Day 3 Emotions and the PhD: Fear and Curiosity

Today we think about fear and curiosity. Of course, fear can prevent progress, but it’s important to understand how curiosity can also become a stumbling block. Both can be managed, and we’ll look at strategies to help you do this.


HDRs face a whole raft of fears during their studies, many of which are closely related to the imposter syndrome we explored on Day 1. Chakraverty (2020) identifies a range of fears, from being regarded as inadequate to being rejected by the academy; Cisco (2020) reveals how elements of imposter syndrome feed into postgrads’ fears around reading, writing and discussing academic work. Here we’ll focus on two central fears many HDRs experience during their studies: fear related to writing, and fear related to public speaking. By facing these fears, we start to see how they are a kind of performance anxiety that can be overcome.

Fear of writing

Fear of the blank page/screen can be paralysing. Where to start? What is important, what is engaging? Will my work be good enough, and how will I know? And this is when those procrastination behaviours can kick in— I’ll just make a cup of tea, a quick phone call, search the internet for conferences in glamorous locations, help out another HDR who is having computer problems, do another database search—by which time it is almost lunchtime, so I might as well go off and eat. But I get caught up in a conversation and it’s a bit late by the time I get back to my desk and not really worth starting a big task, so it’s better, I rationalise, to finish up early today and go to the gym for a bit of exercise to keep my mind and body fit. That’s another day ticked off the calendar, but not much achieved. Have you ever found yourself doing these apparently useful tasks that aren’t really progressing your writing? Have you found even more ‘worthy’ distractions while trying to work from home in recent weeks?

Researchers and HDRs often refer to the horror of ‘writer’s block’, that awareness that you seem simply unable to make progress in your writing. There are lots of theories about why people can experience the inability to write, and there are some useful strategies you can employ to break this cycle. One of the most effective interventions is the pomodoro ‘Shut up & write’ model. While it can feel counter-intuitive to be forced to write when you are struggling to write, many find that being in a room with others creates the momentum to break through the block. (If you are interested in giving this a go, our team is running regular SUAW sessions online:

Some other strategies that HDRs have found useful include:

Photo by Marcin Skalij on Unsplash
  • Reviewing the thesis plan, table of contents, etc
  • Drawing up a dot-point structure/map of sections to be written
  • Writing in note form
  • Self-annotating difficult sections
  • Explaining it verbally (to a friend, your partner, your pet)
  • Working in a different medium (handwriting vs keyboard)
  • Making an audio recording
  • Starting with a different section first
  • Freewriting – just write for a fixed amount of time without censoring

Yes, it takes courage to force yourself to do the thing you most want to avoid, but I encourage HDRs to start with very small steps: a few words on the page that list the topics that will be addressed, dot points that can be moved around. I recommend starting with the easy parts first; this creates a satisfying sense of making progress, and helps the author get back into thinking about ideas that are more challenging to write about.

Fear of public speaking

Public speaking is well-known as one of the greatest fears people face. With practice, most are able to overcome these fears, but it is worth reflecting a little on why the experience of speaking in front of academic audiences can be particularly terrifying.

Thesis Whisperer received a comment from a reader, ‘A little bit rattled’, about her first research presentation:

this senior academic went on to berate me (in front of around 20 colleagues) for about 10 minutes on these ideas which I had explicitly stated were preliminary … this was extremely confronting, and, even worse, completely off topic and un-constructive. I wasn’t the only one who felt it was out of hand. Afterwards, a few academics (including my supervisor) and fellow students commented privately that how this person had spoken to me was completely appalling. Some audience members even said that just having witnessed it left them deflated and feeling anxious for the rest of the day.

Photo by Doug Tunison on Unsplash

Why do some academics behave in this way? Academics see the same common mistakes and misconceptions over and over again. Instead of remembering this is a new person making an old mistake, the academic just lets loose with their own pent up frustration. An alternative, less generous interpretation was the student’s ideas were threatening to this academic who went on the attack. Rugg and Petre (2004) compare academics to sharks who are attracted to ‘blood in the water’ and will go into a feeding frenzy. Some academic cultures are more combative than others, but those who fear such public humiliation are never sure quite when they are likely to meet such harsh criticism.

Performance anxiety and the growth mindset

Fear of writing and fear of speaking about research in public are both forms of performance anxiety. Having been successful all through school and through uni, or coming into a PhD after years of professional success in the workforce, it can be very challenging to enter this new level of academia. HDRs face a lack of structure in their programs, mysterious expectations about standards and progress, and vague assessment criteria at the end of it all. There is an ever-present expectation of success, imposed by the student themselves and their family and friends. This expectation is formed, at least in part, from the fact that the overwhelming majority of research students have always been high achievers; soothing ‘you can do it’ mantras can easily start to feel like extra pressure, rather than encouragement.

Can a history as a ‘good student’ actually amplify research student fears and be a barrier to completion? Carol Dweck’s (2012) work on ‘mindset’ explores the psychology of praise. Dweck argues that the way praise is delivered is connected to how students come to view their own intelligence and capability. Those who are constantly praised for the standard of their work, rather than the work itself, will come to understand their ability as being linked to their innate intelligence. If a student views their intelligence as innate, they can come to believe it cannot be changed; this leads to a ‘fixed mindset’ about ability. By contrast, students who are praised for effort can develop a ‘growth mindset’. Having a growth mindset means you believe that extra effort will result in success.

Thus, when a high achieving student with a fixed mindset encounters a problem they cannot initially solve, they may prove to be less resilient than lower-achieving students who have learned to have a growth mindset.

There’s a lot at stake in taking up this new identity and putting yourself on the line to be ‘examined’ in the end. Motivations for embarking on a PhD can include a desire to ‘prove myself at the highest level’ (Leonard, Becker & Coate, 2005). Most HDRs have a very well-developed identity as an intelligent, capable student; many are also competent professionals after years in the workplace. These identities can be severely threatened by the setbacks that are common to all research projectsA PhD is the highest degree awarded in universities – succeeding means a lot to those of us embarking on this journey. And, once again, these challenges all feed into the ‘imposter syndrome’ we talked about on Monday. It takes courage to confront these fears front on and demonstrate to ourselves that we can in fact achieve what we set out to do.

ACTIVITY: Write a short description of your own experience of becoming a ‘student’ during your PhD. What had you been doing previously? What feels good about your new identity and what has been challenging for you? What has required courage in this journey? Please share your thoughts via the Comments at the bottom of the page.


Curiosity is obviously an emotion at the heart of any research project—we do research to discover more about our topics. But curiosity can be both helpful and destructive, a positive force pushing us into new thinking that can transform into an insatiable need to keep looking without settling for any answers we turn up.

Curiosity and creativity often go hand in hand. Researchers need to be curious to be able to sustain research long enough to become creative. Dazzling examples of creative insight are usually on the back of a lot of hard work. Alexander Fleming’s curiosity about his forgotten culture plate lead to the discovery of penicillin, but he had been working in the field for many years before that moment; Howard Florey (at my previous institution, Adelaide University) then worked out how this substance could be used as a treatment. The accidental discovery was one moment in a long process.

We see curiosity-driven creativity even in simple research processes like literature searches. Literature searches are a kind of ‘fishing’ process which helps students gather appropriate material. The creative part of the process is recognising the usefulness of an unexpected find and then making the connections to the ideas or arguments being developed in the literature review.

However, understanding the potential for curiosity to become a problem helps us look at some common research student issues in a different way. A person who can’t finish their literature review might actually have a curiosity problem, rather than a problem with doing research or writing about it.

Managing the literature deluge

The ready availability of information in today’s research world is both a boon and a curse to scholars. There’s just so much out there that relates to almost every topic—it’s literally impossible to process it all. Research students can become stuck in a reading death spiral; crushed under the weight of all this information. This problem often manifests as slow writing, but sometimes people become paralysed by doubt that is experienced as writers’ block.

The pressure to be original and ensure that your work has not already been done by someone else makes encountering and dealing with the literature deluge even more difficult. Kenneth Burke brings this to life in The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941):

Imagine you enter a parlour. You come late. When you arrive, others have long proceeded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is all about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that have gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponents. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

The point is that it takes courage to find your voice in the noise of other people’s thoughts—which is what writing is. The overwhelming temptation for most researchers is to wait until they have ‘read enough’ before committing anything to paper. The problem is, if a research student is genuinely curious about their topic, they will probably never feel they have read enough. An examination mentality can make this curiosity problem worse. Anxieties about examination can be directed at trying to read everything, even if this is literally impossible in most cases. But such ‘curiosity’ can also be procrastination under the name of busy work—it feels like you are doing something useful, but it is not really getting you any further down the track towards finishing the writing. This is a typical form of self-sabotage (Kearns & Gardiner, 2006).

So, striking a balance between healthy curiosity and out-of-control searching is difficult. Remember that the primary purpose of a literature review is to make a space for your own research. Curtailing the search phase too early, or being too focussed, may mean missing essential ideas or new connections. Prolonging the search results in serious delays in the writing process and, possibly, the introduction of too much superfluous material. My advice in the DoctoralWriting blog is to trust yourself when it comes to this writing, and set strict time limits on your reading time.

Curiosity does lead to creativity, which is a necessity in all forms of research—creative solutions to problems, creative connections between ideas. This is what leads to originality in research.

Camille Sweeney “The art of curiosity”

ACTIVITY: Have a look at this video about curiosity and creativity (start at 3mins 55s for the most interesting part). Reflect on Sweeney’s ideas here. How do they relate to your own experiences of learning during your research degree? Please share your ideas via the Comments box.

Curbing curiosity when it’s being used as a procrastination tool is essential; enjoying the fruits of curiosity when it leads to genuinely new thinking is the best part of being a researcher (that, and being in the zone, Csikszentmihalyi’s (2020) ‘flow’, of writing when it’s going well—you can feel every cog in your brain whirring smoothly and speedily).

Tomorrow we’ll look at boredom and passion. In the meantime, try to avoid the self-sabotage that can look like working but doesn’t get you any further along the path.


Burke, K. (1941/1974). The philosophy of literary form (Vol. 266). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Chakraverty, D. (2020). PhD Student Experiences with the Impostor Phenomenon in STEM. International Journal of Doctoral Studies15(1), 159-180.

Cisco, J. (2020). Exploring the connection between impostor phenomenon and postgraduate students feeling academically unprepared. Higher Education Research & Development, 39(2), 200-214.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2020). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. Hachette UK.

Dweck, C. (2012). Mindset: Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. London: Hachette UK.

Kearns, H. & Gardiner, M. (2006) Defeating self-sabotage: Getting your PhD finished. Adelaide: ThinkWell/Flinders Press.

Petre, M. & Rugg, G. (2004). The unwritten rules of PhD research. Maidenhead: Open University Press.




  1. I have a professional background and am used to having lots of direction and little autonomy. I knew that things would change as a student, but I was keen to give it a go and was hopeful I would be able to make lots of useful connections with other students and researchers. I wanted to be ‘involved’ in the academic world and feel like I was part of a larger institution. But uni shut down the week after I arrived and I had met maybe 5 people in person in that time. So building new relationships with people I don’t know and have never met in person is my biggest challenge, and feeling part of ANU and an academic school requires a lot of effort. And in terms of courage – leaving my professional job of 14 years took a lot of it!

    1. That does take courage, Catherine – good on you! But very deflating to make the change and then have this disconnected experience with the campus shutdown. What is your School doing in the way of online activities for HDRs? If you haven’t heard about anything much, ask your supervisors, the HDR Convenor and the HDR admin person what’s going on. There is likely to be something happening; if not, it might be a good prompt for them to set up something. The Shut up and write sessions are also a good option to spend time working alongside a friendly group (you can use the time for reading and making notes if you aren’t in a position to be doing a lot of writing just yet). And – of course – participating in this course is another way of making contact with the community 🙂

  2. Being a PhD student has been simultaneously rewarding and challenging. Having found some skills inadequate for dealing with the heavy workload, I have tried to re-examine strategies that I have used for years without thinking, such as reading, summarising, note-taking and writing strategies. I have found being part of the academic community rewarding and being trusted to take on a larger project with funding is gratifying. Having faith in the process and accepting some days will be more productive than others can be challenging.

    I resonate really strongly with Sweeney’s concept of an “infovore” – I feel that the drive to know and understand the world around me motivates all aspects of my life, not just the choice to do a PhD. Her observation that curiosity is a driving force, one that is very motivating, is helpful. Tapping back into that original curiosity will be helpful in sustaining effort throughout the whole PhD process.

    1. I agree, Katherine, that curiosity is a key motivation to sustain us through long research projects (which don’t always go to plan or according to the time frames we set!).
      What did you learn from re-examining your work strategies? Sounds like you might have some useful insights to share with the group.

  3. I did a couple of MAs part-time while working full-time as a way of pursuing interests and passions related to my field so on the one hand doing a PhD full-time is quite a privilege and luxury but on the other hand a lot more academic pressure than I’m used to!

    For me, the ‘art of curiosity’ definitely drives my studies but also can impact on my confidence as a professional in my field. The old adage “the more you know the more you know you don’t know” means I’m always questioning everything and find it hard to be confident and definitive in my findings or analysis of my data or situations more broadly..I suppose this is interconnected with the other emotions we’ve discussed so far: confidence, fear, even frustration and loneliness !

    1. Hi Emma – I think you are right in that these feelings are all mixed together and can feed off each other in unsettling ways. Part of the PhD process is learning about how complex our topics really are, and exercising one’s critical faculties reveals that so much of knowledge sits in the grey areas.
      Interesting that the shift to the PhD feels so different from Masters work – where does the pressure come from do you think?

  4. After doing two other degrees next to my full time work, becoming a full time student again felt like going on holiday. Reading and thinking about stuff I’m interested in full time, getting paid for it with a scholarships, while everyone thinks I must be supersmart for doing it – I thought I never had an easier and more fun job before and I didn’t understand where the struggle supposed to be. Up until I started to write up the dissertation. Now I wish I was back into the clear and linear space of work where it is enough to work hard to succeed.

    1. Hi Dori. Your experience sounds quite parallel to what Emma is describing in terms of the transitions between Masters and PhD – a luxury to be able to focus on one thing but also a bigger challenge with its high expectations.
      Writing is hard for most people. I think this is exacerbated by the fact that most of what HDRs read is beautifully polished published work that doesn’t show the long process of how it was achieved and how many false starts and tangents went into its making. On top of that, most of the reading is a different genre from what you are trying to write (ie individualjournal articles, some book-length writing, but not actually a thesis).

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