The long and winding road towards a PhD
What’s in store for students planning to embark on the gruelling PhD journey? Source: Robyn Beck/AFP

A PhD is the crowning achievement in academia, but the road towards the finishing line proves to be a strenuous climb of resilience and perseverance. PhD students often report feeling stressed with their supervisors, struggling to balance tight deadlines with work commitments and experiencing the overarching stress of graduate school in general. But the struggle is not without its benefits. 

For many, a PhD serves as a passport for a career in academia, while others may see it as an opportunity to earn more in their lifetime. For instance, 2017 data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that those with doctoral and professional degrees earn more than those with only a Master’s or Bachelor’s. 

One study notes: “Recipients of doctoral degrees have traditionally occupied prestigious positions in research and education, where they have been called upon and funded to produce new knowledge.”

It also notes that doctoral education “provides the labour force not only for top positions within the professoriate, but also in educational administration, scientific laboratories and research facilities, and business and industry”.

The realities of the PhD journey

While there are benefits to pursuing a PhD, the journey isn’t always smooth sailing. A closed Facebook group for doctorate students offers some insights into the realities of the PhD journey; one woman relayed her experience of hair loss and hospitalisation. For others, the tough journey can prove overwhelming and stir the deep depths of depression.  

One study found that “graduate students are more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as compared to the general population”. 

Due to the harsh demands of graduate school, some students never graduate, sending thousands of dollars up in smoke and hours of hard work coming to nought. An estimated 50 percent of doctorate students in the US do not complete their programme, with high attrition rates also reported in Australia. 

“Many students enrol in a Master or PhD postgraduate research degree, but few complete them. From 2010 – 2016, 437,030 domestic and international students enrolled in postgraduate research programmes in Australian public universities. Only 65,101 completed within the same six-year period,” The Conversation reported last year.

One student’s story

Aspiring doctoral students should not walk into the programme without first understanding its realities. Speaking to Study International, Mohammad Zabri Johari opened up about the hardships peppered throughout his seven-year PhD journey.

Zabri completed his Bachelor’s in Cognitive Sciences (Industrial Psychology) and Master’s in Health Sciences (Health Education) in Malaysia before taking the plunge to pursue his PhD at Newcastle University in the UK in the field of weight management. 

The 40-year-old – who hails from Kuching, the state of Sarawak’s capital in Borneo – shared that pursuing a PhD had always been in his mind since completing his Master’s. He is a public health psychologist and works as a researcher in health behaviour at the Institute for Health Behavioural Research, National Institutes of Health, Ministry of Health Malaysia.

The federal scholar said that his first-year went swimmingly, but the stress began to rear its ugly head from second year onward. He had a four-person supervisory team – which was not normal – and was also plagued by various personal issues.

The PhD journey was, ultimately, a lonely one.

“Living alone in the UK, although surrounded by friends, you are ultimately alone. Being a secretive person, I am reluctant to share my difficulties. It caused me to fall sick and [fall] into depression; twice in the UK and once in Malaysia I had contemplated suicide,” he said.

“One of the suicidal attempts in the UK I was actually standing over the Tyne Bridge – but never had the courage to actually jump off. I pulled myself together each time, thinking [about] how much my death would trouble my family – even though I felt I wouldn’t be missed. 

“Religion helped a lot because it grounds you back to reality and [to your] responsibility. My friends were concerned whenever I ‘shut-off’ – especially my best friend Ari – but she knows me well and reminds everyone to leave me be until I ‘come back’ on my own. [And] luckily I did!”

Sustenance for the long journey ahead

A PhD students’ supervisor can be their best friend or the bane of their existence. Some students report that their supervisors are not supportive, do not give timely feedback or are simply AWOL. Zabri’s experience could not have been more different.

“It’s not the same in my case because my supervisors read everything, provided that I gave them time before the next supervisory meeting to read it,” he said. Frequent changes needed to be made to his work as his supervisors had their fingers on the pulse of the latest research in his area of study and would often suggest information they felt could be incorporated into his PhD. 

“So, sometimes for me, it can be stressful. So usually after every supervisory meeting, I’ll go to town to de-stress or go back home to sleep it off first, waking up with a fresh mind.”

Having gone through the wringer, what would be Zabri’s advice to aspiring PhD students?

  • Work on having a good relationship with your supervisor(s)

“It’s very important to have a good relationship with your supervisor because your supervisor can be your best friend. Treat them well and they will help you to the end. Fulfil their requirements, [and] they will make things quick and easy for you. They will always help you and [they’re] not to be feared because they are human, as we all are,” he said. 

  • Join discussion groups

Discussion groups in university can enrich students’ knowledge. Students can also benefit from sharing each others journey to date. Social media groups can be helpful, but don’t rely on it too much. 

  • Don’t forget to have fun 

If you want to be mentally prepared to swim against the tide, students will need to remember to allocate time to engage in some fun to balance the stress of the PhD. Students can also consider travelling, volunteering and keeping in touch with friends and family once a week or each day to help take a load off their minds.  

Author Robin Sharma notes that when you go to your limits, your limits expand. Similarly, it’s worth remembering that while the PhD journey is tough, what awaits at the finishing line may be worth the years of toiling.

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