How Hard Is It to Get a PhD: The Honest Truth — The Admit Lab

Philippe Barr, PhD
10 min readApr 25, 2023

If you’ve ever dreamed of completing a PhD, then you know that the journey to attaining this incredible degree can be long and difficult. But, in all honesty, how hard is it to get a PhD? As someone who has earned my share of graduate trophies, I understand the immense dedication and hard work that it takes to get through these grueling years…

That being said, if your goal is to become an official Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) one day, I have some insights into what you should expect along your academic voyage. In this blog post, I will discuss what it entails for those daring enough to pursue the PhD and ultimately how hard it really is. By taking on this transformative journey together with me today, come explore what kind of door-opening opportunities await after all that effort!

How Hard Is It to Get a PhD, or Is It All Just a Myth Perpetuated by People Who Don’t Have One?

Many people believe that it is nearly impossible to get a PhD; however, this is simply not true. Although getting a PhD can be difficult, with hard work and dedication, it is definitely achievable. In fact, many students who have completed their doctoral studies report that they felt well-prepared for the demands of graduate school and found their professors to be helpful in guiding them through their degree.

Furthermore, there are now more resources available than ever before to help prospective PhD students research programs and prepare for the application process. With the right mindset and determination, anyone can pursue a successful career in academia by completing a doctoral program.

There are several myths about getting a PhD that can lead people to think it’s more difficult than it really is. The first myth is that you need an extensive background in research, an advanced understanding of topics related to the field, or perfect grades to succeed. This simply isn’t true; you don’t need any prerequisite knowledge or experience to pursue a PhD and many students enter with little to no experience.

The second myth is that only those with IQs off the charts can be successful in earning a PhD. Again, this isn’t true; while a Mensa membership and academic success do help, they’re not essential for completing your degree.

Finally, there is the belief that getting a PhD takes too much time and effort. If you are committed, the end result of completing a project is worth the dedication, hard work, and time it takes.

(Would you like to know what PhD admissions committees are looking for? Watch this quick video to find out key elements to highlight in an application)

A PhD Isn’t Just Hard Work, But Also a Huge Time Commitment

Earning a PhD is a significant undertaking in terms of both time and effort. This includes coursework, research, data collection, writing, and defending the dissertation. During this time, you must be enrolled as full-time student (though some universities allow part-time enrollment). Furthermore, each university has different expectations regarding minimum residency periods that have to be met before graduation can occur.

How Long Does It Takes to Graduate from a PhD Program?

In theory: Graduating from a PhD program typically takes between four to six years. This includes two-to-three years of coursework, followed by the writing and defending of a dissertation. During this time, students need to complete comprehensive exams, research projects, and courses in their field of study.

Additionally, many doctoral programs also require internships or other forms of field experience to gain knowledge for use in the dissertation process.

The reality: According to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics, the average time it takes PhD students to complete their degrees is expected to remain relatively constant in 2023. The data shows that 73% of doctoral students will have completed their degree within 10 years, with an overall median completion time of 8.2 years. Furthermore, only 4% of those surveyed reported taking more than 15 years to finish their doctorates. These results demonstrate that if current trends continue, PhD students should be able to complete their studies at similar speeds as in previous years.

However, there is still a great deal of variability among different disciplines and schools, so you need to research your options carefully. The data also indicates that certain students may require more time than others — such as those from underrepresented backgrounds — and should plan accordingly when considering their PhD timeline.

With an understanding of the resources available to them and careful planning, those who choose to pursue doctoral studies can likely complete their degree within a reasonable timeframe.

What Is The Typical Workload of a PhD Student?

PhD students need to be committed to devoting a significant amount of time and energy to their studies to be successful. The exact number of hours you will need to work may vary depending on your research, but it is generally accepted that the majority of PhD programs require at least 40–50 hours per week. This can include time spent attending lectures or seminars, researching and writing papers, preparing presentations and reports, as well as studying for exams. Additionally, some programs may also demand more hours during certain times such as just before an exam or when a project deadline is approaching.

It is important to remember that doing well in a PhD program requires more than just cramming for exams. It involves a level of intellectual engagement, critical thinking, and creative problem-solving skills which can only be acquired through consistent practice and research.

Therefore, it is vital to remain motivated and determine the number of hours you will need to devote to your studies each week to stay on track with your goals. Establishing realistic deadlines and timetables for completing tasks is also essential for staying organized throughout the program. By devoting enough time to studying, researching, and writing reports, you will have a better chance of completing your requirements within the expected timeframe. Although this may require working long hours at times, having a clear understanding of the importance of this investment can provide a sense of purpose and motivation for you to persist towards achieving your goals.

Ultimately, it is up to you to determine how many hours you will need to work each week in order to be successful. You must take into account all factors such as the amount of research required, writing assignments, and other commitments when calculating an appropriate amount of time dedicated to their studies. This way, you are more likely to stay on track with your program and reach your desired outcomes.

Time Management: Balancing Life and Study

Time management is an essential skill to have when pursuing a doctoral degree. By developing effective habits and techniques, you can make the most of your time and ensure that you are able to successfully complete your studies in the allotted timeframe. Time management will allow you to prioritize tasks, break up larger projects into smaller manageable pieces and plan for upcoming milestones. Additionally, it can help reduce stress levels by providing structure and making sure that deadlines are met with ease.

Finding the right balance between life and study is essential for the successful completion of a doctoral degree. It is important to prioritize one’s time, setting aside specific periods each day for research and writing while also taking breaks to recharge and enjoy life. Additionally, making sure to take care of physical health needs by sleeping well, eating healthy foods, exercising regularly, and spending quality time with friends or family are all important in helping maintain a balanced lifestyle. Learning how to manage stress levels is equally crucial; activities like yoga or mindfulness practices can help reduce anxiety and promote positive mental well-being. Ultimately, by striking the right balance between studying and enjoying life outside of academics, you can build a strong foundation for long-term success while pursuing your PhD.

Financial Considerations

When considering enrolling in a PhD program, it is important to consider the financial implications of such a decision. Many PhD programs require a significant investment of time and money, with course fees and living costs often becoming prohibitively expensive. It is therefore essential to research both the expected tuition fees for each program as well as any additional funding options that may be available to you. Furthermore, if you plan to take on part-time or full-time employment during your studies, it is also important to ensure that this will not interfere with your academic performance. Finally, when deciding whether or not to enroll in a PhD program, it is important to think carefully about how this degree will benefit you financially — both in terms of pay raises and career opportunities — and how it will help you achieve your long-term professional and personal goals.

When making the decision to pursue a PhD, it is a good idea to explore different funding options such as scholarships, grants, fellowships, loans or teaching assistantships that might be available at your prospective university or from other sources. Make sure that you take into account any additional costs associated with these programs like travel expenses for field research or conference attendance fees. Additionally, consider how much time you are able to dedicate to studying while maintaining gainful employment or caring for family responsibilities during your studies. It is also important to think about how you will cover the cost of your living expenses.

Choosing The Right University — Important Factors to Consider

When choosing a school for your PhD program, there are several important factors to consider. First and foremost, it is essential to choose a school that has a strong research record in the field in which you wish to pursue your studies. It is vital to ensure that their professors have expertise in your specific area of study, as well as access to relevant resources and materials. Additionally, it is important to research if they have any established collaborations with other universities or laboratories; this will help you gain valuable experience and widen your network during your time at the school.

Furthermore, consider the course structure and curriculum — make sure that these fit your goals and objectives for studying a PhD. Finally, take into account the facilities available on-site such as libraries, study spaces and laboratories, as these will be integral to your research.

It is also a good idea to visit the campus and speak with faculty members if you can. This will help you get a better understanding of the school and allow you to gauge whether it is the right fit for you. Of course, cost is another factor that should be taken into account — make sure that the fees associated with studying at the institute match your budget and financial requirements. Any additional expenses such as living costs should also be taken into consideration before making a final decision.

Bottom Line

Getting a PhD is no easy task, and it takes a lot of hard work, dedication and commitment. However, if you are realistic about the demands of the program and come up with the right strategies to prepare for the challenges ahead, then achieving your doctorate can be much more manageable and attainable. It is important to go into the program with an understanding of what you need to do and how long it will take. It also helps to stay organized by setting realistic goals, creating an efficient study plan, and staying disciplined in your efforts. Additionally, having a support system in place-whether that be friends, family or a mentor-can provide much-needed motivation, advice and guidance.

With the right attitude and dedication, the fruits of you labor are sure to pay off in your professional career as advancing one’s education serves as a remarkable asset. So don’t forget: despite how hard it may seem, achieving a PhD is achievable with the right commitments, support system, and attitude. Don’t let fear hold you back-you have what it takes! If you’re interested in taking your educational journey to the next level with a PhD or beyond, make sure to check out our PhD application services for more information on making your dream come true.

With a Master’s from McGill University and a Ph.D. from New York University, Philippe Barr is the founder of The Admit Lab. As a tenure-track professor, Philippe spent a decade teaching and serving on several graduate admission committees at UNC-Chapel Hill before turning to full-time consulting. With more than seven years of experience as a graduate school admissions consultant, Philippe has stewarded the candidate journey across multiple master’s and Ph.D. programs and helped hundreds of students get admitted to top-tier graduate programs all over the world.

Originally published at https://admit-lab.com on April 25, 2023.

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Philippe Barr, PhD

I am Philippe Barr, founder of The Admit Lab, a graduate school admissions consultancy that helps students get admitted into grad school: https://admit-lab.com/