PhD is one of the toughest intellectual quests for anyone. Here are 5 things that I have learned from my experience that I hope will benefit you:
1. People around us are crucial for our PhD success
While I still believe we are an extremely important determinant of our own success, I would never have got my PhD without the support of everyone I have met.
They have gone above and beyond what was expected, often at the expense of their own time that they needed themselves.
So everything good that I will do with my life from now on will be because of the impacts they have on me.
Remember, the kindness of people around you is a blessing, no matter how small it is. Appreciate them with all your heart.
2. I am not as smart as I thought I was…
I always see myself as an average student. But before PhD, whenever I put my best effort into something — an exam, for example — I usually did well.
That did not happen during the PhD.
There were so many times I tried my best to grasp certain scientific concepts or techniques, and I still couldn’t get them.
It is psychologically unnerving when it happens to you. You wake up in the middle of the night feeling anxious. You worry, almost constantly, about how your inadequacy is going to create problems for others.
And yet, realising your limits is also humbling. The same fire that appears to melt your self-confidence actually purifies it; it burns your arrogance away.
PhD experience teaches you to be independent, not to be a loner. You always need others no matter how good you think you are.
It also nurtures a sense of compassion in you. When you see someone struggles on things that are easy for you, you will feel driven to help them, because you know truly well how they feel.
3. …but being smart matters less than I used to believe
Not being a genius won’t stop you from getting a PhD. Resilience matters more than intelligence. Three things can help:
- Be at peace with your limitations
Don’t be in denial. Acknowledge that you’re not good at it, yet. Notice how it feels like: how uncomfortable it feels in your stomach, how your heart beats when you’re afraid. Once you are at peace with your imperfections, you can courageously confront your frustrations, and then transmute them into fuel that propels you forward.
- Push yourself beyond those limitations
It’s not just about working hard; that is just the starting point. You need to open your senses to resources and helpful people around you. Focus on improving, not just specific PhD techniques, but also your general life skills (how to read more efficiently, how to manage your energy throughout the day, etc). Relentlessly find new approaches to achieve personal breakthroughs.
- Acknowledge your progress to yourself
Even if nobody sees that you’re getting better, you have to see it. Otherwise, your motivation will wane and you will give up. Don’t compare yourself to others (more about this later). Appreciation and gratitude are the keys. Appreciate your own progress, and be grateful to those who help you get there.
4. The path towards success is unique for everyone
One of the worst things you can do is keep comparing yourself to others. Every PhD journey is unique. Everyone progresses differently, faces different personal life challenges, and have a different set of strengths and weaknesses.
This principle applies to life in general as well.
People who have PhDs are not necessarily more successful than people who don’t. Women who own companies are not better than ones who raise children at home. Science students are not smarter than those who study art or humanities.
Stop comparing yourself to others, or judging others based on what you have achieved. It depletes your life energy. Let others define what their own success is to them.
You have to define yours.
5. You should face your own angels and demons
Doing something that challenges you to the core, even if you “fail”, is worth it.
And it doesn’t have to be a PhD study. For you, it could be starting a business, changing a career path, learning martial arts, or entering a competitive sport.
In that struggle, you will face the best and the worst of your inner world. It tests your character. Being patient is easy when things go well, but would you react the same way when your two-month experiments fail?
You also will ask yourself questions that you wouldn’t have asked otherwise:
“Is this what I really want to do for the rest of my life?”
“What decisions I made that got me here?”
“What’s the point of this, and for that matter, of everything?”
And those questions will become real to you. They won’t be just some abstract stuff that people talk about on YouTube or write in books. They are about your life now, and you need real answers to stop things from falling apart.
Finding those answers, and what you discover in that search, will change everything.
Is a PhD worth doing?
If you’re on the fence, if you say to yourself, “Yeah, it might be good to do a PhD, but I’m not sure whether it’s worth the emotional pain”, then I’ll share with you one last secret:
PhD actually made me feel dumber.
Because the experience forces me to become aware of my ignorance: how much I don’t understand the infinite complexity of everything, once you go beyond the surface.
When you go beyond the surface — when you study something profoundly — it changes the way you look at that thing, at everything else, and, most importantly, at who you are in the totality of it all.
Your universe will shift, and you will become stronger and wiser because of it. You will never be the same person again.
And that, I promise you, makes a PhD worth doing.