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The PhD delusion






So what is a PhD? is it a noble prize?

Lawton defines it as a “perfect small- scale piece of research or a worthwhile learning experience”. Whereas, as quoted in Mullins & Kiley ,”A PhD is three years of solid work, not a Nobel Prize”. Peter & Rugg describes a PhD simply as a ‘research training’ and a ‘demonstration of research competence’.

This means that a PhD is basically a small-scale training stage to transform a student into a researcher. Thus, according to Finn, there are mainly two goals of undergoing a PhD:

The ultimate aim of a PhD

  1. The process of PhD= developing your skills and knowledge independently and hence receiving a formal recognition (PhD award) of you as an independent researcher
  2. The product of PhD= the findings, the implications, and impacts of your thesis in the body of knowledge and in the real world.

To Achieve the first aim, Undergoing a PhD entails developing the following skills:

  1. Academic Skills: reading and planning literature, writing, research, publication and presentation
  2. Relationships: supervisor, fellow doctoral students, team-working and networking
  3. Personal skills: self-learning, critical thinking,time management, life balance

Motivation, Motivation, Motivation

In addition to all the skills needed, having a motivation is essential in undergoing a PhD. Apparently, being motivated to do anything makes you productive; the same applies to doing a PhD. However, as it takes a long time to work on your PhD, sustaining motivation can be difficult. Thus, it is important to work on a topic that you are genuinely passionate about.

How is a PhD different from the types of study that preceded it?

Phillips and Pugh defined the bachelor’s degree as a general education, the master’s degree advanced knowledge and the doctor’s degree as a license to teach. Whereas Finn identified Independence as the main element that characterizes a PhD experience as the students design their own curriculum and define and develop skills and knowledge they need to master. Thus, Philips and Pugh describe it as ‘traumatic intellectual transition’ and a ‘phenomenon of unlearning existing expertise’. Additionally, Finn  remarked that a PhD research is also different from other types of research as what basically a PhD is characterized with is the contribution to the body of theories knowledge in a specific field. However, this contribution does not necessarily mean having a patent.

The PhD delusion

Many students start their PhD by being so enthusiastic and having the aim to change the world and make it a better place. However, it is common that at the final stage of their PhD they just want to ‘get it and forget it‘. This delusion can cause disappointment and depression when students realize their PhD does not have enough power to change the world.



The student-supervisor relationship can be particularly confusing for many students. It is a distinctive relationship that many students might no thave experienced something like it before. At one end of the spectrum, this relationship could be relatively hierarchal as a warm parent-child relationship or as a strained employee-boss relationship. At the other end of the spectrum, it could take the form of an egalitarian relationship as a friendly or competitive relationship. Most of the time, it could take a multitude of all possible roles mentioned above which makes a relatively complex relationship.Thus, Phillips and Pugh  remarked that this relationship is too important to be left to chance and it should be managed properly. Moreover, Finn emphasized the need for students and supervisors to discuss each other’s expectations.

Screen Shot 2016-06-23 at 19.14.10
Brown & Atkins 1988


Managing the student-supervisor relationships

In their book “How to get a PhD“, Phillips and Pugh provided some guidance tips in managing the student-supervisor relationships, here are some:

  • Do not to make it too personal nor make it strictly former, but rather discussing and chatting other important topics, apart from the research, can make it more casual and relaxed climate.
  • Fulfilling your supervisor’s expectations can be challenging, try to define their expectations!
  • Educate your supervisor in your topic continually to maximize the relevant feedback
  • Balance obedience and independence
  • The more meetings the better and more casual

However, as this relationship is indeed set within formalized conventions, it is more likely to take a hierarchal form, which could cause students in some cases to feel they are being oppressed. This feeling, however, is not necessarily realistic, as some students are not used to receive harsh critique thus they tend to get emotional and take it personally. Whereas, as a researcher, it is an important characteristic for PhD students to be open to critiques, particularly from their supervisor as critiques can be the vehicle for their development.

Mean supervisors rule

In her book ‘Mean Moms Rule‘, Denise Schipani observed that being a ‘mean mom’ is better for both the kids and moms in the long run. Likewise, Having a very critical supervisor who sometimes kick your ego around, even though perceived as mean supervisors, can actually be much more beneficial than less critical ones.



At the end of the day, just like any relationship, student-supervisor relationships could fail and this could cause crucial consequences which are more likely to affect the student’s well-being.



Due to the issues mentioned above, regarding s PhD delusion, the ‘oppressive’ student-supervisor relationships and the various skill a PhD student need to develop, mostly autonomously, it is more likely that PhD students tend to be isolated and thus more prone to depression. In their book “Effective Teaching in Higher Education“, Brown and Atkins remarked that isolation is needed to some extent for researchers to develop their independence and original thoughts. However, studies conducted at the University of Exeter shows that 40% of PhD students suffer depression due to isolation, the time pressure and the feeling of guilt  when taking breaks. This seems too common to the extent that there is a culture of acceptance around mental health issues in academia. Therefore, many PhDs feel deprived of basic life routines.



According to Brown and Atkins, poor planning and management of projects is one of the most common problems PhD students face.  Therefore, being pressed all the time and turning in ‘workaholic’ are not uncommon facts about many PhD students. Actually and ironically, being pressed seem to be a way to tackle all the previous three stages. This ‘delusion’ solution takes us again into the ‘PhD delusion’ circle!




I am Tag. A global citizen, lifelong learner and a free thinker. As a PhD student in HCI , my main interests fall in the intersection of cross cultural design and social change. Thus, my blog is focused on -but not limited to- this area. I have been writing in blogs, social media and newspapers for a while but that was in Arabic (my native language). However, being in the UK now and doing my PhD in English, made me consider starting to write and blog in English.

2 thoughts on “The PhD delusion

  1. I am currently on hiatus from my PhD but I’m really wanting to finish now given the amount of time I’ve taken and the loans I have endured. Also, I think if the research is in an area meaningful to you that it can be a worthy process… However, whatever you are doing has to personally to connect with you to have meaning…

    Liked by 1 person

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