What does it mean to be a PhD student?

By Andrei Goronovski

As a PhD student I have encountered lots of misconceptions and stereotypes about my activities, some of which I believed myself. Many of these stereotypes turned out to be completely wrong.  Here I will try to explain what it means to be a PhD student and academia worker especially for natural and applied sciences.

1. Doing a PhD means doing work and doing a good PhD means doing lots of hard work.

Being called a student leads to a common misconception that I spend all of my time attending lectures and doing home assignments. “Hey, do you plan to study all of your life? Why don’t you get a job?” I have heard these dozens of times. Even though I am a student, I am paid for what I do and spend most of the time doing a research work. Yes, I have to come to work every day, fulfill my work duties and report my progress to supervisors, while still being called a student. While I have to attend some courses and to do some teaching, these are complimentary tasks to my main duties.

2. You might not be able to explain what you are doing to the rest of the world.

When my PhD started, I was not able to explain what the topic of my studies was to my friends is. The problem was that I was trying to include all of the details of my thesis work instead of simplifying to a generalized concept, like: “I measure radiation”. That problem often arises between researchers trying to report their results to people outside of academia. For one who spends all his time investigating single research area it might be clear and obvious, while for the rest of the world what you are doing may sound like some crazy rocket science.

After all, it is an art to keep explanations simple and understandable.

Image Credit: www.phdcomics.com

3. It is completely normal to feel yourself foolish.

“You know nothing John Snow,” every PhD student tells himself (or herself) this at least once. The day I entered doctorate school, I was confident in my knowledge and myself. However, the more time I have spent investigating certain topics, the more questions I had. At certain point, it might seem frustrating, when you reach the edge of common knowledge; however that is where the real research work starts, as it is the goal of a scientist to expand state of the art by obtaining, describing and disseminating new “pieces” of knowledge.

4. You do not need to be a genius to do a PhD.

That is another common misconception regarding PhD students. The skills required for a good researcher are developed during the period of PhD studies, as well as the ability to solve tasks, no one has solved so far. We are not all getting Nobel prizes in the end of our careers, nor are all of us are working on some revolutionary theories that would change the life of humanity. However, we produce “tiny bricks” of the big “house” of knowledge that may eventually change the everyday life of the society.

Image Credit: www.phdcomics.com

5. Doing a PhD is not about doing lonely and boring work.

On the one hand doing a PhD involves lots of independent intellectual work, while communication plays an integral role in scientific work. A PhD student gets an opportunity to see the world and meet new people, which might be the most enjoyable part of a doctorate school. You get a chance to meet many new people from different cultures, visit new places and learn how to say “cheers” in dozens of languages J. The academic community is free from any borders and inequality, which serves as a great example what our society should become one day.

Additionally, being a PhD student gives a unique opportunity to meet and learn from world’s leading and most renowned researchers during scientific seminars and conferences, as well as getting feedback and advice during presentation of your own results.

Image credit: The Upturned Microscope