Getting onto a PhD is not the hard part!

“Getting onto a PhD programme is the hard part; writing your thesis is easy in comparison.”

I have two problems with this advice;

  1. it’s misleading to those applying for PhD positions. If you find the application process hard, be prepared for the PhD to be harder
  2. it’s not helpful to those already on PhD programmes

The implication of this advice is that once you’re accepted as a PhD student then it’s hard to fail. While there is perhaps an element of truth in this, plenty of people do fail. When you include those who fail to submit a thesis then the number increases significantly.

It does not help to pretend that the hard part is over once you’re in, and if there are fundamental problems to deal with then it does not help to pretend that if you just keep going then it will all be fine.

For example, if you are in your fourth year with 6 months remaining before the submission deadline and you still haven’t done any data analysis, then you are in trouble and have a lot of very difficult work ahead. The hard part is not behind you and it does nobody any good to pretend otherwise.

Likewise the student who finds themselves accepted onto a PhD programme and then abandoned by their supervisor, the student who arrives to discover that the brand new equipment they were promised won’t arrive for another 2 years, the student who sees their own work published by someone else, or the student facing any of the countless other problems that can arise during a PhD.

OK, so some PhDs do go relatively smoothly, and yes, sometimes it’s really hard to get in, but I am yet to meet a single PhD student who finds the process of doing a PhD easier than the process of applying for one. Certainly my own PhD was far harder than the application process, and if someone had told me during the darkest days of my PhD that I’d already done the hard part I don’t think it would have helped in the slightest.

It is much easier to get onto a PhD programme than it is to complete one. If we acknowledge that then we can try to understand the difficulties and search for solutions.

If anyone – anyone at all – can honestly tell me that their PhD was easy in comparison to the application process, please comment below. I have a feeling you will be in the minority.

See Also:

How to do a PhD: top 10 tips

The Writing Course

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