PhD Careers: Popular Misconceptions about Postgraduate Study

Undertaking a Ph.D. journey is an admirable pursuit, characterized by intellectual development and the pursuit of higher knowledge. Yet, amid the appeal of higher education, numerous misconceptions about postgraduate study. Through this post, we aim to dispel these common misconceptions about postgraduate study and provide clarity on various aspects of pursuing a PhD, including career prospects and the academic journey.

This will function as a resource for potential PhD candidates and also for people who are already involved in postgraduate study, and who can share this information with others. Come along with me on this journey as we delve into the fascinating realm of PhD careers, dispelling every myth that might influence the decisions of ambitious candidates.

Significance of Pursuing a PhD

A doctorate is an academic specialization earned after undertaking an arduous, multi-year foray into higher education. Because only a few qualified candidates fulfill such far-reaching accomplishments, doctoral degrees are benchmarked as an elite academic status. Pursuing a PhD also highlights an impressive skill set, and offers a competitive edge.

Popular Misconceptions about Postgraduate StudyMany people believe that all postgraduate degrees take three years to complete but in reality, they can range from a few months to 10 years. Similarly, while full-time PhDs may ask for a 35-hour working week, part-time ones obviously require less, and you might be surprised to find out that many masters degrees require an average of 10-15 hours a week for lectures, seminars and independent study, plus 10 hours of lecture preparation.

The article aims to address common myths about postgraduate study by providing simple explanations and an overview.

First Myth: Misconceptions About the Difficulty of PhD Programs

A common misconception about doing a PhD program is that the work will be incredibly difficult; this assumption, however, is erroneous if for no other reason than the fact that it does not hold universally true. The difficulty is relative and will vary based on the subject and course load, but the idea that a PhD program will be torturous is another misconception that should not be taken too seriously.

It is a fallacy to suggest that the reason for this perceived difficulty will be the work itself. It is more common for it to be the pressure, isolation or self-discipline that is where you may struggle. Life as an amateur academic can get intense, but it should hardly be this much more difficult than any other high-pressure or high-intensity job.

  1. PhD Programs are Only for The Extremely Intelligent

One particular myth about PhD studies till date is that PhD programs are only for the intelligent candidates. but this is not true at all. Although, the intelligence of the candidate does factor into the decision of whether or not to accept them to a PhD program, but different factors come into play. Ability to write and conduct research, previous experience in the candidate’s field of interest, and whether or not they would be able to cohere with their supervisor and the culture of their department.

  1. PhD Programs are Impossible to Complete in a Reasonable Amount of Time

This myth is also based on partially outdated information. As PhD programs are being prolonged by candidates who are in the final and most important phases of research, it is said that the average completion time of a PhD in the US is around 7 years. However, this fails to account for PhD programs in other countries or in different disciplines, as well as, the reasons for which the prolongation happens.

According to research from the Netherlands, the average completion time of a PhD is around 4-5 years in Europe. Many PhD programs are in fact now being created to last for a maximum of 4 years.

Read Also: Can I Get A PhD Without A Masters Degree?

  1. PhD Programs Require Extensive Prior Research Experience

It is widely assumed that to be accepted into a PhD program, a candidate must have taken part in extensive research projects prior. This is because many people believe that by not having the relevant experience, the candidate would be unable to effectively conduct research for their own doctoral dissertation. This is not always the case.

In humanities in particular, it is not at all uncommon for students to have completed their Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in a subject very different from the one that they wish to study for their doctorate. Many PhD programs are happy to take at least a few students every year who would like to use their doctorate as an opportunity to study a subject in which they have little to no prior experience.

This is because the university could see this as an opportunity to do something unique within the department and could help to gear it towards a new audience.

Second Myth: Misconceptions About Career Opportunities for PhD Graduates

Due to the assumption that people with PhDs have only been in academic and research positions, others are often unaware of the fact that a PhD can boost employment opportunities. Though universities have been the main routes for the progression of a career for PhD holders for a long time, opportunities are beginning to grow in organisations -international, national and local; universities and not-for-profit companies- as they recognise the immense value of the skills.

Opportunities include a realising policy for NGOs or governments, working as technical experts or managers in multinational organisations or being employed as consultants to identify a few.

  1. PhD Graduates Can Only Pursue Careers In Academia

This assumption is no longer relevant in a knowledge economy, given the transfer of skills and the benefits of interdisciplinary knowledge. In addition, in a U.K. study, 18% of those employed in higher education, actually waited a year or more to land their first academic position, while 28% obtained their first position within a year. 42% of PhD students were employed in higher education and 21% in the NHS.

  1. PhD Graduates Struggle to Find Employment Outside of Their Field

This is not the case. Many employers value the skills developed during a PhD: project management, analytical, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills are highly prized, and these are all skills that are transferrable across multiple sectors. Also, many jobs do not require a specific major.

It’s increasingly rare for a job to require a very specific skill set, and if it does, it is unlikely that an undergraduate or Master’s degree has provided the specific training that the job requires. Even jobs that do require a specific skill set have such a wide range of applicants that employers can afford to be picky and expect a higher level of skills than they need.

  1. PhD Graduates Are Overqualified For Many Jobs

Unfortunately, very few people stick around at a company long enough to see undergraduates promoted to higher pay grades, let alone PhD graduates. It doesn’t occur all that often. Hiring a Ph.D. into a position that an undergraduate could also do, is a more difficult process. That being said, there is a common assumption that Ph.D. graduates are overqualified for many jobs. This is not universally true!

  1. PhD Graduates Earn Significantly Higher Salaries

This is probably the hardest misconception about postgraduate study to tackle without falling back on external data, because the assumption is founded on a grain of truth. This is: academic salaries in general are not fabulous; as you work your way up the academic ladder, the salaries get better but never cross into what I’d call the “primo” category.

That being said, academia isn’t the only career avenue open to you with a PhD. While you may start at a lower salary than a company’s CEO, the knowledge, skills, and experience you have are a force to be reckoned with and you should never have to settle for less than you’re worth.

Third Myth: Misconceptions About the Work-Life Balance in PhD Programs

Yes, the work-life can be challenging during postgraduate study, but it is not usually as extreme as others might think. Even though PhD programs are intense, it does not mean that PhD students have no social lives or spend all hours of the day inside working. Most PhD students do in fact spend a lot of time in the lab but basic needs do not disappear completely.

Many PhD students manage to maintain a full social life, a hobby, a gym routine and a healthy diet alongside their degree. It is entirely possible, and arguably beneficial, to strike a work-life balance during a PhD.

  1. PhD Students Have no Social Life and are Constantly Stressed

There’s a stereotype that PhD students are constantly stressed and have no social life. This is not true at all in many cases. In fact, many students do have a work-life balance and manage to keep up with student life and social life as well. It is also possible to have strong social relationships simply because they are doing a PhD.

You intentionally build relationships outside the lab, with people who are unconnected to what you do on a daily basis. This can help you maintain your identity outside the PhD world, which I think is important for your mental health and balance in life.

  1. PhD Programs Require Working Long Hours Every Day

PhD students are not necessarily required to work a certain number of hours every day. In some programs, PhD students are required to work 40 hours a week, while in others, they are advised to work from 9 am – 5 pm but many students work evenings and weekends because they concentrate better at these times.

  1. PhD Students Have no Time For Hobbies Or Personal Interests

One of the common misconceptions about postgraduate study is this idea, which is simply a fallacy. There are plenty of stories of students who pursue a range of hobbies while completing their PhDs, and most of them would stress the importance of finding time for personal interests while engaging in a challenging academic degree.

Although it is fair to say that it requires good time management skills, the simple reality of life is that PhD students are usually required to work around the clock. That is why most universities emphasize the need to develop a good rhythm.

  1. PhD Programs are Isolating and Lack a Sense Of Community

This is another misconception about PhD. A sense of community is essential for mental health and motivation, as a cornerstone of academia within student and professional communities. However, it is important also to appreciate the roles you might have within these communities, and the expectations associated with them.

It is highly unlikely that you will feel senior enough to make any positive difference within your first academic year, although you will contribute more than you realise due to your fresh perspective and recent educational experiences. Your involvement within any student or professional community should benefit your studies and career, but it is your sole responsibility to ensure that this is the case.

General Misconceptions about Doctorate Study

A common belief about doing a Doctorate is that the permanency and prestige of academic jobs are guaranteed. Over half of all academic staff held a PhD in 2016-17, up eight percentage points from 2010-11, according to the latest numbers from the Higher Education Statistics Agency. The percentage increased from 51% to 57% even after excluding employees whose credentials were unclear.

However, the situation is not so optimistic. What is true is the need for academics, and therefore the teaching role. Let us look into the general misconceptions about doctorate study extensively.

  1. Guaranteed Academic Job

It is true that candidates who are eager to work inside academia, typically to further their careers, sometimes apply for PhDs. And it’s also true that those who graduate with a PhD will stand at the back of the line for an entry-level academic job. The truth that those who do graduate from a PhD programme tend to secure academic jobs more quickly than many policymakers seem to assume is not exactly a misconception. A doctoral degree is indeed nearly critical for securing a permanent academic job at a respectable college.

  1. Financial Stability

Another major issue of postgraduate education is financial stability during the studies. The first aspect of this issue is related to the high tuition rates and the high living standards that are required for international students to maintain while studying in a foreign land. The second issue regarding the financial stability in jobs depends on the financial sectors’ demand for jobs and salary packages, which keep on changing every year drastically according to the global scenario.

Being a postgraduate student involves a lot of money spent by parents or students after initially several sacrifices and ultimately after many compromises. The point now lies in the point where the student has to gain a well-paid job so that they will be worth investing in themselves for all these years.

  1. Narrow Specialization

While it is true that individuals specializing in any academic endeavor need to be dedicated to their topic and feel passionate about it. To really succeed and not get bored, this isn’t unique to higher education when specialization begins. After all, in high school and undergraduate study, students are required to pick certain paths and fill their timetable with courses in subject groupings.

There is no reason for it to be quite so different in postgraduate study, and when you have chosen your subject by that point, you should have a firm idea of what you want to analyze and investigate. Repeating a narrow specialism is a fabulous chance to get your teeth into a fascinating area, and for many, it can be a real selling point when you are selling your specific topic knowledge in a job interview at any point in life.

  1. Quick Completion

In social media and movies, a doctoral student takes years to graduate. Family members keep asking when you plan to finally graduate. Even the academics in a department may have to sit down with their doctoral students about their agendas to complete. This gives the impression that doctorate students and supervisors are at sword’s point on quick completions. This is true for many, but not all. Doctorate program completions take an average of five or six years while some might take seven to eight years. Various reasons might account for these longer periods.

  1. Isolation in Research

An important misconception about doctorate study is that students are often completely isolated, working completely alone on their research. It is true that research is an intrinsic part of doctoral study and can involve many hours of solitary work; but, it would be wrong to say that you will be left to your own devices.

In the UK, for example, many universities now have excellent support systems in place. One way in which the issue of isolation is being tackled is through the increasingly popular method of structured supervisory meetings, in which a more formal relationship is established between the student and supervisors. These meetings can be an excellent way of checking that your work is on the right track; if you are struggling with any aspects of your research; finding new objectives upon which to focus your efforts; or simply keeping on track to meet deadlines and expectations.

  1. Only for Academia

Having a postgraduate degree, particularly a doctorate, and entering academia go hand in glove in many people’s minds. However, the number of postgraduates employed in academia is constantly declining. Many postgraduates find themselves in the business sector, working in jobs that are related to their area of study and dealing with research.

Related: Best Paying Non-Academic Careers for PhDs

  1. End of Learning

Another common misconception about PhD Study is the idea that doctorate study represents the ‘End of Learning’. Many people are under the impression that postgraduates are effectively free to chart their own academic course, and may only attend as many lectures and seminars as they wish.

It is important to stress that, while doctorate study may be more self-directed and research-based, this does not mean that you do not have to attend teaching sessions. This is a time when many students will be striving to bolster their CVs as much as possible and the type of courses that allow you to coast by without turning up simply don’t exist.


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