PhDs are hard. That’s just common sense.
In fact, it feels odd to even be saying it. Of course they’re hard. They’re just about the hardest thing you could ever set out to do (remind yourself of that next time you think you’re an idiot).
But there’s one part of the PhD journey that is harder than all the others. I’ve noticed it not just from my own experience doing my PhD, but also in my day-to-day role of coaching others as they complete theirs.
It’s this: the hardest part of doing a PhD is flexing your academic muscles and speaking with authority.
Let’s unpack that. First, what is ‘flexing your academic muscles’? Let’s consider what the purpose of a PhD is: to offer an original contribution to knowledge. Part of that involves asking questions that haven’t been asked before and, perhaps, overturning existing orthodoxy or contradicting existing findings or literature.
In short, you’re pushing the boundaries of what we currently know. Not by much, admittedly, but you’re doing it nonetheless.
That in itself is tough, largely because you’re venturing into uncertain, unchartered waters. It’s you putting yourself out there and saying, ‘This is me and this is what I think’.
But the real reason it’s so tough to flex your academic muscles in this way is that you’ve never really had to do it before.
You see, during your undergraduate and master’s degree, the emphasis, by and large, was on learning what other people had already found out. Sure, you learnt critical reading, thinking and writing skills along the way, but you always did so within the confines of existing knowledge. You never had to push the boundaries of that knowledge.
So, during your PhD, when you absolutely have to, you are left scratching your head wondering how.
You’ll learn it eventually, through trial and error and incredible perseverance, but it’ll be incredibly tough. It’s meant to be.
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