Common PhD Myths

There are many myths surrounding PhDs and the reasons and advantages of doing one – here we dispel those myths and give you some real insight into what doing a PhD really means.

MYTH #1 PhD = Intelligence

Albert Einstein, Steven Hawking, Niels Bohr… many of the people whose names are synonymous with the word genius were also PhD graduates. This creates an impression that the majority of PhD students are at least highly intelligent if not geniuses. However, the reality is somewhat different. The prime quality of a successful PhD student is DILIGENCE, not INTELLIGENCE! After all, if you have done well enough in your masters to get accepted to a PhD program, you are undoubtedly intelligent enough to succeed! The rest is hard work and inspiration.

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MYTH #2 A doctorate is a chance to invent GREAT IDEAS and reveal your brilliance

It is true that many people with a PhD title next to their name go on to invent world changing ideas. But how many of them actually came up with these ideas during their PhD studies? Probably none! The purpose of a PhD program is to enhance your research skills and turn you into a successful researcher. Even if you think that a PhD is all about greatness, working on an overambitious idea will in most cases not make you brilliant in the eyes of your supervisor and the examiners. Instead, it will make you look like a bad planner who is out of touch with reality. The opportunity to reveal your brilliance to the world will come! But you need to be patient and wait until you get a stable academic position.

MYTH #3 A masterpiece PhD dissertation is enough to ensure academic career

It is not an exaggeration to say that many PhD students who want to remain in academia regard their dissertation as a personal masterpiece that will open the door of the academic world for them. Indeed, having a high-quality dissertation that contains strong publication material is always an asset. However, this asset is just one piece of the jigsaw, and entering an academic career requires much more than a “masterpiece” dissertation. Making CONNECTIONS with other researchers in your field, attending academic conferences, and working hard to produce a few PUBLICATIONS during your PhD studies will complete the jigsaw and make you a “winner”! 

MYTH #4 Grades do matter

In some countries, PhD students are graded for their work and these grades may be important for their future job prospects. However, this is not the case in the UK. In the UK you can only PASS or FAIL, the rest is up to you.

MYTH #5 Your PhD thesis should include “Something that no one has ever done before”

What does it mean to do “Something that no one has ever done before”? Does it mean to invent a new theory of relativity? To construct a flying saucer? If that was the case, then we would be much more developed as a civilization than we are now because each PhD student would bring some significant discovery to the world. However, to do “Something that no one has ever done before” means something else in the language of academics. It means to do a very small alteration to something that has previously been done and contribute a “small advancement” to an already established idea. Well, even if this sounds a bit disillusioning, you shouldn’t be disappointed. Research is, unlike art, a team effort, and small alterations to established ideas can be catalysts for huge discoveries in the future. This means that even your “small advancement” to an already established idea can later inspire someone else in making a groundbreaking discovery, or serve you as the basis for your own invention! Therefore, PhD students are important contributors to their research field, and without their passion the world of research they would lack the energy to achieve new heights.

MYTH #6 University rankings are really important when choosing where to study

It is not uncommon for international students who don’t know much about universities in the UK to choose their PhD program based on the university rankings. However, this strategy is flawed. The most important factor when making your program choice is the quality of your potential supervisor and their reputation within the world of academia. Your supervisor will write recommendation letters to your future employers and help you get your funding, so make sure to choose a HIGHLY RANKED SUPERVISOR and not necessarily a highly ranked university.

MYTH #7 PhD graduates who are unable to find a “real job” or an academic position become “post-docs”

Many people think that PhD graduates only apply for post-doctoral positions if they are unable to find a “proper” job inside or outside academia. However, becoming a post-doc is a prerequisite for a stable academic position, and PhD graduates who apply for post-doctoral positions do it because they have a clear goal to stay in academia. If you are a PhD student who wants a non-academic career, take the plunge and fight for experiences that will increase your career prospects. This includes undertaking various internships related to your desired professional career and learning how to write non-academic CVs and cover letters. However, if you really want an academic career, make sure to invest more effort in your PhD research project and in establishing connections with high-calibre researchers in your field whom you wish to have as your post-doctoral advisers.

MYTH #8 Having a PhD is enough to secure a professional career

Even if you get a PhD from one of the most respected universities in the world and your supervisor is the most famous researcher in your field, it is very difficult to secure a non-academic job if you have no professional experience. Therefore, use your summer or winter vacation to gain work experience to make yourself more competitive for non-academic jobs. Employers will often be interested to hear why you want a professional career despite studying for a PhD which was supposed to prepare you for an academic career. Therefore, brush up your interview skills and compose a convincing explanation of why professional career is your real choice! You need to show them that you are not merely a lost PhD student who was unable to become an academic, but rather that you are a serious professional with clearly defined goals.

MYTH #9 PhD students in the UK have long holidays like undergraduate students

The academic year at UK universities usually stretches between September/October to June and is divided in three 8-week terms. This means that there are usually three vacations per academic year – one long summer vacation and two 4-week vacations between the other terms. Obviously this sounds pretty good, and it seems like UK PhD students have a lot of free time. However, vacations are only for undergraduate students, and PhD students are usually advised to take no more than a few weeks’ holiday. After all, someone has a 100-page dissertation to write! But don’t worry – being a PhD student will still give you more free time than any “real” job! And you’ll definitely have a more flexible schedule.

MYTH #10 PhD = Boring

It is not uncommon for the outsiders (= those who have never done a PhD) to claim that studying for a PhD is boring. Indeed, you may well have heard “rumours” that studying for a PhD is about “sitting in a dark corner, reading, and writing”. However, these rumours couldn’t be any more wrong! Anyone who has ever done a PhD knows that it is a hundred times less boring experience than most of 9-5pm that the rest of the world has to endure! Being in the midst of creative ideas and surrounded by the vibrant student community is a special privilege that one should cherish for as long as it lasts. As such, a PhD could be compared to a magic potion for eternal youth and an experience that never fades away.

We hope that you will add the experience of doing a PhD to the CV of your life!

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