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I started my PhD last summer and my first full year is coming to an end. I can’t believe quickly the first year went by! It is crazy to think about how much I’ve grown as a person in the last 12 months!
Last year, I wrote an article about why I chose to do a PhD. Some of the reasons were because I wanted to challenge myself and learn something new every day! That is exactly what I got!
In this article, I am going to share five things I learned from doing a PhD.
1. You need to be passionate about what you’re researching
One thing I learned is that a PhD is A LOT of work. It is going to be 10 times harder than anything else you’ve ever done (study wise).
And the dropout rate is high, almost at 50%.
In my first year, I already witnessed one person drop out (voluntarily) and a few who are debating about it. Everyone has an existential crisis at one time or another.
The people who don’t make it are usually the ones doing a PhD for ulterior motives – maybe just for the prestige/title and an ego boost. Once they realized how much work a PhD really required, they decided to look for more lucrative jobs elsewhere.
This has taught me to be extremely PASSIONATE about what you do and to not commit to something that you’re 100% devoted to. It is a rough ride so if you don’t want to do it, it might be a good idea to reconsider now!
2. You need a strong relationship with your supervisor
A few of us had a lot of problems with our PhD supervisors really early on. One thing I learned is that even if a professor is a great researcher or lecturer, he/she may not be the best supervisor!
In many cases that I have witnessed, people end up dropping out of the PhD because of the poor relationship with their supervisor. In fact, I believe that the “secret ingredient” to being successful in your doctoral pursuits is having a supportive supervisor who complements your research and learning.
If you have a bad supervisor, your journey to the 3 letters is going to be rough!
Here’s the difference between a student with a good relationship with their supervisor (Student A) versus one who does not (Student B):
- Student A is encouraged to research what he/she loves and finds an interesting angle that has never been done before, leading to publications and indirectly to a job!!
- Student A receives emotional support and encouragement when feeling stressed/demotivated
- Student A gets pushed to attend conferences to network and present their work, reaching a larger audience and leading to potential job opportunities
- Student A’s supervisor connects him/her with network of academics in other institutions, student A has a job lined up after graduation
On the other hand, Student B basically works alone with very little support, is constantly stressed, depressed, and finishes the PhD with no job lined up 🙁 … Even worse, Student B may quit altogether!
So the lesson here is to make sure you have a strong relationship with your supervisor. Make sure that your interests and working styles are aligned!
My best advice is to speak to former/current PhD students confidentially so you know exactly what to expect. This is what I did and I learned some ugly truths about some people!!
3. You don’t have to be the smartest to succeed
This was something I learned after having chatted with a lot of “successful” academics. They all told me that they were not the smartest in their class.
However, they were the ones who were not afraid to fail. They made themselves vulnerable and asked for help.
In fact, the ones who tended to fail were the perfectionists who did not want to ask others for help. They did not take constructive feedback well.
Another thing that really resonated with me was that, “If you made it this far, you are smart enough.”
The main challenge now is switching from an academic system that favours memorizing and accepting what is being told to you (learn and regurgitate) to another system where you have to think and create for yourself. It’s a pretty tough change and not everyone is made for it. Not everyone will succeed!!
I found this transition the most difficult and I’m still struggling with it. It’s getting easier by the day though 🙂
4. You need someone to turn to for support
I feel very blessed that I have a group of supportive PhD students to turn to whenever I need it. We support each other when someone needs help and we are always there to add some “fun” to the boring side of academia.
A lot of us, myself included, are international students. I consider these people my “family away from home.”
When I ran into some complicated situations with my PhD, I was really lucky to have another student who experienced something similar be my emotional support. He advised me what to do to fix the situation and he was always there to listen. I was very grateful for his help and for sharing his experience with me!
You don’t necessarily have to have a support system within academia. Having supportive friends, family, a significant other, etc. works just as well. In fact, I have seen a lot of PhD students who try to keep their private lives separate from their lives as a PhD.
4. Work-life balance is key
This is another thing I learned the hard way – how to achieve work-life balance!
In Europe, doing a PhD is considered a job and you are paid for it. Thus, you are expected to do things like assist in teaching, grading, exam supervision, and more.
Through my years in industry, I believe I achieved a decent work-life balance. When I left the office, I no longer read my emails until the next day when I went in for work.
However, at the beginning of my PhD, I treated my duties as if it were school. Thus, I was working all day during the week, and even during weekends. And since the PhD requires a lot of thinking and creative work, I tended to spend way more time than the usual 40-hour work week.
I would go to university all day during the day, and then stay up late working on assignments and other shenanigans when I got home. Needless to say, I had absolutely no life! I was experiencing major burnout!
Finally, my other PhD friend told me about how he refuses to check or respond to emails and his supervisor’s requests in the evenings or during the weekends. He treated his job like a real job.
I realized that that was what I was doing wrong. I did not treat my PhD like a job, but rather like a course. From then on, I refused to work on weekends and my life and overall happiness has improved. I finally had time to enjoy myself on weekends – travel more and go snowboarding every single weekend.
And what’s more – taking the break on the weekends allowed me to be more productive when I got back in the office on Mondays. I ended up having to work less and still produce the same amount of high-quality work!
I finished my first year of my PhD program. The first year was an emotional roller coaster. I learned a lot about myself and about how to do academic researcher.
I’m really looking forward to my second year!!!
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