Should a PhD be ‘hard’?

On the one hand, of course a PhD is ‘hard’–as in ‘has a high difficulty setting’ and also ‘is a lot of work’. It’s 3+ years of creating new knowledge!

But how ‘hard’ should it be, and what kind of ‘hard’? When students come to talk to me about worrying that they are finding their PhD ‘hard’, they tend to mean one of two very different things by it!

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The first group find the PhD ‘hard’ and worry that this means they aren’t smart enough, that they won’t finish, that they don’t belong in the PhD program.
These students typically were excellent students in their school, undergraduate and coursework studies, and while they may have had to put in a good amount of work, they weren’t actually totally challenged. Part of the reason they are doing a PhD is because they are looking for a real challenge, but it’s also a bit of a worrying shock when they realise they maybe don’t know what they are doing and don’t really understand their material. They can’t get it right, and haven’t been getting the right answer for years.

This kind of student doesn’t necessarily have a lot of skills already in their tool box for when learning something is ‘hard’. Perhaps they ‘just get’ maths or poetry or writing, and are used to being considered ‘smart’ for work they find pretty quick or painless or fun to do. They are used to turning in work that is praised and given excellent grades.

Once they hit the messy, ugly, uncomfortable bits of the PhD, where multiple failures and lots of negative feedback is normal, they worry that they don’t have the tools to deal with it.

This student needs to hear:

  •  that it is normal to find the PhD hard,
  • that failing, getting negative feedback, being rejected from journals and grants, are all a regular part of the researcher experience,
    • and that you should also expect to use the failures to learn and do better the next time, and to have successes!
  • that you can get help from supervisors, academic skills advisors, peer researchers, mentors, books, blogs (like this one!), and the internet.
  • that if you keep persevering, and learning, you will probably succeed.

A typical example of this kind of student is the international student whose first language is not English. As I have argued before, this kind of student does face a challenge, but that challenge doesn’t have much impact on their passing rate or completion time. It’s a challenge that, with some work, can definitely be overcome. 

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The second type of student is really struggling. They are finding the PhD tough for the wrong reasons.

Some research cultures are, frankly, toxic. Early mornings, late nights, few holidays, no weekends, not taking sick days, no time off for families or friends or sitting and thinking under a tree. The long hours are enforced by surveillance, micro-management and bullying. People who don’t ‘fit’ or who ‘aren’t fit enough’ are forced out. People with young children, a disability, or ill health are told (explicitly or implicitly) that they probably aren’t cut out for a PhD.

This kind of toxic culture can be created by an ambitious supervisor, or it can be created by a peer group of students who decide their way of researching is the best way, or it can be created by institutional structures. The university’s policies and processes around making accomodations, taking leave, scholarships, visas, etc.  can be unintentionally clunky, or intentionally punitive and strict. And, these three cultures often ‘intersect‘. For example: a pushy supervisor recruits and retains a group of students who match their idea of a ‘good’ student, around whom the university structures their progress policy.

And in this kind of situation, the student who feels excluded and tries to complain often finds themselves being treated as the problem (as Ahmed and Mewburn have both shown in different ways.)

A PhD is not examined on whether you are physically strong, or a quick thinker. There are no pop quizzes or exercise drills before you graduate.

A PhD is about sustained intellectual engagement, creating new knowledge, and contributing to the community of scholars in your field, through an extended work of academic writing, and (perhaps) presenting your work verbally to others. 

This student needs to hear:

  • if you feel like you are being bullied or exploited, then you probably are.
  • your institution, supervisor and peers are supposed to support you, and supposed to make reasonable adjustments to help you study.
  • if you feel you are not being supported, you may find it helpful to explore changing supervisors, institution, or degree.
    • or, if you decide to stay in a difficult situation (and there are often very good reasons for this!), you need to find a spaces and people where you are supported: you can get help from  academic skills advisors, peer researchers, mentors, books, blogs (like this one!), and the internet.
  • and, again, that if you keep persevering, and learning, you will probably succeed.

***

In the work I do, I often meet students who are worried they find the PhD hard, in both senses. I also know that both kinds of students can complete, gain their PhDs, and make a difference to the world.

If you are finding the PhD hard, that’s okay. If you are being bullied or are getting sick because of the PhD, that’s not okay. Find a way to make the PhD hard like climbing a mountain, not hard like being hit with a stick. 

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What metaphors do you use for difficult or hard experiences? I spent a lot of my family holidays as a kid hiking up and down mountains, so that’s one I reach for over and over again, even though these days my knees can’t manage it! I’d love to hear about what works for you in your experiences so I can broaden the ways I think and talk about this!

2 Comments

  1. There is a third group like me, who find it hard because of the emotional response writing in particular generates. These feelings overwhelm everything else and cause procrastination and inability to concentrate. It is a compounding problem because every act of procrastination increases the feelings of panic around feeling unable to finish. Counselling has had limited value and no amount of verbal encouragement helps. I have brilliant supervisors who are incredibly supportive and encouraging and operate in a highly supportive environment. I also know I’m a good writer, solid data analyst, and am definitely smart enough to do this work. So yes, completely illogical feelings.

    When stuck in this place the only thing I’ve figured out that works is to have someone sit with me calmly, not saying anything except to point me toward my writing, for 30 minutes or an hour. This helps me get over the hump of the emotions and start engaging intellectually and from there I can go on by myself.

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