Is Perfectionism Killing Your PhD Thesis?
David struggled with writing his PhD thesis for years.
He had done all the research, he had time, and yet he never felt ready to submit a thesis chapter to his supervisor.
When David found out that his wife was expecting their first daughter, he knew had to graduate and get a job.
He emailed me: “Every time I start writing I imagine all the questions my committee might ask. What do I do if I can’t answer a question?”
“Bingo!” I thought, reading his email.
You cannot write if you keep obsessing about the weaknesses and imperfections of your PhD thesis.
I replied: “David, I know this might be hard to believe, but you can still pass your defense if you cannot answer every answer question.”
One of my mentors, Abe, liked the share the story that of his PhD thesis defense.
After his committee chair congratulated him for passing, he said: “Abe, you are the first student in my 20+ years as a professor who could answer every question during the defense.”
When professors ask you tough questions, or give you harsh written feedback, it isn’t because your thesis isn’t perfect.
There is no such thing as a perfect thesis.
Your PhD thesis has to be “based on original research and make a unique contribution to your field.”
An in-depth thesis or research article raises as many questions as it answers and opens up new opportunities for research.
In college you were probably striving for perfect test scores and grades.
In graduate school, there are no right answers in the back of a textbook.
You might spend years formulating a question that can be answered within the scope of a PhD thesis.
Your effort to make your thesis “perfect” is an attempt to protect you from judgement.
The more you try to make your thesis perfect, the more you realize how many questions you don’t know the answer to.
The fear-based cycle of perfectionism is what keeps you stuck in graduate school forever.
Is there an alternative to perfectionism?
This “unsettling” feeling is something you have to get used to if you ever want to finish your PhD thesis.
Think back to a recent research presentation you heard, which you thought was amazing.
Was it perfect? Probably not.
Did audience members ask questions about the research? Probably.
If the talk wasn’t perfect, and it raised questions, what made the talk amazing?
While I wasn’t there, my guess is that the the speaker was confident and presented their work eloquently knowing that they might not be able to answer every question.
Speakers have to be mentally prepared for questions that they cannot answer.
No matter what career path you follow, you will be bombarded with questions when you present a novel idea.
As a PhD, what sets you apart from others is that you know that you need to find the answers.
No one else is going to do this work for you.
This realization sunk in when I was working in the pharmaceutical industry as a Senior Scientist.
My department purchased a $300,000 instrument that no one else, including my boss, had ever used before.
As the only PhD besides my boss, I was immediately given the responsibility of this intimidating instrument.
Within 3 months, I had to get the instrument up and running, and collect reproducible data for the Vice-President.
My experience in graduate school taught me to strive for excellence while remaining humble.
Furthermore, I had to train someone else to use the instrument too.
While learning how to use the instrument I made “mistakes” every day, and I couldn’t waste time beating myself up.
I also had to admit to my mentee when I didn’t know the answers, even though I was expected to be the expert.
I knew that I couldn’t create a “perfect” presentation for the Vice President. What did “perfect” mean anyway?
The Vice President just wanted to see how we could use this instrument to collect novel data for our studies.
Indeed, when the day of the presentation came, the Vice President wanted to see “progress” not perfection.
The distinction between progress and perfection is what helped David to finally finish writing his thesis.
Once David focused on how many words he wrote or which sections he edited, he felt confident that he would make more progress.
This slight change in perspective gave David the confidence to set a deadline with his supervisor for his PhD thesis .
Most importantly, David didn’t need to “hide” anymore from his supervisor.
Instead, their relationship improved, and David was able to defend his PhD thesis and have several job interviews lined up. A slight change in mindset and habits led to impressive success!