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That person you’re comparing to is a hot mess too

Someone told me last week that when they first met me – on the very first day of their PhD – they thought I was a badass, and that they aspired to me be like me in their PhD journey.

I was surprised and amused in equal parts because this was also the most difficult time for me in my PhD.

In the 6 months leading up to that moment, I’d be mourning the death of two close friends and dealing with multiple horrible, persistent bouts of UTI (and shockingly inadequately medical care).

I was stuck, I was a mess and I was so distracted by what was going on in my personal life and health that I didn’t do a single bit of PhD work for half a year.

And when I say I didn’t do any work, I mean it. That’s not just an exaggeration for dramatic effect.

I didn’t read anything, write anything, edit any previous drafts, look at my data, nothing. I just sat around feeling terrible and sleep-deprived (the UTIs meant I could never sleep for longer than an hour at a time and I was always completely exhausted).

It is SO tempting and so easy to slip into that tendency to compare our PhD progress with everyone else’s – PhD colleagues, other post-docts in your project team/department, even your supervisor or other academics you admire.

But all these comparisons are unfair, inaccurate and just plain unhelpful. So here’s why.

Consider these 3 things the very next time you start thinking, “But I suck and I’m failing because they’re doing better than me…

You never know what’s going on for someone else

This can’t be stressed enough.

I hope my example above proves that you never know what’s going on for someone else or what they’re struggling with – no matter how well they look like they’re doing.

People are very good at putting on a brave face and putting their best face forward. It doesn’t mean that their work is on track, that they’re confident and pleased with their rate of progress, or even that they aren’t struggling with the very thing they’re presenting as effortless and ‘fine’.

Even if they look really proud about something they’re doing – some good feedback they got on a piece of writing, an awesome paper they presented at a conference, great sets of data etc. – you really don’t know what’s going on in the rest of their research. Remember that research is so complex and multifaceted, made up of so many different moving, changeable parts.

Someone could be great in the lab but can’t write a single decent sentence.

Someone else could write brilliantly, but come up against all kinds of problems in their data.

A colleague may have a fantastic research design and topic, but really struggle with understanding literature and theory.

Another person may look like they’re sailing through every part of their PhD, but their research is actually pretty mediocre, takes no creative risks and, if you got up close, you might realise it isn’t the kind of research you’d personally ever want to do.

I’ll say it again – you can never really know the full story, what’s really going on for them or (and this is most important) what they’re not telling you.

Because, believe you me, everyone has something to tell that they’re not.

You’re not in school anymore

Doing a PhD and being assessed for it is not like doing exams in school where you’re up against other students on very similar, if identical, paths as you, learning and working with identical material, and examined/graded against each other using the same very specific assessment criteria.

When you think in your PhD: “Batman’s done better than me because he’s written 2 more chapters than I have”

that is a very, very different thing than thinking in secondary school: “GummiBear’s done better than me because she got an A in her final Biology exam and I got a C.”

Well, d’oh, this sound obvious, doesn’t it?

But that’s actually what we’re doing when we compare ourselves against our PhD/research colleagues. And that comparison just isn’t a fair, or logical one…

…mainly because:

Every PhD project journey is unique and different

I cannot say this enough.

And I’d love for you to not just go “yeah yeah yeah, I know that”, brush right past this and go back to beating up on yourself for not doing “as well as that dude over there”

Because honestly, I’ll say it again: Every PhD project and journey is unique and different.

Comparing one to another is like comparing an orange with a chocolate biscuit

i.e. they’re both food items but that’s where the similarities end – just as the main thing most PhDs projects have in common with each other is that they’re a piece of research/practical work being done for examination for a doctoral degree.

More than that, every individual PhD researcher is unique and different:

The educational, work and life experiences you each bring to your research will vary vastly…

… and the way that you work, read, write, conduct research will differ substantially

… and the goals that you have during and post PhD can be completely different from literally anyone else.

All these factors then influence how your research unfolds, how it’s done, how much time it takes

… which in turn also influences the kinds of ideas, approaches, methods and responses that you will into your research

… which therefore also influences how your overall research journey and the final research/thesis turns out.

You could even be in the same department at the same university, with the same supervisor, doing a PhD on the same research team or on very closely overlapping issues as someone else – and still end up with completely different outcomes and theses.

One is not better than the other.

It’s just… different. And different isn’t better or worse.

The only people you really need to check in with to gauge your progress/movement is

(1) your supervisor, who will know best where/how you are placed in relation to your overall research


(2) your own best damn self

(3) Bonus: maybe also a coach/therapist/counsellor if you’re working with one – they’ll help you love, embrace and work through your own mess to find your own brand of magic.

Stay the course of your own PhD journey and keep your nose in your own business.

That’s enough to keep you plenty busy. Let everyone else manage their own mess – and trust me, if there’s anything I hope you take away from this post, it’s that everyone’s got some kind of messy going on.

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