PhD Life

Combatting PhD analysis paralysis.

Analysis paralysis is that feeling where we over analyse, keep tinkering, and ultimately avoid following through or submitting a piece of work. This post provides a breakdown of analysis paralysis and a useful analogy on how to overcome it.

Doing analysis is a common part of a PhD. When we think of analysis, it’s easy to think of this as just the number crunching part of a PhD. You know, running statistical analysis, t-tests, ANOVAs, regression models, and even more complex things depending on the nature of your PhD. Often you may have to do this in SPSS, STATA, Python or R, the list is never ending – and again is highly dependent on your PhD subject area. However, this isn’t the only type of analysis you will have to do. Analysis can also include analysing a project, analysing which journal to publish in, analysing and proofreading your thesis a billion times, figuring out if what you’ve done ‘is good enough’ or whether the next job you’re applying for is ‘the right one’.

Like any good PhD student knows, there’s an infinite number of variables and possibilities to account for, and we need to understand them all right? Or at least get too grips with them all before we can make an informed decision. However, if we’re not careful, we can fall into a state of over-analysis, a state where we analyse so much, nothing gets done. In other words, analysis paralysis.

Analysis paralysis is just that. It’s the sense of literally doing nothing (paralysis) due to over analysing everything and getting hung up on the details. In efforts to make sure everything goes right or is correct, we end up doing nothing. Typically, the biggest reason for not ‘acting’ or falling into a state of analysis paralysis is the fear of just not getting things right. We all want our work and contributions to be a good standard so that they are appreciated by the academic community. Therefore, the risk for making a mistake feels too high. There’s lots of different factors that are likely to impact your relationship with analysis paralysis, particularly in an academia setting. The most likely being imposter syndrome. Fears that you’re not good enough, or that you’re a fraud compared to everyone you work with are the hallmark feelings of imposter syndrome. When we get to those important deadlines, or when we need to submit work, what better way to figure out if you’re as smart as you’ve been ‘pretending’ to be? Submitting work, making decisions, executing a plan can ‘expose’ you. If you feel as though you’re not good enough and imposter syndrome is a common feeling for you (note, it’s really common for all PhD students and is a normal experience) it makes perfect sense why you would stall, over analyse, and fall into a state of paralysis. Analysis paralysis helps to extend the horrid deadline without anything getting done, whilst you never actually ever have to face the music. It’s the perfect mechanism to keep yourself in limbo and continue to procrastinate on your work. Never submitting means you can’t get it wrong.

Not going forwards, not going backwards.

All in all, imposter syndrome is one of the few reasons for analysis paralysis that are within your control. If you work with a difficult supervisor, have limited opportunities for feedback, or if you get feedback but it’s just not constructive it’s likely to exacerbate your analysing. This is all too common in academia and can really be prevalent in the beginning of your PhD when mistakes are more common and you’re still learning the ropes. If the environment in which you work it doesn’t accommodate mistakes, errors, or provides constructive feedback you’re likely to be more fearful of making mistakes. Like any good PhD student, you adapt, you become even more critical with your work, you over analyse and there you have it, analysis paralysis again. Sometimes however, it’s not necessarily your supervisor, peer-reviewers, or grant holders to blame. Sometimes it can be your own ability to receive and make sense of feedback. We all process feedback differently, but in efforts to avoid going off on a tangent in this post, it’s recommended to think about how you process feedback and when it’s given to you, do you take it personally? Does it feed any negative self-talk? and does it compound feelings of imposter syndrome further?

In short, analysis paralysis can be caused by loads of different things. But at its core, it’s really about avoiding the finishing line, receiving feedback, or just procrastinating on getting stuff done. To overcome analysis paralysis however, the approach is relatively simple. Just bite the bullet. It sounds obvious but we’ll break it down in a more constructive manner.

When producing any piece of work or making a big decision think of it like making pancakes. For whatever reason, when making pancakes we all have that experience of the first one being awful. You pour the batter in, it doesn’t create the right shape, the pan isn’t hot enough or is too hot, it sticks, just for some reason it goes wrong. It’s almost like the first pancake is meant to go badly. However, after doing this once or twice you master the technique. You grow into the role. Before you know it, you’re flipping pancakes and producing excellent round fluffy shapes. Heck, by the end of it you might even feel like a pancake connoisseur. The first pancake is part of the learning process, you must ruin the first few to get to the end product. Much of this is like academia. Your first draft, your first submission to a journal, your first application to a grant, the first job interview you go to, the first conference poster you produce, you name it. If it’s the first time you’re doing it, it’s not meant to be perfect.

What’s funny enough, to go back to the pancake analogy, is that when it’s the next time to make pancakes you don’t stress about the first one. We just ‘accept’ the first one won’t be as great, but we know that’s part of the process. We don’t fall into analysis paralysis when we want to make pancakes, over analysing the details, we just give it a go. This is how you should aim to work within your PhD.

To clarify, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, or you do a rubbish job, but essentially, if the work is 90% good enough, or 90% complete, you know deep down you’ve done your best, and you start to feel as though you’re just ‘tinkering’ with the final product, just submit it. It’s extremely rare, if impossible, for anyone to go through peer-review without comments, or to submit their thesis without corrections, or to do their PhD viva without some challenging questions. You’re not going to get it perfect first time, and that’s okay. What does need to happen for you to produce the best work possible though, is to keep the ball rolling. Falling into a state of analysis paralysis stops progress. Up to a point, you actually need someone else to look at your work and give you feedback to spot mistakes or consider alternative points that you may have overlooked. This is normal, this is expected, and ultimately this is how you will produce your best work.

This concept of analysis paralysis doesn’t just apply to your PhD however. It can crop up in your life elsewhere. What holiday to go on, what type of exercise routine to follow, what healthy diet to follow, what career to pick after your PhD, the best way to network, so on and so forth. It’s important to get it in check and recognise it sooner rather than later. The thing that’s holding you back isn’t your actual ability of the work you produced, it’s the fear of it not being good enough first time – which is absurd when you think about it, how many people do things perfect first time?

To bring it all to a close. Bite the bullet, do your best to not keep tinkering with your work and fall into analysis paralysis. Keep the ball rolling and seek opportunities for feedback and progress.

Happy pancake-ing.

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