So, you’re starting a PhD?

This month, all around Australia, there will be a whole crop of PhD students starting their degree. It’s an exciting time, but a nerve-wracking one as well. Here’s another post to help you start your journey!

This post is by Erika Harris, PhD Candidate. Erika has a Master’s degree in Education, General Education and has worked in instructional design and development in both corporate and higher education settings in the U.S & Australia. Currently Erika is an educational developer, elearning, for RMIT designing online and hybrid courses working with academics in the higher education and vocational education sectors. In this post Erika reflects on the advice given about why NOT to do a PhD and why you would still give it a go anyway.

I am a new PhD student, and have been reading and conversing with current and past PhD students and have come to the sad conclusion that there are more cons to doing a PhD than there are pros.

The cons include the fact that a PhD can:

  1. take over your life
  2. stop you from having time with your family
  3. stop you from exercising
  4. get you into a mental funk
  5. mentally exhaust you
  6. create obstacles in relationships (both professional and personal)
  7. suck up all of your waking moments
  8. make you feel guilty when you are not working on you PhD
  9. make you feel guilty when taking a break
  10. seep into your every waking and sleeping moments of thought
  11. question your intelligence
  12. question your confidence
  13. realizing that I have to learn to play the PhD game

The pros of completing a PhD include the fact that a PhD can:

  • help me gain confidence
  • open up career doors
  • provide a sense of accomplishment
  • show my children that life-long learning is a part of their life too
  • first person in my entire family to reach this level of education

And that’s all I have for the pros. I understand that many readers of this post will say ‘wait, there are so many more pros to completing a PhD’, that may be so for the reader, but maybe not for me. I would like to know about more the pros for completing a PhD, so if you have more please let me know.

With that said, although I have only five pros, and 13 cons, why on earth would I complete one? That’s a very good question. One that I needed to think about before I wrote this post. For me, there are two very personal reasons why:

  1. I want my children to understand that learning is life-long. That mom is doing her ‘homework’ while they are doing theirs. As they are in primary school, we are all sitting together in the evening and getting our ‘homework’ done. Even if they don’t attend university when they are older, I am hoping to instil in them a quest for learning that doesn’t have to end, ever.
  2. Being first in my family to reach this level of education is important to me. Simple as that.

Screen Shot 2014-07-31 at 3.35.21 pmIt seems that in the beginning it’s like when I was pregnant. I had so many other women come up to me and tell me their horror stories about being pregnant. Stories that I didn’t want to hear about. It’s the same with the PhD. I have had many conversations with people who have only told me about their horror stories of completing a PhD. It’s like, I will do it anyway, whether it’s going to be good – bad – or otherwise, but most of the journey will be up to me, and I will be in the driver’s seat navigating this journey. Of course, there will be obstacles placed in my way that I will have no control over, but ultimately I am the person who has chosen to go down the PhD route, so I will do my best to maintain control.

It’s possible that this control comes from naiveté of not knowing the PhD journey. It’s possible that my optimism comes from excitement on being on this journey. Maybe it’s just the newness of it all. I certainly do know that I don’t want my PhD to take over my life; I do know that I want to complete it. I do know that I don’t want it to take years (and I mean years) to complete it. I do know that I want my children to come along this journey with me.

I also know that I want to hear about the great stories and great journeys and all the pros of doing a PhD. So if any one has any good stories, please share them. I think that many new PhD candidates need to hear about those great stories, and not just the difficult/tough/hard/sad stories that are out there.

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49 thoughts on “So, you’re starting a PhD?

  1. Keep that bl**dy PhD under control! It is a Long Essay and it obeys the same rules as every other essay you have ever written. You cannot read everything – know when to stop – and be aware that the Very Day you submit someone will publish a key piece of research. It’s inevitable. Deal with it. You will encounter all sorts of cool stuff which does not belong in the thesis: keep a folder marked ‘Saving This for the Book’. The PhD is not the final word, or the crowning summit of your life’s achievement. Chuck the guilt, look after your health, keep your sense of humour.

  2. I decided to start a PhD because I was working a job with only 2 weeks holiday each year. I wanted to be able to hang out in cafés during the day and be available to go on field trips at my kids’ school. I admit I don’t often go on the field trips, but I spend time in cafés each week, and I could go on those fields trips if i didn’t have so much else to do (I have to admit I find time to go on the skiing ones, so maybe I would volunteer more if they had better trips – sorry school). People also take my opinions more seriously if I call them research results. I wish this weren’t the case. Of course then they find out my research is qualitative and I lose some credibility. I’m in my fourth year and still having fun. Good luck Erika!

  3. Growth, growth, growth…that’s what the PhD was about for me. I learned so much and loved being in an academic environment. In most humanities fields, if you don’t love it, why do it? There are very few jobs for humanities PhDs and many other things to do with one’s time. Certainly, there are other ways to show your kids that you believe in life-long learning, such as learning an instrument or foreign language.

    • Sure – that’s true. But there’s something in the PhD. It gives you focus. Research shows that only around 14% of humanities grads in the UK go on to research positions – but the overall unemployment rate post PhD is low (some estimate 2%). So, as ‘something to do’ it clearly has benefits, even if only measured in employability. Those skills in reading, digesting vast amounts of information, making critical judgements are all useful in lots of other places too.

  4. The biggest pro for me has been the discovery and learning. I feel like I am getting an education at last through all the different strands of knowledge I have encountered. Do no underestimate the boost to confidence, either. Confident people achieve much more in their lives than non-confident ones in my experience. For me, I found that the theoretical framing for my thesis has enabled me to make sense of the world in a way I couldn’t before, and that has grounded me and given me so much more confidence. It’s been transforming in some ways. I also chose a topic that, on advice, was a recurring itch to me. I have remained interested and engaged with the topic throughout the five part-time years of my thesis (just drawing to a close now). So to summarise, if you have an experiential or academic itch that keeps bugging you, and you love learning, including about yourself, it is the most fantastic journey. I have loved every minute of it.

  5. One foot in front of the other, there will be good days, bad days and downright ugly days! It will be an immense achievement when you get to the end! I am in year 2 of a mixed study, several ugly days have been mixed in there, but the good days are the ones that stand out and that I remember. I feel the freedom that has come with beings PhD student has been the greatest pro for me. I love the variation in working hours and working situations. One day I am reading writing, another I am out recruiting (my favourite days!),

  6. Doing a PhD is the most fun thing I have ever done. It’s completely selfish – I’m doing it for me and me alone, and there’s very little that I can say that about in my life (wife, mother, part time lecturer, part time consultant, editor – always busy and pulled in many directions). And at some fundamental level throughout my life I’ve been a bit bored. Not unhappy, not inactive – just never fully using my brain. I didn’t know that until about a year into the (part-time) PhD when I suddenly realised I was no longer bored. I was completely engaged and interested. It was wonderful!
    It’s been a chance to learn more about the process of research, to become better at writing (don’t underestimate that; it’s huge), to meet interesting people who are passionate about some of the same things I’m passionate about, and to explore in depth and in breadth my topic. It’s an exhausting and exhilarating experience.

    • I agree with you that doing a PHD is selfish act and it feels great !
      I am a master degree student and I have a very busy schedule , my time is divided between work , charity activities but master time is the me-time , I am doing my master for me only 🙂

  7. I treat my PhD as I would any other 9 to 5 job. You’re right that all of those cons can happen, and they did happen in my first year because I was pushing myself too hard. You need to set boundaries with yourself: make time to exercise every day, make time to see family and friends, time to rest. Since adopting this attitude I’ve absolutely loved my PhD, and am actually MORE productive. You will meet wonderful people and learn so much. Soak it in: it’s worth the bad days 🙂

  8. The cons you list also apply to pretty much every professional job I have done – they have: taken over my life/
    stopped me having time with family/ stopped me exercising/had me in a mental funk and exhausted me/created obstacles in relationships/sucked up all my waking moments (and entered my dreams)/made me feel guilty/made me question my intelligence
    and confidence/and forced me to play office politics – but it must also be said that I have also had some fabulous work experiences and opportunities. Doing a PhD has been one of the greatest privileges of my life – I think more clearly, speak with more authority and I’m working on the writing! 😉 It has also enabled me to largely work from home and create an enviable lifestyle with young children (in part thanks to a wonderful husband). I look forward to seeing what my new skills will enable me to offer others and I will look back on this experience with gratitude as part of a life well lived

  9. I can remember when I started being so overwhelmed and thinking it would never finish. Now I am getting to the end I’m thinking, that went so quick. My advice would be- take time to enjoy the experience.

  10. Well I’m one of those people that say go for it!! For me, doing a PhD has been an incredibly transformative experience and I have loved all of it. Even those times spent crying in the toilets at uni. Because I used to be a musician in a frustrating dead end job crying in the toilets but now I’m a researcher crying in the toilets! It turns out identity is powerful 🙂 Good luck!!

  11. I am nearly at the end of the journey and some of the cons were already part of my career journey anyway. I take breaks and make time for my family who are my main motivation for continued study. There is no point getting to the end exhausted and brain dead. I still have to work when this is done, so I paced myself and worked part time for 5 years. It meant that my income dropped a lot so the sacrifice was financial and meant I did not travel overseas and new clothes were not essential. Op shopping is my guilty pleasure and I visit friends to have a short break and keep relationships. I gave up sugar and the 3pm sugar fixes are not part of my routine anymore.I like what the others above say about enjoying the journey, for the most part it has been an uplifting and enjoyable experience.

  12. I’m not yet doing a PhD – I’m currently a masters student, but I do intend to do a PhD in the future. For me, probably the biggest ‘pro’ of doing a PhD (or at least the idea of doing one) is that it will allow me to pursue the career that I really want to end up in, as an academic and researcher. Obviously there is great worth in doing a PhD for the sake of personal growth and learning, but I think doing a PhD as a means to an end is ok too!

  13. As I enter my third year (full-time equivalent), I can’t say my ‘pros’ list is very long. I can’t tell you *exactly* why I’m doing a PhD, I don’t have specific career aspirations. On the hard days, the main thing that keeps me going is that I cannot stop now! On the better days, I enjoy most of my work. The PhD process continues to push me academically, mentally, in ways that I never had to push myself in the past. Honestly- that can be a pretty painful growing process!

    I can’t say that I would recommend doing what I’ve done – having three children whilst doing a PhD part-time, taking three lots of maternity leave to slow your progress, and living in five different houses! But I have a very supportive husband, and I stay grounded in the peace God gives me. We’ve made a number of changes over the years to adjust to the demands of the PhD, including reducing my husband’s working hours. This is a financial sacrifice, but for us it allows us the family time that we value.

    Every now and then I take myself back to why I was first drawn to study this topic. I reflect on the scope of the problem, and the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution. Then I get back to my do-list, break it down into the smallest chunks I can think of, and keep on keeping on 🙂

  14. As far as the ‘pros’ are concerned, I started a PhD after retiring from the workforce, (or ‘being retired’, as it wasn’t entirely voluntary), for two main reasons:
    first, it gave me an opportunity to study in detail in an area that I had always found fascinating, and possibly of public value in the sense of making a contribution to an important but untravelled field of knowledge; so the pro here is simply the joy of being able to study in depth in a particular area, to discover new ideas and people who have thought about and researched in this area; and
    second, it gave me a structure to my life (beyond family) and a core and purpose to my time. I realise this may seem like an incredible luxury to younger graduates trying to juggle work and perhaps growing families, but nevertheless there is a benefit from structured and intensive studies for people in my demographic too.

  15. Thank you for this – such a lovely upbeat article and comments! I will re-read this whenever I’m feeling a bit discouraged. The big plusses of doing a PhD for me are : (1) the flexibility to spend time with my young family (my experience of the engineering profession pre-PhD is that it isn’t very family-friendly) (2) More mental stimulation than most jobs, even professional ones (3) Freedom from silly office politics (4) I get to direct and manage my own work! Some days are hard, but I think it really helps to take care of myself, not have unrealistic expectations of myself, and focus on genuine productivity rather than putting in a certain number of hours.

  16. and make me drink too much, talk at my husband and have sleepless nights. Occasionally I feel lonely, depressed, then I find out something or do something and fall back in love with the sense of all about me!

  17. I began in order to answer a question posed by an altered work environment: I couldn’t find the answer in the existing literature – so here I am 3 years into my part-time PhD!

  18. Reblogged this on Papo de Computeiro and commented:
    Sempre que comento que faço um doutorado, sinto que é difícil explicar qual a extensão de comprometimento algumas vezes é necessária para fazê-lo. Quando leio artigos e reportagens que falam sobre os desafios, especialmente psicológicos e sociais relacionados à pós-graduação, vejo que não sou o único que passa por dias difíceis. No entanto é sempre importante exercitar nossas mentes a ver o lado bom desta jornada. Este post do “The Thesis Whisperer” , apesar de começar falando das dificuldades, nos convida a ver o “silver lining” do PhD. Pessoalmente, meu doutorado é um caminho para me preparar para os desafios da docência e pesquisa. Já aprendi muito nestes 5 anos de pós, tanto na área acadêmica quanto profissional. Aprendi principalmente a ter paciência e serenidade diante da vida. Muitas vezes nos veremos diante de problemas de variados tamanhos, e muitas vezes grandes “demais”. O doutorado nos ensina (ou melhor, aprender por meio dele) a sobreviver a estes “elefantes”, uma mordida por vez (https://thesiswhisperer.com/2012/03/22/5-rookie-researcher-mistakes/). Fora todo o auto-conhecimento adquirido nesta etapa, fundamental em qualquer aspecto da vida. Fica a reflexão e a recomendação de leitura àqueles que não pensam, ou aos que cogitam a pós-graduação. Como tudo na vida, tem seus prós e contras, e como em alguns momentos da vida, é importante nos lembrarmos que os prós também existem.

  19. Well for me the biggest pro, which is missing from the list in this post, is to undertake a piece of meaningful research about a topic I’m passionate about and want to share with others!

  20. I’m coming to the end of my PhD. Had lots of issues with lack of confidence and time management in the early stages, but over the last year or so I have finally hit my stride.. These days I’m much more confident that what I say has worth, and my time management is improving and I’ve become much more focussed and much more realistic about what I can achieve within a particular time frame. Through it all I’ve been kept going by knowing my project is very relevant to the health of the rural community in which I live, and will hopefully help achieve real change. 🙂 My list of cons would be longer than my list of pros, but each pro is so large they completely outweigh the cons.

  21. The big pro for me : My PhD let me pull together the strands of my professional and creative work into one project in research. I did arts based research in education, and am a musician/drama artist. So I used my creativity as the centrepiece. The PhD was a creative venture for me and I was clear on that from the outset. I would not have done it otherwise.

    However, there were definitely big challenges some of the time to keeping my time and energy healthily focused. And I had one really major tech crash that cost me months of time and much redoing and lost files of notes.
    There were times (later but not early on) that the PhD did seem to take over and I was not too happy about that. I also have been recovering from a long term illness, so it was important for me to manage my energy levels carefully. I found that the times when I did not exercise enough and got stuck in a ‘must work harder’ routine and being stuck too much in my head, that the work did not flow so well for me. So, even though I’m sure it’s different for everyone, for me, having a balance of physical activity and walking in nature was also important to keep the PhD work in perspective. I also found some of my inspiration in those walks for writing and being in my body more than my head.
    I have only recently finished completely my candidature. I also found many of my conversations with my supervisors very inspiring and we covered some interesting topics together. They have a storehouse of experience, and there can be a positive working relationship in their encouraging and pushing you. However, it’s also important, I learned, to understand that it’s your work not theirs. At times I felt that my voice got a bit lost so that is something I learnt along the way more how to be more clear about my boundaries of the topic. But, after the finish of it all, I have the utmost respect and admiration for those guys.
    As you said you’re an education PhD. I was too. It’s interesting and useful to view it as a learning process (as you mentioned), and we do have to learn how to be the doctoral student. Someone else here said that it’s a transformative experience. It really can be. Good luck and I hope you enjoy most of the process. Even the difficult bits look better once you’ve come through it, and can teach you something valuable along the way.

    • … and I hope I can be forgiven for the grammatical errors and slip ups in my comment… I really do have a PhD… but didn’t fully edit my comment before posting.

  22. The lack of confidence is common in most PhD students and the feeling of being a fraud has never left me and I’m almost a decade post-doc. However, I’m always most concerned about the PhD student (or academic) who bathes in their own apparent brilliance. They often lack the awareness to identify the flaws in their own work. Tom Jones recently said in an interview, I still get nervous before I go on stage, simply because I want to give the best performance that I possibly can. For me, academia is much the same. I’m always looking at my work and questioning is this good enough, how can I make it better? Anyone who doesn’t have those conversations with themselves is probably in the wrong game, but don’t think you’re the only one, because you’re not.

    Re the other point above about qualitative methods. If other people don’t get it, that’s their problem, not yours

  23. Looking for the “So your husband is starting a PhD post…” (oy) Thanks for this though – it is a help to learn what he will be wrestling with.

  24. I’m 11 months in and preparing for candidature presentation this Friday!! Terrified!! Worried I won’t know all of the statistical answers to their questions!!! I don’t need a Ph.D. to teach me perseverance, just won’t feel like my academic life is complete until I get there!!

  25. As a part-timer with an at times challenging and complex paid job, I’ve found the PhD is an effective way to stop me taking work home or stewing about it into the wee small hours. In previous roles I often did this, with all the impacts it had on relationships and mental well-being. Now when I leave I can pick up a bit of my reading and I don’t think about work again until morning.

    In one sense it is just replacing one pre-occupation for another, but the benefit of the PhD is that you can pick and choose what aspect to work on, so it actually matches your mood – having brain-fag so all you can do is tizzy up your graphs through to tackling that insoluble back-end of chapter 3.

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