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Postgraduate Research

9 common PhD myths busted

Laura debunks nine of the most common myths about studying for a PhD.

PhDs are often subject to a lot of myths and misconceptions. When I first started my PhD, I even had some doubts myself. However, I’m now in my second year and have found the experience more rewarding than I had first imagined.

I’m going to talk you through the nine most common myths about PhDs I’ve heard – and why they simply aren’t true.

1. To do a PhD, you need Einstein-level intelligence

This is definitely a myth. it would be hypocritical of me to compare myself to Albert Einstein - sometimes it’s a miracle I can get my laptop to work. I believe it’s more important to be passionate about the subject of your study, be curious and be willing to work hard.

In my opinion, persistence is more important than being ‘smart’ when it comes to completing a PhD. It’s not always enough to be intelligent; you need self-discipline to further your own knowledge and the ability to challenge your own thoughts, as well as literature in the field.

 2. You don’t get any holidays as a PhD student

A lot of people have a vision of PhD students spending their lives glued to a computer screen or chained to their desk. But you don’t suddenly become a machine with the ability to work 24/7 when you start your PhD. Holidays are important – you need to catch up with friends and family and switch off for a few days.

Sometimes, you can feel like you’re falling behind and this can make it hard to take leave. But you can’t avoid holidays for over three years - you’ll damage your productivity. You might even find that taking a break allows you to return to your research with a fresh perspective.

3. A PhD is much harder than a masters or undergraduate degree


I will admit that this one is true to a certain extent. It is important to remember that the structure of a PhD is completely different to that of undergraduate and postgraduate taught courses. 

A PhD gives you freedom and independence regarding what you do and when you do it. This means you take more responsibility for your study and this why PhDs are perhaps more difficult. But it’s important to remember that you will gain many valuable and transferrable skills from this new approach.

4. PhDs are only for people interested in lifelong academia


There is a common misconception that PhD researchers must remain in the world of academia after completing their study. This is not true - graduates often pursue fulfilling careers in other sectors. 

The skills you develop and enhance throughout your PhD such as analysis, problem solving, independence and organisation are transferrable and just as valuable in other fields. There are plenty of opportunities to participate in training courses when you’re studying for a PhD. These allow you to gain experience and network with possible future employers. 

5. PhD students do not have time for anything but their PhD


You can’t work 24 hours a day - it is important to be able to turn off from your day’s work. Developing your interests and hobbies will help you learn more about yourself and use your skills and knowledge in different ways.

Personally, I enjoy playing the piano, listening to music and learning about music theory.  Music speaks when words fail and on those difficult days when nothing seems to go right, music is a constant for me. As well as that, I spend time as much time as I can with family and friends.

6. You need to know everything about your subject to start a PhD


It’s impossible to know everything about your field. I’m in the second year of my PhD and I certainly do not know everything about the field of education – to do so would be unfeasible and mostly irrelevant.

Most PhDs start off as a question, an interest or a thought. The first thing to do is to find your passion – the topic that makes you say “I need to find out more about that”. Next, ask yourself “what do I know about this so far” and, “how could my research into this change our understanding of the issue”. Once you’ve started thinking like this, you’ve started a research project.

7. By signing up for a PhD, you sign up for years of being taught in a classroom


This one is definitely not true. A distinguishing feature of a PhD is that you don’t spend years being taught in a classroom. Your study will be flexible and you dictate what you do and who you interact with.

It is important to remember you are training to become an independent researcher and that means taking ownership of your project. You are no longer assigned a seat number and expected to sit in rows.

You can choose to take training and development classes if you like, but these are designed to make you a better researcher. 

8. Studying a PhD could make me overqualified and unemployable


A PhD is attractive to employers as it shows you can work and think without the need for supervision. And, during your time as a PhD student, you can find opportunities as a teaching assistant or demonstrate at practical modules.

In some fields, such as science and business, a PhD might result in faster career progression due to your specialist knowledge or skills. No matter the subject of your PhD, you will develop a wide range of skills that would be invaluable to any workplace.  

9. I'm not suited to studying for a PhD

Every PhD is unique and no two researchers will have the same experience. You could spend three years in an office examining equations or surfing through literature, the next day you could be in the lab conducting experiments. You never know how it will unfold - but that is the best part!

Different people suit different things and situations. This is the same for PhDs, different fields are suited to different types of students with different interests and knowledge.

How would I describe PhD study?

As I started this blog with an Albert Einstein reference, I thought it would be appropriate to conclude with two quotes from the man himself that perfectly sum up PhD study:

 “It’s not that I’m so smart; it’s just I stay with my problems longer”

 “You never fail until you stop trying”.

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Photo: Laura Kinkead
Laura Kinkead
PhD Student at the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work