Are PhDs Hard?

Is spending long hours for 3-5 years of your life focusing on one subject, hard?

Are PhDs Hard?
Whether PhDs are hard really depends on your perspective ...

If you're thinking about doing a PhD or know of someone who's doing one, you might be wondering whether people are making out that it's harder than it is. With it being one of the highest educational experiences you can get, just how hard is it to do a PhD?

Well, there's no doubt about it; doing a PhD is hard. Long, lonely hours of intensive, and often monotonous research work, with the pressures of publication on your back, doesn't make the process of finishing a PhD easy.

However if we were to break it down further, it's not all hard. In fact a lot of the hard bits are self imposed, but self imposed with good reason.

So is getting a PhD easy?

If you were to do the absolute minimum work required to get a PhD and you were intellectually 'smart', then yes, getting a PhD may be 'easy'. But doing the bare minimum won't get you a job, nor the enthusiasm of your supervisors, nor make you feel like there was a genuine point of your PhD. Chances are the contribution to the field were minimal and the impact was barely noticed. So why did someone invest around £100,000 in you to do it?

The hard bits are what make a PhD. In this respect the hard part is the process, not the work.

The day-to-day tasks of your task at any one time might actually be easy. Weighing a sample out 1000 times isn't hard right? But weighing out 1000 samples and seeing that the results you got were next to useless, that's hard. Reading 500 research papers and restating what they did is easy. But forming the information into your own ideas and providing novel insights, whilst developing unique ideas, is hard.

To that extent, a PhD is only as hard as you make it, but by making it hard, you'll come out with something worthwhile.

Just what is hard about a PhD?

It is unstructured

A PhD is not a defined course. There's no handbook. It's just a series of people who have gone on the same learning journey as you. But that journey takes on so many forms there is no blueprint for success. Whilst there may be a report or two along the way plus the final thesis and viva, how you navigate through your study is up to you.

It's hard to find your niche

With new research coming out daily in so many research areas, it can be hard to know where you fit in. There seems to be a scientist doing everything. The worst bit is when you work on a great idea and then someone else goes ahead and pips you to the publication post (whether well intentioned or not). Out goes novelty. Settling down on your research topic takes a while.

You'll spend many hours doing one thing

Whether it's trying to figure something out, or running through a lot of lab samples, some things just never seem to end. The hard bit is not doing the work, it's doing the same thing for weeks.

Things don't work, a lot

And it gets worse if that thing you just spent weeks doing, doesn't work. Things go wrong, or break, or don't work a lot in a PhD. In fact in a STEM PhD I would go as far to say that one third of your PhD is mistakes and things that don't work or trying to get it right. The other thirds are writing, analysis and reading, and 'doing the work'. And the other third is everything else; teaching, networking, funding applications etc. . Wait a minute, something doesn't add up ....

You'll be making less than minimum wage

Chances are you'll be working more than a standard working week. And a PhD is not known for making a lot of money. It can be incredibly hard and demoralising knowing that you could make more working in a local supermarket. A PhD is a crime of passion.

You'll be pulled in so many different directions

Whilst a company may hire you for a specific purpose, a PhD student will wear many hats. In one day you might be teaching, doing statistics, lab work, writing an article and hosting a seminar. It can be hard to find the focus to work on one thing.

Man looking up at arrows heading off in opposite directions
A PhD can have many opportunities but this may mean you are pulled in multiple directions at once.

It's a short term contract training you to get another short term contract

A PhD lasts between 3-5 years roughly, maybe even longer if you're part-time. At the end of this, you will be highly skilled in one area and have no job. If you want to continue into academia, then chances are you'll be on another even shorter post doctoral contract. It can take a while and be hard to get a full time job straight out of a PhD.

Are they getting harder?

It's difficult to judge if PhDs are getting harder. I think it's getting harder in respect that the amount of research out there is growing exponentially. There is an expectation to be interdisciplinary whilst at the same time dealing with increasingly sophisticated and specialist fields emerging.

It's certainly getting more difficult to get a job after a PhD, due in part to the greater numbers of people doing PhDs. Whilst a PhD is like a job, it is also a proving ground. With more people fighting for jobs at the end, it puts the pressure on you to do more and more. And this is why PhDs are hard.