motivation/inspirationDo you dare to ask for help or do you struggle as many PhD students do.

Vraagverlegenheid, a great Dutch word that entails the following according to Researchers of the University of Leiden: a person experiencing possible obstacles and reluctance when asking for help.

Many PhD students suffer from this ‘not daring to ask syndrome’ and have the idea that I should be able to do this. Or: in case I let someone know I can’t do this, they will probably think I am not able to do my PhD at all. Or: I don’t want to bother my supervisor with all my questions. Or: it is rather stupid to have so many questions, I need to sort it out by myself. Or: you can fill in whatever you think of as a reason not to ask for help.

Add to this the notion that asking questions is often seen as an admission of weakness – those who ask, don’t get – and the conclusion can be easily made that asking questions is a bad idea.

On top of that, contrary to what you would expect, generally, Universities’ culture isn’t really that you are encouraged to ask questions. So, lots of PhD students make the mistake to ask for help when it is too late, or not asking at all, resulting in struggling for a long time. Really not advisable.

What to do?

It pays off to ask questions! Center for Positive Organizations of Michigan University Professor Wayne Baker explains that research is clear. When you ask for help, you get the resources you need to be successful: information, advice, ideas, opportunities, referrals, and emotional support. This results in higher job performance, satisfaction, and creativity. It means less stress and aggravation. It even leads to generosity.

So how ask questions?

Make sure your question is clear. What do you want to achieve? Once you know that, you can start figuring out what you need. Is that a connection, literature, material, certain knowledge? Ask yourself the following questions:

  • I am busy with ……. and I need help with …..
  • I am struggling with …… and it would really help me if ….
  • My biggest wish is to ….. and therefore I need …..

Is your question clear? And have you figured out whom you are going to ask the question? Your supervisor, a colleague, an outsider? Or perhaps nobody can really help you at the moment but maybe someone can provide you with a connection who would be able to help you.

Don’t be afraid to ask someone for help you haven’t spoken for a while. Most of these ‘sleeping’ contacts would be delighted to hear from you and help you out. This research supports this claim.

Use the Troika exercise

A great way to get a lot of help in a short period of time is the Troika exercise. Make sure you are in a group of a minimum of 3 people. Each participant asks a SMART question and therefore wants to know something specific, adding a deadline and explaining the importance of receiving answers. The other 2 people will try to help. After a couple of minutes, roles are reversed. You could do this whole exercise in about 12 minutes.

An easy method to use online as well, it is a great tool to help each other out during a work meeting, conference or symposium.

In case you have some more time at hand, you could prepare a presentation evolving around your question. Then start the discussion and find out how you can help each other. You decide how long this whole process should take. In a group of 5, each person taking around 10 minutes, you will gain so much insight in about an hour.

Huddle up

A formal huddle is a weekly (online) meeting at a fixed time. You could meet with your colleague PhD students, your research group, your department. During the meeting, any issue can be addressed and at the end of the meeting, you reserve some time so anyone can ask for help.

A huddle could also be informal: once a problem occurs, call everyone together to tackle it. It doesn’t need to take a lot of time but it will be extremely beneficial.

Huddle up, a great way to ask questions and get the answers in a group.

Daily stand-up

A stand-up is a meeting in which participants stand in a circle, or gather online. Each participant brings in the following three points:

  • What did you do yesterday?
  • What are your plans for today?
  • What kind of support do you need?

Stand-ups are normally much quicker than a huddle and mostly exercised daily. A great way to stay accountable for your own actions and to stay tuned in to the needs and wishes of others. It really stimulates a sense of belonging.

Aks your supervisor

Maybe it is an idea to ask your supervisor to facilitate a troika, huddle or stand-up? The more opportunities to ask questions and to get answers, the easier it will become and the more beneficial it will be. Together you know a lot more.

Besides, asking a well-thought-out question, you will be regarded as more competent than less competent.


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  1. Hi!

    Just wanted to let you know that I’m a reader of your blogs as I find them really helpful.

    This is a quality I also want to pass on to my children. Growing up, my parents have raised me to be an independent man, and I couldn’t be more grateful for that. However, this is what my wife and I have always argued about. I never asked for help. As told by her, I have this like wall that I won’t let anyone climb up on. This applies to every aspect of my life, including my family, work, and higher education.

    So, I’ve been applying this now that I am a parent. I constantly remind my kids that if they need help, they should ask for it. And whenever I do something for them, it always puts a smile on my face.

    Thanks for every input you have, you motivate people more than you ever know, Arjenne.

    Have a nice day!


    • Hi William,

      Thank you so much for your kind words and I am so pleased to hear that you find inspiration in my blogs. I really appreciate your comment and I hope to be able to create many more blogs this year that can inspire or motivate.

      All the best for this year and have a nice day.

      Best wishes,


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