Biggest Misconceptions about doing a PhD


A lot of people decide that after their education they want to work in the "real world." Some of us decide that's a terrible idea and remain in academia. As such, it is likely we become PhD students. Now when we made this decision, our judgement and expectations of what a PhD was like led us into this direction. But as we know, most expectations don't tend to hold true. So I asked some of my colleagues what the biggest misconceptions were they had about doing a PhD. So here they are:


Imposter Syndrome A lot of us started when the term Imposter Syndrome was coined. As such, it wasn't that odd to think that we would feel like imposters. That we would feel as if we were surrounded by people who were so much better at research than we were. But then, you get to know these people and their work a lot better, and you'll figure out they are in a mess just as big as yours. PhD projects (well, academic research in general) is notoriously messy. Five things have to backfire before anything works. Code stops running, hypotheses were fundamentally flawed, the initial method isn't measuring what it is supposed to or you cannot get access to the sample you need. These issues will happen to you and you'll feel worse for it. Until you talk to someone else and they are going through the same (or a similar) thing. There's no pain like shared pain. You'll quickly realise that this is happening to everyone, and feel better for it. If none of this is happening to you, or your mess is smaller than everyone else's, you might even feel a bit smug about it. I think after the initial hurdle, Imposter Syndrome is not something you tend to experience in comparison to people in the same boat as you. Misconception 1: Everyone around you is smarter or better at research: absolutely fucking not, I have found us all to be equally moronic at times. Status No one seems to know what a PhD student really is. At least, most of the times our departments can't figure it out. You are invited to some staff meetings, but not to others. Some things are mandatory, others you can be exempt from as a "student." Yes you will teach, but on an hourly rate. And you are still being paid a terribly low wage (if you're on a scholarship). There'll always be a distance between the actual staff and the PhDs. Sometimes it's just more noticeable than others. So you're not a student and not a member of staff. Just hanging in the void between the two. It's odd, I know. Misconception 2: You have a clearly defined role: nope Control This one I have to put a disclaimer on: it's specific for field, department, university and supervisor. This is the experience from someone in the Warwick Business School, which rarely offers structured PhD projects. Why the disclaimer? Because this doesn't hold for a lot of different departments and fields, because it's not feasible to do research that way. The actual misconception? Thinking you have less control than you do. My friend here thought it'd be a 50/50 division between themselves and their supervisor on how to design, plan and implement the research. Not so much. It was more like 85% theirs, and their supervisor would check the other 15% to make sure they were still somewhat on the same page. Now with this control do come some benefits. It is YOUR project. So, if the way your supervisor(s) handle you isn't working for you, you can and should indicate this and create a workflow that works. I know PhDs who actually give some of this control away, to make sure they progress at a decent speed, by meeting deadlines as imposed by their supervisor(s). Whatever works. We have this control, as such we should use it.

Misconception 3: Control over the project is going to be 50/50 between you and your supervisor(s): doesn't have to be, doesn't always happen, but it can be. Nice and vague answer that.

Changing your Mind Very much in line with control (so the disclaimer continues to apply): you can change your mind. As in, if the topic no longer works for you, or the method doesn't, or the results just weren't as great as you hoped, you can drop it and move on. Now I'm not saying this is the easiest process. Sometimes a different method just means running a study differently. It just means more work. But other times it means having to find a different supervisor or even department. The general idea is that once you signed up and of on something, you're stuck. Not true. This is a multiple year commitment from your end. If it isn't working, cut your losses and start over. This goes for your supervisor(s) as well. Sometimes you just don't work well together, and you both need to acknowledge that. They might even be able to direct you to someone more suitable for you. This isn't a life or death scenario, your choice isn't final. You can change your mind. Misconception 4: The project idea you applied with is the project you will be stuck with for the next 4(?) years: No, switching might not be that easy, but it's easier than recovering from depression/burn-out.

Obligations. Obligations Everywhere I could have named this section many things, such as: Actual time spend on research. Which is so much less than you think. And you know why? Your project: your administrative responsibility. And there is a surprisingly large amount of admin. that needs to happen when doing research.


Administrative things to take into account: pre-registration, funding, ethics (that is a process...), participant recruitment, participant selection, and that is just for one project. You yourself as a researcher will have to fullfil different administrative tasks as well. In my first year of the PhD I had to hand in another dissertation due to my funding scheme. That is a lot of hours I'm not going to get back to do my actual research. Moreover, administrative work is one of the few obligations you have. Teaching is another. A lot of people do really enjoy teaching, so to call it an obligation is a bit harsh, but it costs time. Time not spend on research. You feel me?

Misconception 5: Most of your time will be spend doing research: no one is that lucky any more. Life Admin will find a way to ruin that for you. Cross-contamination & Cooperation One of my colleagues is still dissapointed by the lack of collaboration they have seen when it comes to people helping each other out in their projects. Academia is known for being filled with collaborations, where multiple people get together, think about a cool topic, work out the pragmatics and do cool research together. This is not at all how the PhD seems to work. The PhD seems to be much more individual. Sure, you can get together and talk about your topic, any issues you might be having and I'm sure colleagues will chip in with some feedback and maybe help you out a bit, but that's it. It'll still be your project. During the PhD it is highly unlikely there will be a project that isn't yours, but "ours."

Now I do have to mention what I suspect drives this "individualism." There are regulations as to what can be put in the final PhD thesis and the emphasis is on it being the work of an individual. Collaborations, proper collaborations, cannot qualify for this. As such, it is not that surprising that on the PhD level, with a clear deadline ahead, the focus on collaborations is minimal.

Misconception 6: There will be a lot of cooperation within your group and within projects themselves: happens in a lot of academia, but surprisingly little on the PhD level.


Flexibility There seems to be no end to this one: a PhD is not a 9-17 if you don't want it to be! If you want to work like hell for one month and not do anything the next, you can. Up to you (unless your supervisors have strong reservations). Is that recommendable? Not sure, but if it works for you, go at it. You don't even have to work from the office, if you prefer working from home, or from the Bahamas! Some restrictions there: if you work in a lab, you might need to be in that lab. Unless that lab is in the Bahamas, the previous statement might be rather difficult to fulfill. Just putting that out there, I don't want to get your hopes up. Now I will mention something that I have mentioned many times before, but cannot iterate often enough: flexibility can massively backfire. No one will send you home at 17:00. If you want to keep working until 21:00, you can. But the real question is whether you should. Don't overwork yourself because you think that is what everyone else is doing. The flexibility in work schedules makes it difficult to judge how long everyone else is working. In general, how long someone is working is by no means a sign of their productivity. I can do admin. for 10 hours straight. It's depressing, but doesn't require much mental capacity. I can code for 8 hours straight (just refuse to do so for my own sanity). I can write for 6 at best, with a lot of breaks in between. So to me a 10 hour working day might have been less productive than a 6 hour one. Because in the former I just did admin, whereas in the latter I will have written thousands of words. That's quite a difference. Keep that in mind.


Misconception 7: A PhD will end up being similar to a 9-17 job, working 40 hours a week: It can be, if you design it as such, but it doesn't have to be. PhDs tend to be very flexible, which is a good thing to some, and a nightmare to others. Selling Yourself If you wanted to escape the shameless self-promotion by avoiding taking a job in business, I've got some terrible news for you. Academia is competitive too. It is possible (read: likely) that you aren't exactly the only researcher in your topic, although it can feel that way sometimes. So you need to be able to sell yourself, to get access to unique research opportunities. I don't mean this in the same way as when I wrote the article on Selling Yourself. That was more LinkedIn and job interview based. What I'm referring to now is how you define yourself in your department, your research group, but mainly at conferences. You will have to bare it all there. And it can be brutal. You will have to sell your own capabilities as well as the validity of your own research. You need to believe that you are the best person to do this, having employed the best methods of obtaining the most interesting results ever. Yes I know, not my cup of tea either. But self-deprecation (my humor) tends to come across as insecurity and not believing in your own research. Well, if the researcher themselves doesn't even believe in it, why should the audience even care? Misconception 8: In a PhD you will have to promote your self less as the environment is friendlier and more relaxed: Afraid not, still a jobsector, and a competitive one at that!

Care You care about your project, naturally. You think it's pretty damn awesome (I hope). Otherwise see the previous point and pretend you think it's fucking awesome. But the issue is, you are the only one that cares THIS much. Which is exactly why you need to sell your research to begin with. If something goes wrong within your research, people will sympathise, but they won't actually care. Because it is not their project. This might even hold for your supervisors. They will have many more than one PhD student (you), so they run into problems with their supervisees' research all the time. They will run into issues with their very own research as well. This project might be your whole world, but it isn't theirs (nor should it be). So that can cause some initial frictions. Good advice I've been given? Find yourself a group of people who do similar stuff, or have an interest that is similar to yours and your project. You can nerd out together. It'll be good for you!

Misconception 9: Your project is awesome and people care about it as much as you do: Do you care as much about other people's projects as your own? Exactly. Feedback Counterintuitively, although you are the one who cares the most, your own feedback is not the one that matters most. Nor the one that you'll think about most. If you hand in written work your supervisors will ply you with feedback. I think for the first paper I wrote, which is a short paper btw, I got over 60 comments for every draft. There were quite a few drafts... But that's not all. Your presented work will get plenty of feedback too. During conferences, or even informal talks, there'll be questions, suggestions or just plain criticisms of what you are doing. Some of this feedback will very useful, actual constructive criticism will be given to you. But there'll also be feedback that is just utterly useless, telling you that your project sucks or whatever. So, expect the worst, but keep in mind that this type of feedback reflects more on whoever says it, rather than on you or your project.

Misconception 10: You won't get that much feedback as it's YOUR project: You'll get all the feedback, from every angle. Don't let it get to you too much. Some of it is actually meant well.

I think having written about 10 major misconceptions should do the trick. I hope you enjoyed the article and let me know what your biggest misconception was about doing a PhD, or if you haven't done one/aren't doing one, what you think it'd be like!

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