20 things to fear when doing a PhD

Sometimes, in the throes of anxiety, it is hard to express what precisely it is that makes one so afraid (EVERYTHING! THE UNIVERSE IS CRAPTASTICALLY SCARY! WE ARE LITERALLY ALL GOING TO DIE!!!). For future reference I have made this comprehensive list of 20 things to fear when doing a PhD. So next time someone asks what there is to fear you can point them to this list. This should save time better spent writing the PhD or, you know, panicking.

  1. Not getting your journal article published.
  2. Getting a journal article published that is so insignificant that nobody will ever read it, in a journal that no one could ever take seriously.
  3. Getting a journal article published in a great journal that everybody reads and then discovering that your article is really bad and you made lots of stupid mistakes. Everybody laughs at you.
  4. Not getting your abstract accepted for an important conference.
  5. Getting your abstracted accepted for an important conference but then discovering that you have no idea how to turn that abstract into a paper.
  6. Producing the actual conference paper but presenting it so badly that everybody falls asleep and resents you for standing between them and lunch.
  7. Presenting the paper so animatedly that people think you cannot be taken seriously and everybody laughs at you (not with you. at you).
  8. Your supervisor thinking your work is crap.
  9. Your supervisor thinking your work is great. They are obviously deluded and cannot be trusted.
  10. Students. Emails. Administration.
  11. Not being able to complete the thesis.
  12. Finishing the thesis but being unable to convince the examiners of its merits. Everybody laughs at you.
  13. Completing the thesis, passing the oral exam with flying colours, only to find that you cannot find a job.
  14. Finding a job that you hate and then having to spend your life in that loathsome profession because nobody else will have you.
  15. Finding a job you love and thus completely ruining your work-life balance. Being so overworked and spending so little time at home that you don’t even recognise your loved ones anymore; when you come home your spouse barks at you and your dog divorces you.
  16. Finding a job that is just right and then being tied to it forever. Never opening that beach bar in Maui you always dreamt of.
  17. Having wrong-headed pedants mark your thesis down for ending sentences with propositions that they think you shouldn’t be ending your sentences with.
  18. Opening the beach bar in Maui you always dreamt of. Everybody knows that can’t go well.
  19. Completion. Completing the chapter. Completing the conclusion. Completing the job application. Completing this list. Completing life. Mortality. Finality. Death.
  20. Clowns. Just because you’re doing a PhD doesn’t mean you can’t still fear clowns. Some things transcend academic boundaries.

I realize that if – like me at this moment – you are actually in the throes of thesis anxiety, this list isn’t extremely helpful (apart from the obvious purpose of communicating with outsiders). So I leave you with this sage advice. Whatever you do


Strangely, I’ve never yet seen a good explanation of why you should not panic but last time I ignored a piece of advice this popular, I woke up in an all-male circus in Siberia with a raging hangover.


About Oxford DPhile

I'm a doctoral candidate in English at Somerville College, Oxford. My thesis, tentatively titled “Just Literature: Evil, Victorian Narrative, and the Problem of Theodicy”, explores the interplay between literature and theodicy – the justification of a good God in light of the existence of evil – in the works of A.H. Clough, J.A. Froude and George Eliot. I teach English Literature at the University of Würzburg, coach academic writing in English at Oxford, blog about the tricks and pitfalls of thesis writing, and love to collaborate. My novel "Das Unglück anderer Leute" was published by Galiani Berlin in August 2016.
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2 Responses to 20 things to fear when doing a PhD

  1. Daedalus Lex says:

    21. Being ostracized from academia for some trifling faux pas and forced to accept a career position as a syndicated humor columnist, based on the strength of your blog entry of 14 April 2016.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Daedalus Lex says:

    Hey Nele. I’ve queried back and forth with someone at Schiller University in Heidelberg about an adjunct faculty post. Do you know anything about them? (I think you know that I just quit my Senior Technical Writing job after 15 years and will fly to Germany with tent and backpack in a few weeks.) Feel free to “disapprove” this comment since it’s not relevant to post, and to reply off-line if you prefer: drggautier@gmail.com


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