When talking to and reading about those in the middle of doing a Ph.D., one sometimes gets the impression that those Ph.D. years are mythical. You are on your own, need to solve a problem that nobody ever looked at, and the deadline clock is constantly ticking.
But are the years of doing a Ph.D. more difficult, demanding, stressful and challenging than other years of work?
In Denmark, where I did my Ph.D., a Ph.D. project takes three years. Also, I’ve been in my current job, the first one after finishing the Ph.D. and leaving university, for three years.
So, how do three years of doing a Ph.D. compare to three years of work outside of academia?
Some numbers for the two types of jobs are (as of writing):
Journal articles. During my Ph.D., I authored and co-authored seven. In my current job, I’ve co-authored one.
Conference contributions. I authored and co-authored nine during my Ph.D., while I’ve authored and co-authored twelve in my current job.
Conference presentations. I presented four contributions at international conferences during the Ph.D. In my current job, I’ve given talks at five.
Research projects. I’ve worked on eight R&D projects, most of them ESA projects, in my current job, and been substantially involved in five of these. In my Ph.D. project, I worked on six more or less distinct research projects.
Industrial consulting projects. In my current job, I’ve worked on four industrial consulting projects (involved heavily in three), while I didn’t have any such tasks during my Ph.D. project.
Project management. I was, in some sense, project manager for my entire Ph.D. project, while I’ve acted as project manager on three projects (plus two currently running) in my current job.
Teaching. During my Ph.D. project, I gave two course lectures, was teaching assistant in one course, and supervised five student projects. In my current job, I’ve taught one one-day training course.
So, during the Ph.D. project I published more journal articles and did more teaching, two cornerstones of the academic university job, than in my current job. But I’worked on more research projects, given more conference talks, worked on more industrial consulting projects and been project manager of more projects in my current job than during the Ph.D. project.
And the three years in my current job didn’t feel more difficult, demanding, stressful or challenging than the Ph.D. years.
Key aspects of a (perceived) stressful Ph.D. project
Certain aspects of typical Ph.D. projects contribute to the perception that Ph.D. years are different and more difficult than other years of work.
One is deadlines: The Ph.D. project has a single deadline at the end of the project, while most jobs have many deadlines along the way.
Another is the character of the work and tasks: In Ph.D. projects, these tend to be relatively open and vaguely defined, while in other jobs they are described, planned, broken down into smaller parts, and have milestones.
A third is the way of working: Many Ph.D. students work more on their own than in other jobs. And even if they work closely together with colleagues, they alone own and are responsible for their own Ph.D. project.
Typical Ph.D. work consists mostly of research, which, by virtue of being unknown and unexplored, is difficult to write a plan for and break down into smaller parts with associated milestones.
But even if the plan and milestones need to be revised in the course of the project, it may still remove some of the (perceived) stress and difficulty of the Ph.D. project if it is broken down into smaller parts and milestones. This will also naturally create sub-deadlines during the Ph.D. project.
As for working mostly alone, this aspect is difficult to remove from the Ph.D. project. After all, the Ph.D. project is done by and the Ph.D. degree awarded to one person and not by and to a team.
The Ph.D. project is likely not going to be the most challenging job of your work life, and other years of work could easily involve more projects and more complex tasks.
Some of the perceived stress and difficulty in a Ph.D. project could be alleviated, or removed entirely, by breaking down the Ph.D. research work into smaller parts with milestones and deadlines during the project.
But part of the pressure during the Ph.D. project comes from the fact that the Ph.D. student alone owns and is responsible for the outcome and finalization of the project. And this pressure will remain, even if the Ph.D. project is planned and organized well.