As with any significant undertaking, there are inherent challenges involved in undertaking a PhD, and some potential problems that can come up during one.
Not all PhD students will face these risks or challenges, but it’s important to be aware of them so that you can be prepared. Indeed, the biggest risk would be stumbling into any of these problems unawares!
The Careers Service are here to help you make the best decision for you. If you would like to speak to us about any of the areas for consideration we’ve listed below, get in touch!
1. Financial Management
Pursuing a PhD can be expensive. Research students need to pay for tuition, fees, and other expenses such as travel or registration fees for conferences, and whilst funding is available for these, this may not cover everything.
So, the risk of debt and financial stress is something to be aware of.
Prior research and planning can be a useful approach to mitigate financial risks:
- Use websites like findaphd.com and jobs.ac.uk to search for funding and advice
- Book one of our Intro: Finding and Funding Further Study talks
- You can also refer to our Funding further study guide on mycareer.
Pursuing a PhD is an intensive and time-consuming process. So, the ability to balance the demands of research and writing with other responsibilities, such as needing to work for money, family commitments or personal pursuits (including time to yourself, and for socialising!) will be essential.
It’s important you have the time you need to complete your research without burning out.
3. Lone Working
PhD students may experience periods of isolation as they work on their research projects and prepare presentations or papers for publication.
They may also face challenges in working on their own projects but with oversight from supervisors. It’s important to have people you can talk to about your research throughout your PhD and support from people who are supportive of you and your efforts.
Picking your supervisor is one of the most important things to get right! Picking your supervisor is one of the most important things to get right – so much so that we’ll link two resources to help you pick a supervisor here!
It is important to know how to establish (and protect) a positive work-life balance to maintain a good quality of life during your PhD. This can help mitigate the other challenges faced by PhD students, which can sometimes impact wellbeing.
Examples include making sure you take time for rest and recreation – including time for hobbies outside your research, and for socialising. It is important to switch off from your work, and not feel that you have to be working on your thesis all the time.
5. Delayed entry into the workforce
PhDs typically take several years, during which time students are not earning a full-time salary. This means giving up potential income that could have been earned by either entering or remaining in the workforce.
This may be offset by the greater earning potential of PhD graduates, but you should also consider it in terms of potential long-term implications on your financial situation.
6. Career uncertainty
Most PhD graduates go on to successful careers, and their unemployment rates are very low.
However, there is no guarantee of employment for anyone, and depending on your career choices, there can be stiff competition for jobs – especially in most academic disciplines – so it’s important to remain flexible and persistent.
Seeking work experience, for example, through an internship or placement, is a great way of building your skills and making yourself more employable.
Use My Skills to gain a better understanding of your skills and development needs.
To avoid career uncertainty turning into career anxiety if you undertake a PhD, make sure to engage with the task of working out what you want to do after you graduate, including if you can’t or don’t want to get into academia afterwards. The Careers Service can help you with every aspect of this.
7. Returning to graduate-level jobs
Some PhD graduates find themselves applying for grad-level roles after their PhD. This is not unusual but is included here as a risk as it can be unexpected and considered a “step back” from the higher level of a research degree. This is a false conception, though.
The advice we receive from employers is that PhD graduates tend to be promoted more quickly than others, and research shows that PhDs achieve higher earnings on average after leaving University than other graduates. The real risk, therefore, is that postgraduate researchers artificially limit their options by failing to consider roles open to all graduates after being awarded their PhD.
Not all PhDs will face the risks listed above during their research degree. However, it is important to make sure you are aware of them, and appropriately prepared before committing to one. PhDs are a difficult undertaking even without compounding factors!
However, even if they do come up, it’s important to remember that these challenges can be dealt with or overcome and that you don’t have to face them alone. There is a lot of support available!
As a starting point, if you are considering applying for a PhD but would like to discuss whether it’s right for you, or any of the issues above, talk to us at the Careers Service.
You can also check out case studies of PhD graduates online via the British Academy, or Vitae’s Researcher Careers Stories website.