🎙️ 3 Harsh Realities About Doing A PhD

By: Derek Jansen (MBA) and Ethar Al-Saraf (Phd) | March 2024

Undertaking a PhD or any doctoral-level program is no small task. In this episode of the Grad Coach Podcast, Dr Ethar shares three things he wishes he had known about the PhD journey – before he started it. If you’re considering a PhD or are in the early stage of the process, this episode will save you many hours, days and weeks of emotional turmoil!

Episode Summary


1: It’s not an unbridled journey of intellectual curiosity – it’s professional academia.

One critical realisation that comes early in the process is that a PhD isn’t merely an extension of the university experience you’ve had so far. It’s easy to romanticise the pursuit of knowledge, imagining days filled with unfettered research and discovery. However, as Dr. Ethar puts it, “This is not a party.” Earning a PhD is an exercise in professional academia. It’s about acquiring an academic “license” that allows you to publish knowledge and contribute to your field with authority.

2: The journey (probably) won’t look anything like what you expected.

Going into a PhD with the notion that it will be a purely intellectually driven adventure can set you up for disappointment. The essence of a PhD is far from just pursuing your curiosity. It’s structured, with milestones and specific outcomes that need to be met. The freedom to explore is there – but it exists within the confines of contributing something original and valuable to your field.

Moreover, adjusting your expectations about the degree and the process is vital. Often, the PhD program might not meet your initial expectations, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be a rewarding experience. It’s useful to understand upfront that the journey typically includes extensive coursework, directed instruction, and a lot of hard work.

3: Your relationship with your advisor is critically important.

Perhaps one of the most crucial aspects of your PhD journey will be your relationship with your research supervisor/advisor. It can make or break your experience and significantly affect the outcome of your PhD. Dr. Ethar emphasises the importance of a functional relationship over a purely agreeable one.

A good supervisor pushes you out of your comfort zone, challenges you, and guides you through the arduous process. They’re not there to be your friend, but rather, to ensure that your work meets the rigorous standards of academia and contributes significantly to your field. It’s normal, even necessary, to have constructive disagreements. These moments are growth opportunities, teaching you how to navigate academic debates and sharpen your arguments.

So, how do you prepare for what lies ahead?

First, establishing realistic expectations is key. Understand that the PhD journey is a marathon, not a sprint. It will test you in ways you can’t imagine, but it’s also an opportunity to grow intellectually and professionally.

Second, it’s always a good idea to speak with those who’ve already walked this path, as they can provide invaluable insights into what to expect. These conversations can help you adjust emotionally and intellectually to the upcoming challenges. Moreover, being proactive about your relationship with your supervisor, seeking clarity when confused, and openly communicating can significantly enhance your overall experience.

Last but not least, it’s best to embrace the journey for what it is, rather than what you wish it could be. A PhD is a unique opportunity to contribute to your field, to grow as a researcher, and to challenge yourself. Yes, it will be hard work. Yes, it may not always be fun. But the rewards, both personal and professional, can be immense.

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