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Difficulties Faced by Modern PhD Students

By Paul White

You have decided to do a PhD. Congratulations! You are well aware that you face long hours of hard work over the next few years, but you might not be aware of several problems that so frequently trap PhD candidates. The purpose of this article is not to scare you off your doctoral journey, but to prepare you for the unexpected.


Supervision problems

Your university wants you to succeed. Yet many PhD candidates find themselves saddled with a PhD supervisor (PhD advisor) who either give you bad advice, or is never available. Or you might be given more than one supervisor, if your dissertation is multidisciplinary, and find that your supervisors give you contrary advice. Or your supervisor might suddenly transfer to a different university. If any of these things happen, the only workable option is not to collapse in panic, but to find someone who knows your area and ask the University to (i) appoint them as a co-supervisor and (ii) to agree that your other supervisors are only ‘pro-forma’ supervisors — that is, they exist only formally, on paper. The university wants you to succeed, so you will be surprised how readily they might agree with such proposals.


Getting started

The best advice is to start writing. Make a start on an aspect of your dissertation that is easiest for you to address. You will be surprised how this clears your head and gives you valuable insights into what else you need to cover. In general, the more you write, the clearer you will be. Inevitably, you will find that some sections you write turn out to be off the point and must be discarded. Do not be discouraged by this, as this is all part of the learning process. Make sure that you keep these unused segments on your computer, as you will find it easy to convert some of them into scholarly articles for academic journals. The more such articles you have published in refereed journals, the more ‘employable’ you will appear to universities after you finish your dissertation.


Foggy writing

Unclear writing is the curse of very many beginning dissertation writers. If you are told this is your problem, take a deep breath and just keep writing initially. As your dissertation begins to take shape, clarity will begin to emerge from the ruins of your stilted prose. When that happens, you will find it much easier to rewrite what your have already written, so that clarity of expression emerges.


Lack of structure

Universities these days often do not provide students with advice on the appropriate structure for their dissertation. Ask your supervisors about this — including advice on the referencing style that your School expects (Harvard, APA, etc.). Even more importantly, you need to determine a clear structure for your dissertation, including declaring research aims and hypotheses, stating your methodologies and writing a coherent literature review. Your supervisors should advise you on this. If you have supervisors from different schools they will have conflicting standards. You will need to ask them to agree on the accepted standards.



Writing a PhD dissertation is an honourable but often lonely task. Your family and friends might not understand why you are locking yourself away and working hard. They will ask you to join them for social outings at times when the university is demanding that you finish a draft chapter. The best antidote is to have already worked out exactly why you want to complete your dissertation. For instance, you might want to contribute to society when you have your doctorate. You might simply want to be called ‘Doctor’ and make a lot of money! Whatever your motivations, work them out as soon as you can and remind yourself of them often.

All the very best with your noble PhD journey.



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