PhD tips

PhD nonsense #4: “The PhD must be a struggle”

I’ve had the fortune to only have excellent, supportive and caring supervisors. From the get go, they offered me all the guidance, advice and academic-love that they could and that I needed.

My first year was like a home-coming. Having recently left an extremely difficult work situation, returning to academia was a long-time dream come true, and my principal supervisor was nothing but welcoming and excited for me to start this PhD.


Over dinner with some other PhD friends mid-way through my first year, we started talking about supervisors. All of them had some nightmare story to recount about how awful their supervisors were being.

Naively, I piped up that I had had nothing but good experiences with my supervisor, that she was making my PhD journey joyful, pleasurable and everything I’d hope it would be.

Imagine my shock then, when one of them turned around and said, with a hard, steely spike in her eye: “You’re only in your first year. Just you wait. It will get worse. They’re bound to fuck you over by the time you’re in your third year.”

I made a mental note of what she said but took it with a large grain of salt. And I’m happy to report now, having finished the PhD, that what she prophesied never happened. This first supervisor, and later a second who joined my supervisory team, were consistently and constantly wonderful throughout the 5 years it took me to get through the PhD.

The moral of the story: The PhD doesn’t have to be a horrible, miserable tale of suffering. You absolutely don’t have have to anticipate and expect *only* a struggle.

I resent the suggestion from PhD candidates further along in their programme that suffering is all that there is and that you must expect it.

Of course, the struggles that doctoral students encounter are very real and there is still much that needs to be addressed in the way of fair and adequate supervisory and research support across universities globally.

BUT this does not have to translate to a universal truth. Just because someone has an unfavourable and difficult PhD experience, it doesn’t mean that you will, or should, too.

It certainly doesn’t mean that we should benchmark misery and struggle as the expected norm. Not only is this not helpful, but it set up unhealthy beliefs that if you aren’t struggling – or if you are truly enjoying your doctoral experience – then you must be doing something wrong… or that you should be expecting the other shoe to drop soon and for it all to come crumbling down around you.

If you’ve been fortunate enough to be in a programme and assigned a supervisor that is offering you the support you need; that’s fulfilling your academic and research interests; that’s helping you grow as both a resesarcher and a human being – then know that that’s a perfectly great research path to be on.

Enjoy the heck out of it and celebrate that goodness by doing the best damn research you can.

However, if you’re not finding the support that you need or you really are struggling with your programme, please don’t feel that you have to just accept this as the way things are. You don’t have to struggle and suffer in order for your research to be valuable and valid, and it’s absolutely fine to want your PhD to be enjoyable and less stressful – whatever stage of your PhD you’re in.

So, instead of just suffering in silence and thinking that that’s how a PhD ‘should be’, reach out to your colleagues, department or university support services to find the help that you need. Speak out about your experience, look for and try out different ways to make it better. If this means changing your supervisor(s), department(s), research topic or institution, know that there should be support within your university to assist in this.

The long and short of it is that you shouldn’t have to expect a PhD to be only a monstrous, awful experience. If someone tells you otherwise – like that ‘friend’ did to me in my first year – please remember that they are likely to be speaking primarily from their own experience. And that that experience does not have to be yours too.

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