst of a PhD anxiety spiral:

  1. Talk to your fellow PhDs: I have been told by many to talk to my supervisors about my concerns, but for me that can often be too overwhelming and make me feel vulnerable.  However, I can always talk to the students in my Unit. Make the effort to have lunch with them, or even better, hang out away from the office.   They usually have the same concerns that you do, and the students further along in their PhD often have experienced similar issues and have since found solutions. For me, the best thing is to just have a good moaning session; unlike friends outside of academia, PhD students can relate to all of the nonsense that builds up.  So go grab a coffee and have a wee chat!
  2. Find an activity that completely distracts you from your stress: Having a hobby that requires all your mental (and sometime physical) energy can give you some precious time where that part of your brain that is perpetually thinking about your to do list can shut up! For me it has been cani-fit, a sport where you run with your dog, essentially becoming a human sled for your dog to drag up and down the hills. It knackers me physically, and because I am constantly directing and encouraging my dog whilst huffing and puffing, my brain is entirely focused on the task at hand. Not on what I still have to do for my literature review or on past critiques of my writing. It doesn’t matter what that activity is, but try and find something that can get you out of your own head, even if it is just for a couple of minutes.

We need to remember that starting a PhD can be a huge adjustment.  Being surrounded by so many incredible people, it can be difficult to see how you fit in.  But remember, you were chosen to be here! Yes, doing a PhD is hard, and you are going to have moments of self-doubt, but everyone is rooting for you to succeed.  That voice in the back of your head, that undermines you and tells you that you aren’t good enough, is the only one saying that.  Your friends, family, fellow students, and supervisors are there to cheer you on and help you get to the finish line! So, jog on by, give them a wave and a thumbs up, and just focus on one step at a time.


Rachel Wilson-Lowe is a Sociology PhD student at University of Glasgow.  Her research explores women’s experiences of abortion, specifically why/how women are using online spaces to access services and share their stories.  She is an advocate for sexual/reproductive healthcare and rights worldwide. You can find her on Twitter @Rwilsonlowe.