Five Frustrating PhD Questions To (Never) Ask A PhD.

Imagine the scene. You find out your friend/ relative/ the stranger you met three minutes ago is working on their PhD. And you gave up on academia after completing your hard-earned bachelor’s degree so the world of graduate school is still shrouded in mystery, and is still a pretty huge deal.

But you should wait before launching into your questions. Others have been here before you and they’ve made mistakes. For the sake of the real-life PhD in front of you read on and get a crash course in the five frustrating questions you really shouldn’t be asking pursuing their PhD as well as some good alternatives to keep the conversation flowing.

To summarize and make your life easier, here are the five questions:
  1. How much longer do you have to complete your PhD? 
  2. What are you doing with all your time off in the summer? 
  3. You are a teacher, right? 
  4. What exactly do you do all day? 
  5. How come you just can’t hand in that article you are working on?
By the way, if you want to watch the video on PhD questions that you should not ask, where I am a bit more candid, check it out:

1. So When Do You Get Your PhD After Your Name?

Also known as: When will you be done? How long will it take?

Those letters are called post-nominal letters and can be placed after an individual’s name to indicate that they hold a position, academic degree or honor. Choosing whether or not to include them on your future business cards is a big decision and most PhD students will happily talk post-nominal letters with anyone. The frustrating part of this question is the when.

Asking a PhD student in the deep, dark depths of research when they will be done is like asking an unemployed person when they’re going to get a job. They don’t know and it’s as simple as that. The PhD student is putting in the work to get through the many requirements of their program just like the unemployed person is updating their resume and sending in application after application.

But the harsh reality is that hard work in both scenarios doesn’t necessarily bring quick results. The real progress is often dependent on other people; the advisor who signs off on your great idea or the manager who invites you for interview. You can hustle for weeks on end and still come away from a meeting or interview with dashed hopes and a new awareness of how far you have to go before you reach your goal.

Will it happen next week? Next year? Before pigs fly? Keeping optimistic and celebrating the small successes can keep you going when you lose sight of the light at the end of the tunnel but it’s not easy. And having people in your life and at social gatherings focus on the end date just makes it worse. It will be done when it’s done and that’s the end of it.

Good alternatives: What are you working on right now? What is your next big milestone?

2. What Are You Doing With All Your Time Off In The Summer?

The summer vacation part of school where you skip out the doors sometime in June and don’t have to think about work until after Labor Day is a distant memory for those pursuing a PhD. The same for spring break and winter break. There just isn’t time, especially if you’re on the tenure track with a substantial amount of research. Your research has to be your priority.

Don’t think it’s work 24/7 – it’s not. Those undergrad “all-nighters” are a thing of the past. Neglecting to take care of yourself in order to spend more time working is the fastest route to burnout there is. And days where you forget all about the research are as vital to a PhD student’s self-care as eating and sleeping well. Take it from someone who knows. But no matter how well-balanced you manage to make your life there will never be enough of those days.

This is not a situation unique to PhD students. It is very rare to come across anyone who thinks they get enough time away from work to spend with their family, pursue personal goals or travel. And any graduate student will be quick to educate those who think going back to school is the best way to reclaim those four months off that we all took for granted as high school students.

Once you embark on a PhD it has a sneaky habit of stretching and expanding until it feels like this thing you are doing is your whole life. If you believe in the value of your research and find your specific topic engaging and empowering to study then that might not bother you. What certainly will bother you is when people assume that your academic pursuits mean you don’t have to work when the kids aren’t in school.

Good alternatives: What do you like to do when not working on your PhD? How do you relax and recharge when your work is stressful?

 

3. You’re A Teacher, Right?

Well sort of. Teaching in some way, shape or form at their university on courses related to their subject area is often part of the PhD student’s journey. Employment at the university  as a PhD student comes with fun benefits like stipends (money) and fee waivers (lowered course fees).

But taking this one aspect of a PhD’s work and labeling them “just a teacher” is about as dangerous as calling an actor who waits tables to pay the rent while he works for his big break “just a waiter.” It undermines and trivializes the true core of why they are doing what they are doing: their research.

Teaching is a noble profession. You don’t reach the PhD stage of your academic career without a lot of help and support from some superb teachers along the way and teaching as part of your own PhD program is a way to give back to the next generation.

Unfortunately that doesn’t change the fact that marking endless papers, or responding to an undergrad’s frantic emails about how her mark on the midterm will affect her GPA, takes time and energy. Valuable time and energy that you cannot spend on your own research. And having acquaintances marvel at how light your schedule is when you tell them you’re teaching three to four courses an entire year (a pretty full schedule for anyone) does not help.

Good alternatives: Do you teach at the university as part of your program? How do you balance your teaching responsibilities with your research?

 

4. What Exactly Do You Do All Day?

Hard work in many career paths produces easy to see, tangible results. Construction workers build houses, surgeons remove tumors and firefighters put out fires. The value of their work is universally understood and appreciated. But the work required for a PhD is not like this. It is the work of ideas, questions and words. The journey is complex and unpredictable, exploring wide but also continually refocusing and refining.

Progress like this is hard to see, even harder to measure and almost impossible to understand from an outsider’s perspective. Hours of explanation would not help someone with no interest in your research topic comprehend the magnitude of your middle-of-the-night lightbulb moment last Friday. Or why it is so important that you figure out how to get a copy of that obscure Australian journal published in 1994. Or why that minute variation in your lab results means doing hours and hours of what you’ve been doing already but with one key change.

The problem with this question of what exactly a PhD student does all day is that there’s often no way to answer it that will satisfy the asker. They could follow you around for three weeks and still be as clueless about what exactly you do because your schedule is not what you do. Your schedule is the means by which you work towards something that makes complete sense to you (and hopefully your advisor) but is as often as inaccessible to the general population as the meaning of hieroglyphics on the wall of an Egyptian tomb. So, how about try a different question.

Good alternatives: What is your favorite part of an average day? What are the advantages of doing your PhD compared to the usual 9-5 job?

 

5. Why Don’t You Just Hand In What You’re Working On?

When the going gets tough and things just aren’t falling into place you vent your frustrations to those outside the PhD bubble and this is the question you get. And there is logic to it. Because handing in what you have will get you the feedback you need to take the next step and make your work better, right? Not exactly.

Passing over your incomprehensible scrawl of notes and half-developed work to anyone in a supervisory capacity at the university is like displaying your bowl of mixed up egg, sugar and flour in a bakery window. Nobody wants to see that.

You know what they want to see? What they need to see? Evidence of your best work. They’re not looking for perfection – far from it. But they are assessing and evaluating and having something thought-out and put together, a cake rather than a bowl of ingredients, helps them support you in finding the best way forward.

The PhD process involves in-depth assessment every step of the way. Papers, questions and answers; a PhD is not for the faint of heart. And that is all before you defend your doctoral dissertation. Support and encouragement and other help may be much appreciated but “just hand in what you have” is not.

Good alternatives: Is there anything I can do to support you during this busy time? What are you currently working towards?

So there it is – five questions never to ask the PhD. All you have to do is steer clear of them the next time someone studying for a PhD crosses your path. The PhD will be pleasantly surprised at your skill in avoiding all their least favorite questions and everyone will go home happy.

If you are currently studying for your PhD or considering doctorate study then check out the other posts on this blog for lots of PhD information, insight and support. If you want to read a bit more about PhD life, you should check out the following articles:

  1. If you are thinking of a Professor, here are some comment ‘do professor’ questions in this post.
  2. Tips to write a statement of purpose that you will find extremely useful.
  3. Advantages and disadvantages of doing a Doctorate in Business.
  4. A guide to writing a research paper for your PhD (complete with step-by-step videos).

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