A PhD program can be challenging and demanding, as it requires a significant commitment of time and effort. However, the level of difficulty will vary depending on the individual and the field of study. It is important to have a clear understanding of the expectations and requirements of the program, as well as a strong support system in place, in order to successfully navigate the challenges and complete the program.
Let’s do a thought experiment!
I would like to answer this question with an analogy. Let us consider that a Ph.D. program is like a reality show, a multi-episode cooking contest.
Here are the comparisons:
- You are the contestant (PhD student).
- You are provided with a basic idea of what sort of food you are expected to cook (the research hypothesis) within a particular cuisine (a particular type of research area/lab).
- You will be provided with the basic training (PhD/lab/work-place induction).
- You will be or let us say expected to be provided with all the ingredients and equipment required for your cooking (lab equipment, facilities etc.)
- You will work under a chief chef (your supervisor) and a sub-chief-chef (co-supervisor).
- Although they will help you in the cooking process, at the end of the day remember that it is your meal; you are the contestant and all onus is on you.
- You are given an office space wherein you meet the other contestants (PhDImportant Research Areas 2022 PhD Topics || Computer Science || Threws colleagues). Each one of them are here to cook different meals, cuisines of which might be either closely related or completely unrelated to your meal (different research projects). Either ways, these are the faces that you are going to live with for the next few years of your life.
- You are on a prime-time show (a prestigious institution) and are about to start working with some highly successful chefs (Supervisors, Professors). Not just your final meal (research output) but also your attitude towards cooking (research rigor) is going to be fiercely examined (Viva-voce examination) by two other chefs who are experts in your cuisine.
- To make things worse, it is not a one-off episode. You have just singed-up for a 3–4 year contract (average PhD length) in addition to the time required to document and publish a book about your dish in detail (thesis writing phase). Remember, all onus is on you. Right at the outset you feel a sense of high expectations out of you.
You are highly focused, uber-productive, strategically planned, rigorous in analyses, pro-active and sensible, suave negotiator, fantastic communicator of your ideas, and a brilliant writer. The next 3 years sail smoothly for you and your chief chefs. You produce a number of sub-dishes (journal articles) and receive great appreciation already (citations). You then document your final-mega-dish (thesis) in the form of a book and you defend the authenticity of your dish in a bold yet charismatic fashion to the 2 judges (viva-voce examiners). And….
You win the show (viva passed)!! Congratulations Chef (Dr.)!! What an amazing journey has it been!
Enjoy while the feeling lasts….
But such ideal scenarios seldom happen….
Either the chief chef has got too many contestants under his belt that they cannot focus a lot on you and your cooking or there are vital irreconcilable differences between you and the chief chef(s). It could be possible that the chief chef expected a lot out of you which you find were quite unrealistic expectations. Or that you just find your chief chef to dominating, too much of a micro-manager. Or they could be sexist, passive aggressors or outright hypocrites. Either ways, the initial arguments soon become personal and vitriolic. What happens next? That’s the difficult bit. An entire emotionally-distressful saga ensues. You are too scared to report your chief chef to the program organizers (head of school/department etc.) as they are very influential people. You carry on working like a zombie hoping that things will eventually get better and that your chief chef would finally be impressed with your work. But guess what…the day never comes. Eventually, you pick up some courage and escalate the issue. You eventually get assigned a new head chef (new supervisor). But all these take a massive toll on your physical/mental health and subsequently your PhD. Every contestant has his/her own way of dealing with this very common issue. Some carry on, just so they can get their degrees and move on. Some quit.
You are lucky if you share the show with amiable, supportive fellow contestants who encourage you throughout your journey, both morally as well as technically (science-wise). Often, this might not be the case. Your fellow contestants might behave very indifferently towards you. It is quite possible that they might not help you with the initial training (lab/office induction) or the different techniques required to make your meal better (routine lab techniques), they might not share stuff with you (reagents etc.), they might start gossiping about you, they might never socialize with you etc. If things go very bad, they might even start sabotaging your meals (experiments) or take credit for a meal that you cooked (authorship problems). Again, you are in a fix now. You can neither leave the show nor change your colleagues. You are forced to work in an environment that is not just non-supportive to you but is outright discriminatory. It is up to you now whether you want to be patient and carry on with the show or escalate the issue to the higher authorities. Again, these issues are going to take a toll on you but you have to got to somehow get to the end of the show. Somehow…
You are not being provided with the required ingredients:
It cannot be taken for granted that the show will come forward to provide you with all the necessary cooking stuff. Sometimes, it so happens that the chief chefs or your colleagues are not the problems but the real problem is that the show set itself is just not very well equipped i.e. you just do not have the necessary ingredients (reagents, kits etc.) or equipment (3D printer, PCR machine etc.) or facilities (microscopy suite etc.). Under these circumstances what do you do? Well, you (in conjunction with your chief chefs) just have to make arrangements with a neighboring set (neighboring universities) in order to perform a part of your cooking at those places. For e.g. you might not have a particular type of oven in your set and hence have to go to a neighboring set to bake your unique type of pizza there. Now, where are you going to get the money for traveling to the neighboring set, money for using their equipment and money for training and analysis? It is upto you and your chief chef. This is sometimes a serious problem and can lead to a very sub-standard final product, making you a very weak contestant for the final episode (Viva-voce). Serious trouble…
Exhausted by trial and errors:
Ok, let us say that your final aim is to produce a sumptuous beef burger using plants. You start off by analyzing all the different varieties of plants that have been used thus far in making a beef burger (literature review). You then decide the ones that are most relevant to your meal (filtered options). You consult these options with your chief chef. You both unanimously decide on the one option that you’d like to try first (sample 1). You then design an experiment that would analyse the different characteristics of sample 1 (their texture, content, taste, smell, etc.). You perform these experiments for the next 6 months. You do not get get anything useful (bad plant choice). You then go back to the room to discuss with your chief chef on where/what you might be doing wrong. You do some troubleshooting (tweaking experimental designs). Since you just lost 6 months towards nothing (except a learning curve) you now decide to run two samples (two plants) in parallel due to lack of time. You experiment for another 6–12 months. You sort of get something useful (maybe a plant that has a good texture but an extremely pungent smell). What do you do about that? You go back to the room and discuss with your chief chef, you also reach out to the community for help, you break your head in reading the available literature. You tweak your designs, tweak the equipment, tweak the tweaks, tweak the tweak of the tweaks! You are racing against time and money. Your colleagues have already produced some fine sub-meals (journal articles) and you don’t have any! Will you successfully defend your meal at the end? Every individual has a different answer….
Your funding ends:
The show that was meant to provide you with a sort of financial assistance now decides to lay off certain aspects of the show that won’t provide you with the money anymore. What if you were earning some cash by mentoring/teaching another aspiring, young contestants on the show on the basics of cooking (teaching/research assistants). That role has been laid off now. What do you do for money? Your house bills, monthly expenses, and essentials were all dependent on that cash influx. Can you imagine the amount of stress this can cause on your mental health? Do you think you can perform well in the show till you find a way of procuring an alternative source of money to support you? This get mad if you have a family. Add to that a very un-supportive chief chef and acerbic work colleagues. You are almost crushed! Not just that: funding is required for everything- travel to meet other chefs (conferences), cost of documenting your final dish (thesis write up fee, binding fee etc.). How you pull yourself up from this and carry on with the show is up to every individual.
The show is taking a toll on your personal relationships:
The show is an extremely lonely one. Though you have other contestants and a chief chefs to support you, at the end of the day it is your meal and you have to stand your ground against all odds. Very soon into the show, you realize the isolated nature of the show. You have to somehow find a way to keep your boat afloat against all odds described above. You have to find a way to maintain healthy relationships with your friends and family throughout the next 3–4 years. 9 out of 10 times, people struggle at this. You might have just broken off with your partner whom you intended to marry. The show goes on. You just lost a family member the day before an important presentation. The show goes on. You, partner, stops loving as much because you stay long hours in the show without any messages. The show goes on. An already emotionally stressful, exhausted, isolated journey becomes even more isolated when the lines between personal and professional lives become blurred.
Did you decide to quit the show?
There is every ounce of possibility that the show is just too much for you to take in. You realize it is not worth it. In fact, you realize that quitting the show is very much worth it. You are so fed up that you do not even discuss this option of quitting with anyone. You just decide to quit. One day, you start typing that dreadful email. You are almost about to send it. Just as you are about to press the ‘send’ button, you receive a very encouraging email from your chief chef or from the head of the department or from a company to which you had applied for. Do you still quit or do you decide to just bite your teeth for the next following months in order to get your Ph.D.? Each one has a different answer. I personally know people who have chosen either way. Mostly, people don’t quit. Because they realized deep down that the show was/is actually worth it.
The life of a Ph.D. student is not that hard intellectually. It is more of an emotional and psychologically taxing journey. You just go on and on and on about a single thing for a very long time, while the rest of your friends/family have moved on. Patience, resilience, and pragmatism are more important in a Ph.D. than intelligence and creativity.
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