How do I overcome doubts 1

Overcoming phases of stagnation and doubt.

Successful dissertation

Read what you can do to get a grip on doubts and stagnation in your dissertation and how skepticism can fertilize your project.

A doctoral thesis is a long-term project. Count on several years before you can put your doctoral cap on your head. During this time you will experience highs and very likely lows. These emotional “rollercoaster experiences” are normal for the majority of doctoral students, they are part of a doctorate.

But what can you do when you've slipped into a downturn? If you, wavering and worried, ask yourself whether your research is relevant at all or is it just plain banal, boring and uninteresting? Or if you find that your laboratory tests are not producing the results you expected? Or if you think you just can't answer the research question?

Why skepticism leads to good research

Before you consider abandoning your doctorate in a low phase, make yourself aware that mistrust and doubt will advance your doctoral thesis and not hinder you. Because questions and unforeseen results are friends of research, as they open up new fields, help clarify controversial points and support you in increasing the quality of your work. It should be emphasized: Even negative results are results and can therefore be used for further considerations and are sometimes even necessary.

So it makes no sense at all to believe that you are not clever, that your research idea is not interesting enough. In such a phase it is simply a matter of adapting your research subject to an interim result. When you are at this point, you have already worked intensively, gained results and knowledge, talked to your supervisor several times, and perhaps already presented the dissertation in colloquia. As a result, you have already achieved a great deal and have delved deeply into your topic. And only because of this you can formulate concerns and questions at all. This is how Goethe recognized: doubt grows with knowledge [1]. You may set back the necessary changes somewhat in time, but the revisions are often not as fundamental as you initially feared.

Tips for dealing constructively with self-doubt

  • Feelings of self-doubt are a clear indication that you need a break. Take a break. Treat yourself e.g. B. a weekend in a place you love, where you can relax. Or read a book that has nothing to do with your topic. This will help you to ground yourself again, and you will be more attentive, motivated and more eager to write afterwards.
  • Make yourself aware of your self-doubts. Write them down. Formulate specific questions and discuss them with your supervisor or with other doctoral candidates. This will bring you back to the professional, factual level and you will be able to recognize the further potential of doubt, which will bring you a little closer to your research goal.
  • Remember your motivation, think about why you want to do a PhD in the first place and why you are aiming for a PhD. Then use all your senses to imagine what it would be like to be awarded your doctorate: How do you look? What do you see? What sounds and smells surround you? Which people are with you? What do you say, how do you behave? What do you feel? Where in your body do you feel pride, joy or relief? Like a movie, let this scenario replay in your mind's eye several times. You can change details, expand them, intensify some perceptions. Develop a strong picture that shows you why you are putting all the effort into the PhD thesis. Accompanied by the belief: I can, I want to and I will successfully complete my doctorate.
    A vision supports you in making decisions. It strengthens your confidence in yourself and gives you strength.
  • Remember that you can only make a small contribution to research, and that it is a good thing. Because, as the British philosopher Karl Raimund Popper says: Our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite [2]. Let this thought sink in and feel the relief it holds.

What to do when you get stuck

Phases of stagnation are quite normal in the research process. There are always times when there is no noticeable or visible progress with your dissertation. Such phases are part of the process of maturing your thoughts. The work does not really stagnate because your head remains active or recharges your batteries. You are far from bogged down; the slack will usually resolve itself within a few days.

The stagnation resulting from self-doubt, however, has a different quality. At times like this, your motivation can be put to the test: you feel blocked. In order to pass this test, the following measures have proven to be effective:

Writing tip for coping with stagnation

  • First of all, simply notice that you are currently experiencing a work standstill. Deliberately do not give room to evaluative thoughts; Your current situation is neither good nor bad, it is just there. In this way you are helping yourself to take the gravity out of the situation. You realize that everything is constantly changing.
  • Switch to another chapter of your dissertation. Continue writing on a section that you have safe dates for, or record the thoughts that are confusing or irritating to you for the discussion part of your thesis. It does not have to be that you work through your dissertation linearly as planned, you can also divide it into many small bites. You have completed the outline and created files, which prevents you from getting bogged down. So you can work in peace on the chapters for which you have data, texts or sources.

The inner attitude is the key

Your decision to do your dissertation ideally went hand in hand with enthusiasm for your topic, which you want to deal with for several years. This enthusiasm will not always stay at the same high level over time. It is worthwhile to work on your own attitude towards your dissertation in order to be able to cope with the emotional roller coaster rides associated with it in a relaxed manner. You determine and control how you deal with less productive phases, how you divide up the work and at what speed you work. In very few cases, cancellation is justified by objective factors (such as financing problems). Practice this posture - you will benefit from it.

Also read our short story on this topic.

Tina and her writing difficulties. An exemplary story with a wink that is easy to read. An instructive fiction as a change from learning with scientific (exact) literature. Tina's dissertation →

This article was written by Dr. Gudrun Thielking-Wagner composed.

[1] Goethe, Johann Wolfgang: maxims and reflections. Fifth volume, third issue (1826). 3rd edition, Holzinger, Berlin 2014, p. 31.

[2] Popper, Karl Raimund: Two types of definitions (1945). In: Miller, David (ed.): Reader. J. C. B. Mohr, Tübingen 1995, pp. 70-84.