10 Harsh realities of PhD
Being able to add the title “Doctor” ahead of your name or to suffix it with a “PhD”, sounds tempting doesn’t it? But what is it really like to go through the PhD journey?
As an early stage researcher, you may have only heard the one cliché saying that “PhD is a marathon and not a sprint” but is that all there is to know about the PhD journey?
Well, there is a whole lot more. In this article, I share the harsh realities of the PhD journey- things you would face before, during and after your PhD and the dark side of PhD. So, if you are considering signing up for a PhD in any discipline, please read these 10 harsh realities carefully so that you are well prepared for the journey ahead.
DISCLAIMER: Before we get to discussing this topic, it is imperative that I clarify a couple things, hence, this disclaimer.
The experiences I shared here are based on what I learnt from my own journey and that of my peers. Your own journey might look slightly different from the experiences shared herewith as these are bound to vary across disciplines and geographies.
Also, “harsh” does not necessarily have to be construed as “extremely negative”. This is not an exhaustive list of harsh realities by any means but is meant purely for educational purposes. My aim here is to put the entire PhD journey into perspective so a prospective candidate knows what to expect before, during and after the PhD.
Table of Contents
- There is no syllabus
- PhD is a solo journey
- Not everyone around you will understand your journey
- You can never know it all
- Work-life (im)balance
- Execution counts more than the idea itself
- Merit isn’t everything
- Not everyone finishes their PhD
- Everyone takes their own time
- Not every PhD graduate stays in academia
- Key takeaways
There is no syllabus for PhD
If you have just completed an Undergraduate curriculum, you may be used to being given a curated syllabus with tasks and deadlines that you are expected to complete. Unfortunately, PhD has no such thing as a syllabus. The PhD journey is somewhat like jumping into the deep end and learning to swim by yourself. This also means that the PhD candidate is supposed to plan and manage their own progress which is challenging because there is no preset deadline or milestones to evaluate progress.
Sometimes, it is owing to lack of such reference checkpoints that a candidate struggles to figure out how fast or slow is their progress. This also often means that there is too much to do in very little time. The fear of the unknown not knowing how “good” the research is and how “well” it is progressing also instills anxiety in most scholars as they usually walk in with a different mindset- a mindset where handholding is a given.
PhD is a solo journey
If you have read the acknowledgement section of any PhD thesis, you would often see people thanking their Supervisor, friends and family for their support during the journey. The harsh reality of the PhD journey however is that, these people might be able to offer you emotional support every once in a while but the PhD journey is something you have to endure solo. You, as a PhD candidate have to learn to be self-reliant, be prompt in taking decisions and stand by them. You have to take charge of your PhD and the life ahead.
Not everyone around you will understand
Building on the discussion of PhD being a solo journey, let’s look into another reason why some times you might start to feel lonely. During your journey you as a person will change in numerous ways and people will not really understand why you do what you do anymore.
For instance, in my case, there were times I used to go for days without sleep and skip meals so save time and some money. No one really understood why I did this and everyone kept telling me it was unhealthy and I should instead wake up at 06:00AM and eat 4 meals in a day. I had to tune out all of the external unsolicited advise and focus on what I knew was best for me for I was on a mission to complete my PhD on time.
This journey will demand sacrifices- some small and some big and over time you will find people drifting away from you because of lack of similarities you once had with them. This is also one of the reasons why PhD is a solo journey and you are going to be your own best savior in most cases.
Also, the challenges faced by a local PhD scholar versus an International PhD scholar can be very different. There are numerous cultural, geographical and financial challenges that come in to play when pursuing a PhD overseas that a local scholar may not always have to endure.
You can never know it all
The more you read, the more know about how much you don’t know
In the early stages, you will often find yourself in the to read or to act dilemma. You would need to read a lot to carefully identify research gaps but if you keep reading forever, when do you get to implementing? But if you implement too soon, how can you be sure someone hasn’t done this already? Do you see the problem?
At some point you need to draw the line and switch gears from reading to implementing given that you are confident enough to make this call. At times, you might start to feel like you know very little and that is ok. There is a lot to learn and very limited time so you need to prioritize your time and efforts to reap the most of the PhD journey.
Never get so busy working to make a living that you are no longer living the life you were born to relish
Unless you are disciplined and set a schedule for yourself, you are very likely going to fall trap to what I call work-life (im)balance. As the name suggests, you will end up doing one of two things- either put all your hobbies and passion projects on a back burner and do only research work eventually leading to a burnout or spend way too much time on leisure activities and put your main research itself on the backburner which is going to be detrimental in the long run.
Also, when you do decide to work, you might want to consider some healthy working habits such as Pomodoro technique or similar to ensure you are taking short breaks, refreshing and keeping up the productivity while you work.
Execution worth more than ideas
An idea sitting on your desk is just a piece of paper
Research is a fast-paced environment and there is hardly ever a chance that you are working on an idea and are the only one thinking about it. If you find that hard to believe, recall that we are ~8 billion people as of 2022 inhabiting this earth. Still think you are the only one thinking about an idea?
The point I am trying to make here is that you may be tempted to sit on an idea until you have perfected it. You might think that sitting on an idea and keeping it under wraps would mean that no one can steal it. With this mindset, what you will end up overlooking is the fact that execution is much more valuable than the idea itself.
You need to keep abreast with latest trends and happenings in your niche to stay on top of your game and to make sure no one beats you to the punch, you need to focus on execution. To do this, you can draw inspiration from visionaries like Elon Mush and Jeff Bezos who build from First Principles and you can do it too.
Merit isn't everything
Just like in most fields, academia is also ridden with politics at various levels and merit isn’t everything. Unfortunately, where there is prestige, power, and shared resources, there will be politics though the intensity varies a lot and can pertain to interpersonal and intra-organizational politics. But, if you are aware of this fact, you can learn to live with it and prepare yourself accordingly.
Not everyone who starts, finishes their PhD
There is significant attrition in PhD, the actual rate varies across geographies. To put this into perspective, an estimated 50% of doctorate students in the US and 20% of doctoral students in the UK leave graduate school without finishing. Majority proportion of this attrition rate comes from leaving their PhD program early but a small proportion also comes from failing the PhD viva.
So, not everyone who starts a PhD is going to finish it for various reasons. But this also means, you need to have an unwavering determination and focus if you would like to be able to finish the PhD.
Everyone takes their own time
As an early stage PhD candidate, the scholars often ask “how long will it take me to finish the PhD?” The short answer: it depends.
The long answer: every candidate’s journey is unique in the sense their determination, prior commitments and future aspirations vary. Additionally, the “average” graduation times vary across disciplines, departments and geographies. So, if a person X graduates in a field Y in Z years, what bearing do you think this information really has on you?
As I mentioned in the disclaimer early on, this article brings out the “harsh realities of PhD” and they do not necessarily need to be construed as all negative. This is an educational post meant to bring out the aspects of a PhD journey that are often not talked about at length as much as the glamorous side of it. No harm in taking your time and pacing yourself based on what works the best for you.
Not all PhDs stay in academia
There are far more PhD graduates than academic jobs. So, most graduates may not find an academic job right away. This often means that PhD graduates have to compete for lower paying jobs that do not come with job security or benefits. Industrial pay grades, on the other hand, are much higher than what one gets in academia. So, at some point in life, almost every PhD scholar asks to what end would they like to stay in academia. Some try to sustain extended postdocs, adjunct faculty or fixed term academic contracts before they eventually pivot to industry in search for better financial prospects unless they are able to secure a tenure track position.
PhD life is not just about academia. It is as much about the soft skills you develop along the way. A PhD gives you the opportunity to undertake in-depth research, and develop your ability to organize and carry out a research project on your own helping you hone your leadership skills. There are plenty of research careers outside of academia, and a PhD will go a long way to preparing you for a career in research.
Aside from research skills, you will also get opportunities to hone your organizational and people skills. For instance, you can try partake in co-organizing a conference especially if it is happening at a venue near you or speak at events as a guest/invited speaker to introduce your findings to a broad audience. Being able to explain your research to a variety of audience, even to those outside of your domain is a skill that takes time to hone but is very crucial. You can also showcase your community skills and the ability to take initiative by organizing community outreach events.
So, if you have read this article this far, I hope that now you know the realities- the good, the bad, the ugly, the dark side, that many PhD students don’t really know or understand well when starting their PhD. By now, I am guessing you are wondering if PhD is the right choice for you? If so, I have a detailed article wherein I shared 5 questions to ask if you want a PhD. Based on these prompts, you will undergo an introspection exercise that will guide you towards making the decision that is best for you.