So this week I sat down to write an ErrantScience article all about the PhD experience. I’ve written plenty about PhDs before from various perspectives but the article I was writing gave me pause.

I am keenly aware that my own PhD experience doesn’t exactly match up with my peers and certainly if internet memes are to believed then all PhDs are terrible horrible stressful scary things requiring 20+ hours days. With my own students I’ve even seen VASTLY different PhD experiences which makes writing about ‘the’ experience a bit tricky.

My reasons for wanting to write about the experience is because what I want is to try and give people a realistic insight into PhD life from my normal slightly irreverent post of view. Which I still think is valuable as many prospective PhD students have little to no idea what a PhD entails.

I still want to do this but I don’t think writing about one experience, either one that’s either my own or a combination of ones around me, is very helpful.

So, that’s where this slightly different article comes in. What I’d very much like is some input from you the reader.

If you are a either an ex-PhD student or a current one then I’d like you to comment below with something about doing a PhD that you didn’t expect (good or bad)

If you aren’t doing a PhD but are curious about them (even if it’s just a passing curiosity) then post a question about PhD life.

I’ll take both and combine them into an article next week in which I’ll try and explore the ins and outs of PhD life an answer as many oddities and questions as possible.

Get commenting and I’ll get researching and writing!

Hi there!

Sign up to receive awesome cartoony content in your inbox, every month.

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Categories: ErrantWritings


Tinus · 15 November 2018 at 13:30

I thought my PhD would make a difference. It didn’t. It was barely cited and never applied in practice (as far as I could tell).

I thought I would have to come up with something spectacular and groundbreaking to get a PhD. That wasn’t the case at all. I did something *slightly* different than how it had been done before, and convinced three examiners of its (marginal) value.

I thought getting a PhD was all about being “clever”. Not true at all. A PhD isn’t a stamp of approval for “cleverness”, it’s an indicator that you’re competent at executing a research project and generating (a little) new knowledge in the process. No more, no less.

I thought my PhD would be valued in industry. Sadly, it wasn’t. It did, however, open doors in academia would would have undoubtedly remained shut without it.

I thought following a rock star routine (late nights in the lab, sleep ’till lunch) was the way to do it. It wasn’t. I made the most progress when I kept regular office hours.

I thought people treat me differently if I introduced myself as “Doctor”. Here, I was mistaken… and rightly so! Outside academia, I’ve found that the title makes very little difference to how people see and treat me… and in academia, it’s such a common title that you really don’t differentiate yourself with it either.

I thought doing a PhD would teach me a lot of science and engineering… and it did, to some extent. Ultimately, though, it taught me more epistemology than anything else; what is known, what is not known, and which questions you should ask.

jenny · 15 November 2018 at 13:36

Hi Matthew,
I’m just starting my PhD (aged 36). I worked 9-5 (jokes, I was a Physics teacher, we worked 7.30am – approx 8pm on a good day, but made up for it in the Summer)… until I went and did a part taught/part research Masters… that was pretty structured, and I was thought to be a bit odd by some of my peers with my organisation and work routines.
Starting a PhD I was expecting…… well I wasn’t 100% certain, but I was definitely expecting to have some justified project aims/goals/targets etc. I was not expecting ‘I have a rough project title and I’m reading…. a lot…..’ to be an acceptable/expected reponse in November! (I’m told its fine until Jan/Feb)
That’s pretty much all I can tell you so far, here’s to another two months of working out exactly what it is I’m doing (and then 2.5yrs of working out I’m doing something quite different???)
Wish me luck!

Cassidy S · 15 November 2018 at 16:10

I never really knew what my PhD was going to be until my last year. Looking back, in my first year, I did sort of knew what I wanted to do, but my supervisors had me look at a bunch of other things before I ended up back where I started. Then in my last year, 80% of what will go into my thesis happened that year. Very little of what I did, in the beginning, ended up being used in the end, but it was important for the journey. I kept office house and treated it like a normal job, slow and steady. Yes, there is stress, but it’s manageable. I also did my PhD in the UK, which is a 3-4 year process. I don’t know how it would be if it was longer than that.

CC · 16 November 2018 at 00:22

I’m currently a PhD student in cellular and molecular pharmacology. I think the thing that stands out to me the most is how widely different each PhD experience is; even within my own department. I knew mentoring style was an important factor to consider but it drastically affects your experience. Most of my classmates were given a project to go with. But not me. I didn’t realize how unstructured my dissertation would be – in the beginning you kind of just go on a fishing expedition and see what you get and go from there. Also I didn’t realize how unstructured my days would be and how much freedom and flexibility I would have. I’m essentially my own boss that sets my own schedule and decides what to do and when to do it. If I want to have a meeting with my PI, I set it up. He’s always available but he expects me to take the lead/ownership of my project. I’m sure it differs extensively from lab/mentor to another but this is the one I am in. Either way I have a love/hate relationship with it – freedom and flexibility makes it very easy to procrastinate (why meet a made up deadline you set yourself?) but is also a great lesson (ongoing) in self discipline. I’ve learned that being the boss is extremely exhausting, I need to make a million decisions a day and some times it would be nice to just be told what to do.

Ann · 17 November 2018 at 05:36

One big myth is that only super-smart people get a PhD. Getting one is as much about being persistent and stubborn as it is about being smart. Being good at departmental politics also helps.

Also, the students in my PhD program (social sciences) who had the most success after graduating – as in getting an enjoyable job and doing well-regarded research – were the students whose dissertations were largely independent projects. We all had supervisors and committees, but the students who learned the most were the students who figured out their own research projects and conducted them themselves. The students whose dissertations were based on doing a part of their supervisor’s research didn’t learn how to design a research project and how to carry it out on their own. They may have completed their PhDs more quickly, but they didn’t really learn how to do research.

Leave a Reply