In this third of four blog posts on what to expect when beginning a PhD, we’ll look at some of the common challenges encountered during the course of the PhD. There can be lots of difficult aspects to PhD study, both practical concerns to do with the work, and personal issues, to do with the ‘lifestyle.’ Here are some of the things current PGRs told us they’ve found most difficult, followed by a summary of supervisors’ experience of common problems faced by PGRs.
The view from students
- The difficulty of the job – doing a PhD is like a highly skilled, difficult job. “It’s like being the CEO of your own, one-person company,” one student said. “You have to organise and delegate tasks – but to yourself!”
- The time commitment – Doing a PhD requires a lot of hard work over a long period of time. As one student told us, “a Masters is like a sprint – a PhD is a marathon.”
- The ‘extras’ of the role –PhD students are expected to teach, present their work or attend conferences – it’s not just a question of research. For some, these experiences can be unexpected. “I was deeply uncomfortable when I realised the amount of public speaking involved over the course of the PhD,” one PGR reported; several more told us similar feelings.
- Admin – along with teaching and research, a lot of time can be taken up with simple things like email and organisational tasks! “Sometimes I need to set aside a whole morning just for emails!” one student said. “I make myself do half an hour of nothing but admin each day,” said another, “or it doesn’t get done. And it needs doing…”
- Relationships with supervisors – your supervisor is there to support you and your work, but not everyone has an easy relationship with their supervisor. It’s important to negotiate a productive working relationship with your supervisor. “I can’t rely on my supervisor,” one student told us, while another described their supervisor as “very distant.” “My supervisor expects way too much from me in terms of work,” said another PGR. “Sometimes I have to say, ‘I just can’t do that this week.’”
- Financial pressures – there is a lack of secure funding for many students. This is particularly true for international students, who may not be eligible for some funding streams. There is a genuine financial risk involved in undertaking a PhD. As one PGR summarised, “I have to think about financial issues a lot more than I’d like to.”
- Branding – “Doing a PhD is like managing your own brand,” one PGR reports. “Social engagement is part of the PhD ‘job.’ You have to go to conferences and network as if you’re a businessperson. And that’s before we talk about Twitter and ‘getting your profile out there’…”
- Loneliness and isolation – A PhD involves a lot of working by yourself and so it can be isolating. Some students told us they feel like they don’t really have a peer group.
“People just don’t talk to each other in my department” was something we heard from several students.
- Self–doubt and comparing yourself to others – when you’re surrounded by so many other talented researchers, it’s hard not to compare yourself to others and feel inadequate – academically, and in terms of juggling all the responsibilities of the PhD. “It’s very easy to ask yourself, ‘Why can others take this more easily than me?’” one student said. “You ask, ‘How am I going to do this? Can I do this?’”
- Keeping motivated –Over the course of a PhD many people find their motivation comes and goes – over days or even weeks or months. “Sometimes I’m highly productive and sometimes I just wake up not wanting to do anything,” says one PGR.
- Work/life balance – the PhD can easily take over your whole life if you let it. Overworking can in turn lead to burn-out. “It’s easy to ignore other aspects of your life and just be all ‘PhD, PhD, PhD!’,” one student told us.