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Self-Expectation vs Self-Criticism: My PhD Journey So Far

Our February blog comes from Esther Putzgruber, who shares her experience of getting started with her PhD in October and how it has taken her a little time to settle into it. Esther has some great tips to pass on to others getting started on their doctoral work. Esther’s PhD title is: Racial inequalities in mental health help-seeking among young people in the covid-19 context and she is at Kings College London.

I started my PhD journey in October 2022 and it has definitely been a journey so far. Starting my PhD, I was full of excitement whilst equally being anxious at the prospect of such a big project that I held responsibility for completing. The anxious feeling came from, not only the ambiguity that lay ahead of me, but also from the weight of meaning this project carries.

Having researched mental health inequalities in the Black community as part of my Masters project but also being a part of this community and seeing the impact of the differences in mental health help-seeking first-hand, means that I have an overwhelming desire to succeed. Although I am still at the beginning of my journey, I can see that whilst I thought I was prepared with the tools to start my PhD, the thing I was not prepared for was self-expectation. You see, self-expectation can be a great motivator, a good way to hold yourself accountable and a perfect means to provide yourself with clarity and direction. When something is particularly important to us, it’s natural to want to excel and try our hardest to achieve the best results possible. However, what happens when self-expectation becomes self-criticism? What happens when you become subject to your own high expectations?

The truth is, sometimes the expectations I have of myself can become burdensome. I find myself, in the attempt to continually exceed everyone’s expectations, raising the barrier of my own. This made it difficult for me to set ‘realistic’ expectations of myself. Let me put this into context for you. A few weeks into my PhD project, I felt quite lost. I had just gone from a full-time Research Assistant role, having finished education in 2019, to just reading, just training and just... well doing nothing. I found myself in a place where I felt I wasn’t doing enough and in a place of comparison and self-critique which was stopping me from being as productive as I could be. What I was failing to realise was that I needed to find ways to create realistic expectations of myself; expectations that can motivate, encourage accountability and provide clarity and direction. If this sounds a bit like you, I have provided three tips that I have tried (and still try) to implement throughout my journey.

1- Small steps make a big difference

It’s important to remember that the smaller steps you make, do impact the bigger progress. You may find yourself spending the day having read 3 or 4 relevant papers or have written a paragraph of your literature review, but all of these steps contribute to your wider project. For me, writing lists everyday of things I have achieved (which sometimes has just been reading) allows me to look back at the end of the week and really track my progress. Focusing on what I have already accomplished and appreciating what I have done, also helps me to keep things in perspective and allows me to focus on how much I have developed already.

2- Talk, talk, talk

Working from home a lot of the time sometimes gets very isolating and in turn, can get difficult for me to place realistic expectations on myself whilst working in my own bubble. Whilst it’s good to talk to other PhD students, sometimes you can fall into the trap of comparing your journey to others which again, can cause a lot of self-criticism. Talking to your friends, family and others who may be working in your field of study can get you out of this PhD bubble and really put your thoughts into perspective. Speaking to others outside of academia and explaining your research to them can also remind you of how much you actually do know about your topic and the difference your research will make.

3- Learn to let go

When you don’t meet the expectations you set for yourself, this can lead to experiencing all the negative emotions attached to self-criticism. If you do not meet these expectations, remind yourself that you can’t control every situation. Writing goals down but allowing room for flexibility can help. For example, setting a flexible deadline before your concrete deadline, gives oneself time and grace in case things do not work out. Remember that realistic expectations do involve flexibility. If I find myself not being able to let go in that moment, I tend to take a break and do something I enjoy. This helps to diminish the negative thoughts and prevent them from having a snowball effect in my mind.

These are just a few tips that have helped me so far but of course, I am also still learning. Certainly, I am looking forward to the rest of my PhD journey and to seeing the difference this research will make. But I must remember that I need to give myself time and grace to achieve my goals.

Esther Putzgruber

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