How Hard Is a PhD? What You Should Know Before Starting
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How Hard is a PhD?

Written by Hannah Slack

Successfully completing a PhD can be a long and difficult process that requires years of intensive research, writing and rigorous assessment. It’s no surprise that only around 1% of people aged 25–64 who have been to university have completed a doctorate.

While it’s easy to understand that the degree is difficult, many prospective students don’t fully understand what’s actually hard about the PhD or why. This guide takes you through the main obstacles students struggle with and why they occur.

How hard is it to get a PhD?

Contrary to what many people think, the biggest risk to achieving a PhD is dropping out, not failure. You might hear that around 50% of people leave PhD study before completion. This number comes from a 2013 study in the US, where doctoral study is typically longer, sometimes reaching up to ten years.

Research in the UK has produced more optimistic numbers. A study of 26,000 PhD candidates across 14 universities found that only 16.2% of students dropped out, and 3.3% failed.

Overall, how hard it is to successfully complete a PhD degree depends on a number of factors including your project, institution, background, financial situation and even the state of research in your field. You’re also far more likely to drop out due to personal circumstances or changes in motivation than fail. A large factor determining whether you’ll achieve a PhD or not is commitment.

How hard is a PhD compared to Masters study?

The PhD and Masters are very different degrees that come with their own challenges. Many people find the intensity of a Masters difficult. Often, you’ll undertake a variety of modules and a dissertation within a year or two. Masters degrees are fast paced and require intensive research into existing scholarship. This type of study can sometimes feel overwhelming as many students juggle multiple deadlines and projects.

On the other hand, a PhD requires a significant original contribution to knowledge. Students dedicate many years of their time to slower and more consistent research, culminating in the creation of a thesis around 80,000 words. Dedication, maintaining motivation and ensuring useful research outcomes are all challenges faced during the PhD.

Many academics will refer to the Masters as a sprint and the PhD a marathon. Both have their own set of obstacles but how you overcome them can be quite different.

Why is PhD study so difficult?

The PhD is difficult because it’s a lengthy process that involves completing and writing up an advanced research project that must sustain rigorous peer review from academic experts. By the end, you will need to demonstrate that you’re a world-leading expert on your topic.

Here are some of the key obstacles many doctoral students struggle with:

  • Maintaining motivation – Completing a PhD takes at least three years, often more. While your supervisor is there for support, you’re the person accountable for your progress. This is a significant length of time to stay motivated.
  • Time pressure – While three years may seem like a long time, this includes conducting a thorough literature review, completing a research project with viable outcomes and writing everything up in a thesis. Handing in on time will often take precedence over perfectionism.
  • Returning to university – Many PhD students come from employment and so need to readapt to the demands of academic education again. It can take time to find your feet with the different work style.
  • Adaptability – Research will almost never go as planned. Processes can take longer than expected and results may not be as predicted. Throughout the degree you will experience many highs and lows so it’s important to take setbacks in your stride and adapt where necessary.
  • Self-doubt – Your supervisor should regularly offer critical feedback on your work. Over the years this can instil doubt about your abilities as a researcher. As constructive review is an important part of the process, it’s important to learn how to handle and implement feedback effectively.

How hard is part-time PhD study?

Many people opt to study their PhD part-time as it allows greater flexibility around existing personal and work commitments. By the end, you will have completed the same amount of research as a full-time student. However, studying over a longer period can change the nature of the above common challenges.

It’s likely that maintaining motivation will be more difficult as you’ll be studying over a longer period. You may also face outside commitments which take priority over your thesis, making it harder to sustain a consistent level of progress.

On the other hand, you may face less time pressure. Part-time PhDs typically take between 5-8 years, allowing you more room to work at a pace that suits your lifestyle.

How hard is the PhD viva?

One of the key concerns many prospective and current students have is how difficult the viva will be. The viva is the final oral assessment where a student defends their research to a panel of academic examiners. Generally, how difficult the viva will be depends on the quality of the thesis you submit. It will also depend on how well you prepare and the examiners you’re assigned. Any negative comments are reflective of the work you submitted not you as a researcher. There are many reasons a thesis may receive criticism and not all of them will be in your control.

As mentioned at the beginning of this guide, very few people fail the PhD. So, while the viva can be difficult and intimidating it’s also highly unlikely to have a negative outcome.

Overall, a PhD is a long and often challenging learning process. While there are many obstacles to overcome you will have gained and refined invaluable skills and experience by the end.

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Last Updated: 03 August 2023