The monkey demon of PhD guilt

You know the feeling. You are doing a PhD, and you feel you should be working on it. You go to bed, and there’s a nagging sense that you should be working. You go on holiday, and there’s a nagging sense you should be working. You go for a run, and there’s a nagging sense that you should be working. Towards the end of the PhD, even when you are asleep, you have nightmares about how you should be working.

Glenn Nagel Photography: Slideshow &emdash; Silverback gorilla
Silverback Gorilla by Glenn Nagel


For many years, I have described that feeling as ‘the monkey in the room’. I wasn’t sure where the saying came from, but it seemed to fit, and a number of people found it resonated. My Thesis Boot Camp colleague Peta (now Dr Freestone, woot!) described it as ‘that big silverback gorilla that sits in the corner’. The gorilla watches you as you sleep (in a creepy, Edward Cullen way). And when you wake up, it’s lurking. It lopes alongside you everytime you leave the house. It sits, glowering at you from that spot by the stationary cupboard, all the hours you are at work.

It later occured to me that it was Sheridan Le Fanu’s short story, ‘Green Tea’ that was the source of this image (sorry Sheridan! I didn’t mean to steal your image). DO NOT READ THE STORY, you will never sleep again. But I realise I have never written about the PhD-guilt monkey demon, and I should.

Are you writing? Shouldn’t you be working? Aren’t you done yet?

This is the refrain that sits underneath everything a doctoral researcher does. It doesn’t help that colleagues, peers, friends, family and supervisors ask the same questions. When they do, it hits a nerve–not because the candidate isn’t working, but because it amplifies the self-flaggelating self-talk that goes on in thier heads all the time.

Every now and then I talk about this, and someone pops up who didn’t have this experience.


Opposable Thumbs Up Monkey
Thumbs Up Monkey by Clint CC (NC)

So what can we learn from them? 

  1. They treat the PhD like a job, not like a life.
    If you are regularly putting in the work (40-45 hours per week is about right for a full-time student) and making good progress then that’s all you are supposed to be doing.
    If you have a job then you get to go home at the end of the day, you get to take lunch breaks and weekends, you get annual leave and sick leave.
  2. They know what they are getting out of the PhD and it’s pretty straightforward.
    There are many reasons to do a PhD, not all of them particularly practical. Changing the world, knowing more, transforming your life, discovering deep truths… these are all great motivations to research and study and read and learn, but they are tangled and messy and impossible to achieve.
    People who avoid the monkey demon know they are studying for about 3 years, to gain a qualification that will give them a quantifiable and likely useful outcome.
  3. They can articulate that a PhD candidature involves identity work and emotional labour as well as academic work.
    Recognising and speaking that fact can help us recognise our fears and challenges, instead of have them eerily lurking and popping up in our subconscious.
    Read my blogpost on the  PhD Quest and Barbara Lovitt’s Making the Implicit Explicit: Creating Performance Expectations for the Dissertation for more on these concepts.
  4. They do good ‘self-care’.
    I’m thinking here of Audre Lorde’s idea of ‘self-care‘, unpacked by Sara Ahmed in ‘Selfcare as Warfare‘ and Melonie Fullick in ‘The uses of care‘. As that reading list suggests, some people have more, and more complex, identity work and emotional labour around thier PhD and so need to do more, and more intentional, self-care. 
  5. When things go wrong, they problem solve.
    It’s amazing how often something goes wrong–but some people seem to wallow and stress about it, and some people go:

    ‘okay, that wasn’t what I planned. Do I need to fix it? Can I fix it? Can I get help to fix it? There, fixed.’

    The second kind of person has a lot less trouble with their monkey demon.

  6. They recognise when “procrastination” isn’t procrastination.
    I wrote about this before in Procrastination is not your fault. PhD candidates (and academics) are surprisingly keen to label normal stuff (like being tired, or taking a holiday, or reading trashy novels, or having a drink) as guilt-inducing, regrettable behaviour. No wonder we are prone to monkey demons of guilt.
    Of course it’s okay to have a nap, a holiday, read a trashy novel and have a drink. Enjoy!
  7. They don’t drink too much caffeine.
    The monkey demon in the Le Fanu story (DON’T READ THE STORY, I’M NOT LINKING TO THE STORY) appears after a scholar spends too many nights staying up late and drinking green tea. Green tea is pretty high in caffeine–it’s less fermented black tea, not a ‘herbal’ tea. Caffeine up to about 4 cups of coffee (or 8 of tea) is great. Beyond that it can cause insomnia, nervousness, jitters, fast heartbeat… and hallucinating monkey demons.
    A balanced diet, enough water, a good night’s sleep and a brisk walk in the sunlight will also help you stay sharp and alert. Mix up your waker-uppers.

This is a miscellaneous list–and really the thing that gets rid of the monkey demon is handing in the thesis. 

Inspirational wall paper

So look after yourself, and get that thesis done, and don’t do it alone, and there is life after the monkey demon, there really is. 


Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


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