Throwback Post: Relax, you’re not supposed to know what you’re doing

Do you ever feel like a cat stuck in a tree? Dr Karen Sutherland is here to calm your nerves and tell you exactly, and honestly, how she felt before earning that title before her name…

originally posted on August 2, 2017.

– “It was like fumbling around in the dark trying to find a light switch.”

This has been my answer whenever I am asked what it was like writing my PhD thesis, because this is exactly what it felt like for me. This feeling bears no reflection on my supervisors. They were amazingly responsive and supportive, but every time I sat down to write my first draft, my stomach would swirl and each word that I typed felt like some awkward attempt to shed light on the findings that I had painstakingly gathered for the previous two years leading up to that point.

Normally, I felt competent and self-assured. I was a communication professional and had written everything from television scripts to website content, but my PhD thesis was another beast entirely. I had to admit to myself that I really didn’t know what I was doing, and I didn’t like that feeling at all.

Sometimes I tried to avoid this ache of uncertainty through procrastinating, or procrastibaking which sounds delicious, but the sweet smell of freshly baked cupcakes quickly sours with the realisation that there is a thesis to write, and I was the one that had to do it.

Then, I found a book, or it was recommended to me, and it put me at ease immediately. Its title, Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesiby Joan Bolker seems like a tall order, but its objective is to demystify PhD thesis writing by breaking it up into manageable tasks, and it definitely worked for me. I didn’t write my thesis in 15 minutes a day, but it made the entire exercise seem much less daunting.

In the first chapter it said to me, “Relax, you’re not supposed to know what you’re doing,” and this message changed my entire approach. Rather than worrying whether I was writing each section correctly, it gave me permission to enjoy the learning journey of a PhD. Remember, a PhD is an exercise in research training. You are called a PhD student, because you are learning how to be a researcher. The majority of people undertaking the task of writing a doctoral thesis have never written one before. If you knew exactly what you were doing from the outset, there would not be any need for you to undergo the process. Sure, it can be a roller coaster ride, but life’s most valuable learning experiences usually are.

Make a mess and clean it up

There was another piece of key advice that was contained in the same book. It was a quote by William G. Perry Jr. who said: “First you make a mess, then you clean it up,” (Bolker, 1998, p. 33) and this was not only applicable to my procrastibaking. This quote was a revelation to me about the writing process. It dispelled my fears of writing poorly by encouraging me to get some words down first, any words. After all, it is easier to work with something than nothing, even if the first lot of something isn’t great. I still use this advice even today when I’m feeling hesitant about writing a challenging piece.

I completed my PhD in 2015. It taught me a lot, and not just about research. Above all, I learned how to surrender to a process that is unfamiliar; to become comfortable sitting in the dark for a while and to trust my abilities enough to know, that whatever happens, I will always find that light switch eventually. You will too.

Have you ever felt like you don’t know what you are supposed to be doing? Are there any books which have helped your academic writing? Are you into procrastibaking? If so, tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at, or leave a comment below.

by Karen

Dr Karen Sutherland is a Lecturer and Discipline Lead of Public Relations, Coordinator of the Social Media Minor and a social media researcher at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. Karen completed her PhD at Monash University in 2015 called: Towards an Integrated Social Media Communication Model for the Not-For-Profit Sector: A Case Study of Youth Homelessness Charities. You can follow Karen on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. If you want to learn more about her work, you can check out her LinkedIn page or visit her website. You may also email her at


Bolker, J. (1998). Writing your dissertation in fifteen minutes a day: A guide to starting, revising, and finishing your doctoral thesis. Holt Paperbacks.

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