For most PhDs, successfully completing their degree will rank in the top 3 of the greatest challenges they have faced in their lives up to that point. PhDs stretch you on all levels, not just mentally but physically, emotionally and even financially. In the first part of ‘The Survival Guide’, Amara discusses important points for reflection by prospective as well as current PhD candidates.

“So you want to do a PhD?” – Why do you want to do a PhD? Write down your answer, memorise it and make it your mantra. There will be moments when you’ll ask yourself “Why did I do this?” Remember that only crazy ‘special’ people decide to do a PhD. Most of our more ‘intelligent’ friends headed straight into the world of full time employment after completing their degrees but we decided to stay back at University to ‘do’ research. Some of us left reasonably well off jobs for the penury uncertainty of PhDs. Others still, went for the part time PhD (a myth!) route combining it with full time employment. These are my all-time stars!  As a PhD candidate you provoke both awe and pity among the ‘general population.’ Your why is your personal truth so remember that not everyone will respect, understand or support your decision. A PhD is not something you do to fulfil other people’s ambitions, that is almost a recipe for failure – so really ‘Why do you want to do a PhD?’

Brace yourself – We are yet to come across anyone who found their PhD easy. My mantra is ‘A PhD is not just about intelligence but perseverance.’ A PhD is difficult and that’s ok. Embrace the challenge. Truth be told, what is worth achieving that isn’t challenging? You are going down a ‘road less travelled’, making an original contribution to your discipline, solving a problem or creating a product, allowing the world understand something just that much better. Begin with the end in mind. Create a token of what the results of your work mean. It could be a picture from your field study, an incomplete signalling pathway, a diagram of your incomplete theoretical model, the incomplete equation of your predictive model. This is something you are creating and bringing into this world. Something new. It should be difficult. Persevere.

‘No pain, no gain.’

To thyself be true – PhD candidates are unique, there is no one type of student.  You’ve decided (against all wisdom…lol) to study for a PhD. You know your why but deal with the Who? The road ahead is long…so to thyself be true. What are your strengths and weaknesses? Every day you will take both to the job with you.  What are the things that may limit you? No one is perfect but you must utilise your strengths and make allowance for your limitations. If you know you can’t deal with pressure and love the ‘que sera sera’ lifestyle, consider if a PhD is for you. What did you enjoy most about your undergraduate and postgraduate degree? A good qualification is simply not enough. Can you bear to work alone for long periods on end? Are you a committed procrastinator? Are you in a relationship? Is your partner supportive? Do you have young children? Do you plan to have children during your studies? Are you a 9 – 5 sort of person? Do you have a support network? Do you like lab work but hate writing or vice versa? What are your finances like? Will you have to work and study? Can you? What are three things you need to successfully complete that you do not have right now? How can you get them? You cannot change what you do not know. No one starts their PhD knowing it all but embracing an ‘inside-out’ approach can help identify skill and knowledge gaps and seek help.

Photo Credit: Ian Barbour
Photo Credit: Ian Barbour

Is s/he the One?  – No, not your significant other but your supervisor. Is s/he the one for you? This is probably going to be the most important relationship successfully completing your PhD depends on. What is your supervisor’s management style? I appreciate that it is difficult to gauge how the relationship will go but do some homework. What do their former and current students say about them? I (Amara) had an awesome supervisor who was a mentor, coach and all round superstar. My PhD was lab based and so we saw each other almost every day – difficult when you can’t stand each other. We had a great working relationship not because she told me what I wanted to hear but what I needed too. She encouraged and critiqued in the same breath. If it was bad, she said so but when it was good, she praised. Sometimes PhD candidates make the mistake of going for a big name over getting a good mentor. We hope to do a post on managing the supervisor relationship in coming weeks so stay posted. Your PhD supervisor is not supposed to be your friend – but it helps if they are friendly. Of all the PhD candidates I know did not complete, 7 out of 10 times it had to do with a breakdown in the student – supervisor relationship.  I have read, observed and heard of some horror stories. Please don’t let that be you.

Murphy’s law aka ***t happens – You’ve studied the protocol, you’ve harassed your supervisor got the equipment, its D-day and you notice your cell culture is contaminated. Five days prep has just gone down the drain. *Hugs* Or you travel for a conference and have your bag stolen, complete with your laptop containing important data (Dropbox is your friend). Despite your well laid plans, there will be setbacks. It could be your fault (you are allowed to make mistakes you know) or due to circumstances totally out of your control like your supervisor deciding to move on to pastures new in a totally different continent! Your Gantt chart has become a distant memory as you bemuse your naiveté when you thought that activity was going to take you 3 weeks but it has actually taken you three months. Your project proposal looks like a relic from times past. A friend lost antibodies worth thousands of pounds simply because someone turned off the wrong switch and shut down his freezer over the weekend!  Things may not always go to plan but remember you are a project manager and a key transferable skill you are developing is that of problem solving. So dig your heels in and keep going. Acknowledge there is a problem but don’t dwell on it, solve it!

HeadshotAbout our writer – After completing a PhD in Microbiology and Food Science,  Amara is developing her career in academia – providing teaching and learning solutions in UK FE and HE Institutions as well as conducting research in Food Microbiology. Amara believes in the combined power of education, mentoring and productive relationships as essential tools for building successful careers. ‘Ignorance can hurt more than sticks and stones.’

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  1. From Somya via email…

    I read your article completely and the facts related to PhD aspirants were mentioned so well. I recently completed my PhD and would like to advice everyone who is aspiring to do PhD is “Just follow your gut feeling” and also I feel who successfully complete their PhDs are the ones who always took their profession as passion. I faced so many hurdles during my PhD program right from the beginning both personally and professionally but research is my passion and the day when I submitted my thesis I had tears in my eyes feeling so happy that my 5 years hard work has taken a great shape. I have good publications and today I am confident that yes I did what I dreamt.


  2. Great article. written very well keeping in the mind all the pros and cons.. I’m doing phd and my supervisor is perfect for me.


    1. Hi Serj good question! I would say it depends on how your project team is set up. Is your 2nd supervisor a subject expert or nominal supervisor? That might explain why he/she never responds although you can nudge them in a nice way that his/her response(s) would be useful and see how they respond


  3. Tumb up for this article, it’s very interesting though it’s too early for me to start commenting or saying about my experience as a doctorate student. Before I venture into this pHD journey, I have already read through all this experiences, cross check and counter balance but what came into my mind was that “faith conquers every fear”. I believe in positivity no mater the ups and down. There is this world my father always say to me. He says “don’t put fear first in any thing you do, things may look rough and hard on your way to success but believe that no Matter how dark a tunnel is, there is always light at the end of it. So while going through a tunnel, don’t get afraid or depressed about the darkness but the light you will see at the end of it. So my reason of doing pHD is not to be afraid of any stress or ups and down I will meet on my way because I know definitely nothing good comes easily in life but the joy many life I will save and opportunity I will creat for my younger one and many people who were not able to make it like me due to some reasons or the other thanks.


  4. Ooook, so what am I getting myself into?? I’m thoroughly excited about doing a doctorate. I just want to be an expert … And then teach people. On the selfish side, I want to be respected full stop. My supervisors are great so far – as enthused as I am so fingers crossed I’ll be fine. Nice write up 😉


    1. Hi Kemi! That sounds great. I think you are letting yourself in for the time of your life! I can ‘feel’ your enthusiasm. That itself is very important. Thanks for commenting and maybe you could share some of your reflections with us too!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This article is spot on! I’m currently doing a PhD and your article hit all the right notes. One advice I’d give is: have a life. Studying for a PhD has a way of overshadowing everything else in your life. Understand that the lab is not a prison. Figure out what you enjoy doing for fun (I enjoy writing short fiction and taking long walks) and SCHEDULE TIME to do it otherwise you may never get to actually LIVE. Appreciate the journey and the things you learn as well as the mistakes you make and don’t be too focused on the end. It’s a learning process after all. Thank you for such a wonderful article.


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