One careers seminar offered to undergraduates during my degree discussed the pros and cons of pursuing postgraduate study. After the seminar, I spoke to the Careers Tutor responsible for undergraduates in our department. I told him that I was finding the degree course really difficult, and I was not sure if it was worth applying for PhDs as I did not feel certain I wanted to do one.
To the “finding it really difficult” comment, he smiled
We like you to be challenged.
In a similar vein, one lecturer covering a challenging topic during the course found his lectures met with complaints about how incomprehensible the material was. After explaining the concept for the second or third time and pointing us towards some reading material, he seemed exasperated
These things don’t come for free, you know.
I am reminded of these two conversations, and particularly the latter one, when I am grappling with my research. For some students, the biggest challenges to their degrees are practical ones, such as access to data, or not getting on with their supervisor. Others face disruptions ranging from problems with equipment to their supervisor being made redundant.
For me, the single biggest challenge of my PhD so far has been learning the new techniques and material I need to do the research in the first place. Figuring out what I need to know, and how to find the information, and which bits I are going to be useful to me and which avenues are actually dead ends, seem to take me a lot of time. In contrast to the
experience Cath documents, my PhD feels a bit more like “Here’s Google…make a start…”.
This contrasts with the undergraduate degree where in hindsight the biggest challenge was exam technique. It took me the best part of three years to figure out that the way to get through the exams was not to tackle the entire contents of (your preferred edition of) Stryer, more to study about one-third of the course material in detail.
I am coming up halfway through my PhD and I wonder if the challenges will shift as I progress. I am curious to know what the biggest challenge was for other people. Is writing-up universally the biggest stumbling block, is it getting started, or do the real challenges only arise post-PhD?