Throwback Post: Confessions of a Perfectionist

In the academic world, we can feel a lot of pressure trying to do our consistent best as PhD students, so much so that we might find ourselves getting stuck in perfectionism. Jenny Mak offers two tips for the recovering perfectionist…

originally posted on 01/08/2018

I am a perfectionist. I think I always knew, but I only saw the real impact of this trait when I was going full speed ahead writing my chapters towards my submission deadline. I knew I had to produce work for my supervisors to read stat because I was crunched for time. But I found myself tweaking sentences over and over again to get them to sound just right.

When I finally sent in my chapter and then got it back, it was covered in annotations, questions, comments—all which were perfectly valid of course, but which felt in that first moment of reading as overwhelming and even threatening. It is easy to go into a downward spiral from here, because you can start believing that no matter what you produce, it’s never good enough. But switching our perspective on the concept of ‘good enough’ from negative to positive can actually liberate us from perfectionism. How can we start doing this? How can ‘good enough’ really feel good enough for the recovering perfectionist? Here are two tips that I hope can be helpful.

#1: Perfectionism does not equal to having ‘high standards’

Perfectionism is having an ideal standard in your head, which is really just that—a fantasy. There is no perfect version of a PhD thesis, just as there is no right formula for academic success. Just because you spend one hour marking one undergraduate essay while your colleague breezes through them twenty minutes at a time, this does not mean you’re a failure for not being able to balance all your academic responsibilities perfectly. Everyone has their own unique way of doing things, so spend time trying to find your own groove. Maybe compared to that colleague who stays in the library working for eight hours non-stop, you find that you’re more productive when you have extracurricular activities and fit in your research in between. Maybe you feel better when you let ideas percolate a bit more before putting pen to paper, which is fine, so acknowledge to yourself that you work slower and allow time for that. Discover what works for you, embrace it, and do that. That’s good enough.

#2: Fail Fast

Letting go of the need for your work to be perfect is to accept that failure is part of the package. Oftentimes, sending in your imperfect work—I’ll let you in on a secret, it’s all imperfect—quickly speeds up the learning and revising process. This is because you are also roping in your supervisor to help you think through the areas you’re stuck in: two brains do work better than one. Also remember that you’re neither the perfect nor the only judge of the quality of your PhD. Your supervisor is one; your examiners are another. Ultimately, the PhD is a practical endeavour with concrete requirements for submission—a certain word or page count, a certain level of experimentation—and ‘failing fast’ can get you to that practical measure with the help of your academic mentors. Don’t pressure yourself to know everything. You don’t need to.

Hopefully these two tips will begin to release the stress that perfectionism adds onto you. I also found that Petra Kolber’s TED talk ‘The Perfection Detox’ really gets into the nuts and bolts of perfectionism. If you need a visual reminder and even a mantra of sorts, check out The Cult of Done Manifesto.

Are you a perfectionist? How has perfectionism impacted your PhD and research process so far, negatively and positively? What have you found helpful when dealing with perfectionism? 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. You can reach her on Twitter @jennywhmak, or through her website

Image: pebbles-balanced-pebbles-water-2020100 / jplenio / CC0 1.0

3 thoughts on “Throwback Post: Confessions of a Perfectionist

  1. Truly said – “Perfectionism doesn’t always mean high-standards”.
    Giving a perfect attempt varies from person’s to person’s caliber. So, we should always strive to be perfect, standards will eventually meet with time. This is my personal experience which helped me evolve throughout my academic career.

  2. Speaking from experience, seeking perfection in any academic endeavours (grant applications, article writing, etc) does more harm than good. The key word here is “optimisation”.

Comments are closed.

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: