What PhD Life is Really Like

Mairi Young is a PhD student at the University of Glasgow, researching why people are scared of the dentist (sort of). She is also a foodie and self-confessed junk food lover, blogging over at The Weegie Kitchen.

When you’re studying for a PhD, you will be perpetually presented with two semi-rhetorical questions:

  1. Wow, you must be really smart?
  2. Wow, so you’re gonna be a Doctor!?

Regardless of how tedious these become, you better get used to it because it’s all any non-PhD-student really understands about it. We minions in the lower echelons of academia know it’s a different story altogether.

Whether you’re embarking on a PhD, you know someone studying a PhD and you want to understand their life a little better, or if you’re doing a PhD and just procrastinating today (I’m not here to judge, man) I’ll share what PhD life is really like.

Source: exloringhandhygiene.wordpress.com

Source: exloringhandhygiene.wordpress.com

We’re old, and a student

PhD students are generally older than your average Undergrad or Masters student. We have (considerably) less money than anyone else our age, we shop at Lidl and Aldi, and a night out/celebration are limited to:

  • Student clubs at the weekend – We can have a night out and taxi home for less than £20 but this involves warm syrupy cranberry juice mixed with paint stripper vodka in a plastic cup surrounded by girls wearing shorts/heels/crop tops and boys who resemble our baby brothers; or
  • Fancier pubs during the week – There are fewer crowds, so you can actually chat to your pals, cocktails come in REAL glasses and are often half price during the week. The problem is you can only really go out with your PhD pals because everyone else has to be in the office for 9am.
Source: author's personal collection.

Source: author’s personal collection.

What’s your PhD about anyway?

Let me tell you right now, 90% of people who ask this question aren’t interested in what your PhD is about at all. The other 10% is made up of:

  • Your Supervisors – You take up a lot of their time so naturally they are interested but this interest is VERY low down in their list of priorities;
  • People at a conference who are researching something similar – These people are the tiny percentage of people who actually understand your research and who are genuinely interested. Believe me, this is rare.

So how do you deal with this question from the other 90% of people who don’t care and are asking out of politeness? Well, you reel off a small catchy sums-it-up-sentence people can relate to

For example:

I’m researching why people are scared of attending the dentist.

People love this, and it generates a discussion that most people can join in with. Is it what my research is about? No.

My research evaluates the efficacy of interventions by oral health support workers trying to engage hard to reach families, typically people with a fear of attending the dentist, regarding oral health behaviours. My working title is:

Optimising the role of the Dental Health Support Worker in Childsmile Practice: A qualitative case study approach. 

You see the distinction?

The Doctor thing

Most people who know me, and my journey to get here, get excited about the whole ‘becoming a Doctor’ thing. I appreciate their support but I can’t share the enthusiasm because the shiny appeal of being Dr Mairi Young is well and truly lost.

Let me take you on a journey:

  • 3-6months into a PhD you’re worried about being found out as a fraud to even consider being awarded the doctorate. You’re convinced the University has made a mistake and will call you any day now to kick you out.
  • 1st year you have no idea what to do, so you wing it.
  • 2nd year you worry whether you’ve got enough time to do all your research and writing.
  • 3rd year you panic because you don’t think you’ve done enough to even put together a thesis.
  • By 4th year you’re worrying about PostDocs, Viva’s and the sheer cost of binding the thesis.

By the time your graduation comes around, you’re in the gown and you’re being handed the piece of paper which allows you to call yourself Doctor, you’re already in a Post Doc post and that journey has started all over again.

Forgive us if we aren’t all that excited about being called Doctor. It can feel like something of a consolation prize.

Endless corrections

11704948_10153079810253736_7499609512061010656_nThe one thing I miss about undergrad life was handing in an essay and never seeing it again. You’d receive a mark and that was it: a pure and beautiful cycle of hard work and reward.

This doesn’t happen at PhD level. 

In a PhD you will spend weeks, if not months, tirelessly working on a chapter to make it perfect. You will submit to your supervisors and wait. And wait. And wait. Then you get corrections back.

That beautiful piece of work you worked yourself to the bone for returns covered in incomprehensible scribbles. Deciphering these scribbles will become a skill fit for your CV. Once you’ve deciphered and amended the chapter to perfection, submitted the chapter and waited, and waited and waited…. You get corrections back again.

Thus it continues until the day the thesis is bound and submitted. It’s thoroughly de-motivating and an exhaustive task.

Endnote (or Zotero/Mendeley etc.)

If I could give PhD students one piece of advice for the future, it would be this: learn how to use Endnote.

I’m 2 years and 10 months into a 4 year PhD and I still don’t really know how to work EndNote.

Supposedly it makes your life easier because you can ‘cite while you write’ and compile your references at the click of a button. Yet as I still don’t really know how to work Endnote chances are I (and a couple other PhD’ers I know) will be typing ours out manually.

Please know I’m not lazy, and I’ve not been avoiding the issue. I simply never fully appreciated the time I had on my hands in the first 6 months of my PhD. Back then, I had all the time in the world to spend learning the detailed intricacies of useful software. 3 years in, I don’t have this luxury anymore.

phd 3

Council Tax

Quite possibly the saving grace of the whole PhD malarkey: No Council Tax.

I did my Undergraduate degree, MSc and PhD back to back which means I’ve been studying for 9 years (with a year to go *weeps*). I have not paid council tax at all during this time. I truly believe Glasgow City Council has a ‘Mairi Young Is At It / Must Investigate’ file because after 10 years at 3 different universities, they must be thinking “Surely she’s scamming us?”

Even though I receive a tax free stipend (which FYI is an absolute joy to explain to the Inland Revenue) it is a measly amount, so the saving I make not paying Council Tax means I can afford to live on my own, a luxury I never want to give up.


Contrary to popular opinion, PhD students don’t dislike Undergrads, we’re just jealous of them. Undergrads have it easy and they don’t even know it.

At that age you don’t mind living in a tiny single bedroom and sharing a kitchen with 7 other people so long as it’s within walking distance to class and the student union. You don’t mind living off 9p noodles, cereal and toast. You can sleep during the day between classes, be told exactly what to study to pass the module, submit an essay and never see it again, and you have a whole summer each year in which to relax and enjoy yourself.

PhD students don’t have such luxuries.

We’re too accustomed to the finer things in life: expensive complicated cocktails, antipasti and fresh flowers every weekend. We also read journal papers in bed to catch up with reading, which throws a downer on any romantic relationship, and we stress out over how to afford a suitable outfit for a conference on a measly PhD stipend.

If you’re an undergrad and you see a PhD student tutting at you in the library for browsing Asos rather than working, please know we don’t hate you, we’re just green with envy that our lives are no longer like that. I’m sure you can empathise. By the time you end up doing a PhD, you’ll feel the same, I promise.

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24 thoughts on “What PhD Life is Really Like

  1. I understand the venting I see in academic blogs and pages and all that.

    But from the perspective of someone who is considering a PhD, following these pages is very, very demoralizing.

    I mean, after all the stress, the uncertainty, the work you have to put in for apparently such low reward – what could justify me deciding going into this world? Submitting myself to this strenuous life?

    For a while I was almost sure I wanted to pursue a PhD. I sure have the abilities and academic interests. But now I can hardly even begin to motivate myself to really set this as a goal and experience it. Cause like you said, all this work and by the end of he PhD what do you get? A post-doc.

    You just keep being a student forever. Which for me, would be GREAT. I love being a student, I love learning, I love research. But I’d also love not to live the life of a slave.

    Sorry for the pseudo-rant, I guess I’m kinda hoping you talk me back into wanting to pursue the academic life in spite of all the down sides I’m now hopelessly aware of.

    • The simple thought exercise I used when considering whether or not I wanted to finish my PhD:
      Was there any single problem that I could foresee dedicating a large portion of my life to and becoming one of the world’s foremost experts in? PhDs are like the tip of the spear – very sharp, incredibly narrow.

      I decided against it, but your decision may be different.

      • After five years (!) at it, I will say it’s a bit like bootcamp – pretty harrowing at times, lots of emotional ups and downs (which you get a good picture of from the phdcomics site if you want a preview!) but ultimately satisfying to say you’ve climbed the figurative Mount Everest… I sometimes call it psychological warfare, just for the mental toughness required to write 80-100,000 words of solid research. Also lots of self-doubt, but if you’re fortunate, good intellectual simulation, and camaraderie with your fellow ‘sufferers’ – you all have an intense love – hate relationship with your theses, and it’s all perfectly normal. And you have to really love your field of research (ok some people don’t – I don’t know how they do it, but I couldn’t. I love my research and yet by this pre-submission stage, looking at it sometimes literally makes me feel nauseous….) Hope this is useful!

      • Well, maybe an alternative question to also ask would be: what work DO you see your life being dedicated to? Is it better to be a cog in the wheel… or one who explains what makes the wheel go round? …. clearly most of us spend our lives working 9 to 5 for a pay packet… if you can actually dedicate yourself to a purpose that goes beyond those things, you’re probably lucky….

    • Anonymous, I’m just over halfway into a 3 year PhD and can honestly say it’s the best thing I could’ve done.
      I, like you, love to learn and research. I can’t express the emotions of conducting your first proper study (that wasn’t asking your friends to fill in a questionnaire), writing it up into a conference paper, having said paper accepted, and presenting it in front of people who are genuinely interested. I even asked to do teaching, and still don’t see it as a chore.
      The PhD isn’t for everyone, I know some who are counting down the days until the end or something better comes along (job for more money), but I’m convinced it will never be so good as it is right now. We get freedom to research anything and everything and make mistakes all in the name of science.
      I’m unique perhaps in that I submit ok/good drafts rather than trying to achieve an unattainable excellent piece, so avoid the crushing feeling of corrections because I expect and learn from them but I figure if you come into this with your eyes wide open, you’ll enjoy it as much as I do.
      Everyones experience is different but I hope this goes someway to persuading you to go for it.

    • Some thoughts here from a 3rd-year PhD student here. Landed here during a moment of self-reflection.

      I am involved in a city-wide, cross-disciplinary association of early career researchers and we regularly share experiences. The uncertainty and time spent on publication is a universal topic.

      Lack of rewards? Certainly not. I love being a scientist. I love being a social scientist. Without doing a PhD I would not be able to think scientifically to this degree. Doing a PhD does not condemn you to a life of slavery. A post-doc is optional and there are many ways to apply the skills from a PhD afterwards.

      In my experience the PhD has not been isolating, though I have seen isolated people. Find a supportive community, talk to people who are applying their sciences, get curious, and solve some problems! There are plenty of them and the world needs more scientists.

      Check out the DIYbio movement for an example from the world of biology.

    • Doing a phd is only worth it if you really want to go that step further in knowing X and nothing short of that will be satisfying, and not doing it will always be this source of disappointment. At the end you can do whatever you want, a lot of people go into Industry or work somewhere else, a small group continue into academia, again not because of the financial perks, those will never be big, but because you simply love the knowing more about this tiny thing….See, it’s inevitable to whinge because you really are underappreciated, underpaid, and misunderstood in the greater scheme of things. PhD comics plays up a sad reality but ask any phd if they would really give up the chance to spend their time learning and discovering about their favorite X and I bet you none of them would…ok maybe a small percentage would say rather would not have done it, but those are generally the people who do leave it and go on to work on something else. Hey it happens.

      I am in the final stages working on corrections part II, I am admittedly tired of re-reading and re-writing this thing, I am admittedly annoyed at having to figure out what the hell my supervisor wants from me when he says come up with less descriptive titles (FYI I am really bad at coming with titles) but at the same time I am itching to be able to work on the spin-off project from chapter III of my thesis because hey as a medical historian I really do want to know how women survived postpartum madness back in 19th Century Prussia. Now lets hope I get that postdoc funding. An no postdocs is not the same as the phd, one important difference you finally get paid what most people your age do (at least on the continent….) (never going to compare to those finance people but then again they don’t sleep and I like my sleep).

      Do I feel underpaid? Totally, I made more as a masters student back in England than as a phd in Germany but as I sit here procrastinating on those stupid titles writing to you I honestly realise how lucky I am to be able to find out what prussian did back before napoleon invaded.

      My advice to you, do it if you are itching to know that bit more and nothing else will satisfy you. And thanks to our moaning you are going in with your eyes open. Take the advice learn to use endnote (Mairi Young is totally write those small things are so important when you are pressed for time your final year)

    • Well its simple, if you want to do it, ignore the cons and do it! Although, nothing in this article is untrue, you can also learn to have fun during a PhD. I’m happy with my grant, its livable, I get to spend loads of time with my son as I mostly write at home etc. even if nothing else comes of it (e.g. just a post-doc), it was worth it. Just keep those contingency plans ready for when the party is over and don’t make your whole PhD about getting a tenure track position or bust.

    • Not sure when the above comment was posted, so this may be a moot point if Anonymous has since enrolled in a doctoral program. In response to this comment – “You just keep being a student forever” – No. You’re a student until you finish, sometime in 5-8 years after enrolling. True, this is not an insignificant amount of time. But then if you’re fortunate, you land a job at a university or think tank or elsewhere (gov’t). You do interesting work where you get to use your mind, investigate interesting questions & problems, write & publish if you want, mentor young researchers, and possibly have a flexible schedule (if in a TT job) that complements family life (i.e., no classes or office hours & get to work from your home office when your kids are on summer break). That’s why you do it.

    • I’m just going to he blunt here but if you if feel demoralised by reading these post alone, then you shouldn’t embark in a PhD. It’s hard and not in the sence of intelligence. It’s emotionally and psychologically hard. I’m a supervisor now and see lots of bright people starting their PhDs excited about hard thinking and hard working. That’s the easy bit. It’s a very very steep emotional adjustment if you manage to come out on the other side.

      • 100%! it is not about intelligence. It is just hard work with a lot of iterations. As long as you love your subject and have the motivation and perseverance to keep going despite the stress, boredom and drawbacks, you will be fine.

        Three advises from others who have been there help me:
        1. Eyes on the price
        2. You are also in for the experience and the process
        3. Your research and thesis are not part of you. It is your work and many people are there to improve it (peer review, supervisors, examiners) – so your self-doubt, ego or anything like that have little relevance.

    • I will tell you what I tell my students: if you can picture yourself happily doing anything else, do that. If you really truly cannot, if this is the only thing for you, then do a PhD. It is only for those who really love this life, because it is brutual. But for some of us, it is all we ever wanted and the stress and poverty and low job prospects were worth it for the satisfying intellectual development and CHANCE at an academic career. Good luck!

    • Yeah, I’m halfway through my PhD and I would not recommend it to anyone in the humanities. At least in the US, unless you’re at a school that’s top 10 in your field it’s extremely unlikely that you will be able to get a teaching position, and anything outside academia couldn’t care about degrees as long as you have a bachelor’s. I unfortunately got two MAs and started teaching part time. Now I’ve been out of the job market long enough that I’m unemployable outside of academia and can’t be hired to teach full time without a PhD… so I don’t really have a choice. At this point, classes are kind of fun but they’re a distraction from the research I need to be doing to get published, which I need to be able to get a job after graduation. Did I mention I’m doing this while working full time, because that’s the only way I can afford tuition?

      If you’re in the sciences I’m pretty sure a PhD is a license to print money. But do not do it in the humanities unless you have a burning desire to be unemployed the rest of your life.

      • Also, when you get a job, you have to keep being productive. You always need one MORE book to get tenure (if you have one, you need two, and if you have two, you need three, etc.). Also, if you happen to be in the wrong field, the administration might eventually wipe you out, no matter your CV.

  2. Doing a Phd has been like having a child for me. I have slogged and learnt both useful and useless skills, I have published and presented papers, but I have also had to mark 100 students in 2 weeks (see!!) But no matter how hard it gets, you get this feeling of satisfaction. Don’t get me wrong, not everyone gets it and almost 50% people who start Phd drop out before submitting thesis. But for me this has been a lovable devil- my doctoral research!

  3. I entered a PhD program (math), but left with a masters. Until that point, I’d felt a sense of inadequacy – I was convinced I was smart enough, and the reason I didn’t have a PhD (or any graduate degree) was just laziness. After a year in grad school, I discovered two additional reasons: first, the level of abstraction was getting beyond what I was capable of, and second, I didn’t really want to do research. So I did enough for the masters and left, went back to teaching, and now am in law school, where the level of abstraction is exactly where I want it: higher than college math and philosophy, lower than graduate level math. (I was able to keep up with graduate level philosophy, but was too demoralized at philosophy outcomes.)

    I could see myself going back for a PhD in my retirement, in a field that interests me but without great job prospects (like philosophy).

  4. One thing about learning Endnote – its value is cumulative. I learned it as a Masters student and was using it from the beginning of my lit review. Result? After 12 years of being an academic I have 4,800 entries in my Endnote database. Super useful!

  5. It depends how old you are when you start too, and whether you’ve done any life bits between the academic bits. In my 20’s I just wasn’t that interested in joining the system of academia, although I loved learning & research. The good news is it’s actually possible to learn things outside of academia (no! Really!)

    Now I’m older & have some life under my belt, I can be more selective about which parts I want to participate in, and can judge which parts to skip (i.e. how to not take criticisms personally; this is much easier to do when your supervisor is close to the same age as you or younger).

    If you ARE doing a PhD, yes, Zotero is a lifesaver. I used it for my MSc. and it was so great to have 80% of the references appear formatted and ready to go at the click of a button.

  6. My motivation for embarking on a part-time PhD 2.5 years ago is different from many responses above: I want to die with ‘Dr’ on my tombstone, but with all my marbles. I want to set a good example to my grown-up children about the value of hard work and determination.
    Studying and learning is a very good way of preventing age-related cognitive decline (according to the theory of environmental complexity), and I have found a topic I love. I am 63, and don’t need a job when I complete it. There are many of us third-agers now eager to learn, anxious to avoid dementia and Alzheimer’s.

    Another motivation is to finish something I started when I was in my twenties. I dropped out of a DPhil after less than a year in 1980, suffering from imposter syndrome. Now I am older and wiser, I have realised that a PhD is less a test of brilliance, than of character – it’s about grit and determination and not wanting to accept the alternative me that was the PhD dropout. So far, I have learned so much and exercised my brain much more than I did for the last few years of my career when I was ‘coasting’ along as a senior civil servant. The challenge is exhilarating, taxing and frustrating in equal measure. You need an internal motivation to do it.

    So don’t do it unless you really, really want it, and you are prepared to work through all the many setbacks along the way. And read up on ‘Grit’.

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