How difficult is it to get a PhD? The real doctorate struggles.

There is no doubt that getting a PhD is no small feat. It requires dedication, hard work, and plenty of motivation to stay on track.

Getting a PhD can be a very challenging process that requires several years of intensive research, coursework, and writing. However, the difficulty of obtaining a PhD can vary depending on factors such as the specific program and field of study.

Also, I have witnessed that the individual student’s background and preparation, and the level of commitment and effort they are willing to invest also highly influence how hard a PhD is for an individual candidate.

In order to complete in a timely fashion PhD candidates must also be prepared to invest a significant amount of time into their studies in order to complete the necessary coursework (US-based PhDs) and research.

The process can be especially difficult if the student is attempting to balance work or family life while completing their studies.

Quite often younger PhD students find it easier than mature age students due to the fact that they have fewer adult commitments and responsibilities in their private life – but this isn’t always the case.

However, with proper planning and perseverance, it is certainly possible for anyone to reach this educational achievement.

It was something I was very proud to have completed and it certainly opened doors to other opportunities.

Why is a PhD so difficult?

A PhD is an advanced academic degree that requires a huge amount of dedication and hard work.

Ask any PhD graduate and they are likely to say that it is one of the most challenging parts of their life in academia.

That is because it is a lengthy process that involves several years of research, writing, and, at the end, defending a dissertation in front of other experts in the field in order to be awarded the degree.

Typically, a PhD student will:

  • have completed a Masters degree to a high standard for acceptance into the PhD program
  • conduct a literature review of a field to find research gaps
  • generate a research question and hypothesis
  • work over multiple years to explore their research question and answer it fully
  • fail multiple times and have their work critiqued continuously by experts in their field and that PhD supervisor.
  • Write up their work in peer-reviewed journals and their thesis
  • defend their peer-reviewed papers and their thesis
  • continually stay up-to-date with the literature throughout their entire course
  • some students may also have teaching and other administrative requirements at the University in which they are studying.

The entire process can be quite challenging and overwhelming, as students must stay up-to-date with new developments in their area of study while also meeting stringent academic standards.

They must also be able to effectively communicate complex concepts to their peers in things like peer-reviewed papers as well as at conferences and symposia.

All these factors make obtaining a PhD an incredibly difficult task but one that is ultimately rewarding for those who are successful.

It can be confronting when you look at a PhD in one whole chunk. However, by splitting down the tasks involved in a PhD it can become much more manageable and less detrimental on your mental health.

If you want to know more about how doing a PhD part-time you can check out my other articles:

What is the hardest part of getting a PhD?

One of the most challenging aspects of obtaining a PhD is that it takes a great deal of time and dedication.

You shouldn’t underestimate how easily your brain plays tricks on you over a multi-year project. Staying on course and ignoring your internal monologue is one of the most challenging parts again a PhD.

It can take anywhere from five to seven years of rigorous study and research to complete all the requirements for a PhD.

During this time, students must master complex topics in their field, conduct independent research projects, write lengthy dissertation papers, and navigate any number of other challenges along the way.

Working with your supervisor

Working with your PhD supervisor can, for some, be one of the most difficult aspects of doing a PhD.

Your PhD supervisor will dictate the outcome of your PhD and therefore it is worth spending a lot of time making sure you select the right PhD supervisor for you.

Some supervisors want to completely micromanage whilst others are happy to allow their students to explore freely.

Taking the time to make sure you can fully nurture this relationship will also ensure a less stressful PhD.

If you want to know more about great ways to build a relationship with your supervisor check out my YouTube video:

I also have a lot of content on my YouTube channel on choosing and working with academic supervisors.

Is it worth getting a PhD?

Whether or not it is worth getting a PhD depends on a few different factors.

For some people, having a PhD is important for career advancement and provides an opportunity to pursue higher-level positions in their field.

It may also be beneficial for those that wish to teach at the university level or conduct research in their field of interest.

On the other hand, pursuing a PhD can be time consuming and expensive, and the long years of study may not ultimately result in any tangible rewards.

I also have a YouTube video where I talk about whether getting a PhD is worth the effort:

There are a load of juicy secrets in this one.

Whether or not it is worth getting a PhD will depend on the individual’s goals and objectives. If they are looking for career advancement opportunities or want to pursue teaching or research opportunities, then getting a PhD may be worth the cost and effort involved.

How hard is it to manage the PhD workload?

You may have heard that a PhD is a massive task because of the workload.

If you are doing your PhD in the United States of America you may find that there are three years of coursework to complete before you start the research component of the degree. This workload can be huge.

No matter where you do your PhD the amount of work and effort it takes to complete a PhD is much greater than what was required for an undergraduate degree.

No longer do you have set deadlines and a structured course – you will need to figure out the pathway through your PhD on your own.

Furthermore, given that most U.S.-based PhD programs are structured like traditional college courses, it can be difficult to stay on top of all the readings and material without falling behind.

If you decide to pursue a doctoral degree you must make sure you are prepared for the increased workload and dedication required in order to be successful.

Speak to your support networks and your family to ensure that they will be able to support you when things get tough.

Is a PhD intellectually difficult?

You may be surprised to hear that PhD isn’t necessarily intellectually difficult. But it does require dedication and effort to work through some challenging intellectual problems.

I often say that a PhD is 80% dedication, 10% smarts and 10% luck.

A PhD can be an extremely intellectually challenging experience for any student because it requires a great deal of dedication and hard work to complete, and it is regarded as the highest level of education available.

The expectations of a PhD student are far greater than those of an undergraduate, and the research process can take years to complete.

Nonetheless, it is your ability to persevere through problems and stick to your research plan by improving on your research little by little day after day that will really dictate how successful your PhD is.

I have seen incredibly smart people fail a PhD whilst others, who have not done so well in undergraduate, have flourished in the research environment.

How long are PhD programs?

Research shows that the average amount of time to complete a PhD across disciplines is 4.4 years. Depending on the country, a PhD will take anywhere between two and seven years to complete depending on whether there is a coursework component (US universities).

The majority of students taking anywhere from five to seven years to complete their degree.

This is due to the nature of PhD programs, which require significant research and fieldwork experience in addition to coursework.

Depending on a student’s chosen field of study, some PhD programs may last longer than others.

Here is data from a study that looks at Australian university PhD completion published in 1994.

Field of studyYears to completion
Arts humanity and social sciences5.4
Overall average4.4

Some PhD programs may have requirements that must be met before graduation, such as publishing research or completing an internship. It is important for prospective students to understand what is expected of them in order to ensure they will be able to complete their program within the allotted timeframe.

If you want to know more about how long a PhD takes check out my other article:

How many hours do PhD students work?

Although PhD students often have to put in long hours of work to complete their degree is not necessary that a student puts in an insane number of hours as long as they were continuously and diligently towards the end goal of getting a PhD.

The amount of hours that a PhD student work will depend on the culture of the labs that they are currently researching in.

Some supervisors require students to be in the lab for many hours every day whilst others are happy from a 9-to-5 “work schedule”.

On average, PhD students work around 40-50 hours per week.

PhD student daily schedule

This includes time spent in:

  • lectures,
  • seminars,
  • coursework
  • independent study
  • researching
  • writing
  • and much more

Researching and writing a dissertation can require even more hours of work.

In addition to this, many PhD students also teach classes or take on other roles within the university that add to their workload.

All of this means that PhD students can often find themselves putting in long hours and having little free time outside of the academic demands of their program.

Wrapping up

This article has been through all of the difficult components that people may face if they decide to get a PhD.

I was able to complete my PhD in three years and I somewhat enjoyed the process. Of course it had its challenges but overall it was a worthwhile and rewarding experience for me.

However, some people’s experiences are also very different due to different pressures outside of academia and the culture in the research group in which they are working.

The ultimate difficulty depends very much on the individual circumstances and dedication of the PhD student but always involves dedicating yourself to the pursuit of knowledge over many years. This, in itself, can be a very challenging aspect to overcome.

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton has a Masters and PhD in Chemistry from the UK and Australia. He has many years of research experience and has worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow and Associate at a number of Universities. Although having secured funding for his own research, he left academia to help others with his YouTube channel all about the inner workings of academia and how to make it work for you.