5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Applying For a PhD…

…by Sinéad / from Ireland  / PhD Psychiatry / 4th Year

1. It’s supposed to be this stressful

When I was firmly in the soul searching should I shouldn’t I phase of the PhD, I found myself really upset by how difficult I was finding the process. I felt ungrateful when I was spending time agonizing over a decision involving an opportunity that presents itself to few. On the other hand, I felt guilty when I was sure, as though I was undervaluing what an incredible opportunity it was. Now if that doesn’t sound like a complete waste of time then I don’t know what is. Stuck in this seemingly catch-22 situation, the only thing that helped was when I took a step back and acknowledged the magnitude of the decision. Yes, doing a PhD is a really big choice. Yes, it will impact the next few years of your life, along with the lives of any loved ones or financial supporters that are also in the mix. I wish I could tell you that once you acknowledge the magnitude of the situation then all the stress involved in the initial decision-making completely disappears. This is not the case. It is stressful, and that’s okay! It only gets more stressful from here on in so get used to it.

2. Superhero supervisors

Boy did I ever luck out. What drew my attention to the PhD in the first place was the research that was going on with my particular supervisor. I also had the added benefit of knowing someone who had worked with the same supervisor before and gave glowing reviews that seemed almost too good to be true. After a few emails and an initial interview, I knew that it would be a good fit and was bounding with enthusiasm to join the team. I cannot stress enough how naive I was and how grossly I underestimated the importance of having a supervisor, or supervisory team, that you work well with. I got lucky and not a day goes by where I’m not thankful for that. Your supervisor can make the world of a difference and finding someone that supports you in a way that you need, who challenges you in a way that you appreciate, and who values you as an individual as well as a researcher matters.

3. No plan no problem

I think a big misconception among prospective PhD students is that you need to have a solid 5 year plan all mapped out detailing how this PhD is the next step on your meticulously organized academic journey. That’s a hell of a lot of pressure. More than you need given that you’re currently under all the fun pressures involved with the application procedure. For me personally, I still have no idea what I’ll exactly do after this degree. And I am honestly very okay with that. I see the PhD as a goal in and of itself. It’s not that I don’t think about what I’m hoping to do with this degree, but I am well aware that opportunities will present themselves along the way that I have no way of predicting. If you have an end goal and concrete career aspects then that’s great! Go forth and conquer. But likewise, figuring out your post PhD plan is something that can be worked on throughout the PhD. You know…with all that free time you’ll have.

4. People will make or break you

This is really expanding on the importance of finding a great supervisor, but once again I really underestimated the importance of having good people around. Mere months into my PhD journey and I can tell you that my colleagues have already kept me sane on many an occasion. My support here and back home really warrants an article all to itself. So my advice is simply to keep those people close. Applying for a PhD is a weirdly stressful and often oddly isolating experience, and it can be far too easy to find yourself shutting out everyone else and trying to work through it on your own. I can’t begin to express the relief I felt when I opened up to those around me about the difficulty I was having over the application and the stress I was feeling during the long emotional roller coaster that is the initial application/rejection/good news/bad news/concerning news portion of the experience. Go ahead, voice those worries. Accept any cup of tea that’s offered and take the compliments to heart when you hear them. If your Mum says you’re great then believe it! You’re about to spend the next few years feeling really rather stupid so go in with as much confidence as possible (even if it comes from someone else at the start).

5. It’s not as bad as the blogs tell you

When I was beginning the application process and would look up PhD blogs or articles, all I could find was a long depressing list of people saying how it takes over your entire life, you’ll never sleep again, and get used to just basically being mentally and physically exhausted forever. That was rather discouraging to say the least. Yes, of course it’s going to be hard. But no, it’s not impossible. I’m only a few months in so what do I know. But I do have post doc colleagues who did it and survived and never worked on a weekend. Hearing that other, less doom and gloom, side is important. It’s nice to hear that it’s actually perfectly possible to lead a seemingly regular life when doing a PhD. Will you always be killing it and functioning at maximum capacity? No of course not. But no one is. We’re all going to have bad days and hard days. Just know that, contrary to popular lore, there are quite a few great PhD days too.

It’s important to remember that it can be done. It is worth doing. And you can do it.


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