Pursuing a PhD is one of the most challenging things anyone can do in life. It takes a lot of fortitude, time, and there can be a lot of challenges along the way. Some of these challenges, or even “bad” experiences, if we want to call them that, that can happen along the way include having trouble learning from a particular professor, being placed in a teaching assistant or research assistant position where you are not challenged, feeling isolated, having problems with your dissertation committee, or not getting the salary or job opportunities you expected after graduation.
Dave says most of us have a few bad experiences during our PhD program so you should know you are not alone in experiencing some challenges. Dave describes some other bad experiences that can occur in a PhD program in his vlog (see below) including mental health challenges, challenges with conducting research, or suddenly feeling like you are not at the top of your class. This post will review some of these potential PhD program pitfalls and recommend strategies for coping with different challenges that may come your way.
This post was written by Stephanie A. Bosco-Ruggiero (PhD candidate in Social Work at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service) 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.
What bad experiences might I have with professors?
You may have the bad experience of clashing with a professor who is your advisor, supervisor, or dissertation committee chair. You interact more closely with professors during a PhD program compared to when you were in undergrad or graduate school. You may be in a PhD program with a very small cohort so the professors you have for class may also be your advisors or supervisors in the sense that you are either their teaching assistant, research assistant, or a paid staff person on their grant. If you have a bad relationship with a professor, it can be particularly difficult because you are potentially interacting with them in several different capacities. (You might want to read this post about making the most of your PhD experience.)
An advisor may not put the time and effort into mentoring or advising you, or in the way that you think they should. It may not be a good match, but that is OK because most programs will let you choose your own advisor or switch advisors. You certainly should feel comfortable with an advisor who is there to help you decide which courses to take, how to approach the dissertation process, and give you advice about your career.
You may run into bad experiences with professors on your dissertation committee as well. Your chair may be making critiques or suggestions that you do not agree with. You may be on your eighth draft and the chair or committee members are telling you that you are still not ready. Or your committee chair may actually be largely unavailable, dragging out the time it takes to complete your dissertation.
When it comes to dealing with professors, as a PhD student you might also run into challenges with their teaching style. You may have a professor or two who are just not good teachers. This can happen at any level of academia, but in a PhD program it is especially difficult because you cannot easily drop the class. You will eventually have to take that class and the same professor may be teaching it the next time around. In this situation stick with the class, talk to the professor about anything you do not understand, and if that is not helpful get a tutor. There are many great tutors online that can help you through that one class that is posing a challenge for you.
The worse experience you could have with a professor is that they are harassing or intimidating you. Trust your gut when you feel highly uncomfortable or scared of someone. It is probably a red flag if your feelings about someone are that strong. If you are being harassed report it immediately to the office at your university that takes those kinds of complaints. If a professor is intimidating you, for example threatening to give you a bad grade if you do not finish their manuscript, do the same. You might also want to warn other students to be wary of working with this professor.
What negative experiences might I have with teaching?
You might also clash with a professor you work with as a TA. You may have less choice about which professors you work with as a TA or RA. I have heard stories about students being placed with professors who either make them teach all of their classes or only have them grade papers. Furthermore, as a TA or adjunct you might receive very negative and unhelpful feedback from a professor. Do your best to not TA for that professor if the relationships is just not productive.
Furthermore, as an instructor you may have very difficult experiences with particular students. If this happens, talk to the professor or teaching supervisors about what is going on with this student. It may turn out that multiple instructors and professors are having the same issues with these students and there are personal reasons why they are struggling or blaming you for their failures.
You may also receive negative feedback from a professor or students about your teaching. If it is your first-time teaching or your first time teaching a course, put the experience into perspective. Cut yourself some slack. It is not easy doing anything the first time around. Gather constructive criticism and set out to improve those areas of your teaching that can be improved. Watch this video about listening to negative feedback about your teaching evaluations:
If students are particularly nasty in their evaluation comments, talk to your teaching supervisor (whether it is a department chair or dean) and find out if a seasoned professor can observe your teaching the next time around. Ask questions about what might be challenging the students other than your teaching, such as new course requirements or other stressors. Try to understand if their criticisms are focused more on the curriculum or your teaching style.
Parse out all criticism and figure out what you have control over and what you do not. Make a list of teaching skills that you want to improve and work on for yourself, and how to better deal with criticism if you did not do so the first time around.
Watch this vlog from Dave about overcoming common challenges encountered during a PhD program:
Negative experiences related to research
You may find it difficult to openly discuss the research you are doing, or you may feel alone in your endeavors. With a research assistantship you may find the professor does not trust you to do challenging work. He or she may give you work that is not helping you build your skills. For example, I have heard of professors giving students administrative work or only has them doing literature reviews.
There really should be a balance in your TA and RA responsibilities and you should feel challenged, because after all you are a PhD student (read this blog post about the responsibilities of RAs). Do your best to get through these dull or challenging assignments and speak to the PhD program director if you think you were given work out of the scope of what you should be doing or that was not sufficiently challenging.
It should be up to you whether or not you work as a paid staff member at an institute or on a professor’s funded project, but even this type of position can present challenges as well. You may think you will be doing one thing only to realize you are not doing what you signed up for. You may find it is difficult to work with the professor or that they are treating you like an RA. Furthermore, you may be overworked or underpaid.
The good news about paid staff positions is you can quit them at any time. This may not come without repercussions though, so quit in a tactful way. Say that it just was not a good match or that your other responsibilities as a student took up too much of your time. Do not get into a personal argument with the professor — it is just not worth it.
You may also face some challenges in completing and sharing your research. You may feel isolated because there is no one else doing this kind of work who you can reach out to for feedback and collaboration. This is good and bad. It is good because you have found a research topic that no one else has really tapped into, but then it’s bad because there is little opportunity for collaboration at this time. In this situation, keep going and ask for feedback from academics in related fields and ask your classmates for feedback as well. You will love this blog post on dealing with negative feedback – which we get lots of in academia.
What kinds of problems might I have with plagiarism?
One of the worst experiences you could have in academia is having your ideas stolen. Unfortunately, this has happened to PhD students. It might be that another student or even a professor has stolen your ideas and presented them as their own, or a professor has plagiarized from a paper you submitted for a course. Once your ideas are on paper, modern copyright law says that you own that idea. Bring your concerns and your evidence to the Dean or file a formal complaint if there is a mechanism to do so at your university. Most large universities really look out for you as the researcher, especially as a graduate student. If you do not receive a satisfactory response to your complaint, bring the theft to the attention to a lawyer / attorney for help. Check out this video on idea theft:
What if I don’t stand out and get the job offers I want?
Many PhD students are dissatisfied with the lack of academic job offers they receive after earning their diploma. They may think they deserve greater recognition for their work. They may realize that while they stood out in their graduate program and after they earned a graduate degree, they now do not stand out as much as a PhD graduate. It is true that academic jobs are hard to come by and extremely competitive, especially in certain fields. You should be prepared for some level of disappointment by having a backup plan for what you will do with your degree if you do not get an academic job.
You have worked hard though, and you do have a degree that few others have so you deserve the best opportunities. If the opportunity you want does not come along immediately, be patient and keep looking and applying. Network and ask your contacts if they know of any available positions in your field in academia.
Remember, that you must be prepared as well to be competitive in the job market. In my field, you should have three to five (depending on the fields) peer reviewed publications, some research project experience, and definitely some teaching experience. Keep in mind that the number and quality of peer reviewed publications varies a lot between research fields. It is up to you as well to know how to draw more attention to your CV. Just having a PhD does not mean automatic fame or wealth. Just like any other degree or field, you are competing with others who stand out just as much as you.
Be flexible and realistic about your post-doctoral plans and do what feels best for you. It might be that ultimately you will be happier with a job outside academia. Keep your mind open, do what you do best, and you will land doing something very rewarding in the end (or start your own business!). Read this blog post about alternative to careers in academia.
What if I feel depressed and want to quit?
Mental health challenges are very common among students at any academic level. Studying can be an isolating experience because you do not have as much time for leisure and friends. Learning new concepts and new things about the world can also be life changing. You may now feel that you have a different worldview than your friends or family. You may want to go into a particular direction that people in your life do not support. In this case, reach out to people who are passionate about the same things and soak up their positive enthusiasm, encouragement, ideas, and feedback. Find a community of likeminded people who care about the same things as you. This R3ciprocity blog post about thesis depression might be helpful for you (Remember – you are normal to feel down about your work from time to time).
Of course if you feel overwhelming doubt, depression, anxiety, or suffer from severe impostor syndrome where you feel you are somehow “faking” your way through the program or are not as smart as others in your field, seek professional help. If you are in the midst of a mental health crisis do not quit your program. It is not the time to make such a life altering decision. Get help first, and when you feel better, then you can decide if quitting the program is the best plan.
Dave advises people to pay attention to their emotions and not push them aside, because they could be telling you something. Use your emotions in how you deal with challenges in your life. If negative feelings are constant you may need to make a change. If you are stuck in your emotions reach out to people you trust to help you become unstuck.
If you are confused or anxious about your work lean on your PhD student colleagues. Many fields are not hyper competitive and other students will be a surprisingly constant and helpful sounding board and sources of advice and comfort. If you are in a field that is highly competitive and other students are not that supportive, perhaps hire a professional coach or tutor to help you out.
Dave suggests you keep track of your negative experiences to help you put them into perspective and see if there are real patterns. Sometimes a bad experience is just about a person having a bad day. If bad experiences persist, talk to someone. For example, if a student is giving you a problem go to a Dean about what is going on. If the academic chain of command is not being responsive to a problem, try to speak to someone in a mediating role. If there are multiple negative experiences that repeatedly go unaddressed it may be time to transfer to a new PhD program.
Visit the R3ciprocity channel on YouTube at R3ciprocity.com. Also, read these blog posts for more information about how to deal with the most challenging situations you can face as a PhD student: