Guilty as Charged

There’s this thing that no one doing a PhD ever seems to talk about. After you are a few months in, you begin to feel it. It’s there, in the back of your mind, creeping up on you unaware. You firmly believe you’re the only one experiencing it, and that it means you’re not cut out for this. You try not to let it overwhelm you, but the further on you get, the more stressful the feeling becomes.

PhD guilt. I don’t mean you feel guilty for being in a position to do a PhD. I mean you feel guilty about doing everything other than your PhD. Eating, sleeping, commuting, socialising, resting, working. Everything that is not immediately associated with your PhD research is something that your brain tells you you shouldn’t be spending time on. Because clearly everyone else  only focuses on their PhDs. Clearly no one else ever sleeps or eats. Clearly no one else takes a day off. Clearly everyone is at it 24/7. Clearly you are not cut out for this.

Can I tell you? Every single PhD student feels guilty. ALL THE TIME. It also won’t magically evaporate because you submitted your thesis either, but that’s a monologue for another time.

So first? It’s okay. Really, it’s okay. It’s normal. It’s not okay that it’s normal, but it’s okay because it’s normal. Calm down. Acknowledge that you feel guilty, stop thinking you’re the only one, and move on. The guilt won’t go away, but you can learn to live with it in a way that won’t be too stressful. It will rear it’s head at the worst times, but if you know that will happen you can say ‘I know I’m feeling this, I know it’s because of XYZ, I know I can get through it’.

Second, do not let guilt stop you from doing things. You want to take 4 days off and go visit your boyfriend/family/friend? Do it. You need a rest day that is not a weekend? Take it. You want to grab coffee with a friend? Take an extra long coffee break. You can’t bring yourself to work on THIS or THIS today? Then don’t. Feel the guilt, but don’t let it stop you. You cannot do 24/7. You must have time for other things. Tell the guilt to bugger off. It probably won’t, but hopefully you can enjoy yourself enough that it’s only in the very back of your mind.

Lastly, guilt can be useful. If you haven’t worked on your thesis for a week and you feel guilty for not doing so, it’s probably time to let that guilt motivate you to do some work. It doesn’t have to be a lot. Sometimes, just reading an article will temporarily receive the guilt (and stress). Write a paragraph, make a bibliography for a topic, read an article, check out some books from the library, send an email, organise a meeting, etc. Even the smallest things can be enough to get you back on track, and push that guilt to the back burner.

But understand it never entirely goes away. And that’s okay. Everyone experiences it. You are not alone, your are not different, you are not failing at being a PhD student. It’s just something that PhD students experience. It comes from many directions, and some of that is academic pressure to DO THIS or DO IT FASTER or DO IT BETTER or any other form of pressure. A lot of it is from the assumption that every PhD student around you is somehow better than you are and if you aren’t working your ass off, you are clearly guilty of letting the PhD community down by not being good enough. You feel guilty because you believe you should be working solely on your PhD, because that’s what your university considers a perfect student (which is bull, really, because no one ‘only does their PhD’). And some of it is just the misplaced guilt of feeling like you have to prove yourself all the time, and when you are not proving yourself, you feel guilty for letting yourself (and your ideals) down.

I’d say ‘get over it’, but it’s not easy like that. It doesn’t go away. It comes and goes, but it’s never far. And it’s part of being a PhD student. But never ever think it’s not normal.


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