PhD Perfectionism

PhD Perfectionists: Coping with the Need to be Perfect

by Jessica Day


I am a perfectionist. It’s no secret amongst my close friends that I like to work at an organised desk with paper aligned the right way, pens facing forwards, and with a clear, over-detailed to-do-list every-day. Over the top or just organised, I’ll let you decide – and I haven’t a problem with either as my small, perfectionist habits usually help with productivity. However, sometimes my need to be perfect and to do everything to in an orderly, overly-attentive fashion can, oddly enough, inhibit my ability to progress and get things done, and this is going to be the topic of today’s Tuesday Top Tips: learning when it’s okay and not necessary to be “perfect” as a PhD student. Of course, I’m not trying to imply that I’ve ever written the perfect essay or presented the perfect paper – I haven’t. I simply mean that I have a huge tendency to want to perfect everything I can to the best of my ability within my academic life; from emails and essays right through to the presentation of my supervision notes and to-do-lists (that only I actually see), they must all be faultless. I’m also quite aware that I’m probably not the only PhD student in this position, as, after all, academia to a certain extent demands a perfectionist’s mind-set – otherwise the first draft would always seem good enough. But, what I hope to demonstrate and give some tips for in today’s blog post, is how and when to say to “enough is enough, that will have to do.”

You Only Have so Much Time

Yes, time limitations are an obvious part of a PhD, as, from the moment you start, you’re VERY aware that one day in the next three to six years or more (depending on if you’re part or full-time) you’ll have to submit a final project. However, this isn’t the time frame I’m referring to; instead, I mean your daily, weekly, and monthly outputs. Throughout your doctoral study it will be inevitable that you will have to manage multiple deadlines from abstract closing dates to the work you have to send to your supervisor. At times when you are managing numerous deadlines, you have to remember not to think you’re invincible and not strive to perfect everything. Instead, you must decide what to prioritise, what is less important, and how you’re going to reach all the deadlines sensibly. Although planning to re-draft and edit is great, with the PhD lasting as long as it does it can’t always be the case that a super busy month means less sleep, social life, and self-care. As we highlighted in the ‘PhD & Downtime’ series, time out isn’t simply optional, it’s necessary and ALLOWED. So, learn when to stop and call it a day with different tasks – more isn’t necessarily better when the overall goal is to complete a thesis.

Let it Go*

What’s more, in addition to the extra, more important deadlines, throughout your PhD study you’ll undoubtedly find yourself with more and more general admin tasks and “mini-deadlines” to account for, such as remembering to reply to emails. Even with the smaller and more menial tasks you have to complete, you have to be diligent and cautious not to waste time or over- invest your energies. At the start of my PhD, one short email to my PhD supervisor could take me over half an hour to construct, and I could waste a whole morning just trying to ensure I’d used the right grammar and sounded eloquent when filtering through my email list. This left me less time to be productive with more important tasks, and, on odd occasions, also meant I over-worked myself for the day trying to make up for, what I wrongly considered, lost time.

*Yes, I am intentionally referring to ‘Let it Go’ from Disney’s Frozen – although you don’t necessarily need to break into song to prevent “perfectionist panic,” it’s a useful phrase to remind yourself of when going too far with the detail of something.

Managing Different Deadlines Evenly

Contradictory to what I’ve just said and advised above, sometimes I have found myself so absorbed with one impending, crucial deadline that I’ve forgotten and faltered to invest the same level of input into other commitments or responsibilities in a negative way. For example (and perhaps to the irony of this whole piece), I’ve recently been so caught up in perfecting the work for my ‘Transfer to PhD’ that I forgot it was my week to write a blog post for the PG CWWN.  So, whilst I thought I was doing the right thing in choosing to prioritise and manage the PhD Transfer work, I caused myself more hassle and frustration in having less time to work on this blog. Although being perfect isn’t always possible, therefore, it is viable and clever to distribute the level of effort you give to different tasks equally. Manage how you streamline and allocate your perfectionism fairly.

Don’t be Misled and Short-Sighted

At a recent PGR training event an experienced lecturer in my School made a very obvious, but also informative, remark I wanted to end on. Paraphrasing them, they said:

‘Don’t be short-sighted with your goals. It’s easy to try and perfect the teaching material you are preparing that week, for example, but at the end of the day you’re here to complete a PhD – make sure you keep that in sight in your daily task management.”

Regardless of what abstract deadlines you’re working on, what emails you need to reply to, and how perfect you want to make all of these tasks, always remember you can only do so much and most of that effort should be orientated towards finishing the PhD itself.