If you are thinking about doing a PhD, you probably have a lot of questions about the process. You have probably heard many different ideas and opinions about doing a PhD from a variety of people and you may be a bit confused. There is a lot of misinformation about PhDs and the process for getting and PhD and what that actually means once you have it. PhDs are not something very well understood by the general public. Because of that there are a lot of myths about doing a PhD and the PhD lifestyle. Some of these myths have some truth to them, some of them are completely false, and some of them are even a little scary and might deter you from doing a PhD.
In this post, I am going to break down 10 of the common myths about doing a PhD to help put your mind at ease and also prepare you for the journey you want to embark on. Doing a PhD is a long and difficult path, but it is often not as bad as some of the myths make it out to be. The myths discussed below are based on the personal experience of myself, Dr. Dave Maslach, and other PhDs whom I’ve met and talked with along my own PhD journey.
This post was written by a recent PhD graduate (it is anonymous to keep the discussion frank) on behalf of Dave Maslach. This is part of the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software. R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world. For more on this topic and to see what Dave has to say about being overqualified, check out this video:
1. To get a PhD you need to be a genius
There is a misconception that if you are going to try to get a PhD you need to be Albert Einstein level intelligent, otherwise you will not succeed. This is not true, not everyone getting a PhD is Mensa level smart. There are many different ways to be intelligent and getting a PhD draws on more than simply book smarts. A lot of getting through a PhD is about determination and will. It is a long and hard process that takes many years and requires a certain mindset to get through it (see this post for more on perseverance in a PhD). Success in a PhD is not simply based on how smart you are, there are other factors involved as well.
That being said, however, there is still a certain academic level one needs to be at in order to be accepted into a PhD program. For the most part you need to have completed a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree first, and most PhD programs, like medical and law schools, require a certain GPA as a minimum requirement for entrance. Generally, that GPA is in the higher range of with the average being in the high B and A territory. In order to even be considered for a PhD program you have to meet this requirement. It is important to remember that a GPA doesn’t just showcase whether or not you are smart, it also showcases whether or not you have the drive to succeed in academics. Some people succeed in school with really high grades simply because they are very intelligent and learning new concepts comes easy to them, others get achieve their high marks through grit and determination to learn and apply new knowledge.
While you do not have to run in the same IQ circles as Einstein, you do need good grades and a lot of determination to succeed in a PhD program.
2. A PhD is only worth it if you go to an Ivy League or other well-known university
Applying for a PhD program is different from applying for a bachelor or master’s program. While things like the reputation of the school, and the specialty of the university or department are important things to consider, you actually want to give a higher consideration to the person who will be your supervisor during your PhD. This means that even though places like Harvard, Oxford, or Columbia might have some of the best funding and reputation, they may not have the top expert in your field or the person who’s work most closely aligns with your own research.
Picking a good advisor is crucial to the PhD process. You will work closely with your advisor and they will help guide you through the long PhD journey. This means that the advisor that best suits your PhD may be at a little-known university or might be at a well-known Ivy League school. While there are some initial benefits that you might get from a more well-known school (they have better funding and visibility for instance), you may find that your larger needs and your specific research specialty are better met by another university, with a specific faculty member.
3. PhDs do not get holidays
There is a misconception that all PhDs do is work on their PhD or side projects and jobs that support their PhD. Unfortunately, there is some truth to this myth. However, your holidays during a PhD are what you make them. A PhD is a very demanding experience. There are a lot of different aspects to a PhD besides the research and writing (teaching, serving on committees, professional service, etc. See this post for more details). PhDs and their surrounding activities do take a lot of time and dedication. Many people take on more work than they really should as well. So, this often means that PhDs work through holidays such as Christmas or Easter.
This, however, does not have to be true. PhDs can take time off. There is a growing awareness in academia generally and for graduate students in particular that this constant overworking is not healthy or good for results. Many PhDs do in fact take holidays and schedule time off, although probably still not as much as other people in non-academic jobs. Many PhDs make sure that they take at least 1 day a week off and often see holidays like Christmas as a time to go home and see their family and get some much-needed rest. Many PhDs move for their PhD so this may be the only time during the year that they can do this (see this post for more on moving for your PhD).
4. A PhD is much harder than a masters.
This is another myth that has some truth in it. A PhD is harder than a Masters, and that is for a few very particular reasons. First a PhD is much less structured and much more nebulous a journey than a master’s degree. Masters programs are often 1-2 years and have very set classes and expectations whereas a PhD is much more driven by your own personal research and results. In a PhD you start to make that leap from student to expert and this a scary and often confusing transition as you come to trust your own knowledge and findings instead of relying on the expertise of others.
A PhD is also a much longer process. Again, a masters is 1-2 structured years while a PhD is 4+ years with a vague outline of milestones. The results of PhD research and experiments are much more delayed, and you need more persistence and determination to make it through the delays and dead ends in research and writing. A PhD is very much a marathon and not a sprint. You need to be in it for the long haul and that is what makes it very difficult.
5. PhDs make tons of money
This myth again is a bit of a mixed bag. There are people with PhDs who make tons of money, there are also PhDs who are struggling to make ends meet. The PhDs who are making tons of money tend to not work in academia, they work in industry. There is a much greater chance of making more money with your PhD in an industry position than there is in academia. That is not to say that professors at the assistant level and above do not make a comfortable salary (by and large adjunct professors do not get paid much and adjunct as a part-time job) because they do, but they are also not usually making several hundred thousand dollars a year.
There is the potential to make a lot of money with a PhD, but it is not an automatic outcome of getting a job that requires a PhD. If you are just in it for the money you want to choose your program and course carefully because a PhD does not always result in a high paid job.
6. A PhD only takes 3-4 years to complete
PhD programs often have a proscribed period of time that they advertise in their recruitment material. Any actual PhD student will tell you that it is very unlikely that you will finish near the lower year mark (at least in North America). Many PhD programs in North America will advertise a 4-5 year program and layout this seemingly clear cut path from orientation to graduation in which you hit some milestone every semester and move along on your merry way (see this post for more about PhD milestones). That is bends the truth. PhDs are incredibly complex processes that require so much more than just completing your project.
Research is not a straightforward process and you will hit dead ends and bumps that set you back on your original timeline, and that is completely normal. On top of any potential delays in research you will also serve on committees, likely be a Teaching Assistant or Adjunct Professor, participate in professional development, go to conferences and workshops, etc. There are a lot of time consuming and extensive components to a PhD that usually end up meaning that PhDs take 5+ years. I only know of only 1 PhD student who actually finished on the proscribed 4-year timeline for my university and he is an anomaly, everyone else took longer, some a few semesters some a few years.
7. Getting a PhD is expensive
Getting a PhD in and of itself is not expensive. Usually PhD candidates receive some kind of funding package that covers that tuition and provides them with a small stipend. While getting the PhD itself is not expensive (i.e. You likely won’t have to take out student loans for the tuition) you should be aware that you are going to be living below the poverty line during the years of your PhD. The stipends universities provide are often not much money, and any additional funding gained through TAships, RAships, and Adjuncting are going to at most cover your basic needs. You should carefully consider your funding packing, and any other forms of income you will have during your PhD. Worrying about paying your bills and being able to feed yourself are not going to make a difficult process any easier, nor will it help your research progress.
8. All PhDs go into academia
As discussed above, the PhDs who go into industry have a higher earning potential than those who stay in academia, so therefore not all PhDs go into academia. Some PhDs have no intention of remaining in academia and want a job in industry or the government and that was their initial goal. There are also PhDs who’s only goal is an academic job. There are many ways you can go after finishing a PhD that are not academia (see this post for more on marketing yourself for non-academic jobs).
There is a growing trend in PhD programs to offer students training or exposure to non-academic jobs as more and more PhDs end up in industry or government jobs either by choice or by circumstance. There are not enough academic jobs for all of the people with PhDs, and universities are beginning to prepare their PhDs more for that eventuality. Universities are not hiring at the rate they are turning out PhDs, so despite the hopes many PhDs may have for academic jobs the reality of the job market is that they will probably end up in a non-academic job.
9. PhDs do not have time for anything but their PhD
Much like the myth that PhDs do not have holidays there is similar myth about how PhDs do not have time for anything but their PhD including their friends and family. Again, PhDs are demanding and time-consuming processes, and they do require the PhD student to sacrifice some time with their loved ones, however, a work-life balance is important to many PhDs and academics. I know many PhDs who continued to lead the lives they had before which included spending time with the families, partners, and friends. I know several PhDs who got married and had children in the midst of their programs. The success of a work-life balance does also depend on having a supportive partner and family. There are going to be times when things like deadlines or conferences prevent you from spending time with your loved ones and that is made easier by having people in your life who understand that. There is definitely some sacrifice of personal and free time involved but doing a PhD does not mean you have to cut yourself off from the world for 4+ years.
10. PhDs Know Everything Once They are Done
Finally, there is a misconception that once you finish your PhD you are an absolute expert on your topic, and you know everything there is to know about that topic. Well that is simply not true. A PhD is just the beginning. No PhD dissertation, no single study, covers any topic in enough breadth and depth to be complete. There is always something more to discover. The pursuit of knowledge is endless and eternal.
That being said, however, it is important to keep in mind that the end result of a PhD should be for you to make that leap from student to expert. You may not know everything (and no one ever will), but you are still an expert. You are one of the few people in the world with the sufficient knowledge and experience to continue to grow the world’s knowledge in a certain area. You do not know everything, but you certainly know something worthwhile and you are in fact an expert in your area who can continue to explore and deepen your knowledge in the coming years.
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