How hard is a PhD? What every PhD student needs to know

Embarking on a PhD journey is a commendable endeavour that many consider a pinnacle of academic achievement. 

The challenges of a PhD often extend beyond mere intellectual rigour. While it’s easy to assume that the hurdles would involve complex research or profound theoretical concepts, the truth is more nuanced.

Embarking on a PhD is not just an intellectual endeavour; it’s a test of one’s resilience, adaptability, and perseverance through various personal, emotional, and financial challenges. While many assume the difficulty lies primarily in complex research, PhD candidates often grapple with distractions, mental health issues, and the pressures of consistent progress.

Thus, a successful PhD journey involves not just academic rigor, but also effectively navigating these multifaceted challenges.

From battling internal distractions and self-doubt to navigating financial constraints and mental health issues, PhD candidates face a multifaceted journey that demands resilience and perseverance.

In this blog, we’ll delve deep into these often-under-discussed challenges, shedding light on the realities of what people find out when they start a PhD and provide guidance on how to navigate them. Join us as we uncover the true essence of what makes academia and a PhD both demanding and rewarding.

Misconceptions About Why a PhD Is Hard

When discussing the challenges of a PhD, it’s vital to debunk some prevalent misconceptions. Many outsiders often attribute the difficulty of a PhD to its intellectual rigour or the depth of study.

While these aspects are undeniably challenging, they often aren’t the primary concerns of PhD students.

Instead, it’s the blend of personal, financial, and mental hurdles that make the journey uniquely demanding.

  • Not Primarily About Intellectual Challenges:
    • The general belief that only the ‘smartest’ can pursue a PhD is a myth.
    • It’s not just about intelligence but about resilience, determination, and adaptability.
  • Distractions are the Real Enemies:
    • Many PhD students often report that distractions, rather than the actual research work, are their most significant hurdles.
    • Such diversions could range from personal life events, mental health struggles, and financial constraints, to feelings of isolation.
  • Consistent Progress is Crucial:
    • A PhD demands consistent focus and progress over several years.
    • Small achievements and advancements compound over time, leading to ultimate success.
  • Peer-Related Pressure:
    • While research, ideas, and lab work are crucial, the unseen pressure often comes from watching peers’ progress and unintentionally comparing one’s journey with others.

Common Struggles Faced by PhD Students and PhDs

  • Work-Life Balance: Achieving a harmonious balance between rigorous academic pursuits and personal life is a perpetual challenge. The constant demand of a PhD can often overshadow personal time, leading to burnout and strained relationships.
  • Financial Stress: Many PhD students grapple with financial concerns. Whether it’s the looming burden of student loans, insufficient stipends, or the cost of attending international conferences, money worries can often eclipse academic priorities.
  • Isolation: The solitary nature of research can sometimes lead to feelings of isolation. Unlike more structured academic programs, a PhD often requires long hours of independent work, distancing students from peers and social interactions.
  • Imposter Syndrome: Many PhD candidates wrestle with self-doubt, constantly questioning their worthiness or fearing they’ll be exposed as frauds. This can be exacerbated by the high expectations and competitive environment.
  • Time Management: Juggling various responsibilities – from teaching assistant roles to attending seminars and conducting research – can make effective time management a daunting task.
  • Mental Health: The constant pressure to produce groundbreaking work, coupled with the challenges listed above, can take a toll on a student’s mental well-being. It’s not uncommon for PhD students to experience bouts of anxiety, depression, or overwhelming stress.

In recognizing these challenges, it’s crucial to emphasize that they are as integral to the PhD experience as the research itself.

Addressing these external distractions and personal struggles is pivotal for a fulfilling and successful academic journey.

The Distractions That Impact the PhD Journey – more than time management

While the PhD journey is undeniably about academic rigour and deep research, numerous distractions often act as significant roadblocks. Understanding these distractions is pivotal to navigating the path successfully and ensuring a more holistic and healthier PhD experience.

A. Financial Strains

  • The Sacrifice of Adult Life Luxuries: Embarking on a PhD often means prioritizing studies over many of the comforts and luxuries that peers in full-time employment enjoy. This can range from vacations to even simple pleasures like dining out or entertainment.
  • Low Income During PhD Years: Most PhD students subsist on stipends or grants, which can be meagre. The income, often barely enough to cover basic necessities, can make financial independence a challenging endeavour.
  • The Difficulty of a Self-Funded PhD: For those without scholarships or funding, the financial strain is even more pronounced. Self-funding a PhD means grappling with tuition fees, research costs, and living expenses, all while trying to focus on research.

B. Mental Health

  • Imposter Syndrome: A common affliction among PhD students, imposter syndrome is the pervasive feeling of being a fraud, despite evidence of one’s accomplishments and capabilities. It can significantly impede progress and confidence.
  • The Emotional Toll of Rigorous Research: The highs and lows of research, with moments of breakthroughs juxtaposed with periods of stagnation, can be emotionally draining.
  • The Importance of Support During the Journey: Given the mental challenges, having a solid support system, be it friends, family, or mental health professionals, is paramount to staying grounded.

C. Supervisor Relationships

  • The Ideal vs. The Reality: While every student hopes for a nurturing and supportive supervisor, the reality can be starkly different. Not all supervisors are a good fit, and some relationships can be more challenging than others.
  • Personal Experience with a Supportive Supervisor: A harmonious supervisor-student relationship can greatly enhance the PhD experience. When guidance, mentorship, and understanding are offered, it fosters a conducive environment for academic growth and personal well-being.

The Compounding Effect During a PhD

The journey through a PhD program is akin to a marathon, not a sprint. At the heart of this journey lies the concept of the compounding effect: the power of small, daily progress.

Much like the principle where small investments grow exponentially over time due to interest, in a PhD, consistent effort and incremental advances in research can yield significant results in the long run.

The distractions we previously delved into can severely disrupt this momentum.

Financial strains or mental health issues can divert focus, causing days, if not weeks, of stagnation.

Such disruptions can delay progress and even demotivate students, making it harder to pick up where they left off.

The Real Skillset Needed for the Doctoral Journey

The skills that qualify someone to embark on a PhD journey aren’t necessarily the same as those required to complete it.

Getting into a PhD program often means mastering exams, understanding how you learn, and other academic hacks.

However, once in the PhD realm, these skills can feel inadequate.

Suddenly, you are plunged into the unknown, where cramming won’t help.

You’re tasked with literature reviews, experiments, and research, sometimes without having been thoroughly trained in these areas.

This gap in training and the realization that the previous academic accomplishments might not be directly applicable can be jarring.

And though foundational knowledge of a subject is crucial, navigating the uncharted waters of personal research is where the real challenge lies.

Every PhD is a Unique Journey

No two PhDs are the same. It’s an inherently individual journey where each student is uncovering something new.

Comparing oneself to peers, though a natural instinct, can be counterproductive.

Everyone’s challenges, pace, and outcomes will differ due to a myriad of factors, from the research topic to supervisor guidance and sheer luck.

This comparison often leads to feelings of inadequacy and imposter syndrome. But the key is to focus on personal growth, measuring today’s progress against yesterday’s. Everyone has their unique hurdles; the goal is to surpass them one at a time.

Obtaining a PhD isn’t just about academic prowess but navigating a maze of personal and professional challenges. Recognizing and addressing these challenges, along with a clear understanding of the shift in skillset required, can pave the way to success.

Wrapping up – how to get a PhD even when it is hard

Navigating the tumultuous waters of a PhD program is no small feat. As we’ve discussed, this journey extends beyond mere intellectual challenges to encompass personal, emotional, and financial trials. It’s about perseverance, resilience, and adaptability, as much as it is about intelligence and academic rigor.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Acknowledge the Challenges: Recognize that you’ll face various distractions and hurdles beyond your academic responsibilities. By acknowledging them, you’re better equipped to tackle them head-on.
  2. Lean on Support Systems: It’s essential to surround yourself with a community of supportive peers, mentors, family, or professionals. They can offer guidance, emotional support, and sometimes even financial advice to ease your journey.
  3. Celebrate Small Achievements: With a PhD being a long-term commitment, it’s vital to celebrate small milestones along the way. These will act as reminders of your progress and fuel your motivation.
  4. Stay Adaptable: The PhD landscape is ever-evolving, and the challenges you face might change over time. Being flexible and open to new strategies or methodologies can make the journey smoother.
  5. Personal Growth Over Comparison: Remember that your PhD journey is unique to you. While it’s natural to gauge your progress against peers, it’s more productive to focus on personal growth and development.
  6. Invest in Self-Care: Your well-being, both mental and physical, is crucial. Engage in activities outside of your research, practice mindfulness, or even seek professional help if necessary. Prioritizing self-care can make a tremendous difference in your PhD experience.

Embarking on a PhD is indeed challenging, but with the right tools, mindset, and support, it’s a rewarding journey with invaluable learnings.

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.