Twenty Questions for Humans Who Are Studying a PhD

We are constantly told to self-reflect. But if you’re not in the practice of it, reflection can be really hard. In his book 20 Questions for Humans, Craig Harper helps readers do just that – answer 20 questions that will help them self-reflect. In this blog, I look at each question Craig poses and suggest the equivalent in the context of your PhD or research.


Hi there, bakers, writers, and rock stars. Richard Huysmans here with another vlog, blog all about this time, 20 questions for humans who are studying a PhD. This post is inspired by a book written by a guy called Craig Harper. The book’s called 20 Questions for Humans. If you’ll listen to this or watch this and think you might want to download the book, head to my website and type in 20 questions for humans. You will find a review of the book to get you a bit more insight into what it’s about as well as links on how to go ahead and purchase it from Craig and from the internet in general.

So, on to the questions that I have kind of rephrased based on Craig’s book. So, Craig asked the question, “What is my life telling me?” And so, if this is about your PhD, “How is your focus on study impacting the rest of your life?” Are you working too hard? Is it time to take a break? Is it time to change now? The opposite could also be true that you might not be working hard enough. But I think in most cases for most people, PhD students are often working more hours, more days, more weeks than they should. So, I would certainly go out and I would encourage you to think about, are you working too hard? Or at least like the question says, “What is my life telling me?”

Question 2, “What are my core values, and how do I live in alignment with them?” I think I’m guilty of this as well. Not really paying attention to what I feel like I value in my life, and sort of having a vague idea of what that is you know lots of people jump straight to things like family, friends, and loved ones. But what else do you value? What else are your values? Is it integrity? I’ve talked about before living in alignment with your values, and how knowing whether you want to work with animals or the kinds of experiments that you want to run is really important. So, think about I would make a list of what you value. What your values are. Then I would work out whether or not your PhD is living in alignment with that. So, if you want to go on holiday is working all day, all night, all week, and all year in the lab. Or in your research group or in your research project, living in alignment with your values. If you want to spend several hours a day or a day or two a week just focusing on your partner or your children or your pets or your hobbies, are you doing that or is your PhD or your research getting in the way of you doing that?

Question 3, why do I self-sabotage? Craig talks about the fear being a driver of self-sabotage. If we take that as true, I think PhD students and researchers can be fearful of failing. Failing is hard because of the impact on your degree and career but also as a student, as a PhD student. As an academic you’ve probably not failed many things. You’ve probably been quite successful in terms of education. So, if your PhD isn’t going well, it might be hard for you to hear. But at times it will need to fail. In fact, we need to get used to quote-unquote failing, because most of our research papers, most of our research grants will be rejected. Success rates are at 10 for grants. Resubmission rates for articles are sometimes 3 times at least twice for each article you write. So, that implies that quote unquote failure and rejection will be part of academic life. So, if self-sabotaging in response to that might be a problem. So, you need to ask yourself, “Why do I self-sabotage?”

Next question number 4, “What is the best question I can ask?” Great question for PhD students obviously. Particularly, when you’re thinking about your research project. But be mindful of how you ask this, when you ask it, and where you ask it. Think about questions that can lead to an action. So, “why is this experiment failing?” is better than “why are they, whoever they might be doing better than me?”

Number 5, how does the other person see this? This is really useful in a supervisor-PhD student relationship. I can definitely see that as I when I was a PhD student, I felt like the decisions didn’t really make sense to me that my supervisor or other teammates made. And now not necessarily being a supervisor because I’ve never been a PhD supervisor being on the other side. You know, being closer to supervisors now than I was when I was a PhD student, I can see that there are good reasons why certain things happened in retrospect. So, I think if you can do that during your PhD if you can ask why is my supervisor so keen for me to do more experiments when I’m nearly at the end of my candidature. Or why is my supervisor so keen that I do more searching that might be useful. I also think you need to encourage the supervisor to think the same question about you. You know, try and get them to empathize with you as well.

Question six, what’s my why? Very similar to question 2, and perhaps might be a precursor because a question too if you’ve forgotten already is about your values. So, what’s my “why” might be a precursor to what is what are my values. For example, doing a PhD because you want to be a researcher is not a full proof strategy. Indeed, most jobs in research don’t require a PhD. In fact, many research jobs don’t need a PhD at all. Academic research jobs definitely they do need a PhD and would be hard pressed to get an academic research job without a PhD. But if you want a research job in almost any other part of the economy, you don’t need a PhD. So, just be mindful of that.

What’s my plan? I think you definitely need to have a plan if you’re a PhD student and need to talk about the completion of your PhD. You need to refer to it regularly. You need to update it regularly. In fact, if you want to know more about plans and planning, on my website type in plans or planning, and you’ll get heaps of resources around career planning, PhD planning, ideal PhDs.

Question 8, why do I think the way I do? So, this is a really useful one when it comes to designing experiments. When it comes to responding to criticism. Really useful for PhD students to think about. Craig uses the example of being an audience member at a talk. Everything is the same for all. The same seat, words, visuals, temperature, etc., but all have a different experience. So, that’s essentially why do we think that way? Why have we had a different experience to someone else who ostensibly went through the same event that we did? So, understanding why you think the way you do is really important, so that could come from friends, family, and all sorts of things. Now if you know the way you think, it’s obvious now how can I change the way I think. So, you can do lots of different things. Craig makes some suggestions. Get new information through reading listening or watching different stuff that you’ve done too previously. So, we all know about the echo chamber of social media. So, if you get most of your information from one source or one type of source, diversify that and you will potentially change your thinking. So, for example, if you only ever read news on a particular website even if it’s a good one. Even if we’re talking about ones that have generally got good reputations like whether it be The Age or The Australian in Australia. Or The New York Times or Bloomberg or any of you know, major sources, think about different sources of information.

Next, note what you’re happy with through a gratitude journal. So, changing the way you think by identifying the positive things can be a really useful thing and this is backed by science, and evidence as well. So, if there’s you know, if you’re looking for evidence-based approaches our gratitude journal is one way to go. Try new things to change the way you think. You need to have new experiences. The only way you can get new experiences is to try new things. That means saying “no” less often. So, you need to go no if my gut reaction is “no” because I feel uncomfortable. That’s not a good gut reaction to say no. Try new things so that you can get a new perspective. Focus on finding solutions. You could even keep a daily note or journal of list of the solutions you found to problems and what not that you had. So, I would definitely think about new solutions, and obviously if you know what you’re avoiding or you know why you think a certain way and avoiding is one of the behaviors that you do to respond to that, I would stop avoiding if you can’t. Catch yourself in the avoidance phase and stop it.

Ten, what is reality? Craig builds on the idea of science talk here and how we’re all creators of our own reality and that it’s different. For a PhD student, you can turn your negative experiences of research into a negative or lonely reality. Thus, for a PhD student, the goal here is to compare your reality to others. This could be chatting to artists engaging on social media or talking in a conference. So, this is really useful for those of you that think that you’re the only one who supervisor treats you in a particular way or you’re the only one that doesn’t get access to conferences. Talking to others will help change your perspective of what reality is.

What’s it like being around me? I don’t think academics ask this question themselves often enough. So, as a PhD student I think understanding what you experience is as Craig calls it is a really useful way. A really good way of understanding yourself. You might ask a few people, “What’s it like to hang around me?” But don’t ask people who are just friends. Certainly, don’t ask people who are just people that don’t like you as well. You want a diverse view of yourself but certainly asking people, “What’s it like to be around me?” is a useful thing to know and understand.

Question 12, am I efficient or just busy? So, there’s a lot of kudos that goes with being busy. I’m too busy to do this. Too busy to read email. I go from meeting to meeting. I’ve got too much stuff on. Let’s take away from the hero of being busy and focus on being efficient. There’s a nice little image that Sketching Science has on Instagram. So, if you search at Sketching Science on Instagram, you’ll find them, and they talk about the different times. The different team members leave. The research lab. So, the PhD students there all night. The postdoc is there to the evening, but the research assistant leaves on time. And not because any of them are doing anything differently per if that makes sense. Like they don’t have a different workload. It’s just that the research assistant is keenly aware of their time and the value of their time to them. So, they make sure that they get stuff done efficiently and they’re not just busy.

Question 13, what does success look like? For me, I don’t think enough PhD students think about that. Therefore, if the opportunity comes to make themselves successful or the opportunity disappears for becoming a success, academics aren’t aware of it, and so that can make work life really hard.

Question 14, good for a PhD student starting out, am I ready to do the work? So, think about what a PhD is now. I know I don’t want you to overwork. I don’t want you to work regularly 50 and 60 hours a week. Working on the weekends and late into the night. But am I ready to do the work? A PhD is probably the biggest single project an individual undertakes ever in their life. Perhaps other than having a child if a child is a project. Very few projects persist for 3 to 7 years. Very few projects almost solely rely on you as the individual to get them done. So, make sure you are ready to do the work. That doesn’t mean that you should say, “No, I don’t want to do a PhD” if I can’t say “yes” to the question, “Am I ready to do the work?” But it does mean you’ll need to be prepared for the going to get tough, and therefore you’ll have to push through that toughness.

What’s my body tell me telling me? So, question 1 was “What’s my life telling me?” Now it’s “What’s my body telling me?” So, this is a similar kind of thing, “Am I regularly getting headaches?” “Am I regularly feeling physically run down?” “Am I regularly feeling slow?” All of those things are useful indicators of overwork, and under relaxation. So, think about that.

Question 16, why do I say yes when I should say no? Really, good thing to understand. Particularly, when your supervisor asks you to do just one more experiment, write just one more sentence, etc., etc. Work out why you say “yes” to that, and then you don’t need to think about the past instance of that activity and how you’d respond to work. But you do need to come up with ways that you could respond to it in the future which will make you more likely to say “no” into the future. Particularly when you need to say no.

Question 17, what do I need to stop doing? Craig provides the list of 7 things to stop. All are good for research and to think about. I won’t list them here specifically but as a researcher I think you should generally think about the kinds of things you should stop doing in order to be more successful. They might be time wasting things. They might be habits that aren’t serving you. They might be the way you behave. They might be the way they act. Etc.

Question 18, what happens when I lose motivation? So, losing motivation is going to happen no matter what, and it what you do when you’re not motivated is really important. Lots of people use this toothbrush example. So, do you feel motivated to brush your teeth. The answer is probably no. You rarely feel motivated to brush your teeth. However, that happens every single day for most of us twice a day. Not because we’re motivated but because it’s habit. So, how can you instill in yourself a series of habits that mean that when you don’t have motivation you still make progress.

Question 19, what will my life look like in one year? So, there’s two ways to do this. So, one of the things that I encourage my clients to do is do a 10-year back casting approach. Which is to forget about what your life is like now, think about what you want it to be in 10 years, and then work backwards to now. This forward planning approach, “What will my life look like in a year?” This is kind of like the, “If I continue to do the same things, what will my results be?” So, for example, if you want to lose weight and you’re currently overeating and under exercising, in one year will you lose weight. And the answer is “no” because you are overeating and under exercising. If I change what I’m doing today and as of this week you know, after looking back over my shoulder for a week, I’ve now eaten well and I’ve exercised well. If I project forward a year for doing the same thing for the next 52 weeks, I will have lost weight. So, that’s this whole idea of if I continue to do what I’ve always done, I’ll always get what I’ve always got. So, be mindful of what you’re doing essentially.

“What’s the meaning of life?” is question 20. I chuckled when Craig when I read this. I’m not even sure why you’d ask this but ultimately it might be useful to consider the question not is the what is the meaning of life but what is the meaning of my life? What do I want to achieve in my life? What do I want my legacy to be? What do I want if you want to make it a little bit more good, people at my funeral to say about the work that I did?

So, there you have it, 20 questions that Craig asks for humans that I have rephrased to ask for PhD students and academics. If you want to know more, head to my website: or to Craig’s website:, and you can get all of the information about Craig’s book, 20 Questions for Humans. And more information about self-improvement.

Take Care.