Overcoming Adversity in PhD Research

Academia is sometimes portrayed as a noble pursuit. Yet I know that my own choice to become an academic was, at least partly, a selfish one. Researchers might talk about the greater good as their guiding motivation, but it’s worth remembering that many of us got into research simply because we loved doing research. Whether the joy of discovery and learning, getting to play at the forefront of knowledge, or just the ego trip of doing something unique: once you critically analyse there’s no shortage of selfish motivations.

Today, however, I had the chance to do something entirely unselfish. I was invited to speak to the PhD students in Monash University’s Faculty of IT on “Overcoming Adversity in Graduate Research”. My talk resonated really well I’m told, and so I thought it might be useful to share more widely. This post is a summary. If you’re struggling with your research right now, I hope you find it useful. If you’re an early PhD student or someone considering whether to do a PhD, I hope it might give you some things to keep in mind for the future.

Note: Australian and UK PhDs are 3 – 4 years in length. Some of what I say below, especially regarding timing and the Valley of Shit, assumes that context and may need to be adjusted if you’re e.g. a US student for whom PhDs tend to take about twice as long to complete. Also, we use the word “supervisor” to refer to what in many other places is called your “advisor”: a person who directly oversees your research during your PhD.


PhDs and adversity go very much hand in hand. Doing a PhD is challenging: you are literally pushing at the limits of human knowledge. On top of that, there are so many contributing factors to adversity for so many students during their PhD:

  • International students (a majority of PhD students in many institutions) are uprooted from their home support networks, and for many their PhD is their first time living overseas;
  • Social isolation can become a real issue therefore, especially if you fall into the temptation to spend extra hours on your research at the expense of your own well-being;
  • Minorities in their discipline face the extra burden of feeling like they don’t belong, compounding imposter syndrome, as well as having to push back against potential bias from their peers;
  • Non-native language speakers must deal with the added complexity of operating professionally in their second or third language;
  • Racial exclusion, despite what many of us would like to believe, remains an insidious factor in many societies;
  • Economic adversity is a known reality for almost all PhD students;
  • Poor supervision will always be an issue for some students, especially since the factors that make a successful supervisor-supervisee relationship are difficult to assess until the PhD is well under way;
  • Being new to research or new to your topic area is a final hurdle that almost all PhD students must overcome.

Summary: If you’re struggling during your PhD, it’s all too easy to assume that it must be because you are deficient, while overlooking all of the contributing factors to adversity (almost all of which are outside of your control).

Lesson: Don’t be too hard on yourself.

The Worst Day of My PhD

Of those factors listed above, I was lucky enough to largely avoid them all: as a white, male, Australian Computer Science PhD student studying at Oxford with the support of my partner (now wife), who benefited from the automatic social scene that was my college, at best I could lay a very weak claim to suffering the adversity of an international student.

What would I know about adversity during a PhD, therefore? Less than many others, I’d wager. However, even with all my advantages I know that nothing in life had ever come close to testing me the way my time at Oxford did.

September 14, 2007 was the absolute low point. About a year into my degree, with a workshop paper published and well on-track to pass my end-of-first-year confirmation hurdle, I began that day believing that it would be the day on which I would take my own life. The days preceding and the months following are, fortunately, the only period in my life when I’ve been seriously suicidal.

That day was also the day on which I sought help. A doctor’s appointment would lead me to the university’s counselling service which, over the coming months, would help me leave that dark place.

Summary: Anybody can go through hell. There’s no shame in it. If I, with all my privilege, could find myself mired in a vicious cycle that brought me to the edge, then maybe there is something inherently testing about the PhD experience.

Lesson: Reach out for help, including professional help.

Corollary: If you’re going through hell right now, you’re not alone. Crises — almost by definition – are not permanent. Don’t give up.

Talking about Failure

Adversity comes in many forms, some of which are more avoidable than others. However, one that is entirely unavoidable is failure. Failures are common during your PhD, whether getting your papers rejected, or finding out that a method you thought would work to solve a problem does not, or simply realising that you are not going to be able to solve the problem you set out to. You can expect all of those kinds of failures and more during your PhD. After all, you’re likely doing these things for the first time and the entire point of a PhD is to learn how to do the business of research: a PhD in which nothing goes wrong offers little learning value to the student.

Despite failures being incredibly common, they are almost never talked about — especially amongst direct peers with whom you might be competing for postdoc or faculty positions in the future. The same goes for academics in general. However, there are a number of good souls working to change this culture. One such is Nick Hopwood, who has pioneered the idea of displaying his failures publicly in the form of his Wall of Rejection.

While the norm is to adorn your office with the awards you have accumulated, Nick instead intentionally displays his paper and grant rejections. Any active researcher knows that rejections are common. There ought to be no shame in acknowledging them.

Wikipedia tells me that dark matter makes up 84.5% of the universe’s total mass. You should think of rejections and failures as the dark matter of your professional life: people usually don’t get to see them but they tend to vastly outweigh the successes — especially so early on in your career.

What would your CV look like if it listed all of this dark matter? That question prompted Devoney Looser to invent the Shadow CV: the one that chronicles all of your rejections. The linked article is worth quoting from, to give you an idea:

What my CV says: I have published many articles in refereed journals.

What my shadow CV would say: Multiply that 3x to get the approximate number of rejections I’ve received. Earlier in my career, it was more like 4x.

What my CV says: I’ve received some grants and fellowships.

What my shadow CV would say: Multiply that total 5x to get the number of grant rejections I’ve received — with, again, the most depressing rates of rejection coming earliest in my career.

What my CV says: I’ve taught at five fabulous institutions.

What my shadow CV would say: … I think I’ve been rejected for nearly 400 college teaching jobs and postdoctoral fellowships. In other words, I got offered less than 2 percent of the jobs I applied for, and I’m by no means among the hard-luck cases.

Summary: Failure is common. Success comes only from not giving up.

Belief as a Conscious Strategy

By far one of the best strategies for managing adversity is belief in what you are trying to achieve.

Few academics embody this better than Matt Might. I grew up with dead rock stars as my heroes. These days John Lennon and Kurt Cobain have been supplanted by academics like Matt who have achieved amazing results while enriching and nurturing their families and wider society.

You might know of Matt’s work if you’ve come across his Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D., which I highly recommend.

Matt is the picture of success: just 10 years on from his PhD he is a full professor, holds an endowed Chair, and is the director of a major research institute. He has met President Obama, and held a White House appointment. Matt also has three kids, the eldest of whom is special needs.

While work can be a source of conflict between many academics and their families, Matt has channelled the adversity faced by his family as a force to drive his own research and success.

What’s most amazing about this story, however, is that a year out from his PhD, Matt was failing badly. I cannot recommend his blog highly enough; however his post on getting tenure is a stand-out, from which I quote (emphasis in original):

My first year as a tenure-track professor cannot be described as anything other than an abject failure. I was so desperate to publish and raise funds that I began thin-slicing my research and submitting lots of poor quality papers and grant proposals.

I must have had a dozen rejections in a row that year. It sucked.

I remember huddling on the porch at the end of that year with my wife, telling her, “Well, I’ll at least have a job for six more years.”

I looked at my young son, cuddled in her arms. I saw his very existence hung in the balance between knowledge and ignorance.

Then it hit me: Life is too precious and too fleeting to waste my time on bullshit like tenure. I didn’t become a professor to get tenure. I became a professor to make the world better through science. From this day forward, I will spend my time on problems and solutions that will matter. I will make a difference.

I stopped working on problems for the sole purpose of notching up a publication. I shifted gears to cybersecurity. I found a project on cancer in the med school. I joined a project in chemical engineering using super-computing to fight global warming.

Suddenly, my papers started getting accepted.

My grant proposals started getting funded.

Lesson: Your current adversity need not define your future.

Strategy: Believe in what you are doing.

The Valley of Shit

Easier said than done, right? Self-belief is a quaint notion, suitable for first year PhD students who haven’t yet found out the hard way that it takes a lot more than self-belief to finish a PhD.

PhD Feels

That period in the middle of your PhD when your self belief is at its lowest is so common that it has its own name: the valley of shit. Plenty of academics know far more about it as a general phenomenon than me (I recommend the relevant post from the highly regarded Thesis Whisperer); however the picture above charts my own experience during my PhD and tallies with that of plenty of other students I’ve known.

You start your PhD full of hope and ambition. A year or so in you get a surprise: perhaps your first paper rejection; perhaps you learn that somebody already did what you were planning to; or perhaps you just realise that your approach is not going to work. Whatever it is, failures can be common at this point of your PhD, and extra demotivating especially if you thought you had already achieved good progress during that first year. It’s easy at this point to start questioning yourself, doubting whether you have what it takes after all, or whether you chose the right topic and so on. That doubt can be self-sustaining, and bring you right down into the valley.

It’s important to keep a few things in mind though. Firstly, that initial failure taught you something you didn’t already know. The presence of doubt is a sign that you know more now than you did before. Secondly, you’re only stuck in the valley because you haven’t yet learned what you need to get out of it. Whether it’s stumbling on a paper (or a chance encounter with another researcher) that leads to a new technique to solve your problem (or a new problem to solve); or simply you conceding that the problem you set out to be solved is not the one you’re going to solve this time around and refocusing your attention on a smaller (part of the) problem, or otherwise. The only way to get out of the valley is to keep working.

That’s why the orange dotted line of knowledge in the picture above kicks up twice: once during the entry to the valley and again just before exiting it. It’s also why the green line of ambition dips downward: a shift of ambition often provides the new perspective needed to escape the valley.

It took me until the end of the second year to make the necessary adjustments to my initial ambition that would allow me to regain the momentum I started with. I was so relieved when I finally made that change that I even posted on Facebook.

Adjusting my ambition.

That lowering of ambition turned out to be somewhat temporary for me, and likewise for many others too. After allowing yourself to regain confidence and momentum by removing that weight of expectation, you often find that many of your doubts were unfounded and that you might be able to achieve much of (if not more than) what you set out to. That’s why the green curve kicks back up during the ascent from the valley.

Lesson: Revising your expectations is forward progress — it means you have learned something.

Lesson: The only way to get out of the valley is to keep working.

Lesson: We’ve all been there.

Strategy: Devise small, concrete goals. Don’t give up.

Remembering why you got Started

Taking the time to think back to when you began your PhD and your reasons for doing so is also important, especially when you’re stuck in the valley. Those reasons might be related to your research problem, or they might be entirely selfish, or (as for most of us) a mixture of both.

For me, I began my PhD with a broad idea of the problem I wanted to solve and was lucky enough to avoid changing my topic (which we’ll talk about shortly). When things got difficult, turning back to that original motivation was useful. Keeping your thesis statement up to date can be a good way of doing this.

But just as useful for me was remembering all of the personal reasons why I decided to do a PhD in the first place, which had nothing to do with my research. There’s no shame in wanting to do a PhD for personal ambition, or as a way to learn more about a discipline, or simply as a means to get to play with ideas you admire, so long as you produce good research. As I said at the beginning, my reasons for becoming a researcher can’t be called entirely unselfish. It’s not clear that if I hadn’t had that personal motivation, alongside my research problem, that I would have had the motivation to continue when things were tough.

Strategy: Remember why you got started in the first place.

Strategy: Keep your thesis statement up to date.

Strategy: Don’t be afraid to be honest with yourself about why you chose to do a PhD, and to embrace that motivation.

Getting Un-Lost

Another common pitfall can occur when you’re trying to find your way in a new subject. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and lost amongst mountains of existing work. If your topic is new to your supervisor, you may have to navigate your way with minimal assistance.

One of the best things you can do if you find yourself in this position is to begin a targeted program of reading. S. Keshav’s advice about how to read papers and do literature surveys is excellent here. Begin with a high quality overview paper (e.g. find a recent relevant article from a survey journal in your field; in computer science that’s ACM Computing Surveys). That will help you map out the major areas of the field, in high level terms, and also give you quality references to follow up on for each. Then follow those references to dig into each sub-field, remember to use Google Scholar to search for newer papers that cite the ones you are currently reading. That will enable you to catch up to the most recent work in the area.

One way to do this is by setting up a reading group. Find some other students interested in the broad area, include relevant postdocs and faculty (e.g. your supervisor to help educate them). Begin by presenting the overview paper and then follow on from there. All you’ll need is a web page to list upcoming papers and a mailing list or Slack for discussion between meetings.

A reading group will also help you find other people within your department who might become potential collaborators, as well as helping to improve your skills at critiquing papers (a necessary step to learning to write high quality papers).

Strategy: Start a reading group, if you don’t have one already. Participate if one already exists.

Changing Your Topic

This can be a tempting option when you’re stuck in the valley. Keep in mind however that the grass always looks greener on the other side; however in reality it’s brown everywhere. Also keep in mind that if you’re on a fixed term scholarship (as almost all students at Australian and UK universities are) that once you switch topic, you’ll have to finish a new PhD in less time than you had available to complete your first one.

The people I’ve known who have successfully switched topic did it at the end of their first year. They spent the second half of their first year working on two topics simultaneously. By the end of that year they had enough data (early results) to conclude that the second topic was not only viable but would very likely be more successful than the first. That enabled them to convince their PhD supervisors that a topic change was a good idea.

Switching without having validated your new topic is not wise. Ideally you want to have an initial set of results on your new topic — even better, have a workshop paper accepted for publication with those new results, allowing them to be peer reviewed.

In any case, you must get your supervisor to support the change. (We’ll talk about changing supervisors in a sec.)

In the successful cases I’ve known, the students switched to topics that they were more innately interested in, often because those topics allowed them to play to skills they already possessed that were being under-utilised in their original projects.

In my own case, I never switched topic. However I did make sure to concentrate a lot of my efforts on activities that used my existing skills. This often allowed me to keep my motivation (via healthy procrastination) while having to work on other tasks that were more foreign to me. However, keep in mind that we all tend to work best on difficult tasks without distractions, so avoid the temptation to put off difficult but necessary work in favour of easier but less critical things.

Lesson: If you must switch topics, do it as early as possible.

Lesson: Expect to work twice as hard if you switch topics (at least for a while).

Strategy: Play to your strengths and interests.

Changing Your Supervisor

Supervisors vary widely in supervision style. For most PhD students, they choose a supervisor with little information to gauge what the working relationship will be like. I was fortunate to land a wonderful supervisor, but I know of various students who have found themselves in less than ideal situations with regards to supervision.

In that situation, whether to stay or jump ship is always a tricky question. Always seek advice from a neutral and knowledgeable third party. That could be somebody on your review committee who doesn’t collaborate directly with your supervisor, your head of department or somebody outside your department. Here, I’m going to suggest a third option (applicable mostly to PhD students for whom co-supervision is an option).

One of the hardest things for young academics is recruiting good students. But doing so is vital to our success. That means we are usually more than willing to get involved with a motivated student who might already have started their PhD.

If you’re looking for a change of supervision team, consider speaking to new faculty in your department who work on related areas. Tell them about your research, ask if they’d like to grab a coffee sometime. If things gel, they could be a good option to ask if they’d like to join your supervision team. Bringing them on as a co-supervisor can be a great way to change up the vibe of the supervision relationship and bring a fresh perspective to your research. It also avoids having to dump your existing supervisor, and is a strategy I’ve seen successfully deployed by a number of different students.

Adding a co-supervisor can also be a good idea if your research direction changes a bit during your PhD. In that case, you might find yourself suddenly working on problems that are distant from your supervisor’s expertise or interest. Bringing in a specialist co-supervisor can help to bridge that gap.

Strategy: Talk to junior faculty and postdocs about your work.

Life Outside Research

There were times during my PhD where I feel like the only thing that kept me going were the distractions provided by things going on outside my research. I was fortunate to spend a year as the President of my college’s Middle Common Room (basically head of a big social club for graduate students). Without that to break up the grind of PhD work, I reckon I would have had a much harder time staying motivated especially during the second half of my PhD.

Strategy: Join a committee/student society. Go to social events.

Another good distraction was tutoring (aka being a Teaching Assistant). Grading papers is never especially fun, but can at least be a good reminder that you are competent and knowledgeable and have something to contribute to younger students.

Strategy: Teach. (Guest lecturing, tutoring, marking, practical demonstrating …)


PhDs are hard, for so many reasons many of which are outside of your control. Failure is a natural and constant part of the journey. Don’t be too hard on yourself, and remember that you’re not alone. Reach out for help if need it.

If you’re struggling with motivation right now, take the time to remember why you started your PhD in the first place. If you feel like you’re a long way from where you hoped to be, recognise that you now know far more than when you started. Perhaps your original plans, when you knew far less, were naive. So don’t be afraid to revise them — it’s not as if they won’t change again anyway and each time you’ll get closer to the finishing line. Start by defining small, concrete goals that will move you closer (if only a little way) towards there.

Most importantly, keep working. Past failures need not define your future. Repeated success comes only from a refusal to give up in the face of failure.

Good luck, and thanks for reading.


Thanks to Liam O’Connor whose insightful feedback prompted me to add the section on “Remembering why you got Started”. Thanks also to Sidney Amani and Rob Sison whose feedback on earlier drafts improved this post.