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11 Misconceptions About PhD Students

Updated on August 25, 2012

Where do you get your perceptions on PhD students? Maybe most of them are based on PhD Comics or PhD Movies. They may not represent the reality of life as PhD students though. Here are the 11 common misconceptions about PhD students:

1. We are geniuses

Maybe more often than not the answer is no. The key for success in doing research is not just intelligence; it also involves creativity, networking skills, passion for research, and perseverance. The last one is especially needed in the short run; if we don't have it yet, don't worry, we'll develop it sooner or later. Passion, on the other hand, is required in the long run, especially if we want to set research or science as our life career. Accordingly, personality is a determining factor for doing research or science, not just brain.

2. We pay for working in the lab

Although we are categorized as students, we spend much more time working in the lab rather than studying courses like undergraduate students. It is similar to 4-6 years of working contract with training at the beginning of the job. Hence, it would be more appropriate to regard PhD students as normal worker. Many students (not all) are taking their PhD based on scholarship, where we get monthly salary or stipend for our works. Alternatively, some students become research assistant or teaching assistant to fund their ongoing PhD program. There is not much difference between a PhD student and researcher in terms of job description. Therefore, it makes a lot of sense to treat PhD as a paid job.

3. We have holidays just like undergraduate students

No, we don't have holiday period like normal students. As explained in point 2 above, we spend most of our time working in the lab rather than studying our coursework, and we are more like workers rather than students. Accordingly, we can take 14-21 days off every year (the number of days can vary with different universities and different countries). There are medical leave and conference leave as well.

4. We work like slaves

The working hours in the lab depends on our professor and us. If our professor is strict, he'll load us with stack of projects and give you a deadline for those projects. However, if our professor is more flexible, he'll give us the freedom to choose and design the projects that we like, rendering us freedom on our working hours and we can work with our own pace.

5. We study everyday

Unlike undergraduate studies where we have to study to achieve good grades, graduate studies are mainly based on both coursework and research. Coursework is normally finished in two years time and the rest of the PhD candidature is full-time research work. In doing our research, we spend some time to read journal papers and study other people's works. Afterwards, we spend considerable amount of time in the laboratory to do experiments or in the computers to do simulations. Studying is just a mean for us to better understand our research topic, just like any job requires training.

Unlike undergraduate students who have lectures and tutorial classes almost on every semester, PhD students only have to take few graduate level coursework that is normally taken during the first two years of the programme.
Unlike undergraduate students who have lectures and tutorial classes almost on every semester, PhD students only have to take few graduate level coursework that is normally taken during the first two years of the programme. | Source

6. We mix chemicals and slaughter mouse daily

It depends on the major of our graduate program. Many students are doing life science, physics, chemistry, which may involve a lot of chemicals and hence we do mix some chemicals. Other people are doing simulation, theory, social science, etc which does not involve chemicals at all. Slaughtering mouse? Only few of us did that. Anyway, it involves applications, regulations, and permission for doing animal works. We can't treat and do experiment on the mouse as we like, as there are proper procedures and rules to follow upon.

7. Our research are in the way to public news

We hope so. However, public news only highlight research news that they can sell to the general public, some of them being the unique and marketable work, and the others are catchy scientific terms like Higgs-Boson. A lot of the PhD student, however, are doing non-marketable works, especially in fundamental science. Fundamental science are still far from end product for general consumers, if ever put to use at all.

8. We are like being quarantined in the lab

Don't worry; I suppose the majority of us still lead a normal life. We don't normally come on the weekends, except in some circumstances. We also have scientific conferences that we do attend, where we presented our work in posters and presentation. It is also a good chance for us to network with people from different countries, different labs, and different culture, which broadens our horizon in this globalized world.

9. We will get a high-paid job after graduation

There is an oversupply of PhD graduates, outstripping the demand for them. Many PhD students search for job outside of research or science after their graduation, either because they want to switch their career track or because they can't find a job in research or science. The competition in university and research institute is very intense and the select few that manage to get a job there get decent pay. In general, PhD holders are not paid that different compared to degree holders except in Asia (1).

There are too many faculty members in the universities, with very few openings compared to the total number of PhD students.
There are too many faculty members in the universities, with very few openings compared to the total number of PhD students. | Source

10. We will become professors

After finishing our PhD, we continued to become a postdoctoral research fellow. Depending on your performance, it may take about 4-10 years before you get a faculty position. Why do we need to wait so long? In Asia and America, one professor has about 10 PhD students. Assuming all of them want to become professor, it means they're chasing after one position. Also remember that unlike in normal job, professors do not normally retire. The number of new universities and thus the number of new faculty positions are not growing that fast either. It means our road to become professor is extremely tough.

11. Our life are under the mercy of our professors

This is not always accurate, but generally quite true. Our professor plays a great role in our journey: he or she assigns us with project and most of the time every decision is on their hand. It's also very likely that our graduation and future after graduation are highly dependent on our professor. He or she has a high influence on the thesis committee and either directly or indirectly decide on our graduation. How about our future career if we continue on doing research or science? Well, his or her recommendation letter carry an enormous influence whether we can get a job in another university. Nevertheless, we need not worry that our professor will be like a dictator, since our graduation is generally needed for him to be promoted to a higher position in the university. In some university, we have a co-supervisor and Thesis Advisory Committee where third party is being involved in our candidature. Hence, the authority of our professor comes together with responsibility and accountability.

(1) The PhD Factory. Nature 472, 276-279 (2011) | doi:10.1038/472276a


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    • DreamerMeg profile image


      6 years ago from Northern Ireland

      LOL - I think that might be quite true about philosophy students. My husband has a degree in philosophy! I am a Ph.D student and I do not work in a lab, even though I am studying in the engineering area.

    • Dan Barfield profile image

      Dan Barfield 

      6 years ago from Gloucestershire, England, UK

      You imply that all PHD students work in labs! Surely only PHD students in science subject areas spend most of their time in labs? I would have thought a History PHD would spend most of their time in historical archives... I suspect Philosophy PHDs never even leave their own head.

    • Ricksen Winardhi profile imageAUTHOR

      Ricksen Surya Winardhi 

      6 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks aethelthryth for reading! Yeah, PhD students in reality are unlike students in general, which I myself experience. It's really a hard work to achieve the title "Doctor" or "PhD". It's great to hear that your brother passed through the rigorous training and hence deserved to be called Dr.

    • aethelthryth profile image


      6 years ago from American Southwest

      Enjoyed this. My little brother has a PhD, and I have never quite understood what he did to get it. Thank you for the explanation.

      Little brothers who get PhDs should be aware that their big sisters who remember them before they ever went to school, are unlikely to start referring to them as "Doctor".

    • Ricksen Winardhi profile imageAUTHOR

      Ricksen Surya Winardhi 

      6 years ago from Singapore

      Hi DreamerMeg, thanks for the comment. Yeah, those two are the key for success in PhD studies as well as career in research or science. I'm persevering in my candidature as well =)

    • DreamerMeg profile image


      6 years ago from Northern Ireland

      Perseverance and passion are the two most important attributes you need to do a Ph.D.


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