Nothing can ever fully prepare you for the intellectual, physical and emotional assault that comes with doing a PhD.
Everyone does a PhD for very personal reasons, and everyone finds them challenging in unique and varied ways. What for one person may seem like a death-blow may to others be nothing more than a minor inconvenience.
However, through my years as an academic, PhD thesis proofreader and PhD coach I’ve learnt that all PhD students experience five similar phenomena.
So, here are the five things every new PhD student should know.
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1. You’re going to get lonely
Loneliness and PhDs go hand in hand. It’s no surprise; you’re going to be spending long hours working in solitude and no-one outside of your PhD/academic circle is going to be able to fully appreciate the unique situation you’re in or the stresses and anxieties you face. As a result, you’ll feel isolated from friends and family, even when you’re physically with them.
What’s more, during your day-to-day PhD life, it’s down to you to overcome hurdles, turn up every day, make important intellectual decisions and deal with the problems that your PhD throws at you. It’s you that has to carry around the weight and anxiety that accompany your PhD, and it’s you who has to constantly find a way over what seem like insurmountable hurdles, problems and sticking points.
To make things worse, you haven’t yet fully learnt the skills required to be an effective researcher, so there is a lot of uncertainty and doubt as you continually learn on the job. The academic environment thrives on excellence and intellectual competence, so it can be intimidating to admit you’re unsure of what you’re doing or to reach out for extra training and support. That means you may feel the need to suffer in silence as you learn what’s required yourself.
These factors all align to foster a sense of isolation and loneliness.
Don’t despair though. There are simple things you can do to alleviate loneliness. Check out this guide on the topic that we’ve written.
2. It’ll be the hardest thing you’ve ever done
It’s no surprise that PhDs are hard. That’s taken for granted.
But what you perhaps don’t realise is quite how hard it will be.
Your PhD won’t just test your intellect, but it’ll push your emotional resilience to its absolute limit.
The intellectual learning curve you’ll go on will be immense. That’s because you’re pushing yourself up to the frontier of knowledge and then going beyond it. That’s not something you’ve ever had to do before. During your undergraduate and master’s level studies, you learnt things that other people have already discovered and discussed. At the doctoral level, it’s your job to discover and discuss things that no-one else has.
Not only does that mean that you need to learn everything there is to know about your subject (how else will you know what hasn’t been talked about?), but it also means that your PhD is going to be the hardest thing you’ve likely ever done.
It’ll also push you emotionally. The amount of work involved in the intellectual pursuit of a PhD will cause you to question every decision you’ve ever made that’s taken you to where you are today. You’ll start to wonder why you didn’t follow your friends into a career-track corporate job, or what else you could be doing.
And that’s okay. That’s kind of the point. If PhDs were easy, everyone would have one. But they’re not, which is why they are so rare. You’re meant to find it tough, and the process is supposed to push you intellectually and emotionally. It’s natural that you feel emotionally drained when the intellectual challenge is so great. Your brain wants what is best for you, and will try to prevent you from stress and harm. Confronted with the stress of navigating the PhD, it’s natural to feel despair and to question your reasons for sticking with it.
The successful PhD students are the ones that recognise these stresses as a normal part of the process, recognise their own limitations and imperfections, and reach out for help and support to deal with them.
3. You’ll need to reach out for support
PhD students are often also perfectionists. That’s great in some ways, because it pushes you to do great things and work hard, both skills that are integral to a successful PhD. But it has a downside. You may find it difficult to acknowledge those areas of your life or skillset that aren’t quite so perfect and then to reach out and seek support from others to counteract that.
If you already knew all that you needed to, you’d already have your PhD. You don’t, and there is so much you need to learn. There isn’t just the literature and subject area to master, but also more practical things like research design, data-collection tools and analytical techniques. In other words, there’s a lot to learn.
Sure, it’s entirely possible to equip yourself with all the skills you need alone, but the more sensible and effective way is to reach out for support. Talk to your supervisors, or keep your eyes open for training courses and seminars. Share tips and advice with your PhD colleagues, and don’t be afraid to admit when you’re struggling with something. Academics are generally a nice bunch, and won’t mind being approached politely to help clarify a concept.
Your PhD Thesis.
On one page.
4. You’ll be surrounded by people much smarter than you
Reaching out for support shouldn’t be too tricky, because you’ll be surrounded by people much smarter than you. Chances are there is someone in your department or school who has the answer to the question or problem you’ve got. It’s just a question of finding them, asking them for support in the most effective way and listening carefully to the advice that they give you.
However, being surrounded by people smarter than you can also be intimidating as a new PhD student. Chances are, you’ve been at or near the top of your class all through your university career and even during your time at school. You’re used to being one of the smartest people in the room. Heck, you may have even made it your entire identity.
If you have, it’s going to be a shock when you become a PhD student. Not only is your day spent interacting with other highly-intelligent PhD students (many of whom may be years ahead of you), but you’ll also be interacting with faculty on a much more professional level. No longer will they be your ‘teachers’, but instead they are your colleagues and peers.
Almost everyone you see will have more experience than you, and many of them will already have their PhDs. Before long, you’ll start to feel like the dumbest person in the room.
In these instances though, remind yourself that you are on a learning curve. Sure, these people have more experience than you, but one day you’ll get there too once you learn the necessary skills.
5. You’ll end up marrying your thesis
A common mistake new PhD students make is marrying their thesis.
You may feel that the only way to succeed is to make your PhD your entire life. You may think that you can’t possibly waste time on hobbies, friends or a social life. You may feel the need to spend all day (and all night) in the library, lab or field, and to never see a life outside of the university.
It’s clear why. The goal of a PhD is so elusive and the amount of work required to get there is so enormous that it’s tempting, particularly at the outset of a PhD, to throw yourself entirely into your work to get the job done.
But this is counter-productive. Marrying your thesis is the worst thing you can do. You need to maintain a life outside of the university, however small. The distraction of non-PhD/academic friends or hobbies will be enough to keep you sane.
Instead of marrying your thesis, treat it like a cruel mistress. See it as this part of your life that is doing it’s best to ruin you and to make your life as difficult as possible but that, because it’s just a mistress, you can keep on the periphery as an addendum to an otherwise balanced, fulfilled life.
What does that mean in practice? It means showing up when you have to and letting it do its best to ruin you. But – and this is the crucial bit – it also means stepping away from it regularly, having clear PhD/life boundaries, not taking things too personally, and realising that your PhD is just one part of your life, not all of it.
There will be many times during your PhD journey when you’ll think seriously about quitting your programme. I did, several times. One time I even wrote an email to my supervisor and department chair telling them that I couldn’t handle the pressure any more and that I was done. When I told my family I was going to send it, my mum did something she had never done before: she forbid it.
And I’m glad she did. Deciding to stay was the hardest decision of all, but gradually as I kept turning up and putting the hours in, my situation improved. Two years later, I graduated. As I walked down the aisle at my ceremony, I remember thinking to myself: ‘I’m glad I stuck with it’.
When you think about quitting, remind yourself that one day you’ll be in the same position. One day you’ll look back and thank yourself for not dropping out when times got tough and rather pushing and pushing until you cleared the pits of despair you felt and came out the other end a Doctor.
You’ll struggle, you’ll fall and you’ll cry. That’s inevitable. Your PhD will try its best to defeat you, and will not take any prisoners. It is up to you to develop the resilience you need to deal with the blows your PhD is going to direct at you and come out the other end a stronger, better-equipped scholar.
When times get tough, mindfully tell yourself that you are supposed to feel stressed and overwhelmed. But, beyond that, put in place measures to look after your wellbeing and foster good mental and physical health. The more you can practice loving self-compassion and self-care, the better equipped you’ll be to manage the stresses and strains of being a PhD.
Keep visiting The PhD Knowledge Base for more tips and guides that will help you as you navigate the PhD journey.
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