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What Is It Like to Be a PhD Student?

by Van Thompson

Ask any Ph.D. student what her life is like, and the odds are good that she'll tell you it's exhausting and stressful. A Ph.D. prepares you to become an expert in your field and teach at the university level, but doctoral programs are also notorious for their massive workload. You'll need to balance studying, writing your dissertation, networking with peers and professors and in most cases, teaching undergraduate students. CBS News Money Watch reports that the average Ph.D. student takes about eight years to graduate and that only slightly more than 50 percent of students complete the program within 10 years. To be a successful doctoral student, you need to be committed to academic life.

Academic Work

Potential Ph.D. students are often surprised to learn how little time they'll spend in class. Most students only take classes for the first few years of their program, but classes can be extremely demanding. And you may need to take a qualifying exam to prove your subject knowledge when you've finished the course work necessary for your degree. Qualifying exams can require several months of studying and may take several days.


Your dissertation is the major project you will have to complete to receive your Ph.D. This is usually an extensive paper, but could also be an art project or computer program, depending on your area of study. Your dissertation can take several years to write and research, and you will need to get your topic approved. After you're finished writing, you will have to defend your dissertation, and it can can take several months to prepare for the exhaustive questioning you'll receive from faculty.


Most Ph.D. students teach introductory-level undergraduates, and if you're getting a stipend or tuition assistance, you might be required to teach. Preparing for classes can take several hours a week, and you'll also need to grade papers and projects in a timely fashion. You might also have to take a class on teaching prior to teaching and will have to follow university rules for teachers, such as giving reasonable accommodations for disabled students or reporting troubled students to the dean. You may also serve as an informal mentor to the students you teach, and they might ask you to write recommendation letters or serve as a reference for them.


In addition to the formal requirements of your degree, you'll need to work on soft skills such as establishing friendships and networking. The market for academic jobs is highly competitive, and if you gain respect, you are more likely to receive good recommendations and meet people who can hire you. Collaborating on projects with professors and peers can help you, and publishing academic papers can get your name out there. These pursuits take time and effort, and you'll need to pursue them on your own as no one will tell you when or where to network.

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