There comes a point in your PhD journey when you sigh and say “I hate my thesis.” This point may come only once or be a daily occurrence. I know it happened to me. Sometimes I said it regularly (but jokingly) when yet another experiment had failed. I said it once or twice seriously when I felt overwhelmed, especially towards the end. If you’re saying it seriously you could be in the “Valley of Shit” as coined by the Thesis Whisperer. Recognising that you have this problem is the first step to fixing the problem. Here are a couple of things to consider.
You need a short break
When was the last time you fully unplugged from your thesis? Do you sit there every day trying to write words that won’t come or read papers that you don’t want to read? Do you ruminate in guilt but still are unable to muster the energy to do anything? Perhaps it’s time to take a short break. Spend two days (or a week or maybe even two weeks) getting away from your thesis. No reading, no writing, no experiments. Nothing PhD related allowed. (N.B., if you’re taking more than two days you may want to discuss it with your supervisor. Call it a mental health break). It may be that you just need a little time away to recharge.
You need a long break
If you took a short break and it didn’t help perhaps you need a long break. Talk to your supervisor and perhaps a counsellor or psychologist and see if you can take a semester off. Immerse yourself in teaching or volunteering or listening to podcasts. Find something to rekindle your passion to give you some perspective.
You need to change topics/supervisor/lab
If you took a break from your thesis you may realise that you enjoy research but the topic you are currently researching is not sparking joy. Perhaps you may need to have an honest discussion with your supervisor (or perhaps a mentor). Think about which elements you like and which ones annoy you (a pros and cons list, if you will). It could be an easy fix, slightly tweaking the direction of your thesis. It could be a massive change (like changing topics, changing supervisors, or changing labs). But you may need to do something. It’s better than spending your days being guilty and accomplishing nothing.
You need to stop
Maybe you took a break and realised that research or academia is not for you. This excellent blog post from the Thesis Whisperer discusses how poor supervisors typically are at discussing non-academic job options. Perhaps taking a look at this site might help. Or your institution might have career counsellors that can help you. Also, reach out on twitter for advice. I cannot recommend this enough. Getting that PhD may no longer be necessary for the career you want.
You’re in a pandemic and everything is awful
Lastly, perhaps it has nothing to do with your thesis. It may be that you’re living through a pandemic. This article explains it beautifully. Your surge capacity has been depleted: “Surge capacity is a collection of adaptive systems — mental and physical — that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters.” The author describes how this surge capacity depletion is more likely to happen to high achievers (i.e., You!). Take a read of that article and it may help you gain some perspective on the situation. I know I took a lot from it.
In short, a break may fix your problems. You may rekindle that romance with your thesis and find your passion again. If it doesn’t, you might need to break up with your thesis or perhaps realise that we are living through *unprecedented times* and we’re all sitting at home waiting for the times to become precedented again.
Have you been in this situation? How did you resolve your thesis despair?