Completing a Higher Degree by Research Degree (HDR) is an achievement, and being admitted into HDR candidature is an accomplishment in itself. However, the high cultural value placed on these endeavours mean HDR candidates put a lot of pressure on themselves. HDR candidates may feel they need to be ‘perfect’ in everything they think, write and say. When students inevitably fall short of this impossible goal, they commonly start thinking that they don’t deserve to be researching at a university.
You may find it useful to reframe the HDR journey as more about developing a discipline than striving for ‘perfection’. Your thesis project is where you hone your research and writing skills; where you develop your tools to edit and refine; where you build relationships and become immersed in your field; and eventually, by the end of that process, you become an expert in that field.
‘Impostor Syndrome’ – the feeling of being an incompetent fraud – is very common among HDR students. It brings a dreadful feeling of inadequacy, and often manifests in anxiety about your ability to complete a pass-worthy thesis and find a good job after your degree. And of course, the perpetual fear that, despite your abilities and accomplishments, you will be ‘found out’. SUPRA can assure you that every HDR candidate at some stage of candidature experiences this, even if they might not admit it at the time.
5 tips on managing feelings of inadequacy
Think back to when you were considering undertaking a research postgraduate degree. Chances are you viewed this project as one early step on a longer journey, whether this is an academic career, a chance to explore one of your passions, or post-degree employment in sectors outside of higher education. Your project is not meant to be the last thing you achieve as a researcher. Remember your HDR thesis or publications are not your ‘final word’ on a topic. One tip that experienced researchers and writing tutors give to postgraduates is to stop imagining the end product (i.e. the completed thesis), and instead break down your writing goals into weekly and daily blocks.
The University’s Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and Learning Centre offer a whole suite of free workshops on HDR skills, including how to avoid the pitfalls of having a perfectionist mindset. If you attend these workshops and are still struggling with finishing drafts or submitting them to supervisors because you’re worried that your work is not good enough, book an individual appointment with one of the Learning Centre’s lecturers and/or one of CAPS’ counsellors for support.
Wanting your writing to be “perfect” is often a paralysing attitude. This can lead to procrastination, or losing your energy and focusing tasks that aren’t priorities.
If your Faculty does not have similar groups or events, consider organising one. Contact your Postgraduate Research Co-ordinator for assistance in booking a room on campus and for promoting this initiative to students in your Faculty.
Thesis writing is often an isolating experience and can have adverse impacts on a researcher’s mental and physical wellbeing. Lack of collegiality is a significant concern for many HDR candidates:
If feeling isolated from other researchers is impacting your satisfaction with your HDR experience, consult our advice on connecting with the academic community (see also: building connections).
Keep up to date via SUPRA’s eGrad newsletter. Opt in to receive eGrad when you join SUPRA here, or contact us to be added to the mailing list. We promote how your fellow research postgraduates are trying to build more beneficial connections.
Attend SUPRA events. At our free monthly Wine and Cheese and Free Lunch events you may find other HDR candidates who are similarly keen to set up social networks and events. Team up and share the workload of organising meet ups and forums specific to a particular cohort (e.g. research postgraduates in a particular Faculty).
Reach out to SUPRA Council. (https://supra.net.au/about/supra-council/supra-council-governance/) Council members are happy to hear any concerns or ideas you may have about building community, and SUPRA can support events for postgrad students. SUPRA councillors can also raise your concerns about engagement with the academic community directly to University committees.
Undertaking a Higher Degree by Research could be one of the most stressful endeavours you experience in your working life. Acknowledging this, however, should not mean that you glorify self-sacrifice or engage in punishing self-talk and other self-punishment behaviours. Feeling guilty you are not working hard enough is a problem commonly cited: https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/gradhacker/grad-student-guilt.
At times, certain levels of stress can be motivating. However, high and prolonged levels of stress can have serious psychological and physiological impacts: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/stress.
The sign of a great academic is not someone who ignores their stress. To enhance your capacity to be a productive scholar, manage your stress levels by consulting appropriate support services like your GP and a counsellor: https://sydney.edu.au/students/counselling-and-mental-health-support.html If you can’t get to a face-to-face appointment with a counsellor, get immediate support from telephone services like Lifeline: https://www.lifeline.org.au/get-help/topics/stress.
The challenges inherent in completing a high-level research project in a relatively short period of time can sometimes cause HDR candidates to feel unhappy, helpless or lacking hope. If these periods of low mood become prolonged and you’re no longer sure why you feel the way you do, you could be experiencing depression. ReachOut has a clear and comprehensive explanation of the symptoms of depression:
Depression is not something you can “snap out of”. Instead you need the support of the appropriate trained health professionals. If you have been experiencing any of the symptoms listed by ReachOut over the last month, make an appointment with a GP. They can provide support to you themselves as well as refer you to a counsellor or clinical psychologist and support groups.
Leading mental health organisation Beyond Blue has found that anxiety will affect, on average, one in four people in Australia. Symptoms of anxiety don’t affect only one societal group. After taking the Anxiety Checklist, follow Beyond Blue’s advice for finding the right support for what you’re experiencing.
Many studies, surveys, and blog posts (by former and current academics and postgraduates) show that the majority of HDR candidates will experience a significant mental health issue or event during their studies. Such research indicates over half to two thirds of PhD candidates experience psychological distress, and around a third are at risk of a common psychiatric disorder. One in ten contemplate suicide. If you’re experiencing psychological distress, seek appropriate help now:
Counselling or psychological services are confidential. They won’t disclose to the University that you are consulting them.
If therapy with one counsellor or psychologist isn’t working, don’t give up: use the resources available in our website to find a suitable health professional.
Considering the great demands placed on HDR candidates, many students consider discontinuing their candidature. Issues students face include: no longer having the motivation to complete a thesis project; changes in professional or personal needs; or new priorities in life. Discontinuing candidature is a significant step, and you should discuss your thoughts and concerns with your supervisors, Postgraduate Co-ordinator, other research colleagues and mentors, as well as loved ones and friends, before making your decision. Other sources of advice to consult: