What I wish I knew when I started my PhD

Starting a PhD comes with certain hopes and expectations, but the journey itself can bring some completely unexpected ups and downs. Here are some of the surprises Maria encountered, and what they taught her.

When I started my PhD, I was filled with enthusiasm. My new journey, I imagined, would be smooth-sailing, and once finished, I’d jump with glee into my academic career.

Boy oh boy was I wrong! Here I am, six years later, a PhD rollercoaster survivor, and working outside academia. To put it mildly, things did not go according to plan. Here, I talk about my top three takeaways from my PhD journey.

1. Obstacles are like turbulence

My BA and MA went so well that I thought my PhD would also go by without a hitch. Here’s the catch though: taught degrees are nothing like a research degree.

This was the largest, most complex project I had ever undertaken. More than once I started feeling like I didn’t really know what I was doing since I didn’t have any experience with such extensive work. Things got especially confusing when one supervision came with encouraging feedback, and the next pointed out that my chapter had many flaws.

Moreover, a PhD typically lasts at least three years, time in which many destabilising changes can occur in an individual’s personal life. In my case, there was a split-up with a long-term partner, losing touch with dear friends, and witnessing some sad family events.

Each of these obstacles made me doubt my own determination and the worth of my project. But my fears, I later saw, were much like my fear of flying. When I am on a plane, turbulence make me feel extremely anxious, yet, though unpleasant, they do not put the plane in danger.

So with obstacles on a PhD journey – a scrapped chapter won’t be the end of the world, though it may seem so in the moment, one such incident won’t make or break a career. Like turbulence on a flight, obstacles are unpleasant, maybe scary, but ultimately harmless.

2. It’s not just you

Also, with each new bump in the road, I thought: “This could only have happened to me.” Missing deadlines? It must be me, I’m terrible at staying on track. Bad conference experience? It must be me, I’m a bad public speaker. Didn’t finish the PhD on time? I fail at life.

Except, about two years into my PhD, once I had made more close friends at my university, I was able to learn that it wasn’t just me. Once I started talking to more of my peers and confessing to my embarrassing experiences, I realised one thing: my friends, colleagues, and even mentors had similar stories to share.

Many people had had issues with their research or struggled with impostor syndrome. It’s just part and parcel of the messy process of being a new academic, though it doesn’t only happen to researchers. In fact, studies have suggested that an estimated 70 per cent of people will have experienced impostor syndrome at least once in their lives.

So if you should ever feel that you’re an exception among your peers when you receive negative feedback on your work, or go through some other unpleasant research experience, my best advice is: even if it makes you feel bad, share this with colleagues whom you trust.

Most likely, you will find out that it’s not just you, and your friends and colleagues may be able to help guide you in how best to solve your PhD problems.

3. Your PhD does not define your life

Like many, during my PhD, I thought my research degree would and should be my life. As I drew closer to my viva, however, I started doubting all this.

Maybe I wouldn’t be able to get any sort of academic position, or maybe I wouldn’t even want to, and then what? My thesis had ruled my life for years, would I be able to live beyond it, while still staying in touch with my academic interests?

Short answer: yes. Long answer: whatever happens to you and your project throughout the PhD years, you are, really, only gaining experience and building up skills.

Whatever you choose to do with your life going forward, your PhD will not confine you to a tiny box labelled with your narrow specialisation. In fact, all the practical knowledge you will have gained thus far will offer you the freedom to build the life you want, with just a little open-mindedness and creativity.

I learned that this was true when I decided to take the leap and apply for the non-academic job that I was sure I didn’t qualify for, only to later find out I was the employer’s top choice! (I will write about this experience in more detail in a future blog post.)

And always remember, as John Lennon allegedly said (and later Sonny, in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel): “Everything will be OK in the end. If it is not OK, then it is not yet the end.”


What are the main things you wish you’d known before starting your PhD? Or if you’re just about to start your degree, what are your main questions and worries? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at libraryblogs@warwick.ac.uk, or leave a comment below.


Maria Cohut recently finished a PhD in English and Comparative Literary Studies, and now works as a medical journalist. In her spare time, she writes poetry, weird fiction, and occasionally creates taxidermy pieces. You can reach her on Twitter, @mariascohut.


Cover image:  Notetaking / dtravisphd / CC0 1.0

Image 1: Plane over a city / danist07 / CC0 1.0

Image 2: teamwork / priscilladupreez / CC0 1.0

Image 3: Oljato-Monument Valley, United States / doran_erickson / CC0 1.0

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