5 challenges faced by PhD students

Daniel Higginbotham, Editor
December, 2020

By undertaking Doctoral research, you'll likely be presented with many obstacles along the way - to prepare for life as a PhD student, discover how to overcome these five potential problems

Owning your time

Strong time management is one of the most important aspects of PhD study. You should view your Doctorate the same as a full-time job, while also appreciating that a complete lack of leisure time can be damaging to your health and chances of success.

Following the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic of 2020, universities have had to change and adapt. Therefore, how you use your time as a PhD student is even more crucial. While university campuses, libraries and research laboratories have generally remained open to Doctoral students, there may still be times when you'll need to carry out your research from home - and this requires discipline and plenty of planning. Read our 5 tips for studying at home.

To ensure the quality of your work doesn't suffer, it's necessary to plan your time on campus carefully to get the most out of the opportunity - for instance, you may need to book study spaces in advance and follow university guidelines when accessing the library and other research facilities.

In terms of the qualification itself, time management is particularly important when writing your thesis. 'One needs to be disciplined enough to get work out to supervisors, giving them enough time for critiquing,' warns Siddartha Khastgir, research lead for Verification & Validation (V&V) of Connected and Autonomous Vehicle (CAV) technologies at the University of Warwick.

'Sending large chunks of work to supervisors is a common pitfall. Short and regular submissions are much more productive,' he adds.

Similarly, it's important to recognise when additional duties such as teaching undergraduates or becoming a student representative are taking up too much of your time; if the quality of your PhD is suffering, it's okay to reject the opportunity to do new things.

'It's necessary to manage, as tactfully as possible, the breadth of activities,' says Maz Ahmad, senior research engineer at the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) and former University of Warwick PhD student.

Managing your supervisor

A positive student-supervisor relationship is paramount to your PhD's success. However, it's not uncommon for problems to develop. These include:

  • Absence - Your supervisor may be frequently unavailable, perhaps due to other research commitments. If your second supervisor doesn't increase their level of support, you'll need to demand more regular contact - either online or in person.
  • Conflict - If your research is interdisciplinary and you've been allocated two leading supervisors, they may give you conflicting advice - or even dislike each other. If so, you could meet with them separately - but whatever you do, don't take sides.
  • Intimidation - Your supervisor may actually be playing a more active role in your research than necessary, something that is particularly likely if they're attempting to compensate for their inexperience. Don't be afraid of asking them to take a step back.
  • Leave - In some rare cases, supervisors may retire, change university or go on sabbatical with little notice. You'll need to discuss what happens next with your department.

If your situation doesn't improve after you've talked through any problems together, you should consider changing your supervisor.

Catching 'second-year blues'

A PhD's length and intensity makes an unwelcome dip in confidence, motivation and morale almost inevitable. This usually happens once the initial excitement of being a Doctoral student has died down, and is commonly known as the 'second-year blues'.

Siddartha emphasises the importance of remaining optimistic, and discussing your feelings with other PhD students and your supervisor. Second-year blues are often cured by strong support, encouragement and constructive feedback.

You can boost your confidence by presenting at conferences or online seminars and help to alleviate any lack of motivation by pursuing varied, interesting and rewarding tasks. Always remember that training courses and other methods of support are readily available to PhD students to help strengthen any weaknesses you may have.

Siddartha believes that the second-year blues can be mitigated by setting realistic expectations from the outset. 'At the start of the PhD, every student has the aspiration of changing the world,' he says. 'Students need to manage their expectations to do something really in-depth with great rigour.'

Starting your thesis

Getting started on your thesis can be extremely difficult. 'One must examine work of the previous three or four years and find a coherent, cohesive narrative,' explains Maz.

It's advisable to begin work on the aspect you find the easiest. You can also help yourself by doing plenty of advance planning. 'Learning to critique is important,' Maz continues. 'Articles are written to be watertight, and an inexperienced researcher struggles to identify what the shortcomings of a given research work are. Learning to identify what is not being described or what is missing is an important but challenging skill to master.'

Remember that some sections you write won't make the final cut, but don't let this discourage you - ultimately, it's part of the learning process and these segments may provide useful material for future academic articles.

Feeling lonely or stressed

A PhD student will often work alone or with limited collaboration - especially following the recent pandemic - which can lead to them feeling isolated and lacking in motivation.

For this reason, you should aim to accept any support that's offered to you and remain in contact with as many PhD students as possible. You can achieve this by joining relevant clubs and societies; growing your network of Doctoral students will help you to improve your thesis, especially if your new friends are working at more advanced stages. Blogging your research is another fantastic way of reaching out and making valuable new contacts.

Finally, you may need to explain your busy schedule to your friends and family, as they may not truly understand the intensity of PhD study. You shouldn't be afraid to reject any opportunity to socialise, but remember that discussing your PhD with a layman can help to improve it.

If you ever feel under particular strain from any of these PhD challenges, take a look at our 5 ways to manage student stress and the importance of looking after your mental health at university.

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