Let’s talk about uncertainty

PhD study can be fraught with uncertainty and overwhelm but learning to tolerate and build resistance to uncertainty might not be as out of reach as you think. In this blog, Clarissa talks about encountering and managing uncertainty as a PGR.  

By Riss Muller.

I think every PhD candidate, past and present, knows just how challenging doctoral study can be, not only in terms of the work but our mental health and well-being. Talking about mental health can be uncomfortable, but with Mental Health Awareness Week recently coming to a close there’s no time like the present to address (what I think is) a PhD’s defining feature when it comes to wellbeing struggles: that a PhD is first and foremost a project in uncertainty.

Being a researcher means constantly grappling with something new, after all no one’s ever done what you’re doing before. You might encounter people working in similar areas but, for the most part, you’re the only one doing what you’re doing in the way you’re doing it. New things will always make us feel uncertain and so feeling anxious, nervous, and lost is a large part of what a PhD is – and it’s completely normal. Feeling overwhelmed and uncertain isn’t a reflection of our abilities but of our circumstances. Whilst the specifics of what’s causing overwhelm and uncertainty will vary from person to person, encountering uncertainty is integral to a PhD, no matter the area of specialisation or stage of study, and can present a real challenge for our mental wellbeing. 

A toy penguin with the words 'study happy @warwick library' written on it in blue. There are other penguins in the background.
Study Happy is Warwick Library’s flagship campaign for wellbeing around studies. Image credit: University of Warwick.

Even if it is normal though, uncertainty can be difficult to tolerate. So, what can you do about it? Getting rid of the uncertainty likely isn’t going to be possible but learning ways to build resistance to it definitely is. Here are some tips to get you started:

Do the next best thing.

In moments where you’re unsure of what decision to make take the pressure off by allowing yourself to explore all possible avenues. Once you’ve got a sense of each option, choose the one which is best for the thesis. Going down each route might seem like a poor use of time, but it allows you to make informed decisions thereby providing confidence that you made the right call when uncertainty creeps back in.

Three people stood with coffee cups in their hands, chatting and laughing.
Talking to others might help you work through your options. Image credit: University of Warwick.

Document your experience.

Keeping a research diary is incredibly helpful for tracking what decisions you’ve made and why but also builds reflection into your practice. Together, this sets up “future-you” to be able to field possible questions, locate areas for future research, and flex your mindfulness muscles, all of which can help reduce feelings of uncertainty.

Assess your worries.

This one’s adapted from a CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) technique called “the worry tree” and involves assessing, categorising, and reframing your worries.
Try to catch your anxious thoughts and ask yourself “What can I do? Am I doing it?”. This helps distinguish whether a worry is hypothetical (you can’t do anything about hypotheticals) but also highlights what actions you can take to mitigate the worry and whether you’re doing them.
Undoubtedly, though, hypothetical worries rearise and we can get stuck in “what if…?”. Reframing these thoughts into “what will I do if…?” can help us realise that we’d be able to cope if the hypothetical worry came about, thereby reducing feelings of anxiety caused by uncertainty.

Plan for the unexpected.

Now this sounds like an oxymoron but bear with me. Instead of only planning for what you think will happen build in contingencies. Add an extra 30% to how long you think something will take, back up all your files, keep hard copies of the really important stuff, reserve high-demand equipment in advance, and keep a research diary.

Find your community and prioritise your well-being.

A huge 71% of UK PhD students reported signs of at least mild depression and 74% reported at least mild signs of anxiety. There’s a lot to say about these statistics but the main takeaway here is that it’s vitally important to reach out and let people in no matter how “small” the worry is. PhDs can be academically and socially isolating on top of all the uncertainty, but you’re not alone. Your department, supervisors, family, and friends all want you to succeed and value your well-being. Sometimes all we need is a cup of tea and a chat, but Warwick’s Wellbeing Support Services also offer self-help resources, masterclasses, and a range of therapies as well as advice for when you’re not sure what help you need.

A building in the background with trees in the foreground. It is dusk and the sky is pink.
Wellbeing Support Services is located in Senate House on central campus. Image credit: University of Warwick.

The goal with all these tips doesn’t have to be to like uncertainty or to thrive in it but only to tolerate and build resilience to it. It’s never too late to start considering how uncertainty affects your mental health and to take steps to help mitigate it.


At PhD Life, we do our best to support you through your PhD journey. Take a look at our looking after you and your PhD pages to read our latest posts.

How do you help manage the stresses of PGR life? If you like this blog, let us know what other mental health related topics you’d like to by leaving a comment, tweeting us @researchex or emailing us at libraryblogs@warwick.ac.uk.

Clarissa (Riss) Müller is a first-year PhD student in Philosophy here at the University of Warwick. Their research focuses on the relation between power and Othering in society and exploring related injustices. You can find out more about their PhD experience on Twitter @Riss_Muller and their non-academic literary exploits on Instagram @riss__reads.

Header Image: Olya Kobruseva.

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