5 challenges faced by PhD students

Dominic Claeys-Jackson, Editor
December, 2016

PhD candidates face many obstacles during their studies. Here are five potential challenges you should be aware of…

Owning your time

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

Your 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, PhD student at the University of Warwick. 'Sending large chunks of work to supervisors is a common pitfall. Short and regular submissions are much more productive.'

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,' adds fellow University of Warwick PhD student Maz Ahmad.

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.
  • 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'

The 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, and help to alleviate any lack of motivation by pursuing varied, interesting and rewarding tasks. 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. 'This can be challenging because the classical approach to PhD research cannot be applied to all domains.'

It's advisable to begin work on the aspect that 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 that you write won't make the final cut, but don't let this discourage you - ultimately, it's part of the learning process and, in any case, these segments may provide useful material for future academic articles.

Feeling lonely

PhD students often work alone or with limited collaboration, which can lead to them feeling isolated and lacking in motivation.

For this reason, you should aim to accept any support that is 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-found 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.