Things no one tells you about doing a PhD

So, despite the warnings issued by current PhD students you have decided to do a PhD. I mean after all, your experience will be completely to different to theirs, they just had a bad project/poor funding/not enough support, right? Your PhD will be different and it may well be. This post isn’t saying a PhD is a bad idea as I myself did one but here are some things no one tells you about doing a PhD!

1.Be prepared to feel left behind

It was half way through the second year of my PhD when I really started to feel that all my friends outside of academia where progressing with there lives, getting promotions, wage increases, going on fabulous holidays, getting mortages. Meanwhile I was still living at home and feeling very much a college student at heart. I was getting paid very little in comparison to them and dealing with failure on a day-to-day basis while they where on the up and up (or so it seemed). At so many stages I felt  trapped in my PhD and jealous of everyones “grown-up” jobs crept in.

Its the catch 22 of PhDs – freedom but no financial means to do anything with it. Doing a PhD can give you a great deal of freedom, however this is largely depednent on your PI. I was lucky in that once my experiments and reports got done on time my presence in the lab on strict 9-5 schedule wasnt always required. Having said that  some weeks I worked 8am to 8pm, weekends and late nights, it varied depending on what experiments I was setting up . This variety and freedom was something I truly loved about my PhD.

2. You never leave the work behind

Firstly what I will say is that in year 1 of your PhD this does not really apply in most cases. However after year 1 pressure begins to mount and you really you begin to doubt whether you ever complete the PhD, never mind with the 4 short years you have. Soon you’ll notice that even after a hard day in the lab thoughts of your project will creep in. You’ll start to feel guilty (particularly towards the end of your PhD) for not spending every living breathing moment working in the lab or writing it up. For this I cant offer any advice other than to try and distract yourself, if you are feeling particularly guilty do an hour or 2 of work and then go back to enjoying your time off.

Do remember that your own health and well being are more important and time off from the PhD environment is critical to this. Even during the height of the write up or when there are not enough days in the week to achieve all you have to achieve, take a couple of hours at least to go the cinema, meet a friend, hit the gym – something other than work. An hour or 2 of doing something you enjoy will work wonders for your well being.

3.Impostor syndrome

Imposter syndrome was something I was unware of until I entered academia. For those of you starting out your PhD you may not have experienced it yet, but believe me you will! Impostor syndrome in my own words is a constant feeling of self doubt, that people are going to find out that your are not as good as they think you are. I think impostor syndrome in academia can be traced back to a conference early on in your career, here you compared your research and yourself to candidates at the same stage as you who had achieved way more, got better data and generally seemed more respected that you. This self doubt and lack of self belief can greatly affect your lab work and in some cases your mental health.

Although sometimes its very hard to hard to think about it logically remember that you interviewed for this position against many other highly qualified candidates and that your PI chose you. You where the best candidate for the job, why else would they have picked you, considering the lengthy  grant writing process they aren’t going to waste there hard earned cash and reputation on just anybody. Also the mere fact that you are thinking you not good enough generally means you are.

Heres a link to an article which discusses imposter syndrome further and offers insights as to how to overcome it

4. A PhD does not entitle you to a job

Shocking as this may be to hear having a PhD does not entitle you to a job, especially a PhD in a science subject. Think about how many people do PhDs in biochemistry, genetics and immunology? How many people from your undergrad class went on to do PhDs? Its a very large pool of candidates compred to those with in a PhD in law for instance.

Next think about how many of your fellows PhDs want to PostDoc or move into industry/non-academic career paths? In my experience this is probably 40:50 with a lot of candidates favoring a non academic career. The competition for non academic science jobs is extremely tough especially if your are looking to get into industry. Do not be disheartened though, you will most definitely get a job, after all you have a tonne of transferable skills – it just may take way longer than you anticipated. Check out this article for skills that are transferable from a PhD to business roles 

If a post doc is what you desire bare in mind that competition is fierce particularly for positions in high profile labs. Your publication record will be of particular interest to any employers here.Check out these links for some more tips on finding a PostDoc and improving how you network.

Finding PhD/ Postdoctoral Research Jobs and Positions

PostDoc Job advice

Networking tips for scientists

5. Loneliness

One topic that commonly comes up when talking with my friends about our PhDs is how lonely and isolating it can be. One of the main reasons for this I believe is that only you truly understand your project. Having friends doing a PhD is great as they can relate to a lot of what you are going through but they can never really truly engage with you and your project, as it nearly always so specialized and 9 times out of 10 (unless you are in the same group) in a completely different specialization.  Ultimately leaving you with the feeling that although they may listen they will never truly understand your exact situation.

Depending on what experiments you are running you may be required to work late into the night and weekends. This although not  always the case can result you spending large amounts of your day alone in cell culture or on the microscope. Some people enjoy being alone in the lab and find it easier to get things done without any distractions. I personally liked the idea of having someone around especially for those days when a experiment you spent the past 2 weeks setting up fails.


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