What is it Like to Do a PhD? | FindAPhD.com
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What is it Like to Do a PhD?

Written by Hannah Slack

Every person’s PhD experience will be different. Your day-to-day routine will depend massively on your subject, research project and institution. Science degrees, for example, often involve a fair amount of collaborative work. Yet the Arts and Humanities are usually more individual.

But there are some common things that almost every student will experience. This guide will take you through the nature of PhD study, covering what will broadly be expected of you as a student and highlighting some common feelings you might have.

What does PhD study involve?

The nature of a PhD requires the student to take responsibility for their own learning. Unlike taught degrees, you will have full control of your own project and progression. If you want more detail about the ins and outs of research and the PhD experience you should check out our comprehensive guides on each step of the process.

Individual research

The main element of a PhD is individual research. While your supervisor might help point you in the right direction, it is up to you to do the work and interpret your findings. As the progress of a PhD will be almost entirely on you, you will need to learn to prioritise tasks and justify the routes you take.

Time management

As a PhD student you will be expected to set your own deadlines and work efficiently throughout the degree. There is no set schedule when doing a research degree and so you’ll have to organise your tasks appropriately. Responsibilities will depend on your topic and what year you are in. An average student might be juggling research, teaching, meetings and outreach activities at any one time.

Learning to manage your time wisely is an important skill that will greatly benefit your productivity. Taking time out to plan and organise is always beneficial.

Your supervisor

Your supervisor is there to guide you in your research and professional activities. Building a good working relationship is therefore extremely important. It’s recommended that students stay in contact with their supervisors regularly to update them on their progress.

This also involves initiative on your part, not just your supervisor.

What will be required from you as a PhD student?

Different institutions will require different things from their students. All, however, will ask for a level of involvement and development. What activities you choose to involve yourself in will come down to you and your interests.


The main thing that will be expected is initiative. As mentioned, the progress of a PhD is entirely reliant on the student. You will be in charge of your research and how you present it. If you find gaps in your knowledge or skills then it’s up to you to fill them. You will also be expected to involve yourself in external activities, such as conferences or publishing research papers. While your supervisor can help guide you in these, they will not usually seek out opportunities for you.

Proactive involvement

The point of a PhD is more than just completing original research. As an early career researcher you will be expected to involve yourself in wider events, or even run them. If you think that you might what to continue working in academia after completing a PhD then you will need to evidence some active involvement in the research community. This can range from having publications, attending and running conferences, teaching or planning outreach activities.


Many institutions now require their students to participate in a Doctoral Development Plan (DDP). This is to assess your growth in key fields such as research, presentation and publishing as well as other important skills like networking, teaching and time management.

By the end of the PhD you will be expected to demonstrate how you have gained these skills. Signing up for publishing workshops, or teacher training events can therefore be very beneficial to your development.


Research can be unpredictable at times and so it’s important to remain flexible. It’s unlikely that your final project will be the same as your original research proposal. As you conduct more research, new things need to be considered. In order to conduct good research you will need to maintain a level of adaptability as sources should not be forced to fit conclusions, but should demonstrate them. Sometimes this might mean abandoning some aspects of your original research plan.

What does it feel like to do a PhD?

Throughout a PhD there will be good days and bad, which will impact your experience accordingly. The nature of research can be difficult and frustrating, but it can also be exciting and interesting.

Stress vs reward

It’s no secret that completing a PhD is not an easy task. It takes a lot of work and dedication which, at times, might seem fruitless. Some days might feel wasted, whereas others might feel highly productive. It can therefore be both a stressful and rewarding experience.

Learning to manage PhD pressure and switch off from work is an important skill to develop, particularly during your PhD. As your work schedule is completely in your own hands it can be tempting to overwork. Often, this will end in burnout.

But ultimately the PhD is a degree of passion. You will find many moments of joy and success which far outweigh the difficulties and long days.

Imposter syndrome

You might have heard of imposter syndrome already. If not, then it is the feeling that you don’t belong. Due to the nature of academia, many people face a lot of pressure, rejection and criticism. Most PhD students at some point will feel undeserving of their position. But it simply is not true.

The best way to deal with imposter syndrome is to talk with other students. Seeking support from people in a similar situation can help validate and normalise your feelings. Even academics often feel imposter syndrome and so it might be something to talk about with your supervisor.

Another good tip is to make a file and save any praise or acceptance letters you get throughout your PhD. Returning to this will help remind you that you are capable.

Dealing with PhD pressure

Ultimately, having a positive PhD experience will require you to learn to deal with the pressure that comes with producing original, worthwhile research. It’s important not to let yourself feel overwhelmed by the size of your project – it can help to think of it as a series of interconnected projects rather than a single monolith. It’s also a good idea to set yourself achievable goals and not impossible targets.

Becoming part of an academic community

The more you involve yourself in wider academic activities, you will quickly feel part of a community. Many universities foster active postgraduate communities and offer plenty of opportunities to get involved with the department.

Meeting and working with other students and staff passionate about your areas of interest will make you feel like part of an exciting group. Getting involved, presenting papers or running events can be extremely fun, satisfying and confidence boosting.

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Last Updated: 26 July 2021