PhD Survival Guide: What is a PhD like?

During my final year of PhD, my honours student asked to meet to discuss her options for next year. She wanted to know more about what a PhD entails and I realised during this chat how much my opinion of a PhD as changed from first year to fourth year.

We spoke about the positives of a PhD, such as the flexible work hours. “Can I go to Japan for two weeks?” she asked and I laughed thinking about all the travel I did during my PhD- Iceland, Europe, USA, Cairns, Kangaroo Island, Newcastle etc. etc. etc. We talked about how you get to research something you are interested in and get the opportunity to experience different academic roles like teaching & lecturing. The chance to network with incredible researchers and speak at international conferences.

But then I spoke a lot about the hard aspects of a PhD. She asked if it is self-directed? Is it hard? Money? Length of time? Stress? Mental health and academia? Does it make you over-qualified?

I was careful to ensure that I didn’t rag on a PhD too much because that was not my intention, but I did want to provide honest opinions.


A PhD is basically entirely self-driven. You need to trust yourself to work to deadlines, be flexible in the research process, and be efficient. You need to know when to ask for assistance and when to lean on your supervisor. In the end of the day your PhD is on you.

Is it hard?

Academia is a tough job. Long hours. Competition. Publish or Perish. Grant applications. Limited jobs.

Length of time?

A PhD is long and brutal- “a PhD is a marathon not a sprint”. It is 3-4 year of long hours, working weekends, feeling like you are getting nowhere, and feeling guilty when you are not working on your PhD.

Does a PhD make you over-qualified?

I published a post about this a few months ago (click here).

Stress & Mental Health?

My body has been under more stress than it should throughout my PhD. My shoulders are tense, I have grey hairs !!!!, and my face has more pimples than it ever has. It is so important to be aware of the stress a PhD can cause and do all you can to minimise the impact. I have wrote more on this topic (click here).


She also asked about scholarships and how to earn money while making a PhD. Scholarships and teaching jobs are becoming more and more scarce and it is making potential PhD students nervous. My advice to my honours student was to consider starting a PhD part time and working as a research assistant or another role in the industry at the same time. This would force you to have breaks from your PhD and you would also potentially make more money working as a research assistant part time than from a scholarship.

There are lots of great things about a PhD but there are also lots of hard things and I wish I had known more of them before I started my PhD. I genuinely don’t think it would have made me not do a PhD, I was very set on it. But it would have prepared me more.

Leave a Reply