What They Don’t Tell You About Getting a PhD: Wrestling with Doubt

image from stevewright.info

image from stevewright.info

This post is for the current or aspiring doctoral student, specifically the one pursuing an academic discipline in the Church. I am writing to you from beautiful Northern England today. I have spent the last two weeks at Nazarene Theological College (one of the schools of the University of Manchester) working on my doctoral research, presenting papers, attending seminars, and re-connecting with my colleagues and professors alike. Times like this are a very important part of getting a research degree. So much of the process is done in isolation, and it is hugely beneficial to have opportunities to step out of the study space and into a collaborative academic setting. I am thankful to my family and my school for opportunities like this one.

I am now half-way through the fifth year of a six-year program, and I can honestly say how truly fortunate I have been to be able to work with such great people as I pursue the dream of a PhD. I have had ups and downs along the way, have had to change course in my research more than once, and I constantly feel behind in my work. But I have had helpers along the way who have guided me through the process, and have had friends go before me who shared similar experiences and demonstrated that it is possible to prevail.

Despite all of the support and help I have had over the years, though, there are things that I wish I had known going into the program. Things that many people experience, but which no one seems to talk about until they have come center stage.

One of the things that I wish they had told me coming into this program is how much some (many) students wrestle with doubt.

Sure, there are those students who have an unshakeable confidence, either in their own ability or in their calling. But most of the students I know have, at one time or another, experienced doubt in their ability, their purpose, their perseverance, you name it. I have wrestled all of those just mentioned at one time or another and have found that, while there is no one-size-fits-all solution to dealing with doubts, there are some helpful steps to consider while working through it and pressing on with the work at hand.


5 Steps to Facing Doubt

1. Own it

It does no good to bottle up all of these feelings until they cripple you. If you are feeling doubtful about your ability, your research topic, your life situation, whatever it may be, you will never be able to deal with the problem until you own that it is yours and that it is very real. I have had many doubts along my road to a PhD, and there have ben times where I allowed those doubts to take root and fester, because I was ashamed at my lack of confidence and was afraid someone would figure out that I am a phony. Permitting these voices to speak will only hamper your ability to move forward. Remember that the first step to getting well is admitting that there is a problem.


2. Tell someone you trust

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to talk to someone you trust about your struggles with doubt. Getting a PhD is already a very solitary endeavor. The last thing you need is to try dealing with additional burdens in isolation. So, tell your spouse, your best friend, your pastor, or someone else who will speak truth into your life. Pick someone who will help you wrestle with the dilemma over someone with quick answers. No two situations are the same, neither is there one solution that will work for everyone.


3. Seek help

If your doubt is affecting your work, then ask for help. I was really struggling with my progress last year. I had gone through some employment changes that left me exhausted, frustrated, and a little scared about my family’s well-being. As doubt about my ability to finish the program began to creep in, I sought wise counsel from my wife and extended family, and then ultimately I sought help from my school. I asked questions about suspending my program for a short time (something that is allowed and even encouraged in some situations), and I talked to my supervisor about my struggles with finding time and energy to work on my research. These were uncomfortable conversations, but they helped me to see a way forward, even in the worst case scenario, and ensured that everyone involved was aware of my situation. I urge you to seek help early when you are wrestling with doubt. It may make the difference between our long-term success or failure.


4. Make a decision

Doubt arises for all sorts of reasons. Some of those come from outside influences over which you may not have much control. For example, the loss of a loved one, the birth of a child, the sudden loss of income or a home. All of these things can inspire doubt in a student’s mind about pursuing a PhD. Will I have enough time to work on research? Does muy family situation mean that I need to work more to support them? Do I need to grieve or help others with their grieving? All of these are valid questions to ask when life throws us curve balls, and all of them can lead us to doubt our ability to finish the PhD.

Situations like these also come with the necessity to make a decision. Will you continue in your research as you have been? Will you take a break for a time? Or do your circumstances suggest tat you need to drop out of your program entirely? Whatever decision you arrive at with your family, the most important thing is to make one. Waffling with indecision only encourages you to doubt more and negatively impacts your progress in the meantime.


5. Let go

Once you have made your decision let it, and your doubt, go. Not everyone is called to pursue a PhD. Sometimes people don’t realize that until they are in the midst of it. There is no shame in recognizing that God has something better for you. If that should happen, turn toward him and follow wherever he leads you.

There is also no shame in taking a break. Life is complicated, and if we are to live our lives fully we must embrace the idea that complex solutions are sometimes necessary to life’s dilemmas. Taking a break might be the best way to ensure that you finish your work well. Getting a PhD isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. It has a rewarding finish line, but one that you will not enjoy if you have injured yourself (or others) along the way.

Finally, getting a PhD is a LOT of work. There will always be things that cause students to doubt. I was once told that 10% of earning a PhD is getting accepted to a program. The other 90% is gutting it out. At the end of the day, only you can decide to push through voices of doubt and complete the work that is before you. If your situation doesn’t require you to quit or take a break, take confidence in your calling and get to the business of getting the work done. It will be a difficult journey, but it will be one that transforms you more than you can possibly imagine.



3 thoughts on “What They Don’t Tell You About Getting a PhD: Wrestling with Doubt

  1. Thank you for this, friend! As you can imagine, much of this hit home for me, and I especially appreciate your words in “5. Let go…”

    I do miss the program, especially the folks in Manchester and the beautiful sights along the way, but I am pleased with where God has me now. Maybe one day I’ll pursue a D.Min., but I’ll let that decision come later. No pressure now! 😉

    Peace, brother!

    • Thanks, Jeff! I’m glad that you are in a place where you sense God’s leading and confirmation. I have absolutely no doubts that you are a great pastor. Having said that, we all miss you here too.

      I’ve had to wrestle with a lot of doubts with my own progress, and was writing out of a need to expres that. Hopefully, others will hear that they are not alone in this.

      Blessings to you, Carrie, and the kids.

  2. Pingback: Conquering Minor Depression Like a Boss | Liquid Faith

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