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What are the main challenges PhD students face? Part II

This is the second article in a two-part blog about the challenges faced by PhD students. In part one, expert researchers in the field of musculoskeletal disorders shared with us what they thought were the biggest challenges faced by PhD students. Here’s what emerged:

  • Scientific writing

  • Understanding research methods

  • Generating research ideas

  • Personal finances

  • Obtaining scholarship funding

  • Lack of support for training

  • Lack of mentoring

  • Stress about employment post PhD

  • Getting articles past peer review

  • Balancing output (i.e. publishing papers, conference presentations, grants, etc.) with learning skills, leadership, teaching, etc.

  • Acquisition of data

  • Statistics knowledge

  • Ethics approval

  • Setbacks

In part two, we explored which challenges resonate most with PhD students. We invited PhD students – through social media – to respond to a one-question survey. Respondents were asked to select which challenges (from the above list) most PhD students face. Respondents could also list ‘other’ challenges not mentioned above.

A total of 67 PhD students completed the survey. The most common challenges faced by PhD students were statistics knowledge (58% of respondents) and scientific writing (58%). These were followed closely by personal finances (45%), stress about employment post-PhD (45%) and understanding research methods (42%). The table below outline all challenges faced by PhD students.

There were also several barriers not included in the above list that emerged. These were:

  • Personal challenges

  • “Getting the 'balance' right: Managing stress, workload, expectations (self-imposed or other) whilst also maintaining a healthy lifestyle”

  • “Deadlines, unrealistic expectations and balancing family life (without the stress spilling onto them!)”

  • “Life/family/work/personal challenges”

  • Supervisor support

  • “Dependence on availability of supervisors”

  • “Getting the supervisor to respond to emails or queries”

  • “Not always agreeing with the mentor”

  • Time management

  • “Management of all task previously cited”

  • “Managing time in order to be able to do my research, attending patients (making money) and to be able to spend time with my family”

What were my challenges?

(By Bruno)

I could not look to these data and not think about my PhD experience and my own challenges. Well, I was the kind of PhD student who wanted to be involved in everything and learn as much as possible. I’m not surprised to see that scientific writing and statistical knowledge were the most common challenges reported by students. I came from a non- English country (Brazil) to do my PhD at University of Sydney, so writing an email was already a challenge to me at beginning. On top of that, my first statistics teachers had a strong Scottish accent and talked 100x faster that a normal person, which made a standard deviation look like something impossible to understand. So, my biggest lesson learned about those two issues is that “it takes time”. Yes, it takes time to know exactly what you want to put in the paper and to be confident interpreting different statistical approaches. As a PhD student you face a world where everybody seems to find this so easy, but the reality is that everybody struggled some time on these. Today, you can find a lot of writing and statistics courses online (for free). There are many, many options to improve your studies on stats, but don’t worry too much because you will get there some time.

Another challenge that I would like to mention here is “generating research ideas”. This was particularly something that I would put as a challenge if I had answered the survey. From the moment I started my PhD I dreamed with the day that I would be the supervisor and have my own team with my own ideas. The only problem in this dream was that I just didn’t have the ideas. So, this was a big challenge to me because I wanted that academic life, but I had to be able to generate ideas and it was a bit frustrating when I couldn’t do that. Happily, it changed when I was writing the conclusions of my thesis where I had to put 8 chapters together and think about implications and future research. That was a moment of change to me where I realised that I actually have a lot of good ideas (well I got my research grant). Now, I supervise 8 students and have more ideas than I ever thought I’d have. So the same lesson here – IT TAKES TIME.

Cheers guys!