6 Things you need to know before applying for a PhD program
Updated: Sep 30, 2019
I have been on my PhD journey now for 5 years. A PhD program is a lot of work and most importantly requires an enormous amount of time. When I started my PhD program, I was 38 and neck-deep in my career. My job was very demanding, and I often found myself working well over 40 hours a week at my job, leaving little time at the end of the day to complete my coursework and write a 10 to 15-page paper nearly every week for school. I began to realize that I was at a point of no return. I was depleted and exhausted, but I had come too far to stop. I was determined to not end up as an ABD—All but Dissertation—This is a term attributed to people who compete all of their coursework but never complete the dissertation. Five years is a long time and I still have a few months to go before I am finished with my dissertation and 5 months to go until I graduate. 2020 here I come!
So is getting a PhD all its cracked up to be? Well, it depends. If you desire to get a PhD here are 6 things I recommend you consider:
1. You will have to say NO to almost everything. During orientation when I first started my program, the following question was posed, “What are you willing to give up and what are you going to say NO to?” The answer is, essentially everything! Being a PhD student will require nearly all of your time. There is just no way around it. Once you complete your coursework and begin writing your dissertation you will virtually have no time at all. Writing a dissertation is not simply writing a paper. You are conducting research and it is a long, thorough process. Writing your dissertation is a marathon not a sprint. You WILL have to make many sacrifices in order to finish.
2. Your friends and family will likely not understand your journey. This is a tough one because you will need a lot of support during your PhD journey. If you don’t have friends or family who have been through this process they are likely not going to understand the time commitment, or why it’s taking you so long to finish. They may even get offended when you constantly have to say no to things you used to have time for. My recommendation is to find someone in your cohort or someone in your social or professional circle who has a PhD or Doctorate—you are going to need someone to talk to who understands what you are going through.
3. Stress and anxiety may become your new best friend. Unfortunately, studies show that PhD students develop anxiety and experience other mental health issues. These are mostly triggered by stress and isolation. As a PhD student, your dissertation is constantly critiqued and you basically are reading and writing all day, every day. Imagine writing and revising the same 300-page (or more) document for two years straight— or longer? You also have to defend your research in an oral defense— this alone can make you pull all your hair out. You can literally go crazy. Not all Doctorate students will suffer from mental health issues, but it is important to be aware that it can happen. I certainly was neither aware of, nor expected to develop anxiety and depressive episodes. It literally came out of nowhere and I have no control over it. I developed anxiety about 3 months into writing my dissertation. If you suffer from anxiety, you know how hard it is to cope with. Keep following my blog to learn more about how I manage my anxiety.
4. You don’t know, what you don’t know. Once you start your PhD program you will instantly began learning so many new things. I thought I had an idea of what to expect but I quickly learned there was so much I didn’t know. You literally don’t know, what you don’t know. I quickly gained a whole new appreciation for researchers and anyone with a PhD or Doctorate. Conducting original research is not as easy as just selecting any research topic you’re interested in. Your topic has to be driven by a problem. I had to change my dissertation topic while writing my prospectus because my original topic didn’t align with a problem. Thankfully I have an amazing dissertation chair who helped me recognize this early on. My point is, go in with an open mind and don’t be married to one research topic because you may end up having to change it. The goal is to finish— so you have to be flexible and open to what is going to get you to that point.
5. Understand that Life happens. As a PhD student your life is very regimented. It has to be in order for you to be successful at writing and completing your dissertation research. What most people don’t realize is that once you finish your coursework and start writing your dissertation, there are no longer due dates. That’s right! You become responsible for when you write, how much you write, and when you turn in drafts for review. You may have a committee chair who requests that you submit a draft at least once a term, but for the most part, there are no due dates. You manage your own time. This is why some people take 2 years to write a dissertation and some take 8 years— and some never finish. This is also why having a disciplined schedule is necessary. If you are not disciplined you will not be successful. During the span of my PhD program I have moved twice (one of the moves was an international move), I was laid off from my job, I had surgery, my grandfather died, and I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. You have to understand that life happens, and things occur that can throw you completely off balance and off schedule. When life happens, and it will, you have to be able to get back up, shake yourself off, and get back on track. Being a PhD student takes persistence and perseverance!
6. A PhD is mostly a research and teaching degree. One of the most important things to consider when deciding to start a PhD program is to determine how you plan on applying the PhD and using it in your career. We are conditioned in our society to go back to school to further our education and increase our value in the workplace. But a PhD may not help you if you do not work, or intend to work, in a field where the skills of a PhD can be applied—mainly research or teaching. If you are looking to get your PhD in hopes of getting a raise at work, I would caution you to really think it through. A PhD prepares you to be a social scientist and teaches you how to conduct original research and prepares you to be an academic or professor at the university level. If your job does not fall into these categories, or does not specifically require a PhD, not only will it not help you in the workplace, but you might find yourself over qualified for most jobs. I have a number of colleagues with PhD’s who have not been able to either find a job, or get the salary increase they were hoping for because they are in a profession where a PhD is just not applicable. Don’t let this deter you from your PhD dreams-- just make sure you understand what the degree is and how, and if, it can be applied to your career path.
Are you on a PhD journey, or thinking about getting a PhD?
I know you are thinking “Oh man, what is the up side to getting a PhD?” The upside is that if you know what you want to do with a PhD it is a wonderful journey that will pay off in the end. Getting a PhD is a huge commitment and I hope this post helps you make that decision. I know what I’ve shared seems like a bit of a downer, but I wanted to provide you with the “non-sugar-coated” truth about what to expect in a PhD program. On a positive note, a PhD certifies you to conduct research that can create positive social change in your discipline. You are empowered to contribute published research that can make a real difference in the world.
On my PhD journey I have to motivate and encourage myself. I say affirmations, pray, and listen to motivational podcasts. Another thing I do to motivate myself while I am writing is I wear this shirt —“Currently Dissertating” from Phdology. This shirt gives me confidence, whether I’m writing at home, at the library, or all around Atlanta at various coffee shops. It also holds me accountable because when I am wearing it I know I have to be about my business and work on my dissertation.
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What questions do you have about getting a PhD? Post them in the comments below!