5 things every PhD student should know

by Pranav Vasanthi

At some point in your life, getting a PhD may seem like the best possible to do but there are a couple of things which many PhD students (especially those in the UK) are consciously aware of but would prefer not to talk about or rather avoid the topic.

Here are the 5 most prominent ones:

1. Be prepared for a low-paying job

Okay, so if you are someone who wants to earn a lot of money early in life, then research, especially PhD is probably the worst career option you could opt for. You don’t get “paid” during your PhD, you get “stipend”. There is a difference between the two and there is a reason the word exists.

Moreover, the scenario gets worse for international students (non-UK/non-EU). The chances of procuring a fully-funded PhD (tuition fees + stipend) is a meager <£1200/month for 3 years (UK) and then you are on your own during the thesis writing-up stage i.e. no stipend post 3 years, unless obviously you are on a 4-year PhD.

2. The journey can be lonely

In my opinion, without exaggeration, PhD is one of the loneliest journeys you could possibly encounter in your life. Even if you have to be a part of a very ‘happening’ lab culture, there will still be bouts of loneliness caused due to several factors. Ironically, my observation also suggests that married PhD students experience this more often than single PhD students. Things may get quite hectic, both financially and emotionally for married couple due to lack of a balance between work and non-work life.

3. Mental health problems

Okay, so PhD group is steadily rising to the top of the table of groups most vulnerable to mental health problems. Consider this; one in every two PhD student suffers from psychological distress. One in three is at the risk of a psychiatric disorder. The prevalence amongst PhD students is higher than the combined prevalence of highly educated general population, highly educated employees and higher education students.

The contributing factors for this include monotonicity of life (everyday appears similar), lack of social activity, chronic worrying, unilateral focus for extended periods of time, self-doubting, etc. You really have to work extensively towards ‘not getting depressed and staying alive’.

4. Failed expectations

In my opinion, just like anything else, researchers are born. Not everyone is going to make it to the top. Not everyone is going to be a Noble Prize Winner or any other prestigious medal. No matter how hard you work (just like in any other endeavours), chances are you probably might not make it to the top. Unfortunately, there is a very common misconception that PhD students are ‘smart’. This notion cannot be more far from the truth. It may be considerable to say PhD students are passionate or resilient or patient or other similar adjectives.

Actually, smart people don’t thrive long in a research career. Extremely smart people are more along the lines of ‘Hit hard, fail quick, and repeat’. PhD students/researchers are more along the lines of ‘Fall down 7 times, get up, think, analyse, make notes, go away, come back, test hypothesis, go away, come back, ask suggestions, meet supervisors, come back, fail/succeed, repeat’. The process can shatter you mentally.

5. Number of publications

Unless you have multiple patents or have invented something incredible, publications are the only way researchers recruit you. Unfortunately, this is a fair and at the same time ‘not-fair’ standard. Fair, because, how else would your potential employer know about your ability to produce/translate novel findings if not for publications?

Not fair, because you could be left behind for no apparent reasons. Some research fields are juicy. You could easily get 4–5 publications, even during your PhD. Other fields are dry. You could hardly get one.

Also, I know so many students/researchers who exploit this tactic. They engage in a publications spree — publishing similar results/closely related topics in diverse range of journals. However, the scenario is gradually changing for good and recruiters are well-aware of publication predators. If your publication numbers does not commensurate your career level, they turn skeptical instantly.

Obviously, now the golden question is: Why bother with a PhD where there is so much risks and where life sucks?

Answer: Honestly, I really don’t know the answer to this question. Personally, for me, research was a visceral instinct. I could not (and still cannot) think of anything else I could do with my life worthwhile.

Maybe a bad comparison but it is something like, ‘Why would Usain Bolt or Roger Federer toil in the sun, sweat hard and kill themselves in the work-out when they have everything which a person could possibly want?’.

Because, that’s the only things that gives them happiness, moves them internally and fulfills them. They don’t know what else to do with their lives.

I guess PhD students/researchers are similar. Maybe not to the extent of world-class achievers. But definitely comparable.

Crazy. Stupid. Love.


Pranav Vasanthi is a research scientist at Aston University who loves to write stories.

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