Things Successful PhD Students Won’t Do…?

I’m a little out of date with this, but thought it was definitely worth bringing up and discussing here.

In May, The Guardian published this article entitled “Five things successful PhD students refuse to do“- resulting in very mixed opinions online.

As a current PhD student myself, I thought it’s only right I had a look and compared the opinion of Isaiah Hankel, the author, to my own experience, and that of my peers.

Isaiah states that ‘successful’ PhD students refuse to feel like a failure or out of control, as if we have any say in this. He rightfully points out that many students struggle with mental issues throughout their PhD, and I myself have developed anxiety over the past 2 years. I’ve seen other students suffer mentally, emotionally and physically as the stress of getting enough work done to complete your thesis and the constant comparisons with others and worry about the future weighs down on you more and more. Of course, this isn’t how a PhD always feels. Often you feel motivated and when reactions are successful you feel fulfilled and optimistic, but the PhD process puts a lot of pressure on students, and implying that we aren’t successful if we somewhat succumb to that pressure just isn’t right. Many of us have underlying mental health issues that are brought out by the stress of a PhD, and it isn’t as simple as snapping out and of it and not allowing yourself to feel overwhelmed. Perhaps, rather than blaming the student for not dealing well with these feelings, we should be supporting students through what is obviously proving very difficult for many? Some universities have very good support systems in place, but often students feel they will be judged for speaking out, and this definitely needs to be dealt with by institutions.

What is almost amusing is that he instructs post-grads to stop chasing publications and seeking approval from publishers. Of course, a PhD student shouldn’t feel a failure or that their PhD was a waste of time if they don’t get published, but that doesn’t mean we should stop aspiring to be published authors. Unfortunately, both academic and industrial employers look very highly on publications, not to mention ratings such as the REF who base the quality of research at UK institutions entirely on publications. Also, often the pressure to publish is coming directly from our supervisors, and it’s difficult to turn around and tell them you don’t particularly care whether you get published or not. Of course, if a supervisor is bullying you into working unreasonably hard to reach their personal publication deadline, you should not have to put up with that. However, I think a desire to be published isn’t a bad thing and, afterall, shouldn’t we want our research to be out there in the scientific community?

Isaiah goes on to explain how we should all be more business-minded and be constantly developing networks and connections with business. Although this would be very worthwhile for some, it’s unfair to suggest ‘success’ comes with business and entrepreneurship, and traditional academic routes no longer count as successful. I’m all for alternative, successful careers – it’s good that a PhD no longer means following the same path through academia into post-doc land and eventually (possibly) an academic position – but it is not a failure for students to continue to do just that.

A more accurate – and amusing – take on this comes from Dean Burnett, also of The Guardian in this article entitled ‘Five alternative things successful PhD students would never do‘. It’s a little tongue-in-cheek, and very much at the extreme opposite of Isaiah’s article. It’s very satirical, but does point out the unrealistic suggestions from the previous article.

I’d like to think the real life of a successful PhD lies somewhere between the two, where stress and pressure are present, but it is balanced out by outside interests and good planning and time management. A PhD is by no means easy and is a different experience for each post-grad student. Dean makes a very good point in one of his final statements – “don’t let anyone dictate to you how you should be feeling, as it’s technically impossible for them to know for certain“.

He’s right – your PhD journey is your own, and only you know what will make it successful.


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