The PhD student experience – What is it really like for PhDs?

Are you curious about what it’s really like to be a PhD student, navigating the world of academia and research?

In this article, we’ll dive deep into the lesser-known aspects of the PhD journey, from the profound impact of your supervisor to the competitive environment you’ll face.

Discover the truth about the importance of publishing papers and the realities of funding and job security in academia.

We’ll also give you a glimpse into the daily life of a PhD student, and explore the highs and lows of this challenging yet rewarding experience.

So, buckle up and join us as we uncover the secrets of the PhD student experience that no one else will tell you!

The little known-facts that you need to know about the PhD experience,

This is what no one else will tell you!

Little-known FactDescription
1Supervisor’s impactThe compatibility between you and your PhD supervisor will greatly determine your success and overall experience during your PhD journey. Choose wisely.
2Competitive environmentThe academic world can be incredibly competitive, both within your research group and externally. Expect competition for publications, citations, and recognition.
3Importance of peer-reviewed papersPublishing peer-reviewed papers is crucial to your academic career, as it can determine your career trajectory and success. Be prepared to publish several papers during your PhD.
4Grant funding and job securityGrant funding is essential for research projects and often dictates your career in academia. Securing funding can be difficult, and job security in academia is not guaranteed, even after earning a PhD.
5Anxiety-inducing journeyThe path to completing a PhD can be anxiety-inducing, as the end goal may not always be clear. You need to focus on small steps and continuously work towards the goal of completing your thesis and producing novel research. This requires a significant amount of internal motivation and project management skills.

What does the daily life of a PhD student look like?

Embarking on a PhD journey can be a thrilling yet demanding experience, as a doctoral student is constantly immersed in:

  • research,
  • academic responsibilities,
  • and professional development.

From the early morning, the life of a PhD student begins with checking emails, planning the day, and setting priorities.

A typical day usually involves conducting experiments or research in the laboratory, analyzing data, and reading scientific literature to stay up-to-date with their field.

PhD students often participate in regular meetings with their supervisors, who provide guidance and advice on their research projects.

These meetings are crucial for maintaining momentum and ensuring a productive working relationship.

A typical daily schedule for a PhD student might look like this:

7:00 AM – Wake up, morning routine, breakfast

7:45 AM – Check emails, plan the day, and set priorities

8:30 AM – Arrive at the laboratory, set up experiments or research tasks

9:30 AM – Attend a class or seminar (if applicable)

11:00 AM – Conduct experiments or research in the laboratory

12:30 PM – Lunch break, socialize with fellow graduate students

1:30 PM – Analyze data and read scientific literature relevant to the research project

3:00 PM – Meeting with supervisor to discuss research progress and receive guidance

4:30 PM – Continue working on experiments, data analysis, or literature review

6:00 PM – Dinner break

8:00 PM – Draft or edit thesis, work on conference presentations or publications

10:00 PM – Wind down and engage in a hobby or leisure activity for mental health and work-life balance

11:00 PM – Bedtime routine, sleep

In addition to their primary research, many PhD students assist and mentor undergraduate students, contributing to a diverse and dynamic academic community.

Balancing the demands of coursework, research projects, and administrative responsibilities can make for long working hours, which is why it’s important for doctoral students to maintain their mental health and work-life balance.

Attending conferences, participating in social events, and engaging in professional development opportunities are important aspects of the PhD experience.

Given the commitment and dedication required, full-time PhD students often rely on funded positions to support their education and living expenses.

Despite the inherent difficulties, the experience equips students with a range of new skills and expertise, setting them on a path to contribute significantly to academia and the world beyond.

How stressful is being a PhD student?

Being a PhD student can be quite stressful due to the unique challenges and demands of the program.

It varies from person to person and the supervisor will have a huge impact on how stressful a PhD will be for a student.

Here is a case study of the highs and lows of a PhD from a PhDs student’s perspective:

This PhD student experienced frustration with experiments not working or yielding results, leading to feelings of imposter syndrome and demotivation. A lack of progress was a significant source of stress during this time, as well as comparing oneself to peers who seemed to be achieving more success.

However, there were also numerous highlights throughout the PhD experience. Attending conferences and presenting research offered opportunities to gain feedback, collaborate with others, and even travel. Engaging in scientific discussions and exploring the significance of one’s work provided a sense of purpose and satisfaction.

Furthermore, working with cutting-edge equipment, such as advanced microscopes, allowed the student to appreciate the unique and privileged nature of their research.

The pressure to produce significant contributions to one’s field and the uncertainty of achieving results within a limited time frame can induce anxiety.

For instance, many students find themselves constantly juggling various responsibilities, such as conducting experiments, analysing data, attending meetings with their supervisor, and writing their thesis or papers.

Aside from academic pressure, managing work-life balance can be difficult as well. It’s not uncommon for PhD students to work long hours, often sacrificing personal time and relationships.

The lack of a structured schedule and the need for self-motivation can add to the stress and the competitive environment in academia and the constant pursuit of funding can further exacerbate stress levels.

PhD student workloads and holidays

The life of a PhD student is often characterized by heavy workloads and limited opportunities for holidays.

In a typical PhD program, students juggle numerous responsibilities, including research projects, coursework, and professional development activities, such as attending conferences and training.

This is particularly true for funded PhD students, who are expected to adhere to strict timelines set by their supervisors and the university’s academic calendar.

In the science field, the workload can be even more demanding due to the nature of research, which often involves conducting experiments that can take months or years to complete.

This commitment means that even during holidays, PhD students may feel the need to work in order to meet deadlines, leading to burnout and stress.

Later Stage PhD ( Doctorate Candidates )

When PhD students reach the later stages of their doctorate program, they become PhDs preparing to complete their research project and thesis.

This stage comes with an intense academic workload, with high demand for researcher-level skills and scientific knowledge.

A typical day for a PhD at this stage involves conducting research, analysing data, and editing their findings to complete their thesis.

In my experience it is WRITING, WRITING and more WRITING…with a touch of editing.

There are deadlines to meet, and students may face pressure, but the reward of completing a doctorate degree is worth it.

At this point, a PhD is expected to demonstrate their ability to conduct independent research and contribute to their field of study.

The latter stages of the doctorate program offer a rigorous and rewarding challenge for students who want to pursue a career in science, education, and research.

Wrapping up – PhD and Doctoral Student experience

The PhD student experience is a complex and multifaceted journey that offers a unique blend of challenges and triumphs.

As we have explored in this blog, the road to obtaining a PhD is filled with personal growth, professional development, and numerous hurdles to overcome.

But, for those who persevere, the rewards can be immense, leading to a sense of accomplishment, increased expertise, and the potential to make a significant impact in their chosen field.

In navigating this adventure, it is essential for PhD students to maintain a healthy work-life balance and develop strong support networks to help them manage stress and maintain motivation.

The journey may be demanding, but with the right mindset and guidance, the experience can be truly transformative.

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.