What’s it like being a PhD student?

PhD students hard at work. Only joking, Only joking, we're never this congenial

What’s it like being a PhD student? There are a few constants all postgraduate researchers can relate to: the perpetual worry; the uncertainty regarding your progress; the unerring guilt you feel when you get into work after 09:00. Beyond that, pretty much everyone’s PhD experience is different. It’s dependent upon the topic, the supervisor, the location, the department, the University and many, many other factors. Even this post is circumstansial (but not redundant, keep reading!)

So if every PhD experience is different, what advice can I offer to prospective postgraduate students? There have to be some knowns, some pillars of similarity around which we can all huddle, right? Thankfully yes.

  • Firstly there’s the work. Oh. Work. Make no mistake, a PhD is a full-time job; or at least it is if you’re aiming to do well. I remember my lecturers telling me at the end of the 3rd year of my undergraduate degree that I should be working 40 hours a week. Goodness knows how many hours I should be putting into the PhD – my flatmates girlfriends aunt says 09:00 – 22:00 everyday (including weekends), but I don’t like her very much. It’s certainly the case that you have to produce a large (50-75k word) document and ideally publish a paper or three.
  • Secondly, there’s the loneliness. Nobody apart from you truly understands the precise pleasure, pain and consternation you incur or derive from your project. Colleagues, partners, family, even your own supervisor may at times feel as distant from you as I am from being a decent blogger. Add to that you may be away from home, not living with your partner, perhaps in a different country, speaking a different language, and it’s easy to feel isolated.
  • Which brings us on to the third ever-present; the challenge. A PhD is the last word in academic assessment and it’s appropriately rigorous and comprehensive. It’s harder for some people than others, but it’s not easy for anyone.

All sounds a bit bleak doesn’t it? What kind of plonkers would sign up for hard-work, loneliness and an unenviable educational challenge? The reason is pretty simple. Doing a PhD is…amazing. It’s liberating, life-enhancing and self-indulgent. Your research and your time are your own; that freedom is unparalleled in conventional work. What’s more, you’re being PAID to become a DOCTOR. There are very few other qualifications you can earn that also simultaneously generate an income.

Employability wise you’re heading off the charts, whilst academically you will contribute something truly unique, truly yours. The problems I highlighted previously become opportunities; completing your postdoctoral studies exhibits your tenacity, determination and capacity for hard work. And actually, the lifestyle is pretty cushdy – like being an undergraduate but with no lectures and a negligible disposable income (actually that’s pretty similar to doing a geography undergraduate degree…)

So come on, do a PhD. What other options do you have?

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One comment

  1. […] or have already submitted an application. Trev Bond has posted a couple of good pieces recently on what PhD life is like and reasons for doing a PhD. I’m going to do something a little different and tell you reasons […]

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