Why PhDs and Perfectionism Doesn’t Mix

This post was originally written by me and published on the Let’s Talk Academia blog. Let’s Talk Academia is an open space on the internet, whereby advice, stories and experiences are shared about postgraduate life and academia. The process of working with Emily, who runs Let’s Talk Academia, was great too – so if you’re looking to get involved in blogging, I’d recommend getting in touch with her via the Let’s Talk Academia Facebook page.


Every PhD project is different, and every PhD student tackles a project in their own unique way. In my experience though, PhD students tend to have one thing in common; they’re high achievers.

When I was younger, I was always that kid that loved school. I was clearing out my old bedroom a few months ago and found diaries that we had to write at school when I was about seven years old. I’d written numerous times, ‘I had fun in Maths today’, ‘I did work at school, I like work’, or the line that makes me cringe the most, ‘I love work, work is easy.’ Please bear in mind I was 7 years old! I’m not that unbearable now at the age of 25, I promise.

I got good GCSE grades, and later on my A-level results got me into the University of Aberdeen to study Pharmacology. I worked hard to convert my Undergraduate BSc degree into an MSci when I took a year away from university for an industrial placement. In the end I graduated with a first class degree and won an academic prize for my final year dissertation; the results of which were then published in the journal Acta Neuropathologica and I was a named author.

I started my PhD in July 2015 and realised quickly that my usual high-achieving track-record wasn’t going to get me through this like it’d got me through exams and assessments before. I’ve always been a perfectionist, whether that’s manifested itself in redrafting and editing essays over and over again, or revising the same topic two or three times before an exam. That attitude simply does not work when you’re doing a PhD; realising that and having to adapt my mentality and working practices was difficult, and I think lots of other PhD students have experienced this too.

Why being a perfectionist simply does not work

A PhD is not an exam or assessment you can write in an evening and then forget about, it’s a really long process that involves literally years of work. If you try and make every single part of that process perfect, you’ll never, ever finish it. You’ll also likely hate the process, and your family and friends will want to strangle you because you’ll be no fun to be around.

Letting go of being a high achiever

After I’d started my PhD I learned pretty quickly that I couldn’t be the best at it. I’d get frustrated when I couldn’t do something, and my Supervisor would regularly remind me, ‘a PhD is a training degree, you’re not expected to know everything – you wouldn’t be here if you did’. That helped, and after repeating that to myself a few hundred times, it started to sink in.

I find it difficult to ask for help, and often I don’t find it easy to try new things; there’s a fear in me that I won’t be good at it so I’d rather not try than deal with the feeling of failure. (Side note – this is the reason why I can’t ride a bike…).

If you’re like me, I have some bad news for you. You are going to have to get used to dealing with perceived failures over the course of a PhD. Failures in PhD-land are common. Losing your memory stick with at least one month’s work on (I’m still not over this and it happened a year ago), software crashing and corrupting documents you’ve been working on for the entire day, missing out on funding, and not having abstracts accepted for conferences; it will all happen. You have to get used to it, learn to get over your defeats quickly and learn from them, otherwise you’ll drive yourself mad.

The intelligence myth

When telling people that I’m doing a PhD, more often than not I get the response ‘OMG you must be SO clever!’. I know this isn’t intentional, but it adds pressure. Every time someone says that, I feel a bit more stupid – know what I mean? Really though, a PhD isn’t about being smart. It’s about consistently learning from your mistakes, dusting yourself off and trying again. It’s a test of tenacity rather than intelligence.

Being able to let my perfectionist side ease off a little has undoubtedly made me a better student. I’m no longer afraid to ask questions, no matter how daft they might have seemed at first, and weirdly, I look forward to getting edits and comments back on my work because I know that’s just helping to improve it. Research is a big collaborative effort, we work in big teams across multiple projects at once, and making everything perfect is impossible. It’s also worth noting, if you’re the guy that wants everything to be ‘just right’, you’re probably a nightmare to work with.

Give yourself a break, and let yourself make mistakes – screwing up during your PhD is a really safe space to do so as well, you’ve got a supervisor who can help to get you out of sticky situations after all!

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