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The Truth Behind 7 Common PhD Myths

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Guest post: Eva Lantsoght

We all have thoughts, expectations and (limiting) beliefs about what a PhD is like when we start our doctoral journey. It has now been almost two years since I defended my thesis, and there are a number of things I wish I knew when I started graduate school.

When we start our program and see senior PhD students suffering, we might be setting ourselves up for a tough time to come. But less than halfway through my four-year program, I got interested in productivity and improving my workflow as an academic. By experimenting with these techniques, I not only learned how to improve my work, but I also realized that many of the common beliefs held by PhD candidates are outdated or wrong. I’ve here gathered a list of seven myths, which you can now happily disregard:

1. You have to be in the lab, day and night, weekdays and weekends

Do you think your supervisor will consider you a very diligent student if you spend all your waking hours in the lab? Think again – by working too hard, you risk getting sick and falling behind on your planning, and you risk getting sloppy because you are tired, and making mistakes. My PhD schedule allowed for time for exercise and relaxation at night.

2. You can only get a PhD if you are a genius

Carrying out a large research project from beginning to end, and demonstrating that you are ready to be set free into the world as an independent researcher, requires many skills. Analytical thinking and creativity, possible genius traits, are important – but so are planning skills and the ability to stop worrying and make decisions when needed.

3. You need to report to your supervisor as if you were submitting homework

You are training to become an independent researcher – never forget that. Take ownership of your project. Don’t wait for your supervisor to give you tasks that you go and solve like homework, but determine the path yourself. Show an active attitude, and go to see your supervisor when you need feedback, or when you have cool results to show.

4. You should know everything about your field when you start your PhD

A PhD is a study in itself, and while your previous schooling might have prepared you partially for your PhD, there is always knowledge and skills you miss when you start. Nothing to worry about – you will have the time to fill up the gaps in your knowledge and develop new skills.

5. Your supervisor will help you find your direction

Again, your PhD is your project – and you will be the one who ultimately determines the direction of your research. Your supervisor might have suggestions, but while doing your research, you might find a more promising path. Don’t be afraid – go where the research takes you.

6. You can only publish papers when you are done with your research

Let me tell you a little secret about research: it is never fully done. Unless one day we will have solved the mystery of life, the universe and everything, there will always be missing parts that need further study. Publish your results once you have coherent conclusions (and remember: negative conclusions are valid too!), travel to conferences and show the world what you are working on.

7. Your PhD guarantees a future academic career 

Bad news: there are many more people who graduate from PhD programs than there are academic job positions. The days in which you got a PhD to become a professor are long since gone. Nowadays, a PhD is the highest academic degree one can obtain, and a variety of career paths after the PhD are possible.

Which misconceptions did you have when you started your PhD? Share your experiences in the comments below.

Dr. Eva Lantsoght is a professor at Universidad San Francisco de Quito USFQ and a part-time researcher at Delft University of Technology. She obtained MSc degrees in civil engineering from Vrije Universiteit Brussel and Georgia Institute of Technology, and a PhD from Delft University of Technology. On her academic blog she writes about academia, her research, productivity and (un)related topics. Besides blogging and working, she spends her time playing music, reviewing recent CD releases, practicing yoga and meditation, lifting weights, petting her cat, traveling and reading books.

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Thanks Eva!