Warning, may contain…a PhD

[This post was originally published over 6 years ago. It is still extremely relevant!]

Recently saw a comment by a student about not being advised before hand that doing a PhD had many difficulties and challenges. However, my first reaction reading that text was to start laughing. Of course, all that was said was true. But the first thing that came to my mind was the famous warning when you ask for a sundae with nuts at a McDonald : you received (at least in North America) the nuts in a small, sealed separate bag (think allergies); this bag has a warning that reads (seriously): may contain nuts!



So here it is, the PhD warning label:

  1. Assumed that you are on your own from the get go. While not entirely true, the goal of PhD is to get you to the point where you can start an independent career as a researcher. So pick your supervisor carefully as you need to be able to acquire a diversity of skills, tools and networking opportunities in a short amount of time.
  2. Be advise, the research topic that was proposed to you is more of a suggestion, a general area of research. Your supervisor is expecting you to take complete control of the its general direction, helping making course correction as needed.
  3. 35 or 40 hour weeks will seems a legend, a myth to you. Worse, If your project is exciting, you won’t even care how many hours you spend at the lab. However, once in a while, do not forget to turn it off and go out.
  4. No your best ideas won’t always happen between 0800 and 1700. Some might even happen in the middle of the night. Be ready.
  5. Never assumed that because you are staying in the lab 12 hours a day that you are creative or even productive. Take the time to think in an environment that you feel comfortable to do it. I am not talking procrastination, I am talking true, undisturbed thinking time.
  6. You will be tempted to abandon, maybe more than once during those 3-4 years. This is usually a good time to talk with your supervisor and maybe also take a few days off. See comment #3 above.
  7. Doing a PhD, being in the lab should be fun, you should like it intensively (at least most of the time). If not, maybe a PhD is not a place for you to be.
  8. Expect to have at least one person telling that what you are trying to achieve is impossible. Remember only that the  term “impossible” may mean many different things. Before dropping what you are doing, take times to find out what!
  9. You will have phases of insomnia (expect a few)!
  10. Please make him/her stop. I am tired to keep redoing these figures…
  11. You may think you can write…but wait until YOU have to write that first scientific manuscript.
  12. Do I really need to publish to graduate? YES!
  13. Isolation is a possibility. This however is entirely your problem. Chose you supervisor (and by extension the research team) carefully and take all opportunity given to you to build your network.
  14. Social skill is a must. The number of Sheldon Cooper that are truly successful is limited.
  15. At some point prior to your thesis examination, you will think that your PhD work is not worth anything. In most cases, you are the only one having this feeling and it is not shared by your supervisor who keeps telling you that it is time to graduate
  16. I have not publish in Science or Nature, am I doom? CERTAINLY NOT…but publishing in relevant journals in your field is however important.
  17. Thinking about the job market might give you episodes of arrhythmia. Remember that unemployment rate for PhD holder is usually quite low (low single digit in Canada!).

From experience, the rewards from having completed a PhD are fantastic BUT will not be obvious to you at once when graduating. The number of things (small and big) that will serve you through out your life are simply priceless.

Now you know what to expect.


  1. Hello sir,
    I am a pre-final year undergraduate student from India pursuing my B.Tech in Chemical Engineering. I plan to go for a PhD next year. This article really cleared a lot of my doubts. Thanks for your contribution!



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