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Posted on 1 Sep '22

What to Expect From a PhD

So, you’re considering a PhD or maybe even you’ve even been accepted onto one (in which case – congratulations!). . .

Having spent the last few years attending lectures you will probably be wondering what to expect from a PhD; is it just room after room of figures in tweed jackets scratching equations onto oversized blackboards, or a sea of lab coats and whirring machines, the air filled with the cries of “Eureka!”?

Well, here I hope to give you a brief overview of what to expect from a PhD.


This was perhaps my biggest revelation upon starting my PhD. The freedom you have both over your work and over your time is probably one of the greatest aspects of a PhD

Regardless of the field you are in, it is very likely that no one will be working with you on your project.

Sure, there will be a few people working on closely related subjects but when it comes to your work it’s entirely up to you where it goes.

So, if you see some direction that you could take your research that excites you, go for it. The sky’s the limit!*

*Of course, not quite; building a giant space laser might raise some eyebrows. . . I mean, someone’s going to have to pay for that.

Road blocks

This is one of the more frustrating aspects of research and is especially common in lab-based research.

Whether it’s several months spent trying to purify a protein or fruitless days spent searching for that often referenced but seeming non-existent primary source, you will at some point hit a road block.

Dogged determination is certainly a helpful trait when faced with this sort of adversity, but it can also be good to know when to stop.

Yes, you could spend the next three years banging your head against that wall and then suddenly strike gold but equally you might never find anything (except a very sore head).

That being the case, when faced with a situation where you are struggling to move forward employ your best judgment and if in doubt . . .

Everyone’s willing to help (well, nearly everyone)

Be it your supervisor or other PhD students or post-docs working in the same department, there are plenty of people that you can go to if you find yourself in a bind.

The problem you’ve found yourself with is unlikely to be unique to you and there’s a good chance that somebody else, especially if they have been there a long time, has encountered the same issue.

Their advice is often more useful and certainly more immediate than an endless trawl through Google for the solution.

It’s also worth remembering, if your PhD is lab-based, labs are often streamlined to use certain techniques over others, so using that googled solution might cause a good deal more heartache than anticipated.

So, unless you’ve stumbled upon the resident curmudgeon or you committed some grievous crime against them (repeatedly stealing their pen ought to do it), they’ll be more than happy to help you find a solution.

Erratic working hours

Perhaps it’s the flash of inspiration that hits just before midnight, or those experimental time points that must be taken, sleep be damned; sometimes you find yourself working at very strange times of the day.

This is not a terrible thing, in fact it can be nice to occasionally work with no one else around. And, let’s be honest: watching the sun rise is a beautiful sight that most of us don’t get to experience on a regular basis.

Often you will find these late-night sessions will be quite productive but, like most good things, it’s best to exercise moderation. ‘Becoming nocturnal’ is not a sensible solution to your problems.

So, take what enjoyment you can from those times you find yourself beavering away at three in the morning but don’t let it become a regular thing. And remember it’s all for a good cause.


Ah, now this is one is the bane of some PhD students – including myself. It also appears to be more prevalent in some fields than others, so if you escape this particular hell then congrats. But scientific PhDs? Yeah, you’re going to experience a lot of these.

Whether it’s presenting your findings to a three-person research group or to a room full of academics at an international conference, you will probably find yourself at some point standing in front of people and talking about your work.

If you find yourself in this position practise, practise, practise, and remember the audience wants you to succeed. For them, watching someone fail is as embarrassing as it is for you.

Lastly, don’t let this put you off, with all the practice that comes free with every copy of a PhD, even the shyest and most nervous of presenters become veritable orators by the end.

Final thoughts

There you go, hopefully this has given you some insight into what sort of things to expect during your PhD, beyond the obvious.

Remember every PhD will have its own quirks and by the end you will have your own stories to tell.

With that, go forth and succeed!

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Last Updated: 01 September 2022