The Superhero PhD Student

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s the Superhero PhD student! The expectations that we face as PhD students can place undue stress upon us. Jenny Mak offers two tips to help you gain perspective and harness your superpower…

Have you encountered the Superhero PhD student? Here are some of her habits: She’s in the library/lab/office every morning at eight and leaves at five, including weekends. She works like a boss on her thesis throughout the day, only stopping for lunch hour. She has garnered teaching awards, postgraduate essay awards, published journal papers, has one book published and another on the way. She has organised and presented at major conferences. She has also been invited to speak at conferences and to conduct workshops. She’s on good terms with professors in the department and leading academics in her field—they’re Facebook friends. She has her own blog and Twitter. She’s on the student committee.

Sound familiar?

The truth is, the Superhero PhD student is a myth. It encapsulates the numerous (spoken and unspoken) expectations that are placed on PhD students, whereby they should finish their theses on time while also accomplish other goals that are “necessary” for an academic career afterwards. Achieving these goals isn’t “Mission Impossible”, but the timeframe within which we’re assumed to get them done is unrealistic and places much undue stress on us. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, here are two tips that might help:

Tip #1: Plan and Surrender

To ease your stress and anxiety, sometimes it’s just a matter of setting your goals down concretely so you can see them in front of you. Grab pen and paper and write them all down. This will begin to give you a clear sense of what you need to do, what you want to do, and when you should do them in order of priority. List down what you’d like to achieve in the first year, second year, and third year of your PhD.

It’s important to be realistic though, so ask your friends who’re final-year PhD students for their opinions. Maybe show your plan to your supervisor if you’re comfortable. But once you’ve done your plan, there’s another step to do. Surrender to the outcome. This might sound counterintuitive, but recognise that you can’t control whether you get that teaching award or that journal article published, especially in the timeframe that you want. The only thing you can control is the amount of effort you put in to attain your goals. So write these goals down, then let them go.

Tip #2: A Time for each Task

As you’re working towards your goals, you might feel antsy and judge yourself. The negative self-talk kicks in: I’m not good enough, I’m an imposter, others are working better and faster than me, I’m not smart enough, I’m too lazy, I have nothing to show for myself. But if you let negative self-talk get to you, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

It’s not that we can’t accomplish all these goals—it’s that we can’t get them done all at the same time. We each have a certain number of hours and a certain amount of energy every day, so it’s important to be realistic about what you can achieve (see Tip #1), but also be patient with yourself.

Easier said than done, but this scene from Brazilian author Paulo Coehlo’s novel The Alchemist might offer some perspective. The book is about an Andalusian shepherd boy who travels to Egypt to see the pyramids in order to fulfill his destiny. One part of his journey involves him reaching an oasis in the middle of a desert, in a caravan. But when they’re just a night away from reaching the oasis, the boy asks his driver why they shouldn’t go there right now. The driver replies, “Because we have to sleep.” What Coehlo wants us to understand is that there’s a time for each task: for the boy, there’s a time to charge ahead, but there’s also a time to rest. When we’re patient and do each task steadily in their own time, we’ll achieve our goals eventually.

Hopefully, these two tips will give you some perspective and help you harness the superpower within yourself.

Have you encountered these expectations as a PhD student? Do you feel they are fair or unrealistic? What steps have you taken to deal with these expectations and the stress that comes with them? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at, or leave a comment below.

Jenny Mak is a PhD researcher in the English and Comparative Literary Studies department at the University of Warwick. Her research looks at embodied experiences of globalisation in contemporary world literature. She has a background in creative writing, journalism, publishing, and sports training.

Image: young-interpretation-wonder-woman-3159858 / prettysleepy1 / CC0 1.0

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