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Four myths about doing a PhD

PhDs can be very challenging. If you’re thinking of doing a PhD or just starting one, you may already have some idea of what will be expected of you. However, there are now many popular but untrue myths floating around the academic community about what the PhD experience actually entails.

In this article, we’ll visit and redress four common misconceptions about doing a PhD. By giving you a heads-up about some of the most common experiences, we hope to offer you some helpful guidance for managing the expectations of a PhD and creating a fulfilling PhD journey for yourself.

Myth 1: You should compare your progress with others

The PhD journey can feel very strange and disconnected at times because comparisons with our peers don’t work like they would in other circumstances.

Working styles and rates of progress can vary tremendously from one researcher to another. The subject(s), methodology, focus and approach of another person’s research can mean that their working timeline and movement through the different PhD stages differs greatly from yours, so it is often unhelpful to compare where you are with anyone else. Just because a colleague seems further ahead – for example, they started their fieldwork earlier or they’ve written more words – it does not necessarily mean that they are doing ‘better’ than you.

Some people will work steadily at an even pace across the years; others will work in short, concentrated periods interspersed with breaks. Some researchers like to maintain a consistent momentum by keeping to regular schedules, while others prefer to be directed by their moods. There is no right way to do a PhD; there is only your way.

Check in frequently with your supervisor(s) and work with them to conceptualise a working timeline that will best suit your project. Stick with that schedule, and don’t let yourself be influenced by what everyone else is doing.

Myth 2: Your PhD research is worthy only if you suffer while doing it

There is a common, unspoken belief that someone’s PhD research is only worthy if they work themselves to the bone, struggle with their work and are miserable. Be careful not to get sucked into unhealthy competition with other PhD students who love to compare how many hours they work, mock-brag about how exhausted they are or try to outdo one another with horror stories about their research.

Know that the PhD journey can be a thoroughly enjoyable one. Of course, this is not to say that there aren’t challenges. The work can be demanding and there may be times you will feel stressed or down, but these moments do not have to define your overall experience. There are many PhD students who produce excellent work and enjoy great academic success while also finding great pleasure and fulfilment in their research. Do not get swept away in the rhetoric that good research can only come from great amounts of suffering.

Myth 3: You cannot speak about your struggles

Having highlighted the pleasures of doing a PhD, we must also be aware that some people will encounter some very serious struggles during their research. Declining mental health, changes in personal circumstances or difficult academic relationships can turn an otherwise enjoyable experience into a very challenging one.

It is very important to remember that it is okay to speak up about the difficulties you are facing and to ask for help. Most universities today should have some support in place to help their research students through the challenges, whether academic or personal.

Don’t feel that you have failed or that you are lesser for speaking up about your troubles. Good overall wellbeing, and physical and mental health are vital for helping you to do the best research you can, and a good supervisor should understand and be supportive of this.

If your supervisor isn’t willing or able to help, seek out other sympathetic academics in your department, your students’ union or any welfare support teams at the university. As well as offering moral and emotional support, they should be able to also share practical suggestions to help you – for example, they could share details on how to take a leave of absence if needed or what additional steps can be taken to apply for more time off.

Myth 4: PhD students are expected to pursue a career in academia

It is a common misconception that PhD researchers must continue to do research and remain in academia after completing their PhDs. This can inadvertently cause many PhD candidates undue stress as they try to fulfil additional obligations or participate in extra academic activities to bolster their portfolios.

However, unless you have specific commitments to your funding body, there is no obligation to remain in academia if you don’t wish to. Do understand that it is perfectly acceptable and normal for many PhD researchers to go on to pursue other very fulfilling careers in other sectors.

Some PhD candidates worry that they may not be able to secure employment outside of academia, but the skills you gain by doing doctoral research can be just as valuable in a large range of roles elsewhere.

It is a good idea to allocate time during your PhD to join some extracurricular activities, if only to gain experience, develop skills and network. If you find you dislike traditional academic work like teaching, public engagement activity or conferences, that is perfectly fine. You can then choose to build your experience and portfolio in other ways.


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