What is a PhD Journey? Or the Eternal Pursuit of Knowledge

What is a PhD Journey?

Getting a PhD is more than just getting a terminal degree. It is a process and a journey. Previous posts on this site have discussed topics such as what a PhD student does all day or how a PhD student is evaluated, but there is another element to the PhD process, the personal and intellectual journey. For many, the start of a PhD is also the start of an academic career. Something unique about an academic career is that academics spend most of their time in pursuit of knowledge, and this is at the core of the PhD journey. Doing a PhD is not just about finishing a large research project, but it is about starting a lifelong pursuit of knowledge. It is as much about the pursuit of knowledge as it is about the love of hunt for new ideas.

The purpose of a PhD is to add something new to your field. To add something new to your field, you need to ask new or different questions and approach subjects from a different perspective. PhDs and academic careers are full of questions. These questions drive you to find answers through research to fill in the gaps of your discipline. The pursuit of knowledge and of answers is a never-ending process, but that drive guides academics through their careers. A PhD is just the beginning of that journey.

PhDs As Knowledge Discovery

At the heart of a PhD and academic careers is the discovery of new information, that is part of what makes it such an exciting career. One of your main goals as a PhD candidate is to add new knowledge to your field. The beginning of a PhD is often very daunting as often it seems that everything has been done before, but you just need one little nugget or idea that is unique to start. Even a little piece of new information is still new information. Often this little bit of information will grow into a much bigger contribution. What seems small in the beginning could potentially have a huge and wide-ranging impact. The further you dive into a subject the more you see how much work there still is to do.

Part of the process of a PhD is moving from using other ideas to formulating and experimenting with your own. In the beginning of your PhD journey you will spend a lot of time reading about and analyzing other people’s ideas, but over time you will become much more comfortable with your own ideas. You will learn to grow and develop your ideas and the single new question you may have started your PhD with grows over the next couple years into a much larger and more complex question or questions and solution.

Over time through your PhD research and then beyond you will develop a research niche for yourself. You will build a body of research on a particular topic that you become known for. Knowledge discovery is a lifelong journey. You may continue to work in the area that you researched on for your PhD, but you might also move into other related areas and continue to grow your own knowledge base and that of your field. As long as there are questions to drive you, you can make this as long a journey as you want.  

Publishing Your Research

Answering your own questions and getting that sense of satisfaction for yourself is great, but you also need to disseminate that information. Part of contributing new knowledge to your field and the PhD journey is publishing your findings. If you only keep the information to yourself, then how will you contribute to your field? You can get your results out to others in a number of ways. Learning how to publish is also part of the PhD journey as it is integral to a career in academia. Learning the best and more effective ways to write and publish your research is part of the discovery process. Academic journals and books are still the standard way to get your findings out to your larger academic community, but there are other ways to disseminate your research as well.

Publishing Alternatives to Articles and Books


Academic conferences are great places to present your research findings, particularly if you are not quite ready to publish them. You can get feedback on your research and see what other people are working on (for more info on preparing for conferences see this post).

Public Outreach

Making your research accessible to the general public can greatly augment the impact of your work. Some academics who work in areas of public interest talk about the results of their research on related radio and TV shows or give public lecture or talks at related events. Many academics do their public outreach through social media and blogs like this one. Disseminate your research as widely as possible, new knowledge is always great!  

What if I’m Wrong? Fears Of Your Research Ideas Are Normal.

This all sounds great, but you might have some worries about putting yourself and your research out there. One of the common worries PhD students have especially early in the PhD process is that their research or their results are wrong. They are worried that their experiment is going to fail or that they will publish their results and others will tell them they are wrong, and that is just out there for the everyone to see. This feeling is normal and is sometimes part of impostor syndrome (for more see this extensive post). However, it is important to remember that everyone is wrong at some point. Being wrong, getting something wrong, or not understanding something is all part of the quest for knowledge. Research generally contains many false starts or missteps. That is part of the process.   

Many PhDs fear looking foolish if their project takes a wrong turn. I once spent the better part of a month working on a chapter only to have my advisor tell me that it does not belong in my dissertation. My findings weren’t wrong, but I was focused on the wrong issues and topics for the rest of my dissertation. Initially, I felt that I had wasted all that time, but then realized that just because that information was not immediately useful for my dissertation, did not mean I could not use it elsewhere for another research project. Failures or unexpected turns in research projects are normal. Just because you might be wrong in an immediate way does not mean that the failure is a waste of time or not useful. Often failures are results in and of themselves that we can learn something new from either personally or in a research sense. Understanding why something failed can also contribute new knowledge to your field.

If you are stuck with a problem, watch the following video about getting unstuck during a difficult problem:

Furthermore, just because you are wrong, doesn’t mean you can’t make it right. In order to rectify your findings, you may have to start over, but you may just also need to approach the topic in a new way. If someone does point out a flaw in your research, it may be because they were able to approach the topic in a way you had not previously considered. Learn from your mistakes, take the advice and insight of others and improve your work for the future. No body is right all the time, failure is inevitably part of the research process. Don’t get discouraged, re-evaluate, re-assess, and start again.

The Never-Ending Quest

Just as failure is not the end of a research project, the completion of a PhD journey is not the end of your academic journey, nor indeed may it even be the end of that immediate project. A PhD is actually the beginning of your academic journey and pursuit of knowledge. The questions, solutions, and failures of your PhD journey will continue to drive your career forward. Many people continue to refine their PhD research into publications or use it as a starting point for larger or similar projects. Often research done during the PhD fuels the next couple years of an academic’s career. Your dissertation likely will not present solutions to every question or problem you encountered during your PhD research. Rather you will build a bank of new topics to research. This will help you begin to build a research niche for yourself based on your initial research, which will continue to expand.

The pursuit of knowledge for an academic is never over. If you choose to follow and academic career you will continue to ask questions, seek results, and contribute knowledge to your field. There is always something new to discover. You may continue with the research from your PhD, but over time you may switch focus to a new topic and try to carve another niche for yourself there. One of the great things about being an academic is that often you can follow your curiosity down a new path and see where it leads.

Personal Growth and Discovery

A PhD journey and academic journey are not just about the pursuit of outside knowledge, but also about personal growth and discovery. A PhD is not an easy thing to so, and often it can seem very daunting. There is a lot to do and also a lot of pressure in the academic world. You learn how to navigate these challenges and your research journey can lead to as many new discoveries about your topic as it can about yourself. While you are searching for answers to questions in your field, don’t neglect to learn about yourself as well.

During a PhD you will learn how you handle situations such as loose supervision, competing deadlines, and hostile or negative feedback. You spend a lot of time on your own during a PhD and therefore can learn a lot about yourself and your own motivations to work. A PhD offers a lot of opportunity for personal growth as it is a unique situation. You are largely responsible for yourself and accomplishing your own research goals. You must be your own advocate and also figure out if the endless pursuit of knowledge is the right career path for you. A PhD can be a time of great freedom in which you research a topic of your own choosing, but it can also be a time of great challenge. It is an excellent opportunity to test your own limits and see what woks best for you.  

A PhD journey and the subsequent academic journey can be exciting, particularly if you enjoy the pursuit of knowledge. There is still so much research to be done in every field. Your PhD journey will be unique to you, but you will undertake it surrounded by other people as eager about the pursuit of knowledge as yourself.

This post was written for the R3ciprocity project by a recent PhD on behalf of Dave Maslach (To keep the discussion frank, they choose to remain anonymous). If you want to read more posts about the R3ciprocity project, check out these ones:

  1. What do PhDs do all day, anyway?
  2. 5 Problems and Solutions of being a PhD.
  3. Why you should (NOT) get a doctorate.

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