I’ve got to admit that the lifestyle of a PhD student can be great. If you enjoy quiet, leisurely days of reading, researching and writing, the doctoral experience can bring joy, inner peace and a general feeling of calmness.
But there’s most to it than that and, if you don’t stay focused, you can easily waste a year, or two or three of your life. PhD success is about balancing the fun side of learning with the task at hand: writing your defensible thesis.
The PhD Lifestyle Begins
Welcome back to the world of academia. You have successfully gone through all the hurdles to get started on the journey of becoming a Doctor of Philosophy.
You have chosen your area of study, applied to a PhD position, chosen a supervisor, outlined your thesis and hopefully have a scholarship or other form of financial aid. You might be wondering “Now that I’m in, what’s the lifestyle as a PhD student?”
Pleasure (and Some Reality)
In what often turns out to be fiction, PhD students are depicted as free souls exploring the world. They are frequently seen lounging around beautiful university spaces, reading books with interesting titles. They look completely relaxed, fully enjoying the life of commitment to knowledge.
“I no longer believe in this romantic ideal of scholarly life”, Charlie Pullen, an English PhD student, reports: “the reality of doing a PhD is not one of living in a care-free bubble. It is, in fact, a demanding way of spending your time.”
Charlie is right. PhD supervisors usually aim for the degree to be completed in three to four years. To make this happen, students report working from 35 to 70 hours weekly. Depending on the field of study, here’s what you can expect:
- Working on your own project (thesis), which can determine where and at what times you work;
- Organize meetings, send reports, ask for feedback and clear doubts with your PhD supervisor so he or she can keep up with your progress;
- Networking: going to conferences, workshops, and events to absorb as much relevant knowledge as possible;
- Documenting your work: you have to keep track of your research and every step you took while working on your project;
- Teach classes, grade papers from undergraduate students and take other responsibilities related to the university;
Although it looks like a lot, it is possible to achieve academia-life balance, even while working part-time or full-time to cover some of the costs. You are able to discuss your workload with your supervisor, and find a good plan and schedule to get things done.
Your Own Pace
The responsibility of successfully completing the degree lies with the student. As a result, the expectations set can be too unforgiving.
We would like to be in the library from 8 am to 5 pm every day, working on the thesis at all times, publish research papers (and maybe even a book!), earn teaching awards, organize and speak in conferences and be on good terms with all the revered members of the university community. This can lead to a very stressful life.
Jenny Mak, an English and Comparative Literary Studies PhD student tells us that “achieving these goals isn’t ‘Mission Impossible’, but the timeframe within which we’re assumed to get them done is unrealistic and places much undue stress on us.”
A great part of completing a PhD successfully is recognizing this issue and taking things step by step. It is necessary to plan what is going to be done when, and managing the daily stress, as the duties will always pile up and seem to take a long time to get done.
Tips for Succeeding with Your Learning Experience
Nuclear scientist Floriana Salvemini shares her top tips for PhD students.
1. Time management is incredibly important! Check if your university offers courses or guides on how to organise a PhD project.
2. Conferences are a great venue to network, learn about developments in your field and promote your research – plus they offer a chance to travel somewhere different.
3. Don’t forget to make professional and personal connections. Remember, a PhD isn’t just about the actual project. The various people you meet along the way are equally as significant.
Final Thoughts on PhD Studies
Working towards a PhD, despite being very challenging and involving a lot of hard work, is a very rewarding experience. It is the path of mastery towards a specific topic of study, which will not only increase your knowledge but might also open up more fulfilling career opportunities.
Don’t be discouraged by the negatives! Most scholars find that the advantages greatly outweigh the challenges.