No pain, no gain, no PhD?

The basic premise of this site is that although a PhD takes hard work, that doesn’t mean it has to be painful.

Pain and stress are often warning signals that something is wrong, and you shouldn’t ignore them.

Still, there is a widespread belief that pain is necessary to succeed, that you have to struggle and suffer your way through a PhD. No pain, no gain, no PhD.

So is there any truth in this? In this post I’ll go through some of the arguments one by one.

“Pain is necessary to learn”

To learn is to push beyond your current limitation of knowledge or skill. It takes some effort, and you have to accept the risk that you will get things wrong and have to persevere if you don’t succeed immediately.

But this doesn’t mean that pain is a necessary by-product, nor precursor, for learning. If anything it can significantly inhibit the learning process.

If there are painful consequences to mistakes, then you are more likely to want to stay in your comfort zone, you are unlikely to take risks. You’ll spend all your time planning without doing, as a way of avoiding the pain.

Imagine trying to learn a language in an environment where the teacher hits you across the knuckles with a stick for making a mistake. It will make you hesitant and fearful- the opposite of confidence and fluency!

It is well known to all good educators that in order to learn;

  • The task needs to be set just beyond the current level of skill, not too easy but not too hard
  • There needs to be a safe environment in which to make mistakes

If the task is overwhelmingly difficult, or if the environment is extremely stressful, it is practically impossible to learn.

If you are overwhelmed by the work, stressed and exhausted, maybe you are trying to do too much too fast, and you should slow down and simplify things.

This does not mean you shouldn’t be ambitious. You can challenge yourself to reach great heights, but it takes patience as well as persistence to raise your level of skill to the challenge.

“Academia is stressful, you need to learn to deal with it”

Certainly, you need to be willing to work hard. Academia is highly competitive, and often involves high workloads and juggling research with teaching and administration.

But it is possible to work hard and enjoy it too. If not, why do it? You can get paid far more in a less demanding job.

There is no honour or value to be gained in just enduring pain. Ultimately, it will cost you the ability to think intelligently and creatively, and turn you into another bitter, cynical academic who hates their job.

Surely a better approach would be to say, “academia is demanding and can be stressful, so you need to learn to manage the stress”. If you start with this belief, you can think about how you are working and whether there are ways to improve it.

“Pain is a precursor to change”

Actually, this one I do agree with.

Pain can be a useful learning tool in steering you away from painful habits.

But you have to acknowledge and listen to it. If you are stressed, exhausted and overwhelmed, if you are working as hard as you can but feel like you are beating your head against a brick wall, you have to admit that “this isn’t working”, and think about how to change your habits.

It’s not going to happen on its own.



  1. Fiorina says


    Thanks for this post. Could you, perhaps, write about how to address the stress of working with a tight deadline? When I have a week or a little more to work to submit a chapter, I often feel paralyzed, pessimistic, and things just go badly. In theory, I could be productive and just do the work. But the more I work on the thesis, the more I hate and fear deadlines! Yet, they are supposed to keep me on track to finishing…

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