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I was reading a comic on PhDComics and although it is funny, sadly, it is also true. Grad students I know (including me) usually fall into one of these existential crisis at least once a semester. And the onset is unpredictable. I've seen people get it when they are really happy (I got groundbreaking results but what difference does it make to the world?) and really sad (& everything in between). Needless to say, it severely affects productivity for extended periods of time.

My question is : How to deal/avoid/reconcile with this crisis such that your productivity is not jeopardized?

My question is NOT : How to be motivated, How to be organized or How to do work. It is not an invitation to Psychobabble.

All the pomodoros, GTD, motivation go down the drain during such times.

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I'm not a graduate student, but I think I understand some of your feelings. I think the root of your problem is that you're not sure about what you're doing (which everyone of us has sometimes in our life). –  Hoàng Long May 10 '12 at 9:13
Why not you try other things than only working on the PhD works day by day? Take some sport activities, go to new places, meeting new people.. I'm not sure those activities will help you get better at your work, but it may enlarge your view about the world. Maybe you'll find the answer you're searching :) –  Hoàng Long May 10 '12 at 9:16

4 Answers 4

Funnily enought, I never had one of those when I was doing my PhD... but I'll give what empathy I can.

Consider your PhD to be about you. Your development, your morphing from a slightly clueless undergrad into someone who can follow paths of reasoning more elegantly, more effectively, and more easily than you could before. Your project or projects are the anvil on which your mind is beaten out and shaped. I had many days in my research were I had the figurative mathematical poo kicked out of me and every time I got up I got up stronger.

It is an education, remember that you are still being educated in an educational institution. You will rise and you will grow and when you leave you will be able to deploy the weapons you've gained - the project is simply that, yes someday your phd work may make a difference in the world... but it's only when you finnish your course that you'll have the ability to really push in the directions you want to push.

The short point I'm making is that if you think of your PHD as a degree (it is) then you need to make no more difference to the world than you did in your undergrad. It's only when you have to deal with the first-year PhDs that you'll realise how much you've grown...

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The book Mastery by Robert Greene covers the stories of several masters, ancient and modern. All of them have had to go through a lot of pain and hard work to find what their true life's goal is and to develop themselves. A PhD gives you that extreme training, coupled with some of the brightest mentors on the planet. –  Muz Feb 1 '13 at 3:32

Maybe it's a matter of expectations. When you're working on your Bachelor, there is little expectation to make a difference, change the world, only your own (for the most part). When you're working on your PhD, you hope that after all the effort and time, it makes a "difference" and, maybe even more dangerous, that someone will care.

I can fully relate to having an existential crisis. (I think it's one of the reasons I can't get myself to focus more on my writing.) I probably get one a week. (OK, maybe exaggerating a bit.) There are different things you can do about it but one of them is to focus on the moment. At this moment you are working with this person or reading this article. Focusing on the moment instead of the bigger existential picture can help you find the meaning in the small things.

You'll see that your relationship with that person is your current challenge or reading up on a certain topic is currently interesting to you... All that without wondering, "Yeah, but what it is all for???"


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One thing to consider deeply in those moments is that, looking inside and finding motivation, answers, assurance and all is never the easy process some books or gurus insist it is. Looking inside demands time and effort, and sometimes you'll still find difficulty in investigate that vague "what's happening here" question by yourself.

I've always had small existential crisis from time to time, every since i've started working. But 2 years ago i found myself in a situation of extremes. A true existential crisis that had elements from every part of my life involved, work, family, studies, you name it. It's not that it was all bad things happening. Some of them were good things, but they were conflicting with each other and turning decision-making and focus really really hard to achieve.

For my part, i've made part of my life to visit a psychotherapist once a week. Despite the bad fame of being vague, overpriced and not really useful, i found psychoanalysis to be a real help not only when crisis hits, but also to as means to foresee them and prepare to deal with them. And also investigate myself further when i'm not in a crisis.

There's two very nice things about psychoanalysis, ihmo:

One is that you are the only one responsible for your "treatment" and a good therapist will never try to help you in anything other than investigating your self, your aspirations, your past, your relations with people and with things.

The other is that the therapist is a person you'll only see in that time and space. They won't be your friend (so they won't "care" for you as a friend would), and they won't pretend they are family to you (so you won't have to please them in anyway), and that is precisley what gives you liberty to talk about anything, or nothing, without the fear of being judged. Heck, isn't that why we're sharing things with strangers on the web instead of with friends and family?

The therapist's job is to orient you, asking the necessary questions and pointing the intricacies, vaguenesses, and controversies of our thoughts, but never handing us the anwsers (which they also don't know), so that the process of finding them, when they exist, is also constructive - and so that not finding them doesn't block you from living your life the best way you can.

That is much like a professor would orient your thesis pointing loopholes on your subject. Except that the subject is you, and a little methodology to investigate yourself always helps.

Best of luck!

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We all have a fundamental need (sub-conscious for most of us) to justify our existence on this planet. Think through how your grad work justifies your existence on this planet and remind yourself of it every time you feel low.

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