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How (truly) Hard is a PhD?

Craig Zelizer

April 22, 2020

How truly hard is a PhD? I still remember when I was an undergrad and one of my professors told me a PhD is one of the hardest things she had ever done in her life. I thought this was an exaggeration, but having done my PhD and finished over a decade ago I agree that there is a lot of truth to this statement.

Completing a PhD involves a plethora of components and will vary greatly by one’s field, the particular institution, the country and overall educational system where one is doing the degree, one’s committee, one’s topic, if one has funding, one’s ability to stay motivated and a host of other factors.

For me personally, doing a PhD was much, much more difficult than completing a BA or MA degree (both of which weren’t too hard). Here is a summary of some key challenges (including my personal experience).

  1. Sometimes there is no end insight- Doing a PhD, particularly at many North American institutions can be a long road. This is even more true in the social sciences (natural sciences or tech PhDs tend to be done in a much shorter time frame). Many people believe a PhD can be completed in three or four years. However, many doctoral students in the social sciences can take six to 8 years or a sizeable portion never finish.
  2. It is a marathon not a sprint - Too many people think they can finish the PhD by just pushing through. While completing a PhD often requires a final sprint of desperation, it is essential to train and have a regular schedule to one’s work. This can be in # of pages written per day, # of hours one works. Trust me, I know as I read tons of books on how to finish the PhD (some helped and others were an avoidance strategy)  and one of my favorite was Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes: A Guide to Starting, Revising and Finishing Your Doctoral Dissertation.  While the title is humorous, getting a schedule and sticking to it is key.
  3. It can be lonely - If one need to complete course work (I had to do almost three years after already having an MA and transferring a substantial number of credits into my doctoral program), one has a community of peers while doing courses. But once courses are completed it can a be a much more lonely endeavor (one of my key suggestions is to setup peer support groups that help to hold one another accountable).
  4. It can negatively affect one’s finances - Although I had full funding offers from a number of universities, I choose to go to a program that didn’t provide any financial support. Many people don’t consider the realistic difficulty of living on very limited financial support. In the US, if a program provides funding in the social sciences the range can be $12,000-$25,000 a year (and a tuition waiver). Of course not having to pay tuition is a huge bonus. But is essential to think about the trade off not being in the job market full time and the potential lost income one could have been earning if one had stayed in the job market while doing the PhD.
  5. There are lots of ups and downs as well as self-doubt. While doing a PhD can be inspiring, exhilarating and and mind-bending, there are for many doctoral student periods of extreme self-doubt and frustration. This can range from challenges of not being able to find the right topic, being unsure of one’s methodology, not being confident in the ability to finish and much more. There can be a lot of stress at the feeling one always needs to be doing something and really building in periods of non-PhDing can be challenging.
  6. Upon Completion there can be anguish about what comes next - If one is doing a PhD to land a full time  academic job,  in particular tenure track positions, are radically reducing in availability. Thus even after all the effort many people don’t land a job in their field and don’t have realistic plans for what are the non-academic career options.

I can write much more. I don’t regret doing a PhD at all. But it isn’t an easy process and I would encourage anyone exploring doing a degree to put a lot more though into the pros/cons and career paths, as well as the financial implications.


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