Are you thinking about applying to a PhD program? Are you already a doctoral student? PhD is a huge investment of time and money. So make sure you spend 15 minutes of your time reading this blog devoted to PhD program success and survival tips. I'm confident that these tips can save up to 10 years of your life, up to $1,000,000 of your money, and, most importantly, your physical and emotional health.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Why are PhD programs so stressful?

It's a known fact that in order to get a PhD one has to go through years of stress, depression, humiliation, and financial hardships.

This is something I simply don't understand. I understand why surgeons may have to go through a lot of hardships to get their degree. I understand why navy seals may have it the rough way before they are sent on a sabotage mission. I even understand why lawyers may be under a lot of stress in law school. After all, peoples' lives often depend on doctors, soldiers, or even lawyers.

Why do you have to go through so much stress to get a PhD in, let's say English? To write a book that will sell 4 copies and qualify for a minimum wage job as a part-time lecturer??? There's just something wrong with the system and, unfortunately, the system is not likely to change within the next few decades.


  1. I have never felt so low, so anxious, so lethargic, so hopeless, so despairing as I have since starting my PhD. There was a time in the not so distant past (the last time being when I was working on my MA) that I was brimming with confidence and assured of my talents and abilities. I want to get back to being that person! The PhD seems to accelerate the ageing process too. It's really not good for your health and wellbeing. I wonder if anyone's done research on this :)

  2. I totally agree with this post - why is this a necessary part of the process? Isolation, depression, financial stress - none of these things help me to be more productive or ultimately finish my degree. Instead, we feel like we have not made any progress, have no one to relate to, and see no end in site. And I agree that the system is not likely to change any time soon, which is the part that completely boils me - NO ONE is happy in this system, why is it that the academy is so reluctant to change in any way?

  3. This post and the comments are reminding me that before I went into my master's program, I was confident and competent in my field. After the four years it took me to complete my master's degree part-time, I felt lost and ignorant.

    You're helping me decide to not pursue a PhD ... which, of course, doesn't mean I can't pursue self-directed learning in my areas of interest. Which is edubabble for "I can just learn what I want without all the BS of academia."

  4. Academy is reluctant to change, because most of them/us (Ph.Ds) think we are the chosen ones, smarter ones, and to be "the chosen" one you have to deserve/work your ass off.

    Just choose your adviser wisely. You set the pace. You make them the favor doing whole work. They should appreciate you. I'm just finishing and now at the very end I started stressing out. The thing is I feel quite confident about my knowledge. I think rather the future is more stressful than just the final defense. Future means life style change, new job, most likely a bit different field of work, etc. Just a new life - at least in my case.

    What totally sucks about PhD, you need to work hard to maintain all your friendships... If you are a social butterfly at some point you need to give up on a lot of people. You need to commit to the finish of your dissertation. Unfortunately, at some point, it means, isolation. No more sports in high volume, forget about weekend parties. It just doesn't work. None the less I had some bad-ass times during my PhD :) So what I'm saying applies to maybe last year or two with slow decrease in my social activities. Other than that you work too, but don't stress out.

    Do not whine! Ph.D. is your own choice. You can always drop it, nothing bad will happen. Act like a mature person. It is YOUR life, you decide for yourself and no asshole can tell you what to do. If you think you work with assholes than you agree to be treated like this or you have some problems with yourself. You choose which option it is.

    Wish you the best on your future endeavors.

    1. I like the last paragraph of your comment. At the end of the day, it is our choice to continue the PhD or not. And, believe it or not, everyone has the mind to change their mind. Five years ago I was certain I wanted to complete my MD/PhD and was fortunate enough to be admitted to a program. Now, after going through the ropes of the PhD program, I am almost certain this is not the path I want anymore. I am a social butterfly, as you mention, and I enjoy more service to others rather than doing a research project in isolation. It took me 2 years to realize this, and now I look forward to going back to medical school, which is equally or more stressful, but which will allow me to do the service I am really looking forward to give in a health care setting. I just think we should follow our hearts and make the mature decision to go towards a new direction! It's a hard decision indeed due to those normal feelings of guilt that may come with the decision....but that will certaintly go away and in a couple of years, will laugh about it! Good luck everyone!

  5. Not all Ph.D. programs are demeaning or filled with professors with big heads. My experienc is that people are people. Stress for a Ph.D. programs should be as srtessful as an M.D. or something similar. MD's can kill you quickly. Social scientist (bad ones that is) kill people slowly. Quality is very important.

  6. It strikes me as unnecessary, too. The process is inherently isolating. If you have a passive-aggressive supervisor it adds to the mix. It is also wrong that our supervisors expect us to sign our lives over to our PhD. I told my supervisor that I just wanted to get the research done and regarded it as a 9-5 job and he got extremely angry because this breaks the rules of the cult. As for the person who suggested a new direction: it's nice if you have that luxury, but this doesn't take into account that for some people the PhD is the new direction and the idea of dropping out would cause severe problems.

  7. Currently in my second year of my PhD and advice I can give you is it's all about mindset. Yes you do face various obstacles: isolation, depression, lack of motivation, etc but in the end you really have to think about if you want to continue on or if you're thinking about it now if you want to take the time to get it done. A friend of mine who did their PhD in two years in Pharmacy told me he would have 15-20 days 7 days a week for two years but successfully defended his dissertation. Even though this may not be the best or healthy way to go about it if he can do it in that sense, anyone can accomplish obtaining one. With everything said and done with it will be worth it in the end and it will open up opportunities for you in the future!

  8. Thanks for the posts and for the positive one at the end. I feel exactly like Anonymous who first wrote. I got burnt out from my Master’s thesis/Phd courses (when I worked non-stop bare a few hours of sleep, I cut my social life out for a year) but then I lost my motivation. I also lost my self-esteem because of a host or personal problems and a crime. So, I went from a high self-esteem and ambition to self-hate and sporadic hard work. A psychologist said that I drank more to deal with stress and anxiety. She said to deal with why I am doing this. It is scarier to quit, after the candidacy as I would have wasted almost a decade, and now to make matters worse, since my funding ran out; my dad supports me, my parents lecture me more than when I was a kid. I do work part-time. I am a social butterfly but continually have to cut people out or tell them I am busy and was told by my supervisor(s) to get on, then off Facebook and to stop socializing (even though I explained that friends were there for me and I wanted to be there for them). One day I will get done if I force myself but the pressures- aging as someone stated (e.g. grey hairs, gain weight), financial, people asking when I will get done on a daily basis, my ex-boyfriend and all men I dated who thought of a relationship only cared when I got done (so I stopped dating over a year ago) just made things worse. My supervisor said he will support me to get back if my draft is complete- they put me on a deadline when I had just reported the crime, and though I had done some work, chapters, that was not enough. I am at tethers end, stressed but must have courage.

  9. Hmm, I don't know - I believe the stress that materialises should be examined at an individual level - what is it about you, your conditioning that is bringing all this up? I speak from experience of someone who has spent a number of years on a PhD and had therapy to examine why certain things were coming up for me during that process. Bad supervisors, etc., do not help of course, but it shouldn't ruin or take over your life. Key things are routine and structure; it's perfectly feasible to complete a 3 year PhD by working 9-5 (but you DO have to work 9-5 and work efficiently, not waste time on social media etc.) And over everything else, you HAVE to love your subject, if you are not wildly passionate about your area I really wouldn't bother doing a PhD, because yes, misery will hit you in the end. Fascination with my subject and the benefit of the work I was doing got me out of bed in the morning.