Doctoral studies means failure: fears - how do you deal with them?

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What do you associate with the word anxiety? Anxiety during the promotion? Fear of the exam, fear of a lecture, fear to stand up badly, fear of failure? Have you ever been afraid to ask a question? The following section describes some methods for dealing with anxiety.

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Here writes for you:


Prof. Dr. Gunnar silk Best of HR –®Prof. Dr.Ing. Dipl.-Wirt. Ing. Gunnar H. silk is Professor for Polymer Engineering at Maastricht University.


Here writes for you:


Atilla Vuran Best of HR –®Atilla Vuran is co-founder and director of the Grundl Leadership Inhouse Academy.


From the author:



Almost everyone is afraid

You would certainly not be the first person to be confronted with fears during the doctorate. Almost everyone has fears, but hardly anyone talks about it. The higher in the hierarchy, the less so.

What is actually fear? Anxiety is first and foremost an unpleasant feeling, which we feel, Eg in moist hands, increasing respiratory rate or faster heart beat. Anxiety acts, and this is important to know about your own thoughts and ultimately even to your own behavior. We feel tense, more irritable and often can not fall asleep. Some people retreat for fear. Pathways from anxiety are sometimes sought in the taking of medication or alcohol.

Fear is a learned reaction

Fears can arise as a result of physical illnesses, Cardiac diseases, respiratory disease or thyroid hyperfunction. This chapter deals with so-called psychological anxieties, that is, those with no physical causes. We are not talking of anxieties where psychiatric help is necessary. PREETZ [1] distinguishes two central mechanisms of anxiety:

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Fear as a learned response and anxiety as an expression of underlying emotional problems. Do you have a music that connects you with an emotionally positive moment? For example, with your first great love? When you listen to this music, you immediately think of your positive feelings and feel like a time machine back into the situation, right? This principle unfortunately also works with negative feelings like fear. Anxiety becomes a reaction to external stimuli. It can happen that the external stimulus is no longer perceived, only the fear as a result.

Where do our fears come from?

Where are the fears now? The psychologist DORIS WOLF [2] offers three explanations for the cause of fears:

  1.  Fear is innate and not degradable,
  2. Anxiety is naturally triggered by certain stimuli, or
  3. People produce their fears themselves.

DORIS WOLF argues: Would 1. and anxiety would be innate and non-degradable, then it would be difficult to overcome one's fears and experience anxiety-free situations at one time or another. But this can be observed. 1. obviously does not apply. Now to 2. If fear were naturally triggered by certain stimuli, there should be no differences between different persons. In fact, there are massive differences in individual anxiety perception. So it's 2 too. disproved. Now there is 3 left. We produce our fears ourselves. Is not that something cynical? It may seem so at first glance, but it opens up great opportunities in dealing with fears. Fears are actually individual interpretations of situations.

The ABC model

Emotions and therefore also fear arise according to the so-called ABC model in three steps: A situation (A) is experienced by us. Now this situation is judged quickly on the basis of our experiences (B) and there is a reaction (C), here the fear.

An example:

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  • (A, Situation): Walk alone at night in the forest
  • (B, Evaluation): Going into the forest at night is dangerous. My parents always told me that, and Grandma was always afraid.
  • (C, reaction): They feel fear.

Do you have examples from your life?

What is exciting is that it does not matter to the brain, whether one imagines a situation or really experiences it. The feelings are the same. Thoughts and images in the head produce the same feelings as real-life situations. Therefore, many athletes visualize, For example, on downhill skiing before departing many times as they race down the ideal line and win the race.

What would you think of a downhill ski champion who imagines how he flies out of the curve and loses the race many times? Funnily enough, when it comes to situations that are scary to them, people do just that: they imagine themselves failing again and again, e.g. B. in the doctoral examination. This increases the fear. It solidifies due to the repeated “experience”. Although the scary situation is unreal.

Fear is individual

Fear is the individual experience of a certain situation. One could say in a very polarizing way, “People produce their own fears” - depending on how they react to a situation. This does not mean that everyone is responsible for their own fear, that would be an unhelpful interpretation, but that fear is an individual experience of a situation.

Do you know people who practice extreme sports like bungee jumping or skydiving? What do these people say when asked if they are not afraid to practice these sports? "Of course I'm afraid - that's the kick!" This is an example of a positive experience of a situation that could also be experienced as fear. Therefore, many people do not do extreme sports.

When do you encounter fears during the promotion?

In which situations can there be any fears during the doctoral program? It would be conceivable:

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  • Fear of rejection in the application,
  • Afraid of rejection by the Professor because of z. B. too low power,
  • Afraid, im Team to find no recognition
  • Fear of promotion related change, eg. B. Moving to a new city,
  • Fear of irrefutability of the publication of the dissertation,
  • Fear of the audience at lectures,
  • Fear of language and culture in promotion abroad,
  • Fear of the promotion,
  • Fear of coming too short,
  • Fear of overburdening,
  • Afraid of writing an application for research grants,
  • Fear of a customer visit, ...

Is fear now a hindrance?

Not only, fear is also a vital protection function, which is first and foremost essential. The fear of crossing an expressway or the fear of the abyss on a hike on narrow ridges in the Alps helps us to survive.

However, our fears often inhibit our own further development. In everyday doctoral studies, fears are usually more of an inhibition of development than a protective function. Or to put it more succinctly: "Wherever your fear is, you have to go there because there is your development potential." We are - and this is important - not about fears in need of treatment, but about those that inhibit our personal development!

What can you do to deal with fears during the promotion?

You can ask yourself first whether the anxiety is meaningful. Sample questions would be:

  • Will the one you are afraid of actually and safely enter?
  • How likely is it statistical?
  • What would happen if the event occurred?
  • How do other people deal with the event?
  • What would you lose if you avoided the fearful situation?
  • What is the worst of your fear?
  • What could you focus on to get positive thoughts?


1. Norbert Preetz: Never again fear: To solve anxieties in minutes, publishing success and health, 2015

2. Doris Wolf: Understanding and Overcoming Fear, PAL Publishing Company, 2016

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