What’s Actually Hard About a PhD | FindAPhD.com
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Posted on 16 Jun '22

What’s Actually Hard About a PhD

If you’ve been enquiring about doing a PhD you’ve probably heard time and again how hard it is, whether that’s from online articles or actual university staff and students. But what’s actually difficult about it?

I’m a History PhD student coming towards the end of my third year and I’m here to give it to you straight. No matter your department, students struggle with these things universally. That doesn’t mean these difficulties can’t be overcome, but it’s good to go in prepared. So let’s get started.

#1 Maintaining motivation

Every PhD student will agree that the hardest part of the degree is maintaining motivation. You start a PhD because you’re passionate about a subject. What could be better than spending all your time researching your favourite topic? But as soon as you make it your nine-to-five (and sometimes longer) for at least three years the passion eventually becomes shrouded by stress and deadlines.

I’m not saying you won’t have fun in your PhD, or that you’ll lose interest in your topic (although, truthfully, sometimes this does happen). I’m saying that three to four years is a long time to commit yourself to one thing. It takes dedication. Sometimes motivation will be hard to find but you’ll still need to write 80,000 words by the end of it.

#2 Writing (a lot)

Usually it’s during the writing-up period that people’s motivation starts to dwindle. That’s because writing isn’t easy, particularly academic writing. Turns out saying exactly what you mean isn’t all that simple!

Starting is always the worst. The cursor blinking on a blank page teases you but you can’t seem to find those first, punchy words. The best way is to push through. The first draft is for your eyes only so it can be as terrible as you’d like! Editing is inevitable anyway, and often easier than getting the initial words down. Then, once you’ve drafted one section, you get to write another, and then another, and another, oh and then another.

#3 Receiving criticism

One of the things that can make writing difficult is receiving criticism from your supervisor. This is a very necessary and useful part of the process. You will never improve without someone showing you your weaknesses and mistakes. You will also never write a perfect thesis first time. Always receive criticism with open ears.

But that doesn’t mean it won’t hurt sometimes. You might have spent months on a section of research, pouring your heart and soul into it. Hearing that it’s not good enough yet can be a knife to the heart of your motivation. That’s ok. It’s important to take time to process any emotions before going back to the feedback. Then you look at it from a more detached viewpoint, take the comments on board and continue to improve. Always remember, your supervisor is on your side.

#4 Isolation

A different aspect that makes the PhD difficult is the isolation it can bring. Unless all your friends and family are also academics, chances are people won’t really understand what you actually do. Some might not even understand why, and you may question this yourself sometimes. My parents are prime examples of this. Neither went to university and while they’re very supportive they don’t really know what a PhD is all about.

Get togethers might feel a little isolating when your friends and family talk about their normal office careers, something most people understand. But as soon as you get into the nuances of fish in seventeenth-century English thought, you tend to be met with blank faces. Of course you’ll be able to find lots of understanding people in your university department, but adjusting to this change isn’t always easy.

#5 Knowing what to do next

The last thing that truly makes a PhD hard is knowing what to do with it. Do you stay in academia or do you get a job in industry?

Many prospective PhD students assume that you’ll go straight into a cushy academic job after graduation. This isn’t often true. In the UK, PhD graduates usually apply for postdoctoral or fellowship positions. Contracts tend to range from six months to five years. After a few years of additional experience then you might begin applying for permanent academic positions. Finding these roles without having to move can also be difficult.

Alternatively, industry jobs might seem more appealing. They’re more likely to offer job security and, at least initially, higher wages. But then you have to decide what you’re interested in. Many students feel that choosing this route means your PhD was a waste of time. Just because you’re not in academia does not mean your doctorate won’t be useful. The PhD teaches many important soft skills that can benefit a range of careers.

So, the options are endless! Does that make choosing what to do any easier?

The hardest thing about a PhD isn’t the research, it’s the lifestyle. But the lifestyle also comes with amazing benefits such as choosing your own working hours and indulging in your personal passions. There’s a lot of freedom involved which can be both a benefit and a drawback. Do you think you’re ready for the challenge?

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Last Updated: 16 June 2022