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What’s so hard about doing a PhD anyway?

Has anyone ever asked you this question? ?‍♀️?‍♀️?‍♀️

Because they’ve certainly asked me.

I’ve also had people ask straight up insinuate that my PhD wasn’t as important as their thing and that I should drop whatever I’m doing (since the PhD apparently isn’t such big a deal anyway) to do their thing.

But heck is a PhD hard. And the sooner we acknowledge that and start being okay with it, the easier it will be to work through the tough stuff.

So, this is NOT a moany, sarky thread, but an overview of five unique challenges of PhD life and some ways to face them with more grace, clarity, ease, joy.

Any other challenges you’re dealing with that you’d like me to address? Drop ’em in the comments!

Challenge #1: The PhD is a weird in-between space

The PhD is not a job. It’s also not a taught degree. Supervisors aren’t teachers or bosses. You determine your own schedule but only sort of.

You’re a student but you’re not being ‘taught’ in the traditional way that most students are. Most of the learning is self-directed and you’re sort of thrown in the deep end to figure it out yourself. (It’s even harder if you haven’t got a supportive supervisor to give you adequate guidance and nudge you in the ‘right’ directions).

The goals and objectives are kind of woolly; certainly not as clear as the directives, deadlines and ROIs that you’d find in other jobs. Yeah, you’ve got to produce this thesis, but what goes into that thesis that’s going to help you pass the PhD? Well, there’s an infinite number of things that could or couldn’t work; an infinite number of permutations of what the thesis could look like that could be the winning ticket – or not. Again, woolly.

So here’s what to do instead:

➡️ Spend the first 3 to 6months figuring out your own work groove, headspace, goals and action steps


➡️ Make this weirdness work for you

In other words, instead of getting rattled by the unstructuredness, see your time, work and routine over the next few years as flexible and allowing flow. Make it work to your advantage, to allow you to explore, wander down rabbit holes and make unexpected discoveries about yourself, the way you work, your skills and of course, the research itself.

Enjoy the freedom of learning and research while knowing that, while you’re technically still classed as a ‘student’, you still have access to and can lean on support and guidance to do the learning.

Try not to see this weird in-between space as a handicap, but as you getting to enjoy the benefits of multiple spaces, such as:

  • the independence of shaping your work routines and research design
  • the supported, safe space to explore ideas and learn how to do research in novel, creative and interesting ways
  • the opportunity to learn new knowledge and play with that knowledge from others who are further along in the path and can give you guidance and direction
  • the flex to develop not only your academic strengths but also multiple other skills, talents and interests that will extend far beyond the PhD alone.

Challenge #2 It’s an unusually competitive environment

You’re literally surrounded by some of the most educated, qualified people you’ll ever know. This will be unlike any other work environment before because here, people literally have degrees up the wazoo to show for their qualifications and credentials.

(and yes, degrees and academic-smarts aren’t everything and don’t necessarily indicate how intelligent/capable someone actually is going to be but socially and cultural, education has come to be one of the most explicit measures of how accomplished someone is)

Everyone is exceedingly good, if ‘expert’ at something so it can be hard NOT to compare or to feel the pressure that you’re not ‘good enough’. This is something that many PhD students experience, sometimes throughout the entire duration of the PhD.

So, instead of getting caught up in everyone else’s successes and searching out all the people who seem to be ‘better’ than you, consider these points:

➡️It’s more important to get super clear about YOUR goals in this PhD.

Really, who cares if someone’s got a PhD in microbiology and published 3 papers when your goal was to do deep research on a 17th century French poetry and to publish your own book of poems for young adults?

Remember that someone doing well in their PhD with their goals doesn’t reflect or bear on your goals. It’s inaccurate and unfair on yourself to say ‘Look, they hit all these milestones and they’re doing so well’ when in actual fact, those milestones and the things they’re doing well in have nothing at all to do with the things you want to do and achieve.

➡️Have constant check-ins to assess where you are against those goals and what skills you’re gaining

This so cliched it makes me throw up, but it’s also very true: the only person you need to ‘compete’ against is yourself. (Compete is also probably the wrong word because this isn’t the Olympics and it’s a gross unnecessarily stressy word.)

Keep your eye on your own goals and desires, and your path to get there. What can you do to get yourself just that bit closer to those goals today? How have you already moved closer to that goal and how can you celebrate that?

➡️Remember everyone is on a very different journey. Comparison in the PhD is never accurate

I’ve said this loads and I’ll say it again: Comparing your PhD journey and accomplishments with someone else’s is not just “comparing apples with oranges”, but more like comparing apples with smoked herrings. I.e. there’s just no fair ground for comparison. You’re comparing two things that are completely different.

Another perspective: It’s like saying a banker is doing better at life than a doctor; or that my television is performing better than your oven; or that Bette Davis was better at her craft than Katy Perry is.

All ridiculous comparisons, right? Take that same (il)logic to comparing PhD journeys, goals and successes.

Challenge #3: There are huge pressures to take on immense workloads

It seems like everyone is doing so much on top of their PhD AND well on their way to a thriving post-doctoral academic career.

PhD folk are, generally speaking, pretty high achievers, very competitive and extremely capable multi-taskers. You’re working alongside a group of people who always seem okay about pushing themselves to work longer hours, to take on more responsibilities and to juggle multiple commitments at once.

It doesn’t help that the way academia is structured now means that there’s constantly pressure to be producing measurable research output – how many conferences you’ve attended or organised, how much you’ve published, how much outward-facing public engagement activity you’re doing etc etc

You might feel like you’re always having to catch up and do more, and that focusing on the PhD along isn’t enough. It’s a never-ending hamster-wheel ride, with weight being added on with each round!

Instead of getting swept away in the competition and finding yourself saying yes to every damn thing, pause and consider this:

➡️Again, get so very clear on what YOU’RE trying to achieve in this PhD and stay focused exclusively on that.

Say no to everything else because you honestly don’t have to do it if it’s not aligned with your goals and intentions for this PhD.

➡️Recognise that every PhD journey is equally valid and worthy, even if they look very different.

Yep – even if you’re ‘only’ doing a PhD and you’re not interested in all the other add-ons because it doesn’t fit with your goals and aspirations, that work and your journey is just as valuable as the next person who’s doing 12 other things.

You get to decide how to shape the trajectory of your PhD experience – both within the PhD itself and after it. And that decision is just as worthy.

➡️Remember that ‘academic success’ is not the be all end all. Define what success (academic or not) means/looks like for you and OWN THE SHIT OUT OF IT.

Your definition of success – and your methods for getting there – are entirely your own. They get to be your own. Everyone else’s opinions be damned if it doesn’t align with your goals!

Challenge #4 You’re doing intense, intellectually-demanding work

You’ve likely not done an independent piece of work this large, requiring this much depth at such a steep learning curve. Your research literally depends on you working on something that’s as yet unknown, possibly totally new.

This can be more demanding and stressful than we give ourselves credit for. You’re not doing run-of-the-mill work that’s templated and known and predictable. You’re working on something that requires deep thinking, brainstorming, deep analysis and problem solving practically every time you sit down to work.

You’re having to absorb complex theories and studies, and then, from that synthesis and analysis, come up with your own original, new perspectives, ideas, theories, hypotheses and questions. And further, you have to act on that new knowledge.

This is no small feat and you need to start giving yourself credit for the intensity of all that you’re doing, even on what seems like a mundane level. So, some things to bear in mind as you go forth into this deep, immense work:

➡️You don’t need to know the whole plan of your entire research all at once. Just take the first or next step in front of you right now and trust that you’ll continue build your knowledge. Know that by taking each next immediate step, your plan will get clearer, sharper and more defined.

➡️ You don’t need to know all the knowledge all at once (or ever). It can feel extremely overwhelming thinking of all that you have yet to learn and absorb. Again, just take it one small doable step at a time. As you move through your research, you’ll get to a point where it’ll become clearer to you what (else) you need to know, and what can be set aside or dropped altogether.

The learning process isn’t just about packing your brain with as much info as possible. Part of that process is also about learning what knowledge is truly useful to you/your project or not.

➡️Reframe the ‘difficult’ work as an exciting opportunity to expand your knowledge and skills, expand and be stimulated, discover great things.

Remember that you have come a long way just by getting to the PhD and you have done lots of the hard things in all the years leading up to this. So this work now is just another step on that process of learning even more exciting things, of personal expansion, growth and discovery. How fun to imagine how much more good stuff you get to grow into!

Challenge 5: The PhD can be a lonely journey

Research is a often a solitary endeavour. Each PhD is unique and often done independently. Even for those of you who are working on a team, doing your bit of the project and writing your thesis is often still done independently and can still sometimes be a lonely process.

Unlike most other students or jobs, where you’re getting to work alongside others and doing similar, comparable work, the uniqueness of each PhD journey means that you might often feel alone with no one who truly understands what your work entails or what you’re going through.

The good news is that you don’t have to do it all alone. You really don’t get bonus points in the PhD for trying to be a hero, so:

➡️ Don’t be afraid to reach out and connect with colleagues or other PhDs (online or off). They’ll understand the unique stressors of PhD life. It can help massively just to share what’s going on for you and hear others’ experiences. You’ll soon discover that you’re not alone with what you’re experiencing and feeling, and that shared empathy alone can go a long way to providing some relief.

➡️Prioritise and make time for a social life – REALLY! Schedule in coffees with friends, chats with family etc. This sounds super obvious but is often the first thing that’s dropped when work gets busy. Make these social, connecting fun times as sacred and non-negotiable as your work commitments.

➡️It’s perfectly okay and acceptable ask for support – whether it’s informally through friends and family, or via professional support services. It’s not a sign of weakness and it’s not a reflection of your capabilities as a researcher. Again, don’t try to be a hero. Literally nobody cares if you did your PhD all by your lonesome self, or if you talked regularly with a therapist/coach/best friend to get you through it.

There are of course more aspects of the PhD that make it an especially difficult, challenging thing. These are just the top five that come to mind right now. (Let me know what your challenges are in the comments or what you’d like me to address in a part 2 post, perhaps!)

And again, this isn’t about just having a moan, but to acknowledge that it can be hard and to name the demons!

Once you name them and look ’em in the eye, it can get that much easier to work with them, and to see that maybe, they don’t need to be as adversarial and horrible as we’ve built them up to be.

Naming these challenges is also to remind you that it’s 111% okay to get help and support for moving through them.

Don’t feel bad or ‘less-than’ if you find things difficult in your PhD sometimes. Meeting these challenges is normal and expected. But that doesn’t mean you have to just accept it and suffer in silence. There’s a wealth of support around you if you open up to receive it; and if you remember that you are always absolutely allowed and entitled to want that support for curating a much more joyful – even ‘easier’ – PhD life for yourself.

PS If you haven’t already got it, maybe also check out this free mini e-book I created for you, with some of my fave tips on navigating the PhD (that are rarely talked about or shared in conventional PhD trainings!) Download it right here.

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