When PhD resembles break-ups a bit too much…

Let’s face it: doing a PhD isn’t always rainbows and unicorns. The process can be painful and annoying, and at some point you’re probably going to get completely stuck. If you’ve ever done any research, you definitely know what I’m talking about.

There’s something you need to do, usually some task that was supposed to be easy – a toy example, an almost standard code, a “quick” experiment to check your hypothesis. And here you are, spending long hours, days, weeks, even months, not even closer to solving your problem. You’ve tried everything, used all possible sources you could find, but this devil isn’t giving up.

Hm, you guessed, it’s happening to me right now. To give you an idea of how it feels, let’s take a look at some stages of stuckness as described by psychologists. Well, not quite, these are the stages of grieving after a breakup, but it actually works. Let me walk you through the stages of being stuck in research. If you happen to be going through this process, some cuteness won’t hurt, so enjoy the pictures.

1. Desperate for Answers.

In the beginning you’re looking for answers.

In the beginning you just want to know – how to solve the equation, why your experiments give such results etc. You work hard trying different methods.

2. Denial.

You can’t believe that you haven’t solved this “easy problem” yet. I mean, it can’t be that complicated, right? You’re sure the answer is so close, just waiting there for you.

Denial: “A problem? There’s no problem!”.

3. Bargaining.

Hm, maybe you don’t really have to do that? There are many directions in which your research could go, why can’t you just pretend that this issue doesn’t exist and move on? Or even try to swipe the problem under the carpet, nobody will notice, right?

4. Relapse.

You might actually persuade yourself (and your supervisor) that the problem isn’t worth pursuing. However, the issue will come back soon, I promise. A very similar problem will appear in another example you’ll try to tackle.

5. Anger.

AAAAAARRRRRRGGGGGHHHHH, bloody gamma functions, why are you doing this to me, whyyyyyyy?!?!?!?! (I think I’m going through this stage right now).

Being stuck might make you angry and that’s ok.

6. Initial Acceptance.

You accept that the problem needs to be solved, but it might be too difficult to tackle alone. You start reaching out for help and admitting: “I have no idea”.

7. Redirected Hope.

Hey, maybe you won’t be able to solve the problem alone, but there’s somebody somewhere in the world working on something similar who would be interested in joining forces? Or maybe you could tackle an even smaller subproblem? Maybe there is some light in the end of this tunnel?


I’m sure all PhD students have had similar feelings, just not everybody talks about it. Remember: no pain, no gain. You can do that!

One comment for “When PhD resembles break-ups a bit too much…

  1. This was so comforting to read, currently going through something very similar doing my masters of research in abstract algebra. The issue of the “simple” example I’ve had so many times so far. However it’s comforting knowing how many problems you’ve already overcome (also very much like that of break ups).

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