'There's a reason for doing something so difficult': what to expect from a PhD


A PhD is not just three years of intense study, but something that will affect your whole life. “It is a long project that is very different to any academic work you’ll have done before,” says Alicia Peña Bizama, Life Tools programme manager at the University of Reading.

Psychological problems aren’t uncommon. The risks of developing common psychiatric disorders is very high, so it’s no surprise that evasion rates are also high. Above all, says NUS postgraduate representative David Evans, one should “come into PhD research with realistic expectations”.

Prepare yourself psychologically

During a PhD you will become a researcher, formulating your own hypotheses and theories and putting them to the test in front of peers. Keep in mind that you will spend many hours on books, computers, in meetings with the supervisor or even in laboratories, interviewing people and analysing data. All of this takes not only time, but also brings personal costs: fewer hours with family, children, or friends.

“I would urge prospective candidates to consider whether their reasons are strong enough to keep them going and to reflect on these motivations during the tough times, to remember that there is a reason for doing something so difficult,” says Andrew Clements, senior lecturer in organisational psychology at the University of Bedfordshire.

Prepare for networking and writing – a lot of it

Friends and family may not understand the difficulties of a doctorate, so it’s vital to build a network of contacts. These will include colleagues and professors who might collaborate on projects, discuss research, and direct your path to a postdoc or academic position. As University of Bath lecturer Rosana Pinheiro-Machado says, these contacts will “break the circle of competition” and help you “avoid the feeling of isolation”.

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The support will come in handy for your writing deadlines. Throughout the doctorate you will write a research project, articles for journals and conferences, and present a final. They’ll also prepare reports, give written opinions and even write articles for the media translating their research for the public.

Prepare for the pressure and seek help

More than just preparing yourself psychologically, you need to prepare yourself for the enormous pressures you will face. “Work-life balance can be a challenge as candidates can often feel guilty when they stop [working],” says Clements.

It’s not just about handling the hours of work, but being able to keep to a schedule. “Eat well, get plenty of sleep and have a timetable – and stick to it. Once you have done the number of hours that you have timetabled yourself, stop and have a rest,” says Leila Collins, a fellow of the British Psychological Society.

Collins recommends researchers seek help from their supervisor to discuss any problems and also seek psychological help from the student board. Pinheiro-Machado agrees, adding that of the many causes of depression, a fundamental one is “not having an supervisor to help in this process”.

Plan for your graduation

Before finishing your PhD you should start looking for postdoc opportunities, if you wish to continue in academia. The competition for positions is immense, making it difficult to find a good research programme. It is important, then, to think about alternatives or backup plans – whether it’s consultancy, working in a private laboratories, or teaching in a school. No option should be seen as a defeat.

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