Deborah Oyine Aluh

A PhD, like any venture, can be a challenging journey for even the most capable individuals. Between the time constraints of conducting research that must contribute to the vast body of knowledge, often with limited or no funding, the “joys” of academic publishing, the project supervisor who can be either your greatest ally or the bane of your existence, and navigating life as we know it or adapting to life in a foreign country if you are part of the growing number of students studying abroad, it is clear that chicken soup is much needed for our souls during this difficult process.

The first nugget of advice to remember is that your Ph.D. may not necessarily lead to groundbreaking discoveries in your field. In the vast ocean of knowledge in your research field, your contribution will be just a tiny drop. Bummer, I know.  Think of a Ph.D. as an apprenticeship towards becoming an independent researcher, where the focus is on acquiring valuable skills and experience rather than conducting rocket science experiments. Remember this as you embark on your PhD journey and when selecting your research topic. Pursue a PhD in an area that genuinely interests you, as your passion will keep you motivated through the less exciting phases of your research. Additionally, it is beneficial to align your research interests with those of your supervisor. Just as you choose a research area that you are interested in, your supervisor will probably prefer to oversee projects aligned with their own interests. This alignment increases their investment in your success, as achieving your research goals reflects positively on them. This alignment also ties into your motivation for pursuing a Ph.D. and your future plans for it.

So, what is your motivation for pursuing a PhD? Are you driven by the desire to achieve the highest academic accolade and gain prestige and a fancy title? Maybe you see it as an opportunity to enhance your employment prospects or to investigate the practical aspects of your field. Or perhaps it’s simply because you have a genuine love for research? I will refrain from making any judgments, but it is crucial to clarify your purpose behind undertaking a Ph.D., as it will be your source of motivation during the tough times when giving up on this demanding endeavour feels tempting. These moments are bound to arise, sooner or later. Whether it’s dealing with an overly demanding and critical supervisor, uncommitted team members, failed experiments, or discouraging results, setbacks are inevitable. The frustrations of fieldwork, wrestling with statistical analysis, agonizing over editorial rejections, enduring harsh feedback from reviewers, or the seemingly eternal wait for editorial decisions—your Ph.D. journey is likely to be sprinkled with these hurdles before you reach the finish line. It is your motivation for obtaining a Ph.D. that will serve as the driving force to keep you going. That is why you’ll acquire a whole bunch of skills along the way, not just in your research area but in life. One of the most valuable skills I have acquired during my own PhD is patience. From the very beginning of my doctoral studies until now, I have been continuously taught the importance of patience—learning to differentiate between things I can actively influence and those where I must simply exercise patience because I have no control over them.

Furthermore, having trusted social support during your PhD is immensely beneficial. There will be days when everything seems to go wrong, and you might question whether pursuing a PhD is worth all the trouble. During those days, it is helpful to have someone who is understanding and willing to listen to your concerns. This support can come from various sources, such as family, friends, or colleagues, but I have found it particularly helpful to talk to someone who has recently completed their PhD or peers a few years ahead of me. They can offer valuable and practical advice on how to overcome challenges and navigate through the process. And when social support is not enough, do not hesitate to take a break from everything. And by everything, I mean everything. This may seem counterintuitive when timesaving and meeting deadlines are top priorities, but surprisingly, it works wonders. Taking a step back, detaching momentarily, and giving your mind and body the respite they need can prove immensely beneficial in regaining focus and perspective.

And here comes the chicken soup. You’re not the first person to pursue a PhD, and you definitely won’t be the last. Despite the bleak scenarios I mentioned earlier, many people have successfully navigated these difficult waters and triumphantly completed their PhDs. You will too, and someday you will be sharing your wisdom with aspiring PhD students. With the increasing accessibility to information, research tools, and opportunities for collaboration with people from all over the world, there’s never been a better time to pursue a PhD. Communities like academic Twitter, ResearchGate, 23 Things International, Research Cafes, and countless other academic networks add a touch of humour and provide practical tips on dealing with almost every difficult situation you may encounter. Your PhD years will be some of the most memorable and fulfilling ones, and I encourage you to embrace all the opportunities and perks that they bring.

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