Is a PhD a big achievement? Why people fail

Dare to embark on one of the most challenging yet rewarding journeys of academia?

Is it a Herculean feat or a journey of personal and professional growth?

Imagine standing on the peak of academic achievement, braving not just intellectual puzzles, but a whirlwind of personal obstacles too. Picture yourself navigating the realms of impostor syndrome, financial strains, and the seemingly endless ‘Valley of Shit.’

Yes, that’s a PhD journey in a nutshell – an extraordinary race that’s unique for every runner.

But why endure this rollercoaster ride? Well, a PhD isn’t just a title; it’s an experience that hones your problem-solving skills, teaches you to dissect complex issues, and molds you into a resilient individual. It’s a testament to your grit and an opportunity to contribute novel insights to your chosen field.

Join us as we unravel the tapestry of the PhD journey, exploring the highs and lows, the trials and triumphs, and the reasons that make it a path worth treading.

Is a PhD a big achievement in academia?

Absolutely, In my experience, a PhD is a monumental achievement for many students. 

I remember just how hard it got at times and the feelings of “not being good enough” rand loudly in my mind.

It’s a journey that involves not just academic prowess but significant mental fortitude. You’re not only discovering novel aspects of your field but also learning to navigate a myriad of personal challenges.

From financial struggles to mental health issues, from potential supervisor conflicts to the constant battle against impostor syndrome, pursuing a PhD is like running a unique race, a race that’s not comparable to anyone else’s journey.

As you trudge towards your PhD, you’re constantly dealing with a wave of distractions that can easily derail your progress. It’s not just about intellectual capacity or the ability to generate new ideas; it’s about staying on track for years, despite life’s curveballs.

In this sense, a PhD is not just a testament to your academic prowess, but also a reflection of your determination, resilience, and ability to overcome obstacles. 

So yes, earning a PhD is a massive achievement. It’s a testament to your ability to not just survive, but thrive amidst numerous personal and professional challenges. It’s a demonstration of your grit, perseverance, and unwavering commitment to your goals.

How hard are PhDs and Doctorates?

Unlike an undergraduate or master’s degree, the pursuit of a PhD demands higher education and self-guided research skills, and it’s a journey that many prospective students often underestimate. 

Here are some of the harder elements of a PhD that PhD students often encounter:

Impostor SyndromeThis is a psychological pattern where individuals doubt their accomplishments and fear being exposed as a ‘fraud’. It is quite common among PhD students who may feel like they are not as capable or smart as their peers or advisors.
IsolationThe nature of a PhD program often requires students to work on their own for extended periods of time. This can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation, which can negatively impact mental health.
Balancing RolesOften, PhD students have to balance multiple roles: researcher, student, teacher, and often, employee. Managing these roles can be overwhelming.
Uncertain FutureThe academic job market is highly competitive and unstable, which can lead to stress and anxiety about future prospects.
Time ManagementThe process of researching and writing a dissertation can take several years, requiring long-term planning and time management skills.
Financial StressFunding for PhD programs can be precarious, leading to financial stress. Many PhD students also accumulate student debt.
Feedback and CriticismReceiving constant criticism on work can be demoralizing, although it is a crucial part of the process. Learning to handle this is often a tough task.
Lack of Practical SkillsMany PhD students realize that they are not gaining as many practical skills as they are theoretical knowledge, which might be a problem in non-academic job markets.
Intellectual ExhaustionThe cognitive load of constant critical thinking, reading, and writing can lead to intellectual burnout.
The ‘Valley of Shit’This is a term used to describe a phase where students feel their work is going nowhere, often in the middle of their research. It’s a common but rarely discussed challenge.
Realization of Knowledge LimitThe deeper one delves into a topic, the more one realizes how vast the field is and how limited their knowledge actually is. This can be a humbling and sometimes distressing realization.
The ‘Eternal Student’ PerceptionSociety often misunderstands the nature of a PhD, seeing it as a way of avoiding ‘real work’. This perception can undermine a PhD student’s self-esteem and their work’s value.
Maintaining MotivationOver the long haul of a PhD program, maintaining the initial levels of enthusiasm and motivation can be difficult. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and that can be mentally and emotionally taxing.
The Unknown UnknownsAs research often explores new frontiers, PhD students frequently face problems they didn’t even know existed, and there’s no guidebook for these.
Navigating Academic PoliticsThe academic world has its own set of politics and power dynamics. Learning to navigate these can be a significant challenge.

As a PhD student, you’re often working one-on-one with your mentor, usually a seasoned professional in your field of research, in regular meetings. This advisor provides supervision while you independently explore a specific area of study.

During this time, you must demonstrate critical thinking skills, an ability to work independently, and the capacity to find answers to complex questions. 

The process of completing a PhD is more of a marathon than a sprint, with many students taking between three to seven years to earn their doctorate. The journey can be fraught with challenges that extend beyond academia. Financial constraints, personal circumstances, and mental health struggles can sometimes lead to attrition.

If it is so hard: Why do a PhD? Is it worth the time and effort?

Earning a PhD is no small feat.

It’s a rigorous and demanding path that requires a candidate to dedicate several years to specialized study, research, and scholarly exploration in their chosen discipline.

However, despite the hardships, many still choose to embark on this academic journey.

Firstly, a PhD places you at the pinnacle of academic achievement. It recognizes you as an authority in your field, capable of contributing original and significant knowledge to your discipline. 

The process of completing a PhD equips one with a unique set of skills. As a doctoral candidate, you become an expert problem solver, navigating challenges that come with conducting innovative research.

You also fine-tune your ability to learn quickly, effectively breaking down complex problems into manageable tasks.

PhDs also offer an opportunity to grow personally. The journey of a graduate student is fraught with trials and triumphs that shape and mould their identity.

The resilience and determination required to surmount academic obstacles can permeate all aspects of life, turning PhD holders into well-rounded individuals ready to face any challenge.

The pursuit of a PhD, despite its hardships, offers invaluable rewards. The expertise, skills, personal growth, and the sheer joy of advancing knowledge in a chosen field make it an endeavor well worth undertaking.

Wrapping up

The wild, wonderful, and occasionally wearisome world of pursuing a PhD. Is it a monumental achievement? Without a doubt! It’s a journey that requires not just intellectual prowess, but significant mental fortitude and resilience too.

From conquering impostor syndrome to balancing multiple roles and dealing with financial constraints, it’s truly a unique race that each PhD candidate runs.

But why brave such a challenging path? Well, the rewards are numerous and transformative. A PhD isn’t just a shiny badge of academic honor; it’s a rite of passage that equips you with a distinct set of skills and molds you into an agile problem solver. It’s a testament to your grit and a platform that enables you to contribute original and valuable insights to your field.

And so, despite the hardships, many continue to step onto this rigorous path, drawn by the unique allure of academic exploration and the promise of personal growth. The pursuit of a PhD, in all its complexity, remains an invaluable journey that offers a wealth of rewards.

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.