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Why Pursuing PhD is a Nightmare?

As we grow up, we fantasize about a lot of things, career being one of them. A lucrative steppingstone in the competitive world is a PhD degree, which is why it is a cherished dream for many.

It is also a dream for those who are so passionate about research that they take this leap of PhD without planning what they want to do thereafter.

No matter what drives you into doing a PhD, there is a chance (and unfortunately not a negligible one) that it might turn a nightmare. Hoping that you never face this, let’s discuss why this might happen and how to safeguard against it.

Do I need a PhD?

First and foremost, ask yourself: do I need a PhD? If you have a career plan, consider whether PhD adds value to it. If not, please do not pursue the degree simply for an attraction for the Dr. title.

Not every profession requires a PhD or has better salary or job profile for PhD-holders. On the other hand, if you do not yet have a career goal, you need to ask yourself:

Am I committed enough for PhD?

Can I withstand long years without a guaranteed/permanent job?

Do I have the luxury to survive on a scholarship?

The reason you should ask yourself these questions is because in the absence of a post-PhD plan, only motivation can keep you going. One needs to stay focused and have unfailing mental strength to pay a deaf ear to inner voices asking you to quit PhD.

However bizarre this might sound, this does happen to many PhD students. Being attracted to research is a fantastic feeling to start your PhD with, but you should also not be unaware of the realities of PhD life.

Be warned that there are hardships and disappointments on the way. Are you armed to face these? If yes, then it is a wonderful world waiting for you. If not, you might be signing up for a nightmare.

Am I Committed Enough for PhD?

When I say ‘armed’, what do I exactly mean? A lot of things contribute to preparing you for failures during PhD. The first thing you need to know once you decide on doing a PhD, is where you want to do it and under whose supervision.

The choice of university and research lab is crucial, not just during PhD, but for everything thereafter. Your choice is going to be reflected in your resume forever. And the expertise that you gain will accompany you for the rest of your life. So, choose judiciously.

Do not get carried away by flamboyant advertisements, instead do your homework right. Get to know on how the laboratory is, how the supervisor is, how people in the lab are. Remember you are going to be working with them for the next 4-6 years and are going to be associated with them for much longer.

Does the work of the lab resonate with your research aptitude?

Do you find yourself a good fit with the lab schedule?

Do you feel comfortable talking to the mentor?

Even the location of the lab might be important. If you are signing up for a traditional PhD (as opposed to an online format), you might want to dwell upon whether it is fine for you to relocate.

PhD: a Sheer Length

As most of us know, the duration of a PhD is long. It might take a good 4-6 years on an average to get a degree. Some might think, this is a frustratingly long time. Some others might think, well this is a long time, I have enough time to relax. Both these views can be damaging for a PhD graduate.

If you get demotivated by the sheer length of PhD, you might lose interest or zeal to try new things. You might think, why don’t I stick to traditional methods and get my job done faster.

I don’t have time to try or learn new techniques. Innovation is lost if you think in this manner.

Conversely, if you are of the opinion that 5 years is a lot of time, let me take it easy, you might lose track of time. Trust me, no time is enough for finishing a PhD, because there is just so much to do. You definitely do not have to work 24×7, but you do need to stay focused.

You need to realize that last-minute hurriedness cannot fetch you a PhD. It is not an exam where you can stay up all night, prepare and sit for it the next day. In PhD, you need to accumulate data over a period.

Experiments cannot be done overnight. It is true that you have lots of liberty during PhD. You no longer have exams or assignments; you do not have somebody asking you to submit your homework.

Apart from reporting to your supervisor on a regular basis, you are pretty much on your own, you have the freedom to plan your day as you like. But freedom if misused can cost dearly.

So, a critical requirement to avoid a nightmarish PhD is to prioritize. It is essential to have the bigger picture in mind:

Where are you headed with your project?

What are you short-term and long-term goals / experiments?

.... losing precious time of your PhD ....

When we start our PhD, most of us are so excited to gain hands-on experience that we often forget to survey the literature.

Is my research topic relevant to the field and to the current time?

Has this research been done previously?

Is anybody else working along similar lines?

These might sound stupid questions, but to err is human. It is heart-breaking if you uncover after years of hard work, that what you found was already discovered / invented.

Your research might not be worthy of being published and you end up losing precious time of your PhD. When we come up with a hypothesis, it is very dear to us, and working to prove it right only make us love it more dearly.

However, if it does not hold true after testing by all possible means, then it is worthwhile to abandon it. PhD does not go on forever and one needs to decide with an open mind. Along similar lines, PhD students often face the dilemma whether to quit their lab and supervisor if things turn sour.

This situation is undoubtedly depressing, but it is better to move on rather than wasting time over something that does not work in your favor. As a matter of fact, many PhD students have flourished extremely well after they set out to do something different than what they started on.

The important thing is to know when to move on. Mindful graduate students even prefer to have an alternate project-idea as a fallback option.

Can We Avoid a Nightmarish PhD?

A nightmarish PhD can also be avoided by adapting good working practices. A PhD student should not only be working hard but working carefully, meaning for instance, that it is important to back up your data and speak with caution of your unpublished findings!

Likewise, it is important to order your reagents well in advance so that you are not waiting for them when you need to set up a crucial experiment. An important piece of advice I once received was to conceptualize an experiment on paper before performing it.

That way, you would think about positive and negative controls required for your experiment and are well prepared with troubleshooting ways for things that can possibly go wrong. It is an advantage if you have thought of what to do next if your current experiment fails or if it works as hypothesized.

You save a lot of time in PhD if you plan well. It is crucial to strategize and work with a manuscript in mind, giving yourself enough time to address reviewers’ comments should any come up when you are ready to publish your research.

Writing can appear a daunting task; so it is good to develop a habit of taking down notes while you work and keep preparing introduction and methodology sections for your paper/thesis along the way.

Having a healthy personal life contributes immensely to an enjoyable PhD. It helps if you network with your peers and friends not just from your lab, but also from neighboring labs.

Emotional support is a great help at times when you feel low. Unkind words of people might hurt you as badly as an experimental failure. It is therefore vital that you do not let yourself be pulled down by either of these.

There is something to learn from both good and bad times; utilize them to increase your potential. Make the most of your PhD time, not just by honing your technical skills but also by developing transferable skills.

What job you land on after PhD depends on both these skillsets. Indulging in an extracurricular activity and listening to motivational speakers are fabulous ways to stay positive during PhD.

In a nutshell, having work-life balance while working with focused attention are all it takes to avoid a nightmarish PhD.

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