The reality of PhD life: busting common myths

PhD life is not all that it seems. If I could offer one piece of advice before doing a PhD: take (almost) everything you read about PhDs with a pinch of salt. This seems like a funny piece of advice, considering that you’re reading this now. But – there are a lot of old PhD-related myths out there that need to be busted!

Yes, PhDs are challenging (if they were easy, everyone would do one), but they’re also meant to be rewarding and enjoyable.

Here are three myths that I wish I had known were wrong when I first started my postgraduate study.

Myth 1: there’s no work-life balance

This is by far the most prevalent PhD myth I’ve seen. There seems to be an expectation among some people that they’ll have to give up their hobbies, relationships and life outside of academia while they do their PhD. That hasn’t been my experience at all.

You could, if you wanted, work ridiculous hours during your PhD. But it’s equally possible, and much healthier, to treat it like a job. Having worked a normal 9-5 office job before my PhD, I made it clear to my supervisors at the beginning that I would keep the same hours during my PhD. And that’s what I do! Sure, there are days when I think ‘hmm, I still have lots on my to-do list left’; but I’ve learnt that it’s far better to take a step back and give your brain time to recharge. I find that I get a lot more done if I take my evenings and weekends off. I come back into the office on a Monday feeling refreshed.

I’ve had to learn to say no to things occasionally, as I know they would take up too much of my time. While that may mean I don’t always take part in every academic opportunity, it also means that I’m able to concentrate better on both my work and the opportunities that I do take part in. It also means that I have time for hobbies and interests outside of my PhD.

As with anything, moderation is key!

Myth 2: you have to be a genius

This is another fairly common myth, and I think this is often the major factor behind ‘imposter syndrome’. You can feel like a fraud, like you’re not clever or accomplished enough.

Personally, I think being able to do a PhD comes down not to intelligence, but to persistence, diligence and a genuine interest in your subject. Being willing to work hard, and finding your PhD research genuinely interesting, are far better qualifications for PhD research. Remember; PhDs are a research project, not an IQ test!

Something else more important than intelligence is being open to new ideas. You may also find that speaking to other people about your research really helps. For me, going to conferences and meetings has really helped to develop my research skills, as it’s taught me how to communicate my own research. I’ve also met people who have given me great ideas and told me about great papers or books. They’ve also challenged me to answer tough questions about my research.

Myth 3: PhDs are only useful if you want to go into academia

Most people seem to assume that if you do a PhD, it’s because you want to be a lecturer. When I started my PhD, I was surprised to learn that only about half of all PhD students will go on to have a career in academia. Somehow, I’d assumed that most did!

But PhD life isn’t just about academia. It’s about the skills you develop along the way. A PhD gives you the opportunity to undertake in-depth research, and develop your ability to organise and carry out a research project on your own. There are plenty of research careers outside of academia, and a PhD will go a long way to preparing you for a career in research.

Besides the research sector, a PhD also gives you the opportunity to develop a variety of other skills. I’m not even halfway through my PhD, and I’ve had the chance to organise a conference and speak to the public and academic audiences about my research. I’ve also run outreach projects for local communities, and much more. All of these experiences are shaping skills such as organisation, attention to detail, communication and an ability to work to tight deadlines. All of which will hopefully stand me in good stead in the post-PhD job market!

There are loads of myths about PhD life, and I’ve only been able to cover three in this blog post. What’s most important to remember is that a PhD can, and should, be a fun, rewarding experience!

Why not read more about postgraduate study?

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I'm an Archaeology PhD student from the UK. I'm interested in how archaeologists can study emotion, and how to improve communication and outreach with the public. I previously did my undergraduate and Masters degrees at York, and I absolutely love the city and University!

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