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Cassandra M. Chapman

University of Queensland


Submission type: How-to
Title:  3 ways to make your PhD harder than it needs to be
Author: Cassandra M Chapman, The University of Queensland
Email address:
Keywords: mental health; thriving; research; success
Word count (body): 486

3 ways to make your PhD harder than it needs to be

You may have heard that a PhD is hard work. It is hard. But it’s also great fun.

PhD students may have a more flexible and rewarding working life than almost anyone else on the planet. Not many jobs pay you to think about big ideas, research what you’re passionate about, and write and talk about your favourite things.

Doing a PhD should be a joy. Yet often it feels like a burden.

Too many students burn out and drop out before they discover their joy. Here are 3 ways I’ve seen fellow students make their PhD harder than it needs to be.

1.  Expect to know it all

The greatest shock when I started my PhD was just how little I knew. I wasn’t on top of all the theories in my field, best practice of research design, the latest statistical techniques, or how to write engaging research papers and persuasive presentations. My mediocrity felt overwhelming.

I still don’t know most of those things, but I have learnt to think of my PhD as a training program. Not knowing is an opportunity, not a weakness. Students who expect to know it all may feel overwhelmed and find it hard to stick their PhD out.

2.  Work all the time

Precisely because there is so much to learn, it can feel as if you’re constantly on the back foot, fighting to keep up. This can lead to some mad, workaholic hours. And to sickness, sadness, and general breakdown.

Nothing is fun all the time, especially not your research. There’s always more to do but if you don’t take the time to destress, recharge, and socialise you risk losing sight of the reason you do your work. Students who don’t take time off regularly may find themselves taking time off permanently.

3.  Avoid feedback

Many students avoid chances to present their work and receive critical feedback. Whether it’s a research talk to the lab or a draft manuscript, some of us actively avoid hearing how we’re doing. Sadly, by avoiding early feedback we actually increase the odds of receiving crushing reviews.

If you present your ideas when they are still being formed, then critical engagement is a boon. It helps to shape your thinking and minimises flaws and oversights. If, on the other hand, you wait until your ideas have crystallised, your studies are conducted, and your manuscript is drafted, the very same critiques can be crushing. Students who fear negative feedback may avoid exposing their work to critique. When they do finally receive it, such feedback may damage them more.

Though certainly challenging, a PhD is an amazing opportunity to have a fulfilling and flexible work life, for a period of years. That said, research life is rife with challenges. By avoiding these three common ways students make their PhD harder than necessary, you can lift the odds of having a positive experience at graduate school.

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