Overcoming challenges common to doctoral researchers

Thinking positively is usually the first step to achieving your goals and it might help to know that at some time most researchers have faced and overcome difficulties such as the following:

Lack of motivation

A doctorate is a long project so your motivation will dip and peak along the way. Set yourself some short-term tasks when lacking motivation so that you can start to make progress again. Identify what motivates you and give yourself regular rewards. It is easier to motivate yourself if you know where you are headed so plan your research project  and keep track of milestones achieved.

Lack of self-confidence

Doing a doctorate can be highly exposing. Be aware of your level of self-confidence and self-belief. If it drops, try to boost your confidence by:

  • seeking positive feedback
  • acknowledging your achievements so far
  • taking stock of your competencies
  • stretching yourself by trying out new things.

If your lack of confidence is seriously affecting your ability to function then seek advice and professional help.

Poor time management

Try and spend time planning, make sure you are devoting an appropriate amount of time to the tasks you are undertaking and then review how things are going. If you are not achieving your goals think about why and make a change. More advice on time management is available.

Lack of focus or direction

If you feel that your research is drifting, refocus on your main objectives.

  • Discuss with your supervisor where you think the project is going
  • Rewrite your research proposal to help you articulate what the project is supposed to be about
  • Rework your project plan to try and give you a clearer idea about what to do next and how it fits into the big picture
  • Take a short break as you may just be bogged down with detail

Limited support

Doing a doctorate can be lonely and isolating. Try to take opportunities to build up your support network.

Stuck in your comfort zone

Beware of only doing things that you are comfortable doing and know you are fully capable of doing. This is known as your comfort zone and tends to be highly limiting. Try continually to stretch yourself to ensure that you keep learning, for example by volunteering for something that you don't see as one of your strengths.

Fear of failure/taking risks

You can learn more from your failures than successes: they are often catalysts for positive change in the medium/long term. Don't take it personally. Remember that you are training to be a researcher. Understand what is expected of you and know where you can find support.

Lack of relevant experience

Identify where your gaps are and explore all options and take opportunities. Try to find some work experience to broaden your competencies.

With acknowledgement to The Art of Building Windmills, Dr Peter Hawkins, 1999.