UCL News


5 myths about doing a PhD debunked

10 November 2017

You've seen them lurking in the shadows of the Anatomy Building, carrying mysterious buckets of ice from one room to another, laughing uncontrollably at cat memes in dimly lit rooms, sipping their grandé-sized cups of coffee … and you're intrigued.

pHd Who are these mystical beings? What do they do? Why does it seem like they've been here forever?

Well, my friend, allow me to introduce you to my people: the people of the PhD Students. Yes, we're a little odd (we prefer the term 'driven'), but we're also very keen to tell you about us, what we do for a living, and hopefully, convince you that the rumours you may have heard about doing a PhD aren't exactly all true. So, in light of that, here are 5 common myths about doing a PhD, debunked by a real PhD student.

1. I'm not smart enough to do a PhD

How many PhD students does it take to work a photocopier machine? 4 and a very annoyed technician. Truth is, we never really got around to figuring out how it worked, but somehow, someone somewhere on the admissions board considered us each worthy of a PhD placement.

The general opinion seems to be that people who do a PhD must have an IQ score approximately equal or above that of Einstein's. However, that's not quite true. Most people who end up doing a PhD are offered so because they're passionate about a subject and/or may have spent time gaining relevant experience in that field.

Quite frankly, whether your passion is understanding the signs of boredom in ferrets or the behaviour of chickens on the North coast of California on a windy day, if you are a committed, creative, and determined individual with some of troubleshooting skills you too can make a significant contribution to the field of chicken behavioural studies.

2. I can't afford a PhD

So this one isn't exactly a myth. Not many people can afford to self-fund a PhD, which is why most prospective PhD students apply for funded positions. There are many PhD opportunities in the UK that are funded by research councils and charitable bodies, such as the BBSRC, Wellcome Trust, Cancer Research UK, and MRC for the sciences and the ESRC and AHRC for the arts and humanities. (But don't let that stop you from going abroad and seeking equally ravishing opportunities there!).

A lot of research groups also tend to individually list their PhD opportunities on their university or company's website or on others, such as findaphd.com (yes, that's a real website). However, if you're not able to find one that is funded, part time PhDs allow you to have a separate job alongside your studies to financially aid you.

3. A PhD's final destination is a lifetime in academia

Oh dear. Who told you this? Well, I suppose it's true that, in order to qualify for entry into a career in academic teaching and research, you'll need a PhD. However, that's not the only career option PhD graduates have. Oh no, no. The reality of academia is that there are only a limited number of posts available, meaning that the competition can be as high as one french fry amongst thirty potato-hungry pigeons. On the other hand, however, a PhD isn't just 3 or 4 years of becoming an expert in zebrafish sleep cycles; it's 3 of 4 years of developing excellent research, project management, public speaking and professional networking skills (transferrable skills which plenty of non-academic jobs are looking for).

Furthermore, a lot of new PhD programmes (especially those at UCL) partner university research groups with those at large industrial companies, giving the candidate both an experience of more traditional academia as well as the modern complexities of working in industry. To loosely quote Hannah Montana; you got the best of both worlds there.

4. Doing a PhD is isolating and depressing

So I have both good and bad news about this. The somewhat bad news is that doing a PhD can become emotionally taxing, especially when you reach a 'slow' period in your data gathering or writing. However, NEVER FEAR! The good news is that it's pretty easy to avoid and/or deal with it.

Like any job, your happiness level whilst doing a PhD can rely quite heavily on your environment, how well you get along with your peers and supervisor, as well as how interested you are in your project. It therefore kinda makes sense that a lot of how you'll do in your PhD is dependent on how much research you do beforehand. For example, doing a masters could help you clarify your interest for a subject. Also, meeting supervisors before applying for a PhD with them can help you suss out each other's working styles.

A lot of universities also have PhD anxiety management courses as well as appropriate measurements put in place. These include having secondary and tertiary supervisors and graduate tutors if anything should come up. The most important thing to remember is that you won't be alone during your PhD nor is it actually depressing - there will always be someone there to help you through any difficulty you may come across. And there will always be cake.

5. I won't have time to do anything else

So don't tell my supervisor this*, but the truth is: you will have quite a substantial amount of free time on your hands.

Depending on your project, chances are you won't need to spend every waking hour/weekend/day of your life in the lab/library. Plenty of my PhD-doing friends dedicated their spare time to learning languages, travelling the world, getting married, having children, becoming professional models, and, well, I'm writing this article, so obviously things aren't all that bad.

One of the greatest lessons you will learn during your PhD isn't how to train artificial intelligence robots how to make a decent cup of tea, but rather how to manage your time effectively. Spreadsheets, calendars, Cortana, diaries, and - my favourite - sticky notes shaped like strawberries, are all great methods of planning your days to suit both you and your research. PhDs are flexible, stimulating, and - most of all - fun little experiences that are, ultimately, forever rewarding. So go on, join us; we have cookies (on Wednesdays).

*just kidding, he knows.