I am convinced that I possess sufficient "cognitive skills" to succeed doing my PhD. Reflection on myself, however, confronts me with the fact that my "meta-cognitive" (time management, mental discipline, focus) and "emotional" skills (motivation, patience, work-life balance, monitoring own health) are underdeveloped.

  • I feel that I am always making the same mistakes. I am often working hard for days. Stress and coffee distort my sleep pattern, making my mind empty for days. I recognize clear patterns. I also have trouble maintaining a healthy life-style. Instead of taking a little bit more time to eat healthy or sport, I am captivated in "the illusion that there is always more work to do." As a consequence, I am (on average) physically sick two days in the week -- eventually, losing more time. Finally, though I was happy living my introvert life before, the long days of no social interaction and just staring at my computer screen are becoming more dreadful.

  • My meta-cognitive skills also seem to be weak. I have trouble focusing on one subject for a very long time. I often get bored after some weeks, wanting to jump immediately to something else. As a result, it appears that the first phase of my research (almost 9 months) is very fragmented. I don't see any linear progress. I often doubt that the time I am investing in some subject will be useful later. I feel that I am not really spending my time the best I can. I keep track of my work hours in Excel files to be sure that I accomplish my weekly goal of 45 hours. In order to accomplish this goal I mostly have to push many hours to the weekend. I am aware that this bad time-organization will affect the quality of my relationships in the long term; and damages my work-life balance in general. I feel that I am working 24/7 at half capacity, whereas I would prefer to work 5 or 6 days in the week at full capacity.

I am starting to have less and less satisfaction from my work. The butterfly feeling of wonder and passion for science are disappearing. I am feeling more like an input-output machine which needs to be managed. The work I am doing also seems to be driven and conditioned by external factors (deadlines, presentations, publications, expectations promoter) instead of internal factors (pleasure, interest).

More concrete questions:

(1) Is it possible to improve one's meta-cognitive and emotional skills? How would one do this in practice? Can a person really change?

(2) How can one restore those feelings of wonder and true passion, and step out of the "routine" where one feels like an input-output machine which needs to be managed?

  • 3
    Instead of tracking your working hours, set reasonable weekly goals and track a progress towards goals. These can be things like: read a paper, go to gym, run experiment 1, run experiment 2, etc.. At the end of the week, you'll have something concrete to look back, and over few weeks you will start seeing a progress.
    – afaust
    Commented Mar 22, 2015 at 16:25
  • Question (2) is separate and should be moved to another post (on Stack Exchange it is important to ask one question per one question). But for a quick link: amasci.com/~billb/cgi-bin/instr/instr.html Commented Mar 22, 2015 at 16:58

5 Answers 5


I empathize, as this is something that I (and many others here, I am sure) have also struggled with.

My first piece of advice is simple but difficult: you need to start valuing yourself. Eat well. Sleep well (or at least defend an eight hour block of time where you lie in bed and rest). Get outside and move around. Your mind lives inside your body, and you cannot build on a broken foundation.

My second piece of advice is to help yourself do this by getting help from a therapist. I particularly recommend looking into cognitive behavioral therapy, given your description of self-regulation: it is very good at helping people get out of dead ends that are more intellectual than organic.

  • Note that the average adult needs only seven hours' sleep, though younger people often need more (ISTR reading that teenagers average more like nine hours). So you don't necessarily need eight hours but definitely make sure you're getting enough time resting, relaxing and sleeping. Commented Mar 23, 2015 at 10:45
  • @DavidRicherby It's actually 7-9, depending on how you value error bars it might be 6-10: sleepfoundation.org/how-sleep-works/…
    – BrianH
    Commented Mar 23, 2015 at 16:26
  • 1
    @DavidRicherby Don't worry about the exact number too much: if you're too messed up to sleep, use 8. If you're able to sleep OK, don't set an alarm.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Mar 23, 2015 at 16:59

I'll start by trying to answer your specific questions.

(1) Yes, it is quite possible to improve your meta-cognitive skills (I think some people call this executive function) and emotional skills. I considered developing a part of my Ph.D. education. Actively seek to develop it now and for the rest of your career. You can make a positive change for yourself.

(2) Now, this is where long-term thinking will really benefit you. You need to rest. Taking time to rest each day and weekend will help you the most, because then you are refreshed. I had a revelation earlier this week: Just because a behavior feels productive, doesn't mean it is productive! That includes arbitrarily set long hours. Treat your research as a job if it helps. Set hours for yourself each day, and then go home and let your mind rest when the day is over. That being said, I don't think you should count hours on a spreadsheet as you have been. You haven't accounted for the quality of your work, which will suffer without rest. Even if you work fewer total hours, your net productivity will increase if you make the time to rest.

I sometimes had difficulty feeling passion and wonder, and I had a couple of slower years before I figured it out. It is perfectly normal for you have a slower, difficult period during your research. Don't beat yourself up over it, because research is inherently difficult and you will thank yourself for persevering.

I actually became most productive towards the end of my Ph.D. program when I was able to relate how everything I was doing worked towards completion of the degree, which is something I really wanted. What I am trying to say is that I really wanted to understand the research field I was working in and because I made sure I was rested and had the right support system for myself I could focus on the research when it was time to work.


I agree with @jakebeal and @James Palmer, as well as the comments.

  • I used cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to get through my Ph.D., and it helped.
  • I also used mindfulness practices. I recommend yoga and meditation. There are different types/approaches to meditation, and mindfulness is not exactly the same as meditation, but it includes a form of meditation. Jon Kabat-Zinn has a number of books on mindfulness, and his approach appealed to the analytic part of me. In particular, I recommend The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness which combines mindfulness practice with CBT. Kabat-Zinn is not the primary author, but the book includes a CD with guided meditations by Kabat-Zinn, and the authors' approach to mindfulness is in line with Kabat-Zinn's approach. (Kabat-Zinn is not a therapist.)
  • You can develop the meta-cognitive and emotional skills to finish your Ph.D., but I wouldn't not depend on your colleagues and mentors to help with that. Many people in academia don't have those skills themselves, and it is possible to succeed in academia without adequate skills in those areas. It may eventually catch up with people, and success without such skills may cause a lot of collateral damage to health and family and friends along the way, but it is possible.
  • Whether it's for the sake of succeeding or for the sake of valuing yourself, you have to take care of yourself. Nutrition, adequate sleep, relaxation and recreation, and meaningful, nourishing social interactions are crucial for success and happiness. It was hard for me to prioritize those needs, so I understand. If it helps to think of fulfilling those needs in order to achiieve academic success, that's fine. I think that along the way, you'll find that fulfilling them is an end in itself for your own happiness. You are worth it.
  • So hang in there. We've been there. Academia has a lot of dysfunction (like any achievement-based endeavor), but if you get to do what you want, you may find that it is worth it nonetheless. Remember academia is not the same as the subject area you are passionate about. Academia is the predominiant context that your subject area is pursued. Let your passion for the subject drive you to make sacrifices and get through the grind of it. In the short term (which may include the whole time of completing the Ph.D.), you may not feel much of the passion. It's the longer term passion that is the motivation. If that is gone, then you need to consider if you are on the right path. (You may or may not be. I can't answer that.) In other words, don't give up if you don't feel the passion in the short term, but if you don't feel it in the longer term, think about it.

Good luck!


I can relate completely. My PhD has been dragging on for a long time, and I feel like years of life have evaporated. I don't have all the answers, but these are some of the things that helped me:

  1. The pomodoro technique. From Wikipedia:

    • Decide on the task to be done
    • Set the pomodoro timer to n minutes (traditionally 25)
    • Work on the task until the timer rings; record with an x
    • Take a short break (3–5 minutes)
    • After four pomodori, take a longer break (15–30 minutes)

There are apps for this. The 3-5 minute break is important to refresh the brain.

  1. Use exercise as a break. Makes body healthier, regen's brain.

  2. Stop drinking coffee, or any caffeine, it's like baby meth. I read a psychology study where the participants who drank lots of coffee dropped a whole point for their GPA for the semester.

Answer to 2) You can never have the wonder and passion all the time. People who are constantly 'following their passion' are rare and perhaps mentally disturbed. Playing with ideas is 90% of the fun but 10% of the work. I try to find some pleasure in the tedious stuff by doing it 'right'. LaTeX helps cause it makes pretty things.

  • I agree that following your passion all the time is an ideal. I think in terms of deciding what matters to you. For most of us, that's not just one thing. So while you may have a passion of science, you also value time with family and friends, or whatever it is that matters to you. Then it's a matter of managing how your time to be able spend time on what matters to you. Also, LaTeX is a nice way to do necessary work that is satisfying and yet different so your brain gets a break.
    – wdb
    Commented Mar 23, 2015 at 16:18
  • TomatoTimer is an online version to apply the Pomodore Technique.
    – agold
    Commented Oct 5, 2015 at 13:02

Unless your PhD is externally managed, completing a PhD is often dependent on learning soft skills.

I feel that I am working 24/7 at half capacity, whereas I would prefer to work 5 or 6 days in the week at full capacity.

Yep: at least in CS, people's productivity correlates more with efficient working and less with working a lot. (I believe math or theoretical physics wouldn't be different).

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) might be helpful. In my case, similar problems were the result of perfectionism: imposing on myself standards that are so high to be harmful. According to rumors, perfectionism helps to enter a PhD, but it gets in the way of completing it. Don't trust me, a stranger on the Internet, but consider looking at this professional self-help material and seeking counseling.

I have trouble focusing on one subject for a very long time. I often get bored after some weeks, wanting to jump immediately to something else.

In the end, you should find a PhD topic that you care about enough to focus on it. How to get there, and which topics to study/work on, is something your supervisor should help you with—you might need to seek him explicitly.

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