The Most Common PhD Problems & How to Get Past Them

The Most Common PhD Problems & How to Get Past Them
6 years ago

The Most Common PhD Problems & How to Get Past Them

In this article, I’ve addressed a few of the most common problems that I and many of my peers have experienced – at least at some point – during our PhD studies.

Before I go on I should add the disclaimer that, although I genuinely believe the thoughts I’ve shared here are true (and hope my advice is helpful), I haven’t quite figured out how to follow a lot of this advice myself. Everything is a process though, right?

What’s more, everyone will have a unique experience of their PhD. Hopefully not all of these issues will apply to every single postgrad… but it’s also perfectly OK if they do. We’re all in this together.

My PhD isn’t what I thought it would be…

Before starting their PhD, very few people have previous experience of research. Even fewer have in-depth experience of the subject they’re about to dedicate the next three or more years of their (working) life to.

With this in mind, it’s easy to see why not everyone is going to be in love with their PhD every step of the way. Some lucky people will find that they love both research culture and their PhD project (hurray!), but plenty more will discover that they only like one, or neither, of the two – and that’s perfectly OK. You aren’t alone.

The wonderful thing about a PhD is the freedom to make changes. Within your PhD project there may be scope for offshoots or deviations. This is definitely worth discussing with your supervisor if you feel a change of direction would be helpful in (re-)igniting your interest.

I don’t feel like I have anything to show for my hard work…

Research sometimes feels as though it rewards luck as much as, or more than, it rewards hard work.

You might have conducted multiple studies, experiments, or calculations only to find results which contradict your previous work. Or perhaps worse: some technical failure means that there are no results to interpret. It’s incredibly dispiriting, there’s no other way to spin it. What’s important to remember though is that this kind of thing happens to almost everyone. The key thing is to learn as much as possible from what happened and move on as quickly as you can.

While it can be difficult to get negative data published in a scientific journal, it will be fine for your thesis. You haven’t wasted your time. There will always be another experiment to yield the positive data that you want for your papers. That being said, also be careful not to dismiss the importance of a well-designed experiment that gives negative or conflicting data.

I don’t feel like I’m getting enough time off…

Historically, there’s been a bit of “work = life” culture in academia. Though personally, I feel like this is changing slowly to cultivate a more family-friendly atmosphere with flexibility in working hours. It’s true that you’ll probably have to work some evenings and weekends during your PhD but – unless you want it to – it doesn’t have to become the norm.

The truth is, nobody but you is keeping track of how many hours you work. There’s also some pretty convincing evidence to suggest that, after a certain number of hours per week, your productivity starts to drop.

It’s perfectly fine to treat your PhD as a normal job and give yourself weekends off to unwind. Don’t feel you have to match the hours of people who talk about how they were Western blotting all weekend – it’s really not necessary every week!

In the same vein, make sure you take holiday. In my experience, holiday allowance for PhD students is very relaxed. While this sounds like a good thing, it can lead to some people taking loads of time off and some people taking none. It’s likely that a “golden opportunity” for you to take a full week of leave will never come up – there’s always something you could be doing. Instead, the way to go is to plan the time off and work your studies around it.

Taking time off is more important to your personal health and wellbeing than experimenting every day of every week is to your PhD project.

I’m starting to feel a bit isolated…

All PhD students, research groups, and institutions are different, but academic research can be competitive and isolating at times. Perhaps you feel as though nobody understands your project, or that you’re in direct competition with your friends and lab-mates for the next big publication?

I’ve found that one way to combat this is through regular, informal, supportive meetings. Having a place and a medium through which everyone can share their progress and setbacks can really help bond individuals together as a group. A group dynamic works best when everyone knows they can rely on others for technical or emotional advice when things get tough or feel lonely.

Where I work, we have PhD meetings every two weeks. During these we take turns presenting our data. Everyone sticks around afterwards for socialising and a bite to eat, and I’ve found that this is a fantastic way to get to know people who may be in a similar situation to you – “Why doesn’t my GFAP stain work anymore?!” – but who you never would have chatted with otherwise. What better way to combat loneliness?

If your department doesn’t have an equivalent, you can always try setting one up.

Maybe I shouldn’t be here…

Imposter syndrome affects almost everyone at some point. Some of the most capable and intelligent people I’ve met in academia frequently (and maddeningly) worry that they’re inferior to their peers.

It doesn’t matter what your project is, or what your background was – chances are that you made it to your current position for a reason. It may be the case that you don’t have incredible microscopy skills or a first-class undergrad degree, but you almost certainly have something else equally valuable.

Remind yourself of your triumphs: a great poster session, a teaching prize, how quickly you were able to learn or fix that technique. These things make a great PhD student just as much (or more) than having a perfect undergrad degree.


Lizzie Mann did her undergraduate degree in Pharmacology at the University of Bath, where she had a lot of fun, learned a lot of science and graduated in 2014.

Since then, she has been working hard on finding a neuroprotective therapy for Parkinson’s disease in Susan Duty’s lab at King’s College London. She loves to talk about science and can often be found trying to get undergraduates, postgraduates and anyone else who will listen, excited about research.

You can follow Lizzie on Twitter @TheL_Mann


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